Two people were arrested Thursday morning in connection with what Hanford Police Chief Carlos Mestas called “one of the most callous homicides” he’s ever come across. “I have never seen a more calculated murder in my 35 years in law enforcement,” Mestas said. “This was not a robbery or a carjacking. It was murder just for the sake of killing someone. Quite frankly, he was just killing for fun.”
Police described the primary suspect in the brutal murder of Denise McVay as a 17-year-old Norteño gang member who was roaming the streets looking for blood on Monday night.
“He just wanted to kill somebody,” Police Capt. Parker Sever said. “He didn’t attack this woman to steal her car or her money. His objective was to kill Denise McVay.”
The accused killer was not named because of his status as a minor. Also arrested was 18-year-old Mauricio Ortiz Jr. on suspicion of being an accessory after the fact.
It started sometime early Tuesday morning. The suspect had just left a party at the Lacey West Apartments and was wandering the streets when he came across Denise McVay.
A hard-working single mom with two jobs, McVay often stopped at the Royal Car Wash on her way to work. She liked to make sure her car was nice and clean, her co-workers said.
That’s why she was there, scrubbing away, when the suspect snuck up behind her and ambushed her with a knife at 4:30 a.m.
“There’s absolutely no connection between the victim and the suspects,” Mestas said. “They’ve probably never even crossed paths before. It looks like she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The attack was horrific. McVay was stabbed more than 30 times, front and back. She was slashed across the throat and jabbed in the torso. There were wounds on her forearms and hands where she tried to defend herself. She fought back, but eventually succumbed to her wounds, police said.
As an afterthought, the suspect took her money and her keys. He drove off in her freshly cleaned Honda Civic and went to Lemoore to pick up a friend — Mauricio Ortiz Jr.
“He was still wearing the same clothing at the time and told his friend what happened,” Mestas said. “So, they decided to drive to a mall in Visalia, where they purchased new clothing and shoes using the victim’s money.”
They later returned to Kings County and dumped the car in the Tachi Palace parking lot, wiping it down to remove any fingerprints left behind. Then they called a family member to drive them home.
But the hotel-casino parking lot is where the pair made their biggest mistake: They were caught on camera leaving the vehicle.
McVay’s body was found by a passing driver at the self-service car wash about 6:43 a.m. Tuesday. The discovery sparked an exhaustive investigation and an intense search for the fallen woman’s stolen car.
“In the last three days our investigators have had five hours or less of sleep and they are still going,” Mestas said at a press conference Thursday. “It does not appear that there are any other suspects at this time. But our detectives are still interviewing people and looking for evidence.”
The investigation caught a big break on Wednesday morning when Tachi Palace security discovered the Honda at about 8:51 a.m. From there, police were able to identify the 17-year-old and his accomplice through video surveillance footage.
The Honda was taken to Fresno, where Department of Justice agents examined it at length to obtain forensic evidence.
Meanwhile, investigators continued their search for the pair and the vehicle they left the Palace in. This led them to Ortiz at his home in Lemoore just after midnight Thursday.
He was taken into custody without incident, police said. Under questioning, police said Ortiz gave them specific information linking him to the crime. They then went and arrested the 17-year-old at his home in the 1000 block of West Lacey Boulevard at 6:30 a.m.
“A lot of good information and hard work led us to this point,” Mestas said. “I thought this case was going to last a lot longer since we didn’t have a smoking gun in the case. But finding the car was extremely important. And we called in a lot of favors, did a lot of interviews, and eventually we caught up with these two.”
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Investigators discounted rumors that the murder was part of a gang initiation or was connected to the suspect’s history as a Norteño gang member.
They also dismissed the idea that McVay was targeted as part of a carjacking.
“The money and the car was just a moment of opportunity,” Sever said.
The 17-year-old was booked into the Kings County Juvenile Center. He’s facing charges of murder, gang involvement, carjacking and robbery. Ortiz was taken to the Kings County Jail and was booked for being an accessory to the crime and an accessory after the fact, Mestas said.
The brutality of McVay’s killing shocked the community and has spurred an outpouring of support for her surviving daughter, Natasha McVay.
Denise McVay worked part time as a housekeeper at Lemoore’s Naval Hospital and as a certified nursing assistant with Kings Nursing & Rehabilitation Hospital. She was described by her co-workers as quiet, responsible and dependable.
Co-workers at Kings Nursing held a candlelight vigil in McVay’s honor on Thursday night. McVay and her daughter worked there side by side.
A memorial fund was opened at the Education Employees Credit Union to help McVay’s daughter pay for funeral expenses.
Those wishing to donate can address their checks to the Denise McVay Memorial.
“The family is not in any financial position to bury Denise,” Mestas said. “We urge the community to help them in any way they can.”
Staff at Kings Nursing also plan to hold a fundraiser car wash on Sunday morning at the Hanford Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, 1007 W. Lacey Blvd. Proceeds will go toward helping McVay’s daughter and will last from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Mestas said the police department will seek to have the minor charged as an adult for the murder. Both suspects are scheduled to be arraigned in the next 48 hours.
Tuesday’s killing is the second murder in Hanford in the last two weeks. The 26-year-old gunned down on July 14 was also attacked by a gang member.
In response, Hanford police have been cracking down on gangs in this community.
“Since the shooting two weeks ago, we’ve been targeting all the gangs in town,” Sever said. “We’ve arrested between 15 and 20 gang members for everything from weapons possession to drug sales. And we will continue to go after them through special enforcement.”
Mestas said they are taking extensive steps to make sure the public feels safe.
“We don’t have a lot of violent crime here,” he said. “Aside from the shooting two weeks ago, we haven’t had a homicide since 2008. And for a city of 55,000, that’s very few. Still, we are cracking down on every gang member that moves.”
Investigators were assisted by the Kings County District Attorney’s Office, the Gang Task Force, the Lemoore Police Department and the Corcoran Police Department.
“We worked on a team to get this resolved quickly,” Mestas said. “We are not large agencies here in Kings County, but we work together, and that is our strength.”
The reporter can be reached at 583-2425.