For nearly two years, friends and family of 19-year-old Donna Jou fought desperately to find out what happened to the college biology student, pleading with the man authorities suspected held the answers to her disappearance.
They started a website. They went on television. They stood in front of the man’s home, demanding answers.
On Wednesday, some of those answers surfaced when John Steven Burgess, a convicted sex offender who met the Rancho Santa Margarita woman through craigslist.com, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and concealing her body.
But the plea bargain also left questions unanswered.
Burgess, who is serving a three-year term for failing to register as a sex offender, told a Los Angeles court Wednesday that Jou died after he gave her cocaine, heroin and alcohol at a party at his home in Palms. When he awoke the next morning, Burgess said he discovered that she was dead. He said he panicked and used his sailboat to dump her body into the ocean.
Authorities, who declined to specify where Jou was dumped, said they have conducted several searches in the area, but failed to find the body.
“If what he’s saying is true, I just lost half of my being,” said Jou’s mother, Nila. “I wanted to keep that hope. . . . Day by day we were waiting for her, for her to come back.”
Burgess, 36, had long been considered a suspect in Jou’s disappearance. She was last seen June 23, 2007.
For two years, Burgess refused to talk to authorities about his contacts with the young woman who dreamed of some day becoming a neurosurgeon, even as investigators amassed evidence connecting him to the missing woman.
Witnesses reported seeing Jou at Burgess’ dilapidated rental house before she disappeared.
Soon after, investigators said, he repainted his truck and fled. A month later, police caught up with him as he was trying to dump a bag of cocaine in the parking lot of a Florida motel.
Burgess was convicted of felony drug possession in that case and sentenced to time served, then extradited to Los Angeles on an outstanding warrant for failure to register as a sex offender.
While serving his sentence for that offense, he had refused to talk to authorities about his contacts with Jou, even after her mother sent a handwritten letter beseeching him 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,” Jou’s mother wrote. “How would you feel if it were your daughter?”
Burgess was charged with involuntary manslaughter and one count each of sale or transportation of heroin and sale or transportation of cocaine, in addition to one misdemeanor count of concealment of an accidental death in March after he told authorities about a night of heavy partying and drug use with Jou.
He is to be sentenced May 18 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. His plea bargain calls for five years in state prison. The drug charges are to be dismissed at the sentencing in exchange for the plea.
Burgess also promised to meet with Jou’s family today to answer their questions. Jou’s mother said her first question will be a simple one: “Tell me what happened. That’s it. Tell me what happened.”
In phone interviews Wednesday, Jou’s mother and father, Reza, said it was difficult to take Burgess’ word about what happened the night of their daughter’s death.
“But,” Reza Jou said, “there is no other choice.”