Mark McDermott

Police break Cori Desmond case

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Tony Lopez Perez

San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department photo of murder suspect Tony Lopez Perez as seen during a press conference in San Bernardino October 9, 2009.

A suspect in the killing of Cori Desmond has been found.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coroner’s Department last Thursday arrested Tony Lopez Perez, a 35-year-old Redondo Beach resident. Perez has been charged with murdering Desmond, a 28-year-old Torrance resident who was last seen in the early morning hours of Feb. 15 outside Bogeys Bar and Grill on Artesia Blvd. in Redondo Beach. Her body was found stuffed in a plastic bag on a Highway 330 outside Running Springs on Feb. 16.

Sheriff detectives believe Perez did not know Desmond and that his motive was “sexual in nature.” Perez lived two blocks from the Bac Street, on Carnegie Avenue.

“It could have happened to anybody,” said Cindy Beavers, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. “We know that, because we know this was random. He didn’t know her. He didn’t have a disagreement with her. It was completely random.”

Perez, a manager and executive chef at the Spitfire Grill in Santa Monica, lived two blocks from Bogey’s, on Carnegie Lane.

Mark Desmond, Cori’s father, praised detectives for their doggedness in pursuing this case for eight months.

“They pushed a lot of things aside for Cori,” he said. “The reason being I really don’t know. Cori was nobody famous or anything like that, but she was famous down here. Everybody knew her.”

Desmond was a popular bartender at Beaches in Manhattan Beach, and her death resonated throughout the South Bay. According to police reports, she had worked that night at Beaches, and gone to meet friends at the Bac Street Lounge afterward. She apparently walked eight blocks to Bogey’s but arrived after closing time. According to police, she knocked on the door and asked to use the restroom but was unable to go inside. She was last seen at 2:34 a.m. on Artesia Boulevard.

Desmond’s body was discovered on the afternoon of Feb. 16 when a driver pulled in to a turnout and saw a foot protruding from a plastic bag. A team of five San Bernardino detectives took the case and at one point set up a mobile command outside the Redondo Beach Police Department detective bureau. The case attracted widespread media attention, and Desmond’s family and friends helped keep crucial public involvement alive – 50 “We Tip” billboards were donated throughout the L.A. area, and the family raised money for three billboards in the South Bay asking for the public’s help in solving the case.

But as the months wore on, the chances of finding Desmond’s killer appeared to grow narrower. Detectives had few leads until finally in August an anonymous caller gave very specific information – Perez’s name – and then made a second call in which he gave the tip that ultimately led to his arrest. Perez, the caller said, had cleaned and scrubbed his Dodge Durango truck shortly after the murder occurred and then sold the vehicle.

“And so detectives took the information and found the dealership, located the new owner of the vehicle, and got a search warrant for the vehicle and brought it back to San Bernardino to our science investigative division, where the vehicle was processed for evidence,” Beavers said. “And that takes time.”

Tests recently came back that showed Desmond had been in Perez’s truck. Specific information on what was found in the truck has not yet been made public.

“There was evidence that Cori Desmond had been in the vehicle,” Beavers said. “It definitely linked the owner of that vehicle to her death.”

Detectives contacted Perez last Thursday at his home, and he agreed to come to sheriff’s headquarters that afternoon for an interview. He was arrested that night. On Tuesday, at his arraignment, Perez pleaded not guilty. His next court date is Oct. 22.

Redondo Beach Police Chief Joe Leonardi praised the Sheriff’s Department for their commitment to finding Desmond’s murderer. He said that the RBPD had offered to take the case at its outset because of concern that San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies would have difficulty devoting resources to an investigation largely outside their jurisdiction. But the sheriff, he said, never wavered.

“We are very appreciative of the work they gave,” RBPD Chief Joe Leonardi said. “Most murders you have to solve in the first 72 hours. The fact that they were able to solve this over this lengthy period – it is only done by the tenacity of their investigation. Dedicating resources after a prolonged period is always hard to do, no matter what size your department is or who you are. … That they were able to solve this case is a tribute both to the public and the investigators from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department.”

The investigative team – detectives Trevis Newport, Robert Warrick, Jason Radeleff, John Gaffney and Sgt. Tony De Cecio – kept a photo of Desmond posted on a wall in their office. According to Beavers, a note was written underneath the photo. “Solve it!” the note read.

“They all took it personally,” Mark Desmond said.

Said Beavers: “They had little information to go on at the beginning of the case, during the most important time of the investigation. I am sure there were days where they wondered if they were ever going to solve the case. … So to make an arrest, there is nothing better than that. They can go home at night and know there is one less dangerous person on the street.”

Part of what kept the case alive was Desmond herself. Her father said he is astonished at how many people his daughter affected. He said he still gets calls and e-mails every day – nobody who knew Desmond could forget her.

“She was the kind of person, when she walked into a room, she just lit it up,” her father said.
One letter he recently received was from a young man, Alexander Alo, who saw Cori the day before her death. He was an emcee and DJ at a bartending competition Cori was competing in and was utterly struck by her presence.

“In the first 10 seconds of her competing she dropped and broke a glass,” he wrote. “She laughed it off and smiled and that smile had the audience and judges laughing and smiling along with her. That smile and laugh of hers overwhelmed the crowd that it didn’t even notice the broken glass.”
A coworker at Beaches, Colin Corrough, wrote about the laughter and happiness that seemed to surround her.

“Cori was the acknowledged Sun in our little solar system around which the rest of us revolved and gravitated,” he wrote. “And we all adored her for who she was.”

Her laughter is an abiding memory for those that knew her.

“Her laugh was so distinct you’d know it anywhere when you heard it,” said Leslie Schwabe, a lifelong family friend. “She just had this incredible bubbly laugh.”

It is still difficult for her family and friends to reconcile how somebody so full of life could have met such an end. Schwabe said that she still visits Cori’s grave at Green Hills cemetery a couple of times each week. She went last Saturday after learning of Perez’s arrest.

“I feel a lot better about it, but it’s with me – I don’t know what it is, I haven’t been able to get past this,” she said. “I went to tell her they had found him. But it will just never make things right.”

“I mean, I think it’s just a matter of closure,” she added. “It’s not going to bring her back, but I just hope they found the right guy.”

Mark Desmond said the main satisfaction he feels from Perez’s arrest is in knowing that it might prevent somebody else from losing a daughter or a wife or a friend.

“It’s kind of hard to say,” he said. “You can only protect them so much. Maybe self-defense classes or something like that. …You talk to anyone that knew her, and she was not one to mess with. She was beautiful, but tough – I mean, I wouldn’t want to mess with her, oh God, a guy’s worst nightmare. But then again the other side of it is she was such a joy to be around.”

In a video of Desmond that was filmed when she was a student at California State University in Long Beach – where she studied criminal justice – she said as much.

“I am not a girly girl,” Desmond said, beaming into the camera, her large brown eyes full of mischief. “I am a party girl. For the most part, I am here to have fun. But if a girl is rude to me, I am going to have to put her in her place.”

If police are correct, on the night of Feb. 15, Desmond encountered a man against whom she was not able to defend herself. Beavers said that what happened that night resonates in part because so many women are vulnerable in similar circumstances each and every night.

“It was one of those cases where you have this young woman who wasn’t doing anything wrong, and she just disappeared,” Beavers said. “And I think when people saw her picture, you know, it just became a little more personal for people, mostly because of her age and the fact that everyone liked her. She had friends.”


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