The Silicon Valley Beat
The Body in the Dumpster
It was a dewy January morning, just two days before the Bay Area would host its first Super Bowl, right in Mountain View's backyard at Stanford Stadium.
When a man picking through the trash comes across a body while hoping to find some cans to earn a few extra bucks, the police are called. The story starts like this: A young woman, strangled to death, seemingly without any identity whatsoever. Her case baffles detectives.
As they slowly learn about who the woman was, and where she came from -- her story spanning continents and major global moments that led to massive aid movements -- another pressing question begins to enter their minds: who would want to harm her? Who would discard her behind a grocery store, in a sleepy Silicon Valley town, and more importantly, why?
Could a murder really happen in the home of high tech?
This is the first episode of our special edition podcast series, Silicon Valley Beat: Major Crimes.
For those in need of audio assistance, or who are hard of hearing, we have included a transcript of this podcast for you here. Please see below.
[[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.]]
Episode 1: The Body in the Dumpster
Saul Jaeger: He started the morning like he had others before – shuffling through dumpsters behind the Safeway on Stierlin Road, looking for any cans for which he could get maybe a couple bucks. It was early still, just before 7:30 a.m. on what witnesses, and police reports, described as a dewy January morning. He may get lucky.
As he leaned over to pluck through the trash, the man startled. Amongst the cardboard boxes and the discarded fruits and vegetables, a leg poked out from one of the dumpster bins, dark in color. The man wasn’t sure if it was a mannequin, or worse, a body. He ducked back to the rear of the store, and alerted a manager. Something wasn’t right.
[[steps on gravel]]
The manager, and a few employees, walked back outside to the open dumpster, lids thrown back well before the man looking for cans arrived. Dew dusted the discarded waste, and as soon as the manager leaned over to inspect what was within, he turned around and went inside to call the police.
A two-man fire crew were first on scene. Leaning into the bin, one firefighter reached out for a pulse, putting his two fingers to a wrist. The wrist was cold -- too cold. He stepped back and waited for the police to arrive.
It was January 18, 1985.
[[”Careless Whisper” by Wham! begins to play, newscasts of time overlap as reports are read]]
Katie Nelson: That January was known as a “one of the most intense arctic outbreaks,” according to the National Weather Service. Wayne Gretsky scored his 400th career goal that month. VH1 debuted, and Madonna owned the radio waves with her “Like a Virgin.” Two days later, the first Super Bowl hosted in the Bay Area, at Stanford Stadium, would be televised across the US on three major networks.
More locally, Silicon Valley was in its “Golden Age,” where tech was booming and we began to see the first iterations of the lore that this section of the Bay Area holds for modern day entrepreneurs. The CD-ROM had recently been introduced by Sony and Philips, revolutionizing the way in which we would come to share information and entertainment in the coming years. Apple had introduced the Macintosh just one year before in January 1984. And, the first “Windows” operating system was released by Microsoft.
Mountain View, though, smack in the middle of all this growth, was still very much a suburb. Homes were ranch-style, and the local dump had closed not two years before to help restore the beloved shoreline and wetlands. Could a murder really happen in the home of high tech?
This is Doug Johnson, longtime resident and historian of the Mountain View Police Department.
Doug Johnson: I wondered what brought somebody to Mountain View back in 1985 because there wasn’t really a lot of reasons to come to this town. Shoreline was still landfill. The downtown was -- it hadn’t changed much since the 40s. Castro Street was two lanes in each direction and was basically empty.
You could stand on the railroad tracks and you could look down at El Camino and see cars going by because there wasn’t really much going on, going on downtown. And, um, there was no club scene or anything like that. The only reason, the only regional draw if you will in Mountain View at the time, was probably St. James’ Infirmary. And it was kind of fun saloon with a ten-foot statue of Wonder Woman as you walked in the door and peanut shells all over the floor.
Katie Nelson: In 1985, Mountain View certainly wasn’t the town that we know it today, with a bustling downtown and multi-billion dollar corporations. But again, could a city, now home to tech giants, and once thought of as a quaint corner of Silicon Valley, really be the place where someone could be murdered?
Saul Jaeger: On that cold, winter morning, that’s exactly what Officers Schlarb and Barcelona were trying to find out when they made their way over to the Stierlin Road Safeway.
As the men peered inside the dumpster, they saw a woman, lying face down, wearing a striped, long-sleeved shirt, a green sock still on her right foot. A gold and brown high-heeled shoe dangled from her covered foot.
She was petite and thin, a little over five feet, with a cropped haircut. Her head was turned just so. Gently looking around her body, officers saw nothing obvious to indicate what had happened to this Jane Doe.
But could there be a clue somewhere, among her clothes, perhaps in the bags surrounding her body, that could point the officers to the killer?
Would the police find the killer in the man who was walking back and forth to his car on Vaquero Drive late the night before? Could the suspect be the person who drove by a home late at night on the same road with a loud muffler, stop near the Safeway, and drive off?
Katie Nelson: A Stierlin Road resident noted his daughter had been studying late at night on January 17, hours before the body was discovered in the dumpster, and heard a car peel out in the driveway adjacent to their home. A Hackett Street resident told police he had heard from a mechanic at the Union 76 gas station, just down the road from where the body was discovered, that he had seen two men arguing with a black woman in their car.
Any one of these clues could lead to something more. Door by door, police searched for answers. More than a dozen cards were left, requesting help, to call if anyone remembered anything that could possibly help. At least six of the requests went unanswered.
Almost immediately, officers on scene that morning encountered a complication – the woman had no identification on her. The red, faded stamp on her left hand, typically indicative of a visit to a bar at that time, was of no use – the only local bar at the time that stamped red did not do so the night of the murder, according to the police report. The shoe that dangled from Jane Doe’s foot, while manufactured in Santa Maria, could not be narrowed down to a particular purchase area as the shoes were sold across the United States. The investigative technique of simply tracking purchases via a credit card was still nearly a decade away.
Saul Jaeger: The watch that was still fastened on her left wrist had no engraving, no personalization to possibly guide the detectives to a family member or loved one. The ring on her left ring finger too, did nothing to help the mystery.
Jane Doe could be anyone, from anywhere. Her family, her friends would have no idea what had happened to her.
But this much was certain -- something bad had happened to Jane Doe.
Here’s Don McKay, a retired sergeant with the Mountain View Police Department, who back in 1985 was the sergeant in charge of investigations.
Don McKay: Um, they discovered this early in the morning. It was still dark when I got the call, about finding a body in the dumpster behind Safeway, just sort of scattered, like she was just dumped there. This Safeway was on the corner of Bailey and Montecito.
Well, there were several police cars there. It was very isolated back there. There’s some apartments that back up to that dumpster and there was nobody there so it was just sort of all us. Brought some lights and stuff and tried to work the scene. We didn’t have a lot to go on.
It took us a while to ID this person. We could tell she was missing a shoe, we figured maybe we’d find that. From what we remembered, she was fully clothed, but I remember thinking: “Here we are, the week of the Super Bowl, and Super Bowl’s at Stanford. And I’m thinking, ‘I got a hundred thousand extra suspects’ that I wasn’t planning on.
It looked like she had been strangled, but we weren’t for sure. We didn’t find that out until we got to the autopsy.
Katie Nelson: By 3 p.m. on January 18, 1985, Jane Doe had been brought to the coroner with the hopes that he would have a better idea of who she may be.
The coroner on duty that Friday afternoon at Valley Medical Center began his methodical examination.
The first sentence of the autopsy reportnnotes just how petite the victim was. The coroner noted she weighed just 95 pounds. She measured only 4 feet, 8 inches tall. On the right side of her forehead, a small cut was noted. A front tooth, chipped. She was otherwise healthy, with the coroner noting most inspections yielded “unremarkable” results.
As he went about his work, the coroner clipped fingernails and took other samples from the body, some potentially for use to determine what had led to that fateful discovery that morning behind the Safeway. But neither of those samples would ultimately point to what exactly had led to Jane Doe’s death. No.
On just the second page of the report, under the section noted “External Evidence of Injury,” the coroner noted the following: “On the front and ride side of the neck are multiple contusions which vary from ⅛ to ¼ inch in greatest dimension.”
“The strap muscles of the neck as well as the other pretracheal soft tissues exhibit a moderate degree of contusion with hemmorhage. The tongue … shows multiple hemorrhages on the anterior third as well as in the middle third.”
Jane Doe had been manually strangled to death.
This was not a quick death. It was slow. It was hard.
Chris Kikuchi: It’s a very violent crime, but to be able to squeeze you know, someone’s neck in that manner and so tightly and so violently that the person dies, there’s a tremendous amount of force.
Katie Nelson: We’d like to introduce you to veteran police detective Chris Kikuchi. He served as the primary investigator on this case later on.
Chris Kikuchi: At any point, you can realize that person is losing air obviously and that person is struggling and to continue doing that, until the person dies, I can’t even imagine. Even at 100 pounds, you wrap your hands around anyone’s neck, they’re going to struggle. They’re going to do whatever they can to get out of that. It’s not easy.
Katie Nelson: That knowledge alone makes this investigation all that much more devastating. It also makes us wonder – was this murder personal? Was this a crime of passion? Or was this an instance where total rage took control and ultimately cost one young woman her life? Was this a targeted incident or, God forbid, was this random, and the start of something far more sinister?
Here again is Detective Sergeant Don McKay.
Don McKay: The most frustrating part was just ID’ing her, finding out who she was, where she came from, where she lived, so we had a base to start with. We had no place to start the investigation. Normally, when you know the person, you know where they live, you know where they hang out, you know her associates. We had no idea on anything for three weeks. All we could do was collect the evidence, freeze what we could collect. We didn’t have a DNA database at the time. Nothing.
Katie Nelson: But even though less than 24 hours had passed since Jane Doe’s body was found, the cause of death was still only half of the puzzle solved. It would take two more weeks before Jane Doe had a name.
Saul Jaeger: She was Saba Girmai.
She had just turned 21. Born in Mekele, Ethiopia in 1964, Saba had immigrated with her family to the United States when she was 17.
[[Clip from British broadcast on the famine in Ethiopia]]
Saba’s family was part of a growing number of Ethiopians who had come to the United States to seek refuge, many of whom were able to utilize new changes enacted through the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, which was created to help fine-tune immigration procedure for refugees, particularly of humanitarian concern, seeking admission to the United States.
Ethiopia, during the time that Saba’s family came to America, was in the throes of upheaval. Before they arrived on US soil, Saba’s family had lived through the overthrow of the government by the Ethiopian army. In 1974, when Saba had just begun her teen years, an interim military government had been put in place to create some kind of control at a government level. But, their efforts were swiftly replaced by a Marxist regime.
Katie Nelson: By 1981, a civil war had erupted, and a crippling drought plagued the country. That drought would be the catalyst for what many remember as the famine that sparked the first Live Aid concert in 1985.
[[1985 commercial for Live Aid]]
The 16-hour musical marathon that catapulted Queen back into the spotlight, the one that was projected to raise about 10 million pounds for famine relief, but in fact raised triple that amount. The funds would be put towards helping the roughly 160 million people impacted by famine across northeastern Africa.
In Ethiopia, reports were surfacing that aid groups that came to the country to help couldn’t access certain villages and towns, exacerbating the crisis. Mekele, Saba’s home, was hit especially hard.
Saba’s family arrived in the United States just two years before the peak of the conflicts that would plague Ethiopia until the early 1990s. Mekele, during the height of the famine in the mid 1980s, unfortunately became known for its hunger camps that surrounded the city, which housed nearly 100,000 refugees. Estimates today suggest that in 1985, nearly 100 people died in these camps every day, waiting for some kind of reprieve.
Saul Jaeger: As her family began to settle down roots in America, Saba was enrolled at Monroe High School in Rochester, New York, a large, brown-bricked building with Greek columns in the picturesque upstate area that had opened its doors to students nearly 60 years before Saba stepped onto campus.
But her time there was short. Saba was not involved in any clubs or sports, according to her family, nor did she actually finish high school. She dabbled in cosmetology school for a while after dropping out of high school, but that didn’t hold her interest for long.
By the time Saba traveled to California with her sister in 1984, she was ready for something different. She had been in California only seven months when she was killed.
Once in California, Saba was known to flit from home to home, between cities like Palo Alto, Santa Clara, and San Jose, couch-surfing with friends or acquaintances, enjoying the local club scene. She had an alleged boyfriend, but she had never been married.
Katie Nelson: Where Mountain View fell on her radar was a bit of a mystery. She was not known to neighbors who lived near where her body was found.
Saba was known to go out, sometimes to the chagrin of those who knew her. She drank and smoked marijuana, practices that today are not noteworthy, but back in the mid-1980s still carried somewhat of a social taboo. Saba was also not known to stay in one place for long. She was social, described by at least one person as “feisty” and an “Ethiopian princess.” Most notably, though, despite her ease with being out and about, no one had admittedly seen her the day before her death. Saba had essentially vanished.
But now, word of Saba’s death had begun to spread, particularly within the Ethiopian community.
Recently, we found a copy of the 1985 report of Saba’s death in the police blotter section of a local paper. Wedged at the bottom of the page, between a Super Bowl robbery crime spree and a rape arrest, the local paper highlighted in just eight short sentences the totality of the crime.
Headline: Murder victim apparently strangeled. A young woman whose body was discovered last week in a Mountain View dumpster apparently died from strangulation, a spokesman from the Santa Clara County Coroner’s Office said Monday. “It was a homicide,” said the spokesman, who declined to be identified. There were some other minor injuries to the body, but nothing of any significance, he said. The results of the autopsy performed late Friday were to be turned over to Mountain View police this week.
Police lieutenant Brown Taylor said the woman has yet to be identified.
The partially-clad body of the woman, whom police believe was in her late teens or early 20s, was discovered shortly before 8 a.m. Friday by employees of Safeway, 570 Stierlin Road.
“Apparently she had been killed and left in the dumpster sometime Thursday night,” Taylor said. Police said the woman was black, weighed about 95 pounds, and was about 5 feet tall.
And with the news spreading, friends and acquaintances began to come forward. A friend, we’ll call “Taka,” said Saba had been in San Jose on January 12, when she broke a window of an apartment that belonged to a man she had been staying with at the time. It was the longest period of time detectives knew of Saba’s whereabouts. According to the man at the home, she had been staying with him practically since she had arrived in California the previous June. She’d celebrated her 21st birthday three days before the window episode.
Saul Jaeger: Finally, someone who could maybe give a little more insight into who Saba was, where she may have been, and what may have happened to her.
Leads like this are important, not just because they offer some semblance of direction with a case, but because when investigations slow, they bring about some hope and some much-needed feeling of movement. We knew little about Saba at the time. And, for those in her community who knew of her, or for those who actually knew her, even they could not pinpoint exact dates or times that they had last seen her within a few days of her death. So, this was something, right?
But as was becoming a growing trend with this case, with each hope for a new lead, things quickly fizzled. On January 12, when the police were called to address the broken window at the man’s apartment, we know that they did ultimately escort Saba away. But, from what the boyfriend knew, she was out and about by the next morning. The last time he, and probably anyone else, had heard from her was on January 14, when she called him to let him know she was in Palo Alto. Specifically where, though, he could not say.
Katie Nelson: Interviews and gathering witnesses for Saba’s whereabouts could be described as tricky at best. Saba had also been seen maybe in a pickup truck with a white man at some point, but exactly when, the interviewee could not be sure.
He was quoted as saying, “The last time he saw Saba she was with an unknown black male; he thinks it was either on January 11 or 12.”
“He knew of Saba, but had only heard her name since she had been killed.”
A third person said:
“She stayed at the house about one month ago, but he had not seen her since.”
One interviewee surmised that it was possible Saba was killed because while she was social, was willing to drink and smoke, she refused to sleep with men.
Another interviewee said Saba had been seen with a woman three weeks before, begging for money, but that person didn’t know the woman’s name.
Nearly one month after Saba was killed, on February 8, an Ethiopian man came into the police department and told investigators that he had seen Saba maybe on the 14th or 15thof January, three days before she died, in a van with an unknown white man heading northbound on Third Street in San Jose. The reason this was so important, he said, was because he remembered something he did not tell detectives at the time he was initially interviewed – Saba was wearing some type of hat.
This pattern of rough guesstimates on when people had seen Saba continued throughout much of the initial investigation, bleeding well into the second month after Saba was killed.
By the end of March, 1985, nearly all potential connections to Saba had been interviewed, and there had been hardly any headway in the case.
Saul Jaeger: Again, retired Detective Sergeant Don McKay.
Don McKay: Well, we started going through the apartments behind the thing to see if someone heard the car because we didn’t know what she was dropped off in, in a car or whatever. And, we got a couple of people who thought they heard something back there around four in the morning, but nothing that could put anything to it.
What it affected was trying to locate where we thought she was probably picked up at a party in Palo Alto somewhere, where there were a lot of Super Bowl parties going on and stuff. We had no idea where she came from, but we didn’t realize she was of Ethiopian descent until we talked to her sister.
That’s the first time we even had an idea of where she was from, what she was doing, where she lived. And her sister didn’t know where she lived for the last three weeks prior to the murder.
And we had no idea where she had been. We went into numerous locations, places we had to try to find out where all the parties were, and nobody knew. No witnesses at all. We never did come up with a witness. We did a lot of footwork.
Saul Jaeger: That ever-lingering question still loomed large -- With the vast network of people who seemingly knew Saba, or knew of her, who would have had a motive to kill her? And even more so, who would have discarded her body in that dumpster at that Safeway?
By April 2, detectives decided to use their trump card – they brought in Saba’s alledged boyfriend for a polygraph examination. He was seemingly the last person known to have talked to Saba. Some had identified him as her boyfriend. He disputed that though. There was no question however, that he was close to her. So he must know something, right?
Was it possible a fight had gone awry? Was he possibly mad at Saba because of her drinking, and smoking, and moving from place to place? Had Saba done something that caused him to snap?
The following is an excerpt from the polygraph examination.
Type of Case: Murder
Requesting Agency: Mountain View Police Department
Date: April 2, 1985
Q: Do you know for sure who caused Saba’s death?
Q: Did you strangle Saba during January 1985?
Q: Were you physically present in the vehicle that took Saba to the dumpster where she was found?
Q: Did you last see Saba on 13 January when you left her in front of that shop in San Jose?
Q: Did you see Saba between 14 and 18 January 1985?
Q: Did Saba call you on 14 January and tell you she was in Palo Alto?
On April 11, 1985 the results of the polygraph exam were returned to detectives.
They read: After analysis of the charts produced during this examination, it is the opinion of this examiner that the boyfriend was deceptive in his answers to the relevant questions.
Results: Deception indicated
[[End Episode 1]]
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
Insert Music for Time Period:
George Michael – Careless Whisper
Insert for News of Time Period:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkLPx8mQ-t0&pbjreload=10 – BBC News Report for Ethiopian famine 1984
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y82B-dWyuAw – Live Aid Concert TV Commercial from 1985