Mystery Woman in the Vineyard: Gruesome murder remains unsolved

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When you break it down, most homicides clear motives – domestic violence, gang retaliation or robberies gone wrong. 

But once in a while, a murder comes along that leaves detectives bewildered.

This is the story of one of the most shocking crime scenes in Kern County.

It’s a story you’ve never heard before, and one you likely won’t forget.

As detectives have put it, this case is like something out of a horror film. 

We warn you this story is disturbing.

In 2011, someone ended a woman’s life, and she’s never had a real chance of ever finding justice. 

You might be able to change that – and help solve this case.

In one of the most scenic parts of Kern County orchards and vineyards spread along the rolling foothills at the base of Bear Mountain near Arvin. But that tableau of nature’s beauty has become an all too familiar dumping ground for killers.

“I remember looking at the detectives and the sergeant on scene and the coroner investigator who had arrived on the scene and we were all kind of speechless,” said Ray Pruitt, formerly of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department and currently an investigator for the law firm Chain Cohn Stiles. “We were all just looking at each other trying to get our minds around what we were looking at.

“It was that surreal.”

Every year, dozens of bodies are found in vineyards in orchards throughout Kern County, but this crime was different – this was overkill.

“Something this gruesome is very unusual,” said KCSO Homicide Sgt. David Hubbard.

Over the years Pruitt has seen a lot, but this a case he can’t shake. “This is one of those type of murders, murder investigations that you come across maybe once in an entire career, maybe never.”

It was March of 2011. A particularly cloudy day when the gruesome discovery was made in a vineyard just outside Arvin.

“We estimated, just looking at the body, that she was probably between her 30’s and 50’s, she was either white or light-skinned Hispanic,” Pruitt said.

“And she’d been decapitated.

“The body was completely nude and lying prone on its back on the dirt roadway and it appeared that the body had been posed by whoever left the body there,” Pruitt said.

The killer left few clues … going to extremes to conceal the identity of the victim.

“Mutilated bodies in homicides are pretty rare,” said Hubbard, the sheriff’s detective sergeant. “We don’t get too many of them.

“Something to the point of full decapitation is pretty rare,” Hubbard said.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” Pruitt said. “I’ve seen some pretty gruesome crime scenes and this was just … it was creepy.

“I remember having a couple nightmares about it afterwards,” said Pruitt.

Pruitt says it’s clear – the killer went to a lot of effort, even after the killing.
 
“It appeared that the blood had been drained from the body. Why did they take the time to drain the blood from the body? The crime scene itself was very clean. Honestly it looked like somebody had taken a mannequin, removed the head of the mannequin and posed it on the dirt road,” Pruitt said.

The decapitation itself was notably neat.

“It was a fairly clean cut,” Pruitt said. “The body wasn’t just haphazardly dumped out of a moving car or dumped out of a car that pulled over on the side of the road. This person took their time to pull into this dirt access road, remove the body, place it on the ground, and pose it in what I would consider a sexual manner and wanted the body found like that,” he said.

“The investigation became cold shortly thereafter due to a lack of identification of the victim”, said Hubbard.

The woman had no tattoos, no signs of drug use, but there were some distinctive features that give some insight into the life she led.
 
“She does have some surgical scars from a single  mastectomy as well as a C-section, beyond that we don’t know anything about her”, said Hubbard.
 
The victim had a possible battle with cancer and had a child. But her DNA isn’t in a criminal offender database or missing persons database, so her identity remains a mystery. 
 
“we really can’t go any farther without identifying her. We need to try to identify some motive for a persons of interest based on who she is and who she was interacting with, without that we really don’t have anywhere to go at that point”, said Hubbard.

One theory: the killer intentionally made her unidentifiable. Removing her head was only the beginning.

Her head never has been found and without the skull, there is no way to determine the cause of death, detectives said.

“And two of her fingers were removed”, said Hubbard.

Not really fingers, but thumbs.

Both thumbs severed. That’s significant because except for criminals, the only fingerprints in a public database, driver license or passports, are a person’s thumbprint. But investigators say right now, everything is purely speculation. 
 
“It’s a scary situation when you think that there’s a suspect or suspects out there that committed this crime and apparently were pretty comfortable committing this crime and they’re still out there,” said Pruitt.

“Short of someone coming in here and telling us why they did it, I don’t know if we’ll really ever have an answer to it,” said Hubbard.

Everyone involved with this case is on the same page – the killer will not be found if the victim remains unidentified.

Detectives have made this case public – only now – due to the obvious challenges. If they’re able to ID this woman, it would open many avenues in the investigation.

If you know of a woman who disappeared in 2011 – a woman who’d had a mastectomy and a c-section, you could have the answer to help solve this crime.

The coroner’s office says the woman is estimated to be 98 pounds and 5-foot-1. They believe she was in her mid-50s. She’s described as Caucasian or light-skinned Hispanic. 

Call the Kern County Sheriff’s Office at 661-861-3110 if you have any information. You can also remain anonymous by calling Secret Witness at 661-322-4040.

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