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A Detective's 10-Year Pursuit Is Paying Off

Investigator's work leads to one conviction and one arrest in three Port Hueneme slayings.

September 02, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

In the summer of 1993, a series of slayings in Port Hueneme sent a wave of fear through the small coastal community and confounded police unaccustomed to such violence. The victims, all women, were brutally attacked inside their homes. Two were strangled and one was stabbed repeatedly in the chest.

Dennis Fitzgerald remembers the crime scenes as though he had seen them yesterday.

As a sergeant with the Port Hueneme Police Department, Fitzgerald concluded that police were dealing not with a serial killer, as originally feared, but separate assailants. He plugged away at the unsolved homicides for nine years as an investigator for the district attorney, until luck, advances in forensic science and old-fashioned police work led to the conviction of one suspect this year and the arrest of a second last week.

Those who have worked alongside Fitzgerald, 59, say his determination to solve the crimes illustrates the kind of doggedness that has made him one of Ventura County's finest sleuths.

"It is unfinished business for Dennis," said Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox. "He's like one of those Jack Russell terriers -- he digs in and won't let go."

But after 38 years in law enforcement, Fitzgerald may sink his teeth into retirement at the end of the year.

After a joint investigation with Port Hueneme police, Fitzgerald and another investigator arrested Warren Patrick Mackey, 39, of Ventura on Wednesday on suspicion of murder in the June 1993 slaying of Norma Rodriguez.

"This may be my last case," Fitzgerald said. "To me, this is a very honorable profession. It has been very good to me. It is what I have always wanted to do, ever since I was a little kid."

A graduate of Oxnard High School, Fitzgerald joined the Port Hueneme Police Department as a reservist in 1965 and stayed on, working everything from traffic to homicide.

Port Hueneme Det. Ted Snyder worked with Fitzgerald in those days and more recently on the Mackey investigation.

"He is an extremely intelligent and tenacious individual," Snyder said. "He is very analytical. He tends to view things, almost see through smoke, and identify items others might miss."

That was the case with the Port Hueneme slayings, authorities said.

Rodriguez, a 32-year-old mother of two boys, was found strangled in the living room of her duplex on East B Street the morning of June 1, 1993. Fitzgerald spent hours gathering evidence.

"It was one of the most pristine crime scenes I'd ever been to," he recalled. There was no sign of sexual assault, burglary or forced entry.

On June 27, Fitzgerald was called to a starkly different crime scene, one he described as among the most brutal he has seen. At a senior citizens apartment complex on East Scott Street, detectives found 87-year-old Beatrice Bellis, rendered deaf and mute as a child by scarlet fever, stabbed to death.

On Aug. 5, firefighters found Cynthia Burger, 44, dead inside her burning condominium on Outlook Cove. Authorities initially thought she had died from smoke inhalation, but an autopsy determined that she had been raped and strangled.

Ventura County Dist. Atty. Greg Totten recalls: "I remember to this day Dennis saying, 'Mark my words that these cases will be solved. It may take time; it may take a long time.' He was right on two of out three, and we may have the third before long."

Two years ago, investigators solved the Burger slaying after a tipster led them to state inmate Michael Schultz, whose DNA matched semen found on the victim. Schultz, 34, was convicted of rape and murder this year and sentenced to death.

The break in Rodriguez's case came last year when items of evidence collected by Fitzgerald and stored for nine years at the Ventura County sheriff's crime lab were submitted for DNA analysis and compared to a national database. But there was no match. He then went out and collected saliva samples from friends and relatives of the victim. The crime lab found a match to Mackey, a former co-worker of Rodriguez.

Mackey appeared in Ventura County Superior Court on Thursday but did not enter a plea to one count of murder. Arraignment is set for Sept. 18.

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