A convicted felon confessed to authorities that he and a fellow sex offender strangled four prostitutes in Orange County and dumped their bodies in trash bins, according to grand jury testimony revealed Monday.
The case, which baffled authorities for months, was cracked by matching data from the GPS devices worn by Franc Cano and Steven Dean Gordon with location data from cellphones belonging to the women, all who called or texted relatives frequently, according to testimony in the matter.
Cano and Gordon both are charged with raping and murdering the victims and are being held without bail. They could face the death penalty if convicted.
The four women -- each of whom was said to have a history of prostitution -- went missing from the streets in late 2013 and early 2014. It wasn’t until March, when authorities found Jarrae Estepp’s naked body on a conveyor belt at an Anaheim trash sorting facility, that investigators concluded that the disappearances might be related and perhaps the work of a serial killer.
Although technology played a critical role in solving the disappearances, the first significant break in the case came with far more ordinary detective work when authorities were able to trace the trash found around Estepp’s body to a trash bin outside the Anaheim auto body shop.
When authorities reviewed data from the GPS devices of all known sex offenders in the area, they got a hit on Cano, Anaheim police Det. Julissa Trapp testified.
Cano, she said, was the only one whose GPS tracking matched both the trash bin and the area of Estepp's final cellphone activity.
Trapp testified that police were able to lure Cano to the police station and obtained a DNA sample that matched evidence found on Estepp’s body. But it was Gordon, known to police as one of Cano’s associates, who finally confessed to the crimes, Trapp said.
The detective said that during an exhaustive 13-hour interview, Gordon picked all four women out of a photo lineup.
"He actually picked the photographs I had shown them and put them in order," she said.
In recounting his encounter with the first woman, Kianna Jackson, Gordon confessed that he picked her up on Harbor Boulevard and took her back to the auto shop business to have sex, the detective testified.
Gordon said he decided to strangle her when he realized that her first name was the same as his own daughter’s, Trapp testified.
Gordon told the detective that hearing the name “triggered him.”
Trapp said that Gordon actually mapped out two versions of the alleged crimes, one in which he absolved Cano of participating in the alleged killings, another in which he described Cano as an active and aggressive participant.
All four women went missing over a span of several months starting in the fall of 2013.
Jackson, 20, vanished shortly after speaking to mother while taking a bus to Santa Ana in the fall of 2013 to keep a court date. Twenty days later, Monique Vargas, a 34-year-old mother of three, left to walk to a market and never returned. Another 20 days after that, Martha Anaya, 28, asked her boyfriend to pick up their child from school so that she could work – which, when she was desperate for cash, sometimes meant looking for customers along East 1st Street.
Estepp had a history of prostitution, and once had been featured in a video aimed at exposing and shaming sex customers in Oklahoma City, where the 21-year-old lived at the time.
A week after the 21-year-old's body was found, police arrested Cano and Gordon.
Cano and Gordon reportedly lived together –sometimes in the back of an old RV, sometimes in the brush not far from the Anaheim body shop – in the months during which the women vanished.
Cano and Gordon both served time in state prison for sex crimes and both were wearing GPS devices when the women went missing. The two men had a history of escape and, though prohibited by the terms of their parole, had a close association with each other.
After serving time in prison, the convicted sex offenders cut off their GPS devices and fled to Alabama in 2010. Two years later, they cut off their monitoring devices again and spent two weeks together at the Circus Circus Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas before being apprehended.
The case has raised concerns about the effectiveness of GPS devices as a crime deterrent. Politicians in California have called for an investigation into how well Cano and Gordon were monitored.