In the Footsteps of a Killer

Fifty rapes. Ten murders. Two identities. One man. From 1976 to 1986, one of the most violent serial criminals in American history terrorized communities throughout California. He was little known, never caught, and might still be out there. Now a determined investigator, a retired detective, and a group of online obsessives are on the hunt to track him down



ON THE RUN The Golden State Killer’s telltale imprint: a size 9 tennis shoe


ON A SLEEPLESS NIGHT LAST JULY—one of dozens I’ve powered through during the months I’ve spent tracking him down—I Googled a description of a pair of cuff links he stole in the midst of a home invasion in Stockton in September 1977. At that time the Golden State Killer, as I’ve recently come to call him, hadn’t yet graduated to murder. He was a serial rapist who was attacking women in their bedrooms from Sacramento to San Ramon, targeting those who lived in quiet upper-middle-class suburban neighborhoods. He was young—anywhere from 18 to 30—Caucasian, and athletic, capable of eluding capture by jumping roofs and vaulting tall fences. He frequently wore a ski mask. He had either blue or hazel eyes and, some victims reported, a high-pitched voice. He would rant to his victims about needing money, but he frequently ignored cash, even when it was right in front of him.

But he didn’t leave empty-handed. He took items of personal value from those he had violated: engraved wedding bands, driver’s licenses, souvenir coins. The cuff links he stole in Stockton were a slightly unusual 1950s style and monogrammed with the first initial N. From my research I knew that boys’ names beginning with this letter were rare, appearing only once in the top 100 names of the 1930s and ’40s, when the original owner was likely born. The cuff links were a family heirloom belonging to the victim’s husband; they were distinct looking.

I hit the return key on my laptop, expecting nothing. Then a jolt of recognition: There they were, a single image out of the hundreds loading on my laptop screen, the same style as sketched out in the police file I had acquired, with the same initial. They were going for $8 at a vintage store in a small town in Oregon. I bought them immediately, paying $40 for overnight delivery, and went to wake my husband.

“I think I found him,” I said, a little punchy from lack of sleep. My husband, a professional comedian, didn’t have to ask who “him” was. While we live in Los Feliz with our young daughter, my online life has been taken over by unsolved murders—and with maybe someday solving one of them—on a Web site I launched in 2006 called True Crime Diary. By day I’m a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom with a sensible haircut and Goldfish crackers lining my purse. In the evening, however, I’m something of a DIY detective. I delve into cold cases by scouring the Internet for any digital crumbs authorities may have overlooked, then share my theories with the 8,000 or so mystery buffs who visit my blog regularly. When my family goes to sleep, I start clicking, combing through digitized phone books, school yearbooks, and Google Earth views of crime scenes: a bottomless pit of potential leads for the laptop investigator who now exists in the virtual world.

The Golden State Killer, though, has consumed me the most. In addition to 50 sexual assaults in Northern California, he was responsible for ten sadistic murders in Southern California. Here was a case that spanned a decade and ultimately changed DNA law in the state. Neither the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized San Francisco in the late 1960s and early ’70s, nor the Night Stalker, who had Southern Californians locking their windows in the ’80s, was as active. Yet the Golden State Killer has little recognition; he didn’t even have a catchy name until I coined one. His capture was too low to detect on any law enforcement agency’s list of priorities. If this coldest of cases is to be cracked, it may well be due to the work of citizen sleuths like me (and a handful of homicide detectives) who analyze and theorize, hoping to unearth that one clue that turns all the dead ends into a trail—the one detail that will bring us face-to-face with the psychopath who has occupied so many of our waking hours and our dreams.

[ 2 ] THE M.O.

On October 1, 1979, on Queen Ann Lane in Goleta, a town near Santa Barbara, a terrified woman lay facedown in her living room, her wrists tied behind her back, her feet bound at the ankles. Her tennis shorts had been thrown over her head as a blindfold. She could hear him rummaging around in the kitchen. It was 2:20 a.m.

“I’ll kill ’em, I’ll kill ’em, I’ll kill ’em,” he chanted to himself—like, as an investigator would later put it, “a guy pumping himself up for an athletic endeavor.”

The woman managed to remove the bindings from her feet and escaped screaming out the front door; in the chaos her live-in boyfriend, bound in the bedroom, was able to hop into the backyard and roll behind an orange tree, just missing the frantic, searching beam of the intruder’s flashlight. A witness caught a glimpse of the suspect fleeing the scene: a lean man in a Pendleton shirt pedaling furiously away on a stolen silver Nishiki ten-speed.

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.

The bodies were in the bedroom. Offerman’s girlfriend, psychologist Debra Alexandria Manning, 35, lay on the right side of the waterbed, nude and bound. Offerman, a 44-year-old osteopath, was on his knees on the floor; in his left hand he clutched a length of white three-strand nylon cord. The killer’s plan seemed to have gone awry. Offerman had been able to break free from his bindings, raising the possibility that the killer might have ordered Manning to tie him up and that she had bound him loosely on purpose.

As detectives processed the crime scene, they stepped around a turkey carcass wrapped in cellophane that had been discarded on the patio. At some point, probably before he shot his victims through the heart and the back of the head, the killer had opened the refrigerator and helped himself to Offerman’s leftover Christmas dinner.

The forensics team noted what appeared to be the intruder’s signatures: the nylon twine, the pry marks on the doors and windows, the tennis shoe impressions. Everything matched the pattern of a man who had become known as the East Area Rapist, or EAR, a cat burglar whose middle-of-the-night assaults paralyzed Sacramento and Contra Costa counties starting in 1976 and ending after a thwarted attack on July 6, 1979. To zero in on a victim he often entered the home beforehand when no one was there, learning the layout, studying family pictures, and memorizing names. Victims received hang-up or disturbing phone calls before and after they were attacked. He disabled porch lights and unlocked windows. He emptied bullets from guns. He hid shoelaces or rope under cushions to use as ligatures. These maneuvers gave him a crucial advantage because when you woke from a deep sleep to the blinding flashlight and ski-masked presence, he was always a stranger to you, but you were not to him.

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


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