Bakersfield Man Gets Two Life Sentences for 1980s Serial Killings

Horace Van Vaultz Jr. stood trial for murder before, but this time investigative genetic genealogy put him away

A Bakersfield man previously acquitted of murder charges in Ventura County was sentenced in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom Monday to two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole for the murder of two women in the 1980s.

As FoxLA reports, Horace Van Vaultz Jr., 67, was found guilty in August of first-degree murder for the strangulation of 21-year-old Selena Keough on July 16, 1981, as well as the asphyxiation of Mary Duggan, a 22-year-old Reseda resident, on June 9, 1986. Keough was killed in San Bernardino County and her body was dumped in bushes in Montclair, while Duggan’s body was found in the trunk of her car in a Burbank parking lot. Prosecutors believe both women were raped by Vaultz before they were murdered.

Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman argued during the trial that the murders were “sexually motivated homicides” and were “committed by the same serial killer between 1981 and 1986,” citing investigative genetic genealogy, in which detectives run DNA material from the crime scene through commercial DNA databases to find a relative’s match that can point toward a suspect and collect their DNA.

Vaultz was arrested as a suspect in the cold case by Burbank Police during an Inglewood traffic stop in November 2019 and has been behind bars ever since.

Vaultz’s DNA was found on or in the bodies of each of the women, who were discovered either fully or partially nude, but he testified in his own defense that he did not remember the women, and denied killing them.

“I’m telling you I didn’t kill anyone,” he said on the stand when questioned about DNA evidence linking him to the crimes.

“My semen means I may have had sex with the person. It doesn’t mean I killed them,” said Vaultz, who described himself as a “swinger,” claiming to have cheating on wives and girlfriends with dozens or even hundreds of women in the 1980s.

According to NBC Los Angeles, defense lawyer Damon L. Hobdy argued that Vaultz had consensual sex with the women, and theorized that someone else must have committed the murders after his client’s sexual encounters with them. “It is reasonable to conclude that sex happened, and sometime later, these women were killed,” Hobdy said.

Silverman, however, told the jury, “To believe the defendant’s story, you’d have to throw out all your common sense. You’d have to believe this defendant is the most unlucky person on the planet, to have three women all turn up dead with the defendant’s semen inside them.”

The third woman she referenced is 25-year-old Janna Rowe, whose body was found partially clothed in a trash pile in December 1986. Investigators at the time found Vaultz had rented a motel room for her in Thousand Oaks several days earlier, and found a piece of her jewelry in his mother’s jewelry box.

Vaultz stood trial for that Ventura County murder and was acquitted in 1988. A recent re-examination of evidence, however, also revealed a DNA link between Vaultz and Rowe—his semen was found in her mouth, vagina and anus. All three victims were also strangled and tied up in similar ways.

According to FoxLA, Silverman instructed the jury to consider that particular case “pattern evidence,” but noted he cannot be retried for the same crime.

Rowe’s brother, Jeffry, was present at the sentencing with his mother and told reporters, “I’ve despised the defendant since he was acquitted of murdering my sister Janna in 1988, knowing full well in my mind he was guilty.”

He added, “I’m actually sad that he is not being sentenced to death. That seems the only tolerable sentence for people as evil as the defendant.”

Burbank Police Sgt. Aaron Kay, who re-opened the cold case, credited the initial investigators in the ’80s for preserving DNA evidence, which he explained “wasn’t even a thing back in 1986, 1981.”

He added, “It’s been incredible to be able to deliver something to the victims’ families.”

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