Who ya gonna call? Nancy Drew, that’s who

By Dennis McDougal

For those who despair that retirement means golf, quilting, babysitting grandkids and an occasional ocean cruise until the Grim Reaper shows up, let me introduce you to Cheryl Sanchez-Simmons and her Nancy Drew Squad.

Sanchez-Simmons, Lynwood (Ca) High School class of 1974, contacted me a few weeks ago, hot under the collar and loaded for bear. Seems she and a couple of her classmates came across a string of murders committed in their hometown (mine as well, but more on that later) half a century ago. One of the murders involved a 14-year-old girl whose body was found on a residential front lawn one morning by several kids on their way to school. Cheryl quizzed one of them recently about the killing. What she learned was that cops interviewed several suspects, including a half dozen older boys who were among the last to see the girl alive, but no arrests were ever made. 

In fact, after a flurry of front page articles, the sorry saga of Jan Marsh (1954–1969) was relegated to the back of a filing cabinet, as were the cold cases of Roger Guindon (1952–1968) and Joyce King (1947–1972). Guindon was shot in the back while on his way to his night shift at McDonald’s, and King was knifed to death then left in an alley near her house. All three had little in common except that they were Cheryl’s classmates … which may have turned out to be their most important connection to securing justice after decades of being ignored by the criminal justice system.

Sanchez-Simmons is among a new breed of Boomer, not satisfied with tending to petunias and knitting Afghans in their dotage. Armed with the internet and web sources like Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com, she prefers sleuthing. She is a latter day Miss Marple intent on doing the job that gendarmes and the Powers That Be either didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t do. 

Murder, she maintains, shouldn’t be ignored, especially in a place like Lynwood.

***

Home to Kevin Costner, Dodger legend Duke Snider and Weird Al Yankovic, Lynwood is also my hometown. Like the suburban setting of Blue Velvet, director David Lynch’s jarring 1986 surreal pastoral, Lynwood was a disarmingly saccharine place to grow up in the 1950s and 60s. A blue collar, lily white L.A. neighborhood straight out of Leave It To Beaver, Lynwood represented apple-pie-and-baseball America at its most sentimental. In an annual chamber of Commerce national competition, it was even named All-American City not once, but twice. 

But like Blue Velvet, evil simmered beneath its façade. Lynch’s movie opens with a college kid returning home to find a severed human ear on his carefully manicured front lawn. That discovery leads to revelation after horrific revelation leading to a creepy sadomasochist memorably portrayed by Dennis Hopper. As prelude to TV’s equally bizarre Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet marked a recurrent theme both for Lynch and his jaded audience: nothing in sappy, sentimental suburbia is as it seems.

I grew up in Lynwood. I even looked like Jerry Mathers. My nickname in grammar school was Beeper. I remember fireworks on the Fourth of July and my pretty pink girlfriend shining like a gemstone at the Senior Prom. But I also remember crooked, racist cops and cynical city fathers more interested in profit than compassion or truth.

Cheryl seems to have similar memories. When she tracked me down on Facebook a month ago, it was to request my help in finding a murderer. Tapping into my experience writing true crime over the past 40 years, I told her where to look and who to speak to, but she and her posse did the heavy lifting. They all graduated a few years after I did, but they, too, remember a Lynwood city police force that seemed more dedicated to covering up crime than solving it. The botched and forgotten case of Jan Marsh was, and is, Exhibit No. 1. 

Cheryl and her Nancy Drew Squad began assembling their own dossier. As of this writing, she has put the following synopsis together and hopes to pass it on to a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Detective or a District Attorney candidate in an effort to fire up the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s “Cold Case” department:

Jan Marsh Murder

By Cheryl Sanchez-Simmons

Background

Jan Marsh was a 14 year old freshman at Lynwood High School when her body was found on November 4, 1969. At about 7:40 AM, students on their way to school saw her body lying beneath some bushes on a lawn at 4010 Virginia Ave., Lynwood, CA.

Allegedly a run away, Marsh left home five days earlier on or about October 30, 1969. She disappeared the night of the annual Halloween Carnival at Lynwood Park. Jan was last seen in the company of five older guys. All were supposedly questioned; none were arrested.

Jan was found wearing a royal blue man’s button down shirt with a distinct diamond pattern with white stripes. In one of the Lynwood Press’ newspaper articles, it was noted that a Lynwood police detective interviewed a suspect who was seen wearing the same shirt prior to Jan’s disappearance.

A friend of mine was among the students who found/saw Jan’s body when it was found prior to the police arriving.  All he remembered were her legs sticking out of the bushes and that she wore nylons under her shorts, but he did not remember if she was wearing shoes. I asked him if he remembered what type of shirt she was wearing. He recalled only that it looked loose and could not remember any distinct pattern.  A scarf covered her nose and mouth.

Although I did not know Jan personally, I am a pretty good family historian and started researching using Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com.  Several friends have been helping me sift through newspaper archives at the Norwalk Library. I began searching the names of the guys Jan was last seen with and have found the following:

  • Don James Meyers was convicted of murdering Hollis Voas, a Santa Monica School teacher on April 19, 1973.  The night of the murder, Meyers got into an argument with his then-girlfriend Beth Woodward and she fell over an overpass on the northbound 405 freeway. Several of the guys last seen with Jan Marsh were questioned in the regards to the murder and testified at Meyers’ trial. He was convicted but appealed and was retried in 1975. Found guilty a second time, Meyers was sentenced to prison, though I have been unable to find where and when he served his time.
  • One of those guys tried to claim a $2000 Secret Witness fee from the Long Beach Press-Telegram the same day of the murder.  He later claimed that he was sitting in a Lynwood police car when he heard of the murder over the police radio. Armed with that information, he called the Secret Witness line. He was later disqualified from claiming the reward.  

Information for Law Enforcement

  1. What will it take to reopen the Marsh case?  We have received a certified copy of the autopsy report and are willing to turn this over for review of the case.
  2. In speaking to a Detective Robbie Moore at the Monterey Park Cold Case division for LACSD, he noted that they still show this as a cold case, but that someone had looked into the case in 2002 and again in 2017. Who looked at the case?

  3. We would like to see the Murder Book and review the evidence with an eye to locating any DNA evidence that may exist on clothing, etc.

  4. We would like law enforcement to locate and question the other surviving men (at least a couple have died over the past 50 years) who last saw Jan alive. We would like to know whose was seen with the same shirt that Jan was found with. Similarly, we want to find and interview her mother, siblings and neighbors. We’ve also ascertained that one of the two original detectives is retired and living in Oregon. Talking to him would seem to be essential.

Conclusion

This case has haunted many of us over the last 50 years. Jan Marsh needs justice.  

It seems evident that Lynwood police never really investigated. In 1973 Police Chief Ralph Darton was featured in a LA Times article on unsolved murders in the Lynwood area. He mentioned none of three unsolved murders we’ve been revisiting including that of Jan Marsh. All three were committed from 1968-72. 

  ***

There is much to learn and appreciate here.

Roughly half the homicides committed each year are never solved. My cop acquaintances tell me that many of these unsolveds are gang deaths: they know who the killers are, but can’t get a conviction.

But many are not. They simply get attention for a few weeks and then are relegated to the back of the open case files. Sadly, the squeaky wheel rule applies in death just as often as it does among the living. If you’re important enough, if a lot of money is involved, or if the media gloms on to your untimely passing and makes it a big enough deal, the cops turn to and get answers. If not, odds are your murder goes cold and no one is ever brought to justice.

Thanks to the worldwide web and bored Boomers, that gross dereliction may increasingly be an injustice of the past. They may not have CSI tools or the resources of NCIS and SVU, but the Nancy Drew Squad makes up for it with pluck, tenacity and loads of free time.

Copyright 2019 by Dennis McDougal. All Rights Reserved

Dennis McDougal is a journalist (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, TV Guide, etc.) is the bestselling author of twelve books, including most recently DYLAN: The Biography released by Turner Publishing in May of 2014. In a career dating to the 1970s, he has also authored hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and produced award-winning TV documentaries.

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