VENTURA — John Rios is haunted by the thought that his son's killer still walks the streets.
"It's always there, you know," he said. "I mean this guy is on the loose out there somewhere and he could do it again to somebody else. Maybe he already has."
Rios' son, 32-year-old John Rios Jr., was shot and killed the night of April 29, 1994, by a masked gunman on a Ventura street. And now, on the eve of that anniversary, his family carries not only the grief of losing him but the burden of not knowing why he was killed.
Rios, a hard-working 68-year-old Korean War veteran and devout Catholic, compares it to walking around with a bag of cement on his back.
He is not alone. That haunted feeling is something that he shares with the many other Ventura County residents who have lost loved ones to local violence and are waiting for justice.
The unsolved cases also weigh on the detectives who investigate the homicides, said Cmdr. Joe Munoz, who heads the Oxnard Police Department's major crimes division, which year in and year out investigates more homicides than any other law enforcement agency in the county.
"I want justice too," Munoz said. "I want it for my investigators, who've put in the hours tracking killers down, and I want it for the families."
Despite the dogged work of local homicide investigators, one in three killings go unsolved in Ventura County, according to a Times survey of all homicides in the county in the last five years.
Of the 155 homicides in the county since January 1992, 57 cases, or about 36%, are unsolved. That number excludes the 27 justifiable homicides--cases of self-defense or fatal shootings by police that were deemed justified by the district attorney.
Although the percentage of unsolved cases in Ventura County is higher than the national average of 35%, local authorities point out that many of the cases from 1996 and 1997 included in the survey are still being investigated and will likely result in new arrests and convictions.
Consistent with The Times survey, though, a California Department of Justice study of clearance rates for homicides from 1986 to 1995 in Ventura County found that 31% of those cases remain unsolved.
"You can't look at this in terms of the numbers alone," said Ron Janes, a chief deputy for the Ventura County district attorney's office in charge of prosecuting major crimes.
"Overall we do an exceptional job at solving these cases," said Janes, pointing to the district attorney's 97% conviction rate in homicide cases in which a suspect has been arrested and charged in the last five years.
Unsolved Cases Are Still Pursued
As for the unsolved cases, Janes said, "we continue to pursue those."
Nationally, about 35% of homicides are not solved, according to statistics from the FBI released last year.
A case is considered solved, or cleared, if there is a conviction, or a judge issues a warrant for an arrest, or if the killing is ruled justified or accidental, or if the alleged killer Hwas slain in the commission of the crime.
A Times study completed late last year found that half of the 9,442 homicides in Los Angeles County from 1990 to 1994 ended with arrests or charges being filed.
Prosecutors in Ventura County obtained convictions ranging from manslaughter to first-degree murder in 55 of the 155 homicides since 1992, or about 35% of the cases.
In two of those cases--Christopher Sattiewhite, who was convicted of killing 30-year-old Genoveva Gonzales, and Mark Scott Thornton, convicted of killing 33-year-old Kellie O'Sullivan--the murderers have been sentenced to death.
With suspects in 13 other cases charged and awaiting trial, and warrants out on suspects in eight other homicides, Ventura County's conviction rate in all likelihood will rise, said Janes. But again Janes said the numbers do not tell the whole story.
Sitting at a desk in his office, Janes became impassioned for a moment, pulling out a large poster board with surveillance pictures that show Westlake nurse Kellie O'Sullivan waiting to cash a check at a local bank just half an hour before being killed.
"These are more than just numbers to us," he said. "These are people. I use this when we are training deputies. Look at her."
The pictures show O'Sullivan placidly waiting in line in front of a bank teller.
"She doesn't know that in 30 minutes she'll be dead," Janes said. "These cases mean a lot to us in Ventura County. They are not just numbers."
Higher Success Rate in Simi Valley, Ventura
In the last five years, the Simi Valley and Ventura police departments have had the most success at solving homicide cases, while Port Hueneme--the county's smallest department--has had the most trouble.
Oxnard had the most homicides with 66, or about 42%, of all the homicides in the county over the five-year period. Of those cases, 29 remain unsolved. During the five-year period, Oxnard had 12 justifiable homicides, which were not included in the total.