NBC’s ‘Dateline: The Fire Inside’ narrates the gruesome rape and murder of 21-year-old Jarrae Estepp in Anaheim, California, in March 2014. Her body was found in a dumpster, and the episode takes the viewers through the investigation and how the resilience of the officers finally helped to solve the case. If you’re interested in knowing more about the case, including the identities of the perpetrators, we’ve your back. Here’s what we know as of now.
How Did Jarrae Estepp Die?
Her mother, Jodi, reminisced on the show how Jarrae left school before graduating from high school as she rebelled during her teenage years, frequently moved out of home, and went into prostitution. She was 19 when had a child, Nehemiah, out of wedlock in 2012, and shifted in with the baby’s father, her erstwhile boyfriend, in Oklahoma City. She had aspired to be a nurse at one time but chose to become a stripper since “that’s where her passion lied and that’s what she enjoyed.”
However, her mother claimed she started working as a car hop at Sonic burger and as a housekeeper at Comfort Inn to make ends meet as she wanted to give up on prostitution. Jodi stated, “I was perfectly fine with the exotic dancing and watched her dance. She loved the attention. She was very good at it … and I was proud of her. It was better than the prostitution that she was trying to get out of.” According to her mother, Jarrae was headed toward Fresno in March 2014 to see her brother and might have stopped in San Bernardino for a layover of a couple of days.
Jodi also claimed her daughter must have gone to Orange County because “she had been here before.” According to witness testimonials, a woman, who stayed at the same motel as Jarrae at the time of her murder, claimed she last saw Jarrae walk to a nearby soup kitchen. The police and Jodi assume that was when she was abducted by the perpetrators. Her mother believes Jarrae must have put up a violent struggle and fought with her abductors “to the end.”
Jodi lamented how she had talked with her daughter the night before she was murdered, stating, “We talked about her baby brother’s graduation next month. She was a wonderful daughter, my best friend.” Hence, it came as an absolute shock when the employees of Republic Waste Services in north-central Anaheim called the authorities to inform them they had found a protruding human foot on one of the conveyor belts carrying tons of trash.
Who Killed Jarrae Estepp?
Once the authorities were called, they pulled up an unclothed body wrapped in a shredded blue tarp. She was a young, blonde woman whose skull had been crushed, her legs snapped, and her jaw broken. She did not have any identification on her, except for “Jodi” tattooed around her neck. The investigators noted the tattoos on the victim’s body and ran them through the Anaheim Police Department’s database to find a match – a 21-year-old woman named Jarrae Estepp from Ardmore, Oklahoma.
Her name was in the police database because she had been detained about a year before on suspicion of prostitution. The detectives discovered three other women had also disappeared under similarly mysterious circumstances. With no leads or suspects, the officers decided to hunt in the dump for evidence and examined several items found on the conveyor belt close to Jarrae’s body. They were able to retrieve a set of fingerprints from a used can of foam.
The officers found that the fingerprint belonged to a local plastic window installer, who had been installing windows on a storefront next to the auto shop where Steven Dean Gordon worked. The name Steven rang a few bells since he, and his accomplice Franc Cano, had frequent bouts of run-ins with the law. Both the men were registered sex offenders with ankle bracelet monitors, and the officers reviewed the data to find they had been present in the vicinity when each woman reportedly disappeared.
Based on the data provided by the ankle monitor data and the cell phone signals from the missing women’s devices, the police arrested Steven and Franc, though both denied the charges. The officers went dumpster diving to look for more clues and the bodies of the remaining three women, but could not locate any. However, Steven broke during a long interview in April 2014, confessed to the murder of all four women, and even named another fifth victim.
After DNA testing confirmed that their genotypic profiles matched the traces found on Jarrae’s corpse, Steven and Franc were charged with four murders and rape. On December 15, 2016, Steven pleaded guilty to all charges, and he was sentenced to death in February 2017. Franc remained in custody and finally decided to plead guilty to four murders on December 15, 2022. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.