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

THE INVESTIGATOR Cold case specialist Larry Pool has been tracking the Golden State Killer’s crimes for two decades

“I lived here through the height of it,” the Social Worker says. She was a young mom then and recalls how the terror reached a debilitating peak around rape number 15. An uneasy memory from that period had nagged at her, and she reached out to a detective with the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department to see whether it was all in her mind. It wasn’t. The detective confirmed that before the rapist’s penchant for phoning victims had been publicized, the Social Worker had filed three police reports about an obscene caller, a “stalker” who, she said, “knew everything about me.” She now believes the caller was him.

“It’s a really dark place, thinking about this stuff,” she says while we’re parked on the side of a roundabout, the American River flashing blue in the distance. The Social Worker confides that she felt “spiritually” called upon to help solve the case. “But I’ve learned you’ve got to watch out, to take care of yourself. Or it can consume you.”

Can? Haven’t we spent the last four hours—to say nothing of the last few years—consumed? In the car we swapped leads we’ve pursued. Already I’d dedicated an entire afternoon to tracking down every detail I could about a member of the 1972 Rio Americano High School water polo team, because in the yearbook photo he appeared lean and to have big calves, maybe the same big calves that the Golden State Killer’s earlier victims had identified. The Social Worker once dined with someone she regarded as a potential suspect and then bagged his water bottle to test his DNA.

My own obsession with unsolved murders began on the evening of August 1, 1984, when a neighbor of mine in Oak Park, Illinois, where I grew up, was found murdered. We knew Kathleen Lombardo’s family from our parish church. She was out for a jog when she was dragged into an alley. Neighbors reported seeing a man in a yellow tank top and headband watching Kathleen intently as she jogged. He cut her throat.

Several days after the killing, without telling anyone, I walked the block and a half north from our house to the spot where Kathleen had been attacked. I was 14, a cheerleader in Tretorn sneakers whose crime experience began and ended with Nancy Drew. On the ground I saw pieces of Kathleen’s shattered Walkman. I picked them up. Kathleen Lombardo’s murderer was never caught.

What gripped me that summer before I started high school wasn’t fear or titillation but the specter of that question mark where the killer’s face should be. When you commit murder and remain anonymous, your identity is a wound that lingers on the victim, the neighborhood, and in the worst cases, a nation. For digital sleuths, a killer who remains a question mark holds more menace than a Charles Manson or a Richard Ramirez. However twisted the grins of those killers, however wild the eyes, we can at least stare solidly at them, knowing that evil has a shape and an expression and can be locked behind bars. Until we put a face on a psychopath like the Golden State Killer, he will continue to hold sway over us—he will remain a powerful cipher who triumphs by being just out of reach.

[ 4 ] WHAT’S IN A NAME?

One of the uncomfortable truths about tracking and catching serial killers is, marketing matters. Ever since Jack the Ripper terrorized the slums of 19th-century London, serial killers who thrive on public reaction seem to instinctively know this and sometimes devise their own monikers. The Zodiac Killer, for instance, announced himself in a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Examiner in 1969. David Berkowitz, the Yonkers, New York, postal clerk who murdered six people in their cars at random, came up with his tabloid sobriquet, Son of Sam, in a letter to the New York Police Department, claiming a dog by that name had urged him to kill. Cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, together known as the Hillside Strangler, chillingly described where they disposed of bodies and the method in which they dispatched ten young women around northeast Los Angeles over a four-month period in the late ’70s. Most recently L.A. Weekly crime writer Christine Pelisek used the name Grim Sleeper to describe a man who is believed to be responsible for at least ten murders in South L.A., starting in 1985 with a 13-year break between the final two murders. (A suspect has been arrested, and his list of victims is far from settled.)

A handle that perfectly crystallizes the creepiness, menace, and horror of the perpetrator and what he or she has done can’t help but captivate the public’s imagination. A grisly pathological signature left at crime scenes will have the same effect. Either will put added pressure on politicians and police departments to apprehend the killer as long as he remains at large, even if he retires from murder and mayhem. And it will linger with the popular culture long after the perpetrator has been caught, with tales retold in best-selling books and feature films. But he benefited from not having a name people knew.

The moniker law enforcement bestowed on the Golden State Killer—EAR/ONS—was an unwieldy and forgettable attempt to merge two identities. Sacramento police came up with “East Area Rapist” because the early sexual assaults began in the eastern parts of the city. During a meeting in the late ’90s of several Southern California law enforcement agencies, Larry Pool, an investigator with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and other authorities would realize that this man’s m.o. predated that of Ramirez. The unidentified serial killer they sought was the “Original Night Stalker,” a name that stuck by default, much to Pool’s chagrin. When in 2001, DNA tests showed that the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker were the same person, the killer became EAR/ONS for short.

Google “Son of Sam” and you’ll get more than a million hits. On Amazon you can take your pick of eight books about Berkowitz. By comparison, a Google search of EAR/ONS yields barely more than 11,000 mentions, and one of the top hits on Amazon is Jean Campbell’s Getting Started Stringing Beads, which happens to contain a mention of clip-on earrings. On the same page is Crompton’s sole text on the killer, which I’ve found to be an unvarnished, unfiltered avalanche of case details, full of 1970s political incorrectness and strangely moving in its depiction of one matter-of-fact cop’s rueful regret.

I came up with the name “Golden State Killer” for this article because his numerous crimes spanned California, confounding authorities throughout several jurisdictions. Also, at the very least, this ID is more memorable.

I’ve studied the Golden State Killer’s face, drawn from composite sketches made decades ago, more than my own husband’s. There is no single accurate rendering of him, but a few features—his lantern jaw and prominent nose—are consistent. His hair, hanging over his ears to his collar, seems so ’70s that I can almost hear Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name.” I know his blood type (A positive, nonsecretor). I know his penis size (conspicuously small). I know that he was built like a runner or a swimmer.

He liked to “bomb” a neighborhood, as one investigator put it, sometimes targeting houses just yards from one another. He was nervous and fidgety yet brazen. Once, he walked away from a crime scene without his pants on, and when a dog chased him into a backyard, he waited patiently until he was sure the dog wouldn’t bite and then reentered the house. He paused in the middle of one rape to go to the kitchen and eat apple pie. Sometimes after he violated someone, the bound, blindfolded victim would later recall hearing him in another room of the house, sobbing. Once, a victim remembered hearing him cry out over and over again: Mummy. Mummy. Mummy. Another woman said he told her that news reports of his crimes “scares my mommy.”

He relished keeping his victims off balance well after the initial attack. He issued incriminating taunts (“I’ll kill you like I did some people in Bakersfield”) and allegedly sent a typewritten poem titled “Excitement’s Crave” to Sacramento news outlets, comparing himself to Jesse James and Son of Sam. He harassed his victims by phone. One brief, whispery threat was recorded by authorities through a tapped phone line: “I’m going to kill you.”


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

 

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