It was dusk when Gary Moore, his wife Petrina and their 4-year-old daughter jumped into the family's little red Honda for a short jaunt down Highway 99, from Delano to McFarland, for a Sunday-evening visit with another couple.
They were coming up on the Pond Road overpass when Petrina, clutching little Amy on her lap, suddenly mentioned something about their financial situation. Things were a bit dire: "Hey," she said, "we only have $7 in our bank account."
Gary, 24, didn't have a chance to respond. He heard a loud pop — a tire blowout, he thought for an instant — and Petrina, to his right, suddenly slumped forward. His 23-year-old wife had a bullet hole behind her ear.
In the lane to his left, seemingly out of nowhere, a white Ford Galaxie was speeding past them. A man was hanging out of the right-rear passenger-side window clutching a revolver with both hands and he was aiming it toward Gary. Pop! Pop! Two more shots in their direction. Gary slammed on the Honda's brakes and the white Galaxie was gone, rocketing ahead of them to shoot at more cars.
Gary looked for an opening in the oleander bushes that divided the freeway and, finally finding a spot, careened over the mound of dirt in the center to execute a U-turn, southbound to northbound. Then he raced back to the hospital in Delano with Amy, who was still seated, silent and stunned, on her dead mother's lap.
"Eileen had been talking to Petrina only about 30 minutes before," said Marlin Isaacs, who had been at home in McFarland with his wife Eileen Zaninovich Issacs waiting for the Moores. "Next thing we know we got a phone call from Gary: 'Petrina's been shot and we're at the hospital.'"
The medical staff in Delano kept Petrina hooked up to the machines but in another 24 hours the seven-month-old fetus she carried would be dead as well.
In those moments Gary Moore's life changed forever. Over the next several weeks he consulted with investigators, cried with friends, consoled relatives. And, gradually, the immediacy of the trauma faded into the realization that no satisfactory answers would be forthcoming.
Now, almost 40 years later, he's looking for answers. Again.
MOORE TURNED TO THE KERN COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE THIS MONTH and to Sgt. David Hubbard of the robbery/homicide unit. Would the Sheriff's Office see if any new leads had turned up since the case had been relegated to the unsolved file so many years before?
Hubbard, who hadn't yet been born on the day in question, Nov. 16, 1980, had to tell him no. No new witnesses had come forward and at least one they'd interviewed had died. No shell casings had been found; revolvers don't spit them out like other handguns.
"But if people start talking about it again," Hubbard told me last week, "maybe something will click. Maybe someone will remember something they heard someone say a long time ago."
Maybe guilt will override someone's long-kept, all-but-forgotten promise of silence. Maybe some small, seemingly inconsequential detail, unappreciated for four decades, will take on new significance in someone's mind.
Maybe it will be the person riding with Marlin Calison, 52, of Sacramento, that same evening. Calison (whose first name was spelled Marlyn in some reports) was also driving on southbound Highway 99, a few hundred feet ahead of the Moore's Honda. Calison was shot in the neck; his unidentified passenger was able to wrest control of the car and bring it to a stop. Calison's companion then drove him to a hospital, where doctors saved his life.
Maybe it will be Anton Rocha Jr. of Manteca, a 55-year-old truck driver. After wounding Calison, the shooter fired on Rocha, also driving southbound on 99. Rocha was not hit; we don't know if he might have had a passenger.
Maybe those people know something they didn't think to share at the time. Maybe they were too shocked, too hurt, too afraid. We may never know; Calison died in 2013 and Rocha would be 94 today. I was not able to locate their family members last week.
THE TRAGEDY OF THAT NOVEMBER DAY WAS NOT ISOLATED, HOWEVER. At least four other freeway shooting incidents took place in the southern San Joaquin Valley within a single 70-mile stretch of Highway 99 between June 1980 and January 1981. Copycat crimes? Coincidences? Or, at least in some cases, the work of the same three or four thugs?
• On June 28, 1980, a black van adorned with a red lightning bolt pulled alongside two cars passing through Tulare; they were occupied by members of the same family, all headed to Kingsburg. An occupant of the van pulled out a rifle and fired at one of the cars. The driver, Joaquin Macias of Los Angeles, was shot in the leg after a bullet traveled through his car door. He sought help in Tulare and survived.
• On Nov. 20, 1980, four days after Petrina Moore was killed, an unknown motorist shot at a driver while they were both driving on Highway 99 through Bakersfield.
• On Jan. 5, 1981, two Caltrans workers, Ray Pearlham and Elsie Prine, were shot at while they were removing trash from the shoulder of Highway 99 near Earlimart. Neither was hit.
• On Jan. 6, 1981, a Bakersfield man had the front and back windows shot out of his pickup truck on Highway 99 near Pixley.
Only the Macias case was solved. Three men from Bakersfield were arrested and convicted: the shooter, Antonio Leano, 30; Pedro Leano, 20; and Lazaro Cochola, 19. Antonio Leano was sentenced to five years in prison, the others to county jail terms.
Hubbard said he cannot release much from the investigative reports in the Moore case, other than the fact that witnesses identified the suspect vehicle as a 1968-70 white Ford Galaxie occupied by four Hispanic men in their early 20s.
Gary Moore said he was told at the time that investigators had interviewed two McFarland guys in their early 20s, and he had noticed that one of the young men's fathers, whom he knew through work, seemed to act differently toward him afterward: quiet, perhaps stunned or embarrassed.
But nothing came of it. Was it too late?
It might have seemed so at the time, but arrests can come decades later. Just last month Kern County prosecutors convicted two men who killed a McDonald's employee 18 years ago in Rosamond.
Cedric Sutton and Darnell Wheat were found guilty of all charges in the August 2001 death of 37-year-old Maria Cruz Pina. An anonymous tip on the Sheriff's Secret Witness line in 2012 led to the arrests. DNA techniques not previously available sealed the deal.
But in the Moore case investigators do not have DNA-marked artifacts, shell casings or tire tread prints. Nothing to go on, perhaps, but the possibility of repressed memories.
GARY AND PETRINA MOORE'S TOO-BRIEF LIFE TOGETHER began in 1973 as a classic, small-town-America romance. They met in the parking lot of the Delano Safeway, now a Vallarta market, right down the street from the house they would later own together. It was quite the social scene. "Back then everybody from Delano and McFarland used to hang out there in the parking lot," Gary said.
Petrina Finocchiaro was a catch, and not just because her parents owned the A&W Root Beer in Delano.
Gary graduated from McFarland in 1974, she from Delano in 1975. They were married in 1976, and Amy (who later came to call herself PJ) arrived later that year. Three years later they bought their little red 1979 Honda Accord.
Gary worked as a parts salesman at John Deere, earning $600 a month, which wasn't bad considering their mortgage payment was $173. It helped that they got a family discount on their home, previously owned by Petrina's late aunt, for $18,700.
Gary did his best to cope after Petrina's death. The following year, on July 17, 1981, with a little girl to raise, he married Petrina's older sister's best friend, Leah Lerda, who had a young daughter of her own, Nadia. Their daughter Lauren came later.
Leah and Gary Moore were together 37 years, but she suffered from diabetes and last year, on Nov. 1, had a fatal heart attack. She was 65.
Gary worked at John Deere for 10 years, until 1983, then worked for a local water district. Now he's self employed: He does house remodeling work. His latest project is his own home on 9th Avenue, which he's looking to sell after 41 years.
He believes the Sheriff's department is unwilling to share too much information with him about witnesses or past suspects, for fear he might do something criminally unwise. They needn't worry, he says. "I don't own a gun, never owned one, never wanted to own one."
Guns can't undo wrongs. Justice can help. Time can help. Love can help. But guns, not so much.
At 62, Gary Moore still has some living to do. He would like to get on with it. One unresolved chapter in his life is making it hard.