Investigating the Disappearance of Kathy LaMadrid
by Tim Stelloh, November 18, 2009
Kathy LaMadrid, in a photo and mug shot, before she went missing
The rumors aren't pretty. Like pornography, they're crass. As with any small town police investigation, they can be all-consuming.
But after all the sightings and psychic readings, after the cadaver dog searches and the dozens of bizarre connect-the-dot interviews, after a desperate family member tried hiring a contract killer to murder those he thought responsible, after five years of possible leads, legwork and let-downs, those rumors are nearly everything the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department has on the disappearance of Kathryn Rebecca LaMadrid—last seen December 17, 2004, at 1:30 pm, crossing the Noyo Bridge in Fort Bragg.
Kathy LaMadrid could look tough. She weighed 165 pounds and stood just over 5'8.'' She had short hair, a tattoo on her ring finger and she worked retail and service jobs in Fort Bragg—at a clothing store, at a gas station, at McDonald's. She was originally from Sacramento, and had moved to the coast by way of Sonoma to be near her older brother, according to her ex-girlfriend, Shelli LaMadrid (no relation).
The call, from Kathy LaMadrid's brother, Reuben Casillas, came on New Year's Day, 2005. “I thought she'd come back,” Shelli LaMadrid recently said. “They'd had a disagreement, so I thought she was just foolin' off.”
It was an argument, Casillas would later say during a court hearing, about his sister being “under the influence.”
“I needed help hanging some doors and she said 'no,'” Casillas said. “And then we started arguing and I yelled at her...She started walking down the gravel road in front of my house, which is across from McDonald's in Fort Bragg. I watched her. She walked away and she glanced back at the house. And I wanted to run out and apologize to her. I kept wanting to apologize. I stopped myself and I said I'll apologize to her next time I see her.”
Then she was gone.
The clues were meager, but a few became possible explanations: Two days before she disappeared, a former boss reported that LaMadrid had stolen $300 from her. Earlier that month, LaMadrid had gotten in an accident while drunk driving in a friend's car and had skipped out on the court date. She'd also recently developed a methamphetamine habit, had possibly been fronted drugs and bailed on the payment, according to Dustin Lorenzo, a detective with the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department. (Shelli LaMadrid calls this “hearsay,” however, saying that she'd never known her ex-girlfriend to have a drug problem).
This combination—the reportedly missing $300, a DUI, an alleged drug habit—lead to the theory that Kathy LaMadrid had burned one too many Fort Bragg bridges. It was time to go.
A string of out-of-town sightings followed. In January, while on vacation at Disney World, a Fort Bragg family said they'd seen her with another woman; their claim was somewhat corroborated when, months later, a local parole officer told detectives the other woman could have been his parolee.
More LaMadrid sightings popped up in Oregon—as well as Ukiah. But as with the alleged Disney World sighting, those leads went nowhere.
Casillas—who'd tracked down that Fort Bragg family, according to Lorenzo—had begun doing what any older brother in his position would do: He'd become a driving force in the investigation. Because of the possible drug connection, he interviewed Fort Bragg's sizable drug-addled homeless population and passed his notes along to detectives. He plastered the town with missing persons posters. And he eventually offered a $30,000 reward.
“He would spend all day every day going around talking to drug users and sellers, asking when she was there last. That's where we got a lot of these reports,” Lorenzo said, pointing to stack of over a hundred police reports, filed in manila folders, piled on his desk. “Joe Blow drug dealer says she was killed by this guy and burnt at this people's ranch, and we'd follow up on it.”
Which is when the rumors began. They were rumors that overwhelmed the investigation and left little concrete evidence for detectives to work with—despite the handful of recurring characters who would be cast as suspects by Fort Bragg's homeless informants.
One woman in particular—who we'll call The Storyteller—was responsible for much of what began streaming through Fort Bragg's indigent gossip mill, Lorenzo said. The Storyteller told detectives that Kathy LaMadrid had been killed and dismembered, that her body was at the “top of a hill with nice views” off Highway 20, that one of the men involved in her killing was a devil-worshipping homeless man—a man who pops up again and again in this story. How did The Storyteller know all this? She'd heard from Somebody Else. When detectives tracked down Somebody Else, Somebody Else said they'd heard it from The Storyteller.
Months later, police would learn The Storyteller had told others a different tale: Kathy LaMadrid's body had turned up off the coast of Westport, The Storyteller had said. She'd been devoured by sharks.
Nevertheless, at the time, Casillas began trudging up and down dirt trails off Highway 20, Lorenzo said, searching for the body of his missing sister. He now believed she was dead.
A few months later, sheriff's deputies arrested a man on drug charges who claimed to have information on Kathy LaMadrid. We'll call him The Dealmaker. The Dealmaker's story was not unlike The Storyteller's—though there were a few new twists. He told police that Kathy LaMadrid had been lured out of the Tip Top Lounge, that she'd been raped, murdered, cut up with a chainsaw, rolled up in a rug and burned in a burnpile at a property off Highway 20. The Dealmaker said the woman who lived there had recently discovered a jaw bone in such a burnpile.
How did The Dealmaker know that? Because he'd heard it from Somebody Else. To highlight his bona fides, The Dealmaker said he'd known Kathy LaMadrid well—that they were planning on buying a house together, that he loved her, that he could even provide detectives with the identities of her assailants. So he gave a name—the same name given by The Storyteller. But The Dealmaker stopped there. For the second name, he needed something special. He needed to not go to jail.
Detectives declined, and off The Dealmaker went.
Police followed up on the jawbone, however, and there was indeed a property off Highway 20 with several burnpiles, along with a woman—and her jawbone—who lived there. The jawbone, which she'd attached to the visor of her car, was from a hog, she told police; she'd found it while driving along the Caspar logging road. For good measure, detectives had it tested. She was right. The burnpiles, too, turned out to be a dead end, with no sign of human remains.
One of the most compelling breaks came when Casillas brought a man to detectives who claimed to have been with Kathy LaMadrid the night she was killed. The man's story had the same contours of The Dealmaker's and The Storyteller's—and it included the same characters. But he didn't claim clairvoyance; his story was firsthand. And though a few months had passed since Kathy LaMadrid had gone missing, his reluctance seemed warranted: He'd been threatened, he told police, and he was scared to talk.
The man's story was compelling enough that detectives outfitted him with a hidden microphone and sent him back to the apartment. He bombed, Lorenzo said, and was told to leave without the alleged suspects so much as hinting that his story was legit. Detectives eventually interviewed those two men—one of whom has since left Fort Bragg, while the other is still local—but neither appeared suspicious to police.
“They said, 'yeah we know who [LaMadrid] was, but we never partied with her, we never had a conversation with her and we have no idea why everyone's saying it was us,'” Lorenzo said.
A lawyer for Casillas would later say his client had provided “credible evidence” about the “probable perpetrators” to police. But they'd failed to do anything with the information. Casillas declined to be interviewed for this story, so it's not clear if the lawyer was referring to anyone involved in the wiretap episode; but at some point during the Summer of 2005, Reuben Casillas took matters into his own hands.
“He was fed up,” Shelli LaMadrid recalled. “He went into devastation mode.”
The Fort Bragg police had gotten a tip that Casillas was looking to do several murders-for-hire. An undercover detective, posing as a white power thug, called Casillas to gauge his interest. At first, Casillas resisted because he didn't have any money, said Casillas's lawyer, Monte Hansen, at a hearing in November 2005. But after a few more phone calls from the detective, Darren Brewster—and an agreement that Casillas would sell his house to pay for the murders—they agreed: For about $39,000, Brewster would kill the five people on Casillas's list.
On August 2005, Brewster and Casillas met at the Fort Bragg Burger King; Casillas was arrested and later pleaded guilty to one count of solicitation of murder. It was a bleak moment in an already tragic story.
“I'm a broken man and I don't know if I can be fixed,” Casillas said in court. “But I hope I can.”
During his court appearances and while he was in prison—he was released earlier this year—Casillas continued to cooperate with police on his sister's case, though over time his tone became increasingly resigned. “You stated you'd continue to correspond with me, whether I was incarcerated or not,” he wrote in a January 2007 letter to sheriff's Lt. D.J. Miller. It was a letter that, among other things, listed a series of leads. “You stated you wanted to solve my sister's case,” he wrote, “because a previous case of yours in Fort Bragg, Christy Krebbs, remains unsolved. I believed you were sincere, now I'm not so sure. ”
Casillas hasn't contacted the police since his release. Shelli LaMadrid kept up the search instead: She covered Sacramento with missing persons signs, she blitzed newspapers and TV stations in Oregon, the Bay Area and LA, she commissioned psychic readings, she joined search and rescue and began organizing volunteer cadaver dog searches—and paid the bills herself.
So far, those searches have turned up nothing.
“This is the reason I joined [search and rescue],” she said. “A family doesn't deserve what [Kathy's] family got. All I've tried to do is help. You can do everything, you can turn every damn stone—but it's never enough until the end comes.”
The police, meanwhile, don't seem any closer to solving the LaMadrid mystery than they were five years ago.
“It could be something as simple as—she walked out to Glass Beach and fell in,” Lorenzo said. “Or maybe somebody was out to get her. Or it's possible she's in some other state hiding out under a different name. But when it's this long, that's hard to believe.”