OAKLAND -- When Pleasanton police found Tina Faelz's dead body in a ditch near Interstate 680 almost three decades ago, investigators also found her maroon purse hanging on a tree above the 14-year-old's body.
While the purse failed to provide any clues in 1984, a re-examination of it in 2011 gave police and prosecutors a crucial piece of DNA evidence that, they say, links Steven Carlson to the murder.
The only problem, a defense attorney argued, is that the purse went missing for at least two years and the handling of it during the initial investigation raises doubts about whether it was tampered with and as a result can be relied upon in court.
Although defense attorney Anne Beles lost her bid Friday to have Carlson's case restarted without the purse, and its crucial DNA evidence being considered, issues surrounding its whereabouts remain. And those legal issues could significantly hamper prosecution of a case which has one other witness who a judge last year said was "problematic."
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer's ruling Friday rejecting Beles' argument only answered a question about whether the purse should have been used as evidence in a preliminary hearing, it did not address whether the evidence could be presented to a jury at trial. It's an argument Beles said she will make before the jury trial begins later this year.
Carlson, 45, was arrested and charged with murder in 2011 after DNA found on the purse at an FBI crime lab that same year matched the felon's DNA profile. The match was finally made after the purse had undergone several examinations over the years including a fingerprint test in 1986 and a DNA profile test in 2008.
The purse was found hanging in a tree above Faelz's body, which was face down in a ditch along a culvert under Interstate 680 that students at Foothill High School frequently used as a shortcut.
Faelz's murder puzzled Pleasanton police for decades as they failed to collect enough evidence to confirm investigators' suspicions that Carlson, 16 years old at the time, was responsible for the killing.
The only evidence police hoped would solve the crime was the purse.
Yet, when a police detective took the purse from the scene, he failed to wear gloves and placed it in an unmarked brown paper bag. Although the detective, Gary Tollefson, placed a yellow evidence tag on the purse's strap, he never sealed the brown bag used to hold the evidence.
During a preliminary hearing last year, Tollefson said he took the bag and purse back to the police department and stored it in evidence.
But evidence logs which detail the movement of the purse while in police custody do not show where the purse was located between 1984 and 1986 when it was taken to a criminal lab for fingerprint testing and finally placed in a sealed evidence bag.
In 2011, the FBI tested the purse for a second time and found DNA that matched Carlson's DNA profile.
Last year, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Larry Goodman ordered Carlson, a registered sex offender, to stand trial on murder charges, ruling that prosecutors had presented enough evidence during a preliminary hearing to try the case before a jury.
Beles attempted to reverse that ruling Friday, arguing the purse should not have been considered as evidence because of its mysterious whereabouts.
But Assistant District Attorney Micheal O'Connor argued in a motion that the ruling should stand because police testified that even though the evidence log did not detail the purse's whereabouts, detectives testified that it was in the Pleasanton Police Department's evidence room. That testimony, in addition to a lower threshold needed to move a case beyond a preliminary hearing, should allow the case to continue, O'Connor argued.