June 9, 2008
Slivers of light pierced the white wood blinds, illuminating a single window on the second floor. It was the only trace of light in the house—the rest lay shrouded by the night sky.
From where he was parked on the street, Dallin Forrest studied the property. It was an expansive, beige stucco house with a brown tile roof. A stream of river rocks snaked across the gravel, dividing a lawn of sparse trees and desert plants.
Dallin glanced at the clock on his car radio. The numbers glowed 10:05 P.M. In the passenger seat, his girlfriend, Michelle Lowery, stared at her lap and toyed with her cell phone. Her long, dark hair hung loose around her face, masking a fearful expression.
At the end of the street a set of headlights came into view. A car pulled alongside Dallin’s and parked on the opposite side of the road. A petite brunette emerged from the vehicle—Michelle’s friend Mimi Hall. Dried tear tracks stained her cheeks, and her normally olive complexion had gone starkly white.
Dallin and Michelle stepped out of their car into the warm summer night. Mimi met them at the driveway, smiling weakly.
Without uttering a word, Dallin walked to the porch and rang the doorbell. Inside he heard the muted sounds of a dog barking. He hunched his lanky frame and peered through the decorative glass cutouts in the front door. In the dark, he saw the silhouette of the dog yapping in the foyer, pawing excitedly at the door.
A moment passed, but no one answered.
Michelle broke the silence. “The light’s on. Someone must be in the house.”
Clutching her cell phone, she made a call. “We’re here,” she said to the voice on the other end. “No one is answering.”
Dallin rang the doorbell again, five times in quick succession. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding.
Approaching the garage, Michelle repeated four numbers—0187—into her phone as she typed the digits into the keyless entry pad. With a rumble, the door began to rise.
Parked inside the garage was a 2004 black Toyota Prius. There was no license plate, but a temporary registration card was affixed to the back window. Dallin immediately recognized the vehicle as belonging to the homeowner—Travis Alexander.
Dallin had only met Travis a few times and knew little about the thirty-year-old motivational speaker and entrepreneur. His girlfriend was close friends with Travis, whom she had met through the local Mormon church.
Just a half hour earlier, Michelle had been at the house that twenty-year-old Dallin shared with his parents. They had gone to a nearby Walmart to run errands and had barely pulled back into his driveway when her cell phone rang. It was Mimi.
“Hey, have you heard from Travis recently?” she asked, her voice hollow.
“No, I guess I haven’t heard from him for at least a week,” Michelle said. “Why?”
“We are going to Cancún tomorrow and I haven’t heard from him.” Mimi swallowed involuntarily. “We’re supposed to leave in the morning.”
Michelle knew about the trip. Travis and Mimi had been dating and a few weeks prior, he’d invited her to join him on a business trip to Cancún. As the date grew closer, however, Mimi had had second thoughts. She’d called him and confessed she no longer wanted to pursue a romantic relationship.
“I would totally understand if you wanted to take someone else to Mexico,” she’d added.
But it was too late to change the vacation plans. Because the tickets had already been purchased and arrangements had been made, they had agreed to go as friends. Their flight was scheduled for 9:25 the following morning, yet Mimi hadn’t heard from Travis for more than a week.
“I just went by his place, but no one answered the door,” Mimi told Michelle. “I’ve tried calling him and his voice mail is full. I’ve called his house and cell phone. I’m really worried. Have you heard anything at all?”
“No,” Michelle said. “I don’t have any idea. Let me call Taylor and I’ll call you back in a bit.”
Taylor Searle was Travis’s close friend and business partner. If anyone had heard from Travis, it would be Taylor, Michelle reasoned.
“Other people have been asking me if I’ve heard from Travis too,” Taylor told Michelle on the phone. “I thought he was out of town.”
Michelle explained that she had just spoken to Mimi and that their flight was departing in the morning.
“I’m concerned,” Michelle said. “Do you think we should go over there?”
Michelle covered the receiver with her palm and whispered to Dallin. “Do you mind if we drive over there and see what’s going on?”
Moments later, they were headed toward Travis’s house on the outskirts of Mesa’s suburbs. Michelle phoned Mimi, and she agreed to meet them outside the residence. On the drive, Michelle told her boyfriend how Travis had seemed upset over his recent breakup.
“But he seemed like he was getting better,” she said. “He was getting over it.” Travis was organized and responsible. There’s no way he wouldn’t respond to numerous e-mails, text messages, and phone calls. “This isn’t like Travis.” She shook her head.
Turning onto East Queensborough Avenue, Dallin eased down on the brake, canvassing the block in the dim light of the street lamps. He parked along the curb painted with the house number, 11428.
Travis’s two-story, five-bedroom house blended into the neighborhood. Ubiquitous stucco homes lined the blocks for miles in all directions. During the recent housing boom, new homes had cropped up rapidly across the desert, expanding the population to nearly 500,000. Despite being the third-largest city in Arizona, behind Phoenix and Tucson, Mesa was still a quiet community. Quaint boutiques, family-owned restaurants, and elaborate Mormon churches peppered the city.
Mesa was a hub for the Latter-day Saints residing in the Phoenix metro area. Travis himself had moved to the city in part to build a life in a strong Mormon community.
Through the church, Travis had cultivated a large network of loyal friends. Now, three of those friends were at his house trying to determine his whereabouts.
With growing apprehension, Dallin, Michelle, and Mimi entered the garage. Taylor Searle had given Michelle the code to the garage door.
“All right … well, his car’s here,” Michelle informed Taylor over the phone. “Could someone have taken him to the airport? Maybe something happened, and he had to go out of town all of a sudden?”
Dallin approached a door leading into the house, tried the handle, and found it unlocked. Groping the inside wall, he flicked on the light. The door opened into a narrow space with a washer and dryer. He stepped into the laundry room, which led to the main area of the house. To the left were the formal living and family rooms. On the right, a wide hallway opened up into the kitchen, TV room, and the stairway.
The walls were painted taupe, the floors a mottled brown tile. Dallin didn’t know the layout but quickly became familiar.
As he stepped into the house, Dallin noticed a foul odor hanging in the air.
“What is that smell?” he muttered to himself.
Once inside, a black pug scurried toward them, wagging its tail. Michelle bent down and ran her fingers through its pelt. In the kitchen she noticed the dog’s bowl, full of food.
“Well, someone’s taking care of his dog,” she said.
In the living room, on top of the couch, two tall bar stools rested on their sides. Dallin noticed a tile-cleaner machine sitting upright in the middle of the floor, as if someone was preparing to clean.
Dallin, followed closely by Michelle and Mimi, checked each downstairs room, flicking on lights. Left of the TV room was a short hallway leading to a bathroom with a shower and tub. Across from the bathroom, on the opposite side of the hallway, was a den.
Mimi stepped in the bathroom and pulled back the shower curtain. It was empty. Turning back toward the hallway, she noticed the door to the home office was closed.
“Let’s check his office,” Mimi said. “That’s where he spends most of his time.”
A large mahogany desk took up most of the width of Travis’s office. Atop the desk sat a silver Dell laptop, leather wallet, set of keys, and cell phone. Dallin picked up the phone and saw it was turned off. Inside the wallet, he discovered cash, credit cards, and the picture ID of an attractive man with cropped brown hair and vivid green eyes—Travis Alexander.
Where would he go, leaving his car, cell phone, and wallet? Dallin wondered. Where is he?
Dallin left the den and headed back toward the stairwell; Michelle and Mimi trailed behind. Digging his nails into the wooden banister, he began to climb the steps, leading the way.
At the top of the stairs to his left were tall, white double doors, firmly shut. To his right was a spacious open loft, furnished with a leather sofa and three oversize beanbag chairs. A movie projector sat in the corner of the room next to a small table displaying a chess set.
As Dallin stepped onto the second-floor landing, he heard the faint sounds of music coming from the direction of the loft. The sounds became louder as he approached the hallway, blocked off by a dog gate. Dallin stepped over the gate, while the girls stayed behind in the hallway. Dallin pounded on the bedroom door where the sounds were coming from.
“Hold on,” someone inside the room hollered. “Just a sec.”
Half a minute passed and a tall young man with tousled dark-blond hair appeared at the entrance. Dallin didn’t recognize him but would later learn it was Zachary Billings, one of Travis’s roommates.
Immediately, Dallin spoke.
“Have you seen Travis?” he asked urgently.
“He’s in Mexico,” Zachary said.
Mimi piped up behind them in the hallway. “He’s not in Cancún. I was going with him. We’re supposed to leave in the morning.”
“Have you checked his room?” Zachary asked.
“No. I heard the music so…” Dallin let the thought trail off.
Zachary stepped over the gate and headed across the loft to the double doors on the other side of the staircase.
“Travis?” Zachary shouted as he pounded on the door. No response. He shook the handle, but it was locked.
“Wait here a second,” Zachary said. He left the three friends standing by the double doors.
As they waited, Michelle updated Taylor over the phone.
“His roommate is here,” she said. “He’s getting a key.”
A moment later Zachary reappeared with a key he’d retrieved from a rack downstairs. He inserted it into the door, which unlocked with a rickety click.
As the doors swung open, Dallin grimaced. Inside the bedroom, the putrid stench permeating the air was more pungent.
From the doorway Dallin could see Travis’s king-size bed—the sheets had been removed and a duvet was piled in a ball in the middle of the bed. Next to the bed were two pillows, minus pillow cases, tossed on the floor.
Zachary slipped inside the room. Dallin followed.
A long, tiled hallway led into the master bathroom. A light gleamed from the direction of the bathroom—the same light Dallin had noticed from the street. Paralleling the hallway was a walk-in closet, which had a second entrance to the bathroom on the opposite end.
As Dallin moved deeper into the room, a rust-brown mass on the floor caught his eye. A chunky, dark-red pool had congealed on the carpet.
“Oh my God,” Zachary muttered.
Dallin’s heart began to race; his breath hastened. The two men exchanged a terrified look.
What is that? Is that blood? Dallin thought. This is bad. Nobody does that to the carpet and leaves.
Dallin stepped outside the double doors. “Don’t come in,” he told the girls. “Stay out here.”
By the time he turned back, Zachary had disappeared into the closet and toward the other entrance to the bathroom.
Dallin paused, unsure whether he wanted to continue. If there is blood here, what more is there?
He followed the crimson stains on the carpet toward the edge of the long bathroom hallway, where the muddy red puddles trailed over the tile like a path of footprints.
“Oh my God,” Zachary gasped. He rushed out of the room, past Dallin.
Dallin turned the corner and entered the bathroom. It took a moment to grasp the nightmarish sight.
“No,” he whispered.
The glass shower door was open, exposing a corpse in a crumpled heap on the shower floor. Bloody punctures branded Travis’s body, a deep gash severed his throat. He was naked, his skin a ghastly mosaic of blue and purple. Travis’s once handsome face was unrecognizable.
“I saw him curled up in the shower on the ground and I turned, I turned right back around,” Dallin later recalled.
Backpedaling out of the master bedroom, he closed the doors, instinctively barricading himself from the horror.
“He’s not alive,” he said, his voice trembling. “Call 911.”
* * *
Red and blue rotating lights reflected off the dazed faces of the witnesses standing by the curb. The house on East Queensborough Avenue was surrounded by ambulances and police cruisers. Yellow police tape cordoned off the perimeter of the property. A uniformed officer stood guard by the front door.
At 11 P.M. Mesa Homicide Detective Esteban Flores arrived on the scene. By then, Travis’s friends and roommates were already being questioned by officers.
Flores, a seasoned investigator with more than fourteen years on the force, was assigned as lead detective on the case. In his forties, with a husky build, thick black hair, and a dark complexion, Flores came across as stoic, with a staunch demeanor.
He approached one of the first responding officers on the scene and was briefed on the situation: the homeowner had been found in the master bathroom, deceased. He had been there at least a day or two and had wounds on his neck and chest.
“Who found him?” Flores asked.
Consulting his notes, the officer identified two of the people standing by the curb—Dallin Forrest and Zachary Billings.
“No one had heard from the guy for about a week,” the officer told Flores. He reiterated what the witnesses had told him about Travis’s planned trip to Mexico and how they had gained entry into the house.
Later, Flores would take official witness statements, as well as request DNA and fingerprint samples. First, however, he needed a closer and more careful look at the victim.
From what the witnesses had reported, the deceased had suffered a laceration wound to the neck. Flores had heard of cases where individuals had committed suicide in such a manner, although it was uncommon. Before launching an investigation he needed to assess the situation and determine if a crime had been committed.
Donning protective footwear and gloves, Flores entered the house through the front door, along with two fellow detectives and a commander. As Flores stepped inside, he winced. The odor was repulsive—rank and sweet, the smell of decay.
The detectives inspected the downstairs, making note of the stand-up floor cleaner in the living room, and the chairs on the couch. Discovering nothing else out of the ordinary, the detectives approached the stairwell.
Slowly, they climbed the steps and entered the loft. As Flores glanced around, he jotted down notes about the layout of the upstairs. Near an oversize beanbag chair he noticed an open black camera bag. The camera was missing, he wrote in his notepad.
Flores focused his attention back toward the master bedroom. Flanking the king-size bed in the center of the room sat two nightstands. In the corner of the bedroom, adjacent to a chair with an ottoman, a treadmill was hidden behind a wooden room divider.
As Flores entered the room he immediately noticed the reddish brown stains on the carpet. Instantly he knew it was dried blood. Instead of traipsing over it, the detectives walked through the narrow walk-in closet, which was neatly organized with color-coordinated men’s clothing, shoes, ties, and belts. Flores stepped into the bathroom through the door on the opposite end of the closet.
He paused for a moment to take note of the carnage. Dried blood covered the walls, mirror, and sink and had pooled in thick puddles on the floor. The body coiled in the shower was well into the stages of decomposition. The corpse was grotesquely bloated, the skin marbled with discoloration.
Approaching the body, Flores noted the deep laceration across Travis’s neck—his throat had been slit open in a gruesome gaping grin. Dried blood caked his nose and mouth. A thick dark fluid oozed from a puncture wound in the center of his chest.
“This guy didn’t go quietly,” Flores said softly.
The crime scene told the story of a victim who fought back. Such a profuse amount of blood spatter was an obvious sign of a violent assault.
“The large amount of blood throughout the bathroom and bedroom areas indicated to me there was either a struggle or the victim was attempting to flee his attacker,” Flores later recalled. “He had numerous injuries and trauma to his body, which indicated he had attempted to defend himself.”
Travis Alexander had suffered an agonizing, cruel death. Right away Flores knew he was searching for a cold-blooded killer, someone who likely knew the victim and wanted him to suffer.
The medical examiner would later determine Travis had been shot in the face, stabbed twenty-seven times, and his throat had been slit from ear to ear. The cause of death: rapid blood loss.
There was no question—it was homicide. And this was now a crime scene.
“Let’s get out of here and come back with a warrant,” Flores told the detectives.
A search warrant would ensure the integrity of the investigation and any ensuing criminal charges. They left the corpse where he lay, curled in the shower.
Retreating out of the master bedroom, the detectives descended the staircase and passed through the kitchen and living room, heading toward the garage door in the laundry room. As they were exiting the house, a curious stain caught Flores’s attention. On the washing machine was a small reddish-brown smear. It appeared to be blood—unusual since nearly all the other evidence had been confined to the upstairs.
Flores made a note of the stain. He would wait to sift through the contents of the machine until he obtained the warrant.
As Detective Flores left the crime scene that evening, he had no way of knowing that lurking inside was a peculiar piece of evidence that would come to play a crucial role in untangling the twisted murder mystery—a camera.
Copyright © 2013 by Shanna Hogan