The Silicon Valley Beat
A New Hope
Nearly 25 years after Saba was killed, a lead on this decades-old cold case emerges.
But with this new hope comes an almost "too good to be true" feeling for one detectives.
"Who in their right mind would admit to killing someone?" he wonders.
But, he has a lead to follow, a case to build. It just comes down to one thing -- whether or not the man whose DNA is under the victim's fingernails admits to what he's done or, some believe more likely, provides the perfect seed of doubt to bring down the entire investigation.
This is the third episode of our special edition podcast series, Silicon Valley Beat: Major Crimes.
[[Disclaimer: The Silicon Valley Beat, Major Crimes, is a podcast that deep-dives into major cases investigated by the Mountain View Police Department. Because this podcast covers investigations including critical incidents and homicides, what we discuss here may contain material that is not suitable for all listeners. Names and other sensitive information may be changed to protect the identity of the innocent.]]
On last week’s episode we talked about -- DNA, the ultimate tool to use to pursue investigative leads in a case. In 1985, in a remarkable adaptation well ahead of its time, a Santa Clara County coroner clipped fingernails that could, one day, hold the secrets to Saba’s killer. The investigation hit snags though, and soon turned cold. But when a new lead shows up more than two decades later, we have to ask ourselves -- are cold cases ever really cold?
This is the Silicon Valley Beat: Major Crimes.
EPISODE 3: A NEW HOPE
Saul Jaeger: The start of the holiday season, a time of hope and goodwill.
In 2008, while some began to string up lights at their home, gather family around to celebrate good tidings and cheer, at the Mountain View Police Department, it was a time of reflection, and certainly of cautious hope.
On December 1, then Captain Max Bosel was head of the Mountain View Police Department’s Investigative Services Division, home to the trove of detectives who investigate cases ranging from homicide, to robbery, to kidnapping, to cold cases.
“While assigned as the Special Operations Captain,” Bosel wrote in a supplemental report, “I reviewed the January 18, 1985 homicide of Saba Girmai. Based on the fact that the victim’s body was lifted into the dumpster where she was found, I believed the suspect’s contact DNA could have been left on the victim’s clothing or property. This technology was not available during the initial investigation.”
“I inquired about the availability of evidence items in order to determine if there was physical evidence that could be analyzed for DNA,” Bosel went on to write.
In his report, Bosel noted that five items were re-sent in hopes that, perhaps, after 23 years, advances in technology could present an opportunity to re-examine the case and perhaps even identify and arrest the person responsible for Saba’s gruesome murder.
Katie Nelson: Those five items included:
-- her black, plastic wrist watch, that had been found on her left wrist
-- her blouse
-- a sample of her scalp hair
-- a sample of hair from other areas of her body
-- and, fingernail clippings from both of her hands
While he was never arrested, Bosel noted that the man some had described as Saba’s boyfriend was still a person of interest and, following any results from the Crime Lab, “should be contacted for an interview.”
The incredible news came in the form of an unremarkable fax on January 12, 2010, just after 6 a.m.
In a letter dated just days before, a CODIS administrator with the California DNA Data Bank Program, a section of the California Department of Justice, wrote a letter to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Crime Lab.
An excerpt from the note reads as follows: “The DNA profile from your evidence sample was submitted for search against the CAL-DNA Data Bank and resulted in a candidate match to an individual profile in the database. This offender hit constitutes an investigative lead in your case.”
This was the moment everyone had been waiting for. This match, and the name included in the letter, was 23 years in the making.
Saul Jaeger: But even with this incredible leap in the investigation, we could not get ahead of ourselves. We had to re-open the investigation as if to begin from scratch, and to build a case so airtight, that there would be no question, if an arrest was made, that we had our man.
Nevertheless, we finally had a suspect. It took nearly 25 years, but there he was. Who was he?
But as we said, first, we had to go back to the beginning.
Katie Nelson: You see, when investigators catch a break on a cold case, they must be meticulous going forward. They have to essentially open a new investigation, with the original as well as any new evidence, to go back and ensure that there are no holes, that every question that could possibly arise has an answer.
As Detective Kikuchi says:
Chris Kikuchi: DNA is not enough. Because, that explanation of ‘yeah she scratched me’ during some kind of argument where she wanted food … technically, he’d be a victim. If she scratched him, if he stuck with that story, we would not have anything.
Katie Nelson: You’ll hear more from Detective Chris Kikuchi later on in the series, but he was the lead detective assigned to the Saba Girmai investigation when it was reopened in 2012.
Yes, 2012. If you’re listening closely, that’s four years after the DNA was resubmitted for testing. We’ll address that later in the podcast as well.
Saul Jaeger: So, investigators began at square one with a decades-old homicide, but with two crucial pieces that had been missing for so long -- a lead … and hope.
First on the list of interviews: Saba’s suspected boyfriend, who you’ll remember from the first episode failed his polygraph examination.
We needed to figure out why that happened.
On the morning of April 21, 2010, officers again interviewed Saba’s alleged former boyfriend.
Remember, this man originally disputed his relationship with Saba, despite multiple people telling investigators they were an item. The man claimed he didn’t date her, only that they sometimes lived together.
According to police reports, the man said the following:
“With her personality, [[sic]] honestly, I don’t know where she could have been at any given time,” he added. (Saba) knew ‘various people,’ she had ‘a lot of friends and a lot of acquaintances,’ but she never took any of them to his residence.
He also added that he “did not know any of the places Saba would frequent. He also did not know where she would go or which “club or bar” was using the red stamp that was discovered on Saba’s hand when she was found in the dumpster that January morning.
More than 20 years later, he remained adamant that he had nothing to do with Saba’s murder. And, there was still no real answer as to why he had failed the polygraph exam.
Katie Nelson: A small blow. But what we began to realize as we once again looked into this case, it was clearer than ever that Saba had a distinct inability to stay in one place for long.
Detectives reached out to and spoke with several former friends and family members about Saba. Saba’s friend “Tena,” who had since relocated out of the area, stated she had known Saba while she lived with family in San Jose. Tena said Saba was “intelligent,” and that any accent she may have from her former life in Africa was long gone. She stated while Saba didn’t talk much about herself, she did “laugh” frequently and was seen often walking in and around San Jose.
When pressed if she knew of any male companions Saba may have caught a ride with, Tena stated she never “saw any male with Saba, so she would not be able to identify any suspects by looking at photographs.”
Even years after her death, Saba’s life was still very much shrouded in mystery.
Saul Jaeger: Throughout the re-opened investigation, Saba’s family was always on investigators’ minds. Helping them to learn the truth about what happened to her, and why, was paramount.
Katie Nelson: The emotional implications of this case reached far and wide. Detectives realized that this wasn’t just about closure for the family, it was a little bit about closure for themselves as well.
Again, here is Detective Chris Kikuchi.
Chris Kikuchi: It’s a pretty horrible way for anybody to die. She was basically tossed out like trash, just thrown into a dumpster. And you know, partially clothed. I don’t know, it just, to me, she wasn’t treated as a human. Nobody should be killed, obviously, but to be disposed of in that manner, that was just horrible.
Saul Jaeger: In April of 2010, investigators called Saba’s sister, who had come to visit California in 1984 with Saba.
Much like with other interviews we conducted as we re-opened the case, Saba’s sister did not know much about Saba’s life once she came to California.
Throughout this investigation, this was a common theme. But how could Saba’s sister not know what she was up to, where she had been? That question was never really answered in any of our reports. Nobody seemed to know where she was, or who she was with, at any given time.
Again, remember, this was the age before cell phones, before social media, before any immediate way to contact somebody. Perhaps it was pretty easy to disappear.
Katie Nelson: She said Saba did not tell her much, most likely because Saba thought her sister would not approve of her extracurricular activities. She did say that her sister, like how many others had described her, was “friendly,” but that she believed the way her sister lived her life “put (Saba) at risk.”
She added, though, that she did not recognize the City of Mountain View nor know anyone who could have lived there.
As we spoke with Saba’s sister, something resonated clearly that was noted in the report. When asked about Saba’s dating life, her sister noted that she believed Saba would have “fought a man off who tried to make a pass or [[sic]] advance on her” and that she believed, per a detective’s report, “this may have been what led to the victim’s death.”
We heard this in a later interview with another friend of Saba’s -- she stated that she recalled a specific incident where she and Saba had been “chillin’ at someone’s house” when Saba had suddenly “become undone” when a man tried to make a pass at her.
Was this the personal connection that led to Saba’s death? Did she tell someone ‘no?’
Saul Jaeger: We also learned both from Saba’s sister and from another man detectives spoke to that Saba could not drive, and that “someone would always drive her.”
Two night’s before Saba’s murder in 1985, Saba’s friend also recalled that Saba had suddenly shown up at her home, looking for a place to stay, saying she was unwell. She added that Saba at the time stated she “was refusing to go home to her boyfriend’s house,” according to the report.
So, with this knowledge, we knew now, however Saba got to Mountain View, she didn’t get there on her own.
Katie Nelson: Between January 2010, and July 2010, investigators worked not only to track down and re-interview as many people as they could, they were also looking to try and glean any information on who the new lead was and what motive they may have had.
The case frustratingly stalled once again, as detectives and prosecutors tried to work out a strategy about how to move forward with such a heinous, but 25-year-old, case.
It wasn’t until October 11, 2012, when newly minted Detective Chris Kikuchi -- we heard from him before -- was officially assigned as the lead investigator on the case.
This would be Kikuchi’s first homicide investigation as a detective, and, it was his first cold case as a detective.
You met Detective Chris Kikuchi briefly in the first episode. He’ll be playing a prominent role in the story going forward. Now assigned back to patrol, Kikuchi had been with Mountain View Police for 10 years when he obtained a coveted spot in the Crimes Against Persons Unit, the group of detectives assigned primarily to investigate homicides, domestic violence incidents, abuse and assaults.
Saul Jaeger: As he began to dive into the case, much of what he needed was already there -- allowing him to bypass legwork that could have delayed the investigation even further. He was able to look over all the information that had been sent the year before, to see what DNA evidence was useful, and how that hopefully could lead to the arrest and conviction of Saba’s killer.
Katie Nelson: That’s thanks to the good old fashioned police work we discussed in Episode 2 with Lt. Mike Canfield.
Saul Jaeger: One thing that struck him in particular, was the way in which the Saba died.
Chris Kikuchi: It was interesting just from the standpoint because obviously we knew how she died. It looked like a strangulation, she had petechiae in her eyes. She was dumped in a dumpster.
Katie Nelson: According to WebMD, petechiae is a sign of blood leaking from capillaries under your skin. Capillaries are the tiniest blood vessels that connect arteries to veins. They help move oxygen and nutrients from your bloodstream to your organs and tissues. According to WebMD, leaking in the capillaries could be caused by an illness or by severe trauma, such as when you strain intensely for a long period of time, if you cough hard, if you vomit, if you lift heavy weights, or in our cause, because of strangulation.
Saul Jaeger: Chris had everything he needed to take this case to the next step. In mid December, 2012, a team of Mountain View police detectives, including Detective Kikuchi, met with Santa Clara County District Attorney Investigator and former Mountain View Police Officer Nate Wandruff. Wandruff was then assigned to Cold Case investigations for the District Attorney’s Office and was brought in to help with the case.
In that crucial meeting, Kikuchi and Wandruff, who had been colleagues for years, began to form a plan that will ultimately lead them to a real suspect.
Katie Nelson: As much as information is crucial in an investigation to help move cases forward, relationships are equally important among investigators. Kikuchi and Investigator Wandruff were old colleagues, so they already had a solid relationship established going in to working together on an active cold case investigation. According to Kikuchi, this positive foundation of their relationship was huge.
Chris Kikuchi: Absolutely. I think that’s true in any type of collaboration. If you feel that you know the other person and the other person knows you, or the team knows each other, there’s definitely a more positive influence because it’s not like you feel uneasy if it’s someone you don’t know.
Katie Nelson: Chris Kikuchi and Nate Wandruff, after years of starts and stops, would finally be the ones to look straight into the eyes of a killer and get to know the man who murdered Saba Girmai.
Or, was the DNA found under Saba’s fingernails, just another guy caught up in this case? Was the man whose DNA that hit in the state system, just some man who had a perfectly plausible explanation. It’s not outside the realm of possibility. It’s happened before. Who’s to say it wouldn’t happen this time?
Chris Kikuchi: Any time we have an opportunity to speak with someone about any type of crime, I at least feel, somewhat reasonably that yeah, we can maybe get something from it. Maybe the person will slip. But in this case, like I said, given the fact that it was so many years ago, I wasn’t too confident, to be honest. I just kind of felt that, where were we going to go with this? My initial response was I thought: ‘He’ll deny it.’ Who in their right mind would admit to killing a person? Especially this many years after?
Katie Nelson: He’s right. Who would, after all these years, admit to a crime that was more than two decades old? Who wouldn’t find a way to provide reasonable doubt? Who was the man investigators were tapped to talk to?
That man … was Daniel Garcia.
Thank you for listening to this episode of The Silicon Valley Beat: Major Crimes. For more details and for credit for the music and other source material used throughout our podcast, please visit the episode’s website at pippa.io.
Source material utilized in this podcast
Interlude/interview background music:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAyFXPDUoPQ – MorningLightMusic
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjoqx7wYbVw – MorningLightMusic
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OnJidcj2CU – FesliyanStudios Background Music
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVl9frUzHsE – Over Time by Audionautix
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qjh0OGDt58I – AshamaluevMusic