“Gosh, I don’t remember now,” she replied. “I’ve lost all track of time. I don’t know. I don’t know now.”

Other details caught Wyatt’s attention. Jessee had been gone so long on the night of the murder that the chicken nuggets had cooled and two bags of ice she’d purchased at 8:41 p.m. were melting when she arrived home, just before the 10 o’clock news.

Though she promised to cooperate, after her interview, she refused to provide elimination fingerprints for a CSI team; declined to answer Wyatt’s calls; and hired defense lawyer Al Stokke, who promptly told the detective to stop calling. Less than 24 hours after the murder, Sandra’s son, Tom Aehlert, blocked cops from entering the crime scene in search of additional clues. Wyatt had to obtain a late-night search warrant.

“I told Tom, ‘I’m trying to find your stepfather’s killer, and you won’t let me in the house?’” Wyatt recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Hmmm.’”

Despite his suspicions, the detective couldn’t prove who killed Jack. He got promoted, and during subsequent years, the investigation stalled, although one fact was certain, according to the DA’s office: Jack’s death gave Sandra more than $777,000 in 2008 dollars. She moved to Phoenix to live near Aehlert. They shared none of the money with Jack’s two adult children, Cheryl and Chere. Instead, they bought themselves two new homes with pools, new vehicles and a boat. It was a comfortable lifestyle for a retired widow and an $8.50-per-hour hospital-loading-dock employee. They’d moved on with their lives and hoped everyone else had, too.

*     *     *

Based on FBI reports, close to 6,000 killers elude justice each year in the United States. In many of those cases, investigators are hamstrung because there’s no obvious link between perpetrators and victims. There are no statistics on the number of killers who suffer daily anxiety attacks worrying that authorities will hunt them down.

Evidence shows that Jessee and Aehlert took precautions—for example, keeping this note near a phone: “Be careful, could be recording.” They’d also shown contempt for the police. If you need an image of the arrogance, consider this one: Jessee’s brother flipped the bird at Wyatt less than a week after Jack’s murder.

In 2003, four years after the murder and 358 miles from Phoenix, an Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) homicide team that included investigators Tom Dove and Brian Sutton reviewed the Jessee cold case. The file landed at OCSD after a dissatisfied David Jessee, Jack’s older brother, pushed the case out of the Placentia Police Department. A three-year-old report caught Dove’s interest.

An anonymous caller had phoned Placentia P.D. and said suspicions about Jessee and Aehlert were on-target. The pair had hired a hit man who worked with Aehlert at a large, well-known chain store and had used money from the murder to buy a new truck and jet skis, according to the caller. He also claimed to know that the hit man switched roles at the last minute and drove the get-away car for another man who’d actually stabbed Jack.

Incredibly, the Placentia cop who took the call didn’t record any portion of it or take any steps to launch a trace.

Based on the caller report, Dove and Sutton had two immediate objectives: discover the identity of the 2001 caller, and cull through Target employment records to find Aehlert’s co-workers.

*     *     *

With his 1984 marriage to Sandra, Jack Jessee had become stepfather to 15-year-old Tom Aehlert and his 12-year-old sister, Tracy. Aehlert was, according to various family members, a “momma’s boy,” but he bonded with Jack on sports. Jack loved the Raiders, and Aehlert backed the Pittsburgh Steelers. Eventually, Aehlert married his high-school sweetheart, Marla, and moved out of the house on Choctaw. He aspired to be a cop and obtained an associate’s degree in criminal justice. But his law-enforcement career never got farther than working security for Target.

At the store, Aehlert met the man who would become his best friend: Brett Scott Schrauben, who in the summer of 1998 was a cocky 25-year-old Southern California hit man who walked like a penguin, preferred guns to knives, drank alcohol only to get drunk and didn’t mind visiting Jack Jessee’s house to eat the unsuspecting future homicide victim’s food. Though Schrauben saw himself as a ladies’ man, he cared more for video games and trucks—American made and loaded with after-market extras—than people. He’d botched an attempt to become a pimp, lied about robbing ATMs and never delivered on a boast he could import a kilo of cocaine. But he wanted folks to know he wasn’t a fool. To hire Schrauben required a $5,000 non-refundable retainer and, after the murder, $45,000 in cash. He fancied new purchases: a Chevy truck; a Laughlin, Nevada, vacation; and a Sea-Doo jet ski. His girlfriend wanted breast-enlargement surgery. And his day job as a manager of the garden shop at an Irvine Target didn’t pay well.

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