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A cold case heats up: Local mother finds justice 17 years later

 

Muffie Ellis holds a picture of her son Cliff Ellis, who was murdered 17 years ago. An arrest in the crime has been made.

Muffie Ellis holds a picture of her son Cliff Ellis, who was murdered 17 years ago. An arrest in the crime has been made.
Photo by: Kelly Tippett  Buy this photo.

 

 

Birney Imes

 

Wednesday morning Muffie Ellis of Columbus got the phone call she''s been waiting on for 17 years. On the line was a San Diego district attorney with news police had just arrested the man they think murdered her son that many years ago. 

 

Earlier that day in Kent, Wash., officers arrested Leopoldo Castro Chavez II, 34, and charged him with the 1993 murder of Cliff Ellis, 20, and Keith Combs, 23, both of them sailors on the aircraft carrier Constellation in San Diego. 

 

The murder occurred in an undeveloped stretch of commercial property near Interstate 805 in San Diego. The site was popular with off-road motorists by day and at night with young people who gathered around bonfires to drink and socialize. 

 

According to a police report, Ellis and Combs were among several groups of males and females as well as groups of Hispanic males partying and drinking in that area. Combs and Ellis were there with a small group of friends. The group disbanded and the two sailors later returned to the site. Their bodies were found the next morning by a doctor and his son, who were dirt biking. 

 

Ten days after the murder Chavez, aka "Weasel," was found in Tijuana, Mexico driving Ellis'' white Toyota. Detectives then didn''t have enough evidence to tie him to the slayings and he was never charged. 

 

Cliff Ellis had enlisted in the Navy after graduating from Heritage Academy in 1991. His mother had hoped he would join the Naval Reserves with its shorter two-year commitment. 

 

"If I''m going to do it, I''m going to do it all the way," he told his mother. 

 

Ellis was an engineer in charge of the elevators that lifted aircraft to the flight deck, his mother said. 

 

After her son''s murder, Ellis, a diminutive, soft-spoken woman, became something of an activist -- she wrote letters, she networked with other parents of murdered children and along the way taught the Navy a thing or two about determination.  

 

Despite initial opposition from the Navy she had the site of her son''s murder declared off limits. A midshipman had been shot in the leg the week before the murder. 

 

The Navy told her she wouldn''t be able to recover her son''s truck. 

 

"I''m going to get my son''s truck back," she replied. And with the help of Rep. Sonny Montgomery, she did, though it came home without tires and battery. Charlie Ellis, Cliff''s adoptive father and Muffie''s husband, drove the truck for eight years. 

 

In time the case was relegated to the cold case file. 

 

And, after 10 years of advocacy and prayer Ellis slowed down. 

 

"I never completely gave up, but I did say, ''Lord, I''m going to have to give it to you now.''" 

 

Enter Kim Tedesco of the elite Naval Crime Investigative Services (NCIS). In addition to being a popular TV series, NCIS is the primary law enforcement and counterintelligence arm of the U.S. Navy. 

 

Tedesco happened upon Ellis'' file and was moved by the letters written by the young man''s mother. 

 

"I wrote many letters," Muffie said. 

 

Tedesco called Ellis in February to say she was investigating the case. 

 

"You are the answer to a prayer," Ellis told her. "Do the best you can." 

 

Two and a half weeks ago Tedesco called to say an arrest was imminent. The suspect had a Facebook account and, more significantly, there was DNA evidence linking Chavez with the crime scene.  

 

According to news reports, Chavez was arrested at 7 a.m. as he was leaving for work. Ellis says the arrested man is a father of five. 

 

Extradition to California could take up to 120 days, Ellis said. The trial could be six months to a year from now. She plans to be there for the trial. 

 

"I''d like him to spend the rest of his life in prison," Ellis said. 

 

What about the death penalty? 

 

Ellis paused to think a moment and then she replied, choosing her words carefully, thinking about each one: "When you read your son''s autopsy and all its graphic detail, how your son was shot in the head and shot in the heart ... I think I could (support that)." 

 

As it would for any parent, the murder of Cliff Ellis forever changed the lives of Charlie and Muffie Ellis. Yet, says Ellis, a conviction would restore a measure of balance in their lives. 

 

"When things like this happen, it makes you think the world''s going mad. This will never bring closure, but it will bring balance," Ellis said. "For me, the world has been off-kilter. There is meaning."

 

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.

 

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment christianmom commented at 7/9/2010 8:04:00 PM:

I personally know Leo, and despite what this artical says he is not a killer. He is a wonderful, non-violent person. The real killer is still out there on the loose, I'm sorry to say.

 

Article Comment jake commented at 7/10/2010 2:56:00 AM:

"He is a wonderful, non-violent person."

What was this wonderful person doing driving around Tijauna in "Ellis' white Toyota" ?

 

Article Comment suzy commented at 7/10/2010 8:48:00 AM:

John Wayne Gacy's sister thought she knew him also. So perhaps Christianmom we don't really know the people we surround ourselves with. But I'm guessing Leo just lucked up on the toyota vehicle, that's some kinda luck to find a vehicle and the owner had just been murdered.

 

Article Comment roscoe p. coltrain commented at 7/10/2010 9:34:00 AM:

The DNA will tell the story. Sounds like yet another good reason to lock down the border and stop letting who knows what into the country.

 

Article Comment sassy commented at 7/11/2010 12:34:00 AM:

For Cliff and his family, it looks like justice may finally come. Let's hope that the killer has lived his last free day.

 

Article Comment sharp nasal kent commented at 7/11/2010 9:51:00 AM:

roscoe, how do you "lock down" a 2,000-mile border?

 

Article Comment doj commented at 7/11/2010 11:59:00 AM:

Well, my sharp nosed friend, you place sensors and motion controlled machineguns about 200-yards apart and shoot anything that tries to cross over. Of course, you place warning signs across the border, and program the guns to fire a warning shot before actively engaging the target. And, in event of an unforseen accident, there should be a phone on the alien side, complete with "dial 1 for Spanish" for reporting!!! Factious, huh!!! Actually, these type comments have nothing to do with the fact that the Ellis' lost a son, and may now have hope of some justice and closure. My heart goes out to them. I just wish people would think before they make off-the-wall comments inappropiate to the subject matter.

 

Article Comment thom geiger commented at 7/11/2010 12:00:00 PM:

"roscoe, how do you "lock down" a 2,000-mile border?"

The Nevada Test Site (NTS) is a United States Department of Energy reservation located in southeastern Nye County, Nevada, about 65 mi (105 km) northwest of the city of Las Vegas. Formerly known as the Nevada Proving Grounds,[1] the site, established on 11 January 1951, for the testing of nuclear devices, is composed of approximately 1,350 sq mi (3,500 km2) of desert and mountainous terrain.

The Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) is a training facility of the United States Air Force located in the desert of southern Nevada in the United States. It is the largest of its kind in the US, 4687 sq. mi. (12139 kmĀ²) and is operated by the USAF Warfare Center's 98th Range Wing.
NTTR borders (on three sides) the Department of Energy's Nevada Test Site; between them the two complexes control much of the land in southern Nevada.

How do they do it?

 

Article Comment doj commented at 7/11/2010 1:02:00 PM:

What's your point, Thom?? Anybody that has ever been out there knows that you can't live there without support, and once you have been there, you don't want to go back. Other than Mercury, there ain't nothing out there and what is there is radioactive or part of a bombing range. Illegal aliens are going to head for the cities where there are jobs, food, shelter and anonymity.

 

Article Comment sharp nasal kent commented at 7/11/2010 3:09:00 PM:

Is that land "locked down", Thom? Or could a wily interloper make their way onto it without too much trouble?

 

Article Comment thom geiger commented at 7/11/2010 3:26:00 PM:

"What's your point, Thom??"

Once again, I wasn't making a point. I posted public information pertaining to the post I was responding to. The information I posted on the Nevada Nuclear Test Site and the NTTR was not authored by me. The only content I authored was a five word question, nothing more.

"Is that land "locked down", Thom?"

My answer would make no difference. Perhaps there are others on the site who have either worked at some part of NTTR or have performed some cleanup duties there (ie bomb detail at Tonopah, as I did) and whose answers you might accept.

 

Article Comment doj commented at 7/11/2010 4:23:00 PM:

Thom, "what is your point?" was asked to ascertain your motive of the comparison of the border and NNTS. "How do they do it?" is a provocative question that has no definitive answer. I'm certain security has evolved over time and what was in vogue at the time is not necessarily what is done today. Either way, I wouldn't want to test security out there even if one could survive the walk across the desert.

 

Article Comment thom geiger commented at 7/11/2010 4:46:00 PM:

"Thom, "what is your point?" was asked to ascertain your motive of the comparison of the border and NNTS."

I wasn't making a comparison of anything to anything else. Someone asked a question (How do you...?) about border security of an area of (what I assumed was) a size that was significant to the question. I posted publicly available information about a similarly large area with a border and security (How do they...?) I am acquainted with.

 

Article Comment roscoe p. coltrain commented at 7/12/2010 5:31:00 AM:

Easy dude, you build a 35 foot tall wall that is wide enough at the top to allow 2 Humvees to pass each other, and you make the base deep/wide enough to prevent passage. Then you line the top with razor wire, cameras, and the every so often guard post with orders to shoot to kill anyone attempting to cross illegally. This would funnel the crossings to actual "check points" where the crosser could be checked for the legality of him/her crossing, what they have in their possession, who they are, and where they are going instead of the swiss cheese border we have now where you don't know who is crossing, what they are doing/carrying, or their intentions.

Oh but they got rights, right? Checking who is coming in would be profiling, right?

Bet the country wished there was profiling when the Towers went down, huh? The problem is fixable as long as we don't listen to the bleeding heart crowd.

And Kent, I'd put you on the southern side of the wall because that is where your kind needs to be. On the outside looking in. And yeah, your welcome.

 

Article Comment sharp nasal kent commented at 7/12/2010 8:57:00 AM:

Thom, if you don't have an answer to a question, why do you feel the need to chime in?

At least roscoe came up with an answer. A 2,000-mile-long, 35-foot-high wall with a base that is so deep and wide it can't be burrowed under, bristling with razor wire and cameras, constantly patrolled by Humvees. I bet that would work.

How much you reckon that might cost to build, maintain, and operate, roscoe?

 

Article Comment doj commented at 7/12/2010 9:49:00 AM:

Thom, a more realistic analogy would be the border between North and South Korea. One has to face formitable odds to cross there; barbed wire entanglements, sensors, crew-served weapons, land and antipersonnel mines and, eventually armed force. We build a wall to keep people out. The Russsians built a wall to keep people in and they made it work for over forty years. The problem is that the Mexican government can't or won't show more than lip service to immigration. The Russian and North Koreans had/have a strong deterrent -- immediate execution! I have serious doubts the present administration has the stomach for that.

 

Article Comment sharp nasal kent commented at 7/12/2010 11:41:00 AM:

The Russian and North Koreans had/have a strong deterrent -- immediate execution!

Not the best role models, though.

 

Article Comment thom geiger commented at 7/12/2010 11:45:00 AM:

"Thom, if you don't have an answer to a question, why do you feel the need to chime in? At least roscoe came up with an answer."

That is why I posted this;
"My answer would make no difference. Perhaps there are others on the site...whose answers you might accept."

I have no need/desire to engage in verbal warfare on the Dispatch website with trolls. It's boringly repetitive and unfruitful. An intelligent discussion is not possible with trolls. I only post limited information here for the benefit of interested readers.

"Thom, a more realistic analogy..."

Again, I was not making an analogy. A question was asked about how something would be done dealing with an area of a certain size. I know at least one area of a large size where that question has been answered. I posted the information for the benefit of other readers. The answer to my question answers the original question, but as you can see, the message was ignored in lieu of attacking the messenger.

 

Article Comment sharp nasal kent commented at 7/12/2010 12:26:00 PM:

I suppose if any of us want to know how those desert test sites are "locked down" we'll just have to visit them ourselves. Seems nobody around here knows.

 

Article Comment doj commented at 7/12/2010 12:34:00 PM:

Thom, who is the troll now? I asked for a simple explanation of your point of view in hopes of understanding what you were trying to put forth, and you refuse to engage other than espouse some gobbledygook, ad nauseum, that you copied off the net. The analogy of the Korean border and the Iron Curtain was mine, not yours. I was not attacking you or your ideas, only trying to get a more definitive response. If your sensibilities are so defensive that you can't recognise true intelligence, then I, like you, refuse to further address your comments.

 

Article Comment granny commented at 7/13/2010 9:07:00 AM:

Are you people completey INSANE???

I think the SUBJECT is this mother may have finally found something about her son's murder. How about common decency, compassion, empathy for this family. I pray for her heart which must still be shattered. I will also ask God to help those of you who must have lost your way somewhere. Good luck and much care to the Ellis family.

 

Article Comment brneyez commented at 2/15/2011 12:33:00 AM:

I personally know leo and i will say that "Christianmom" is full of B excuss my french..He is the opposite of what she said..Im sorry for the family and what he did.And i pray he gets what he deservers.One think i will say is no matter how long u know someone u really dont know them..

 

Article Comment underoneoz commented at 7/16/2011 10:08:00 PM:

There was more than just chavez's dna collected at the scence and what 17 yr old can make that kind of a shot, one guy down and the other one on the run in the dark after being up all night 99 percent of the people out thee couldn't do it. chavez if anything chose to be with the wrong person at the wrong time. if i were the parents of those boys i would not settle for anything less than a confesion of guilt other than that the da put the wrong person in prison..think about it cops and prosacuters are worst than criminals...

 

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