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Cracking Cold Cases in Santa Monica
By Jason Islas
First in a series
July 2, 2012 -- When Mary Garnello -- a 19-year-old Santa Monica College student from Florida -- was found brutally raped and murdered in her Pico Neighborhood apartment, Larry Nicols was working at his family’s Bay Cities Deli.
It was the summer of 1981, and Nicols had graduated from Saint Monica High School three years earlier. He was saving money before going to the police academy.
“I was behind the counter, slicing salami,” he recalls.
Thirty-one years later, Nicols is a detective with the Santa Monica Police Department. He is also the man who caught Garnello’s murderer, a quarter century after she was killed.
He gestured at the water pipes that run above the shelves where the cases were once stored. Now the cases are in uniform black binders, organized by date and stored in fire-proof cabinets directly behind Nicols’ work station.
Garnello’s murder was the first case Nicols cracked after the cold case division started.
In 1981, DNA testing was not yet part of detective work, Nicols says. However, the detectives who originally handled the case had cut out a piece of blood-soaked rug where Garnello’s body was found.
That piece of rug sat in the SMPD’s evidence locker for more than 20 years until Nicols pulled it out and sent it for forensic testing.
Nicols doesn’t know why the police officers saved that piece of rug in 1981. But when the results came back from the lab, the killer's DNA was mingled with the victim's blood.
It belonged to Alex Hines, already a convicted rapist and murderer who was less than a year older than Garnello would have been, Nicols says. At the time the new evidence was discovered, Hines was serving a 25-year-to-life sentence in Mule Creek State Prison.
Confronted with the evidence, Hines took a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, Nicols says. But he will be in prison for the rest of his life.
As Nicols looks for more details about the Garnello case, he stares intently at the computer screen. Above his head, a smiling couple looks out over the desk strewn with mug shots and paper work.
They are young. The man wears a halo of thick, tightly curled black hair. The woman, cradled in his arms, Nicols says, is his wife.
“Well, my future wife,” he corrects himself. The picture is from 1974 -- a fact that Nicols’ hairstyle makes abundantly clear.
Laying flat on his desk is another picture. It isn’t displayed prominently like the picture of the couple. It’s tinted yellow with age. A young, auburn-haired girl stares up, unsmiling and awkward, from the gray work station.
It’s a picture of Garnello.
“I like to keep pictures of the victims,” Nichol's says.
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