Lewis Griswold

Tulare Co. sheriff revives cold case homicide unit

Detectives Dwayne Johnson, left, and Chris Dempsie work in the Cold Case Unit for the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office at Government Plaza.
Detectives Dwayne Johnson, left, and Chris Dempsie work in the Cold Case Unit for the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office at Government Plaza. Tulare County Sheriff’s Office

Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux has re-established the cold case homicide unit by hiring two veteran officers to pore through old files in hopes of finding new clues, especially DNA.

“I’m committed to bringing justice and closure to the victims and their families,” Boudreaux said.

Among the most vexing cold cases is the 1994 abduction and murder of 10-year-old Angela Ramirez from the Visalia Swap Meet. Her body was found in an irrigation canal and no suspect was identified.

Boudreaux was a detective at the time. “When that little girl was found, that never left my memory,” he said.

Maybe the two detectives – handpicked by Boudreaux – can solve some of the cases, he said.

Detective Chris Dempsie worked many years at the Porterville Police Department before retiring as captain last year. He has also worked for the Sheriff’s Department and the Laguna Beach Police Department.

Detective Dwayne Johnson spent many years at the Fresno Police Department, where he worked in patrol, investigations, internal affairs, narcotics, youth and community services and the training division. He retired as a lieutenant in 2006.

Later, he worked as a real estate fraud investigator for the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office.

Johnson started his career with the U.S. Army as a military police and correctional officer, worked for the St. Cloud, Minn., Police Department, joined the FBI and was assigned to Fresno and Manhattan, and served as a deputy for the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department at the main jail and road camp.

Between them, the two detectives have 70 years experience in law enforcement.

They will sift through select cold cases to see what they can uncover using the latest techniques for DNA analysis.

Years ago, “evidence wasn’t packaged to preserve DNA,” Dempsie said. “They weren’t trying to preserve something they didn’t know existed.”

Yet DNA can be extracted from some of the old evidence, even from a small sample, although it’s expensive and time-consuming.

Another tack is to use familial DNA analysis to look for common DNA markers specific to one family.

Memories fade and witnesses move on, but people will sometimes open up to investigators when they wouldn’t talk before.

“I took a case out of the blue and ran with it,” Dempsie said of a Porterville case. “At the time the crime occurred, everyone was afraid of the suspect, but 20 years later people were not afraid to talk.”

The department is releasing details of some cold cases in hopes of jogging memories.

On Sept 1, 2006, two men wearing hooded sweatshirts and bandannas over their faces held up La Tienda market in Strathmore. Store owner Maria Sanchez, 68, was shot and killed despite cooperating with the robbers.

A witness driving by saw two men run inside the market, stopped his car and saw one of them behind the counter, but when he made a U-turn to get another look, both ran out of the market.

Another cold case involves the murder of retired Kern County sheriff’s Deputy Larry Whitfield, 53, who was found shot to death April 27, 2003. He and his wife had started the Impact for Christ Center near Woodlake to reach out to youth.

He was shot and killed while working at the center and was found dead the next morning. Robbery did not appear to be the motive and investigators believe the killer knew Whitfield. After authorities got a few phone calls, the case went cold.

“Somebody out there knows what happened,” Dempsie said. “Point me in the right direction.”

Anyone with information should call 559-735-1898 and ask for the cold case unit.

COS HANFORD: The College of the Sequoias Hanford Educational Center has reached a milestone of 1,000 students, college President Stan Carrizosa said last week.

The number represents 1,000 full-time equivalent students, meaning there are more than 1,000 students but some attend part-time.

After the numbers are verified by the Chancellor’s Office, the college will get a reimbursement of $1 million from the community college system and will keep getting that amount yearly if the numbers stay up.

“There is a demand for higher eduction in that corner of Kings County,” Carrizosa said. “Our interest is to sustain everything we have and grow from there.”

The Hanford campus opened in 2010. Services now include admissions and records, financial aid, counseling, student scheduling, library, tutorial, math lab and writing center.

The campus is the home of the Tulare/Kings Police Academy, firefighter certification program and industrial maintenance training.

Lewis Griswold covers the news of the South Valley for The Fresno Bee: 559-441-6104, lgriswold@fresnobee.com, @fb_LewGriswold