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JARDINE: Twists, turns in case a mystery

After working a 1971 cold case murder for the past 13 months, Ken Hedrick is beginning to wonder if some unexplained force is aiding his investigation.

"I don't know how to explain it," said Hedrick, a Stanislaus County sheriff's homicide detective. "Sometimes I sit here just shaking my head, wondering what possessed me to grab that book (of cold cases) off the shelf."

What else might explain the strange sequence of events that led authorities to finally solve the identity of a woman found dead in the Delta-Mendota Canal nearly 38 years ago?

What else might explain how a forensic artist could make an eerily perfect re-creation of the victim's face?

What else might explain why Corey Oiesen of Santa Cruz happened to resume her periodic online search for anything that might explain what happened to her cousin, 23-year-old

Mary Alice Willey, who disappeared in 1971?

Oiesen came upon my column about the case and the exhumation in April 2008 and contacted the Sheriff's Department to provide DNA samples. The match proved that Willey was, indeed, the woman found stabbed 65 times and dumped into the canal so long ago.

It doesn't stop there. In fact, every lead took Hedrick in a direction stranger than the previous.

"It's almost eerie," Hedrick said. "It's like something is directing us."

The Willey case itself isn't new. I've written a few columns on it over the past year.

What's new are the twists it's taken. Was she an innocent murder victim? A wanna-be social activist? An accessory to murder? Quite possibly, all of the above.

While covering the ongoing investigation of a 1971 murder of a San Francisco police sergeant, the San Francisco Chronicle's John Koopman found that Willey associated with the militant Black Liberation Army, a spinoff of the Black Panthers. Eight of its supposed former members, arrested in 2007, await a preliminary hearing next month to determine whether they'll stand trial for the murder of Sgt. John V. Young.

While officers responded to the bombing of a bank, authorities believe Willey went into a police station to make certain it was understaffed, then signaled to BLA members to initiate the attack.

Those actions belie what her family remembered about the red-haired daughter of devoutly religious and conservative parents in Southern California before she moved to San Francisco's infamous Haight-Ashbury District in 1969.

There she met an ex-con named Patrick McDowell. After McDowell botched a holdup attempt at a Sierra ski resort, Willey and McDowell got married in a Placer County courtroom. Using a mail-order minister's license from Modesto's Universal Life Church, McDowell's lawyer performed the ceremony during a recess.

Outside the courtroom, she was photographed wearing an Afro wig and sunglasses, as if imitating black activist Angela Davis -- a clue to yet another twist in Willey's lifestyle.

The attack on the police station followed, supposedly in retaliation for the death in San Quentin State Prison of Black Panther George Jackson, one of the so-called Soledad Brothers. Willey idolized Jackson and wrote letters to Johnny Spain, a Black Panther also doing time, Koopman reported.

Less than two weeks after the station attack, Willey was found dead in the canal near Westley. Was Willey deemed expendable and killed by members of the BLA?

"That's definitely a theory," Hedrick said.

Oiesen and other Willey relatives initially believed she was the victim of a random murder. So the revelation of her possible involvement with the BLA floored them, though other things now make more sense.

"That's something we didn't know -- something we don't know if her parents knew," Oiesen said. "At one time she told (her) grandmother she was dating a black ex-con. She would write letters home to her mother to shock her. It's just one thing after another. I get surprised at every turn."

Oiesen said the news clouds the view she and other cousins had of Willey.

"We've all had a real hard time with her possible involvement," Oiesen said. "I'm glad her parents weren't still alive to see this."

Hedrick still wants to know who killed Willey, even if the evidence proves she was involved in murdering the San Francisco police sergeant.

"The fact remains she was a homicide victim in our county," he said. "Whatever her involvement in the homicide of Sgt. Young remains a question. There's so much still to learn."

Considering the way this case has gone, expect a few more shocks.

"It just totally blows me away," Hedrick said. "It's been totally bizarre, from why I even grabbed this case off the shelf to identifying who she was and the different twists it's taken. I don't know if I could say I'm any closer (to finding her killer), but I'm definitely surprised by the path this case has taken."

Nudged along, perhaps, by a force he'll never understand but willingly accepts.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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