CSI Tustin: You won’t believe how they solved this one

By Keith Sharon

The first thing you need to know about that unforgettable day is this: It was hot.

Humid, too.

It was Aug. 25, 2010. Michele Zachariah, a civilian Police Services Officer for the Tustin Police Department, remembers that day so vividly. As she was pulling on her bulletproof vest and boots that morning, she thought, “I’m going to sweat today.”

She got in her patrol car with no idea that what would happen that day would be talked about inside her department for years.

The incident is known simply as “The Slap.”

If it wasn’t so hot, the whole thing might not have happened the way it did. If it wasn’t so hot, the slap might have been just a slap.

But it was so hot.

“That was my crowning glory,” Zachariah said last week.

***

When she was young, if you would have asked Michele Zachariah what she was going to do with her life, she would have answered you quickly.

She was going to open a daycare center.

Here’s what she learned when she opened her own daycare center: It had long hours, little pay and no benefits.

In 1999, she answered a newspaper advertisement for a position with the Fullerton Police Department – Community Service Officer. She was hired and often worked behind a desk helping with police administrative activities.

She worked in Fullerton for four years before taking the Police Services Officer position with the Tustin Police, where she was given more duties in the field. Technically, she’s a civilian. But she has police training, wears a police uniform, drives a patrol car, investigates crimes and goes to court to ask judges for search warrants.

“I’m a cop without a gun,” Zachariah said. “It’s a great job.”

Here’s the difference between Zachariah and a cop on the street: If a Police Service Officer ever comes in contact with a suspect, another officer must be present.

On Aug. 25, 2010, that very hot day, Zachariah never came in contact with the suspect.

But her work got him caught.

***

It was about 4 p.m. A husband and wife returned to their home in Tustin when they noticed something alarming.

Their front door had been kicked in.

As the man stood in his doorway, he found himself face to face with a burglar.

The burglar bolted for the door.

The man reached out and slapped the burglar across the side of his face.

It might have felt good for the man in the moment to get a shot in. But the burglar raced across the yard and got away.

He had taken diamonds and family heirlooms out of a jewelry box in the bedroom.

 

***

Zachariah was in her patrol car when the call came in that she was needed on the scene of a residential burglary. She had been trained in Crime Scene Investigation.

She went inside the South Tustin home and found the discarded jewelry box. She remembers that she took the jewelry box outside to dust it for fingerprints because she didn’t want to get fingerprint dust all over the family’s nice bedroom.

She also remembers how hot it was inside the house because the air conditioning hadn’t been turned on.

When she went outside, another police officer told her about the homeowner slapping the suspect.

Zachariah noticed again how hot it was.

Bingo. Heat equals sweat. Sweat equals DNA.

“Have you washed your hand?” she asked the homeowner.

When he said no, she swabbed his hand and sent the sample to the Orange County Crime Lab.

***

The DNA match was found in December 2010.

The suspect was a parolee named Charles Canter. He had spent some time in a sober living home in Long Beach. Tustin police found him in the Theo Lacy Jail doing time for carjacking.

He consented to give a DNA swab.

Canter was convicted of residential burglary for the incident in Tustin, and he now is serving 23 years for myriad crimes.

But he might never have been caught if it hadn’t been so hot, if the homeowner wouldn’t have slapped him.

And if Zachariah hadn’t put it all together.

“When a suspect gets away, they think they got away,” Zachariah said. “They don’t realize we’re going to catch them on the back end. It bugs me that criminals think they can victimize someone and get away with it.

“Well, you didn’t get away with it in Tustin.”

If you liked that Tustin Police story, check out this one about officer Melissa Trahan