As I waited to find out where Dana’s body had gone, I thought about my conversation with Detective Johnson. If he had made up his mind about the case, why argue with me for 25 minutes? It would’ve been easier for him to say he couldn’t talk about it, thanks for inquiring, goodbye. I tried to convince myself police were busy combing through evidence. My parents encouraged me to hide my suspicions, be nice to Huck, and reassure him. It was just a matter of time, we naïvely hoped, before he would be arrested.
On the afternoon of Wednesday March 12, Coroner Investigator Sherwood Dixson called me to say he had been assigned to Dana’s case. He asked me to let the mortuary handle all contacts with the coroner’s office.
I texted Huck to find out which mortuary he had chosen. He didn’t know he needed to find a mortuary. He felt abandoned, he said. I assured him I would help make the arrangements.
The next day, I sat with him at All Souls. The funeral planner, a woman named Courtney, filled out paperwork. Huck knew hardly anything about Dana. He drew a blank on city of birth, mother’s maiden name, date of marriage, and other basic information. I was happy to supply answers because each one was a rebuke to his devoted husband pose.
Courtney left the room to call the coroner. She was gone for what felt like an hour. During this time, Huck talked. He said something about Dana forcing him to sell his dead mother’s house in Menifee. Something about my own mother pretending to have sympathy for the pain he still carries from his acne-scarred teen years, but not really caring about him. Something about having spent tens of thousands of dollars on the enclosed front patio, yoga-room remodel, and surveillance cameras. In his mind, Dana had cost him a lot of money over the years somehow.
Enduring the creepiness was worth it to see the look on Huck’s face when Courtney returned. Dana’s body was ready to be released by the coroner, she said. However, the death investigation would continue for another month. Huck covered his face with his hands and groaned. He pretended to be yawning. I still had doubts about his guilt until I saw him in that moment of fear.
Our appointment at the mortuary ended by mid-afternoon. Huck said he was going to a therapy appointment. I went back to my hotel. I had a room with a view of the Catalina Express terminal. Each day, I watched boats in the channel coming and going from downtown Long Beach to Avalon.
All I knew about Catalina Island was that film star Natalie Wood had drowned off the coast after falling from a boat on a November night in 1981. The coroner’s office ruled it an accident. I was 16 years old when her death was in the news, and Dana was 18. We were far away in Colorado, singing along to California Dreamin’: “I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.”
On the evening of March 13, an agitated Huck called my dad. Detective Johnson had contacted him and told him not to freak out. Police were doing another search. My dad insincerely told Huck not to worry.
Huck need not have worried. When I heard police had obtained a second search warrant (pdf), I presumed it was because the medical examiner saw foul play and belatedly launched a homicide investigation. Later, I realized the purpose of the second search was to help Johnson cover up his previous mistakes.
Medical examiner Dr. Ogbonna Chinwah concluded that Dana had died of accidental blunt-force head trauma. Dr. Chinwah wrote this description of Dana’s injury:
“On the back of the head 5 inches below the buttocks and located in the midline is an irregular laceration measuring 1-3/4 inches….”Autopsy report (pdf)
Five inches below the buttocks? If this is a typo, it’s a whopper. At best, it’s obviously incorrect, and makes it hard to understand precisely where the laceration was located.
Dana’s autopsy report included a report by forensic neuropathology consultant Dr. Cho Lwin, who examined Dana’s brain. Lwin wrote:
“The following information is taken from the investigator’s summary of the case and Dr. Chinwah’s autopsy report. The 50 years old Caucasian female fell to the floor and sustained blunt force head trauma while doing yoga exercises at her residence. CT scan of head revealed skull fracture and subdural hemorrhage. She died 3 days later.”Autopsy report (pdf)
Huck’s claim that Dana fell while doing yoga was endorsed by Detective Johnson and repeated in Dr. Lwin’s report. It’s not Lwin’s job to investigate the circumstances. It’s disturbing to me that the doctor was given misleading information. Also, Lwin was told Dana “died three days later,” when in fact she was observed to be brain-dead on the day she was admitted to the hospital.
Later, Emma R. Hall, the coroner of Boulder County, Colorado, read Dana’s autopsy report and talked to me about it over the phone. I thought if anyone else had ever heard of a yoga fatality, it would be Hall, considering the popularity of yoga in Boulder.
While the Los Angeles coroner didn’t want to hear from me and didn’t respond to my subsequent email queries, Hall acted as if explaining autopsy reports to family members of the deceased was part of her public duty. Hall would not comment on the findings in Dana’s case except to say it was a remarkably severe head injury. She had never heard of anything similar inflicted by yoga.
Hall said the neuropathologist’s report suggested extra time and expense had been allocated to Dana’s case. Dr. Lwin’s report made it clear that Dana had not suffered a stroke. Also, the report showed Dana had no pre-existing head injury.
These two points were important because they contradicted the claim that a previous fall had caused a “fatal fall.”
Coroner investigator Dixson wrote in his report:
“The decedent experienced a falling episode one year ago while in Hawaii. She reportedly fell and struck the back of her head. She was evaluated and was reported to be fine. During the past three months, the decedent was reported to be moving in slow manner while having difficulty getting up in the morning.”Autopsy report (pdf)
Dixson’s statement was the only rationale offered in the autopsy report about why the medical examiner decided Dana’s death was an accident.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday prior to her death, my brother and his family had stayed at Dana’s house. Stephen told me that, more than once, Huck claimed Dana was acting spacey, confused, or off-balance. Stephen said he dismissed Huck’s comments because it was clear to him Huck was wrong. Even then, Huck was laying the groundwork for his alibi, hinting that Dana had a neurological problem. Dr. Lwin’s findings showed Huck’s claim to be baseless.
The second search warrant, written by Johnson, repeated many of Huck’s lies as facts. For instance, Johnson took for granted that Dana was alive and well on the morning of March 3, using her iPad, and doing yoga. However, Johnson also wrote:
“Detectives viewed the video on the recorder (DVR) from the residence and there is an approximate 8 minute time period that does not match what Victim Jones’ husband told Detectives what he did after he heard the crash (noise of something falling).”Second search warrant (pdf)
This shows that, after watching the video, detectives were aware of discrepancies and inconsistencies in Huck’s version of events. They knew his version was unreliable. They chose to rely on it anyway.
According to the warrant, detectives supposedly wanted to search for an “item” in the yoga room that could have caused the “kind of injury” that killed Dana. Johnson failed to mention dumbbells, golf clubs, construction tools, a slingshot, and other possible deadly weapons he had seen and photographed in the house on March 4.
Did Johnson truly believe the weapon would be in the yoga room 10 days after the fact, and nowhere else? Probably not, but detectives weren’t necessarily looking for evidence of foul play. Rather, I think they hoped to find no evidence of foul play. Johnson restricted the search to the yoga room because, I think, the goal was to find nothing.
Johnson called in the Scientific Services Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to assist with this search. In a report filed four months after the fact on July 15, 2014, Senior Criminalist Gregory Hadinoto wrote:
“On March 13, 2014, at the request of Detective Johnson of the Long Beach Police Department, a Field Investigation was conducted at 7053 Stearns Street, in the city of Long Beach. The purpose of the investigation was to process the house for possible biological evidence. Forensic Identification Specialist Martin Mutoc from the Latent Print Section was present for photography purposes. Senior Criminalist Betty Ring from the Biology Section was present for training purposes.”L.A. Sheriff’s report (pdf)
Why were these people called in on March 13 but not on March 4? Why did Johnson let more than a week pass before he saw fit “to process the house for possible biological evidence” such as blood? And why did it take four months for Hadinoto to file a report about it? Hadinoto’s report states:
“The exercise room was tested with the luminol reagent. Four dumbells, one drawer on the hutch, four areas on the floor and one of the black mats luminesced. These areas were tested with a presumptive chemical test for blood and all gave a negative result. No evidence items were collected.”L.A. Sheriff’s report (pdf)
Hadinoto’s report doesn’t mention any place in the house other than the yoga room. Did they search for blood in the dining area? On the dining chairs? In the master bath? Apparently not. This suggests they weren’t searching for blood throughout the house. Rather, they focused on the yoga room and found no blood.
Later, Bryan would tell me no blood was found in the yoga room because Dana’s head wasn’t bleeding, because her injury wasn’t serious until it suddenly turned serious at the hospital. This explained why Huck didn’t rush to the hospital. He and paramedics knew Dana’s condition wasn’t bad; it was just a harmless, superficial hematoma, after all.
The effect of Hadinoto’s report, it seems, was to minimize Dana’s injury, defend Huck, cover paramedics, and back up Johnson’s decision to drop the case.
After the second search, in a report dated March 17, Detective Zottneck wrote that he had taken Dana’s iPad and DVR and “released them to the Long Beach Police Department’s Computer Crimes section to download.” Zottneck doesn’t say when this happened. He logged the devices on March 12 under tag number 806416. On March 31 he logged the devices again under different tag numbers—807651 for the DVR, and 807670 for the iPad.
Judging from Zottneck’s reports, the devices probably were examined sometime between March 12 and March 31. This was after Johnson had decided to drop the case, and after Dana’s organs had been taken. By the time they got around to analyzing the devices, detectives perhaps were more invested in supporting the conclusions they had already reached rather than honestly evaluating the evidence.
After the second search, Zottneck wrote:
“…detectives contacted Cain Jones who was waiting at Marian Veargin’s [sic] house at 7041 Stearns Street. Jones stated he had the workout clothing in his Toyota Prius that Dana Jones was wearing when she was transported to St. Mary’s Hospital by Long Beach Fire. I collected the clothing, which was in a clear plastic bag, from the vehicle and transported it to the Long Beach Police Department’s Main Headquarters. I maintained possession of the item until placing it into Police evidence.”Roger Zottneck’s report (pdf)
This is a telling example of how detectives uncritically accepted evidence from Huck. Zottneck doesn’t question whether these really are the clothes Dana was wearing, or why Huck volunteers to give them to police. The first search warrant had commanded detectives to search for “any evidence of the possible crime of murder,” specifically mentioning Dana’s Prius and her clothes. Why did detectives fail to find this bag of clothes at that time? Zottneck’s unquestioning acceptance of these clothes from Huck shows how willing detectives were to be spoon fed.
Zottneck said Huck was waiting at Marian’s house while detectives conducted the second search. Surveillance video showed Marian’s car parked in front of Huck’s house for much of the morning on March 3. She drove away just minutes before he left to walk the dog. Huck told police Marian had helped him clean up Dana’s blood. Apparently, none of these facts made detectives curious about the relationship between Huck and Marian.
Officer Keith Mortensen took a statement from Marian on the night of March 4. Mortensen wrote:
“I, Officer K. Mortensen #5290, working Unit 2C15 in a marked black and white vehicle assisted 2S20, Sergeant M. Richens #6056 at 7053 Stearns Street regarding an Assault with a Deadly Weapon report call.”Mortensen’s report (pdf)
Notice Mortensen was on “an Assault with a Deadly Weapon report call,” rather than a “suspicious accidental fall” case, as Johnson had mischaracterized it. Mortensen wrote:
“Upon arrival, I talked with a neighbor located at 7041 Stearns Street, who Cain Jones identified as a friend who helped him clean the room where the incident had occurred. I talked with Veargin [sic] who stated she has known both Dana and Cain for approximately 12 yrs and she has a very close relationship with both.”Mortensen’s report (pdf)
In fact, Marian once hired Dana to draw plans for her bathroom remodel, but Dana and Marian were not close. Dana considered Marian to be Huck’s friend, not hers. She told me Huck and Marian bonded by smoking marijuana together, and Dana wasn’t interested in participating. Mortensen wrote:
“Veargin [sic] stated she arrived home on 03/03/14 at approximately 1530 hrs, and was told by a neighbor that Dana was in the hospital. She called Cain, she refers to him as ‘Huck’ and then drove directly to St. Mary’s Hospital and arrived there at approximately 1630 hrs. Veargin [sic] left the hospital and drove home at about 2030 hrs.”Mortensen’s report (pdf)
According to a different police report, two neighbors said they talked to Marian that day, and had a different story about who had told whom Dana was in the hospital. Regarding one of the neighbors, Officer Tina Icorn wrote:
“He was standing in his front yard with [his housemate] yesterday around 1700 when his neighbor, Mirian [sic] (at 7041 Stearns) pulled her vehicle alongside the curb and told them she had just checked her messages and found Hawk [sic] had called saying Dana had fallen and was in the hospital. When she returned around 2100 hours, she told him she thinks Dana will die. Dana had hit her head doing yoga and slipped or blacked out. She hit her head on something.”Icorn’s report (pdf)
Marian was telling neighbors that Dana was in the hospital and repeating the story Huck wanted everyone to believe: Dana had hit her head while doing yoga. Mortensen wrote:
“The next morning Veargin [sic] could not remember if she called Huck or if he called her. She asked him if he needed anything and he asked her if she could go with him to walk the dog. She agreed and they walked to the park with the dog. After the walk, she asked Huck if he needed help with anything else and he asked her if she would help him clean the room where the incident happened and she agreed.”Mortensen’s report (pdf)
Mortensen conducted this interview on the night of March 4 as detectives searched Huck’s house for the first time. Marian told Mortensen about events that supposedly happened earlier in the day, and yet she claims she can’t remember who called whom. This was also the morning of Dana’s cerebral perfusion test, when Huck was supposed to pick up Stephen at the airport and bring him to the hospital. I picked up my brother instead. Huck didn’t show up at the hospital until around noon. Mortensen wrote:
“Veargin [sic] stated that she had been an ER nurse for 25 years and that the sight of blood does not bother her. Veargin [sic] said she was in the house and saw that the door to the Yoga room was closed. She said this was normal in order to keep the dog out of the room. She entered the room and saw that there was a blue yoga mat and a white towel on the ground. She believes there was a couple drops of blood on the yoga mat and stated that she wasn’t paying attention to the towel, so she does not remember if there was any on it.”Mortensen’s report (pdf)
The paramedics who were interviewed by police said there was no blood anywhere in the room on March 3 except under Dana’s head. One paramedic estimated the amount of blood to be “20 drops.” Notably, both paramedics said there was no yoga mat in the room.
In his 911 call, Huck described Dana’s bleeding as “massive.” He said he was applying pressure with a hand-towel-sized “yoga towel.” Are Marian and Huck talking about the same towel? If so, why wouldn’t it have blood on it? If there was a bloody towel in the room, why didn’t paramedics notice it? Mortensen wrote:
“I asked how much blood was on the ground and she stated that she was not paying attention to it and just helped clean it. I asked if the blood was already dry and she stated that it was. Veargin [sic] said that she stayed with Huck the entire time, and she believes that he made a concentrate of warm water, simple green and bleach. He placed this into a bucket and she thinks she used a sponge to clean it up the blood. Yeargin said that Huck helped and he used a brush of some kind.”Mortensen’s report (pdf)
Why were a bucket of solvent, a sponge, and a brush necessary to clean mere drops of dried blood?
Marian also says she “stayed with Huck the entire time,” as if recalling a significant amount of time. I wonder why she felt the need to say this.
I get the impression that early in the morning on March 3, Marian ran an errand and returned to Huck’s house. Video shows her parking at the curb just before 7 a.m. Saying that she had “stayed with Huck the entire time” during the blood cleanup seems to anticipate a question. Mortensen couldn’t possibly have known to ask: Did you run to a 24-hour pharmacy to buy a wound-sealing product or any other product that might’ve helped you, an experienced trauma nurse, to conceal or disguise the nature of Dana’s injuries? Did you leave the house to dispose of bloody items?
Prior to studying the surveillance video, police could not have guessed that Marian was in Dana’s house early in the morning on March 3, left, returned, and left again before Huck walked the dog, but I think it’s likely. Therefore, to me it sounds as if Marian is preemptively answering an unasked question when she states that “she stayed with Huck the entire time.”
“I again asked her how much blood was on the ground and asked her to show me using her hands, and she stated that she really couldn’t say.”Mortensen’s report (pdf)
Marian described herself as an ER nurse with 25 years of experience, and yet she “really couldn’t say” how much blood she saw. In my experience, nurses are skilled at estimating quantities of fluid in terms of cubic centimeters. I’m guessing Marian had cleaned up more than a pint of Dana’s blood on March 2 and 3 before paramedics arrived at the house. Perhaps this was something she “really couldn’t say” to police, so she equivocated about the amount of blood.
“After cleaning the blood she brought the trash cans to the front of the backyard and Huck threw the towel and yoga mat away.”Mortensen’s report (pdf)
That day was trash day in Huck and Marian’s neighborhood. The City of Long Beach advises residents to put their bins at the curb by 6 a.m. for trash pickup. Marian said she “brought the trash cans to the front of the backyard” so Huck could throw away a towel and a yoga mat. Presumably, Huck’s bins were at the front curb awaiting pickup. Wouldn’t it have been easier to carry the mat and towel to the curb? Also, why were trash cans, plural, necessary?
Based on Marian’s statement, it sounds as if she was equipped to clean a lot of blood, and that the task took an “entire” time. It sounds as if the disposal of waste was facilitated by moving trash cans in the backyard. To me, this suggests a bigger cleanup job than wiping 20 drops of dried blood off a floor.
Marian tells Mortensen this cleanup effort happened that morning, on Tuesday, March 4. If detectives had preserved all video on the DVR from Huck’s house, they might have been able to fact-check this claim.
Huck’s description of the cleanup differed from Marian’s. Officer Edwin Oak wrote:
“Marian Yeargin, who lives a couple houses down came over and asked Jones if she could help him with anything. He asked her if she would take a walk with him and they took a long walk around the neighborhood. When they returned to his residence, he asked her if she would help clean up the blood in the recreation room. Since Yeargin use to be a nurse, he said the site of blood did not offend her. Jones could not bare seeing the blood and being reminded of his wife lying there on the ground. Jones and Yeargin went in and washed the dried blood away. Yeargin began to scrub very hard and began to remove the black stain that was on the concrete. This caused a brownish/yellowish color to appear and Jones stopped Yeargin from scrubbing any more. There on the ground, he saw a circle on the concrete where the black stain was scrubbed off and it was a constant reminder to him of where her head was lying when he entered into the room. Jones stated the cleanup took only a few minutes and he threw away the towels they used to clean up the blood, along with the yoga mat that was in the room. He placed a candleholder where her head was and lit several candles. The trash was picked up that day so the yoga mat and tshirt used to clean the floor were no longer in his possession.”Oak’s report (pdf)
According to Huck, Marian obsessively scrubbed that “damned spot” so hard she stripped decorative stain off the floor. Thinking back to the surveillance video and Huck’s repeated scrubbing and wiping of the kitchen counters, I suspect that if anyone was scrubbing, it was him.
Huck says they threw away towels — plural — and a yoga mat. Out of nowhere, Huck also mentions a t-shirt used to clean up blood. Whose t-shirt? Why?
Four different people — Huck, Marian, and two paramedics — told police about the presence of blood in the yoga room. Huck and Marian described blood-cleanup efforts that did not seem to match the amount of blood that paramedics had described very specifically in terms of drops.
If Huck and Marian had cleaned up a lot of blood, did this cleanup happen on March 2 and 3 before Huck called 911?
Days later, Johnson and Hadinoto got around to searching for blood, found none in the yoga room, and stopped looking. In the dining room, blood was visible to the naked eye but went unnoticed by multiple investigators. Stains on the master bathroom floor, too, were not noted.
Medical examiners Chinwah and Lwin were given misleading information about the circumstances of Dana’s injury, such as the claim that she had fallen previously, and was in the hospital for three days before she died. Later, local news media reported that under the leadership of Dr. Mark Fajardo, the L.A. County Coroner’s Office was in disarray with a backlog of more than 400 cases. After two years on the job, Fajardo resigned the post.
Considering police lapses and chaos in the coroner’s office, how can my family and I have confidence in the conclusions reached by law enforcement and the medical examiner?
People tell me the coroner’s office almost never changes a ruling. It has happened in the past, but rarely. One such case was the death of film star Natalie Wood. In January 2013, the coroner revised the ruling on manner of death, saying her drowning was due to undetermined factors rather than an accident. This change came after the L.A. Sheriff’s Department reopened the investigation in 2011.
It took 30 years of celebrity allure, ongoing speculation, and enduring suspicion before law enforcement took a fresh look at the Natalie Wood case. It took more than 30 years for the coroner to acknowledge evidence of assault found on Wood’s body. Even then, the manner of her death was ruled undetermined rather than homicide.
Some people in Los Angeles question whether revisiting the Wood case merited the expenditure of public resources. No one was punished in the matter. Why bother?
I’ve been asked similar questions. People say, OK, maybe the police messed up and Huck got away with murder. So what? Punishing him won’t change anything. Maybe the coroner messed up, too. But Dana’s vital organs saved other people’s lives, which is great. And maybe it was a terrible yoga accident after all. Poor Huck.
Why can’t you drop this case, Lisa? Everyone else can. What’s wrong with you?