[ 5 ] A COLD CASE HEATS UP
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.
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