Denise Dodge London Donnell sensed her daughter was heading down a path of self-destruction.
Despite a worsening addiction to heroin, Lauren Grace London still appeared healthy and attractive the last time the Hughson mother saw her daughter.
Denise tried to get her daughter some help but fate would have it that just 10 days later, on her 25th birthday, Lauren's badly burned body was discovered on a dirt road between orchards south of Ceres, a location far from where Lauren was known to frequent.
March 16 marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Lauren, a pretty young single mother. Unlike the Lacy Peterson case, London's death has not generated much media attention. The family of the homicide victim understandably feels things are very unresolved. There hasn't been an arrest.
"It doesn't go away," said Donnell. "Most other people, somebody dies, you have a burial and a service and it's up to you how you process and that type of thing. But this is the investigation, newspaper articles, dealing with the detectives, maybe they'll be court. It just goes on."
Those who knew Lauren while growing up in Hughson remember a girl with infectious laughter, a woman who didn't take herself seriously, and a loving person. Those who attended Hughson High School with her up until her 2008 graduation remember she was a good volleyball player who made senior class clown in the Huskies yearbook.
After a year of pondering about what happened to Lauren on or the day before her 25th birthday, Denise has only theories. Lauren had been hanging out with friends who were drug addicts at the Tiki Lodge on McHenry Avenue in Modesto - a place which Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll has acknowledged as a "hotbed of criminal activity" rife with prostitution, drug abuse and fights. Denise said her daughter was staying there with others who managed to get vouchers for emergency housing. While picking up or dropping off Lauren for occasional lunch dates, Denise would be introduced to her friends.
"She'd introduce me to everybody and they were like her. They weren't like the people you see shuffling with sores on the street begging for money. They looked like kids she went to school with that would be in my house."
Lauren had attended recovery meetings now and then. A picture of a drug addict is depicted on her Facebook page. On May 10, 2014 she jokingly referred to "my new addiction, I'm down to only 3 packs a day" followed by a photo of Grandma's peanut butter cookies.
Denise has her hunches that the homicide was related to Lauren's drug addiction and possible lifestyle.
"I've always assumed that she was at the point where she would do anything. So not having any money...I just assume because she was really pretty and that worried me because I knew that she would draw a lot of attention."
Lauren was a typical fun-loving teenager who wasn't allowed to get away with much. Denise was protective of both Lauren and her sister Lindsay. They had curfews. Denise chased off boys who would show up at the house. She was likeable, and her sense of humor drew lots of friendships. Lauren attended Merced Junior College before studying at a local beauty college and then worked for a while as a hair stylist. Like most young women, she was a fan of Justin Bieber, took care at being fashionable, and enjoyed spending time with her friends and family. Facebook shows a happy young woman doing fun things with friends - up until 2012.
Lauren began drinking and eventually realized it was becoming a problem. She turned to Alcoholics Anonymous where she eventually led meetings.
It was in A.A. that Lauren met James.
Lauren got involved with drug use through a live-in boyfriend who also physically abused her while living at his mother's house. Lauren became pregnant by him and gave birth to daughter Kennidee in April 2013. According to Donnell, he was the one Lauren referred to in a May, 2014 Facebook post that read: "Rather be without a home then (sic) to accept getting beat by a man. Wait that's not a man, that's a pussy."
"He is not a suspect," confirmed Donnell.
Lauren appeared to be head over heals in love with her daughter. On June 16, 2013 she posted a photo montage of Kennidee with these words: "Happy 2 months to the best thing that has ever happened to me, these past two months have been the best and hardest 2 months of my life & I wouldn't change it for the world. I'm_hard_core_in_love."
But drugs had a stronghold on her. Denise saw the telltale signs of neglect when she would spend time with Kennidee. At times the girl would be dirty and at other times she had severe diaper rash.
"I'd get her all healed and it would be back next weekend."
Kennidee was about 11 months old when her paternal grandmother came to Denise and explained Lauren was using heroin.
"You could have knocked me over. I could not believe it. That was not on my radar at all and I considered myself to be educated in these things. So for two years she knew Lauren was doing heroin. All through the pregnancy she knew. I was horrified at what was going on in her home. Like within 20 minutes I had the baby."
Denise knew she had to get the baby away from Lauren. She called Lauren saying that she missed Kennidee and wanted to spend time with her as she hatched a plan to keep the girl from Lauren.
"Lauren was heartbroken. I said, ‘This child will not grow up where there is any type of addiction. I'm telling you know I'm not going to allow it.' But I told her I wanted her to get her s--- together and raise her daughter. That's what I wanted."
Denise convinced Lauren that she couldn't adequately care for Kennidee and needed to file for permanent guardianship.
"Lauren was able to see eventually that it was best for the baby because I said ‘I need to be able to make medical decisions without tracking you down.' "
Lauren eventually moved in with her father in Turlock. A condition to living there was undergoing drug tests at home, said Denise, to prove she was clean. Lauren was still using heroin but managed to fool her dad.
"Once I found out she was using, I even asked her, ‘How did you pass the drug test?' and she burst out laughing and goes, ‘Daddy didn't flush the toilet.' He drug tested himself."
Lauren slipped further away from her family and old friends. Her Facebook page tells the story of friends reaching out, saying they missed her, and suggesting getting together. The suggestions went unanswered. By early 2014 Lauren had visibly lost a lot of weight, looking gaunt. That June she announces on Facebook she is 93 pounds but posts photos of donuts, saying she is a "big mamma in da making."
Denise said she tried staying in contact with Lauren by giving her cell phones that would "disappear." Lauren explained that she lost them but Denise questioned if they were being sold. Contact became rarer and typically occurred through Facebook messages made while she was on friends' phones. Denise even turned up the volume on her cell phone at night in case it chimed that Lauren was sending a message. When she did, Denise jumped at responding, quickly messaging back that the two get together, often for lunch.
"At Christmas just before (her death) we pretty much spent the day together and I brought her home to see Kennidee. It was a wonderful thing. It was just awesome and then I took Lauren back to Tiki."
Ten days before her death, Lauren contacted her mom to see if she would activate a cell phone that she had. Denise refused but asked her if she was ready to seek help. Lauren hesitated before replying, "Yeah."
Denise found a place on Orangeburg Avenue that would accept Lauren under her medical insurance plan. The staff began processing Lauren's information but then wanted a $2,500 check from Denise, explaining that they were unable to get ahold of the company and needed immediate payment. Denise was unable to write a check, even if she were going to be reimbursed later. The mother and daughter left the facility with Lauren promising she would check herself in the following day.
"She swore she was going to go back but said, ‘There's someone I need to tell I'm going to be doing this.'"
Denise's response to her daughter was if there is someone controlling her, she needed to get out.
Lauren replied, "No, I can't. I need to say something."
When she dropped Lauren off back at the Tiki it would be the last time she would see her daughter. While in the motel parking lot, a friend of Lauren's appeared. Lauren told her mom that she had to meet him, jokingly announcing that he was going to be Kennidee's godfather. The friend asked Lauren for "something" because he wasn't feeling good. Lauren cleared her throat and told her friend that Denise was her mom. Before leaving, Denise told him: "It's your job to make sure she goes there tomorrow."
Her daughter had to want recovery for it to work, Denise thought, and had the tools she needed but Lauren never checked into the program. The next day the staff called Denise looking for Lauren.
Over a week passed with no additional contact.
Denise was notified of Lauren's death when a sheriff's detective contacted her ex-husband looking for her.
"My ex-husband called me at work and told me said the sheriff was on the way," said Denise.
Authorities were able to identify Lauren because of a partial fingerprint from the body even though it was badly destroyed, she said.
Denise has no information about the status of her daughter's homicide investigation and no details about Lauren's exact cause of death.
"Her birthday is the day they are using. It took like forever to even get her death certificate because they couldn't determine anything. They don't know did that (fire) kill her? Was she already dead? Was she killed there?"
She did learn that the dirt road where Lauren's body was discovered is used by drug addicts and derelicts wanting to avoid police contact. It was reported that an appliance dolly was near the body.
A Sheriff's Department spokesman at the time commented that the burning of the body showed "a bit more aggression" than in typical homicides.
Denise began looking to social media for any clues as to who killed her daughter. She was intrigued by one set of seemingly cryptic comments on Facebook that featured an address in Ceres. She reported that information to investigators but never heard anything back.
Frustration runs high that the Sheriff's Department hasn't made an arrest. Donnell is also unhappy about her contacts with investigators.
"They're not very forthcoming in keeping me updated at all," said Donnell. "This is my daughter and I'm her mother so I can demand this of you and if you don't want to work with me ... I'm being extremely respectful of their job ... but when push comes to shove, I will continue to go up the chain."
Her frustration led her to write a letter to Sheriff Adam Christiansen himself and send copies to detectives. She claims a detective on the case called her while "flipped out" about the letter and assured her that things were being done. Denise offered her thanks and apologized that it took a letter to the sheriff to shake loose the short bit of information. She was also told that some were afraid to talk to detectives "because they're afraid of what's going to happen to them."
In her letter, Donnell related that her family loved Lauren and was waiting and rooting for her despite any trouble she might have gotten into.
"I did everything I possibly could, including having her come home and try to get into (recovery) places all over the state, other states."
Donnell took interest in Christiansen's comments published on Feb. 10 in the Ceres Courier. In it he was quoted as saying: "We will solve this case but there's a whole lot more to the story that we simply cannot talk about. I am confident that we will make an arrest in this case but it's just going to take more time."
"What you printed in the paper," said Denise, "I wonder if he's telling the truth because no one has said anything like that to me. I have a really hard time getting anyone to really respond to me. Through the course of a year I've calmed down some because it used to make me very angry. Tell me. I want to know you're working on it."
Christiansen remained mum about the investigation but told the Courier that "we always know more about our cases than we are willing to release for a variety of reasons. While I would love to give you all of the details, I guess I'm simply going to ask that you trust us that we will solve this case but there's a whole lot more to this story that we simply can't talk about. It's like a lot of cases where the public is left with the perception that nothing's happening or it's a cold case homicide or it's a dead end, or gee how come you haven't made an arrest yet? I'd love to tell you why. But I will tell you that I am confident we will make an arrest in this case."
Donnell's hopes were also buoyed when she learned that the District Attorney's Office began prosecuting the Turlock murder case of Korey Kauffman that dates back to 2012.
"It gave me hope. For it to be that long ago gave me hope because I've just resolved myself that they're not going to catch anybody."
Despite her family's great tragedy and unresolved justice, Donnell said she tries to go on the best she can.
"I'm trying to have the best life I can under the circumstances."
Raising Kennidee as her own daughter has helped. She said her granddaughter has saved her life "because she's such a joy. I laugh because of her. I talk to her about her mommy all the time. She's not even three yet and can say, ‘That's Mommy.' She has pictures of her in her room. That's what I want her to know."