Costa Mesa police Thursday identified a suspect in the 1997 rape and murder of a 26-year-old photography student whose strangled body was found by her boyfriend on the bed of her apartment.
Sunny Sudweeks was found dead Feb. 23, 1997, in her second-floor apartment in the 1000 block of Mission Street, but the investigation quickly went cold -- and stayed that way for two decades. But police today named a suspect in the case: 43-year-old Felipe Hernandez Tellez, who is believed to be living in Mexico.
Orange County prosecutors said they plan to file charges and an arrest warrant this afternoon, and Sudweeks' parents made a public appeal to Mexican authorities to help track the suspect down. Police said they used familial DNA to link Tellez to the crime, meaning DNA taken from a relative helped identify him as a suspect.
Sudweeks, a student at Orange Coast College, lived with her boyfriend and another roommate, but both were at work the night she died. Her boyfriend discovered her body when he returned.
Detectives reopened the case last April, and by November, "There was a big push to look at this case with a whole new approach," Costa Mesa police Lt. Paul Beckman said.
For two weeks, every investigator in the department swarmed on the case, he added. Fingerprints lifted from the crime scene provided a big break when they matched prints taken from the suspect following an arrest on domestic violence allegations in Santa Ana in 2000, Beckman said.
With Tellez as a suspect investigators obtained DNA from a relative and then asked a laboratory to use a computer that would generate a composite sketch based on suspect DNA and other information, Beckman said. Matching the DNA-generated image with a mugshot gave investigators confidence they had the right suspect, Beckman said.
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DNA was collected at the crime scene, but investigators never got a match because the suspect's genetic material was never entered into any databases that were checked, Beckman said. This case is a reminder of how law enforcement won't give up an investigation, Beckman said.
"Nearly everyone who worked on it was here 20 years ago," Beckman said. "It's one of these cases you never forget."
Tellez lived in Santa Ana at the time of the killing, police said. He had previously resided in Costa Mesa from about 1991 to 1993, police said. On Dec. 4, 1995, Newport Beach police arrested the suspect on suspicion of residential burglary, police said.
Tellez left the United States in 2006 for Mexico, Beckman said. Investigators suspect he now lives in the state of Oaxaca with his wife and three children near the resort town of Puerto Escondido, police said. He cooks and delivers chickens, Beckman said.
"For 20 years he has been enjoying life living with his family, raising his own children and yet he denied us our ... daughter," the victim's father, Alan, said.
"Our family has struggled for years with the pain and loss and grief. We want justices for our daughter."
Alan Sudweeks also said he wanted the residents of the suspect's home "to know about this monster... We want this monster put away where he cannot harm anyone else."
The victim's mother, Sandy, also appealed to the authorities in Mexico
"to stop him from hurting anyone else'' and extradite him. Beckman said one of the main obstacles to extradition is typically fear from Mexican authorities that a suspect will face the death penalty in the United States.
That discussion will likely take place as Costa Mesa investigators negotiate the suspect's extradition, Beckman said.