If you are a killer who has eluded arrest, the two sentences you never want to hear are: "Hi, I'm Larry Montgomery, and I'm a cold-case investigator in the Orange County district attorney's office. You don't know it, but I've been studying you for several years."
Montgomery is so exceptional at cracking cases previously deemed unsolvable that Dateline NBC's Josh Mankiewicz hailed him as "The Evidence Whisperer." Mankiewicz tells us part of Montgomery's mystique is that "he looks like a high-school history teacher or something—not the guy who's going to lock you up."
Though tall and fit, it's true that this investigator—who began his career in 1974 as a reserve Costa Mesa cop, spent three decades with the Irvine Police Department and the past seven years at the DA's office—doesn't employ physical intimidation. He's mild-mannered and polite. He abhors police brutality as well as warped individuals who want state-issued badges for the wrong reasons. If some cops are anxious to make arrests in a statistical game, he views his job as a search "to find the truth."
Matt Murphy, one of the county's elite prosecutors, is effusive in his praise. "I love the guy," says Murphy. "He's the best."
Even defense lawyers marvel at his talents. Gary Pohlson, for example, called him "Saint Larry" in 2011. At that moment, the detective was helping to convict Pohlson client Eric Naposki, an ex-New England Patriots player, for a 1994 murder of a Newport Beach businessman.
Montgomery cringes when spotlighted. He explains that, unlike many homicide detectives who have large case loads and enormous deadline pressures, he can spend years on a single probe. "It's voluminous to get your head around an entire case," he says. "I get the time to look at everything."
The detective's m.o. that has put nearly two-dozen killers in prison is simple but arduous. He begins investigations by creating a file in his MacBook and taking hundreds of pages of detailed, color-coded notes as he chronologically reviews every piece of information in a murder. And then he thinks and thinks and thinks.
"The recorded interviews [with a suspect near the time of the crime] are where you find the truth," says Montgomery. "I listen to interviews—listen to every single word and how it's spoken—with two major points of view: 'What is my mindset if I'm innocent?' 'What is my mindset if I'm guilty?' The more I know about that person, the more I can put myself in that position."
The 2001 disappearance of Placentia's Lynsie Ekelund went unsolved until Montgomery took the case. Cops considered several suspects, including Chris McAmis, an Ekelund acquaintance. But officers ruled him out after bank-surveillance footage of an adjacent road supported McAmis' alibi that he'd driven away from the area in his truck. Montgomery reviewed the grainy, black-and-white, nighttime footage and saw a tiny detail overlooked for years. The vehicles were identical except that McAmis' truck had white paint on its side-mirror covers; the ones on the truck in the video were black.
Montgomery also pondered an email McAmis sent to Ekelund after her disappearance. He says the first line—telling an inside joke to the woman—was brilliantly deceptive. But the ruse of innocence collapsed in later paragraphs. After comparing McAmis' original interviews and the email, he knew the man was guilty.
"I'm looking for discrepancies," says Montgomery, who helped send the murderer to prison in 2012. "If a person is telling the truth, he lived it, and all five of his senses were active. A truthful person is more accurate. What does a guilty person say to cops? He wants to appear innocent, so he will say and do things to appear so. The killer has to lie."