She vanished off the street one pale December morning, gone with a scream and the whooshing thump of a van door. Two days later, the strangled body of 22-year-old Vanessa Lei Samson was found face down in the snows of the Sierra Nevada, 185 miles away.
The shock to family and community was followed by wrenching astonishment. Police believe the pretty young clerical worker was the latest victim of two predators who hunt for young females in what officers describe as a “murder and abduction chamber” - a gutted Dodge Caravan minivan rigged so victims can be tied to the floor.
“Some people might go duck hunting. These people went hunting for women who were vulnerable to abduction,” Pleasanton Police Chief Bill Eastman said.
Samson’s bound and gagged body was found Dec. 4 near a winding mountain road near Lake Tahoe. Beside her lay the murder weapon, a six-foot length of black rope.
Michelle Lyn Michaud, 39, and James A. Daveggio, 37, were arrested Dec. 3 in Reno, Nev., in a separate case, the kidnapping and rape of a 20-year-old local business college student in September. That woman was grabbed by the hair, yanked into a van and raped repeatedly, FBI Special Agent Tom Griffin said.
Additionally, arrest warrants have been filed in Sacramento linking them to two other sex cases - the 13-year-old daughter of a friend of Michaud’s family who was attacked in September, and a 12-year-old relative of Michaud’s who was driven to Oregon in a van and repeatedly assaulted in October.
Daveggio and Michaud pleaded not guilty to federal charges of kidnapping, conspiracy to kidnap and weapons charges in the Reno case. The break in the Samson case came when Michaud confessed she had helped Daveggio kidnap and murder the woman as she walked to work, Eastman said.
Although police have announced Daveggio and Michaud are suspects, neither has been charged in the Samson killing, and Eastman has refused further interviews.
Michaud’s lawyer, Mary Boetsch, declined comment on the Samson case. Daveggio’s attorney did not return a telephone call from The Associated Press.
Police are also investigating the couple in connection with the 1991 kidnapping of 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard from South Lake Tahoe. The girl’s stepfather was 100 yards away when she was dragged into a car. A composite sketch based on his description of a female abductor bears a striking resemblance to Michaud.