Damp, salty ocean air is hell on everything. Especially evidence. If we hadn’t lucked out and found the car so fast, we’d never have had a shot at getting DNA results out of that little drop of blood on the passenger seat of the SUV. But a young surfer looking for a new break near Point Mugu had spotted the vehicle and decided to call the police; the sight of the abandoned car had given him a “bad feeling.” I found out what he meant when I went out to the scene. And I got that same bad feeling every time I looked at the photograph that’d been taken that night—something I’d done often and was in fact doing right now.
The white SUV glowed in the moonlight, a ghostly beacon on an outcropping above a rocky stretch of beach north of Point Mugu. The “soccer mom” vehicle wouldn’t have merited a second look had it been in the parking lot of any shopping mall in the San Fernando Valley. But there, in the limitless darkness of a remote overlook on the Pacific Coast Highway, it was an ominous misfit. A car like that did not wind up in a place like this. Not overnight. And not in the dead of winter.
I couldn’t help being transfixed by the sight of that Ford Explorer, iridescent and isolated, in the endless black maw of ocean and night sky. Chilling, eerie, the photo emanated a sense of menace, a prelude to a violent demise.
At least I hoped it did. I planned to use that photograph—now enlarged to poster size—in my opening statement. I figured it would help me hit the ground running with the jury. Get their minds in the right place. I’m Rachel Knight, and I’m a deputy district attorney assigned to the Special Trials Unit—a small group of prosecutors that handles the most high-profile, complex cases in Los Angeles. Unlike most deputies, we get our cases the day the body is found and work alongside the detectives throughout the investigation. And the detective I’ve been working with almost exclusively for the past few years, who also happens to be my best friend, is Bailey Keller, one of the few women to gain entrée into the elite Robbery-Homicide Division of the LAPD.
The white SUV had belonged to Melissa Gibbons-Hildegarde, the only daughter born to Bennie and Nancy Gibbons, who combined old family money (hers) and a real estate empire (his) to wind up one of the most wealthy, influential couples in Los Angeles. Which, of course, meant that Melissa stood to inherit a very sizable fortune upon their demise. They may as well have painted a bull’s-eye on her back. The arrow that found that target came in the form of Saul Hildegarde, a charismatic community activist whose passion for welfare reform inspired Melissa to abandon her jet-set lifestyle and devote herself to higher pursuits. Unfortunately, it was only after they’d married that Melissa realized the welfare Saul was most passionate about was his own. But while Saul discovered a taste for the easy life of tennis, clubs, and parties, Melissa discovered a burning desire to help the impoverished, and so she dedicated herself to the support and founding of charities around the world. Especially those devoted to the welfare of children. And it wasn’t enough for her to just send money. Melissa took the hands-on approach and accompanied her checkbook around the world, helping to build huts in Somalia and set up clinics in Nigeria. She’d even spoken of adopting some of the children she’d helped during her travels. Her friends were uniformly stunned at Melissa’s transformation. It seemed as though she’d gone from party girl to Mother Teresa virtually overnight. But Melissa didn’t see much of her friends anymore; her charity work kept her plenty busy—likely too busy to ask for a divorce. Right up until the day she’d come home early from a trip to Botswana to find Saul in flagrante with a young coed who’d apparently volunteered to work on a more personal style of welfare reform. Melissa had announced her intention to get a divorce that same night.
Three weeks later, Saul reported her missing. And when her SUV had been found abandoned on a lonely stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, the contents of her purse strewn across the passenger seat and the glove compartment rifled, it was initially believed that Melissa had been the victim of a robbery-murder, and that her body had been dumped in the ocean.