Student Finds She Has a Real Head for Her Studies

Times Staff Writer

Students enrolled in David Coffey’s administration of justice class at El Camino College usually don’t study crime scenes until November.

The lesson came little early, however, for Jo Ann Onick. She approached Coffey before class Tuesday evening and posed a rather unnerving question:

“I asked him, ‘What do you do if you think you’ve found a decomposed body in your backyard?’ ” Onick said Wednesday. “He just looked at me kind of strange.”

What followed the three-hour class, explained Onick, 21, was a field trip of sorts with Coffey and a police sergeant, who also teaches at the college, traveling to her home on Roslin Avenue in Torrance. The three were joined at the house by at least six other instructors from the school.

After a brief search conducted with the aid of a penlight and cigarette lighter, what investigators now believe to be human remains (a skull and arm bone) were discovered behind Onick’s garage. While authorities say the mystery may or may not be a whodunit--no evidence of a crime has been uncovered--it definitely poses a challenge.


May Be a ‘Who-Is-It’

“I would imagine it’s going to turn out to be one of those who-is-its, too,” said Coffey, who is a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney.

Onick said she had gone into her backyard Tuesday afternoon to search for a missing rabbit’s foot key chain sometimes snatched as a toy by one of her four cats. She found what appeared to be a human skull partly buried in weeds and lying next to a pile of rubbish behind the garage. She told her husband, Christopher, but didn’t call police.

“I was on my way to school and I knew that once they and everyone else got here, I wouldn’t be able to leave,” said Onick, who has lived in the rental house about six months.

Onick, who is taking Coffey’s class so she can become a reserve police officer, went to school and told Coffey of her find. “She said she had found a head, at which time I gave her one of those looks like, ‘You found what?’ ” Coffey said.

Torrance Police Sgt. Tom Dempsey was also teaching at the college Tuesday night, and Coffey had Onick repeat her story to him. Rather than “call out the troops,” he said, they decided to first go to Onick’s home for a closer look.

Once there, Dempsey, a former homicide detective, quickly determined that the remains probably were human. Torrance police and Los Angeles County coroner’s officials were summoned and on Wednesday a forensic anthropologist from the coroner’s office looked at the site but found no additional remains.

Torrance Police Sgt. Wally Murker said detectives have no idea how the skull and arm bone ended up behind the garage.

A coroner’s spokesman said it could be several days before the sex or age of the remains can be determined.

And Onick is hoping for extra class credit.