Between tears, it was one of several emotions written across the faces of two women as they discussed the Anaheim PD’s role in solving a cold case homicide that has haunted them since 1998, when the body of a loved one was found in the closet of her one-bedroom apartment.
The Orange County Coroner’s Office ruled alcohol likely played a role in what they believed was the accidental death of Irene Margaret Ruelaz, 41, a single mother and hairdresser who loved the Ramones and to wear berets over hair whose color she changed regularly, from jet black to blue.
Irene Margaret’s daughter, Analisa, was 15 when her mother’s decomposing body was found May 3, 1998 (her family had reported her missing April 24). Analisa and other relatives suspected she was the victim of foul play at the hands of her sometimes boyfriend, based on his abusive behavior.
The coroner ruling never sat well with legendary Anaheim PD Det. Karen Schroepfer. After all, Irene Margaret (she went by “Margaret”) was found fully clothed and buried under other garments.
Schroepfer never officially closed the investigation.
The Orange County Homicide Task Force gave the Ruelaz case a fresh look in May 2015 and, following a joint investigation with APD Det. Joe Atkinson and, before him, APD Det. Mark Lillemoen, announced on Dec. 8, 2015 the arrest of John Andrew Augustin, 52, of Fullerton, on suspicion of killing Irene Margaret.
Augustin is suspected of suffocating Ruelaz on or around April 18, 1998. He has been charged with one count of murder and remains in custody at the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana.
Atkinson said Augustin was connected to the murder through additional witnesses and physical evidence, including DNA, but he declined to elaborate since the court case is pending.
Formed in 2014, members of the OCHTF include APD, Fullerton Police Department, Huntington Beach Police Department, Orange County District Attorney’s Office, Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Santa Ana Police Department. Through investigative work by OCHTF, five cases have resulted in arrests or warrants.
“I feel they really do care,” Lillian Florido, one of Irene Margaret’s five siblings, said of the Anaheim PD. “She had a family, and we all loved her.”
Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin of the Homicide Unit is prosecuting Augustin.
“Detectives from the Homicide/Major Assaults Detail work tirelessly to bring justice to our victim’s surviving family members,” Anaheim PD Sgt. Jeff Mundy said in a statement announcing Augustin’s arrest. “It is particularly gratifying when we can bring the news of an arrest to a family who believes their loved one’s murder was forgotten long ago.”
Irene Margaret’s mother, Irene Rodriguez, broke down when asked about her slain daughter during a recent interview in her home in La Habra, where Irene Margaret grew up with five siblings (two brothers and three sisters). All attended Sonora High School in La Habra.
“It’s still hard,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez and Florido described Irene Margaret as fiercely independent — a free spirit who wasn’t the easiest girl to raise, but who loved her family, liked going to the beach, and had a soft spot for children (she adored her nieces and nephews).
“She had a hard time sometimes,” Rodriguez said. “She wasn’t into school very much. She wanted to go to La Habra High School, where all her friends went.”
When she was 14, Irene Margaret ran away and went to Las Vegas. She got married when she was 18 in a double-wedding with her sister, Connie, the oldest sibling (Connie passed away in 2012 at age 59 before she could live to see her sister’s suspected killer arrested).
Divorced five years later, Irene Margaret worked in a Mexican restaurant before putting herself through cosmetology school.
She was a hard worker who often would pick up older clients at their homes and whisk them to the various salons she worked at, her mother and sister said.
Irene Margaret was working at a hair salon on Broadway in Anaheim when she disappeared.
Her family is not sure how she met the suspected killer, Augustin, whom the Anaheim PD described as a transient.
“I heard her mention him once or twice,” Rodriguez said. “She never invited me to her apartment. I remember her once mentioning a male ‘friend’ whose girlfriend committed suicide. But I never pried.”
Irene Margaret’s mother last saw her daughter around Easter, a month or so before she was killed.
Now, following Augustin’s arrest, Irene Margaret’s family is hoping for some long-awaited measure of justice for the spiritual woman who believed in God, who was an exercise fanatic who loved to jog, and who liked to eat peanut butter straight out of the jar.
“We loved her,” her sister, Florido, said. (Another sister, Evelyn, is a doctor and lives in Virginia. A brother, Arthur, lives in Fresno and another brother, Robert, a cardiologist, lives in Huntington Beach.)
Irene Margaret’s father, Raul, lives in Riverside.
Irene Margaret’s daughter from an earlier relationship, Analisa, now is 33 and lives in Colorado.
Analisa is a mother of two.
Every year since her daughter’s death, Irene Rodriguez attends the Parents of Murdered Children annual Candlelight Vigil and Names Dedication Ceremony at Memory Garden Park in Brea. The organization offers support to those who have lost loved ones to violence.
Asked about the process of waiting nearly 18 years for her sister’s death to be solved, Florido said: “You have no choice but to have patience.”