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Police identify suspect in 1997 cold-case rape and killing in Costa Mesa

It's been 20 years since the body of Sunny Adrienne Sudweeks, a 26-year-old photography student, was found on her bed inside her Costa Mesa apartment. She had been raped and strangled.

Sudweeks' family says the Orange Coast College student's personality shined as brightly as her name. She was happy, artistic and made friends with ease.

For two decades, her family and Costa Mesa police detectives have been baffled as they try to comprehend who could carry out the brutal killing.

Police officials announced Thursday that they have identified a suspect in the case.

Felipe Vianney Hernandez Tellez, 43, is believed to be living in Oaxaca, Mexico, possibly near the resort town of Puerto Escondido with his wife and children. He previously worked as a painter and currently delivers rotisserie chickens, according to police.

Detectives plan to pursue charges with the Orange County district attorney's office and seek Hernandez Tellez's extradition to the United States.

It's unclear how long it could take before he is in custody, police Lt. Paul Beckman said.

During a news conference Thursday, Sudweeks' parents, Sandy and Alan, expressed their gratitude to the Police Department for its persistence in the case. As they spoke, a large screen displayed family photos.

In one picture of Sudweeks as a child, her small hands cradled her face as she smirked toward the camera. Her hair was a tangle of blond curls.

Alan Sudweeks said he is still angered by his daughter's slaying.

"Sunny was a beautiful young woman. She was just beginning to start her career," he said. "She had a bright future, and that was all lost when she was attacked and killed. ... I'm also angry that for 20 years he [Hernandez Tellez] has been enjoying life, raising his own children, and yet he denied us the comfort and value of our daughter."

Sandy Sudweeks appealed to the Mexican government to turn over Hernandez Tellez to American authorities.

"My only prayer over the years has been that the man who killed her could not hurt anyone else," she said.

In 1997, Hernandez Tellez was 23 and living in Santa Ana. Police do not believe that he and Sunny Sudweeks knew each other.

The night of Feb. 22, 1997, Sudweeks was chatting on the phone in her upstairs apartment in the 1000 block of Mission Drive in Costa Mesa, police said. She made her last call to a girlfriend around 11 p.m. and went to bed.

The three-bedroom apartment, which she shared with her boyfriend and another roommate, was full of boxes. The group had planned to move three days later. The door was unlocked and a window left open, her family said.

Police said that between midnight and 4 a.m. Feb. 23, a man entered the apartment, raped and strangled Sudweeks and fled. A possible motive for the killing isn't clear.

Sudweeks' boyfriend returned that morning from his night shift as a cabdriver and found her body in her bed, police said.

Detectives scoured the scene, collecting more than 130 DNA samples and 265 pieces of evidence. They canvassed the neighborhood conducting interviews and passed out fliers hoping to find witnesses. Fingerprints from the crime scene were put in a database but didn't return a match.

With no leads to pursue, the case grew cold. But even years later it weighed on the minds of authorities.

"It's one of those cases you just never forget," Beckman said.

Detectives reviewed the case several times through the years, without success. Last November, with the 20th anniversary of the killing rapidly approaching, detectives decided to reopen the case.

Then they got their first break.

Using DNA evidence collected from the scene, Parabon NanoLabs, a medical laboratory based in Virginia, provided police with a snapshot profile of a possible suspect. The process uses DNA to formulate a facial composite, skin, eye and hair color, freckles, gender and ancestry.

Shortly after, detectives ran fingerprints collected at the scene in the national database. The prints matched those collected from Hernandez Tellez during an arrest in a domestic violence case in 2000. He was later convicted, Costa Mesa police said Thursday.

The resemblance between the composite snapshot and Hernandez Tellez's booking photo was uncanny, Beckman said.

During the past two months, detectives have interviewed family members of Hernandez Tellez and tested DNA from one of his relatives against DNA collected from Sudweeks' apartment. Police say the results show a "high likelihood" that the relative is related to whoever killed Sudweeks.

"The Sudweeks family has had to bear an enormous weight over the last 20 years," said Costa Mesa Police Chief Rob Sharpnack. "We are pleased with where we're at today, but that's nothing close to what we're going to feel when this individual, this heinous criminal, is brought before justice. We will not stop, we will not rest, until this individual is in custody."

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN

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