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JARDINE: Vigil to mark 6th year in unsolved case

In 1982, Boni Driskill moved her family to Modesto from East Los Angeles.

"I didn't want (my children) to be involved in gangs," Driskill said. "It was like Mayberry here back then."

Any hope of that bucolic life she sought disappeared the night of Aug. 24, 2003, when her daughter, 25-year-old Lacy Ferguson, was shot at a south Modesto convenience store. Authorities believe Ferguson was the victim of a gang attack, taking a bullet intended for someone else on the day Ferguson's daughter, Haleigh, turned 3. Ferguson died the next day in a Modesto hospital.

The very gang violence Driskill thought she'd escaped 21 years earlier brought her a grief she never could have imagined in Modesto.

Six years later, Ferguson's killer remains at large and Driskill longs for answers. She will hold her annual candlelight vigil at 6 p.m. Monday at Paradise Park in west Modesto to honor her daughter's memory and to keep the case alive in the media. Other victims' family members, including relatives of slain 8-year-old Sandra Cantu of Tracy, will attend.

"We hope they can get some publicity, too," Driskill said.

The reality is that after six years — and five lead sheriff's investigators — thorough detective work alone probably won't solve her daughter's case. It's going to take that plus lots of luck.

"There's been lots of rumors," said Detective Ken Hedrick, who investigates cold cases for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department and recently took over the Ferguson homicide investigation. "A lot of them we were able to rule out. A lot we haven't been able to rule out. But we haven't been able to prove them, either. Sometimes you run into a brick wall. You just hope you get a break."

A break, such as a witness gaining a conscience and coming forward with information after sitting on it for years. That is what happened in 1996, when a Modesto man, who kept what he knew about a case to himself for nearly nine years, finally decided it was time to talk.

His story ultimately led to the arrest and conviction of Scott Avery Fizzell, who had murdered Debi Whitlock as he tried to burglarize her home in March 1988.

A break, such as an inmate in jail awaiting trial suddenly offering details on any number of crimes committed by others, using the information — or trying to use it — as a bargaining chip in his case.

Inmates, and particularly repeat offenders, generally aren't the most reliable sources. Still, investigators check out their tips just as they would anyone else's.

Ultimately, Hedrick might have an easier time solving the killing of Mary Alice Willey, whose body was discovered in the Delta Mendota Canal 38 years ago but whose identity remained a mystery until last year. It took exhumation from her pauper's grave in Patterson, skeletal reconstruction by a forensic artist and DNA samples to put a name to her body. Even then, her identity might still be a mystery had her cousin not been trying to solve the case as well.

Corey Oiesen came across Bee columns about the case online and provided DNA samples authorities used to confirm Willey's identity.

It was a lucky break that a family member still would be searching for Willey after so many years. But while investigators know more about her, they still don't know who killed her. At least now they have a trail of leads.

Leads in so many cases simply don't pan out. Or, in gang-related homicides, the gangs simply will not cooperate with authorities. That apparently is the case in Ferguson's slaying, and in the case of Benjamin Rodriguez, a 12-year-old boy shot to death in the living room of his Colfax Avenue home while watching TV with his dad in September 1997. Drive-by shooters fired into the home, perhaps in retaliation or maybe they had the wrong house, a detective said at the time. Potential witnesses clammed up, and the case remains unsolved.

The same thing happened in the death of 4-year-old Jonique Williams, killed at a Fourth of July party in Modesto in 1999. Except that this time, it wasn't gangbangers keeping quiet. Her family members and others who attended the party refused to cooperate with authorities.

Jonique's killer, too, remains a mystery to investigators.

Cold cases do get solved. Two years ago, Modesto police detectives resurrected the case of 36-year-old Dena Raley-McCluskey's disappearance and began reinterviewing witnesses. That led to the arrest in 2007 of Russell Todd Jones, who returns to court Monday afternoon as his preliminary hearing resumes.

A few hours later Monday, Driskill and others will converge on a Modesto park, hoping their candles will help shed some light on the deaths of those closest to them.

Just maybe, someone will get a conscience and the investigators will get the break they need to solve another case.

For sure, Driskill no longer confuses Mayberry with Modesto.

One was imaginary, a town in an old TV show. The other is far too real.

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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