Arrest Made in Cold-Case Murder

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Homicide victim Lillian DeVilla
 Lillian DeVilla, a victim of a 1998 homicide. 

Sixteen years after a woman’s body was discovered in Laguna Canyon, law enforcement investigators early Wednesday, Oct. 8, arrested her son-in-law as the suspect in the cold-case homicide about 7 a.m. as he was about to enter an Aliso Viejo gym.

John Edward Gutierrez, 46, who police interviewed early in the investigation, was being held for $1 million bail, said Laguna Beach police Capt. Jason Kravetz.

The investigation of Lillian DeVilla’s mysterious disappearance and death by bludgeoning and asphyxiation in 1998 reached a turning point five years ago, Kravetz said.

Then, police enlisted the aid of a forensic analysis team with the district attorney’s office. They took temperature readings late in January at the precise location where the body was discovered in Laguna Canyon, where temperatures can vary dramatically. The inquiry revealed the original estimated time of DeVilla’s death was inaccurate, said Kravetz, who personally recalled the conditions. “It had been raining really hard and the canyon was really cold,” he said.

While the coroner initially determined that DeVilla had died 12 to 24 hours before her body was discovered on Feb. 4, 1998, the prevailing weather conditions had preserved the body and kept it from decomposing, Kravetz said.

Two public works employees discovered DeVilla’s body in brush on city property adjacent to Anneliese’s School, Kravetz said.

DeVilla's son-in-law, John Edward Gutierrez, was arrested as a suspect in her murder.
DeVilla’s son-in-law, John Edward Gutierrez, was arrested as a suspect in her murder.

Gutierrez, then a member of the U.S. Navy and stationed at the El Toro Marine Base, had a valid alibi for his whereabouts in the 24 hours that preceded the body’s discovery, which would exclude him from suspicion, police said. At the time, Guiterrez resided in Aliso Viejo with his wife and DeVilla, his mother-in-law, police said.

The couple reported DeVilla missing on Jan. 30, 1998, when she mysteriously did not return to their Aliso Viejo home even though her car was parked outside their apartment and her purse and keys were inside their locked home. The 55-year-old woman was last seen the day before on Jan. 29, after leaving her job in Carlsbad job.

Gutierrez told police he arrived home on Jan. 29 at 7:15 p.m. and saw DeVilla’s car. The couple waited a day before filing a missing person’s report with the sheriff’s department.

But the newly established time of death as well as evidence obtained from several witnesses not previously interviewed allowed the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to file murder charges on Gutierrez, police said.

Investigators believe DeVilla was knocked unconscious and asphyxiated inside her home on Jan. 29 and her body dumped in Laguna Canyon that day.

Police have established a motive for DeVilla’s murder, but declined to discuss it.

This is the fourth cold case homicide solved by Laguna Beach investigators within the last 10 years. Three others remain unsolved; that of Jeff Wilson, shot at Aliso Beach in 1992; Julie Ravenna, found dead in her Thalia Street home in 1995; and Juan Morales, also discovered in brush in Laguna Canyon in 1998.

 

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