Nearly 10 years ago, the sheriff’s office submitted a cold case to the Kern County crime lab, and it was a success.
DNA recovered from the victims body matched a convicted serial rapist, but what seemed a slam dunk was turned away by the district attorney’s office because the victim had been a Jane Doe for decades.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when another DNA match was made on a cold case in Ventura County that investigators there realized their victim, murdered in July 1980, was killed just days apart from Kern County Jane Doe.
Ventura County decided to prosecute both cases doubling their workload, but giving both victims a shot at justice and nearly 40 years after the murders, the victims got just that.
Typically at a sentencing hearing the victims’ loved ones tell the court about the impact their loss has had on them.
It’s a reminder of why a sense of justice and closure is so important, but Thursday, we didn’t have that. Both murder victims are still unidentified. Their families, unable to mourn their loss.
Despite that, it was very emotional in the court as almost everyone made it clear they’re here for the victims and they’ve become their family.
At 66-years-old, it was unlikely Wilson Chouest would ever get paroled from prison following his two murder convictions, but his public defender tried to ask the judge for mercy.
When Judge Ryan Wright had his chance to speak, he first and foremost commended the investigators involved in the case.
“Detective Rhods, Detective Evans, and the other officers … who when the rest of the community seemed to have forgotten about those victims, they didn’t,” he said. “It was a tremendous effort to bring this case some sort of closure, which the community deserved even if they didn’t realize they needed it.”
Wright then, turned his scorn to Chouest.
“While I take no personal pleasure ever in sentencing a criminal defendant, I will tell you that I’m taking a tremendous amount of professional satisfaction in telling you there will never be a parole board.”
“Your last breath will be taken in state prison where you deserve to be, and it’s going to be taken on my order.”
And with that, Wilson Chouest was escorted off, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
One of the jurors afterward said the Jane Does, one of whom was four months pregnant, weren’t without people who cared about them.
“It took me a long time to process that and to realize they had no one,” Jennifer Burnham, aka Juror No. 4 said.
“It kept sinking in deeper and deeper for me that I have to be their family. We have to be their family. We have to be their voice, and see this to the end, and that little baby would’ve been 38 years old this year.”
For prosecutor John Barrick, this outcome is satisfying, but he’s still left with the frustration of Chouest refusing to help investigators finally identify the Jane Does.
“I think this is the highlight of his life. I think he gets some sort of sick pleasure out of knowing that we’ll never be able to identify these women and I think he wants to hold onto that,” Barrick said.
When we first met Rhods several months ago, he talked of retiring, since then, an arrest has been made in the notorious Golden State Killer case.
Rhods played a key role in that investigation, and now Chouest is convicted and sentenced.
While many others may feel their job is done at this point, Rhods is different.
“The job for this particular case involving Chouest is identifying these two young women,” Rhods says.
“I really truly feel we need to send them home to their families. It’s not over until I can find out who they are and send them home.”