BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer ran for office making reducing violent crimes and solving the county's coldest and oldest her top priority. In just under a year her office has secured two major victories in the fight to win cold cases.
It was a case that sat on the shelf for decades before new technology helped lead to a break in the murder of 18-year-old Dawn Koons who was found strangled in her bathroom in 1979. Koon's murder is Kern County's oldest cold case on record. New technology in DNA linked Prentice Foreman to her death almost 40 years later. On June 5th, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for first degree murder.
Another case no longer cold was the 2001 murder of 37-year-old Maria Cruz Pina, who worked at a McDonald's restaurant in Rosamond. On March 13, Zimmer's office announced a significant conviction in her cold case.
A Kern County jury found both Cedric Sutton and Darnell Wheat guilty of all charges in connection to the murder. They were found guilty of First Degree Murder with special circumstances, attempted murder and kidnapping to commit robbery.
The case dates back to August 11, when Maria and a female coworker arrived at work to open the restaurant at around 5 a.m. When they unlocked the door to the restaurant, they were assaulted by Sutton and Wheat.
Officials say that after being forced into the McDonalds, both men brandished firearms and ordered Maria to shut off the alarm and open the safe. When she was unable to open the safe, they shot her in the head, killing her instantly.
Both Sutton and Wheat left the office of the business, pointed a handgun at the surviving coworker and attempted to kill her, but the handgun malfunctioned. That's when the suspects fled the business.
The Kern County Sheriff's Department investigated the murder and on the day of the homicide, citizen volunteers from Kern County Search and Rescue found articles of clothing discarded by the killers on the freeway along their escape route.
However, this did not spur any leads.
The DA reported that in 2012, a citizen called Secret Witness and implicated Sutton and Wheat in the murder. After submitting the clothing found in 2001 to the Kern Regional Crime Lab, they were able to locate DNA profiles of Sutton and Wheat on the clothing.
Upon further investigation, officials found that the murder weapons used had been seized by the Las Vegas Police Department just nine days after the murder and had been kept by police in Nevada for over 16 years.
District Attorney Zimmer stated:
“The successful prosecution of a cold case murder is an important reminder that we must never stop working to seek justice for those affected by violent crimes. We remain committed to using new technology to shed new light on murder cases and bringing killers to justice.”
According to Zimmer, 50% of homicides in the last few years have gone unsolved. Now the Bakersfield Police department have set up a cold case unit for investigators to work exclusively on old cases. Zimmer says in the last nine months since she was sworn into office, BPD has been surveying the number of cases within city limits. Zimmer says from 1933 to 2006 they have identified well over 300 cases.
Zimmer has also increased the number of prosecutors in the homicide unit from five to twelve members. She's also focusing on securing more funding for the secret witness hotline. Zimmer says most crimes are solved by witnesses coming forward with information.
If you have information on homicide cases, call the Secret Witness Hotline at 661-322-4040.