Denise Dodge London Donnell sensed her daughter was heading down a path of self-destruction.
Despite a worsening addiction to heroin, Lauren Grace London still appeared healthy and attractive the last time the Hughson mother saw her daughter.
Donnell tried to get her daughter some help but fate would have it that just 10 days later, on her 25th birthday, London’s badly burned body was discovered on a dirt road between orchards south of Ceres, a location far from where she was known to frequent.
March 16 marks the one-year anniversary of the death of London, a pretty young single mother. Unlike the Lacy Peterson case, London’s death has not generated much media attention. The family of the homicide victim understandably feels things are very unresolved. There hasn’t been an arrest.
“It doesn’t go away,” said Donnell. “Most other people, somebody dies, you have a burial and a service and it’s up to you how you process and that type of thing. But this is the investigation, newspaper articles, dealing with the detectives, maybe they’ll be court. It just goes on.”
Those who knew London while growing up in Hughson remember a girl with infectious laughter, a woman who didn’t take herself seriously, and a loving person. Those who attended Hughson High School with her up until her 2008 graduation remember she was a good volleyball player who made senior class clown in the Huskies yearbook.
London was a typical fun-loving teenager who wasn’t allowed to get away with much. Donnell was protective of both London and her sister Lindsay. They had curfews. Donnell chased off boys who would show up at the house. She was likeable, and her sense of humor drew lots of friendships. London attended Merced Junior College before studying at a local beauty college and then worked for a while as a hair stylist. She was a fan of Justin Bieber, took care at being fashionable, and enjoyed spending time with her friends and family. Facebook shows a happy young woman doing fun things with friends – up until 2012.
Homicide tied to drug addiction?
After a year of pondering about what happened to London on or around the day before her 25th birthday, Donnell has only theories. London had been hanging out with friends who were drug addicts at the Tiki Lodge on McHenry Avenue in Modesto – a place which Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll has acknowledged as a “hotbed of criminal activity” rife with prostitution, drug abuse and fights. Donnell said her daughter was staying there with others who managed to get vouchers for emergency housing. While picking up or dropping off London for occasional lunch dates, Donnell would be introduced to her friends.
“She’d introduce me to everybody and they were like her. They weren’t like the people you see shuffling with sores on the street begging for money. They looked like kids she went to school with that would be in my house,” Donnell said.
London had attended recovery meetings now and then. A picture of a drug addict is depicted on her Facebook page. On May 10, 2014, she jokingly referred to “my new addiction, I’m down to only 3 packs a day” followed by a photo of Grandma’s peanut butter cookies.
Donnell has her hunches that the homicide was related to London’s drug addiction and possible lifestyle.
“I’ve always assumed that she was at the point where she would do anything. So not having any money…I just assume because she was really pretty and that worried me because I knew that she would draw a lot of attention,” Donnell said.
London began drinking and eventually realized it was becoming a problem. She turned to Alcoholics Anonymous where she eventually led meetings.
It was in AA that London met James.
London got involved with drug use through a live-in boyfriend who also physically abused her while living at his mother’s house. London became pregnant by him and gave birth to daughter Kennidee in April 2013. According to Donnell, he was the one London referred to in a May 2014 Facebook post that read: “Rather be without a home then (sic) to accept getting beat by a man. Wait that’s not a man, that’s a pussy.”
“He is not a suspect,” confirmed Donnell.
London appeared to be head over heels in love with her daughter. On June 16, 2013 she posted a photo montage of Kennidee with these words: “Happy 2 months to the best thing that has ever happened to me, these past two months have been the best and hardest 2 months of my life & I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m_hard_core_in_love.”
But drugs had a stronghold on her. Donnell saw the telltale signs of neglect when she would spend time with Kennidee. At times the girl would be dirty and at other times she had severe diaper rash.
“I’d get her all healed and it would be back next weekend.”
Kennidee was about 11 months old when her paternal grandmother came to Donnell and explained London was using heroin.
“You could have knocked me over. I could not believe it. That was not on my radar at all and I considered myself to be educated in these things,” Donnell said. “So for two years she knew London was doing heroin. All through the pregnancy she knew. I was horrified at what was going on in her home. Like within 20 minutes I had the baby.”
Donnell knew she had to get the baby away from London. She called London saying that she missed Kennidee and wanted to spend time with her as she hatched a plan to keep the girl from London.
“Lauren was heartbroken. I said, ‘This child will not grow up where there is any type of addiction. I’m telling you now I’m not going to allow it.’ But I told her I wanted her to get her s--- together and raise her daughter. That’s what I wanted.”
Donnell convinced London that she couldn’t adequately care for Kennidee and needed to file for permanent guardianship.
“Lauren was able to see eventually that it was best for the baby because I said ‘I need to be able to make medical decisions without tracking you down.’ ”
London eventually moved in with her father in Turlock. A condition to living there was undergoing drug tests at home, said Donnell, to prove she was clean. London was still using heroin but managed to fool her dad.
“Once I found out she was using, I even asked her, ‘How did you pass the drug test?’ and she burst out laughing and goes, ‘Daddy didn’t flush the toilet.’ He drug tested himself.”
Friends grow distant
London slipped further away from her family and old friends. Her Facebook page tells the story of friends reaching out, saying they missed her, and suggesting getting together. The suggestions went unanswered. By early 2014 London had visibly lost a lot of weight, looking gaunt. That June she announced on Facebook she wass 93 pounds but posts photos of donuts, saying she is a “big mamma in da making.”
Donnell said she tried staying in contact with London by giving her cell phones that would “disappear.” London explained that she lost them but Donnell questioned if they were being sold. Contact became rarer and typically occurred through Facebook messages made while she was on friends’ phones. Donnell even turned up the volume on her cell phone at night in case it chimed that London was sending a message. When she did, Donnell jumped at responding, quickly messaging back that the two get together, often for lunch.
“At Christmas just before (her death) we pretty much spent the day together and I brought her home to see Kennidee. It was a wonderful thing. It was just awesome and then I took Lauren back to Tiki.”
Ten days before her death, London contacted her mom to see if she would activate a cell phone that she had. Donnell refused but asked her if she was ready to seek help. London hesitated before replying, “Yeah.”
Donnell found a place on Orangeburg Avenue that would accept Lonson under her medical insurance plan. The staff began processing London’s information but then wanted a $2,500 check from Donnell, explaining that they were unable to get ahold of the company and needed immediate payment. Donnell was unable to write a check, even if she were going to be reimbursed later. The mother and daughter left the facility with London promising she would check herself in the following day.
“She swore she was going to go back but said, ‘There’s someone I need to tell I’m going to be doing this,’”Donnell recalled.
Donnell’s response to her daughter was if there is someone controlling her, she needed to get out.
London replied, “No, I can’t. I need to say something.”
When she dropped London off back at the Tiki Lodge it would be the last time she would see her daughter. While in the motel parking lot, a friend of London’s appeared. London told her mom that she had to meet him, jokingly announcing that he was going to be Kennidee’s godfather. The friend asked London for “something” because he wasn’t feeling good. London cleared her throat and told her friend that Donnell was her mom. Before leaving, Donnell told him: “It’s your job to make sure she goes there tomorrow.”
Her daughter had to want recovery for it to work, Donnell said, and had the tools she needed but London never checked into the program. The next day the staff called Donnell looking for London.
Over a week passed with no additional contact.
Donnell was notified of London’s death when a sheriff’s detective contacted her ex-husband looking for her.
“My ex-husband called me at work and told me the sheriff was on the way,” said Donnell.
Authorities were able to identify Laondon because of a partial fingerprint from the body even though it was badly destroyed, she said.
Donnell has no information about the status of her daughter’s homicide investigation and no details about London’s exact cause of death.
“Her birthday is the day they are using. It took like forever to even get her death certificate because they couldn’t determine anything. They don’t know did that [fire] kill her? Was she already dead? Was she killed there?”
She did learn that the dirt road where London’s body was discovered is used by drug addicts and derelicts wanting to avoid police contact. It was reported that an appliance dolly was near the body.
A Sheriff’s department spokesman at the time commented that the burning of the body showed “a bit more aggression” than in typical homicides.
Donnell began looking to social media for any clues as to who killed her daughter. She was intrigued by one set of seemingly cryptic comments on Facebook that featured an address in Ceres. She reported that information to investigators but never heard anything back.
Time breeds frustration
Frustration runs high that the Sheriff’s department hasn’t made an arrest. Donnell is also unhappy about her contacts with investigators.
“They’re not very forthcoming in keeping me updated at all,” said Donnell. “This is my daughter and I’m her mother so I can demand this of you and if you don’t want to work with me … I’m being extremely respectful of their job … but when push comes to shove, I will continue to go up the chain.”
Her frustration led her to write a letter to Sheriff Adam Christiansen and send copies to detectives. She claims a detective on the case called her while “flipped out” about the letter and assured her that things were being done. Donnell offered her thanks and apologized that it took a letter to the sheriff to shake loose the short bit of information. She was also told that some were afraid to talk to detectives “because they’re afraid of what’s going to happen to them.”
In her letter, Donnell related that her family loved London and was waiting and rooting for her despite any trouble she might have gotten into.
“I did everything I possibly could, including having her come home and try to get into [recovery] places all over the state, other states.”
Donnell took interest in Christiansen’s comments published on Feb. 10 in the Ceres Courier. In it he was quoted as saying: “We will solve this case but there’s a whole lot more to the story that we simply cannot talk about. I am confident that we will make an arrest in this case but it’s just going to take more time.”
“What you printed in the paper,” said Donnell, “I wonder if he’s telling the truth because no one has said anything like that to me. I have a really hard time getting anyone to really respond to me. Through the course of a year I’ve calmed down some because it used to make me very angry. Tell me. I want to know you’re working on it.”
Christiansen remained mum about the investigation but told the Ceres Courier that “we always know more about our cases than we are willing to release for a variety of reasons. While I would love to give you all of the details, I guess I’m simply going to ask that you trust us that we will solve this case but there’s a whole lot more to this story that we simply can’t talk about. It’s like a lot of cases where the public is left with the perception that nothing’s happening or it’s a cold case homicide or it’s a dead end, or gee how come you haven’t made an arrest yet? I’d love to tell you why. But I will tell you that I am confident we will make an arrest in this case.”
Donnell’s hopes were also buoyed when she learned that the District Attorney’s Office began prosecuting the Turlock murder case of Korey Kauffman that dates back to 2012.
“It gave me hope. For it to be that long ago gave me hope because I’ve just resolved myself that they’re not going to catch anybody.”
Despite her family’s great tragedy and unresolved justice, Donnell said she tries to go on the best she can.
“I’m trying to have the best life I can under the circumstances.”
Raising Kennidee as her own daughter has helped. She said her granddaughter has saved her life “because she’s such a joy. I laugh because of her. I talk to her about her mommy all the time. She’s not even three yet and can say, ‘That’s Mommy.’ She has pictures of her in her room. That’s what I want her to know.”