Cases will likely never be prosecuted, but families comforted that police, prosecutors keep trying
CANYON COUNTY — Jose Flores may have escaped justice in 1995, but it wasn't long before he found himself in trouble with the law elsewhere. In 1996, he was convicted in South Carolina of sexual assault and sentenced to 30 years in prison. That's where the Cold Case Task Force found him. The remaining six may be harder to track down — task force members suspect one may be in a Mexican prison, but otherwise their whereabouts are unknown — but that doesn't mean they'll give up. Some of the victims left behind family members who still live in the area, Sheriff's Office victim-witness coordinator Aleshea Lind said, and they deserve closure, no matter how long it takes.
And even if they never find their suspect, Lind continued, the families of victims rest easier with the knowledge that they're still trying.
“They're empowered by the justice system. No doubt,” she said, recalling a recent phone call from Casey Lenon, mother Gary Lenon, who was murdered in 1986. “She called me last week and said, 'I just so appreciate the fact that you guys keep trying.' And she knows we're having a heck of a time finding this guy, but the fact that she can still call someone is worth it to her.”
Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Taylor agrees. These cases are difficult to investigate and prosecute, he said, and members of the task force must acknowledge the possibility that they won't get the outcome they're hoping for. But families can still take comfort in knowing their loved one is not forgotten.
“Even though they know there's a very, very strong likelihood that this case will never be prosecuted,” Taylor said. “But knowing that we're looking at it — and trying — is all they've ever asked.”
How do cold cases work?
Not just any outstanding murder can become an active cold case, Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Taylor said. There's no point in pouring resources into a case his office doesn't think it can successfully prosecute. When an investigation stretches back years or even decades, it may be difficult — or even impossible — to locate witnesses. In murder cases, it's standard practice for authorities to hold on to evidence forever, but it doesn't always work out that way — key exhibits can get lost in the shuffle over time, or irretrievably damaged for reasons outside the county's control.
“It's a challenge, definitely, on these types of cases. People have a tough time remembering what they did a week ago, let alone almost 20 years ago,” Taylor said. “The management of evidence 20, 30 years ago is completely different than how we manage and store evidence today.”
But if they have everything they need for a trial, and they're confident they can proceed, time and distance won't stand in their way of pursuing justice.
Once the task force has all its witnesses and evidence lined up, the next step is locating the suspects. That's not easy, because they could be anywhere. But current computer and communication technology makes it easier. If a cold case suspect has a run-in with the law anywhere in the United States — or even another country, in some cases — they'll show up on Canyon County's radar screen.
When the task force found Jose Flores in a South Carolina prison, they knew he wasn't going anywhere. In other cases, it might be trickier. A wanted man might move fast, especially if he knows authorities are coming. And it can be hard, Taylor said, to stay ahead of a suspect from across the country. Ideally, Canyon County will send its own detectives and transportation officers to the suspect's location — wherever that happens to be — to make the arrest and bring him or her back to Idaho. Meanwhile, they work closely with local law enforcement at the suspect's location, as Canyon County officers don't have arrest powers outside of their jurisdiction.
If the suspect might move too fast for Canyon County officers to make the trip, it gets a little more complicated. Local officers anywhere in the world, more often than not, are happy to make arrests for outstanding murder warrants issued anywhere else. But if a Canyon County officer isn't involved, local courts will hold an extradition hearing before the Sheriff's Office can pick him up — and that gives the suspect a chance to fight extradition in court. It's routine, Taylor said, but it adds an extra step to the process.
What happens if the suspect is convicted?
Jose Flores is about halfway through his 30-year sentence in South Carolina. So if he's found guilty of murder in Canyon County — a charge that carries a potential sentence of life in prison or even death — what then?
That's a bridge the courts will cross when they get to it, Taylor said. He might return to South Carolina to finish his sentence there, then come come back to here. Or he might go straight into Idaho Department of Correction's custody, returning to South Carolina when — or if — he completes his sentence. He might serve his Idaho sentence in South Carolina, or he might finish the South Carolina sentence here. Or a judge might order that he serve both sentences concurrently. In that case, which state does he serve it in? County authorities won't know unless it happens.
And Flores also has an immigration hold hanging over his head — if and when he's released from American prisons, he'll immediately be handed over to Mexican authorities.
In the meantime, Taylor said, every day he sits in Canyon County's jail is a day he gets credit for on his existing sentence — which the South Carolina taxpayers are getting for free. And that may continue if he ends up serving one state's sentence in another state's prison, Taylor said, but finding closure is more important than the money involved.
“Granted, economics are always there,” he said. “But in a homicide case such as this, I'm not as worried about economics as making sure justice is served. I would assume that people want people who kill other people in our county held accountable.”
Casey Lenon knows the pain and frustration that comes from a long wait for justice. Her son, Gary Lenon, was murdered in 1986 — and the main suspect disappeared shortly after. Gary managed a Jackson's store in Wilder, and Casey believes a confrontation outside the store may have led to his death.
“We went to have a picnic with him on the Fourth of July,” Casey recalled. “So that was the last time I'd seen him. That was on a Friday, and we didn't find him until Monday. I called him Saturday and he didn't answer, and I called him Sunday, and no answer. So I thought he'll call me on Monday morning, because he opens the store at five in the morning, and then, no answer.”
She finally called Gary's landlord at 8 a.m. that Monday, and learned that the police had been there all weekend. Gary had been killed Saturday evening.
When Casey and her other sons arrived, the police advised against viewing the body — Gary had been stabbed 104 times.
Shortly after the murder, Caldwell police arrested Jose Ballardo for disturbing the peace after he'd fired a gun into the air — a gun stolen from Gary Lenon.
“He stole it out of (Gary's) car and they were shooting up in the sky, celebrating after they did what they did,” Casey said. “(Investigators) never did put two and two together, that there had been a murder.”
Gary had run across Ballardo and his companions before, Casey said, and occasionally conflicts arose at Gary's Jackson's store. They sometimes demanded that he reopen the business after hours to sell them beer, which Gary refused to do. The last such confrontation, Casey suspects, led to her son's death.
Ballardo was released from jail and ordered to return to court in September 1986 for the disturbing the peace charge. He never did. Canyon County authorities don't know where he went, or where he is today, but they're still looking. And that helps Casey rest a little easier.
Even more encouraging, she said, was the recent extradition of Jose Flores back to Canyon County from South Carolina. She knows the system can work, even if it hasn't yet found the man suspected of slaying her son. In a way, Casey may have even helped it happen.
“They kind of included me, giving me credit, because I'm the one who's been pushing for it. I've been bugging them a lot.” she said. “I was glad. It showed me that they're doing something. But a lot of people — friends of mine — called me up, and they thought it was mine that they solved.”
In the meantime, she still waits for that fateful phone call from the task force, telling her they've found Ballardo. And she still does whatever she can to raise awareness for outstanding murder cases.
“I'm not going to quit doing it, either,” Casey said.
“You're not supposed to,” Sheriff's Office victim-witness coordinator Aleshea Lind told her. “It's your boy. You're not supposed to.”