Photo by Robert Burroughs
The Santee condominium in which Michelle Wyatt lived for the last nine months of her life is typical of the hundreds of others that were constructed during the late Seventies in similar newly developed East County neighborhoods. Back to back, with only narrow lanes of asphalt between them, rows of two-story condos run parallel along both sides of Kerrigan Court, all with the same beige stucco exteriors and black tar-paper roofs. Separating the rows of condos are strips of well-tended grass — not much wider than the asphalt alleys — dotted with an assortment of trees and shrubs.
Michelle’s condo is situated midway along the second row west of the street, facing a grassy knoll and set of steel monkey bars installed for the complex’s many children. Each condo’s front door has a series of black steel numbers vertically aligned on its frame; Michelle’s is marked 10586. The living room furnishings inside range in style from traditional to modem: an overstuffed black-and-white plaid sofa, a matching barrel chair, a maple wood rocker, a color television set, and a walnut stereo console. At the far end of the living room, directly across from the front door, is a hallway. Two doorways through its right wall lead to a bathroom and the kitchen. At the hallway’s end is the dining room, sparsely furnished with only a dinette set and a walnut bookcase filled with books. Michelle loved to read: scary novels, oceanography and scuba-diving texts, and a series of Snoopy pocket books. Through a pair of sliding glass doors in the lining room’s rear wall is the tiny backward, where Michelle’s two miniature collies, Bambi, age two, and Shep, a year older, made their outdoor home. Upstairs are three bedrooms — Michelle’s, her roommate’s, and a third that is used as a storage room — and another bathroom. As in the living room, Michelle’s bedroom furnishings combine a potpourri of styles: a king-size waterbed on a walnut-stained frame dominates the room and is surrounded by several dressers and bookcases of black-and-white-painted wood.
Flyer inciting reward
This condominium was Michelle’s first real home away from her parents. Raymond Wyatt, her father, had purchased the condo in June of 1979 for $60,000 as an investment; sympathizing with his twenty-year-old daughter’s desire to be independent, he let her and a roommate move in the following January. Although his monthly payments exceeded $500, he only charged his new tenants $150 apiece.
But just twenty-four hours after Michelle Wyatt had left her condo for her tap-dance lesson on October 8, 1980, her home was filled with sullen-looking sheriff’s deputies and detectives who allowed no one else to go inside — not even Louise Wyatt, Michelle’s forty-year-old mother. And as Louise sat on the mound of grass outside the condo’s front door, her thoughts raced wildly in a loop, over and over: Who had murdered — raped, and then strangled — her daughter inside the condo the previous night, and why? A year and a half after the murder, the case remains unsolved, the questions unanswered. Louise Wyatt’s determination to find out who killed her daughter has now become an obsession, frustrated by her growing doubts about the competency of the sheriff’s department’s homicide division and by the division’s repeated refusals even to apprise her of the investigation’s progress.
Shortly after Michelle Wyatt’s death, according to her mother, one of the sheriff’s homicide detectives investigating the case remarked, “It’s really kind of strange — we’ve talked to dozens of people who knew her and not one word was said against her.” Michelle’s mother, Louise, saw nothing strange in her daughter’s having no known enemies. “She was the kind of person who, even if she hated you, would treat you as a friend,” she says. “If she felt she was about to faint, she’d make "sure you were done with what you were saying before she passed out.” Her friends and co-workers all described her in fond terms — bubbly, enthusiastic, cheery, outgoing, fun loving.
“You know, this is typical of my daughter,” says forty-three-year-old Raymond Wyatt. “I got the car keys back from the detectives after they had finished examining her car, started it up, and that son-of-a-bitch was right on empty. She was like that — very carefree, never worrying about tomorrow. You know, I used to kid my daughter for going out and spending $250 on a radio when her car never had gas in it. But by God, I’ve got to give her credit; she spent money like it was going out of style. Now I find myself looking at something and saying, ‘Why in the hell shouldn’t I buy this? It might be my turn tomorrow ’ ”
She was born to Raymond and Louise Wyatt in the Naval Hospital in Balboa Park in the early morning hours of February 9, 1960, while her father was on his way back from an overseas tour of duty with the U.S. Navy and her mother was staying with a sister in Spring Valley. Upon Raymond Wyatt’s return a few weeks after Michelle's birth, the new family moved to a tiny apartment in Golden Hill, but by the time Michelle was six they had moved two more times — first to National City and then back to Spring Valley — before settling into the three-bedroom house near Grossmont College on Regner Road in San Carlos which they still occupy. Like many of the children in her suburban neighborhood, Michelle attended Gage Elementary, Pershing Junior High, and Patrick Henry High schools, earning mostly B’s and C’s and at the same time acquiring an intense attraction to all outdoor activities, especially scuba diving, swimming at the beach, and running. “She loved the ocean,” her mother recalls. “She was always moving, always on the go, always experimenting. She had very low blood pressure, and even the doctor warned her against scuba diving because she might pass out, but it was something she just had to do, so I told her, if you have to, you have to —just make sure you always take a friend with you to keep an eye on you.’ ” Michelle also started taking tap-dancing and organ lessons. When she graduated from high school in 1978, she attended Grossmont College for one semester, sat out the next, and then enrolled at Mesa College, where, at the time of her death, she was trying to decide between a career in oceanography and one in the telecommunications and film industry.
In the meantime, she was earning extra spending money, and later supporting herself, by working at a succession of part-time jobs — first at a McDonald’s in San Carlos, then at Winchell’s Donuts in Fletcher Hills, and finally as a checker at the Safeway store in Mission Village, on the mesa north of San Diego Stadium. She also loved working with children, and regularly taught a handful of neighborhood youngsters how to dance and play the organ. “I mentioned to her one time, ‘Honey, you could make so much more money by working more hours at Safeway than by giving dancing lessons’ — she only charged $3.50, which is far less than the going rate — but she said, ‘Mom, you don’t know the enjoyment I get out of it,’ ” Louise Wyatt said. “She was also teaching a little boy and a little girl how to play the organ. When she was killed, both of them dropped the instrument — they wanted nothing more to do with the organ because it reminded them of Michelle.”
She was also very close to her younger brother, Raymond Junior, born ten years after Michelle and known in the family as “Ray-J.” Michelle frequently took her little brother to the beach, to the movies, to concerts, and over to her condo; whenever their parents left town or went out for the evening, Michelle was always a willing babysitter. “I always told them, ‘You’ve only got each other, so be close,' and they were,” Louise Wyatt recalls. “Ray-J came home from school one day a short while ago and asked me, ‘Mom, do I have to tell people I’m an only child?’ I said, ‘No, Ray-J, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.” ‘But I am,’ he said slowly, and when I told him, ‘Yes, I guess you are,’ he started to cry. Michelle’s murder plays on his mind. He loved his sister very much.”
Minutes before she began her four-hour vigil on the grass in front of her daughter’s condominium, Louise Wyatt had been lying in bed, recovering from a whiplash injury she had suffered several months before. The telephone rang. “It was Michelle’s roommate, and she said, ‘Mrs. Wyatt, I implore you, come over immediately, something is drastically wrong,’ and hung up,” Louise recalls. “I knew, right away, that my daughter was gone. I was shook up and I didn’t know what I would do if I drove myself, so I literally ran into a neighbor’s house and said, ‘Will one of you please drive me over to the condo?’ They knew something was wrong, so we hopped into the car and off we went. When we got there, I jumped out of the car and dashed toward the condo. A sheriff’s deputy started yelling at me to stop, so I just sat on the grass. I asked him, ‘Is my daughter dead?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ ” Until nine that night, Louise remained seated outside the condo’s front door, although she retreated inside an adjoining apartment for several minutes while the coroner's pickup team carted Michelle’s body, completely covered with a large white sheet, out the condo door.
Raymond Wyatt was inside the San Diego Union-Tribune’s press room, where he works as a foreman, when he, too, received a phone call — in his case, from a sheriff’s deputy. “He didn’t say anything; he just told me to come over to the condo,’ ’ Raymond says. “I asked him what was the matter, and he said he couldn’t tell me. I said, ‘What do you mean, you dumb son-of-a-bitch, you can’t tell me?’ Maybe he didn’t want to get me shook up, but I was shook up enough. I was hoping that maybe the condo had gotten broken into, and Michelle was not around, ’cause she had a habit of taking off whenever she felt like it. Or, the second worst thing, she had been beaten up or raped, something like that. But boy, when I got there and saw that goddamn door open. . . . They didn’t have to tell me a damn thing. And when I saw Louise, sitting by herself on the grass, I knew.’’
On Tuesday, October 14 — five days after Michelle’s death — her body was lowered into the ground at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Southeast San Diego. The gravesite ceremony, attended by hundreds of family members, friends, and schoolmates, lasted less than an hour. Just before the casket went into the ground, however, Louise Wyatt left. “I couldn’t take it; I just kept on thinking. No, this cannot be,’’ she recalls. “It took awhile to convince myself that my daughter is really dead. In fact, I still don’t have myself fully convinced. You know, it’s awfully hard, after all these years. . . . I go out to the cemetery every week, I know my daughter’s there, there’s a headstone that reads, ‘Michelle Louise Wyatt,’ but, still, how do I accept the fact that she’s gone?”
In the weeks after the funeral, Louise says their San Carlos home was “a madhouse.” Friends and relatives dropped by to offer condolences; some, who had themselves lost children in various accidents, told the Wyatts they felt they could sympathize with their feelings. “But it’s really not the same,” Louise says firmly. “If you have a child who died in an automobile accident, you know how they died — in an automobile accident. And generally, you also know why they died: either they made a mistake or the other party made a mistake. Why did Michelle die? Who killed her? These are questions that are unanswered. The coroner told us she died of asphyxiation, whatever that means. How was she strangled? By someone’s hands? By someone placing a mask over her face? God, I just don’t know.”
Raymond Wyatt returned to work after taking only three days off, and he recalls with dark humor that his first few weeks back in the pressroom were “comical as hell. Here I am with a murdered daughter who’s dwelling on my mind, and I’m dealing with people who are coming up to me with trivial problems. Of course, to them they’re not trivial — ‘Oh my God, my daughter's getting married tomorrow, how am I going to get out of here tomorrow? Ray, can you arrange to get me off?' — but, hey, at least he has a daughter. But getting back to work was my out; I’m not very good at sitting around with nothing to do, and when I walk into the pressroom I can forget about everything on the outside.”
The fact that the Wyatt case remains unsolved makes it even tougher on Louise Wyatt to accept the fact that her daughter has been murdered. “I go to bed with it, I have nightmares, and when I wake up, it’s still there,” she says. “And sometimes I just can’t sleep at all. Who would want to hurt Michelle? I have dreams that Michelle is at her dance school, and when she gets home, there’s someone waiting for her inside the condo. And then my dream will end. But it’s a constant —every night I can count on having some sort of weird dream. I read at night, and sometimes I read longer than I should, because my reading helps me to relax. Maybe I can go to bed with something else on my mind. But it rarely works.” (Unlike his wife, Raymond Wyatt tries not to think about the murder of his daughter. “I’m more of a realist than my wife,” he says. “No matter what we do, it’s not going to bring Michelle back.”)
Three months after her daughter was murdered, Louise went to a local print shop and had printed up 10,000 flyers with Michelle’s picture, offering a $7000 reward “for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible” for her daughter’s death. With the aid of a few of Michelle’s girlfriends and several East County youth groups, she was able to scatter the entire first run — as well as 8000 additional ones — throughout the county over the ensuing ten months, concentrating on stores, parking lots, and even laundromats in areas which were frequented by Michelle: Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, the shopping centers in Mission Valley and College Grove, and, of course, the Santee condominium complex on Kerrigan Court, where flyers were distributed door-to-door.
Reactions from people who watched Louise Wyatt perform her grim task ranged from the sympathetic to the incredulous, she recalls. “A lot of people came up and said, ‘Gee, Mrs. Wyatt, I thought the homicide department was supposed to be handling this,’ and I told them that as far as we knew, homicide wasn’t doing anything,” she says bitterly. “They never called us, they never even interviewed us. So I had no way of knowing what they were up to, and I felt the job of finding Michelle’s killer was up to me. I put homicide’s telephone number on the flyers in the hope that somebody out there knows something. Maybe the guy who did this went inside a bar, got drunk, and started talking. A lot of times in parking lots, I’d go up to people and say, ‘I’d like to give you a flyer of my daughter,’ and they’d answer, ‘No, I’m not interested,’ and then I’d say, ‘She was murdered,’ and they literally grab the flyer. But others still wouldn’t be interested, and to them I’d say, ‘Thank you very much. Take care of your children.’ ”
As time when on, the Wyatts also consulted a psychic who works with tarot cards and a Cherokee medicine man named Willie Willis who communicates with ancient Indian spirits through long, thin metal sticks. “They didn’t give us any answers, but they made us think,” Raymond Wyatt states. “The psychic, for example, described a place Michelle had gone, or a thing she had done, and it got us thinking, and before we knew what was happening, we came up with dates, names, places, and even phone numbers. She helped us broaden our sense, think of things we might ordinarily not have thought of. You know, the homicide detectives told us that whatever we do, it’s best not to get involved with this, it’s best not to try to visualize what happened, because we’re liable to hit it right on the nose but won’t have any court-admissible proof to back it up. We don’t have any one prime suspect, but we have come up with three possibilities, all people Michelle had some amount of contact with. The best we can do is turn our suspicions over to homicide. Other than that, there isn’t a damn thing we can do.”
“You know,” adds Louise, “we were willing to try anything, but none of this — the passing out of flyers, the consultations with psychics — would have been necessary if we had received any indication from homicide that they’re doing their jobs. A few months after the murder, one of the detectives snidely remarked, ‘Mrs. Wyatt is supposed to be trusting, but she’s not a trusting person.’ Well, Michelle was very trusting. How can I be trusting until I find out who killed my daughter?”
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s 972 sworn and 541 civilian personnel are spread out over twenty-five stations, sub-stations, and offices throughout the county. The homicide detail — which oversees murder investigations in all unincorporated parts of the county as well as the cities of Del Mar, Vista, San Marcos, Poway, Lemon Grove, and Santee, where Michelle Wyatt was murdered — consists of four two-man and one three-man investigating teams. Their offices are on the top floor of a two-story structure on Kurtz Street, directly behind the San Diego Sports Arena. Each team is on call one week out of every four and is assigned to investigate whatever murders occur within that week. These teams report to two homicide sergeants and one lieutenant, the latter also being in charge of the Kurtz Street station’s other two details — arson/ explosives and fraud/forgery. But the homicide division has been short a sergeant since September, 1980 and short a detective since last January. With the retirement two months ago of Lieutenant Gene Moyer, the man who’s now directly supervising the ten homicide detectives is Sergeant Bill Baxter.
Baxter is a well-built, athletic-looking man of thirty-three who commonly wears a pair of black leather cowboy boots along with his standard shirt-and-tie attire. He has been working with the homicide detail for just over a year, but he rattles off statistics about his division’s performance like a veteran. Out of the twenty-six murders his division investigated during 1981, he says, eight, or about thirty percent, remain unsolved. During the same period of time, the seventeen-man San Diego Police Department homicide division failed to solve only nineteen, or twenty-one percent, of the ninety-three murders it investigated within the San Diego city limits, but the proportionate difference, Baxter says, might be accounted for by the fact that the police department’s homicide division handles only murders, while the detail he now heads must also investigate actual and attempted rapes, kidnappings, and even assaults in which the victim is hospitalized.
The amount of time the sheriff’s homicide division spends investigating unsolved homicides is considerably more than on “walk through” murders — cases in which the suspect is either known or already in custody. An average of ninety to 150 man-hours are spent on such cases, but in “whodunit” murders with any number of possible suspects, the total jumps to somewhere between 600 and 1000. And in true whodunits with no strong suspects — a category into which Baxter reluctantly places the Wyatt case — the total number of man-hours spent on the investigation is rarely less than 1000, “and in the Wyatt murder,” Baxter says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve already exceeded the maximum.” (Similar figures for San Diego Police Department cases are not available.)
The investigation into the murder of Michelle Wyatt began moments after her roommate had returned home from an overnight outing, found Michelle’s body on the living room floor, and called the sheriff’s department from a neighbor’s telephone. Field deputies arriving at the condo immediately set about performing a relatively simple but important task that is the first step in any murder investigation: making sure the victim is really dead and then assessing the murder scene, without disturbing the evidence, to try to piece together what occurred. “Exactly what they do is predicated by the circumstances,” Baxter says. “Each case is different, and so are the initial investigating techniques. But it generally takes no more than a few minutes. ” When the deputies finished their examination, they relayed their findings to the sheriff’s communications center, describing both the murder scene and their theory as to what happened, and then waited inside the condo for detectives to arrive, keeping out everyone else — even, in this case, Michelle Wyatt’s mother. “That's done simply to preserve the scene and keep it as close as possible to the way it was when the murder took place,” Baxter explains. “The minute a person enters a murder scene, it becomes contaminated. Some of the evidence might be destroyed, either intentionally or unintentionally — it makes no difference. The observation that the lights are on or off, the positioning of certain items inside the building, even the room temperature — any of these factors might prove significant at a later point in the investigation, and the presence of anyone not absolutely essential to the investigation could be damaging.”
Usually only one team of detectives is dispatched to a murder scene, but in the Wyatt case, five investigators immediately became involved, primarily because of the “sensational” nature of the case and the lack of a suspect. They quickly began the second phase of the murder investigation, known as “processing” the crime scene. First they talked with the deputies who had initially arrived at the condo to confirm what the dispatcher at the communications center had told them. Then they questioned Michelle’s roommate about what she had seen when she entered the condo through the front door and found the body. What position was the body in? Had any of the furniture been moved? Was the front door locked or unlocked? “Before the detectives even begin looking around, they have to put the whole scene in perspective,” Baxter states. “Then, based on the physical evidence they accumulate during the next few hours, they can see whether it all coincides, whether the information provided by the deputies and the witnesses correlates with what they see at the crime scene.”
After setting the parameters of the area to be investigated — in this case, the entire condominium — the detectives began the time-consuming process of gathering physical evidence. They dusted walls, furniture, and an assortment of items inside the condo for fingerprints. They searched for hair, skin, and blood samples. They took detailed notes, recording everything from the positioning of the furniture to the physical condition of the body. They took numerous photographs. “A lot of what they do is based on practical experience; it’s not simply a matter of following steps one, two, and three,” Baxter says. “They organize what they see and work their way through an area. Initially, no piece of evidence can be eliminated. For example, a coffee cup sitting on a table may not appear significant, but if, by the time you’re halfway through with the investigation, you notice a coffee pot in the kitchen that’s half full of hot coffee, all of a sudden that cup might become extremely important — maybe it’s got the suspect’s fingerprints on it. Each step you take might give you more information to make a certain piece of evidence more or less important, and you have to keep in mind there’s always more information coming in.”
When the detectives had finished collecting the evidence, they had it taken back to the crime lab for further analysis and called the coroner’s pickup team to remove Michelle’s body. The coroner’s team performed a brief examination of the body before taking it to the county morgue, where a pathologist did an autopsy the following morning. His findings revealed that Michelle had died from asphyxiation; shortly before her death she had been raped.
The detectives questioned dozens of people who knew Michelle: her roommate, her boyfriend, her co-workers at the Mission Village Safeway, and some of her close friends. They didn’t interview her parents, however, and that has puzzled Louise and Raymond Wyatt since the day their daughter was killed. “I’m still waiting for the phone to ring,” Louise says somewhat wearily. “I did call them quite a bit, you know, in the weeks after the murder, reporting different things and giving them names or whatever I thought of that might have been helpful to the case, but they never responded. Hopefully, they checked out what I told them, but I have no way of knowing.” Her husband is equally perplexed. “We did some investigating of our own and we found that we uncovered more and more evidence they had passed over, evidence they could have found out themselves if they had come to this house and talked with us,” he says angrily. “They should have sat us down at the table and picked our brains, but they’ve never done that. We’ve had people who are almost strangers, who hardly even know us, tell us the detectives had asked them about a certain object found inside the condo, and I’d say, ‘Why would they even think to ask you, when it was mine?' I put that thing there; they could have come to me and I would have told them everything about it — where I bought it, why I left it, how long it had been there, stuff like that. It’s really wild. The fact is, they told us, ‘Just forget it, back off. We’ll take care of it ourselves. We’ll do our job, but we don’t want you guys bothering us.’ They treat us like we’re nobodies.”
Sergeant Bill Baxter would not even comment on whether his detectives questioned the Wyatts, but he did say interviewing a homicide victim’s parents “is not always necessary.” “Depending on the complexity of the situation, they may or may not be contacted,” Baxter says. “There’s really not a whole lot of standard procedure in a murder case. Like everyone involved in a homicide case, they [the Wyatts] base a lot of their opinions on what they have discovered — and they do know a lot. But what they see as important may not be all that important to the investigation. And when you deal with a victim's parents, sure, they may know their child very well, but they rarely know all the things their kids are doing. What’s essential is what the victim did in the last three or so days of her life, who her friends were, who she saw, where she went, and her friends, or her roommate, would know that better than the parents would.”
But the Wyatts have other complaints as well. For one, they wonder whether the homicide detectives are spending enough time on the investigation; have they questioned everybody who might have something to do with their daughter’s death? Shortly after Michelle ’s murder, three detectives were pulled off the case, leaving only detectives Gary Fisher and Craig Henderson. Both are currently investigating eight other cases in addition to the Wyatt case — all but one of which happened more recently — and as a result the Wyatt murder, Baxters admits, “is not being as actively investigated as the others. Timeliness is everything, and the longer it is since a murder took place, the harder it becomes to solve. There’s no statute of limitations on a murder case; it’s never closed until it’s solved. But there are priorities, and the priorities are that after you examine as much as you can and are getting nowhere, you stop doing things.” And while Gary Fisher says, ‘‘We have a lot of things we feel confident about; I think it will be solved,” he adds, ‘‘But there are only so many hours in the day, and there are a lot of things I’d like to do in the Wyatt case if I had more time.”
Sergeant Bill Baxter
The Wyatts also feel the homicide detectives have been withholding from them information about the progress of the investigation: don’t a victim’s parents have the right to know what’s being done to apprehend, much less identify, their daughter’s killer? To this, Baxter responds, “There are a lot of things we have to keep in mind when we're releasing information, even to the victim’s family. If releasing specific information, or discussing certain aspects of the case, may hinder the investigation, you don’t release it. . . . Maybe in questioning, a suspect. . . mentions something only the murderer would know. Then if he says he heard it on TV or he read it in the paper, and you know damn well it’s never been released, you have him.”
How, then, can the distraught parents attempt to determine whether the sheriff’s homicide division is really doing all it can to track down their child’s killer? “It has to be a matter of faith,” Baxter says flatly. “No one is going to be privy to all the information we’ve got — no one.”
But Louise Wyatt is not placated. She relates several anecdotes which cause her to believe that there is something amiss with the performance of the homicide detectives working on her daughter’s case. “The psychic we consulted instructed us to tape everything she said, so that maybe something that doesn’t seem to make any sense when it’s said the first time will take on some sort of meaning when it’s played back,’’ she says. “So I brought the tape home, listened to it, and sure enough, the psychic gave a physical description of the killer that matched that of three of our suspects. I called homicide and told them about the tape and at first they weren’t interested, but when I began telling them about some of the things the psychic said on the tape, particularly the description of the killer, they became interested all of a sudden and asked to hear the tape immediately.” (Baxter says his division does not generally bring psychics into their cases, but adds, “We don’t discount them. We will not turn down any kind of information. But before we’d seek out a psychic’s help, we’d have to be pretty much at a loss for other avenues. It’s a last resort, and one important reason for that is the fact that a psychic’s premonitions just won’t hold up in court; it’s not considered admissible evidence. And I cannot think of one local case in which a psychic’s help solved the case.”)
Louise Wyatt also charges that she and her husband at one point were considering hiring a private investigator but, she says, they were told by homicide detectives “that it would be a waste of money, because without the information in Michelle’s file, the case couldn’t be solved, and they were not about to assist any private eye. So we abandoned our plans.” Raymond Wyatt adds, “I never realized how goddamn competitive they [the sheriff’s homicide division] are. You would think that if these guys were up against a brick wall, if they had gone as far as they would go, they’d give somebody else a crack at it. I just can’t believe that with all these things. . .with the way the condo was found after they finished examining it, that they don’t have a lot to go on — the people she knew, the way she lived, the way it happened. . .they’ve got to have something, they’ve just got to have a hell of a lot, but there have been no arrests. I would say we give them a certain amount of time, and if they don’t come up with something, I’d like to start contacting officials to find out what’s going on. I don’t like to criticize them, but I don’t believe this department has done what they should be doing to find Michelle’s killer, and they should get some help. I’d write to. . .whoever in the hell would listen to us, whoever’s in an official capacity over them. They don’t want that. They’ve asked us not to do that.”
“One day we talked with [former homicide division head] Lieutenant Gene Moyer, but we spoke only about crime in general, not about the problems we’ve had with homicide, because I’ve been warned by people not to get homicide mad,” Louise Wyatt continues. “I’m scared that if I get them mad, they’ll quit working on the case entirely.
“If it would hurt the case, we don’t want to know evidence, but we sure as hell would like to know whether they’re working on the case. For some reason or another, they can’t take the two seconds or however long it would take to dial the telephone and make that statement. They can even hang up after they say it, if they’re in that much of a rush. And Mr. Fisher lives about three, four blocks from us, and probably drives by on his way to work every morning. It's out of his way to stop his car, turn off his engine, and come in for a second? I can't understand that, and it makes us very frustrated.”
Both Raymond and Louise Wyatt readily admit that their lives have changed dramatically since the loss of their daughter. “It’s very hard to enjoy yourself when you've got something like this on your mind,” Louise says. “You still get up, cook the breakfast, do the dishes, things like that, but a lot of things go through your mind: Michelle wanted this; why didn't I get it for her? Things like that. Or, Why didn't I go on this trip Michelle was wanting me to go on? It’s awfully hard to go shopping at Safeway, because, well, what do I associate with Safeway? I don't like to go to jewelry stores because I was always buying Michelle jewelry. Now I can’t buy her anything, not even a new dress for a party . . . because some damn bastard took it all away.
“You find your friends start talking about their daughters who are getting married, or have a birthday party coming up, or something like that, and then all of a sudden they give you an ‘I’m sorry ’ type of expression,’’ Louise continues. “But that’s life — I’m glad they have a daughter. Be proud of her, talk about her.”
“I can recall one incident,” Raymond adds, “in which this ink salesman, who comes in periodically, dropped by the plant one time before Michelle was killed and told me next time he comes down he’s going to bring along a picture of his little girl, who had just turned one. Between trips . . . this . . . had happened, and he didn’t know about it. So he comes bouncing into my office and says. Hey, Ray. I’ve brought you a picture of my little girl.' He puts it down on my desk and asks, ‘Say, how’s your girl doing?’ and I tell him. ‘Tim, she got murdered.’ The guy was devastated. He just folded up and said he’s sorry for saying anything. It took him two or three trips to the plant to talk to me again. The guy was afraid to come into my office because he thought he had done something bad to me. And I thought to myself, God almighty, how in the hell am I going to tell people? I got to where I wasn’t telling people. It’s a hard thing to tell people, ’cause you don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable, yet . . . what happened, happened.”
While both Raymond and Louise Wyatt are anxious to know who killed their daughter, Raymond feels his wife’s unrelenting efforts to do so herself have perhaps caused her to slight her own personal safety. “You’re torn between not wanting to forget what’s happened and getting your life back to normal, but how far do you go?” he says. “I feel Louise overdoes it. I’ve told her so, but those are her feelings, that’s the way she wants to do it. She lives Michelle's death twenty-four hours a day, she goes out and clips the grass around the grave once a week. . .” Louise interjects, “I clip the grass because if I don’t, they’ll take the flowers away and cut the grass themselves with a lawn mower.”
“And I don’t want any more of this,” Raymond continues. “She was mugged once, that taught us a lesson. Then there were two more attempts. [All at Mt. Hope Cemetery.] I don’t think it was smart for Louise, after she was mugged that first time, to continue going down there. It’s dumb — she’s putting herself in jeopardy for nothing. Then, about a month ago, I went down to the cemetery with her on a Saturday, and there was an old couple just sitting in their car right by the gates, too scared to move. There was blood all over the place — three colored guys had attacked them, knocked them down, tried to rape the old woman, and taken a cane and beaten the crap out of the old man. That did it. I told Louise she’s not going down there alone. [After the third assault, Louise began carrying with her to the cemetery a small revolver.] And even though I don’t really get anything from going down to the cemetery, I go with her because she wants to go. Now one of us is standing guard all the time. It’s a goddamn joke.
“I think we’re just beating our heads against the wall, keeping this thing stirred up. You can’t relax; it’s always there. I want to lay back, forget about it, but it’s always there. It’s with us every day. There’s always somebody calling, there’s always something going on, flyers to be picked up, flowers to be brought to the cemetery ... it just keeps you all churned up.”
Louise: “Well, you don't have to . .
Raymond: “Now, see?”
Louise: “I’m just telling you, honey, if it bothers you so much ...”
Raymond: “It’s not bothering me so much, it bothers me to see you carry on like you do. It’s just like with the flyers. When she first had them printed up, Louise placed flyers in the side windows of her car and of my car. I finally took mine down. First of all, I don’t like people staring at me; I get paranoid. So I'm driving along, and all of a sudden I feel somebody staring at me — there’s somebody who's pulled right up alongside of me, right up on the freeway, and he almost hit the guy in front, he was so concerned with reading the flyer. Then another time, this car actually did hit the guy in front of him, and that was it.”
Louise: “Ray tends to hold a lot in; he’s bullheaded, whereas I have the tendency to explode. If somebody does me an injustice, watch out. I’m a very vicious person — you don’t hurt me and you don’t hurt my family. Because if you do I’ll fight you. I've always had this attitude and I'll probably die with it. That's where I’m at now — I want to hit, but who?”
About eight o’clock on the evening of Wednesday, October 8, Michelle Wyatt left the Sue Hamilton School of Dance on El Cajon Boulevard, where she had been taking tap-dancing lessons three nights a week since she was seven, and drove home. There she was met by her boyfriend of four months, Patrick Acomb, who had just completed his last class of the day at Mesa College. The two had met the previous spring at the Safeway store where Michelle was working as a checker. Acomb, who at the time lived nearby, had started paying her regular visits before finally asking her out for a date in July. They began seeing each other regularly and grew quite close. Just a few days before she was murdered, when her mother half-jokingly asked, “Hey, Michelle, are you getting married?” Michelle rolled her eyes and, giggling, said, “Oh, Mom, you’re embarrassing me, but, yes. I’ve finally found the right one.”
Shortly after Acomb’s arrival, he and Michelle retreated to the condo’s garage, where they played three games of pool while talking about what each had done that day. Michelle had only attended two of her classes that morning, opting, instead of attending a third, to go running with her boyfriend before dance class, and she was fatigued. Still, she managed to beat Acomb in all three pool games, and on their way out of the garage she kidded him about her victories. After turning out the garage lights, they went back inside the condo through the sliding glass doors in the dining room and sat down in the living room to watch television. Acomb doesn’t recall whether they had locked the glass doors after their entry, and the question has repeatedly bothered him since. What he does remember clearly is that he left through the front door shortly before one the following morning, instructing Michelle, as he always did, to lock the door behind him.
That was the last time anyone saw Michelle Wyatt alive. Less than an hour later a neighbor reported hearing Michelle’s two collies barking furiously, accompanied by some yelling, but they didn’t investigate.
Just before five the next afternoon, Michelle’s roommate, who asked her name not be used, returned home from an overnight excursion and parked her car along the Kerrigan Court curb. She had moved in with Michelle the previous July (about the same time Michelle had started dating Pat Acomb) after answering an ad in the paper; taller, bigger, and five years older, she immediately began to see herself as Michelle’s “big sister.” Two weeks earlier she had been accosted by a small dark-haired man who had grabbed for her clothing as she was about to enter the condo’s front door late one night. But she swore at him and he ran off. Since that time, she’d been afraid he might return, and would regularly caution Michelle to carry some sort of weapon whenever she went out after dark. Michelle, however, would simply smile at the suggestion, saying, ‘”Who would want to hurt me?” And when the roommate told Michelle she was thinking about moving out because of the attack, Michelle’s reaction bordered on the incredulous. “She couldn’t understand my fear,” the roommate says. “It [the attack] didn’t seem to affect her. She was always bubbly and easygoing and never believed there were people out there who could hurt someone for no reason.”
Michelle Wyatt's grave
The glare of the late afternoon sun was blinding to the roommate as she walked past the two rows of condos onto the strip of grass leading to her own front door. Memories of the aborted attack had started to dim by then, but as she approached the condo, what she saw filled her with instant apprehension. “I knew something had to be wrong, because the lights were still on and the curtains were drawn,” the roommate recalled later. “Michelle always got up early, and she would never leave the house shut up like that. As I walked up to the front door, I remember thinking, This is weird, because the mail was still in the mailbox and the newspaper was on the ground outside the door. Then I opened the door and I saw her right away, and I knew immediately ... I don’t know how, I just knew — instinct, maybe. You just know. I dropped everything I had in my hands — I dropped the newspaper, the mail, some books I had borrowed from a friend — and ran to a neighbor's apartment across the lawn, all the while thinking, I must be dreaming. I called the police and then Mrs. Wyatt. I waited for the police outside the front door of the apartment I had run to. I wasn’t sure this had really happened, and I figured the police would tell me if it was true, if Michelle was really dead. When they told me, I just couldn’t believe it. All I could say, over and over, was, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God.’ ”
Like everyone else involved with the Wyatt case, Michelle’s former roommate has developed certain theories she does not mind discussing. “Everyone seems to be sure it's someone who knew her, but I think the murderer is someone who didn’t know her,” she says. “If anybody really knew her, he couldn’t have done what he did. But I’m the only one who feels that way. I think it was someone who lived in the area and had been keeping an eye on us — you know, two girls living alone. I have a suspicion it might have been the guy who attacked me in front of the condo that night. He was a little guy, and I felt I made him angry, swearing at him. I’m a big girl, and I’m strong, but while Michelle would have had the guts to defend herself, she was not a muscular woman by any means, and I don’t see how she could have protected herself. But I do have inner feelings that they ’re going to catch whoever did this someday. This guy is alive, and he's going to mess up, he's going to mess up soon and they’re going to get him.”
When homicide detectives questioned her a day after Michelle’s murder, the roommate recalls, she mentioned the small, dark man who had attacked her outside the condo’s front door two weeks earlier, but “they didn’t seem to think there was a connection.”
While Louise Wyatt does have several possible suspects in mind, the fact that she does not know for sure continues to bother her, and has caused her to formulate certain theories of her own as to the killer’s motive. “I’m pretty sure it was someone who wanted her body, someone who knew her and wasn’t getting what he wanted from her,” she says matter-of-factly. “But if I could know for sure who killed Michelle, I could probably tell you why, too.”
For the time being, however, Michelle Wyatt’s murderer remains free, and her mother can only speculate as to how she will react when and if a suspect is finally apprehended. “Do you want me to say I’d take my little gun and blow his brains out?” she asks. “And then have the police come after me? No, I’d let the courts handle it. Print that. But whether it’s in the courts or in some other way, I want revenge.”