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“Dateline” correspondent Josh Mankiewicz has covered true crime for 25 years for the NBC series, and during that time certain stories have left indelible impressions on him. The 2013 disappearance and murder of Maribel Ramos, a 36-year-old Army veteran with bright plans for her future in Orange, California, is one of the most unforgettable for him.
Figuring out “exactly what happened here was something investigators had to work at,” said Mankiewicz in a “Dateline” podcast interview. “The way the suspect was caught was something I’ve never seen before or since.”
During Dateline: Unforgettable, airing on Tuesday, March 9 at 8/7c on Oxygen as one part of a three-day special in advance of Season 10 of “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” Mankiewicz reflects on the Ramos murder. The “Dateline” story originally premiered in 2014 in an episode called “Mystery In Orange County” and as it re-airs, he explains why it ranks among his most memorable stories.
In advance of the special, we break down the Ramos case.
Know the victim: Maribel Ramos worked in security at a department store after high school and had a long-term goal of joining law enforcement. She would need a college degree, though, and to afford that, she joined the Army. Ramos served two combat tours in Iraq, and was about to graduate from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in criminal justice in the spring of 2013. She’d even had her hair colored and styled for her commencement ceremony.
Vanishing into thin air: Friends reported Ramos missing on May 3, 2013, when she was a no-show at scheduled events. She was last seen on video dropping off her rent check; Ramos shared an Orange, California apartment with a roommate, Kwang Choi “KC” Joy.
Adding an eerie layer of mystery was the fact that Ramos reached out to 911 a week and a half before vanishing. She said she was “scared” in the recorded call and that she’d take desperate measures to protect herself.
Loved ones get involved: In the days that followed her disappearance, Ramos’ family put up flyers and posted on social media, and appeared on local TV to plead for her return, Mankiewicz recalled in an advance clip from “Secrets Uncovered.”
Questioning the men in her life: Detectives launched the case by looking into the usual suspects: men Ramos knew and with whom she had various relationships. Paul Lopez, a boyfriend Ramos met on the online dating site Plenty of Fish, was questioned by Orange County Police Department Detective Joey Ramirez. Using cell phone records and surveillance footage, they cleared Lopez from their suspect list. Two other men Ramos met through the site were similarly cleared.
Narrowing the search: After eliminating various potential suspects, officials zeroed in on Joy, who expressed “concern and ignorance about what might have happened to her,” the OC Register reported in 2014. They observed that Joy was spending a lot of time at a local public library and using the computer available to all while he was there. Police believed that if they could determine exactly what Joy was searching for on the internet, they might get a lead in the Ramos case. They came up with an ingenious way to do that.
Using the internet: Police obtained a search warrant allowing them to watch in real time every move that Joy made on the computer. Joy’s online searches included one about how long it takes for a human body to decay, according to a 2014 NBC Los Angeles report. On May 16, after a Facebook announcement for an “awareness walk” to search for Ramos was posted, Joy used a satellite map to zoom in on a tree in a remote canyon location that investigators hadn’t yet searched. Police had headed to that spot by the time Joy left the library that day.
Gruesome discovery in a shallow grave: Ramos’ body was discovered in a shallow grave near Modjeska Canyon, off Santiago Canyon Road. Ramos’s cause of death was never determined due to the state of decomposition of her body. Dental records were used to confirm her identity, according to the OC Register.
An arrest was made: Joy was arrested on May 17, the OC Register reported in 2013. Prosecutors alleged that Joy was in love with Ramos, who did not feel the same way about him. Things escalated, officials believe, after Ramos and Joy argued on May 2 over his nonpayment of rent. She wanted him to leave because he couldn’t pay his share.
“Maribel was his life, and the opportunity for him to be with the love of his life was coming to an end,” Simmons told the jury, nbclosangeles.com reported at the time.
The conviction of a killer: Kwang Chol Joy, 55, was convicted in July on one felony count of second-degree murder in the killing of Ramos. He was sentenced to 15 years to life.
To learn more about the case, watch “Dateline: Unforgettable: Mystery In Orange County,” airing on Tuesday, March 9 at 8/7c on Oxygen, or stream "Dateline: Secrets Uncovered" any time on Oxygen.com.
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