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Placer’s retiring dean of detectives recalls 41 years of significant cases

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Detective Bill Summers is retiring after 41 years of service with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office. A historian and teacher as well as the dean of detectives with the county, Summers shared with the Journal what he considers perhaps the five most memorable cases in his career. It’s a career that started as a 22-year-old patrol officer in 1970 and, for the past 27 years, has been as a detective with the investigation unit. On Tuesday, he was lauded by Sheriff Ed Bonner as a thorough investigator, skilled interviewer and expert crime-scene investigator as well as “maybe the best employee Placer County has ever had:” The Mary Elizabeth Sowers murder Summers remembered being called as a patrol officer in 1980 to a site on Sierra College Boulevard after the discovery of human remains. The body turned out to be Mary Elizabeth Sowers, 21, one of the many “sex slave” murders attributed to serial killer Gerald Gallego and his wife and accomplice Charlene Adelle Gallego. Summers said he watched as investigators Johnnie Smith and Pete Ables worked with Sheriff Donald Nunes to secure the site and then work the case, stirring his own interest in investigative work. The Gallegos were eventually caught and convicted of killing 10 teenage and young-adult victims in a killing spree that riveted the Sacramento area between 1978 and 1980. Summers decided to take advanced training and joined the investigations unit four years later when an opening took place, moving to the major crimes against person detail in 1986. The Cindy Wanner murder Summers said the unsolved murder case from 1991 is one that he was holding out hope for a break before he retired after working on it for years. Wanner disappeared from her sister’s Granite Bay home on Nov. 25, 1991. She had been cleaning the house when she was abducted, leaving her 11-month-old baby sitting in a high chair. Her ATM card was used at a local bank, but tragically, the video was erased before investigators were apprised of the filming of a probable suspect. Wanner’s partially clad body was found three weeks after her disappearance in the Foresthill area. A ligature had been used to strangle her. Summers said that in most homicides, victims are in a high-risk situations involving perhaps substance abuse or someone with psychological problems. But Wanner was not. “She was a housewife and could have been your next-door-neighbor,” Summers said. The Boxcar Killer Summers was working late at the sheriff’s office when he received a phone call from an investigator in Salem, Oregon, who was looking for a man named Robert Joseph Silveria Jr. The Oregon detective had learned Silveria had been arrested in Placer County on a vagrancy warrant. As it turned out, Silveria was willing to talk and Summers found himself listening during a marathon five-hour interview as the man soon to be known as The Boxcar Killer confessed to seven homicides. None of the killings were in Placer County so investigators from several western states began to converge on Auburn. Silveria was connected to 13 killings of hoboes and drifters. “He would befriend them and if he saw a possession of theirs he liked, he’d kill them,” Summers said. The initial interview with Summers stretched well into the night and led to convictions in Oregon and Kansas. Summers said he was in an unusual situation to begin with but the key turned out to be just listening to Silveria talk. “It’s not every day you get to talk to a serial killer,” Summers said. The 1998 Arturo Suarez quadruple murder case Summers describes the Suarez case as the most disturbing one he has investigated. The killings occurred at Suarez’s trailer home at a rural Auburn ranch. Summers remembers the difficult job he had of calming down and trying to interview the lone survivor – a woman who had been raped and brutalized but had yet to find out that her 3-year-old daughter, 5-year-old son, 37-year-old husband and 28-year-old brother-in-law had all been murdered. Suarez had buried the bodies in a grave he had dug out the morning before inside a blackberry thicket. Summers said the first sign of a body in the grave was the clenched fist of a boy. Later, during the trial, Summers said he lost his own carefully held reserve when viewing a video of the children playing days before their murder. “It was the hardest moment of my career,” Summers said. “Until that time, I had avoided putting a face with a body.” Suarez is now on Death Row for the four murders. The Mario Garcia murder of Christie Wilson By 2005, high-tech was helping Summers and the Placer County Sheriff’s Office solve many more crimes, Summers said. Auburn’s Mario Flavio Garcia was convicted of the first-degree murder of 27-year-old Christie Wilson, a woman he had met at Thunder Valley Casino. DNA from Wilson’s body was found in the back seat of Garcia’s car. And Thunder Valley’s extensive security-camera system recorded the two interacting throughout the night of her disappearance Oct. 5, 2005. The final footage outside the casino showed Wilson pulling away from Garcia as he tried to take her arm. Wilson’s body has yet to be recovered. And for all the technical gadgetry that TV viewers believe can solve most crimes, Summers – who leaves his detective’s post at the end of the month – said it’s the basic investigative work following leads that makes the difference. “You still have to go out on the street and interview people face to face,” Summers said. “That’s 95 percent of the work.”