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The Relentless Reach of Laura Heilig

Thanks to a dogged San Diego detective and DNA science, a killer faces a jury 15 years after a gruesome sex homicide.

February 07, 2001|FRED DICKEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VISTA, Calif. — Late in January, as the small audience in this courtroom north of San Diego awaits the judge's entry, all eyes seek out the defendant's table, then turn away, but always turn back. It is where David Paul Frediani sits, accused of a murder that few even remember. His gaze is fixed straight ahead, seemingly locked on the state seal above the judge's empty bench. Surely, one thinks, he knows that everyone sitting behind him is staring at the back of his head.

He is tall and sinewy, a swarthy man of 46 who looks younger, with a physique even younger yet. He is an MBA who served as a financial analyst with Pacific Bell in San Francisco at the time of his arrest. In a different setting he might be considered handsome, but here he looks hard and mean, the type of man who always wins a staredown. Longtime acquaintances know little about him, but one thing is said time and again--he has problems with women.

Little notice is taken of someone nearby, a person easily overlooked and unbothered by it. She is a grandmother and a country woman whose clothes probably come from discount stores so she can save for new furniture. Her words are soft and plain. Having struggled up from the lower middle class, she is not frightened by vulnerability. She's small, not much over 5 feet, with a blond pony tail, and she's not afraid to cry.

Even so, you don't want her tracking you. She is Laura Heilig, a 50-year-old homicide detective for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. This is her case, and because she sits here, so does Frediani. She is the one who arrested him more than a year ago.

As the lead detective, Heilig sits next to the prosecutor, facing the same direction as Frediani. At the moment, the lawyers are elsewhere, so only the two of them are at the pushed-together tables, about 8 feet apart. While waiting for court to begin, she busies herself with small tasks while he just sits there.

They do not look at each other. However, she thinks of him constantly, because she is convinced that 16 years ago he broke into a woman's home and sexually molested her, and then returned a year later and murdered her to remove the threat of her testimony at his trial. The victim was a stranger. Her name was Helena Greenwood, a 35-year-old PhD biochemist who had emigrated from Britain. She was a tall, willowy woman whose friends say would thoughtlessly throw on designer clothes like items from a thrift shop.

As a leader in the exciting new field of medical DNA, she had more important things on her mind. Heilig knows the details. She has lived with them for many months. . . . On the morning of Aug. 22, 1985, after Greenwood's husband had left for work, the young scientist finished a final phone call, gathered up her work papers and, as the clock neared 9 a.m., started for the office. In the dense shrubbery outside, or perhaps hidden in the shadows of the high fence that surrounded the Del Mar house, a killer waited.

Alerted in the early afternoon by Helena's absence from work, her husband, Roger, drove home to check on her. After parking, he approached the solid-panel gate and pushed to gain entry. It wouldn't budge. He went off to the side to peer over to see what the obstruction was. He saw. It was Helena's body lying on her back at the base of the gate in the flaccid stillness of death. Homicide detectives investigated, but searching the scene proved fruitless.

The autopsy showed she had been strangled. Blood had flowed from scalp lacerations and was on her clothes and at the scene. She had fought hard. There were minute traces of blood under her torn fingernails, which the medical examiners scraped and clipped. Everything was saved and put in evidence containers. Police were certain--absolutely certain--who the killer was: her accused sex attacker, David Paul Frediani. However, though his alibi was weak, there was no evidence to tie him to the murder.

Months later, Frediani went on trial for the sex attack. Even though Helena was gone, a fingerprint he had left in her bedroom was enough to force him to plead no contest and serve three years in prison. After his release, he went back to his life in the Bay Area as a loner with few friends. He had been a prime suspect in other sex attacks before he went to prison but had no arrests following his release. Over time, the murder file was routinely moved into archives, where it reposed along with 300 other unsolved homicides. Police gradually assumed--grudgingly--that Frediani was just another one to get away with murder. To those who knew the victim, grief slowly receded and life moved on. Remembrance of Helena took on the dull coloration of the long dead.

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