NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
Dateline NBC

Explainer: When The Smoke Clears

  • Read the transcript to the Dateline report, which re-airs Sunday, Sept. 5, 7pm/6C. Click on 'next' to see each part of the episode.

  • Part 1

    Five to seven minutes: the time it takes for a cigarette to burn. The time it takes to tamp down a craving. Or cover up a crime. Or mark the time between life, and death. It was Mother's Day Weekend 1989, the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier. That's when it happened, in a condo there. Where they found the burned down smoke at the heart of the mystery.

    Or maybe smoke-screen is what it was, at the start of a search that would go on 14 years, and would lead... Well, who would have believed it? Certainly not Rhonda Fleming and her 25-year-old sister Christie, who were scheduled to take their mom to a brunch that morning.

    Rhonda Davis: We were gonna meet at my mother's house. I just called Christie, just to check in. And the line was busy. A few minutes later I called again. Line was busy. I called, called, called, her phone was busy all Saturday morning, which seemed strange. 

    So Rhonda went to her mother's house, anyway, thinking her younger sister would show up. But...

    Rhonda Davis: Christie wasn't there, which was very unusual, because she was always on time. Never, never late. And my mom hadn't talked to her. I called Christie again. The phone's still busy. Now I know something is wrong. 

    Panicked now, Rhonda called her father Bud Fleming. He was divorced, but had raised both girls and kept close tabs on them, especially Christie who was single.

    Rhonda Davis: He hadn't talked to her either.  And as soon as he hung up the phone from me, he drove to her house. He knew there was something wrong.

    Rhonda followed him. Found Christie's car in its usual place, but no Christie.  Knocked on her door.  No answer. Then a neighbor managed to break in through a balcony and open the front door.

    Rhonda Davis: I ran in the house. And I glanced over, and saw her body laying on the kitchen floor. I thought, she can't be dead. This just isn't happening. And I ran over to wake her up. And I stood over her, and I grabbed her wrists. And as soon as I touched her, I knew she was dead. And all I could think of was my dad coming in and seeing this. 

    Her father never did go inside, but a few minutes later, sheriffs’ homicide detectives did.

    Det. Steve Davis: She was nude. She was-- bleeding from the head. And there-- appeared to be blood on the kitchen floor as if some sort of struggle had-- taken place there. 

    The murder weapon was in plain sight, a blouse, stuffed in her mouth. She'd been suffocated.

    And all around her, signs of what looked like a home invasion robbery.

    Det. Steve Davis: Her purse and the contents were strewn all over the kitchen-- the-- living room floor. The drawers in the upstairs bedroom were pulled out. Items that were in the drawers were thrown on the floor, on the bed.

    The phone was off the hook; looked like it had been moved from its normal place. Blood was smeared on several walls both upstairs and downstairs. And there was something in the kitchen, just above Christie's body that also caught detective's attention.

    Det. Steve Davis: There was a cigarette butt that was found on the kitchen counter by the stove that had been placed there and had obviously burnt-- out as it was placed--

    Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC correspondent: Over, over the counter and actually stained the counter as it burned.

    Det. Steve Davis: Absolutely correct.

    Four more cigarette butts were found in the trashcan under the sink, as well as a beer bottle in the living room. No surprise, however; Christie drank occasionally and the cigarettes were her brand. There were few other clues. The only fingerprints found were Christie's. And no one in the condo complex heard or saw anything. Strange, perhaps, given the level of violence.

    But who would want to kill Christie Fleming? And why? She had always been extremely popular, according to Janice Puchart, who had known her since grade school.

    Janice Puchart: She had tons of friends. She had a big, big social life.  She had a lot-- lot of guy friends. Just friends.

    And Christie was doing quite well for herself, working for a big aerospace company.

    Rhonda Davis: She had a lot going for her. I mean, she had blossomed into this beautiful-- person that was successful. She owned her own condominium. She had a new car she paid for by herself. 

    Successful, attractive, popular. But there was another part of Christie's personality that became apparent the moment you met her.

    Janice Puchart: Christie was--real compulsive about things. She had this very compulsive behavior. 

    Steve Davis:

    Christie was apparently a neat freak.  I believe you call it obsessive-compulsive. She was neat-- clean, in fact, fastidiously clean is probably the best way to describe it. You could eat off the floor.

    Rhonda Davis: You'd walk into her house, it was like a model home. Nothing was out of place. She was constantly-- picking up after everyone. (laughter)

    In fact, detectives also found plenty of evidence of Christie's clean and organized life. Her closet, full of clothes perfectly organized along with lists of every outfit and what to wear with them. Even her jewelry box was in ideal order; not a bracelet out of place. But neatness wasn't Christie's only compulsion. From an early age, she was  also extremely security conscious.

    Rhonda Davis: My dad raised both of us girls to be afraid, to be secure, he made sure we took every precaution to be safe, all the time.

    Christie lived in a gated complex and kept a loaded gun in her nightstand. She had two locks on her door, secure windows. It didn't make sense. If this had been a robbery, surely there would have been some sign of forced entry.

    Steve Davis: There's no broken door, no door lock pried. No window broken. The house was locked. So obviously she let whoever in that did this.

    And given Christie's obsession with security, this could mean only one thing...

    Steve Davis: Whoever killed her was somebody she knew. That was clear.

    Shocking?  Yes of course. But not necessarily to Christie's father, as he told the news media right after the murder.

    Bud Fleming (to media): Christie was a very, very trusting girl so somebody could, a friend of hers or someone from work or just a friend could come to the door and she'd open it for them.

    A friend? A colleague from work? Was it possible that Christine Fleming had been murdered by one of them?

  • Part 2

    Los Angeles, Calif. Not so much a big city as a vast collection of suburbs; some with painfully crime spattered histories. One of the least so inflicted is tucked away; quiet, safe, even quaint: the town of Whittier. But murder, as we know, can happen anywhere, even in a high security condo... even to young and attractive Christine Fleming.

    Christie's normally immaculate condominium was a blood-stained mess. And she, famously neat and tidy in life, lay dead in chaos, her personal belongings strewn helter-skelter across the counters and floors.

    The local media jumped all over the story.

    KNBC reporter: "The victim? A beautiful young woman in Whittier."

    The Fleming family struggled in the glare of television lights to cope with the loss of its youngest member.

    Rhonda Flemming, 1989 interview: Christie was my best friend so it's affected my life a lot. (cries)

    Rhonda (Flemming) Davis: I think about it daily. You look at other people and they have brothers and sisters and I don't anymore.

    Detectives had one rather disturbing theory to go on. Despite the murderers' clumsy efforts to make it look like a home invasion robbery, it was obvious the murder was not the work of a random stranger, but someone she actually knew.

    Janice Puchert: If somebody that had been calling her, then suddenly is knocking on your door, you know who that is, you know, if it's late at night. It, you know, fits. So, she would let them in to avoid disturbing the neighbors.

    Det. Steve Davis: In other words, there was no break-in.  This girl was at home.

    And for all the chaotic appearance of robbery, nothing of value was taken.

    Det. Steve Davis: Her credit cards were accounted for.  I believe there was a small amount of cash that might have been taken from her purse. You would've expected a burglar, you know, take everything in sight.

    And all that blood spatter on the walls: Upon closer inspection it just didn't look right; like it had been carefully smeared on.

    Det. Steve Davis: This was part of the murderer's plan to make it look like something that it wasn't; to try to confuse the issue and make it look like a stranger had come in, done a thrill killing, done a burglary.

    Keith Morrison: Staging a scene, nobody fell for it?

    Det. Steve Davis: Nobody fell for it.

    A staged crime scene, and a sloppy one at that, further supported the cops' theory. Random burglars don't cover up crime scenes. Also left behind: an empty beer bottle, a dirty ashtray and all those cigarette butts. Remember, Christie smoked. The cigarettes were her brand.

    But as detectives talked to Christie's friends, as they learned just how compulsively neat she was, they began to see the cigarettes as a useful clue.

    Det. Steve Davis: Constantly cleaning the floor, the counter, wiping it down. Doing the dishes, we can't have old trash laying around in there, so we gotta go empty the trashcan right away.

    Especially if the trash can contained cigarette butts. But this time Christie did not do her usual cleanup.

    Det. Steve Davis: It suggested that the ashtray, the cigarettes, the smoking, all this happened at the time of the murder.

    Keith Morrison: That she was powerless to clean that up?

    Det. Steve Davis: Absolutely.

    Keith Morrison: Because whoever--

    Det. Steve Davis: Absolutely.

    Keith Morrison: --because whoever helped her cause the mess killed her?

    Det. Steve Davis: Excellent way to put it.

    And there was something else even more significant about those five cigarettes butts. They were sent to the crime lab for testing. It was able to extract a tiny bit of saliva from each one. This was before DNA of course, but they were able to determine that three of those cigarettes could have been smoked by Christie and two could not have been. Were smoked by the person she let in that night. And was that person her killer?

    Det. Steve Davis: The ashtray had-- ash residue in it, and it was on the floor by the table, where it appeared there were two chairs that were out of place. So it looked like there had been two people sitting there. They had been smoking. And something happened to cause that ashtray to be on the floor.

    It was quickly becoming clear that Christie not only knew her killer, she knew him quite well. Certainly enough to share a smoke and a beer with him before he took her life.

    But who?

    Detectives started with the obvious: men she was dating, or had been dating.

    Det. Steve Davis: There was a number of 'em and they proceeded by-- finding them, talking to them. And as a result of their interviews-- established that there was a list of maybe three or four that were good possible suspects.

    Each was questioned, submitted saliva samples and was given a polygraph test. And within a few days, all dropped off the list of suspects. Christie's father Bud, who had taught his daughter to be so security conscious, tried to help solve what he could not prevent, by hanging posters all over town.

    Bud Fleming, from 1989 News clip: If anybody out there knows anything at all, I'm begging them to please come forward. We sure need the help.

    Rhonda Davis: She was his baby. He was never the same. He used to be such an outgoing, fun loving person. And this just totally changed him.

    Janice Puchart: He was just very heartbroken. Crushed him. Really crushed that man.

    Was there anybody else Bud Fleming knew who could have committed the crime? Perhaps someone on the fringe of his daughter's large social circle who had re-entered her life and then ended it?

  • Part 3

    RhondaFleming, 1989 news clip: The police say that this person who committed this crime has told someone. Somebody knows. All that person has to do is come forward.

    If only it were so easy. But day followed day and nobody came forward. Nobody at all. And none of Christie's friends or neighbors saw, heard or knew a thing. Detectives started out with a list of four possible suspects, men whom Christie had dated. And each one of them was questioned, their movements and alibis checked. And then one by one, they were cleared.

    But Christie's father Bud Fleming remembered something: there had been a young man, years earlier, when Christie was a teenager. But he'd forgotten all about the kid, wouldn't have thought of him at all, except, a few months before Christie was murdered...

    Janice Puchart: And he gets a phone call one day. “Hi, this is a voice from your past.” And Bud's like, “Well, I don't have time for this. Who's this?” And he's like, “It's me, it's Art.”

    Art? Who was Art? He was Arturo Gutierrez, Christine's high school sweetheart.

    Det. Steve Davis: They had a relationship, in fact they had a sexual relationship and apparently she became pregnant and ultimately had an abortion. Ultimately they broke up, and there had been a number of years that had passed since he had been in contact with her.

    And then, there he was, out of the blue, on the phone with Christie's father.

    Janice Puchart: He said "You know, I'd like to get a hold of Christie, can I get her number?" He said, "Why don't you give me your phone number, and I'll have her call you."

    Rhonda Davis: I know my dad didn't want Art back in contact with her. But it's hard for a father because a father wants his daughter to be happy.

    Keith Morrison: Of course.

    Rhonda Davis: So on the one hand he knew that she loved the guy once upon a time. And he's probably thinking, oh, if this is what she wants, I want her to be happy." But on the other hand, you're always protective over your kids.

    What should a father do? He certainly didn't like the guy. But Christie was a grownup. It wasn't really his business anymore. So he passed on the number. And she dialed it.

    Janice Puchart: I know she was very curious. Like, wow, you know, wonder how he is now? So you're not really that upset or nervous of anything.

    Keith Morrison: And she wasn't.

    Janice Puchart: No, it was kind of flattering that somebody would look her up after so many years.

    Art told Christie he was in the roofing business. He asked her to stop by his work site, say hello.

    Janice Puchart: She said, “Yeah, I went to meet Art. He was telling me that he's making all this money. That he's got all these great things going, and he asked me for a ride.” And she said, “Where's your car?” And he said, “I don't have a car. I don't have a license, 'cause I have warrants.”

    Warrants? No Car? No license?

    Maybe Art wasn't quite as successful as he claimed he was. And according to Janice, he told Christie something rather strange.

    Janice Puchart: And I remember this so clearly, her telling me, “Art's still telling stories.” He said, “You know Christie, god punished me. I could never have children, because of you having that abortion.”

    What she certainly did not know was what Art somehow failed to mention: He was actually married and he had three children. And they were all living together, he and his wife and their kids, at his mother-in-law's house, conveniently close to Christie's condo.

    Steve Davis: Apparently this Art Gutierrez had a habit of showing of showing up at her apartment at 2 o'clock in the morning. All kinds of late hours.

    Christie had casually mentioned it to a few friends, but she apparently wasn't annoyed enough to turn him away. And for whatever reason - Christie always let Art in. And on occasion he even spent the night.

    Rhonda Davis: Whatever the relationship was between the two of them was a secret from a lot of people.

    Keith Morrison: Did you even know about it at the time?

    Rhonda Davis: I had no clue.

    Keith Morrison: She had not told you anything?

    Rhonda Davis: No.

    Detectives brought Gutierrez in for questioning and he was cooperative. He even admitted seeing Christie for a while. But they had broken it off two to three months before the murder either.

    As for the night Christie was killed? Art insisted he was nowhere near the condo. And he could prove it.

    Steve Davis: He had been with his wife that evening; that they had, I believe, gone to a party with some people.

    And his wife backed up the story.

    Steve Davis: He was asked to take a polygraph. He did not want to take a polygraph. He refused.

    Gutierrez did, however, submit a saliva sample, which was sent off the lab for testing. And indeed it did match the saliva found on the butts of those cigarettes. This however was in the days before sophisticated DNA testing could be done at labs like this. So all they could determine from the saliva was the same type and millions of people have that type of saliva, so Gutierrez couldn't be identified as they killer, but he couldn't be eliminated as a suspect either.

    It just didn't make sense though. Why would Art kill someone he apparently cared for; a person with whom he wanted to resume a relationship?

    Rhonda Davis: The last time I had seen him, he was a teenager. He was just a teenage kid. That's what I remembered. It was hard for me to think of him as being a killer.

    Gutierrez was not arrested. Why would he?  No real evidence, no motive. No case. The media's fickle attention soon skipped off to embrace some fresher outrage. Overloaded detectives were called to new crime scenes. And the Christie Fleming case, yesterday's news, faded from view. Weeks passed... Months. Years.

    Rhonda Davis: The more time that goes by the more you feel like it's never gonna happen. It's just hopeless and you're gonna just have to live with not knowing

    And it wasn't made any easier when the lead detective retired. He hated leaving without solving the case, especially this case.

    Steve Davis: He told me one day, he said, “I've got this old case, and I'd like for you to be responsible with it, 'cause I'd like to see this case solved.” So that's how I got interested in it, and once I got interested, I was hooked.

    Davis pored over it all: all the obsessive habits, the staged crime scene, the cigarette butts, the secret return of the old boyfriend, Art Gutierrez. The solution seemed tantalizingly possible - yet just out of reach. And then, three years after Christie's death, Davis heard about a disturbing incident involving Gutierrez and his wife.

    Steve Davis: And I guess he got upset with her over something, flew off the handle. He was described as having a really bad temper. Pushed her down on the floor grabbed the pillow put it over her face and tried to smother her with it.

    Davis then re-interviewed Gutierrez. He gave the same story, denying everything. Only his body language was a little more forthcoming.

    Steve Davis: He acted about as squirrely as you can possibly get and by that i mean he was nervous he didn't want to be there. He couldn't wait to get the interview over with. And after talking to Mr. Gutierrez, he stood out like a sore thumb.

    Davis got a warrant to draw a blood sample. DNA testing was possible by then but still not quite precise. And once again, the saliva on two of the cigarette butts in Christie's trash can could have been Gutierrez's.  Could have been...

    Keith Morrison: At that time, it wasn't even as good as a fingerprint?

    Steve Davis: No, it wasn't

    Keith Morrison: Did you arrest him?

    Steve Davis: No.

    And with that the Christie Fleming case went cold again, and would stay that way unless Davis could find something, anything, that would help solve the mystery. For that, it would take eight more years, until a clever plan was hatched to trap the killer.

  • Part 4

    The world was otherwise occupied in the years after Christie Fleming took the secret of her murder to the grave. The Internet arrived, the Clinton years came and went, and 9/11. Hybrid cars arrived. And so did a remarkable breakthrough in that crucial crime solving technology: DNA.

    Mind you, by 2002, 13 years after the murder, nothing much had happened to solve it. And Christie's family was stuck in a long grief-weighted purgatory without answers. 

    Rhonda Davis: You have to tell yourself that god will take care of it, at some point this person will pay for what they did. It's really the only way to be able to accept it.

    Christie and Rhonda's father Bud Fleming took it very hard. Life didn't seem to be worth much to him anymore.

    Rhonda Davis: He was under the care of a psychiatrist for the rest of his life. And never recovered from it.

    Really only one thing kept him alive. Persistently and politely, Bud and Rhonda nudged Detective Davis.

    Steve Davis: Rhonda, I remember, would call me probably twice a year, about every six months and she asked me, “Hey Steve, you know, what's going on with the case? You know, I'm just calling to see if there's anything new.”

    Rhonda Davis: He'd say, “Rhonda, this file is on the corner of my desk.” Years later, “This file is on the corner of my desk. I never forgot about it.”

    Steve Davis: You never lose hope on these things because you just never know when something is gonna happen. Whether it be technology of whether it be a witness coming forward. Whether it be this guy doing something else to, you know hurt his case.

    And sometimes it can be as simple as a chance encounter, a fresh perspective. Or in this case a Deputy District Attorney named John Lewin, who took special pleasure in unlocking the secrets of old and unsolved cases. And there was something quite unusual about this one that caught Lewin's eye which he mentioned to lead detective Steve Davis.

    John Lewin: Steve had kind of been through the ringer in terms of work that he had done in the past and the case not getting to the point of being able to be filed. So I told him right from the start, “Hey listen, I'm very interested. The habit and custom evidence tells me that we can do this.”

    Habit and custom evidence? That, said Lewin, was Christie's obsessive-compulsive personality. What stood out for him, like some accusing finger pointing toward her killer, was Christie's insistence on perfect order, neatness, cleanliness. Which is why, when he saw the report that those cigarette butts had been found right there at the scene of the murder, he might just as well have said, "Eureka!"

    John Lewin: There was no question that the cigarettes were being smoked at or near the time she was killed and that the person whose DNA was on the cigarette butts in the trash can was her killer.

    Why no question they were smoked by her killer?  Because had it been someone else earlier that day - even a few minutes earlier - Christie's compulsion for cleaning would have kicked in; she would have scooped up the butts and put them promptly in the outside garbage can. And one of the cigarettes had been left on the counter to burn down to its filter. Some more ordinary smoker might have left it there; for an hour, or a day, or more. But not Christie Fleming.

    They sent those butts to the Sheriff's Department crime lab, ordered the most sophisticated tests available... and waited. And this time, the result was perfectly clear.

    Steve Davis: It positively identified Art, Art Gutierrez as a suspect.

    Keith Morrison: Without any doubt?

    Steve Davis: Without any doubt.

    John Lewin: And again it comes back to her habit and customs. When Art was talked to originally, he said he hadn't been there for two to three months. Now maybe at my house cigarette butts would be in the trash can for two to three months, but not Christie. Those were there that night.

    But there was still one little problem with this case. The cigarette butts only placed Art Gutierrez at the crime scene. They didn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he actually killed Christie Fleming.

    The DA and the detective needed something else to hang the murder on him. Short of a confession, was there any way to get Gutierrez to incriminate himself without out him knowing about it?

    Oh yes, there was. But it would require an inventive sting operation, female detectives channeling an old TV show, a pen no perp should ever try talking to. And it would happen right in the middle of Mr. Gutierrez's front yard.

  • Part 5

    She was just 25 when she was killed. Now all these years later, when Christie Fleming would have been approaching middle age, her family got astonishing news: the long stalled hunt for her killer was on again.

    Rhonda Davis: I didn't wanna get my hopes up, but I thought, wow this is just incredible.

    But there was still a potentially fatal weakness in the case.  DNA certainly put Art Gutierrez, Christie's former boyfriend, in her condo. And her compulsion for neatness strongly suggested Art's visit occurred just before the murder. But that by itself didn't prove he killed her.

    There was one thing that could help persuade a jury that Gutierrez was indeed the killer. And that was a suspected lie he had repeated to Detective Davis. The last time he saw Christie, he had said, was about two to three months before her murder, and never once after that.

    Trouble was, none of that was on tape; the jury wouldn't be able to hear Gutierrez tell his incriminating lie.

    John Lewin: There's an instruction to that jurors are give that basically says that any unrecorded statement of the defendant, you are to view with caution, you know, that's a hurdle. Perhaps even a jury hanger, especially given the circumstantial nature of this case.

    Getting Gutierrez to talk and locking him into a statement on tape, for a jury to hear was essential.

    Keith Morrison: What would you hope he could say?

    Steve Davis: Well--

    Keith Morrison: He's not gonna admit it.

    Steve Davis: At least if nothing else you know recount his story and you know generally people who lie can't keep their story straight.

    Keith Morrison: So you wanted to get a lie on tape to compare it to other lies?

    Steve Davis: Compare it to the original statement. Correct.

    But how? And who would do it? Loosening up Art Gutierrez after 13 years and getting him to come clean to a veteran cop, hot on his tail - that was almost certainly a non-starter.

    John Lewin: And so the idea that we had was to, let's try to bring in a couple of detectives, let's go with female detectives who are much less threatening, much more disarming.

    And in fact Davis happened to know two women cops who seemed perfect for the job. Savvy, cool, attractive. Both had a knack for helping suspects calm down and getting them to open up: Cheryl Comstock and Diane Harris.

    Det. Diane Harris: By lying from the very beginning-- about where he was, it showed that he had-- a guilty conscience. And-- that's very significant.

    So Harris and Comstock went to work studying the case and learning all about Arturo Gutierrez. Knowing who they were dealing with, would help determine how to handle him.

    John Lewin: When you think of strategies - and that's why I love cold cases - you're only limited by your imagination, your creativity and, ethically, what you're allowed to do. So when you're figuring out, okay, my goal is to have this guy talk to somebody, what's the best way to do it?

    Det. Diane Harris: If you're talking to someone who maybe is not very educated, you talk to them in a specific way. But Arturo Gutierrez was a seemingly normal-- family man with a job. He was an intelligent man. He was a good-looking man. A suspect, who I believe thought of himself as a lady's man.

    And so they hatched a plan, inspired by an old TV show from the 1970s, about two attractive and unconventional female detectives.

    Det. Diane Harris: We decided we were going to be ditzy blond Cagney and Lacey kind of investigators. We were putting ourselves in kind of-- insignificant role. And that's what-- the impression that we wanted to give Arturo. Is that, we were just, you know, doing a routine follow-up. That we were doing this on a bunch of other cases. And this was no big thing.

    Keep it simple, they decided, casual, slightly flirtatious. And very routine. So on a bright Saturday morning in March, Harris and Comstock hit the road, driving to the desert outside Los Angeles where Gutierrez now lived.

    Det. Diane Harris: We had one chance to get this done.  Because once he finds out that he's being focused on in a murder investigation, he's not gonna talk to law enforcement. He's gonna get an attorney and then we've lost our only chance. 

    Harris and her partner, calm as they can muster, walk up the path to Art Guttierez' front door.

    One chance to make it happen.

    Det. Diane Harris: When we get there-- yeah-- our adrenaline is pumping. This is a homicide suspect.

    Her fear: if they don't get this right, the investigation is finished, Art Gutierrez walks, justice for Christie Fleming and her family, out of reach, forever.

  • Part 6

    A tiny tape recorder. A microphone disguised as a pen. A cardboard binder. These were the tools that undercover detectives Diane Harris and Cheryl Comstock would use to capture a crucial interview with Arturo Gutierrez, the prime suspect in the murder of Christie Fleming.

    In the Southern California desert town of Perris, the two detectives rolled up to Gutierrez's house unannounced. Their excuse: They'd tell him they were conducting a few perfunctory interviews before filing away the old case for good. Their plan: to charm him into talking. Catch him in a crucial lie. Get it on tape.

    Det. Diane Harris: Instead of fear, I would say just what I was feeling was excitement and I was a little on edge. But you have to kind of keep all that down, so that it doesn't-- show through your-- the facades you're putting on.

    A surveillance van was nearby for backup. The tiny tape machine rolled.

    Detective: I'm Detective Comstock, this is Detective Harris from the Sheriff's Department.

    Gutierrez: How you doin'?

    Detective: And you like Art or Arturo?

    Gutierrez: It doesn't matter.

    Det. Diane Harris: When we went up to him-- I mean, he seems like a really nice guy. When you talk to him, if you were to just meet him on the street, you wouldn't think, "Oh my god, this guy's a murderer."

    They started, the two undercover cops with some seemingly idle and innocuous conversation; friendly, to put Gutierrez at his ease.

    Detective: Do you... um, are you a smoker?

    Gutierrez: Yes... No not anymore. Cigarettes? No.

    Detective: Oh, you used to be?

    Gutierrez: Yeah.

    Detective: You wised up?

    Gutierrez: Oh yeah. Long time ago.

    Detective: That's good.

    John Lewin: When he was talking to the detectives-- he reminded me of-- of Eddie Haskell from Leave It To Beaver. 

    Gutierrez: God darn, I can't remember when it was. Dang. I was working at a roofing company.

    John Lewin: He was, oh, Good morning Mrs. Cleaver, good morning, Mr. Cleaver.  My, Mrs. Cleaver, you look lovely today.

    Keith Morrison: Yes.

    John Lewin: Is the beaver around?  (laughter)  Very insincere, and appeared to be-- kissing up and-- not being his true self.

    Then a few minutes in, detectives asked the crucial question.

    Detective: And you had given a statement about you had seen her, I think it was several months before, was the last time you saw her, several months before the murder?

    Gutierrez: Yeah, I think it was six to eight months, or somethin' like that. I believe.

    Detective: And that was the last time you'd seen her? And that was prior to her murder?

    Gutierrez: Yeah.

    Six to eight months before the murder. There it was... The bold-faced lie detectives wanted.

    Gutierrez's story, now preserved on tape for a jury to hear, contradicted the quiet and unassailable truth of the crime scene, the DNA: he was at Christie's condo the night she was killed. Just to make sure - they repeated the question... twice.

    Det. Diane Harris: And so we got what we wanted. Let's just see if we could get a little more.

    Detective: Would there be any explanation as to why your DNA would be found in her apartment at the actual morning of the crime scene?

    Gutierrez: Hell, I don't know. No there wouldn't be any reason why. I mean, hell no! If, you're saying that I was there that morning?

    Detective: No, I'm asking you, if...

    Gutierrez: I don't know. I don't really know. But uh yeah, I'm pretty sure there would be a reason. I mean I went there. I slept there in her bed.

    Detective: So that could have been left from several months ago when you were there?

    Gutierrez: Yeah, it could have been.

    Then these pleasant, attractive policewomen said their goodbyes to a man who had no idea what he had just given them.

    Det. Diane Harris: The only reason why he would lie like that is if he had something to do with the murder. When we walked away it was, "Yeah, we got him. This is our guy. There's no question about it."

    And just like that, a dead old case was fully reborn.

    Now the man Steve Davis had been chasing all these years could finally be arrested.

    Steve Davis: You're a free man. You think you got away with it. And then all of a sudden they drop the hammer on ya.

    It was Davis who called Christie's sister Rhonda and her father Bud.

    Rhonda Davis: I just can't even describe to you what a feeling that was for both of us, that, that had happened. In fact, the very day the detective called me and said, "We just picked him up, he's under arrest for murder." Unbelievable.

    But even though Art Gutierrez was sitting in jail, awaiting trial for murder, Davis felt obliged to warn the family that convicting him might not be so easy.

    Steve Davis: Circumstantial case is a very tough case to get a conviction on. I mean, even with the DNA it didn't suggest necessarily that he was the murderer.

    But there was, remember, that one very important factor, the strange little twist that first attracted Deputy DA John Lewin: Christie's compulsively obsessive neatness.

    At trial, Lewin presented a theory of what happened, that Gutierrez came over late that evening. That Christie, as usual, let him in. That they shared a couple of smokes and a beer.

    Then, said Lewin, something happened: an argument, an accusation.

    John Lewin: Christie-- confronted him with the fact that she knew that he was married, or believed that he had lied.

    Which is when, said Lewin, Gutierrez lost his temper.

    John Lewin: I think that Art hit her. He was faced with a choice of what he was gonna do. He, I think, made the conscious decision at that point that, you know what-- i'm gonna kill her. 

    Death by suffocation is not quick, nor is it merciful. The grisly work takes five to seven minutes, the time it takes for a cigarette to burn down. And in each second of those minutes that ticked by - as Christie fought for her life - Gutierrez had the option of simply letting go.

    Steve Davis: And for some period of time, where he made the obvious choice to continue, he could've stopped. And he didn't.  And ultimately she paid the price.

    John Lewin: I don't believe he went over there to kill her. I never did. I never argued to the jury that he did. But there's a point in time where he made the conscious decision, he says, you know what? Here's where I'm at and this is what I have to do, and he carried through with it.

    Keith Morrison: And what does that make it?

    John Lewin: That makes it a first-degree murder.

    And how could the jury know? The DNA put him there that night. The tape recorded lie revealed a guilty conscience. Still, when the jury retired to consider a verdict and the first full day dragged by with no verdict...

    Rhonda Davis: I was scared to death they were gonna say not guilty. Looking at the jurors' faces, I just couldn't tell where they were goin'.

    It took them a day and a half. Arturo Gutierrez was found guilty of murder in the first degree.

    A secret preserved by a cigarette for 14 years finally produced justice. That, and a detective's determined patience.

    Steve Davis: Any time you convict a murderer, that's a good thing. But when you convict somebody that you know has gotten away with it for 14 years, that's a long time. And so to finally see justice served it's a good feeling.

    Bud Fleming did not quite live to see it happen; his early death, made for a gaping absence at the trial.

    Keith Morrison: Did it hasten his death?

    Rhonda Davis: Absolutely. He really (sigh)-- he really aged-- really took its toll physically, mentally. He wasn't a healthy guy. And then, of course, all these years going by, thinking that art got away with this.

    But he did live long enough, said Rhonda, to see his daughter's killer arrested and charged... long enough to know his daughter would not be forgotten.

    John Lewin: Christie really solved her own murder. Without Christie's obsessive-compulsive personality, this case never would have been solved, never.

    It’s not often a case this cold will ever see justice. Then again, it's not too often, either, that the victim herself can finally help crack a difficult case.

Video: Watch full show


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments