A seven-month police investigation resulted in a murder charge Friday against the former husband of a popular South Bay real estate agent whose body was found in the trunk of her car.
Erwin Percy Howard, 51, of El Segundo is scheduled to be arraigned Monday in the death of Julia "Deede" Keller, 54. Her blanket-wrapped remains were found July 15 inside her abandoned Mercedes-Benz in San Diego. She had been missing for a week.
Howard, arrested Thursday at his home without incident, was being held on $1-million bail.
Police have been unusually secretive about the case. They declined Friday to say why they arrested Howard, what his motive might have been or what the couple's relationship was like. Since the investigation began, they have also refused to say how or where Keller was killed.
"All that will come out in court," said Capt. Ray Peavy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which handled the investigation.
"This is a very involved investigation," he said. "We attempted to eliminate this suspect. We were unable to."
Friends of Keller said they were not surprised by Howard's arrest. But they said it didn't mean the case was over for them.
"There's so many mixed emotions, but primarily I'm happy that it has come to this point," said Rose Van Hook, a colleague and friend of the El Segundo woman for nearly two decades. "Closure comes when the person who did this ... is put behind bars and pays the price."
Keller's 32-year-old son, Michael, said he felt "a weird sense of relief" upon hearing of the arrest.
"It's reassuring to know that we've taken a big step forward toward getting resolution," he said. "It's weird that someone you had dinner with and who you spent time with is now in custody."
Keller's longtime friend Linda Dondero sees the arrest as only one step in a long chain of events. "Deede's murder has obsessed most of us that are close to her," she said. "The arrest shuts one door, but it opens another because now in front of us is the trial."
About 1,500 people attended a memorial service last summer for Keller, who worked for Shorewood Realtors. Friends say she was a devoted rescuer of stray animals and often gave small gifts to acquaintances.
"Deede was happy, loving and warm," said Cindy Ertman, also a real estate agent. "She didn't have enemies."
Howard first drew suspicion when he flew to Bolivia the day Keller was reported missing, saying he needed to visit his sick mother. U.S. State Department officials questioned him at the request of police when he arrived in La Paz. He returned home soon afterward.
Howard and Keller were married about four years and divorced about a year ago, Dondero said.
Keller was last seen alive July 8, when a date dropped her off at home. A search began three days later when she failed to show up for appointments.