Cold case files: Woman strangled, bound then burned in Tustin apartment complex

By Jaimee Lynn Fletcher

A list of maybes surrounds the case detectives with the Tustin Police Department have been trying to solve for nearly three decades.

Maybe someone who clammed up before is ready to talk.

Maybe a detail will emerge that uncovers new evidence.

Maybe someone new will come forward.

These possibilities are why Tustin Police continue to investigate the case of Rachel Leah Sugarman – a 47-year-old woman who in 1988 was bound and strangled before the killer set her apartment on fire.

Sugarman’s case is one of 12 cold cases detectives with the Tustin Police Department are reinvestigating.

“We are going to use modern technology to re-examine some cold cases that span back into early 80s,” said Lt. Jeff Blair, who is overseeing the program. “Unsolved murders are never closed.”

Unsolved murder 

Police at about 8:30 a.m. on July 19, 1988 responded to reports of a fire at the Cosmopolitan Apartment complex in the 14000 block of Newport Boulevard, an area that is now a housing tract.

The Cosmos, as they were nicknamed, were a logistical nightmare for Tustin police.

Although the development won awards for its architecture and design, many officers have tales of the confusing layout of the property, unmarked and undistinguishable apartments and the crime-plagued common areas.

When officers arrived at the structure fire, smoke billowed from the small apartment.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze, then surveyed the charred property.

Peter Kalesnick, Sugarman’s husband and a Marine, came home from the El Toro base when officers called him to report what happened.

A pot of coffee was found on the stove, which Kalesnick told investigators he first thought was the reason the apartment burned.

Sugarman’s car was not at the property, but that was expected.  Her husband told police she had errands to run that morning.

But when Kalesnick got a phone call several hours later saying Sugarman did not pick up his son for an appointment, he was worried.

Bruce Williams, left, and Ryan Coe, now a sergeant with Tustin PD, investigated the Rachel Sugarman case from 2010 to 2013. Tustin detectives are again taking up the case in hopes of finding new leads. Photo courtesy Tustin PD.

Bruce Williams, left, and Ryan Coe, now a sergeant with Tustin PD, investigated the Rachel Sugarman case from 2010 to 2013. Tustin detectives are again taking up the case in hopes of finding new leads. Photo courtesy Tustin PD.

“That wasn’t like her,” said Sgt. Ryan Coe, who investigated the case from 2010 to 2013. “She didn’t just not show up.”

Police sifted through the debris of the apartment and found Sugarman’s body.

She had been bound and strangled before the suspect set the apartment on fire using some kind of accelerant, Coe said.

Police later recovered her car in Santa Ana and found someone had crashed it, then abandoned it.

Police believe Sugarman, a part-time waitress, drove her husband to the base early that morning then returned home to brew a pot of coffee before starting her errands.

Sugarman was then attacked and killed. Some detectives suspect she may have been sexually assaulted.

A neighbor walking her dogs in the complex told police she saw two black men exit Sugarman’s apartment.

Shortly after, the structure fire was reported.

“Someone from that apartment complex knows something,” Coe said.

Detectives have interviewed dozens of people and reviewed and re-reviewed evidence.

Police followed leads to Chicago, St. Louis, Louisiana and Indiana looking for answers.
The last time police worked the case was when Coe took it up in 2010. He worked on it for about three years before rotating out of the detective bureau.

“I think this case can definitely be solved with the help of the community,” Coe said. “There are a lot of people who would love to see this case come to fruition.”

New investigator 

Detective Natalie Nguyen is the next to take on the Sugarman case, and it’s one that she’s familiar with.

The 12 binders full of reports, notes, leads and evidence served as a case study in a course she was taking about a year ago that covered how to work cold cases, she said.

At the end of her class, several other law enforcement officers from different agencies weighed in and everyone came to the same conclusion, she said.

“We determined the investigators did everything right,” Nguyen said.

That leaves Nguyen with combing over the list of persons of interest, witnesses, family members and friends and re-interviewing everyone as her starting point.

“Right now I just want to get in there,” Nguyen said of delving into the case. “Maybe someone who was interviewed but didn’t want to talk at the time will have new information.”

So Nguyen will start her investigation with that maybe and hope for answers.

If anyone has any information regarding this case call Det. Natalie Nguyen 714-573-3253

 

Rachel Sugarman was a housewife and part-time waitress who was murdered in 1988. Tustin police believe two black men seen leaving her apartment the morning she was killed are the suspects in the case. Photo courtesy Tustin PD.

Rachel Sugarman was a housewife and part-time waitress who was murdered in 1988. Tustin police believe two black men seen leaving her apartment the morning she was killed are the suspects in the case. Photo courtesy Tustin PD.