Except for a disturbing fact—the presence of Nicholas, a bloody, bound, diaper-soiled, crying 2-year-old sitting on the kitchen floor without supervision—Catherine Tameny’s modest one-bedroom apartment situated between the Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm amusement parks looked deceptively neat upon opening the front door.
Tameny’s worried mother, Carolyn, and her stepfather, John, entered the rental at 10:15 on a Monday morning after she’d failed to show up for work as a $5-per-hour clerk at a Costa Mesa computer business. Though she liked to party, the 20-year-old single mother was usually punctual. Her friends loved her warmth and enthusiasm for weekend cruising of Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard.
But Tameny felt she wasn’t pretty enough for dates. Perhaps to make up for her lack of confidence, she drank booze, inhaled cocaine and battled to quit a Virginia Slims habit. The fact that she hadn’t taken Nicholas to a 6:30 a.m. babysitting appointment set to last until the end of her work shift gave her parents a second reason for alarm.
A coming discovery turned the family’s plan to attend a California Angels baseball game that evening against the Seattle Mariners into a footnote for a tragic day. Carolyn comforted Nicholas, whose swollen hands had been tied tightly behind his back, while John entered the bedroom and quickly exited.
“Don’t go in there,” he said. “Call 911.”
Minutes later, Anaheim Police Department (APD) officers found a bloodless homicide scene inside a ransacked bedroom. A phone line had been severed and a sliding glass door left open. Tameny would never arrive for her long-scheduled, upcoming two-night reservation at the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Palm Springs.
She lay face up on the bed, her arms extended out from her body. Her spread knees dangled over the edge of an off-kilter mattress, and her gold-colored cross pendant rested in her hair. Tameny’s nightgown had been pulled up toward her breasts, exposing an otherwise-nude corpse. Though she was known as a tidy person, her panties containing a biological link to a male sat uncharacteristically out of place on the bathroom floor.
The murder weapon, a black electrical cord attached to a nearby Radio Shack Realistic alarm clock, crisscrossed her neck. The makeshift ligature likely caused unconsciousness within 20 seconds and death in about a minute or two, if yanked powerfully enough. While detectives knew the killer had strangled his 5-foot-5, 138-pound victim, they suspected a sexual assault gone terribly wrong on Aug. 5, 1985.
At about noon, Loren Sugarman, a veteran forensic scientist with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD), began collecting biological and trace evidence. Sugarman took multiple swabs of Tameny’s vaginal, anal and breast regions—samples that would eventually become critical and controversial. He stored the material in tubes for laboratory examination techniques available in the mid-1980s.
The following morning, Dr. Richard Fukumoto, a forensic pathologist, performed an autopsy, reporting abrasions to Tameny’s throat and chin. He also said pressure from the strangulation caused petechial hemorrhages—bursts of small blood vessels called capillaries—in her face, eyes, mouth and throat while she was alive. Within two hours before the killing, she’d suffered circular bruises on her knees as well as on an ankle. Her blood showed no signs of alcohol or illicit drugs. Fukumoto concluded, “She died of asphyxiation.”
Sugarman’s crime-scene collections landed with Daniel Gammie, an OCSD criminalist, about two months after the murder. Gammie didn’t detect semen from the victim’s anal or oral swabs. He did find amylase, an enzyme found in saliva, on her right breast and determined Tameny engaged in intercourse before her death given that her vagina contained spermatozoa. Noting “the [recovered] semen concentration and sperm density were very low,” Gammie ruled in a Sept. 26, 1985, memo sent to APD detectives trying to create a timeline that “the semen was not deposited at or near the time of death” (our emphasis).
Despite intense police efforts to solve the case, the murder fell into cold-case status. In those pre-DNA-analysis days, the identity—or identities—of who deposited the saliva and sperm would become an official mystery for two decades. Examiners retested the old collections in 2006. Using significant technological advancements, they unmasked the man who left the sperm, Larry Herrera, and the one who left the saliva, Wendell Lemond.
But who was the killer? Herrera, the victim’s secret lover police were told had a “kinky” streak? Lemond, the victim’s co-worker who wasn’t helpful about how his saliva landed on Tameny’s breast? Or an unknown person?
Hours after the Monday-morning discovery of Tameny’s body, Herrera gave police shifting answers about exactly when—was it Saturday or Sunday?—he’d last seen the victim and even how he’d arrived at her apartment for sex. The inconsistencies didn’t bother eventual prosecutor Howard Gundy in large part because of Gammie’s 1985 finding that the sperm deposit didn’t occur at or near the time of the victim’s death, a finding that left Lemond the last suspect standing.
Gammie’s name and forensic report intriguingly never mentioned at Lemond’s 2009 murder trial in Superior Court Judge Frank F. Fasel’s Santa Ana courtroom. The testimonial chore fell to Mary Hong, a forensic scientist and then a rising star in the OC Crime Lab. Hong firmly testified in agreement with the 1985 conclusion, adding Herrera’s sperm deposit likely happened more than 24 hours before it was collected by authorities at the crime scene. The jury spent less than four hours deliberating before convicting Lemond, who received a prison term of 25 years to life. His home is now San Quentin State Prison.
But two people had a major problem with Hong and Gammie’s supposedly scientific finding against Lemond: Hong and Gammie.
Incredibly, a year earlier in the same Orange County courtroom (C35) with the same judge (Fasel) in yet a different 1985 Anaheim cold-case murder trial—People v. Lynn Dean Johnson, the duo used near-identical semen-recovery conditions to argue it was impossible to give a scientific opinion semen had been deposited at least a day earlier. Gammie and Hong told jurors there are too many variables in male sperm production—for example, age, health, number of recent ejaculations and how it degrades—to determine that low sperm density and concentration always means a distant deposit timewise. That contradictory shift in analysis, which caused no fanfare because nobody at the time knew of the sly switch, helpfully matched the government’s desire to convict Johnson.
In simple terms, there was OC Crime Lab’s original Gammie finding, its 2008 flip-flop in Johnson, and then the 2009 flip-flop on the flip-flop quietly back to the 1985 analysis for Lemond.
On Nov. 20, Judge Cheri Pham appointed the Federal Public Defender to represent the inmate and gave the DA’s office a Dec. 29 deadline to file a brief on whether prosecutors “failed to disclose material exculpatory and impeachment evidence” to the defense.
Given the sustained popularity of fictional television shows such as CSI and heroic crime-lab characters who solve investigations in less than an hour, juries in Orange County and throughout the nation routinely give considerable weight to criminalists’ testimony translating mind-numbingly complex forensic-science issues into understandable meanings. There’s also an embedded assumption that forensic scientists are uniformly competent, honest and unbiased. In other words, though crime labs are often wings of law-enforcement agencies—as it is in OC—their employees aren’t expected by citizens to sabotage defense attorneys or favor prosecution teams.
But ever-increasing numbers of wrongful criminal convictions based largely on faulty forensic-science testimony prompted the National Research Council (NRC) to publish a 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science In the United States: A Path Forward, which applauded “the scores of talented and dedicated people in the forensic science community . . . who have produced valuable evidence that has led to the successful prosecution and conviction of criminals as well as to the exoneration of innocent people.” Their research also left them alarmed, noting “the forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice” poses serious problems for the criminal-justice system. They observed that “faulty science analyses” has convicted innocent people even in death penalty cases.
“This fact has demonstrated the potential danger of giving undue weight to evidence and testimony derived from imperfect testing and analysis,” the group stated. “Moreover, imprecise or exaggerated expert testimony has sometimes contributed to the admission of erroneous or misleading evidence. . . . The simple reality is that the interpretation of forensic evidence is not always based on scientific studies to determine its validity.”
In supporting their stance, the NRC cited the unwillingness of “some” in the forensic science community to acknowledge imperfections despite the chronic emergence of historical evidence: The Detroit police crime lab botched at least 10 percent of its ballistic evidence analysis; a West Virginia lab employee handling more than 100 cases falsified results that caused juries to convict defendants; a Texas Department of Public Safety audit found the Houston Police Department’s crime lab “was presenting findings in a misleading manner designed to unfairly help prosecutors obtain convictions”; the Innocence Project, which has freed 351 innocent prisoners after DNA undercut criminalists’ trial assertions, discovered proof some government lab workers across the country performed “drylabbing,” or offering juries fake conclusions of tests that never occurred.
Even the FBI, which celebrates an international reputation for crime lab proficiency, didn’t escape the Council’s scorn. It cited the case of Oregon’s Brandon Mayfield, whom agents arrested for his alleged participation in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. It took two weeks for Mayfield to win release from custody after agency officials reluctantly conceded they had employed erroneous fingerprint analysis. According to the Council, the problem wasn’t necessarily the evidence, “but rather the bias and circular reasoning of the FBI examiners.”
Seventy-one days before Tameny’s August 1985 murder, 19-year-old Bridgett Lamon unwittingly worked her last shift at the Acapulco Restaurant on South Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim before encountering a vicious, sexually deviant killer holding a hammer. Lamon loved her job. Though her co-workers considered her nice, some of them felt her ditzy, “Valley girl” personality and slow diction wasn’t ideal for the hostess position. She routinely left work wearing her uniform, but at 9:30 p.m. on May 25, a Saturday on a Memorial Day weekend, she changed into a black shirt and white pants with black polka dots before heading to an unknown location for a date.
Her closest friends said she liked to party at bars into the wee hours of the morning. They would tell homicide detectives she drank heavily, smoked pot, snorted cocaine, slammed heroin and took acid trips. Though she was in the early stages of pursuing a semi-resistant boyfriend, there’s no doubt she unabashedly engaged in sexual relations with a long list of male acquaintances, including ones who picked her up while she hitchhiked North Orange County streets. One man, a 21-year-old Pizza Hut employee who’d been suspected of a 1984 indecent exposure crime, acknowledged to police he found her walking on Ball Road not far from Angel Stadium in 1982 and, weeks later, they had sex in his red 1976 Ford F-100 while parked at her mother’s trailer-park residence.
Such tales included experiences involving Lamon’s sister. According to an APD report obtained by OC Weekly, the woman claimed “a wetback-type Mexican” driving a yellow Volkswagen tried to contact her sibling a week before the murder. She told the man her sister wasn’t home, and the Mexican supposedly replied, “Can I buy you?” Lamon later explained that man had once given her a ride home.
Another admirer—this one a tall, lanky male of German descent with a wart on his nose—called the Acapulco Restaurant nightly during the month before the killing to see if Lamon was working. Tracked by police to Arcadia, where he lived with his mother, he initially gave robbery/homicide unit detectives several lies about the extent of their relationship, which included bar dates, but wouldn’t budge on his insistence that he’d last seen her before her final work shift. She’d borrowed his car the night before, wrecked the engine and, in the company of a bearded, late-30s white male driving a gold 1984 or ’85 Ford Mustang convertible, arrived mid-afternoon on May 25 to inform him he could find the disabled vehicle in Huntington Beach close to the Pacific Ocean. Later, receiving her paycheck, she bought a new outfit and headed for her last shift.
At 8:20 a.m. on Sunday, May 26, a 48-year-old Yorba Linda man searching for boxes left in dumpsters at an Anaheim industrial park near a noisy section of Orangethorpe Avenue and railroad tracks originally thought he’d found a mannequin, then decided the body was a dead, seminude female. He drove to a nearby Texaco gas station, walked into a phone booth and called 911. Responding APD officers found the body inside a three-sided, eight-foot trash alcove. Given the mutilation, it took seven hours to positively identify the remains as belonging to Lamon, who, according to blood analysis, had likely consumed at least seven or eight 12-ounce beers in the hours before her 3 a.m. killing.
Prosecutor Kevin Haskins accurately told a 2008 jury that the victim’s final minutes alive were terrifying, citing defensive wounds to the palms of her hands as evidence she knew she was going to die before attempting to flee, getting caught and suffering at least two initial steel-claw hammer blows to the back of her head. After the killer caught her, he bound her ankles with rope, raped her, and slammed the hammer into her face and chest, breaking ribs and shattering her skull in 12 different places.
Arriving police officers found not just a shockingly brutal crime scene, but also a bizarre one. The killer took the time to stage Lamon’s body. Perhaps in hopes of masking the actual location of the homicide before a final resting spot, he’d wrapped an apricot-colored satin bed sheet around her upper body. As APD detectives removed the bloody layers, they found a 13-gallon, white plastic garbage bag encasing the crushed head, then another wrapping—a yellow terry-cloth robe—and lastly yet another white plastic garbage bag. The final image repulsed even hardened cops.
As he had in the Tameny murder investigation, the crime lab’s Gammie analyzed the sperm deposits in Lamon’s vagina and concluded in June 1985, with his supervisor’s concurrence, “Semen concentrations and sperm densities were low and, therefore, indicated that the semen was not deposited at or near the time of death.” In 2004, DNA analysis could not exclude Lynn Dean Johnson as the depositor. But given the victim’s promiscuity and the aim of Tony Rackauckas’ district attorney’s office (OCDA) to give Johnson the death penalty, Haskins wanted the rape and murder happening simultaneously, meaning Gammie’s report needed to be discredited.
Inside Fasel’s court in June 2008, jurors heard Hong testify that the window for the sperm deposit was “zero to 24 hours” before collection, as opposed to more than 24 hours. Haskins highlighted the assertion, asking her if she agreed with Gammie’s 1985 finding. “No,” Hong replied. “I don’t agree with it because there are many variations in the amount of semen that might be deposited.”
By this point, Gammie didn’t agree with himself either. Under direct examination by Haskins, Gammie said his 1985 conclusion had been erroneous. His stance that low semen concentrations and sperm densities putting distance between the deposit and the killing was, he now said, “unreliable” to help solve a crime. “In other words, the premise was that high concentrations of semen indicated more recent activity [while] lower concentrations indicate more time has taken place [between deposit and collection],” Gammie said. “However, we found that in cases where we did know that interval, those concentrations weren’t consistent. We did not see that pattern of short interval producing high concentrations, long intervals producing low. It didn’t correlate directly.”
Haskins, a former San Clemente lifeguard, had the scientific testimony he wanted. He ridiculed assistant public defenders Lisa Kopelman and Scott Sanders for their questioning of Gammie, whom the prosecutor said should have been treated with reverence. The prosecutor even compared the OC lab worker to luminaries of science such as Galileo and Copernicus. “How was Galileo rewarded for his efforts? Much like Mr. Gammie, he was attacked as a heretic, as a liar, as a deluded idiot,” said Haskins, who also mocked the defense for labeling Hong “the queen bee of conspirators” and “the liar of all liars.”
The show almost worked perfectly. Though Haskins, who is now a judge, won a conviction against Johnson—a construction worker with a criminal history that included sex crimes, but whose fingerprints didn’t match those found at the Lamon crime scene—he lost efforts to put him on death row after the defense successfully raised lingering doubts with the jury during the penalty phase. Johnson is in a state prison east of Stockton, serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In 2010, the California Court of Appeal backed the conviction, though Justice Richard M. Aronson stated Fasel shouldn’t have blocked the defense from informing the jury that another suspect, Fred Lunsford, told his roommate and his brother that after picking up Lamon at the Mississippi Moonshine bar, he “hurt” the woman “around the time of the murder.”
But the appellate justices didn’t know a critical fact. Fifty-seven weeks after Hong testified in Johnson, she gave her flip-flop performance in Lemond. Gundy asked the lab worker if the jury could scientifically believe Herrera’s semen deposit in Tameny had been made 24 hours before collection.
“Yes,” Hong replied. “As time increases from the time of ejaculation to the time of the collection, we typically find less sperm.”
The alarming 2009 National Research Council’s forensic-science findings resulted in a more in-depth review, which produced a 174-page report by the National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS) in 2016. This distinguished panel found significant “shortfalls” in forensic-science practices, particularly “faulty expert testimony” used by prosecutors to win convictions. “Developments over the past two decades—including the exoneration of defendants who had been wrongfully convicted based in part on forensic-science evidence, a variety of studies of the scientific underpinnings of the forensic disciplines, reviews of expert testimony based on forensic findings, and scandals in state crime laboratories—have called increasing attention to the question of the validity and reliability of some important forms of forensic evidence and of testimony based upon them,” the panel declared.
As an Alabama U.S. Senator, Jeff Sessions, a former federal prosecutor and current U.S. Attorney General, dismissed such criticism. The Washington Post‘s Radley Balko reported in April that Sessions claimed law-enforcement officials had been using “proven scientific principles” for years. Never mind that even the FBI has conceded serious issues. For example, in 2015, the agency reported that its forensic scientists had routinely botched hair-analysis testimony at trials and that in 95 percent of those cases, the errors favored prosecutors.
Balko—a veteran journalist who covers criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties and has authored Rise of the Warrior Cop and Dr. Death and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Corruption and Injustice in the American South—urges DA offices to help institute reforms. “[We’ve] got an entire profession of experts who were willing to say things that actual scientists wouldn’t,” he wrote earlier this year. “We need prosecutors honest enough to resist the temptation to seal convictions with charlatanism masquerading as expertise.”
In Orange County’s jailhouse-informant scandal, Sanders credited luck with a majority of his discoveries of corruption inside the DA’s office, sheriff’s department and local police agencies. Law-enforcement officials here secretly used unconstitutional plots with snitches to win convictions. They also hid exculpatory evidence from juries and committed perjury to mask their misdeeds, as the California Court of Appeal has recognized. Such government cheating has blown at least 17 felony cases to date.
Luck struck in the OC Crime Lab mess, too. In the summer of 2016—at the height of the snitch scandal, a relative of Lemond contacted Sanders. This person read in newspaper accounts about Gundy’s embarrassing role in that controversy and asked if the prosecutor could have mishandled the murder case. The question prompted Sanders to study Tameny’s trial, where he learned for the first time that Hong had given contradictory scientific analysis in the two cases.
“Should it really take an informant scandal to find out that the key forensic expert in two murder cases switched her opinion?” Sanders asked. “It’s been almost 10 years since Hong did this, so obviously, she was content to let these defendants die in prison without ever revealing what she had done. It’s beyond sick. [In] how many other cases has she adjusted her opinion so it could work for the prosecution?”
Hong did not respond to requests seeking an explanation for her flip-flops. If it’s true she worked as a stooge for prosecutors, she hasn’t been held accountable. She left the OC lab in 2016. Nowadays, she runs two crime labs for the California Department of Justice.
R. Scott Moxley’s award-winning investigative journalism has touched nerves for two decades. An angry congressman threatened to break Moxley’s knee caps. A dirty sheriff promised his critical reporting was irrelevant and then landed in prison. The U.S. House of Representatives debated his work. Federal prosecutors credited his stories for the arrest of a doctor who sold fake medicine to dying patients. Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.