SANTA ANA (CBSLA.com/AP) — Two parolees raped and killed at least four women while wearing GPS trackers, and there may be more victims, an Orange County police chief alleged Monday.
Registered sex offenders Franc Cano, 27, and Steven Dean Gordon, 45, were both wearing ankle bracelets when the women were assaulted and killed last fall and earlier this year, Anaheim police Chief Raul Quezada said at a news conference.
Authorities at the news conference did not explain how Cano and Gordon allegedly managed to carry out the killings while under supervision, but Quezada said data from the GPS devices “was one of the investigative tools we used to put the case together.”
Anaheim police Lt. Bob Dunn earlier said the two were complying with a requirement to check in monthly with authorities and police had no reason to watch them more closely and hadn’t received any such request from other agencies.
The discovery of one woman’s body on a conveyor belt at an Anaheim trash-sorting plant last month was the key to breaking the case, Quezada said. Investigators were seeking the other bodies.
“They put a stop to a serial killing that would likely have continued beyond this point,” District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said at the news conference.
Quezada said authorities were confident that there was at least a fifth victim and perhaps more.
The department has contacted other places with missing-persons cases across the country, Dunn said earlier.
Police believe the men killed a woman in Anaheim this year and three in Santa Ana last October and November while on parole.
Cano and Gordon were arrested by investigators on Friday. Each man was charged Monday with four felony counts of special circumstances murder and four felony counts of rape.
If convicted, they could face a minimum sentence of life without parole or the death penalty. They were being held without bail and expected to be arraigned Tuesday.
Police at first didn’t link the disappearances of the four women to the suspects, considering them missing persons rather than murder victims.
“These individuals were not on our radar whatsoever,” Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas said of the suspects. “Our three missing in Santa Ana just completely went off the grid and we were trying to follow up as much as we could.”
Santa Ana police searched a canyon, examined the women’s cellphone records, alerted hospitals, put the word out on social media and even checked motels they were known to frequent but without success in finding them.
Then the naked body of Jarrae Nykkole Estepp, 21, was found March 14 on a conveyor belt at an Anaheim trash-sorting plant.
Once investigators concluded that Estepp was killed and that she had “a similar profile to our victims, we were able to … move forward,” Rojas said.
Police believe Cano and Gordon have known each other since cutting their ankle bracelets in 2012 and boarding a Greyhound bus to Las Vegas using fake names. The men were arrested by federal agents on May 8, 2012, after a two-week stay at Circus Circus Hotel & Casino, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Nevada.
Both were wanted fugitives: Gordon traveled using the alias Dexter McCoy and Cano chose Joseph Madrid, authorities said.
Cano and Gordon were previously ordered to register as sex offenders after being convicted in separate cases of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14.
Gordon was convicted in 1992 and also has a 2002 kidnapping conviction, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office. Cano’s conviction dates back to 2008, prosecutors said.
After fleeing Los Angeles in 2012, the two were rearrested and both pleaded guilty to failure to register as a sex offender. They were ordered to provide DNA samples and have their computers monitored by federal agents, according to the federal documents, which were first obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
The men also checked in with Anaheim police every 30 days, as required, and provided updated photos, fingerprints and addresses, Dunn said.
In fact, both men checked in earlier this month, Dunn said.
Cano was wearing a state-issued ankle bracelet and Gordon was wearing a federal GPS device, he said.
The string of disappearances in Santa Ana began in October after Kianna Jackson, 20, of Las Vegas, arrived in the city for a court hearing on four misdemeanor charges of prostitution and loitering to commit prostitution. Her mother said she stopped responding to her text messages soon after she arrived in Santa Ana.
Josephine Monique Vargas, 34, was last seen Oct. 24 after leaving a family birthday party to go to a store. The Times said Vargas had a rough past that at times involved drug use and prostitution, but her mother said she had been trying to better her life.
Martha Anaya, 28, asked her boyfriend to pick up their 5-year-old daughter so she could work on Nov. 12, then stopped responding to his messages later that night. Police said she also had a history of prostitution.
In the weeks before she was found dead at the trash-sorting plant, Estepp, had become a regular on a strip of Beach Boulevard in Anaheim long known for prostitution. Her mother, Jodi Pier Estepp, says she was trying to turn her life around.
“It’s a loss that will never be able to be explained. She was my best friend. She’s got a whole family that is distraught from it,” Estepp said. “I’ll never heal from it.”
Estepp says someone should have kept track of the suspects’ whereabouts.
“Why put it on them if you’re not going to do your job? Your job should have been done before they were killed,” the mother said.
Homicide detectives were asking law enforcement agencies across the country to check missing person cases to see if the two suspected serial killers could be connected to more murders.
Anyone with additional information should contact Orange County Crime Stoppers at (855) TIP-OCCS.