A man believed to be responsible for the 1991 rape and strangling of a 14-year-old girl killed himself in prison hours after investigators told him DNA evidence linked him to the unsolved case, authorities said Monday.
Derick Moncada, 35, was serving time at Kern Valley State Prison for threatening his girlfriend, beating a former girlfriend and leading police on a chase when Alameda County sheriff's deputies went to question him last week about Jessica McHenry's killing.
The girl's burned body was found naked from the waist down in a ditch along a rural road in Livermore, about 40 miles east of San Francisco. She was last seen alive walking home from Granada High School earlier in the day.
Alameda County Sheriff's Sgt. Scott Dudek said the March 12 interview began cordially but quickly changed when investigators asked Moncada if he knew Jessica.
"He never admitted anything," Dudek said, adding the interview ended when Moncada asked for a lawyer.
About five months earlier, investigators learned that Moncada's DNA matched samples taken from Jessica's body.
Results from a second sample taken from Moncada last week were pending, but Dudek said that test was a formality and authorities were certain Moncada was the killer.
Eight hours later, Moncada was found hanging in his cell, Dudek said.
He left behind a suicide note, professing his innocence, apologizing to his family for sullying the family name and pledging "death before dishonor," Dudek said.
A state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman said Moncada was serving more than eight years for assault with a firearm. He was transferred to Kern Valley State Prison in Delano on March 2, after spending 14 months in a secure housing unit at Corcoran State Prison for beating up an inmate, Terry Thornton said.
Around the time of Jessica's killing, Moncada was 19, living in Livermore and working at a gas station in San Ramon.
Dudek said he's aware of at least one unsolved homicide in the area from about the same time involving a female victim who was beaten, set on fire and dumped in a ravine. She was never identified.
"We know he was a very violent person," Dudek said of Moncada. "We'll never know a lot of the 'whys.' "
Jessica's family members said they considered that a blessing.
Her brother, Nick, now 28, said he believes Moncada's suicide was the "best resolution possible."
"The night that I found out he killed himself is the first night I fell asleep without thinking about something in 16 years," Nick McHenry said, adding his biggest fear was that his sister's killer might still be hurting others.
Jessica's other siblings, now 18 and 19, along with her mother, grandparents and about a dozen friends and other family members, attended an emotional news conference where they cried and embraced investigators who had tracked the case for nearly two decades.
Moncada was to be buried Monday in Livermore.