Dateline‘s latest episode explores the murder of Jarrae Nikole Estepp, whose body was found on a conveyor belt in an Anaheim recycling center on the morning of March 14, 2014. She’d been stuffed into a dumpster. Jarrae had come to Anaheim from Modesto, a mid-sized city in almost the exact middle of California. Based on the refuse surrounding her, police officers were able to determine where her body had been dumped. Once they had that information, they were able to start interviewing people from the same area: one “known for prostitution,” according to the OC Register.
In fact, Jarrae had been staying at the Anaheim Inn, a hotel frequented by prostitutes. And she had an arrest record involving prostitution in Oklahoma. Ultimately, those connections would provide one of the first big breaks in the case. Police had been baffled by recent murders involving sex workers; Jarrae was the fourth woman to be killed under similar circumstances in a string that dated back to 2013. But, in California, registered sex offenders are required to wear an ankle bracelet outfitted with a tracking monitor. So Detective Julia Trapp’s team, which would eventually number 75 police officers, investigators, and homicide detectives, looked at the GPS records of those monitors for the 600 registered sex offenders living in Orange County–and got a match.
27-year-old Franc Cano had recently served time in prison for a sex crime involving a child. He lived near the area where Jarrae’s body had been dumped, and GPS records proved that he had been near the dumpster the night she’d been abducted. And the same records linked up with the last known locations of three other women who’d died similarly. His associate, 44-year-old Steven Gordon, who’d also been imprisoned for sex crimes with minors, and with whom Cano fled to Alabama in 2010 after cutting off his ankle bracelet in a vain attempt at evading the law, was quickly identified as the second man involved. The Jarrae Estepp killers, the men also responsible for abducting and murdering Martha Anaya, 28; Kianna Jackson, 20; and Josephine Vargas, 34, had been caught.
Jarrae Nikole Estepp. Screencap via Dateline
Because Jarrae was their final victim, and because her murder was the one that connected all the others, more information about her life came to light more quickly. We know that Jarrae’s mother Jodi gave birth to her at 19. She got her unusual name thanks to the couple who drove Jodi to the hospital from the central California Denny’s where her water broke: their names were Jerry and Rae. Jodi combined them as a tribute. Shortly after her body was discovered, a feature in the Los Angeles Times explained that Jarrae was often trying on new names as a way of getting a fresh start.
“When she was young she fancied the name Sarah,” the article reads. “She also had a family nickname, Hunny Bee. More recently, she liked to be called Plush and Cupcake, names she got working as an exotic dancer in Oklahoma.” And in southern California, “motel residents said she went by Honeycomb”–which her mother thought she probably spelled “Hunnycomb.”
Steven Gordon confessed to the murders right away. He also expressed remorse, though it did him no good. Deputy Districy Attorney Larry Yellin called Gordon “a cold, calculat[ing], serial killing machine” in the grand jury hearing. Gordon’s own confession bore the description out. After soliciting Kianna Jackson, he helped Cano subdue her by punching her several times “to knock the air out of her,” then “cleaned the body and clipped the nails to get rid of any DNA.” He told Trapp it was “fair to say the plan was to pick up a prostitute and kill her” the night the two murdered Josephine Vargas. And Gordon specifically targeted Martha Anaya because she “refused to get in his car” and said she thought he was a police officer.
“I drove away and told Franc, ‘I‘m going to come back for her,‘“ Gordon said.
Last December, Jarrae Estepp killers Steven Gordon and Frank Cano were found guilty of abducting and murdering their four victims. In February of 2017, Gordon–who acted as his own attorney during the trial, openly admitted that he was guilty, and repeatedly apologized to the families of his victims–was sentenced to death. He is currently on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison. Cano’s sentencing has not been scheduled.
Dateline airs Fridays at 9 PM on NBC.
(Photo credits: Jarrae Estepp killers via Dateline)