Melissa Silva was only 4 when her 21-year-old mother was found sexually assaulted and strangled to death at Tilden Park in the Berkeley hills in 1987.
As she grew up, she would come to learn that her mom was kind but troubled, using drugs and working as a prostitute. But she couldnt understand why someone would prey on her, nor how that person could remain free.
And so she never gave up hope that the killer would be found.
Now 31, Silva got her wish this month when Contra Costa County prosecutors, citing DNA evidence, charged a vagabond thief from Northern California with murdering her mother, Deanna Butterfield, and killing a second woman in San Pablo in 1993.
William Wild Bill Huff, 51, is being held without bail on two counts of murder and police are looking into whether he may have attacked and raped other women.
I cant even explain how emotional this has been, regarding him just being off the streets, said Silva, a resident of Tucson, in her first interview since the arrest. All I ever wanted was to know he wasnt ruining other families. … I feel good, knowing that hes not killing other people.
Butterfields half-naked body was found in a picnic area in Tilden Park on Dec. 5, 1987. Huff probably picked her up on a West Oakland street and attacked her before leaving her body in the park, authorities said. But the case went cold.
Silva said she repeatedly contacted the East Bay Regional Park District police, who have jurisdiction over Tilden, for updates on the case, pressing them to solve her mothers slaying. She collected case documents, photos and the autopsy report.
Never gave up
“Honestly, I have been a bug in their ears since I was probably a sophomore in high school,” she said.
But police gave her few answers, and she felt out of the loop. Silva wondered whether police were slow to act because her mother had used drugs, had worked as a prostitute and “made some bad choices when it came to relationships.”
Police acknowledged that those were among the factors that made the case difficult to solve.
In 2006, DNA evidence from the crime scene was matched to Huff — his DNA had been entered into a state database because of prior arrests. But even after investigators followed up and interviewed Huff, they still didn’t have enough evidence to charge him, authorities said.
It wasn’t until last month, when advances in DNA technology led to Huff’s profile being linked to the 1993 sexual assault and slaying of Mueylin Saechao in San Pablo, that investigators moved to charge him in both killings.
Park district police Sgt. Tracy Desiderio said it was gratifying to call Silva to finally give her the good news.
“She’s been her mother’s biggest advocate, and she played a major role in where we are today,” Desiderio said.
To her family, Butterfield, known as Dee Dee, was trying to be the best mother she could under the circumstances.
“She was a great person. She was young. She didn’t have her whole life under her belt,” Silva said. She added that although her mother at times “put herself in bad situations, she didn’t deserve what happened to her.”
The path to justice has been challenging. Raised by other family members, Silva said she was plagued by questions of who and why. Holidays were difficult, because her mother’s birthday often fell on Mother’s Day, and she was slain in December.
Silva worked through her grief, graduating from Liberty High School in Brentwood before continuing her studies at the University of Idaho, where she received her bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in justice studies.
Silva said she had been steered, perhaps unconsciously, toward those fields by her mother’s slaying — as well as to a job as a mediation support specialist in juvenile court in Tucson.
Now married and the mother of a 10-month-old daughter, Silva said she reflects on her own childhood. For example, when feeding her daughter, Silva said she wonders “if there was a time where my mom was clean and doing these things with me.”
When she turned 21, she said, she “had mixed emotions dealing with the reality that I had outlived my mother when I should have been celebrating my coming into adulthood. … I was deprived of a lifetime with my mother, as was she from me. My mother was the first being to nurture me, love me and introduce me into this world.”
Silva said that instead of wallowing in her loss, she was determined to put a name and a face to whoever killed her mother. Even now, she said she would be willing to talk to Huff in jail to see “what his mind-set is, just to see how he was raised and get more information about the kind of person he was.”
She said she didn’t hate him, “because I can’t carry that around — but I would have no problem if he left this Earth.”
The arrest has brought relief to other family members as well, including Butterfield’s older sister, Sherri Troutner of Vallejo.
“I miss her, and this will not bring her back,” she said, “but at least for my family, this brings closure. I’m so happy for this day, but I also have so much anger and pain. I hope that now this man can feel the same.”
The victim’s mother, Jymiece Silva of Sahuarita, Ariz., said, “It’s been years and years of heartbreak, missing her and wondering what happened to my baby girl. Maybe now we can try to move on knowing something’s being done about it. There will always be heartbreak and hurt. That will never go away.”
Huff was transferred to Contra Costa County Jail in Martinez on April 7 from a state prison in Vacaville, where he had been serving a sentence for auto theft. From his cell, he declined an interview request.