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

[ 5 ] A COLD CASE HEATS UP

After 48 hours of anticipation, I received the package containing the cuff links. I ripped open the box, tore through the bubble wrap, and examined the sealed Ziploc bag with the cuff links inside. I suddenly felt anxious. If a speck of biological evidence clung to these shiny gold pieces, I risked destroying what might be key evidence with one fingerprint. I didn’t open the bag.

The best thing to do, I knew, was to turn the cuff links over to an authority on the killer. I already had an interview set up with Larry Pool, the Orange County sheriff’s detective who was widely recognized as the “face of the case.” I decided if I felt the interview was going well, I’d hand over the plastic bag with the cuff links.

The problem was, of the handful of officials who remained focused on the Golden State Killer, Pool intimidated me the most. He’d been described as “inaccessible” and “a little remote.” I knew he’d been working on the case for the past 15 years. He’d been instrumental, along with Golden State victim Keith Harrington’s attorney brother, Bruce, in getting Proposition 69 passed—the DNA Fingerprint, Unsolved Crime and Innocence Protection Act, which in 2004 established an all-felon DNA database in California. Thanks to their efforts, the California Department of Justice now has the second-largest working DNA data bank in the country.

Pool and Bruce Harrington felt that by expanding the DNA database they’d surely net Golden State. The disappointment, it was suggested to me, was sharp. I imagined Pool as a steely, impassive cop locked away in a dimly lit room, the walls plastered with composites of the killer.

Instead a pleasant, somewhat formal 51-year-old man in wire-rim glasses and a red-checkered shirt greets me in the small lobby of the FBI’s Orange County Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory (Pool is still the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s case agent for the killer but works in computer forensics now). We sit across from each other at a long table inside a glass-paneled conference room. He is the duty officer for the lab today, and when colleagues occasionally poke their heads in, he responds with a clipped “copy that.”

I find him to be a thoughtful, measured speaker, the kind of person whose stoic exterior masks a certain generosity and a belief that hours spent listening—even to a civilian crime enthusiast—may be time well spent. “When I took this on, I was still relatively fresh, if you will,” says Pool. “I got excited about people, like a ski-mask rapist in prison who matched the description. In the first year, five or six times I got really excited. In the second year, four or five times.” But now, after investigating, by his count, 8,000 suspects and spending years of performing triage on urgent tips from fellow police and a public who are convinced their suspect is the Original Night Stalker, Pool’s attitude is muted and deliberate. When he comes across a particularly promising suspect, his curt response is always “Gotta eliminate him.”

Even the composite sketch that hangs above Pool’s desk is matter-of-fact: It shows the suspect in a ski mask. “Is it of any value?” Pool says. “No. But we know he looked like that.” A new FBI profile is being generated, he tells me, and it will diverge from earlier theories about the killer. Pool’s theories have similarly evolved. In part from talking to criminal profilers who “understand how these people are wired better than I do,” Pool no longer views the Golden State Killer as a sort of superhero villain, a ballsy egomaniacal force in peak physical condition. “He’s a small guy, diminished, and he does everything he can to get the upper hand at the beginning and to keep it,” he says. “To intimidate and terrorize people because he doesn’t want to confront them physically.”

The new FBI profile is part of the investigation’s reboot. In addition, Pool tells me the FBI has provided its assessment on some crucial issues. The agency agrees with what many of the task force investigators have long contended—that the suspect likely got his start two years earlier and 200 miles farther south than was first believed, in Visalia, a farming town in the Central Valley. Beginning in April 1974, Visalia experienced an unusual series of ransackings in four residential neighborhoods. The Visalia Ransacker preferred personal effects like piggy banks, photographs, and wedding rings, leaving behind more valuable items.

SENSELESS DEATHS From top: Keith and Patrice Harrington of Dana Point; Irvine resident Janelle Cruz, who was slain at age 18

Then on September 11, 1975, the 16-year-old daughter of Claude Snelling, a journalism professor at College of the Sequoias, was awakened by a man’s hand covering her nose and mouth. “You’re coming with me. Don’t scream or I’ll stab you,” the ski-masked intruder whispered. He led her out the back door. Snelling, alerted by the noise, ran onto the patio. “Hey, what are you doing?” he shouted. “Where are you taking my daughter?”

The intruder didn’t reply. He raised a .38-caliber handgun and shot Snelling in the chest, mortally wounding him, and then kicked the daughter three times in the face before running away. He was a white male, about five feet ten, with “angry” eyes, the daughter reported to police.

A stolen gun strongly pointed to the Visalia Ransacker. On December 10 detective Bill McGowen startled the Ransacker outside a house he’d targeted three times before, and a chase ensued. When McGowen fired a warning shot, the ski-masked suspect raised his hands in surrender.

“Hey, OK, don’t hurt me,” he said in a squeaky voice, reaching with one hand to peel off his mask. But it was a mime trick; with his other hand he fired a shot at McGowen. The bullet shattered McGowen’s flashlight, sending shards into his eyes. The Ransacker jumped a fence and escaped. The plundering in Visalia stopped. Months later the East Area Rapist attacks in Sacramento began.

Pool tells me the FBI ran an actuarial study and concluded last year that there’s an 85 percent chance the Golden State Killer is still alive.

I peg Pool as someone who prioritizes procedure and would accuse me of overstepping with my impulsive cuff links purchase. But I take a chance at the end of our conversation and reach into my backpack for the Ziploc bag. I nudge the cuff links across the conference table. He takes the bag and examines it carefully.

“For me?” he asks, stone faced.

“Yes,” I say and begin to explain why I bought them.

I catch the slightest hint of a smile. “You’ve made me very happy,” he says. “In fact, I think I love you.”

A few days later Pool ascertains that the cuff links are not the same pair after all. But it doesn’t matter, as he has a more promising lead, one in which he needs the public’s help. It turns out that having such a far-reaching, complicated case has its rewards: The many jurisdictions means there are multiple property rooms to go back to in search of old evidence, to dig through for clues stored years ago and forgotten.

That’s exactly what Paul Holes, the chief of the Contra Costa Crime Lab who helped develop the DNA profile, was looking for in his property room, and he found it in a sealed bag marked “collected at railroad tracks”—a clue overlooked and ignored. After all, it was a parking ticket that eventually revealed Berkowitz was the Son of Sam.

In his office Pool taps at his computer keyboard, calling up an image that can’t load fast enough. It shocks me how quickly I lean in, primed to memorize everything I see. I realize how hungry I am for new information about the bogeyman who’s wormed his way into every corridor of my brain.

A faded, hand-drawn map pops up on the screen. Hand drawn, the police believe, by the Golden State Killer.


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

 

[ 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

 

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