RIVERSIDE, Calif. — For Corona police Detective Jeff Edwards, the holiday season brings disturbing memories of Dec. 25, 2005, when a little boy lay dying in a closet after a severe beating.
The boy was 11-year-old Ricky Morales, who died in a duplex on Corona’s Belle Avenue. While investigating that case, Edwards learned Ricky’s brother, 13-year-old Conrad Morales, had been murdered a few months earlier.
Edwards thinks about those boys at this time of year. So do dozens of other law enforcement and court workers, and people who served on juries or were witnesses in the trial of the Raul and Cathy Sarinana, Ricky and Conrad’s aunt and uncle.
Some attended a ceremony last Monday evening in Riverside that featured the unveiling of a wall with the names of more than 1,500 murder victims, among them Ricky and Conrad Morales.
“I always wonder what Ricky would have been doing or Conrad would have been doing had they been alive,” Edwards said.
The Sarinanas were sentenced to death in June for torturing and murdering Ricky. Officials in Washington state, where Conrad was killed, have chosen not to prosecute the couple because they already have received death sentences here.
Raul and Cathy Sarinana lived in Corona only about three months, but they left a deep scar on the community that has yet to heal.
‘Like A Hurricane’
Looking back, it seems everything the Sarinanas touched was left broken or destroyed.
But that wasn’t apparent when the couple arrived in Corona from Lewis County in October 2005. They brought with them their two small children, a U-haul full of belongings and Ricky, the nephew given to their care. They also brought Conrad’s body, encased in concrete in a trash can.
“They came in like a hurricane,” Edwards said. “They just caused so much havoc with all their lies — and then two brutal murders.”
That havoc spread beyond the suffering of Ricky and Conrad’s family to neighbors and community groups who tried to help the family, store clerks and restaurant servers who thought the bruised and emaciated boy might be abused, and dozens of police, attorneys and the residents called to serve on the two juries in the case.
“While Ricky and Conrad were the two main victims, there were other people who were victimized by this,” said Deputy District Attorney John Aki, who prosecuted the case. “I think the reality is these people will never forget.”
For Edwards, a phone call the day after Christmas 2005 from a detective at the Sarinanas’ Belle Avenue home alerted him to just how bad the case would be. The bathroom walls and ceiling were covered with what prosecutors said was spattered blood. An autopsy found bruises and scars, some weeks or months old, covering Ricky’s thin body.
Within a day or two, police interviewed Cathy Sarinana’s father, who told them Conrad had lived with the couple in Washington, but they had reported him missing shortly before moving to Corona.
“At that point I knew Conrad was also dead,” Edwards said. “It was just a matter of finding him.”
Aki had dealt with gang killings and baby deaths, but this was different, he said. Case-hardened law enforcement officers were visibly disturbed by the Corona crime scene. One was “almost in tears,” Aki said.
Two days after Ricky’s death was reported, Edwards, another officer and Aki flew to Washington to find out where Conrad and Ricky had come from. They found an isolated trailer on eight acres in East Lewis County.
The boys’ mother, Rosa Sarinana, sent Conrad to Randle to live with the Sarinanas in 2004. A few months later she sent Ricky, thinking the move would give her sons a better home, away from her problems with drugs and the law.
Aki and the detectives, working with local law enforcement, interviewed the family’s neighbors, friends and Conrad’s classmates.
“We’re interviewing 11-, 12-year-old kids just days after Christmas, which is supposed to be a happy time, and we’re having to tell them their friends were brutally murdered,” Edwards said. “Even the parents broke down and cried for Ricky and Conrad.”
Aki said some of the people in the tightly knit logging town of Randle felt guilty because abuse had been going on before their eyes and they hadn’t recognized it. Neighbors had tried to help the Sarinanas, giving them food, clothing and a van.
“A lot of those people, I think they felt betrayed because they gave from the goodness of their hearts,” Aki said.
Patrick Rossetti, an Orange County defense attorney, represented Cathy Sarinana.
“You kind of try and divorce yourself from it and just do your job,” he said.
What struck him most was the testimony of a neighbor who heard noises coming from the closet in the Sarinanas’ Corona apartment where Ricky slept.
“That night I had a nightmare about a kid in a closet crawling across the walls,” Rossetti said.
Judge Paul E. Zellerbach, who was a prosecutor for 22 years before moving to the bench, said he could tell that his clerk was affected as they prepared for trial. Among the exhibits she had to mark were graphic photos from Ricky’s autopsy and an X-ray of the trashcan that contained Conrad’s remains. The latter image is burned into Zellerbach’s memory, he said.
“You could see the outline of a child in there,” he said. “It has left a lasting impression in my mind, and I’ve been doing this for over 30 years now.”
As the trial began, Aki tried to warn the jurors as best he could. They would have to see autopsy photos of not one, but two murdered children, and then they would have to decide whether the two defendants should spend life in prison or die themselves.
“We told them that it was going to be one of the hardest things they would ever have to do,” Aki said. “I knew in my mind, they’re all going to be changed and they don’t even know it yet.”
A Heavy Burden
Josie Reza, who was on Raul Sarinana’s jury, had to take a deep breath when she saw the pictures. She wanted to cry but she contained herself.
“I didn’t want to show anybody what I was feeling,” the 52-year-old Moreno Valley resident said. “It was very hard. It was as tough as dressing my mother when she passed away.”
The jurors were forbidden to discuss the case anywhere but in the deliberation room, so they carried that weight home each night but couldn’t talk to their families about it.
That stress combined with outside pressures affected Marlys Matzenger, 44. The Riverside resident who served on Raul’s jury said she suffered a flare-up of lupus during the case and hasn’t returned to her job at Starbucks since April because of chronic pain. Juror Lenny Ciccone, 63, an engineer from Eastvale, said he had an attack of Bell’s palsy, which paralyzes facial nerves.
The guilty verdicts in March and sentencing in June brought some measure of relief to everyone, but not much closure.
“When you hear the word ‘guilty,’ I inevitably always turn around and look at my victim’s family,” Aki said. “You could see that the burden was lightened off them and for a moment they experienced justice for their boys. I think the whole courtroom felt that way.”
Many of the jurors were so invested by then that they came to the Sarinanas’ sentencing, even though their responsibility had ended two months earlier when they recommended the death penalty. Matzenger said some have discussed attending appeal hearings.
Jurors, law enforcement and court personnel said they are proud of their work. But some people involved with the case said there are things they wish they had done differently.
Zellerbach remembers when he prosecuted serial killer William Suff in 1995, the judge provided counseling for jurors at the county’s expense.
“I didn’t offer that” to the Sarinana jurors, Zellerbach said. “In hindsight, maybe I should have. I wish I had.”
In Aki’s contribution to the Sarinanas’ probation reports, which are prepared for the judge before sentencing, he pointed out some impacts he had noticed. Both an Inland firefighter and a child protective services worker in Washington sought counseling because of the case, two forensic technicians in the Riverside County sheriff/coroner’s office took stress leave, and a now-retired deputy coroner “indicated that this case was the defining factor in his decision to resign from the coroner’s office,” Aki wrote.
People in at least two communities — here and in Washington — have been forever changed by their connection to the Sarinanas. Some of those changes are reflected at the crime scenes.
On Belle Avenue in Corona, the tan, one-story duplex where the Sarinanas lived sits among homes with modest Christmas decorations — two tinsel-wrapped penguins and a row of light-up candy canes line a walkway next door, and other homes display strings of icicle lights or a wreath on the door.
Across the street, neighbor Elizabeth Diz said she moved in about three months before the police came for Raul Sarinana. She would sometimes see him and Cathy and their small son and daughter, but Ricky was never with them.
Diz has seen Ricky’s relatives come by several times to light a candle and cry together in front of the house. She and other neighbors haven’t forgotten what happened.
“We’re all family people,” she said. “I have three children now and it’s obviously heart-wrenching” to think about.
Just before the trial began this year, Aki and Edwards visited the trailer in Randle again and found it uninhabited. On arriving, Edwards was struck by an eerie feeling. Everything was untouched, exactly the same as it had been in 2005, except for a blanket of snow covering the trailer and surrounding fields.
The other difference was that someone had placed white crosses by the front porch, like the ones people put along roadsides for car crash victims, Edwards said.
Aki noticed that a blackberry bush growing under the trailer had thrown thick, thorny vines up over the porch, covering the doors, holding them shut.
“That’s the only place where these vines were growing,” he said. “It’s as if these vines are prohibiting anybody from going in, and (the bush) just wants to pull this trailer straight down to hell.”
By September, the bushes had grown even farther around the trailer. Matzenger saw them when, on a trip to visit relatives, she drove through Randle to see the Sarinanas’ home and Conrad’s school.
“I know it’s probably strange,” she said, but “I have to. In order for me to deal with it I have to see what those little boys saw.”
Remembering The Boys
In small but important ways, the community’s involvement in seeking justice for Ricky and Conrad has helped spread memories of the boys to people they never knew.
Reza realized her daughter shares a birthday — month, day and year — with Conrad.
“When her prom came up I thought, ‘God, he would be going to his prom today,’” she said. “He’d probably be picking out a tux. Those are things you don’t forget.”
She feels like she got to know the boys personally through what she learned at the trial — how Ricky was the family clown, making everyone laugh, and Conrad was a devoted brother who looked out for Ricky.
“I think, to me, Ricky was such a survivor. He survived right up until Christmas,” Reza said. “I think if he’d have been able to go home, he’d have been a tough little kid.”
That tough, funny little kid and his loving brother are especially on the minds of people connected with the case at this time of year.
“I guess there is such a thing as Christmas spirit,” Ciccone said. “I don’t have any this year. I just can’t get into it, and I’m sure (the case) had something to do with it.”