By Scott Thomas Anderson
The first firefighter who tried to rush into the house that morning found himself struggling with the door.
He could see a key sitting in its deadbolt, yet he could barely get any traction. That’s because someone had propped a chair against the door handle from the other side. Once the rescuer forced his way in, he encountered a cloud of smoke and the shapes of two motionless dogs. He and some colleagues hurried the animals onto the lawn, hoping to save them. Emergency responders were extinguishing spot fires in different parts of the house. And then – they reached the back bedroom. There, they found 61-year-old Mary Kate Tibbitts laying on the floor, naked, with her lower extremities badly burned and a hole scorched through the floor near her legs. Firefighters could see a lanyard wrapped around the woman’s neck. Tibbitts’ lifeless body was hauled into another room, where Sacramento police detectives could spot other signs of what had been done to her.
“She was severely burned, and her fingers and toes were missing,” Sacramento PD homicide detective Pam Masse testified Wednesday morning. “When the coroner arrived, we were able to examine her more closely, and she had severe bruising and bleeding to her face.”
Thus, began a preliminary hearing to determine if a 53-year-old man would be held to answer for murder, arson, attempted rape, burglary and animal cruelty two years after the nightmare on 11th Street shook Land Park to its core.
One of the first witnesses to testify was the Sacramento Fire Department’s investigator Zak Nokes. He recalled that fire engines arrived at Tibbetts’ residence early in the morning of September 3rd, 2021. The woman’s tidy, Spanish-style home lies on a short, picturesque street directly between a little park called Plaza Cervantes and the back of Sacramento City College. The responders who broke their way in discovered a bizarre scene beyond the smoke: Furniture was overturned; pillow feathers were strewn throughout the place; glasses were spread across counters; drawers and closets were open with various items scattered; there was a pile of personal effects and credit cards burning inside the fireplace. The woman’s bike, backpack and nail clippers were also missing.
The house was salvaged, but Tibbitts was declared dead – and the same was soon true of her dogs, Molly and Jenny.
Police detectives began combing the street for any video surveillance that might shed light on who’d been in the area. One of their first hits was a Ring feed from a residence down the way, which was next to a spate of popular businesses, including The Land Park Sandwich Spot, Moski Hair Lounge and 5 Sips Coffee. This video showed that, on the night before the murder, a large man had approached the door of a house in the area.
“He rings the doorbell, and stands there and stares at the door, and while he’s waiting there, he grabs his genital region,” Masse testified. “He steps back a few feet from the door, then reaches into his pants and pulls out his genitals.”
The other video that detectives scored came from Sacramento City College, which showed a similar-looking man, without a shirt, exiting the backyard of Tibbitts’ house around 5:30 a.m. on the morning of the crime. Between all the footage, investigators could tell their suspect was a large Black man with long dreadlocks, a noticeable mole on his right cheek, and a tattoo on his stomach that read, ‘Bay Area.’ Running those details against law enforcement databanks, they got a match for a parolee named Troy Davis.
The wanted man was picked up on September 4th. His first interrogation happened at the Sacramento Police State on Freeport Boulevard. Masse recalled how Davis kept falling asleep in the interview room, forcing her to tap on the table – and sometimes blurt his name. When Davis was coherent, he tried giving the detective a hazy and unbelievable tale that he’d know the victim for some time. Yet, as Masse observed on the witness stand, Davis didn’t seem to know the victim’s name.
“He called her Cream Cheese,” she remembered. “He would just refer to her as ‘that lady,’ or ‘Cream cheese.’”
Davis was taken Downtown to be booked into the Sacramento County Jail. While he was being processed, he overheard Masse talking to another officer about notifying Tibbetts’ family. At that point, Davis announced he was coming down off his meth high and wanted to tell Masse what had really happened. Inside an interview room, he began to recount details that seemed to shock even himself.
“He made a variety of comments about whether it was his mental state, or it was the methamphetamine he was smoking, but he was describing the experience as an out of body experience,” Masse testified. “He told me that, on this night, he may have seen her, or seen her bike before, but he had never had any encounters with [Mary] Kate before. He said he went into her backyard through an unlocked gate. Once he was in her backyard, he entered into her residence through the kitchen window … He said he’d taken off his pants and his shoes and left them outside. Once he was in the residence, he went directly to the victim’s bedroom where she was asleep in bed. He lifted up the sheets and she was naked underneath the sheets. And he told her, ‘You know why I’m here.’”
“Did he say that he tried to get sexual with her at that time?” asked prosecutor Matt Chisholm.
“He did,” Masse responded.
“And how did the victim react? Did he say that she fought?”
“She did,” Masse said. “He fought her … He remembered pulling her out of bed, and she was fighting him on the ground, and then he recalled grabbing a cord that was next to the bed, and then he bound her wrists … He described punching her.”
“Did he explain why he had to tie her wrists?” Chisholm went on.
“Because she wouldn’t stop fighting,” the detective answered.
Masse added that Davis was also choking the woman.
“Did you ask him if he had burned her house?”
“He did,” Masse confirmed. “He said that he needed to do to the house what he does to meth – burn it.”
During the punching and strangling, Tibbetts had become unresponsive. Davis told Masse that, at that point, he decided to take a few of her things since he wasn’t “gonna get no sex.” After setting numerous fires in the house – hoping that the feathers he was spreading around would act as an accelerant – he left with her bicycle, backpack and nail clippers.
Davis, who had two felony strikes on his record – including for assault with a deadly weapon – was arrested earlier that year for auto theft, but reportedly released without even appearing before a judge, according to The Sacramento Bee. What Davis did to Tibbitts that night on 11th Street has become one of many rallying cries for critics who say California’s current approach to criminal justice is creating piles of new violent crime victims. But there were no politics on display in the courtroom Wednesday afternoon after the defense began to cross-examine Masse, only uncomfortable questions.
“At some point, you asked him if he felt like he smoked bad meth?” asked public defender Megan Cunningham.
“Yes,” the detective replied, “he said that it felt that way.”
“Did he say that it felt like he was out of his body watching something horrible happen?”
“Did he say he felt sick with himself?”
Judge Bowman ultimately held Davis to answer for murder with special circumstances, burglary and attempted rape. Throughout closing arguments, the defense had asserted it wasn’t clear whether Davis went into the house with the intent of sexually assaulting Tibbitts, adding that he did not, in the end, have intercourse with her.
Chisholm had a quick response to that in his closing remarks. “But for her insistent fight for her life, and for her body, she was spared that.”
Scott Thomas Anderson is also the writer-producer of the true crime podcast series ‘Trace of the Devastation.’