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Diligence is key for members of the Fullerton PD’s Crimes Persons Unit

Diligence is key for members of the Fullerton PD’s Crimes Persons Unit

Diligence is key for members of the Fullerton PD’s Crimes Persons Unit 

By Lou Ponsi

A man is found bludgeoned to death in his Fullerton apartment.

The decomposed body of a woman who’d been missing from her Fullerton apartment for six days is discovered off a dirt road near Victorville.

A woman who’d been partying in a Fullerton nightclub is lured by a man into his car. She is kidnapped and raped.

These are some of the cases that have landed on detectives’ desks in the Fullerton Police Department’s Crimes Persons Unit.

Headed by Sgt. Matt Rowe, the unit has three full-time detectives and a part-time reserve detective who investigate homicides, robberies, kidnappings, assaults, missing adults, officer-involved shootings, criminal threats, non-domestic violence related stalking, annoying phone calls and weapons violations.

At any given time, each detective is working between 30 to 40 cases with up to 15 new cases coming in each week, Rowe said.

The detectives who shoulder this caseload are Veronica Gardea, Mario Magliano and Barry Coffman. Recently retired Matt Malone is back as a reservist.

It’s not unusual, especially for homicides, for the detectives to be called on days off or in the middle of the night, Rowe said.

“To be here, you have to be self-motivated and a self-starter, because if you’re not, your cases will just build up and build up,” Rowe said. “All these guys and girls here work their tails off.”

Because the unit is small, detectives often work together to solve the bigger cases, said Gardea, the newest member of the team.

“Many of our cases don’t have a known suspect, therefore, we have to do our research to try to identify them,” Gardea said. “It’s always satisfying when a suspect is identified, are arrested and charges are filed.”

While homicides take priority, a huge chunk of the caseload involves fights in the downtown bars.

Such incidents also are the toughest to investigate, Rowe said.

“Often, everyone involved has been drinking or is drunk and they have a hard time remembering exactly what happened,” he said. “Very often, the DA declines to file these cases.”

Arguably the most notable case handled by the Crimes Persons Unit was the April 9, 2009 drunk-driving murder of Henry Pearson, Courtney Stewart and Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart.

The friends were headed to a nightclub together just hours after Adenhart pitched six-innings of shutout ball against the Oakland Athletics.

They never made it.

The Mitsubishi Eclipse was hit broadside at Orangethorpe Avenue and Lemon Street by a drunk driver who sped through a red light and slammed into the Mitsubishi.

The case made national headlines and was covered by local media for months.

But even with a case that has such a high-profile victim and an unrelenting level of media attention, Magliano said his investigative approach always is the same.

“You know there is so much going on and you need to focus on what you have to get done,” he said. “I just focus on what I’m doing.”

When such cases go to trial, anxiety sometimes sets in, the detective said.

“You hope that you did the right things, dotting your Is and crossing Ts,” Magliano said.

While the basic detective work doesn’t change, each case presents unique challenges, said Magliano, a Crimes Persons investigator since 2006.

Take the case of the man who was bludgeoned to death in the middle of the day in his home.

Where had he been? What was he doing in the minutes, hours and days leading up to his death? Was he holding on to any secrets that played a part in the death?

“The crazy events that lead up to what happened are the part that is hard to figure out,” Magliano said.

In this case, the detective was able to answer those questions but still had no suspect.

But as it often does nowadays, DNA saved the day.

A DNA sample was taken from a glass half-filled with water, found at the crime scene.

However, there was no name attached to the sample in the national database.

Magliano checked with the Department of Justice periodically for months.

Still nothing.

Nine months or so had gone by and he checked again.

Finally, there was a match.

DNA taken from a man who had just been arrested for a burglary in Garden Grove matched the DNA from the glass.

The case got solved and the killer is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

And these are the cases that are the most gratifying, the detective said.

“It was awesome, especially for his wife, who was a super nice lady, and the two kids,” the detective said. “For the most part, you will get your answers, but you have to be diligent.”

Coffman’s most gratifying case centered around a 2006 missing person investigation.

From the beginning, Coffman knew there was something suspicious about the woman’s disappearance.

Those suspicions were confirmed when the woman’s body was discovered on the side of a road in San Bernardino.

She’d been strangled.

After an intense investigation that included surveillance and interviews, the woman’s neighbor was arrested, charged and convicted of murdering the woman.

He was sentenced to 110 years to life.

“A lot of work by a lot of detectives,” Coffman said of the case.

The detective still gets calls from family members expressing gratitude.

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