Banning police were finally closing in on the man wanted for one of the small town's grisliest murders, the bludgeoning death of Linda Shulman 21 years ago, when the suspect slipped away and made sure he would never be captured.
Patrick Pearse, 45, fled his Santa Maria mobile home after he was questioned by detectives early this month. On Friday, his decaying body was found slumped over in his car, parked in an isolated commercial area in town, dead from an apparent drug overdose, said Santa Maria Police Lt. Larry Ralston.
"There is no doubt that he was the killer," said Banning Police Sgt. Nic Schoen.
Shulman, 30, had graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in English and hoped to become an elementary school teacher. She had moved to Banning from Pasadena to live a small-town life and escape an overzealous former boyfriend, according to her mother, Dorothy Hicks of Arcadia.
On July 22, 1985, Shulman was in her Banning apartment when the attacker struck her with a bowling pin, stabbed her in the heart and mutilated her body, police said. The slaying went undiscovered for three days before concerned neighbors notified police.
"It was overkill," Shulman's mother said. "To me it was rage. He had so much rage in him that once it came out all hell broke loose."
The investigation initially focused on Shulman's former boyfriend. Police arrested him, but he was released for lack of evidence.
The trail went cold until Det. Tony Ellis, who is no longer with the department, submitted semen found on the victim's mattress to the state Department of Justice three years ago.
Early last year, technicians linked the DNA profile to Pearse, a felon who had served six years in prison for killing Sandra Ann Neary of Costa Mesa in 1986, Schoen said.
Pearse had his DNA profile recorded while in prison, Schoen said.
Pearse had been the last person seen with Neary, 32, who had just moved to Orange County from Northern California with her husband, Steve, and daughter. Neary and her family were staying at the same Costa Mesa hotel as Pearse. Her body was found in a brushy area off the Riverside Freeway, and Pearse was arrested the next year. Steve Neary committed suicide shortly after his wife's death.
Schoen, the lead detective in the Shulman case, started reviewing the evidence after the DNA link came back, re-interviewing previous suspects and tracking Pearse to Santa Maria.
Schoen said the investigation included necessary but time-consuming investigation, explaining the long gap between the DNA return and the decision to question Pearse.
"If he had fled, I knew we would eventually find him," Schoen said.
When detectives went to his home in Santa Maria on May 2, Pearse told them he never knew Shulman.
"He denied knowing the victim and would give us no reason for his DNA showing up on her mattress," Schoen said.
But the pair lived only a block from each other in Banning at the time of her death, and Pearse had helped Shulman move in, according to Hicks, who said her daughter had mentioned him in one of her journals.
The day after questioning him, investigators returned to Pearse's home to arrest him. Police said they had needed a piece of additional information before they made the arrest, and returned as soon as they got it. His fiancee told the police that he had taken her car and disappeared.
His body was found by a couple who noticed a man slumped over in a car, not moving. Pearse was positively identified through his distinctive tattoos, Schoen said.
Schoen said Pearse had called his brother and told him that he was "in trouble for something he had done a long time ago."
Police still have no evidence of a motive, and Pearse's name hadn't been mentioned as a suspect until the DNA link, Schoen said.
Shulman's mother spent 21 years interviewing suspects herself, reading her daughter's journals, talking to her friends and to people the police thought were possible suspects, one of whom took a polygraph test. She said she would be in shock for a while.
"Patrick is still like a phantom to me, and it's almost like it is somebody else's story," said Hicks, 82. "I was expecting a long court situation and having plenty of time to get acclimated to the suspect and the story behind it."