One October morning in 1979, a stamp and coin dealer was gunned down in his Visalia shop. There were no witnesses. Persistent police efforts across jurisdictional lines connected it to another death. Two months earlier, the body of a Fresno coin dealer was found locked in the trunk of his car. The trail of evidence led to a most unlikely suspect. Author Ronn M. Couillard, retired judge and former Visalia district attorney, lays out the facts in this compelling case from the investigation to the court proceedings and the surprise that almost derailed the conviction.
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THE VISALIA COIN DEALER MURDER
Finding the Victim
Barbara Heslinga pressed her face against the glass door of the small coin shop and peered inside. "I still don't see him," she said. Her husband, Dale, who was also looking through the glass door, replied, "There must be something wrong. Maybe he had a heart attack."
Their concern had begun the evening before, on Saturday, October 6, 1979. When they returned home shortly after 8:00 p.m. that evening, they found a notice from the city on their front door informing them to keep all vehicles off the street the following Monday, as some road resurfacing work was scheduled to be done.
The Heslingas lived in a small residence on Dudley Street in Visalia, California. Dudley Street is a short, north–south street that forms a T-intersection with Murray Street. Their house was adjacent to the back side of the U.S. Stamp and Coin Shop located at the northeast corner of Dudley and Murray. The coin shop was one of eight small shops housed in a single-story concrete-block building that fronted on Murray Street. The shop was located at the west end of the building nearest the intersection of Dudley and Murray.
Because of their limited driveway and garage space, Dale parked his pickup truck on the street in front of their home. Upon reading the notice, they decided to check with the coin shop operator for permission to park the truck in his parking lot that Monday. Since they had noticed the lights on in the coin shop and the familiar blue Cadillac driven by the shop's owner, Alex Moyer, parked in front of the shop upon their arrival home, they decided to contact him that Saturday evening.
It was about 8:30 p.m. when they walked around the corner to the coin shop and, finding the door locked, knocked. Receiving no response, they looked through the glass door and observed no one inside and nothing unusual. Although his lack of response caused them some concern, they concluded Mr. Moyer must have temporarily left with someone since it was well after normal business hours.
The next morning, Barbara Heslinga had gone out front to pick up the Sunday paper when she noticed the blue Cadillac parked in the same location. After telling her husband, they decided they would investigate further. Again, they peered through the glass door and viewed the same scene from the evening before. Just as they were about to leave, Dale walked to a window adjacent to the glass door. This window was covered with wooden louvers to prevent a view inside the shop. However, Dale noticed a small opening in the louvers a few inches in width at the end of the window farthest from the door. Looking through this small opening, Dale noticed something. "Look, Barbara. Behind the counter to the far back. Isn't that his hat?"
Barbara moved to where Dale was standing and looked through the opening. "It sure looks like it," she exclaimed, "I've never seen him without it on. She surveyed the shop as best she could through the small opening and saw what appeared to be a person's arm on the floor extending out from behind the counter.
Fearing the worst, they called the police and told them of their discovery. The police and an ambulance arrived, and the door was opened by using a specially designed power saw to cut the deadbolt lock. As the police and paramedics entered the premises, Officer Hector Torres noticed that the alarm system did not activate, indicating that it may have been turned off. Officer Bobby Curtis checked the premises for possible suspects as Officer Torres proceeded behind the counter.
The body of Alex Moyer was lying facedown with both legs and left arm extended; his right arm was bent and underneath his chest area. Beneath his head was a pool of blood. The body was fully clothed with a multicolored red, white and blue plaid short-sleeve shirt, light khaki-colored slacks, a brown belt, brown shoes and rust-colored socks. Bloodstains were visible on the upper-left back area of the shirt.
Officer Torres assisted the paramedics in rolling Moyer's body over and checking for signs of life. It was cold and stiff to the touch. No signs of life were detected, and they rolled the body back to the position in which it was found. Officer Curtis called the station to inform the homicide detectives of the situation, while Officer Torres took the necessary steps to preserve the scene. He ushered the paramedics outside and positioned himself at the door to prevent anyone from entering as he awaited the arrival of the homicide investigators.
The Crime Scene
"Where's ID," growled John Calvin, referring to the Identification Bureau. "Those bastards are always late." John was a grizzled veteran of twenty-seven years, and as a homicide detective, it was readily apparent who was in charge of the investigation. Born in the Midwest, he left home after high school to join the U.S. Navy. After a four-year tour, he was discharged on June 24, 1950, the day the Korean War broke out. Rather than return to the sultry summers and cold winters of his home state, he decided to "have a ball in sunny California." However, the women and bars of San Diego soon made quick work of the small savings he had accumulated, and he suddenly found himself in need of a job.
After drifting from job to job, he began looking for something with more of a future. He found what appeared to be such an occupation when he was hired as a deputy sheriff for Kern County, California, of which Bakersfield is the county seat. John worked the jail and patrol for five years when he heard of, and applied for, a position as a police officer for the city of Visalia, located some seventy-five miles north of Bakersfield. He was hired, and after working patrol for several years, he was assigned to the detective division initially investigating burglaries and thefts.
The past twelve years as a homicide and violent crimes investigator, being called out in the middle of the night and experiencing the frustration attendant in the long hours of checking out endless leads, had taken its toll. He had ulcers and high blood pressure, both of which were aggravated by smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and drinking coffee excessively. John Calvin was the prototype of the tough, crusty cop portrayed in the movies. With the grease spot on his tie, white socks and blustering manner, he appeared to be bumbling and awkward, yet he got results, as evidenced by his rate of cases solved. He swore and cursed, badgered witnesses, intimidated subordinates and hated and bad-mouthed defense attorneys, yet he was effective and respected by his peers. What he lacked in formal education and diplomacy, he more than made up for with plain old hard work and common sense.
As the chief homicide investigator, he immediately and clearly took command. He ordered Curtis to secure the building within which the coin shop was located and Torres to diagram the shop. His assistant, Detective Bill McGowen, was directed to search the shop. Meanwhile, Calvin checked under and around the body and found no weapons. On the left side of the victim's back, the shirt was blood-soaked, and he noted small holes that appeared to be bullet wounds. In the victim's rear pants pocket, he found a wallet containing $211 in U.S. money, numerous credit cards and a driver's license. The driver's license was for a Frank Alexander Moyer Jr., with an address in Exeter, a small town some twelve miles east of Visalia. A roll of quarters was found open and lying a few inches from the body.
The coin shop was a small room with a customer counter on the east side of the room running in a north–south direction. This customer counter had a glass-covered display case at the top, and on the inside, away from the customer, there were several drawers. On the wall behind the counter were wooden shelves. At the south wall was the only door to the shop, along with two large windows covered with wooden louvers. Two desks were in the shop, one in the southwest corner and one at the far north end of the counter. A large table was next to the desk in the southwest corner. There was a small enclosed bathroom in the northwest corner of the premises.
The most striking part of the coin shop was the vast amount of memorabilia posted on the walls, sitting on shelves and exhibited in display cases. Frank Alexander Moyer Jr. was a collector. He had posters from World War I and II — some appealing to young men to join the military and others urging people to buy war bonds. There were USO-Canteen posters and other posters that prompted civilians to do their part for the war effort by growing victory gardens, conserving gas and so on. He had trinkets and objects from world fairs, old campaign and advertising posters and buttons and an assortment of stamps and coins mounted in display cases. In addition, there were papers and pamphlets on coins and stamps lying on the table and desks. Only the glass top of the counter was free of miscellaneous debris.
A short while later, an officer from the Identification Bureau arrived and began processing the scene by taking photographs, dusting for prints and collecting items of evidence. Three spent shell casings were found on the floor on the customer side of the counter. It appeared to John Calvin that the killer stood on the customer side of the counter when he shot Alex Moyer, who was standing behind the counter.
While the coroner and his assistant were removing the body, John stood by watching. "Bill, something's wrong here," he remarked to Detective McGowen. "Look here." He pointed to a small safe behind and underneath the counter and bolted to the floor. The safe door was open; inside were proof sets of silver dollars, a white envelope and a large brown billfold. The flap on the envelope was open, and numerous bills could be seen inside. "It don't appear to be a robbery," he said.
"But John," McGowen responded while standing on the customer side of the counter, "from this side you can't see the safe. Maybe the killer didn't know the safe was there."
"Yeah, but what about these coins in here?" John nodded toward numerous silver coins in small displays on a shelf inside the counter and visible through the glass countertop. "To get these he's gotta break the glass or come around on this side. There's no sign of a struggle — it looks like he was taken by surprise. Could've been a grudge of some kind."
At the far end of the counter near a telephone, McGowen found a piece of paper with the notations "DAVID-FRESNO" and some figures — "10–20'S, 10–5'S, 20–K" — listed in a row. He placed his initials and the date on the upper corner of the paper and gave it to the identification officer to place in evidence. He then began inspecting the drawers built into the counter just under the glass counter display case. McGowen noted that one drawer was about one-quarter open and, upon examining it, exclaimed, "John, look here!" Lying inside the drawer was a fully loaded .22caliber Browning automatic pistol. "His feet were here," said McGowen, pointing just in front of the drawer. "He could've been going for the gun. This drawer was partially opened."
"He maybe went for it when he saw the killer's gun but got plugged before he could get the drawer open," Calvin surmised.
"It looks like he was taken by surprise, but if it was a robbery the killer panicked when he fired and left without taking anything," McGowen responded. "Unless he took something that was already on the counter top and didn't bother with anything else."
Across the room on the large table, an electric coffee maker was plugged in, and there was a small residue at the bottom of the glass coffeepot. What appeared to be coffee stains were on the floor near the table. A half-full cup of coffee was found on the desk at the end of the counter roughly five feet from the body. "The poor bastard didn't even get to finish his coffee," lamented John.
The door to the small bathroom was locked, and the key, on a key ring with other keys, was in the lock. There was another set of keys lying on the table. McGowen checked the burglar alarm and found it to be operative but turned off.
It was early afternoon as the two homicide detectives and the identification officer were taking final measurements when a man appeared at the doorway of the coin shop. "Excuse me," he called to the policemen, "I just heard about the murder and might have some information for you." Calvin went outside to question him.
"My name's Lester Morris and this is my office," he said, gesturing to a small office in the same building and immediately adjacent to the coin shop. "I was working yesterday and thought there was something unusual over there." He went on to explain that he knew Alex Moyer only by sight since he had been renting the office next to the coin shop for only some nine months. Morris said he would normally come to the office on Saturday mornings to do his paperwork and would see Moyer in his shop. They would wave but otherwise had no particular contact. Lester often brought his two young children with him on Saturday mornings to sweep the area in front of the office and generally clean up the parking lot. During these times, Moyer always came to the front door of his shop and spoke a few words to the children. Other than this, however, Moyer would usually remain inside the coin shop with the door locked, opening it only to allow a customer inside.
Lester Morris continued, noting that the previous day, Saturday, he arrived at his office at 11:30 a.m. He noticed Moyer's blue Cadillac parked in front of the building and the lights on inside the shop but did not see Mr. Moyer. He said that, upon thinking back on that morning, he recalled two things that were somewhat unusual. First, Moyer's Cadillac was not parked in the spot where it was normally parked, and second, Moyer failed to come to the door and speak to the children as they cleaned up the parking lot. Morris stayed at his office until 3:30 p.m. that afternoon.
On two occasions, Lester observed vehicles drive up to the front of the coin shop; the drivers walked to the front door and knocked, only to have the door unanswered. The first person got back into his car, a red Pacer, and drove away. The second person drove up in a Volkswagen, and after his knock went unanswered, he came to Lester's office and asked him if he had seen Mr. Moyer. Upon being told by Lester that he had not seen the coin shop owner, the man, described as tall and in his sixties, got into the Volkswagen and drove away.
When Lester Morris left that afternoon, the blue Cadillac was in the same location, and the shop lights were still on. He further explained that during the day, there were no noises or sounds coming from the coin shop.
Calvin recorded the statement in a small spiral notebook, and like all detectives, he had his own version of shorthand using a combination of abbreviations and symbols which only the author could decipher. He liked to recount a murder case several years before when a "hotshot Hollywood lawyer" was representing the accused and questioned John's report of what a witness had told him. After a lengthy discovery motion in court, the defense was given the right to inspect all notes taken by the police. John was ordered to produce his notes to the defense attorney. However, as he explained it, "That lawyer bastard couldn't make heads or tails from 'em." To John, the designation "bastard" applied to those he liked, pitied or hated.
As Calvin and McGowen drove back to the station, their discussion centered on when the killing took place, the consensus being that it must have occurred before 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, the time when Lester Morris arrived at his office. As events developed, the time of Alex Moyer's death would be the most compelling issue in convicting his killer.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder in Visalia"
Copyright © 2017 Ronn M. Couillard.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword, by Terry L. Ommen,
Part I. The Visalia Coin Dealer Murder,
Part II. The Fresno Coin Dealer Murder,
Part III. The Moyer Investigation,
Part IV. The Prosecution,
About the Author,