Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - August 12, 2011

Cold case closed

DNA evidence leads investigators to former classmate in 1984 killing of 14-year-old

by Glenn Wohltmann

A classmate of 14-year-old Foothill High School freshman Tina Faelz, killed 27 years ago, has been charged with murder in connection with her death.

Steven Carlson, 43, was arrested in Santa Cruz last Sunday and transported to Santa Rita Jail on a single count of murder. He was ordered held without bond pending a court hearing.

Because Carlson was a juvenile at the time of the crime -- a freshman in the same class as the victim, Tina Faelz, when she was killed -- Pleasanton police were legally prohibited from releasing the name pending a court ruling that would allow him to be treated as an adult.

Police did, however, confirm that their suspect, like Carlson, had "an extensive criminal history."

Pleasanton police Chief David Spiller said in a news conference Monday morning that their suspect was taken into custody Sunday in Santa Cruz, where he was being held on unrelated drug charges.

"The suspect in this case was a student at Foothill High School at the time and lived near the high school," Spiller said. "I personally brought this information to Tina's mother. This arrest brought to a close an investigation spanning nearly three decades."

Carlson has served time, including a felony count of lewd or lascivious act with a child under 14 years of age and he is on the state's Megan's Law list of sex offenders. Police have previously said Faelz did not appear to have been sexually molested.

At the news conference, Lt. Jim Knox said new technology helped crack the case.

"We went back and re-examined evidence abandoned originally," Knox said, adding, "We frequently go back and look at cold cases."

Faelz's body was discovered in a drainage ditch after school on April 5, 1984. She was last seen alive about an hour earlier, at 2:35 p.m. While the freshman girl often took the bus home from school, she had recently started walking home to avoid being teased by other students riding the bus, her mother, Shirley Orosco, said in a 2008 interview with the Pleasanton Weekly.

Like many of her classmates, Faelz took a back route from the high school, walking on a path that connected through Aster Court to Lemonwood Way and under Interstate 680 to her home in the Valley Trails neighborhood. That day, she only made it part way when police believe she was approached and subsequently stabbed to death.

Fellow high school students who walked the same path found Faelz's body at about 3:25 p.m., only 10 to 15 minutes after investigators believe she was killed, Lt. Darrin Davis said in a 2008 interview. Police also received a call from a trucker who reported seeing her body from the freeway just minutes prior to the students who discovered her.

Eric Voelm was one of two students who found Faelz's body but didn't know who it was at first.

"I knew she was dead from her wounds. I felt her neck for a pulse -- she was still warm," he said this week, recalling the 1984 incident.

"Books were scattered everywhere. She was wearing a purple hoodie that was pulled up on her left side. There was a huge hole in the side of her abdomen. Her purple shirt/hoodie was red," with blood, Voelm said. He estimated Faelz had been stabbed "37 to 40 times," adding, "It was so brutal."

He said he sent his friend, Jay Dallimore, to call 911, but worried that the killer might still be nearby.

The route was a popular one, shared by students who lived in Valley Trails, although the shortcut was discouraged by high school administrators. The tunnel has since been closed and the area now has homes on it.

While Carlson's name continued to be withheld by authorities for legal reasons, Annie Saadi, Alameda County deputy district attorney, expected charges to be filed shortly.

"In anticipation of this arrest, our office has reviewed countless documents," Saadi said.

A juvenile court judge Wednesday agreed with a defense motion to ban cameras in the court and set another hearing for Sept. 21. No ruling was made on whether the case would be shifted to adult court or if the suspect could be named.

Faelz's death has long been the subject of local speculation, but neither the Foothill freshman's family nor local police ever gave up hopes of solving the case.

Police confirmed that they've regularly revisited the case, including DNA testing performed in 2007. Last October police were notified by the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., that they'd received a DNA match, leading to the months of paperwork that resulted in Carlson's arrest Sunday.

Faeltz's case was one of three Pleasanton homicides that had remained unsolved.

Forty-year-old Alfred Gutierrez was found dead with major head injuries after an apparent struggle in his Santa Rita Road apartment in 1977. Gutierrez was known as "Fat Freddy," and was associated with a biker gang.

An infant child, known only as "Baby Doe" was dumped in a garbage bin and discovered at Pleasanton Garbage Service's headquarters on Busch Road in 1995. Police tested DNA on the baby but couldn't locate any suspects.

Classmates recall victim and suspect

Portraits emerged this week of both the victim and the suspect in this homicide case as classmates and friends remembered 14-year-old Tina Faelz and fellow Foothill freshman Steve Carlson, the man now charged with her murder.

Both were members of the class of 1987, and both were victims of school bullying and teasing: Faelz because she'd left most of her younger friends behind in middle school when she moved on to high school, and Carlson because he was different and disliked by his peers.

Faelz's friends remembered her as a shy girl, especially around people she didn't know. Denise O'Sullivan-Delamain remembered her friend as someone with "a fun spirit."

"She had an easy smile and a fun personality," O'Sullivan-Delamain recalled. "We spent time together when we where little girls."

Jackie Carleton-Picton said Faelz's mother was once her babysitter, and she got to know the girl well.

"My parents live on that street, so not only was Tina my friend and her mother my babysitter, we were all friends. Tina was a really playful girl, shy with those that she didn't know, but she wasn't shy when she was among friends," Carleton-Picton said. "I would have a lot of one-on-one time with Tina. She was always close with her mother -- Tina was someone who never had a bad word to say."

Although Faelz was labeled a loner by some of the kids at school Carleton-Picton said that wasn't the case at all.

"Tina was friends with a huge circle of girls who were all a year younger than her. ... She wasn't a loner, she was just alone at Foothill High," she said, adding that Faelz was just another kid out playing with everyone else, bike riding in the streets in the days before Pleasanton had a mall and when Hopyard Road still had cows grazing on either side of it.

Voelm said Faelz was rude to him during one encounter and he didn't particularly like her at the time but has since come to an understanding.

"She was picked on a lot, you know how kids that age are pretty cruel. She seemed to me like an introvert because of being picked on," he said, adding, "I know she had a small group of friends."

While it took 27 years for charges to be filed, it was often inferred around the school and even at the Police Department that Carlson may have been responsible for Faelz's death, say former classmates.

"Everyone assumed it was him, yeah. They called him 'creepy Carlson,' that was his nickname," said Voelm.

Voelm, who has since moved away from the area, said there are a number of things that stand out from that day regarding Carlson.

He said two of his friends caught up with him in the smoking lounge -- this was before the days of zero tolerance for smoking in schools -- and said they'd skipped part of school to accompany Carlson to go drinking. Voelm said the three had raided a liquor cabinet during lunch. When the two teased Carlson that he'd get in trouble with his parents, Voelm said Carlson replied, "This isn't even my house."

Classmates who posted on the Pleasanton Weekly's Town Square forum following the announcement of Carlson's arrest said they would routinely abandon him.

"He wasn't really part of any crowd, rather he would forcibly attach himself to the plans of different crowds and participate uninvited and unwanted. He was aggressive, loud, and rigidly opinionated, which made him extremely abrasive," said a Town Square poster who identified himself as "1984 Creekrat."

"He was ostracized, criticized, treated as unwelcome wherever he went, had no real friends, spent a tremendous amount of time by himself, endured the valley-wide moniker of 'Creepy Carlson' which his unusual appearance seemed to support, and basically woke up to a world of hate everyday. I personally participated in all of those actions toward him at one time or another," the anonymous poster added. "We punished this guy to the highest level."

He also poses the chicken-and-egg question of whether Carlson was ostracized because of his actions or if his actions were because he was shunned.

"Did we build this?" 1984 Creekrat asked. "Could we have saved this girl by treating a troubled kid like a human?"

He said it was "fashionable" to hurt Carlson and called the group's actions toward him as "the systematic dismantling of the soul of another human being."

Voelm, however, remembers things a bit differently, recalling a local restaurant that employed some of the young women who attended Foothill, where Carlson would come and unnerve them.

"He just said weird things and did weird things. He was creepy, hence the nickname creepy Carlson," he said, adding that one of his friends told him Carlson once asked if he'd ever wondered "what it would feel like to stab somebody over and over repeatedly."

Carlson's arrest has been a long time coming for all three. Voelm said he'd even contacted the Police Department on the 25th anniversary of Faelz's death to tell them about the man they were all convinced had killed Tina; he said when he mentioned Carlson's name, the officer said, "Creepy Carlson? We already know about him."

O'Sullivan-Delamain called the arrest "long overdue" and said she's glad that Faelz's mother, Shirley Orosco," can finally witness justice for her daughter.

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