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DNA Links Man to '89 Slaying of Girlfriend

July 11, 2002|JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, Christie Lee Fleming's death remained one of many unsolved homicides in Los Angeles County. But 13 years later, a former boyfriend was charged Wednesday with her murder after new DNA technology linked him to cigarette butts found at the crime scene.

Detectives arrested Arturo Johannas Gutierrez, 41, at his Perris home after a crime-lab analysis connected him to the evidence. He had been a suspect in the May 13, 1989, killing, but there hadn't been enough evidence to prosecute, Sheriff's Lt. Ray Peavy said.

An autopsy revealed that the 25-year-old secretary was beaten and died of suffocation. Authorities said repeated DNA tests had failed to yield useful results--until March.

The test performed this time, called Short Tandem Repeats, represents state-of-the-art DNA technology. The Sheriff's Department has been using it since 1999, but Fleming's slaying is among the first old unsolved--or cold--cases in which it has been employed.

"This is one of the first where we've met with success early on," said Dean Gialamas, assistant director of the sheriff's crime lab.

Just five years ago, DNA tests wouldn't have solved the crime, he said. Back then, a sample needed to be at least the size of a dime to be effective. "Today we can use something as small as a period at the end of a sentence and get full results," Gialamas said. The Short Tandem Repeats test is so conclusive that the "chances of finding someone with the same genetic profile usually exceed the population on Earth," he said.

The victim's sister, Rhonda Fleming, said she never doubted Gutierrez's culpability. The couple had dated since high school and broke up when he joined the military. He began seeing Christie again even though he had married someone else, Rhonda said.

"It's been really hard to just sit back and wait, but I prayed every night this would happen," she said. "My prayers have been answered."

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