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For investigators, horror of Salcido case lingers


A few times a year, someone asks Tom Siebe about the Ramon Salcido case. Same with Craig Schulz.

Ken Gnoss thinks of it every April 14. And Dave Edmonds thinks about it as little as possible.

It's been a quarter-century since Salcido, a Sonoma Valley winery worker, committed Sonoma County's most heinous killing rampage — slaying seven and almost killing two others.

He lives on San Quentin's Death Row while those whose job it was to follow his bloody trail continue to deal with the vivid memories in different ways.

"Every year I remember April 14, 1989. Twenty-five years certainly is a milestone. Every year is a milestone to me, given the severity of the crime," said Gnoss, a Sonoma County judge and former prosecutor who teamed with then-Chief Deputy District Attorney Peter Bumerts for the trial that sent Salcido to Death Row.

"A lot of us are at the end of our careers and it probably remains ... ," Gnoss said, pausing to search for the right word, " ... the most important thing we've ever worked on."

"It comes up in conversation. You talk about it. Otherwise I don't dwell on Ramon. He's not worth it," said Siebe, retired Sonoma County sheriff's chief deputy coroner.

Like several sheriff's detectives, deputies and others, Siebe worked at each of the four murder scenes. Among a host of difficult duties, he helped carry the bagged bodies of victims. He also had to tell Cathy Toovey of the death of her husband and tell Bob Richards of the death of his wife and three daughters, and the next day, two of his three granddaughters.

Salcido "was a point of true evil," Siebe said.

Schulz, son of famed Peanuts comic creator Charles M. Schulz, joined the investigation effort when he volunteered his father's company plane to fly sheriff's detectives to Mexico to retrieve Salcido, who had fled the country.

"A couple of times a year, someone brings it up. 'Aren't you the person who flew them down?'" Schulz said.

"I think about it often. It's hard to believe 25 years have gone by," he said. "It's the biggest case in Sonoma County, obviously. It just lingers on people's minds."

That spring day, Ramon Salcido was a 28-year-old Sonoma Valley winery worker living in a small home in Boyes Hot Springs with a beautiful wife and three young daughters.

But past sins were catching up.

His marriage was unraveling, he owed money and he was about to be fired.

Early that Friday morning, Salcido took his three little girls from their beds and set off on a run of heart-chilling murders. So seared on the memories of Sonoma County residents are the deaths that many still can recite the details, even 25 years later.

Salcido slashed the throats of his three daughters — Sophia, 4, Carmina, nearly 3, and Teresa, 22 months — and tossed their pajama-clad bodies into a field at a Stage Gulch Road dump.

He went to the Cotati home of his in-laws, where he first waited for his father-in-law, Bob Richards, to leave. Salcido then knocked on the front door, was let in by his mother-in-law, Marian Richards, 47, and proceeded to brutalize and murder her and her two younger daughters, Ruth, 12, and Marie, 8.

He then went home, where he shot his wife, Angela, 24, four times, killing her. Then he drove to Glen Ellen's Grand Cru Winery, flagged down winemaker Tracy Toovey, 35, and shot and killed the married father of two young children.

Finally, Salcido went to a Kenwood home, where he shot and wounded winery supervisor Ken Butti. Detectives say he also attempted to shoot Butti's wife, Terri, but the gun didn't fire.

Recognized by Butti, Salcido was the suspect from the start. The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office launched a massive manhunt.

As news of bloody crime scene after crime scene unfolded, many residents throughout the region feared the murderous man remained in the area. They also were deathly afraid for his three little girls, who were missing from their home and weren't found for more than 24 hours.

The gruesome discovery of the doll-like bodies on Saturday morning included one miraculous piece of good news: Carmina survived despite a deep gash across her neck.

Salcido briefly escaped to his hometown in Mexico. He was caught days later by Mexican authorities and turned over to sheriff's detectives, who brought him back for trial.

The man who defended Salcido, longtime Sonoma County Public Defender Marteen Miller, said he thinks about the case rarely but that he's asked periodically about it and whether he communicates with his former client.

"'What do you hear from Ramon?'" they ask. Miller responds that he hasn't heard from Salcido in some time. "He used to send me Christmas cards."

Thinking back on the trial of the infamous case, Miller recalled how he and Chief Deputy Public Defender Bill Marioni did what they could in the face of overwhelming evidence. "They had a great prosecution team. The judge was fair. It was such a tragedy ... unspeakable violence."

It was that unspeakable violence that knitted residents of the region together in their shock and sadness.

"That was a hugely tragic case and what it did to the community in terms of this collective pain and loss, it cannot be understated or forgotten," said Edmonds, a retired sheriff's captain and then a young detective and lead investigator on the Salcido slayings.

"We went through it together," Edmonds said. "It was like our little 9/11 here."

In the days afterward, there were heartbreaking funerals, including six caskets from one family set into the ground at a Petaluma cemetery.

There was a lengthy trial and a death-penalty conviction.

At 10 years, there was a memorial mass.

The 20-year mark included a book about the crimes and the difficult life of Carmina Salcido, a "20/20" TV news documentary on the case and Carmina's return to the Sonoma Valley, where she hoped to find peace.

A quarter-century since the murders, many of those who had worked the case now are retired. Some are grandparents. Time hasn't dulled the memories, but for some it has made it easier to file them deep away.

"Those images of all those people — the little kids laying on the autopsy tables in San Francisco — is an image that used to be more frequent in my mind," said Mike Brown, a retired Sonoma County sheriff's captain who supervised the investigation.

"As time goes on, I think about it less and less. Not to diminish the importance of the event. But it isn't good for my head to live there," Brown said. "If you have a heart beating in your chest at all, it had an impact on you."

Retired sheriff's Lt. Larry Doherty was another key member of the Salcido detective team.

"As an officer, having to hold a dead child in a body bag is perhaps the worst thing one will have to do. (That's) why I always cherished every moment I had with my own children," Doherty said.

He prefers to remember the teamwork that led to as successful an ending as the horrific case could have.

"What I remember the most about this particular case was the willingness of everyone in law enforcement — from civilian staff to sworn, and from all around the state — and the community to commit their energy to seeing justice served," Doherty said.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi. rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.