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A tangled murder mystery

A victim remains unidentified for years as police in two cities unknowingly probe the same case separately.

May 17, 2008|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Late one night in 2003, a body was found in a scorched minivan along a Watts riverbank.

The remains lay blackened and twisted in the front seat. The only recognizable parts were a Mexican cowboy-style belt buckle, a bracelet and a wad of cash in the back pocket that had somehow been spared by the blaze.

Los Angeles Police Det. Mark Hahn couldn't begin to identify the dead man, let alone figure out what happened to him.

Thus began the four-year-long saga of the man whom Hahn dubbed Juan Doe based on the victim's taste in belt buckles, which seemed to suggest roots in Mexico.

It was a case in which "everything that could go wrong is going to go wrong," said Sal LaBarbera, who heads the Watts homicide squad in the LAPD's South Bureau.

Medical examiners determined this much: The corpse belonged to a heavyset man who had been shot to death, and the killers appeared to have doused the stolen minivan with gasoline and left his body to burn.

Hahn had one enticing clue: The bracelet recovered from the burned corpse was embossed with three initials -- SRU or possibly SRV.

Colleagues describe Hahn as a "Joe Friday" sort of cop with a relentless streak. He requested every report of a missing person whose initials matched all possible combinations of those letters from the state Department of Justice's database, and also from a similar database in Mexico.

Someone out there, he figured, must be missing a heavyset man with a vaquero's belt who had never come home.

The search produced scores of possible matches, but only one fit -- Salvador Rodriguez. But this Salvador Rodriguez had been arrested after the body was found.

Months passed. Dental and DNA tests yielded no hits. The belt buckle sat in a cabinet near Hahn's desk. He still ruminated on the mystery.

Then, earlier this year, the phone in Hahn's unit rang.

"My husband died four years ago," a woman said. "And you are handling the case."

"We are?" LaBarbera remembered thinking.

Later, it clicked. She meant Juan Doe.

His real name was Salvador Rodriguez Vega, just as the bracelet suggested.

He was 33 and a native of Durango, Mexico. On paper, he was a gardener.

But investigators said that, in reality, he had been a successful underworld middleman, working for Mexican drug importers and making, perhaps, six figures a year.

A man of several aliases, he had left his wife for his brother's widow and had families with both women.

He lived modestly but well in the Maywood area, reportedly a haven for middle-class mules in the drug trade because of its density and anonymity, said Maywood Police Sgt. Scott Anderson.

At 10:15 p.m. Dec. 4, 2003, Rodriguez Vega was driving a borrowed white sedan on Salt Lake Avenue in Cudahy when two vehicles squealed up and blocked him.

What happened next was what Hahn described as a "cartel style" hit: About eight men leaped out, shot Rodriguez Vega and yanked him out of the car.

Wounded, and surely knowing he was doomed, Rodriguez Vega tried to run. The men caught him, tossed him into the back of an SUV and sped off.

Maywood police arrived in minutes to investigate what appeared to be an assault-kidnapping.

The crime scene consisted of a white sedan with its door propped open, a windshield pierced by bullets "but no body, no nothing," Anderson said.

Whatever had happened, he said, "none of us thought it had ended well."

A borrowed, bloodstained jacket had been left in the sedan with a traffic ticket in the pocket. This led Maywood police to family members, who eventually told them Rodriguez Vega was missing.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Maywood police, LAPD Southeast Division detectives were puzzling over the burned body found three hours after the kidnapping a few miles to the west near Wadsworth Avenue and 108th Street in Watts. No one had any inkling the cases were connected.

LAPD detectives, while frustrated at the years they lost, also acknowledge that it is easy to see what went wrong, but only in hindsight.

At the time, they say, the reports were just two among scores of other incidents and crimes handled by the many Los Angeles County law enforcement agencies that night.

Confounding matters further was the fact that there was a brief delay before Rodriguez Vega's family reported him missing.

Family members had initially reported as missing another relative, who eventually turned up. Later, they told police that Rodriguez Vega had been previously known to disappear for no reason.

In the confusion, Maywood investigators were left to figure out who, if anyone, had been victimized. They had no proof of murder. They returned to the missing-person case repeatedly, but were left empty- handed.

Anderson insists that, given all the complex circumstances, it is not surprising that they failed to hone in on the burned body in nearby Watts as part of their investigation. "Los Angeles is so big and has so much going on," he said.

But the result was that the two investigations proceeded on separate tracks: one of a victim without a crime, and another of a crime without a victim.

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