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In the Footsteps of a Killer

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BEHIND THE MASK A sketch of the attacker in the 1970s, one of the few derived from rape victims’ descriptions

The Northern California detectives on the EAR Task Force had theorized he would snake his way south. They worried he was escalating in violence. “That’s him, I know it,” thought Contra Costa investigator Larry Crompton when he learned of the Goleta murders. The Santa Barbara County sheriff’s office felt differently and was reluctant to make the connection, whether out of disbelief or fear of bad publicity.

Three months after the Goleta murders, in March 1980, there was another double murder, this time in Ventura, of Charlene and Lyman Smith. Keith and Patrice Harrington, who were living in a gated community in Dana Point, were the next victims. Then came Manuela Witthuhn in Irvine. The scenes echoed each other: The females were all slender beauties whose hands were bound behind their backs, and circling each single-story house were tiny star impressions from a pair of size 9 Adidas. The rapist had evolved into a serial killer, and the transformation only seemed to hone his self-discipline. Murder seemed to satiate him more than rape did, and longer periods of time passed between the crimes. Whereas before he seemed to bask in the notoriety, now he took pains to hide any hint of a link between the murders, removing ligatures from the scene, even staging one murder to look like a robbery.

By May 5, 1986, when 18-year-old Janelle Cruz was discovered raped and bludgeoned in her home in Irvine, only the killer and a few alert investigators like Crompton knew that the East Area Rapist was now the worst unidentified violent serial offender in modern American history.

After Cruz’s murder, the Golden State Killer stopped. Perhaps his impulses had subsided. Perhaps, like everyone else in America, he’d followed the August 1985 capture of Richard Ramirez, the Satan worshipper known as the Night Stalker, and the case building up against this psychopath who, like himself, had bound, raped, and killed his way (13 murders in all) across California. The name this unknown perpetrator was given by law enforcement—the Original Night Stalker, or ONS—was derived from the nom de crime of Ramirez. And Crompton found himself among an ever-dwindling cadre of detectives pushing against a growing indifference, dedicating himself to a case that, for all practical purposes, had been abandoned.

 

[ 3 ] MALIGNANT OBSESSION

The woman who sits across from me in a small office in east Sacramento is a stranger. But you wouldn’t have known that from the conversational shorthand we use from the moment we meet, our message board equivalent of Klingon.

“Dog beating robbery in ’74?” I ask.

The woman, I’ll call her the Social Worker, reties her thick ponytail and takes a sip from a can of Rockstar. She’s in her late fifties, with large, penetrating green eyes and a smoky voice. She had greeted me in the parking lot by waving her arms wildly overhead. I liked her right away.

“I don’t believe it’s related,” she says.

The ’74 robbery in Rancho Cordova we’re parsing was the kind of recently uncovered incident that the two of us had connected through on the serial killer message board. There is only one book about this killer, and it’s what sparked my interest in the case when I read it two years ago. Sudden Terror was self-published in 2010 by the now-retired detective Larry Crompton. But I was familiar with such details as the robbery—and thousands of others—because of the A&E Cold Case Files message board. Yes, the basic-cable channel behind addictive reality-TV series like Intervention and Hoarders hosts a board for the true-crime reenactment series that was canceled in 2006 (and that I’ve never actually watched) and lives on as a hidden hive of digital crime solving. After reading Crompton’s book one night, I Googled “East Area Rapist” and “Original Night Stalker” to see what else was out there about him, and the board popped up. I started off as a lurker, an outsider gleaning the insights of others who were obsessed. Before I knew it, I had read all of the 20,000 posts about the Golden State Killer (known as EAR/ONS on the site), spending hours there while my daughter was taking a nap and after my husband went to bed. Given that serial killers are the subjects of a half dozen prime-time shows currently on television, I am obviously not alone.

I found a spectrum of personality types on the message board, from paranoid cranks to the raw, curious insomniacs driven by the same compulsion to piece together the puzzle as I am. Of the dozens of people who regularly visited, a devoted few stood out. The Social Worker (like many on the board, she prefers anonymity) operates as a kind of gatekeeper between Sacramento investigators and the board. This irks some posters, who accuse her of hinting at confidential information and then shutting down when asked to share. That she occasionally has new information is not in dispute. A few months after I began corresponding with her in April 2011, the Social Worker posted a drawing of a decal she said was seen on a suspicious vehicle near the scene of one of the Sacramento rapes. “It is possibly from a naval base on North Island,” she posted, “but unconfirmed and has no record. Is it familiar to anyone on the board? Hoping we may find where it is from.”

Now, a year after I first e-mailed the Social Worker, she is giving me a tour of the killer’s early stalking grounds. She navigates from the passenger side as I steer my rental car around the modest ranch houses abutting Sacramento’s old Mather Air Force Base, where he was active in the mid-1970s (it has since been converted into one of the city’s airports). She points out a nearby duplex where he raped victim number 24, a 17-year-old girl whose boyfriend was tied to the bed facedown, a metal lid and salt shaker placed on his back. If the items fell off, the rapist had threatened, he would come back and shoot him in the head.

Afterward the Social Worker guides me through the leafy neighborhoods of Arden-Arcade and Del Dayo, which the rapist also turned into crime scenes. These areas of east Sacramento he preyed on were not built for excitement. I counted an entire block of unbroken beige. The tamped-down cautiousness belies the terrible things that happened here. We turn onto Malaga Way, where on August 29, 1976, the clanging of her wind chimes and the strong smell of aftershave awakened a 12-year-old girl. A masked man stood at her bedroom window, prying away the upper left corner of the screen with a knife.


This feature was originally published in the March 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

 

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  • 48
  1. Cameron Cloutier posted on 02/27/2013 06:48 AM
    www.ear-ons.com

    Facebook: Help Stop the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker

    Facebook: Bird with a Broken Wing

    A&E Message Board
  2. Anonymous Person posted on 02/27/2013 10:57 AM
    If he was in his 20s during the 70s and 80s, then at this point he'd be in his 50s or 60s. For all you know, he could be dead. Why are so insistent on finding him?
    1. JBoston posted on 02/27/2013 12:01 PM
      @Anonymous Person Because he could be your next door neighbor.
    2. Chad Ford posted on 02/27/2013 12:09 PM
      @Anonymous Person I don't know. Just off the top of my head........maybe because he raped and/or murdered dozens of people and has never been brought to face justice for this?
  3. anonymous posted on 02/27/2013 11:46 AM
    Um, where's the notebook?
  4. Anonymous posted on 02/27/2013 12:42 PM
    Has anyone asked A&E for the IP logs of the forum? Surely there's a high chance he will be looking for himself.
  5. jake posted on 02/27/2013 04:26 PM
    Some detective you are, maybe leave it to the professionals. Left over christmas diner in october?
    1. Miller posted on 02/27/2013 04:42 PM
      @jake Hi Jake, The October date was a failed attempt. The murder happens Dec. 30, which is noted in the fourth paragraph:

      **After that botched attack, none of his victims would survive to describe him. Almost three months later, on the morning of December 30, a half mile south of where the October attack took place, Santa Barbara sheriff’s detectives responded to a call at the condominium of Dr. Robert Offerman. A woman out front was crying. “There are two people dead inside,” she said.**

      Hope that helps clear things up for you.
    2. ant posted on 02/27/2013 05:03 PM
      @jake Some reader you are. Maybe leave the reading to those with reading comprehension skills. The article clearly states,

      "Almost three months later, on the morning of December 30, a half mile south of where the October attack took place, Santa Barbara sheriff’s detectives responded to a call at the condominium of Dr. Robert Offerman."
  6. Username posted on 02/27/2013 08:21 PM
    They've got this guys (1) DNA (2) hand writing (3) shoe size (4) blood type (5) voice (6) race (7) approximate age (8) approximate location based on movements (9) approximate height and (10) a composite that probably resembles him. If he's still kicking they'll catch him - if there's enough publicity.

    PS: Dining with someone you think may have killed 10+ people is a really bad idea. It seems like a recipe for 11.
  7. Ari posted on 02/27/2013 08:27 PM
    A size 9 shoe? Small feet.
  8. niles posted on 02/28/2013 01:21 AM
    Often in these cases, the reason for the lack of capture goes back to plain old incompetence of the original police officers.
  9. FH posted on 02/28/2013 04:30 AM
    Wow, what a great article. Really compelling and beautifully written.

    Got to stop using "psychopath" like it's a synonym for "crazy," though. Psychopaths are sane. They know right from wrong, they just don't care.

    This guy? Crying, jittery, nervous, seeming afraid of confrontation and the weird, "Mummy, mummy, mummy"? Sadist, for sure. Schizophrenic and super manic, maybe? Not psychopath -- they're incapable of regret, don't feel nervousness and sure as hell don't cry about it.

    And Anonymous Person? Ha! Spoken like a total sociopath.
    1. Anon posted on 03/07/2013 05:14 AM
      @FH Yep, I like what you wrote here FH.

      It is absolutely true that a psychopath is sane. Not all of them are murderers, or even criminals.

      In fact they can even act in caring ways if it suits a personal agenda.

      I know such a person. And, yes. It is creepy. Her deceased son had suffered decades with dire medical complications and pain. She wasn't sure if a show of empathy along with the obligatory care would have been beneficial to him when he was alive. She was very matter of fact about it. It was a passing thought.

      This killer was not capable of such detachment. His emotions controlled him.

      I did read one time that most serial killers have at least two factors. Being badly abused by a father or other male authority figure. And some sort of brain injury from a blow or from medical problems. That will practically guarantees some kind of deep emotional distress.
  10. BoogerFree posted on 02/28/2013 06:46 AM
    The article is too long, don't have time to read it, good luck with catching the guy.
    1. ReallyWOW posted on 03/29/2014 07:32 AM
      @BoogerFree With a name like BoogerFree, spend less time picking your nose and read an article regarding a topic that you could make a difference in! Help solve it!
  11. Real New posted on 02/28/2013 12:34 PM
    Seems like it would beneficial to make the notebook public. Someone could pinpoint the handwriting or drawings. Similar to how the caught the Unabomber.
  12. Ronald Pottol posted on 02/28/2013 04:37 PM
    All of that, and the only memorable things are not in the article body? I'd think the notebook pages are the only things besides DNA that will lead to the killer. If they had been widely publicized at the time (say, mail a copy of them to every school in the state), he might have been caught then.
  13. Shawnster posted on 03/01/2013 10:37 AM
    I thought this was a really good article. I got hooked on the search for BTK so I understand Michelle's passion.

    If the police have multitple samples of his DNA, why don't one of the detectives make a request to the court to have "familial DNA searching" done against the national crime database...there has to be a 99% chance one of his relatives is in there for something.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA_profiling#Familial_DNA_searching

    This is could get wrapped up pretty quickly.

    Thanks
    Shawn
  14. jim posted on 03/01/2013 12:16 PM
    6 pages to write this garbage? really? I could have given all of this info in less than 1.
  15. JD posted on 03/02/2013 10:02 AM
    So the police held a community meeting in the Sacramento area and about 600 people came. It's reported that a guy stood up and asked how could this be happening if the husbands are home - how could someone do that?

    About a month later that same man was tied up while his wife was sexually assaulted.
    They say the rapist was probably at the meeting.

    So why did the police not get everyone's info at the meeting? Go through all the pictures I who was there and check off the list?

    Is there any video of the meeting? Recordings? Pictures?
  16. Curiouskat posted on 03/04/2013 12:06 AM
    My guess at a profile- high school student from a town near Visalia, honor roll, fit but not an athlete, shy, goes to college at Davis, takes some Native American studies classes along with an engineering or geology class. Graduates, moves to Southern California and lives a comfortable life. Maybe he actually married someone and has a family which lead to the end of his spree.
  17. Intentionally Anonymous posted on 03/05/2013 10:32 AM
    As a child of one of the victims, I grow weary of people like you Ms. McNamara, taking a whack at being a junior detective and exploiting all the victims one-more-time while giving the monster another shot at infamy.

    Many outstanding professionals have spent a lot of time putting this case together and they did it with tremendous regard for the victims and their families. And we thank them from the bottom of our hearts.

    Having lived with this for more than 30 years now, may I offer one piece of advice:

    If you are truly a parent who wants to be a good parent, I suggest you spend your time on something more positive and that could create change for good in our community. This stuff is poison, not worthy of anyone's time and the perp deserves to remain a void. The damage is done. Please leave it alone.
    1. Anon2000 posted on 03/05/2013 04:11 PM
      @Intentionally Anonymous Far be it from me to question the honesty of an anonymous internet poster. I'm sure you are who you say you are. However, are you saying you don't want him caught?

      The possibility still exists that he is alive and free. If he's alive and free he's still very dangerous. In good conscience you're willing to take the risk he's out there and thinking about harming people to avoid feeding his big/little ego?

      Your presumption is that the damage IS DONE. It might not be. I'd feed his big/little ego, assuming he's alive, and the egos of people around the case, if it means preventing him from harming someone - assuming he's alive.

      I actually don't understand your logic. In order to feed his ego he has to be alive. If he's alive he needs to be found. If he's dead his ego isn't fed. He doesn't 'gain' anything from the infamy. He's dead.
    2. Belle's Dad posted on 03/14/2013 03:06 AM
      @Intentionally Anonymous I agree with Intentionally Anonymous 100%
  18. JenniferL_6312 posted on 03/08/2013 07:28 PM
    Keep wondering if the 6th grade male teacher might hold a clue.

    If the killer comes from Visalia, would there be an elementary school teacher who taught in a local school there- the killer would have been around eleven I guess-maybe 1965.

    Now you have me going...

    The other thing that stands out is him calling out to his mother in one instance after a crime.

    I read somewhere that serial killers are frequently enmeshed with, and have strange relationships with their dominating mothers, and their fathers are often absent.

    I think he's killing off his mother each time he commits a crime.

    No DNA in anyone's database, not one single speck from any of the crime scenes?

    Really enjoyed the article, riveting. I hope they catch the bastard.
    1. J posted on 03/13/2013 07:51 PM
      @JenniferL_6312 This intrigued me. I agree. Investigate the students registered at school in that time frame and area. Perhaps even teacher lessons that match the date if possible. A shot in the dark is still a shot. You never know....
  19. wonderful posted on 03/10/2013 07:50 PM
    Wonderful writing. Good Luck!
  20. John posted on 03/12/2013 12:32 PM
    I can't help but wonder after seeing the elevator footage on youtube of Elisa Lam at downtown's Cecil Hotel if she could be the victim of a serial killer or a serial killer in the making.
    1. JenniferL_6312 posted on 03/12/2013 09:19 PM
      @John @John- I know this is off topic, but you piqued my curiosity, so I went digging.
      In a 4 minute Youtube video, Elisa Lam is in an elevator, then she peers out into the hallway as if she knows she's being followed or stalked by someone.
      It appears she may be high on something, but clearly she's also afraid.

      In the last frames of the video, the elevator doors open twice onto an empty hallway and Elisa is nowhere in sight.
      I get a very bad feeling from it.
      It gets weirder.
      Lam Elisa is the name of the test for tuberculosis(TB). Elisa Lam died on 2/21/13. There was a tuberculosis outbreak in downtown Los Angeles on 2/25/13, near the Hotel Cecil affecting 4500 people.
      Whoever killed Elisa must be involved in germ warfare, that's my best guess.
      The Lam Elisa/Elisa Lam play on words seems like a sick inside joke.
      Wonder if there is any video surveillance of the front door or hallways around this time frame.
      How did her body get into a water tank? Premeditated for sure.
      And what was she doing in Los Angeles alone?
      Too bad someone here isn't on the trail, journalists like Michelle or Joel are like junkyard dogs.
      This could also be hazardous, but germ warfare usually suggests something really sinister, like CIA.
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