A Bakersfield man accused of killing two young women in the 1980s, including a Reseda resident whose body was found in the trunk of her car in a Burbank parking lot, made his first court appearance Monday in downtown Los Angeles.
The charges against Horace Van Vaultz Jr. mark the first criminal prosecution in Los Angeles County involving investigative genetic genealogy, in which detectives access commercial DNA databases, load DNA material from the crime and find a relative's match that can point toward a suspect and collect their DNA, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
Van Vaultz, 64, is charged with the June 9, 1986, asphyxiation killing of 22-year-old Mary Duggan in the San Fernando Valley and the July 16, 1981, strangulation of Selena Keough, a 20-year-old mother who was killed in San Bernardino County and dumped under bushes in Montclair.
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Both women had been sexually assaulted and bound.
Vaultz did not enter a plea to the charges during his Monday court appearance. His arraignment was reset for Dec. 19. He remains jailed without bail.
"Mr. Vaultz maintains his innocence," his defense attorney, Damon Lamont Hobdy, told reporters outside the courtroom. "Surprisingly, Mr. Vaultz has taken this very well ... he understands that this is going to be a fight."
Hobdy said he did not yet have discovery documents from the prosecution, but indicated that the evidence tying his client to the murders could be flawed.
"Their contention is that it's a DNA case," Hobdy said. "DNA can be faulty."
Lacey spoke about the DNA evidence at a Friday news conference.
"As district attorney one of the most frustrating aspects of my job is being unable to provide comfort and closure to the families of murder victims in cases that have gone unsolved. But thanks to the advances in technology and forensics, we are now able to virtually reach back in time and find those responsible for these very vicious crimes," Lacey said.
The two killings were linked to a single suspect about two decades after the crimes, the county's top prosecutor said.
"Those results linked a suspect to the crimes, giving law enforcement another vital piece of the evidence. Based on the match, the detectives then collected DNA from the defendant's trash," Lacey said. "The DNA matched the forensic evidence found in both crimes, giving us the evidence we needed to file murder charges against the suspect.''
Vaultz is charged with two counts of murder, which include the special circumstance allegations of lying in wait, murder during the commission of a rape and sodomy and multiple murders. The District Attorney's Office has yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty against him.
Burbank police Detective Aaron Kay said Vaultz -- who had been under surveillance -- was arrested Thursday during a traffic stop in the Inglewood area.
"Because his criminal history goes back so far, it predates the advent of these (criminal) DNA databases that we have,'' said Kay, who was 2 years old when Duggan was killed with a tissue that had been stuffed down her throat.
Authorities have not determined why Vaultz -- who has "been all over Southern California" and has a "connection to Texas" that investigators will be exploring -- allegedly targeted the two women, according to the detective. Vaultz' defense attorney said his client is a retired widower.
"He was enjoying his life, enjoying his family," Hobdy said. "It is a devastating thing for his family, but they're handling it pretty well."
San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson said his office agreed to allow Vaultz to be tried in Los Angeles County because the "Keough family has waited for 38 years to get justice and we don't want them to wait any longer."
Burbank police Chief Scott LaChasse credited "more contemporary technology" with helping to identify Vaultz as the suspect.
"There may be several other cases out there that need to be investigated based on who the suspect is and what the circumstances of the crimes were," LaChasse said, noting that a tipline -- 818-238-3086 -- has been established to field calls.