By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
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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.
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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.
Schrauben, born in 1972, and Aehlert, born in 1970, bonded. He called Aehlert his “big brother.” The other person Schrauben allowed in his inner circle was Thomas Joseph “T.J.” Garrick, who, at two-and-a-half years his junior, was described by Schrauben as his “little brother.” The three Target employees played softball, ate dinner and drank together at bars.
It didn’t take long for the OCSD probe to pinpoint Schrauben, whose name Dove recognized had been scribbled on a note in Sandra’s purse on the night of the murder and then forgotten for four years.
Dove and his team also managed to unmask the anonymous caller as the South County boyfriend of the sister of Schrauben’s then-girlfriend. That man, Mike Cavlovic, confessed he’d made the call and said he’d overheard Schrauben and Garrick discussing the murder at the Sports Page bar.
Says prosecutor Murray, “It’s Tom Dove who connects all the dots.”
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But prosecutors need more than dots. Murray needed to drive a wedge between the alleged killers, who—except for U.S. Navy-bound Garrick—had moved to Phoenix. Dove launched out-of-state surveillance, obtained wiretaps and designed a trap. In early 2005, he left a series of voice-mail messages for Schrauben’s OC friends. Those people called Schrauben and alerted him that a homicide cop was looking for him. Dove wanted to see how the hit man reacted.
The first person Schrauben contacted was Aehlert. With deputies listening in, Aehlert told Schrauben to relax, and then asked him if he felt comfortable talking on the phone. Schrauben said no. Over the next five days, surveillance teams watched Aehlert use pay phones and hold lengthy meetings with Schrauben outside of a Target, inside two gun stores, at a fast-food restaurant and during a residential birthday party.