Wanted: Justice

Cold case: Denise Savastano hopes her father and uncle's murderer can be found after 19 years

Denise Savastano remembers the day she called her father's home to check on his well-being, only to have her call answered by a Pima County sheriff's deputy.

"That's how I found out my uncle and father had been killed," Savastano said, recalling a moment more than 19 years ago.

Mort Custer and his brother Howard were found shot to death on Aug. 13, 1992, in Mort's ranch house near Agua Caliente Park on Tucson's far northeast side. A handful of suspects were investigated—including Mort's estranged wife, as well his divorce attorney—though no arrests were ever made.

For many years, Savastano said, she knew only scant details surrounding the case because of what she called "tight-lipped" updates from detectives. Being a private investigator herself, she decided to look into the case almost three years ago and got the Pima County Sheriff's Department's Cold Case Unit to send her a box of files.

Only then did Savastano learn the full story of how her uncle and father died—and how many things were left undone by the case's original detectives.

Some interviews were never conducted. Search warrants were issued far too long after the fact.

"It made me crazy, actually, to think there were so many things that could have been done that they didn't do," said Savastano, a lifelong California resident who lives in Riverside. "It took them a year to get (one of the) search warrants. A year is a lot of time to get rid of things."

Those long-ago mistakes further motivated Savastano, a single mother of a 14-year-old boy, to get the investigation moving again. That meant putting "constant pressure" on the Sheriff's Department, as well as hooking up with an Arizona P.I., John Irwig.

"She's gotten the case to the point where it's not just sitting on the shelf," said Irwig, who has been working with Savastano since last November. "She has so much knowledge regarding the details. Instead of having to go through piles of papers, you can ask her a question, and she knows the answer."

Kelly Anderson, the PCSD cold-case detective whom Savastano deals with most often, said there's a benefit to having an extra set of eyes look at an old case.

"Having another investigator look at it is always helpful," Anderson said. "It's outside the norm of what you'd normally find from another victim's family."

Savastano has been a P.I. for 30 years, and has focused almost entirely on corporate investigations. Her company, California-based LP Solutions, specializes in cases involving fraud, embezzlement and employee theft.

Those crimes are far different than homicides, but require the same approach to be solved, Savastano said.

"Investigations in general, they're all pretty much the same," she said. "There are procedures that you need to follow, no matter what. For me, as far as this case goes, it's really just the emotional end of it that's different. I would never recommend any investigator taking on a personal case."

But Savastano believes her dedication has paid off, as evidence originally collected is now in the process of being tested. She's hoping results from those tests will keep the case moving forward and prompt the Pima County Attorney's Office to get involved.

"For the last three years since I've gotten this file ... I've been pushing this case," she said. "I'm all over (the Cold Case Unit), and to be honest, you have to be. Otherwise, it would be sitting on a shelf."

Anderson said his office, because of staffing and funding, can only handle a small fraction of the hundreds of cases that become cold cases, a label placed on them after the original detective leaves his or her position, and it's been at least two years since the crimes occurred.

He acknowledged that PCSO's original investigation into the Custer murders missed some things, but said that pointing fingers at the past won't get it solved in the present.

"Mistakes are made on all levels by all people. You can't place blame; that doesn't satisfy any need or further any goal," Anderson said. "They're cold cases for a reason, because they were difficult to solve."

Working on her father's and uncle's deaths has prompted Savastano to branch out into handling more criminal investigations, both in Arizona and California. She's also working to get legislation created that would make it easier for private investigators to take on cold cases.

"It's definitely a passion; now that I've done it, I'd like to continue to do it," Savastano said. "Families of victims need to understand they need to be advocates. They need to be proactive, and they need to push the case along. There are things you can do. Put pressure on the police. Ask questions."


Though no arrests are imminent, much progress has been made regarding the investigation of the murders of Mort and Howard Custer since Denise Savastano helped reopen the case in March 2009.

"It has shown forward momentum in the past few years," said Det. Kelly Anderson of the Pima County Sheriff's Department's Cold Case Unit.

Mort Custer loaned his attorney's husband a large amount of money shortly before the men were killed, Savastano said.

"It is my opinion that the suspect killed my dad so he would not have to return the money he lent him," Savastano wrote on a website devoted to the investigation, www.justiceformortcuster.com. "I believe my dad was the intended target, and my uncle was killed for fear that he could implicate the suspect or because the suspect was trying to throw off the sheriff's office."

Savastano said she hopes evidence sent to labs for testing will come back by the end of November.

In the meantime, she still hopes to get information from the public via a pair of billboards that she had put up in Tucson in September, one near First Avenue and Prince Road, and the other at Benson Highway and Irvington Road.

If you have information on the murders of Mort and Howard Custer, call 88-Crime.

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