Headed south from London toward the English Channel, the industrial hardscrabble of England begins to fade at Winchester. Passing Southampton, workaday gray gives way in winter’s old-gold sun to the mossy browns and greens of Hampshire’s New Forest. Deftly placed among its tufted heaths and spreading trees are well-groomed towns bordering the long waterway that moved the RMS Titanic and 10,000 other ships down to the sea from Southampton’s docks. * Appealing though the view from the train may be, tourism is not my purpose. I am here about murder.
My destination is Lymington, which faces the Isle of Wight, just across a narrow channel. It is Lymington where an old man awaits me. I’m told that he also awaits his end; he is a victim of cancer and grief. The weight of this mission fogs the scenery before me.
On Aug. 22, 1985, this stricken man’s daughter, an esteemed 35-year-old British-born DNA scientist named Dr. Helena M. Greenwood, was found strangled to death in the front yard of her home in Del Mar, north of San Diego. The crime happened on a Thursday morning as she left for work. The absence of evidence mocked investigators, though they believed they knew the killer’s identity.
For 14 years, the mystery remained, her murderer beyond the reach of justice. Over those years, the science that Helena Greenwood helped advance continued to progress, one breakthrough at a time. Now it may be her means of speaking from death’s silence to point out her killer. On Dec. 15, 1999, a man named David Paul Frediani was arrested for her murder. He was the same man convicted of breaking into her home, then near Palo Alto, and sexually attacking her the year before the murder. The evidence against him is based on the cumulative advances in DNA research over the last dozen years. Sometimes irony is our friend.
I am in England to trace Helena to her roots. She was born here in 1949, the only child of the achieving Greenwoods: Marjorie, a geologist, and Sydney, who became head of the Southampton College of Art and went on to attain the title of “Fellow, Royal Society of Art,” a very big deal.
I pay the taxi driver one unfamiliar coin at a time and glance curiously at the solid brick house. I’ve been told that 87-year-old Sydney is dying, and playing tag with reality. I’m a little nervous. It’s tough enough to build a quick bridge to living strangers, but to interrupt a man who is busy dying seems awkward, even rude.
The door opens to a man stooped and slow but with clear blue eyes that size me up in return. A few words of warm greeting tell me Sydney Greenwood isn’t about to quit anything--working, mourning or living. I ask how he is feeling. He answers that his prostate cancer is under control and he’s painting again. He tries to prove it with a shaky, shuffling vaudeville dance step that says the legs may be gone but the mind is still in the game.
Sydney, puffing deeply but evenly, shows me to his living room and talks and talks. “That prime minister of yours?” he says, serving coffee and biscuits. “I rather like him. Let the man have his occasional tart. He seems to think it’s good for him.”
I ask about his art; I remark on his charming community. Then, “May I ask about Helena, Sydney?”
He rocks thoughtfully in his chair, as though her memory lives in a separate place he has to travel to. “She was a wonderful girl,” he says at last. “She was a happy, well-behaved child.” He glances at a pile of sketches against the wall, topped by one of a waif dressed in her mother’s clothes, which drag the ground, her feet swimming in the grown-up’s shoes. He continues: “I thought, ‘Why would anyone hurt my girl?’ I have never understood it. She had so much to look forward to. Had done so much already. . . . I’m glad her mother wasn’t here to endure that.”
“Marguerite died a few weeks before Helena. Leukemia. There’s no one left.” I stare at him but he doesn’t notice. He looks straight ahead into what only he can see.
I am well-schooled in the journalistic art of skepticism, but I sit earnestly and learn about a remarkable woman. On a bookcase shelf, two PhD dissertations are placed proudly side by side, one by mother, one by daughter. Helena earned her doctorate in chemical pathology from the University of London at the unusually young age of 26. Professor John Landon, who supervised Helena’s PhD program, recalls that she “was in the top 10% of scientists, definitely. Determined and focused.” Her name became known through her authorship in professional journals of articles with such intimidating titles as “The measurement of urinary digoxin and dihydrodigoxin by radioimmunoassay and by mass spectroscopy.”
She quickly was attracted by the energized climate of biotechnology in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a gold-rush time of new science, new applications, loads of money to be spent and made; in its limited sphere, it was the equivalent of our current “dotcom” frenzy. Technological breakthroughs took a few brilliant scientists, such as Helena, off the laboratory bench and thrust them into a wildcat canyon of multimillion-dollar deals. It became possible for scientists like Helena to use entrepreneurial skills to ascend business heights.
Soon, Helena and her husband, Roger Franklin, a gentle landscape architect whom she had known since her teenage years, made the jump to California. She joined the Syva Company in Palo Alto, a firm that was battling the giant Abbott Laboratories for the medical diagnostics business. Helena rose quickly to director of international marketing.
Helena and Roger were inseparable off work, whether sailing far out to sea or puttering together in the English-style garden of their small starter home. They were childless, but Sydney says he believes Helena was planning on a family when her life settled down. “Phone, travel, phone, travel, that was her life,” says a subordinate from those years, Denise Apcar, now a health-care marketing consultant near San Mateo. “She was on the go all the time, consulting with scientists and physicians all over the world, trying to find out what was needed and what she could provide in diagnostics. She was just a superlative networker.”
Her success was not free. Helena developed a reputation for being demanding and hard to work for. Apcar attributes the reputation to a combination of youthful impatience, British mannerisms and simply not having learned to be a manager yet. Sydney chuckles at hearing of his daughter the taskmaster. “She got that from me,” he says. “A poor effort from any student of mine did not go unremarked upon.”
At Syva, Helena worked a new miracle, says Sam Morishima, who was on her staff as a scientist and now lives in Sacramento. “Abbott was beating our brains out in the domestic market. We should have had to lay off 200 or so people, but Helena’s incredible performance in the international market saved us. To this day, when I’m faced with a tough problem, I often ask myself: ‘What would Helena have done?’ ”
It was a Saturday night--April 7, 1984--and Roger was in Washington, D.C., on business. Helena retired to the single bedroom of their cottage in upscale Atherton at about 10:20 p.m. and read herself to sleep. About an hour later, she was awakened by a tall man moving through the shadows of her bedroom. His face was obscured by a sweatshirt hood pulled tight, leaving only his eyes uncovered. In his left hand, he appeared to be holding a gun, and in his right was a flashlight. Helena sat up in bed and wound the bedclothes tightly around her. It did no good. The man first demanded money, then demanded more.
Helena said she pushed him back and told him “No! I can’t go through with this. I don’t want to do this.” According to her testimony, it availed her nothing.
Afterward, she called police and then a friend, Tom Christopher, who drove her to the hospital and then to his family’s home in Oakland, where she spent the night. She refused to stay another night in her own house, so the next afternoon, Christopher drove her there to collect some clothes. While waiting, Christopher wandered onto the deck beneath the kitchen window where the man had broken in. Christopher noticed a teapot lying on the deck and called Helena, who told him the pot belonged on the windowsill. Christopher called the police, who were able to lift a usable fingerprint off the lip of the pot--the only fingerprint they could find at the scene.
Capt. Steve Chaput was a detective sergeant at the time and in charge of the investigation. No arrest was made immediately because the police had no match for the fingerprint, but 10 months later, Chaput’s attention was called to a report from nearby Belmont. A man had been caught masturbating in front of a 13-year-old girl’s bedroom window. His disguise had been a hooded sweatshirt pulled up around his face. His name was David Paul Frediani.
Chaput and Belmont Police Officer Joe Farmer brought Frediani to the station. “We got around to just sort of casually asking him about the Greenwood case,” Chaput remembers. “He sparred with us and claimed he didn’t know anything about it. Then I hit him with it, sudden like: ‘We’ve got your fingerprints.’ It was like I had slugged him. He started frantically gabbing that he had done all those things when he was drunk and he didn’t know what he was doing. Then, suddenly, he stopped, like he knew he should shut up.”
Frediani pleaded innocent in the Greenwood case to forcible oral copulation, burglary and the use of a gun to commit a sex offense. He was released on bail. In May 1985, Helena testified at his preliminary hearing and noted similarities between Frediani and her assailant, but couldn’t make a positive identification.
What prosecutors had, though, was the fingerprint, and a serology analysis from sperm left on Helena’s pillowcase. It narrowed the blood down to characteristics shared by one of every seven men. In the days before DNA evidence, this was as good as it got. The stage was set for the trial, scheduled for September 1985.
On the final day of my visit with Sydney, I arrive to find him silent and distraught. I notice a pile of newspaper clippings someone has sent him from California. I pick up one that I have seen before. It refers to Helena as a victim of “sexual assault.” I had been told that Helena told her dad that the break-in had been a burglary, nothing more.
I turn to him. His face is twisted in pain. “I knew nothing of sexual assault.”
“Sydney, Helena wanted to spare you that,” I reply.
He buries his head in his hands. “Oh, my beautiful daughter. What have they done to you?” He raises his head slowly, reclines against the chair and quietly dozes off.
I sit across from him and listen to the ticking of the clock.
Some industries go through a breakthrough stage, rare moments when energy and effort are bunched into one dynamic thrust, when the whole world seems to step aside and say, “Your show.”
That was the atmosphere of diagnostic biotechnology two decades ago. A man in San Diego named David Kohne had developed methods by which DNA could be used to dramatically speed up the diagnosis of infectious diseases, in some cases from months to minutes. Kohne’s inventions used DNA “probes” to replace traditional cultures, and physicians could have accurate diagnoses in time to give prompt and precise treatment.
Kohne joined with science entrepreneurs Tom Adams and Howard C. Birndorf in a start-up company named Gen-Probe. Combined, the three men had the bucks, the technology and the energy. What they did not have was a respected scientist to convince physicians and their suppliers of the breakthrough value of what they were offering. Adams, then CEO, remembered Helena from earlier business encounters as an articulate, outstanding scientist. He hired her early in 1985 as Gen-Probe’s marketing vice president.
“She was an extremely bright scientist with a winning smile,” Adams recalls. “She was a big factor in our company getting the first 10 product approvals from the Food and Drug Administration using DNA probes.” Were she alive today, she’d be “CEO of her own company,” Adams says. Birndorf has no doubt that she would be a multimillionaire.
But Adams remembers one facet of Helena’s life that was not so sanguine. When she moved to San Diego, she declined a ground-floor apartment the company intended to rent for her while Roger closed out affairs in the Bay Area. Instead, she moved in with a girlfriend. A short time later, she told Adams she had to go back up north to give court testimony, and the whole story just poured out. She told him of the attack and how it had scarred her life and forced her into counseling. “I had the distinct impression she was really afraid of the guy,” Adams says. “But she was determined to testify.”
“She had character and courage,” recalls Martin Murray, the San Mateo County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Frediani for the sexual assault case. “Some women back down when they’re faced with confronting the man who humiliated and terrorized them. But not her.”
The morning of Thursday, Aug. 22, 1985, was beautiful as usual in Del Mar, where Helena and Roger had settled into a house. Roger left for his office in San Clemente shortly before 8 a.m. and Helena prepared to leave for Gen-Probe. Morishima, who had followed her to the company from Syva, knew she was due at a business conference.
As the morning wore on, the staff grew concerned. Helena was the last person to be a no-show. Finally, Roger was called. He left work to go home and check. When he arrived, he found he couldn’t open the gate to the front yard. Peering over, he discovered it was blocked by his wife’s body. She was dressed for work and her office papers fluttered about in the afternoon’s soft ocean breeze.
For Gen-Probe employees, the day remains a painful etching. Executive Barry Epstein was conducting an interview. “I couldn’t continue. It was like the day Kennedy was killed.”
The Del Mar house was ideal for such a crime. It was set back 100 feet from the street and surrounded by a high bamboo fence. Heavy shrubbery shrouded the most remote side, where there was nothing for several hundred yards except weeds and railroad tracks. A perfect place to lie in wait.
The autopsy verdict was strangulation but the scene appeared clean of evidence. Who would want to kill Helena Greenwood? Only one name came to mind: David Paul Frediani. Steve Chaput, back in Atherton, said he was awakened in the early morning by a desk officer giving him the news. He remembers thinking: He got her.
Farmer says he ran Frediani’s name through DMV records and found that he had been in a bumper-bender near the Grapevine north of Los Angeles just seven days before the murder. Police immediately thought that Frediani, who still lived in the Bay Area, had been south casing Helena’s movements and home. Frediani was asked what he was doing near L.A. Frediani said he had been headed for Lake Tahoe and decided to take a trip south instead at the last minute. Chaput still shakes his head in disbelief.
Frediani’s assault trial against Helena took place as scheduled in the fall of 1985. Helena’s earlier testimony was admitted in the case and Frediani was found guilty, but the verdict was set aside on appeal for technicalities unrelated to the evidence. He finally agreed to a plea bargain with a sentence of six years, three of which he served before returning to the Bay Area.
As for the murder, frustrated investigators found no evidence placing Frediani at the scene. Without it, they had no case. So the files and materials were sent by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to homicide archives, where they joined several file drawers full of unsolved cases.
Life and time created distance: Roger remarried, moved back to the Bay Area and died of cancer in his early fifties last summer. Sydney grew old, alone and far away. Helena’s friends didn’t forget her but life’s ongoing demands pulled on them.
Gen-Probe graduated to a corporate three-piece suit, a place far larger than the feisty start-up Helena had joined. The company mounted a plaque in her memory, but as time passed, new employees, with ambitions of their own and little interest in ancient history, looked at it quizzically and walked on. The memory of Helena Greenwood--all the decent things she represented, all the brilliance of her career, all the courage it took for her to stand up and accuse her attacker, all of those things--seemed destined to fade away.
In any criminal investigation of exasperating length or complexity, detectives say there often is one among them who wakes up in the morning eager to keep going, who persists when others are ready to move on, who believes that he or she hears the voice of the victim. Laura Heilig, petite, smiling and fortyish, looks like a junior high teacher primed to be the victim of unruly adolescents. She is not. She is a San Diego County sheriff’s homicide detective assigned to the archives department, where she and her colleagues keep watch over 300 unsolved cases, some dating to the 1930s.
Although prosecutors have forbidden investigators from speaking before the trial, sources within the department say it was Heilig who kept coming back to Helena’s case. She knew that by some miracle--or by damned good forensics and pathology--the medical examiner and subsequent keepers of the file had preserved the minute scrapings of whatever had been lodged beneath Helena’s fingernails as she clawed frantically at the man choking the life out of her.
Heilig pushed for their DNA analysis and never lost faith that the new science would lead to the killer.
Dr. James O’Connell, vice president of science and technology of Nanogen, Inc., a biotech company in San Diego, is an expert on DNA-matching as a forensic tool. He explains that its use has grown steadily since a breakthrough in 1987, the development of the PCR method, a way to amplify a small sample of DNA through duplication until it is of useful size. PCR makes it possible to obtain a sufficient amount of DNA from the licked surface of an envelope, for example. Scrapings under a fingernail, as in the Greenwood case, now could provide a “huge” amount of DNA, O’Connell says. Prosecutors won’t say why the county didn’t rely on DNA in the case until recently. But O’Connell notes that while the technology has been around for more than a decade, investigators and lawyers have been using it routinely only in the last three or four years.
Chaput chuckles as he recalls the frequent calls from Heilig just before Frediani was arrested in December. “She would say, ‘We’ve almost got him. Just a couple of more tests to make sure.’ Then one day she called and said, ‘The DNA is there. We’re coming with a warrant.’ ”
Frediani still stirs strong feelings among police involved in the old assault case. Chaput, who first arrested him back in ’84, remembers with relish that when San Diego County and San Mateo County cops arrested Frediani last December, “I sort of edged around to the front of him and looked him in the eye. I wanted my look to say, ‘Remember me?’ He just looked away. . . .”
No one rests easy behind bars, and in San Diego County’s Vista jail, Frediani spends night after night knowing that prosecutors scoff at his innocent plea and are almost certainly planning the death penalty for him. When he attends court hearings, he sits, like other defendants, shackled behind a glass wall. His look is distant and unsmiling.
I spoke to Frediani’s mother, who believes him to be an upstanding citizen, and to his ex-fiancee, who never wants to see him again even though she is the mother of his two childen, to whom he is a stranger. His colleagues and acquantainces have difficulty defining him.
What they all sketch is a reclusive, 45-year-old bachelor, a competent, college-educated accountant who was working for Pacific Telephone in San Francisco as a financial analyst when he was arrested in December. He was living a solitary life in a studio apartment in Burlingame at the time and reporting to Sgt. Brad Floyd of the city’s police department once a year as a registered sex offender. Floyd says he doesn’t have a feel for him. “He came in, answered the questions, then left. He revealed nothing.”
Frediani has a respected San Diego lawyer named David Bartick who will represent him, likely for a fee of $50,000 to $100,000, according to another defense lawyer’s estimate. How Bartick will be paid is uncertain, for Frediani apparently doesn’t have that kind of money.
As the case proceeds, one question endures: If Frediani is the killer, what did he hope to accomplish? At the time of Helena’s killing, her testimony already was a matter of record. It couldn’t be altered or barred from court. “He may have mistakenly thought there would be no trial without a live victim,” says one veteran prosecutor.
At his preliminary hearing on the sex and burglary charges, Helena couldn’t identify him with certainty. His face had been concealed. “No way would that testimony convict him,” says Kenneth F. Eichner, a defense specialist and former prosecutor who lives in Denver. “Without the fingerprint, he walks.”
So the murderer’s motive? “Who knows,” Eichner said. “The reasons why people do these things are a salad. It could have been a combination of stupid reasons.”
For now, it is sufficient to say that Frediani is a sex criminal. But is he also a murderer? We’ll see.
I am ready to return to London but Sydney wants to show me where Helena’s ashes are buried, just next to her mother’s outside Lymington, in the yard of the Boldre Church, a large stone edifice, parts of which date back 1,000 years. The church is in the middle of horse country, and as we drive along the meandering lane, we share space with riders in traditional red coats and black boots, trotting along on arrogant thoroughbreds. Many of the tombstones are unreadable, the centuries having obscured their memorials. As we stand in the January chill before her marker, Sydney recalls the day his daughter was buried here in front of hundreds, many from California.
He is comfortable here. He has nowhere else to go.