Photo by Gustavo Castillo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Gustavo Castillo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Police on Wednesday arrested a man on suspicion of killing his mother-in-law 16 years ago and dumping her body in Laguna Beach.

John Edward Gutierrez, 46, of Aliso Viejo, was handcuffed by Laguna Beach police at 7 a.m. as he was en route to an Aliso Viejo gym for a morning workout, Laguna Beach police Capt. Jason Kravetz said.

Gutierrez, who was charged Tuesday with murder, was being held in lieu of $1 million bail pending arraignment, which is tentatively scheduled for Thursday.

Gutierrez was a suspect from the start in the killing of 55-year-old Lillian DeVilla, whose body was found the afternoon of Feb. 4, 1998, by public works employees repairing a fence at 20286 Laguna Canyon Road, Kravetz said. The victim was discovered under a large bush, with a plastic bag tied around her head, he said.

But Gutierrez was not charged at the time because investigators thought the victim was killed within 12 to 24 hours of her body being found and the suspect had an alibi, Kravetz said.

At the time, Gutierrez was enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was stationed at the El Toro Marine base, Kravetz said.

Gutierrez and his wife, Aileen, reported her mother missing on Jan. 30, 1998, Kravetz said.

“She was last seen January 29th. She leaves work at Carlsbad and comes back up to Orange County,” where she lived with her daughter and son-in-law in Aliso Viejo, Kravetz said.

DeVilla’s car was parked outside their apartment and her purse and keys were left behind in the residence, Kravetz said.

“She’s an adult, so they don’t report her missing until the next day, which is not unusual,” Kravetz said.

A key break in the case came when an investigator with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office suggested a reconsideration of the time of death based on weather conditions, Kravetz said.

“I was there the day the body was found. It was pouring rain and it was really cold,” Kravetz said. “We were going through a cold spell and the difference in temperature there as opposed to Main Beach is dramatic. It can be 20 degrees. So it was raining, she was under cover and she had a bag over her head, so nothing could get in there like animals.”

The cold temperatures and the coverings likely slowed the decomposition, fooling the coroner about the time of death, Kravetz said.

Gutierrez had alibis for the 24 hours from the time his mother-in-law’s body was found, Kravetz said, “so we kept working leads and we interviewed him multiple times. At one point, we even sent investigators to Hawaii to talk to him.”

Five years ago, Laguna Beach investigators took their evidence to Orange County prosecutors, “and it was one of their investigators who helped us take a fresh look at this,” Kravetz said.

Interviews with several newly located witnesses, who were not questioned in 1998, also helped strengthen the case, Kravetz said.

Investigators suspect DeVilla was knocked out and suffocated in her home on Jan. 29, 1998, and her body dumped hours later about five miles away, said Kravetz, who declined to comment on the motive.

According to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, the defendant and victim got into a “physical altercation” the night DeVilla was killed. She suffered “blunt force trauma to the head,” prosecutors said.

Gutierrez is accused of tying a plastic bag around the victim’s head after the blow to the head, dragging her out of the condo where they lived and dumping the body in Laguna Beach.

City News Service

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