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By Perry Smith

Signal Managing Editor

The murder rate for an area the size of Los Angeles County changes from year to year.

To give an idea — in Los Angeles County last year, there were 135 criminal homicides reported to the Sheriff’s Department, which was actually 10 lower than the 2019 figure (145) — which had been the lowest figure in 50 years, according to LASD data.

Five years ago, there were 211. And the all-time high, unsurprisingly, came in 1992, which saw 434 death investigations, including 63 killed in the L.A. Riots.

And if the last 10 months have demonstrated anything to Los Angeles County detectives, murder is back on the rise: There were 216 murders in the first nine months of 2021, according to LASD data.

In the Santa Clarita Valley, there were three homicides reported each year in 2019 and 2020, and all of these cases are investigated by the more than 75 or so detectives who work in the Sheriff’s Department’s Homicide Bureau.

The recent proliferation of the true crime genre in the media — everything from blogs to podcasts to both amateur and professional programming — have brought forth new information and, in some instances, even helped investigators understand new angles, bring forth new witnesses and help create awareness, which, in some cases, has helped put murderers away.

There have been two SCV “homicides” under investigation in 2021: Michelle Dorsey and Suzane Guillaum.

Technically, homicide detectives have not ruled Guillaum’s death a murder; however, they’re also not releasing any information regarding her death or what they think might have caused it, until they’ve answered all of their questions, which linger months later.

The beat goes on

Due to the fact that there’s no statute of limitations for a murder charge, detectives will often carry cases for years, according to one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the investigations and operations.

A case becomes a cold case murder after all of the investigative avenues have been exhausted but, even then, detectives don’t like to give up on an investigation until it’s time to retire the badge and service revolver. As a result, a detective in the Homicide Bureau can have as many as 15-20 cases or more to investigate at any one time.

If all “leads” or clues have been looked into and a detective is no longer able to pursue a case as an active investigator, the case goes to cold-case detectives.

Despite a caseload that can stretch back for years and covers thousands upon thousands of hours of investigative work, these detectives continue their search for answers.

Different types of tragedies

So far this year in Los Angeles County, there have been more than 200 criminal homicides reported, two of which occurred in the SCV: The first one, the murder of Michelle Dorsey, had a relatively quick resolution for tragedies that can often drag on for years in the courts. James “Matthew” Dorsey was sentenced to 35.5 years after pleading guilty to murder his estranged wife. (Current state law would make him eligible for a parole hearing in 20 years.) Law enforcement officers caught up to James “Matthew” Dorsey quickly because Michelle Dorsey was able to identify her estranged husband as her attacker before she died on the morning of April 15.

The second might be a little more difficult to solve, although it’s still relatively early in the process to tell if that’s what’s happening — or even that the death will end up being a murder. As of this story’s publication, detectives are still seeking answers in the SCV’s second suspicious death of 2021: Suzane Guillaum was found under an overpass at the Camp Plenty Bridge in Canyon Country. The 44-year-old woman didn’t have a registered address, but lived locally and had friends and family in the area. The information regarding her homicide file is listed as pending a security hold from the Missing Persons/Homicide Bureau on June 28, less than two weeks after she was found deceased.

Working through challenges

The detectives working the case are still waiting for the full results of the medical exam that coroners perform to determine the official cause of death, which includes a blood-toxicology screening. However, the initial conditions are part of the challenge that’s often facing detectives when there are no witnesses who come forward, or the proverbial smoking gun. Sources have indicated that Guillaum’s death likely could end up being a homicide, which is how its currently classified according to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department data.

Now detectives will have to piece together how and why she ended up being found in triple-digit heat June 15, under a bridge across town in the middle of Canyon Country. 

In Guillaum’s case, detectives have yet to release whether she died where her body was found, near the bridge, or if she was placed there. Their understanding of the circumstances, as well as her exact time of death, are complicated by the conditions in which the body was discovered.

“(Guillaum’s body) was in the advanced stages of decomposition,” said Lt. Derrick Alfred of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Bureau, adding, “We don’t know if that’s because of the time, but it may have been accelerated because of the heat.” The Santa Clarita Valley was roasted by temperatures that peaked in the triple digits for several days prior to the body being found, according to homicide officials and National Weather Service records.  

“There was some (evidence) that we’re just not going to be able to comment on,” he added, “at this stage of the investigation.”