The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Police/Courts

October 29, 2013

Trooper gives God credit for help in solving cold-case murder

Her body was discovered on Sept. 26, 2002, at Greenbrier State Forest.

A man had taken an early morning walk on that gray autumn day and paused, alone, at “a wide spot in the road.”

When he looked over a hillside, he glimpsed the bottoms of her feet.

Her body offered initial responders no clues to her identity, not even to her race or ethnicity. Barely 100 pounds, she was dark-haired with olive skin. She appeared to be Asian or Hispanic, possibly one of the many Mexican migrant workers who were building a new golf course at The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs.

She was fully dressed, wearing shorts and a summer top.

Investigator Lt. Vince Deeds of the West Virginia State Police Lewisburg Detachment (now at the Beckley detachment) still remembers the day the woman’s body appeared, it would seem, out of nowhere.

Whoever had placed her at the park hadn’t taken any undue time, leaving her body to the elements.

“She hadn’t been buried, at all,” recalled Deeds. “She was just tossed out.”

For a decade, she would be listed in West Viriginia as a “Jane Doe,” a mysterious victim of an unknown murderer who was possibly still free.

Deeds, an officer who thrives on solving “cold cases,” would work long hours with Sgt. Drew Pendleton of the Lewisburg detachment to determine the woman’s name and bring her killer to justice.

Their first breakthrough would come in 2011, with the report of a Virginia girl who thought her mother had abandoned her.

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Deeds, now the commander of the Beckley detachment, sometimes drives his wife crazy by talking about cold cases — unsolved murders that languish in police files like heartbreaking puzzles with missing pieces.

“These types of cases are frustrating, and you think you’re not going to get any headway on it ’til it comes through, and then what you’re talking about, really, is beyond words,” said Deeds. “It’s the feeling that you’re being used for something special.”

Immediately after finding Jane Doe’s body in 2002, Deeds enlisted the help of the only Hispanic officer in the Lewisburg detachment. Together, the two men canvassed the transient community of Mexican workers in the area, hoping to find a killer or someone who had been too distrustful of the local police to file a missing persons report.

Nobody knew her.

Weeks passed, then months. Still, nobody came forward to report a missing daughter, girlfriend or sister.

Deeds didn’t give up on identifying the body. He sent DNA samples to police agencies around the region to compare Jane Doe’s DNA to that of missing women in other states.

He and Pendleton kept up-to-date on new missing persons cases that could fit Jane Doe’s profile.

And their reward was: Nothing.

After two years, he got state officials to send her dental records to the Smithsonian museum and research center in Washington, and a researcher there identified her race.

“He said she was probably Asian,” reported Deeds.

For several frustrating years, that’s all West Virginia investigators would know about Jane Doe, but they kept hope alive.

They entered her DNA records into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and waited.

“We knew that something would eventually happen that would break everything loose,” said Deeds. “And that’s what happened.”

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Deeds, who is also a Christian pastor, said he sees God at work in the legal system constantly.

“We try to figure out why bad things happen,” said Deeds. “Well, bad things happen because, literally, there’s evil in this world.

“But God works through the policeman, the paramedics, the people who do the crime scene, the county coroners, and me.”

In Waynesboro, Va., a two-hour drive east of Lewisburg, an elementary school girl attended an abuse seminar called “Hugs and Kisses” at her local school in March 2011.

After the seminar, she told a teacher she was being abused at home.

Waynesboro Police Department Cpl. Alyssa Campbell showed up at the home of 52-year-old Thomas Tait, a Waynseboro man, to investigate the report.

She noticed “reams of computers” in Tait’s house. Suspicious, police obtained a search warrant and discovered more than 80,000 images of child pornography.

“He built computers,” said Sgt. R.B. Luzader, Campbell’s commanding officer. “Some of these images of child pornography were with infants.”

Campbell noticed Tait appeared nervous when she brought up the girl’s mother, said Luzader.

Tait told police that the girl’s mother was from Legazpi City in the Philippines, but he couldn’t give a solid answer about when she’d left or where she was staying.

The girl, around age 11, told investigators that she thought her mom was living in the Philippines, but she wasn’t sure, according to Deeds.

She was taken out of Tait’s home and placed in a safe environment, said Luzader.

“Campbell continued trying to contact the mother, went to great lengths,” he said, adding that state and federal authorities eventually got involved in the search.

Campbell was able to gain DNA profiles from the mother’s family in the Philippines, with help from Interpol and the FBI. She immediately entered the DNA into the national Combined DNA Index System, along with the name of the missing woman.

In Lewisburg, Deeds and Pendleton were ecstatic when CODIS registered a “hit” on their “Jane Doe.”

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Her name was Karen Santillan Tait, age 23.

She’d grown up in an extremely poor village outside of Legazpi City in the Philippines and had never traveled far from the area when she’d met Tait in Legazpi City in 1997. She was then 19.

“Tait would raise up enough money to go to the Philippines for six months, then come back, back and forth,” reported Deeds, adding that there is a thriving sex trade in the parts of the country Tait visited.

“He brought Karen back with him (in 2000), and she was pregnant,” Deeds said. “She thought that she had met her American dream and married him and came back as a U.S. citizen.”

He said Tait was a “control freak” and that while he took Santillan to state parks in the area, he never allowed her to go to more public places.

Investigators believe Tait killed Santillan because he had wanted a child to sexually abuse.

When agents were finally able to reach Santillan’s parents to get DNA swabs, family members said they’d thought, for nearly 11 years, that Santillan was living happily in the United States.

They were devastated to learn that she had been killed, according to reports by the local Waynesboro NBC affiliate.

Tait was arrested on child pornography charges in Virginia in July 2012. Then Deeds had him transferred to West Virginia to face murder charges.

Investigators in both states said Tait hated his time in Southern Regional Jail and did not want to serve a sentence for his wife’s murder in the West Virginia penal system.

Tait pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was transferred back to Virginia to face charges on the child pornography charges.

At his sentencing, Deeds said, the judge remarked that images from Tait’s computers were the most “disturbing” he’d seen in 35 years on the bench, sentencing Tait to what amounted to a life sentence.

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Neighbors rarely saw Santillan, but a few remembered her as a “timid” but friendly woman, according to reports by the Waynesboro media.

Earlier this month, the Waynesboro and Greenbrier communities raised $6,000 to send her body to her family for proper burial.

Deeds said that “Karen’s little girl” is now in a safe environment, and the family has answers.

“This is where you feel like you change people’s lives,” he said. “Nobody could stand up for Karen or her little girl until Waynesboro PD got involved, then our agency and both prosecutor’s offices.

“You just can’t line all this stuff up,” said Deeds. “We truly can’t, without having God involved in it.”

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Pacita Salon, a local piano teacher and a member of the Beckley Filipino community, said she was sorry to learn of Santillan’s death.

Many of the Filipina women who marry Americans come to the country with plans of working and sending money home to their families, she said.

“If Filipinas get married here, we give them statements to say that domestic violence is against the law,” she added.

She said many established members of the local Filipino community reach out to Filipinas through an annual Christmas party at Tamarack, through Couples for Christ at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, and through friendly community connections.

Salon urged any Filipinas who are facing domestic abuse or feeling isolated to reach out to her at 304-763-4444, to Rose Romero of the Raleigh County Medical Society at 304-255-6341, to St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church at 304-253-3695 or to the Women’s Resource Center at 304-255-4066.

— E-mail: jfarrish@register-herald.com

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