Crime scene investigations are rarely as dramatic – and definitive – as what you see on TV shows like CSI. That does not make them any less crucial to solving the case. Host Paul Holes takes us through a case he worked on in the late 1990s, where a claim of self-defense was ultimately turned on its head after a thorough and objective look at the nearly invisible trace evidence left behind after the body of a gay man was found dumped in a ditch.
The Detective: Paul Holes is a bestselling author, podcaster, television host and retired cold-case investigator with the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices in California’s Contra Costa County. During his 27 years as an investigator, Holes used his behavioral and forensic expertise in such notable cases as the Zodiac murders, Golden State Killer, and Jaycee Dugard kidnapping. In May 2022, Holes published “Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases” – which became an instant New York Times bestseller. Paul teamed with FBI and Sacramento DA to help identify Joseph DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer, the most prolific serial predator in U.S. history. In 2019, he teamed up with Oxygen to host ”The DNA of Murder with Paul Holes” and in November he’s launching a new original series with HLN called, ”Real Life Nightmare with Paul Holes.”Read Transcript
Paul: [00:00:02] A John Doe is found in a shallow creek bed. This male body is laying on his back, fully clothed, but there is something suspicious. He has plastic bags that have been placed over his head and an electrical cord tied around his neck.[Small Town Dicks intro]
Yeardley: [00:00:24] Hi, there. I’m Yeardley.
Dan: [00:00:26] I’m Dan.
Dave: [00:00:26] I’m Dave.
Paul: [00:00:28] And I’m Paul.
Yeardley: [00:00:28] And this is Small Town Dicks.
Dan: [00:00:31] Dave and I are identical twins and retired detectives from Small Town, USA.
Paul: [00:00:35] And I’m a veteran cold case investigator who helped catch the Golden State killer using a revolutionary DNA tool.
Dan: [00:00:41] Between the three of us, we’ve investigated thousands of crimes, from petty theft to sexual assault, child abuse to murder.
Dave: [00:00:48] Each case we cover is told by the detective who investigated it, offering a rare personal account of how they solved the crime.
Paul: [00:00:54] Names, places, and certain details have been changed to protect the privacy of victims and their families.
Dan: [00:01:00] And although we’re aware that some of our listeners may be familiar with these cases, we ask you to please join us in continuing to protect the true identities of those involved.
Dave: [00:01:08] Out of respect for what they’ve been through.
In Unison: [00:01:09] Thank you.
Yeardley: [00:01:20] Today, on Small Town Dicks, we have the usual suspects. We have Detective Dave.
Dave: [00:01:26] I knew you were coming to me first. I was prepared.
Yeardley: [00:01:28] [laughs]
Dave: [00:01:29] Happy to be here.
Yeardley: [00:01:31] Happy to have you. And we have Detective Dan.
Dan: [00:01:33] Hello, team.
Yeardley: [00:01:34] Hello, you. In our fourth hosting chair, we have the one and only, Paul Holes.
Paul: [00:01:41] Hey, everybody.
Yeardley: [00:01:42] Hey, hey. So, Small town Fam, it’s a very good day because today we have a case from Mr. Holes. Before we pushed record, were talking with you, Paul, about all the ways forensic science has evolved and gained significance during your career. I think most notably, at least in my book, your work revolutionizing how we use DNA, is just one huge example of that. There’s also the increasingly sophisticated ways law enforcement analyzes trace evidence, manages crime scenes, and it got you thinking about a case that you worked on in the late 1990s that could have been considered really an open and shut case if all you did was take the suspect’s confession at face value and didn’t dig any deeper. But that’s not who you are, is it, Paul Holes?
Paul: [00:02:36] Not at all.
Yeardley: [00:02:37] [laughs] I bet you were actually the kid who asked for more science homework when the teacher didn’t give you any. Is that true?
Paul: [00:02:43] [laughs] Well, no, that’s not quite true.[laughter]
Yeardley: [00:02:46] Fair enough. Thank God, in this case that you are the way you are, because without your thorough examination of the evidence at the crime scene, this case could have been derailed by a few human mistakes and some really broad assumptions about the victim and his lifestyle. So, Paul, take it away.
Paul: [00:03:06] This is a case that I responded out to, but it’s kind of got an interesting beginning to it. This is taking place back towards the end of 1997. Down in San Luis Obispo, which is a good few hundred miles south of my jurisdiction out there on the coast, a John Doe is found in a shallow creek bed. Pretty much the creek bed is dry. This male body is laying on his back, fully clothed, but there is something suspicious about the nature of what’s going on with him. He has plastic bags that have been placed over his head and an electrical cord tied around his neck. San Luis Obispo ends up investigating this case. This John Doe has been out there for a few days laying in this creek bed and is moderately decomposed. I’m sharing some photos of John Doe’s body after it was removed from the creek bed.
[00:04:12] In the photos, you can see that there’s some very slight mummification, drying out of the exposed skin areas and some bloating to the abdomen. The reason I’m bringing this up because this kind of shows the state of decomposition and it’s going to be important later on in the case. But in my assessment, this is not a very decomposed body. But this is a John Doe. They have no clue who this man is.
[00:04:42] Six weeks later, all the way up in Oakland, California, a Russian immigrant, Vitaly, was reported missing by his wife and he was last seen at a nightclub in San Francisco. Now, even though this is his wife reporting him missing, Vitaly is homosexual and would go into the city to the nightclubs in order to be able to find male dates that he would bring back to his residence, which was a boat down in Oyster Point, South San Francisco. So, it’s kind of an interesting dynamic. The wife was just a wife of convenience in order for Vitaly to be able to continue to stay in the country. One of the interesting aspects about Vitaly, he was in the Russian black market for selling lamps and stuff, lighting.
Yeardley: [00:05:36] Who knew?
Paul: [00:05:38] Yeah, who knew? He was making pretty good money doing that. Now, once Vitaly is reported missing by his wife, things started to work in the detectives’ favor when they were able to identify him through fingerprints. Even though he was moderately decomposed, his fingerprints were still intact enough for them to be able to compare to a direct comparison to this missing person out of Oakland and identify their John Doe as Vitaly. Now, the investigation can get going. And, of course, one of the first things they do is to see did they have any contact with Vitaly down there in San Luis Obispo. Turns out, well, sort of. They had. They had a patrol unit pull over a car. It was a Mercedes, and the Mercedes was registered to Vitaly, but Vitaly wasn’t driving it. There were three local kind of teenage punks down in San Luis Obispo that were driving this dead man’s car.
[00:06:40] Of course, these individuals get interviewed and they say, “Well, we got this car from Joshua and Marty. They just kind of gave it to us.”
Yeardley: [00:06:50] But the car belongs to Vitaly. So, who the hell is Joshua?
Paul: [00:06:55] That’s the same question that the investigators had. How come Joshua and Marty are giving their friends down in San Luis Obispo a dead man’s car who’s reported missing out of Oakland? They are able to track down Joshua and Marty. Joshua and Marty admit, believe it or not, to killing Vitaly.
Yeardley: [00:07:19] Well, that’s a short episode. Thanks, Paul. That was great.[chuckles]
Paul: [00:07:22] There you go. Done. [chuckles] No. Sounds like it would be a slam dunk, but here’s the story. Joshua and Marty, they’re being interviewed separately, but they tell a fairly similar story. They’re up in Orinda, California, which is in Contra Costa County, my old jurisdiction. East Bay in the San Francisco Bay area. There was a family that lived in a house in Orinda, had a young boy, teenage boy, and they decide they’re going to go on a family vacation. Well, unbeknownst to the parents of that family, that teenage boy who’s friends with Marty says, “Hey, my parents are going to be out of town. The house is going to be empty. Maybe you can use it for whatever you want to do with it.” Once the family leaves, Marty breaks into the house and then invites his friend, Joshua, over, and they start doing a rash of burglaries in this upper scale neighborhood in Orinda, California.
[00:08:28] This was known as the Pillowcase Burglaries because they were using the residents’ pillowcases to put all their loot in. Marty and Joshua were committing all those pillowcase burglaries in this upper scale neighborhood.
[00:08:42] Now, this is six weeks after Vitaly was found down in San Luis Obispo. We have a residence that Joshua and Marty claim to have been in and claimed to have killed Vitaly. Of course, their statements need to be weighed against the evidence, what actually happened. To help the listeners get an idea if they’re unfamiliar with the geography of California, Oakland, where Vitaly was reported missing out of, is across the bay from San Francisco. Now, San Louis Obispo is about a four-to-five-hour drive south of Oakland, and it’s literally on the coast. The town, Orinda, where Joshua and Marty are saying this homicide occurred, that’s a town that’s in my jurisdiction, on the other side of the Oakland hills from Oakland. There’s actually a tunnel called the Caldecott Tunnel that connects Orinda with the Oakland area.
Yeardley: [00:09:48] Okay, that helps, actually.
Paul: [00:09:51] Joshua and Marty, they’re doing all these burglaries, and they soon get bored after a few days of committing all these burglaries. Joshua says, “Hey, I know this Russian guy. He’s good for drugs and money. We should party together.” They say they invite Vitaly over to this house in Orinda, and they start partying. At one point, Joshua claims to have passed out on the sofa in the family room, only to be woken up by Vitaly on top of him trying to get into his pants. Joshua is going, “Uh-huh, that’s not my scene,” and grabbed an empty apple cider bottle and hits Vitaly on the side of the head while Vitaly is on top of him on this sofa, but then claims to have passed out after that, only to be awoken a second time with Vitaly trying to get into his pants. This time, Josh was, “No, this ain’t happening.” Grabs that same cider bottle and really hits Vitaly on the side of the head. This time, Vitaly collapses down onto the floor and is not breathing.
Yeardley: [00:11:01] Of course, as a bystander who wasn’t present when any of this happened, but you can’t help but wonder how come Joshua went from 0 to 60 so fast? There are so many other alternatives, like toss Vitaly off you and look them in the eye and say, “Hey, we’re not doing this.”
Paul: [00:11:22] Yeah.
Dave: [00:11:23] What he’s claiming is that Vitaly is sexually assaulting him. You put it in that lens, this guy feels like he’s being sexually assaulted, he has a violent reaction to it, to defend himself against being sexually assaulted. You leave the gender out of it and you just say, this human being sexually assaulted, what’s the reaction? He’s like–
Yeardley: [00:11:44] “I’m going to defend myself.”
Paul: [00:11:45] Yes, this is a self-defense. Now, Contra Costa County authorities, Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, Orinda PD, which is a contract city with the Sheriff’s office, ends up being notified, “Hey, we have a homicide. The homicide actually occurred in your jurisdiction six weeks ago.” Search warrant is obtained, knock on the door. Family had come back from vacation but live in this house for the last month and now law enforcement is saying, “You guys have to get out. Somebody was killed inside your house.” Could you imagine being that family?
Yeardley: [00:12:24] Oh, my God. No.
Dave: [00:12:27] Right. Talk about jaw dropping.
Paul: [00:12:30] Now, my role is to go inside this residence and prove that a homicide had occurred there and that the homicide had occurred the way the suspect said it occurred.
Paul: [00:14:34] I go into the house, and there’s this dark leather burgundy sofa that is present in the family room, supposedly where Joshua had passed out, and this Persian-style rug underneath there and then, of course, the end table. I am now looking for evidence of violence, evidence of homicide. I do extensive visual examinations throughout this house, and all I find is low down on some of the decorative rivets on the front of the sofa, there’s these dark dots. I take a small sample and apply this chemical reagent. I was using leucomalachite green. This is a presumptive test for blood. It’s a two-stage reaction, and if it turns green, it tells me it’s possibly blood. There’s some other substances that can react, but it’s a limited number of substances. Those little dots turn out to be blood. I have what appears to be limited blood spatter on the front of the sofa, low down.
Dave: [00:15:41] Paul, that chemical agent does not destroy the presence of the human DNA inside the blood.
Paul: [00:15:48] Well, yes. With what I test, it does. That’s why I have to be very limited in my testing. So, I leave DNA-containing material behind to be collected and tested for DNA purposes.
Dave: [00:16:02] Got it.
Paul: [00:16:03] As I’m visually examining this house, the only other visible blood that I’m finding is on the door, which is a slight smear. That door is leading from the front entryway into the family room where the sofa was at. Low down on that door jab was another red smear that also gave me a positive reaction. And then, on the oak hardwood floor in the front entryway was what I would call like a feathered stain. But that was the extent of the visible blood in this house. So, I was like, “Okay. I’ve got a story in which the suspects are claiming that Vitaly had been hit twice in the head. If you have head wounds, in particular with lacerations to the scalp, you could bleed very heavily. How come I’m only seeing such limited blood?” So, I end up spraying luminol throughout this house.
Yeardley: [00:17:08] What is the difference there?
Paul: [00:17:10] Okay, so leucomalachite green is colorimetric. It changes colors with the presence of blood versus luminol is a luminescent chemical. It fluoresces by itself in the presence of blood. And luminol, this is not like what you would see in CSI. I was mixing the luminol reagent with sodium hydroxide, putting it into a sprayer, and I’m wearing a full-face respirator mask. All the chemical-resistant clothing, the Tyvek suit, this moon suit, to protect myself because luminol is considered potentially carcinogenic. Sodium hydroxide is lye. You don’t want to be breathing that. It’s funny to watch the TV shows when they show people–
Yeardley: [00:18:00] Like it’s Windex.
Paul: [00:18:01] Exactly. They’re spraying it around the house, they’re gargling with it and everything else. It’s like, “No, that is not how this works.” Luminol gives such a faint glow that we have to wait until the middle of the night in order to use it. We’d have to put garbage bags or aluminum foil on all the windows to prevent the streetlights or the moonlight from shining into the house. At this time, in 1997, we were using film-based photography. We would have to do 15-, 20-, 25-second exposures for this film that we had in the camera to actually get enough of the luminol light to show the photo. So, I do the luminol.
[00:18:50] What it ultimately shows on the sofa, the luminol showed that there had been a pool of blood near that end of the sofa on the seat cushion. Then, down on the floor, those little dots of visible blood that we could see on the leg, there is a huge, radiating spatter pattern on the front of the sofa low down. This type of pattern is created by a blow to a bloody source. Then, there were large smears of blood that showed a body being drug across the rug and then drips as that body was likely picked up and carried outside out to the driveway area. And then, a few shoeprints.
[00:19:46] So here, I’ve got some tremendous information. Now, remember, this was film-based photography. I had a partner with me who was the expert on doing luminol photography in the middle of the night with the old-style film. We took all sorts of photos of this. None of those photos turned out.
Yeardley: [00:20:08] [gasps] Why? Was the film corrupted? Or it wasn’t enough light?
Paul: [00:20:13] The exposure wasn’t long enough. Nowadays, you’d know with digital, I’ve got it or I don’t got it right there. We didn’t know, we didn’t get this until the film was processed. That’s like 48 hours later, and you can’t go back and replicate this. Now, think about this. You have suspect, Joshua, claiming to be passed out on the sofa, laying on the sofa with Vitaly on top of him. Hits Vitaly in the head with the cider bottle. Now, that first blow is not going to produce blood spatter because you need a bleeding source. You need a pooled source of blood to produce spatter. You can have a blow kill, that doesn’t produce blood spatter, but you could also have a blow that would knock somebody out or cause some disorientation. But the statement is that after Joshua wakes a second time laying in the same spot, he hits Vitaly a second time. Now, you potentially have blood spatter. Vitaly is on top of him on the sofa, per his statement. Yet, the blood spatter is down on the floor. Does this add up?
Dave: [00:21:27] I’m picturing when you forcefully stomp into a puddle, you have this broadcast of spatter.
Paul: [00:21:35] That is exactly it. You need to have that puddle to stomp in to produce blood spatter. Crime scene reconstruction is based on blood patterns. It’s understanding types of patterns, but also how they are formed. I could take a baseball bat and hit somebody in the head as hard as I could, most certainly could kill them with that hit. But is it going to produce blood spatter, that first blow? No, because there is no pooled blood source. But if I hit them a second time, you get the poof. Now, I’ve got that poof low down on the floor. That means there’s a pooled source of blood. Now, I also had a pooled source of blood up on the seat cushion, on the sofa where Joshua claimed to have been laying. Was that Joshua’s blood? Now, this becomes a little bit more sinister. I told the investigators who are interviewing them said, “Hmm, doesn’t look like Joshua is laying on the sofa. It looks like our victim was laying on the sofa, and then he received an initial blow to his head that’s not going to produce blood spatter, but he laid there for a long enough period of time to form a blood pool. At some point, he’s down on the floor in front of the sofa where you have that second blow.” Now, you get that poof, that stomp in the puddle, and it’s, like, spraying on the front of the sofa as well as on the carpet.
[00:23:15] The investigators go back to Joshua and say, “Hey, we know you’re lying.” And Joshua is like, “Okay, you’re right.” “I am.” Now, he changes his statement and says, “We were partying hard, doing the drugs, drinking, and then Vitaly ends up going crazy.” Joshua was going, “I just got scared of this guy. So, I run out of the house. But then, I remember my bud, Marty, is back inside with this crazy man. So, I run back inside the house, and I’m tackled from behind. While standing up, I’m trying to hit Vitaly off my back with the cider bottle. Does that match the evidence I just described?”
Yeardley: [00:23:58] No.
Paul: [00:23:59] So now, Joshua has lied twice.
Yeardley: [00:24:03] So, for the listener, the sofa is leather. It’s a brown leather sofa, and it has, like, buttons.
Dan: [00:24:10] It’s tufted.
Yeardley: [00:24:11] It’s tufted, so blood could easily pull where the buttons depress the leather fabric. Josh and Marty obviously did some cleanup on the sofa and the rug. But how successful were they in getting rid of every trace of Vitaly’s blood? Because that’s really hard to do, I think.
Paul: [00:24:29] Good question. They did extensive cleanup. Part of their statement was after Vitaly was killed, they went through the house. They cleaned up everything they possibly could so they couldn’t see anything when they were done. And then, they took Vitaly out and placed his body because he’s bleeding from the head, that’s when they decided, “Well, we need to put his head in those plastic bags and tie an electrical cord around it to prevent further bleeding from getting all over the place.”
[00:25:05] They put Vitaly in the trunk of his own Mercedes, and then they drive down south, get rid of Vitaly’s body in the creek, and then give Vitaly’s car to some friends that they knew down in San Luis Obispo. So, that kind of completes the circle. But they did extensive cleanup. When the family comes back from vacation, imagine you turn on the TV and you’re sitting right there where a whole bunch of blood had been from a homicide that had occurred in your house, and you have no idea about it.
Yeardley: [00:25:39] Yuck.
Paul: [00:25:57] Part of the investigation was we knew Vitaly was living on this boat in South San Francisco, Oyster Point, which was a good 30-minute drive away from where the homicide had occurred. Before I had found the blood, I had said, “I need to get out to this boat and look at this,” because we’re making an assumption that the homicide actually occurred at the house. So, I rolled out to the boat where Vitaly lived, and the boat itself was nondescript. Getting into the boat, we start to see where there’s a stack of VHS tapes. These VHS tapes, every single one of them were personal videos that Vitaly had taken of the various men that he had brought back to the boat while they were showering and stuff.
[00:26:54] Now, towards the back of the boat, that’s where the bed was.As I go back into this location, we see the bed, I’m looking at the bed. The sheets are disheveled. Up on the headboard, I can see that there are several condoms, there are several vials formerly containing lubricant as well as a white powder. It’s very obvious what is happening in Vitaly’s bed. I decide, “Well, I need to see more of what’s going on in the bed.” I end up strapping on this portable alternate light source. One of the substances that we use an alternate light source for is to find semen stains. Back in the day, this was known as a Polyray. It looked like something that you would see in 1950s alien movies, where I had this gun that was attached to a massive battery pack on my belt, and I’m in my standard khaki jumpsuit. I crawl back into this very confined space of Vitaly’s bed and turn on the alternate light source. It glowed everywhere.
[00:28:10] When I start to see everything glow, of course, there’s been numerous sexual interactions over the course of who knows how long back in this bed. As a matter of course, I collect not only all the sheets and pillows, as well as the condoms and lubricants and white powder, but I also collect the mattress. So, literally, I grab everything out of the back of this bed. Now, one question that came up was, “Well, did Joshua and Marty end up ever being on Vitaly’s boat ahead of time?” And they had denied ever being there. They’re claiming, “Well, we just invited him over, and it was just a party.” Part of the prosecution was to try to establish some sort of preexisting connection between the suspects and Vitaly. There was a Bacardi rum bottle that was on this boat next to the sink that was down in the boat itself. I was able to get Joshua’s latent print, fingerprint off of that bottle. Now, did that prove that he was on the boat? Well, this bottle is a transportable item, so could that print have been deposited elsewhere and then brought on the boat? That is a distinct possibility. However, things are starting to close in on Joshua.
[00:29:36] As I’m continuing to work this case from a physical evidence standpoint, I was like, “Well, what’s going on in the car? I need to corroborate the statements that Vitaly, after he had been killed and who had a bleeding head injury, was placed in the trunk.” So, I called down to the original CSI technician that had processed his vehicle and said, “I found nothing. No blood. Got no latents.” I was like, “Well, how did you search for blood?” He said, “I used an alternate light source.” I immediately went to the Orinda PD chief, and I said, “You need to spend the money and get that car flat bedded up here, and I need to look at it because I have the ability to use specialized chemistry to look for latent bloodstains.”
We got Vitaly’s Mercedes up here to Contra Costa County. I opened up the trunk, and the first thing my eyes go to in the left far back corner was a red stain that was about 24 inches across, 18 inches wide. It’s huge. This stain, of course, turned out to be blood, and it’s very obvious blood. The question was, how could that have been missed? When you think about how you use an alternate light source, you need to do it in the dark. You turn off all the lights, and then you turn on this light source that uses light down from the ultraviolet up into the visible range. And typically, you’re looking for fluorescence. This is why it’s so good to detect semen stains, because semen has a tendency to fluoresce in that range of light. Blood, on the other hand, is made dark.
Dave: [00:31:30] I mean, alternative light sources have utility, but the naked eye test is pretty good too.
Yeardley: [00:31:37] It’s sort of interesting they skipped a step. The naked eye test would have been like, “Oh, shit, that’s a massive– looks like blood stain.” You go straight to the alternate light source, you might actually miss the most obvious sign.
Paul: [00:31:53] This is where you have to understand the tool you are using. A $5 flashlight would have served that individual better. This blood had pooled so much that when I removed the trunk liner, I now could see visible blood stains in the spare tire compartment on light gray painted surfaces. It might look like rust to a layperson. Turns out, I ended up finding another visible source of blood. There’s a ton of blood in this car. Now, the question comes down to whose blood is it? Of course, we think it’s Vitaly’s based on the statements, but we have to prove it’s Vitaly’s blood. Well, the way to do that is to have a DNA sample from Vitaly and compare it to this unknown bloodstain in the trunk as well as the blood from the house to show, “Yes, this is Vitaly’s blood at the homicide scene.”
[00:33:00] At autopsy, to be frank, these fractures, even though the skull itself is penetrated all the way through by the fracture from the surface down to the brain level, the pathologist ruled that neither of these fractures in his assessment, could be determined to be truly fatal. It’s not like typical bludgeonings where you see depressed fractures where now the skull is crushed into the brain. The pathologist put more weight on the fact that, “Yes, you have these skull fractures, you have the bleeding and extensive bleeding, but you also have plastic bags that were tied around asphyxiating Vitaly.”
Yeardley: [00:33:46] His last gasps are being extinguished by these plastic bags.
Paul: [00:33:51] Right. The act of the cleanup process and trying to contain the blood with the plastic bags was probably more the cause of Vitaly’s death than the blows to the head.
Dan: [00:34:04] Ah, that’s a brutal way to go.
Paul: [00:34:06] Yes. Vitaly’s blood standard was collected, as is typical. You go to autopsy, the body’s cut open and the pathologist or the pathologist’s assistant puts the blood into a vial and that blood is used for DNA purposes. So, I had gotten Vitaly’s blood sample at autopsy. When it was run to get his DNA profile, his blood was way too decomposed. There was no more DNA left. This is a problem. Now, it’s like, “How am I going to prove the blood at the house and the blood in the trunk of Vitaly’s own car is his own DNA?” This is where the timing comes into play because it’s taking weeks to get to a point to where now I’m realizing that Vitaly’s own blood doesn’t have his DNA, too decomposed. Well, what ends up happening at the morgue during that time? Well, the body’s gotten rid of. It’s typically returned to the family, it’s buried, it’s been cremated. It was like, “Oh, no, we may have a problem here.”
[00:35:30] I called down to that coroner’s office and I explained my dilemma, and I said, “I know you guys collected this blood. It wasn’t good enough to get DNA.” Oftentimes with decomposed bodies and bodies that are recovered out of the water or bodies that have been burned up, the one source of DNA that potentially still remains is the dentin in the teeth. Here, you have DNA inside the hardest substance in the body, the enamel. It often survives until the very end in terms of the decompositional process. I was like, “Is there any chance you still have his body?” Of course, they tell me, “Well, no, we don’t have his body.” When I explained, “Well, shoot, I was really hoping for you guys to pull some teeth out of his head and send them up.” The guy I was talking to down south said, “Oh, well, you’re in luck.” I was like, “Well, what do you mean?” We said, “Well, we got rid of his body, but we still have his head and we have his hands.”
Dan: [00:36:40] Wow.
Yeardley: [00:36:40] Why?
Paul: [00:36:41] That was my question. He says, “Well, after so long with our John Doe’s, for space-saving purposes, we cut the head and hands off and keep those, but we get rid of the rest of the body.” I was like, “Oh, I’ve never heard of that process before, and nor do I recommend it, but thank God.” Now, I’m telling this guy, “Hey, have your pathologist’s assistant or pathologist extract a couple of teeth from Vitaly’s head and let’s get him up here so I can get a sample of his DNA.”
Dave: [00:37:17] I’m kind of mind blown right now. The practice of taking certain body parts and storing them, that’s the first I’ve ever heard of that.
Paul: [00:37:26] Think about all the ways that a body can be identified. Oftentimes, historically, you break an arm, you break a leg, you have other types of surgical interventions or other anomalies that during life are recorded on x-rays or other documents. Yet now, you’re going to get rid of those potentially identifying characteristics in order to save space. This is where I’m like, “This is wrong.”
Dave: [00:37:54] It adds a layer of defense for the suspect. Their attorney is going to love that. “Oh, you guys just kept testing this material until it came out the way you wanted?” The defense attorney is going to go, “Well, Paul Holes magically finds all this evidence when we have another evidence tech who says, ‘I did an alternative light source. I looked at it myself. I didn’t find any blood. The car gets transported north and all of a sudden, there’s blood everywhere.'” That’s what the defense attorney is going to– he’s going to paint that in front of a jury and be like, “Well, who do we believe?”
Paul: [00:38:28] Yeah, it’s the battle of the experts. In part because I had the photographic documentation.
Yeardley: [00:38:34] Hang on, I thought the photos that you took of the blood spatter didn’t have enough exposure, so they didn’t come out.
Paul: [00:38:42] Well, those were the photos from the crime scene at the house. However, there were photos that had been taken of the trunk of the car where I could plainly see this very large red stain in the back of it.
Yeardley: [00:38:53] Oh, of course, yes. Okay.
Paul: [00:38:55] There’s plenty of sample in the trunk of the car for anybody to do a second test and go, “Yeah, the testing that was done was correct, and it is Vitaly’s blood.”
Paul: [00:39:24] So now, they’ve got his head. I was like, “Get some teeth, send them up to me.” Now, I’m just waiting with bated breath for these teeth to arrive. I have an officer from Orinda PD who had gone all the way down to San Louis Obispo to pick up the evidence and drove overnight in order to get it up to the lab in order to be tested. I meet this officer at the front counter, and he’s carrying not just a little paper bag or an envelope with teeth in it, he comes in with a five-gallon bucket. And what is inside that bucket?
Yeardley: [00:40:02] Oh, no.
Paul: [00:40:03] The victim’s head.
Yeardley: [00:40:05] Wow.
Paul: [00:40:06] And so now I’ve got Vitaly’s head. It had been mostly defleshed by an anthropologist when they were trying to identify the John Doe. But now, I had access to his skull. And what this gave me, in addition to his teeth, I was also able to see the fractures from the blows that were inflicted to the right side of his skull. This helped me to further position Vitaly, how he was laying at the time he is receiving blows. There is no question, Joshua, in two different statements said he was the one that inflicted the blows. This adds into the crime scene reconstruction, and in this instance, now, I could very confidently say the victim, Vitaly, was one likely passed out on the sofa, received a blow on the sofa while most likely asleep on his side, no blood spatter, and then was pulled down onto the floor where now with that bleeding injury to his head, he receives another blow, causing the blood spatter low down on the front of the sofa.
[00:41:31] So, think about how now we have a change. The initial statements by Joshua were self-defense. First, “He’s sexually attacking me.” Second, it was, “He’s physically attacking me from behind, and I’m trying to beat him off with a bottle while I’m standing up.” The blood patterns don’t correlate with that at all. This really transitioned from a self-defense to now, well, why are they inviting Vitaly over? It’s because he’s good for drugs and money. Once they kill him, what do they take? His Mercedes. Now we have robbery in conjunction with homicide. In California, that’s murder in the first degree with special circumstances. In this case, murder for financial gain, which in California qualifies for the death penalty. The thing that I haven’t told you is at the time of the homicide, Joshua is 17 years old. He could be tried as an adult, but would not be eligible for the death penalty even if convicted. That’s going to impact the potential for sentencing whether Joshua is tried as an adult or as a juvenile.
Yeardley: [00:42:46] Right.
Paul: [00:42:47] Now, the teeth that were extracted from Vitaly’s jaw, we’re able to get his DNA. The DNA profile matched the blood from the homicide house as well as the blood in the back of Vitaly’s car. That’s not the end of the story. The prosecutor in this case is skeptical about the self-defense angle that Joshua’s claiming self-defense based on a sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault. Joshua and Marty are claiming self-defense, yet then they take his body, put it in the trunk of his car, drive halfway across the state and dispose of his body, and then get rid of his car. So, Joshua and Marty knew they had committed a crime. Ultimately, it was the DA who said, “I’ve got some suspicions that they had a preexisting connection between the suspects and Vitaly.” Remember that bedding that I collected out of the boat? So, that ended up being processed.
[00:43:57] There were 17 semen stains that were found on the bedding. One of those semen stains was a semen-saliva mixture. The semen was tested and it came back to Vitaly. The saliva component came back to Joshua. We were able to prove a sexual encounter between Joshua and Vitaly using DNA in this case. Now, we’re going to trial, and I am sitting in the courtroom nervous as hell because I am going to be testifying to my observations of the luminol, my crime scene reconstruction, which is going to flip the switch from self-defense to murder in the first with special circ. I didn’t have the photographs to back up my statements. I’m going to be talking to this jury and having to wink at them, “Just believe me. This is what I saw.” As I’m sitting there sweating it out, one of the San Luis Obispo detectives comes out and he’s doing this throat cut gesture as he’s coming out. And I was like, “What’s going on?” He says, “We just mistried.” [Yeardley gasps] “What do you mean?”
Yeardley: [00:45:19] How do you have a mistrial before you even begin?
Paul: [00:45:22] Right. It turned out that, remember Joshua and Marty initially went into that house and were committing all those Pillowcase Burglaries in this upper scale neighborhood. Well, they, during their interviews, were videoed making all those admissions to the burglaries. Well, the defense said, “I don’t want the jury to hear anything about those burglaries that’s going to prejudice them relative to their assessment of the murder.” So, the judge ordered the prosecutor edit the video. Well, soon as San Luis Obispo detective gets on the stand and he’s going to play the video of the interview, play button is pushed. There is Joshua and Marty talking about the Pillowcase Burglaries that they were doing in front of the jury.
Yeardley: [00:46:11] Oh, man. So, somehow the video never got edited.
Paul: [00:46:14] Yes. That’s when the defense just flew into a rage and the judge shut the case down. Now, this case wasn’t retried. A plea deal was reached, and Joshua was sentenced to seven years.
Yeardley: [00:46:31] Oh, my. I’m assuming that’s because Joshua is a juvenile and the death penalty and life without parole are not an option.
Paul: [00:46:39] Correct.
Yeardley: [00:46:40] Was Marty charged with murder as well as Joshua?
Paul: [00:46:44] No. Joshua fully admitted he was the one that inflicted the blows. Though the facts did not line up with the evidence but he’s the one who’s admitting to have killed Vitaly. Marty was an accessory that was involved and admitted to being involved in the cleanup and the disposal of the body down in San Luis Obispo. Now, I forget if he was charged with anything specific or if he reached a plea deal before this case went to original trial.
Yeardley: [00:47:15] And what was Joshua’s motive?
Paul: [00:47:17] Robbery. There is no admission to that, and he wasn’t convicted of that. But what are Joshua and Marty doing in that house before Vitaly shows up? They’re committing burglaries for financial gain. The reason they said they brought Vitaly to the house is because Vitaly had drugs and he had money. I don’t know what they got from him from a drug or money standpoint, but they got his Mercedes. Now, ultimately, they got rid of the Mercedes. But still, you think about that set of circumstances with the way that this crime played out. You hit a sleeping man on the sofa on the side of the head, pull him down on the floor and hit him again. Put plastic bags and tie those plastic bags around his head and put them in the trunk of the car. Well, you’ve committed a homicide and you’ve had a financial gain.
Yeardley: [00:48:15] Thank God for your creative approach to figuring out what actually happened, Paul. It’s that kind of out-of-the-box thinking that I always think if something truly, truly awful ever happened to me, I’d want investigators like you and Dan and Dave on my case to actually look in every single corner, turn over every rock.
Paul: [00:48:38] Well, but that’s what we should be doing. We get into this line of work and the public puts their faith in us and pays us to work these cases. The unfortunate aspect, like this case, somewhat underscores is that there can be a huge disparity between individuals in terms of their ambition, their persistence, and their expertise and experience. Oftentimes, if you were to be killed in one jurisdiction, the case could be solved. If you were killed in another jurisdiction, the case remains cold for 40 years.
Dave: [00:49:20] I’ve said for years, there are times where it just depends on which investigator gets assigned to your case, whether or not you’re ever going to have answer to what happened.
Yeardley: [00:49:29] Sure.
Paul: [00:49:30] That’s just the real-life aspect. No matter what you are doing in your life, whether it’s a positive, negative experience or outcome for that event is going to be based on the people that are feeding into getting you to that point. And law enforcement is no different.
Yeardley: [00:49:48] Yeah, well, thank you for that.
Dan: [00:49:50] Thank you, Paul.
Dave: [00:49:51] I learned more again when listening to Paul Holes.
Yeardley: [00:49:55] So true.[Small Town Dicks theme playing]
Yeardley: [00:49:59] Small Town Dicks is produced by Gary Scott and Yeardley Smith, and coproduced by Detectives Dan and Dave. This episode was edited by Logan Heftel, Gary Scott, and me, Yeardley Smith. Our associate producers are Erin Gaynor and the Real Nick Smitty. Our music is composed by John Forest. Our editors extraordinaire are Logan Heftel and Soren Begin. And our books are cooked and cats wrangled by Ben Cornwell.
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Yeardley: [00:51:11] That’s right. Your subscription also makes it possible for us to keep going to small towns across the country-
Dan: [00:51:17] -in search of the finest,-
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Dave: [00:51:24] So, thanks for listening, Small Town Fam.
Yeardley: [00:51:26] Nobody’s better than you.
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