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April 17, 2001, 4 p.m.
Diane Lindholm rounded the corner in her noisy pickup truck, passing the new suburban subdivisions carved from the ranches that once dominated rural Riverside, California. One by one, ranchers had cashed out to developers, resulting in a jarring mix of empty, overgrown lots and urban sprawl next to the older mansions of monied ranchers. Lindholm, fifty, lived and worked on her own ranch, or ranchette, as purists would put it.
The two-and-a-half-acre property had a barn, two corrals where Lindholm trained horses and gave riding lessons, and a tack room to store saddles, bridles, and horse grooming gear. The ranch, where Lindholm lived with her twelve-year-old son, Eric, was two miles from a newly sprouted development of ranch-style homes whose driveways featured shiny sport utility vehicles that rarely touched dirt. Lindholm’s Ford F-250 diesel truck was dusty from hauling hay and horse tack and pulling her horse trailer.
Her natural blond ringlets falling to her shoulders, Lindholm pulled into the driveway and hopped out of her truck to unlock the gate. She frowned when she saw the lock dangling from the latch and a glint from a link in the broken metal chain shining on the gravel driveway. The rest of the chain was wrapped around the gate. Lindholm’s first thought was that teenagers had broken in to bother the horses, but her concern was mounting. Her son hadn’t been at the bus stop waiting for her to pick him up, and it was too quiet. Where were her dogs, Zachary and Sparky?
Lindholm parked in the driveway and walked across the front lawn toward the house, not knowing whether to be annoyed or scared.
Lindholm froze. Gunshots were not uncommon in the semi-rural area. People sometimes shot rabbits in the seven-acre field behind her property or hunted the wild pigs that foraged in the riverbed bordering her property. Despite her fear, Lindholm was determined to check inside the house to see if her son was there. A few steps from the front door, she was startled to see someone out of the corner of her eye. A young woman with long, blond hair emerged from the breezeway adjoining the house and the tack room.
“Can I help you?” Lindholm called out to her.
“I’ve been hired to work here,” the girl replied.
She was lying. Lindholm hadn’t hired anyone. Fidgety and thin, the girl wore trendy jeans with holes at the knees and a light-colored top, hardly the type of outfit one would wear to muck out a barn or bale hay. Lindholm heard a man’s voice coming from behind the vine-covered trellis that shielded the breezeway. She couldn’t see the man or make out the words, but his voice was low and authoritative, as if he was giving directions. The girl looked toward the source of the voice, then back at Lindholm. She didn’t know why the strange girl was on her property and began worrying about her son’s whereabouts.
“O.K.,” Lindholm responded, thinking quickly. “I’m just going to run inside and get a glass of water.”
She tried to stay calm as she walked the remaining few yards to her front door. Once inside, she thought only of her son as she raced frantically through the house to his bedroom. She didn’t notice the kitchen window pane on the counter. She tore open her son’s bedroom door. He wasn’t there.
She ran to the kitchen phone and dialed 9-1-1. The dispatcher told her to leave the house immediately. She was instructed to lock the house, walk slowly to her truck, drive to a neighbor’s house and wait for police. As Lindholm spoke with the dispatcher, she watched the young woman standing in the breezeway, turning to her right and looking down, apparently talking with the man hiding behind the trellis. From the house, Lindholm could see only the girl. Why hadn’t she moved from the breezeway?
It seemed like a very long walk back to her truck as the gravity of the moment sank in. Lindholm was too frightened to turn her head to see if the young woman was still there. She wanted to run but tried not to appear rushed or anxious. Lindholm quietly got into her truck, glancing up only to notice that the strange girl was still standing by the tack room, talking with the man hidden by the trellis.
Why would this young woman and her unseen companion break the lock to get on her property? All Lindholm had were horses, and this girl wasn’t dressed like someone who knew her way around a corral. Who was behind the trellis? Did one of them fire the gun?
More importantly, where was her son?
County Gas Pumps on Etiwanda Avenue
Mira Loma, California
“Two Edward eleven, stand by to copy. 459 in progress.”
Deputy Jim Erickson turned his head slightly to talk into the compact radio microphone strapped to his chest, recognizing the penal code section for residential burglary. It was the end of the day shift and Erickson, like dozens of other deputies, was at one of the gas pumps scattered around the county topping off the tank of his cruiser.
“459 in progress,” the dispatcher said. “Riverview at 46th. White female twenties, last seen wearing light-colored shirt over jeans. Possibly a male suspect, no further description. Reporting party was advised by dispatch to leave.”
Erickson replaced the gas nozzle, hopped in his patrol car, and punched the accelerator. The patrol supervisor advised him to drive with lights but no siren. It would take him at least twenty minutes in the build of pre–rush hour traffic to travel the more than eight miles to the location. He took Mission Boulevard to avoid the freeway and listened to the buzz from intermittent radio calls as he drove. He recognized the voice of his supervisor, Sergeant Ralph Johnson, who said he would personally report to the Riverview address, and that of Deputy Chris Barajas, who was close to the neighborhood. Minutes later, the dispatcher broadcast reports of two intruders hopping fences in the Loring Ranch neighborhood, a fairly new residential subdivision a little over a mile from the Riverview address. Erickson heard Johnson, en route to Riverview, sending additional units to Riverview and to Loring Ranch. Dispatch was quickly flooded with calls from frightened residents in the subdivision.
Erickson was approaching the Riverview location when the radio crackled again. “Two Edward eleven, stand by to copy,” the dispatcher said. “86 the response to a 459 at Riverview and 46th,” the dispatcher said, giving him the code to abandon his previous assignment. Erickson listened to the new instructions: “Suspicious persons fleeing, one male, one female, no further description, southbound from location in vicinity of Loring Ranch,” the dispatcher said. “Air 1 en route.”
Deputy Erickson flipped on his siren, punched the brakes to spin his unit around, and sped toward Loring Ranch.
The twins had been squirming in the back of the van all the way home from school. Monique Bihm drove the giggling boys and their older sister through the newly built Loring Ranch subdivision. The developer had sought to carve out the maximum number of cul-de-sacs, creating a maze of look-alike, dead-end streets. Bihm swung the car right, then made a series of lefts through the labyrinth and a final left onto Ruis Court.
Loring Ranch was a project of the county redevelopment agency, whose mission was to revitalize the economically challenged part of Rubidoux. The housing tract resembled a gameboard of miniature suburbia with boxy starter homes in tiny squares of yard. Scrawny trees and ankle-high hedges afforded meager privacy, as did the proximity of homes. They were so close together, it was as easy to see into the next-door neighbor’s yard as the yard several houses over. But the residents were willing to overlook such deficits in order to own a home within a two-hour freeway drive of the greater Los Angeles area.
Once Bihm turned the corner, she saw her children’s chalk artwork decorating the blacktop in front of the house. She made a sharp left turn to avoid the row of chalk houses that looked just like the ones on their street, some with wisps of smoke coming out of the chimneys. She parked to the far left of the wide, concrete driveway and pushed a button on the console to unlock the passenger doors. The three kids noisily spilled out of the car and into the front yard to play. Though it was mid-April, icicle-style Christmas lights dripped from the roofline, topping the flagstone-framed picture window that overlooked the trimmed and treeless lawn.
Bihm turned around and pulled the children’s backpacks from the backseat, then flipped up the visor on the driver’s side for the button to the garage-door opener. Laden with book bags, Bihm walked up the driveway as the garage door yawned open to reveal a weight-lifting bench, a treadmill, and boxes of camping equipment. She walked past the garage wall of neatly hung rakes and hoes and entered the side door into the kitchen.
After piling the backpacks on the kitchen table, she made a call, cradling the phone at her shoulder while she fixed the children a snack. Then she heard the screams.
Tamara, ten, and Cameron, seven, ran past their mother into the kitchen through the side door to the garage. She rushed to the door and saw a large, brown Suburban in the garage, its front bumper rammed against the wall a few feet from the kitchen door. A middle-aged man at the wheel was gunning the engine, repeatedly slamming into the metal shelves and crushing Bihm’s camping equipment as if he were trying to wedge the oversized SUV into the too-small garage. A sickening swirl of exhaust fumes quickly filled the garage as the Suburban’s wheels squealed and spun on the slick concrete floor. And suddenly Bihm came face-to-face with a disturbed young woman at her kitchen door.
“Don’t call the police!” cried the woman. She seemed panicked. “They’re coming after us. You need to help us. Please don’t call the police!”
Stunned and terrified, Bihm dropped the phone and yelled at the female intruder to get out. Instead, the thin, blonde woman pushed the kitchen door trying to force her way into the house. Fear turned to outrage as Bihm instinctively pushed back, sending the young woman sprawling. The woman quickly recovered, lunged to the left of the kitchen door and slammed her hand on the button to close the garage door. It descended, struck the Suburban’s bumper, then bounced up again.
The strange but terrifying battle escalated as the young woman used all of her might to shove her way into Bihm’s home while trying to close the garage door in a vain attempt to conceal the large Suburban. Bihm had to summon all of her strength to keep the woman out of her house. She occasionally locked eyes with the dark-haired man behind the wheel who fixed an angry gaze at her, as if he were indignant that she would not let them barge into her home.
Bihm frantically scanned the garage for her other son, who she thought might be cowering behind some boxes. She spotted him, stock still and panic stricken, pinned between the garage wall and the Suburban’s passenger-side door that was hanging open inches from the kitchen door. It looked as though he had tried to run into the house but had become penned in when the car door swung open. The boy stood there with his arms sticking out, between the passenger-side door and the wall, just out of Bihm’s reach.
Bihm screamed for him to come inside, but he stared blankly, immobilized by the noise and the confusion. She reached out of the door jamb to grab him, but the woman blocked her. Bihm yelled at the woman to get out of her garage and screamed for her son to get in the house.
“We need help,” the woman yelled back, again pressing the automatic door device as the garage door banged against the Suburban. “Please don’t call the police. My husband is hurt.”
Bihm reflexively glanced up at the driver and, as if on cue, he dramatically slumped over toward passenger seat.
That infuriated Bihm. With a surge of adrenaline, she gave the woman a hard shove on the shoulder, sending her lurching backward. Clinging to the door frame, Bihm leaned out as far as she could, grabbed her son’s shirt, and gave it a hard yank. She dragged the boy into the house, slammed the kitchen door shut, and locked it. Through the door, Bihm heard the revving car engine and the woman’s screams.
With her hand in a death grip on her son’s shirt, Bihm dragged him down the hall to hunt for the phone and hit the speed-dial button for 9-1-1. She released her grasp and all three children silently clung to her, too terrified to cry. Bihm and the children migrated slowly into the living room. She realized that her body ached and she was gasping for air. It had taken all of her strength to prevent the woman and her male companion from pushing into her house. As she spoke with the dispatcher, the clamor from the garage died down. Then she heard the man’s voice, commanding and cold.
Bihm gave the dispatcher a description of the two intruders: The woman was thin with bleached blond hair, stood about five feet four inches tall, and wore jeans and a spaghetti-strapped shirt. Beyond that general physical description, Bihm realized that she had never seen the face of the woman with whom she had struggled, albeit on opposite sides of a kitchen door. Instead, she had locked eyes with the man behind the wheel. Bihm had been transfixed by his icy glare. She would not forget his face.
Bihm was still giving the 9-1-1 dispatcher information when she saw the couple on foot outside her living room window. The man sprinted out of her driveway and ran directly across the street. The woman emerged from the garage, on Bihm’s right, and ran across the lawn within feet of their living room window to the next-door neighbor’s house to the left.
Within moments, the man came back into view and ran in Bihm’s direction calling for the woman, who did a jerky half-jog to the middle of the street to meet him. The sparse landscaping provided a full view, allowing Bihm to relay every detail of the couple’s frenetic flight though the small neighborhood to the dispatcher as she watched from her living room window. The man and woman sprinted to the house across the street and seemed prepared to scale the side yard fence when a dog barked at them from the other side. The couple turned and ran across the lawn to the house next door. The man helped boost the woman over the flimsy wood stake fence into the side yard, then hoisted himself over the top and dropped out of Bihm’s sight.
Aaron Rogers was working in his home office when he heard scuffling in his backyard. He didn’t see anything in his own yard, but at six feet four inches, he could easily see over the fence he shared with his neighbor. Puzzled, Rogers saw a man and a woman kneeling at the water spigot by some deck chairs, rubbing their hands together under the running water. The couple’s clothes were dripping wet.
“Hey, what the heck is going on?” Rogers saw his neighbor, Paul Heckel, confront the couple from his backyard patio. The couple jumped to their feet and started pacing around the tiny side yard as if deciding what to do, their movements jittery and jerky. It didn’t look normal; to Rogers, it looked like they were under the influence of drugs.
Within a few minutes, Roberts heard Heckel come around to the front of the house from the street side of the gate. Heckel had a gun in his hand and he was pointing it at them.
“Get down now!!!” Heckel shouted. “I have a weapon and I will shoot!”
The couple ignored him and ran down the side of his house toward the back fence. Heckel had landscaped a berm, making it easier to scramble over. That fence led to the backyards of homes on Osage Avenue.
“You get on that fence and I will shoot you off the top of it. Now get down!!!” Heckel shouted. After a tense moment, the man’s hands went to the top of the fence.
“Stop and lie facedown on the ground! Lie down on the ground now!” Heckel shouted. The couple stopped and stared. Moving in slow motion, they started to crouch down toward the ground. Then the man slowly stood and put his hands up, palms facing Heckel.
“No, no, we can’t do that, sir,” the man said, sounding agitated, as if he was in a hurry to get out of there. “We can’t do that.”
Excerpted from Beauty Killers by .
Copyright © 2010 by Kathy Braidhill.
Published in May 2010 by St. Martin’s Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.