Brian Thiem, here, writing from Oakland, California. I just got off the stand after testifying in the murder trial of Michael Monart, a man accused of killing Pamela Sanders 25 years ago. I’m drained, partly because I woke at 3:00 a.m. to catch a 5:30 flight out of Savannah that would get me into San Francisco in time for the court’s afternoon session, but also because of the emotions my unsolved cases still bring up.
As the first witness, I was introduced to the jury by Butch Ford, a 17-year veteran prosecutor with the Alameda County DA’s Office. As I was summarizing my work experience—graduating from the police academy in 1980 and being retired for 11 years—I suddenly realized that to this jury, I was a dinosaur. When Pamela Sanders was murdered, my third year in homicide, the prosecutor was a freshman at U.C. Berkeley, and a few of the jury members were not even in grade school yet.
Before the prosecutor had me lay out my investigation to the jury, I turned to the report I had typed more than two decades ago:
29 Jul 91, 0551—I arrived at the scene, 24th and Linden. The weather was dry, cool, overcast, and with a light wind. It was about dawn when I arrived. The body was in the street, dressed in a blue and yellow jacket and naked from the waist down. There were lacerations to the left forehead and another deep laceration or possible gunshot wound behind the left ear. There was a garbage bag over her and two others nearby. A number of bloody rags were in one bag.
The DA showed me a number of photographs of the scene and projected them on a screen for the jury. Seeing her bloody body lying in the street catapulted me back to that early morning, the feelings of optimism that accompanies a fresh case, and the overwhelming responsibility that it was my duty to speak for the dead.
I took the jury through my investigation, the people I interviewed, the evidence I examined, the conflicting stories, the futile search for a bloody jacket a possible suspect was wearing, and the multiple lab requests I submitted with hopes that one of the names would match the fingerprint found on a garbage bag. And finally to the final entry in my report in 1994, shortly before I transferred out of homicide—Case filed pending further leads.
The hardest part of leaving homicide was typing that final line on too many of my cases. In six years, I was the primary investigator on nearly a hundred murders, and although my clearance rate was better than most, I still left the unit with nearly thirty cases unsolved. I remember some my triumphs—the big cases I solved against all odds and the newspaper headlines and TV news stories, but it was the unsolved ones that I would never forget. Pamela Sanders was one of them.
So, when a DA Inspector called me with news that I would be needed to testify on a serial murder case they were preparing for trial, I held my breath waiting to hear which victim I had carried around in my head for all these years I could finally let go of.
The DA inspector told me the OPD homicide cold case team had resubmitted the print from the garbage bag, in hopes that the person matching it was now on file. They got a hit on Michael Monert, who had been arrested and fingerprinted in Oregon for a sexual assault many years after I left homicide. The investigator interviewed him and he confessed to killing not only Pamela Sanders, but also two other women in Oakland between 1989 and 1991.
Once the prosecutor finished with me, the defense attorney conducted his cross-examination, awkwardly trying to show that had I somehow investigated the case more thoroughly, I would have arrested one of the many people whose names popped up during my investigation, one of them obviously the real killer rather than his client. But the DA in his redirect asked me the right questions to show the jury that I never made an arrest because I never uncovered sufficient evidence that any of those people I looked at back then had committed the murder because the real killer, Michael Monert, never appeared on our radar.
When the judge excused me, I tried to exit the courtroom with my head held high despite a gnawing feeling that had I done more 25 years ago, it wouldn’t have taken this long to bring Pamela Sanders’ killer to justice. After a good night’s rest—one with memories of one fewer unsolved case—I’ll head back home with the knowledge that one less killer is walking the streets and that I did the damn best with every homicide case I worked.