Editor’s Note: This story contains exclusive video and audio clips of the defendants’ police confessions. Due to poor sound quality, viewers may need to turn computer speakers to maximum volume.
Mike Simons and Jenna Nannetti sat on the porch and made out. It was a Sunday night last October in the quiet suburban community of Livermore, some thirty miles east of Oakland. From the way the two of them were grooving on each other, it looked like things just might work out. He was twenty, she seventeen, and they’d gotten married after just six months of dating. Jenna’s grandparents, her legal guardians, had signed off on the nuptials when they realized their headstrong granddaughter would find a way to be with him whether they authorized it or not.
Besides, Jenna was totally in love. The tough goth chick was transformed by Mike’s presence — she called him “hon,” and family members said she was so happy with him that she “sparkled.” Yet predictably enough, their young romance, which moved at warp speed, started disintegrating not long after it began, and Mike moved out of her grandparents’ home where they lived. On that Sunday, she had gone to visit him to see whether they were going to annul their four-month marriage or get back together and try to make it work.
Jenna and Mike ran with a crowd of angry, disaffected Livermore kids. Many were high-school dropouts or teenagers who, like Jenna, ended up in a continuation school for troubled students at risk of not graduating. They hung out at a local Internet cafe, worked low-end jobs, and partied in the hills surrounding the town.
In the days preceding their reunion, Jenna tried to convince herself she’d be okay without her husband, but she wasn’t so sure. An overweight but striking girl with long red hair and blue eyes, Jenna had been left behind many times in her life. Her alcoholic father had been in and out of prison for drunk driving since she was an infant. When he wasn’t in custody she would pick him up from his watering holes when he was too wasted to drive home, in the hopes of keeping him from getting locked up again. And her mother had given Jenna up to her grandparents when she was a toddler. It seemed like something very sweet had finally come her way when she hooked up with Mike Simons.
Mike was an exceptionally good-looking twenty-year-old she’d known since middle school, but who had moved away and recently returned. He wasn’t like the pimply, awkward teenagers Jenna was used to hanging out with. He was confident and had plans to join the Army and, at least at first, she felt like he loved her as much as she adored him.
She was wrong. Just a few months after they were married, Mike Simons met another teenage girl in Livermore and moved in with her and her mother. His new girlfriend, Katie Belflower, was a pale, unpopular seventeen-year-old with a penchant for going after other girls’ boyfriends. A longtime neighbor, though, described her as a sweet teenager who loved to walk her dog around the middle-class neighborhood where she lived.
Jenna didn’t know much about Katie and didn’t really want to know more. She just wanted Mike back in her life, and so she drove over to Katie’s house, hoping he’d agree to come back with her. The two girls had attended the same continuation school, where simply graduating was considered a huge accomplishment. Jenna, although hardly an academic star, ended up graduating a year early, a feat of which she was quite proud.
Mike met Jenna on the front lawn as she pulled up in her blue ’89 Mustang. The two wrestled around outside, just like old times, and then started to kiss. Inside, Katie Belflower visited with her friend, Jeff Hamilton, a rotund twenty-year-old geek who drove a Zamboni at Dublin Iceland.
Then, without warning, as the estranged couple got cozy out front, Katie rushed out of the house holding a short wooden baseball bat, and with all her might bashed Jenna in the head. The girl screamed as the bat hit. Blood rushed down her face and a small piece of her scalp hung loose. As Jenna fled into the street away from the house, Mike bolted to get her a towel and Katie disappeared inside. A minute later in the street, Mike helped clean Jenna up. He told her he knew where Katie was going to be heading. They would go there too, he promised, and he’d hold Katie down so Jenna could get her revenge. She pleaded with Mike to take her to the hospital, but he convinced her that vengeance was the top priority.
En route to find Katie, Jenna used her cell phone to call her father, who’d recently been released from prison for his eleventh drunk-driving conviction. She left a frantic message on his machine: “Dad, give me a call. Dad, call me now,” she said. “I got hit upside the head with a fucking baseball bat. I need your help now.”
He never got the chance. Before the night was over, Jenna would be dead with two shotgun blasts to the chest, her body dumped under some bushes on the edge of a cornfield near Stockton.
As Katie, Mike, and their friend Jeff Hamilton later revealed to homicide detectives in lengthy, separate videotaped interviews obtained by the Express, the trio had meticulously planned the killing, which was to be set in motion with the baseball bat assault. Attorneys for all three defendants refused to speak with the Express despite repeated requests, but their clients are slated to go on trial later this summer for Jenna’s murder.
They almost got away with it. For months, it looked like Jenna’s killers would never be found. The young suburban trio was surprisingly sophisticated in concocting an airtight alibi and, more important, destroying evidence. Detectives scoured fields, levees, and high-school hallways trying to figure out just who had murdered Jenna and why, but the cops got their big break in the case only after two of the three suspects decided that another teenage girl needed to die.
At the center of this murderous drama sat Katie Belflower, a scrawny teenager with a melancholy face, who wasn’t about to let Jenna or any other chick get in the way of her “happily ever after” life with Mike Simons.
With blood still streaming down her face, Jenna Nannetti got in her car and took off. In the seat beside her was Mike, who offered to pay for the gas before they drove to find Katie. This too was part of the trio’s grim orchestration, according to Jeff Hamilton’s videotaped interview with detectives from the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department. The plan, according to statements by all three suspects, was to drive Jenna out to the remote stretch of land in San Joaquin County known as Whiskey Slough, shoot her, and then torch her car to get rid of any traces of blood from her head wound or any other evidence that might be left. A full tank of gas, they reasoned, would help incinerate the car faster once it was lit with the road flare they would bring along.
It took a couple of weeks of planning to come up with their murder plot, Katie and Mike confessed. Lots of ideas were tossed around and Katie made sure her cohorts understood that although she was a girl and just seventeen she was tough enough for the job.
“I was trying to act like a really badass, like I could do this. I could cut her up into little pieces,” Katie told homicide investigators in a chipper voice, as if discussing a high-school science project. “Jeff wanted to shave her head so it’d be harder to recognize her. We were going to do all that in the middle of a field so when they came to mow everything, they’d mow up the body. That was the original plan.”
Jeff, who was included in the scheme largely because he had a car and could drive the pair home after they set the Mustang ablaze, had never met Jenna until the night he helped kill her, he told the detectives.
The drive to Whiskey Slough from Livermore took about forty minutes, a straight shot east into rural San Joaquin County, a vast agricultural expanse studded with irrigation levees, meandering creeks, and fields of corn, asparagus, tomato, and alfalfa. Mike Simons had gone shooting in the slough a few times before and had even taken Katie up there.
The night of October 6, Katie and Jeff navigated the back roads in his white Dodge Neon all the way to the remote delta. They pulled over on the rough dirt road where the trio had arranged to meet, then turned off the engine and sat quietly, waiting for Mike and Jenna to arrive. It was a cool, windless evening.
When the Mustang pulled up on an isolated service road some twenty minutes later, Jenna grabbed the keys and got out to wait for her rival. Unbeknown to the teenager, her fate lay just up a grassy embankment on a parallel road where the white Neon was parked. Mike, clad in his trademark green Army fatigues, ambled casually up the berm to where Katie and Jeff were waiting. Through the window, Katie later recalled, she handed him the twelve-gauge pump-action Remington shotgun she’d stolen months earlier from a neighbor’s house.
“He went back down and shined the light on her,” Katie told detectives. Then he set the light down on the ground and aimed. “He took one shot but I didn’t see it,” she said. Jeff claimed he witnessed a bit more. “She had her back to him,” he recalled. “Mike called out her name and she turned around … I saw the muzzle flash.”
Moments later, Katie and Jeff told the cops, another shot rang out. They could hear Jenna pleading for her life. “‘Mike, please don’t. I still love you,” she allegedly cried. Katie added another chilling detail: “He said, ‘If I let you go, you’re going to tell, aren’t you?’ She said she wouldn’t, but he didn’t believe her.”
Then, according to Katie’s account, Mike scrambled up the embankment once again, this time to reload the shotgun. “She’s not dead yet,” he said as he arrived at the waiting car. The others were stunned. “We were like, ‘What?‘” Katie said. “If she’s not dead now, she might not die, or it will take like a half-hour for her to die.”
It was in that moment, Katie claimed, that she had an empathetic moment for Jenna. “I was just worried about her living through this,” she told the cops. “I don’t like when people suffer, even if it’s over a boyfriend. It bothers me.”
Mike reloaded the shotgun with extra ammo he’d brought in his nylon bag, which he’d picked up at a Livermore Army recruiting station where he’d gone to enlist, Katie and Jeff separately told the detectives. It was black with yellow letters spelling out “Army of One.”
The others said they followed behind as Mike made his way back down to Jenna, who was wounded and bleeding. She was lying on the ground, Jeff said. Mike “shot her twice and she still screamed, so he shot her three more times.” Then, Katie told detectives, he “aimed the sixth shot right at her heart.”
As Jenna lay dying, she made an awful “gurgling” sound like “she had water or blood in her lungs. … It was the scariest sound I ever heard,” Katie recalled. “I stepped back, and Jeff jumped back like somebody put a Pop Rock in front of him.”
At the time, Jeff was taking Jenna’s pulse to make sure she was dead. “She kind of took a breath in and it scared the hell out of me,” he confessed with a lighthearted chuckle. “I kinda like, dropped her wrist and fell back. They started laughing about it.” Finally, Katie recalled nonchalantly, “We all stood and looked at her for a second and noticed she was dead and wasn’t moving any more.”
When detectives asked Jeff to describe Jenna’s corpse, he said, “Her chest just like blown open, just bloody. Her eyes were still open.”
Katie and Mike dragged Jenna’s body to some bushes, according to Jeff: “They made a joke about how heavy she was when they were trying to lift her.” After they dumped the body, Katie noted, Mike reached into Jenna’s pants pocket to retrieve the car keys.
The job wasn’t finished yet.
Katie and Mike took off in Jenna’s Mustang and Jeff drove his Neon to the Mountain House cafe, east of Livermore. They’d picked this spot to torch Jenna’s car because it was a bar where she had gone drinking with her father before, Jeff said. On the way home, the trio ditched the gun and bat in a field near the bar and chucked the shotgun shells into a sewer drain in Katie’s neighborhood, she told detectives. Their ghastly project complete, Jeff said he dropped the couple back at Katie’s house, where her mother and baby brother slept inside, and then drove back to his parents’ house, where he lived, and went to sleep.
Jenna’s burning car was discovered at two o’clock the following morning, just hours after her death. For the next two weeks, she was considered missing, officially at least: The Alameda County sheriff’s detectives and Livermore cops investigating her disappearance suspected foul play, but had little to go on. The authorities put out a “Missing Juvenile” poster with Jenna’s photo and description, along with some details about her disappearance. In the black-and-white photograph, she looks beautiful, but wears a haunting, almost defeated expression.
A week or so later, fearing the gun might be found, Katie and Mike borrowed Jeff’s car, retrieved the shotgun from the field, and hunted for a better hiding place, according to their statements to detectives. They found their perfect spot in a canal near the Oakland/Alameda border. Weighed down by a small bag of rocks, the murder weapon quickly disappeared in the murky water.
As the search progressed, the missing girl’s family agonized. They called each other constantly and waited and waited for news, which, as more days passed, they all feared would be terrible. “Every day it went on, it got scarier. Then we’d say, ‘What if she died?’ ” recalls Jenna’s older half-sister Christina Huckins. “I’d imagine someone raped her and beat her and made her beg for her life. Then I’d hope that if she died, it was quick and someone she didn’t know. At other times, I hoped she just ran away. In the back of the mind, though, I feared the worst.”
On October 19, the wait ended. A fisherman discovered Jenna’s badly decomposed body in the slough and alerted authorities. The San Joaquin County Coroner’s Office had to use a fingerprint from her DMV file to identify her. Two blasts to the chest were cited as the cause of death. The projectiles, according to the autopsy report, tore through her body and caused “multiple perforations of the left lung, heart, mediastinum, and descending aorta.” According to Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau, who is prosecuting the case in San Joaquin County, the victim’s body was so decomposed and ravaged by animals that it was hard to determine whether she’d been shot more than twice.
Jenna’s funeral was held in late October at a Livermore mortuary. Some two hundred people packed the service, including lots of her goth friends from around town. Friends, family, and former teachers remembered her as a high-spirited, feisty girl who went out of her way to help others. “I was feeling nothing,” recalls Jenna’s grandmother Linda Nannetti, who along with her husband, George, raised Jenna from the age of eighteen months. “I was frozen because the pain was just too much. I was in a state. I couldn’t talk about it.” As a tribute, family members put together a video remembrance of Jenna set to “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns ‘N Roses.
Among the mourners sat Katie, Jeff, and Mike.
The trio had come up with an alibi for the fateful night that was hard to disprove. All three told cops they’d been hanging out at a park near Katie’s house and then returned to their respective houses. Katie later told detectives that soon after the cops had left her house, Mike called Jeff to tell him exactly what the alibi was before detectives arrived to interrogate him. With little physical evidence other than Jenna’s remains and badly burned car, detectives had to gumshoe the case and run up their odometers hunting for clues in Livermore, San Joaquin County, and all points in between.
Jenna’s family didn’t suspect Mike Simons had anything to do with her murder. “I didn’t think he was involved, because he had nothing to gain,” Linda Nannetti says.
But Mike did have something to gain — or so he thought. Although he denied to investigators that he knew anything about Jenna’s life insurance policy, both he and his mistress believed a windfall awaited them once Jenna was out of the way.
Jenna indeed had a $100,000 policy, a present from her grandparents. It was the kind of policy that you pay into, and can draw money from once a sufficient balance accumulates. They had purchased it to pay for her college tuition if she chose to pursue education after high school. But the grandparents, not Simons, were named as the beneficiaries.
Because Mike was still married to Jenna, he assumed the money would come to him, Jeff told detectives. Katie said Mike told her the payout was $629,000. The scheme, according to both Jeff and Katie, was first to kill Jenna. Mike would then collect the insurance money and buy a house. Jeff’s motivation to participate, he confessed to detectives, was that Katie and Mike had promised to let him move in with them and escape his parents’ home.
And that, apparently, was enough for Jeff Hamilton to kill for.
Livermore, where all three defendants grew up, is a town of about 74,000 on the eastern edge of Alameda County. It is best known as the home of Lawrence Livermore National Lab, a federal nuclear weapons and national security research facility that employs some of the country’s top scientists and engineers. Thanks in large part to the lab, the town’s largest employer, Livermore’s median household income is a respectable $75,000, even though just one in five adult residents has a college degree.
The city was founded in the mid-19th century, but much of the place looks like it was built last year, giving it the feel of Anywhere, USA. The landscape is studded with tract-home developments, mini-malls, fast-food restaurants, and one chain store after another. But the city’s downtown is a charming historic district with cafes, antiques stores, and galleries, surrounded by leafy, bucolic residential streets. And just outside the Livermore Valley’s ugly suburban sprawl are rolling, beautiful hills with small farms, ranches, and wineries nestled into their folds.
In any case, it’s a quiet place, and certainly one unaccustomed to such drama. “This is Livermore. It’s not really exciting,” was how one friend of the murderous trio put it.
Nor did Jeff, Mike, and Katie seem like the masterminds of such a grisly scheme. Perhaps the most striking thing about them is just how unremarkable they are. “If you saw these kids and talked to them, you’d never imagine they could do this,” says Annette Mondavi, a veteran with the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department and the lead homicide detective on the Nannetti murder case. “They seem like normal everyday kids.”
Katie Belflower, as described by Mondavi and prosecutor Robert Himelblau, comes across as a chatty, very upbeat young girl who doesn’t seem to have a clue as to the serious trouble she’s in. The day she met Himelblau, he says, Katie told him: “You know what? After spending the night in juvenile hall, I learned my lesson.”
Essentially, he explains, “She was saying one night in juvenile hall was enough to rehabilitate her to be a good member of society and she’d never kill again.”
With glasses and long, silky brown hair tied back in a braid, Katie Belflower looks almost bookish. She has a long neck and an expressionless face, and resembles one of Modigliani’s portraits.
In her videotaped interviews with San Joaquin County detectives, she comes off as quite likable, hardly someone that would commit murder. She’s extremely helpful and eager to please her interrogators; if you didn’t know anything about her or what she was talking about, you’d think she was a darling teenage girl. She’s friendly and warm and acts like some kind of twisted teacher’s pet in shackles.
Katie begins her interrogation by complimenting one of the detectives in the room on his attire. “My mom would love your shirt and tie,” she says, sitting there in her mud-colored jail-issue garb. “She has a whole corner in her house devoted to Mickey Mouse.”
When detectives ask her if she’s ready to start talking about what happened, she says cheerfully, “Ask away!”
The cops weren’t so easily charmed.
“She’s manipulative. She’s almost like a black widow,” says Mondavi, a hardened detective and former child-sexual-abuse investigator who was also the first woman on the county SWAT team. “She’s the jealous type who wanted Mike for herself no matter what. She had a crush on him and wanted to live with him happily ever after at any extent.”
Katie is curiously unemotional during her interview, and expresses no remorse. Only once does she visibly choke up, and that’s when detectives tell her Mike still loves her. “I love him, too,” she says, and begins to cry.
Student acquaintances from Del Valle Continuation High School, the school for problem kids Katie and Jenna attended, had little nice to say about her. They described her as a sexually promiscuous girl who, although she kept to herself, could be quite aggressive. “She’d start fights but when you got in her face, she’d back off,” said Heather Anderson, seventeen.
Sixteen-year-old Mathew Stauffer, another teenager who’d known Katie for years, described her as an outcast who was extremely jealous of others and someone who always “liked the guys girls were already going out with.”
The two worked together a few years back at a Livermore restaurant where Belflower was a hostess. Stauffer remembered that although she was bright, she had a dark side. “She had a temper,” he said. “When things didn’t go her way, she’d get an attitude, try to prove a point.”
A longtime neighbor remembers a very different girl. She said the Katie she knew was sweet and no trouble at all: a cute dark-haired rail of a girl who offered to help her neighbors with their chores.
Katie’s mother, Robin Belflower, declined to be interviewed for this story. But Cliff Gunther, who was friends with Katie as well as with Mike and Jenna, said Katie at times lived with her mother and brother in Livermore, and at other times stayed with her father in Amarillo, Texas. Gunther described Robin Belflower as “cool” and says he’s absolutely dumbfounded as to “how she ended up with a kid like Katie.”
It was at Gunther’s house late last summer that Katie first met Mike Simons. He was hot: blue eyes, lean frame, and chiseled good looks. Gunther recalls that his friend Mike had two great loves — girls and booze — and that things between the two heated up quickly.
Simons’ childhood was eerily similar to Jenna’s early years. His mother, according to Mike’s friends, was largely out of the picture, and his dad was in prison. He grew up in Livermore with an aunt who adopted him.
Mike was no angel. According to Jenna’s grandmother, he disappeared from the valley years ago after being sent to juvenile boot camp and then to a group home to live. According to one friend, Mike said he’d stolen a car in Oakland.
After he returned to Livermore, Simons held a succession of low-end jobs — at a local Jack in the Box, a Wal-Mart, and finally a Pleasanton car dealership, where he cleaned up vehicles that had been serviced. A co-worker there described him as conscientious. “He was very quiet and reserved,” said Stan Bartosz, Mike’s supervisor at the dealership. “He was very offended by cussing around him. He actually came up and got me, the manager, and had me address cussing with one of the technicians because he was very offended by it. He appeared very clean-cut and churchgoing.”
But there were signs that things were off-kilter. Before he hooked up with Jenna, the young man was briefly homeless, camped out in a creek bed. One night shortly after his return, he shot a goose in the eye with a BB gun, according to Jenna’s friend Nora Rinker, who also knew Mike. “He dragged it across the street and told us he was going to cook it for dinner. He freaked the hell out of me,” she says.
Mike also was obsessed with the military. When he wasn’t on the clock, he almost always dressed in green Army camouflage and a maroon beret. He’d started the enlistment process, and even showed up at a few parties and other events with his Army recruiter in tow.
Gunther says his friend Mike wasn’t exactly the soft-spoken young man described by Simons’ boss. “He was a white guy trying to be black, listening to rap all the time and speaking Ebonics,” he says. “He tried to hit Jenna, and either me or another friend would stop him and say, ‘Mike, don’t even think about it. ‘”
Of course Jenna really didn’t need protection, Gunther adds: “Had he ever hit her, she would have pushed us out of the way and kicked his ass. She was tough.”
In his videotaped interview with detectives, Mike comes off as manipulative and mendacious. He repeatedly denies his involvement in Jenna’s death, plays dumb, and repeats questions over and over in an attempt to avoid answering them. He denies he left with Jenna the night of her murder, and says the last he saw of her, she drove off to visit friends. He says he has no idea what happened to her and where she went. Confronted with the fact that detectives have videotape of him at a gas station from that night filling up her tank, he changes his story: Okay, he did get her gas, but then he went back to Katie’s house.
Again and again throughout the lengthy interview, he is caught in a lie, then adjusts his story and admits a little more. At one point, Mike denies throwing the flare into her car, and insists he’d simply lit it and Jeff threw it. “I didn’t throw no flare in no car,” he says. When detectives confront him with the existence of a witness who saw him throw it and picked him out of a lineup, he weakens. “I threw the flare,” he admits sheepishly.
Mike finally confesses, after repeatedly denying his involvement, that he’d helped plan Jenna’s murder and destroy the evidence, and that he was at the scene of her execution. “I did not pull that trigger,” he still insists. He was too “chickenshit” to gun her down, he tells the detectives, so Jeff did it instead. The authorities and the prosecutor on the case are convinced Simons was, in fact, the triggerman. His attorney, Ralph Cingcon, refused to speak with the Express.
Despite his admissions, Mike swears he didn’t know Jenna had a life insurance policy. “Insurance money?” he asks, looking incredulous. “What are you talking about?” Pressed to explain why he participated, he says, “I just went along with the crowd.”
Yet he had another side to him that in retrospect seems out of character. Acquaintances recall that he used to accompany Katie to school, and even sat with her in classes to make sure she stayed there and didn’t cut out. “One day,” recalls Jessica Goodness, a seventeen-year-old student at Del Valle, “Mike Simons handcuffed her to a desk so she’d stay in school. She got out of the handcuffs and jumped out the window.”
Gunther saw that side of his friend, too: “As much of a loser that I consider Mike to be now, he did want Katie to go to school and wanted her to get an education.”
Mike’s mother, a woman with a large pile of cascading auburn hair, showed up for the first day of the preliminary hearing in the Jenna Nannetti murder case with her daughter, who looked to be about twelve. When approached by a reporter, she barked, “The media gets everything wrong. You know you’ll just say what you want. I don’t want to talk to you,” and turned away.
Katie’s mother, a mousy-looking woman, was there accompanied by her son, who also appeared to be around twelve, and other family members. She sat two rows behind Mike’s mother. Approached by the Express, she also declined to talk.
No one, apparently, showed up for Jeff Hamilton. He sat handcuffed to a chair beside his lawyer, looking vaguely like a grown-up Jack Osbourne, a homely, 250-pound guy who would do anything for his only two friends in the world.
He’d been pals with Katie for years and was like a big brother to her, according to her statements to police. She didn’t think he’d ever had a girlfriend or even so much as kissed a girl. When they first met, she said, Jeff had a big crush on her. She wasn’t sure if he still did or not. David Hamilton, Jeff’s older brother, described him as a shy guy who was into watching sports and NASCAR racing. Jeff briefly attended Las Positas Community College and planned on attending culinary school. He loved to cook and would ply the family with his baked Alaska and other sugary treats at holiday gatherings.
Asked what he thinks about the predicament his brother now finds himself in, David says, “I’m very surprised by what happened.”
In his videotaped interview with detectives, Jeff is cooperative and forthcoming about his own participation in the gruesome plot, but shows absolutely no emotion when describing what went down. “They said if I did this, when they got the money, they’d let me move in with them,” he explains to detectives. “I’d get to move out of my parents’ house.”
He told detectives that Mike had only one regret about the way the scheme unfolded. “He told me the one thing haunting him was he made her beg for her life,” Jeff said. “He said it was the one thing he wished he hadn’t done.”
Although the defendants eventually confessed, for several months investigators were hard-pressed to figure out who was behind Jenna’s murder. With little to go on, Mondavi walked the slough where Jenna was gunned down for countless hours, and poked around Livermore trying to piece together what happened. Then a friend of Mike and Katie’s came forward to say he knew something about a shotgun he thought might have been used to kill Jenna. “I was getting close,” she says.
Then, earlier this year, just as Mondavi’s investigation began to yield some important clues, the case took a violent and extraordinary turn.
By mid-February, Katie and Mike’s relationship had begun to unravel. She was almost five months pregnant with his child by this point, but he was interested in another Livermore girl, sixteen-year-old Aspen Lum. Katie knew her well. According to Katie’s statements to detectives, both girls were bisexual and had fooled around and “fondled each other” in the past. A pretty, slender, dark-haired girl, Aspen had her share of troubles. She’d run away from home in the past and, according to her mother, Dorothy Lum, “doesn’t pick nice people to hang out with.”
Katie, it turns out, was one of those poor choices, even though Dorothy Lum says it wasn’t obvious at first: “Katie didn’t come across as a monster at all. She was an overbearing teenager type. She seemed bright and energetic and could do anything she put her mind to.”
In late February, Katie put her mind to getting Aspen out of the way so she could have Mike all to herself, according to her statements to police. Once again, she called on her pal Jeff to help her out. He refused at first, but gave in with a little prodding. On February 28, the two met at Katie’s house to discuss the Aspen murder plan. Belflower admitted she’d wanted to slit Aspen’s throat, but told police the two instead decided strangling the girl with a rope was the best way to go. Once she was dead, they figured, they’d tie the rope to a fence post and make it look like Aspen had hanged herself.
Katie told prosecutor Himelblau the day she met him that she wouldn’t have even thought of taking out Aspen “if getting away with killing Jenna wasn’t so easy.”
Once the plan was worked out, Katie called Aspen to see if she wanted to hang out later that night with her and Jeff. Soon after midnight, they agreed, Aspen would sneak out of her house through her bedroom window. Jeff and Katie would pick her up, and they’d go party at a remote location near Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore known locally as “the top of the world,” where you can look down onto the valley below.
At about 12:30 a.m. on March 1, Katie and Jeff picked up Aspen as planned and drove to the designated spot. Katie had brought along some Jack Daniel’s she pinched from her mother’s liquor cabinet to get her pal buzzed before they set the scheme in motion. Aspen mixed the liquor with Dr. Pepper and drank up. Meanwhile, Jeff went back to his car and put on blue surgical gloves so he wouldn’t leave any skin cells on the rope, Katie later told detectives.
Aspen sat on the ground with Katie in front of her, and Jeff began to give her a massage after he got a hand signal from his cohort to take Aspen out. He fumbled around, picked up the rope, and put it around her throat. Just before Jeff began to strangle Aspen, Katie allegedly said, “I killed Jenna, and now I’m going to kill you.” According to police reports, Katie then leaned forward, placed her right hand over Aspen’s mouth, and held the girl’s nostrils closed. Katie, too, had donned surgical gloves for the task.
The tenth grader fell backward and Katie held her down. Jeff strangled Aspen for several minutes and she began to lose consciousness. Feeling an unbearable pressure on her windpipe, Aspen believed she was going out much the same way Jenna did. Her vision became blurred and she blacked out briefly. Her limbs began to turn purple as she clawed at the rope to no avail.
Then, out of nowhere, an unbelievable stroke of luck.
Out on a routine patrol of the area, Timothy Phillips, a police officer for East Bay Regional Parks, drove up in his cruiser and spotted the three. After Katie and Jeff saw the headlights, they stopped what they were doing, Katie later told detectives. Hamilton stuffed the rope in his pocket and Katie began hugging Aspen. “I’m sorry. Don’t tell anybody,” she reportedly said.
Phillips walked over and asked what was going on. Lum, who was lightheaded and having difficulty breathing, said nothing. Katie told the cop that Aspen was sick and they were helping her. Then, according to police reports, she pretended to be repeating something Aspen had told her and said loudly, “Oh, is it that time of the month?”
Asked about the surgical gloves, Hamilton told the officer “he put them on in case Aspen threw up.” Katie, hoping to deflect any questions about the rope sticking out of Jeff’s windbreaker pocket, loudly said, “Do you still have that string?” to which he replied, “Yeah, I forgot to take it out after work,” the officer later wrote in his report.
Katie helped Aspen up and the officer asked if she was okay. Aspen said she was fine and gave the cop her home phone number. She later told police she was frightened and confused, and also afraid that if she told the truth, Jeff and Katie would kill Phillips, too.
The officer asked police dispatchers to contact the girl’s family, but no one answered at her house. Katie assured him that they’d take Aspen, who lived on nearby Mines Road, straight home. Phillips said okay, and the duo drove off with their victim.
Two minutes later, dispatch radioed back: They’d heard from Aspen’s father, who said his daughter was missing from her room and he believed she’d run away again. Phillips took off in pursuit. He located Jeff and Katie a few miles away, minutes after they’d dropped Aspen off at home, and detained the pair.
The officer again contacted the dispatchers, who had some alarming news: Aspen had told her parents Katie and Jeff had tried to kill her. The parks officer sat tight in his cruiser awaiting deputies from Alameda County, who swooped in to make the arrests.
At first, Katie tried to deny everything. “I would never hurt Aspen,” she said in a written statement. “I care for her too much. I do not have any idea how Aspen got the marks on her neck. Jeff was never alone with Aspen and I’m sure he didn’t hurt her either.” Questioned further, she changed her story and tried to blame the attempted murder on Jeff. She insisted she was simply too scared to intervene.
But Jeff, who, according to the detective who took his statement, “did not show any emotion or remorse for his actions,” held nothing back. He told his interrogators all about both Aspen and Jenna. In a second interview that morning, Katie corroborated everything. And although the two were interrogated separately, they told near-identical tales about both alleged crimes.
Mike Simons was arrested later that day by San Joaquin sheriff’s detectives. When brought in for questioning and asked if he knew why he was there, Mike, who said he’d spoken to Aspen earlier that morning, said it was because his friends had “tried to kill a girl that liked me.” He wiped away some tears and then added, “Personally, I think they were trying to frame me for it.”
This summer, all three are expected to go on trial for the murder of Jenna Nannetti near Stockton. Along with the videotaped confessions, detectives have amassed quite a bit of evidence, including the bat and gun they believe were used in Jenna’s brutal slaying. Both were located exactly where the defendants said they’d be.
Mike Simons, who faces two special-circumstance charges for financial gain and lying in wait, could receive the death penalty if convicted. Katie, who recently turned eighteen, faces identical charges but since she was a juvenile at the time of the killing, she isn’t eligible for the death penalty. If convicted, she could face life in prison without the possibility of parole.
For his role, Jeff Hamilton has been charged with murder and could receive 25 years to life if found guilty. Prosecutors in Alameda County have also filed charges against him for the attempted murder of Aspen Lum. As for Katie, the DA plans to wait for the outcome of the Nannetti murder trial before making any decisions about prosecuting her in the second case. All three have pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
Katie Belflower, now eight months pregnant, is excited about the impending birth and appears to be in complete denial regarding her likely fate. The giggly teenager says she’s looking forward to having her mom help with the child-rearing. Prior to her arrest, she and her mom practiced their baby-care skills on Katie’s dog. “I want her to raise the baby until I get out. I don’t think I could stand having it call someone else ‘Mom,'” she said.
Frittering away the long summer days in the San Joaquin County Juvenile Detention Facility, Katie has had a lot of time to think about baby names. If it’s a boy, she told detectives, she already has the perfect name in mind: Michael Joseph Simons.