The man stood at his doorway in Santa Ana, looking nervous. He had rough hands and a laborer’s stocky build. He was in dirty work clothes, just back from his shift at Hardy Windows.
Anaheim Police Detective Julissa Trapp had just handed him a card that said homicide. Now she showed him a photo of a tube of acrylic sealant. Could he account for his fingerprint on this particular tube, found near a body at a trash-sorting plant?
The man looked puzzled. This tube? They went through them all day long. When they finished a window-installation job, they trucked the trash to the alley behind their shop in east Anaheim. This must have been castoff from a recent job.
How did he know?
We never throw away trash at a customer’s home, he said.
Trapp had another question. The shredded blue tarp around the victim’s body — did he recognize it?
Yes, he said. It was the kind of tarp they used to protect windows during transport.
For weeks she had been searching for the bin where the victim’s body had been dumped, studying trash routes from the county’s vast suburban tracts to Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel.
And now, late in the afternoon of the 15th day of the investigation, Trapp and her partner, Bruce Linn, found themselves pulling up to Hardy Windows in the palm-fronted industrial park at the intersection of Cosby and La Palma.
The area was block-to-block woodworking and metalworking and auto body shops, the kind of place desolate of light and people after hours. Remote from schools or parks, it was known by police as one of the crowded city’s hidden pockets where transient sex offenders slept in bushes and cars.
Trapp went to talk to the window company. Linn went to the alley. Inside the trash bin, he saw the kind of distinctive blue tarp that Jarrae Estepp’s body had been partly wrapped in. He called for Trapp. Trapp saw it, too. They exchanged a glance; both knew.
“Dude, this has to be it,” she said.
Canvassing the area, Trapp learned that a man was living in an old Lindy camper at the site. “You might want to look at him,” a business owner said. The camper-dweller worked for Boss Paint & Body, across a narrow alley from Hardy Windows. She glimpsed him: a bland-looking white guy in glasses, of medium height. She noticed him noticing her, too.
But right now there were other tasks. A few days back, a detective had suggested checking the court-ordered GPS ankle bracelets of parolees on Beach Boulevard around the time Estepp had disappeared there.
Given the number of paroled sex offenders on that stretch of downmarket flophouses, it had seemed unrealistic. But now police knew where Estepp had been dumped, 12 miles away. Now they had two geographic points.
Had anyone been in both spots during the relevant times? Trapp thought it just might work. She called the sex crimes detective who had access to the monitoring system and asked her to run a check.
It turned out there were 10 known sex offenders near the intersection of Beach and Ball when Estepp disappeared there. And there were 23 in the industrial area where her body was dumped. One person was at both spots. His name was Franc Cano.
Cano was 27, 5-foot-2, a state parolee who had served prison time for molesting a niece. He lived in a Toyota van near the window shop. He glared coldly in his mug shot, his expression nearly a snarl, but in other photos he looked almost boyish. This was not the suspicious-seeming Caucasian man who lived in the camper — Cano was Latino, much smaller and much younger.
Trapp thought of the three missing women from Santa Ana and wondered if they were connected. She remembered that detectives in the nearby city had gathered the last known cellphone coordinates of the missing women. She called the detective who was working the case. He hurried over with the cell records.
“Let’s load up your girls,” she said.
They gathered at Linn’s cubicle on the second floor of the Anaheim Police Department. Linn had a map of Santa Ana up on his computer screen. He plugged in the intersections where the women had disappeared; another detective checked them against Cano’s ankle monitor.
Kianna Jackson, Harbor Boulevard and McFadden Avenue, 3:09 p.m., Oct. 6, 2013.
Josephine Vargas, 1st Street and Tustin Avenue, 7:10 p.m., Oct. 24.
Martha Anaya, 1st Street and Grand Avenue, 6:26 p.m., Nov. 12.
A sex crimes detective was familiar with Cano. He was known to spend time in the company of another sex offender, Steven Gordon. Gordon was 45, an auto detailer at Boss Paint. He would have easy access to the window shop’s trash bin.
Trapp pulled up Gordon’s photo. It was the man from the Lindy camper. He too had worn a state-issued ankle monitor. They checked his GPS coordinates. They matched the last known whereabouts of Jackson and Vargas, but puzzlingly did not link him to Anaya and Estepp.
Did Gordon commit two murders with Cano but not participate in two others? It didn’t make sense.
Trapp learned that Gordon’s state parole bracelet was removed the day before Anaya disappeared. But soon he was wearing a federal monitor, and when she checked, she discovered its record corresponded to Estepp’s abduction site.
It was April 2, 2014, the 20th day of the investigation. For Trapp, it had begun with a search for one woman’s killer. Within hours it had become a serial murder investigation, which was rare enough, and now it was something rarer still.
She called the prosecutor, Larry Yellin.
“We have two of them,” she said.
There was a basic enigma at the heart of the Gordon-Cano relationship. What exactly was its nature? Who was the commanding figure? If both were killers, were they involved in equal measure?
Studying police and parole and probation reports, Trapp formed the impression that Cano was the more timid of the pair, Gordon the more seasoned convict.
On Gordon, 17 years older and 5 inches taller than his friend, the reports were ample. He had been in and out of lockups all over California, and drifted between jobs. Disneyland cook. Newspaper deliveryman. Meatpacker. Cemetery handyman.
In 1992, he had been convicted of molesting an underage nephew and received a three-year sentence. By August 2001, Gordon was married with a young daughter, but his wife grew scared of him and got a protective order. He disguised his car with a teal-green paint job, and waited outside her Mormon church in Riverside.
He forced his wife into the car, and thrust a Taser in her face. She watched the electricity jump from prong to prong. He grabbed her cellphone and threw the battery out the window. At a Super 8 Motel, he handcuffed her and told her he would release her if she had sex with him one last time.
This is how an evaluator summarized Gordon’s self-exonerating account: “It was consensual because she had sex with me with the condition that I would take her home.” A jury convicted him of kidnapping but acquitted him of rape. He blamed his ex for ruining his life. He had just wanted to be with his daughter, he said.
In recent years Gordon had been working for Boss Paint and checking in with parole evaluators, who found him hot-tempered, with a penchant for deceit and con artistry. “I have always had an attitude problem since I was 5 years old,” he told one.
Gordon hated the idea of group therapy with sex offenders. “I don’t want to be with those losers and I don’t want to hear their stories about molesting kids. I didn’t rape my wife,” he said. “If someone calls me a rapist, I’m going to punch them.”
His relationship with Cano, according to parole reports, was marked by repeated lawbreaking. In October 2010, the pair cut off their GPS devices and got on a Greyhound bus headed to Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. They were arrested two weeks later at a nearby Army depot. They got five months in prison and were soon back together on the streets of Anaheim.
In April 2012, police came upon Gordon working on his car with Cano behind Boss Paint. When a parole agent tried to take them into custody for associating — a violation of their parole terms — Gordon announced that he was going to run. “What are you going to do about it?” he taunted.
Gordon ran, and Cano followed. For a second time, the men cut off their GPS monitors and fled the state. They went to Las Vegas, where police caught up with them at the Circus Circus casino. This time, they were gone about three weeks. The escape earned them a few months in prison and federal probation.
Now they were free again, both homeless denizens of the industrial area around Cosby and La Palma. And they were still frequently in each other’s company, in violation of their parole — a fact that had somehow escaped the notice, or concern, of innumerable agents and the vast monitoring capacity of state and federal bureaucracies assigned to watch them.
Round-the-clock surveillance began right away, with Trapp carrying two radios, one for each man. Teams of undercover cops in dark-windowed cars cycled in and out of the industrial zone where the men lived, a location that made it almost impossible to watch them without drawing attention. It was clear who belonged and who didn’t when the shops closed and the garage doors were pulled shut for the night.
From the surveillance teams, Trapp got a picture of the suspects’ daily rhythms.
Gordon spent almost all his time around Boss Paint, where he wandered with his little black dog, Bear, and slept in his Toyota 4Runner. Cano slept nearby in his Toyota van, and sometimes watched the dog. He would meet his parents at a nearby Carl’s Jr.
The crime lab came back with the news that two men had contributed DNA to semen found in Estepp’s body. Now police needed DNA from Gordon and Cano to compare it against. Because of their records, their DNA profiles were in the state database, but it might take weeks to access them.
Trapp thought they might get a faster match if they could get fresh, surreptitious samples, and with Cano this proved possible: The team following him watched him throw away a piece of chewing gum. They bagged it and whisked it to the lab.
Days passed, and surveillance grew increasingly tricky. Both men seemed aware they were being followed. Gordon was avoiding his RV, and Trapp worried he would sneak inside to destroy evidence; maybe, like other serial killers, he kept mementos.
Meanwhile, Cano was sleeping in the surrounding bushes and parking his van at his mother’s house in nearby Garden Grove. At one point he walked into the lobby of the Anaheim Police Department and complained that strange men in cars were stalking him. He had written down the license plates.
By now, Trapp was the center of a law enforcement juggernaut comprising 75 cops from seven agencies: Anaheim and Santa Ana police, county probation, state parole, federal probation, U.S. Marshals, FBI.
The main aim of the surveillance, even if the suspects were on to it, was to ensure they didn’t slip away or kill. “Where are they?” Trapp asked her radios. “Do you have eyes on them?”
Trapp’s husband had gotten used to her being gone. She’d get home after a 16-hour day and microwave the long-cold dinner he’d made her and wolf it down. If he was still awake, they might exchange a few words across their maple wood-topped kitchen island. He’d ask about her day. Where to begin? With her mounting dread of hearing the words “we lost them”?
The pressure and fatigue grew by the day, and so did the risk of continuing the surveillance. Was she making a mistake by letting it go on?
“I can’t screw this up,” she told her husband. “You do not want to be the detective that lets two serial killers escape.”
She kept the radios on her nightstand. She couldn’t sleep until she knew the suspects were asleep themselves. Then she would wake in the dark to call each surveillance team.
Still in his RV.
Jules, he’s still in the bushes. Go to sleep.
Beyond the surveillance teams, police had the advantage of the suspects’ ankle bracelets. The Veritrax system pinged their locations every minute. But if the men cut off their monitors again, they would have a head start. They could cut through the fence bordering the lot where they spent their time. In the solid dark, they might slip past the police perimeter.
Did police have enough to arrest them? On April 9, 2014 — Day 26 of the investigation — the evidence grew stronger still. The DNA from Cano’s gum matched one of the profiles from Estepp. And they received the results of a warrant seeking the suspects’ text messages.
Trapp was at the courthouse, trying to get a wiretap warrant signed, when Bruce Linn called from the station with this news.
Jules, you need to get back here, he said. You won’t believe it.
The men had tried to erase their texts, but MetroPCS had retained an electronic record, and now Trapp was studying hundreds of them going back to the beginning of the year. They revealed what Gordon and Cano talked about when they thought no one was listening, an admixture of the prosaic and hideous.
They talked about whether to heat up the pizza or do Taco Tuesday. They talked about Gordon’s dog, the Anaheim Ducks, the races at Daytona. They traded sexual fantasies; they bantered as lovers.
In February, amid the spate of disappearances, Gordon wrote: “I don’t want to have to hurt the cat so let me see if I can get some then we will decide … She is gonna fight scream yell kick bite.”
Cano: “I got the tape ready.”
Weeks later, apparently in reference to another woman, Gordon wrote: “When the cat knows it ain’t leaving it might try something.”
There was a flurry of texts on the night in March when Jarrae Estepp was abducted.
Gordon: “I can’t hurt this cat. I just cant.”
Cano: “You’re gonna get your hands dirty … Get rid of her.”
Cano: “Happy hand.”
Gordon: “Can u do it?”
Cano: “I thought the next one you were going to go at it.”
Gordon: “I can’t. Cat is beautiful.”
A while later, Gordon wrote: “Bye-bye, kitty.”
The texts, which would later be introduced in court, dispelled any doubt in Trapp’s mind that the men had worked together to carry out the crimes. The texts showed the men had known they were being watched almost immediately.
When they were apart, one man would get nervous that police had arrested the other. Cano kept shooting Gordon questions to confirm his identity.
“What’s my favorite NBA team”
“Before coming to oc … what city did I grew up in”
Trapp still wanted a DNA match linking Gordon to Estepp’s body, but he sounded ready to run.
Gordon: “When I leave u r a fool if u stay!”
Cano: “Maybe … but I’m staying.”
Gordon: “Well I’m outta here with or without u. I’m going to check the computer 4 a nice place to go.”
Cano: “R u crying … cuz I said no”
Gordon announced he planned to commit suicide. “Ive decided 2 end it all once I find bear a good home”
Cano: “Is that why you said te amo last night”
Gordon: “I guess.”
Cano: “Be honest are you really going to do it”
Gordon: “Considering it yes.”
Cano: “You don’t want to though.”
“I do & don’t,” Gordon texted, “but my future looks bleak”
Cano: “Tell bear I said good bye and many licks … and you find him a good home. Te amo friend always … goodbye … or should I say goodbye for iternity.”
Gordon made another plea: “Lets get out of Dodge while we can”
It was time, Trapp decided.
“Pick them up.”
Her department had plotted out a strategy, with the help of the FBI. They would arrest the two men simultaneously and put them in separate interrogation rooms. Trapp would move between the two rooms questioning them, playing them off each other.
About 6 p.m. on April 11, the team watching Franc Cano converged on him as he was getting on a bus. He was handcuffed and driven to the interrogation room.
Trapp wanted to interview him alone. One interrogator, one suspect — that was ideal, in her view, to create the intimacy necessary for a confession. She opened the door and walked inside. She introduced herself and made some small talk. She tried to ease him into a conversation.
Cano didn’t bite. He wanted a lawyer. He struck her as colder than she had believed, not meek and timid. The interview ended quickly.
Trapp stepped into the hall and picked up the radio, to find out the status on Gordon’s arrest. She learned that it hadn’t happened yet — there was a problem.
Despite the best efforts of police to prevent him from finding out, Gordon somehow grasped that Cano had been arrested. He was firing questions at Cano’s phone, and Bruce Linn was doing his best to answer them, trying to convince him that Cano was still free, trying to trick him into a confession. But it wasn’t working.
And now cops had surrounded Boss Paint & Body, with Gordon holed up inside in the company of a co-worker. Police were calling it a barricade situation, but no one had actually made contact with him yet to demand he surrender. So Trapp and an FBI agent called him. Gordon said he wouldn’t come out. Now it was a real barricade.
Around 8 p.m., Gordon grabbed a box cutter and jumped on his bicycle. He pedaled hard through the parking lot and sped onto La Palma Avenue. A surveillance truck clipped his bike and he went flying. He was taken to a hospital. No serious injuries.
He would be driven to the station the next morning, and Trapp would face him alone. Maybe she would succeed with him where she had failed with Cano. Getting Gordon to talk might be the only way of understanding exactly how the partnership with Cano had functioned … and what had happened to Estepp … and what had happened to the three missing women.
Trapp had been working nearly nonstop for weeks, and the fatigue was showing.
“You look like crap,” said J.D. Duran. “Go get some sleep.”
At home she poured herself a glass of wine, trying to relax, but her thoughts were racing. Her husband, Eric, was home and sleeping. A SWAT commander, he had been en route to the action when Gordon surrendered. She slept little, and rose before dawn.
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