Nearly two years ago, 19-year-old Donna Jou dreamed of attending medical school, becoming a neurosurgeon and one day caring for her father in his old age.
But on Tuesday, Reza Jou sat in a downtown courtroom while prosecutors accused a Los Angeles man of giving his daughter a lethal dose of drugs and then dumping the college student’s body in the Pacific Ocean.
Suspect John Steven Burgess, a convicted sex offender who one Los Angeles Police Department detective described as “a very smooth-talking con man,” is already serving time in prison on another charge. On Tuesday, Burgess pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter, concealment of accidental death and one count each of providing cocaine and heroin to the young woman. His bail was set at $1 million.
“For over 20 months, our family has suffered daily not knowing where Donna may be or whether or not she is even still alive. It has been an agonizing, excruciating experience for us,” Reza Jou said after Burgess’ arraignment.
He stood with other members of the Jou family who had pictures of the young woman pinned to their jackets.
“After so long a wait, my family and I finally feel some sense of relief,” said Reza Jou, who lives in Texas but came to Los Angeles for the hearing.
Jou disappeared June 23, 2007, after her mother saw her leave their Rancho Santa Margarita apartment and climb onto the back of a motorcycle with a man later identified as Burgess.
Police said Burgess contacted Jou through craigslist.com and invited her to a party. Their common interest was drugs, detectives said.
Her family said the honor student, who volunteered at battered women’s shelters and food drives, was bored in Orange County during her vacation from San Diego State University. They said she may have been looking for friends.
That night, Jou’s mother received two text messages, only one of which she believes her daughter actually wrote. The first said: “Goodnight Momy. Love you.” The next said: “battery dead. in san diego and be home later. love you Momy.”
She never came home, and for almost two years Jou’s family was left with questions about the young woman’s whereabouts. On Tuesday, they said that until the last minute they had maintained hope that she was still alive.
The family always suspected Burgess, 36, was involved, and wrote him cards on her birthday telling him how much they missed her in hopes that he would confess.
Police had little evidence, but among the clues they found was a tool box belonging to Burgess. It contained a motorcycle helmet, his pickup’s license plate, rope, rubber gloves and a scrub brush.
Burgess also repainted his 1998 Ford Ranger and left town after Jou vanished, investigators said. He went to Florida in 2007 and was later extradited to California. He refused for more than a year and a half to talk with authorities about his contacts with Jou.
But then detectives caught a break. LAPD Det. Ron Y. Ito said that he and other investigators presented Burgess with the case they had collected against him, and that within the last few weeks Burgess confessed to giving Jou heroin at his rented West Los Angeles home.
Within a day or two after Jou died, Burgess told police, he took her on his boat and dropped her body “quite a ways” off the Southern California coast, Ito said.
Burgess was arrested Saturday.
Search crews using sonar and divers have spent the last week searching for her body, investigators said, but so far have found nothing.
Gloria Allred, an attorney for the Jous, said it has been especially difficult because Burgess indicated all along that he had information regarding her whereabouts.