The sun had sunk below the horizon and temperatures were dropping when Orrin and Orson West were reported missing from their California City home Dec. 21, 2020, KTLA sister station KGET reports.
Orrin, 4, and Orson, 3, had been playing outside in the early evening, adoptive parents Trezell and Jacqueline West told police. Trezell West said he kept an eye on the boys as he gathered firewood.
He said he briefly went indoors and when he came back out the children were missing. He realized he left the gate open and conducted a frantic search of the neighborhood before calling 911, Trezell West told police.
Police and volunteers searched the area using K-9s but came up empty. They sent out a news release with a description and photos of the boys.
By the next morning, the community came together in the first of many massive searches. Even with a larger group of volunteers and sunny conditions, searchers found nothing.
What no one walking those neighborhoods or driving through the surrounding desert knew that morning — and wouldn’t until a shocking twist more than a year later — is the boys were already beyond their help.
According to prosecutors, Orrin and Orson were killed three months before they were reported missing. Their bodies have not been found.
And, prosecutors say, their killers were the two people trusted with their safety and well-being — their adoptive parents.
The disappearance and initial searches
Located roughly 110 miles north of Los Angeles, California City is a desert community of roughly 14,000 people with Edwards Air Force Base, Mojave Air and Space Port and a prison as major employers.
Violent crime is no stranger, but homicides remain relatively rare. Some years pass with only one or even no killings.
So while news of two missing children was certainly alarming, searchers remained hopeful. Groups swarmed the area.
The adoptive parents thanked the community for the outpouring of support.
“We’ve felt so helpless, and seeing everybody out here really looking and helping out really means a lot,” Jacqueline West told media two days after the boys’ disappearance.
Already, however, some were becoming suspicious. Police and the FBI searched the Wests’ home and seized phones and other electronic devices. Their van was towed and inspected. Authorities dug in the backyard.
Four other children, two adopted and two biological children of the Wests, were placed in protective custody.
On Dec. 29, 2020, California City Police Chief Jon Walker announced foul play was suspected and said a second search of the home had been conducted and unidentified items seized for analysis.
“I can’t comment on whether I think they’re alive or not,” Walker told Nexstar’s KGET at the time. “I do suspect foul play. We haven’t been able to put together how the boys got out of the yard, or where they’ve gone.”
Some in the community turned on the Wests. Vandals threw rocks at the home or attempted to break in.
A statement attributed to the family said they had been inundated with threats and were lying low.
“Our priority is to find out where our boys are and their safe return,” the statement read. “The truth has to and will come to light.”
Rewards offered, vigils held
Local businesses began offering rewards in early January 2021; by mid-March they totaled $125,000. That amount included $30,000 offered by the adoptive family and $25,000 from the city.
Candlelight vigils were held in California City and outside Casa Loma Apartments in Bakersfield, where the Wests had previously lived.
“We want answers! Where are the boys?!” chanted participants in a February 2021 vigil in Bakersfield.
That question has become a rallying cry in the case.
Answers have been slow in coming.
The Bakersfield Police Department took over the investigation and in March about 50 officers and FBI agents scoured a dirt lot near Casa Loma Apartments. No information was released on new developments.
“On a daily basis there’s case movement, there’s interviews that occur,” said BPD spokesman Sgt. Robert Pair. “There’s items of evidence that are searched.”
But the boys remained missing and no arrests were made.
That proved frustrating to some, leading to arguments and even an arrest.
YouTuber Doug Hutton accused a neighbor of the Wests of being connected to the disappearance. The neighbor then put pictures of Hutton all over the Wests’ house along with a banner asking “Doug Hutton, Where are the boys?”
Hutton removed the pictures then confronted someone at the neighbor’s house. Officers were called and Hutton was cited for outstanding misdemeanor warrants and released, police said.
On June 1, 2021, police gave an update detailing efforts that had been made to locate Orrin and Orson. At that point, 44 search warrants had been served, 83 people interviewed and 170 items seized.
Police said 16 “mass area” searches had been conducted, investigators had searched three locations outside the state and more than 200 tips were followed up. Data was continuing to be extracted from cellular and electronic devices, and seized items were being forensically examined.
All family members connected to the boys were interviewed, police said.
Charles Pettus, the biological father of Orrin and Orson, spoke with KGET in October, 10 months after their disappearance.
“I don’t want my kids to be deceased, I want them to come back home because my kids is all I got,” Pettus said. “After my parents go, it’s just me and my kids.”
Grand jury hears evidence, Wests indicted
Around mid-February, KGET received word a couple vans had been spotted outside the California City home. A video sent to the station showed a group of people in casual dress examining the yard while deputies and men in suits stood nearby.
Judging from the video, it appeared the casually-dressed group was Kern County’s grand jury.
That hunch proved correct.
On March 1, the grand jury indicted Trezell and Jacqueline West on two counts of second-degree murder, two counts of child cruelty and falsely reporting an emergency.
The Wests were arrested and held without bail, a development that sent shockwaves through the community.
“The question now is where are the boys’ bodies?” said Rosanna Wills, Orrin and Orson’s biological cousin. “We want to bring them home to give them a proper burial.”
Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer held a news conference where she said the bodies of Orrin and Orson had not been located but investigators believed the children died three months before the Wests reported them missing. She did not reveal how the boys were killed or other facts of the case.
She said prosecutors requested the grand jury convene to hear evidence.
“The District Attorney’s office then presented information to the grand jury and the grand jury found there was sufficient evidence to hold Trezell and Jacqueline West responsible for these murders and they returned what was called a true bill,” Zimmer said.
By seeking charges through an indictment, prosecutors could keep the proceedings confidential and have witnesses testify privately instead of in open court, as required in a preliminary hearing.
Days after the arrests, defense lawyers Timothy Hennessy and Alekxia Torres-Stallings, representing Trezell and Jacqueline West, respectively, held a news conference where they accused the district attorney of misleading the public and preying on emotions.
“Statements that have been used by the Kern County district attorney in her press conference tend to invoke a tidal wave of emotion toward finding guilt, whether substantiated or not, and this will taint a local jury pool and could deny our clients a chance at a fair trial,” Hennessy said.
The phrasing used by Zimmer — saying the grand jury was “convinced” and it “believed” — is not a legal standard used at trial, Hennessy said. He said the standard of proof at grand jury proceedings is much lower than the standard of being found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt required at trial.
Hennessy also pointed out defense counsel and the accused are not present during grand jury proceedings and have no opportunity to cross-examine witnesses or present evidence.
On March 8, in a move agreed to by both sides, a Kern County judge issued a gag order barring attorneys and their investigators and law enforcement from speaking about the case. The gag order also applies to witnesses and court personnel with access to reports filed in the case.
Additionally, grand jury transcripts and search warrants were sealed. Further details on what happened to the boys likely won’t become available until trial begins.
Originally set to start in May, the trial was moved back to July 25. Further postponements are possible.
The biological parents of Orrin and Orson have taken legal action against the county, saying negligence by the Department of Human Services contributed to the boys’ deaths.
Ryan Dean, the boys’ mother, filed a claim — the precursor to a lawsuit — seeking $40 million. It alleges the department unlawfully took the children and put them in harm’s way.
“Respondent and its employees acted affirmatively and used their authority in a way that created a danger to the children or that rendered the children more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all,” according to the claim filed by San Francisco-based McCoy Law Firm.
Human Services ignored reports of suspected abuse by the Wests, according to the claim, resulting in their deaths.
Orrin was taken from Dean on Nov. 13, 2016, after she returned home from work and found the then-3-month-old “crying uncontrollably,” the claim says.
The boy’s biological father, Charles Pettus had been home with the child.
Dean took Orrin to Memorial Hospital, where it was discovered his legs were broken. Suspecting abuse, Human Services took the child, the claim says.
In June 2017, Dean gave birth to Orson. He was released into her care, according to the claim, but days later was taken from her.
“Ms. Dean was informed that Kern County Human Services was removing [Orson] from her home, because [Orrin] had been removed, and they remove siblings together,” the claim says.
In November 2018, the claim said, Dean wrote a letter expressing her concerns about what she perceived as improper care her children were receiving while in the care of the Wests.
The claims said Dean noticed her children had lost weight and seemed scared, and Orson had scratches on his face.
It goes on to say Dean’s mother, Dana Moorer filed requests to have the boys placed with her. The Department of Human Services revoked Dean’s parental rights and denied Moorer’s requests.
Attorney Waukeen McCoy said the suit was filed to help prevent other families from going through the suffering Dean has experienced.
“This family shouldn’t have gone through this,” McCoy said during an April interview. “The foster system clearly failed here and so that is really our main goal.”
Pettus has also filed suit and has a hearing scheduled for August.
In the meantime, the question remains: Where are the boys?