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MURDER MYSTERIES : Few of the County's 200 Unsolved Homicides Are as Perplexing as That of Judy Nesbitt

November 11, 1988|RICHARD BEENE | Times Staff Writer

You didn't have to know Judy Nesbitt to be sickened by her death. It seemed so senseless--an empty, random act of violence against a 42-year-old Irvine housewife whom everyone seemed to love.

Even now, 8 years after she was murdered, no one knows why she had to die. All the police will say is that someone shot her in the head and took her credit cards and checkbook.

Judy Nesbitt is gone, but not the suffering of a family that has been unable to put the tragedy behind. It is an agony born of guilt, doubt and the bitter belief that her killer may be walking the streets somewhere and may kill again.

The Nesbitt case is among more than 200 unsolved murders in Orange County. There have been others more grisly and more bizarre, but few as perplexing. Investigators cite the need for patience, knowing from experience that time often works to their benefit. But that is of little consolation to the families of such victims as Nesbitt.

"There is a part of me that will never die until that SOB dies," said Steven Nesbitt, 28, the oldest of the victim's four children. "This feeling won't be lifted from our chest until that guy is caught."

Judy Nesbitt--Irvine homemaker, mother of four, 22 years married--didn't deserve to die like this.

Judy Conklin was 19 when she met Fred Nesbitt on a blind date. He was a Newport Beach lifeguard, tanned and fit and born and reared near the ocean; she was a strong-willed student from a close-knit North Hollywood family.

They were married in 1958. In 1972, they settled in Irvine, where they raised their four children: Steven, Michael, Lisa and Jeff.

Fred Nesbitt found success working for Paul Monroe Hydraulics of Whittier, rising in the company to become vice president for sales. Judy chose not to work, preferring to spend as much time as possible with the children.

By all accounts, theirs was a good life. Fred Nesbitt's love of the ocean was handed down to his three sons and daughter: From the time they were toddlers, the children enjoyed an active outdoor life aboard boats. Family members recall cruising the ocean with infants in playpens on deck. If they were old enough to hold a pole, they fished with the rest of the family.

At the center of this weekend world were the family boats. There would be four of them in all, each a little bigger and faster and more sophisticated than the one before it, and each bearing the name Felicidad ( happiness in Spanish). It was on the Felicidad IV that Judy Nesbitt would die.

On the day of her death, the day before Thanksgiving, 1980, Fred Nesbitt arrived home about 6:30 p.m. His wife was not there, and he speculated that she was out running errands and getting things ready for the holiday dinner.

About 7 p.m., he drove down to the Marina Dunes yacht anchorage on Newport Bay. Sometimes Judy would stop by there to pick up a few things and spend some quiet time on the boat she loved.

"I walked down to the boat, and it was locked up," he recalled. "There was a padlock. I unlocked it and went into the boat. There didn't appear to be anything wrong, anything out of place, so I went down to the forward part of the boat. That's where I found her."

Sprawled on the floor in the forward V-berth, Judy Nesbitt lay dead. She had been shot once in the head. Later, the medical examiner would discover that she had also been hit in the head three times with a blunt instrument.

She probably died in a violent struggle with her attacker, police said.

"I just panicked," Fred Nesbitt remembered. "I touched her pulse, but my heart was beating so fast that I couldn't tell if she was dead or alive. I screamed, and another fellow who was around there heard me. I think the paramedics came. To this day I can't really remember exactly what happened after I found her. I panicked."

Newport Beach police immediately assigned detectives to the case, but years would pass, witnesses would die, investigators would retire, and still the case would remain a mystery.

Because the case is still active, police will not discuss evidence found at the scene. What is known, however, is that the victim was not sexually abused and that the only things missing were a few credit cards and a checkbook, leading police to believe that robbery was not the primary motive.

"Everything else was there," said Bob Hardy, the Newport Beach detective who has worked on the case since the beginning. "The purse was there, her money. There was never any apparent motive that was ever uncovered.

"On a case like this, you just have to go wherever you can. You hang your hat on the least little thread. This was an absolutely all-American family. There was no hanky-panky involved here. She was the typical American homemaker that anyone would love to have as a wife. There has been such little to go on from the very start."

After reviewing the evidence, police came to believe it was the killer who had called the Nesbitt home at 9:30 a.m. that day professing interest in the 36-foot Luhrs cabin cruiser that the family was trying to sell.

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