Thursday, July 11, 2019

List Series: Cases of Real-Life Stranger Danger

Stranger abductions are very rare. In fact, according to statistics, stranger abductions make up less than 1% of the total abductions that occur each year. It is also quite rare for a murder victim to be killed by a stranger--as statistics state that a person is most likely to fall victim to murder at the hands of somebody they know. That being said, both abductions and murders by strangers still do occur--even in areas that are relatively safe. Below is a list of 10 such cases of real-life stranger danger.

10. The Abduction and Murder of Norma Lopez

Norma Lopez (17) was kidnapped and murdered by Jesse Perez Torres (44) on July 15th, 2010. The teen was walking to a friend’s house from her summer school in Moreno Valley, California at the time. Norma never arrived, so her sister, boyfriend, and friends went to go look for her along a footpath she was known to take. At that point, they found Norma’s earrings, purse, and folder scattered in a field. The police were called, and a massive search for Norma immediately ensued.

Five days later, Norma’s remains were found under brush at the edge of a property just two and a half miles from where she was last seen. It was clear that she had been murdered, but police were stumped when looking for a suspect. All of the people in Norma’s life were questioned and cleared--which made it appear more likely that Norma was killed by a predator. Then, over a year later, investigators noticed that Norma’s earring had DNA on it that matched a DNA sample from the state’s CODIS system. Said DNA belonged to Jess Perez Torres, and the match was made after he was arrested for an unrelated charge. After this discovery, Torres was also charged with the abduction and murder of Norma. 

Torres finally went to trial in 2019. There, it was stated that Norma and Torres did not know each other prior to the abduction. In fact, Torres was reportedly having trouble with his wife at the time of Norma’s murder, which might have sparked this violent act. Torres was eventually found guilty on all charges. The prosecution is currently seeking the death penalty. [read more]

9. The Abduction and Murder of Brianna Denison

Brianna Denison (18) vanished from her friend’s Reno, Nevada apartment on January 20th, 2008. The two girls attended a party together that evening before returning to her friend’s apartment and going to bed. When her friend awoke the next morning, Brianna was gone. Brianna’s friend also noticed a bloodstain on the pillow Brianna had slept on the night before. Police were called, and a search for the missing teen immediately began. 

Brianna’s disappearance occurred after a string of sexual assaults were reported at the University of Nevada Reno. Three months before Brianna’s disappearance, in October 2007, a female UNR student was reportedly raped inside a parking garage. Nearly two months later, in December 2007, another female UNR student was abducted from her apartment and sexually assaulted. After Brianna disappeared, investigators conducted forensic testing on the pillow found with a bloodstain. DNA from both Brianna and an unidentified male who had been linked to the December 2007 assault were found on said pillow.  At that point, It was clear that whomever was responsible for the December 2007 assault was also responsible for Brianna’s disappearance. Around two weeks after this discovery was made, on February 15th, 2008, a man returning to work from his lunch break spotted Brianna’s body under some tree limbs in south Reno. The case then shifted to a murder investigation. Investigators believed they had the perpetrator’s DNA, however they still were unable to identify him.

Finally, in November 2008, an anonymous person told police that a man named James Biela had behaved in a way that matched the behavior of the reported suspect in Brianna’s case. Biela was interviewed, but reportedly refused to provide a DNA sample to police. However, police later spoke to Biela’s girlfriend, who provided them with a DNA sample from her’s and Biela’s son. Investigators were then able to positively match the DNA from both the 2007 assault and Brianna’s murder to Biela. He was arrested shortly thereafter and charged with raping and killing Brianna, kidnapping and sexually assaulting another student, and raping a third student. Biela pleaded not guilty but was ultimately convicted by a jury in June 2010. He is currently on death row. [read more]

8. The Murder of Michaela 'Mickey' Shunick

During the early morning hours of May 19th, 2012, 22 year-old Michaela 'Mickey' Shunick began riding her bike home from a friend's house back to her family's home in Lafayette, Louisiana. At some point during her ride, a sex offender named Brandon Scott Lavergne (33) purposely hit Mickey's bike with his truck. Lavergne did this in order to get Mickey to accept a ride home from him. Once inside the truck, Mickey realized she was in danger. When she reached for her cell phone to call for help, Lavergne threatened her with a knife. Mickey then sprayed Lavergne in the face with mace, but he was eventually able to wrestle it away from her. Mickey grabbed Lavergne's knife and began to stab him, giving him wounds that were later referred to as life-threatening. Despite this, Lavergne was able to wrestle the knife away from Mickey. Once he had control of it, he stabbed Mickey four times, causing her to collapse. 

Thinking she was deceased, Lavergne started to drive to a secluded area approximately 40 miles away, where he planned to dump her body. However, during the drive, Mickey unexpectedly shot up and lunged at Lavergne with his knife, stabbing him in the chest. At that point, Lavergne pulled out his semi-automatic handgun and shot Mickey in the head, killing her instantly. After eventually dumping Mickey's body in Evangeline Parish, he spent the following days destroying evidence of the crime.

Lavergne was eventually sentenced to life in prison. [read more]

7. The Abduction of Pearl Pinson

Pearl Pinson (15) was last seen by her family members on May 25th, 2016. That morning, Pearl left her family’s Vallejo, California home shortly before 7am to walk to Jesse Bethel High School. Minutes into her walk, Pearl was violently abducted by Fernando I. Castro (19). Witnesses, including someone who recognized Castro from high school, reported seeing Castro, armed with a gun, dragging Pearl along a pedestrian walkway that crosses over Interstate 780. She was bleeding from her face and screaming for help. In the broad daylight in front of numerous witnesses, Castro forced Pearl into his car. Witnesses reported hearing a single gunshot before he drove off.

The following day, Castro was spotted driving in San Luis Obispo County. He led police on a high-speed pursuit that ended in Solvang with an exchange of gunfire, leaving him dead. Pearl was not in the car with him, but investigators found a small amount of her blood in the trunk. Additionally, a note was found with directions to Jenner, an area along the Sonoma County coast. A search for Pearl was conducted in that area, but nothing was found. Since Castro was killed during the high-speed chase, police were unable to question him about Pearl’s whereabouts. She still remains missing today.

Forensic searches of both Castro and Pearl’s cell phones reveal that the two had never communicated via text, call, or Facebook. Castro lived just a few blocks away from the Pinson’s home, and it is possible that Pearl and Castro had seen each other in passing before the abduction; however it is not believed that the two personally knew each other. To this day, investigators are still unaware of what Castro did with Pearl after abducting her. [read more] [Cases With Dead Suspects]

6. The Murders of Morgan Harrington & Hannah Graham

Morgan Harrington (pictured left) vanished while attending a Metallica concert with some friends in Charlottesville, Virginia on October 17th, 2009. The 20 year-old exited the concert venue during a bathroom break and and due to the arena's strict no re-entry policy, she was unable to get back to her friends. Morgan called her friends and let them know that she would instead get a ride home. Unfortunately, she was never seen or heard from again. Her body was found on a farm roughly ten miles away from the concert venue on January 26th, 2010. Morgan's death was ruled a homicide. 

While investigating Morgan's murder, detectives noticed that DNA found on Morgan's clothing matched the DNA found on the clothing of a rape victim from an attack that occurred four years earlier in Fairfax, Virginia. It was clear at this point that the rape victim and Morgan likely encountered the same man. Unfortunately, though, detectives still did not know this man's identity. 

Four years later, on September 13th, 2014, another young woman went missing in Charlottesville: 18 year-old Hannah Graham (pictured right). Sometime during the night of September 12th, Hannah became separated from her friends while walking to a party. She was last heard from at 1:20am on the 13th. Less than a week later, police released surveillance footage from the university mall from the night of Hannah’s disappearance. In the video, Hannah is shown stumbling through the mall by herself when an older, unidentified man approaches her and puts his arm around her. Police were able to identify that man as Jesse L. Matthew Jr. 

Police eventually apprehended Matthew. Once they had him in custody, they were able to determine that it was his DNA that was found on Morgan Harrington's clothing and on the clothing of the rape victim from 2005. Over the following months, Matthew was charged with the murders of both Morgan Harrington and Hannah Graham. He was also charged for the 2005 rape. Matthew was given four consecutive life sentences. [read more]

5. The Murders of Amber DuBois & Chelsea King

John Gardner (pictured center) abducted 14 year-old Amber DuBois (pictured left) while she was walking to her school in Escondido, California on the morning of February 13th, 2009. Gardner had a history of sexually assaulting women and was already a registered sex offender at the time of Amber's abduction. Amber's worried mother reported Amber missing later that evening after learning that Amber had not arrived at school at all that day, which was very uncharacteristic of her. Amber's loved ones were unaware that she had been abducted and ultimately murdered by Gardner that same morning. 

Unfortunately, Gardner took another victim over a year later on February 25th, 2010.  That afternoon, he abducted 17 year-old Chelsea King (pictured right) as she was jogging near Lake Hodges--located just ten miles away from where he abducted Amber. After Chelsea's family members reported her missing, police found Chelsea's socks and underwear in the woods near the lake. Investigators found DNA belonging to Gardner on said items; as his DNA was already in the CODIS system due to his status as a registered sex offender. He was quickly named a suspect in Chelsea's disappearance and he was inevitably questioned about Amber's disappearance as well. Then, on March 2nd, 2010, police announced that Chelsea’s body was found in a shallow grave located just 10 feet from the lake’s shore. Gardner was then charged with rape and murder in Chelsea’s case. He was also charged with the attempted rape of another woman at Lake Hodges months before Chelsea’s disappearance. He pleaded not guilty to both charges.

Gardner eventually lead investigators to Amber’s remains in a rugged, remote area of north San Diego on March 5th, 2010. Gardner was then charged with Amber’s abduction and murder as well. After this, prosecutors began seeking the death penalty against him. The next month, Gardner was offered a plea deal which he accepted. On April 16th, 2010, Gardner plead guilty to both Amber and Chelsea’s murders in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table. In court, Gardner admitting to kidnapping, raping, and stabbing Amber to death in February 2009. He also admitted to dragging Chelsea to a remote area around Lake Hodges, where he went on to rape, strangle, and bury her there in February 2010. Gardner is currently serving a life sentence. [read more]

4. The Murder of Tiffany Ferguson

Tiffany Ferguson was only 22 years old when she was brutally murdered inside her own apartment on February 28th, 2017. She was stabbed several times during the early morning hours of that day by a 24 year-old drifter named Christopher McLawhorn. There was no known personal connection between Tiffany and Christopher before her murder–in fact, it appears the incident was completely random. Police were able to identify Christopher after he was captured on surveillance footage on the morning of the murder. The camera captured him walking around the apartment building, checking for unlocked cars and unlocked apartments. Unfortunately, Tiffany and her roommate left the door to their Nashville, Tennessee apartment unlocked the previous night. As a result, Christopher was able to enter the apartment without force.

Shortly before 6am, Tiffany’s roommate woke up to the sound of Tiffany screaming. When she went to check on her, she found Tiffany fatally injured in her bed, and the door to their apartment left wide open. Christopher had already fled the scene by this point. However, it did not take police long to identify him as a suspect in the case. Christopher was eventually arrested in March 2017. He was charged with murder and especially aggravated burglary and theft. Christopher pleaded not guilty to all charges. The jury ultimately found Christopher guilty of all charges. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. [read more]

3. The Murder of Reagan Tokes

Reagan Tokes was a 21 year-old student at Ohio State University when she was abducted after leaving her job at Bodega on the night of February 8th, 2017. The next evening, her body was found at Scioto Park, 15 minutes away from where she was last seen. She had been shot death. Shortly thereafter, police arrested 29 year-old Brian Golsby in connection with Reagan’s kidnapping and murder after finding his DNA on a cigarette butt inside Reagan’s car. Authorities believe that Golsby was scouring the Columbus area for victims on the night of February 8th when he encountered Reagan leaving her job around 9pm. From there, Golsby abducted Reagan and forced her to withdraw money from her ATM before brutally raping and murdering her.

On March 13th, 2018, Golsby was found guilty on all counts of kidnapping, rape, and murder. During the trial, prosecutors confirmed earlier reports that Golsby kidnapped Reagan as she was leaving her job at Bodega. He then forced her into her own car and made her drive to various ATMs to withdraw money. Later, Golsby sexually assaulted Reagan before marching her, naked, into the park and shooting twice in the head. Prosecutors sought the death penalty against Golsby, but he was ultimately sentenced to life without possibility of parole. [read more]

2. The Murder of Sierra Lamar

Sierra Lamar was only 15 years-old when she vanished on March 16th, 2012. That morning, Sierra snapped the above selfie (pictured left) on her laptop before leaving her family's Morgan Hill, California home to walk to her bus stop. Unfortunately, she never made it to the bus stop and has never been seen or heard from again. When Sierra's mother returned home from work that evening, she realized Sierra was not home. After contacting friends, she learned that Sierra never boarded the bus or attended school that day. Sierra's mother reported her missing shortly thereafter. Days later, her cell phone was found in a nearby field. Her school bag, with the clothes she had worn that morning folded neatly inside, were found behind a shed in separate nearby location.

In May 2012, two months after Sierra disappeared, authorities arrested Antolin Garcia-Torres for Sierra’s kidnap and murder. Garcia-Torres was 21 years old at the time. Authorities were able to link him to Sierra after finding her fingerprints inside Garcia-Torres’ car, and her hair on a rope found in Garcia-Torres’ trunk. Additionally, Garcia-Torres' semen was found on Sierra's clothes that were found inside her bag.

After years of delays, Garcia-Torres finally went to trial in February 2017. His defense team argued that there was no evidence Sierra had been killed. Prosecutors insisted that the DNA found in Garcia-Torres' car and on Sierra's belongings lined the two together, and they had DNA experts testify to this at trial. The prosecution also stated that Sierra did not have the means to run away and support herself, nor was it likely that Sierra would voluntarily stay out-of-touch with her friends and family. The jury ultimately ended up convicting Garcia-Torres on all charges. He was sentenced to life in prison. To this day, he maintains his innocence and has not revealed the location of Sierra's body. 

1. The Murders of James & Denise Closs and the Abduction of their Daughter, Jayme

On the evening of October 15th, 2018, a 21 year-old man named Jake Patterson approached the Barron, Wisconsin home of James and Denise Closs with one sole purpose: to kidnap their 13 year-old daughter, Jayme Closs (pictured above on the left). Jake had never interacted with the Closs family prior to that evening; he had only seen Jayme once before at a school bus stop. Once Jake saw her, he decided that he was going to take her by any means necessary. On the evening of October 15th, he did just that. As he approached the Closs home, he shot through their front door, killing James Closs. Then, as Denise and Jayme hid in the bathroom, Jake forced his way inside and ordered Denise to zip-tie Jayme before shooting Denise to death. Then, Jake kidnapped Jayme and brought her to his home at a cabin located a 2 hour drive away. 

On January 11th, 2018, Jayme was bravely able to escape from Jake Patterson's home. She flagged down a woman walking a dog, who subsequently brought her to a neighbor's home where they called the police. Jake was arrested and is currently serving a life sentence. Jayme has since been reunited with her surviving family members and now lives with her aunt. [read Jayme's victim impact statement]

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