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MURDER MYSTERIES : Few of the County’s 200 Unsolved Homicides Are as Perplexing as That of Judy Nesbitt

Times Staff Writer

You didn’t have to know Judy Nesbitt to be sickened by her death. It seemed so senseless--an empty, random act of violence against a 42-year-old Irvine housewife whom everyone seemed to love.

Even now, 8 years after she was murdered, no one knows why she had to die. All the police will say is that someone shot her in the head and took her credit cards and checkbook.

Judy Nesbitt is gone, but not the suffering of a family that has been unable to put the tragedy behind. It is an agony born of guilt, doubt and the bitter belief that her killer may be walking the streets somewhere and may kill again.

The Nesbitt case is among more than 200 unsolved murders in Orange County. There have been others more grisly and more bizarre, but few as perplexing. Investigators cite the need for patience, knowing from experience that time often works to their benefit. But that is of little consolation to the families of such victims as Nesbitt.

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“There is a part of me that will never die until that SOB dies,” said Steven Nesbitt, 28, the oldest of the victim’s four children. “This feeling won’t be lifted from our chest until that guy is caught.”

Judy Nesbitt--Irvine homemaker, mother of four, 22 years married--didn’t deserve to die like this.

Judy Conklin was 19 when she met Fred Nesbitt on a blind date. He was a Newport Beach lifeguard, tanned and fit and born and reared near the ocean; she was a strong-willed student from a close-knit North Hollywood family.

They were married in 1958. In 1972, they settled in Irvine, where they raised their four children: Steven, Michael, Lisa and Jeff.

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Fred Nesbitt found success working for Paul Monroe Hydraulics of Whittier, rising in the company to become vice president for sales. Judy chose not to work, preferring to spend as much time as possible with the children.

By all accounts, theirs was a good life. Fred Nesbitt’s love of the ocean was handed down to his three sons and daughter: From the time they were toddlers, the children enjoyed an active outdoor life aboard boats. Family members recall cruising the ocean with infants in playpens on deck. If they were old enough to hold a pole, they fished with the rest of the family.

At the center of this weekend world were the family boats. There would be four of them in all, each a little bigger and faster and more sophisticated than the one before it, and each bearing the name Felicidad ( happiness in Spanish). It was on the Felicidad IV that Judy Nesbitt would die.

On the day of her death, the day before Thanksgiving, 1980, Fred Nesbitt arrived home about 6:30 p.m. His wife was not there, and he speculated that she was out running errands and getting things ready for the holiday dinner.

About 7 p.m., he drove down to the Marina Dunes yacht anchorage on Newport Bay. Sometimes Judy would stop by there to pick up a few things and spend some quiet time on the boat she loved.

“I walked down to the boat, and it was locked up,” he recalled. “There was a padlock. I unlocked it and went into the boat. There didn’t appear to be anything wrong, anything out of place, so I went down to the forward part of the boat. That’s where I found her.”

Sprawled on the floor in the forward V-berth, Judy Nesbitt lay dead. She had been shot once in the head. Later, the medical examiner would discover that she had also been hit in the head three times with a blunt instrument.

She probably died in a violent struggle with her attacker, police said.

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“I just panicked,” Fred Nesbitt remembered. “I touched her pulse, but my heart was beating so fast that I couldn’t tell if she was dead or alive. I screamed, and another fellow who was around there heard me. I think the paramedics came. To this day I can’t really remember exactly what happened after I found her. I panicked.”

Newport Beach police immediately assigned detectives to the case, but years would pass, witnesses would die, investigators would retire, and still the case would remain a mystery.

Because the case is still active, police will not discuss evidence found at the scene. What is known, however, is that the victim was not sexually abused and that the only things missing were a few credit cards and a checkbook, leading police to believe that robbery was not the primary motive.

“Everything else was there,” said Bob Hardy, the Newport Beach detective who has worked on the case since the beginning. “The purse was there, her money. There was never any apparent motive that was ever uncovered.

“On a case like this, you just have to go wherever you can. You hang your hat on the least little thread. This was an absolutely all-American family. There was no hanky-panky involved here. She was the typical American homemaker that anyone would love to have as a wife. There has been such little to go on from the very start.”

After reviewing the evidence, police came to believe it was the killer who had called the Nesbitt home at 9:30 a.m. that day professing interest in the 36-foot Luhrs cabin cruiser that the family was trying to sell.

The caller said he had seen the boat advertised for sale in a local newspaper and was interested in taking a look. Yes, Judy Nesbitt told the voice over the telephone, she would be happy to show the boat at 1 p.m. She would meet the caller at Marina Dunes, Slip 11 on Dock F. Look for the white-hulled cruiser with the blue tarp and the gold lettering Felicidad IV on the stern, she told him.

Only later did the family speculate that the caller may have been no stranger to Marina Dunes. He did not, for example, ask for directions to the marina.

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And from what police have reconstructed of the day of the murder, a young man wearing aviator sunglasses, a tan jacket and brown pants was seen loitering around the boat the morning of the killing, possibly before the call was made to the Nesbitt house.

This man was described as white with neatly styled brown hair that covered his ears, 30 to 35 years old and of medium build and average height.

It was a description that would fit many people, so police were inundated with calls after an artist’s sketch of the man appeared in newspapers.

“He was seen everywhere and nowhere,” one detective said.

The description was provided by 56-year-old Ruth Mills, a woman who lived aboard a boat docked near the Felicidad IV and was the only person to get a close look at the man. She was perhaps the only person who could identify the man in court, but she died the next year during heart surgery.

Hardy said Mills was having work done on her boat that morning and had been expecting a repairman. “She saw this guy walking around, so she approached him and asked if he was the person she was expecting,” he said. “He told her no, and later--about 5 minutes before 1 p.m.--she saw the same guy undoing the canvas on the boat,” Felicidad IV.

A few minutes later, Judy Nesbitt arrived. Mills saw her exchange greetings with the suspect.

Mills, who remembered the young man having “a nice smile,” went back to her boat. Only minutes later, she heard a woman scream, “Oh, my God! Oh no!”

Inexplicably, Mills dismissed the scream as nothing unusual, Hardy said.

Then, a short time later, she heard three more loud screams. This time she went topside to see what happened, looked across the docks and saw other people climbing out of their boats, also investigating the screams.

But “you really couldn’t tell where the screams came from, so she dismissed it again,” Hardy said.

Another minute or so passed, then Mills saw the young man in the aviator sunglasses leave Felicidad IV and walk toward the parking lot as if going to his car. Without explanation, he then calmly returned to the boat, went back inside, then left again.

Almost immediately after the worried Fred Nesbitt found the body that evening, the investigation focused on a so-called “want-ad rapist” who had been active in the San Francisco area. In a half-dozen cases there, a man had raped women who had made appointments with him to show him boats for sale. In none of those cases, however, was a victim killed.

But police later ruled out a suspect in those attacks when he proved to be elsewhere the day of Nesbitt’s death.

“We looked at everything,” said Sgt. Mike Jackson, a Newport homicide investigator. “You just never know. It could be a serial-type killer, a nut. We checked other ‘want-ad’ killers, other cases that looked similar, crimes involving other boats and the sale of boats, sex offender lists. With the lack of clues, you have to go in all kinds of directions.”

No one has ever been arrested. The lack of progress has left the family and investigators frustrated, but they still hope for a break. “You can’t believe that he’d do it one time and that’s it,” Hardy said. “He’ll do it again, somewhere else. It’s a shame if someone else has to die for us to catch him, but he’ll do it again, and because of that he’ll get caught.”

Hardy said the Nesbitt case and another unsolved murder in Newport Beach--the strangulation of 11-year-old Linda Ann O’Keefe in 1973--have become his life’s work.

“If I could solve these two cases, I would retire tomorrow,” he said. “That’s what it means to me. It’s become life’s challenge. You feel like you’re almost lost because you can’t solve it. It’s unfinished business, and naturally you want to close that chapter for the family.”

It may be a professional challenge to investigators Hardy and Jackson, but it is a search for justice for the family of Judy Nesbitt. After her death, the family slowly drifted apart. The house in Irvine and Felicidad IV were sold.

“It just tore the family apart,” Fred Nesbitt said. “We all handled it differently. There is a vindictiveness that is inherent in the three older kids and myself. The boys were ready to go out and get a gun and go shoot somebody.

“I have always been a firm believer in the death penalty. I always felt it was a deterrent. I always felt that the looseness in the way we handled hardened criminals makes it easier to kill a witness. I really believe that if we had the death penalty, my wife would be alive today.”

Barbara Phillips, director of the state-funded Victim/Witness Assistance Program in Santa Ana, which counsels crime victims and their families, said the emotional trauma the Nesbitts have is typical.

“You have to deal with the real anger,” she said, “and I would have advised this family to get immediate counseling. Everyone will tell them that it takes time to get over it, but the truth is time does not and cannot bring a conclusion to this kind of thing. We never say to these families that everything is going to be the same or normal again, because it simply isn’t true.”

Even now, the memory of what happened has Steven Nesbitt groping for answers.

“It is so bizarre,” he said recently from his San Diego home. “It is almost like a mob hit, like no one will ever know who did it.”

The sobs came when he talked about his 5-year-old daughter and the grandmother she will never know: “It’s funny, but (my daughter) asked me just a few weeks ago how come she had never seen my mother. I didn’t know what to say. She can’t really figure out why I don’t have a mommy. We’ll have to wait a few years, I guess, before we can tell her.”

Jerry Conklin, Judy Nesbitt’s twin and a law enforcement officer of 25 years, understands the difficulty in solving the case, yet empathizes with the family’s desire for vengeance.

“There are so many problems with this case,” said Conklin, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “There were no witnesses and very little physical evidence.

“Of course, I’m angry too, but I don’t feel the same way that Fred and the boys feel. Fred can’t let go of it; the kids can’t let go of it. I don’t know if it is part of my personal makeup or background, but these things happen, and this just happened to happen to my family. It has given me some insight into how victims feel.


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