Homicide Squad Now Using Pychological Tactics To Induce Son To Name Father In Stepmother’s 1992 Murder

More than 27 years after the gruesome stabbing death of then 40-year-old Valarie Serena in Hesperia in July 1992, her stepson has been arrested following a yet-to-be-publicly-revealed breakthrough in the investigation of the case.
Charles Duane Serena II, now 45 but who was 18 at the time Valerie Serena was stabbed 14 times in the back on July 4, 1992 in the bedroom of her Catalpa Street home in Hesperia, was taken into custody on September 27 by Lewis County Sheriff’s deputies and members of the Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force in the Rimrock Retreat area near White Pass, Washington. His arrest followed by eight days detectives from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department obtaining a warrant for his arrest on September 19.
As of yesterday Serena was yet being held in the Yakima County jail in Washington.
San Bernardino County investigators’ focus has now turned to extracting from Serena a confession that will implicate his father, Charles Duane Serena, in the killing.
Affidavits and other documentation of evidence in support of the arrest warrant lay out the theory that San Bernardino County homicide detectives have developed over more than two decades in their efforts to piece together a case in which suspicion had originally settled on the elder Charles Duane Serena. Detectives believe that Charles Duane Serena II, who had only a month previously graduated as an honors student from Apple Valley High School, had stealthily made his way into the Catalpa  Street residence of his former stepmother in the early morning of Independence Day 1992, and then went into the bedroom while she was sleeping and stabbed her to death.
Charles Duane Serena II was born in 1974 to Charles Duane Serena, a Marine and Viet Nam War veteran who had been exposed to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange during at least one of his two tours of duty in the Southeast Asian country, and his first wife. Following his divorce from his first wife, Charles Duane Serena married Valerie Joyce McDonald in 1981, with whom he had two daughters.
By 1990, the marriage between Charles and Valerie was on the rocks, and their divorce in 1991 was less than amicable, from which arose a bitter custody dispute over their two daughters. His exposure to Agent Orange entitled Charles Serena to disability benefits and his two daughters to Social Security benefits. When the court sided with Valerie on the child custody matter, the Social Security benefits due to Charles Serena’s two daughters were diverted as payable to Valerie. An element of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department’s theory of the case is that the motive for Valerie Serena’s killing in part consisted of Charles Serena’s determination to obtain for himself the entirety of the benefits that were an offshoot of his Agent Orange exposure.
While the custody dispute was yet ongoing and an order for shared custody and visitation was in place, Charles essentially kidnapped his two daughters and held them without returning them for three weeks. Thereafter, Charles was slapped with a restraining order, preventing him from coming into Valerie’s Catalpa Street home, though his visitation/short term custody rights were not interrupted.
Early in the evening of Friday, July 3, Charles came to the Catalpa Street residence to retrieve both of his daughters for a scheduled weekend visitation with them. He left with both the children, taking them to the home he then lived in with his third wife and his son. A bit later, around 9 p.m., Valerie Serena was seen by her neighbors for the last time. In the wee hours of the following morning, a neighbor heard what was described as something akin to a cat shrieking coming from inside Valerie’s house. The neighbor also heard dogs barking at a nearby residence, what could have been the animals reacting to a stranger on or near the property.
When friends and family sought to reach Valerie by phone on Saturday, July 4, they were unsuccessful. On Sunday, July 5, 1992 her parents contacted one of Valerie’s friends to go to her house to check in on her. When her friend got to the Catalpa Street residence, the door was ajar. The woman ventured into the home, but made it no further than the living room and dining room area, where she saw a set a keys and a purse. When the woman beckoned Valerie by her name, there was no response. Unsettled by the circumstance, the woman came out of the house, just as Charles Serena was pulling into the driveway with his two daughters. The woman told him that something seemed amiss and said he should call the police.
Because of the restraining order against him, Charles Serena went to the next door neighbors house, where he called the sheriff’s department. Responding deputies went into the house where they found Valerie Serena dead in her bedroom. An immediate survey of the property was done and deputies found no indication of a burglary or items taken, no obvious sign of a forced entry and all entrances and windows in the house except for the front door locked. When the deputies informed Charles Serena that a woman was dead inside the house, they noted that he registered no reaction or show of emotion. Under questioning by sheriff’s personnel, Charles Serena said he did not have a key to the house. He denied having any involvement in his ex-wife’s death.
During follow-up inquiries by sheriff’s homicide investigators, Charles Serena grew uncooperative and reportedly told his son not to speak with the sheriff’s investigators. Despite that, Charles Duane Serena II, who went by the name Duane rather than Charles, at least twice submitted to questioning by detectives handling the case. He denied any involvement in or knowledge regarding his stepmother’s death. When he was pressed by investigators to undergo a polygraph examination, he refused and said he was further unwilling to provide the department with a blood sample.
Shortly after the murders, Duane Serena enlisted in the Marines, serving four years before being honorably discharged. The year after his enlistment he deployed to Somalia as part of the expeditionary force involved in Operation Restore Hope, and served among the Marine contingent supporting the U.S. Army Ranger and Delta Force troops involved in the Battle of Mogadishu.
After his discharge, Duane Serena seemed to have difficulty getting his life on track despite his excellent academic performance in high school, and he was diagnosed as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of his battle experience in the Marines. At times, according to the investigation carried out by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, he attempted to self-medicate with alcohol and illicit street drugs. He twice was enrolled in Veterans Administration-sponsored drug rehabilitation and recovery programs.
He proved itinerant during the latter 1990s and into the early 2000s, including a time in North Dakota when he and his wife lived with or nearby his biological mother, as well as time spent living in Rhode Island, Nevada and eventually Washington. He was married at least four times and divorced three times.
He had difficulty holding a job, having worked in several different capacities, including as a driver, a metal worker and a butcher.
Like his father, he had never fallen beyond the focus of the detectives who were actively working the case of Valerie Serena’s death in the early to mid-1990s, nor of the cold case unit that subsequently took up the matter.
Early on, after he was contacted by an investigator working the case while he was yet in the Marines, Duane Serena made a curious statement. According to one of the affidavits for his arrest warrant, he had said that “other than the Marine Corps, his father has his total loyalty.”
At times, during his decline into the morass of alcohol and substance abuse, which had created havoc in his marriages and sometimes manifested in physical abuse of at least three of his wives, Duane Serena had hinted to friends and acquaintances that he was involved in the killing of his stepmother. On at least one occasion he said he had assisted his father in killing Valerie Serena and then assisted him in eliminating any evidence that either had taken part in the murder.
During the first 26-plus years of the 27-year-long investigation, detectives had found disparate pieces of evidence which pointed to Duane Serena’s involvement but which did not in total provide a fully integral case against him. It appears that investigators in the last several months came across an individual or individuals to whom he had made statements that provided key corroborative evidence to satisfy a judge that an arrest warrant should be issued.
At present, detectives are executing a plan to render Duane Serena psychologically prone to implicating his father in the murder. The technique being employed against him takes full advantage of his being incarcerated and shut off from the outside world, and unable to communicate with friends, family or anyone within his support network without those conversations being monitored. Of value to the investigators is that Duane Serena has been for some time estranged from his father. Part of the investigative team’s strategy is to maintain Duane Serena in his state of isolation for an extended period of time, cut off from social contact, after which time he will be contacted by investigators, at least one of whom will seek to befriend him by dealing with him on a human level. Thereupon, they will begin questioning him about the events leading up to the killing of Valerie Serena, lacing into their questions suggestions that his culpability in the death is mitigated by the influence and sway his father had over him when he was 18, suggesting that he might greatly reduce his sentence or perhaps avoid prison altogether if he can offer the investigators proof of his father’s involvement.
Moreover, detectives are not overlooking the possibility that during a monitored and recorded phone conversation between father and son, one or both will make a statement implicating Charles Duane Serna, the elder, in the murder.
Having already waited 27 years to get this far, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department investigators are in no rush, and they have allowed Duane Serna to languish where he is, in the custody of the Yakima County Sheriff’s Department. Following his arrest on September 27, San Bernardino County authorities did not immediately send a team of detectives or deputies to Washington to escort him back to California. Instead, the younger Serena was kept on ice until his preliminary hearing on Tuesday October 4. At that preliminary hearing, he waived extradition, which gives San Bernardino County investigators clearance to remove him at will to San Benardino County. As of yesterday, however, he was yet in the custody of the Yakima County Sheriff’s Department. There was no indication that the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has even begun preparations to have transferred.
-Mark Gutglueck

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