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Tulare County '03 cold case: Fishing for Phillip Savala's killer

Tulare County Sheriff's Office is still investigating who killed Phillip Savala while he was out fishing in 2003.

It's been more than a decade and a Porterville family still doesn't know who killed their loved one.

Joey Savala said her dad, Phillip Savala, loved fishing. She said he did it as often as he could. In fact, that's where she said a lot of life lessons came from.

"It's about the pond, it's about the reads, it's about the water," Joey said. "Every analogy we got is about fish," she said.

Joey said she tagged along quite often.

"It's thousands of conversations we wouldn't have had elsewhere," she said.

On June 18, 2003, it was supposed to be another night of fishing for her 51-year-old dad. This time, he'd go alone.

"He was heading out and kissed my mom and left like it was nothing," Savala said. "He always came home and nobody batted an eye," she said.

This time, he didn't come home.

"Me and my friend Crystal were going to look for him and as we pulled up to my house, a defective car had pulled up, and they asked us not to leave," Joey said. "He told us not to go looking," she said.

Detective Chris Dempsie, with the cold case unit at the Tulare County Sheriff's Office, is now looking into the case.

"The following morning on the 19th at 6:30 in the morning, park crew arrived, maintenance crew, they found Mr. Savala's body lying in the grass," Dempsie said. "They first believed he might have been sleeping until they tried to wake him, found that he was deceased and he had died of a single gunshot wound to the chest," Dempsie said.

Joey said it was numbing feeling when she heard the news.

"I was caught in a fog of, you don't know what's up and what's down," Joey said.

Detectives began combing through evidence at Bartlett Park in Porterville.

Detectives said Savala's truck was left untouched, his wallet was found away from his body, his lines were still in the water and his lawn chairs were knocked over.

"Evidence showed, at the time, showed that there had been some type of struggle took place," Dempsie said. "We don't know if there was more than one suspect, " he said.

Dempsie said without any witnesses, they still don't know much about who did it almost 16 years later.

"It's extremely challenging, and it's frustrating because we have a innocent victim," Dempsie said. "The man was just wanting to fish and he gave his life for it and we need to find out who did it because this sort of thing can happen to anybody," he said.

Joey said she keeps hoping someone will come forward.

"Especially in a small town, somebody has to know something," she said. "That burden is getting heavy at 16 years man, let it go," Joey pleads.

She is also hoping for her own peace of mind.

"You have got days where you have made peace with it, and I can sit here and I can dwell and I've fought those demons and I didn't fight those demons, it depends on your day," Joey said.

Joey said on the good days, there seems no other way to honor and remember the gentle giant she knew.

"He wanted you to think about him every time someone talked about the fish biting, every time someone would throw leaves across the lake and give the fish a place to hide," Joey said.

That's how she chooses to honor his memory.

Dempsie said there appeared to be fresh gang graffiti next to where the crime happened in 2003. But he said they're not sure if gangs had anything to do with Savala's death.

If you have any information about Phillip Savala's death, you should call the Tulare County Sheriff's Office at 559-733-6218.


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