[ 6 ] BACK TO THE BOARD
One of the more compelling online sleuths I’ve met through the message board is a 30-year-old guy from South Florida whom I call the Kid. He has a bachelor’s degree in multimedia studies and, he’s hinted, a somewhat troubled home life. He holds what he vaguely describes as “a McJob,” but the message board is a full-time endeavor. Details matter to him. He’s smart, meticulous, and occasionally brusque. He’s also, in my opinion, the case’s greatest amateur hope. He first got my attention when he made the point that if you trace the linear distance from the Irvine pizza place—where shortly before her murder Janelle Cruz got a cashier job—to her house, and then from her house to Manuela Witthuhn’s house (the Golden State Killer’s other Irvine victim), you get an almost perfect equilateral triangle. It’s not a large area, covering a couple of miles at most. Somewhere in that triangle, the Kid theorized, lived the killer.
“You’re one of my favorite posters,” I wrote the Kid one day, and a correspondence began. Like Deadheads trading concert tapes, he sends me a PDF of the 1983 Orange County telephone directory; I send him a criminal record he’s looking for. We run down information on each other’s favorite suspects.
“Too tall,” I write. The killer was between five feet eight and five feet ten.
“Hirsute,” the Kid comments. (The killer was not.)
We both agree geography is key. There are only so many white males born between, say, 1943 and 1959 who lived or worked in Sacramento, Santa Barbara County, and Orange County from 1976 to 1986. Of those locations, most followers of the case agree that Sacramento, where the killer officially started his crime spree (unless it was indeed Visalia), is the ripest area to mine for clues, beginning with the rapes.
I message the Kid about a possible suspect I’d uncovered. The man has an address history in Sacramento, Goleta, and Orange County. I had found a photo of his car that he’d posted online. The vanity license plate interested me—it alluded to building model aircraft, a hobby that some had speculated the killer might be into. Now in his fifties, the man would be about the right age. I all but had him in handcuffs.
“Haven’t done anything with that name in a while,” the Kid writes back politely. Included in his message is the image of a dour nerd in a sweater vest, my suspect’s sophomore-year picture, which the Kid already had on file. “Not in my top tier,” he writes. I am chastened—and impressed.
While I share the Kid’s passion, I don’t have his skills. He’s an exceptional data miner. By his calculation he’s spent 4,000 hours scouring everything from old directories to yearbooks to online data aggregators in order to compile what he calls “the Master List.” When I first saw the list, its thoroughness left me agape. It is a 118-page document with some 2,000 names and information, including dates of birth, address histories, criminal records, and even photos when available. There’s an index, footnotes. There are notations under some names (“dedicated cycling advocate”) that seem nonsensical unless you know, as we do, far too much about a possibly dead serial killer who was last active when Ronald Reagan was president.
THE RETIRED DETECTIVE
Larry Crompton, in his Oregon home, can’t let go of the man he failed to capture
The truth is, even the Kid is a little fuzzy on his motivation. “It’s the unidentified nature of EAR that intrigues me more than anything else,” he writes me. “For no particular noble or tidy reason, I want to know who EAR/ONS is.”
“At some point I’ll have to walk away from all this and move on with my life,” he says. Which is why he opts for the monthly billing cycle rather than the annual service on Ancestry.com.
“I hope to hell I’m not still doing this a year from now,” he had written me—a year and a half ago.
Not everyone admires the board sleuths or their efforts. One agitator came on recently to fume about what he characterized as wanna-be cops with a twisted, pathetic obsession. He accused the board of being populated by untrained meddlers with an unhealthy interest in rape and murder.
“WALTER MITTY DETECTIVE,” he wrote.
By then I was convinced one of the Mittys was probably going to solve this thing.
[ 7 ] THE NOTEBOOK
Trails. building. A lake. It looks like a rough map of a planned community; in fact, that’s what Pool and other investigators believe it is.
The notebook pages were collected at the scene of a rape in Danville, in Contra Costa County, in December 1978 by a now-deceased criminalist. The Golden State Killer, who was then known as the East Area Rapist, was definitely the offender. Shoe prints and two independent bloodhounds established his exit route, a trail that led from the victim’s house to some nearby railroad tracks.
The paperwork, which is referred to as “the homework evidence,” was collected at the location where the trail stopped abruptly, indicating the rapist got into a vehicle. Investigators believe he dropped the pages unintentionally, perhaps while rooting around in a bag or opening his car door. They are on standard college-rule paper, three-hole punch, ripped from a notebook but with the spring binding intact. The first page appears to be a homework assignment on General Custer (“General George Armstrong Custer, a man well admired but a man hated very much by many who served him”).
The second page has the feeling of a journal entry or therapy exercise, an angry, resentful screed about the author’s memories of sixth grade. “Mad is the word,” it begins. The author recalls how he got in trouble in school and his teacher made him write sentences over and over again, a humiliating experience. “I never hated anyone as much as I did him,” the author writes of the unnamed teacher.
The third page is the hand-drawn map. Investigators examined the unusual markings on the land area and figured out they represented a change of grade and elevation for drainage purposes. Roofing is also an apparent interest: The two symbols on the bottom right are standard indicators showing left- and right-side elevations of a house, suggesting rooflines.
Further analysis led investigators to believe the mapmaker possibly dabbled in landscape architecture, civil engineering, or land-use planning. They’ve tried unsuccessfully to find the area depicted on the map. Pool believes the drawing resembles Golden State’s preferred attack neighborhood, and that it’s a fantasy.
On the back of the map, amid a series of doodles and girls’ names, is the word punishment scrawled hard in black pen with the letter p written backward. Right above the word punishment, in faint handwriting, are the words “Come from Snelling.” At least that’s what Pool believes. It’s the last name of the man murdered in Visalia.
Pool and fellow investigator Holes are allowing me to publish this piece of evidence for the first time, to accompany this article, in the hopes that it will jog someone’s memory—not unlike what happened when a man recognized his brother’s extreme ideology in a manifesto released to the media by police, which led authorities to the Unabomber.
I need to locate the area represented by the map, analyze the handwriting, and research the references it contains. On the night I review the notebook, I have two thoughts: One, what a promising lead this is for the case. And two, is this ever going to end?
This feature was originally published in the March 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine