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Crime News Buried in the Backyard

Teen Plotted With Roommate to Kill His Girlfriend: "She Needed to Be Punished"

The search for a beloved missing 17-year-old California girl leads to a deadly conspiracy by a pair closest to her.

By Joe Dziemianowicz

On the night of September 17, 2003, police made a grim discovery in the wooded hills above Applegate, California.

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“We found an area that looked like it had just been freshly dug,” Placer County DA investigator Angela Ford told Buried in the Backyard, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.

The scene was secured until morning. In the daylight, police unearthed human remains covered with a tar-like substance.

The body was identified as 17-year-old Justine Vanderschoot, a beloved daughter and sister who’d vanished over two weeks earlier.

The urgent search for Justine Vanderschoot

On the morning of September 2, her mother, Lynnette, discovered Justine wasn’t home and her truck was gone. She tried calling the teen to no avail.

Justine’s boyfriend, Daniel Bezemer, 17, called Lynnette in the afternoon. He asked if she knew where Justine was, a question that concerned Lynnette. She called her husband, Don, and their elder daughter, Christine, along with Justine’s friends but no one had any information. The Vanderschoots contacted the Placer County Sheriff’s Department.

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“It was evident. This is not your typical runaway,” said Placer County Sheriff Edward Bonner. “Everyone starts to think, was she snatched?”

Investigators began by talking with Christine, who was on the phone with her sister the night before. “We were just talking about daily life things,” Christine said.

Sheriffs then interviewed Justine’s boyfriend. “Danny told us that he had gone over to the Vanderschoot house the night before,” said Ford.

On his way home, he told investigators, he stopped at a 7-Eleven to buy a soda. On September 2, Bezemer said he looked for Justine at her school and the doctor’s office where she worked. Police confirmed his account.

A photo of Justine Vanderschoot, featured in Buried in the Backyard 506

“There was nothing that seemed out of the ordinary in the context of young teenagers in love,” said Morgan Gire, District Attorney for Placer County.

Police followed up with Bezemer’s roommate, Brandon Fernandez, 20. Fernandez said he and Bezemer were alone in their apartment the night Justine went missing and they hadn’t left, according investigators.

Bulletins were posted with area law enforcement agencies and local news media, while flyers were posted all around the town. The Vanderschoots traveled area roads to see if their daughter had been involved in a car accident.

Justine Vanderschoot's truck is found, foul play suspected

On September 3, Justine’s truck was found in a park-and-ride lot a few miles from her home. 

“There were no keys. There were no notes,” said Ford. “It looked like it had been locked and parked and she disappeared.”

Police suspected foul play. As days passed with no new clues, the case threatened to go cold.

The Vanderschoots held a community vigil at the park-and-ride site. “It was just overwhelming … the support,” said Don Vanderschoot.

Police used the event to see if a possible suspect was in attendance. A stranger seen pacing and smoking at the vigil caught investigators’ attention.

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Officials managed to identify the man and learned that he had lost a daughter. He had left a plaque at the park-and-ride in memory of her — and in support of Justine. He was cleared as a suspect.

Twelve days into Justine's disappearance, investigators spoke again with her friends. It became clear that Justine and Bezemer’s relationship was rocky. What's more, she had met someone else months earlier during a Florida spring break getaway.

Justine’s friends knew only that that the other boy was in the Navy and named Dave. Investigators determined his identity and questioned him.

"As of August they had broken off all communication,” said Ford. “We were able to rule him out as a suspect.”

Focus turns to Daniel Bezemer, Brandon Fernandez and jealousy

Investigators wondered if Bezemer knew about Justine’s spring fling and if jealousy may have motivated him to harm her.

Police learned that there was tension between Justine and Fernandez because she knew he was cheating on his girlfriend. This rift pushed detectives to look closer at Fernandez, who, they learned, had minor criminal offenses. He was a techie who tapped into school records to change grades.

Investigators dug deeper into Bezemer and Fernandez’s alibi, which didn't hold up. They discovered that on the night Justine disappeared, two friends from Alabama, Clayton and Gary, were also at the duo's apartments.

A mugshot of Daniel Bezemer, featured in Buried in the Backyard 506

“The friends tried to corroborate the alibi, but it collapsed relatively quickly,” said Gire. “One of those friends ultimately agreed to cooperate with law enforcement.”

Clayton called Brandon and told him that his father thought that he should go to the police about what he knew, according to Ford, who added, “At that point, Brandon Fernandez said ‘No, don't go talk to the police … Stick to the plan.'”

Investigators set out to re-interview Bezemer and Fernandez, enlisting an FBI profiler to help.

Brandon Fernandez confesses, reveals burial site

Fernandez initially stuck to the story that he and his roommate stayed in on Sept. 1. But when the FBI agent asked “Have you ever seen anyone die?” his demeanor changed.

Then they played the recorded phone conversation in which he asked his friend to avoid the police. Fernandez came clean.

He claimed that Bezemer's obsession with Justine cheating on him was creating a pressure cooker, according to police. Using his tech skills, Fernandez tapped her phone to record her conversations.

At this time, she was still talking with the Naval sailor in Florida. In Bezemer’s mind, “she needed to be punished because … she belonged to him,” said Gire.

Fernandez “basically confessed,” said Bonner, adding that he also said Bezemer committed the murder.

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The roommates had come up with a ruse to get Justine to meet them at the park-and-ride the night she disappeared. She piled into Fernandez’s car with Bezemer.

“In order to further punish her they had made this mix-tape,” said Bonner. They’d spliced in her phone recordings between songs.

When they reached the wooded area, Fernandez walked away from the car. He heard a scream and returned. Justine was on the ground next to a taser.

According to Fernandez, “Danny said, ‘I don't have to deal with her anymore. My life is now free. I win,’” said Ford.

A mugshot of Brandon Fernandez, featured in Buried in the Backyard 506

They dug a grave, put her in it, and poured a solution on her to quicken decomposition. They covered her with dirt and a discarded mattress in the area that was used for dumping trash.

Realizing he’d implicated himself in the murder, Fernandez tried to bargain with police. He took them to where she was buried.

At the site, investigators recovered Justine’s necklace and located the grave. Justine’s body and the CD made to punish her were unearthed.

Daniel Bezemer blames Brandon Fernandez for the murder

In custody, Bezemer said Fernandez tasered and strangled Justine. Both men were charged with murder. “All of the evidence pointed to both of them being involved,” said Gire.

Prosecutors built their case. They believed it was a premeditated murder. “Danny had brought with him a shovel, the pickaxe, gloves, the taser, and the ready-made CD,” said Ford.

The autopsy showed signs of strangulation and dirt in Justine’s throat and stomach. She was alive when she was buried.

As the trial loomed in March 2005, Fernandez and Bezemer were offered a plea deal. The Vanderschoots agreed to this in order to get on with the healing process.

Fernandez was given 15 years to life behind bars, while Bezemer was sentenced to  25 years to life in prison.

Since 2005, Bezemer and Fernandez’s requests for parole have been denied. Justine's family has pleaded for them to remain locked up.

To learn more about the case, watch Buried in the Backyard, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.