breathes life into cold cases
Barefoot and in blue jeans, his gut protruding from a sleeveless
shirt, 45-year-old Scott Schultz knew what was coming the moment he
saw Santa Clara County DA's investigator Mike Schembri walking up
the sidewalk to his home in Loveland, Colo.
``Mike, I told you the truth! I told you the truth!'' Schultz
yelled in a last attempt to assert his innocence. The tears in the
corners of his eyes betrayed his feelings. The baldish motorcyclist
knew Schembri was there to arrest him on suspicion of killing his
high school girlfriend from Los Altos, Laura Anne Beyerly, 28 years
The 57-year-old Schembri, a onetime college pitcher who hides an
athlete's competitive instincts behind an unassuming 5-foot-9 build
and a Brillo pad of neatly trimmed gray hair, doesn't come across as
Inspector Javert stalking his criminal prey.
The veteran investigator strikes even the bad guys as more of a
father-confessor figure, a man you want to confide in. But mark down
humility as one of his most lethal assets. ``I'm not the best,'' he
says. ``I've seen the best. I just work hard.''
If Schembri is not the best investigator in Santa Clara County,
his colleagues say he's one of the top three or four, a dogged man
who can draw lines between dots that other people can't even see.
Lately, he has become the man who breathes life into cold cases.
Through Schembri's work, authorities have made arrests in three
major murder cases, the kind that keep detectives up at night
chewing on antacid. The men who police think killed Jeanine Harms,
Gretchen Burford and Beyerly are behind bars.
``He's one of the best detectives I've ever seen,'' says Tom
Wheatley, former acting San Jose police chief. ``If I had the
heaviest kind of case, he's one of the less-than-a-handful of guys
I've met that I would assign it to. He does things that are just
Vintage Schembri: Nearly two decades ago, when he worked sexual
assault cases for San Jose police, where he spent 28 years, Schembri
noticed a colleague was bogged down on a vicious rape case.
``He's working it from the seat of his pants,'' Schembri said,
describing his desk-bound colleague. ``So I say, let's go get a car,
we can arrest him, there's some leads here.''
It was partly a sally in the dark. Schembri had no suspect. The
assailant, however, left a Camel cigarette at the crime scene. The
police knew he had called the victim from an East Side shopping
center. The victim described a rapist with a bad case of eczema.
The detectives started at the shopping center, asking store
managers if they remembered a weird guy with eczema who bought
Camels. Bingo. A clerk remembered seeing a transient who fit that
description and thought maybe he worked at a carnival.
That led them to a camper in the back of the shopping center,
where a woman answered their knock. The cops asked her whether she
lived with anyone. She mentioned her son. Could they talk to him?
Well, OK. Still wearing the victim's T-shirt, the sleeping son had a
bad case of eczema. He also was a suspect in a killing in Washington
``When I get a case, particularly if it's a rape, I usually go to
the scene at the time of day the crime happened, just to get the
feel of what happened,'' Schembri explains. ``You can never
Schembri has had plenty of backing in his quest to find out what
happened in the baffling cases. The county has a good crime lab that
has helped him quantify such evidence as rug fibers or DNA patterns.
District Attorney George Kennedy and Chief Assistant Karyn Sinunu
have assigned a veteran prosecutor, Charles Constantinides, to
handle cold cases.
To this mix, Schembri, a bicyclist in the police Olympics, brings
two uncommon ingredients. One is an innate ability to read people,
to sense when a suspect is lying. When he flew to a Texas prison to
interview Tyrone Hamel, the accused killer of Burford, a Palo Alto
lawyer who was stabbed to death in 1988, Schembri never got a
confession. But he did get an occasional smile to a direct question.
At the end, he coaxed Hamel into saying that he felt sorry for
The second ingredient Schembri brings is that he's not afraid to
fail. ``If you get a tough case, some people might say, `I don't
know if this guy did it or not.' I always say, `What do I have to
lose by taking this on, to get to the bottom of it?' You could be
the victim here.''
On cold cases, this approach sometimes places Schembri in a
delicate political posture. Not all police departments welcome help
from the district attorney.
Mistakes of others
In the Beyerly case, Schembri does not disguise his low opinion
of the 1978 Los Altos police investigators. He says they failed to
do the job right, assuming Beyerly was a runaway because she had run
Schembri started at a different point. He knew Beyerly's mother
had seen the 17-year-old Los Altos High student crying because she
had broken up with Schultz on the telephone. Beyerly felt she owed
it to him to do it in person. Her life was turning around. She had a
new boyfriend and had a hair appointment planned. To Schembri, that
didn't feel like a runaway.
The investigator went to where her bones were found in 1979, the
steep China Grade in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It wasn't a place
where a casual killer would dump a body. It demanded that the killer
have four-wheel drive and know his way around the mountains.
That led him to questions about China Grade. Whom could he tie to
the area? Finally, one of his witnesses told him something she
hadn't revealed in 1979: Schultz's uncle lived nearby. Schultz
visited him frequently.
That made one of the original errors in the case more poignant.
Schembri says a private investigator for the family took mud samples
from the wheels of Schultz's vehicle a few days after Beyerly
disappeared. The investigator turned over the mud to the Los Altos
police, who -- alas -- did not preserve it. (Los Altos Police Chief
Bob Lacey, who joined the department in 1980, said he had not heard
A last true story: Patterns help detectives. People often repeat
where they go, what they do. In the case of Harms, a 42-year-old Los
Gatos woman who disappeared after going to a bar, investigators
began focusing on architect Maurice X. Nasmeh, one of two men seen
with her that night. Always interested in the personality of a
suspect, Schembri asked about his patterns: How did he treat other
women he dated?
Schembri says Nasmeh would usually call the woman the next
morning to thank her for the date. He left no message for Harms.
It's hardly enough to convict anyone. To a detective like Schembri,
though, it was telling. You wouldn't thank someone who was already