For Patricia Ann Ross, the night of Dec. 11, 1974, was supposed to be fun: She had recently sold her plant boutique and the divorcee had a double-date in Huntington Beach.
But when the 31-year-old didn't show up, her friend's husband went to her La Palma apartment and found her nude body on the bedroom floor.
The investigation was slow from the start.
Neighbors saw nothing suspicious, hearing only a knock on her door about 6:30 or 7 p.m., La Palma police told The Times in 1988. "We've exhausted every single one of our leads," an investigator said.
Friends, including her ex-husband, were horrified.
"It was a senseless, senseless thing to do, and I cannot allow it -- nobody can," Ross' ex-husband, Phoenix attorney Frank Ross, told The Times in 1975.
"She was a light in a lot of lives."
On Tuesday, 40 years after Ross was sexually assaulted and strangled, Orange County prosecutors filed charges against her suspected killer.
Larry Stephens, 65, was arrested in March in Santa Rosa, Calif., on suspicion of domestic violence, according to the Orange County district attorney's office.
After Stephens submitted a DNA sample to the Santa Rosa Police Department, it matched blood collected from the bedspread and window in Ross' apartment, prosecutor Larry Yellin said.
"Science has caught up with Larry Stephens. He's gotten away with a crime for a very long time," said Yellin, crediting the O.C. Crime Lab with developing DNA profiles from old evidence. The investigation into Ross' death was reopened in 2008 by prosecutors, La Palma police and the county's cold case task force.
What motivated the crime remains something of a mystery.
"It's hard to say," Yellin conceded. Ross did not know Stephens, and while she was nude and assaulted, no semen was found at the scene, Yellin said.
Stephens has been charged with a felony count of murder. He's being held in the Sonoma County Jail awaiting transfer to Orange County, prosecutors said.
His arraignment has not been scheduled. If convicted, he faces up to life in state prison.