The Worst Mother’s Day Ever

Death Row, San Quentin

Sometimes murders can be solved even before the blood at the scene dries. Usually these crimes are called “routine murders” because they involve little more than a fight between the victim and killer, or some such simple resolution.
Occasionally, however, these quickly solved murders are far from routine. The facts of the case prove what Raymond Chandler wrote in his essay The Simple Art of Murder: “The boys with their feet on the desks know that the easiest murder case to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with.”
“Cute” is not a word that one associates with the crimes that put Paul Joe Carasi, on death row and his lover, Donna Lee in prison for the rest of her life. While the pair did try to set up a crime that would divert attention from themselves, the only thing “cute” about the events of May 14, 1995, is the 2-year-old child who was a witness to the murder of his mother, 29-year-old Sonia Salinas, and his grandmother, Doris Carasi, 61.
There is irony in the crime — Carasi (30 years old then) and Lee, 44, chose to kill the two women on Mother’s Day, luring the pair to their deaths with an invitation for a Mother’s Day dinner in Burbank.
In a sense it is a crime that we could have seen coming, if only because Carasi warned anyone who would listen that he was capable of such violence.
Back in 1991, Carasi, described as a “semi-illiterate,” who was living with his mother in North Hollywood, met Sonia Salinas where they both worked in a bank check-processing operation. They became lovers and in 1992 Sonia announced she was pregnant with Carasi’s child. Carasi and his mother, Doris, immigrants from South America, welcomed Sonia into their home and in January 1993 a son was born.
When the boy was about 6 months old, Sonia became seriously ill prompting a lengthy hospital stay. Carasi’s mother cared for the boy during this time and a strong bond grew between her and Sonia. At the same time Sonia’s relationship with Carasi grew troubled and upon her release from the hospital she moved in with her own family living in West Hollywood.
The baby was brought to visit Doris each weekend, but after Sonia moved out, Carasi began publicly expressing concern that Sonia’s family would take some action to prevent him from seeing his son. Thus the seed of his hatred of her blossomed.
“I wish that bitch Sonia had died in the hospital,” he told one friend. Another testified that Carasi told her that he was willing to kill to prevent any interference from Sonia’s family.
Sonia did obtain court-ordered child support in the amount of $375 monthly. The order required Carasi’s employer to garnish 50 percent of the support from his twice monthly paychecks. The child support placed an additional burden on Carasi’s already dismal financial position. He was earning $22,632 annually, with a gross salary of $1,886 monthly. Court records show that after all legal deductions, Carasi was bringing home $960 a month. A week before the murders Carasi’s bank accounts held just over $500.
At his murder trial, witness after witness testified to Carasi’s poor character. At work he had the reputation of being “controlling and volatile at times, especially toward women.” Two witnesses told the jury that they had either witnessed or heard about Carasi being physically violent or verbally abusive toward his mother.
One co-worker described Carasi as “a wannabe cop” who was never without a portable police scanner, and a man whose car looked like an unmarked police cruiser. Trial testimony showed that one of Carasi’s favorite games was to scare prostitutes into thinking they were being kept under surveillance by Hollywood vice squad cops. He never approached the women, however, which only adds some creepiness to the whole thing.
In late 1994 Donna Lee entered the picture. A married but separated co-worker of Carasi and Sonia, Lee eventually moved into the apartment Doris and Paul Carasi shared. At that time she began divorce proceedings.
Meanwhile, the drag on his finances due to the child support did not help Carasi’s new opinion of Sonia. Once again, in earshot of a witness, Carasi said he wished “the whore was dead to avoid giving her half my stuff.”
It is accurate to say that Carasi was drowning in debt: the investigation revealed that Carasi had $21,000 in consumer debt. He was deluged at work with calls from bill collectors, which, because of his position with a financial institution, put his job at risk. He was preparing to file for bankruptcy at the time of the murders — something he blamed on Sonia.
Feelings were never good between Lee and Doris. They frequently fought, and in April 1995 Doris ordered her son and Lee out of her apartment. An Easter Sunday physical row between Doris and Lee prompted Carasi to ponder getting a restraining order against his mother. The fight caused heart problems for Doris and she was hospitalized briefly. Discharged from the hospital she returned home where Sonia moved back in and repaid the earlier kindness by nursing her friend back to health. The two women talked seriously about relocating to Whittier or San Francisco, near where Sonia’s parents had moved.
Events came to a head on Mother’s Day, May 14, 1995 when, in the guise of reconciliation, Carasi invited Doris and Sonia to a late dinner at the Universal CityWalk Mall. The women did not know that Carasi and Lee had scouted the parking garage the week before, looking for the best place commit their crime. While Lee and Carasi were scoping out the mall parking garage, they happened across two bank supervisors, one of whom said the pair seemed shocked by the meeting and that they “looked guilty.”
That the crime was premeditated was incontrovertible, and Lee was afraid for her freedom, but not to the extent that she considered backing out of the plan: She had actually confided in a co-worker that “she was going to do something stupid for which she would go to prison.”
On Mother’s Day, Carasi’s car entered the parking garage at 8:51 p.m. He bypassed several parking spaces located closer to the restaurant and instead chose to park on the roof lot of the garage. It happened to be the one area of the garage that did not have security cameras.
Lee did not attend the dinner, but she was nearby, waiting in the parking garage. Evidence introduced at the trial shows that at 9:49 p.m. a call was made from the restaurant where Carasi and the women were eating to Carasi’s cell phone. The call was charged to Carasi’s home number, and the cell phone was found later in Lee’s car. It can be inferred that Carasi was calling Lee, most likely to tell her that they were delayed at the restaurant. Lee was seen twice by the hostess at the restaurant located between the garage and the restaurant where the Carasi party was dining.
Carasi was acting so strangely that he made an impression on the wait staff. He ordered a 7-liquor ice cream drink before dinner (according to testimony, “the strongest drink on the menu”) was impatient and cross with his mother and Sonia. The waitress remembers him being kind and attentive to his son.
The group left the restaurant around 10:45 p.m.
About 15 to 20 minutes later a 911 call came into a Sheriff’s Department substation near the mall. Responders included a deputy, a mall security guard, and a mall employee. On the 4th floor of the 5-story garage, they found Carasi lying on the ground covered in blood. He directed them to the 5th floor where the crime had taken place.
“My kid is up there,” he told Deputy Sheriff Tom Wilford, who noted that blood covered Carasi “from his head to his toes,” including his face and hands.
Carasi suffered cuts on both hands, but several people who provided first aid testified that there was not enough blood from those wounds to account for the amount of blood on his clothes and where he was lying. While Wilford ran up the steps to the roof lot, Carasi told mall employee Darren Smith: “They killed them.”
Smith testified that after finding Carasi, he climbed the stairs to the fifth floor, seeing bloodstains in the stair-well. He also found a large folding knife on the steps, with the blade closed and no blood on it. A short time later, in front of Security Officer Joseph Hildebrand, Carasi spontaneously said the knife was his.
On the roof the responders saw a blue Chevy Caprice — later identified as Carasi’s “wannabe” undercover police cruiser. The car was apart from the few other cars parked on the roof with its doors open. In the back of the car, strapped into a child seat was Carasi’s 2-year-old son — understandably hysterical. Even at such a young age, he was cognizant enough of the situation for it probably to be something he will never forget.
“Mommy, Mommy,” he screamed over and over, and according to the officers, pointed to the passenger side of the car.
There, in a small space enclosed on three sides by the car and garage walls and railing, the witnesses found two women lying in large pools of blood. They bore stab wounds and appeared to be dead. The bloody trail that Smith had seen downstairs and in the stairwell continued onto the fifth floor, near the bodies.
Doris sustained multiple penetrating stab wounds to the chest and back. Her most serious injury was a gaping knife wound to the throat that had been inflicted in a sawing motion, and that nearly decapitated her. It would have quickly caused death, and was likely inflicted last. Doris had no defensive knife wounds on her hands.
DNA tests established that Doris’s blood was consistent with blood found on the rear seat of Carasi’s car, on the shirt he apparently wore the day of the crime, on the jeans Carasi and Lee wore the same day, and on one of the wool gloves found near Lee along Highway 170 (we’ll get to that).
Sonia was stabbed through the chest to the breast bone. She also suffered numerous deep incisions to her face and throat that intersected in the neck. Her carotid arteries and jugular vein were cut. These injuries would have quickly caused death and probably occurred last. Sonia had several deep defensive knife wounds on her hands. Serological and DNA analysis established that Sonia’s blood was consistent with blood found on the front seat of Carasi’s car, on the shirt (including the bloody handprint), on Carasi’s jeans and jacket, and on the bloody trail running between the areas at the crime scene where Carasi and the victims were found.
Within minutes Carasi had arrived back on the 5th floor and began exhibiting strange behavior. He paced and his hands shook at one time, then he sat down and began rocking back and forth. To the detectives who had responded by this time and were experts in post-crime behavior, Carasi’s actions did not fit that of a crime victim or witnesses to a violent crime. In response to questions, Carasi sometimes moaned or cried out. Other times, however, he seemed calm and gave clear answers. One first responder testified that this pattern was unusual. In his experience, traumatized persons act either withdrawn or upset, but not both.
Carasi gave a lame description of the actual crime:
He unlocked the car for his family after they returned from dinner. Just as he realized he did not have all of his keys, Carasi was shoved from behind by someone who demanded money. Though Carasi said he had no money, the assailant removed Carasi’s fanny pack from his shoulder and pushed him to the ground. Carasi stood up and saw Sonia and Doris lying in pools of blood. He headed downstairs to get help. Carasi heard male voices and the victims’ screams during the attack, but could not describe the number or appearance of his assailants, or the manner in which they left the scene.
One of the paramedics summoned to the crime scene examined Carasi, and was puzzled by what he observed. Carasi indicated that he was not hurt, paramedic Alan Lenhart testified, and did not know why he was so bloody. He denied touching the injured victims. Physical evidence did not support this.
Criminalist Beverly Kerr, who arrived at Universal after the paramedics examined Carasi, testified that she recovered a pile of clothing and towels from the fifth floor of the garage, including the long-sleeved shirt that Carasi had apparently worn. The shirt was saturated with blood on the front and cuffs, and bore a bloody handprint. Later testing linked most of these stains to Sonia.
Almost immediately Carasi began changing his story.
Carasi told Lenhart that he leaned inside the car to kiss Sonia, turned to go downstairs to retrieve the ignition key from the restaurant, and was grabbed by the hair from behind and sat upon after being pushed down. Carasi also told Lenhart that the person who attacked him was not the same person who demanded money.
At around the same time the first responders were examining the parking ramp crime scene, about 5 miles away a pair of CHiP officers responded to a callbox along Highway 170. They had been summoned there by an emergency call from Donna Lee, who reported being stabbed and robbed near the call box. They found Lee lying on the ground near her car, on top of a jacket, with her hands to her side. The car was locked with the keys inside. Lee moaned in pain, and muttered something about there being “nothing she could do” and not knowing “what happened.” She had suffered an abdominal laceration from which she was bleeding and from which her intestines protruded. Lee suffered an evisceration in which the knife had been thrust deeply into the abdomen and moved around. She sustained another stab wound to the back, and a large cut on the inside of the left leg, above the ankle.
The officers dressed the wound and called paramedics.
After Lee was taken to the hospital and additional investigators arrived on the scene, a search was made of the ivy-covered embankment that sloped down from the road. The search produced two fanny packs, one belonging to Carasi and the other to Doris, and Sonia’s purse. These items were covered in blood. Other bloodstained items found nearby included a knife with a blunted tip, a blue sweater, a latex glove, a washcloth, and a pair of wool gloves. Inside Lee’s car, investigators found Carasi’s cell phone in the center console, and Lee’s fanny pack and two plastic Ziploc baggies under the driver’s seat–all bloodstained. Serological tests, including DNA analysis, established that Lee’s blood was consistent with blood found on Sonia’s left shoe at the crime scene, and on items found along Highway 170.
Detectives arrested Carasi on May 18, 1995 after he failed a lie detector test.
While being transported to jail and passing the courthouse, Carasi turned to one of the detectives and asked what he “would get,” or words to that effect, if he pled guilty. During the booking process, Carasi said he wanted to talk to Lee. Detectives arranged the call and heard him say, “Remember what we talked about.”
Lee was arrested soon after.
Another of those elements that Raymond Chandler referred to surfaced after Lee was arrested.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Sam Muniz said investigators believe that Lee stopped alongside the freeway to dump objects that belonged to the victims, including fanny packs belonging to Doris and Paul Carasi, Salinas’ purse and a bloody butcher knife that deputies said could have been used in the stabbings.
“She stopped to get rid of the property, but she couldn’t drive off because she had locked herself out of her car,” Muniz said.
The trial revealed that the assault on the women was not consistent with a robbery.
the pathologist who performed the autopsies, opined that each victim was restrained against a hard object. He testified that most knife fatalities involve injuries near the heart, not the throat, and that the large number of wounds sustained by Sonia and Doris was rare. On direct and cross-examination, the witness associated such injuries with domestic disputes and other crimes of passion. Dr. Carpenter further testified that Carasi suffered at least one palm injury consistent with a “knifer’s wound,” which occurs when the knife strikes bone, and the hand slides down the handle onto the blade. Cuts on Sonia’s hands were consistent with her having repeatedly deflected and grabbed the blade.
Lee testified on her own behalf, and denied involvement in the murders. She described a tumultuous affair with Carasi, including odd sex practices, financial problems, and disputes with Sonia and Doris. According to Lee, she and Carasi argued 10 days before the crime, and tried to reconcile at Universal on May 6, 1995. On May 14, the night of the murders, she agreed to meet Carasi, Sonia, and Doris at Universal to discuss future plans. Lee testified that she parked near Carasi’s car, and looked for the group in the Mall, but never saw them. Back in her car, she fell asleep and awoke when some unknown person, possibly a carjacker, grabbed and at-tacked her. She sped away, and stopped along Highway 170, injured and in pain. Lee denied stabbing the vic-tims or disposing of any evidence, and had no memory of being stabbed or possessing bloody items from the crime scene. A psychologist described possible emotional reasons for Lee’s amnesia.
Both were convicted of first degree murder.
“That is the darkest and saddest day of my life,” Sonia’s father, Jose, said during the penalty phase of the trial. “These killers chose the most sacred day to commit the most terrible of murders.”
His wife also spoke: Thanksgiving, Christmas and especially Mother’s Day are times of mourning at their home in Whittier, she said.
“These killers also assassinated me because I feel like I’m the living dead, Sonia’s mother, Maria, said.
None of the family members who spoke during the penalty phase called for Carasi and Lee to die.
Carasi received the death penalty, while the penalty jury could not reach a unanimous verdict as to Lee. The vote was split 10 to two in favor of death. The prosecution declined to retry Lee, and she received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for each murder count.