A hair or tiny fleck of dried blood could be the difference between another parole hearing or life in prison for a convicted serial killer.
Phillip Joseph Hughes, Jr., 57, is serving concurrent life sentences for killing three young women in the early 1970s, but investigators believe he may be responsible for other killings, including a 15-year-old Moraga girl who vanished in 1970.
The body of Cosette Ellison was identified by a then-new technique using an X-ray of the bones in her hand. Her case also has drawn in an old high school friend, now a BART police officer, who has been working with investigators.
Nearly a dozen girls and young women disappeared or were killed in Alameda and Contra Costa counties from 1969 to 1979. Hughes is at the top of the suspect list in at least seven of those cases.
"Philip Hughes was convicted of three homicides, but I'm 100 percent positive he is responsible for much more than that," said Paul Holes, supervising criminalist for the Contra Costa Sheriff's forensic services division.
"For any unsolved case from the late 1960s until the time of his arrest (in 1980), he will be considered until he's eliminated as a person of interest."
One of the earliest victims on the unsolved list, Ellison disappeared after school on March 3, 1970. She was a sophomore at Campolindo High, the same school Hughes and one of his victims, 19-year-old Maureen Field, attended earlier.
Like Field, who vanished in November 1972, Ellison's body was found in a ravine off Morgan Territory Road, south of Clayton.
Two of the three women Hughes was convicted of killing were petite brunettes, like Ellison and many of the victims on the unsolved case list. Most lived in the Lamorinda and Walnut Creek area. Others were from Rodeo and San Pablo.
Hughes, who is serving his time at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, didn't respond to several Times requests for an interview.
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In 1980, Hughes was convicted of the 1974 stabbing death of 15-year-old Lisa Ann Beery of Oakland; the 1972 stabbing and strangulation of Field, a Pleasant Hill resident; and the 1975 murder of Letitia Fagot, 25, of Walnut Creek.
Police arrested Hughes, a 31-year-old janitor, after his wife, Suzanne Perrin, told Oakland police in July 1979 about the slayings, bringing an end to seven years of sadomasochistic sex rituals and rape murders.
Perrin testified during Hughes's trial that he wanted to kill a former girlfriend, but feared he was an obvious suspect, so he killed others in place of the petite brunette. "He wanted it to be someone who was close to Cathy's build and looks," Perrin testified.
She confessed to helping her husband dispose of the bodies of Beery and Field and to giving Hughes the names of four female coworkers, including Fagot, as "possible victims for murder."
She received immunity from prosecution for her testimony.
Field, the first victim among Hughes convictions, disappeared Nov. 14, 1972 after work at a Pleasant Hill K-Mart. Her body was found four months later. She had been stabbed and strangled.
Hughes and Perrin kidnapped Beery at knifepoint near her Montclair home on Jan. 26, 1974. The couple took her to an Oakland home where they were house-sitting and Perrin waited upstairs while Hughes stabbed and raped the Oakland choir girl. Police found her body, with Perrin's help, buried on a Rheem hillside in July 1979.
Fagot, Perrin's coworker at the French Bank of California in San Francisco, was found dead in her Los Cerros Avenue home in Walnut Creek on March, 19, 1975. She had been strangled with a cord and bludgeoned with a hammer.
In 1980, Hughes was sentenced to three concurrent terms of 21 years to life in prison. At the time, California's capital punishment law was not in effect and juries didn't have the option of recommending life in prison without parole. Hughes has been eligible for parole since 1986.
On July 25, 2001, a parole board gave Hughes a five-year denial of parole, the maximum allowed, after a hearing where representatives of the victim's families spoke.
Hughes hasn't participated in prison self-help opportunities or therapy since 1993 and psychiatric reports didn't support his release. One commissioner said the reports concluded Hughes has no feelings for others and no idea of society's norms.
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"As soon as Phil came forward lots of cases were lumped at him," Holes said.
After his arrest, more than 15 California police agencies asked to question him regarding unsolved cases.
Just as new technology helped police identify Cosette, recent advances in DNA testing eliminated Hughes as a suspect in some cases, such as the 1978 strangulation of Armida Wiltsey at the Lafayette Reservoir.
In 2000, the crime lab notified detectives they now had the equipment to test evidence from the Wiltsey case. The next year, the lab ruled out Hughes as a source of the male DNA found underneath her fingernails, court records show.
But, while Hughes has been cleared in some cases, he remains a person of interest in seven others:
• Leona Roberts, 16, was last seen Nov. 10, 1969 in front of her boyfriend's apartment on Tormey Road in Rodeo. Her body was found at Bolinas Lagoon near Point Reyes on Dec. 28, 1969.
• Elaine Davis, 17, disappeared while baby-sitting her 3-year-old sister at their Pioneer Avenue home in Walnut Creek on Dec. 1, 1969. A body found floating off Light House Point in Santa Cruz in 1969 was exhumed in May 2001 and identified as Davis using dental records.
• Ellison was last seen about 3:30 p.m. March 3, 1970 in the driveway of her Canyon Road home in Moraga. Her remains were found Jan. 1, 1971 in a ravine off of Morgan Territory Road.
• Patricia King, 25, was found near the football stadium at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill on March 5, 1970. She was strangled with her leggings after an evening exercise class.
• Lisa Dickinson, 9, disappeared Sept. 5, 1976 while riding her bike from her home on Los Cerros Avenue in Walnut Creek toward Heather Farms Park. Her bike was found leaning against a tree inside the park, but the girl has never been found.
• Lou Ellen Burleigh, 21, of Walnut Creek vanished Sept. 11, 1977 on her way to a job interview at a Pleasant Hill shopping center on Contra Costa Boulevard.
• Tara Cossey, 9, was last seen while walking to the Pirelli's Liquor store in San Pablo to purchase a bag of sugar for her mother on June 6, 1979.
"Their families don't have closure, there's no justice," Holes said. "It always burns me that these people think they got away with it."
And there are the victims themselves.
"You see a picture of Cosette and you feel something," Holes said. "There's something that catches you -- they were robbed of life."
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In the 1970s, other serial killers were at work in Northern California including the Zodiac and the I-5 Strangler, Roger Kibbe, but Holes isn't convinced that Hughes was inactive from 1975 until his arrest five years later.
"There's very little crime in the Walnut Creek and Lamorinda areas," Holes said. "To me, it's more than a coincidence that housewives and young girls turned up missing or dead in a common area."
Sgt. Steve Warne, supervising investigator with the Sheriff's Office homicide division, said detectives periodically review cold cases, especially those most likely to be solved with new and developing technology.
It was a chance sighting of a poster marking some of that new technology used in the Ellison case that led Kim Garner, her friend and former classmate, to lend her knowledge to the investigation.
Ellison's body had been the first in Contra Costa to be identified using X-ray comparisons and the poster was created to commemorate the milestone
"My whole life, that had been in the back of my mind," Garner said. "It was weird, I'd do something like go horseback riding with my sister or go somewhere new and I'd think 'It's too bad Cosette couldn't be here.'"
At this point in Cosette's case, a break would likely come from the forensics lab, Warne said.
"Pretty much everything that exists in that case is related to the evidence. If there's some new technology that can develop any leads we'll dig back into it," he said.
"One more case could keep Hughes in jail," Hole said.