The search for a missing military wife takes NCIS agents into a dark world

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime case,” says special agent. “Some of the darkness and some of the twisted motivations behind this case – it was overwhelming."

Produced by Kim Kennedy

On Friday evening, April 13, 2012, Brittany Killgore, 22, left her apartment near Camp Pendleton to go out on a San Diego dinner cruise with a man she barely knew. 

Brittany had recently filed for divorce from her husband of two years, Marine Lance Corporal Cory Killgore. He was deployed to Afghanistan. She found herself alone with no job, so she decided to move back with her parents.  On the afternoon of the Friday the 13th, she was packing when 45-year-old Marine Staff Sergeant, Louis Perez came knocking on her door to ask her to go on this cruise with him.

Brittany turned him down several times, but Perez persisted and Brittany finally agreed. Perez picked her up at 7:40 p.m.

By 7:50 p.m., Brittany had sent a text to a friend that said, simply, "Help."  

NCIS Special Agent Jeff Kierman, embedded with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, jumped into the investigation that quickly led to a dark world of bondage, discipline and sadomasochism or BDSM.

Perez had a secret life.  Four furious days of investigation would reveal a twisted conspiracy, filled with turns and shocks, abduction, torture and murder.

A DATE WITH EVIL

NCIS Director Andrew Traver: Being an NCIS case agent is a very personal commitment. …You have to make sacrifices. It takes you away from your loved ones. …So it's just a singular focus on pursuing justice.

NCIS Special Agent Jeff Kierman: This was a once-in-a-lifetime case … some of the darkness and some of like the, just the twisted motivations behind this case … was overwhelming.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: April 2012, NCIS had assigned me to be a liaison to the San Diego Sheriff's Homicide Department. I was working cold case homicides and any active homicides that had some involvement with the Navy, Marine Corps.

Patrick Espinoza | Deputy D.A., San Diego County: Over the course of this investigation, you, you live the case … Brittany Killgore was the wife of a Marine.

Brittany Killgore
Brittany Killgore Cory Killgore

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: Brittany was a very young, attractive girl … She was 22 years old. She was very naive. Came from a very small town. …so she had very few friends and she was alone in California, very far from home.

Det. Brian Patterson | San Diego County Sheriff's Dept.: Brittany lived in a town called Fallbrook, California. It was about 40 minutes north of downtown San Diego. And it was just outside of Marine Base Camp Pendleton.

Det. Brian Patterson: Her husband was deployed. … He was in Afghanistan … And at the time, their relationship wasn't the best. And she had decided that she wanted a divorce and was gonna move back home.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: She was packing. …she gets this unexpected visitor who shows up at her door, Louis Perez, someone who she knew was a casual acquaintance.

Det. Brian Patterson: Louis Perez was 47 years old. He was a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps. 

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza:  And he was inviting her to go on a cruise, a dinner cruise called the Hornblower Cruise.

Det. Brian Patterson: She just told him, "No, I don't wanna go. I'm moving." And then Louis Perez said, "Well, I'll help you move if you go on the dinner cruise with me."

April Perkins | Brittany's best friend: She said no multiple times to Perez. She told him she didn't wanna go. …She didn't feel comfortable with him. She obviously had that gut feeling.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: And he basically propositions her again, "Go on this cruise with me, and I'll get ya some Marines to come and help you move your things."

Dana Littlefield | Journalist: Perez had a girlfriend, Dorothy Maraglino.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: She did not wanna go on what seemed like a dinner date with someone else's boyfriend.  …She was worried how that would look.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: Louis had Dorothy get in touch with Brittany and say, "It's OK with me. I was gonna go. I don't feel good. You can go on this cruise."

Det. Brian Patterson: So after Brittany gets the approval of Dorothy, she agrees to go on the dinner cruise with Louis Perez. …Brittany had no idea what was -- she was getting into that night.

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: At 7:40 p.m. on Friday night, April the 13th, Louis Perez drives into the apartment complex where Brittany lives.  …She comes down, gets inside his vehicle. He drives away.

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: And within 10 minutes of getting into his vehicle, she reaches out to her friend. …and says, "Help."

Det. Brian Patterson: Louis Perez had two lives going on … He had dual lives.

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: Louis Perez did have a dark past. …This was no "Fifty Shades of Grey" at all.

Michelle Wrest | Brittany's mother: I will never understand why she didn't listen to her gut, evil doesn't look like evil.

Det. Brian Patterson: Brittany was never gonna get on that cruise. They were never gonna make that cruise. In fact, they never even left Fallbrook.

"I KNEW SOMETHING WAS WRONG"

NEWS REPORT:  It was a Friday night. Twenty-two-year-old Brittany Killgore went out on a date. From that moment on, Brittany Killgore was missing.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: There was a young Marine wife who'd gone missing right off the back of a Marine Corps Base. This was very impactful to this community. 

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: It became of concern to us as NCIS because … she was the dependent spouse of a Marine … And secondly, the last person to see her alive was an active duty Marine. …You saw pretty quick there was a lot of eyes on this.

Dana Littlefield: This case was interesting for a lot of reasons. You had this young woman who was at a transitional point in her life. You know, she was packing up and getting ready to go home to her family and she vanished.

Brittany had become a Marine wife nearly two years earlier when she married Cory Killgore in their hometown of Rolla, Missouri.

Michelle Wrest: Brittany was … a huge -- huge part of our family, very funny, very witty. She probably had the best sense of humor [laughs] out of anybody in our family.

Darryl Wrest|Brittany's Father: She was a great kid … she could light up a room easily by walking in and saying a few words.

April Perkins: I met Brittany when we were 12 in the sixth grade in art class. I remember sitting on our porch drinking Coke …  Staying up all night … She'd do my makeup. I'd do her makeup. I'd do her nails, she'd do my nails. …She loved Hello Kitty. Any time I see Hello Kitty I automatically think of her. …She was, like, my sister that I never had.

Michelle Wrest: She was … pretty introverted. …she wasn't very confident in herself.

Darryl Wrest: It was very much surprising … when she started dating Cory … Cory was the first person she had ever dated. And -- you know, we thought, "That's great," you know? "She- - she's starting to get out." That was fantastic.

Michelle Wrest: She was probably 18, 19 when they met … I think Brittany and Cory just kinda hit it off. They both have -- kind of a quirky sense of humor.

Darryl Wrest: …about two months later, they were talking about getting married.

Brittany and Cory Killgore
Brittany and Cory Killgore Cory Killgore

The couple tied the knot on July 17, 2010.

Michelle Wrest: …her wedding was probably the happiest that I've seen her. She was -- glowing happy. She was just … kind of amazing to watch her.

April Perkins: I felt like she wanted that fairy-tale, happily ever after.

Shortly after the couple married, they planned to move to Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. Brittany's parents were not thrilled about the idea.

Michelle Wrest: She hadn't lived on her own really or anything and neither had Cory.

Darryl Wrest: One of the things that gave us comfort, though, is he was … joining the Marines. And it was boot camp. …at Camp Pendleton … We felt she would be safe out there.

April Perkins: She was excited to go and leave. …she wanted to be away and on her own. I think she just wanted a fresh start.

Michelle Wrest: I think when they first got out there, I think they were enjoying … their new married life and … seeing the sights and goin' to the beach. …she was learning to cook.

April Perkins: I felt like she rushed into marriage… I started sensing things weren't what they should be.

Michelle Wrest: They were both young. They were both immature.

Darryl Wrest: It was very clear -- shortly after they went -- to California -- that the relationship was in trouble.

Brittany felt isolated and alone and the couple soon grew apart.

April Perkins: He said … she wanted to divorce him, and she wasn't happy … So when he finally deployed … she wanted to be divorced and gone before he got back.

Darryl Wrest: Brittany [sighs] found herself -- kind of between a rock and a hard place. You know, she -- she wasn't happy in her relationship. But she didn't want to come home to mom and dad.

April Perkins: I felt like she was alone. I felt like she was trapped.  

Brittany filed for divorce and was set to fly home on April 18. But days before, she stopped calling home. 

Michelle Wrest: I started calling and texting her phone and, you know, "Hey, you know, where are you at?" And still didn't hear from her, which was getting weird.  …And my phone rang, and it was her phone. And I thought, "Well, thank goodness."

Michelle Wrest: It was a man's voice … I was, like, "Who is this, because this is my daughter's phone and why do you have it?" And he said, he found the phone -- down in San Diego.

Dana Littlefield: One of the key things about the phone is its location. It's in downtown San Diego.   Brittany lived in Fallbrook, which is a fair distance north of where the phone was found.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: The phone was actually discovered by … a homeless man just outside of an area called the Gas Lamp District of San Diego … And he actually turned that phone over to law enforcement.

Michelle Wrest: At that point I knew something was wrong.

Michelle urgently called Brittany's friends and learned Louis Perez was taking her on a dinner cruise the night before. She got Perez's number.

Michelle Wrest: I was asking him … "Brittany and you were supposed to be goin' down to this dinner cruise, and she didn't come home … where is she?" … so he was tellin' me a story that, "They didn't go to the dinner cruise…"

Michelle Wrest: …they ended up going downtown and they were gonna go into one of the bars. …he pulled up and let her out, and he went to park the car. And he said, he was gone 10, 15 minutes, come back, she's nowhere to be found.  …he told me that … "He figured she just hooked up with somebody and left."

Louis Perez
Louis Perez KFMB

April Perkins: Brittany is 100 percent not the person to just go meet guys at a bar and go with them.

Michelle Wrest: I was numb at that point. …it's a feeling I would not wish on anyone. …cold all the way down to your core. …Something wasn't right, and his story was baloney. And as soon as I hung up, I told Darryl, I said, "He did something to her."

Meanwhile, Brittany's friends worried when Brittany never made it home and called the sheriff to report her missing. They said Perez was the last person to see her.  The sheriff's deputies asked Perez to come in to talk.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: Louis Perez had been in the Marines for I believe, 16 years. … Louis Perez was, to put it kindly, a substandard Marine.

NCIS Special Agent Jeff Kierman was embedded with the San Diego Sheriff's Department.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: Louis Perez came by … tried to explain his side of the story. …he had picked her up, driven her to San Diego. Dropped her off at a nightclub. And then had never seen her again.  

LOUIS PEREZ INTERROGATION AUDIO: And then I looked inside … a glass front … so I looked …one side to the other side. And I didn't see her.  So well, I just assumed she …hooked up…they went elsewhere.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: One of the deputies very astutely noticed that there was a rifle case in the back of Louis's SUV. ...And he asked Mr. Perez what the rifle case was. And he told him it contained an AR-15. …they discovered that it had been reported stolen as a part of an unrelated NCIS investigation. …So now he was found to be in possession of a stolen semi-automatic rifle. And he was taken into custody. 

Dana Littlefield: Investigators referred to him as a "person of interest" in this case … but was not charged with anything specifically related to Brittany Killgore's disappearance initially.

With the discovery of an illegal weapon and a story that wasn't adding up, homicide detectives were called in even though Brittany was still a missing person.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: From that point on, things began to move pretty quickly.  …we were still hoping to find Brittany alive.

Michelle Wrest: When you child is missing … you can't give up that hope.

MASTER AND SLAVE

Det. Brian Patterson: Now we've gotten the media involved. They're sending out missing person reports. The D.A.'s Office actually has gotten involved very early in this case. And we've sat down and briefed them about it.  And we begin to actually actively searching for Brittany … And that's where NCIS comes into play.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: I showed up at the Fallbrook's Sheriff's Department, that was where the entire homicide team had decided to use as a -- a command center … we were notified approximately 23 hours after Brittany had last been seen alive. And to my way of thinking, that means that if something bad did happen, if there are criminals involved, they've had a 23-hour head start, at least, on the police. …the goal at that point is not about gathering evidence. But if she's still alive, the goal is to find her and keep her alive … this is maybe a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity to try to do the right thing for this girl and her family.

Brittany's father rushed to San Diego.

Darryl Wrest: I got there, and I remember … putting the posters up. …I drove through canyons … calling out her name in the middle of the night, as if I was going to find her. …She was just a kid. Just a kid. She wasn't a wild kid. She wasn't a party kid. She was a kid.

Early on, Special Agent Kierman caught a break.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: NCIS agent Jeff Kierman was contacted by a woman who had a prior relationship with the suspect, Louis Perez.  …And Jeff followed up on that, and what he learned was … Louis Perez did have a dark past.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman And that was Louis Perez's fetish life … his deep involvement in what is called bondage and domination or discipline and sadomasochism … referred to as BDSM.

ncis-killgore-kierman.jpg
NCIS Special Agent Jeff Kierman CBS News

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: And she described some of Louis Perez's particular predilections -- that he had done with her. …He would find women who were particularly vulnerable for any reason, trouble in a marriage … self-worth issues. And he would lavish these women with attention.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: And he would get them to try to push their boundaries into areas of BDSM that these women might have never thought of participating in before. …And she describes situations where he would make her take off all of her clothes and get into the back of his car. And then he would drive to work in the middle of Camp Pendleton. …And basically leave her there as a prisoner in his car for four or five hours knowing she couldn't just open the hatch and walk away because she had no clothes. And he would just leave her there.

Det. Brian Patterson: Louis Perez … had two lives going on … He had his BDSM life, which his girlfriend was Dorothy Maraglino, and he would stay at the house with her in Fallbrook … And then he had his married life, where he had a wife and a 13-year-old daughter. And he would live … in a house on the Marine Corps base. 

Sheriff's deputies quickly got warrants to search both homes.

Det. Brian Patterson: Early Sunday morning, we searched Dorothy Maraglino's house, his girlfriend. … When we walk into the house, there was some odd things. … And they were BDSM-type photographs ... There was a whipping post in the corner. There was eyelets in the ceiling. 

Det. Brian Patterson:  Jessica Lopez was a roommate of Dorothy Maraglino's at her house, and lived down in what we would call the basement or some people called it the dungeon, kind of a lower garage area.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: Mr. Perez was an avid fetishist in the BDSM lifestyle. …He and Maraglino and Lopez all lived in a contracted master and slave relationship, with Perez as the overall master of a BDSM household with Dorothy Maraglino as his alpha slave and with Jessica Lopez as a slave underneath her.

Jessica Lopez, Louis Perez and Dorothy Maraglino
From left: Jessica Lopez, Louis Perez and Dorothy Maraglino KFMB

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: Now, it's important to understand that when I refer to their relationship as being a master and slave relationship, Dorothy Maraglino and Jessica Lopez, this was not something they did as a sort of hobby.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman This was a lifestyle that they lived in very thoroughly. And it involved bondage and the inflicting of pain and fear on each other and others as part of – a sexual lifestyle. 

The disappearance of Brittany Killgore was taking a very frightening turn.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: At this point, after we'd had Louis Perez in custody for the possession of the stolen firearm, we could see through his phones where he'd actually gone that night.  …by tracking his actual whereabouts was that he had gone to Brittany Killgore's apartment. …Picked her up. Taken her back to Dorothy Maraglino's house.

Det. Brian Patterson: Once we started analyzing Brittany's phone on Sunday … we realized … that she had never left Fallbrook after she was picked up. In fact, the phone didn't start heading down to San Diego until around 9:20, 9:15 that night.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: At which point Louis then actually drove to San Diego to sort of corroborate his own story. And he took his and Brittany's cell phones with him so that they would show up along this ride to San Diego.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: …and then he disposed of her phone in downtown San Diego so that it could be found there, as if she'd been abducted from downtown San Diego.  And then he turned around and went back to Fallbrook.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman:  Throughout the course of the next couple days, we, along with search and rescue units from the San Diego Sheriff's Department, a lot of volunteers, helicopter units, canine units conducted a pretty wide area search hoping to find, and hopefully still alive, Brittany Killgore. …Everybody involved had already been up for seemingly days at this point. And just the tireless efforts to try to find this young girl alive.

Michelle Wrest: You feel hopeless, so I started making phone calls to different places myself and asking, you know, hospitals and things. …I had to do something.

Darryl Wrest: I was contacted by the local sheriff's department … They could see that I was a completely broken down human being and … They kept me informed, I was with them morning, noon, and night while all this was happening.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: We continued searching for evidence. And everything pointed back to something happening that night with Louis Perez. Very quickly, the San Diego Sheriffs also got a search warrant to thoroughly search and document items that were found in Louis Perez's car. …what they found inside was basically an absolute treasure trove of very damning evidence.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza:  The key pieces of evidence that they found in the back of the White Ford Explorer were some gloves and plastic that had blood on it

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: …that were ultimately determined to be, you know, blood stains from Brittany Killgore.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: They also found something else that was very important. What they found was a stun baton.

ncis-killgore-evidenec.jpg
The DNA of Louis Perez and Brittany Killgore were found on a stun baton NCIS

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: You can almost think of a cattle prod.

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: And when they … forensically examined that stun baton…

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: They found Louis Perez's DNA on the handle and Brittany Killgore's DNA on the electrified prongs.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: Which indicates that at some point, he used this stun gun to either hurt or subdue or inflict some kind of pain on Miss Killgore after she got into his vehicle that night.

THE LETTER

Det. Brian Patterson: Once we find the bloody items and the stun baton, now we're pretty convinced that Louis Perez has a little more to do with this than just dropping her off at the Whisky Girl.  

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: We have no way to know exactly what happened to Brittany after she got in Louis Perez's car. We do know that something caused Brittany to feel enough fear to text for help almost immediately. At some point, seemingly within the first 10 minutes, she realized she was not going to San Diego. She was instead, most likely taken back to Dorothy Maraglino's house.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: And Dorothy Maraglino's house was built on a hillside with a driveway that dipped deeply into the back and hid behind the house. So it'd be very easy for Louis to pull his SUV down the driveway behind Dorothy's house and get Brittany … into the basement of the house, where their dungeon existed, without anyone seeing whatsoever.

With Perez still in custody on that gun charge and Brittany still missing, Detective Patterson brought in a forensic team for another search.

Det. Brian Patterson: When we arrived to do the second search warrant at Dorothy Maraglino's house in Fallbrook, Jessica Lopez and Dorothy Maraglino were gone.

Det. Brian Patterson: We collected computers, media, storage devices … some writings, some diaries.

Det. Brian Patterson: During some of the interviews on Sunday, we had interviewed some associates of Dorothy Maraglino. And one of those associates had told us that they kept her in a closet downstairs-- and she defined that as the dungeon-- and wasn't allowed to leave. …And now the whole BDSM thing is startin' to come into play a little bit. So we're thinkin', "Well, maybe Brittany's still alive. Maybe they have her somewhere." …So we get our fugitive task force involved, and they start looking for Dorothy Maraglino. 

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: On Tuesday morning, the police attention is directed to the Ramada Inn Hotel.  … Brittany Killgore is still missing. They don't know if she's alive being kidnapped, or if she's dead somewhere. And so they determined that Maraglino has been in hotel room 105 at the Ramada Inn.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: They're outside of the Ramada Inn door. And they listen inside. And they can hear the sounds of a muffled female voice. The thought is, "Is Brittany there? Is she alive?" And so there's a sense of urgency to get inside. So they force their way inside. And they do find a woman who's in distress, who's on the ground. But they quickly learn that woman is not Brittany Killgore. It's someone else. 

Det. Brian Patterson: "Well, that's Jessica Lopez." And they told me she's all cut up. It looked like she tried to kill herself. And she's bein' taken to the hospital.

ncis-killgore-note.jpg
Underneath this note to investigators were three envelopes and a seven-page letter detailing the last moments of Brittany Killgore's life San Diego Sheriff's Department

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: And then something else draws their attention inside that hotel room. …Inside the bathroom there is a vanity mirror. And on that vanity mirror there's a hanger. And hanging on that hanger is a piece of paper. And on that piece of paper are the words, "Pigs, read this," pointing down below.  And down below that letter are three envelopes, and a seven-page letter. And it's the content of that seven page letter that gave the investigation a radically different twist than what it was before.

The contents of the letter are chilling -- details of the last moments of Brittany's life.

Det. Brian Patterson: Jessica Lopez describes a pretty violent fight with Brittany -- that she had to strangle her multiple times. She wouldn't die right away. She used a Taser on her.  … And then she talks about dumping her body in the Lake Skinner area.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: The last update I had was there's focus on Louis Perez as the prime suspect. …And this is now a 180-degree shift.  Jessica Lopez really was someone of no consequence to the investigation thus far.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: But now we have someone who looks like she's attempted to take her own life. And she wrote this letter taking full responsibility, trying to exonerate Maraglino and Perez, and is directing law enforcement to exactly where the body is.   …so when we went out to the scene in Lake Skinner … ultimately they found the body of a dead woman.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: …and what I saw is … someone who looked very different. This was a body that had been there for a number of days.

Michelle Wrest: Darryl called me and told me that-- they had indeed located a body. And you know we of course had no positive identification.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: So there's an attempt at that point to try to get some determination, some identification.  Is this the woman we're looking for? … Is this the woman that was described in this letter?

April Perkins: We were all praying that it wasn't her, because there were other people missing too in that location. So we were praying that it wasn't her. 

Michelle Wrest: On her inner left wrist she had a -- tattoo that she had gotten -- before she got married that had her grandma Eileen's name.

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: They go, the homicide detectives, and they examine her wrist. And sure enough, they see, "Eileen," the name of Brittany's grandmother. And we knew at that point this was Brittany. And at that point there was no more hope that Brittany was still alive.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: …it's a very sad and somber experience when you realize this is no longer a missing persons case. This is now a full on homicide investigation. Because we've just confirmed the identity of that dead body is Brittany Killgore. 

Michelle Wrest: The M.E.'s Office called me and told me that … that she -- was "very confident, based on the description that I had given," that it was her— …And she assured me that … "they would take good care of her." 

April Perkins: I remember Michelle called me, I think it was on my birthday. And she told me that it was a positive ID on Brittany. …I don't like my birthdays anymore [cries].         

Cory, who'd rushed back from Afghanistan during the search, was stunned.

Det. Brian Patterson: During the first three days, we all were hoping to find Brittany. But when we find that note, then we know it's no longer a "try to find her," that she's dead [in tears] just really hit home to a lot of us.                                                          

Michelle Wrest: No one deserves what happened to Brittany. She didn't deserve what happened [in tears].

Darryl Wrest: I almost feel like, sometimes, like, you know, screaming.  …The feeling you have, as a father [in tears] you know, thinking about what she went through -- what she was thinking. [Sighs] So you just -- you just can't imagine. You can't -- can't put it into words … Brittany was a kid.  …She was just a kid.

TAKING THE FALL

On May 8, 2012, Brittany finally made it home to Missouri. She rests near her beloved grandmother Eileen.

Det. Brian Patterson: [Eyes well with tears]: Brittany was an innocent girl that day. I had a daughter the same age. And we have a saying in our unit that we speak for the victims 'cause they don't get a voice. …at one point, every detective in our unit worked on this case. …over 100 people were involved … So it was personal for a lot of us.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: We started digging deeper and deeper into the case … I wanted to learn more about not just the BDSM lifestyle, but more specifically, I wanted to learn about how these three suspects were involved in that lifestyle.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: They were very controlled in how they brought people into that lifestyle. …They were known from Los Angeles down to San Diego as if you're looking to just get initiated, this is a safe place.  …They made sure that anyone who "played" came in with a safe word.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: …I think like any sort of adrenaline junkie, at some point knowing it wasn't real, slowly became not enough for them. … they saw an opportunity to live that out for real, to get that -- that real level of arousal back by actually kidnapping somebody … by actually hurting somebody and killing somebody … to give them that rush that they probably had not felt in years.

Det. Brian Patterson: On April the 13th -- it was Friday the 13th -- that was Jessica Lopez's birthday. It's our belief that they had planned this event for her birthday. …they would kidnap Brittany and come over to the house… and then play out this fantasy of kidnap, murder, and whatever else they did that night.

Jessica Lopez's injuries were not life threatening and she was arrested and charged with murder.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: We had Louis Perez and Jessica Lopez in custody with enough probable cause for the murder of Brittany Killgore. All that remained at this point was trying to somehow tie Dorothy Maraglino and see what her involvement in this murder was.

Investigators began unraveling the dynamics of the group

Det. Brian Patterson: Dorothy Maraglino was obviously the control freak in the house. She had writings or letters or stickers on where everything in the house went, above the toilet paper how the toilet paper should be left, all over the house. … And she ruled Jessica Lopez.

ncis-killgore-surveillance.jpg
Jessica Lopez seen in surveillance video from the Ramada Inn NCIS

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: The Ramada surveillance video shows us that when Lopez wrote the seven-page letter, she was with Maraglino. They have her walking out of the hotel room … getting the writing instrument, goin' back. And that's when she wrote the letter.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: Jessica Lopez would truly, she took pain for Dorothy Maraglino's pleasure. She took embarrassment and she completely relinquished control over her entire life for Dorothy Maraglino. 

Based on the writings and other evidence found in searches, investigators now had a theory that Dorothy Maraglino was the mastermind behind Brittany's murder and Lopez was her slave.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: It is not hard to believe that she would take the fall for this murder and kill herself, in a sense, fall on a sword for Dorothy Maraglino and Louis Perez. And that's what we believe happened.

Det. Brian Patterson: Our focus is on Dorothy who had fled. …and she was in Virginia now…  So now we were tryin' to contact Dorothy and making phone calls to her.

PHONE RECORDING: 

DET. BRIAN PATTERSON:  I'd like to talk to you and see what's going on.

DOROTHY MARAGLINO: OK.

DET. BRIAN PATTERSON: Was Brittany ever at the house that night?

DOROTHY MARAGLINO: I did not see her at the house.

DET. BRIAN PATTERSON: You're sure about that?

DOROTHY MARAGLINO: Yeah.

DOROTHY MARAGLINO:  I don't care how many times you ask the question… you're not going to get me to change my answer.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: …she made herself unavailable. She refused to speak to the detective who'd flown to Virginia to talk to her. And at that point, she just sort of fell off the map. We lost touch with her … she was sort of in the wind at that point.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: She was not getting on her phone. She was not using her normal means of communication. She wasn't doing email, wasn't even using credit cards. She was very difficult to track down.

Finally an NCIS informant led to Maraglino's whereabouts.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: … turns out that she was … holed up in a weekly rental hotel not too far from the San Diego Airport.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: Using a false identity, I checked into that hotel. And I sort of set up right across from the courtyard from her. And I sat and watched her room for about a week straight just to make sure she wasn't going anywhere … I had surveillance teams out from our headquarters, were set up outside the hotel -- in case she got into a car, walked away, anything where I wasn't able to … directly follow her myself.

NCIS watched Maraglino while the sheriff's department built its case. Finally.

Det. Brian Patterson: We present the entire case to the D.A.'s office, and then they decide if they're gonna issue it and what charges. And they ultimately charge Dorothy with the murder.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: I arrested her for the murder of Brittany Killgore.                                

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: At that point, all three suspects, Louis Perez, Jessica Lopez and Dorothy Maraglino were in custody. Each were set with bail at $3 million. So we didn't really suspect they were likely to be set free until trial.

ncis-killgore-sandiego.jpg
Detective Brian Patterson, left, and Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza CBS News

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: All three defendants were charged with murder, torture, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, kidnapping, and attempted sexual battery.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: You know, this was a circumstantial evidence case. And circumstantial evidence cases -- it's every little piece is important. …In some ways, the … BDSM evidence played a significant role … the jury had to understand the relationship in these parties, and their interest in sexual violence.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: On a case like this with this type of evidence particularly… what we don't know is how much of it is gonna be allowed in court. Because some of this stuff was so beyond the realm of everyday experience that, you know, a court could leave it out for being too prejudicial.

Dana Littlefield | Journalist: This case was very complicated. …Three people … accused in her death … they are engaged in this sexual lifestyle. …Brittany was not a part of that.

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: It was a very challenging prosecution, because of the dynamics and the relationships of these individuals.

Dana Littlefield: There's a mystery … how do the pieces of this all fit together?

Deputy D.A. Patrick Espinoza: The defense strategy of each of the defendants seemed to be to point … to the other guy. …how do we put this case together to show that they're all responsible for Brittany's murder.

PIECING TOGETHER A PUZZLE

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: I've never seen as much evidence having to be presented in court, ever. There were a million puzzle pieces here.

The Brittany Killgore murder trial began in San Diego County in September of 2015.

Dana Littlefield: All three defendants were tried together.  …one trial … and one jury.

Each defendant had their own attorney.

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: I think what was most important was it became very clear to the jury that there was this attempt to get Brittany into that car, into that white Ford Explorer when there was no plan at all to ever take her on the Hornblower Cruise.

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: And so all we had to prove was that there was a conspiracy, that there was a plan to kidnap Brittany. And everyone who … played a part in that kidnapping shared the responsibility for the murder that resulted.

Michelle Wrest: So it was very important to us to have us there and in the courtroom at all times, so that we could show … the jury … Brittany did have family that loved her. She was a human person. And people miss her.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: There was the physical evidence that tied the DNA of the suspects to the DNA of the victim and showed signs of violence. There was cell phone histories that showed holes in their stories and where people actually were that night.

Abduction, torture and murder – prosecutors argued that was their fantasy.

Special Agent Jeff Kierman: …just numerous witnesses who supported this was a fantasy that these three all shared.

Dana Littlefield: …the prosecution was saying that these folks took their fantasies way too far. They took them to a level that was not only dangerous, but in this case, was deadly.

The prosecutor set out to prove that the three conspired to lure Brittany to Maraglino's house – fulfilling their fantasy where they killed her and then dumped her body near Lake Skinner. But the defense attorneys had their own version of events. 

ncis-killgore-court.jpg
Dorothy Maraglino, left and Jessica Lopez, right, during their trial. The trials of the women and Louis Perez  took place at the same time with the same jury. KFMB

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza:  The core of the defense was Maraglino was sleeping when all this happened; Perez was out smoking when this happened. And Lopez's claim was, "Hey, I'm just a patsy. And they made me write this letter. But I didn't do it."

Dana Littlefield: What the defense was arguing on behalf of Lopez, was that she was … the perfect pawn, the perfect victim … because she was doing whatever she could to protect master and mistress.

Defense attorney: My client Mr. Louis Perez had nothing to do with the homicide.

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: The letter was a big challenge for the … ultimate prosecution of the case.  Because the content of the letter, on the one hand, it provided great leads. …But it also exonerated both Perez and Maraglino. because the author, Jessica Lopez, took full responsibility of doing all the acts, of doing the acts of torture, the Tasering, and the strangling.

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: How do you treat this letter? Is it all fiction, is it the truth? Or is it part truth and part fiction?

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: So we had to present that letter in court, and had someone read every word of that seven page letter. …And really it was jaw-dropping. …and you look over, and you see there is Brittany's mom and dad sitting there, following the case, and having to listen how their daughter was tortured.

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza …and it was almost like as though time stood still. …And you just imagine the pain and the fear that Brittany had to suffer at the hands of these killers.

Michelle Wrest: Oh it was --it was horrible. But it was something I felt like we had to do.

The trial dragged on for five weeks. Perez was the only one who testified, pointing the finger at Lopez. Jurors heard from former house "slaves" about how the three fantasized about abduction, torture and murder.

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: In my mind, in my heart, based on the evidence, I knew they were all equally guilty, and the concern that I had was, what if the jury doesn't see it the same way?

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: Deliberations took a full week. And we were worried when deliberations take that long a period of time. …I was always at the edge of my seat saying, "What exactly is the jury doing with this evidence? What are they talking about in deliberations. Will they hold all three responsible?"

ncis-perez-verdict.jpg
Louis Perez reacts to the verdict: life without the possibility of parole. KFMB

Deputy D.A Patrick Espinoza: All three of them were convicted of murder, kidnapping, torture, and attempted sexual battery. …each of them received the punishment of life without the possibility of parole.

Michelle Wrest: Right now we have justice, you know, so-called justice. The three people who killed her are in prison for the rest of their lives. And I pray every day that they are miserable [in tears].

April Perkins: No matter what we were friends for life. I wish she could have met my daughter. I wish that we didn't let all the time pass us by. I don't want to forget. I don't want to forget anything about her [in tears].

Michelle Wrest: If your gut is tellin' you something, listen to it. …all it takes is that one time. That one mistake. And you won't get another chance, and you won't get to live your life. …[in tears] And if anybody can learn something from her death then at least it's not in vain.

ncis-killgore-brittany.jpg
Brittany Killgore Wrest Family

Darryl Wrest: You never wanna forget her. You -- you always want to -- keep her in your mind, and remember her. But -- then, when you do, these things come up. So, in a sense, it's kind of, like, this struggle with yourself. You -- you don't wanna forget her. But, at times, you do, just to survive. 

Special Agent Jeff Kierman [emotional]: Losing a child is just unthinkable, especially to lose one in the way that they did. So violently, so horribly to absolute monsters.  So to be able to help them find, I hope, some modicum, some small amount,  [wipes away tears] -- by putting them away forever … I just hope that was able to bring Brittany's parents some small amount of peace after what happened to them.  


"48 Hours: NCIS" is a series from the award-winning team behind "48 Hours." Narrated by CBS' "NCIS" actor Rocky Carroll, each episode reveals, step-by-step, how investigators with the real-life NCIS track killers, crack fraud cases, and how they hunt terrorists using street smarts and technology – the cases they can't forget. Watch Tuesdays at 10/9c on CBS.