When Bryan Reynolds sat down at a computer with a pad of paper and pen, nearly 12 hours had passed since a Santa Rosa woman was gunned down Feb. 5, 2012, in her massage office near downtown.
All police had to go on was the number off a prepaid phone, a sketchy description of a man seen running from the modest Clark Street cottage and a scrambled set of letters and numbers from the license plate on the getaway car.
What unfolded next that led police to a killer with a history of attacking women wasn't the stuff of TV crime dramas. Reynolds, taking up the tedious task two others had started and aborted, began scribbling permutations of the partial plate on paper and plugging them into a clunky state database.
"He's one of those people: Give him a puzzle, he'll figure it out," said Santa Rosa Police Detective Tom Peirsol, the lead investigator on the case.
This month, the Exchange Club of Santa Rosa honored Reynolds, 53 and newly retired, as Sonoma County Peace Officer of the Year for his work on the team that tracked the shooter, John Quincy Ellis, to a Stockton highway.
"I'm not sure just any police officer could have done what Bryan did with dedication and out-of-the box thinking," Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said.
Reynolds chased Ellis across six lanes of Interstate 5, a zoo with morning traffic, and was just a few yards behind when Ellis sat down in the path of a big-rig and was killed in an apparent suicide.
"In 30 years, I have seen a lot of people do bad things, but I took a pause . . . it was just outrageous," Reynolds said, reflecting on the case recently. "He knew what else he'd done. And by his final action, he avoided accountability."
It was only after Ellis died, and his DNA entered into criminal databases, that police unraveled disturbing evidence indicating the Stockton man was responsible for a series of violent and perverted sexual attacks against women in Sacramento, Stockton and San Francisco.
Detectives found a trove of pornography, literature about rape, handcuffs, zip ties and photographs of victims hidden away at his home.
A book, the retelling of a serial Bay Area rapist, was on his nightstand, investigators said.
"It was a signature-type crime," San Francisco Police Inspector Joseph Nannery said of the series of attacks. "It was meticulous and thought out, no drugs involved, not a spur-of-the-moment decision. He was an extremely dangerous type of individual."
Nannery's team was working with Sacramento County sheriff's detectives to identify the man with a distinct fetish who made appointments with women offering erotic massage in both jurisdictions, then attacked them.
On Dec. 26, 2011, in Sacramento, Ellis showed up for an appointment with a woman, 46, who advertised erotic massage online, said Sacramento County Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Dean Bowen. She was getting Ellis a glass of water when he brandished a gun and held a knife to her throat, Bowen said. After the assault, Ellis fled, leaving the woman tightly bound and suffering for 10 hours until she was able to get the tape off her mouth and scream for help.
"The doctors basically said that, much longer, she could have lost her limbs," Bowen said.