Roxane Gruenheid, a captain at the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office in California, is set to clear out her office, to retire and return back to the East Coast, where she grew up.
Gruenheid, at the department since 1991, served as a homicide detective for five years in the middle of her career. All those investigation files she left behind in cabinets elsewhere in the sheriff’s department, most of them resolved.
But one file has come with her, and remains in her office, even in these final weeks at the department: the 2002 murder of Eunsoon Jun. Gruenheid and the other detectives got their killer: the woman’s live-in boyfriend who was going by the name of Lawrence Vanner at the time.
But even though they got a guilty plea in the death of Jun, and he died in prison in 2010, Gruenheid could never shake the feeling that the killer with the piercing blue eyes and affable manner had many more victims in his past.
Her gut feeling was proven right two weeks ago, when authorities in New Hampshire made the startling revelation that Vanner was a drifter who had abducted a little girl—and likely killed four females found in barrels in the infamous cold case that has come to be known as the Bear Brook Murders.
Gruenheid was the first one to put him in prison, stopping an unknown run of crimes for the “chameleon” who had traveled for decades between states under different aliases.
“I always thought we’d find out that he was good for other crimes,” Gruenheid told Forensic Magazine. “You just get a feeling, and it either gets proven, or it doesn’t get proven … I never would have dreamed they would be as horrific as they turned out to be.”
Gruenheid was a homicide detective in 2002 when a call came in. A friend reported to police that she hadn’t heard from her friend Eunsoon Jun in months—even though they had a lunch date she had never showed for. The sheriff’s missing persons crime unit had done a welfare check at the woman’s home in East Richmond Heights, an unincorporated community that overlooks the northern part of San Francisco Bay.
The live-in boyfriend, a man going by the name of Larry Vanner, told the investigators that she was out of state. He appeared to be cooperative, and even “amicably” agreed to come down to the department to answer some questions.
“They interviewed him for some time,” recalls Gruenheid.
The man calling himself Vanner was given a phone, and he called a phone number from memory: a licensed therapist in Eugene, Oregon.
“It was pretty weird,” the detective recalls. “He had this number memorized, as part of his ruse. The fact that he had gone that far, and had that in his mind, to get out of some situation.”
The name Lawrence William Vanner had no paper trail—no driver’s licenses in California, or any state in the U.S. No criminal history, or records of any kind, turned up in the databases at the sheriff’s department. But still he agreed to continue talking, and give his fingerprints.
Gruenheid rode in the back seat of a department car with the man calling himself Vanner, who was not handcuffed or under arrest.
“We made small talk—he was very chatty, and he had really super blue, twinkly eyes,” the detective recalled. “A very personable guy.”
He kept talking, in a sing-songy voice, for the entire five to eight minute drive. He gave his fingerprints, and while the Live Scan began to run the prints through the database, the detectives took the man calling himself Vanner back out to a corner store so he could get a drink and a pack of cigarettes. Gruenheid, in an attempt to get some more information about this man, asked him if his accent was from the East Coast.
“I said, ‘Your accent’s really interesting,’” she recalled. “Where did you grow up?”
The man calling himself Vanner stopped talking. He leaned close in to Gruenheid’s personal space, and his tone was completely changed.
“That’s none of your goddamned business,” he said.
“It was like a flick of a switch, from what his normal behavior was,” Gruenheid said. “And then he switched it off again, and kept carrying on as normal.
“He really did not want to talk about where he was from, and who he was,” she added.
The fingerprints came back, and showed that this Vanner was the same person as Curtis Mayo Kimball—a man convicted of abusing and abandoning a little girl at an RV park in 1986, and who had absconded from parole in 1990.
Gruenheid read him his rights, and Kimball/Vanner stopped talking. He was taken into custody for the parole violation.
His premises were subject to a search. So they took a key to Jun’s house. They found pictures of the missing woman still on the refrigerator—though no women’s clothing was found in the house.
There was a dried-up dead kitten over the back fence.
Some areas on the property looked recently dug up.
They opened a padlock to the garage. Inside they found pottery, a kiln and potter’s wheels—all Jun’s.
But at the back of the garage, they found a small door, which they opened. In the flashlight’s beam, near a water heater was … a pristine pile of cat litter, mounded over some extension cords. Workshop lights hung in the cramped space, and nearby were a small ax—and a reciprocating saw.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Gruenheid recalled.
The crime scene unit, which was waiting outside on standby, came in and started taking photographs of the scene under the house—before moving to the mound of cat litter.
“They very, very carefully moved just a little bit of the cat litter aside,” Gruenheid said. “And what we discovered was what appeared to be a human foot, still in a rubber flip-flop, but fully mummified.”
The foot led to the rest of Jun’s dismembered body in that mound of litter. The man, now called Kimball, was going to stand trial for murder.
But surprisingly, he pleaded guilty. Gruenheid feels like the killer knew that she and the other detectives were eager to piece together his past—and he wanted to end the investigation as soon as possible, before more evidence of his past crimes turned up.
“Nobody pleads guilty to murder,” she said.
Gruenheid found out that the man who had been calling himself Vanner had almost definitely lived in the same space behind a corner store where he worked in Contra Costa County from 1990 to 2000, the time he struck up a relationship with Jun. But she didn’t have too much information prior to 1986, and the abandonment of the girl called Lisa at the RV park in northern California.
“When I read all that, all the different AKAs, it just didn’t sit right with me,” she said. “It didn’t make sense for this guy to have this little girl in 1986.”
So Gruenheid ordered a DNA paternity test in 2003, shortly after his guilty plea, to determine whether he was the biological father of the girl called Lisa. He wasn’t. No one knew where the girl came from.
Until last month—when that DNA test led to the breakthrough back on the East Coast. Gruenheid watched with great interest the latest connection to the Bear Brook Murders. Even though the victims’ identities are still not known, authorities say they are confident that the man known as Vanner/Kimball in California was the same man known as Robert Evans in the 1970s and 1980s in New Hampshire, who had killed the four females in the barrels—one of whom was his biological daughter.
Gruenheid is planning to meet with the district attorney’s cold case investigator about potential unsolved cases in the area from the time that Vanner/Kimball/Jenson/Mockerman/Evans before she fully retires and heads back to the East Coast. But she said she’s eager to help out further in the future, since a lot is left to be uncovered about the killer called a “chameleon.”
“We still haven’t found who that core person is,” she said. “I don’t think Bob Evans is the last AKA for him.”