UC Berkeley cold-case killing is solved, bringing closure to Agoura Hills family
It was a UC Berkeley custodian who found the bloodied body of Grace Rualo Asuncion on a Friday night in the winter of 1992.
For decades after, the stabbing death of the 20-year-old junior from Agoura Hills went unsolved, casting a pall over the campus and her tight-knit family.
When the university’s police chief stepped down in 2009, she remarked that the still-unsolved killing remained a source of sorrow.
“We will always feel a sense that we left something undone,” Victoria Harrison, the retiring police chief, told a university publication. “We never closed that case.”
UC Berkeley police announced this month that more than 24 years after the brutal slaying, the killer had finally been identified as John Iwed, who lived in nearby Alameda.
The Alameda County district attorney’s office reviewed the case, but prosecutors could not file charges because Iwed succumbed to a drug overdose nearly a year after Asuncion was found dead, according to Sgt. Sabrina Reich, a spokeswoman for the university’s Police Department.
Police broke the news to Asuncion’s family in July, said her older brother John Asuncion, now a planner residing in Agoura Hills.
“It was a surprise, as you can imagine,” John Asuncion, 47, said. “It opened up the old wounds, of course. Speaking for myself, I had accepted — it is what it is. A cold case.”
Iwed’s name was familiar to Asuncion’s older brother. Detectives had considered Iwed a suspect before, but ruled him out.
Before his death, Iwed had confessed to his wife that he attacked and killed Asuncion while high on psychedelic drugs, KTVU-TV reported. His wife later told police, but detectives could not verify the account.
Authorities have provided few specifics about what evidence surfaced to close the case.
“Over the years, people were more willing to talk and provide new information that corroborated Iwed was the suspect,” Reich said. Detectives also relied on new DNA testing, but that did not break the case, she said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Teresa Drenick, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said the thorough investigation left scant doubt about Iwed. “We reviewed all the evidence and are confident in our decision,” she added.
The announcement draws to a close a killing that shocked the campus for its sheer violence and seeming randomness.
“She is the last person you would expect this to happen to,” Marie-Luise Brennan of Westlake Village, Asuncion’s best friend from high school, told The Times days after the Feb. 7, 1992, killing. “I know it sounds trite, but I don’t know why anyone would want to do that to her.”
Asuncion, a molecular and cell biology major with hopes of attending medical school, had stayed in Eshleman Hall after others left at 5 p.m.
It wasn’t unusual for her to be in the eight-story building, where the student government and other campus groups had offices, authorities said.
“She often studied there alone or with friends,” campus police Lt. Pat Carroll said at the time.
Her body, riddled with stab wounds, was found in the fifth-floor office of the Pilipino American Alliance. There was no evidence that she was sexually assaulted, and no sign that she was a victim of a robbery, police said.
No suspects were ever publicly identified. To this day, police have not specified a motive.
About a year after Asuncion’s death, her parents, Edward and Aida Asuncion, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against UC Berkeley, alleging the university failed to provide sufficient protection.
The lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court contended that the university’s leaders should have stopped transients from sleeping in the building where she was killed and installed better security measures. No guards were posted in the building around the time of her killing, but university police did patrol the area, a university spokesman said in 1993.
The lawsuit was later settled for $750,000, which included four years of tuition at UC Irvine for Asuncion’s younger sister, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
In the years since, Eshleman Hall was demolished, and a new building was erected under the same name.
Asuncion’s parents left California and moved north to Washington. Her three surviving siblings continued with their lives, getting married and having children. The family still keeps in touch with Asuncion’s college roommate, John Asuncion said.
The family could have split or grown closer in such a horrific tragedy, he said, but has emerged with more gratitude and love.
“I don’t wish it on anyone else, but the bonds are stronger, and that’s a good thing,” he said.
At UC Berkeley, Pilipino American Alliance awards a scholarship in Asuncion’s memory. Near the building where she died, a tree was planted in her honor. Friends later added a bench with a plaque: “An intelligent, vibrant, committed student who will always be remembered.”
Still, her brother said that he and his family still miss Grace. He thanked police for their dedication to the case, but said that knowing who killed her doesn’t heal the wound left by her death.
He added: “It’s not going to bring my sister back.”
For more news in California, follow @MattHjourno.
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