The list of suspects in the shooting death of Melinda Brown, a 19-year-old Simi Valley woman whose remains were found in a shallow grave last November, has narrowed to three names.
After spending months chasing leads and interviewing more than 100 people, detectives are waiting for the results of tests being done on recently found evidence.
They won't say what that evidence is, but Sheriff's Capt. Mike Regan said he is "absolutely sure" they can make a case.
Brown's father last heard from his daughter about 10 p.m. on Nov. 13. She called and said she was at a Simi Valley gas station and would be home in 30 minutes.
Her remains were found by hunters two weeks later in the forest in the far western reaches of the county. She had been shot once in the chest--probably about a week before she was discovered, police say.
The investigation has taken detectives from Brown's family to friends, acquaintances, gas station attendants and employees of a bowling alley where she had been the day she disappeared.
Tips have come in from far and wide. People called police and said they'd seen the missing woman in cities all over the county. One account placed her in Texas.
Regan doesn't think she left Simi Valley alive.
The captain won't offer details, except to say the new evidence could establish a physical link between a suspect or suspects and the crime.
"We're close to establishing a motive," Regan said.
The crime is still unsolved, but Regan said investigators are a lot further along than they were.
"When we found this girl we had absolutely no evidence," Regan said. "Now we're in a critical stage."
People who have brushes with the law may be forced to paint the towns of Saticoy and El Rio.
At any given time, the business areas of both rural communities are covered with gang graffiti and colorful but unwanted designs left by tagging crews.
For a long time, judges have sentenced adults and juveniles who commit minor crimes to perform community service.
That service can now include spending several hours on a Saturday with Sheriff's Deputy Rob Davidson. Davidson runs a graffiti abatement program, which got going this month.
Some of those in the program are gang members who have committed various acts of vandalism.
"Our focal point is in working with the juvenile system to get the very same kids into this who were out doing it," Davidson said. "I don't know if we will convert anyone, but it may make them change."
Graffiti has been such a problem in both communities that local businesses eagerly donated $1,000 worth of paint rollers, gallons of paint and tarps. A few average citizens have even come out to help repaint walls.
"It's a pretty big problem. You can't drive half a block and not see some," Davidson said.
There are two gangs in El Rio and one in Saticoy, police say. The combined membership of the gangs is about 175. Several dozen kids belong to tagging crews, according to police estimates.
A few walls in both towns have been painted and repainted half a dozen times. But Davidson isn't losing heart.
"Hopefully, the vandals will get tired before we do," Davidson said.
A retired newspaper typesetter has been charged with murder in Phoenix, where he allegedly shot his wife in the head and kept her skeletal remains in the couple's trailer for 11 years.
According to police, it's the second time Frank Alvarado Martinez, 70, shot Gloria Nunez Martinez. The first time was 16 years ago in Ventura County, where the couple lived at the time, police said.
On Nov. 1, 1983, Frank and Gloria, whom police said had a long history of domestic violence, were camping on the beach near Point Mugu when Gloria Martinez was shot in the chest.
She was rushed to Ventura County Medical Center. Her husband was arrested and questioned by deputies but never charged.
"She took the blame for it," Phoenix Police Det. Joe Petrosino said.
Ventura County sheriff's deputies say domestic-violence laws were different then. Today, police wouldn't accept such a flimsy excuse.
In 1984, the couple moved to Phoenix and set up house in a small trailer. In February 1987, Gloria Martinez was shot and killed in the trailer, according to detectives in Phoenix.
Detectives were tipped to the killing last June, after Frank Martinez shot himself in the head in a fast-food restaurant with the same gun used to kill his wife, according to investigators.
The man received only minor injuries. But when officers reached him, they found a note inside his pocket directing them to the trailer. The wife's remains were found on a bed underneath a decade's worth of trash, authorities said.
In interviews, Frank Martinez said his wife committed suicide, then said a robber broke in and shot her, police said.
But he didn't hide his antipathy for his wife.
"He said that she became very antisocial and she did not like people. She would fight with him and that's why they didn't have friends," Petrosino said.
Holly J. Wolcott can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.