It was a long unsolved missing person’s murder “cold case” that covered more than two decades until police were tipped off last month that skeletal evidence was buried in or around Manteca.
The grave of a missing Stockton woman is yielding clues to a murder mystery that began with the disappearance of Karen Michelle Sterzl, 36, in December of 1990, from a houseboat on the Tuleburg Levee that she shared in Stockton with Manteca upholstery shop owner Billie Ray Faulkner, then 50.
Faulkner was a co-owner of Fran’s Upholstery, formerly located in the 200 block of Moffat Boulevard, just southeast of the downtown business district in Manteca. The building that was on city-owned land along the Tidewater Bikeway was demolished several years ago. Faulkner has since passed away from natural causes. The online missing person’s website “Charley Project” operated by Randy Miramontez reported Sterzl to be about 5-foot-5 inches tall and weighing 130 pounds. The site adds that she had been living with the boyfriend for some 10 years.
Stockton police and Sheriff’s deputies unearthed the woman’s skeletal remains from a walk-through passageway next to a garage at 420 Park Avenue on May 23 in south central Manteca. Neighbors related that the existing mobile home on the property, transformed into a duplex along with a new garage, had not been there some 23 years ago when Sterzl disappeared. The residence faces South Street, reportedly moved to the site only some 10 years ago.
That northeast corner lot was just an open field with trees back then, neighbors said. Faulkner, who died last July at 73, lived next door with his wife Frances at 418 Park Avenue, owning both that house and the empty lot where the remains were found, according to published records.
The mobile home/duplex had never been lived in by the Faulkners. It had instead been rented out, nearby residents recalled. The most recent occupants moved weeks before the excavation took place. Unknown trespassers have since been seen at night on the property according to neighbors.
No trespassing signs have since been posted on the fences.
The Faulkners also owned properties near Lathrop Road and Airport Way. The investigators had first been seen digging on McKinley Avenue, just south of Lathrop Road, earlier on the morning of May 23. Police moved south to the Park Avenue residence in Manteca shortly before noon the same day, focusing on the rear and side yards where they discovered the woman’s buried remains next to a garage and some 20 feet from the sidewalk.
It was Faulkner, who police identified as the woman’s boyfriend 23 years ago, who they said reported her missing early in January of 1991. He had initially told Stockton Police that Sterzl had planned to take a trip to Montana before Christmas with her mother to visit a sister living there. The two family members later discounted his claim, authorities said. Her mother died in the late 1990s, not knowing what had happened to her daughter.
The police were tipped off to the possibility of the existence of a grave by someone believed to be aware of the crime, who had allegedly been kept from revealing what had happened to the woman. Two anonymous sources said that women who lived in the Park Avenue home related their fears of Faulkner, saying he threatened them to remain quiet.
The dead woman’s sister, Lisa Sterzl-Bartlett, was quoted from her Montana home this week, saying her sister had planned to go to Mexico and be married before she disappeared. She added that it was obvious from the tip to police that someone had known of her sister’s whereabouts for a very long time, questioning why they hadn’t come forward sooner.
The woman’s skeletal remains were sent through the San Joaquin County Coroner’s Office for testing to determine her identity and the cause of her death. Whether the bones had been in the Manteca yard since her death or stored elsewhere was unclear, due to the proximity of the garage foundation, only inches away from the small grave site.
The official cause of death is expected to be released later this week by the coroner’s office. She was identified by a forensic examination of her teeth matching her dental records, according to Stockton Police Public Information Officer Joseph Silva. The complete autopsy report is expected to reveal any trauma she suffered that may have caused her death.