Three young men who went to work for the Super Shops automotive parts chain because they loved cars are dead--all for what may prove to be less than a few thousand bucks, officials said Tuesday.
"It is a robbery--the money's gone," company President Gregg Koechlein confirmed Tuesday, following early reports that nothing was taken from the murder scene. "But it's so inconsequential an amount to think that three people were killed for this--it shocks the conscience."
Investigators said Tuesday that they still do not know who bound three Super Shops employees--all in their early 20s--about the time of the store's 5 p.m. Sunday closing and shot them to death at close range with a handgun in an execution-style assault.
Koechlein would not give the amount he believes was stolen, and late Tuesday afternoon, Tustin police began sorting through computer receipts and matching them against the cash found at the store to try to confirm how much money may have been taken. Company sources familiar with the investigation estimated that the daily cash receipts taken probably would not exceed several thousand dollars.
Prompted in part by a $50,000 reward from Super Shops, about 25 people called police Tuesday with tips about people they may have seen in the area Sunday and other possible leads. Investigators are still following those leads but said they have no suspects.
"The whole thing doesn't make a whole lot of sense," said Lt. Houston Williams, heading the investigation. "Even if you get a million dollars, is it worth executing three people? This is just a vicious, cold-blooded killing--there's no other way to describe it."
Word that the killings appear to have been motivated by robbery offered little solace for the grieving families and friends of the three victims, who have been searching for any answers to the murders.
"We're still pretty much in shock," said Gina Hoffman, the 18-year-old girlfriend of victim Darrell Esgar, 22, of Huntington Beach. "I keep wishing I had 5 minutes with him. It's just so unfair to have someone taken from you without warning for no reason. From what I know, it was just a robbery by someone who didn't want to leave witnesses."
Esgar, an assistant manager; Chad Chadwick, 22, of Orange, a salesman; and Russel B. Williams, 21, of Seal Beach, all shared a love of cars that prompted them to work at the Super Shops store, according to family, friends and fellow employees.
"That's why he went to Super Shops, his love of cars," said Chadwick's mother, Sharon.
Esgar shared his love of automobiles with his father, who joined him in working late into the night on the son's early-model Mustang and other cars.
"The son is the spitting image of the father," said Bishop Dennis Wallace, who has known the family for 10 years as members of his Mormon church. "They are both quiet types, in the background, but willing to help anyone at anytime. If somebody's car broke down at the church or in the neighborhood, his father was always there to go over and fix it up. Darrell was that kind of individual too.
"One thing about Darrell is that everybody liked him. He was well-liked in the church and where he worked. He never drank alcohol, never did drugs. He never even tried them, that's the kind of boy he was. When he went out with his friends and they were drinking, he was called the designated driver."
The Super Shops store at the intersection of Tustin Avenue and 1st Street remained closed Tuesday as about a dozen employees cleaned up the back storage room where the bodies were found, along with the rest of the store, and tried to cope with the weekend's events.
"Nobody's really in a talking mood right now," one young man said when approached by a reporter. "Everyone is just trying to deal with this as best they can."
Added Alan Basham, a divisional sales manager: "The whole thing is ridiculous; it should never have happened. These were good guys."
At the same time, talk of the apparent robbery and execution--atop a few other recent incidents against local shops--sent some tremors through the automotive-parts industry as several shops reported that they have stepped up security procedures since Monday.
One assistant manager at a major local shop said he even brought his gun to the store because of the murders. That's against company policy, but the employee, who asked not to be identified, said he's not taking any chances.
"I'm worried," he said. "They're not going to get me without getting shot first."
A regional manager with Trak, a nationwide chain of automotive parts stores, said that two of the chain's stores in Long Beach and Hawaiian Gardens have been hit by armed robbers in just the last few weeks.
Neither robbery resulted in injuries to anyone, said the manager, who asked not to be identified. But he added that "rumors are flying. We have all our stores on alert because they seem to be hitting automotive parts stores. We may be more of a prime target because we don't generally have a lot of people on duty at night."
Two years ago, a Super Shops employee in Long Beach was killed by a bandit who stole $2,600 and then shot him behind the counter before fleeing.
That murder remains unsolved but, despite the new indications pointing to robbery in Tustin, police say the two cases do not appear connected.
"At first glance, this doesn't appear to fit," Williams said. "These killings appear to be more calculated, more vicious."