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COLUMN ONE

He's in prison yet free at last

Years of drinking could not erase memories of that horrific night in Huntington Beach. Sobriety brings clarity and a confession.

March 22, 2007|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

LOUIS Bostich went to Mt. Shasta and prayed.

Sober for about a year, he found himself reaching for the bottle again. And he knew why. It was the same reason he drank away a promising Navy career, a string of other respectable jobs and his only meaningful relationships.

He was thinking of what he did to Jami Vitteli.

Bostich never told anyone what happened. Not his father, who raised him after his mother died of an aneurism when he was 5. Not his friends or U.S. Navy shipmates.

He began drinking himself to sleep. His addiction didn't go unnoticed. When he tried to reenlist, the Navy said no, sending him on his way with an honorable discharge.

Trained as an electrician, Bostich sought jobs that allowed him to work in virtual isolation and drift from place to place. Over the years, he was a technician for Southern California Edison in San Diego, a pipe fitter in Long Beach and general hand at a small sawmill in Washington state.

He donated money and time to charities, working for such outfits as Habitat for Humanity, hoping somehow it might balance out the events of that dreadful night in Huntington Beach. It didn't.

Sitting behind security glass at Orange County's Theo Lacy Jail, Bostich recently shared his story about that night, admitting that some details had been lost to years of hard drinking.

He's at Perqs, a bar in Huntington Beach. It's Memorial Day weekend, 1987. He's on leave from his Navy ship, the frigate Roark stationed in San Diego. The place is crowded. He had gone there alone, the second or third joint that night. She is standing in a group near him. Her dark hair is long and thick, and she carries a few extra pounds. Not his type. But they strike up a conversation. She's intelligent and friendly. An artist. That's what draws him in.

They talk for a while, mostly about art. Bostich had sketched as a kid and thought one day he might become an artist. At some point, she asks him whether he's interested in trying the latest fad drug. Intrigued, he follows her outside. He doesn't want to risk getting caught doing it in the open. So they head to her place, a few blocks away.

ALWAYS something of a free spirit, Jami Vitteli had left home on Long Island, N.Y., midway through college, planning to transfer to a California school to finish her degree in communications.

The last her parents knew, she was doing just that, taking classes part time in Long Beach while studying Buddhism, working odd jobs and selling her paintings to help make ends meet.

"She was very artistic," her mother, Vickie Vitteli, said in a recent interview. "And she had a heart of gold."

During the six years Vitteli lived in California, her parents called often, wishing she would come home. Their biggest fear, they told her, was that she would die in an earthquake.

When police called with the news, Vickie Vitteli suffered an anxiety attack. She has relied on a prescription inhaler from that day. She woke up many nights with her heart racing, thinking she was going to die.

"There's a lot of things that remind you," she said. "It never goes away. Never."

Vickie Vitteli lost her husband to diabetes a few years later. A deeply religious woman, she never lost faith that someday she would learn the truth about her daughter's last moments.

Inside Vitteli's cramped apartment, Bostich, 25, sits next to her on her beat-up couch. They drink. Talk. About her paintings, politics, the military. He makes a move. Are we going into the bedroom or what? She backs him off. Tells him men are all the same. He says maybe he should go home. He gets up and walks out. She follows him to his truck. He doesn't have to leave, she says. He just has to behave. They head back to her apartment.

BACK in Huntington Beach, lead detective Dale Mason was stumped despite working on the case every day for eight months.

A set of bloody footprints trailed from Vitteli's front door, heading west down her street until they disappeared near a curb. Inside the apartment, the 26-year-old's body was covered in blood and found in a sitting position, leaning against the couch with her legs blocking the front door.

She was fully dressed, but something about the disarray of her clothing seemed to indicate a sexual curiosity on the part of her attacker. A glass vial with a powdery substance was found in a pocket.

There was no forced entry, no obvious motive or weapon. Moisture in the kitchen sink led Mason to believe that whoever was there might have washed up.

Staff and patrons at Perqs saw her chatting with other locals that night, but no one saw her leave. A woman who lived down the street from the bar thought she might have seen Vitteli walk by about midnight but couldn't remember if she was with anyone. An autopsy showed she died between 2 and 4 a.m. A neighbor heard music and voices about that time -- nothing unusual in that apartment complex.

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