The discovery of a naked corpse in the back of an SUV triggered a region-wide manhunt Tuesday for a Hollywood grip suspected of killing the 42-year-old woman and kidnapping and sexually assaulting another, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.
Authorities said they were searching for Paul Alan Ott, 35, of Van Nuys after a distraught woman told investigators Monday that Ott had abducted her from a street in the Rampart section of Los Angeles, forced her to help load the body into the truck, sexually assaulted her and left her gagged and bound at his apartment in the 7100 block of Costello Avenue.
The Los Angeles County coroner identified the dead woman as Edith I. Mejia. No other details were given.
In a similar but apparently unrelated case, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reported that the body of another woman was found wrapped in a plastic bag and stuffed into a Ford Explorer in Lynwood on Tuesday. The body was discovered near the 12500 block of Atlantic Boulevard after passersby noticed a strong odor coming from the vehicle. The victim was not immediately identified and detectives said there were no suspects.
The heavily tattooed Ott, who has helped set up lighting and strike sets for television and film productions, was described Tuesday by Police Chief William J. Bratton as "very dangerous."
Authorities asked for help in finding Ott, who has been convicted in the past of robbery and a string of minor drug offenses.
Ott came under suspicion Monday, when Van Nuys division patrol officers received a report around 1 p.m. of a woman screaming in the courtyard of a Sherman Way apartment complex.
There, officers found a 30-year-old woman shuddering in a housecoat, with white cloth tape around one of her ankles. The woman told detectives through tears that Ott had picked her up in his car around 3 a.m., saying he needed help looking for his children.
But the man quickly made it clear that she would not be able to leave, she told police. She said she was forced to accompany him to several locations and was told by Ott that he needed her help loading a body into his Nissan Pathfinder Armada or he would kill her, police said.
After loading the body, she told police, Ott drove her to his apartment where he sexually assaulted her. He left her bound with tape, but she managed to wriggle free, the woman told police.
"I've never heard of this type of murder and kidnapping before in all my years here," said Al Michelena, captain of the LAPD's Robbery Homicide Division. "It is very rare for someone to move a body around, especially with the help of a stranger who's been kidnapped."
Michelena said it did not appear that Ott used a weapon in the assault.
Police described Ott as 5 feet 9, with a slight stubble on his shaved head. He wears a goatee and mustache and may be driving a gray sedan, police said.
In previous booking photos, Ott is shown with "Otter" and a devil's face tattooed on one arm. He has other tattoos on his back, including a depiction of a ram's skull.
Michelena said investigators were examining whether the alleged attack was connected to six similar assaults on prostitutes in the Van Nuys area.
Although the kidnapped woman told police that Ott claimed to have killed other women, Michelena said there was no evidence to support that.
"It is not uncommon for a person holding someone against their will to suggest they've killed others in the same situation," he said.
Residents of the apartment complex said they were shocked by the discovery of the body. They said they had often seen Ott at the complex with his two daughters, of whom he shared custody with an ex-wife. He had not lived there long.
The children have been placed in protective custody, police said.
Next-door neighbor Opal Ratcliff, 80, called police when she heard the screams in the courtyard.
"I called 911," said Ratcliff, who gave the woman a housecoat and slippers. "That poor little thing sat out there and screamed and cried the whole time."
Another neighbor said police removed the body from the SUV, which was parked in a carport. The body lay on an area rug wrapped in some type of material, she said. The head was wrapped with what appeared to be a bag and black wiring.
The body showed signs of "trauma," police said. Investigators said the corpse had not yet begun to decompose.
Authorities said they recovered a spade while searching the SUV. Police also found what appeared to be a skull, but later determined that it was a movie prop.
Ott's list of credits include the 1999 made-for-TV movie "Michael Jordan: An American Hero" and the 2000 Japanese American thriller "Brother."
A former colleague of Ott's, who asked not to be named, said he was stunned to learn that his co-worker was suspected in two violent crimes. Ott worked as a "day player grip," part of a crew whose duties include setting up lighting and striking sets, he said.
Ott was dedicated to his two children and proudly showed off digital images of them that he kept stored on his cellular phone, the colleague said. Ott sometimes brought the girls to the movie sets with his girlfriend and the group "seemed like a happy family," the colleague said.
"Paul was put under a lot of stress in the movie business in his job but he always had a great attitude," the colleague said. "I never saw him act adversely."
The colleague said Ott told him that he had gotten tattoos as rebellious teenager. He also talked about wanting to get them removed to "look like a regular guy."
Times staff writer Monte Morin contributed to this report.