SAN DIEGO — San Diego County’s district attorney is detailing what goes into trying a murder case without the victim’s body as investigators continue to search for Maya Millete.
The Chula Vista mom of three’s body has not been found as her husband, Larry Millete, pleaded not guilty to a murder charge Thursday.
“It makes things more complex, more challenging but working with Chula Vista Police Chief Kennedy and her team, our team came together and we built this case piece by piece,” District Attorney Summer Stephan told FOX 5 Friday morning.
Stephan said trying murder cases while a victim’s body is still missing can involve a different approach, but they’re not too rare.
“I wouldn’t say it’s often but they happen fairly regularly and in San Diego County we’ve had several high-profile cases where there have been convictions with no body,” Stephan said. “So there is a way to investigate and put together these cases.”
Some investigative steps in the Millete case involved detectives poring through payments and messages Larry allegedly sent to “spellcasters.” “The emails became increasingly panicked,” Detective Jesse Vicente wrote in an affidavit, describing spells Larry purchased to harm Maya badly enough that she relied on him and couldn’t leave.
“When you don’t find a body, you have to track financial records, you have to rebuild the history of the individual to show that they didn’t have a motive or an intent or any plan to leave,” Stephan said. “When you have a case with a mother that was planning a birthday, like in this case and like other cases we’ve prosecuted, that is pretty powerful evidence.”
Detectives also examined search history and text messages in the months after Maya’s disappearance and found signs the couple’s marriage was fraying dating back to at least September 2020, at which time Larry was becoming “increasingly obsessed with May’s activities and communications with other people,” investigators said.
“There’s a whole different element we have to bring to the investigation, which we did in May Millete’s disappearance. But once you do all of that and you meticulously build the case, it’s just like any other murder case,” Stephan said.
When asked if it is hard to get a jury to convict without the victim’s body, Stephan said prosecutors have seen success in the past.
“It has gone very well with jurors once we put together the case the right way,” Stephan said. “We do this in a way that is very clear and this is why this wasn’t a rush. This was a meticulous case to make sure that in addition to everything that we had — the motive, evidence, all the other features — that we also can prove that there is no proof of life sadly, that May is still alive.”
Stephan said it is possible for someone to get life in prison or the death penalty even if a body isn’t found. The law is laid out in a way that prevents a killer from benefitting from hiding a body well, according to Stephan.
“We had a case where Guadalupe Dailey went missing and we still haven’t been able to find the body. It’s been 15 years, but still the jury convicted of first degree murder, her husband. She was planning a divorce. We had a case where a beloved zoo keeper in San Diego went missing and again her coworker was convicted of murder. Even the Westerfield case, that horrific murder, initially when we charged the case, we did not have the little girl’s body. We ended up finding it a few weeks later.”
As investigators continue their search for Maya’s body, Stephan is urging anyone with information to contact police or the district attorney’s office. They are specifically seeking information about the family’s black Lexus GX 460 with custom California tag “Maylani” on Jan. 8. Chula Vista police said this week that video showed Larry moving it to a position where a video camera could not capture whether a body was in the back.
“We want people to refocus back to January 7 and January 8 of this year, 2021,” Stephan said. “We really want to bring May back so that her children can have a place to visit her and pay their respects and know that their mother is at peace.”
FOX 5’s Matt Meyer contributed to this story.