Jeff Jardine

Deserved or not, murders put Modesto back in media’s lens

Friends and co-workers remember slain doctor Amanda Crews and her children during a vigil at Standiford Park in Modesto on Monday.
Friends and co-workers remember slain doctor Amanda Crews and her children during a vigil at Standiford Park in Modesto on Monday.

Reporters swarming neighborhoods. TV trucks parked outside the downtown courthouse, here to cover tragedies.

Modesto has experienced more than its share of this over the past couple of decades, beginning with the Yosemite tourists’ murders in 1999, the Chandra Levy case that came home to Modesto two years later and the disappearance of Laci Peterson on Christmas Eve 2002.

Then came last weekend, when two women and three children were found murdered in a home on Nob Hill Court in Modesto’s middle-class Village I area. The suspect in those killings is the same man charged with the death of a 2-year-old boy who suffered brain injuries last fall. Authorities are expected to file charges in the other five deaths soon.

From the moment news of the killings went public last weekend, people’s emotions ranged from shock and disbelief to overwhelming sadness to vigilante-speak anger. And, as has become all too commonplace, some here and elsewhere were quick to criticize Modesto and the Northern San Joaquin Valley as an incubator for tragedy, as if it happens nowhere else in the country.

Think again. The Washington Post reported Friday that America has averaged one mass shooting a day through the first 204 days of 2015, including three separate incidents in Stockton alone and nine who died in a Charleston, S.C., church in June. Thursday night, two people were shot to death and nine others wounded by an alleged white supremacist in a movie theater in Louisiana, a week after James Holmes was convicted of killing 12 people and wounding 70 during a 2012 shooting rampage in Aurora, Colo.

But the carnage isn’t limited to guns. No neighbors reported hearing gunshots on Nob Hill Court, but authorities are refusing to say exactly how the victims died. Wednesday, five people were stabbed to death in a town in Oklahoma.

The violence covers a broad spectrum, from gangs to domestic (the case in Modesto), racist and hate crimes, and mental illness, with perhaps other unidentified causes as well.

Yet, because of those three previous cases that drew the media to Modesto, the city endures a stigma that is mostly undeserved. All three involved missing persons cases that ended tragically, but only one of them – the murders of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner – truly was a Modesto case until the Nob Hill Court killings last week.

Two of the Yosemite tourists were murdered two hours from Modesto in Mariposa County, the other more than an hour away in Tuolumne County. Because one of the victims’ wallets was dumped at a Modesto intersection, the city became the base camp for the extensive searches for the victims. The local FBI office served as the hub of the investigation, and the media centered here as well. The majority of print stories and news reports bore Modesto datelines.

Two years later, in April 2001, Chandra Levy of Modesto disappeared in Washington, D.C., where she worked as an intern at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. When she was linked romantically to Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres, and Condit returned to the valley during Congress’ summer break, the national media followed – frenzied, is more like it. Network TV crews closed down 16th Street ,where his district office was situated, and clogged the north Modesto neighborhood where the Levy family lives. Her body was found 13 months later in Rock Creek Park in D.C. An El Salvadoran was convicted of killing her in a case that appears headed back to court for a new trial.

So when Laci Peterson vanished on Dec. 24, 2002, the national media already knew Modesto well. One CNN crew chief told me he figured he’d spent 244 days in Modesto from spring 2001, when the Levy case came to Modesto, until Scott Peterson’s murder trial moved to Redwood City in January 2004.

The other cases each began with the hope of finding the missing persons alive and ended in funerals and murder trials. The Nob Hill Court killings left no such hope. From the moment the police entered the home, the only search was for the suspect, 30-year-old Martin Martinez – the boyfriend of Dr. Amanda Crews, one of the victims.

The behavior of the suspects offers one of the few similarities between the Nob Hill Court case and the other three. While Scott Peterson attended a vigil at Graceada Park for his missing and pregnant wife, he also was on the phone talking to unwitting girlfriend Amber Frey, telling her he was in Paris ringing in 2003 by watching fireworks with friends Jeff, Francois and Pasqual.

In the Nob Hill Court case, police believe Martinez killed Crews, her daughter by a previous relationship and the baby he fathered, along with his mother and niece. Then he went to San Jose, where he was arrested hours later after seeing a movie with his father.

The other similarity – if the police are correct about Martinez – is that the women in both cases were killed by men they loved.

There is nothing unique to Modesto about that.