Tethered to GPS devices and required to check in monthly with police, two convicted sex offenders so easily sidestepped efforts to monitor them that one was formally released from state parole in the midst of what prosecutors now say was a months-long string of murders.
Steven Dean Gordon, one of two transients accused of raping and murdering four women, was discharged from his state parole last November, a month after two of the women vanished from the streets of Santa Ana and just days before a third victim, a 28-year-old mother, was allegedly killed.
[For the Record 8:09 a.m. PST April 17: An earlier version of this story said Gordon was deemed safe enough to be formally removed from state parole. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation didn't make a determination of safety, but released Gordon because three years was the longest he could be on state parole. He was then placed on federal probation.]
Police said Gordon, 45, and Franc Cano, 25, appear to have been wearing their GPS devices even as they raped and killed women who frequented streets in Santa Ana and Anaheim known as havens for prostitution.
Both men had served prison terms for sex crimes with a child under the age of 14.
As the investigation continued Tuesday, police said they would begin to search Orange County's landfill for the bodies of the three Santa Ana women. Kianna Rae Jackson, 20; Martha Anaya, 28; and Josephine Monique Vargas, 34, vanished last fall while running routine errands.
The body of a fourth victim, a 21-year-old with roots in Oklahoma, was found last month on a conveyor belt at an Anaheim trash-sorting facility. Like the other women, Jarrae Nykkole Estepp had a history of prostitution.
Police also appealed Tuesday for help in identifying a potential fifth victim in the case, a young African American woman described as petite with black hair and numerous tattoos.
Officers said the woman, who may have ties to the Compton area, was last seen along Beach Boulevard in Stanton between Feb. 14 and 16 and may have left her belongings in a motel room.
Police also said they have recovered an RV that was parked near the trash-sorting facility in Anaheim and that the two suspects were connected to the vehicle.
"They're transients," said Larry Yellin, the senior deputy district attorney prosecuting the case. "I think their primary lives are in their cars."
Ian Pummell, the owner of an Anaheim auto body shop where Gordon worked, said he recalls his employee bringing an RV to work about five months ago so he could clean it up.
Gordon was on the job last Friday when police officers and SWAT teams descended on the business. Gordon, fellow employees said, quickly cut off his GPS device, jumped on a bicycle and tried to flee.
But officers arrested him before he even got to the center divider on East La Palma Avenue, Pummell said.
The shop owner said Gordon had worked at the business on and off over the years, cleaning cars and sweeping floors, and had recently returned after serving a prison sentence for kidnapping.
He was living in some bushes nearby, apparently with Cano, who had also recently completed a prison sentence. Pummell said he offered Gordon his old job back.
The shop owner said he knew about some of Gordon's past convictions and that he was a sex offender. But because no women or children work at the shop, Pummell thought giving Gordon his job back would be the "Christian thing to do."
"There was never an indication that he would do something like this," Pummell said. "I never saw it coming."
Every Tuesday, Pummell said, Gordon would leave for counseling, and about a month ago Gordon asked for more time off before one of his sessions because he said he had to take a lie detector test.
In a videotaped court hearing Tuesday morning, Gordon and Cano appeared briefly but did not enter a plea. Gordon was dressed in a jail-issued orange jumpsuit, and Cano wore a black T-shirt with the word "California" on the front.
Outside court, Yellin said little about the alleged crimes but noted that the manner in which the two men approached potential victims was not consistent with a typical prostitution transaction. He declined to elaborate.
Yellin also said there is evidence that proves Cano and Gordon were the last people to be in contact with the women.
Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.