August 4, 1977 — January 9, 2011
On June 28, 1992, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake shook the Mojave Desert’s Homestead Valley. Its epicenter was the small, unincorporated community of Landers, California. In a retrospective piece published a year later, the San Jose Mercury News noted:
In 24 seconds, the Landers quake broke five faults, opening a 53-mile-long gash across the Mojave Desert.
This seismic upheaval was, in its way, a harbinger of things to come, and on January 11, 2011, another seismic event was unearthed.
This time, it wasn’t the result of the impersonal violence of an earthquake; this time what was uncovered was the violence that happens when you meet up with the face of evil and have nowhere to run.
Three-quarters of a mile west of Warren Vista Avenue, and 50 yards south of Tracy Road, authorities found the body of Tanya Marie Petro in a shallow grave in Vans Ranch Pipe Canyon Wash.
After a harrowing week, the horror of which ended with her death, Tanya was finally at peace, but the disruption to the lives of those who loved her was just beginning, and like the fissures that were left in the wake of the 1992 Landers Earthquake, Tanya’s family and friends struggle to recover in the wake of her brutal murder.
Who was Tanya Petro?
Born in Los Angeles County in tumultuous times in an often tumultuous place, Tanya’s life, like the place and the time she was born to, had more than its share of upheaval, but there were constants in Tanya’s life — her sister Tracy and her brother Greg. Nine and eight years older than Tanya, Tracy and Greg weren’t just a sister and brother; they were Tanya’s constant guardians, and Tanya and Tracy had a bond that some sisters have that transcended the difference in their ages.
As Tracy grew from a child into a young woman and assumed the responsibilities of adulthood, she and Tanya spent less time together but still had the occasional adventure.
Then, when Tanya grew into adulthood and became a mother, she and Tracy stayed as close as life and circumstances allowed — sometimes more, sometimes less, — but they always stayed connected, and when Tanya went missing in January of 2011, Tracy knew something was desperately wrong.
Tanya had two children, she had a job, she had a dog, and she showed up when she said she would. That was the kind of person of she was.
Tanya was the primary and custodial parent of two young children, she had worked at the Circle K in Lake Elsinore, California, for over seven years, and she had lived in the same apartment complex for a number of years — recently moving within the complex from a one-bedroom to a two-bedroom apartment so that her children would have more space.
At the time she disappeared, Tanya was recovering from surgery that she had had to both of her wrists as the result of a workplace injury. Her recovery was on track, but she did not yet have full use of hands and was not ready to go back to work.
She had also just broken up with a boyfriend, a guy who went by the name of Ron Paulett, and as the whole world would soon learn, there was a lot Ron left out when he told Tanya about himself.
The last normal day
January 6, 2011, was an otherwise ordinary Thursday. Tracy and her friend Angie had boarded a train that would take them from Orange County, California, to the Morongo Casino and Resort in Riverside County. The plan was to have a girl’s day out and then take the train back to Orange County and resume life as usual.
When Tracy and Angie missed the last train back to Orange County, they decided that calling Tanya, who lived in Lake Elsinore, was the best option they had, but when Tracy called, Tanya didn’t answer.
When Tracy called again, Tanya still didn’t answer.
So Tracy called their mother, Lora Jacques, and learned that two days earlier, on January 4, Lora had called Tanya’s apartment. Tanya’s by then ex-boyfriend, Ron, had answered the phone. Lora had not heard back from Tanya and was going to come to Riverside County to report her daughter Tanya missing the next morning.
Tracy didn’t believe that Tanya would have let Ron into her apartment after their recent break-up. Why had he even been able to answer the phone?
She hung up with her mother and then talked to Morongo Casino security to have them contact law enforcement so she could file a missing person’s report. After her report had been taken, she was advised by the officer who took it that she should file another report with the Riverside County Sheriff in the morning. The next morning when Tracy and her daughter Krystine arrived at the Sheriff’s department, Lora was already there, and together they filed a second missing persons report.
Later that day relatives who had been taking care of Tanya’s children called Tracy to find out why Tanya had not come to pick them up as agreed. Tracy talked to her niece and promised that she would go find her mommy and bring her back, but as Tracy and all of Tanya’s friends and family would soon learn, life was never going to be the same.
The first 24 hours after Tanya was reported missing
After Tanya did not show up to get her children, on Saturday, January 9, Tracy followed up with law enforcement about the status of Tanya’s case.
It was then that she learned they had done a search of Tanya’s car and apartment on Friday.
The fact that Tanya’s car was still at the apartment complex added to Tracy’s concern. Tanya drove herself wherever she needed to go and was uncomfortable having to rely on anyone else for a ride, a trait that Tracy and Tanya shared. It also meant that Tanya hadn’t broken down en route to pick her children up in Arizona.
Equally troubling both Tanya’s purse and dog had been left behind. If Tanya were going to go anywhere, she would have taken her purse and made arrangements for her dog. Nothing was adding up.
The other thing the detective mentioned made Tracy’s blood run cold. Tanya’s ex-boyfriend Ron’s drivers license had been found in her apartment.
Law enforcement didn’t initially appreciate the significance of the drivers license they found while searching Tanya’s apartment.
Ron and Tanya had first met when he was working on a road crew. On what was his last day on the job, he flagged her down while she was taking her children to school, and persuaded her to give him enough information that he was able to pursue her after his job ended.
I often think of life’s big changes as coming as part of a plan. You get a new job, you move across the country, you have a child, you buy a house, or you sell a house. Each of these changes takes time and requires planning. Steps have to be followed.
But some changes, like an earthquake, a slip in the shower, or meeting the man who will murder you, take just a moment, and in that moment, life is upended and there no opportunity to return to what was normal, instead a person is left to find a new normal. One they didn’t plan for and wouldn’t have chosen if they had a choice.
Tanya had recently broken up with Ron when she discovered he was using drugs. This came on the heels of an incident in which he had tried to choke her. Tanya did not report the assault to law enforcement. Instead she had told her niece, swore her to secrecy, and changed the locks on her apartment.
She didn’t want Ron Paulett back in her life or her apartment.
Tracy had met Ron just once, and the impression he had made on Tracy did nothing to make her think that her sister doing anything but telling the truth.
After getting off the phone with the detective, Tracy felt that her sister’s disappearance was not being investigated thoroughly enough, so she met up with Tanya’s close friend Becky. Like Tanya, Becky lived at the Morro Road apartment complex where Tanya did; like Tracy, she to thought they should some investigating of their own.
Tracy takes matters into her own hands
Tracy started by trying to break into Tanya’s apartment to look things over for herself, but the security was good, and Tracy was unable to get in. Next she found Tanya’s car exactly where the detective said it would be; she had better luck there, and once Tracy gained access to the car, she found a notebook to the right of the driver’s seat.
Written in Tanya’s hand, Tracy discovered a phone number she didn’t recognize along with directions to 56272 Tanager Road, a home in Yucca Valley, California, that was over 90 miles from Tanya’s apartment.
Tracy also wondered why, if Tanya’s car had been searched the day before, the notebook was still there? But Tracy didn’t have a lot of time to wonder.
With the discovery of the notebook, Tracy told Tanya’s friend, Becky Hill, relaying what she had found in the notebook. Becky in turn called her own mother, Kim, and asked her to call a phone number that Tracy had found.
Kim phone call was illuminating, to say the least. The man who answered the call had admitted that Tanya had been out to the home at 56272 Tanager Road. After she got off the phone with the man, Kim told Becky who in turn told Tracy, who in turn called the detective investigating Tanya’s case.
The detective agreed to look into the lead Tracy had stumbled on, but a couple of hours later, he called back and told her it was just “tweaker talk.” Nothing to see here, the detective assured her, it’s just the ramblings of a crystal meth addict, and he had other avenues he was investigating.
Tweaker talk or not, Tracy was going to follow up on the lead.
Not without us
After the phone call with detective, Tanya’s friend, Becky, was quick to pick up on a change in Tracy’s demeanor.
“Where are you going?” Becky asked.
“To look for Tanya.”
“Not without us.” Becky said
The “us” Becky reference was herself, Tenisha DeVine, and Patrice “Trish” Keeton. The four of them grabbed their weapons, piled into Tracy’s 18-year-old Nissan Pathfinder, and headed to Yucca Valley, California
“They weren’t even normal directions — and I didn’t get lost.”— Tracy Romo, Tanya’s sister
On the long drive from where they had been to where they were going, the four women worked out the details of their plan.
They would park the car where it couldn’t be easily seen from the house, Becky, Tenisha, and Trish would stay where they couldn’t be seen, and Tracy would go to the door alone and tell whoever answered that she was having car trouble and couldn’t get good cell phone reception. At the agreed upon signal, the other women would rush the house.
Everything went according to plan, and once inside, Tracy told the woman who had answered the door she was Tanya’s sister.
At that point the man and the woman who were at the house watching a new born baby told Tracy and her friends that they had last seen Tanya that day (Saturday, January 8) with Ron and another woman who was close to Ron.
At some point Ron, Tanya, and the woman had left the house on Tanager Road, and Ron had returned three hours later, alone and in need of a jump start for his truck.
The story was interrupted when a third adult showed up.
It was the dude who had jump started Ron’s truck earlier that day.
Do you have a cigarette?
Once the dude learned who Tracy was, he offered to take her in his truck to the location he had gone to help Ron.
Tracy, who was fixed on the goal of finding her sister, quickly agreed, and gave her keys to one of the other three of her crew of four musketeers so they could follow behind. With that, the four armed women who had worked their way into a stranger’s home, departed into the dark of a desert night with yet another stranger.
As the man Tracy came do think of as “dude” drove the two of them into the desert in his truck, Tracy’s friends had trouble keeping up on the bumpy roads, and lost sight of her.
Tracy and the dude continued to talk. The weight of whatever had happened to Tanya seemed to weigh on him. He turned to Tracy:
Do you have a cigarette?
Tracy didn’t have a cigarette on her, but she did have some in her car, so they stopped and calmly waited for her friends to catch up while the dude drank shots of vodka to pass the time.
Meanwhile things were not as calm in Tracy’s Pathfinder. When her friends lost sight of the dude’s truck, Becky called law enforcement for help finding Tracy. Tanya was already missing. They didn’t need two sisters gone.
The conversation Becky had with law enforcement as she and her friends drove into the night, toward what, they didn’t exactly know, was the first inkling that any law enforcement agency in San Bernardino had that there was a missing person believed to be in their jurisdiction.
The call ended when Tracy’s friends came up on the truck that was parked and waiting for them.
When they arrived, Tracy went to her vehicle, got the stranger the promised cigarette, and then they were back on the road.
Somewhere in the Mojave desert
The Mojave desert is 47,877 square miles with a population of 1 million people scattered throughout. There are densely populated areas like the cities of Las Vegas in Nevada, and Lancaster, Victorville, Mojave, and Barstow in California, but with a population density of just 21 people per square mile there are large swaths of the Mojave that have very few people living in them at all. So few that if you were to scream, there might only be a jack rabbit or coyote to hear you.
The one-room shack that the stranger brought them to was in the middle of nowhere. The windows were broken, there was no door, and there were two mattresses on the ground. In the dark of the night the mattresses and the floor looked like they were covered in something that could be blood.
Undeterred by the bleakness of the circumstances, Tracy and Trish walked out into the desert calling Tanya’s name while Becky and Tenisha stayed by the car and kept an eye on the stranger.
Becky and Tenisha were there watching when the dude got a phone call, watching when he stopped to look at the ground and pick something up, and watching when he got in his truck, and then — without even a good-bye — left.
On the road again
With no sign of Tanya, the women regrouped and were soon in hot pursuit of the stranger.
He got away from them, so they went back to where it had all started: 56272 Tanager Road in Yucca Valley.
The man and the woman who had been there when they first arrived was still there. The cops had already been to the address as a result of Becky’s earlier call, and had gone out looking for the four women and the dude. The woman at the house told Tracy and her crew that the cops were on the way and that they wanted Tracy, Tenisha, Becky, and Trish to wait.
When law enforcement showed up at 56272 Tanager Road for the second time that evening, Tracy learned that Paulett was an alias and that Ron’s legal last name was Paoletto. The police also seemed familiar enough with the other woman who had left with Ron to tell Tracy that if that woman didn’t want to be found, she wouldn’t be.
Later, the woman who disappeared with Ron would also be identified as the woman shown on video taking money out of Tanya Petro’s bank account.
With Tanya’s sister and friends outside waiting, the police went inside the house several times to speak to both the man and the woman who were still there.
Then a police officer told Tracy that while he understood why she was there, it wasn’t safe, and that she and her friends should leave and wait for them to call.
As Tracy and her friends left, 2–3 more officers pulled up.
At the continued urging of law enforcement, Tracy and her friends called it a night. It was while they were on their way home that the Lake Elsinore detective assigned to the case called Becky:
If she continued to pursue investing her Tanya’s case, he was going to arrest all of them for impeding his investigation.
Other than to threaten them with arrest for doing what law enforcement would not — namely look for Tanya — the police never called back.
Not even when they found Tanya’s body.
18877 Vine Street, Hesperia California
This was the address where law enforcement found Ronald Wayne Paoletto living on January 10, 2011, when they arrested him.
The house he was living in was 50 miles from Corona, California, where he claimed to be living, but just seven-tenths of a mile from Carmel Elementary School.
One of the conditions of Ronald Wayne Paoletto’s release after he served time for convicted of lewd or lascivious acts with a child under the age of 14 was that he had to register as a sex offender and let law enforcement know where he was living; it was his violation of this term of his release that allowed law enforcement to take him into custody..
Vans Ranch Pipe Canyon Wash
On Tuesday, January 11, 2011, at 11:00 am, law enforcement finally located Tanya Marie Petro.
Her body had been buried in a shallow grave three-quarters of a mile west of Warren Vista Ave, and 150 feet south of Tracy Road.
Law enforcement did not call Tanya’s family to tell them a body had been found. They made no request for a family member to come identify the body. Six hours after Tanya’s body was unearthed, Tracy and the rest of Tanya’s family and friends learned about her murder and the discovery of her body on the local evening news.
Tracy and everyone else who loved and cared about Tanya probably expected that finding her body would lead them to answers for the questions they had about her death.
Sadly, it has just led to more questions, most of which haven’t been answered and may never be.
Some of the unanswered questions
Where was Tanya murdered?
Was she murdered where she was found, or was her body transported there after being murdered elsewhere?
How did law enforcement know where to look for Tanya’s body?
In addition to not calling the family when the body was found or asking them to identify Tanya, law enforcement never explained how they knew where to look for her.
What was the involvement of the people living at 56272 Tanager Road?
There were three adults and a newborn living at the address at the time of Tanya’s disappearance, and one of those adults was captured on video using an ATM to take money out of Tanya’s bank account.
The family was not told how much was stolen, but a deposit of several thousand dollars had been made on the 4th, and if the woman who stole the money took more than $950, she could have been charged with felony grand theft for that alone.
Why does the DA’s office believe Ron Paoletto acted alone?
In a letter sent to Tracy, Tanya’s sister, the DA now says that Ron Paoletto acted alone, but the man and the woman who answered the door to Tracy late on January 8, didn’t seem surprised to see Tracy when she and three of Tanya’s friends showed up on their doorstep armed and asking about Tanya, and they did not even call law enforcement.
San Bernardino law enforcement ONLY learned of Tanya’s disappearance when they got a call from Becky Hill late on January 8, while she and her friends had lost sight of the truck they were following and Becky was concerned for Tracy’s saftey.
Who was the dude?
The man who took Tracy to the shack where he said her sister was held has never been identified.
The answers to these questions and many others seem to have died when Ronald Wayne Paoletto managed to bring the wheels of justice to an abrupt halt.
The suicide of Ronald Wayne Paoletto
Shortly before 7:00 am on Monday, July 25, 2011, Ronald Wayne Paoletto was found hanging in his jail cell at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, California.
For those wanting justice for Tanya, it was a bitter end to an even more bitter act. It also precluded anyone else who might have been involved in her murder from being brought to justice for the roles they might have played.
The myth of closure
There is no closure when a loved one is murdered. Sometimes, as in the case of Tanya Petro, there is no justice either.
In light of that, the most humane thing San Bernardino and Riverside County law enforcement could do is provide answers to the many legitimate questions the family has.
Tanya Marie Petro was in many ways an ordinary young woman living a little out of her time. She didn’t like having her photo taken, she did not own a computer or tablet or a fancy cell phone. Despite being born into it, she was not part of what would become the “selfie generation.”
Tanya also had one clear priority: providing the best life for her children that she could.
For her that meant that instead of spending money on electronic gadgets, she took what she had and budgeted for season passes to Disneyland, a two-bedroom apartment so the children could have more space, and a dog so they could experience the joy of pet ownership.
Perhaps one of the best testaments as to how we lived our lives is measured by what people have to say about us once we are gone.
“She had a beautiful heart.” — Michele Jackson
“Tanya was a sweet girl. She was always doing for her kids and for animals.” — Scott Jackson
“She was such a sweet, tender person. Always smiling.” — Ray Kuhns
“Her whole life was for her kids.” — Mason McKinnon
“She was a hard worker and a loving mother.”— Tracy Romo, Tanya’s sister
Tanya Petro’s children have now lived without their mother longer than they got to live with her.
Tracy Romo has never really forgiven herself for not finding her sister as she had promised her niece, but she has kept every promise she made to Tanya’s children since that day.
The gaping fissures left in the wake of Tanya Petro’s murder have never really been filled or had the chance to heal, but my hope is that before the evidence is set to be destroyed, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties come together and work to provide the answers to Tanya’s family and friends about what happened to their mother, sister, daughter, and friend.
The information in this piece comes from three sources: media coverage at the time of Tanya Petro’s disappearance and the events subsequent to the discovery of her body, public documents, along with and interviews and information provided by Tanya’s older sister, Tracy Romo.
The efforts of Tanya’s sister and Tanya’s friends to find her before her death were heroic, and without their persistence, I think it is likely that Tanya’s body, like those of the McStay family buried just 65 miles away from where Tanya was found, would have gone undiscovered for who knows how long.
The cases of the both Tanya Petro and the McStay family highlight the need for law enforcement to take missing persons cases more seriously than they currently do, for investigative tools and methods to be developed that allow law enforcement to do a better job finding the missing, and for communities to fund the development of tools and training and staffing for law enforcement so we can have better outcomes to more missing persons cases.