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A Cold Trail Ends at the Coroner's Office

December 21, 2002|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

She was hunted by the state for 30 years, a wily prison escapee featured prominently on California's 10 Most Wanted list.

Annette Hernandez, a tattooed convicted murderer, jumped a fence at the Corona women's prison in 1972, disappearing into the surrounding cow fields. The breakout appeared effortless, perhaps because Hernandez had been a trapeze artist for most of her life.

Years slipped by, and the fugitive's file grew thick. Tips poured in and fizzled, the trail grew hot and then cooled again.

Last week the mystery finally ended at the Los Angeles County coroner's office: Hernandez, it turns out, committed suicide in 1985, swallowing fistfuls of prescription pills in a Bellflower apartment.

News of her fate capped a long, strange odyssey for Cindy Tigh, one of an elite team of agents who track escapees and fugitive parolees for the state. Like her brethren on the force, Tigh had hoped one day to slap handcuffs on Hernandez, ending the escapee's life on the run. Instead, she can only tie up a few loose ends and move on to another case.

"You never know what you'll find," Tigh said. "At least we can close this one now."

Relatives of the murder victim, Stephen Paul Smith, are sorting through a mix of emotions as they confront the news that Hernandez has been dead all this time. For three decades, they coped with the belief that Smith's killer was out there, somewhere, escaping justice. Now, in an instant, it's over.

"I feel a little cheated, finding out she's dead," said Rhonda Smith-Hosler, a dental hygienist who was an infant when her father was killed. "But I suppose this brings some sort of closure to the whole thing."

The bizarre saga of Hernandez is a rare one, in part because it is unusual for a California prisoner to escape and avoid discovery for so long. Breakouts were more common in the 1970s and 1980s -- there were 81 statewide in 1985 -- but even then most fugitives were rearrested, usually because they broke the law again or were turned in by spurned lovers. Last year, 14 inmates escaped, and all were recaptured.

Hernandez, however, was different, managing to live in the shadows -- briefly in the Bay Area but mostly in Southern California. Details of her life as a fugitive are sketchy, in part because those family members who could be found wouldn't say much.

There are tantalizing rumors -- that the Hells Angels broke her out of prison, paid for plastic surgery and burned her fingertips to change her prints, for example -- but such stories have not been confirmed, Tigh said.

What does seem certain is that Hernandez, a mother of five, lurched from one failed relationship to another and fought a drug addiction that took hold of her early and lasted until her death at what officials believe was the age of 53. She may have been free for 13 years, Tigh said, but they weren't very happy years.

Prison documents portray Hernandez as an only child whose life began with promise and unraveled with the help of a heroin needle.

Born to parents who were traveling circus performers, she grew up under the big top, with her father, Bernard Griggs, performing as a clown and her mother, Leta, as an aerialist, or trapeze artist. After dropping out of school at 17, Hernandez, too, joined the Ringling Bros. circus trapeze troupe, specializing in the daring ladder act, documents say.

She married young and had her first three children quickly, developing her addiction along the way. By the 1960s, heroin was her narcotic of choice, and she bounced in and out of prison for a string of burglaries, forgeries and other offenses to support her habit.

The murder came one December night in 1970, at the San Bernardino house that Hernandez shared with her second husband, Arthur Hernandez, documents say. Smith, a brakeman for the Santa Fe railroad, had gone Christmas shopping with a friend and stopped by the Hernandez place for a party.

Inside, two gunmen demanded money from them, and Smith, a 24-year-old father of two, was shot to death in a scuffle. Hernandez denied any involvement, but investigators concluded that the robbery had been a setup that she had masterminded. Convicted of second-degree murder, she was sentenced to five years to life in prison.

Lockups for women were different then. At Hernandez's new home, the California Institution for Women, there was one fence, with no razor wire, and inmates were allowed to wear street clothes.

One warm May morning two months after her arrival, Hernandez and another convicted murderer, Susan Sutcliffe, were assigned to water plants outside the prison's administration building. They were wearing shorts and multicolored blouses, and were last seen by guards at 10:40 a.m., a prison report says.

Twenty-five minutes later, a local dairyman phoned, saying he had seen two women hitchhiking near his place. An inmate count was taken. Two were missing.

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