There is a dark evil side lurking beneath the surface of everyday life here in the Valley.
Lauren Grace London was connected to it.
Next month is the second anniversary of her murder.
Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department detectives still have made no arrest. As far as we know, her killer is walking free.
Lauren was the young mother from Hughson who became strung out on drugs and hanging out with drug addicts at the Tiki Lodge, a dive of a motel on McHenry Avenue. It is a place which Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll once classified as a "hotbed of criminal activity" rife with prostitution, drug abuse and fighting.
Lauren's badly burned body was discovered on a dirt road between orchards southwest of Central Valley High School on her 25th birthday. Authorities remain tight-lipped whether she was killed before she was burned, or if she died in an unthinkable manner by being set ablaze. I'd like to think she didn't suffer. It still doesn't mask the horror that some evil person or persons destroyed a beautiful young lady.
About 10 days before her death, Lauren's mother, Denise Dodge London Donnell, had helped set up her daughter to enter a drug treatment facility on Orangeburg Avenue. Lauren swore to her mother that she would enter on her own accord the next day but not before announcing: "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."
Who was that person? A boyfriend? A pimp? Drug dealer?
After the gruesome discovery of Lauren's remains, a Sheriff's Department spokesman commented that the burning of the body showed "a bit more aggression" than in typical homicides.
I will add kind of the way that drug dealers who are owed money treat their victims.
I'm certainly not privy to the investigation and detectives aren't talking (they never do) but the death of Lauren London has the earmarking of a drug dealer taking care of a debtor.
Remember Rosa Avina, the 27-year-old Livingston woman who was bound, gagged, doused with flammable liquid and set on fire in Ballico on October 23, 2007 in retaliation for her theft of marijuana and an "eight ball" of crystal methamphetamine worth $750? Four suspects in the case couldn't speak English but they knew how to conduct their evil business learned in a foreign land.
Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin saw the obvious similarities Avina's death shared with a homicide of a man on Santa Fe Drive in the Ballico area in August 2006; and with a May 2007 case where a man's burned body turned up in an abandoned Gustine barn.
Remember when Hughson Fire Department was dispatched to a September 4, 2011 car fire in an orchard off of Hatch Road only to find two charred bodies in the trunk?
And most recently deputies found the body of Juan Carlos Ledesma-Infante, 39, of Stockton, in a Jan. 29 car fire in the 5300 block of Griffin Road between Taylor and Keyes roads.
If I were a betting man, I'd say all of the above were committed by ruthless, heartless, reprehensibly evil animals masquerading as humans.
A year ago Sheriff Adam Christianson said the public needed to trust his department that "we will solve this case." He assured me that while the public is left with the perception that nothing's happening or that it's a cold case homicide, that "I am confident we will make an arrest in this case."
Apparently justice can take a very long time in Stanislaus County.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile, the longest preliminary trial in Stanislaus County history is winding down with the reputation of District Attorney Birgit Fladager on the line.
As you probably know, two brothers living in Ceres are at the center of the homicide of Korey Kauffman. Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal, who own the Pop N' Cork stores in Turlock, have been charged with others in Kauffman's murder.
The Reader's Digest version of the DA's version of the story goes like this: The bombastic defense attorney Frank Carson - known to disrespect police and court officials and his affinity for the "F" word - lives in Turlock and grew tired of "tweakers" stealing metal and antiques from his property over the course of months. Carson allegedly threatened the thieving Cooley brothers that: "If I f-----g catch you, especially you, or any of your f-----g friends over on my property I will kill you." The Cooleys weren't the only ones helping themselves to Carson's belongings. So Carson had his clients and friends, the Athwal brothers, lie in wait and put the fear of God in the next one to jump the fence. As Carson put it, he wanted the next thieves to be "f'd up." Enter Korey Kauffman who went alone to steal the night of March 31, 2012 without his thieving buddy, Michael Cooley, who had an ominous feeling that night when he saw dark figures on the property. Instead of "f-----g up" the thief, Kauffman is shot and killed. His body gets dragged and transported over to the East Avenue location of the Pop N' Cork liquor store. There the body is buried a field behind the store for months. When detectives start asking the Athwals questions on June 25, 2012, the brothers decide it's time to dig up Kauffman from his shallow Turlock grave. The brothers pull the old Sergeant Schultz quote from Hogan's Heroes: "I know nothing!" when they know it all. Cell phone records indicate that the very next day Baljit Athwal traveled up the hill to Smith Station Road in Mariposa County. Funny, this is about eight miles from where Kauffman's body would be discovered by a hunter a year later.
The case is replete with great evidence, including wire taps, witness statements and cell phone records which point to a web of conspiracy for murder. However, Barbara Zuniga, the judge presiding over the preliminary trial, has not been happy with the District Attorney's office. Because the DA had not released some of its findings to the defense team, the judge released all the jailed defendants, odd considering that evidence is strong against the Athwals who are also a flight risk.
Stay tuned for this one. It's going to be the case of the century.
* * * * * *
With state lawmakers advocating lawbreaking, this state is utter embarrassment.
Now we have elected officials who are proud about half of their family being in the United States illegally. California State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, said that "half his family" was in the country illegally, using false documents, and eligible for deportation under President Trump's new executive order against "sanctuary" jurisdictions.
De Leon introduced the bill, SB 54, to make California a "Sanctuary State."
He testified before the Senate Public Safety Committee: "... I can tell you half of my family would be eligible for deportation under [President Donald Trump's] executive order, because if they got a false Social Security card, if they got a false identification, if they got a false driver's license prior to us passing AB60, if they got a false green card, and anyone who has family members, you know, who are undocumented knows that almost entirely everybody has secured some sort of false identification. That's what you need to survive, to work. They are eligible for massive deportation."
The very next day DeLeon went on Larry Mantle's show on KPCC talk show. He expressed outrage that President Trump's executive order would include those who possess fraudulent documents or committed identity theft to obtain a Social Security number. "Someone simply who received or purchased a [fraudulent] Social Security card down at MacArthur Park, or elsewhere in my district would be eligible immediately for mass deportation," said DeLeon.
"He's trying to deputize police officers - and with the suspicion of someone being a criminal or having a broken taillight, that they themselves, as a local police officer, could call the ICE agents immediately and have that person deported without even legal due process."
Mantle seemed incredulous and asked: "First of all, I just - I want to make sure I understand correctly: You don't think purchasing a phony Social Security card and number should be a deportable offense?" DeLeon unabashedly replied: "I don't think so ... the vast majority of immigrants - hard-working immigrants - have done that. I can tell you I have family members specifically who came here as undocumented immigrants, and they did the same thing. That's what you need to do to survive in this economy."
Mantle objected: "But of course the problem is, - and I know people too - who've had their Social Security numbers and identities stolen as a result of that...."
The Democratic party in California has lost its mind.
Elected state officials take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the State of California and the United States. If DeLeon isn't a candidate for being recalled I don't know in California state politics.
Do you have any feedback about this column? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will read it, promise.