Still hoping for daughter’s return

Times Staff Writers

Two weeks from today is Donna Jou’s 20th birthday. And as her mother, Nili Jou, made clear at a news conference Saturday, she still believes her daughter, who has been missing since June 23, is somewhere out there alive.

“I have to be strong for my daughter. I can’t give up hope that she is alive and OK,” said Jou, 49, calm and composed as she sat with her attorney, Gloria Allred. On a conference table in front of Jou were large color photographs. One of them was of her daughter hugging her black Lab, Gortie; another showed mother and daughter smiling against a backdrop of boulders.

“I don’t want her to see that I lost my hope for her.”

Donna Jou was last seen by Nili Jou as she walked out of her mother’s Rancho Santa Margarita home, where the San Diego State biology student was spending the summer. She then got on a motorcycle driven by John Steven Burgess, 35, a convicted sex offender. The two went to a party at Burgess’ rented home in West Los Angeles, where witnesses told investigators Jou was seen alive.

Nili Jou and Allred are hoping that Burgess, whom Orange County sheriff’s investigators have named as a suspect in the disappearance, will provide information about what happened to Jou now that he is in jail on an unrelated charge.

Burgess, who was convicted in 2003 of performing a lewd act on a child and who left California for Florida shortly after Jou went missing, was returned to Los Angeles on Friday. He was being held at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility for failing to register as a sex offender in Los Angeles County. Burgess, who has used the alias Sinjin Stevens, also was convicted of three counts of battery in 2002.


Burgess had been out on $250,000 bail, but the bond was revoked after he was arrested recently at a Florida video store on suspicion of stealing several DVDs, including “Natural Born Killers” and “Death Proof.” He was also found to be carrying fake IDs. The phony documents raised fears that he was about to flee, and his arrest violated the terms of his bail, according to an investigator with a bail recovery firm.

At the news conference, Allred said Burgess “admits that he has information about Donna which he refuses to disclose unless prosecutors offer him immunity in the failure-to-register case.”

“We find this attempt to play ‘Let’s make a deal’ truly offensive because a young woman’s life is at stake,” she added.

What Nili Jou and her ex-husband, Reza Jou, who lives in Houston, know about their daughter’s connection to Burgess is vague.

“We are not clear about how Donna met him,” Allred said. Jou was listed on, and police have said Burgess was known to find student boarders through the Internet site. But Allred said Jou was listed only as a math tutor offering services.

“There have been reports she was dating him. To the best of my knowledge, that was inaccurate,” the attorney said.

According to Nili Jou, her daughter offered no explanation of who Burgess was as she left the house and climbed onto his motorcycle. “He didn’t come to the door,” Jou said.

But several days after her daughter’s disappearance, as Jou started calling numbers she found by accessing Donna’s voice mail messages, she found Burgess. “He told me he, himself, has a daughter and he would help me.”

Allred would not let Jou elaborate on that phone conversation.

Investigators say Burgess repainted his 1998 Ford Ranger and left California shortly after Donna Jou vanished. His toolbox -- containing a motorcycle helmet, his truck’s license plate, a rope, rubber gloves and a scrub brush -- later turned up near his house.

In early September, Nili Jou sent a handwritten letter to Burgess describing her daughter with motherly pride: “She is a very smart girl, and trustworthy but naive about people. She always tried to help others, to make friends and make them happy.”

And she beseeched Burgess to tell her where her daughter might be: “I don’t know if she is in danger, hungry, hurt, lonely, afraid, lost in the middle of nowhere. You have a daughter. How would you feel if it were your daughter?”

The letter, delivered to Burgess’ attorney, has not been answered, said Allred. Burgess is scheduled to appear Oct. 10 in a Los Angeles courtroom on the charge of failing to register as a sex offender.

The website offers details about the missing woman, a timeline of the disappearance and phone numbers for anyone to offer information.