When Starr Lynn Mooren was stabbed to death on Dec. 12, 1996, it was front page news in the Monterey County Herald. A year later, the identity of the murderer was still a mystery and the case again got press coverage, in print and on television, when investigators staged a re-enactment of the crime. But now, except for friends and family of the victim--and the investigators on whose desk the file remains open--the case is mostly forgotten.

In that regard, the Mooren case is like most other unsolved homicides. After an initial flurry of interest by the press and the public, the case disappears from view. Ever hungry for new developments, the press does not keep tabs on crimes for which there is no ready suspect.

Even high-profile cases like the Christina Williams abduction and murder fade into obscurity. For months, while Williams was still listed as missing, her story and face appeared in local and national press, along with composite drawings of the suspected perpetrators. But after Williams'' body was found, ending any urgency to find the girl before harm befell her, the story sank like a stone in public consciousness. With no new leads or suspects the story essentially died in the press. After all, there was nothing new to report.

Although most cases don''t get the same level of exposure that Williams'' did, the pattern is repeated over and over again. In the city of Monterey alone, there are 17 unsolved homicides dating back to 1971 that are still under official investigation by detectives Leslie Sonné and Bill Clark, who are charged with finding answers to some of the toughest questions in the city''s crime logs.

Monterey, of course, is not unique. Throughout the county, there are dozens of murders that are still begging for answers, and while we don''t hear much about the status of those cases, investigators repeatedly return to those files, attempting to unravel the deadly riddles.

Starr Mooren''s murder is one of those cases.

Starr Lynn Mooren''s murder came in the middle of a particularly bloody two days in Monterey County history. On Wednesday, Dec. 11, 1996, Maria de Jesus Ortega was shot to death by her estranged husband, Miguel Villasenor Morales, while she sat in her car outside the Salinas apartment building where she lived. Morales led police on a chase north on Highway 101 that culminated with eight officers opening fire and killing him when he exited the vehicle, they say, waving a gun.

Near midnight on Thursday, shots rang out on Phoenix in Seaside. Nineteen-year-old Noftali Oswaldo Cruz-Garcia was hit multiple times, 20-year-old Darwin Fadhul Lopez just once. Both were pronounced dead at the scene. An hour later, 18-year-old Juan E. Alvarado was arrested. Reportedly, the three men had argued about a girlfriend.

But where these cases were open-and-shut crimes, the murder of Starr Lynn Mooren in Monterey continues to haunt detectives with the Monterey Police Department.

Not long after 5pm on Thursday, the petite, blue-eyed Mooren left Bob McGinnis Travel in Carmel, where she worked as a travel agent. She got into her late model Nissan Sentra and drove home to 34 Buena Vista, a short, twisty street that snakes between Munras and the top of Pacific. At that time of year, it would have been nearly dark, and as Mooren drove through the drizzling rain she probably hit the Christmas shopping traffic at Del Monte Center. Not far away, in downtown Monterey, luminarias flickered outside the city''s historic structures as seasonal revelers, bundled against temperatures that fell to 55 degrees that day, strolled from building to building during the city''s annual "Christmas in the Adobes" celebration.

Buena Vista is a quiet street, with neatly landscaped yards that boast plenty of oaks, cypress trees, tall fences and shrubs that give the residents a sense of privacy and limit their views of neighboring houses. Near the Munras end of the street, a handful of houses, including the one in which Mooren lived, are located in a short cul-de-sac that''s not much more than a driveway, really. It would have been virtually impossible for anyone except her immediate neighbors to see Mooren--or any other vehicle or individual--once she turned into the privacy of that cul-de-sac.

Just as Mooren virtually disappeared into the privacy of her neighborhood, so too have the details of what exactly happened during the next four hours.

At approximately 9:15pm, Mooren''s fiancé, Tommy Charfauros, arrived home and found Mooren''s body in the living room. There was blood everywhere. Patrol officers responding to Charfauros'' call quickly determined that Mooren was dead and summoned detectives to the scene. Detective Leslie Sonné, transitioning from patrol officer into detective work, was one of them.

Today, Sonné is one of two officers, along with Bill Clark, who are assigned to investigate "long-term major crimes." Clark, recalling the description of the crime scene and victim from the initial report, characterizes Mooren''s multiple stab wounds as "consistent with sudden rage, and then some to ensure finality." Although Sonné and Clark, today, are reluctant to talk about the murder weapon, a report in the Herald two days after the murder says a bloody kitchen knife, believed to be the murder weapon, was found at the scene.

There were no signs of forced entry, and testimony from more than 100 people paint a profile of Mooren as someone who was particularly security conscious--someone who kept her lights on and her doors and windows locked. It seemed pretty clear that Mooren knew her murderer. In most such cases, the person closest to the victim becomes the most likely suspect. In this case, that person was Charfauros.

But Charfauros, a tilesetter who worked for his brother at the time, had been in the Bay Area making pick-ups and deliveries for a large part of the day, and there were plenty of people who could corroborate that he was nowhere near the crime scene at 6pm, the time of Mooren''s estimated death.

Neighbors had seen nothing. It would have been dark by the time Mooren arrived home, and that, coupled with the physical layout of the area, may have contributed to the inability of neighbors to help in identifying other possible suspects.

However, in the course of their investigation, detectives did come up with one promising lead that opened another line of investigation. But it was a clue that cut two ways: At the same time it offered new hope, it also vastly complicated the investigators'' work.

  Starr Lynn Mooren

Everybody''s Got Something to Lose

As the investigation into Mooren''s murder continued, the Monterey Police Department called in an analyst from the Department of Justice who specialized in developing profiles of victims and suspects. This profiler pointed out that everybody''s life is broken into three categories: the public one, which is shared with many others; a personal life that encircles friends and family, and a private life with details that are known to only a very, very few. It may be in this last category that the details of Mooren''s death lie: It turned out that Mooren was, in Clark''s words, "a working drug user--one of the things in her private life was her drug use."

Mooren''s use of methamphetamine could mean that she came into contact with less-than-savory dealers and connections--people who were well-enough known to the victim that she would open her door to them if they came knocking. Certainly it''s a tantalizing lead in a case where good leads are hard to find. But the very nature of the lead makes it difficult to follow.

"Getting some people to even talk about that is difficult," says Clark. "They want to protect the person who died." And, if they''re close enough to the private life of Mooren to know about the illegal drug deals, to know the details of who''s selling what to whom, they may also want to protect themselves as well. "It has made the homicide investigation much more difficult for us," he says.

After interviewing more than 100 people in the Mooren case, there is little hope that Sonné and Clark will solve the crime based on personal testimony. As Sonné puts it, "There may be only one person who knows the identity of the killer."

Hard Evidence Gone Soft

In the absence of testimony, Sonné and Clark are left examining and re-examining the physical evidence, which might yield the identity of Mooren''s killer. Then again, it might not.

Contrary to many people''s expectations, even when fingerprints are left at a crime scene, they frequently fail to provide sufficient evidence. Unless a person has been previously arrested for a crime, there is no databank cataloguing a full set of fingerprints for all individuals. About the most complete catalog of prints belongs to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and they only do thumbs. So, for investigators to make use of that database, a criminal must leave a clean thumbprint somewhere. And even then, the print is of limited value: Unlike Department of Justice fingerprint files, the DMV database cannot be searched by pattern--cops must discover a clean thumbprint from a suspect whose name they know, then they can go to the database to compare the known suspect''s print with what the DMV has on file.

If a print can be specifically identified on a victim, weapon or scene, it can be particularly damning evidence, but unless the crime was committed by a repeat felon whose prints are already on file with DOJ, it seems to take an almost serendipitous chain of events to make the case work.

Similarly, although DNA evidence is a much-heralded technique for tracking down criminals, it''s far from being a fail-safe method.

While it''s generally easier to obtain a DNA sample from a crime scene--even in an incomplete fingerprint, tiny skin particles are left behind, offering up their silent testimony--it''s subject to one of the same shortcomings as fingerprints: There is no database that holds the DNA for everyone in the country.

Even so, DNA evidence can be so conclusive in establishing the identity of a killer that departments all around the country are using the technology in an attempt to solve cases, both old and new. As a result, the state DOJ crime lab in Berkeley that analyzes the DNA samples is backed up for months and police departments are forced to use private labs--and pay premium prices--if they want a quick answer to their questions.

This makes DNA research a time-consuming and expensive proposition. Even so, detectives can, and do, ask suspects to voluntarily give up their DNA samples in the hope of finding a match with specimens taken from the crime scene. It can sometimes be a dicey negotiation, with detectives needing to reassure suspects that the DNA sample will not be kept on file unless it matches DNA samples from the scene and leads to an arrest and conviction.

According to Sonné, most of the people she and Clark talk with are happy to comply with the request for a DNA sample. After all, she reasons, if a person isn''t guilty, he or she doesn''t have any reason to object.

In the Starr Mooren case, Sonné and Clark have already made multiple trips out of state, to Texas and Nevada, talking to people and asking for permission to take a swab from the inside of the person''s mouth. The DNA from these swabs has been compared to DNA samples from the crime scene and while some possible suspects have been eliminated, no new leads have turned up.

Still, the DNA samples from the scene of Mooren''s murder might be the best lead Sonné and Clark have to go on. With each passing year, more samples are added to the DOJ databank and someday, maybe, one of those samples will match up with that taken from the Mooren homicide scene.

Fresh Eyes, Fresh Theories

When detectives Sonné and Clark were detailed to long-term investigations about a year and a half ago, it marked a change of policy for the Monterey Police Department. Prior to then, patrol officers were rotated into and out of detective positions, both to keep fresh eyes looking at ongoing investigations and to keep officers in touch with the streets. While that policy had its merits, it also meant that there was no long-term memory for investigations. Although Sonné and Clark are also called on as detectives in other cases, they have become keepers of the flame for the unsolved homicides in Monterey''s recent history.

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In essence, Sonné and Clark have been able to start each investigation from scratch, relying on previously gathered evidence and testimony but applying their own theories and moving down previously ignored or unexplored avenues of investigation.

"It''s easy to get locked into one theory," says Sonné, pointing out that she and Clark are not tied to previous detectives'' hypotheses. "It''s easier to look at things with fresh eyes."

But facing the same unsolved cases on a daily basis can be both a blessing and a curse.

While they now have a certain amount of luxury in the time they can devote to solving some of the most frustrating cases, they are also stuck with the same unanswered questions facing them day in and day out, and they struggle not to get locked into their own theories.

"It''s rewarding," says Sonné, "and it''s frustrating because everyone else gets rotated out and we''re still here."

Of the 17 cases still sitting on the Monterey detectives'' desks (see sidebar), they estimate they are actively working on fewer than half of them.

"We''ve gone through all of them, based on DNA evidence or other physical evidence, and whether there are witnesses, and made priorities," says Sonne.

And sometimes, it seems, the detectives take particular cases personally. Where Sonne displays a certain animation when talking about the Mooren case, Clark gets more intense when talking about the August 1984 murder of Diane Fox. According to Clark, Fox''s boyfriend called at 4pm on Aug. 5 to report her missing; he testified that she left her Monterey house to go to the store at 2am that morning but never returned. She was found stabbed to death near Marina two days later, and there is still insufficient evidence to make an arrest in the case.

In each of the Mooren and Fox cases, it seems as if there may only be one person who knows what really went down--each woman''s killer. In both cases, waiting and hoping for new DNA evidence from the DOJ databank may be the detectives'' only hope.

But there are other unsolved crimes where Sonne and Clark remain hopeful for new testimony that will reveal the killers.

There are equal amounts of disgust and frustration in both detectives'' voices when they talk about the 1991 shooting of 21-year-old Stephen Briggs and the 1995 shooting of James Finnegan.

"[Briggs''] murder occurred in a group of young people, in their teens and 20s," says Sonne. "That case could move forward if someone would do the right thing." And, in the Finnegan case, she adds, "People were there, people who know what happened."

Meanwhile, as the detectives continue their slow work, they must also field calls from friends and family members of the victims who are anxious to know that their loved ones have not been forgotten.

"I just talked to Finnegan''s widow," says Clark. "She still erects crosses where he was killed.

"These things stay with you. You want to see some sort of closure. Like Mrs. Finnegan, you wait for a break."

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