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'Give him a puzzle, he'll figure it out'

Retired Santa Rosa Police detective Bryan Reynolds, foreground, played a critical role on a team, including Steve Rakoski, left, Steve Fraga, Ryan Corcoran and Tom Peirsol, that solved a February 2012 murder. Reynolds was recently honored by the Exchange Club of Santa Rosa as officer of the year.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/Press Democrat
Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 7:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 7:05 a.m.

When Bryan Reynolds sat down at a computer with a pad of paper and pen, nearly 12 hours had passed since a Santa Rosa woman was gunned down Feb. 5, 2012, in her massage office near downtown.

All police had to go on was the number off a prepaid phone, a sketchy description of a man seen running from the modest Clark Street cottage and a scrambled set of letters and numbers from the license plate on the getaway car.

What unfolded next that led police to a killer with a history of attacking women wasn't the stuff of TV crime dramas. Reynolds, taking up the tedious task two others had started and aborted, began scribbling permutations of the partial plate on paper and plugging them into a clunky state database.

"He's one of those people: Give him a puzzle, he'll figure it out," said Santa Rosa Police Detective Tom Peirsol, the lead investigator on the case.

This month, the Exchange Club of Santa Rosa honored Reynolds, 53 and newly retired, as Sonoma County Peace Officer of the Year for his work on the team that tracked the shooter, John Quincy Ellis, to a Stockton highway.

"I'm not sure just any police officer could have done what Bryan did with dedication and out-of-the box thinking," Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said.

Reynolds chased Ellis across six lanes of Interstate 5, a zoo with morning traffic, and was just a few yards behind when Ellis sat down in the path of a big-rig and was killed in an apparent suicide.

"In 30 years, I have seen a lot of people do bad things, but I took a pause . . . it was just outrageous," Reynolds said, reflecting on the case recently. "He knew what else he'd done. And by his final action, he avoided accountability."

It was only after Ellis died, and his DNA entered into criminal databases, that police unraveled disturbing evidence indicating the Stockton man was responsible for a series of violent and perverted sexual attacks against women in Sacramento, Stockton and San Francisco.

Detectives found a trove of pornography, literature about rape, handcuffs, zip ties and photographs of victims hidden away at his home.

A book, the retelling of a serial Bay Area rapist, was on his nightstand, investigators said.

"It was a signature-type crime," San Francisco Police Inspector Joseph Nannery said of the series of attacks. "It was meticulous and thought out, no drugs involved, not a spur-of-the-moment decision. He was an extremely dangerous type of individual."

Nannery's team was working with Sacramento County sheriff's detectives to identify the man with a distinct fetish who made appointments with women offering erotic massage in both jurisdictions, then attacked them.

On Dec. 26, 2011, in Sacramento, Ellis showed up for an appointment with a woman, 46, who advertised erotic massage online, said Sacramento County Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Dean Bowen. She was getting Ellis a glass of water when he brandished a gun and held a knife to her throat, Bowen said. After the assault, Ellis fled, leaving the woman tightly bound and suffering for 10 hours until she was able to get the tape off her mouth and scream for help.

"The doctors basically said that, much longer, she could have lost her limbs," Bowen said.

Then on Jan. 22, 2012, the circumstances were repeated in San Francisco when a woman, 49, was attacked.

"If you just replaced the names in another report, the case sounds exactly the same," Nannery said.

They were just days from getting documents that would identify Ellis as a suspect on Feb. 5, 2012, when Reynolds, on call and in his car on Super Bowl Sunday, heard the words crackle over the police radio: Shots fired, woman down.

In some of her last words, Carole Marie Brooks, 60, who ran a massage practice in the rented backyard cottage, told an officer the man who shot her said his name was John Paul and they'd find his number in her phone.

Although they cannot know for sure, police now think Brooks became suspicious of Ellis soon after he showed up for an appointment, and she started screaming. Then Ellis shot her.

One neighbor saw the man running and noted a few numbers and letters on the gray Nissan Versa. The Versa pulled around a driver at a stop sign, an odd move that made her remember part of the license plate, said Steve Fraga, a retired Santa Rosa police sergeant who was overseeing the investigation.

Using that information, Reynolds ruled out pickups, cars of the wrong color, those registered to women and others that offered no link to an African-American man in his 40s.

But one stood out: a rented Versa registered in Southern California.

"Bingo, that's our car," Reynolds remembers thinking.

It was about 2 a.m. the next day and Reynolds called the rental company's office in Burbank but was told he needed to get a court order to get a driver's name.

Reynolds, who grew up in Texas before his family moved to Penngrove, started calling regional headquarters of the car rental company across the country, each time rejected until he reached a man in Oklahoma.

"I told him that a bad person killed a defenseless woman. Within two minutes, I had what I was looking for," Reynolds said. "You can never dismiss the luck factor."

The man told him Ellis rented the car in Stockton.

By no later than 3 a.m., Reynolds and a team of detectives led by Fraga and Peirsol were on the highway heading east.

The team split up. Reynolds went to the rental agency, where they spotted a car registered to Ellis. Others went to his two-story home in a middle-class neighborhood and watched the garage door roll up and saw the Versa inside. At some point, Ellis got into the car and left. A phalanx of officers from Santa Rosa, Stockton and the CHP followed Ellis onto Interstate 5 and pulled him over near the southbound March Lane exit.

Ellis got out of the car and started yelling, demanding they shoot him and gesturing as if he was pulling something from his waistband, several investigators said.

Traffic snarled, and Ellis tried to get into a passing car, but the doors were locked. He then ran across three lanes of southbound traffic, climbed over the median and darted through northbound traffic.

Reynolds followed.

"No, he was not getting away," Reynolds said.

Reynolds was just feet away when Ellis sat down in the path of an oncoming big rig.

After his death, and with Ellis' DNA in criminal databases, Stockton police told a woman and her family that the man who sexually assaulted her 13 years prior had finally been identified.

The woman was attacked by an unknown man who knocked on her door Jan. 5, 1999, Stockton Police Officer Joseph Silva said.

"As far as I know, he had no (local) criminal record," Silva said. "This was definitely a thought-out and malicious attack against this woman."

Reynolds was hired full time with the Santa Rosa Police Department in 1983. He served 12 years with the bomb unit and for the past seven years worked as a detective in the violent crimes unit.

The Exchange Club gave Reynolds the same honor in 1994 after the officer stopped a man from jumping off a downtown building.

Reynolds offered the man a smoke, and when the man reached out he took the opportunity to pull him to safety.

In 2009, Reynolds and retired Detective Mark Mahre were honored as Police Officers of the Year by the Santa Rosa Rotary Club, an award whose recipient is selected by the police union, for their work developing evidence against an ex-Santa Rosa police officer in a string of armored car heists.

"It's no fluke, he's a good investigator," Fraga said. "What is commendable is that he didn't take 'no' for an answer."

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.

com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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