Solomon Wells, detective who solved some of Fresno's most gruesome murders, dies

The Fresno BeeApril 11, 2014 

Solomon Wells, a police detective who solved some of Fresno's most gruesome murders, including the 1998 killing of a pregnant woman who was kidnapped and slain for her unborn child, has died at the age of 61.

Mr. Wells died of cancer at his northwest Fresno home on April 5 with his family and friends by his side. His funeral is Saturday.

"He was an amazing detective, sort of like Columbo," the fictional Los Angeles investigator of the long-running TV series, said Daryl Green, a retired police sergeant who worked with Wells on homicide and sex cases when Fresno's crime rate was at its all-time high in the 1990s.

Green described Mr. Wells as a soft-spoken, easygoing detective who could analyze crime scenes well and get reluctant witnesses to talk. What made Mr. Wells special, Green said, was that he always found time to talk to the families of the victims. "He assured them that he would never give up."

Mr. Wells was the second oldest of nine children. His father, who was also named Solomon, was a truck driver from Mississippi. His mother, Etta Mae, who was from Oklahoma, was a homemaker and a nursing assistant.

The 1970 graduate of Roosevelt High School was affectionately called "Cowboy" because he loved to ride horses, was an amateur bull rider, and had worked on ranches in the Sanger area as a young man. As a detective, he often wore cowboy boots to work.

In his free time, he played and made native American flutes out of wood, was an avid hunter of elk, moose, caribou and dove, and a gourmet cook who would eat the animals that he killed, his wife said. "He wasn't a trophy hunter," said Alma Wells. "He believed in providing for his family."

In police circles, he worked tirelessly to catch the criminal.

"He was very dedicated to his work," said retired Bee reporter Louie Galvan.

In 40 years of covering police, Galvan said he saw some cops "just go through the motions" when assigned a tough case. Mr. Wells, however, saw it as a challenge and was always looking for clues, he said.

"He was old-school," Galvan said. "When he spoke to you, he always made eye contact and you knew he was absorbing everything you were telling him."

Once his cases made it to the courtroom, prosecutors counted on him to translate the evidence.

"He taught me a lot about crime scenes, blood splatter and what the evidence meant, and I will forever be grateful," said Lisa Gamoian, one of Fresno's top prosecutors.

And if a prosecutor forgot a key question, Mr. Wells would offer a suggestion without being overbearing, Gamoian said.

"There are few people who you can honestly say was a good man," Gamoian said. "He was one of them."

The 6-foot-1, 250-pound Mr. Wells grew up in southwest Fresno where "kids often got in trouble," Alma Wells said. He got into police work after two beat cops befriended him, she said.

While working as a security guard at the old Fresno Community Hospital, he met his future wife, an emergency room technician. "It was love at first sight," said Alma Wells, who became a registered nurse. They married in 1975 and had three children.

Mr. Wells was studying criminal justice at Fresno City College when he was accepted into the Fresno Police Department's cadet academy. His dream was to become an officer, his wife said, and he made the grade in 1976. "He wanted to serve his community and help people," Alma Wells said.

Mr. Wells did his best detective work in the 1990s when the city was at its most violent: a record 98 murders in 1993 before the rate began a slow decrease.

"Back then it was a shoot 'em up town," Green said. "Not even close to what it is today."

Green said Mr. Wells worked on hundreds of sex and homicide cases in the 1990s. His first big case was capturing "Northside rapist" Pasadero Peter Holt, who terrorized and attacked Fresno women and young girls in 1990. Holt, 42, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting 13 victims, but police estimate he was involved in more than 22 attacks. In June 1991, Holt was sentenced to 90 years in prison.

His arrest capped a six-month investigation by a Fresno police team headed by Wells, whom Green described as "intelligent, detailed-oriented and very analytical in his approach."

In 1998, Green tabbed Wells to solve the murder of Margarita Flores, who was kidnapped from her Fresno home and whose head and arm were later found outside Tijuana, Mexico, and her leg in San Diego County. Police arrested Josefina Sonia Saldana after she showed up at a hospital with Flores' unborn child.

In 2001, Saldana committed suicide in her Fresno County Jail cell less than two days after she was convicted of murdering Flores and her fetus.

"That case really haunted Solomon," said Alma Wells, who spent many late nights talking to her husband about his work and who worried when he left home in the middle of the night. "He couldn't believe how cruel people could be to each other."

But the ills of society only made Mr. Wells' resolve stronger, his wife said. "He dealt with it by getting the bad guy."

Green said Mr. Wells worked more than a decade with some of Fresno's finest detectives such as Danny Martin, Doug Stokes, Bob Schiotis, Al Murrietta and Joe Chilberto. Green, Mr. Wells and the others left the homicide team in the early 2000s when a new crew of detectives took over.

Though he was off the homicide team, once Mr. Wells found out Marcus Wesson had orchestrated the killings of nine of his children in 2004, he called Gamoian to make sure detectives followed proper protocol to secure the evidence. "I remember he said it was his day off when he called me," said Gamoian, whose prosecution led to the death penalty for Wesson. "Solomon was that dedicated to his job."

Mr. Wells retired in 2010. "He was a great man," his wife said. "He loved being a police officer and loved making sure justice was done."

Solomon Ray Wells

Born:

Aug. 29, 1952

Died: April 5, 2014

Career: Retired Fresno police homicide detective

Survivors: wife, Alma; children, Solomon David Wells, Samuel Aaron Wells and Sarah Lauren Wells; brothers Roy, John, James and Paul Wells; sisters Kathryn Wells Jackson and Elizabeth Wells Aguilar; four grandchildren

Services: Visitation 4-7 p.m. Friday at Whitehurst, Sullivan, Burns & Blair Funeral Home in Fresno. A funeral service will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at God's Family Church, followed by burial at Belmont Memorial Park.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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