NORTH FORK — For nearly three decades, the brutal murders of Velma Avdeeff and Stella Rea have remained unsolved – but not forgotten. Each year as the holidays come and go, the family wishes for only one thing – the answer to the question of who murdered these two women and why.
The crime took place on New Year’s Day 1988, and though investigations by the Madera County Sheriff’s Office and a private investigator have long since gone cold, Cheryl Adams is still searching for the killer or killers who broke into the family home and took the life of her mother and grandmother.
It was only 11 degrees on a wintry Saturday, Jan. 2, 1988, remembers Cheryl, with about six inches of frozen snow on the ground and a bright full moon overnight. Her husband Kenny drove the short distance to the home on Road 200 to check on Velma and Stella when they failed to answer repeated phone calls. What he discovered there would shock the community and devastate this family – both women had been bludgeoned to death in their bedrooms.
When the murders of Velma and Stella took place, the residents of North Fork were already on edge. Just two weeks earlier, a Southern California Edison worker named Herman Cube, 51, had been killed after being beaten and dragged from his room at the South Fork Motel, then taken into the woods where his throat was cut. Three of the suspects in that case had been arrested, but a fourth – David Duane Knight, then age 27 – was still at large.
News of that gruesome killing prompted national headlines and a run on ammunition at North Fork Hardware, with residents locking their doors and keeping guns close at hand. Knight was eventually captured, and he and his accomplices – Terry Coleman, then 21, Michael James Tex, 25, and Clifford Knight, 28, all residents of North Fork – were sent to prison for their crimes. But as news of the brutal murders of these two women swept through the community, citizens were up in arms, demanding that the Sheriff’s Department find answers, and calling for a citizen’s patrol to be organized.
Velma Avdeeff was just 56 years old when she died. Stella was 79. Velma’s husband Al has passed away in May of 1985 after a long battle with cancer, and Stella had moved up from Bellflower, Calif., after retiring from her job as a bank teller. She eventually moved in with Velma, who could provide care for her, with the assistance of two aides who helped out part-time.
Velma was a much-loved and well-respected member of the North Fork community, volunteering countless hours with the Chamber of Commerce and the North Fork Boosters. She was also active in the local chapter of Beta Sigma Phi. She did tax preparation and sold insurance in her little H&R Block office next to the family business – the A Ranch store – which was run by her husband. The old buildings still stand just south of the Bass Fork Minit Mart on Road 200 at Hadley Road.
One woman who worked for Velma says she never met anyone who didn’t like her.
“If older people couldn’t get out of the house, she would go to them and help them with their taxes,” says a friend. “Velma always said, ‘I might not have a lot of money, but I sure do have a lot of friends.’ She was the sweetest lady I ever met.”
In the days before the murders, daughter Cheryl says her mother had seemed depressed.
“Last time I saw her was on Christmas day,” Cheryl remembers. “She sounded really depressed and down. I kept asking her what was bothering her, but she wouldn’t tell me.”
Cheryl says Velma was having business problems with the broker she worked with in Oakhurst. He hadn’t been paying her.
“She didn’t tell me much about her business problems,” says Cheryl. “I think she was trying to protect me from all that. But she was pulling out all her clients, which was practically all of North Fork, to go to another insurance broker.”
Velma also told her daughter that there was a man who was “trying to come on to her” and wouldn’t take no for an answer, but Velma wouldn’t say any more, and wouldn’t give his name. Subsequent investigations have also failed to identify the man, though friends confirmed that she was bothered by his advances.
Cheryl says her mother may also have been overwhelmed by the job of taking care of Stella, who was likely suffering from dementia and becoming increasingly difficult to deal with. In fact, Cheryl and Kenny had been planning to let their 2-year-old son spend the night with Velma and Stella on New Year’s Eve, but changed their minds after an episode where Stella bonked the toddler on the head with a book around Christmastime.
“I don’t think she meant to hurt him, and he didn’t cry,” says Cheryl, “but we were concerned about some of her behavior, and with Mom not hearing very well, we thought better of it. Thank God!”
Cheryl and Kenny had friends over for New Year’s Eve, and they remember the full moon being so bright that with its reflection off the snow, it was like daylight. Early the next afternoon, Cheryl called to check in with her mom and grandmother, but there was no answer. After repeated attempts to reach Velma, she asked her husband to drive over and check on the two women.
Kenny had been helping a friend move some furniture that day, and the two of them drove over to the house, taking a shotgun with them, with the recent Cube murder fresh in their minds.
When they arrived at Velma’s house, it was immediately apparent that something was horribly wrong. Kenny could see that the sliding glass door had been smashed, and he grabbed his shotgun and stepped into the house through the broken door, where he found Stella dead in her bed, and Velma lying in the doorway to her bedroom. Both women had been bludgeoned to death, with massive injuries to their skulls.
Kenny raced to Bass Fork Minit Market to call 911, not wanting to return to his house to do so because his family was there, including his 2-year-old and 3-month-old sons. There were people using the pay phone at the gas station, so he hurried to a nearby friend’s house to make the call.
When sheriff’s deputies arrived at the scene, they discovered that the outside breaker box had been opened and the power shut off. Cheryl says her mom always set the coffee pot to brew automatically at 6:30 a.m., and when the power was turned back on, the time read 6:40 and the coffee had been brewed.
There were chunks of dried mud scattered among the broken glass, which was sprayed across the living room. The mud was in a circular shape, appearing as if it had flown out of a hollow object, such as a metal pipe, while the sliding glass door was being smashed. Detectives discovered an impression in the snow where it appeared such an object had been lying, next to others like it which were still piled there.
As they made their way into the house, deputies found Velma lying in the doorway of her bedroom, as though she had gotten up when she heard the noise and was attacked as she entered the hallway. She suffered massive trauma to her face and head and defensive wounds to her right forearm.
Stella was found in her bed, with massive injuries to her head and face.
“I think grandma was just collateral damage,” says Cheryl.
Investigators found smeared blood on the TV in the living room and on a dresser in the spare bedroom, a bloody shoe impression in the hallway, and a drop of blood in the bathroom.
If they were initially considering that this might be a burglary, it was curious that the TV wasn’t taken, nor was a purse, cash and medication that were in plain sight on the kitchen counter, or the jewelry that the women were wearing. There was also jewelry at other locations in the house that was clearly visible to anyone intent on robbing the place. Reports also indicated “no signs of ransacking.”
The Sheriff’s Office enlisted the help of the Department of Justice, who also began working the case, and the investigation went off in several directions.
Neighbors were interviewed, and though there were reports of people hearing vehicles idling at different times during the hours between 8 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and 6 a.m. on New Year’s Day, detectives gleaned no good, solid evidence from those interviews.
There were varying reports from several witnesses about trucks seen in the area, including a large dark colored flatbed and a tan pickup with a camper shell.
Another neighbor reported that her Rottweiler/Malamute puppy had come home about 9 a.m. on Jan. 1, covered in blood, but had no wounds on its body. She felt that the dog was too young to be chasing down deer.
Investigators were even contacted by a woman identifying herself as a psychic, who said she was getting images of a man, either Oriental or Indian, with dark, fine hair and a mustache.
It was discovered that a window had been broken out at the H&R Block office the day before, but after Kenny found that nothing appeared to be missing, he locked up the building, and didn’t report it to law enforcement.
Investigators also looked closely at family members, and both Cheryl and Kenny volunteered immediately to take lie detector tests – which they both passed – so that investigators would move on and follow other leads.
They interviewed a man who had done yard work for Stella, and who had recently gotten into a disagreement with the women over the sale of a car. Stella had apparently agreed to sell it for $100, though it was worth much more, and when Velma found out, she told the prospective buyer that her mother was not in a lucid state when she made the deal, and that he was trying to take advantage of her, and angry words were exchanged. This man is currently serving time in a California State prison.
One woman told several friends that she had seen her boyfriend washing blood off his hands early on the morning of New Year’s Day, and had also seen a length of pipe with blood and hair on it. When questioned by investigators, however, she backed off her story, and denied ever having said such a thing, though she conceded that her heavy drug use may have clouded her memory.
The boyfriend in question was a parole violator from Texas with a violent history, and the story of blood on his arms was corroborated by a male friend who claims to have been at the couple’s house at about 5 a.m. on New Year’s Day and witnessed the blood in the sink. This friend also said they had gone to the Hadley Road area on New Year’s Eve around 8 p.m. to try and buy drugs.
The Adams’ private investigator questioned the Oakhurst insurance broker with whom Velma was about to part company, and who allegedly owed her several thousand dollars, but he was less than cooperative during the interview and reportedly declined to take a polygraph test.
In the early days of the investigation, the rumors were flying fast and furious around North Fork, and then-Sheriff’s Lieutenant Al Conway told the Madera Tribune that the investigation was being “hampered by rumors and misinformation.” Residents were speculating that David Knight — still on the loose and wanted in the Cube murder — may have been involved in the killings, though there was no evidence to support that.
Lead investigator Deputy Domingo Camit told the Madera Tribune, “The townfolk are jumping the gun. The only thing we have in all three homicides is that the victims were all brutally beaten. Residents are just very angry and upset. They are arming themselves and locking their doors.”
The W&G Market even started closing early in order to allow their employees to get safely home before it got too late. One resident was quoted as saying, “We’re just a thin shell away from becoming a vigilante community,” as people searched out keys for doors that had never before been locked, and kept loaded shotguns in their living rooms.
Members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church held prayer gatherings, and the community formed “The North Fork Concerned Citizens,” to work with the Sheriff’s Office to discuss town safety issues and coordinate citizen patrols.
Investigators still had not determined a motive for the senseless murders, and with nothing stolen from the home during the crimes, it was even more perplexing.
Adding insult to an already horrific situation, on the day of the funeral while nearly the whole town was gathered to mourn their loss, a group of juveniles went to the Adveeff home to rob it. Apparently, one of those in on the planning decided it was just not right, and ratted out his friends, who were caught in the act of loading items into Velma’s car.
As the community banded together in the wake of tragedy, a reward fund was established by the Chamber of Commerce and the Concerned Citizens group, totaling about $12,000, for information leading an arrest in the case, but as the years went by with no resolution, the Chamber voted in 1995 to use the funds available to build sidewalks in town, in honor of Velma and Stella. There is a plaque in their memory in the concrete wall on the west side of the main street just south of the Gas ‘n Stuff.
They also created a scholarship fund for Cheryl and Kenny’s two boys, who never got to know their grandmother and great-grandmother, due to this senseless tragedy.
Cheryl and Kenny hired a private investigator in January 1989, and though he interviewed friends, neighbors, witnesses and suspects, the investigation turned up no hard evidence and no new leads.
No matches were ever made to the one partial palm print found in the house or the fingerprint lifted from the breaker box. Neither have DNA matches been made on any of the evidence collected at the scene.
As the years passed, the investigation grew cold, and though it has been revisited from time to time over the ensuing decades, detectives ran out of leads, and the cold case team in Fresno that was working with the Sheriff’s Office was disbanded due to budget cuts.
Cheryl, however, remains determined that someone, somewhere, has information that would breathe new life into the mystery that continues to haunt her and her family.
“Every day it’s there,” she says. “I don’t cry every day, but every day it’s there.”
Cheryl hopes that after nearly three decades, 2016 will be the year when someone comes forward with information that will put this mystery to rest, and give her family some peace; that perhaps people who were afraid to speak up back then, or to get involved, are now ready to tell what they know.
“Somebody out there knows something,” she says. “My hope is that someone will be willing to say something; that people will pay attention and not let them be forgotten. After 28 years, I think it’s time to let your conscience go, and to say if you know anything, because time does change things.”
Anyone with information that may help to solve this case is encouraged to call the Madera County Sheriff’s Office at 559-675-7770 or Private Investigator Mark O’Bar at 559-240-0825.
“Keep looking at these women and think to yourself, they were innocent,” says O’Bar. “They weren’t dope dealers, they weren’t prostitutes; they were in the sanctity of their own home. Even a person who’s reluctant to talk – hopefully they look at this photo and it plays on their conscience.”