Editor’s Note: One in a series of stories on the Santa Monica Police Department’s 66 cold case homicides. Some information has been withheld by the SMPD to protect the integrity of the investigation.
PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — In a disheveled, abandoned apartment complex on Second Street near Wilshire Boulevard, 36-year-old Gwendolyn Hill lay naked on a dirty carpet, her legs spread open with blood covering her face.
A known crack cocaine addict, Hill most likely went into the complex to get high. She ended up becoming the victim of a violent rape, her attacker strangling her before leaving the apartment, which was a safe haven for drug abusers who scored crack in nearby Palisades Park.
Hill’s body was discovered by a drug dealer in the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 8, 1991 as he was grabbing his stash of drugs, which he hid within the apartment where Hill lay.
After several interviews with Hill’s boyfriend and those who lived on the streets or slept on the beach along with the victim, Santa Monica detectives were without a suspect.
Then Detective Larry Nicols with the SMPD’s Cold Case Unit-Homicide picked up the case. It was April 2009, more than 18 years after Hill was killed. Within two months, Nicols would get a hit on the national DNA database, a rape kit taken at the time of the murder providing solid matches to a career criminal on parole after serving time in prison for nearly beating a homeless man to death in Santa Monica over a personal music player and a watch.
“The clock was ticking,” Nicols said. “I figured the only way to get to him was while he was on parole. … He lived on the streets, not in Santa Monica, so that would be difficult to even find him. While on parole, at least I know the agent at any time can call him in and he’s got to come in. So that was the plan.”
The plan didn’t work. Nicols soon would learn that his suspect was dead, leaving him with unanswered questions, still searching for answers.
Not much is known about Hill. Nicols has been unable to reach any family members. His only contacts were an ex-boyfriend who lived on the streets with Hill and a former drug dealer who sold crack to the couple “on a daily basis,” Nicols said. “That’s how well he knew them.”
It’s not unusual for Nicols to not receive phone calls from family members of victims. Many of the deceased were homeless.
“You would think that my phone would be ringing off the hook with people wanting to know what is going on, but it’s not,” said Nicols, a 19-year-veteran who is the sole investigator with the Cold Case Unit-Homicide. “Because a lot of my cases are transient cases, perhaps people just write someone off when they live on the streets. I just don’t know. I have a couple of cases where people call once in awhile to see if there is anything new. I can count them on one hand.”
What Nicols did know about Hill was that she was addicted to crack and spent much of her time in Palisades Park or along the beach with her boyfriend, who was originally from San Diego. That’s where Nicols found him this summer, living with his mother. The boyfriend told Nicols that the last time he saw Hill was on the Friday morning before her body was found. The two were sleeping on the beach when they got into an argument around 6 a.m. Hill told her boyfriend that she was going to get cigarettes. He never saw her again.
At the time of the murder, the boyfriend, who had tears in his eyes when Nicols showed him a picture of Hill taken near the time of her death, was grilled by investigators who had reason to believe he was the suspect. He was eventually cleared. The rape kit did not include any DNA evidence from him, Nicols would later find out. This encouraged the detective, who felt the DNA hits he did get back from the lab pointed clearly to the a suspect.
“I never get too excited with DNA evidence because I’ve already had three cases with DNA hits that turned out to be the victims’ boyfriends,” Nicols said. “They are transients. They don’t bathe often or wash their clothes so there is a lot of transfer.”
Help from an unlikely source
That changed when Nicols came into contact with Hill’s former drug dealer. After serving time for selling drugs, the dealer was trying to get his life back together.
“He had found God and he was now the nicest guy in the world,” Nicols said. “He comes to me.”
The dealer told Nicols that he actually discovered the body while searching for drugs he hid in the apartment. He went back to Palisades Park, told someone about what he saw, and that person notified police. The drug dealer knew the boyfriend, but not the man whose DNA was found at the crime scene.
That man was Darryl Hines, a 43-year-old who had served time for narcotics, burglary, attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. Analysts processed the rape kit and found three matches to Hines.
“It was just sitting in the property room waiting for me,” Nicols said of the rape kit.
Ready to bring Hines in for questioning, Nicols called Hines’ parole officers, only to learn that his prime suspect had recently committed suicide, hanging himself in the doorway of a commercial building in Hollywood. Hines was placed on parole Aug. 29, 2009. Nicols tried to make contact with him around that time.
“It was devastating,” Nicols said of the suicide. “I really wanted to talk to him. I really wanted to interview him.”
Now Nicols is searching for a white woman in her 40s who befriended Hines before his death. Nicols sent a bulletin to the LAPD’s Hollywood Division, hoping officers spot her while on patrol. Nicols wants to ask her if Hines mentioned Hill’s murder.
“Did he mention his past,” Nicols said. “Did he say anything that might help in this case. That is where I am now.”
Despite having no suspect to interview, Nicols said he feels good about the case given the strong DNA evidence and Hines’ violent criminal history.
“I did not get a chance to talk with him, which leads me to the question of why did he hang himself,” Nicols said. “I have a theory. I would hope to believe that somehow word got out that I was looking for him. I’m hoping that’s what she tells me.”