Standing outside the door where Elizabeth Mae Hoffschneider was killed in 1984 is chilling. It looks like any other well-kept apartment complex. But the horror of what took place here makes it very different.
About a year and a half ago, I started this column with as harsh an introduction as I've ever written for anything: "'Nude lying face up in bed. Beaten. Neck stabbed. Sexually assaulted. Strangled to death.' The facts on the police report are brutally chilling. 'Blood drops on bathroom floor. Adhesive substance on wrists. Numerous cut hairs on upper body and on bedding.' And it goes on. Elizabeth Mae Hoffschneider was murdered in Huntington Beach on Nov. 14, 1984. Just 38 years old, her body was discovered in her Parkside Lane apartment by co-workers from the Fountain Valley medical company where she worked.'"
As you may have recently read in this paper, the person charged with this crime, Gerald Go, committed suicide in Canada, where he'd been held the last two years while authorities waited — and waited — for Canadian officials to send him back here for trial. Just as the path had been cleared, he killed himself.
Det. Mike Reilly of the Huntington Beach Police Department was a rookie patrol officer in 1984 when this slaying took place, and this became his first homicide case. Even after it became a cold case, he never let it alone. As has been documented in many places, Reilly's tenacity paid off in the form of a DNA match that led to this person's arrest. When I heard about Go's death, Reilly was whom I wanted to speak with. One of the best in his field, Reilly was anxious for the trial to finally get underway. I also knew how this good detective always put the interests of Elizabeth's family first, and how much he cares for victims and victims' families in any case he handles. So how did he feel when he heard the news?
"I was sort of in shock after all these years," he shared. "I received a voice mail from the Toronto police that something had happened. I called them back and bam, I got the news." He continued: "We had started re-contacting witnesses and we were ready to go on this case. We had a very strong case, as DNA cases usually are, and so I was confident. This case affected so many people along the way, from Elizabeth's family to other victims to a man who was wrongly accused. And I contacted everyone involved with this news. That it was over. That it was finally over."
What sorts of reactions did he get? "Relief mostly," he described. "Elizabeth's family is so incredible. They handled everything as they always have, with grace and understanding. They are remarkable people, and that's really who we have focused on through this ordeal. Keeping them aware and in the loop, right to the end. And in the end, I think the fact that won't have to re-live everything at trial seemed to give them some peace."
As usual, Reilly accepts little credit for his role in the apprehension of someone all involved consider a vicious predator. "The original guys on the case were just incredible," he said. "There are so many heroes in this thing. The crime scene investigation was so good. Amazing guys. Jay Mark, the chief criminalist back then, was phenomenal. It's like he saw into the future and knew how important DNA would be someday. And Steve Balloch, who spent two days dusting for prints by hand with a black powder brush. These guys were the best. And of course, another hero is the other victim in Costa Mesa, who fought this Gerald Go off of her, broke every nail on her hands fighting him. She survived. Her fight helped us get this guy."
Lastly, Reilly offers that the system still has to change to prevent what happened with Go. "He became a Canadian citizen while a fugitive from justice in the United States," Reilly said. "There are too many holes in the system, even today. But I like to think it's getting better."
Like I said, Reilly doesn't take credit, doesn't want credit, he just wants to get the job done. And he does. But since 1984, he worked this case over and over, never giving up and never letting the family down. "We know we had the right guy," he said. "And now at least he won't be able to hurt anyone else."
On a separate note, this Memorial Day, may we remember all of the men and women who gave their lives serving the United States of America. Take time to reflect, to honor and to be thankful.