Betty Parshall Elinburg was a slot machine gambler, a gardener, a baker of mayonnaise cake and mincemeat pie. She was the ninth of 16 children and a woman who shrugged at the Grand Canyon, calling it "just a hole in the ground."
For her 80th birthday in 2005, she wished for a little red wagon and got it. Family members tugged her around in it as she laughed. Later, she used the wagon in her back yard to help her tend roses, carnations and camellias, not to mention sweet williams, fuchsias and lilies.
The woman her family came together to remember last week was all these things. But she also was the victim of one the most brutal beatings seen by the Stanislaus County sheriff's detective investigating her death (see VIDEO from 2006).
Elinburg died in May 2006, less than nine months after someone broke into her home, assaulted her in her bed and left her with injuries to her head and face. The formerly "headstrong and independent" woman never recovered, struggling with strokes, dementia and fear until she died at Vintage Faire Rehabilitation & Nursing.
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After the attack, "she was always scared and never wanted to be alone," said sister Frances Croslow, 80, of Modesto. "We could talk to her and sometimes she knew us, but other times she'd mix up our names. She just knew she wanted family there."
DETECTIVE HOPES FOR NEW LEADS
With Elinburg's assailant still unknown, and her assault more than two years old, Detective Jon McQueary said recently that he's hoping for fresh leads in what is now considered a homicide, because Elinburg died as a result of her injuries.
"You don't know when these cases are going to break," he said. "The family wants it to happen the next day. I want it to happen the next day. But sometimes it takes years."
Most of the Sheriff's Department's cold case homicides, about 60 of them, are handled by Detective Marc Nuno. The department has other cold cases, such as Elinburg's, that also have gone unsolved; these cases are handled by the detectives who originally were assigned to them. If McQueary, for example, were to transfer out of the robbery-homicide unit, Nuno might take the case.
Family members said they started to worry when they didn't hear from Elinburg for three days, after phone conversations Aug. 28, 2005. When Croslow drove by her sister's home Aug. 31 and saw three days of newspapers outside, her alarm grew.
Elinburg was a woman of routines, her family said. Every morning she read the paper with her coffee. Mondays she did the washing and Tuesday was ironing day. So when Croslow saw the papers outside and both cars in the driveway, she decided to call authorities.
Sheriff's detectives found signs of forced entry when they visited the house, on the 1500 block of Lassen Avenue. They used a hidden key to open Elinburg's door, McQueary said. The home, known to her family as a warm place where "there was always something baking and the coffee was always on," had been ransacked. Her purse was inside, and detectives were never able to determine whether anything had been taken.
In the bedroom, detectives found Elinburg in her night clothes. She was badly injured and in a fetal position, McQueary said. She was conscious, but nonresponsive. Elinburg had been lying there for several days; her injuries were so severe she hadn't been able to reach a phone near her bed.
"She was in no shape to get out of bed or to raise a hand for help," McQueary said. "She was lucky that she was still alive after those three days."
Elinburg's family had tried for years to convince her to sell her home, particularly after the death of her husband, Marvin, in 2003. Their south Modesto neighborhood, south of Hatch Road and west of Crows Landing Road, had changed during the more than 40 years they lived there, with shootings, crime and gang activity becoming common.
SIBLINGS MOVED AS CRIME INCREASED
Many of her siblings had lived nearby but had moved as crime rates rose. Grandson Butch Elinburg said he tried everything "except for a headlock" to get her to change her mind. But Elinburg resisted.
"That was her home, her memories," he said. "There were a lot of memories in that house."
Betty Elinburg, who before the assault did her own grocery shopping, drove with ease and was free from medical problems, was debilitated. She spent the remaining months of her life being moved between hospitals, rehab centers and family members' homes.
And while, last week, it seemed easy for her family to laugh about many of their memories of Elinburg's 81 years, tears came just as easily. Justice, they said, would only be served when her killer is caught.
McQueary said he won't be able to solve the cold case without cooperation, which he said has been minimal from Elinburg's neighbors.
"It's hard to get people to come forward. But you can't make a case on physical evidence alone. You need witness statements," he said. "Yeah, I get paid to solve cases, but it's a joint effort. If we don't work together, we can't solve it."
Elinburg's assault and death hit McQueary hard, he said. The extreme violence of the assault, and the age of the victim, made the case stand out. But there was a more personal connection, he said. McQueary grew up not far from Elinburg's home and moved his mother out of the area several years ago, largely because of safety concerns.
"Betty was just in her own bed in her own room, minding her own business," he said. "That very well could have been my mom."
The Sheriff's Department asks anyone with nformation about this case to call Detective Jon McQueary at 525-7099 or CrimeStoppers at 521-4636. Callers to CrimeStoppers can leave an anonymous tip and be eligible for a cash reward.