Courtesy of Dan Laidman, Monterey Herald


A buried gun helps authorities solve the 15-year-old homicide of a Seaside man


Herald Staff Writer

On a February morning two years ago, a squad of amateur treasure hunters armed with metal detectors fanned out to probe a swatch of rustic land outside Salinas.

With Monterey County sheriff's detectives looking on, the group searched for more than an hour until, just before lunchtime, someone got a hit. Detective Fred De Lasantos kneeled, dug out a few inches of dirt, and unearthed a military-style ammunition box.

The fingerprints inside solved the murder of Raymond Demel, a father of three from Seaside found shot to death by the side of a road 15 years earlier.

Norman Price Baird Jr., a 45-year-old construction worker from Salinas, pleaded no contest to the crime two weeks ago. He is scheduled to be sentenced for second-degree murder on April 28, most likely to a term of 15 years to life.

For Demel's wife and daughters, the news of Baird's plea was a long-awaited relief, though the pain endures.

"We're obviously all thrilled that we don't have to face a trial," said daughter Yountina Ambis, 34, who lives in Nevada. However, she was looking forward to having "the opportunity to see the person who changed our family's life."

For the sheriff's investigators who solved the crime, it closed the book on one of more than 130 unsolved murders in a county database that dates to 1959. Homicide detectives check up on these "cold cases" often, but the results are rarely as satisfying.

"There are so many of these that we revisit that just don't go anywhere," said Sgt. Doug Dahmen, head of the homicide division. "This is encouraging for all of us."

The murder of Raymond Demel was solved through a combination of new technology and old-fashioned footwork. And perhaps the most important breakthrough was something only time could provide: the collapse in the friendship between Baird and a key witness.

Roadside nightmare|

Raymond Demel was an Army veteran who worked as a correctional officer at the Correctional Training Facility-Soledad. He and his wife, Rita, had two daughters and a son, Raymond Jr., who killed himself in 1986.

Grief over the suicide haunted the family into the next year. For Rita Demel and her two teenage daughters, though, the pain was about to get even worse.

The night of March 8, 1987, Raymond and Rita Demel were driving on Blanco Road, heading back home to Seaside. According to court papers, they had been drinking and Raymond Demel pulled off to a clearing near the Salinas River Bridge to take a nap.

After a while, Rita Demel got concerned about her husband and she tried to flag down passing traffic. A young man driving a white pickup pulled over.

At the same time, the Demels' van apparently moved, touching the pickup. The minor collision enraged the truck driver. He fired a shot at the van, according to court papers.

The bullet struck Raymond Demel in the chest.

Detectives investigating the killing found a man's address book at the scene. The owner of the book, Norman Price Baird Jr., became the prime suspect, but investigators were stymied by lack of any other evidence connecting him to the scene.

The case went unsolved, and the years dragged on.

Cold case school|

Demel's widow and children moved away from Seaside and on with their lives. Different family members coped in different ways, Ambis said, and some tried to forget about the murder.

Ambis, the daughter, called the Monterey County Sheriff's Office about twice a year. She rarely got any news, but the calls kept the case on investigators' radar.

The family's interest, combined with the memories of detectives who worked the murder in 1987 and later became supervisors, caused the Sheriff's Office to prioritize the case in 2000.

When newly appointed robbery/homicide detective Fred DeLasantos attended a state seminar that year on solving cold cases, he took the Demel file with him.

DeLasantos traveled to Nevada to re-interview family members. He talked to numerous people and revisited old leads.

There had been a rumor in 1987 that Baird had left the murder weapon with a man named Ronald Hughes. He would not confirm it to investigators at the time, but when DeLasantos spoke to him in 2002, things had changed.

Hughes "now had a family and children and this had been eating away at him over the years," DeLasantos said.

Furthermore, his friendship with Baird had broken down.

"Norm had done a lot of things to Ronald and they parted ways," DeLasantos said.

Hughes reportedly told investigators that Baird came to his house after the shooting, told him what happened, and left his gun and ammunition box. Hughes told authorities he had buried the evidence on the grounds of the Strohm Ranch near Old Stage Road.

Detectives took Hughes to the site but he couldn't find the right tree marking the spot where the evidence was buried. DeLasantos turned to the Treasure Hunters Society of Santa Clara Valley, a group of metal detector enthusiasts. Their only request was that they be allowed to hold a barbecue/treasure hunt at the Monterey County Sheriff's Posse Grounds.

About 20 members of the Treasure Hunters Society visited the Strohm Ranch spot on Feb. 2, 2002. They unearthed a locket, a turn-of-the-century bullet, and the key evidence in the Demel murder.

Getting a match|

Detectives brought the metal box to the sheriff's crime laboratory. Evidence technician Lauren Zephro examined the contents: a Colt .45 handgun with "Model of the U.S. Army" inscribed on the side, magazine cartridges, a weapon cleaning swab, and several boxes of bullets, some with the orange price tags still stuck on the cardboard.

Zephro employed chemicals and powder to draw latent fingerprints from the items. New technology like digital cameras and imaging software let her carefully analyze the prints, which matched Norman Baird's.

"For me as a latent print examiner it was very exciting," Zephro said. "These were prints that were in the ground for 15 years."

Apparently the military-issue metal case had served its purpose well, providing a controlled environment in which the evidence did not deteriorate, Zephro said.

A state Department of Justice criminalist, meanwhile, conducted ballistics tests that determined the handgun in the box was used to shoot Demel.

Detectives found that the legal owner of the gun was a man who had reported it missing in 1984 when he moved out of his house in Salinas. Norman Baird moved into the man's house that same year.

Authorities arrested Baird on June 19, 2002.

Investigators knew that Baird had a criminal record and was known to use drugs, but he refused to talk to them about the Demel murder. Through his public defender, Baird declined to be interviewed for this article.

Family members had seen investigators come and go in the decade and a half between Raymond Demel's murder and Norman Baird's arrest. Daughter Yountina Ambis, who called on a semi-regular basis, got used to hearing that there were no developments.

"It was quite a shock when they finally got some new evidence," she said. "Finally we got some good news."

Prosecutor Cynthia Jewett said she was prepared to take the case to trial. Despite all the time that had passed, she had assembled 27 witnesses. A passing motorist who was the first to come upon the murder scene was going to fly in from Texas.

Jewett was surprised when she learned Baird didn't want to stand trial.

"You don't often have people pleading no contest to murder," she said the day he entered his plea in court.

For the Demel family it was yet another surprise, and one that evoked mixed feelings. As painful as a trial would have been, it could have been a window into what happened that evening in 1987.

It could have provided the only real insight into what the gunman was thinking.

"Like a lot of victims you want to be able to sit down and talk with the person," Ambis said. "It's so senseless to me."