Murder by suicide: Search for evidence leads to more heartbreak in Linda Cummings’ case (2024)

A pair of blue-shirted cemetery workers put on leather gloves and lifted the plywood that had protected Space 9 overnight.They worked silently, chipping away at the last bit of dirt surrounding a concrete encasem*nt. They muscled out three concrete slabs from the top of the encasem*nt, exposing a coffin.

A caravan of cars pulled up and parked in front of the office just inside the arching gates. Men in suits, women in dresses and cops in uniform left their cars to approach the open gravesite.

One of the first to arrive was Senior Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin. This was his case now. He shared my outrage that Linda Cummings’ death had been ruled a suicide.

We were both convinced that Linda had been raped and murdered, that her killer had staged the death scene, and was getting away with it. But he was the guy sticking his neck out, the guy risking his professional reputation, the guy taking on long odds to reopen a very, very cold case.

The casket had deteriorated badly from 30 years underground, and a tangle of tree roots had ensnared the decrepit old box. Finally, after 45 minutes chipping away roots, the crew signaled they were ready. It was time for Linda Louise Cummings to return from the grave. Could she identify her killer? And could I finally tell the story I’d been working on for more than half my lifetime?

•••

The crew struggled with the rigging cradling the casket, then slowly took up the slack until they felt the full weight of the box and its contents. Inch by creaking inch the casket slowly emerged from its hole in the ground. The workers were exerting full pressure and almost had the casket high enough to swing over to one side of the grave.

The men in blue shirts pushed simultaneously into one last upward heave and… “Crack!” It was a sickening sound. One wall of the coffin had collapsed. Debris was falling from the box into the open grave and onto the grass as the men swung the box onto a gurney. Dirt, bones, shredded old newspapers, potential evidence… it was all tumbling out.

It was the worst possible scenario for recovery of evidence, and I felt responsible. Watching was heart-wrenching.

I looked to Deputy D.A. Yellin, hoping for some gesture of reassurance. I saw the opposite. Behind his sunglasses he seemed on the verge of tears, grappling with this gruesome spectacle and the ugly reality that his investigation seemed badly compromised before it got to a new autopsy.

But then he stepped away when he saw his colleague, DNA expert Camille Hill, walking over. I was trying hard to steal my emotions, as she whispered something to him, earnestly yet quietly. He nodded his head.

As they carefully slid the gurney into the van through double doors in the back, Yellin replayed the solemn conversation to me:

“She’s telling you something,” Hill said, invoking Linda’s spirit. “She’s telling you, ‘Don’t put me through all this for nothing.’ You have to take this all the way.”

“I will,” Yellin said, nodding his head. “I will.”

But I couldn’t shake my overwhelming sense of dread. The advanced decomposition of the body was worse than expected.

•••

  • Murder by suicide: Search for evidence leads to more heartbreak in Linda Cummings’ case (1)

    Linda Cummings drivers license photo from 1971. (Courtesy of Larry Welborn)

  • Murder by suicide: Search for evidence leads to more heartbreak in Linda Cummings’ case (2)

    Senior Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin at El Toro Memorial Park on July 13, 2004, for the exhumation of Linda Cummings’ remains. (Photo by Ygnacio Nanetti, Orange County Register./SCNG)

  • Murder by suicide: Search for evidence leads to more heartbreak in Linda Cummings’ case (3)

    Cold case investigative supervisor Helen Moreno and DNA expert Liz Thompson.at El Toro Memorial Park on July 13, 2004, for the exhumation of Linda Cummings’ remains. (Photo by Ygnacio Nanetti, Orange County Register./SCNG)

  • Murder by suicide: Search for evidence leads to more heartbreak in Linda Cummings’ case (4)

    Reporter Larry Welborn watches as the remains of Linda Cummings were exhumed from El Toro Memorial Park on July 13. 2004. (Photo by Ygnacio Nanetti, Orange County Register./SCNG)

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At the coroner’s office, I was directed to the viewing area adjacent to Autopsy Room 2. Dr. Richard f*ckumoto, the dean of Orange County pathologists, was prepared to take up the challenge of a 30-year-old post-mortem search for genetic clues.

The observation space we had crowded into was standing room only. I tried to find a place off to the side, as far out of the way as possible. I held my steno-sized notebook in one hand and my pen in the other, unsure what exactly to expect. I realized that the small assemblage of bones and indistinct body parts on the table were all that remained of Linda. It didn’t look at all promising.

f*ckumoto didn’t have much to explore: A pile of disintegrating fabric, old newspaper pages that had been stuffed inside the coffin in 1974 – apparently to stabilize the remains, white bones and a lot of red hair. The body itself was mostly just skeletal remains of a young woman with her hands crossed in front.

f*ckumoto slowly combed through what looked more like sand and pebbles from my vantage point. It was slow, tedious and consumed more than an hour. It felt more like 10. There was not a lot of banter in the viewing room.

He found and accounted for all 10 fingernails. He told the observers that fingernails “are your best hope,” because rape victims sometimes fight off their attackers by scratching and clawing their assailants, trapping skin and blood under their nails.

But three decades later, even if Linda had been able to fight back against her attacker in 1974, no evidence of it remained. f*ckumoto finally turned to the window of hopeful faces and simply shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing,” he said.

I walked from the coroner’s office, past the Orange County jail, and back into the courthouse to the privacy of my pressroom cubicle. The walk was long enough to give me time to contemplate again just how long I’d been rolling this boulder up the mountain.

For the first time, it actually felt like 30 years to me. Clearly, it was time to let this one go. I had a few new documents to add to the murder book. I took a few minutes to insert them, then pulled open the old green cabinet.

“Damn,” I said.

Coming Wednesday, part three: More than 31 years after Cummings’ death, an arrest is made.

Murder by suicide: Search for evidence leads to more heartbreak in Linda Cummings’ case (2024)
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