Her throat was slit. She wore a flower print blouse and purple pants. Her body was found in a bean field in Huntington Beach. Her shoes, size 7, offered a clue – they were made in upstate New York.
Teams of cops and young cadets walked side-by-side through the muddy field near the corner of Newland Street and Yorktown Avenue. They found tire tracks and a cigarette butt.
But there was nothing to identify her.
She has been known as “Jane Doe” or by the coroner’s code “68-00745-C.” She was raped, killed and dumped out the passenger’s side of a car.
And now, after 52 years, thanks to some slick genealogical work, both the victim and the alleged killer have been identified.
In June, Huntington Beach detectives, using familial DNA analysis, informed a family in Maine that a missing runaway from 1968 was the answer to the oldest Jane Doe homicide case in Orange County.
The woman was identified as Anita Louise Piteau, whose family tree runs through Augusta and Lewiston, Maine. Police on Wednesday, July 22 said they believe she was killed by a man named Johnny Chrisco, who died at age 71 in 2015. Very little is known about him, said Huntington Beach Police Department public information officer Angela Bennett.
Huntington Beach detectives have known the identity for more than a month but did not make a formal announcement to the public or confirm Piteau’s identity until inquiries from the Southern California News Group this week. Their announcement was slowed because they had been making video series about the case – the video has been shelved – and to coordinate with Piteau’s family, Bennett said.
A burial service for Anita Piteau was held this past weekend in Maine and an Orange County law enforcement contingent flew there to participate.
“We got a call in June, and they said it was confirmed,” said Jean Pichette, a distant cousin of Anita Piteau. “They said, ‘We closed the case.’”
Pichette said his cousin Steve Sabo, who lives in Maryland and works at the Pentagon, drove nine hours to Maine last weekend to attend the funeral.
Earle Robitaille, now 89, was the commander of the Huntington Beach detective bureau in March 1968 when Anita Piteau was killed.
“Her throat was slit from ear to ear,” he said. “There’s no identification, and DNA was not even in the picture. It was obviously sexually motivated to a degree.”
Robitaille described the search of the field, in which they found clothing, a cigarette butt and tire tracks. The clothing would later become the break in the case.
“We preserved it, thank God,” he said.
Robitaille said his detectives were sent on a “wild goose chase” by a forensic dentist who said the victim’s dental work was shoddy and probably done in Mexico.
“That threw everything off,” he said.
Former homicide detective Pat Ellis, who started working on the case with his partner Mike Reilly in 2010, said he received confirmation about the identification “in the last few days.”
“I’m happy she’s been identified and that she went back home with her family,” Ellis said.
Found through family tree
Amy Spanfellner, who works as a “search angel” for ancestry.com, said she has been talking about the case with Huntington Beach detectives since 2017. She has a missing relative named Emily Roberta Jordan. She said she initially thought the Orange County Jane Doe might have been her relative. When she learned it wasn’t her relative, she was asked to help police.
Spanfellner said she was originally told the police didn’t have enough DNA from Jane Doe’s body.
“I pushed and educated the detective on private DNA labs,” she said. “They didn’t even have sufficient DNA on (Jane Doe).”
The body was exhumed in 2019, but “that turned out to be a dead-end,” Ellis said.
Ellis said the Orange County Coroner buried the unidentified body in Newport Beach (instead of in a potter’s field) so that police in the future could find the body for additional testing.
Ellis retired in January. One of his last acts as a homicide detective was to order retesting of Jane Doe’s clothing. That’s when they got DNA hits that led Piteau and Chrisco.
Once they had a hit, they called Colleen Fitzpatrick, who is the founder of Identifinders International and does genealogical research for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
Fitzpatrick began to build family trees with distant cousins of Jane Doe.
“She’s going to be in those trees,” Fitzpatrick said.
It was a Saturday when she discovered the name Steve Sabo. And a detective gave Sabo a call.
“That was the ‘Oh my God’ moment,’ Fitzpatrick said.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Sabo said he was contacted by police in June and asked, “Was I aware of anybody who was missing in my family?”
Sabo and Pichette, who had never met Anita Piteau, found an obituary of a distant cousin, Constance Saucier. In that obituary, they found the following reference: “Connie was predeceased by her parents, her sister Theresa Piteau Gallagher, her brother Robert Piteau and her sister Anita Piteau (missing since 1970).”
The date was incorrect, but the identity was not. Pichette said he’s heard stories in his family that Anita ran away from home in Maine when she was a teenager. He found the information in a book of family history written in French.
He had not heard of Anita until he started research after the phone call in May.
“It’s quite surprising,” Pichette said.
Another distant relative of Anita’s, identified on Twitter as @MLBlue40 posted on June 20.
“I never met her. I have no idea what person she was. She died in 1968, I was born in 1979. She was robbed of her life and I was robbed of someone I could have known. Her name was Anita Louise Piteau. She was only 26.”
In the tweets, @MLBlue40 wrote that the Piteau family was informed about Anita’s alleged killer.
The owner of the @MLBlue40 account, who did not respond to a request for an interview, wrote: “The killer died in 2015 of throat cancer. He was never caught and escaped justice. We cant even tell her oldest sister about it cause shes in a nursing home for Dementia and shes been waiting the longest to find out what happened to her missing sister. Life is cruel and unfair.”
Other tweets from @MLBlue40 read: “Her own Mother died without ever knowing what happened to her daughter …
“She died bitter. My Mom said that my Grandma said ‘thanks a lot Anita! You couldnt even come see me on my death bed.’ I think she took it personally, liek she abandoned us. I dont think anyone wanted to believe she was killed.”
Wish he’d faced justice
Robitaille, the former Huntington Beach commander of the detective bureau, said he was sitting in his kitchen when detectives laid out the case in front of him.
First, they showed him that Jane Doe was Anita Piteau.
“She was star struck, and came to California to make it in the movies,” Robitaille said. “I was tickled to death they identified her.”
Then they told him about the alleged killer, Johnny Chrisco, whose DNA was found on the victim’s clothing.
Chrisco was in the Army, Robitaille said. They had a booking photo of him from the Orange County Jail in 1971. Robitaille said Chrisco was the spitting image of serial killer Rodney Alcala, who was called “The Dating Game Killer.”
“They were like twins,” Robitaille said.
He said he wishes Chrisco would have faced justice for the murder of Piteau.
“He died of throat cancer,” Robitaille said. “That’s a fairly good punishment.”
Robitaille called Piteau family members in Maine to tell them the news. He said he hopes the revelations gave them some sense of closure.
“I apologized that we couldn’t have done more at the time,” Robitaille said.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer praised the dogged pursuit by the Huntington Beach Police.
“Nothing, not even the death of the killer himself, will deter the pursuit of justice,” Spitzer said. “The death of a 26-year-old woman who was left in a farm field raped, beaten and her neck slashed haunted generations of Huntington Beach police officers who refused to give up on identifying Jane Doe and finding the person who robbed a young woman of a lifetime of memories.
“After more than five decades, advances in investigative genetic genealogy did what old-fashioned police work could not: give Jane Doe a name and identify her killer. It is technology and the determination of the Huntington Beach Police Department and prosecutors, forensic scientists and investigators from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office that allowed Anita’s family to finally bring her home and lay her to rest. The death of Johnny Chrisco prevented the full imposition of justice for Anita’s murder, and that is a wound that will never heal, but it was the dogged pursuit of justice that ensured that it was not if, but when, we would finally be able to tell Anita’s loved ones who killed her.”
Huntington Beach Police Chief Rob Handy said the work to find justice for Piteau showed the dedication of the police and prosecutors.
“I am extremely grateful and proud of the extraordinary efforts of the active and retired members of the Huntington Beach Police Department and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office in their tireless pursuit of justice for Anita and her family,” he said. “The fact they never stopped working this case for more than five decades is a tremendous testament to the two departments and our law enforcement profession.
“There is nothing more important to a victim and their family to know that law enforcement will never give up. Although the suspect was no longer alive to face the consequences, providing the family with the information of what happened to Anita and allowing them to properly lay her to rest is of tremendous importance.”
Anita Louise Piteau was buried in Waterville, Maine, next to Constance Saucier.
About 20 people, including three members of the Huntington Beach Police Department and an Orange County District Attorney’s Office investigator, were in attendance.
Investigator Dave Dierking gave a timeline of the case to explain the police work to the audience.
“There was no justice, but it was closure,” Sabo said. “Now the family had an answer to why she disappeared.”
Source: Orange County Register