October 23, 2004
A putrid stench hung above the desert floor on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. The heavy stink draped over the brambles of the brittle brush and prickly cacti to the edges of the asphalt roadways that quarantined the chunk of desert. The barren landscape was illuminated by the blinding afternoon sun. A towering saguaro cast a lengthy shadow on homicide investigators scouring the area amid the foulness stinking in the chill autumn air. At the center of their attention: a large blue Rubbermaid tub wrapped in thick black plastic.
Detective David Barnes sensed an almost eerie quiet amid the faint sounds of passing traffic as he crossed the yellow police tape. Suddenly he was struck, his nose assaulted by the rancid stench that permeated the horrific scene. Even to a rookie the smell of death was unmistakable.
Slowly, Barnes approached the tub to investigate the origin of the odor. Holding his breath, he peered down into its contents. The detective instantly recoiled, wincing with revulsion. Entombed inside the large plastic container was the body of a male who appeared to have been deceased for quite some time. Immediately Barnes realized two things: The man had been murdered, and his body had been brutally dismembered.
In the tub, covered by crumpled black trash bags and clear plastic sheeting, was a disemboweled partial torso. The headless, limbless corpse was severed above the belly button and below the knees. What remained of the body was clothed in a pair of bloody denim shorts held up with a brown leather belt. It was stewing in blood, bone chips, hair, debris, and other bodily fluids.
This was an extraordinarily gruesome murder for the quiet Phoenix suburb. Already theories were flying through the detective’s mind. Could this be part of some sort of satanic ritual? A mafia hit? Or possibly a drug deal gone bad?
Little did Barnes know, the truth would be more bizarre than any initial theory.
A gray plastic lid lay adjacent to the tub with tape still stuck to it. On the other side of the tub was a three-inch piece of jagged glass. Part of the plastic sheeting, wet with bodily fluids, had been pulled from the container and lay on the ground near a partially smoked cigarette.
Looking down into the tub, Barnes noticed that part of the corpse’s abdomen was visible. A coiled-up electrical cord lay on top of the body, along with a slimy piece of orange and black rope. Barnes took a notepad from his pants pocket and scribbled down his preliminary observations. The victim’s torso appeared to belong to an overweight, white male in his forties. Barnes stopped writing. Without an ID, head, fingerprints, or any other means of identification, it was impossible to determine much else about the man. This was brutal
, Barnes thought. What did he do to deserve this?
Detective Barnes was a nine-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department and considered an up-and-comer on the force. Nine months prior, he had been promoted to the coveted homicide division and was eager to prove himself as a capable and keen investigator. In his mid-thirties, tall, with a square chin supported by a powerful jawline, Barnes had a brawny build that filled out the polo shirts he typically wore with plain khaki slacks. He had short cropped hair, warm brown eyes, and ears that protruded ever so slightly.
An hour earlier, Barnes had been at home spending time with his children when he got the call from his sergeant: A body had been discovered in the desert. Moments later, he was in his cruiser racing toward the crime scene. By the time he arrived, officers had already cordoned off a large area of land surrounding the body. Barnes was assigned as the lead detective. So far most of his homicide cases had been routine. When he agreed to cover the on-call shift for a fellow detective, he hardly expected to be assigned to such a ghoulish murder.
It was a Saturday at about two p.m. A recent rain had strewn small puddles across the desert floor, which glistened in the sunlight. Barnes stepped away from the body and scanned the scene. The vacant swath of desert where the tub had been dumped was east of the intersection of Tatum and Dynamite Boulevards, about thirty miles from the bustling region of downtown Phoenix. Bordering the desert along the east side of Tatum Boulevard was a barbed-wire fence with a large gap wide enough for a vehicle to pass through. A dirt road cut diagonally across the southwest corner of the intersection; at the entrance, a small sign read STATE TRUST LAND, NO TRESPASSING.
The vacant desert parcel was blocked on two sides by housing developments. Rooftops could be seen to the west and north, while the areas to the south and east were open desert. Unlike the densely populated downtown region of Phoenix, where many of the city’s 1.5 million inhabitants lived and worked, the surrounding neighborhoods consisted of peaceful suburbs, occupied by affluent young residents. Families spent summers here swimming in backyard pools, couples walked their dogs in the evenings, and children rode bikes along the roadways after school.
Undeveloped patches of land among the walled-in subdivisions were common in this part of the Valley. The recent boom in the housing market had pushed construction to the edge of the city limits, where homes cropped up like tumbleweeds. Suburban sprawl metastasized outward into the desert, endless concrete and asphalt razing the natural Sonoran splendor. In the surrounding developments, new tract homes were built uniformly, in a limited variety of designs and painted one of half a dozen shades of beige. The sporadic empty desert plots were a constant reminder of what lay underneath the strip-malls, gas stations, and grocery stores—an oasis of oblivion.
Investigators fanned out along the stretch of desert to collect evidence. Detective Barnes and Officer Barry Giesemann placed protective covers on their shoes and did a walk-through of the area while a crime scene specialist took photographs.
“Where’s the rest of him?” Giesemann asked.
“Who knows?” Barnes glanced back at the tub. “Maybe we’ll find the head somewhere around here.”
The plastic tub had been dumped about fifty feet from the street, north of a widened area in the dirt road that was just large enough for a vehicle to turn around. On the ground, there appeared to be a faint trace of weathered tire tracks. A slight amount of soil, small pebbles, and dead plant material were scattered to the north side of the tire impression as if dropped by the right wheel when the car pulled ahead. By the time investigators arrived, the tracks were too eroded to identify anything about the vehicle that had been used to dump the body.
A few hundred feet from the corpse, clear sheets of crumpled plastic were found tangled in the desert shrubs. All of the other evidence was near the fifty-five-gallon plastic tub. It was covered by a dingy white futon mattress and a tan section of carpet, which did not do much to mask the dirty tub and its grisly contents. Part of the blue tub could be seen from the roadway by any passing motorist. This discovery, however, had been made by a wandering pedestrian.
A little after noon, a transient named Robert Aime left the construction site where he was living to grab a six-pack of Bud Light from the gas station. On his way back, he cut across the desert and sat down on the mattress to have a beer and a smoke. That’s when he noticed the carpet wrapped around a large tub. With curiosity, the man removed the futon, unwrapped the tub, picked up a broken piece of glass from the bottom of a bottle and cut away at the tape sealing the tub’s lid shut. He was hoping he had found something of value, something he could pawn for a few bucks.
As he ripped away the black trash bags and pulled out the plastic sheeting, a foul odor started to eat away at his nostrils and an awful taste tickled the back of his throat. He shrank back in horror. The cigarette fell from his lips. Aime ran back to the gas station to call the police. The man was still visibly shaken a few hours later when Barnes approached him for questioning.
“I saw the belt buckle and the jeans and the belly. It was hairy,” Aime said, his voice trembling. “That’s how I realized it was human. Because there was a belly button.”
The first person to discover a body was often considered a suspect, but Barnes could tell right away that this man was simply an unlucky witness. The jagged piece of glass and partially smoked cigarette near the tub all seemed to confirm Aime’s story. Barnes took down the man’s contact information and allowed him to leave.
For the next few hours the otherwise peaceful Saturday was buzzing with detectives documenting dozens of pieces of evidence. At around 5:40 p.m. the medical examiner, Dr. Alex Zhang, arrived. A slight Asian man in his late forties, Zhang spoke with a thick accent. He placed the lid back on the tub, zipped the entire container into two black body bags, and took it back to his office for an autopsy. Other evidence found at the site was escorted to the police station to be cataloged.
As Barnes drove away from the crime scene that evening, his mind was reeling. This was a savage murder. Who could do that to another human being?
he wondered. What kind of person cuts up a body?
* * *
Two days after the discovery of the torso, on October 25, Dr. Zhang performed the autopsy. Carefully, he placed the corpse on the metal table and began sorting through the contents of the tub. At the bottom of the box, covered by crumpled trash bags, he discovered a spent .38 caliber bullet. Inside the victim’s pockets was $459.10 in mixed bills, a small bottle of contact lens solution, and a key ring with eleven keys.
During the autopsy, Zhang discovered that the decomposition of the body was uneven and the deep skeletal muscle tissue was relatively fresh. Because of the condition of the body, he determined that it had been frozen for an extensive period of time before being thawed and hacked into pieces. Bone dust in the wounds also indicated that the dismemberment had not been executed by some lunatic who’d gone berserk with an ax, but by a cold-blooded butcher who had used some sort of an electric saw to slice the corpse with chilling precision.
At approximately 3:25 p.m., after the autopsy was complete, the medical examiner released the tub and other evidence to Detective Barnes, who escorted it to the main police station drying room. Everything was wet with blood and reeked of death. The smell stuck like fly paper to Barnes’s clothes and hair, and days later he would still detect it in the leather of his shoes and belt.
Barnes spent the remainder of the afternoon cataloging each piece of evidence found with the body and hanging it out to dry. That evidence provided a strong start to the investigation. The tub itself was an impressive lead. On the container was a UPC sticker, which could be instrumental in tracing who purchased the victim’s plastic casket. Additionally, the bullet was an important indicator of how the man likely met his fate and could later possibly be matched to a murder weapon.
Barnes fished the car keys, which were covered in a thick molasses syrup of blood, fat, and bone fragments, from the tub, and hung them up in one of the drying room bays. A couple of hours after he started working, Barnes received a page from the violent crimes’ night supervisor.
The piercing odor had permeated the adjacent office spaces and other detectives were getting sick from the smell. The night supervisor instructed Barnes to take the evidence elsewhere. Inadvertently, that order would prove to be an important jumpstart to the investigation. Barnes brought the tub to the basement of the homicide impound lot and was hanging up the wet plastic sheeting when he ran into a fellow detective who had heard the tantalizing details of the torso discovery.
A wiry man, bald with a sparse physique and round-framed glasses, Detective Tommy Kulesa had grown up in Chicago, where his father worked as a cop. For more than two decades Kulesa had been with the Phoenix Police Department working in the organized crime unit and the homicide squad. Most recently, he had been assisting another detective on a perplexing missing persons investigation.
“What do you know about the vic?” Kulesa asked Barnes.
“Not much. All we know is the torso belongs to a white male, maybe in his forties,” he replied.
“Really?” Kulesa was intrigued. “You know I’ve been assisting on this missing persons case involving a white male in the same age range.”
Kulesa’s missing person was a wealthy forty-five-year-old arts dealer named Jay Michael Orbin. The man’s wife, Marjorie Orbin, said he’d never returned home from a recent business trip. However, her callous behavior and apparent lack of concern had investigators suspecting foul play. Since reporting her husband missing, Marjorie had been liquidating his assets and going on shopping sprees, buying a new grand piano, electronics, and thousands of dollars in clothes and furniture.
Even more suspicious, the police discovered Marjorie had been engaged in an illicit affair with a sixty-year-old body builder named Larry Weisberg. Unbeknownst to her husband, the man had been living in the Orbins’ home while Jay was away on business.
“I doubt this guy will be found alive,” Kulesa opined, as he recounted the details of the case.
Earlier that day, Kulesa continued, detectives had discovered the man’s Ford Bronco. The vehicle, which had also been reported missing, was located in the parking lot of an apartment complex that was just a few miles from Barnes’s crime scene. That last detail piqued Barnes’s interest.
“You know, we found a set of keys in the victim’s pockets,” Barnes said as he fumbled through the keys, two of which were car keys. “Where’s the Bronco?”
“Right over there.” Kulesa pointed to a forensic cage in the basement, a few yards from where they were standing.
“Let’s try them out!”
On what would turn out to be an incredible hunch, Barnes separated the two car keys, wiped them clean of blood and approached the vehicle. Slowly, he inserted one key into the door and turned it; with his other hand he pulled the latch on the Bronco. It opened.Incredible.
“Unbelievable!” Kulesa exclaimed, seemingly reading Barnes’s thought.
Barnes tried the key in the ignition, to be sure. No surprise this time: It started the Bronco. The two detectives were investigating the same case, although Kulesa’s missing persons case had now officially escalated to a homicide.
* * *
Early the following morning, on October 26, Barnes met with Detective Jan Butcher, the lead missing persons detective who had been investigating Jay Orbin’s disappearance. In her mid-thirties, Butcher was petite with soft, delicate features and wavy, shoulder-length honey-blond hair.
Butcher handed Barnes a copy of her case file. As they spoke, Barnes flipped through the pages on the man’s background. At first glance it seemed Barnes’s homicide victim was not some sort of con man, rapist, or convicted felon who had double-crossed the wrong man. Jay Orbin was a regular guy who lived a quiet middle-class life in the suburbs. He owned his own business. He had a loving family. And, sadly, he was the father of an eight-year-old boy.
Barnes came across a photograph of the man that had been provided to detectives by the family. He picked it up and examined it closely. Staring back at him was a husky, blue-eyed man with round cherubic cheeks, thinning dark hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and a wide, joyful grin. As Barnes studied the photograph, his mind flashed back to the macabre image of the mutilated torso in the blue tub. Barnes closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. It was hard to imagine that the grotesque dismembered corpse was the remains of this seemingly happy-go-lucky guy.
“When we first found the body, I had no idea which way this case was going to go. I’m thinking in the back of my mind, ‘Is he a kidnap victim? A dope dealer? A child molester? Does he owe people money? Who is he and why is he out here dumped in the desert?’” Barnes recalled years later. “It all unraveled so quickly and I started learning about who this guy was. It turns out Jay Orbin did nothing to deserve such a thing. He was a great father, a great brother, a great son.”
Butcher told Barnes that for his business Jay took frequent trips across the country selling Native American art and jewelry out of the back of a large white cargo truck. On August 28, he left Phoenix for a business trip to Florida and was scheduled to return three weeks later. But his trip was cut short and on September 8, he called his parents to say he was on his way home to Phoenix. In another unusual twist, September 8 was the man’s forty-fifth birthday.
“That was the last time anyone heard from the guy,” Butcher paused, “except the wife.”
Marjorie told Butcher that Jay never came home and instead decided to continue on a detour trip. But the detective wasn’t buying her story.
“I think she offed him,” Butcher said. “She’s definitely hiding something.”
“You think the boyfriend could be involved?” Barnes asked.
“Possibly.” She shrugged. “He’s got a temper.”
Butcher explained that Marjorie’s boyfriend, Larry Weisberg, had been exhibiting suspicious behavior in the days following Jay’s disappearance. In one encounter, he had even attacked a team of SWAT officers.
After speaking with Butcher, Barnes spent what remained of the afternoon buried in the missing persons case file. The information provided an extraordinary start to his homicide investigation. With so little remaining of the body, Barnes had worried it would take months to identify the victim. Instead, just a few days into his case, he had a name and two viable suspects.
Someone had killed this man and dismembered his body, leaving a piece of him to rot under the desert sun. It was about as cold blooded as you can get. Was it possible that such a vicious murder was committed by the man’s wife?
Barnes pondered. Could her boyfriend be the killer?
The ensuing investigation would not be so simple. Over the next four years Barnes would follow a series of twists, turns, and gruesome clues. Before it was over, he would uncover a scandalous murder mystery riddled with sex, lies, money, greed, and unspeakable betrayal.
Copyright © 2011 by Shanna Hogan
Shanna Hogan is an acclaimed Arizona journalist and crime writer. An Arizona State University journalism graduate, Shanna has written for numerous publications and is currently the features editor for the Times Publications group, a family of monthly magazines based in Scottsdale, AZ. Her work has garnered numerous writing awards for feature writing, crime reporting, and investigative journalism. In 2010, she was named Journalist of the Year by the Arizona Press Club. She lives in Phoenix with her husband, Matt LaRussa, and their two dogs.