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Danielle Jennings could've been sleeping when her fiancé, Luis Paiano, found her on the bed of their home after work one Monday evening ... but she wasn't.
When Luis called 911 around 5:00 p.m. on March 15, 1999, the 20-year-old mother of a little boy was already long dead.
“The fiancé told us he walked in and found her lying on the bed and he stated that she was cold and blue,” Gwinnett County Police Detective David Henry told “An Unexpected Killer,” airing Fridays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
Police raced to the couple's home in Norcross, Georgia.
“She had a a ligature around her neck — the ligature appeared to be some type of stocking and it was tied around her neck very, very tight,” said Henry. “ ... The bed was messed up, one of the dresser drawers was open ... Her purse was dumped out as if somebody had dumped the contents and rummaged through it."
Police were not sure it was definitely a burglary gone wrong: Some items of value had not been taken, and there were no signs of forced entry. They had to consider all possibilities.
After authorities searched the scene, they turned their attention to Luis, Danielle's 25-year-old fiancé. The couple had known each other since they were teenagers, but it had only been in the past year or so that they'd become a couple. In November 1998 — according to court records — the pair had moved into the apartment complex with Danielle's 2-year-old son, Tristan, and, in December, Luis had proposed.
“He was very emotional,” said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter. “But romance can raise anger to a level sometimes that leads to homicide.”
Luis told police that he’d been at work all day — an alibi they were able to confirm. They’d left together at 6:45 a.m. for their respective jobs, but she'd forgotten something and gone back for it. She called him at work around 11 to see if they could meet for lunch, but he couldn’t get away.
When he tried her back at her desk in the afternoon, a coworker answered and told him Danielle had gone home for lunch but hadn’t come back.
When asked who might want to hurt Danielle, Luis mentioned her coworker, Jeff, against whom she’d filed a sexual harassment complaint.
“Danielle told her manager and supervisor that he had been hanging around her desk, he had made some comments that really kind of creeped her out and was acting inappropriately at work,” said Porter. “She filed a complaint. I kind of admired her grit.”
Danielle's manager said the company had been quite responsive — and that, the morning of her murder, there was a meeting to discuss the sexual harassment complaint.
Jeff was brought in for an interview.
“He told police that, whatever lapse in manners that he had had with Danielle, that he liked her,“ Gwinnett County Assistant District Attorney David Keeton told "An Unexpected Killer." “He seemed to be genuinely dismayed to find out what happened.”
Jeff also had a verifiable alibi: His truck had broken down on a job site while with another coworker.
With no immediate suspects left, investigators turned to the autopsy report, which arrived the next day.
As expected, it said that Danielle had died as a result of asphyxiation — but there was not much else of evidentiary value recovered on her body or at the scene.
"We knew from the positioning of the knot, someone had come up behind her with the nylon stocking, pulled it tight until she lost consciousness and then tied it off to kill her," said Porter. "She had not been sexually assaulted, there weren’t any other injuries, there weren’t any defensive injuries.”
Police then re-investigated whether the initial intention of the killer had been to rob the place, but Luis couldn’t find anything else missing. Still, he did provide one clue when asked to identify the murder weapon.
“We wanted to know whether [the murder weapon] came from her,” Porter said. “It was a tan, knee-high women’s stocking and he said she never wore anything like that. And we didn’t find any in the apartment. Who ever did this brought that with them.”
Luis and Danielle's friends also told police that Danielle had been having issues with an ex-boyfriend, Eddie.
Danielle and Eddie initially started dating just after she found out that she was pregnant via a previous boyfriend but, after Tristan was born, Eddie allegedly got involved in drugs, which is what caused her to move out. Ultimately, she got a restraining order against him, which he repeatedly violated by calling, leaving voicemails, and driving past her home repeatedly.
“In the interview with Eddie, he was kind of belligerent, and unhappy to be there and a little bit hostile,” said Porter. “You could tell when he talked about Danielle that it made him mad."
Eddie, however, said he’d been out of state on a tow job at the time of the murder — and his boss, service logs, and various receipts verified that.
Then, three days after she died, Danielle’s neighbor, Miss Kirk, called police and told them about something that had happened to her the week before the murder.
“She was awakened one morning by someone knocking at the door,” said Henry. “And she looked out the peephole but didn’t see anybody there, so she went back to bed. And a few minutes later she heard the front door open and the maintenance man is standing there. The maintenance man says he’s there for a work order ... However, Miss Kirk says that she felt very uncomfortable the entire time that he was in there because he was always staring at her, like he was more preoccupied with her than he was completing the work order."
The same thing had happened to another woman.
“Someone had walked into this woman’s apartment, she of course asked him who the heck he was, ‘What are you doing in my apartment?’” said Porter. “And he said 'maintenance’ and claimed that he was there to change lightbulbs, and she said, ‘I don’t have any lightbulbs to change.’ He kind of mumbled and stumbled, and ‘Maybe I have the wrong apartment,’ and backed out and left.”
The complex had multiple maintenance workers, but the one who matched the description given by both women was Calvin Oliver, 42.
According to court records, Oliver had only begun working at the complex in September 1998. By the time Danielle was killed, 10 residents had reported cash, checks, and other items of value — including jewelry, computers, and guns — missing from their apartments with no evidence of forced entry. One even suggested the culprit was someone on the maintenance staff.
Oliver was brought in for questioning.
“We didn’t want to tip him off to anything about the homicide,” said Porter. “So he was interviewed initially about the burglaries.”
Oliver denied stealing anything and claimed the incidents with Bruno and Kirk were misunderstandings. And, when police questioned if he knew anything about Danielle's murder, he denied knowing her beyond having completed a work order in her apartment.
They didn’t have enough to hold him in either the burglaries or the murder, but they did run a background check before letting him leave. That's when they discovered that he had an outstanding warrant in another jurisdiction for failure to appear on a burglary charge related to the theft of personal checks.
It also turned out that Oliver had an adult criminal record dating back to 1974 — according to Georgia Department of Correction Records — when he turned 18. He'd already been convicted of at least three residential burglaries, armed robbery, robbery by force, larceny and rape at knife point, according to court records.
Police decide to hold Oliver on the outstanding warrant while continuing to investigate him.
“Based on the burglaries that had occurred in the complex, we obtained a search warrant for his apartment,” said Henry. “We’re trying to see if we can find anything that would tie him to Danielle Jennings.”
They didn't find anything related to Danielle's murder, but they did find evidence of the other burglaries and, according to court records in a lawsuit against the property's management, Oliver was found with two copies of the key to the master lock box for the complex, which gave him access to individual apartments.
Oliver was charged with the burglaries, but they still didn’t have anything to tie him to the murder … until Luis called.
“Out of the blue, he said, ‘Do you have the engagement ring?” said Porter.
They told him no and he described the ring, which led to a "light bulb going off," according to Henry.
“When we were doing the search on Oliver’s apartment, we noticed a ring on a dresser in his bedroom,” he said. “But the ring didn’t match any of the items stolen, so we really didn’t have a reason to seize it at that time.”
They ask Luis and Danielle's best friend, Leslie Reeves, if they could identify the ring they found. They noted a defining characteristic was that the ring's band was bent to help it stay on her finger.
Police also asked when the last time she'd seen Danielle with the ring was.
“I said, ‘I saw Danielle Sunday night before she was killed, and she had her ring on on Sunday night,’” said Reeves. “And he takes the evidence bag out and he says, ‘Is this her ring?’ And the minute I saw it, I knew it was hers.”
Oliver was arrested nine days after the murder.
“The primary charge was malice murder,” said Porter. “And that means that you intentionally and unlawfully kill another human being.”
Police interrogated Oliver again and he denied any involvement.
“We told him about the ring and that’s when he said, ‘Well, I stole that ring two weeks ago when I did the work order in her apartment,’” said Henry. “But, see, we knew that was a lie.”
He then refused to answer anymore questions … but did respond to the charge itself.
“We told him that he was being charged with malice murder because you took pantyhose with you into the apartment because you had intent to harm someone,” said Henry. “He said, ‘There was no intent there.’"
"It’s like he admitted to killing her without knowing that he has admitted to it,” he added.
On Oct. 13, 2000 — after a five-day trial — the jury found him guilty on all charges, and he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder and 20 years for the theft of her engagement ring. He remains incarcerated in the Dooly State Prison, which is south of Macon, Georgia.
Sherry and Phillip Jennings, Danielle's mother and stepfather, eventually gained custody of Tristan, Danielle's son. After the criminal trial, they sued the management of the apartment complex where Danielle was killed for wrongful death.
After showing the management of the complex had never run a criminal background check on Oliver or even called the references on Oliver's employment application (both of which were against company policy), that both the local facility management and the parent company were aware that someone on staff was likely burglarizing the apartments in the months before Danielle's murder and that nobody alerted any of the residents, they were awarded more than $13 million.
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