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New Hope in Search for Killer

Crime: DNA tests bring fresh evidence to light in the 1997 slaying of a Ventura student.

July 29, 2002|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 13-inch stainless steel knife used to kill Buena High School senior Jake Bush sits wrapped in plastic inside a large freezer at the Ventura Police Department.

It's been there for five years, since the 16-year-old track star was stabbed to death after he and his mother walked in on a burglar inside his family's Ventura-area home.

For most of that time, the only clues from the knife were remnants of Jake's clothing and blood. But this year, after several scientific breakthroughs, authorities again tested it along with other evidence and found DNA they believe will help identify Jake's killer.

Even so, no one knows for sure if the killer will ever be caught.

"It's just been so much time," Gail Shirley, Jake's mother, said last week. "I have no doubt the police have done the best they can do with what they have had to work with, but ... it may never be solved."

But law enforcement and civic leaders--citing evolving scientific technology, a $10,000 reward and a hope that someone will step forward with a critical tip--believe they will close the case.

"It's a tragedy that hasn't left our minds," said Assistant Police Chief Gary McCaskill, who was a sergeant assigned to the investigation in 1997. "It's a very important case, and I'm certain we will solve it one day."

Det. Pat Stevens, the current lead investigator, said patrol officers still come into the station and mention seeing someone who matches the suspect's description.

"There are officers out there who are as passionate as I am about solving this," Stevens said. "Even crooks I've dealt with say it was a terrible thing that happened.

"I know in time we will get an answer," he added.

They have the weapon, motive and DNA, and now all the police say they need is a fresh lead.

Jake Bush was on a roll at the start of the summer of 1997. He had finished his junior year and, as a standout student and athlete, was planning to study advanced calculus and co-captain the varsity track team that fall. He had landed a job at a local movie theater and had just passed the written portion of the state driving test.

"He was really finding his way," Shirley told The Times shortly after her only child's death.

On June 24, 1997, Shirley, a Balboa Middle School math teacher, and her son returned to the family's Montalvo home about noon and found that it had been burglarized. A bedroom window screen had been pried off and a small television had been moved a few feet.

As Shirley dialed 911 in one room, the burglar confronted Jake in the den and stabbed him in the neck, arm and chest with a serrated folding knife marketed in a mail-order catalog as "The Intimidator."

Jake died in surgery a few hours later. The knife was recovered the same day on a neighbor's driveway, probably dropped by the killer as he fled on foot, police said.

Based on information from witnesses in the neighborhood, police described Jake's killer as a clean-shaven Latino male in his late teens, about 5 feet 6 and slender with close-cropped black hair.

Tests on the knife revealed Jake's blood, and fibers on the weapon turned out to be strands of material from a decal on the T-shirt that Jake had been wearing, Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Cheryl Temple said.

But limits in scientific technology prevented authorities from turning up more clues. Earlier this year, shortly after the county's crime lab was certified for DNA tests, investigators handed over six items from the crime scene for such testing, Temple said.

Using a specialized test known as a Short Tandem Repeater, analysts found what they believe is the suspect's DNA.

"This evidence is extremely important," Temple said. "When we find the person who matches this DNA profile, we will be able to place him in the house with criminal intent on the day Jake Bush was killed."

After obtaining the DNA profile, investigators questioned about half a dozen men matching the suspect's physical description. Each gave saliva samples, but none matched the DNA profile.

The profile has been sent for comparison to the Department of Justice's DNA databank in Sacramento, which contains tens of thousands of DNA samples of convicted criminals. No match has yet been found.

Since 1998, state prisoners have been required to submit DNA samples, along with thumb and palm prints. If Jake's killer is ever convicted of a crime, authorities said, his DNA would go into the state index system. Meanwhile, investigators, Shirley, and her husband, Bob, wait and hope for a break.

"I am relieved to know there is some new evidence and that maybe they can find out who did this," Gail Shirley said. "But you can't undo what's been done, so you learn to go forward every day."

Anyone with information in this case is urged to contact Stevens at 339-4479. Anonymous tips can be phoned in to Crime Stoppers at 385-TALK or 494-TALK.

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