Pinyon Pines mystery: 3 murdered, set on fire in remote desert community
10/19/2016 12:20 pm PDT
UPDATE August 10, 2018:
Robert Pape and Cristin Smith have been sentenced to life without parole in the 2006 triple murders of Jon Hayward, his girlfriend, Vicki Friedli, and her 18-year-old daughter, Rebecca "Becky" Friedli, in Pinyon Pines, The Desert Sun reports
UPDATE June 7, 2018:
Robert Pape and Cristin Smith have been found guilty in the murder of Jon Hayward and Vicki Friedli. Robert Pape has been found guilty in the killing of Becky Friedli, KESQ-TV reports.
Cristin Smith and Robert Pape were both facing three counts of first-degree murder in the 2006 deaths of Becky Friedli, Vicki Friedli, and John Hayward.
October 19, 2016:
Pinyon Pines, California is a desert community in the mountains above Palm Springs. Crime Watch Daily investigates to find out who murdered a family of three.
A long drive up a desert mountain road, a seemingly tranquil stretch of highway leading back through time to one very dark place. You can't tell now through all the rust and concrete, but on Sept. 17, 2006, it was the location of a slaughter.
Becky Friedli, her mom Vicki Friedli, and Vicki's boyfriend Jon Hayward, were living high above California's Coachella Valley in a secluded neighborhood called Pinyon Pines.
It wasn't always easy to stay connected living in Pinyon Pines, miles from the city, where the average number of bars on any cellphone was zero.
"Your nearest neighbor was maybe five acres away," said private investigator Luis Bolanos.
If there were any screams that night, no one heard them, just the howl of the fire engines hours later.
Inside the smoldering ruins of the house, investigators find the charred remains of two bodies: Vicki Friedli has been shot in the head with a .40-caliber handgun. Beside her, Vicki's boyfriend Jon lay dead from a shotgun blast to the chest. And it got worse. Outside of the home, found burning in an old wheelbarrow was the lifeless body of 18-year-old Becky Friedli, too badly burned to determine her exact cause of death.
Shortly after the triple-homicide, sheriff's deputies question one of their own, a former Riverside County Sheriff's deputy, retired just the year before: Vicki's ex-husband, Ron Friedli. Ron had actually built that house in Pinyon Pines with his own hands.
Ron Friedli was questioned by police and reportedly passed a polygraph. But some still thought there might be a connection, as well as a possible drug connection with Vicki's boyfriend, Jon Hayward. But as investigators dug just a little deeper, it became disturbingly clear that there was really only one intended target
"I think Becky was the focus of this homicide, very likely Jon and Vicki were collateral damage," said private investigator Luis Bolanos.
Bolanos, who used to work on the force with Ron Friedli, and knew the Friedlis well, has been following the case since day one.
"They put Becky in the wheelbarrow in front of the house in a place at the end of the driveway. We call that 'posing,' and the purpose in doing that is to send a message, it makes it really personal to first-responders, to the family that 'that was our target. We weren't here for John and Vicki -- Becky was our target,'" said Bolanos.
Who was her attacker? Police questioned a number of people, but no arrests were made.
"It took me all of 30 minutes. I knew almost instantly as soon as I found out that it was a homicide, I knew that Robert was involved," said Daniela Zermeno, Becky's cousin.
She's talking about Robert Pape, the boy Becky dated in high school. But like a lot of high school relationships, this one ended after graduation.
"It didn't seem that Robert accepted my sister moving on," said Tiffany Teasdale, Becky's sister.
"The day before the triple-homicide, Becky worked at Denny's here as a waitress," said Bolanos, the private investigator. "At some point during that day Robert Pape came down to Denny's and had a very loud verbal one-way exchange with Becky. Very heated, he was very angry."
Becky's cousin Daniela says Becky called her on her way home that night and told her all about the confrontation. She also said Robert wasn't alone.
"She had told me his military friend and Robert came in, he was harassing her in the restaurant," said Daniela.
That friend was Cristin Smith.
According to Daniela, Becky had agreed to go hiking with the boys the next night in an apparent attempt to get them to leave. It was the last conversation she had with her cousin.
"I told my mom right away, I mean that same night, and she told the investigators, but they just completely dismissed any information that I had," said Daniela. "I was never interviewed. For seven years no one ever contacted me."
That's where luis bolanos (bolan-yos) really comes in.
"Becky lost cellphone connection in her phone call with her cousin Daniela discussing the incident at Denny's," said Bolanos. After so many years without answers, Luis Bolanos decided to take on the case pro bono.
One of the first things he did was put up billboards, shockingly graphic images of Becky before and after the crime.
"We also put up a hotline, advertising the $50,000 reward," said Bolanos.
But after so much time had passed, would it even work?
"We ended up getting over 3,000 phone calls," said Bolanos.
And one of those tips came from none other than Becky's close cousin, Daniela Zermeno.
In a taped interview with Bolanos, Daniela Zermeno finally told her story about that last phone call with Becky, and the explosive confrontation that night before she was killed.
Bolanos is surprised by how little had been done previously.
"When we became involved, Pape and Smith were interviewed, very briefly, and at some point in their interviews both had declined to speak any further," said Bolanos.
Years earlier, both Cristin and Robert apparently told officers that they had canceled that hike with Becky, and were nowhere near her home when the crime occurred.
But Bolanos has a theory about that.
"Their phones, cellphones, both shut off during the same time period, where their whereabouts can't be explained," said Bolanos. "Cellphone pings showed them going up Highway 74. They claimed it never went up that way, they were going to church. The alibis didn't hold up.
At the scene, about 70 yards north of the residence, someone dropped a business card. On that business card they found Cristin Smith's DNA.
Without being able to prove how the card actually got to the scene, prosecutors never made an arrest. But Luis Bolanos was more convinced than ever that he was on the right track.
"We came across 'Hollywood Heard,' very talented producer and director who was there covering another story we were doing," said private investigator Luis Bolanos. "Especially in cold cases, people tend to lose interest and they tend to forget about things that have happened. But if you can come along and do a reenactment, then that catches a lot of people's attention."
Together, the men decided to produce a reenactment based on police reports and what they believed happened that night. It was a shockingly realistic portrayal. The chilling scene played on televisions across the country, and even more tips started rolling in, most of them pointing right back at Robert Pape.
"[Pape] denied any encounter at Denny's, that that ever happened, that there was any ever a yelling match, which we knew was incorrect," said Bolanos, who asked Pape directly about the incident.
In a surprise move, seven years after the triple homicide in Pinyon Pines, it seemed then-Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach was finally ready to move forward. Robert Pape and Cristin Smith were arrested. They were each charged with triple-homicide.
Seven years after the horrific murders Becky's ex-boyfriend Robert Pape and his friend Cristin Smith were under arrest.
Just six months after the arrest, and with little warning, all charges were dropped, and Pape and Smith were released.
Officially, the District Attorney's Office claimed there were procedural issues with the grand jury that indicted the two. But private investigator Luis Bolanos thinks there may have been more at play.
"They're getting ready for the preliminary hearing and a ton of motions, and one of the motions filed by one of the attorneys for the suspects subpoenaed the D.A. himself, Paul Zellerbach.
But Zellerbach never took the stand, because a few days before he was scheduled to appear the case against Pape and Smith was dropped.
Why was the D.A. subpoenaed in the first place? Luis Bolanos says it most likely had something to do with Zellerbach's tough re-election campaign, when Zellerbach was caught on video tearing down his opponent's campaign signs.
"He was going to testify on a Monday. The Friday before he was going to testify, he let these two clowns go, he released them," said Bolanos.
But there have been any other suspects?
"Javier [Garcia] was very, very much in love with Becky, and Becky was not in love with Javier," said Bolanos. "Javier's cellphone did ping up in the area around the time of the homicides."
Javier Garcia told police it was because he was driving toward Becky's to see if she wanted him to come along on that hike with Robert and Cristin, but that after she declined, he turned around and drove home. Whatever the case, it was enough for prosecutors to ask Garcia to testify as a witness before the grand jury indicting Pape and Smith.
"Javier's father works for the Riverside County District Attorney's Office at that time," said Bolanos. According to reports, Garcia's father would only allow his son to testify if he was granted immunity.
"It could have just been simply a very protective father wanted to protect their son," said Bolanos.
In fact, Javier Garcia was confirmed to be miles away at home when the murders actually occurred, and was ruled out as a suspect.
Regardless, D.A. Zellerbach refused to grant immunity, so Javier Garcia never testified.
And as if that wasn't crazy enough, remember that incriminating video that busted Zellerbach?
"The individual that caught him ripping down a campaign sign was Javier Garcia Senior, Javier's father," said Bolanos.
Things were about to change with the election of new Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin.
One of the first things investigators did was re-examine the original evidence against Pape and Smith using updated technology, including that business card with Cristin Smith's DNA on it.
"DNA testing had improved so much that it made it a hundred-million to one that that DNA on that card was definitely Cristin Smith's," said Bolanos. "Before, it was something like 323,000 to one, so it took that right off the table."
And in online messages sent long before the murders, between Robert and a friend, she asks for help with a bad relationship.
"If you know where he lives, we can professionally burn down his house."
She responds, "That's right, you're a little pyro."
Then Pape answers, "I've gone through a 6-pack of matches already today."
In what may be one of the most incriminating pieces of evidence to date, authorities recently uncovered recordings of phone calls Robert Pape made from jail after his first arrest. Talking to his then-wife Sarah, Robert apparently discusses hiding unregistered firearms, including one of the same caliber used to kill Vicki Friedli. Crime Watch Daily reached out to Sarah, who has since divorced Robert, but her lawyers have advised her not to speak at this time.
Just a few months ago, Robert Pape was re-arrested. Cristin Smith was soon to follow, as was an official apology to the families for the apparent mishandling of the case.
"I apologized to them for the added anguish and pain that that must've caused them," said Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin at a press conference.
Prosecutors hope one of those new pieces of evidence may very well amount to the smoking gun that makes these charges stick.
"[An] informant claims to have had a conversation years ago with Cristin Smith shortly after the triple-homicides, in which Cristin Smith bragged about how things got so out of hand up at the homicide scene that they had to burn the place down to the ground," said Bolanos.
Both men have pleaded not guilty. And both their attorneys and family members vehemently deny the charges.
If convicted, Pape could face the death penalty. And Smith, who after the murders actually went on to become a decorated war hero, receiving two Purple Hearts, faces life in prison.