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THE STATE | COLUMN ONE

Cold Case Went 'by the Book'

Homicide detectives focused from the start on the Mission Viejo boy's stepfather. Seven years later there are no charges or new suspects.

November 12, 2003|Ray F. Herndon | Times Staff Writer

911. What's your emergency?

"I have a 2-year-old that's wandered off," Marie Wu told the operator. "I'm hoping one of my neighbors grabbed him."

There was no hint of panic in Wu's voice. She says she felt embarrassed, apologetic. She expected to find her diaper-clad son, Cecil Turner, "eating cookies in the apartment of some neighbor" in the Villa Marguerite apartments in Mission Viejo.

She didn't, and a massive search soon was underway. The child's body was found the next day, Aug. 13, 1996, near a creek behind the apartment complex. Cecil Turner, known as C.T., had been suffocated.

The killing of a towheaded toddler in one of Southern California's safest communities sparked widespread horror and revulsion. In such cases, the public craves closure, the reassurance provided by a prompt arrest and conviction.

After seven years, there has been no arrest, nor any closure, in the death of Cecil Turner.

For those seven years, Orange County sheriff's detectives have stuck doggedly to the belief that the boy's stepfather killed him, possibly with Wu's help, and that she has been covering up for her husband all this time.

Twice, detectives have asked the Orange County district attorney's office to file charges against Marie and Feilong Wu. Twice, prosecutors have refused, citing insufficient evidence.

Confidential Sheriff's Department records, released in connection with a lawsuit by the Wus, permit a detailed look at the investigation for the first time.

From the start, detectives doubted that the boy had strayed from his apartment and been abducted, as his mother insisted.

Yet investigators could find no evidence directly implicating the Wus -- no fingerprints, no witnesses. Their belief in the couple's guilt was based on the circumstances, on the knowledge that family members are often responsible for the killings of small children, and on a polygraph exam that detected deceptiveness on the part of Feilong Wu.

More than 2,000 pages of the internal documents show how detectives' suspicions hardened, despite the dearth of evidence, and how their attention remained riveted on the Wus long after the investigation hit a dead end.

After the family moved from California in 2000, investigators tracked them across the country, the documents show. They used contacts in the Justice Department to try to freeze Feilong's application for U.S. citizenship.

They had C.T.'s older sister questioned by a social worker in Texas, believing that the girl might implicate her mother and stepfather. She did not.

Though they were never arrested or charged, the Wus say the publicity surrounding the investigation, and statements by sheriff's officials describing them as suspects, nearly ruined their lives.

Feilong, the family breadwinner, lost his job as a diving coach soon after C.T.'s death. The family was evicted from their Mission Viejo apartment that Christmas Eve and their car was repossessed. Marie said they would have become homeless if a Dana Point church had not paid for an apartment for several months.

The couple now live in Las Vegas, where Feilong, a former world-class platform diver, performs with Cirque du Soleil. The Wus say detectives were right to investigate the possibility that they killed C.T.

"But there comes a time," said Feilong, 33, "when you have to open your mind and look for something else. That was something they didn't do. They continued to pursue the same theories they always had, and they never got anywhere."

Sheriff's detectives and their higher-ups declined to discuss the case. But in legal papers and arguments in the Wus' lawsuit, lawyers for the Sheriff's Department indicated that investigators have not changed their opinion.

They still believe C.T. was the victim not of an unseen stranger, but of Marie and Feilong Wu.

A 76-Step Stairway

When sheriff's deputies responded to Marie's 911 call that summer morning -- Monday, Aug. 12, 1996 -- Feilong told them that he was the last member of the family to see C.T.

Feilong said that after getting up about 7:30 a.m., he had carried the boy from his crib and put him on the living room sofa so he could watch cartoons. Then, Feilong said, he went for a jog.

He said he returned 45 minutes later to find his wife and stepdaughter rushing about in their nightgowns, searching for the baby of the family.

The couple said that C.T. had managed to get out of the apartment before and had once tried to follow his stepfather down a steep, 76-step stairway leading to a jogging path next to Oso Creek, which runs through a ravine behind the Villa Marguerite apartments (since renamed the Larkspur Canyon apartments).

Scores of sheriff's deputies, volunteers and other searchers tramped through the ravine, assisted by bloodhounds and helicopters.

In the hubbub, two sheriff's detectives invited Marie into their unmarked car and questioned her in detail about her marriage to Feilong and his relations with his two stepchildren -- C.T. and his sister, Bryttnie, who was about to turn 4.

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