In what sounded more like a murder-mystery movie than the opening of a trial, a prosecutor Wednesday described for jurors the intricate steps taken by detectives to gather evidence that he said proves a registered sex offender wearing a GPS monitor raped and murdered four prostitutes in Orange County.
The trial of Steven Dean Gordon, 47, is unusual on multiple levels. Earlier this year, Gordon won the right to defend himself in his death penalty trial.
On Tuesday, he agreed to a stipulation about the facts of the case in exchange for prosecutors dropping rape charges against him -- but as opening statements were about to begin, he reversed himself and said he didn't want the deal. Gordon then declined to give an opening statement.
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The six-man, six-woman jury will hear evidence, possibly through December, first determining if Gordon is guilty of killing 21-year-old Jarrae Nykkole Estepp, 20-year-old Kianna Jackson, 34-year-old Josephine Vargas and 28- year-old Martha Anaya.
If he is convicted, jurors will consider whether to recommend death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Co-defendant Franc Cano, 30, of Anaheim, who also faces the death penalty and was also wearing a GPS monitor at the time of the killings, will be tried separately.
The only victim's body to be recovered was Estepp's, which led to multiple clues tying Gordon and Cano to the other killings, Senior Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin said. Investigators recovered Estepp's remains March 14, 2014, at an Anaheim recycling facility.
Prior to that discovery, Santa Ana detectives were stumped about the other three missing women, Yellin said. Jackson was the first to be reported missing -- on Oct. 6, 2013 -- when her mother could not reach her anymore on the phone, Yellin said. Next to be reported missing was Vargas on Oct. 24, 2013, Yellin said.
"Her family reported her missing," he said. "They put up fliers -- again, nothing -- no bank activity, no credit card activity."
Anaya went missing Nov. 12, 2013. When the body of Estepp -- who left Oklahoma for Orange County, where she had relatives -- was found in the recycling facility, "initially it was thought to be a mannequin," Yellin said.
Once investigators realized they had a murder on their hands, they had trouble identifying the victim, but Estepp's tattoos helped them solve that riddle, Yellin said. A discarded caulking tube under the victim's body offered detectives their first important clue, Yellin said.
Investigators tracked it to Boss Body and Paint, 3421 E. La Palma Ave., where Gordon parked his RV and sometimes worked odd jobs, according to the prosecutor. A tampon found on Estepp, meanwhile, contained DNA that turned out to match Cano and Gordon, Yellin said.
Detectives managed to calculate the time the body was dumped at the facility, and investigators checked the time against the movements of the defendants, who were both on GPS monitoring due to their previous convictions. Since Estepp appeared to have been raped, Detective Julissa Trapp sifted through computer records containing the movements of registered sex offenders, leading her to Cano, whose GPS device indicated he was near the area where Estepp's body was dumped, Yellin said.
"At that point Seven Gordon was not even on law enforcement's radar," Yellin said, noting that Gordon was under federal GPS monitoring and Cano was wearing a state GPS monitor.
Trapp called Santa Ana police, who provided phone records on their missing person cases, Yellin said. And when they compared the GPS-recorded movements of Cano and the other three victims, investigators saw a pattern, Yellin said.
Another detective realized that Cano and Gordon often hung out together. Investigators asked Cano to come in for questioning and collected his DNA for the first time from a water bottle he drank from, Yellin said. Other investigators followed Gordon and picked up a wad of discarded gum to get his DNA, Yellin said. He noted that neither man's DNA was previously in the legal database, despite their earlier convictions on sex crimes.
The prosecutor also showed jurors text-message exchanges between the two defendants that were often lewd and offensive as they discussed picking up prostitutes and spoke in their own code about killing them, according to the prosecutor. The two would refer to the women as "cats" or "kitty," Yellin said.
When Gordon protested the killing of Estepp because "she made me (orgasm) three times," Cano urged him in a text message to "get your hands dirty," according to Yellin. Gordon reminded Cano, "You're forgetting what I'm wearing tonight," apparently referring to his ankle bracelet.
Cano suggested "happy hands" to Gordon on the method of killing, Yellin said. Estepp's cause of death was strangulation. According to Yellin, Gordon initially told detectives he just wanted to have sex with the victims, but things got out of hand and the killings were "crimes of passion."
After asking to talk to Cano and being told -- falsely -- that his friend did not want to speak with him, Gordon changed his story and said the two worked together to pick up the prostitutes and kill them, Yellin said. The two defendants appeared to know how to avoid raising red flags with the GPS devices.
Cano was convicted in 2008 of lewd and lascivious acts on a child younger than 14, and Gordon was previously convicted for lewd and lascivious acts on a child younger than 14 in 1992 and kidnapping his estranged wife in 2002.
The defendants pleaded guilty in 2013 to failing to register as sex offenders in Nevada and were sentenced to time served in custody, according to federal court documents. They both then had their cases sent back to Orange County. They cut off their GPS devices before going to Las Vegas, officials said. They were put on lifetime supervised release and again tracked with GPS monitors.