The Cold Case Desk
by Bruce Anderson, November 4, 2009
Here at Boonville’s cold case desk, the phone will ring and an anonymous someone will ask, “Do you remember the murder of…?”
The caller seldom recalls the specifics of the terrible killing, but the deep shock, the pure horror inspired by it, lingers.
A woman recently called from Fort Bragg who wanted us to look into the unsolved killing of a young woman named Georgina “George” Pacheco. Miss Pacheco, 20, had been born in the conservative Azores to a traditional Catholic family, but grew up in unmoored America where even small towns like Fort Bragg are socially fragmented and drug-ridden, where even the most conscientious parents lose their children to influences as destructively incessant as the winds that blow in off the Pacific.
Georgina seems to have gotten lost in the transition from old world to new.
Well-liked and always employed, the energetic and always chipper young woman worked mostly as a waitress as she broke away from what she seemed to see as the unreasonable strictures of her old world Portuguese home. She began associating with estranged, unmoored young people deep into the drug life, one of whom murdered her.
Georgina Pacheco was found strangled to death on tranquil Pearl Drive south of Fort Bragg the morning of September 10th, 1988. She hadn't been seen for about a week. A man named Rodney Elam found her. Elam had been walking his dog in the early daylight hours when the animal drew his attention to Miss Pacheco’s nude corpse maybe ten feet off the pavement. She'd been strangled and dragged into the brush. Police say it appeared that Georgina had been killed some other place, that the lonely stretch of Pearl Drive was merely a place away from view where she wouldn't be found for awhile.
The caller suspected that Georgina had been killed by well-connected delinquents, the berserk sons of the area’s professional class, maybe a half-dozen of them. There was indeed a small group of Coast high school boys who’d gotten off light, real light, for a series of property crimes, but there’s no evidence they were ever violent against people.
Miss Pacheco, from all the evidence, and there's enough to securely identify the killer if he should be just as securely identified, was probably murdered by a man acting alone. A couple of battered vehicles, a white van and a pick-up truck, one of which may have contained the killer, were seen leaving the area where Georgina's body was found around the time her body would have been abandoned there, but these reports were so vague as to be unhelpful.
Numerous suspects were interviewed, all of them drawn from the Mendocino Coast’s floating population of home town drug users and petty criminals, among them at the time, a few transient carnival workers.
The police quickly eliminated Elam as a suspect, but have since come to believe that Miss Pacheco may have been murdered by John Annibel, a suspected serial killer, who lived in Fort Bragg from 1984 until he was arrested for the 1998 murder of Debbie Sloan of Laytonville.
Annibel is presently in the state pen for the murder of Mrs. Sloan, a divorced mother of two who met Annibel at a Laytonville bar and made the fatally bad decision to spend what turned out to be an eternal night with him.
The killer was born to a Scotia logging family. He spent part of his youth in Fortuna before the Annibel family moved to Fruitland Ridge above Myers Flat. John Annibel has a twin brother who has never been in trouble, a normal brother, a brother who recalls that John was “off” even as a little kid.
Before Annibel moved to Fort Bragg from his home area of Southern Humboldt County, he was the only suspect in the murders of two women there, one of them his fiancée, the other a teenager he’d known since she was a child. He may also have killed two more women — not known to him — in the Arcata area, but Annibel could never be linked to the Arcata killings even tenuously.
But he was definitely linked to the murder of his fiancée and the teenager, linked solidly enough to be prosecuted by Humboldt County if Humboldt County had ever gotten around to prosecuting him.
For reasons ranging from official inertia to official incompetence, Annibel was not charged with the murders of the two Humboldt County women, both of whom he is assumed to have strangled to death, both of whom were last seen in his presence.
After Annibel moved to Fort Bragg in 1984 he was not linked to another murder until 1998 when he confessed to the Thanksgiving weekend strangulation of Debbie Sloan in a Laytonville motel room. Odd that an assumed psycho killer would go without satisfying his blood lust all that time, go more than a decade without satisfying his terrible yearning to just go out and choke a female someone to death.
So, maybe Annibel wasn’t a serial killer in the usual sense. The one woman he admitted to killing, and the two others he almost certainly killed, seemed to be impulse kills. He was there, they were there, they were alone, he flipped out on them and choked them until they were dead. It’s not like he was driving around at night looking for hitchhikers or other isolated women to kill.
So far as is known, that is.
Annibel worked at the old L-P stud mill in Fort Bragg and for Harwood Lumber on the Branscomb Road. After he’d strangled Mrs. Sloan in that desolate Laytonville motel room, he threw her body off the Branscomb Road not far from Westport. Annibel had driven west with her corpse past his place of employment, the Harwood Mill, then on home to his wife and two daughters in Fort Bragg.
That’s Annibel’s m.o. He strangles women he knows with his bare hands and throws them away.
But Georgina Pacheco was garroted. The man who killed her tied something around her neck, a ligature as it's called, and pulled it tight. There's other evidence the police are holding in reserve that would definitively tie the killer to his victim if a suspect more likely than Annibel should be revealed.
Annibel lived near Georgina in Fort Bragg, and like her he used methamphetamine. They undoubtedly knew each other, had associated with the same set of people. And Annibel became a known killer in 1998 when he confessed to the murder of Debbie Sloan.
If he doesn't belong at the top of the suspect list he should be second.
A dozen men were interviewed and cleared, but among many locals the consensus killer was a man named Robert Parks, the estranged husband of one of Georgina’s sisters. Parks is believed to be the last man to see Georgina alive. There are cops who worked in the Fort Bragg area at the time who are convinced Parks was the guy, and there are cops who say Parks wasn't the guy.
To say that Parks was widely disliked hardly begins to explain just how thoroughly disliked he was. Lots of people wanted Parks dead, or at least wanted to thump him so bad he’d stop his thieving, lowlife ways. One Fort Bragg man caught Parks in the act of ripping off fishing gear, followed Parks, confronted him, fought him, and almost died when Parks hit him over the head with a metal pipe. And would have died if a friend hadn’t come along and pulled Parks off him. Parks would eventually be found shot to death in Morro Bay on a boat he’d stolen belonging to a Fort Bragg man. Someone had tied Parks up and put a bullet in him. An old timer who knew Parks said “Parks was capable of anything, and I mean anything.” The people who think Parks killed Georgina think he did it to get back at Georgina’s sister who no longer wanted anything to do with him.
But Parks is gone, as are most of the other likelies.
Fort Bragg in 1988 was awash in drugs and bad people, some of them pillars of the community, at least on their treacherous surfaces they looked like pillars of the community. Among the unprosecuted crimes these pillars committed was a series of arson fires that cost Fort Bragg its library, its justice court, the historic Piedmont Hotel. The fires were also heavily drug dependent, you could say, with the arsonists being paid partly in cocaine. It was quite a time in Fort Bragg as several members of the Fort Bragg City Council took “loans” from a big boy developer, the credulous chased alleged Satanists out on Airport Road, and the Mendocino County District Attorney said in Ukiah, “No one from Fort Bragg ever called me about prosecuting the Fort Bragg fires.”
It was a good time for bad people in Mendocino County.
Although Georgina was always employed, and always had a solid family backing her up, and probably would have outgrown her desire to walk on the wild side, she’d gotten into speed and bad men, hanging out in the parking lot of the old Sprouse-Reitz on Main Street when she wasn’t working. That’s where the bad boys and the drugs were, and that's undoubtedly where the killer was, too.
Other suspects included Victor Gray who, as it happens, I’ve known since he was kid. Vic and his brother Chris grew up in Boonville. When their mom, Jeannie, moved to Fort Bragg the boys went with her. Chris was shot one night in the Boonville Lodge by a rotund old hippie named Thaddeus “Thad” Thomas who lived up on Nash Mill Road. At least Thad looked like an old hippie. Or Santa Claus, take your choice, but he didn’t act like either one. Thad lived at the foot of a dark gulch that matched his personality, and one night Thad turned on his barstool and shot Chris Gray pointblank. Chris had a bad headache, and he needed some basic reconstructive surgery, but he survived, and Thad Thomas died in jail while Thad's family's lawyers made sure Chris Gray never got the money Chris should have got for the harm done to him by the Troll of Nash Mill.
Victor Gray was Georgina’s last boy friend. He, too, was quickly absolved of any responsibility for her death, which seemed to unhinge him, and Vic has since had his troubles ever since.
All of the young men said to be close to Georgina at one time or another weren’t exactly marriage prospects, not the kind of young men a girl would bring home to meet her old world Portuguese parents, and when they were systematically located by the police and asked about her murder, and cleared of it, the last suspect standing was John Annibel.
In a brilliant series of interrogations by Mendocino County investigators Tim Kiely and Kurt Smallcomb, Annibel confessed to his Laytonville murder of Mrs. Sloan. He came close to telling the truth about his Humboldt County murders, but close was as close as he got.
Humboldt County is said to be seriously moving on him on those two killings. At last. They should. Annibel’s conviction for the Sloan murder was a second degree conviction; he could be out again in a few years, still young enough to enjoy the gurgling sound dying women make when he strangles them, the sound he described for Kiely and Smallcomb, the sound he described in such full psycho detail you could tell he yearned to hear it again.
Local authorities were surprised and dismayed to learn that Annibel had already gotten a little ways out of prison when they heard he’d been assigned to outside firefighting duties. Fire camp is a prized berth in prison world, and only the best behaved convicts get it. But there’s nothing to stop a guy from walking away in the smoke, and this is one guy who shouldn't be outside prison walls, ever.
Annibel told Kiely and Smallcomb he’d moved to Fort Bragg to get away from all the bad people in Southern Humboldt, including a group he placed in Alderpoint that he identified as “the Weather Bureau,” a reference, it seems, to the Weathermen, a small group of uniquely estranged rich kids who became temporary revolutionaries in the 1960s. The Weathermen did spend time on the Northcoast, as did a group called Tribal Thumb, but the Weathermen, from much more privileged backgrounds than the left Thumbs, hid out in a posh home on the Mendocino Coast, an ocean view place, while the Thumbs worked out with small arms in the hot summer hills west of Garberville around Honeydew.
Class always tells, doesn't it?
There were all manner of organized lunatics roaming the redwoods in those days, and who knows how many freelancers. Annibel certainly wasn’t the only one of those. But the organized loons, the political ones, are models of respectability these days, big shot Democrats and lawyers and professors and consultants whose names pop up in the news whenever the liberals need a professorial comment to round out a tepid paragraph.
“In all honesty,” Annibel told Kiely and Smallcomb, “I go home every night. And up until a couple of weeks ago, my wife worked nights. So I had my daughters every night. And working. I’m gone from my house thirteen hours a day. My day’s pretty well taken care of by the time I get home. And I’d help my youngest one with her school work and cook dinner. Believe me, when I went over there to Boomer’s (the Laytonville bar where he lethally encountered the late Mrs. Sloan) was the first time I’ve been in a bar in a couple of years.”
The killer as homebody isn’t particularly convincing, but in his way, Annibel did seem devoted to his young wife — she’d moved in with him when she was 14, him 24. Last heard from, Mrs. Annibel and her daughters were living in Ukiah. She’s shed her dread married name but is still in the area. The Annibel girls would be young women now, older than the women dad murdered.
Captain Smallcomb commented recently that “unless we get a confession, I don’t think we’ll ever know who killed Georgina.”