William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Tue, 23 Aug 2005 02:42:51 -0400


Posted on Mon, Aug. 22, 2005

No suspect named yet in killing

Investigators say they've made the case of a homeless woman's death their
highest priority, but friends say they're frustrated by its pace

By Sarah Linn

The Tribune

More than a month after Sharon Ostman's body was found in downtown San Luis
Obispo, police have yet to name a suspect in the 56-year-old homeless
woman's killing or release more than a few details about her death.
Even so, investigators say they've made the case their highest priority.
"We're tracking down every lead we have," said Lt. Steve Tolley of the San
Luis Obispo Police Department. "We're doing everything we can do, but things
aren't falling into place."
Friends of the slain woman said they're growing frustrated by the pace of
the investigation.
"Because she's homeless, I wonder how much energy they're going to put into
this case," said Peter Schustack of San Luis Obispo, who knew Ostman for
seven or eight years.
"If she was a college student, there might be more effort in (solving) the
case than with a person like Sharon," he added.
The case also hasn't garnered the public attention of recent high-profile
After Cal Poly student Rachel Newhouse was reported missing in November
1998, then-Gov. Pete Wilson and California Angels baseball player Jim
Edmonds donated to a $110,000 reward fund for information about her
Rex Krebs -- who lived in See Canyon near Avila Beach -- was later convicted
of raping and murdering Newhouse and Cuesta College student Aundria Crawford
in 1999. He's now on death row.
In 1999, community members created ReMEmber Week, a series of events devoted
to raising awareness about sexual violence toward women, in response to the
murders of the two 20-year-old women.
The cases were markedly different from Ostman's in another way, too.
In the Krebs murders, the community was left asking anguished and often
terrified questions about the disappearances of the two women.
Just a few years before, Cal Poly student Kristin Smart had disappeared,
opening another case that has never been solved.
An interstate search
Early on July 11, a local man spotted Ostman's mostly unclad body in San
Luis Obispo Creek near Mission Plaza. She was lying on her back in shallow
water with her head pointed downstream, police said.
Investigators believe she was killed there sometime between 11 p.m. the
previous night and 5:30 a.m. that morning, Tolley said.
According to Tolley, 14 or 15 local officials -- police detectives,
coroner's detectives and investigators from the county District Attorney's
Office -- have worked on the case at any given time.
Investigators have traveled to Las Vegas, Oregon and along California's
coast from San Francisco to San Diego to interview about 40 witnesses.
Some are homeless, Tolley said, and others were people who regularly saw
Ostman downtown or worked at the businesses she frequented.
"It's absolutely our highest priority," Tolley said of the case. "If
anything comes in, we drop whatever else we're working on."
Several tips have filtered in through a homicide hotline set up shortly
after Ostman's killing, Tolley said.
In late July, police announced an award of up to $1,000 for information
leading to the arrest and conviction of suspects in the homicide.
Investigators also hope that crime scene evidence sent to a state Department
of Justice lab in Santa Barbara will yield DNA that could be linked to a
No motive, timeline
in killing
Police admit that the Ostman case is moving slower than other recent
Unlike the investigation into the killing of San Luis Obispo resident Gerald
O'Malley, detectives have yet to determine a concrete timeline or motives,
identify a suspect or issue search warrants, Tolley said.
Officers arrested two suspects in connection with
O'Malley's killing in the early hours of March 1, just hours after they
discovered the 87-year-old man lying dead in his mobile home.
The 13-year-old boy accused of the killing will stand trial in October.
"With O'Malley, things kind of fell into place," Tolley said.
Part of the difficulty in investigating Ostman's death stems from the fact
that the victim and many of the witnesses are homeless, Tolley said.
Friends and family are sometimes difficult to track down, he said.
Murder second leading cause of death
That doesn't mean investigators are treating the crime any less seriously,
said the head of a national homeless advocacy group.
"It's been our experience that police departments treat a homeless person's
death just the way they treat any other death," said Michael Stoops, acting
executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington,
Following natural causes, murder is the second most common cause of death
among the nation's homeless people, Stoops said.
According to a study by the nonprofit group in June, hate crimes resulted in
the deaths of 156 homeless people nationwide between 1999 and 2004.
Of those victims, 44 were female, according to the study, "Hate, Violence
and Death on Main Street USA."
The organization doesn't routinely track violence committed against homeless
people by others who are homeless, Stoops said.
Killing's details lacking
At this point, nothing indicates that Ostman's killing was a hate crime,
Tolley said.
In San Luis Obispo County, verbal abuse against the homeless is more likely
than physical violence, according to officials from local homeless shelters.
The county's homeless population runs from 1,500 to 3,000 people, depending
on the source, and includes people living in their cars, camping or going
from couch to couch.
"Everyone understands how much this shook the community," said Dee Torres,
manager of the Prado Day Center in San Luis Obispo. The police "have really
gone above and beyond, in my opinion."
Still, some community members are concerned by the lack of information about
Ostman's death.
Police have refused to describe the woman's injuries or identify the cause
of death, saying such details could hurt the homicide investigation. And
coroner's detectives have yet to release the results of a four-hour autopsy.
"Red flags go up in my mind when police withhold details," said Stacey Warde
of Cayucos. He used to see Ostman regularly at her perch on the bench in
front of the post office in downtown San Luis Obispo.
"Right away, I want to know what the police are doing to keep us safe," he
added. "There's a killer on the loose. The person who did that crime needs
to be apprehended."
Kathy Dell of San Luis Obispo, who used to live next to Ostman, said she
just wants to know "whether (police) are moving in a positive direction
toward solving the case."
Ostman's slaying is the third in the county this year.
J. Efraín González Álbor is accused of fatally stabbing his 25-year-old son,
Édgar David González Márquez, in his wife's Avila Beach apartment on Jan.
31. That case will go to trial in November.

Sarah Linn covers public safety and the court system for The Tribune.

She can be reached at 781-7907 or slinn@thetribune news.com.