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

BEHIND THE MASK A sketch of the attacker in the 1970s, one of the few derived from rape victims’ descriptions

The Northern California detectives on the EAR Task Force had theorized he would snake his way south. They worried he was escalating in violence. “That’s him, I know it,” thought Contra Costa investigator Larry Crompton when he learned of the Goleta murders. The Santa Barbara County sheriff’s office felt differently and was reluctant to make the connection, whether out of disbelief or fear of bad publicity.

Three months after the Goleta murders, in March 1980, there was another double murder, this time in Ventura, of Charlene and Lyman Smith. Keith and Patrice Harrington, who were living in a gated community in Dana Point, were the next victims. Then came Manuela Witthuhn in Irvine. The scenes echoed each other: The females were all slender beauties whose hands were bound behind their backs, and circling each single-story house were tiny star impressions from a pair of size 9 Adidas. The rapist had evolved into a serial killer, and the transformation only seemed to hone his self-discipline. Murder seemed to satiate him more than rape did, and longer periods of time passed between the crimes. Whereas before he seemed to bask in the notoriety, now he took pains to hide any hint of a link between the murders, removing ligatures from the scene, even staging one murder to look like a robbery.

By May 5, 1986, when 18-year-old Janelle Cruz was discovered raped and bludgeoned in her home in Irvine, only the killer and a few alert investigators like Crompton knew that the East Area Rapist was now the worst unidentified violent serial offender in modern American history.

After Cruz’s murder, the Golden State Killer stopped. Perhaps his impulses had subsided. Perhaps, like everyone else in America, he’d followed the August 1985 capture of Richard Ramirez, the Satan worshipper known as the Night Stalker, and the case building up against this psychopath who, like himself, had bound, raped, and killed his way (13 murders in all) across California. The name this unknown perpetrator was given by law enforcement—the Original Night Stalker, or ONS—was derived from the nom de crime of Ramirez. And Crompton found himself among an ever-dwindling cadre of detectives pushing against a growing indifference, dedicating himself to a case that, for all practical purposes, had been abandoned.

[ 3 ] MALIGNANT OBSESSION

The woman who sits across from me in a small office in east Sacramento is a stranger. But you wouldn’t have known that from the conversational shorthand we use from the moment we meet, our message board equivalent of Klingon.

“Dog beating robbery in ’74?” I ask.

The woman, I’ll call her the Social Worker, reties her thick ponytail and takes a sip from a can of Rockstar. She’s in her late fifties, with large, penetrating green eyes and a smoky voice. She had greeted me in the parking lot by waving her arms wildly overhead. I liked her right away.

“I don’t believe it’s related,” she says.

The ’74 robbery in Rancho Cordova we’re parsing was the kind of recently uncovered incident that the two of us had connected through on the serial killer message board. There is only one book about this killer, and it’s what sparked my interest in the case when I read it two years ago. Sudden Terror was self-published in 2010 by the now-retired detective Larry Crompton. But I was familiar with such details as the robbery—and thousands of others—because of the A&E Cold Case Files message board. Yes, the basic-cable channel behind addictive reality-TV series like Intervention and Hoarders hosts a board for the true-crime reenactment series that was canceled in 2006 (and that I’ve never actually watched) and lives on as a hidden hive of digital crime solving. After reading Crompton’s book one night, I Googled “East Area Rapist” and “Original Night Stalker” to see what else was out there about him, and the board popped up. I started off as a lurker, an outsider gleaning the insights of others who were obsessed. Before I knew it, I had read all of the 20,000 posts about the Golden State Killer (known as EAR/ONS on the site), spending hours there while my daughter was taking a nap and after my husband went to bed. Given that serial killers are the subjects of a half dozen prime-time shows currently on television, I am obviously not alone.

I found a spectrum of personality types on the message board, from paranoid cranks to the raw, curious insomniacs driven by the same compulsion to piece together the puzzle as I am. Of the dozens of people who regularly visited, a devoted few stood out. The Social Worker (like many on the board, she prefers anonymity) operates as a kind of gatekeeper between Sacramento investigators and the board. This irks some posters, who accuse her of hinting at confidential information and then shutting down when asked to share. That she occasionally has new information is not in dispute. A few months after I began corresponding with her in April 2011, the Social Worker posted a drawing of a decal she said was seen on a suspicious vehicle near the scene of one of the Sacramento rapes. “It is possibly from a naval base on North Island,” she posted, “but unconfirmed and has no record. Is it familiar to anyone on the board? Hoping we may find where it is from.”

Now, a year after I first e-mailed the Social Worker, she is giving me a tour of the killer’s early stalking grounds. She navigates from the passenger side as I steer my rental car around the modest ranch houses abutting Sacramento’s old Mather Air Force Base, where he was active in the mid-1970s (it has since been converted into one of the city’s airports). She points out a nearby duplex where he raped victim number 24, a 17-year-old girl whose boyfriend was tied to the bed facedown, a metal lid and salt shaker placed on his back. If the items fell off, the rapist had threatened, he would come back and shoot him in the head.

Afterward the Social Worker guides me through the leafy neighborhoods of Arden-Arcade and Del Dayo, which the rapist also turned into crime scenes. These areas of east Sacramento he preyed on were not built for excitement. I counted an entire block of unbroken beige. The tamped-down cautiousness belies the terrible things that happened here. We turn onto Malaga Way, where on August 29, 1976, the clanging of her wind chimes and the strong smell of aftershave awakened a 12-year-old girl. A masked man stood at her bedroom window, prying away the upper left corner of the screen with a knife.


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

 

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