APD Det. Julissa Trapp never relented in putting name to 5th victim in serial killer case
While the conviction in December and sentencing in February of Steven Dean Gordon for the killing and kidnapping of four women were major forward steps in a unique and complex case spanning several years, there still was a very significant missing piece of the puzzle for Anaheim Police Det. Julissa Trapp.
Who was Jane Doe? That was the fifth victim Gordon spoke of during his 13-hour confession to Trapp.
“I think right now it’s like an unfinished book,” Trapp told Behind the Badge in an interview in February. “Jane Doe deserves a name.”
And this month, that victim was identified by the APD as Sable Pickett, of Compton, who was two months away from her 20th birthday when she disappeared. It had been three years since the family had heard from Pickett, so at least now they finally have some answers as to what happened to her, said Trapp.
“I just got that one little last piece of the puzzle that I needed. I located a witness that was able to help me kind of solidify my belief … it got to a point that I was so certain of it that I knew I had to notify her family,” said Trapp, who is lead detective on the case.
The homicide detective began her career at the APD as part of the explorer program before becoming a sworn officer 19 years ago. She’s been a detective for 15 years and a homicide detective for seven.
Pickett’s disappearance followed a similar pattern to those of the other four women Gordon – and alleged crime partner Franc Cano – were arrested for on suspicion of kidnapping and killing. While Gordon is now sitting on Death Row for his part in killing the four women – Jarrae Estepp, 21, Kianna Jackson, 20, Martha Anaya, 27, and Josephine Vargas, 34 – Cano pled not guilty and is awaiting trial. Cano’s next court appearance is set for May.
“Serial killers are rare in themselves, but to have two working together is exceptionally rare,” said Trapp.
Gordon’s case was a unique one on several fronts. He’s only been the second death penalty defendant to represent himself, pro per, in Orange County, according to Trapp. Because Gordon represented himself, it afforded Trapp the opportunity for regular interaction with the prisoner as he worked on his defense.
“Pretty much every day we would meet with him,” she said.
The case began on March 14, 2014, when the body of Estepp was found by workers on a conveyer belt at a recycling center in Anaheim. Trapp and fellow investigators were able to ID Gordon and Cano as suspects on April 2, 2014 through their ankle monitors – they were on probation and registered sex offenders — and Estepp’s cell phone records, which helped investigators track parolees in the area around the time of her death. The same tracking method was used to connect the suspects to Jackson, Anaya and Vargas.
“Thank God for that [ankle] bracelet,” said Trapp.
Gordon and Cano were arrested on the same day, and while Trapp spoke to Cano briefly, he declined to speak further. Gordon’s interview, on the other hand, lasted 13 hours.
Eventually confessing to sexually assaulting and killing the four women, Gordon admitted at that time to a fifth victim, Trapp said.
“And he told me, ‘You’re missing one,’” she said.
Estepp’s body was the only one to be found. During Gordon’s confession, Trapp learned that the women’s bodies were disposed of in a trash can located where Gordon worked at an auto body shop in Anaheim Hills. Trapp said the rest of the bodies are most likely now in the landfill.
Gordon told Trapp that because trash pickup was on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, they looked for women on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, in areas around Anaheim and Santa Ana known for prostitution. All five women were prostitutes, according to Trapp.
“They were basically hunting for girls,” she said.
Hearing Gordon matter-of-factly describe the sexual assaults and killings of the women was difficult, but Trapp knew she had to be very careful with her reaction, or risk losing momentum with the interview.
“With him, I had to be on my game, because he watched me constantly,” Trapp said, adding that Gordon did not like being judged, so if she had any reaction – a hard swallow, or anything of the like – he would see it.
She said his description of the killings during the interview was emotionless, “like he was talking about ordering a pizza.”
Her experience working as a sex crimes detective for 3 1/2 years helped her during this case.
“You see the worst of the worst in people,” she said, adding that sex crimes cases are mostly made based on interviews and interrogations.
During Gordon’s 1 1/2-month trial, Trapp became well-acquainted with his personality and sometimes inconsistent behavior.
“He’s definitely a man of principle and his life is very black-and-white,” Trapp said. “There isn’t much gray when it comes to Gordon.”
In fact, he asked for the death penalty from the very beginning, she said. But because it was a death penalty case, the law dictates that he could not plead guilty and had to have a trial. He also can’t waive the appeals process, according to Trapp, and his case will automatically be appealed.
Trapp said in representing himself, Gordon had a purpose in his own mind of exposing what he felt was an ineffective probation and parole system, which he ultimately blamed for the killings.
“He was very angry with [the parole system],” Trapp said. “He was generally very angry with law enforcement.”
Trapp recalled some head-scratchers during her interactions with Gordon. Around the time of the interview, APD K9 Bruno had been shot while on duty. Trapp said Gordon commented, “‘How could anybody ever shoot a dog?’”
Trapp said she couldn’t quite believe her ears, considering he had just confessed to killing four women.
“But he had a dog and he loved his dog,” she said.
Gordon “did a lot of self-loathing” during her talks with him, she said.
“You would see glimpses of what was left of him as a decent human being … but it would switch in an instant,” she said. “If he feels like you wronged him, then you’re done.”
No matter what happened at the trial, Trapp remained in dogged pursuit of finding the identity of the fifth victim.
“All I kept thinking about is … we don’t even know who this girl is, is somebody missing her?” Trapp said.
Pickett’s family had indeed reported her missing. But without a name or photo for the fifth victim, there was little to go on.
Det. John Duran, a detective at APD for 22 years who’s worked in homicide for 19, said it was a very difficult challenge Trapp faced with such little information for the fifth victim.
“All she had was a description,” he said. “That’s no easy feat in itself.”
But Duran has seen Trapp in action and knows she will not stop once she’s onto something.
“She just won’t let it go – which is a good thing,” he said.
He said she is able to effectively walk the fine line between compassion for the victims’ families and maintaining a professional distance so as to not cloud judgment.
“She’s definitely tough-willed. In contrast, she’s very compassionate with the victims’ families, which is tough, too,” he said.
Det. Sgt. Jeff Mundy said because Trapp is so in tune with the victims in her cases and who they are, it makes her that much better at her job.
“That’s one of the things that’s she worked on and I think has troubled her during the last three years … who this girl was,” he said. “She’s just someone who always makes herself available to victims’ families… I know they will call her in the middle of the night, and she always takes their calls.”
Trapp is just glad to have been able to give Pickett’s family some answers for the young woman who “just kind of dropped off the radar … and disappeared.” APD detectives believe Pickett was kidnapped by Gordon and Cano from the Beach Boulevard area of Anaheim on Valentine’s Day 2014 and killed later that evening.
Though the family knew Pickett had veered off into prostitution, they also knew she at one point considered joining the military, said Trapp.
“I just felt like it was my responsibility. I just felt like the least I could do is give her a name,” Trapp said. “It was a combination of reaching out to the public and having someone come forward, kind of leading us in a direction. I guess ultimately it was perseverance … the sheer ‘keep going no matter what.’ In homicide, that’s kind of what we’re expected to do. It might grow cold, but it doesn’t mean we will stop. It just means we’re looking for that final piece of the puzzle.”