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Publication Date: Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Joe Morrow captured; Menlo police build murder case Joe Morrow captured; Menlo police build murder case (January 22, 2003)

By Andrea Gemmet
Almanac Staff Writer

Sgt. Jim Simpson suspected almost from the start that Donna Morrow didn't just walk out on her husband and four young children six days before Christmas in 1991. Her husband, Joe Morrow, told Menlo Park police several days later that the 37-year-old homemaker left their house on College Avenue after an argument and hadn't come back.

"Things just weren't adding up," said Sgt. Simpson. "The delay in reporting her missing, the fact that she was very attached to her kids and her family -- those were red flags."

Sgt. Simpson suspected her husband had killed her, and for the next 11 years, he doggedly pursued the case, despite the fact that Donna Morrow's body was never found and her husband Joe disappeared in 1993.

When Joe Morrow was apprehended at his home in the Philippines last week, where he had been living under an assumed name, Sgt. Simpson wasted little time in celebrating a major breakthrough in the long and frustrating investigation. Instead, he was focused on the work ahead -- pulling all the evidence together and preparing for trial.

"It's not over yet. We've got a ways to go," he said.

Arrested near Manila

Agents from the FBI and the Philippine National Bureau of Investigations, working off a lead from Menlo Park police, found Mr. Morrow, 54, in the city of Imus Cavite, near Manila, on January 14, said Menlo Park police Chief Chris Boyd at a press conference Friday.

When they detained Mr. Morrow, he had recently returned from playing tennis, and was sitting on his sofa eating potato chips and watching a soap opera, said FBI Special Agent LaRae Quy. He was deported for being in the country illegally, had a brief appearance in U.S. District Court in San Francisco the following day, and was transferred to Colorado, where he is facing federal passport and visa fraud charges, she said.

Following prosecution in Colorado, where he allegedly obtained a false passport under a friend's name, he is expected to be brought to San Mateo County to face murder charges, and then transferred to Santa Clara County for sentencing on an unrelated fraud conviction.

A good friend of Donna Morrow's, who asked not to be named, was jubilant at the news that Mr. Morrow was in custody.

"Yahoo!" she whooped into the phone. "I'm ecstatic. I think of her every year."

She said she suspected Mr. Morrow was responsible for Ms. Morrow's disappearance "from day one," and there was no way her friend would have abandoned her four children, the youngest of whom was 4 years old when she disappeared.

"There's no other possible explanation," she said. "I'm very happy. I can't wait for the trial, and I hope he has a crappy lawyer."

Police suspect husband

A number of things convinced police that Ms. Morrow was dead, not missing, as they began their investigation in 1991. When police searched the Morrow house after she disappeared, they found half-wrapped Christmas presents hidden in the closet, and appointments she'd made for the days following her disappearance. They also found a bloodstain on a bucket in the garage that matched Ms. Morrow's blood type, and that DNA testing showed did not belong to her husband or children.

John Kadvany, the Morrows' next-door neighbor in 1991, said he had a clear memory of seeing Mr. Morrow washing out his garage on a chilly January day shortly after Christmas.

"I thought at the time that it was very odd -- I wouldn't be hosing something out on this cold of a day," he said.

Mr. Kadvany said he also remembers seeing a police officer escorting the Morrows' only son back into the house, which had been sealed off with police tape, to retrieve some of his belongings. He described Ms. Morrow as a very sweet woman, but said that Mr. Morrow "wasn't the pleasantest guy to deal with." He recalled that Mr. Morrow became nasty during a dispute over the fence between their properties.

In an eight-page affidavit Sgt. Simpson filed in 1997 in order to get an arrest warrant for Mr. Morrow, he described Ms. Morrow as a woman who wanted to leave her abusive husband but was afraid to. She told friends and family that she was planning to get a divorce, and had hidden money in a bank account "to help her when she left Joe," the affidavit said. That money was never touched after she disappeared, police said.

Witnesses told police that on more than one occasion, Mr. Morrow threatened to kill his wife if she ever tried to leave him, according to the affidavit. Ms. Morrow's former lover told police that she had plans to leave Mr. Morrow, but feared it might cause him to "snap," the affidavit said.

"At no time did Joe Morrow deny killing his wife. I believe that the murder of Donna Morrow was well thought out with deliberation and premeditation," Sgt. Simpson said in the affidavit.

Testimony from the Morrows' own 8-year-old daughter was also included in the affidavit. The girl told police she heard her mother screaming and her father yelling at her to shut up on the night Ms. Morrow disappeared. Then, she said, "the screaming eventually got quieter and quieter, and then stopped altogether."

Bruce Cumming, Menlo Park's chief of police at the time, said he was really satisfied to hear of Mr. Morrow's capture.

He said police found some evidence that Mr. Morrow, whom he called "a vicious bully," had tried to kill his previous wife and recalled Mr. Morrow's conviction for hitting a 72-year-old man at the Sharon Heights Country Club "over virtually nothing."

Mr. Morrow's attempted suicide in a north coast hotel room less than a month after his wife's disappearance only intensified his suspicions, Mr. Cumming said.

"When he tried to kill himself in Bodega Bay, I knew that he was our man," he said. "He tried to claim he was distraught, but that's bunk. When your wife disappears, you don't wait four days to report her missing, for crying out loud."

Never forgotten

Despite two massive search efforts of the Morrows' undeveloped 36-acre property in Los Gatos, and evidence that a Jeep that Mr. Morrow borrowed at the time of his wife's disappearance had been driven off road, Donna Morrow's body was never found, and police weren't able to arrest Joe Morrow.

By the time there was enough compelling evidence to get a $10 million murder warrant for his arrest in November 1997, he hadn't been seen for 4-1/2 years and was presumed to be a fugitive from justice. He was due to serve jail time for a fraud conviction stemming from his business practices when he disappeared in March 1993.

Despite the difficulty of investigating a murder case where there's no body and the prime suspect has disappeared, Sgt. Simpson continued to work on it, even after he was transferred out of the investigations unit and into his current position of patrol sergeant. He cooperated with the cable TV show "Unsolved Mysteries," which aired a re-enactment of the alleged crime in August, and stayed in regular contact with Ms. Morrow's children and relatives.

"I usually call them two or three times a year to catch up, see how they're doing and let them know how I'm doing," he said.

Cmdr. Greg Rothaus of the Menlo Park police attributes the progress in the case to Sgt. Simpson's diligence.

"He's always had a hand in it. He never gave up," Cmdr. Rothaus said.

Mr. Cumming, who retired from the department in 1999 after 11 years as police chief, said that while he can't give Sgt. Simpson enough credit for his work on the case, he isn't the only one who has never forgotten about Donna Morrow.

"I still think about her even now," he said. "I'm proud of the department, from the chief on down, for keeping the flame burning. I told (current Chief) Chris Boyd when I retired, 'Arrest Joe Morrow.' There's always unfinished business that you leave behind, and this was No. 1 for me."

Chief Boyd said the department will focus its resources on working with the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office to build the case against Mr. Morrow. Sgt. Simpson will be pulled from his other duties and spend almost all of his time working on the case with the help of other officers in Menlo Park's investigations unit, he said.

"You don't keep from getting frustrated, but in all my cases, I like to think I give the same amount of attention," Sgt. Simpson said. "You've got a crime, you've got a victim, and all of the ramifications that go with that, especially what it does to the victim's family."

Morrow cases timeline

** December 19, 1991: Donna Morrow, 37, is last seen. Four days later, her husband Joe Morrow tells police she left the house after an argument, taking her keys and purse, and leaving behind her car and four young children.

** January 15, 1992: Joe is found in a Bodega Bay motel room following a suicide attempt. None of the 24 suicide notes he wrote mention his wife. He recovers, and spends time in the psychiatric ward of San Mateo County General Hospital.

** January 18, 1992: Menlo Park police search the Morrow house on College Avenue. A month later, police reveal that bloodstains were found during the search.

** January 25, 1992: Eighty law-enforcement officials search the Morrows' undeveloped 36-acre Los Gatos property looking for Donna's body. Nothing is found. They conduct another search in October, and again turn up nothing.

** March 1993: Joe disappears just before he is to start serving jail time on an unrelated fraud conviction in Santa Clara County.

** January 1995: A wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of the four Morrow children against their father is settled, creating a $1 million-plus trust fund to be shared equally among the children.

** November 1997: Menlo Park police secure a $10 million arrest warrant for Joe Morrow for the murder of his wife, despite the fact that her body has not been found.

** September 30, 1999: The FBI obtains a federal warrant charging Joe Morrow with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution and, based on information from Menlo Park police, begin searching for him near Manila in the Philippines.

** January 14, 2003: Joe is arrested at his home in Imus Cavite in the Philippines by agents from the FBI and the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation. He is deported for being in the country illegally and brought to United States the following day. He is charged with passport fraud before a federal magistrate in San Francisco on January 16, and is transferred to Colorado, where he will stand trial on federal charges.


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