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Case Closed

Georgina Pacheco & Robert Parks
Georgina Pacheco & Robert Parks

Accompanied by a DNA analyst from the state's Department of Justice office in Eureka, Sheriff Tom Allman announced Tuesday that the 1988 rape and murder of Georgina Pacheco had been solved.

Robert James Parks, a Fort Bragg fisherman, and a brother-in-law of the victim, has been identified as the killer. Parks committed suicide in 1999 in Long Beach Harbor by chaining himself to a boat in 30 feet of water and sinking it. Parks was the last person to have been seen with Miss Pacheco. He'd picked her up at her place of work, the Sea Pal Restaurant in Fort Bragg.

The DNA science applied to the case was complicated. The FBI's samples taken from the murder scene had, over time, become unusable for identification purposes. But the persistence of Sheriff's detective Andy Porter, and DA's investigator Tim Kiely, persuaded the state's Department of Justice laboratory to take another look at the post-mortem rape kit. The lab soon found identifiable DNA on the wooden handles of swabs preserved at the time of the murder, a time when DNA as a forensics tool was in its infancy.

That DNA was matched with that of Parks ex-wife and daughter and, by extension, Parks himself, and 25 years later we have, if not justice, at least some solace for the Pacheco family who now know who murdered their daughter.

Georgina “George” Pacheco, was twenty when she went missing in the first week of September, 1988. She was found dead on September 10th. She'd been raped and murdered. Born in the Azores to a traditional Catholic family, Georgina 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 the old world Azores to 1980s Fort Bragg.

An energetic and always chipper young woman who worked mostly as a waitress, broke away from what she seemed to see as the unreasonable strictures of her old world Portuguese home. She began associating with estranged young people deep into the drug life, one of whom murdered her.

At least that was the operating assumption until this week's dramatic revelations.

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 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 said it appeared that Georgina had been killed some other place, that the lonely stretch of Pearl Drive was merely a hurry up hiding place where she wouldn’t be found for awhile.

She'd probably been murdered by a man acting alone. Parks lived only two miles away.

Numerous suspects were interviewed, all of them drawn from the Mendocino Coast’s floating population of drug users and petty criminals, among them at the time, a few transient carnival workers.

The police quickly eliminated Elam as a suspect, homing in on 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 state prison 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. 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 even tenuously linked to the Arcata killings.

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.

Georgina Pacheco was garroted, not strangled. Parks had 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, a strangler, should be revealed.

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 was known to have been the last man to see Georgina alive.

There are cops who worked in the Fort Bragg area at the time who were convinced Parks was the guy, and there are cops who thought Parks wasn’t the guy.

Parks was the guy.

To say Parks was widely disliked hardly begins to explain just how thoroughly disliked he was. Lots of people wanted him 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 him, 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.

An old timer who knew Parks said “Parks was capable of anything, and I mean anything.” The people who always believed Parks killed Georgina think he did it to get back at Georgina’s sister who no longer wanted anything to do with him.

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. In the same period, several members of the Fort Bragg City Council took “loans” from a big boy developer while the credulous chased alleged Satanists out on Airport Road.

It was a good time for bad people in Mendocino County, and murder was inevitable in the context.

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 point blank 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. He lived at the foot of a dark gulch that matched his personality, and one night Thad turned on his barstool and shot Chris Gray. 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 Victor, presently confined to state prison, 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 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 Georgina's murder, and cleared of it, the last suspect standing was John Annibel.

And he didn't do it either.

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.

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 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.

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.

“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 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.”

But now we do know who murdered Georgina. The technical marvel of DNA science got him.

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