“From Witness to Victim: the Story of Donna Gentile” by Anita DeFrancesco
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She was my first cousin. Her killer or killers are still at large today. And her autopsy was the first to be officially sealed in the City of San Diego.
A young woman’s body was discovered off Sunrise Highway 30 miles east of San Diego County, in Mt. Laguna, California, set in the forest surrounded by Jeffrey Pine, which sits 6,000 feet above sea level. The high point of this scenic drive extends from Interstate 8 to Highway 79. It was Sunday, June 23, 1985, a sunny summer day in America’s best climate state. The medical examiner would later report that she had died a day earlier. She was found naked, and her body had been beaten and strangled. Gravel was stuffed down her throat.
The 22-year-old woman was Donna Gentile, and she was discovered just five weeks after she implicated two San Diego Police officers in a prostitution scandal. She was my first cousin. Her killer or killers are still at large today.
And her autopsy was the first to be officially sealed in the City of San Diego.
The San Diego County Medical Examiner determined that Donna, a prostitute, was alive when her killer pushed gravel down her throat. This is a common method of marking a murder victim as a “snitch.” Furthermore, the area where the sheriff’s department found the body appeared to be carefully brushed clean of any tire marks, footprints, or any other clues. The area was a carefully calculated and orchestrated placing of the girl’s body rather than a random murder and dumping.
My cousin’s autopsy will remain sealed, even though it’s been more than 30 years since the police informant’s high-profile murder. She testified against a police officer and a lieutenant, one of whom lost his job as a result.
She had all the same dreams of many young women of her day: did Donna choose prostitution? No, prostitution choose her. It was an iron fist for a young woman born of pain, abandonment, and despair. And then, cast off, voiceless. And at the end, lying down, dead…pebbles stuffed in her mouth.
In San Diego, the place to purchase sex was El Cajon Boulevard. Prostitution had been part of San Diego’s history as far back as people can remember or history records. After World War II, the constant presence of the Navy and Marine Corps in San Diego certainly provided plenty of customers for the girls. El Cajon Boulevard was a natural place for the girls to hang out since a lot of traffic flowed through the area. With the area containing many adult entertainment businesses, the prostitutes knew it was a haven for potential customers. Even after the city forced those adult businesses to move away, the prostitute remained, specifically near the area of 30th Street. The City of San Diego went through major periods of redevelopment like any other city. However, it never touched the hooker section of El Cajon. This excerpt from a 2009 article by Keegan Kyle shows how little had changed:
Daybreak along El Cajon Boulevard can be a rude awakening and a reminder of the road’s most illicit reputation. A few women dressed in short skirts, leather jackets, and high heels waited this morning near the boulevard’s intersection with Kansas Street. A motorist pulled up next to the group, one woman slid into the front passenger seat, and the car took off. Across the street, customers at a 24-hour diner worked on their breakfasts and read the newspaper as if part of a normal routine. They turned to watch the remaining women when a patrolling black and white pulled up. The police officers separated the remaining two women for questioning, but eventually let them walk away. They had no evidence to prove the women committed a crime, and at least for the time being the women had lost their interest in standing at that corner. They’ll be somewhere else tomorrow. The corner of Kansas Street and El Cajon Boulevard is one block south of a YMCA youth activity center, less than one mile away from several schools and not too far from popular neighborhoods. It is also within a five-block radius where San Diego Police arrest the most people for crimes of prostitution. The boulevard is renowned as the city’s hub of prostitution, and its reputation has helped sustain the level of criminal activity while other hotspots have faded with time.”
Upon her arrest in 1985, Donna begged not to be released from jail, because the cops were waiting for her, according to Anchorage Daily News.
According to a letter to her brother Donna wrote, while in jail, on April 2, 1985:
I also been on the news here and in the papers for about a week because I turned in a cop in to internal affairs because he was sexually harassing me. The cop knew I turned him in. I was very scared because he’s crazy. They put a dead bolt on my door and offered to relocate me, internal affairs said they would do everything they could to keep me out of jail, because what I was doing for them and the pressure it was on me. They didn’t do nothing for me.
Everybody thinks my life is in danger here when I get out. Lieutenant was a good cop he had a lot of rank, I don’t think he knows why I did this, he’s probably very angry, everyone tells me to leave town right away, I would come back but my horse means so much to me, I just can’t give her up. I would have to figure a way to bring her.
Law enforcement officers knew her, some tried to help her, but still she ended up brutally murdered. Was it because she cooperated with an investigation of police corruption?
The strange part is that the San Diego Police Department and District Attorney’s Office seem to want to keep her case cold. Channel 8 in San Diego requested that the San Diego County Medical Examiner release Donna’s autopsy under the California Public Records Act, but the request was turned down. An unfortunate aspect of law enforcement, especially regarding this case, is that the police figure prostitutes are to blame for any mistreatment they encountered, including being murdered.
In the 1980s merciless serial killers were on the loose in San Diego. Did one of them murder this young runaway, and not the police, and leave her body on a remote mountain top with rocks stuffed in her mouth? Over time, Donna’s death was linked to people as varied as Gary Leon Ridgway, who was known as the Green River Killer, a convicted serial killer who lost count of how many women he murdered. Compounding his association to Donna was that he operated exclusively in the state of Washington.
When Madam Karen Wilkening, known as the “ Rolodex Madam,” sent young women to party with wealthy businessmen, one of the young women ended up dead. Wilkening allegedly provided twenty young beauties to Texas millionaire Don Dixon’s party at his Solana Beach home the night in June 21, 1985 that Donna went missing. Nude photos of her mysteriously showed up two days later at a home not even part of the investigation.
These were “misdemeanor murders,” biker women, and hookers…sometimes we’d call them “NHI’s” – no humans involved.
–San Diego Police as quoted in Sacramento Bee, October 7, 1980
Donna’s murder sets the stage for exposure of the dehumanizing policy of NHI. This high-profile story exploded in the media and was nationally televised. Artists unveiled a billboard with the logo NHI, “No Humans Involved,” bearing Donna’s picture and facing toward the SDPD headquarters. The project was a result of outrage that law enforcement didn’t address those investigations, with officers taught to disregard those on the darker side of life. If a prostitute would report that she was beaten, the cops wouldn’t go out of their way to make any arrests, leading women to ignore reporting their own violations of those of women they knew on the streets.
The NHI artists established a community exhibition of public art that addressed the sexual assault and murder of the 45 San Diego women between 1985 and 1992. The storefront gallery exhibition in downtown San Diego gave a face to the 45 murdered women. The project invited women to donate their photos to the exhibition in honor of these women. Law enforcement then tried to link Donna’s murder with these other women but that wasn’t the case.
In case I disappear somewhere or am missing, I want my lawyer to give this to the press. I have no intention of disappearing or going out of town without letting my lawyer know first. Because of the publicity that I have given a police scandal, this is the reason why I’m making this. I feel someone in a uniform with a badge can still be a serious criminal. This is the only life insurance that I have.
–Donna Gentile, after testifying
This text was excerpted from Chapters 1, 5, 9, 12, and 13 of The Donna Gentile Story by Anita DeFrancesco.
Anita DeFrancesco is an author, psychotherapist, two-time award-winning journalist, and yoga teacher. Her books include The Donna Gentile Story, her first on true crime about her first cousin, and a book about her spiritual journey, Live Free: Re-create and Liberate Your Life. She has worked as a columnist for Century City News and for Children of the Night, both in Los Angeles, and has produced her own cable television shows. She presently resides in her hometown, Philadelphia, PA.
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