By Martha C. Lawrence
(page 1 of 2)Serial killer Ramon Rogers probably thought he’d got away with murder. A jack of many trades, Rogers managed an apartment complex in East San Diego, operated window-tinting and cell-phone businesses, acted in bit parts on television and played drums in a heavy-metal band. He also dismembered people close to him.
By the spring of 1996, Rogers must have thought he was home free. It had been three years since 29-year-old Ron Stadt, Rogers’ former friend turned romantic rival, had disappeared without a trace. Although police had questioned Rogers about Stadt in 1994, there was no body to connect him to the murder. The case was still open, but it was cooling rapidly.
Detectives also questioned Rogers about the disappearance of his 33-year-old girlfriend, Rose Albano. The pregnant mother of two young girls, Albano had been missing for eight days when her arm and leg were found in a plastic trash bag dumped off the side of Paradise Mountain Road in Valley Center. When questioned, Rogers told detectives he hadn’t seen Albano since December 21, 1993, when she withdrew about $6,000 in cash from a retirement plan and went Christmas shopping. There wasn’t enough evidence to link Rogers to either Albano’s or Stadt’s disappearance, and the cases went unsolved for the next two years.
But the lines between active homicide and cold-case investigation sometimes overlap. In 1996, a call came in to the missing-persons department. Another one of Rogers’ girlfriends, Beatrice Toronczak, was missing. Working from that tip, Detective Rick Carlson telephoned Rogers to set up another interview.
“He was short with me,” Carlson says. “Said he didn’t have time to talk and then just hung up.” Carlson drove to Rogers’ college-area apartment complex. “Ordinarily,” Carlson says, “I wouldn’t call for backup on a re-interview. But something told me I’d better.” Carlson had heard a rumor that Rogers once locked his girlfriend in one of the storage rooms of the apartment building he managed. He repeated the rumor to Rogers and asked if he could have a look.
“At that point I noticed that the vein in his neck started to pulse,” Carlson said. “When I saw that, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”
Rogers refused permission for the detectives to search his storage rooms. But since a human life was at stake and time was of the essence, the police were legally justified in breaking down the doors. They found Toronczak’s belongings behind the first door and drugs behind a second. Behind a third door the detectives made a grisly discovery: a puddle of blood, a blood-stained bolt cutter, rubber gloves and a bucket filled with teeth, fingers and part of a jawbone. The remains were later identified as Toronczak’s.
Thus, a missing-persons tip led to the closing of three murder cases, two of which had been heading for cold-case limbo. Rogers was convicted of all three murders and sentenced to the death penalty in September 1997.
Like Rogers, Arthur Bussiere probably thought he’d got away with murder. Living in Palm Beach, Florida, he was 3,000 miles from the Circle K market in Ocean Beach where he’d stabbed and killed 30-year-old Donald Palmer. More than half a decade had passed.
Ditto for a case involving a victim named Roberto Bravo. On Christmas Day 1993, the 21-year-old Bravo was found lying in the parking lot of a Linda Vista apartment complex, dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. He’d been drinking with two other men in the wee hours of the morning. An argument ensued, and several shots were fired from a small-caliber handgun. Bravo ran about 50 yards and collapsed. Witnesses identified the shooting suspect as Angel Cardozo, who disappeared and hadn’t been seen since. There was a rumor Cardozo had fled to Mexico. Like the Bussiere case, this one was freezing cold.
And then the HEAT came down.
HEAT—the Homicide Evidence Assessment Team—is an elite unit of the San Diego Police Department that focuses on cold murder cases, where leads are few or nonexistent. Since its inception in August 1995, the HEAT has canceled—in lay terms, solved—30 homicide cases once classified as unsolved and inactive.
Modeled after similar units in Florida and Arizona, the current team blends four SDPD homicide detectives with an investigator from the district attorney’s office and a deputy from the U.S. marshal’s office. The team’s effectiveness is greater than the sum of its parts. The prosecution investigator’s experience is valuable when coordination is needed with the D.A. The U.S. deputy’s federal jurisdiction comes in handy when the team needs cooperation out of state.
The HEAT unit has reviewed nearly 200 cases, some with frustratingly few clues. That doesn’t discourage team members like Detective Terry Torgersen. “Murder is the ultimate crime,” he says with a determined gleam in his eye. “It’s satisfying to work these cases.”
The unit was born from a change in crime patterns. For the seventh consecutive year, the tide of crime is ebbing in San Diego. From a high of 167 murders in 1991, the homicide rate has dropped steadily:
In 1998 there were just 42 murders citywide. As a result, SDPD caseloads have shifted, with more resources going to domestic violence and the prevention of violent crime, and fewer resources going to homicide. A few years ago, SDPD had seven homicide teams; today, it has just four, plus the HEAT unit.
San Diego’s declining murder rate mirrors a national trend. By 1997, the number of adults murdered in the United States was the lowest in 20 years. According to preliminary figures released by the FBI, violent crimes fell another 7 percent in 1998, the largest annual decline yet.
What’s caused the steady drop? Theories abound. Some criminologists attribute it to demographic changes resulting in a lower population of young men—it’s mainly young males who commit violent acts. Others point to the record number of criminals being locked up, the success of various community law enforcement programs or the improved economy.
“I think it’s a combination of factors,” says the HEAT’s leader, Lieutenant Glenn Breitenstein. A friendly man with a no-nonsense demeanor, Breitenstein has been with SDPD for 30 years. “I think a lot of it has to do with the cooperation we get from citizens. San Diego has one of the premier community policing programs in the country. The focus is on helping the community help themselves, and it works.”
A case in point: the Ocean Beach Circle K stabbing, where citizen cooperation played a major role in apprehending Donald Palmer’s murderer, Arthur Bussiere. The HEAT unit reactivated the 1990 case in January 1996. A Crime Stoppers tip (see the sidebar) led to new witnesses who came forward with information that the man who attacked Palmer was a transient. One source remembered a vital detail: The suspect’s female companion, also from the transient community, suffered a skin infection from a bite and had been treated at a local hospital. Going on that tip, HEAT investigator John Tefft (who has since been reassigned to another unit) found the hospital, only to encounter a stumbling block: It had closed.
Tefft went a step further and tracked down the hospital’s custodian of records. The archived hospital records listed Arthur Bussiere as the contact person for the woman who’d been treated. A run through the National Crime Information Center and DMV databases turned up warrants on Bussiere for robbery and theft. Investigators followed the trail to Palm Beach, Florida, where Bussiere was arrested in February 1996 and extradited to San Diego. Bussiere’s female companion–turned–witness and other members of the transient community testified in court. Later that year, Bussiere was convicted of murder.
“Closing the Donald Palmer murder case,” Breitenstein says, “was a good example of how HEAT works with the community.”