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On an early November morning in 1995, a computer programmer named David Hessler heard a noise outside his University City home and found a group of young men stealing computer equipment from his car.
As the thieves sped away, one leaned out the window and shot Hessler in the chest. He died within minutes, before police arrived.
Forensic crews found fingerprints, bullet casings and tire marks near Hessler’s body, but nothing pointed homicide detectives to a suspect. Neighbors heard the gunshot that killed him, but didn’t see the shooter or the getaway car screech off.
Hessler’s death became one of 91 murders in San Diego that year, and later, another unsolved mystery from one of the most violent periods in the city’s history. About one of every three unsolved murders in San Diego’s last half century happened during the early 1990s as crime boomed.
“Dave never wanted to be a statistic,” his fiancée, Kim Kuney, lamented in a court filing. “But now he had become one.”
Last year, Hessler’s case became part of a new statistical trend. For the first time in the last decade, San Diego police solved more murders than happened in 2009. Forty-one people were murdered. Police cleared 48 cases — meaning they definitively identified the person whom they believe is the murderer.
Most were fresh murders — a gang-related shooting downtown, a soured romance near South Park, a child abuse case near Mission Valley. But police also caught up with murderers who evaded them years ago by using technological advances to bolster old-fashioned detective work or through simply having the time to pick up old leads.
Earlier this year, Hessler’s shooter and four other men were convicted of crimes related to the death after his fiancée pushed detectives to revisit the case and they followed through with the aid of modern forensic tools.
Police and prosecutors say more cold case convictions are on the horizon.
As crime levels have dropped from the 1990s, homicide detectives have found more time to juggle hot cases and re-examine the stagnant ones. But beyond that, authorities also attribute their recent success to forensic advancements and expanded attention on old evidence lockers.
Two decades ago, San Diegans saw the largest crime wave in recent history. Law enforcement authorities say a rising population of young adults and rampant cocaine abuse contributed to staggering violent crime across the country. San Diego, with a historically low number of murders for its size, soon became part of this trend.
Between 1990 and 1995, the city had an average of 130 murders each year. Compare that to the last six years, when the city had an average of 56 murders each year. In the early 1990s alone, 781 people had been killed. About 300 of their cases still remain unsolved.
“There were so many back then, everybody had a homicide case,” said Deputy District Attorney Andrea Freshwater, who now leads the office’s cold case division. “I remember going into my chief’s office and saying, ‘I’m ready for another one,’ and he’d have another one ready.”
As crime gradually fell, the reduced pressure allowed police and prosecutors some breathing room to re-examine cases once set aside by bustling homicide detectives. The San Diego Police Department created a special team within the homicide unit and other local agencies offered personnel to assist.
Today, the San Diego Police Department has 22 detectives dedicated to homicide, with two of them specialized in cold cases. Despite the continued fall in the number of murders, the homicide unit has been spared from the city’s recent budget cuts. Over the last three years, when the number of new murders dropped, staffing for the homicide unit stayed consistent.
And compared to the 1990s and even parts of the last decade, police have reported a significant drop in the number of gang-related murders, which they say are harder to solve because witnesses are less cooperative. Police reported nine gang-related murders last year, 11 fewer than the previous year and 19 fewer than the year before that.
With new murders happening less often, detectives can sift through old case files more often, searching for an unturned rock that could break open the case. Personal relationships between suspects and witnesses can change over time or new technology can make once-obscure evidence relevant again.
Time, said Lt. Ernie Herbert, who oversees the homicide unit, has been one of the biggest advantages for today’s homicide detective. About 30 out of the 41 murders last year have been solved. When police reported solving 48 murders last year, at least 19 were older cases.
“I think they’ve come a long way,” Herbert said. “You don’t want to speak poorly of the previous generation, but the technological advances give us an edge.”
Investigators found their break in the Hessler case two years ago when his fiancée insisted they re-examine the evidence with new forensic tools. They still had no leads on the case but they did have a bullet and fingerprints that could be re-tested.
In 1995, police tested fingerprints from the scene by tracing the swirls and loops of the print and running that image through suspect databases, crime lab manager Mike Grubb said. By 2008, the suspect databases had grown exponentially with people caught for new crimes and computer scans gave detectives more accurate comparisons.
A few months after investigators resubmitted evidence in Hessler’s case, the crime lab matched several fingerprints from the crime scene to Buzie Weimer, who had been added to suspect databases for a marijuana arrest since the murder. Weimer later confessed to participating in the burglary and identified four other men, including Alvin Timbol, the shooter.
“The fingerprint evidence is really what made this case,” said Detective John Tefft, now retired, who investigated the shooting.
Earlier this year, a judge sentenced Timbol to serve 25 years to life in prison for the shooting. Two other men each got 11 years, one got six years and Weimer got three years probation, in part for assisting the investigation.
In one double homicide from 1993, the crime lab recently found DNA inside one of the victim’s pockets matching a longtime suspect, Grubb said. Police issued an arrest warrant for the man last month and his extradition to San Diego to face murder charges is pending.
Freshwater said the District Attorney’s Office now has 12 active cold cases pending in court, most involving a DNA connection that sat untested in evidence storage year after year.
“It just keeps developing so rapidly,” Freshwater said. “All of the sudden, boom, you have to look at the evidence because it’s advancing again. I never imagined it.”