Mystery of Slain Girls Is Finally Laid to Rest : Murders: Police identify two Pomona runaways whose bodies were found in a Kern County orchard in 1980. Their families’ worries give way to grief.
For more than 12 years, the bodies of two murdered teen-age girls lay side by side in a Bakersfield cemetery in graves marked simply “No. 455, A and B.”
The slayings, attributed to an ex-Marine helicopter pilot convicted in two other Kern County murders, were solved long ago.
But despite television programs, extensive newspaper stories, and flyers and notices sent to Los Angeles-area high schools and law enforcement agencies, no one could identify the high school-age Jane Does.
The mystery was finally solved this month when a Pomona police detective, acting on a misplaced tip and a hunch, entered a name in a national crime computer, came up with a match and contacted Kern County authorities.
Now, at long last, Charlena Marie Simon, 15, and her childhood friend, Robin Denise Snead, 16, will be disinterred from the numbered plots in Union Cemetery and returned to their families for funeral services, burial and mourning.
“I’ve been working this case since 1986,” Kern County Deputy Coroner John Van Rensselaer said. “I was very excited about it--until I saw the reaction of the (Simon) family. I almost wished we hadn’t identified them.”
Police say the 12-year failure to match the bodies to the case of the missing girls was a fluke, arising from a lack of uniform statewide reporting procedures and a computerized system that was in its infancy at the time of the disappearances.
“I can’t imagine it occurring nowadays,” said Kern County Sheriff’s Sgt. Garry Davis, who first investigated the murders.
Charlena’s father, John Simon, a 46-year-old computer drafting designer, said the family “never thought anything bad had happened to the girls. We thought she was trying to make a life of her own and would come back to us.” The Snead family let it be known through the police that they did not want to comment.
When Charlena and Robin disappeared in March, 1980, they were classified by police as just two typical runaways in a city that logs at least five young runaways a day, Pomona Police Detective Sgt. Dale La Fleur said.
Inseparable friends who lived only blocks apart, the girls attended the same junior high school and were students together at Garey High School. With their long brown hair, they resembled each other so much that some people mistook them for sisters.
Neither led particularly remarkable lives, police were to say later. They weren’t student leaders, but neither were they troublemakers. Both earned decent grades.
Charlena was the quieter of the two, her father, John Simon, said. Not shy but not exactly outgoing, it wasn’t easy for her to make friends.
Robin was more rebellious, having once run away to her grandmother’s home in Arkansas, Simon said.
Separately, both had run away from home at least twice before for “just a day or so. No big deal,” La Fleur said. “The girls were just rebellious kids.”
In March, 1980, Charlena made more serious preparations, packing her clothes and telling her younger sister, Sandra, then 13, goodby before leaving.
Both families contacted police a few days later. But police did not enter the girls’ names into the FBI National Crime Information Center computer in Washington because their disappearance was not suspicious, La Fleur said. The computer lists only those deemed “critical missing”--disappearances in which police suspect foul play, among other criteria, he said.
Further, in 1980, California law did not require follow-up investigations on runaways, nor did guidelines exist for statewide listing.
Nine years later, state legislators mandated follow-up investigations after 45 days. Police are also required after that time to send information on missing people--including photos and dental records--to state-maintained files, said Jeannine Willie, supervisor of the state’s Missing/Unidentified Persons Unit in Sacramento. The state information is automatically filed in the NCIC computer.
But in 1980, police departments throughout the state followed their own procedures. Many of them, like Pomona, did not keep ongoing files on runaways, Willie said. So, the data was lost over time as departments cleaned out old records.
“If the families had pursued it, eventually (the girls) would have been entered into the NCIC system,” Willie said.
Members of the Snead and Simon families phoned and wrote to relatives across the country, pursuing tips and rumors in an effort to find their daughters. Over the years, the Simon family checked with federal Social Security authorities in Los Angeles, hoping to track down their daughter via tax or work records. But neither family ever re-contacted Pomona police, La Fleur said.
Meanwhile, in Kern County, a separate and equally futile search began April 9, 1980, after a farm worker discovered the bodies of two girls who had been shot to death in an almond orchard in Shafter, a tiny town 20 miles north of Bakersfield.
Although no purses or identification were found, Kern County sheriff’s investigators believed the dead girls were from the Los Angeles area because one girl wore a Walnut High School ring, reported stolen two years earlier.
Sketches of the dead girls were sent to Walnut High School, surrounding schools, Sacramento and Southland law enforcement agencies. Information about the unidentified bodies was sent to the NCIC computer. But those efforts yielded nothing.
Later in 1980, investigators discovered who killed the girls when Davis noticed similarities between the girls’ deaths and those of a young couple killed in Fowler, another rural town north of Bakersfield. The sheriff’s detective learned that a bullet found beside the girls’ bodies matched ballistically with the weapon used in the Fowler murders--a .357-magnum Colt Python revolver.
Fernando Eros Caro Jr., a former U.S. Marine lieutenant and helicopter pilot with a history of aggressive behavior toward women, was arrested and convicted in the Fowler murders. Although the jury in Caro’s murder trial heard testimony about the girls’ deaths during the penalty phase, Kern County prosecutors decided against mounting a separate case.
Caro, now 43, is on Death Row at San Quentin state prison. Investigators believe he picked up the two girls as hitchhikers, drove them to the almond orchard and murdered them.
But the mystery of the victims’ identities remained.
In 1986, Van Rensselaer, freshly assigned to the Kern County “John and Jane Doe” list, pursued the same investigative avenues exhausted by Davis years before, with as little luck. As the years mounted, the notoriety of the case increased, as did the number of television and newspaper stories about it.
“It was just so unusual, two clean-cut girls like that, and for almost 13 years we never connected,” Van Rensselaer said of the search.
The connection finally came by chance.
In January, a Pomona woman watching a national television show about an unsolved murder in Livingston County, N.Y., thought the unidentified victim might be Charlena Simon of Pomona. She anonymously phoned Livingston police, who passed the tip on to La Fleur. Although the Pomona detective ruled out the New York murder, (which occurred a year before Charlena’s disappearance), he went on to start a full-scale investigation.
“Call it mushy if you want, but I thought I could do something to help the parents,” said La Fleur, a 23-year police veteran.
The detective entered Charlena’s name into the NCIC computer. Although the computer found no match, the listing automatically went to Sacramento, where criminal information specialist Gwen Ng manually reviewed files to come up with a list of four unidentified murder victims--including the girls found in the Shafter almond orchard.
For the first time, the two separate searches became one as Van Rensselaer, Davis and La Fleur pieced together details over the phone.
Finally, armed with the girls’ jewelry, earlier sketches and coroner’s photos, they called on John Simon and his wife, Martha, who still live in Pomona. The Simons could not remember the jewelry and did not recognize the girls portrayed in the sketches. But when the parents saw photos police took after the murder, they burst into tears, Van Rensselaer said.
“That’s my daughter,” a sobbing Martha Simon told the deputy coroner.
The Simons also identified their daughter’s friend, Robin. Her parents, Lester and Joan Snead, were contacted in Pennsylvania, where they had recently moved from Pomona, Van Rensselaer said.
For Van Rensselaer and Davis, the end of the search brings satisfaction in finally giving names to the girls who had lain in the unmarked Bakersfield graves.
“It makes me feel a lot easier,” Davis said. “If (the girls) can ever be OK, they’re OK now.”
The Snead family is making arrangements for Robin’s burial, perhaps in Pomona, Van Rensselaer said.
For the Simons, who plan a private funeral for Charlena today, the end of the search brought a shock somewhat softened by time, John Simon said.
During holidays and family occasions, Charlena was always on the family’s mind, Simon said. They attributed her continued silence to her likely embarrassment or awkwardness at re-contacting her parents after so much time had passed.
Today, such a long delay in identification is much less likely because of new procedures and laws, plus more advanced computers, Davis said.
But Simon said he does not hold Pomona police responsible for the delay in identifying his daughter. Instead, he said childhood fingerprinting, now popular among parents, might have identified her sooner.
“It would have been harder to find out two days after her death,” he said, “but all the years of worrying would have been gone.”
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