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True Crime Files: Sex slavery victims may be buried in basement of historic inn

The daughter of one of Eugene “Ricco” Cruz's victims has interviewed the convicted murderer in prison and says he may have buried additional bodies to the one found.

SAN DIEGO — Nearly four decades after police uncovered the body of a 16-year-old girl in the basement of a historic San Diego inn, there is new evidence that more teenage victims may be buried there.

At least two girls, forced into sex slavery in 1980 at the Hawthorne Inn (formerly the Plainsman Hotel) on First Avenue in Banker’s Hill, went missing and were never found.

The former prosecutor in the case says those missing girls may be buried in the basement of the inn or perhaps a next-door house.

In 1982, San Diego police discovered the remains of Josefina Hernandez, 16, encased in cement in the inn’s basement. She had been missing nearly two years.

“She was wrapped in a blanket of some sort, I recall. She was also wrapped in a black, plastic garbage bag and then Redi-crete cement was poured on top of her,” said the former deputy district attorney, Nancy Vaughan.

The gruesome discovery led to a high-profile murder trial and conviction of the inn’s manager, Eugene “Ricco” Cruz (also known as Victor John Marez) 

It was prosecutor Vaughan's first murder trial.

The jury also convicted Cruz of drugging teenage girls and forcing them into prostitution, including Josefina's younger sister, who survived the months-long ordeal.

“The people that lived in the hotel were often mental patients, or former mental patients, who all had prescriptions for various drugs, mostly Thorazine. Ricco would buy the Thorazine from them and then sell these girls to the mental patients as prostitutes,” said Vaughan.

After detectives discovered Josefina's body in 1982, they spent two days searching the basement of the inn for more victims. They found nothing.

“It was like a swap meet that had died and no one had been in there for a generation,” said Vaughan. “Five-thousand square feet with men digging with shovels. It’s not going to work.”

They were looking for a girl named Sandra, age 13, Hispanic who was pregnant at the time of her disappearance. A young girl named Susan Eve with black hair and hazel eyes was also missing at the time.

A girl named Joy and a girl named Candy were also associated with Cruz and remain unidentified.

“These were girls from the ages of 13 to 17 who were mostly pregnant and held by Ricco in the hotel. They're gone. We don't know where they are. We have no trace of them,” Vaughan said.

Now, decades after the murder of Josefina Hernandez, Cruz is talking to the daughter of one of his victims.

“I told him I was writing a book about his case. And I started interviewing him during prison visits,” said the daughter, April Valenzuela.

For the past three years, Valenzuela, 38, has been meeting with Cruz inside Corcoran State Prison in central California.

“I was coached by a retired FBI agent on how to get information from him.  It was not easy, of course, he is a very sick individual,” said Valenzuela.

She has conducted extensive research into the murder case.

“I am 100% certain that he has killed more people, I just don’t know where they are,” Valenzuela said.

Valenzuela relentlessly is trying to identify the missing teenagers.

Her research uncovered a Los Angeles Times newspaper personal ad from 1982. It ran for several weeks and all it said was, “Susan Eve, call your father.”

She also has obtained witness interviews from the police investigation.

“[Cruz] told another inmate in the prison that he had buried three women in the basement,” Valenzuela said.

During her prison visits with Cruz, the killer has been drawing maps of the Hawthorne Inn basement, according to Valenzuela.

“They found Josefina here and that's the only body they found,” Valenzuela said, while pointing to one of the maps.

“He's telling me there are bodies here [in a different area],” she said.

The maps depict not only the inn’s basement where Josefina's body was buried, but also of the basement of the house next door, which is now rented out as part of the Hawthorne Inn.

Back in the 1980s, the basement of that neighboring house was never searched by police.

“The lady who owned that house, named Ruby, complained that Ricco had been under her house,” said Vaughan, the former prosecutor.

“She couldn't sleep at night because she had seen Ricco under the house. I don't think anybody really believed her,” said Vaughan.

It's something that has bothered Vaughan for decades.

“I have never stopped being worried. All I can say is, I think there are some undiscovered young girls residing on that hillside,” she said.

Valenzuela believes both basements need to be searched with cadaver dogs and scanned using modern technology, called ground penetrating radar.

She even met with the current owner of the Hawthorne Inn and offered to pay for the radar scan of the basement.

The owner declined her offer.

“If something like that were to have happened to me, I would hope and pray that someone, anyone, would find me and tell my family what happened to me, and give me a proper resting place,” said Valenzuela.

The case may soon be reopened.

In recent weeks, San Diego police detectives have interviewed both Valenzuela and Vaughan, and a San Diego Police Department cold case homicide detective is reviewing old and new evidence in the case.

In an email to News 8, a SDPD homicide lieutenant wrote:

 “We are reviewing the case files and talking to prior investigators to determine the proper course of action.  As with any case, if there is an opportunity for us to solve a case and bring closure for a family, we will do so.'"

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