The King County Medical Examiner’s Office recently identified the remains of homicide victim Celia Victor, whose body was found in 1989 off Airport Way South. But who killed her?
The last time Donna Vasquez, of Sacramento, Calif., heard from her sister, it was a birth announcement for a new niece mailed, she believes, from Portland, more than a quarter-century ago.
After that, there was nothing.
Celia Victor, her little sister, had been a wild child, often in trouble with the law and a “handful” for anybody to deal with, Vasquez said. She had run away as a teenager from a foster home after being abandoned by her parents, and turned to drugs, prostitution and theft. By 1989, she had disappeared.
Vasquez was convinced something awful had happened to her, but there was no news, good or bad, and the years piled up.
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Then, in December, she saw Victor’s picture on the TV news.
The reporter explained that the police and FBI were trying to identify a homicide victim from the Seattle area, known only by a series of aliases and an FBI identification number used to track offenders through fingerprints.
She was known as Brenda O’Neil, or Brenda Victor, or Rita Lang, and she had been arrested and fingerprinted in Sacramento, Portland and Seattle, which is where her body had been found in 1989.
Vasquez and another sibling, Arlene Seuell, called the TV station to positively identify the photograph as Victor. DNA samples recently confirmed the identity of the 26-year-old.
“It’s a relief in some ways,” Vasquez said Thursday. “But then it’s terrible. She was displaced and basically was given away at birth. I hate to think about what happened.”
Simply identifying Victor is a detective story worthy of a miniseries. But the reality is that learning her identity after all these years just opens a new chapter for detectives, who now have turned their attention to who might have killed her.
According to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office and sheriff’s detectives handling the case, Victor’s skeletal remains were found by a construction crew behind the old Honolulu Freight shipping warehouse on Airport Way South on Oct. 3, 1989.
An autopsy determined she had died from a shotgun blast to the chest.
She was believed to be an African American or mixed race, and was petite — 5-foot-3 and about 110 pounds.
At the time, DNA matching was in its infancy and the medical examiner’s office turned to an anthropologist to reconstruct the woman’s face from the skull found at the scene.
That reconstruction led to the first break: Sheriff’s cold-case and missing persons Detective Tom Jensen learned of a woman named “Rita Lang” who had similar features. While the name was an alias, investigators were able to use the FBI fingerprint coding number to match her to arrests in Sacramento and Portland.
They also learned Lang had failed to appear at a Seattle court hearing In November 1988, even though she had appeared at every other court date.
“That was the red flag,” Vasquez, her sister, said.
The medical examiner’s office was able to superimpose booking photos of Lang over Victor’s skull, further strengthening the identification.
Her arrest in Sacramento, and other information tying her to Northern California, led to the TV news story.
Vasquez believes “in my heart of hearts” that Victor was a victim of Gary L. Ridgway, the notorious Green River killer, who preyed on prostitutes in that area. Ridgway confessed to 49 murders and is serving life in prison. He was not charged with Victor’s death.
Most of Ridgway’s victims were strangled.
“She was a fighter,” Vasquez said. “She would never have let herself be taken that way.”
Scott Tompkins, a King County sheriff’s missing-persons and cold-case detective, says it’s unlikely Ridgway was the killer. “We do not suspect him in this case,” he said.