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The silver car idled on the side of Ortega Highway next to a telephone pole and an emergency call box. The high beams cut into the black nothingness that is Saturday night in the last wild region of Orange County. Nobody much drove this straight section of the one-lane highway this late on a weekend in the cool of fall. There were no street lamps, no house lights, nothing on either side of the car but dead brush, dirt, straggly bushes, barbed wire, broken bottles, rusty cans and darkness. Somewhere off to the east loomed the Santa Ana Mountains, and over them Lake Elsinore. Behind the car, eight miles to the west, was San Juan Capistrano.
At about 10 p.m., Tony Castillo drove his security patrol cruiser east on Ortega Highway. Working a routine patrol shift, Castillo was headed for the Ortega Rock cement plant to check the entrance gate. At Mile Marker 9 his headlights illuminated the rear of the silver car, which looked like a ten-year-old Dodge sedan. The passenger-side door was open and somebody's foot stuck outside.
Castillo gave it only passing thought. Out here, where the Ortega Highway winds through sandstone canyons, rugged ravines and strands of native coastal live oak and California sycamores, it's not unusual to see the occasional car parked to the side at night: drivers sleeping off a drunk, kids making out. Castillo drove on to the cement plant, glancing at the car to his right as he passed. He couldn't see anything inside.
He got to the entrance gate and "secured the lock and chain," he later wrote in a report. Castillo worked for Rancho Mission Viejo---his title was ranch deputy---patrolling the holdings of the big landowner out here, with 23,000 acres, some of it left alone to nature, some of it bulldozed into stucco housing developments. At this late hour, Ranch Deputy Castillo was the closest thing to law enforcement the Ortega Highway would see; an hour or two could pass before a CHP unit or Orange County Sheriff's Deputy car passed by.
That's why the Ortega Highway is so popular with criminals. It's here that "Freeway Killer" William Bonin deposited three of his estimated twenty-one victims; where serial killer Randy Kraft allegedly dumped the first of at least forty-five bodies; where many other victims of less notorious crimes found their final resting places in shallow graves.
After inspecting the cement plant gate, Castillo turned around and drove west on Ortega Highway, approaching the silver car, now to his left. Its high beams hit him in the face. As he moved away from the glare, he could see that the passenger door was still open and that foot was still sticking out. He saw no movement inside.
Now more wary than before, Castillo headed for his next security check: a small collection of homes for about twenty ranch hands, located on a small side road north of the highway. Castillo was already behind schedule on his nightly security rounds for his 5 p.m.--to--1 a.m. shift.
But he couldn't shake the sight of that parked car. He decided against going to the ranch worker homes, pulled his patrol car into the entrance of Caspers Campground, made a U-turn, and drove back a mile to the silver car. He pulled over to the shoulder about fifteen yards behind it.
Up close, he could see that the car was a four-door Dodge Stratus, license plate 4AIV-340.
Castillo got out of his patrol car and walked up to the driver's side of the silver car. The engine was running, the gear in park. Broken glass littered the pavement beneath the door.
Castillo peered in through the open window.
He only looked briefly, and it was dark inside, but he could make out the figures of two people, a man, who was slumped over in the driver's seat, and a woman next to him, lying on her left side, her head near the man's legs. Neither moved nor made any noises. They didn't appear to be breathing. He thought they might be dead.
He rushed back to his security patrol car and tried to contact the Orange County Sheriff's emergency communications center on his radio. It took a few attempts---radio and cell phone reception was spotty out here. A dispatcher finally answered. Castillo told her where he was and what he had found. The dispatcher said fire department paramedics and sheriff's deputies were on their way from San Juan Capistrano, nine miles away.
Castillo waited, doing nothing. He knew not to disturb a potential crime scene. In addition to working as a security guard, he was a reserve police officer for the city of Costa Mesa. He had been trained in basic police procedures. He also had enough common sense to worry about his own safety. Except for the lights from his patrol car and the silver car, it was total darkness. He had no idea what had happened to those two people---and no idea who could be lurking in the bushes only a few feet away.
The paramedics arrived in less than fifteen minutes. A fireman got out of his truck and asked Castillo to escort him to the parked car. The fireman reached through the open driver's-side window and checked the pulse of the slumped-over man.
"He's gone," the fireman said.
From over the fireman's shoulder, Castillo now got his first good look at what was inside. The man was still strapped in his seatbelt. He had a gaping wound in the back of his head behind his left ear, leaving a trickle of blood, and a major wound to his right eye.
On the outside of the driver's-side door about eighteen inches to the left of the handle, there appeared to be a bullet hole.
The firefighter went around to the other side of the car and checked the woman's pulse: also gone. She was covered in blood. Her body appeared to be riddled with bullets. Outside the car on the passenger side were blood drops. Near the back tire, a lady's shoe sat on the pavement.
About this time, an Orange County sheriff's deputy arrived. He walked up to the parked car, reached in and turned off the ignition, but didn't touch anything else, also wanting to protect the crime scene. By midnight, the CHP had blocked off Ortega Highway in both directions, and the area buzzed with the business of a homicide investigation, as detectives, crime-scene technicians, coroner's investigators, CHP officers and sheriff's deputies descended.
The first to make a close inspection of the car was Laurie Crutchfield, a forensic scientist from the Orange County Crime Lab in Santa Ana. She arrived at Ortega Highway at 11:30 p.m. for what would be an all-nighter. After she was briefed about the circumstances of the bodies' discovery, Crutchfield looked inside the Stratus.
The bodies still sat in the front seat of the car, the man slumped to his right, the woman spread out and twisted onto her left side, her head resting near the steering wheel, her legs sticking out the passenger door. Both appeared to be middle-aged, the man tall, with graying brown hair and a lean, muscular build; the woman with shoulder-length brown hair, and heavy, perhaps 200 pounds or more.
They seemed to be dressed for a casual weekend night out. The woman had on blue eye shadow, lipstick and fake nails painted red. She wore a gold-and-diamond earring in the right ear---the left ear was missing its earring---a gold necklace with a diamond pendant, a gold-and-diamond bracelet and a gold watch studded with diamonds. She had on a colorful silk shirt-jacket combination, black pants and tan pantyhose. Her right foot was shoeless and pressed against the pavement, the left foot had on a red and black pump and dangled from the bottom of the door jamb.
The woman had been shot in the head, arms and torso---at least five wounds in all that Crutchfield could make out---with blood spattering on the windshield and a bone fragment landing on the passenger-side dashboard.
Outside the car, Crutchfield found a blood smear across the rear passenger door and a small trail of blood drops on the ground below. At the back of the car, near the rear passenger tire, sat the other red pump on the asphalt. It looked like the woman---while bleeding---had gotten had by out of the car and gone as far as the back tire, losing her shoe and leaving a trail of blood.
On the front seat of the driver's side was the man in his seatbelt. He wore dark blue slacks, a black polo shirt with a long-sleeved green striped shirt over it, a black fleece jacket and black dress shoes.
He had gunshot wounds to his head, including one that appeared to have gone through the back of his head and exited his right eye. A broken pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses hung from his head. There were also bullet wounds to his right arm and upper chest. There was blood on the dash and on the gearshift.
Outside the driver's-side door was a small amount of shattered glass. Much more broken glass rattled around inside the door, suggesting the window had been rolled down when a bullet struck the door, shattering most of the glass inside. It appeared the shot had come from the passenger side.
From the car, Crutchfield recovered three bullets, one from the front passenger seat, one in the rear driver's-side door and one that had fallen out of the woman's jacket when Crutchfield removed it. She couldn't find the bullet that had struck the driver's door and shattered the glass, but did find an impact mark in the pavement from where the bullet had hit the ground and ricocheted away.
At about 2:30 a.m., shortly after Crime-Scene Technician Laurie Crutchfield started processing the scene, another forensic scientist, Deputy Coroner Elizabeth Kinney, arrived. Kinney was in charge of inspecting the bodies. After getting briefed, she looked at the man first, to try to determine how long he had been dead. Death-time estimation is an inexact science and the best that coroners can do is narrow a time down to a window. In this case, Kinney looked first for signs of lividity---the pooling of blood in lower parts of the body, which happens after the heart stops. It takes about twelve hours for lividity to completely set in, longer if the body has been moved.
It appeared the man had been shot while still buckled into his seatbelt and therefore hadn't been moved. Based on the extent of lividity in his body, Kinney estimated he had been dead for four to six hours, meaning he was killed sometime between 8:30 p.m. and when the bodies were found shortly after 10 p.m.
She also examined the body for rigor mortis, the stiffening of the joints from lactic acid in the muscles. Rigor mortis starts in the smaller muscle groups of the fingers and jaw and works its way out toward the larger muscles of the legs and arms. The more active a person is before death, the more lactic acid is generated and the greater the extent of the rigor mortis.
Again, since the man appeared to have been inactive when killed---never leaving his seat---rigor mortis was not as advanced. Kinney found stiffening in his fingers, wrists and jaw. These findings also were consistent with the man being dead for four to six hours.
After more than an hour spent on the man, Kinney turned to the body of the woman. By now it was 3:45 Sunday morning. Unlike the man, the woman was not in a seatbelt, but flailed across the seat with her feet out the door. From the blood smear on the door outside and the blood drops on the ground, it appeared she had been moving around after she had been shot. "She looked like she put up a little bit of struggle," Kinney later recalled. "It looked like she was outside of the car and kind of diving into the car."
This apparent activity seemed to account for the more advanced stage of rigor mortis, with stiffening found in her knees as well as the fingers, hands and jaw. Lividity was the same as with the man. Kinney concluded, then, that despite the differences in rigor mortis, the woman had died during the same time frame as the man.
It appeared that the woman had been shot, probably in the torso and arms, then somehow gotten out of the car and dove back in, before she was finished off with the wound to the head, which would have been instantly fatal. At some point during this, the man was shot in the body and head, never even getting out of his seat.
Deputies kept the highway closed until the following Sunday afternoon, searching the surrounding brush- and rock-covered fields past the barbed wire for more evidence. All they found were some faint footprints and old beer bottles that seemed to have nothing to do with the shootings. There were no other shoeprints, no tire marks, no fibers, and, later analysis would find, no fingerprints of any use---only those later identified as belonging to the victims and to the sheriff's deputy who turned off the ignition. There was no gun found in the car, ruling out a murder--suicide. This was clearly murder. But why? It didn't seem to be a robbery. Money and credit cards weren't taken; the car wasn't stolen; the woman was still wearing her expensive diamond jewelry.
The best clue was actually a non-clue. Deputies found no bullet shell casings. That strongly suggested the murder weapon was a revolver, which doesn't eject casings but keeps them in the cylinder after firing.
The bodies were easily identified. The driver's license in the man's wallet showed he was Kenneth Stahl, age 57, of Huntington Beach, just twenty miles to the north. The license in the woman's black purse identified her as Carolyn Oppy-Stahl, at the same address in Huntington Beach. Next of kin were notified. They said the Stahls were a married couple; he was a physician and anesthesiologist, and she was an optometrist.
The pair were found on Saturday, November 20, 1999---one day after the dead woman's 44th birthday.
Copyright © 2005 by Michael Fleeman