January 8, 2010
How did an elderly Richmond woman wind up dead, in a burning car in suburban Lafayette?
I'll say it sounds suspicious, as well as terribly sad. Sugihara, who survived a Japanese interment camp, according to KTVU news, leaves behind a family who is devastated. The killing is also disturbing, in part because of its geographic associations to another notorious Lafayette tragedy.
At about 6 p.m. December 4, the 86-year-old woman's burning 1990 Lexus was found 15 miles from where she lives in Richmond. The car was still ablaze when authorities found it, and it was on the edge of an embankment off Hunsaker Canyon Road, a remote, private road that leads out of Lafayette's Burton Valley.
Off-the-beaten-track Hunsaker Canyon Road made national news back in October 2005. That's when Pamela Vitale, the wife of well-known defense attorney and aspiring cable TV news legal analyst Daniel Horowitz, was found savagely beaten to death in her Hunsaker Canyon Road home. The Horowitz/Vitale home--a mobile home at the time while their nearby Mediterranean mansion was being completed--is all the way at the top of Hunsaker Canyon Road.
Sugihara's car, by the address listed in police reports, was found much further down the road and much closer to the road's entrance at the edge of the Burton Valley neighborhood.
For several hours before her car was found, Sugihara was at Hilltop Mall in Richmond, getting her hair done. Sugihara's hairdresser said she arrived at the mall for a hair appointment at the JC Penney hair salon and left at 3:30 p.m. Police said surveillance video from the mall parking lot shows here getting into her car about 45 minutes later.
Investigators don't know what happened after she left the mall. Unfortunately, her body was so badly burned in the fire that investigators haven't been able to determine the cause of her death, Sheriff's spokesman Jimmy Lee has told news reporters.
Besides Sugihara being found so far from home, the thing that really puzzles me, and perhaps investigators, is this thing about Hunsaker Canyon Road. Why here?
If you were her killer, if she was murdered, why choose Hunsaker Canyon as the place to leave her body?
It is a winding road that leads out of one of our suburban towns into the country and up into the hills. We have roads like that all over Contra Costa County. And, sure, once in a while, those roads, or sites just off them, are used as body dumping grounds for people who kidnap and kill others.
But from what I recall, killers who use this remote-road body disposal method, use roads that aren't so--well--remote as Hunsaker Canyon. They use roads that lead directly out of a town, roads like Alhambra Valley or Bear Valley or San Pablo Dam. These even lead you from one town on one side of the county to another.
Or they might use a dead-end road that is still just a left or right turn off a major thoroughfare, such as Bollinger Canyon Road, which, on on the south end, is accessible from San Ramon's Crow Canyon Road, and on the north end, off Lafayette's St. Mary's Road.
But Hunsaker Canyon Road. First, it's a dead end, leading to nowhere, except for an eclectic collection of homes set among many acres. Oh, there is a resort used for parties and weddings, but that's the only so-called destination. Hunsaker Canyon Road isn't even known as having a trailhead into any East Bay Regional parklands.
Second, you wouldn't find it easily by driving around looking for a place to dump a body. You need to wind around a lot of suburban side streets in Burton Valley. You probably wouldn't know Hunsaker Canyon Road was there unless you lived in Burton Valley or Lafayette, or you knew someone who lived on it. I didn't know Hunsaker Canyon Road existed until the Vitale killing.
What I'm saying is that whoever drove Sugihara to Hunsaker Canyon Road, even if it was somehow Sugihara herself, probably needed to know that Hunsaker Canyon Road existed, or that this portion of Lafayette offered this way-off-the-beaten-track place to leave a body, in order, it seems, to avoid or delay detection of a crime.
Investigators are asking anyone with information about Sugihara on that day to contact them at (925) 313-2632.