Investigator: Police overlooked suspect in cold case murder

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - It is not common for law enforcement officers to publicly question colleagues or raise concerns about investigations carried out by other agencies. But, one former sheriff's commander from Kings County believes Bakersfield police mishandled the kidnap-murder case of a 4-year-old child.

Jessica Martinez disappeared on May 10, 1990, while she was playing in front of her home at an apartment complex on the 5000 block of Belle Terrace. Her body was found in a field 11 days later.

Her killer has never been caught.

Mark Bingaman is a former Kings County sheriff's commander and was the lieutenant in charge of a 1995 murder case in Lemoore. Maria Piceo, 8, was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered. Her killer then drove south and dumped her body in Poso Creek in Kern County. Bingaman led a team of investigators that eventually cracked the case with the arrest and conviction of Navy Petty Officer Gene McCurdy, of Wasco. Bingaman recently wrote a book about the Piceo case, "Vanished In Broad Daylight.

Bingaman believes McCurdy also had a hand in the murder of Jessica, which happened five years earlier. He describes McCurdy as a monster.

"We felt that this man, Gene McCurdy, was a serial killer," said Bingaman. "There's no question in my mind he killed other girls," he said.

Bingaman said several red flags were raised about McCurdy's involvement with Jessica's death. During questioning, McCurdy was asked about the deaths of other children, specifically Jessica in 1990 and Deisy Herrera in 1987, both of Bakersfield. McCurdy fell out of his chair when both names were brought up, said the former commander.

"He crawls up in a fetal position, he wails like a baby, it is so bizarre," said Bingaman.

When questioned further about the two Bakersfield girls, Bingaman said McCurdy made to what amounts to a confession.

"He says, 'Well, if would've blocked out Maria, I might have blocked out other children,'" said the investigator.

During his investigation in the Piceo case, Bingaman said his team traveled extensively to places, such as Whidbey Island, Wash., to check Navy records and gather evidence against McCurdy.

Bingaman said he did not rely on "just calling" Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) to check the whereabouts of McCurdy. He wondered if Bakersfield police did the same thing.

And, he said, McCurdy had a habit of returning to Bakersfield at every opportunity to see his parents. Jessica was kidnapped on May 10. Mother's Day was three days away.

"He would of been here, he would have come home like a homing pigeon, because it was Mother's Day," said Bingaman.

The investigator said he and fellow officers personally came to deliver this information to Bakersfield police and urged officers to interview McCurdy.

"They treated us nice. As a law enforcement officer you know when you're getting the brush off. There was no contact ever since," said Bingaman.

The questions being raised by Bingaman have resonated with Nellie Martinez, Jessica's mother.

"What did they miss? What didn't they ask?" said Nellie Martinez.

Though no one has ever been arrested for Jessica's murder, one person remains a key suspect. Police have kept tabs on Christopher Lightsey, who is on death row for the unrelated murder of his neighbor, cancer patient William Compton. But police have not had enough evidence to charge Lightsey with Jessica's murder.

Police said they have followed up on every lead in the case. And there is a new development in this case that may lead to Jessica's killer. That part of the story will air on Thursday on Eyewitness News.