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Slaying Shakes a Tranquil Oasis

SATURDAY JOURNAL

Violence: Tragic irony links two families who sought rural refuge in Ojai.

May 08, 1999|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OJAI — Kali Manley had a plan. It was the start of Christmas break and she wanted to spend the night at a friend's house, just a few miles up the highway.

She called her father about 5 p.m. for permission. He, of course, said yes. Kali was a responsible kid, he reasoned. A pretty 14-year-old blond with blue eyes and a shy smile, she always let him know where she was or where she was going.

Sometime after midnight Dec. 20, 1998, Kali and her friend, Ashley Helfrich, dozed off after watching television and awoke to find David Alvarez, the older brother of a high school classmate, and his companion, Robert Miears, standing at the front door.

Kali didn't know either man. Ashley did. Alvarez, 22, had a reputation around the Ojai Valley. He came from a well-to-do family. But there were those arrests on assault charges.

It was cold outside, the start of a five-day freeze that would devastate the valley's lemon crop. Yet Alvarez beckoned the girls outside to see his new truck. Ashley declined. Her mother wasn't home, but would be returning soon.

"You shouldn't be here when she gets back," she warned. She told Kali not to go outside either. But Kali wasn't listening. Dressed in jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt, she stepped into the night to talk to the two men.

Fifteen minutes later, she was gone.

When his daughter didn't come home the next day, Charles Manley began to worry. He spoke to Ashley. She didn't know where Kali was. At 6:20 p.m., he called the Ventura County Sheriff's Department and reported her missing.

The Manleys weren't the only ones alarmed. Kali's friend Erica Long, also 14, knew Alvarez. She was a close friend of his younger sister, Veronica.

"When you think of David," she said, "the first thing that pops into your head isn't good things."

She prayed for Kali. In the days that followed, a massive volunteer search involving hundreds of Ojai residents was launched to find the Oak View teenager. But there were no signs. Four days after the hunt began, Erica broke into tears and wrote "Come Home Kali" in dark eyeliner on her bedroom mirror.

While Ojai residents continued the search, Alvarez spent Christmas in a County Jail cell. Even before Kali was reported missing, police had picked him up for allegedly threatening a woman in a separate case. Now they were beginning to suspect his involvement in Kali's disappearance.

At the same time, attorney Louis "Chuck" Samonsky said Alvarez was already talking to him about Kali. Samonsky made a private offer to Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury--his client would reveal the location of her body if Bradbury promised not to go for the death penalty in any possible prosecution.

Bradbury refused, Samonsky said, but Alvarez decided he wanted to end the search--deal or not.

On Dec. 26, he led investigators to a culvert beneath California 33 in the mountains above Ojai. The scene was later described by authorities: From the back seat of Bradbury's vehicle, with Samonsky at his side, Alvarez pointed to a large drainage pipe cradling the naked, strangled body of a girl.

The search for Kali Manley had ended.

A Mountain-Ringed Paradise

To many, Ojai conjures up images of a quiet tourist town inhabited by New Age hippies and reclusive movie stars. It's been called paradise, a citrus-and-spa Shangri-La ringed by mountains and nestled into the Southern California landscape. People call it "the nest," and it feels like one.

Indeed, parents come here to shelter their youngsters from the dangers lurking in the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis 80 miles to the south. They want safe streets, good schools and air perfumed by orange blossoms. And for the most part, that's what they find.

Charles and Holly Manley settled their three daughters into a modest three-bedroom home in Oak View in 1987 for those very reasons.

Eugene and Marie Alvarez bought 20 acres in Upper Ojai the same year and built a sprawling five-bedroom estate. They too were drawn by Ojai's scenic beauty, its tranquillity.

For 12 years, the families lived at opposite ends of the valley, unknown to one another until their worlds collided last winter.

Now, the Manleys reel from the loss of a child in a place where children aren't supposed to get lost--and certainly aren't supposed to get killed. And the Alvarezes brace for the trial of their only son, who pleaded not guilty after he was charged March 25 with murder and attempted rape.

Although Kali was not the first teenager killed in this valley, her slaying touched a nerve.

"It brought evil to our town," said fifth-grade teacher Sarah Garrett, who moved to Oak View seven years ago to escape gangs and crime in Ontario. "I kind of thought we were more immune to that."

The truth is that the Ojai Valley has always had a darker side. It is a place spiced with biker bars and methamphetamine labs, prowled by hard-core skinheads and drug-addled teenagers.

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