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Dead-End Cases Pile Up : Detectives Armed With Fewer Resources Tackle the Growing Problem of Unsolved Homicides

February 10, 1994|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The news shocked the Chinese American community in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Ho Fu (Eric) Chiu, 20, a state amateur badminton champion and president of Cypress College's Chinese student association, was dead.

Likable, hard-working, handsome and athletic, Chiu led a life full of promise in his adopted country. Nonetheless, the Taiwan native was found dead May 20, 1992, shot inside his car, which was left in a recreation center parking lot in El Monte.

Nearly two years later, Chiu's killing remains unsolved, despite hours of investigation and dozens of people questioned. "There's absolutely no reason that we've found for this murder," said El Monte Police Det. Linda Parrott, frustration in her voice.

Chiu's death typifies a growing phenomenon nationwide that has hit San Gabriel Valley cities especially hard. People are literally getting away with murder.

Nationwide over the past 30 years, homicide detectives have found themselves stymied by more and more unsolved cases. In 1961, 92% of homicides were declared solved, with suspects arrested. Three decades later, the rate has plummeted to 67%, two out of three solved.

In the 30 San Gabriel Valley cities, the rate is even worse. Less than half--47%--of all homicides resulted in arrests, according to 1992 state Department of Justice Statistics.

That same year, the Los Angeles Police Department solved 59% of its homicides, 640 of 1,094, while the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department solved 62%, 333 of 565 homicides, according to state statistics.

"The solves are going down, that's true," said El Monte Police Lt. Ken Jeske, who oversees homicide investigations in his city of 106,000.

"We should be at 80% or 90%," Jeske said. "But it's about 50% for everybody in Southern California because we all suffer the same problems."

Gone are the days when detectives spent their days mainly on domestic dispute slayings--husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend killings, such obvious crimes that police call them "walk-throughs" or "self-solvers."

More victims now are felled by strangers or by gang members, end up as unidentified bodies dumped in parks and streets or come from vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and immigrants.

And these kinds of cases are coming when police departments find themselves in some ways less equipped to investigate them. The informant network, used by detectives for decades, is withering. Plus, detectives are a younger, less experienced group with less commitment to staying in homicide bureaus, say criminologists and veteran detectives.

All of it combines to make murder, the most heinous of crimes, one of the least solvable. A look at a handful of the San Gabriel Valley's unsolved killings illustrates why homicide detectives are having a tough time solving cases.

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At 8:15 on a Friday evening in September, 1992, Tung Kuang Ku, 39, the sole employee in the Teriyaki Bowl on West Duarte Road in Arcadia, was shot when an armed gunman demanded the couple of hundred dollars that was in the cash register. The Rosemead father of two died from a gunshot to his torso.

Witnesses saw only the race of the gunman but could not describe him or his getaway car in detail. With no one to question and little else to go on, police hit a dead-end, said Arcadia Police Lt. Dave Hinig.

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Ku's death is a typical "stranger homicide," a killing in which the victim didn't know his slayer. Absent a relationship between victim and slayer and with no description of the killer or a weapon, police can't even begin to look for a suspect, Hinig said. Instead, they must rely on luck: that fingerprints taken at the scene might lead them to someone later.

Stranger homicides represent a changing pattern of murder in American society, said Albert Cardarelli, professor of criminology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a specialist on unsolved killings. These murders often are gratuitously violent, he said, with gunmen pulling off a successful robbery and killing cooperative victims for no reason.

*

About 9 p.m. on Feb. 12, 1992, Hipolito (Junior) Villalobos, 16, was walking home in Baldwin Park with three new high school friends, all alleged gang members, when gunmen jumped from a passing car and chased down the group. The youth was felled by six gunshots to the head and upper torso.

Villalobos' three companions, who faced the same gunmen just steps away, told police they couldn't describe the car or the shooters--even after witnesses and anonymous tips pointed to possible suspects.

"There's nothing we can do (to the companions)," Baldwin Park Police Det. David Reynoso said. "We can interview them until we're blue in the face, but if they don't want to tell us, they don't want to tell us."

Silence is a common obstacle in gang-related slayings, swelling the number of unsolved homicides in cities such as Baldwin Park, Pomona and Pasadena, where gang killings account for one-third to half of all murders.

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