With a mix of cutting-edge DNA testing, tireless detective work and, ultimately, justice, several San Diego cold cases experienced major breaks in 2017. Here’s a look back at a few of the long-unsolved cases that gripped us and how they changed this year.
[G] San Diego's Unsolved Cold Cases
Cutting-Edge DNA Science Solves Cold Case Murder, 25 Years Later
The cold case killing of Angela Kleinsorge, 84, was a particularly brutal one. On Feb. 29, 1992, Kleinsorge was found stabbed to death in her home on Gaines Street near Linda Vista Road. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed several times in the neck. Investigators said the killer entered Kleinsorge’s home through a window.
The victim’s daughter, Hedy, was the person who found her bloodied body. At the time, authorities said available DNA testing did not match anyone in the statewide offender database and Kleinsorge’s killing would remain unsolved for the next 25 years.
In April 2017, detectives announced a breakthrough: cutting-edge DNA testing had finally solved the cold case. San Diego law enforcement said Kleinsorge’s killer was Jeffrey Falls, a man who lived across the street from her.
Falls is no longer alive; he was killed in a motorcycle crash in 2006. However, a rare procedure known as familial DNA testing helped investigators zero in on him as the killer. Law enforcement said the case began to truly crack in July 2016 when this type of science came into the equation. The testing allows investigators to widen their scope when searching offender databases by identifying people who are likely to be close relatives of a person who may have committed a crime.
In Kleinsorge’s case, the familial DNA results matched a convicted offender who was dead and the results showed a high likelihood that a brother of that convict was the person who killed Kleinsorge. The trail led police to Falls and, finally, the case was solved.
Bonnie Dumanis, the San Diego District Attorney at the time, said the science of familial DNA testing is “a way to propel an investigation forward and solve more crimes.”
Law enforcement also said the crime was only solved thanks to the relentless work of investigators, including now-retired Reserve Detective Holly Erwin who never gave up on figuring out the case.
Advanced DNA Testing Leads to Arrest in Deadly 1986 Stabbing
On Oct. 11, 1986, the body of Cyrus Jefferson, 20, was found in a field off 69th Street in Lemon Grove. The young man had been stabbed to death.
During the initial investigation, deputies with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSO) arrested suspect Stacy Littleton, 52, on one count of murder. However, he was later released.
For the next 31 years, the case grew cold. In June 2017, detectives announced that advanced DNA testing had led them right back to their original suspect: Littleton.
Littleton was already in custody at San Diego Central Jail on unrelated charges when investigators charged him with first-degree murder in the slaying of Jefferson. A few days later, Littleton pleaded not guilty. He is being held on $1.1 million bail and is scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 20, 2018.
Meanwhile, Jefferson’s sister, Sidra, told NBC 7 earlier this year that her brother was a kind person “who never met a stranger.” At the time of his murder, Jefferson had moved to San Diego to start a new life and explore a career as a chef.
Man Arrested for 1992 Killing of Girlfriend
In 1992, mother Davette Gaunt, 32, was killed in Vista, leaving behind a young daughter. In August 2017, Gaunt’s former boyfriend and father of her child, Christopher McDonald, 64, was arrested at his home in Safford, Arizona, on suspicion of her murder.
According to detectives, the couple lived together in 1992. At that time, they were in a heated battle with one another over custody of their young daughter. Their turbulent relationship ultimately led to Gaunt’s murder, according to investigators.
In May 1993 a witness reported Gaunt missing, saying she hadn’t been heard from in more than a year. Her family, who lived in Delaware, also said they hadn’t heard from her. Detectives began searching for Gaunt but she was nowhere to be found.
Her body was never recovered and her case remained unsolved for decades.
In 2011, detectives reopened the case and interviewed witnesses again. Over the course of six more years, investigators pieced together some answers, including that Gaunt was killed in her home and that her remains were likely dumped somewhere in northern San Diego or Riverside counties.
Evidence pointed to McDonald, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
The suspect was extradited to San Diego County. Today, he’s being held on $1.5 million bail at the Vista Detention Facility on one count of first-degree murder. He is scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 1, 2018.
The couple’s daughter was raised by McDonald’s parents in Boston and is now in her 20s.
Driver in 1995 Slaying of Young Mother Sentenced to 8 Years in Prison
Crystal Odom was only 18 years old when she was gunned down on April 29, 1995, in front of her boyfriend and 10-month-old daughter, Aaliyah, in a gang-related shooting in Encanto.
That night, Odom and her boyfriend, Curtis Harvey, encountered a group of young men at a gas station: Samuel Sayles, Aswad Walker and Jamar Phillips. Investigators said looks were exchanged.
Odom, with her baby also in the car, decided to drive away before pumping any gas. Sayles followed and pulled alongside her car at 65th and Akins streets. Prosecutors said someone in Sayles’ car opened fire, hitting Odom three times in the head. Harvey drove Odom to her mother’s home where she died a short time later.
Odom’s case was unsolved for 20 years. In 2015, detectives identified Sayles, Walker and Phillips as the suspects.
This year, Sayles, now 40, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and, in November, was sentenced to eight years in prison for aiding and abetting the alleged gunman, Walker.
Meanwhile, Walker has been tried twice for the murder but each trial ended with a hung jury. He is currently being held on $1 million bail at the South Bay Detention Facility for one count of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder. He faces a third trial on Jan. 16, 2018.
Phillips pleaded guilty in juvenile court and testified in both trials.
Odom’s mother, Gloria Jimenez, has said her daughter was a great student who dreamed of someday becoming a probation officer. In 2015, Jimenez told NBC 7 she lives with the pain of losing her daughter every single day.
Odom’s father, James Odom, echoed those feelings and said seeking justice for his daughter was a daily struggle.
“Every day is like the first day,” he said.
Odom’s daughter is now grown and, at a news briefing in 2015, she held a poster with a photographer of her slain mother. With tears in her eyes, Aaliyah begged the world to “stop the violence.”