Note: episode transcripts are radio scripts - please keep that in mind as you come across notations and errors in the text. Click here for the audio version of the episode.
*** New Year’s 2000 ***
Elaine Ramos was planning a big party. It was 1999, New Year’s Eve was coming soon, and she wanted to celebrate Y2K with friends and family at her home in Monterey, California. She was excited.
Even more so when her cousin, Eunsoon Jun, called with some big news.
[Ramos] “She called to say that she had met somebody and asked if she could bring him. And I thought sure, this is somebody that she’s finally met that she’s in love with, of course you can bring him.”
Elaine and Eunsoon were close. Their families both immigrated to the U.S. from Korea when they were young and they grew up together.
Elaine knew that Eunsoon had a hard time when it came to dating. So when Eunsoon, now in her mid-40s, called to say she had met someone, it was a big deal. Elaine couldn’t wait to meet him.
Elaine’s house in Monterey sits at the end of a cul de sac in a suburb full of nice ranch-style houses. When Eunsoon and her new boyfriend arrived on the day of the party, Elaine stepped outside to greet them.
[Ramos] “First of all, when they drove up it was in this dirty, white van. It didn’t have windows on it, it was one of those cargo vans. And I thought, ‘wow.’ But then when they came up to the door and I opened the door and saw his face, I had a chill run down my back that I’ve never in my life, ever had before. And he stuck out his hand to shake my hand and I saw the long dirty fingernails that just creeped me out.”
Eunsoon’s new boyfriend, Larry Vanner, looked ragged and dirty. He seemed a lot older than Eunsoon. He was bald on top, with patches of messy brown hair sprouting out on the sides. He wore a mustache, and his voice was a deep drawl. The only thing inviting about him, Elaine remembers, were his eyes. They were a shade of deep blue that seemed to sparkle in the light. Elaine says it was almost like they were made of glass.
Elaine was unsettled by her first impression of Vanner, but she wanted to be supportive.
[Ramos] “Eunsoon was just beaming. She was so happy to introduce him to the family.”
Later in the evening, as the party got going, Elaine tried again with the new boyfriend. She sat across a bar from Vanner and starting chatting.
[Ramos] “And so I asked him, I said ‘what have you done?’ And he just stared at me and said ‘I’m a retired colonel in the army.’ And I said ‘really? Because my boss is a retired full bird colonel and maybe you two know each other because I think you’re about the same age.’”
Vanner leaned over the bar close to Elaine and said:
[Ramos] “Don’t ever question me or ask me again about my past.”
Before Elaine could react, Vanner brightened back up, smiling and making small talk as if it never happened.
It was one of many red flags Elaine remembers from that night.
Vanner claimed to own properties all over the West Coast, but couldn’t explain why he had never taken Eunsoon to see any of them. He said he onced worked for the CIA and could disappear if he ever needed to.
At the end of the night, Elaine offered Eunsoon and Vanner a room to stay in. They had been drinking and she didn’t want them driving home.
[Ramos] “And she goes, ‘no, we’re going to sleep in the van.’ And that’s when we went outside and saw the van and it just had dirty blankets and pillows thrown in the back and I thought ‘‘Eunsoon, you can’t sleep here.’ She goes ‘no, I love it. I’m fine.’”
A few days after the party, Elaine got a phone call from Eunsoon. She wanted to know what she thought of the new boyfriend.
[Ramos] “And I said, ‘Eunsoon, I don’t really know him. I tried to get to know him but he didn’t want to answer my questions.’ I said, ‘please before you get too involved with him, make sure everything he is telling you is the truth. Please do that for me.’ And then she got angry at me. She said, ‘nobody wants me to be happy. I’ve finally found somebody who loves me and nobody wants me to be happy.’ And I said, ‘that’s not it, I just don’t want you to get involved with somebody who isn’t telling you the truth.’ And that was the last time I spoke with her.”
This is Bear Brook, I’m Jason Moon.
*** Eunsoon Jun ***
[Ramos] “Eunsoon was a free spirit. We always said she was like a Bohemian. She loved to explore religions, explore people, different cultures.”
Eunsoon Jun was a chemist by profession. For years, she worked at a biotech company near Richmond, California. But Elaine says she was more of an artist at heart. She made pottery and loved to travel. She was interested in Buddhism.
[Ramos] “One thing about Eunsoon was, as much as she was spiritual, and loved meeting people, she was lonely. She didn’t find the love of her life. And I think that opened her up to be vulnerable to people who would take advantage of her.”
[JM] “Why do you think that is? Did she have trouble meeting people?”
“I think that for a lot of us that are immigrants, we sometimes don’t feel like we fit in. I think that was harbored in her longer than for some other people who could adjust easier.”
By the time Eunsoon turned 40, pressure was mounting for her to find someone and settle down.
Then she met Larry Vanner. Eunsoon needed some work done on her house and an acquaintance recommended him as a handyman. From there it somehow became a relationship.
After the New Year’s Party, Eunsoon drifted away from her family. Elaine wasn’t the only relative to disapprove of the new boyfriend. A few family members tried to talk to Eunsoon about it, but it only seemed to make things worse.
[Ramos] “Eunsoon’s brother was getting letters and emails from Eunsoon saying that she didn’t want anything more to do with the family. Nobody wants her to be happy, just leave her alone, let her live her life. And...it didn’t sound like her.”
To Eunsoon’s relatives, it almost seemed like she was under a spell.
By 2001, a year later, Vanner had moved in with Eunsoon. Later that year they got married. It wasn’t official, there was no marriage certificate. The ceremony was held in a backyard. It had a Star Trek theme. Elaine wasn’t invited.
Eunsoon wasn’t talking much with most of her family by then. But she was still in touch with her good friend, Renee Rose. Rose was also a potter and the two of them would sometimes go to pottery classes and art shows together. They usually spoke at least a few times a week.
I wasn’t able to speak with Rose for this story. But she did give an interview to a local paper back in 2003. Between that and the account of law enforcement officers who have spoken with her, here’s what we know.
In May of 2002, Rose called Eunsoon to work out the details for a trip they had planned for the following week. Eunsoon sounded anxious when she picked up the phone. She spoke quickly and ended the conversation abruptly, saying ‘I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’
But Eunsoon didn’t call the next day and she didn’t show up for the trip they were supposed to take.
Worried, Rose left messages for Eunsoon on her answering machine. After a few days, she got a call back. It was Vanner. He said Eunsoon’s mother was dying and that she had flown to Virginia to see her.
Rose asked if there was a way to reach Eunsoon in Virginia. Vanner said no.
Rose kept calling in the days and weeks that followed. Each time, Vanner’s explanation for why she couldn’t talk to Eunsoon was different. He said she was too emotionally fragile to talk, that her family had made her depressed. He said she was in Virginia, then Oregon. Once, he told Rose that Eunsoon had come home, but only for a day before leaving again.
Still, Rose kept calling. Something didn’t seem right. She wanted to know more about what was going on with Eunsoon. She wanted to know more about what was going on with Vanner. She offered to come over and cook him chili. She offered to clean the house ahead of Eunsoon’s return.
Vanner refused. He seemed annoyed, at times flashing with anger.
Finally, after several weeks, Rose gave Vanner an ultimatum. She was leaving on vacation for 10 days and said she wanted to hear Eunsoon’s voice on her answering machine when she got back. If she didn’t, she would call the police. In the end that’s what she did.
*** Roxane Gruenheid ***
As far as I can tell, Roxane Gruenheid is everything you want in a police officer. She’s tough and smart - and she’s got a real eye for detail.
[Gruenheid] “It was kind of funny, when I was working patrol, when I was first going through the training program, some of my training officers, I would write reports and he would say I’m too detailed.”
I spoke with Roxane just as she was entering retirement. After more than 25 years as a police officer in California, she decided to buy a house on Long Island to be closer to her family. She invited me over to talk so I made the drive a few hours south to catch a ferry.
When I arrived Roxane was still moving in. There was hardly any furniture around and a contractor was installing some new cabinets in the kitchen. Roxane found a couple of lawn chairs for us and she set them up in an empty room that looked out over her new swimming pool. Outside, a soft rain was falling.
Roxane and I ended up spending about two-and-a-half hours in those lawn chairs. She’s a good storyteller. I also noticed she has this verbal quirk.
[Gruenheid] “So it was pretty goofy.”
It’s almost like a catchphrase, something a TV cop might have.
[Gruenheid] “But then there’s this other story...Doing goofy things.”
Whenever something doesn’t quite add up, or she gets a gut feeling about a person or a place - she calls it goofy.
[Gruenheid] “Some stories are goofier than others and um…”
I get the impression it’s sort of a coping mechanism. A view of the world that she’s had to adopt, after working so many years in homicide.
[Gruenheid] “You know, you either talk to your colleagues, you find ways of trying to deal with it, you talk to your spouse, and some gallows humor... and some funny looks from people at parties from things that you think are funny as hell, that other people don’t think are very funny at all! And um goofy stories and you just try to take care of yourself.”
By 1999, Roxane’s attention to detail had gotten her promoted to the homicide division at the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department. Contra Costa is just across the bay from San Francisco. Roxane thrived as a homicide detective, solving not only the active cases assigned to her, but cold cases too.
She likes to tell the story of one those cold cases in particular because it proves how even the smallest detail can unlock a mystery.
The case was an unsolved murder from the 80s: a woman was found shot to death near her car on the side of the road. Roxane dug around and found an old recording of an interview with one of the suspects. It was a betamax tape that she had to take to the local public access TV station to play. In the video, the suspect denies even knowing the victim.
[Gruenheid] “At the end of the videotape, the detective gets up and he goes ‘alright, we’ll take you back to the jail now.’ And the lights go off, so there’s no more video. But there’s still audio, cause they’re standing in the doorway, talking.”
On those last few seconds of tape, Roxane could hear the detective casually ask the suspect what kind of cigarettes he smokes.
[Gruenheid] “And suspect responds, he goes, ‘Pall Malls.’ And he goes, ‘filters or no filters?’ And he goes, ‘no filters.’”
The Pall Malls triggered something Roxane had read in the case file: detectives had taken the contents of an ashtray in the victim’s car into evidence.
[Gruenheid] “And there were like three Pall Mall no-filter cigarettes in her ashtray. And I was like ‘holy crap!’ And I went back and I called the crime lab and was like ‘do you still have these cigarettes?’ ‘Yes we have them.’ ‘Great.’ Put in a request to see if there’s DNA on them. That was his DNA on the cigarettes and that was it. That one little detail opened that case wide open. And he went to prison for murdering that woman.”
Anyways, that’s where Roxane was in 2002, solving cold cases, making a name for herself, when a call came in about a missing woman.
[Gruenheid] “Our patrol division had been contacted by a woman by the name of Rose and she had called the Sheriff’s Office to report her friend, Eunsoon Jun, missing.”
[DETECTIVE] “Do you need another coke?”
[Vanner] “No, I’m fine.”
Within a few days, detectives brought Larry Vanner, Eunsoon Jun’s new live-in boyfriend, in for questioning. The video of the interview shows Vanner sitting in an office chair in a small windowless room in front of a tiny desk. Vanner is wearing a t-shirt and gray slacks. A pair of eyeglasses are propped up on his balding head.
[DETECTIVE] “Maybe she’s hurt herself and you’re concerned about that getting out -- that she’s harmed herself?
[DETECTIVE] “There’s no truth to that?”
[Vanner] “If you’re thinking, is she suicidal? No, she’s not...But she’s not as aggressive as she used to be.”
Vanner seemed evasive to detectives. He was willing enough to talk, but when he did he would end up issuing vague platitudes.
[Vanner] “Now I’ve always tried to live by the motto that there’s no defense against the truth. But sometimes it’s hard to find out what the truth is. You’ve got one side, the other side, and something down the middle that some people might perceive to be the truth.”
Or he would tell rambling stories that seemed to be building to a point that never came.
[Vanner] “When these guys get a chance to go work for the forest service for $28.50 an hour paid 24 hours a day plus their meals, even though it’s dangerous, they’re gonna go. They will!”
[Vanner] “And it used to be, driving through places like that if you had a pair of shoes and you were close to the fire you’d get uh...what would you call it...you’d get volunteered. ‘Park your car mister, you’re gonna be a firefighter.’”
Vanner claimed that Eunsoon was in Oregon. She was overseeing the construction of a cabin on one of his properties, he said. But he wouldn’t give police a way to contact her.
Then later his story changed. He said the real reason Eunsoon was in Oregon was to see a therapist because she’d suffered a mental breakdown. Vanner said a call from police could trigger an anxiety attack.
[Vanner2002Interview] “Now I haven’t talked anymore Eunsoon’s problems or my problems because frankly, you’re not my priest and you’re not my doctor. And bullshit stories have their place. You know, gossip has its place in society sometimes. But I’m just not going to say anymore about Eunsoon or myself right now.”
[Gruenheid] “He played this kind of cat-and-mouse game with them. At one point in the interview I know they provided him with a telephone and he dialed a number and then didn’t talk to anybody and then hung up. But because it was on videotape we could slow it down and get the phone number that he was dialing and when a detective called that number it actually did go to a psychiatrist’s office in Eugene, Oregon. And so we were thinking, ‘ok, maybe.’ You know, he didn’t have a piece of paper. He had this phone number in his head.”
Over the phone detectives asked the psychiatrist if Eunsoon was there. The doctor said federal patient privacy laws didn’t allow them to reveal that.
Detectives looked for a way around the privacy law. Finally, they worked out a compromise with the doctor. They would give a physical description of Eunsoon, and the doctor would say if they were treating a patient who matched it.
After hearing the description, the psychiatrist said ‘no.’
The Oregon story was looking pretty shaky. But there was another reason why detectives were suspicious.
[Gruenheid] “So the goofy thing, the big red flag in the room was the fact that he had given us this name of Lawrence William Vanner with a date of birth.”
Roxane says when they ran that name through the system, instead of coming back with a driver’s license like they would expect, it came back with something called an index number. In California, index numbers are basically placeholders for someone’s identity in official records. They’re assigned to people who don’t have a valid form of ID.
[Gruenheid] “And that’s all we had on him. There was no criminal history, nothing in our -- no prior mention in a police report, there was nothing in any database, there was no driver’s license, there was no -- like nothing. Like nothing.”
Detectives asked Vanner if they could fingerprint him. He agreed.
To do that, they had to take him to a separate facility across town. Roxane volunteered to ride along in the backseat with Vanner while another detective drove.
On the way over, Roxane started chatting with Vanner. She says it was smalltalk with a purpose.
[Gruenheid] “I kinda worked into the conversation to see where I could go with it. You know what I mean? I mean, I’m a detective, right? I’m trying to figure stuff out.”
Roxane wanted to see if she could figure out where Vanner was from. She started by talking about accents. She brought up her own Long Island accent. How it was often commented on here in California. Then she said it sounded like he had an accent too, but she couldn’t place it -- where was it from?
[Gruenheid] “He stopped dead in his conversation, looked at me and then got really closer to me, looked me straight in the eye and he says ‘that’s none of your damn business.’”
Vanner then abruptly returned to casual smalltalk. Roxane says the mood change was so fast it was like a lightswitch. The same thing Elaine had seen at the New Year’s party.
Vanner was fingerprinted and then detectives drove him back to the station. By the time they returned, the results of the prints were already waiting for them. They would change everything.
When detectives got back to the police station with Larry Vanner, they left him alone in the same interrogation room as before. When they came back in the room, one of the detectives was holding a slim manilla folder with the results from Vanner’s fingerprints, which included a criminal record and a list of known aliases.
[DETECTIVE 1] “Alright Larry, your prints came back. You know your other name, right?”
[DETECTIVE 2] “Curtis or Gerald or Gerry or whatever name you’re going by this week.”
[DETECTIVE 1] “Curtis Kimball.”
[DETECTIVE 2] “Curtis Kimball. Or Gerald Mocker… what’s the other one?”
[DETECTIVE 1] “Mockerman.”
[DETECTIVE 2] “Mockerman, right.”
[DETECTIVE 1] “Ring a bell?”
[DETECTIVE 1] “Yeah that’s who you are, man.”
Larry Vanner’s fingerprints belonged to a man whose name was not Larry Vanner. The prints came back under the name Curtis Mayo Kimball. In the video, you can actually see the surprise splash across Vanner-slash-Kimball’s face as detectives list off his other names. Detectives assumed that Curtis Kimball was itself an alias, but at this point it was the earliest name they had. For Roxane Gruenheid, it was hard to know what to make of this new information.
[Gruenheid] “Were you thinking… Eunsoon’s probably not ok?” “We still didn’t know. I mean, the goal of any missing persons investigation is to determine where they are, and if they’re ok, you know what I mean. But now we had an added piece to it… Who is this guy, that’s given us one name… that’s really not even a name… that’s not even him...That is now, purportedly this other guy who has been on parole for 12 years!
That last part - that Curtis Kimball was on parole - was a big deal. I’ll explain why in a minute. In 1989 Kimball was convicted of child abandonment and spent a year and a half in a California state prison. Then on the day he was released, he skipped town, violating his parole.
[Gruenheid] “And so that was a whole different -- now we had a whole different ball of wax.”
Looking back, Contra Costa detective Roxane Gruenheid thinks that Kimball didn’t know that his prints would come back so quickly. The last time he was in custody was over ten years ago, before the process was handled by computers. She thinks he agreed to get fingerprinted assuming it would take at least a few days for the results to come back. Plenty of time to leave town, adopt a new name, and start over again.
But that plan didn’t work.
[Gruenheid] “So I read him his miranda rights and at that time he chose not to talk to us and he shut down the interview.” Did he have any interaction at all. No nothing, just I want an attorney. And that was it.
In California, parolees and their property are subject to police searches for any reason at any time, no warrant required.
Now that Roxane had Curtis Kimball’s record in hand - and had discovered that he had violated parole - she had a new opportunity. She could legally search his home.
So Roxane and another detective named Mike Costa drove out to Eunsoon Jun’s house where she and Curtis Kimball had been living together to have a look around. Detectives were worried. Whatever this revelation about Curtis Kimball meant, it probably wasn’t good for Eunsoon.
Eunsoon lived in an area called East Richmond heights. It’s a middle class neighborhood, with small houses packed right next to each other along winding roads that work their way up a hillside. From the top of the hill, on a clear day, you can see all the way across the bay to San Francisco.
Roxane and Mike arrived at the house and knocked at the front door. No one answered. Using the keys they’d taken from Kimball, they went inside.
[Gruenheid] “We were working a missing persons case, so we didn’t open any drawers or anything like that because no human being could be in a drawer, you know what I mean? So we just walked around the house to make sure that A, that there wasn’t anybody in there that was going to hurt us, and at the same time just making that if she was in there we would try to find her. So we were looking for somebody human-sized, her human-sized, in the general areas of the house.”
Roxane and Mike went room by room. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But that changed as the search moved outside.
[Gruenheid] “We went in the backyard and we found a dead kitten that had been thrown over the fence in the back.”
[Gruenheid] “There was an area inside the shed that looked like it had recently been tried to be dug up inside the shed.
[JM] “Like a dirt floor?”
“Yeah, like a dirt floor inside the shed.”
Roxane and Mike took note of the dead cat, of the disturbed soil in the shed. Then made their way around the outside of the house to the garage. It was the one place they hadn’t looked yet. The sliding garage door had a padlock on it, but Roxane found the key on Kimball’s keychain. She threw up the door and found Eunsoon’s pottery studio.
[Gruenheid] “She had several kilns, like nice big kilns. There was pottery in various stages of being created - fired, glazed.”
The walls of the garage were lined with Eunsoon’s pottery. Bowls, vases, sculpted figures and masks.
Roxane and Mike slowly moved through the space, careful not to touch anything.
In the back of the garage they found a doorway. It led down a few steps to an unfinished part of the house -- a sort of basement crawl space with a dirt floor. It was about 8 by 10, and not quite tall enough to stand up in.
[Gruenheid] “And my partner Mike went in there and he looked around and he goes, ‘you need to come take a look at this.’ And I stepped into that area and looked with my flashlight and I could see that there was a huge pile of cat litter, probably that tall, so a good three feet tall.”
Cat litter. The pile was almost waist-high… and maybe 5 feet across. Enough to fill the bed of a truck.
[Gruenheid] “I’d never seen anything like that. It was perfect. It was just like you’d pile up a pile of sand.”
On the ceiling above the pile, a couple of work lights were clamped onto an exposed beam. The lights were aimed down at the pile, like the cat litter was part of some kind of bizarre home improvement project.
[Gruenheid] “There was some shop kind of tools and equipment there...reciprocating saw, there was a small, not a hatchet small, but like a child’s axe leaned up there, there was some bottles of some green substance, like spray bottles...so it was goofy.”
Roxane called for the forensic team. For an hour and a half they photographed the scene in detail. The cat litter, the work lights, the tools. Then, finally, they started to sift through the pile of cat litter.
[Gruenheid] “And within a few swipes of the pile, the thing that emerged was a human foot that was still in a rubber like a flip flop.”
[Gruenheid] “But it was mummified, like you’d see in a museum. Like a mummified foot. Human foot, obviously human foot.”
The forensic team found blood splatter on the heating and air conditioning ductwork above the pile of cat litter. It suggested that Eunsoon had been bludgeoned to death there in the crawlspace. They also discovered that her body had been dismembered.
[Ramos] “She wanted to be loved that’s all she wanted. I think that she found out about him or found out that something wasn’t right and confronted him. He probably would’ve killed her anyway. But I’m sure Eunsoon confronted him. I’m sure she fought... I have to believe that she fought.”
[music fade out]
[Motta] “The case stuck with me because he was so freakin’ creepy.”
Joe Motta was a prosecutor with the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office for 17 years.
[Motta] “It was just an unusual kind of case, just the nature of it. I’d never seen anything like that.”
In 2003 he had what seemed like an open and shut case against Kimball. He had lied about Eunsoon Jun’s whereabouts. Her body was found in the house he was living in. And Roxane had uncovered lots of evidence that he had been spending Eunsoon’s money after her death.
But as he prepared for trial, Motta was worried.
[Motta] “My opponent was a pretty well-respected public defender, probably their toughest advocate at the time. He was a noble adversary. He was a brawler.”
Motta knew this experienced defense attorney would try to argue that Kimball wasn’t directly involved in Eunsoon’s death. To try to negotiate a plea deal on a lesser charge, like accessory to murder.
[Motta] “My big concern was there’s not enough evidence to show how it went down. There wasn’t. There wasn’t any evidence. There wasn’t a murder weapon. You know, what if she fell down the stairs and he felt bad and he didn’t want anyone to know about it? You know, who knows what they could’ve come up with.”
Motta needed something connecting Kimball to the scene in the basement. He figured their best shot was the cat litter. It was so much cat litter that a store employee might might remember the purchase and who made it. If Motta could show the jury that Kimball had worked to cover up Eunsoon’s death, it would help tie him to the crime itself. It wouldn’t be a smoking gun, but it would help.
He put detective Roxane Gruenheid on the case.
[Gruenheid] “I can’t even imagine, there’s gotta be 1500 dog and cat boutique stores -- you could buy that anywhere, you know.”
Roxane wasn’t sure how she was going to find the right pet store. But then she remembered a detail.
[Gruenheid] “When I was tracking back some of the fiduciary crimes that he was committing, he had used Eunsoon’s ATM card at this ATM down in on the edge of El Sobrante, Richmond area. And I used to work in that beat.”
Roxane realized she knew that ATM. And she knew there was a pet store right next to it.
[Gruenheid] “So I roll up there and I go in and I go to talk to the manager and I go… ‘anybody buy a large quantity of cat litter in the past?’ and he goes ‘yeah! There was this guy!’ And so basically he tells me this story that this old guy, twinkly blue eyes, drives up with his car, bought 10, 25 pound -- and it was the 20 pound with the bonus 5 pounds for free. Pays cash, loads them in his car, and his story to the employees was something to the effect of that he had a little bit of oil that he spilled in the driveway changing the oil in his car. But I was like, ‘anybody ever buy 250 pounds of cat litter?’ And they were like, ‘no that was pretty unusual.’”
The cat litter wasn’t Kimball’s only attempt at covering up evidence of the crime. A neighbor told Roxane that Kimball had been out hosing the driveway one day when he casually mentioned that he was dealing with a rat infestation, and that if there were any strange smells coming from him garage, not to worry about it.
So Motta had more than enough to prosecute the case. But as the trial approached, Roxane kept digging anyways. She got in touch with Kimball’s former parole officer and had all the documents on his criminal record faxed over. Roxane read through them all.
His criminal record began in 1986, about 15 years before he met Eunsoon, with a warrant issued for child abandonment.
According to the police reports, he had left his five year old daughter at an RV park with an elderly couple and then fled. At the time he was using the name Gordon Jensen.
A few years later he was pulled over driving a stolen car. He gave officers the name Gerald Mockerman, but his fingerprints linked him back to the child abandonment charge. He was convicted on that charge and served about a year and a half of a three year sentence in a California state prison before being released on parole. The parole officer told Roxane he never showed up for his first meeting.
Roxane was getting more and more interested in Kimball’s past -- the trail of aliases, his daughter at the RV park. She couldn’t let it go. Even as Kimball headed to court for a murder trial he was sure to lose.
Eunsoon Jun’s cousin, Elaine Ramos, can remember the first day of the trial. It was the first time any of the family had seen Curtis Kimball, a man they had known as Larry Vanner, since the murder.
[Elaine] “As he walked past us -- we all had buttons, pins with Eunsoon’s face on it. And we were all sitting there in the jury box or whatever that is and he passed us by and he just gave us this smirky smile. It was disgusting.”
The trial was hard on Eunsoon’s family. And not just because Kimball seemed to be taunting them. Eunsoon Jun and Curtis Kimball met in November of 1999. He was arrested for her murder in November 2002. During those years, Kimball had so successfully isolated Eunsoon that her family was forced to grieve someone that they didn’t know as well as they once had. The emails from Eunsoon telling her family to leave her alone -- they hadn’t sounded like Eunsoon because it turns out they Kimball wrote them. He made sure that for many of Eunsoon’s relatives, their last conversation with her was an argument about her new boyfriend.
[Elaine] “Everybody felt guilty for not trying harder to protect her. But it’s hard to protect somebody that -- she wanted to be loved. That’s all she wanted.”
[Elaine] “Her mother had dementia. So that was a good thing that she never learned what happened to Eunsoon. You know she would ask about her and her daughter would just say that she was busy. And that was a blessing.”
Elaine says most of the family doesn’t like to talk about this anymore. It’s too painful to relive. But Eunsoon is well remembered by her family, often through her pottery.
[Elaine] “I have a couple of pieces in my garden and one piece that when holidays come I use.…[laughing] my husband says it wasn’t very good… And then she made this man. This kind of funny looking man that I have outside. I call her my Eunsoon man.”
[JM] [33:00] “It sounds like, was she, before all this happened, was she was very um… It sounds like she was very loved.”
[Elaine] “She was. I mean there were family issues, but there is with most families. You have your differences and get mad at your siblings. But in the end we all love each other.”
The first day of Curtis Kimball’s trial ended with few surprises. Things were going more or less as Motta had planned. But that changed the next morning on the second day of trial. Kimball stood up and told the judge he wanted to change his plea -- to guilty.
[JM] “When he pled guilty, did it seem like his attorney was caught by surprise?
[Motta] “Oh yeah, his attorney -- he said on the record, I’m pretty sure, that ‘this plea is against my advice.’
[JM] “How unusual is that?”
[Motta] “Pretty darned unusual. Nobody ever pleads guilty to murder.”
Nobody pleads guilty to murder. But Curtis Kimball did. He willingly accepted a sentence of 15 years to life.
Detective Roxane Gruenheid thinks she might know why. The day before, on the first day of trial, she had been talking with Prosecutor Joe Motta during a courtroom recess. She was updating Motta on all the things she was finding in Kimball’s past. Kimball, meanwhile, was sitting not too far away at the defendant’s table. Close enough to maybe overhear.
[Gruenheid] “He wanted me to stop my investigation. Like, he didn’t want me to continue to go down that rabbit hole. And he thought if he pled guilty, maybe I would go away.”
*** Postscript to an Investigation ***
But Roxane didn’t go away. Back at her desk, she kept reading through the old police reports of Kimball’s criminal history. The part she found the most puzzling was the charge that had put Kimball behind bars in the late 80’s: abandoning his own five year old daughter at an RV park. In the files there were photographs of her.
[Gruenheid] “They were xerox copies so they weren’t very clear but she was little. Like she was a little, little tiny girl, you know what I mean. And there was a fingerprint card, like a booking fingerprint card, but with these little tiny fingerprints on them. And footprints, you know because in the hospital because they take the baby’s footprint.”
Roxane became fixated on this little girl. Her name was listed as Lisa. But actually Roxane wasn’t so sure about that.
When Curtis Kimball and ‘Lisa’ were staying at the RV park, he was using the name Gordon Jensen. But Roxane knew that Gordon Jensen was an alias -- that it wasn’t his real name. For that matter, she was pretty sure Curtis Kimball was a fake name, too. This got her wondering -- if he’d been lying about his own name to hide his past, maybe he had been lying about the little girl’s name, too.
Maybe, this “Lisa” didn’t know her real name. Maybe she wasn’t even really his daughter.
[Gruenheid] “I was sitting there at my cubicle and I’m reading all this stuff and I felt like now that I had my homicide case and who this guy was but then there’s all this backstory to him and who the heck is this guy, really? And who is that little girl?”
Roxane wanted to do a paternity test to know for sure. She had Kimball’s DNA from her homicide investigation. And she learned that detectives investigating Lisa’s abandonment had taken a blood sample from her back in the 80s. Roxane convinced the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department to split the blood sample, which they still had, then they FedExed it to her in Contra Costa County. Roxane ordered the paternity test as soon as it arrived.
[Gruenheid] “And I got the report back that was scientifically definitive: this person is not biologically related to this person. And I’m like holy moly! This is crazy right now! San Bernardino has like an Elizabeth Smart. Who is she? \I’m like who is she?!”
It had taken almost 20 years since Lisa was abandoned for someone to find out that she was a living Jane Doe. That she had a real family and a real name somewhere out there. That she was a missing person.
By ordering that paternity test, Roxane revealed a mystery that was not unlike the one that had mystified police in Bear Brook. Though Lisa was alive, she was just as unidentified as the victims found in those barrels.
It may be hard to see now, but the struggle to find Lisa’s true identity would lead all the way back to Bear Brook State Park. It would also lead to a breakthrough in criminal forensics that is being used right now to solve some of the country’s most notorious cold cases.
That’s next time on Bear Brook.
END OF EPISODE
Bear Brook is reported and produced by me, Jason Moon.
Taylor Quimby is Senior Producer.
Editing help from Cori Princell, Todd Bookman, Lauren Chooljian, Sam Evans-Brown, Britta Green & Annie Ropeik.
The Executive Producer is Erika Janik.
Dan Barrick is NHPR’s News Director.
Director of Content is Maureen McMurray.
NHPR’s Digital Director is Rebecca Lavoie.
Photography and Video by Allie Gutierrez.
Graphics and interactives by Sara Plourde.
Original music for this show was composed by me, Jason Moon, and Taylor Quimby.
Additional music in this episode by: Blue Dot Sessions, Lee Rosevere, Podington Bear, and Daniel Birch.
To see a timeline of the cases mentioned in this episode … go to our website: bear brook podcast dot org.
Bear Brook is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.