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In the Footsteps of a Killer




After 48 hours of anticipation, I received the package containing the cuff links. I ripped open the box, tore through the bubble wrap, and examined the sealed Ziploc bag with the cuff links inside. I suddenly felt anxious. If a speck of biological evidence clung to these shiny gold pieces, I risked destroying what might be key evidence with one fingerprint. I didn’t open the bag. 

The best thing to do, I knew, was to turn the cuff links over to an authority on the killer. I already had an interview set up with Larry Pool, the Orange County sheriff’s detective who was widely recognized as the “face of the case.” I decided if I felt the interview was going well, I’d hand over the plastic bag with the cuff links.

The problem was, of the handful of officials who remained focused on the Golden State Killer, Pool intimidated me the most. He’d been described as “inaccessible” and “a little remote.” I knew he’d been working on the case for the past 15 years. He’d been instrumental, along with Golden State victim Keith Harrington’s attorney brother, Bruce, in getting Proposition 69 passed—the DNA Fingerprint, Unsolved Crime and Innocence Protection Act, which in 2004 established an all-felon DNA database in California. Thanks to their efforts, the California Department of Justice now has the second-largest working DNA data bank in the country.

Pool and Bruce Harrington felt that by expanding the DNA database they’d surely net Golden State. The disappointment, it was suggested to me, was sharp. I imagined Pool as a steely, impassive cop locked away in a dimly lit room, the walls plastered with composites of the killer.

Instead a pleasant, somewhat formal 51-year-old man in wire-rim glasses and a red-checkered shirt greets me in the small lobby of the FBI’s Orange County Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory (Pool is still the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s case agent for the killer but works in computer forensics now). We sit across from each other at a long table inside a glass-paneled conference room. He is the duty officer for the lab today, and when colleagues occasionally poke their heads in, he responds with a clipped “copy that.”

I find him to be a thoughtful, measured speaker, the kind of person whose stoic exterior masks a certain generosity and a belief that hours spent listening—even to a civilian crime enthusiast—may be time well spent. “When I took this on, I was still relatively fresh, if you will,” says Pool. “I got excited about people, like a ski-mask rapist in prison who matched the description. In the first year, five or six times I got really excited. In the second year, four or five times.” But now, after investigating, by his count, 8,000 suspects and spending years of performing triage on urgent tips from fellow police and a public who are convinced their suspect is the Original Night Stalker, Pool’s attitude is muted and deliberate. When he comes across a particularly promising suspect, his curt response is always “Gotta eliminate him.”

Even the composite sketch that hangs above Pool’s desk is matter-of-fact: It shows the suspect in a ski mask. “Is it of any value?” Pool says. “No. But we know he looked like that.” A new FBI profile is being generated, he tells me, and it will diverge from earlier theories about the killer. Pool’s theories have similarly evolved. In part from talking to criminal profilers who “understand how these people are wired better than I do,” Pool no longer views the Golden State Killer as a sort of superhero villain, a ballsy egomaniacal force in peak physical condition. “He’s a small guy, diminished, and he does everything he can to get the upper hand at the beginning and to keep it,” he says. “To intimidate and terrorize people because he doesn’t want to confront them physically.”

The new FBI profile is part of the investigation’s reboot. In addition, Pool tells me the FBI has provided its assessment on some crucial issues. The agency agrees with what many of the task force investigators have long contended—that the suspect likely got his start two years earlier and 200 miles farther south than was first believed, in Visalia, a farming town in the Central Valley. Beginning in April 1974, Visalia experienced an unusual series of ransackings in four residential neighborhoods. The Visalia Ransacker preferred personal effects like piggy banks, photographs, and wedding rings, leaving behind more valuable items.

SENSELESS DEATHS From top: Keith and Patrice Harrington of Dana Point; Irvine resident Janelle Cruz, who was slain at age 18

Then on September 11, 1975, the 16-year-old daughter of Claude Snelling, a journalism professor at College of the Sequoias, was awakened by a man’s hand covering her nose and mouth. “You’re coming with me. Don’t scream or I’ll stab you,” the ski-masked intruder whispered. He led her out the back door. Snelling, alerted by the noise, ran onto the patio. “Hey, what are you doing?” he shouted. “Where are you taking my daughter?”

The intruder didn’t reply. He raised a .38-caliber handgun and shot Snelling in the chest, mortally wounding him, and then kicked the daughter three times in the face before running away. He was a white male, about five feet ten, with “angry” eyes, the daughter reported to police.

A stolen gun strongly pointed to the Visalia Ransacker. On December 10 detective Bill McGowen startled the Ransacker outside a house he’d targeted three times before, and a chase ensued. When McGowen fired a warning shot, the ski-masked suspect raised his hands in surrender.

“Hey, OK, don’t hurt me,” he said in a squeaky voice, reaching with one hand to peel off his mask. But it was a mime trick; with his other hand he fired a shot at McGowen. The bullet shattered McGowen’s flashlight, sending shards into his eyes. The Ransacker jumped a fence and escaped. The plundering in Visalia stopped. Months later the East Area Rapist attacks in Sacramento began.

Pool tells me the FBI ran an actuarial study and concluded last year that there’s an 85 percent chance the Golden State Killer is still alive.

I peg Pool as someone who prioritizes procedure and would accuse me of overstepping with my impulsive cuff links purchase. But I take a chance at the end of our conversation and reach into my backpack for the Ziploc bag. I nudge the cuff links across the conference table. He takes the bag and examines it carefully.

“For me?” he asks, stone faced.

“Yes,” I say and begin to explain why I bought them.

I catch the slightest hint of a smile. “You’ve made me very happy,” he says. “In fact, I think I love you.”

A few days later Pool ascertains that the cuff links are not the same pair after all. But it doesn’t matter, as he has a more promising lead, one in which he needs the public’s help. It turns out that having such a far-reaching, complicated case has its rewards: The many jurisdictions means there are multiple property rooms to go back to in search of old evidence, to dig through for clues stored years ago and forgotten.

That’s exactly what Paul Holes, the chief of the Contra Costa Crime Lab who helped develop the DNA profile, was looking for in his property room, and he found it in a sealed bag marked “collected at railroad tracks”—a clue overlooked and ignored. After all, it was a parking ticket that eventually revealed Berkowitz was the Son of Sam.

In his office Pool taps at his computer keyboard, calling up an image that can’t load fast enough. It shocks me how quickly I lean in, primed to memorize everything I see. I realize how hungry I am for new information about the bogeyman who’s wormed his way into every corridor of my brain.

A faded, hand-drawn map pops up on the screen. Hand drawn, the police believe, by the Golden State Killer.

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

    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.


    This is could get wrapped up pretty quickly.

  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.
showing 1-20 of 28 comments · show all comments

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