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Your assignment this week will be to submit a case study to me on

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark


I have attached a file from the Case Classification Manual that I use for JUST 422 Violent Crime Analysis that is related to sexual homicide. There are six case study examples in this document. Use these case studies as templates for your case study.

You can see that there are specific areas that are commonly included in a case studies:

Background of the offender


Crime Scene Indicators

Forensic Findings



When you submit your case study, I would like you to include other information that is related to our Cold Case Investigation class.

Forensic techniques that were not available at the time of the original crimes.

How the cold case investigators could have used the new techniques on this case.

If the statute of limitations played a role in the crimes that offender was charged with.

How the delay in the arrest impacted the community’s relationship with the police.

This case study will be submitted as a Word document using Times New Roman 12 point font and double spacing. You will include a title page and a reference page. You will use APA formatting throughout. It will likely be five to six pages (maybe more), not including the title page and the reference page. You will have headings for each of the aforementioned areas that are generally included in case studies and also a heading for each of the three questions I have also included in the assignment.

Your primary source will be the book

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,

as well as additional outside research on the Joseph Deangelo case. You will certainly use any other sources that are acceptable in an academic paper, but this does not include Wikipedia.


JUST 424 Case Study Rubric.pdf

(46.67 KB)

Sexual homicides with case studies.pdf

(119.19 KB)

No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair.
No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend Smiling among the bric-a-brac and murder.
Only a suburban house with the front door open And a dog barking at a squirrel, and the cars
Passing. The corpse quite dead. The wife in Florida.
Consider the clues: the potato masher in a vase, The torn photograph of a Wesleyan basketball team,
Scattered with check stubs in the hall;
The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple,
The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased, The note: “To be killed this way is quite all right
with me.”
Small wonder that the case remains unsolved, Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,
And sits alone in a white room in a white gown, Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues Lead
nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen; Screaming all day of war, screaming that
nothing can be solved.
—Weldon Kees, “Crime Club”
Time Line Map
Cast of Characters
Sheila* (Sacramento, 1976) Jane Carson (Sacramento, 1976)
Fiona Williams* (South Sacramento, 1977) Kathy* (San Ramon, 1978) Esther McDonald*
(Danville, 1978) MURDER VICTIMS
Claude Snelling (Visalia, 1978)†
Katie and Brian Maggiore (Sacramento, 1978)†
Debra Alexandria Manning and Robert Offerman (Goleta, 1979) Charlene and Lyman Smith
(Ventura, 1980)
Patrice and Keith Harrington (Dana Point, 1980) Manuela Witthuhn (Irvine, 1981)
Cheri Domingo and Gregory Sanchez (Goleta, 1981) Janelle Cruz (Irvine, 1986)
Jim Bevins—investigator, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Ken Clark
—detective, Sacramento Sheriff’s Office
Carol Daly—detective, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Richard
Shelby—detective, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Larry
Crompton—detective, Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office Paul Holes—
criminalist, Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office John Murdock—chief,
Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Crime Lab Bill McGowen—detective, Visalia
Police Department Mary Hong—criminalist, Orange County Crime Lab
Erika Hutchcraft—investigator, Orange County District Attorney’s Office Larry
Pool—investigator, Countywide Law Enforcement Unsolved Element
(CLUE), Orange County Sheriff’s Department Jim White—criminalist,
Orange County Sheriff’s Department Fred Ray—detective, Santa Barbara
County Sheriff’s Office
Title Page
Time Line Map
Cast of Characters
Introduction, by Gillian Flynn
Part One
Irvine, 1981
Dana Point, 1980
Hollywood, 2009
Oak Park
Sacramento, 1976–1977
Orange County, 1996
Irvine, 1986
Ventura, 1980
Goleta, 1979
Goleta, 1981
Orange County, 2000
Contra Costa, 1997
Part Two
Sacramento, 2012
East Sacramento, 2012
The Cuff-Links Coda
Los Angeles, 2012
Contra Costa, 2013
San Ramon
Walnut Creek
Fred Ray
The One
Los Angeles, 2014
Sacramento, 2014
Sacramento, 1978
Part Three, by Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen
Afterword, by Patton Oswalt
Epilogue: Letter to an Old Man
Photo Insert
About the Author
About the Publisher
about her: the girl, dragged into the alley off Pleasant Street, murdered and left
like so much trash. The girl, a young twentysomething, was killed in Oak Park,
Illinois, a few blocks from where Michelle grew up in a busy, Irish Catholic
Michelle, the youngest child of six kids, signed her diary entries “Michelle,
the Writer.” She said the murder ignited her interest in true crime.
We would have made a good (if perhaps strange) pair. At the same time, in
my young teens, back in Kansas City, Missouri, I too was an aspiring writer,
although I gave myself a slightly loftier moniker in my journal: Gillian the Great.
Like Michelle, I grew up in a big Irish family, went to Catholic school, nurtured
a fascination with the dark. I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at age twelve,
a cheap second-hand purchase, and this would launch my lifelong obsession with
true crime.
I love reading true crime, but I’ve always been aware of the fact that, as a
reader, I am actively choosing to be a consumer of someone else’s tragedy. So
like any responsible consumer, I try to be careful in the choices I make. I read
only the best: writers who are dogged, insightful, and humane.
It was inevitable that I would find Michelle.
I’ve always thought the least appreciated aspect of a great true-crime writer
is humanity. Michelle McNamara had an uncanny ability to get into the minds of
not just killers but the cops who hunted them, the victims they destroyed, and the
trail of grieving relatives left behind. As an adult, I became a regular visitor of
her remarkable blog, True Crime Diary. “You should drop her a line,” my
husband would urge. She was from Chicago; I live in Chicago; both of us were
moms who spent unwholesome amounts of time looking under rocks at the dark
sides of humanity.
I resisted my husband’s urging—I think the closest I came to meeting
Michelle was introducing myself to an aunt of hers at a book event—she loaned
me her phone, and I texted Michelle something notably unauthorly, like, “You
are the coolest!!!”
The truth was, I was unsure whether I wanted to meet this writer—I felt
outmatched by her. I create characters; she had to deal with facts, go where the
story took her. She had to earn the trust of wary, weary investigators, brave the
mountains of paperwork that may contain that one crucial piece of information,
and convince devastated family and friends to needle around in old wounds.
She did all this with a particular sort of grace, writing in the night as her
family slept, from a room strewn with her daughter’s construction paper,
scribbling down California penal codes in crayon.
I am a nasty collector of killers, but I wasn’t aware of the man Michelle
would dub the Golden State Killer until she started writing about this nightmare,
who was responsible for fifty sexual assaults and at least ten murders in
California during the 1970s and ’80s. This was a decades-old cold case;
witnesses and victims had moved away or passed away or moved on; the case
encompassed multiple jurisdictions—in both Southern and Northern California
—and involved myriad crime files that lacked the benefits of DNA or lab
analysis. There are a very few writers who would take this on, fewer still who
would do it well.
Michelle’s doggedness in pursuing this case was astounding. In a typical
instance, she tracked down a pair of cuff links that had been stolen from a
Stockton crime scene in 1977 on the website of a vintage store in Oregon. But
she didn’t do just this; she could also tell you that “boys’ names beginning in N
were relatively rare, appearing only once in the top one hundred names of the
1930s and ’40s, when the original owner of the cuff links was likely born.” Mind
you, this isn’t even a clue leading to the killer; it’s a clue leading to the cuff links
the killer stole. This dedication to particulars was typical. Writes Michelle: “I
once spent an afternoon 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”—a possible physical trait of the
Golden State Killer.
Many writers who have sweat and bled gathering this much research can get
lost in the details—statistics and information tend to elbow out humanity. The
traits that make one a painstaking researcher are often at odds with the nuance of
But I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, while a beautiful work of reporting, is equally
a snapshot of the time, place, and person. Michelle brings to life the California
subdivisions that were edging out orange groves, the glassy new developments
that made victims the stars of their own horrific thrillers, the towns that lived in
the shadow of mountains that came alive once a year with thousands of scuttling
tarantulas searching for mates. And the people, good God, the people—hopeful
ex-hippies, striving newlyweds, a mother and her teen daughter arguing over
freedom and responsibility and swimsuits for what they didn’t realize would be
the last time.
I was hooked from the beginning, and so was Michelle, it seems. Her
multiyear hunt for the identity of the Golden State Killer took a harsh toll on her:
“There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.”
Michelle passed away in her sleep at age forty-six, before she could finish
this remarkable book. You’ll find case notes from her colleagues, but the identity
of the Golden State Killer—who dunnit—remains unresolved. His identity
matters not a whit to me. I want him captured; I don’t care who he is. Looking at
such a man’s face is anticlimactic; attaching a name, even more so. We know
what he did; any information beyond that will inevitably feel pedestrian, pale,
somehow cliché: “My mother was cruel. I hate women. I never had a family. . .
.” And so on. I want to know more about true, complete people, not dirty scraps
of humans.
I want to know more about Michelle. As she detailed her search for this
shadowy man, I found myself looking for clues to this writer I so admire. Who
was the woman whom I trusted enough to follow into this nightmare? What was
she like? What made her this way? What gave her this grace? One summer day, I
found myself driving the twenty minutes from my Chicago home out to Oak
Park, to the alley where “the girl” was found, where Michelle the Writer
discovered her calling. I didn’t realize until I was there why I was there. It was
because I was in my own search, hunting this remarkable hunter of darkness.
For the most part I mimicked the bedtime routine of a normal person. Teeth
brushed. Pajamas on. But after my husband and daughter fell asleep, I’d retreat
to my makeshift workspace and boot up my laptop, that fifteen-inch-wide hatch
of endless possibilities. Our neighborhood northwest of downtown Los Angeles
is remarkably quiet at night. Sometimes the only sound was the click as I tapped
ever closer down the driveways of men I didn’t know using Google Street View.
I rarely moved but I leaped decades with a few keystrokes. Yearbooks. Marriage
certificates. Mug shots. I scoured thousands of pages of 1970s-era police files. I
pored over autopsy reports. That I should do this surrounded by a half-dozen
stuffed animals and a set of miniature pink bongos didn’t strike me as unusual.
I’d found my searching place, as private as a rat’s maze. Every obsession needs a
room of its own. Mine was strewn with coloring paper on which I’d scribbled
down California penal codes in crayon.
It was around midnight on July 3, 2012, when I opened a document I’d
compiled listing all the unique items he’d stolen over the years. I’d bolded a
little over half the list: dead ends. The next item to search for was a pair of cuff
links taken in Stockton in September 1977. At that time the Golden State Killer,
as I’d come to call him, hadn’t yet graduated to murder. He was a serial rapist,
known as the East Area Rapist, who was attacking women and girls in their
bedrooms, first in east Sacramento County, then snaking out to communities in
the Central Valley and around San Francisco’s East Bay. He was young—
anywhere from eighteen to thirty— Caucasian and athletic, capable of eluding
capture by vaulting tall fences. A single-story house second from the corner in a
quiet, middle-class neighborhood was his preferred target. He always wore a
Precision and self-preservation were his identifying features. When he
zeroed in on a victim, he often entered the home beforehand when no one was
there, studying family pictures, learning the layout. He disabled porch lights and
unlocked sliding glass doors. He emptied bullets from guns. Unworried
homeowners’ closed gates were left open; pictures he moved were put back,
chalked up to the disorder of daily life. The victims slept untroubled until the
flashlight’s blaze forced open their eyes. Blindness disoriented them. Sleepy
minds lumbered, then raced. A figure they couldn’t see wielded the light, but
who, and why? Their fear found direction when they heard the voice, described
as a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening, though
some detected an occasional lapse into a higher pitch, a tremble, a stutter, as if
the masked stranger in the dark was hiding not only his face but also a raw
unsteadiness he couldn’t always disguise.
The Stockton case in September 1977 in which he’d stolen the cuff links was
his twenty-third attack and came after a perfectly bracketed summer break.
Drapery hooks scraping against a curtain rod awakened a twenty-nine-year-old
woman in her bedroom in northwest Stockton. She rose from her pillow. Outside
patio lights framed a silhouette in the doorway. The image vaporized as a
flashlight found her face and blinded her; a force of energy rushed toward the
bed. His last attack had been Memorial Day weekend. It was 1:30 a.m. on the
Tuesday after Labor Day. Summer was over. He was back.
He was after couples now. The female victim had tried to explain the foul
odor of her attacker to the reporting officer. She struggled to identify the smell.
Bad hygiene wouldn’t account for it, she said. It didn’t come from his
underarms, or his breath. The best the victim could say, the officer noted in his
report, was that it seemed like a nervous scent that emanated not from a
particular area on his body, but from his every pore. The officer asked if she
could be more specific. She couldn’t. The thing was, it wasn’t like anything
she’d ever smelled before.
As in other cases in Stockton he ranted about needing money but ignored
cash when it was right in front of him. What he wanted was items of personal
value from those he violated: engraved wedding bands, driver’s licenses,
souvenir coins. The cuff links, a family heirloom, were an unusual 1950s style
and monogrammed with the initials N.R. The reporting officer had made a rough
drawing of them in the margin of the police report. I was curious about how
unique they were. From an Internet search I learned that boys’ names beginning
in N were relatively rare, appearing only once in the top one hundred names of
the 1930s and ’40s, when the original owner of the cuff links was likely born. I
Googled a description of the cuff links and hit the return key on my laptop.
It takes hubris to think you can crack a complex serial murder case that a
task force representing five California jurisdictions, with input from the FBI,
hasn’t been able to solve, especially when your detective work is, like mine,
DIY. My interest in crime has personal roots. The unsolved murder of a neighbor
when I was fourteen sparked a fascination with cold cases. The advent of the
Internet transformed my interest into an active pursuit. Once public records came
online and sophisticated search engines were invented, I recognized how a head
full of crime details could intersect with an empty search bar, and in 2006 I
launched a website called True Crime Diary. When my family goes to sleep, I
time travel and reframe stale evidence using twenty-first-century technology. I
start clicking, scouring the Internet for digital clues authorities may have
overlooked, combing digitized phone books, 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. I share my theories with the loyal regulars
who read my blog.
I’ve written about hundreds of unsolved crimes, from chloroform murderers
to killer priests. The Golden State Killer, though, has consumed me the most. In
addition to fifty 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, were
as active. Yet the Golden State Killer has little recognition. He didn’t have a
catchy name until I coined one. He attacked in different jurisdictions across
California that didn’t always share information or communicate well with each
other. By the time DNA testing revealed that crimes previously thought to be
unrelated were the work of one man, more than a decade had passed since his
last known murder, and his capture wasn’t a priority. He flew under the radar, at
large and unidentified.
But still terrorizing his victims. In 2001 a woman in Sacramento answered
her phone in the same house where she’d been attacked twenty-four years
earlier. “Remember when we played?” a man whispered. She recognized the
voice immediately. His words echo something he said in Stockton, when the
couple’s six-year-old daughter got up to use the bathroom and encountered him
in the hallway. He was about twenty feet away, a man in a brown ski mask and
black knit mittens who was wearing no pants. He had a belt on with some kind
of sword in it. “I’m playing tricks with your mom and dad,” he said. “Come
watch me.”
The hook for me was that the case seemed solvable. His debris field was
both too big and too small; he’d left behind so many victims and abundant clues,
but in relatively contained communities, making data mining potential suspects
easier. The case dragged me under quickly. Curiosity turned to clawing hunger. I
was on the hunt, absorbed by a click-fever that connected my propulsive tapping
with a dopamine rush. I wasn’t alone. I found a group of hard-core seekers who
congregated on an online message board and exchanged clues and theories on
the case. I set aside any judgments I might have had and followed their chatter,
all twenty thousand posts and counting. I filtered out creeps with iffy motives
and concentrated on the true pursuers. Occasionally a clue, like the image of a
decal from a suspicious vehicle seen near an attack, would appear on the
message board, a bit of crowdsourcing by overworked detectives who were still
trying to solve the case.
I didn’t consider him a ghost. My faith was in human error. He made a
mistake somewhere along the line, I reasoned.
On the summer night I searched for the cuff links, I’d been obsessed with the
case for nearly a year. I favor yellow legal pads, especially the first ten or so
pages when everything looks smooth and hopeful. My daughter’s playroom was
littered with partially used pads, a wasteful habit and one that reflected my state
of mind. Each pad was a thread that started and stalled. For advice I turned to the
retired detectives who’d worked on the case, many of whom I’d come to
consider friends. The hubris had been drained from them, but that didn’t stop
them from encouraging mine. The hunt to find the Golden State Killer, spanning
nearly four decades, felt less like a relay race than a group of fanatics tethered
together climbing an impossible mountain. The old guys had to stop, but they
insisted I go on. I lamented to one of them that I felt I was grasping at straws.
“My advice? Grasp a straw,” he said. “Work it to dust.”
The stolen items were my latest straw. I wasn’t in an optimistic mood. My
family and I were headed to Santa Monica for Fourth of July weekend. I hadn’t
packed. The weather forecast was lousy. Then I saw it, a single image out of
hundreds loading on my laptop screen, the same style of cuff links as sketched
out in the police file, with the same initials. I checked and rechecked the cop’s
crude drawing against the image on my computer. They were going for $8 at a
vintage store in a small town in Oregon. I bought them immediately, paying $40
for overnight delivery. I walked down the hallway to my bedroom. My husband
was on his side, sleeping. I sat on the edge of the bed and stared at him until he
opened his eyes.
“I think I found him,” I said. My husband didn’t have to ask who “him” was.
Part One
Irvine, 1981
The yellow tape came down; the front door closed. The impassive precision of
badges at work had helped divert attention from the stain. There was no avoiding
it now. His brother and sister-in-law’s bedroom was just inside the front door,
directly across from the kitchen. Standing at the sink, Drew needed only to turn
his head to the left to see the dark spray mottling the white wall above David and
Manuela’s bed.
Drew prided himself on not being squeamish. At the Police Academy they
were being trained to handle stress and never blanch. Emotional steeliness was a
graduation requirement. But until the evening of Friday, February 6, 1981, when
his fiancée’s sister appeared tableside at the Rathskeller Pub in Huntington
Beach and said breathlessly, “Drew, call your mom,” he didn’t think he’d be
required to use those skills—the ability to keep his mouth shut and eyes forward
when everyone else went bug-eyed and screamed—so soon or so close to home.
David and Manuela lived at 35 Columbus, a single-story tract home in
Northwood, a new development in Irvine. The neighborhood was one of the
tendrils of suburbia creeping into what was left of the old Irvine ranch. Orange
groves still dominated the outskirts, bordering the encroaching concrete and
blacktop with immaculate rows of trees, a packinghouse, and a camp for pickers.
The future of the changing landscape could be gauged in sound: the blast from
trucks pouring cement was drowning out the dwindling tractors.
An air of genteelness masked Northwood’s conveyor-belt transformation.
Stands of towering eucalyptus, planted by farmers in the 1940s as protection
against the punishing Santa Ana winds, weren’t torn down but repurposed.
Developers used the trees to bisect main thoroughfares and shroud
neighborhoods. David and Manuela’s subdivision, Shady Hollow, was a tract of
137 houses with four available floor plans. They chose Plan 6014, “The
Willow,” three bedrooms, 1,523 square feet. In late 1979, when the house was
finished, they moved in.
The house seemed impressively grown-up to Drew, even though David and
Manuela were only five years older than him. For one thing, it was brand-new.
Kitchen cabinets gleamed from lack of use. The inside of the refrigerator
smelled like plastic. And it was spacious. Drew and David had grown up in a
house roughly the same size, but seven people had squeezed in there, had
impatiently waited their turn for the shower and knocked elbows at the dinner
table. David and Manuela stored bicycles in one of their home’s three bedrooms;
in the other spare bedroom, David kept his guitar.
Drew tried to ignore the jealousy prickling him, but the truth was, he envied
his older brother. David and Manuela, married for five years, both had steady
jobs. She was a loan officer at California First Bank; he worked in sales at House
of Imports, a Mercedes-Benz dealership. Middle-class aspiration welded them.
They spent a great deal of time discussing whether or not to get brickwork done
in the front yard and where the best place was to find quality Oriental rugs. The
house at 35 Columbus was an outline waiting to be filled in. Its blankness
conferred promise. Drew felt callow and lacking by comparison.
After the initial tour, Drew spent hardly any time at their house. The problem
wasn’t to the level of rancor exactly, but more like displeasure. Manuela, the
only child of German immigrants, was brusque, sometimes puzzlingly so. At
California First Bank, she was known for telling people when they needed a
haircut or pointing out when they had done something wrong. She kept a private
list of co-workers’ mistakes that she wrote in German. She was slim and pretty,
with prominent cheekbones and breast implants; she’d had the procedure done
after her wedding because she was small and David, she told a co-worker with a
kind of distasteful half shrug, seemed to prefer big chests. She didn’t flaunt her
new figure. To the contrary, she favored turtlenecks and kept her arms folded in
against her body, as if anticipating a fight.
Drew could see that the relationship worked for his brother, who could be
withdrawn and tentative and whose manner of speaking was more sideways than
straight on. But too often Drew left their company feeling trodden, the power of
Manuela’s rotating grievances short-circuiting every room she entered.
In early February 1981, Drew heard through the family grapevine that David
wasn’t feeling well and was in the hospital, but he hadn’t seen his brother in a
while and didn’t make plans to visit him. On Monday, February 2, Manuela had
taken David to Santa Ana–Tustin Community Hospital where he was admitted
for a severe gastrointestinal virus. For the next several nights, she kept the same
routine: her parents’ house for dinner, then to room 320 at the hospital to see
David. They spoke every day and evening by phone. Late Friday morning,
David called the bank looking for Manuela, but her co-workers told him she
hadn’t come in to work. He tried her at home, but the phone kept ringing, which
puzzled him. Their answering machine always picked up after the third ring;
Manuela didn’t know how to operate the machine. Next he called her mother,
Ruth, who agreed to drive over to the house and check on her daughter. After not
getting an answer at the front door, she used her key to enter. A few minutes
later, Ron Sharpe,* a close family friend, was summoned in a hysterical call from
“I just looked over on the left and saw her hands open like that and saw the
blood all over the wall,” Sharpe told detectives. “I couldn’t figure out how it got
on the wall from where she was lying.”
He took one look in the room and never looked again.
was partially wrapped in a sleeping bag, which she sometimes slept in when she
was cold. Red marks circled her wrists and ankles, evidence of ligatures that had
been removed. A large screwdriver was lying on the concrete patio two feet from
the rear sliding glass door. The locking mechanism on the door had been pried
A nineteen-inch television from inside the house had been dragged to the
southwest corner of the backyard, next to a high wooden fence. The corner of the
fence was coming apart slightly, as if someone had fallen against it or jumped it
too hard. Investigators observed shoe impressions of a small circle pattern in the
front and back yards and on top of the gas meter on the east side of the house.
One of the first peculiarities investigators observed was that the only source
of light in the bedroom came from the bathroom. They asked David about it. He
was at Manuela’s parents’ house, where a group of family and friends had
congregated after the news to grieve and console one another. Investigators
noticed that David seemed shaken and dazed; grief was making his mind drift.
His answers trailed off. He switched subjects abruptly. The question about the
light confused him.
“Where’s the lamp?” he asked.
A lamp with a square stand and a chrome metal cannonball-shaped light was
missing from atop the stereo speaker on the left side of the bed. Its absence gave
police a good idea of the heavy object that was used to bludgeon Manuela to
David was asked if he knew why the tape was missing from the answering
machine. He was stunned. He shook his head. The only possible explanation, he
told police, was that whoever killed Manuela had left his voice on the machine.
The scene was deeply weird. It was deeply weird for Irvine, which had little
crime. It was deeply weird for the Irvine Police Department; it smelled like a
setup to a few of them. Some jewelry was missing and the television had been
dragged into the backyard. But what burglar leaves his screwdriver behind?
They wondered if the killer was someone Manuela knew. Her husband is staying
overnight at the hospital. She invites a male acquaintance over. It gets violent
and he grabs the answering machine tape, knowing his voice is on it, and goes
about prying the sliding door and then, in a final touch of staging, leaves the
screwdriver behind.
But others doubted that Manuela knew her killer. Police interviewed David at
the Irvine Police Department the day after the body was found. He was asked if
they had had any problems with prowlers in the past. After thinking about it, he
mentioned that three or four months earlier, in either October or November 1980,
there had been footprints that he couldn’t explain. They looked to David like
tennis shoes and went from one side of the house all the way to the other side
and into the backyard. Investigators slid a piece of paper across the table and
asked David to draw the footprint as best he remembered it. He sketched it
quickly, preoccupied and exhausted. He didn’t know that police had a plastercast impression of Manuela’s killer’s footprint as he stalked the house the night
of the murder. He pushed the paper back. He’d drawn a right tennis shoe sole
with small circles.
David was thanked and allowed to go home. Police slapped his sketch next
to the plaster-cast impression. It was a match.
Most violent criminals are impulsive, disorganized, and easily caught. The
vast majority of homicides are committed by people known to the victim and,
despite game attempts to throw off the police, these offenders are usually
identified and arrested. It’s a tiny minority of criminals, maybe 5 percent, who
present the biggest challenge—the ones whose crimes reveal preplanning and
unremorseful rage. Manuela’s murder had all the hallmarks of this last type.
There were the ligatures, and their removal. The ferocity of her head wounds.
The several-month lapse between appearances of the sole with small circles
suggested the slithering of someone rigidly watchful whose brutality and
schedule only he knew.
Midday on Saturday, February 7, having sifted through clues for twenty-four
hours, the police did one more run-through and then authorized release of the
house back to David. This was before the existence of professional crime-scene
cleanup companies. Sooty fingerprint powder stained the doorknobs. David and
Manuela’s queen mattress was gouged in places where criminalists had cut away
sections to bag as evidence. The bed and wall above it were still splattered with
blood. Drew knew that, as a cop-in-training, he was the natural choice for the
cleanup job and volunteered to do it. He also felt he owed it to his brother.
Ten years earlier, their father, Max Witthuhn, had locked himself in a room at
the family’s home after a fight with his wife. Drew was in eighth grade and
attending a school dance at the time. David was eighteen, the oldest in the
family, and he was the one who beat down the door after the shotgun blast
rocked the house. He shielded the family from the view and absorbed what he
saw of his father’s splintered brain alone. Their father committed suicide two
weeks before Christmas. The experience seemed to rob David of certainty. He
was suspended in hesitation after that. His mouth smiled occasionally, but his
eyes never did.
Then he met Manuela. He was on solid ground again.
Her bridal veil hung on the back of their bedroom door. The police, thinking
it might be a clue, asked David about it. He explained that she always kept it
there, a rare sentimental expression. The veil provided a glimpse of Manuela’s
soft side, a side few had ever known—and now never would.
Drew’s fiancée was studying to be a nurse practitioner. She offered to help
him with the crime-scene cleanup. They would go on to have two sons and a
twenty-eight-year marriage that ended in divorce. Even at the lowest points of
their relationship, Drew could be stopped short by the memory of her helping
him that day; it was an unflinching act of kindness that he never forgot.
They hauled out bottles of bleach and buckets of water. They put on yellow
rubber gloves. The job was messy, but Drew remained dry-eyed and
expressionless. He tried to view the experience as a learning opportunity. Police
work called for being coolly diagnostic. You had to be tough, even if you were
scrubbing your sister-in-law’s blood from a brass bed frame. In a little under
three hours, they rid the house of violence and tidied it up for David’s return.
When they were finished, Drew placed the leftover cleaning supplies in his
trunk and got behind the wheel of his car. He stuck the key in the ignition but
then froze, seized up, as if on the brink of a sneeze. A strange, uncontainable
sensation was winding its way through him. Maybe it was the exhaustion.
He wasn’t going to cry. That wasn’t it. He couldn’t remember the last time he
cried. Wasn’t him.
He turned and stared at 35 Columbus. He flashed back to the first time he
drove up to the house. He remembered what he’d thought as he sat in his car,
preparing to go in.
My brother really has it made.
The tamped-down sob escaped, the fight to contain it over. Drew pressed his
forehead against the steering wheel and wept. Not a lump-in-the-throat cry but a
tumult of brutal grief. Unselfconscious. Purging. His car smelled like ammonia.
The blood under his fingernails wouldn’t come out for days.
Finally, he told himself he had to pull it together. He had in his possession a
small object he had to give CSI. Something he’d found under the bed.
Something they’d missed.
A piece of Manuela’s skull.
search of further information from Manuela’s inner circle, rang the front door of
her parents’ house on Loma Street, in the Greentree neighborhood. Horst
Rohrbeck, her father, met them at the door. The day before, shortly after the
house was cordoned off and declared a crime scene, Horst and his wife, Ruth,
were taken to the station and interviewed separately by junior officers. This was
the first time Jessup and Veach, who was the lead detective on the case, were
meeting the Rohrbecks. Twenty years in the United States hadn’t softened
Horst’s German comportment. He co-owned a local auto repair shop and, it was
said, could take apart a Mercedes-Benz with a single wrench.
Manuela was the Rohrbecks’ only child. She had dinner with them every
night. Her personal calendar had only two notations for the month of January,
reminders about her parents’ birthdays. Mama. Papa.
“Somebody killed her,” Horst said in his first police interview. “I kill that
Horst stood at the front door holding a snifter of brandy. Veach and Jessup
stepped inside the house. A half-dozen stricken friends and family were gathered
in the living room. When the investigators identified themselves, Horst’s stony
expression unclenched and he erupted. He wasn’t a big man, but fury doubled
his size. He shouted in accented English about how disgusted he was with the
police department, how they needed to be doing more. About four minutes into
the tirade, Veach and Jessup realized that their presence wasn’t necessary. Horst
was heartbroken and conflict-starved. His rage was a projectile splintering in real
time. There was nothing to do but put a business card on the foyer table and get
out of his way.
Horst’s anguish was also tinged with a specific regret. The Rohrbecks were
the owners of an enormous, military-grade trained German shepherd named
Possum. Horst had suggested that Manuela keep Possum at her house for
protection while David was in the hospital, but she declined. It was impossible
not to hit rewind and imagine Possum’s gaping scissor bite, saliva dripping from
his incisors, as he lunged at the intruder chipping at the lock, scaring him away.
Manuela’s funeral was Wednesday, February 11, at Saddleback Chapel in
Tustin. Drew spotted officers across the street taking photographs. Afterward he
returned to 35 Columbus with David. The brothers sat talking in the living room
late into the night. David was drinking heavily.
“They think I killed her,” David said abruptly about the police. His
expression was unreadable. Drew readied himself to hear a confession. He didn’t
believe David was physically capable of Manuela’s murder; the question was
whether he could have hired someone to do it. Drew felt his police training
kicking in. The image of his brother sitting across from him narrowed to a
pinhole. He figured he had one chance.
“Did you?” Drew asked.
David’s personality, always a bit diffident, had acquired an understandable
tremble. Survivor’s guilt weighed on him. He’d been born with a hole in his
heart; if anyone was going to die, it should have been him. Manuela’s parents’
grief roved in search of someone to blame. Their gaze had the increasing effect
of a glancing blow. But now, in response to Drew’s question, David bristled with
“No,” he said. “I didn’t kill my wife, Drew.”
Drew exhaled for what felt like the first time since news of Manuela’s
murder. He’d needed to hear David say the words. Looking in his brother’s eyes,
wounded but flashing with assurance, Drew knew he was telling the truth.
He wasn’t the only one who felt David was innocent. Criminalist Jim White
of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department helped process the crime scene.
Good criminalists are human scanners; they enter messy, unfamiliar rooms,
isolate important trace evidence, and block out everything else. They work under
pressure. A crime scene is time-sensitive and always on the verge of collapse.
Every person who enters represents the possibility for contamination.
Criminalists come laden with tools for collection and preservation—paper
evidence bags, seals, measuring tape, swabs, bindle paper, plaster of paris. At the
Witthuhn scene, White worked in collaboration with Investigator Veach, who
instructed him on what to seize. He collected flaky pieces of mud next to the
bed. He swabbed a diluted bloodstain on the toilet. He stood with Veach as
Manuela’s body was rolled. They noted the massive head injury, ligature marks,
and some bruising on her right hand. There was a mark on her left buttock that
the coroner would later conclude was likely from a punch.
The second part of the criminalist’s job comes in the lab, analyzing the
evidence that’s been collected. White tested the brown paint on the killer’s
screwdriver against popular brands, concluding that the best match was a storemixed Oxford Brown made by Behr. The lab is usually where the job ends.
Criminalists aren’t investigators. They don’t conduct interviews or run down
leads. But White was in a unique position. The individual police departments of
Orange County investigated crimes in their own jurisdictions, but most of them
used the Sheriff’s Department’s crime lab. Thus the Witthuhn investigators knew
only Irvine cases, but White had worked crime scenes all across the county, from
Santa Ana to San Clemente.
To Irvine police, Manuela Witthuhn’s murder was rare.
To Jim White, it was familiar.
Dana Point, 1980
doorbell. It was dated 8/20/80, the day before.
Patty and Keith,
We came by at 7:00 and no one was home.
Call us if plans have changed-?
It was signed “Merideth and Jay,” names Roger recognized as friends of his
daughter-in-law. He tried the front door and was surprised to find it locked.
Keith and Patty rarely locked up when they were home, especially when they
were expecting him for dinner. When Roger pulled into the driveway, he’d hit
the garage door opener, and there were Keith’s and Patty’s cars, his MG and her
VW. If they weren’t inside, they must be out jogging, Roger figured. He reached
for a key hidden above the patio trellis and entered the house, taking the mail,
which at a dozen pieces seemed unusually bulky, inside with him.
The house at 33381 Cockleshell Drive is one of roughly 950 in Niguel
Shores, a gated community in Dana Point, a beach town in southern Orange
County. Roger owned the home, though his main residence was a condo in
nearby Lakewood, closer to his office in Long Beach. His twenty-four-year-old
son, Keith, a third-year medical student at the University of California–Irvine,
and Keith’s new wife, Patty, a registered nurse, were living in the house for the
time being, a fact that made Roger happy. He liked to have his family close by.
The house was decorated in late-seventies style. Swordfish on the wall.
Tiffany chandelier. Ropy plant hangers. Roger mixed himself a drink in the
kitchen. Even though it wasn’t yet dusk, the house was shadowed and still. The
only thing moving was the ocean glinting blue through the south-facing
windows and sliding glass doors. An Alpha Beta grocery bag with two cans of
food sat in the kitchen sink. A loaf of sheepherder bread was out, three stalelooking pieces stacked beside it. Roger felt, by degrees, a creeping fear.
He walked down the ochre-colored carpeted hallway toward the bedrooms.
The door to the guest bedroom, where Keith and Patty slept, was open. Closed
shutters made it hard to see. The bed was made, the comforter pulled up to the
dark wood headboard. An unusual bump under the bedspread caught Roger’s
attention as he was about to close the door. He went over and pressed down,
feeling something hard. He pulled back the comforter.
The contrast between the top of the undisturbed bedspread and what lay
underneath was hard to compute. Keith and Patty were lying on their stomachs.
Their arms were bent at strange angles, palms up. They seemed, in the strictest
sense of the word, broken. Were it not for the ceiling, you might think they’d
fallen from a great height, such was the spread of blood beneath them.
Keith was the youngest of Roger’s four sons. Excellent student. Allconference shortstop in high school. He’d had one long-term girlfriend before
Patty, a fellow undergraduate premed student whom everyone assumed he’d
marry until, inexplicably to Roger, she chose another med school to attend and
the couple broke up. Keith met Patty shortly after that at UCI Medical Center,
and they were married within a year. In the back of his mind, Roger worried that
Keith was rebounding and moving too fast, but Patty was warm and clean-cut
like Keith—she’d broken up with a previous live-in boyfriend because he used
marijuana—and they seemed devoted to each other. Roger had recently been
spending a lot of time with “the kids,” as he referred to them. He’d helped install
a new sprinkling system in the yard. The three of them had spent the previous
Saturday clearing brush. Later that night they’d hosted a barbeque for Patty’s
father’s birthday at the house.
In the movies, people who discover a dead body shake the corpse
disbelievingly. Roger didn’t do that. Didn’t need to. Even in the dim light, he
could see his fair-skinned son was purple.
There was no sign of a struggle, no evidence of forced entry, though one of
the sliding doors had possibly been left unlocked. Patty bought groceries at 9:48
p.m. on Tuesday night, according to the Alpha Beta receipt. Her sister, Sue,
called after that, at 11:00 p.m. Keith answered sleepily and handed the phone to
Patty. She told Sue they were in bed; she was expecting an early morning call
from the nurse registry. A metal fragment consistent with brass was found in
Patty’s head wound. That suggested that sometime after Patty hung up with her
sister and before she didn’t appear at work Wednesday morning, someone picked
up one of the newly installed brass sprinkler heads from the yard and slipped
inside the house. In a subdivision with a manned gate. And no one heard a thing.
White of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department felt in his gut that it was
connected to the Harrington murders. The cases shared similarities big and
small. They involved middle-class victims bludgeoned to death in bed with
objects the killer picked up at the home. In both cases, the killer took the murder
weapon with him when he left. In both, the female victims were raped. The
bodies of Keith and Patty Harrington showed evidence of ligature marks; pieces
of macramé cord were found in and around their bed. In the Witthuhn case, six
months later, ligature marks were also present on the body, but the binding
material had been removed from the scene. The difference felt like evidence of
The cases also shared an intriguing medical link. Keith Harrington was a
med student at UC-Irvine, and Patty was a nurse who sometimes worked shifts at
Mercy Hospital in Santa Ana. David Witthuhn, Manuela’s husband, had been a
patient at Santa Ana–Tustin Community Hospital when his wife was murdered.
A wooden match with a short burn was found on the Harrington’s kitchen
floor. None of the Harringtons were smokers; investigators believe it belonged to
the killer.
Four wooden matches were collected from the flowerbed alongside the
Witthuhn house.
Witthuhn was an Irvine PD case; Harrington was Orange County Sheriff’s.
Investigators on both teams debated the possible connection. Taking on two
people, as the Harringtons’ killer had, was considered unusual. It was high risk.
It suggested the killer’s pleasure was in part derived from raising the stakes.
Would the same killer, six months later, target a single victim, as Witthuhn’s
had? The counterargument was that David’s hospital stay had been a fluke. Was
the killer surprised to find Manuela alone that night?
Theft (Manuela’s jewelry) versus no theft. Forced entry versus no forced
entry. They didn’t have fingerprints to match; DNA was far in the future. The
killer hadn’t left an ace of spades at both scenes to identify himself. But small
details lingered. When Keith Harrington was fatally struck, the wood headboard
above him was dented. Investigators concluded from the location of a wood chip
found between Patty’s legs that Keith was killed first and then Patty was
sexually assaulted. The chronology was planned for her maximum suffering.
Manuela’s killer spent enough time with her that she was stressed to the point of
nausea: her vomit was found on the bed.
“Overkill” is a popular but sometimes misused term in criminal
investigations and crime stories. Even seasoned homicide investigators
occasionally misinterpret an offender’s behavior when he uses a great deal of
force. It’s common to assume that a murder involving overkill means there was a
relationship between offender and victim, an unleashing of pent-up rage borne of
familiarity. “This was personal,” goes the cliché.†
But that assumption fails to consider external causes of behavior. The level
of force may depend on how much a victim resists. Tremendous injuries that
look like a personal relationship gone horribly wrong might be the result of a
protracted struggle between strangers.
Most violent criminals smash through life like human sledgehammers. They
have fists for hands and can’t plan beyond their sightlines. They’re caught easily.
They talk too much. They return to the scene of the crime, as conspicuous as tin
cans on a bumper. But every so often a blue moon surfaces. A snow leopard
slinks by.
Every so often investigators encounter a stranger murder involving the
overkill of victims who didn’t resist.
Considering that Manuela and Patty were bound and therefore by definition
compliant, the amount of force used to bludgeon them revealed an extreme
amount of rage directed at the female. It was unusual to see such frenzied anger
combined with calculated planning. A forensic match between the cases didn’t
exist but a feeling did, a sense that a single mind was at work, someone who
didn’t leave many clues or talk or show his face, someone who strolled
undetected in the middle-class swarm, an ordinary man with a resting-pulse
The possible connection between Harrington and Witthuhn was never
dismissed outright, just put aside as the cases went cold. In August 1981, several
newspaper articles questioned whether or not the Harrington case was related to
other recent double homicides in Southern California. “Is a psychopathic ‘Night
Stalker’ murdering Southern California couples in their beds?” was the opening
line of an article in the Los Angeles Times.
The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department had been the first to raise the idea of
a connection. They had two double homicides and a knife attack in which the
couple escaped. But the other counties with proposed linked cases, Ventura and
Orange, downplayed the idea. Ventura officials, still smarting from a highly
publicized preliminary hearing where the case against their double homicide
suspect fell apart, were quoted as saying they thought Santa Barbara had jumped
the gun. Orange County was skeptical too. “We don’t feel that,” said investigator
Darryl Coder.
And that was that. Five years passed. Ten years. The phone never rang with
the right tip. The files, periodically reviewed, never divulged the necessary
information. Roger Harrington obsessed over the details, trying to make sense of
Keith and Patty’s murders. He hired a private investigator. He offered a large
reward. Friends and co-workers were reinterviewed. Nothing sparked. In
desperation, Roger, a tough, self-made businessman, broke down and consulted a
clairvoyant. The psychic couldn’t lift the fog. Roger reexamined every moment
he spent with Keith and Patty before their deaths. Their murders were a loop of
fragmentary details that never cohered and never stopped rotating in his head.
Hollywood, 2009
Patton, mugged for the cameras in his smart blue pinstriped suit. Flashbulbs
deluged. A dozen hands thrust microphones from behind the metal barricade.
Adam Sandler appeared. Attention shifted. Clamor ratcheted. Then Judd
Apatow. Jonah Hill. Chris Rock. It was Monday, July 20, 2009, a little after six
p.m. We were at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood for the premiere of the
movie Funny People. Somewhere there’s probably an unused photograph of a
celebrity and in the background is a woman in a black shift dress and
comfortable shoes. I look dazed and exhilarated and am staring at my iPhone,
because at that moment, as some of the world’s biggest stars brush against me,
I’ve just learned that a fugitive I’d been hunting for and obsessing over, a double
murderer on the run in the West and Northwest for the past thirty-seven years,
had been found.
I dodged behind a concrete column and called the one person I knew would
care about the news as much as I did, Pete King, a longtime reporter for the Los
Angeles Times who now worked in media relations for the University of
California. He picked up right away.
“Pete, do you know?” I said. I could barely get the words out fast enough.
“Know what?”
“I just got an e-mail with a link to a news story. There’s been a shootout in
some remote mountains in New Mexico. Two people are dead. A sheriff’s
deputy. And the guy they were after. A kind of mysterious mountain man
stealing from cabins.”
“No,” Pete said.
“Yes,” I said. “They fingerprinted the mountain man.”
I admit I paused here for maximum dramatic effect.
“Joseph Henry Burgess,” I said. “Pete, we were right. He was out there all
this time.”
Our stunned silence lasted only a moment. I knew Pete wanted to get to a
computer. The premiere organizers were herding people inside. I could see
Patton scanning for me.
“Find out more,” I told Pete. “I can’t. I’m at a thing.”
This thing was not my thing. I realize confiding unease with movie
premieres isn’t the most relatable hang-up and falls under the exasperated “must
be nice” category. I get it. Bear with me. I’m not being falsely humble when I
say that I haven’t yet attended a Hollywood event where someone hasn’t tucked
in a tag, adjusted a button, or told me I had lipstick on my teeth. I once had an
events coordinator bat my fingers from my mouth when I was biting my nails.
My red carpet pose can best be described as “ducked head, half crouch.” But my
husband’s an actor. I love him and admire his work, and that of our friends, and
occasionally attending these events is part of the deal. So you get fancily dressed
and sometimes professionally made up. A driver in a town car picks you up,
which makes you feel weird and apologetic. An upbeat public relations person
you don’t know leads you onto a red carpet where you’re shouted at to “look
here!” and “here” at a hundred strangers with flashbulbs for faces. And then,
after those brief moments of manufactured glamour, you find yourself in a
regular old creaky movie theater seat, sipping Diet Coke from a sweaty plastic
cup and salting your fingers with warm popcorn. Lights dim. Mandated
enthusiasm begins.
Walking into the afterparty, Patton was introduced to the directors of Crank,
an action movie he loves starring Jason Statham. He began regaling them with
his favorite bits from the movie. “I’m gay-tham for Statham,” he confessed.
After we parted ways with the directors, we paused and surveyed the crowd
cramming into the ballroom at the Hollywood & Highland Center. Drinks,
gourmet mini-cheeseburgers, and maybe even Garry Shandling, an idol of
Patton’s, awaited us. Patton read my mind.
“No problem,” he said.
A friend intercepted us on our way out.
“Getting back to baby?” she said with a warm smile. Our daughter, Alice,
was three months old.
“You know how it is,” I said.
The truth, of course, was much weirder: I was foregoing a fancy Hollywood
party to return not to my sleeping infant but my laptop, to excavate through the
night in search of information about a man I’d never met, who’d murdered
people I didn’t know.
Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life—long
before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the
Golden State Killer. The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert
recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a
boy’s BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country
road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl’s
To say I’d like to stop dwelling is beside the point. Sure, I’d love to clear the
rot. I’m envious, for example, of people obsessed with the Civil War, which
brims with details but is contained. In my case, the monsters recede but never
vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write.
The first one, faceless and never caught, marked me at fourteen, and I’ve
been turning my back on good times in search of answers ever since.
Oak Park
teacher, and his booming voice is probably a result of either hearing loss or a
habit of yelling at his students to be heard. “It’s Terry!” he shouts. I look up from
my phone as I stand waiting for him and see a medium-size white guy with a
flop of brown hair holding a Venti Starbucks cup. He’s wearing Levi’s and a
green T-shirt that says SHAMROCK FOOTBALL. But he’s not talking to me. He’s
crossing the street toward 143 South Wesley Avenue, the corner brick house in
Oak Park, Illinois, where we have agreed to meet. He’s calling out to a man in
his fifties working on a car in the driveway. The man is tall, lanky, slightly
stooped, his once dark hair gone gray. He’s got what is sometimes unkindly
referred to as a hatchet face. There is nothing warm about him.
But there’s something familiar. He bears a strong resemblance to the family
who lived in the house when I was growing up; some of the kids were close to
my age, and I knew them from around town. He must be an older brother, I
realize, and either bought or inherited the house from his parents.
The man looks at Terry with no recognition. I see Terry is undeterred, and
unease washes over me. I have a mother’s instinct to reach out, redirect, and
quiet down. But I can see Terry wants to distinguish himself in the man’s
memory. They are old neighbors after all.
“I’m one of the boys that found the body!” Terry shouts.
The man stares at Terry from the side of his car. He says nothing. The
blankness is emphatically hostile. I look away, directing my gaze at a tiny Virgin
Mary statue planted in the northeast corner of the front lawn.
It’s Saturday afternoon, June 29, 2013—an unusually cold and windy day for
midsummer Chicago. In the sky, a block to the west, I can see the steeple of St.
Edmund Catholic Church, my family’s old church, where I went to school from
first through third grades.
The man returns to tinkering with his car. Terry peels off to the right. He
spots me thirty yards down the sidewalk. I light up at eye contact and wave
furiously at him, compensation for what just transpired. Terry was a year above
me at St. Edmund’s. The last time I remember seeing him was thirty-five years
ago. I know little about him aside from the recent discovery that the same night
in August 1984 changed both our lives.
“Michelle!” he shouts, walking toward me. “How’s Hollywood?”
We hug awkwardly. His manner brings me back immediately to the Oak Park
of my childhood. The flat vowels in his thick Chicago accent. The way he
announces later that he has to “haul ass.” He’s got a cowlick, a raw, pink color to
his cheeks, and an utter lack of artifice. No calculating mechanism filters his
thought from speech. He starts in right away.
“So yeah, what happened was,” he says, leading me back toward the house. I
hesitate. Maybe it’s fear of the already unhappy homeowner’s reaction. Maybe
it’s my sense that walking might help transport us to that muggy summer night
when we still rode bikes but had tasted our first sip of beer.
I look south down the alley.
“How about we retrace the path you guys took that night?”
Oak Park borders the West Side of Chicago. Ernest Hemingway, who grew
up there, famously referred to it as a town of “wide lawns and narrow minds,”
but that wasn’t my experience of the place. We lived in a drafty three-story
Victorian on the 300 block of South Scoville, a cul-de-sac in the center of town.
North of us was the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio and an affluent
neighborhood of prairie homes and liberal professionals intent on staying hip.
My friend Cameron lived in one of the Wright homes. Her stepfather was a civil
rights attorney, and her mother was, I think, a potter. They introduced me to
vegetarian salt and the word “Kabuki.” I remember the stepfather recommending
that Cameron and I, who both tended toward black smocks and confessional
verse, cheer ourselves up by going to see the Talking Heads’ concert movie Stop
Making Sense.
South of us was mostly blue-collar Irish Catholic families. The houses were
always a few degrees too cold and the beds lacked headboards. Occasionally a
father would disappear with a twenty-year-old, never to be seen again, but there
would be no divorce. A college friend who spent sophomore year spring break
with my family was convinced that my father was doing a comedy bit when he
began updating me on the local gossip. The last names, she said, were so
exclusively, defiantly Irish. The Connellys. The Flannerys. The O’Learys. And
on and on. I overheard a weary Irish Catholic mother from Oak Park field a
question about my family once. “How many McNamara kids are there?” she was
“Only six,” she said. She had eleven.
My family had a foot in both sides of Oak Park. My parents were natives,
members of the tribe commonly referred to as West Side Irish. They met in high
school. My father was gap-toothed and jolly. He liked to laugh. My mother was
the teetotaling eldest daughter of two hard partiers. She loved Judy Garland and
had a lifelong fascination with Hollywood. “People used to tell me I resemble
Gene Tierney,” she told me shyly once. I didn’t know who that was. When I saw
Laura years later, the mysterious central character who shared my mother’s
cascade of golden-flecked brown hair and delicately cut cheekbones mesmerized
The story is that my parents got together when my father knocked on my
mother’s door looking, allegedly, for a friend of his. I believe it. The indirect
approach to emotional matters suited them. They both had enormous eyes, my
father’s blue, my mother’s green, that expressed with great feeling what they
frequently could not.
My father briefly considered the seminary while away at Notre Dame. They
called him Brother Leo. My mother considered other suitors and doodled
alternate possibilities of her future last name. But Brother Leo decided the
seminarians didn’t drink enough. Their friend, Rev. Malachy Dooley, officiated
their wedding the day after Christmas, 1955. My eldest sister, Margo, was born
the following September. Tease my mother with a raised eyebrow about the math
and her cheeks burned. Her nickname in high school was Goody Two-Shoes.
After Northwestern Law School, my father went to work for the firm Jenner
and Block downtown. He stayed thirty-eight years. Most days began for him in a
chair on our screened-in front porch, one hand holding the Chicago Tribune, the
other a cup of tea, and ended with a very dry Beefeater martini on the rocks with
a twist. When he decided to get sober, in 1990, he announced the news in his
usual quirky way. Each child received a typewritten form letter. “To my favorite
child,” it began, “I’ve decided to join the Pepsi Generation.” He later claimed
that only two children believed the salutation. I was one of them.
My siblings arrived in quick succession, four girls and a boy; I was the
youngest, born after a six-year gap. My sister closest to me in age, Mary Rita,
was too much older than me to be a real playmate. Looking back now, it feels as
though I was born into a party that had started to wind down. By the time I came
around, my parents had matching La-Z-Boy armchairs. Our front door was
partly glass, and standing there you could see the back of my mother’s beige
armchair in the living room. When any of the kids’ friends rang the doorbell,
she’d stick her hand up and make a circling motion. “Go around,” she’d shout,
directing them to the unlocked back door.
The families on our block were close, but the kids were all the same ages as
my older siblings. They ran in a pack and returned home at dusk. I have a keen
memory of what it was like to be a teenager in the seventies because I spent a lot
of time with them. My sister Kathleen, ten years older, was and is the most
extroverted of our family, and she toted me around like a beloved toy. I
remember teetering precariously on the back of her banana seat as she pedaled to
the Jewel grocery store on Madison Street. Everyone seemed to know her. “Hey,
Beanie!” they called, using her nickname.
In Beanie’s freshmen year of high school, she developed an all-consuming
crush on Anton, a quiet blond-haired boy who ran track. She took me with her to
one of his meets. We hid high up in the bleachers to peek at him. I remember the
love-wrecked expression on her face as we watched him explode forth from the
starting line. I didn’t realize it then, but I was losing her to the complexities of
high school. Soon I was sitting alone on the top of the back stairs that connected
our kitchen to the second floor, watching teenage boys in sideburns chug beers in
our breakfast nook as the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” played too loud.
Everyone in my family speaks mock reverently about the day in 1974 when
the Van sisters—Lisa, my age; Kris, a year older— moved in across the street.
“Thank God,” they tease. “What would we have done with you?”
school. That they’d maintained such close bonds in an increasingly unmoored
and transient world was a point of pride for them, as it should be, but it also had
the effect, I think, of insulating them. Take them out of their comfort zone, and
they became a little ill at ease. I think an undercurrent of shyness ran through
them both. They gravitated toward bigger personalities. They used humor,
sometimes sharply, to deflect tension. My mother especially seemed always in a
state of suppressing— emotions, expectations. She had small, freckled hands and
a habit of tugging her fingers when things got unpleasant.
I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. They were bright, curious people
who traveled the world once they could afford to. My father argued, and lost, a
case in front of the Supreme Court in 1971 that’s still studied in constitutional
law classes. They subscribed to the New Yorker. They always had an interest in
popular culture and what was considered good, or cool. My mother allowed
herself to be taken to see Boogie Nights. (“I’m going to watch The Sound of
Music twenty times in a row to forget that,” she said.) They were Kennedy
Democrats. “Politically progressive,” my mother liked to say, “but socially
conservative.” My father took my older sisters when they were ten and eight
downtown to see Martin Luther King speak. They voted for Mondale in ’84. But
when I was nineteen, my mother once woke me at dawn in a panic, shaking a
handful of unfamiliar (to her) pills. She couldn’t bring herself to say “pill.”
“You’re on the . . . ,” she said.
“Fiber,” I said, and turned back to sleep.
coming home when I was around two and finding my mother pacing the front
porch. “I don’t know if I’m crazy,” she said, fighting tears, “or Michelle.” My
mother was forty then. She had endured alcoholic parents and the death of an
infant son. She was raising six kids with no help. I’m sure I was the crazy one.
Her lifelong nickname for me, only half-jokingly, was the Little Witch.
We button-pushed our whole lives. She stonewalled. I glowered. She
scribbled notes on envelopes and slid them under my bedroom door. “You’re
vain, thoughtless, and rude,” a notorious one went, concluding, “but you’re my
daughter and of course I love you very much.” We had a summer cabin on Lake
Michigan, and I remember one afternoon as a kid playing in the waves as she
read a book in a chair on the beach. I realized that the waves were just high
enough so that I could remain underwater and then rise for a quick breath when
the wave was at its highest, shielding me from view. I let my mother straighten
up and scan the water. I let her put down her book. I let her stand. I let her run
toward the water preparing to scream. Only then did I pop up nonchalantly.
I wish now that I’d been kinder to her. I used to rib her about the fact that she
couldn’t bear to watch certain scenes in movies or on TV shows. She couldn’t
take scenes in which someone threw a party and no one came. She avoided
movies about salesmen down on their luck. The specificity was what I found
peculiar and amusing; I now see it as the mark of a deeply sensitive person. Her
father was once a successful salesman whose career bottomed out. She witnessed
her parents’ problems with alcohol and the insistent mime of merrymaking that
went on too long. I see her vulnerabilities now. Her parents valued social success
and dismissed signs of my mother’s quick, eager mind. She felt thwarted. She
could be undermining and cutting in her remarks, but the older me sees that as a
reflection of her own undercut self-image.
We swim or sink against our deficits in life, and she made it a point to
encourage me in ways that she had not been. I remember that she dissuaded me
from trying out for cheerleading in high school. “Don’t you want to be the one
cheered?” she said. She thrilled at any of my academic or literary successes.
When I was in high school, I came across a letter she’d started to write years
before to Aunt Marilyn, my father’s sister, who was a theology professor and
accomplished archaeologist. My mother was looking for advice on how to best
encourage me as a young writer. “How do I make sure she doesn’t end up
writing greeting cards?” she wrote. I thought of that question often in future
years, during the many periods when I would have been ecstatic to be paid to
write Hallmark greetings.
But I felt her expectations, the transference of hope, and I bristled. I both
yearned for her approval and found her investment in me suffocating. She was
both proud of the fact that she had raised a strong-minded daughter and resentful
of my sharp opinions. It didn’t help matters that my generation was deep into
analysis and deconstruction, and hers was not. My mother didn’t, or wouldn’t,
navel-gaze in that way. I remember talking with my sister Maureen once about
the severe short haircuts we all had as children.
“Doesn’t it seem like Mom was trying to desexualize us?” I asked. Maureen,
the mother of three, suppressed a laugh mixed with irritation. “Wait until you
have kids, Michelle,” she said. “Short haircuts aren’t desexualizing. They’re
unemployed and adrift, not writing or doing much of anything, and I’d put a lot
of time—too much, probably—into the wedding. At the rehearsal dinner, I
seated small groups of people who didn’t know each other together; the only
thing I told them was that they all had one thing in common and had to figure
out what it was. At one table everyone had lived at some point in Minnesota.
Another table was avid cooks.
In the middle of dinner, my mother came up to me as I was making my way
toward the bathroom. I’d been avoiding her because a friend had made the
mistake of telling me that earlier in the evening she’d remarked to my mother
that she thought I was the best writer she knew. “Oh, I know. I think so too,” my
mother said. “But don’t you think it’s too late for her?” Her words stung and
batted around in my head all night.
I saw her out of the corner of my eye coming toward me. In retrospect, she
was smiling. I could see she was pleased with everything; she was never good at
giving compliments directly. I’m sure she thought she was being funny. She
gestured at the tables.
“You have too much time on your hands,” she said. I turned and faced her
with what I’m sure was a mask of pure rage.
“Get away from me,” I spit out. She was shocked and tried to explain, but I
cut her off. “Walk away from me. Now.”
I went to the ladies’ room, locked myself in a stall and allowed myself to cry
for five minutes, then went back out and pretended that everything was fine.
She was, by all accounts, devastated by my reaction. We never spoke of it,
but shortly after the wedding, she wrote me a long letter detailing all the things
about me that made her proud. We slowly rebuilt our relationship after that. In
late January 2007, my parents decided to take a cruise to Costa Rica. The boat
would leave from a port south of Los Angeles. The four of us—my husband,
Patton, and I and my parents—had dinner the night before their trip. We laughed
a lot, and I drove them to the dock in the morning. My mother and I hugged
tightly good-bye.
A few days later, the phone in the kitchen rang at four a.m. I didn’t get up.
Then it rang again, but stopped before I could get to it. I listened to the voice
mail. It was my father. His voice sounded strangled and almost unintelligible.
“Michelle,” he said. “Call your siblings.” Click.
I called my sister Maureen.
“You don’t know?” she asked.
“Oh, Michelle,” she said. “Mom died.”
My mother, a diabetic, had fallen ill on the ship due to complications from
her disease. They helicoptered her to San José, but it was too late. She was
Two years later, my daughter, Alice, was born. I was inconsolable for the
first two weeks. “Postpartum depression,” my husband explained to friends. But
it wasn’t new-mom blues. It was old-mom blues. Holding my newborn daughter,
I got it. I got the love that guts you, the sense of responsibility that narrows the
world to a pair of needy eyes. At thirty-nine, I understood my mother’s love for
me for the first time. Sobbing hysterically, almost unable to speak, I ordered my
husband to go down into our dank basement and find the letter my mother had
written to me after the wedding. He spent hours down there. Every box was
overturned. Papers littered the floor. He couldn’t find it.
my parents’ apartment in Deerfield Beach, Florida, to sort through her stuff. We
sniffed her clothes that still smelled like Happy perfume by Clinique. We
marveled at her bottomless collection of bags, a lifelong obsession. Each of us
took something of hers. I took a pair of pink-and-white sandals. They sit in my
closet still.
Afterward the seven of us went to an early dinner at the Sea Watch, a nearby
restaurant overlooking the ocean. We’re laughers, my family, and we told stories
about my mother that made us laugh. Seven people laughing loudly create a
An older woman with a bemused smile came up to our table as she was
leaving. “What’s the secret?” she asked.
“I’m sorry?” my brother, Bob, said.
“To such a happy family?”
We sat agape for a few moments. No one had the heart to say what we were
all thinking: we’ve just been cleaning out our dead mother’s belongings. We
dissolved into more shrieking laughter.
My mother was, and will always be, the most complicated relationship of my
Writing this now, I’m struck by two incompatible truths that pain me. No one
would have taken more joy from this book than my mother. And I probably
wouldn’t have felt the freedom to write it until she was gone.
right on Euclid, a left on Pleasant. The girls wore gray plaid jumpers and white
shirts; the boys, a mustard-colored collared shirt and slacks. Ms. Ray, my firstgrade teacher, had an hourglass figure and a thick mane of caramel-colored hair,
and she was always upbeat. It was Suzanne Somers herding a bunch of six-yearolds. Even so, she’s not my most vivid memory of St. Edmund’s. Nor, curiously
enough, is any Catholic teaching or time spent in church, though I know there
were a lot of both. No, St. Edmund’s will always be welded in my mind with one
image, that of a quiet, well-behaved boy with sandy brown hair and ears that
stuck out a little: Danny Olis.
My schooltime crushes ranged wildly in physical and personality type, but I
can say with confidence that they all shared one thing—they sat in front of me in
class. Other people are able to develop feelings for people sitting next to them or
behind them, but not me. That requires connecting with someone too directly,
sometimes even craning your neck to make full eye contact. Too real. I loved
nothing more than the back of a boy’s head. I could project endlessly on the
blank slate of a kid’s slouched back. He could be sitting there with his mouth
half-open or picking his nose, and I’d never know.
For a dreamy projectionist like me, Danny Olis was perfect. I don’t recall
thinking he was unhappy, but I also can’t picture his smile. He was selfpossessed for a little kid, and slightly solemn, as if he knew something the rest of
us gap-toothed fairy-tale believers would eventually find out. He was the Sam
Shepard of our first-grade class. I’d been gifted with a stuffed Curious George
when I was born, and something about Danny’s round, elfin face and big ears
reminded me of my George doll. I fell asleep clutching him to my cheek every
night. My love for Danny was big news in our house. Sifting through my old
stuff during a move once, I came across a card Beanie had written me during her
freshmen year at the University of Iowa. “Dear Mish, I miss you. How’s Danny
I switched to the local public school, William Beye Elementary, for fourth
grade. My best friends, the Van sisters, who’d saved me from loneliness by
moving in across the street, went there. I wanted to be with them. I wanted to
wear whatever I liked. After a while, I mostly forgot about Danny Olis. My
Curious George disappeared, along with my other childhood things.
One night in my junior year of high school, a friend was helping me prepare
for a big party I was throwing while my parents were out of town. She’d been
hanging out the last few months with some boys from Fenwick, the local allboys Catholic high school, and asked if a few of them could come to the party.
Sure, I said. Actually, she told me tentatively, she was sort of dating one of them.
“Just kind of,” she said.
“That’s great,” I said. “What’s his name?”
“Danny Olis.”
My eyes widened and I half guffawed, half shrieked. I steadied myself and
took a breath, the way you do when you’re about to share a big secret.
“You’re not going to believe this,” I said, “but I had the biggest crush on
Danny Olis in grade school.”
My friend nodded.
“It started in music class because the teacher made you hold hands,” she
said. My confused expression prompted her to continue.
“He told me,” she said.
I recalled nothing about holding hands and music class. And he knew? In my
memory I was the quiet girl who sat in the back, faithfully but discreetly
observing every swivel and dip of his head. Now it seemed my fixation had been
about as subtle as a telenovela. I was mortified.
“Well, he’s very mysterious,” I told her, a little irritated.
She shrugged. “Not to me,” she said.
That night teenagers with Solo cups spilled onto my lawn and into the street.
I drank too much gin and ducked and weaved through the throngs of unfamiliar
people in my house. Boys I’d dated were there, and boys I would date. Someone
played “Suspicious Minds” by the Fine Young Cannibals on repeat.
All night I was acutely aware of a quiet, sandy-haired boy standing in the
corner of the kitchen near the refrigerator. His hair now covered his ears. His
face had lost its roundness and was more drawn, but through quick glimpses I
could see the steady, cryptic expression remained. All night I avoided him. I
never looked him in the eye. Despite the gin, I was still the girl in the back of the
classroom, watchful, never watched.
laptop when the familiar ring announced a new e-mail. I glanced at my inbox.
I’m an inconsistent e-mail correspondent, and sometimes, I’m a little ashamed to
admit, it takes me several days or longer to respond. The name in my inbox took
a moment to register: Dan Olis. I clicked on the message hesitantly.
Dan, who was now an engineer living in Denver, explained that he had been
forwarded a profile of me that ran in the Notre Dame alumni magazine. The
article, “Sleuth,” reported that I was the author of a website, True Crime Diary,
that attempts to solve cold-case homicides. The writer asked the origin of my
obsession with unsolved murders and quoted my reply: “This all started when I
was 14. A neighbor of mine was brutally murdered. Very strange case. She was
jogging, close to her house. [The police] never solved it. Everyone in the
neighborhood was gripped with fear and then moved on. But I never could. I had
to figure out how it happened.”
That was the sound-bite version. Another version is as follows. On the
evening of August 1, 1984, I’m basking in the hermetically sealed freedom of
our house’s renovated third-floor attic bedroom. Every kid in my family spent
part of their teenage years up there. It’s my turn. My father hated the attic
because it was a firetrap, but for me, a fourteen-year-old tsunami of emotions
who signed her journal entries “Michelle, the Writer,” it’s a glorious escape. The
carpet is deep orange shag, the ceilings slanted. There’s a bookcase built into the
wall that swings open to a secret storage nook. Best of all is the enormous
wooden desk that takes up half the room. I have a turntable, a typewriter, and a
small window that overlooks my neighbor’s tiled roof. I have a place to dream.
In a few weeks I’ll start high school.
At the same time, three-tenths of a mile away, Kathleen Lombardo, twentyfour, is jogging with her Walkman along Pleasant Street. It’s a hot night.
Neighbors out on their porch watch Kathleen go by about nine forty-five p.m.
She has minutes to live.
I remember hearing someone walk upstairs to the second floor—my sister
Maureen, I think—and a murmured conversation, an intake of breath, and then
my mother’s footsteps going quickly to the window. We knew the Lombardo
family from St. Edmund’s. Word trickled out quickly. Her killer had dragged her
into the mouth of the alley between Euclid and Wesley. He cut her throat.
I had no particular interest in crime aside from reading the occasional Nancy
Drew book growing up. Yet two days after the killing, without telling anyone, I
walked to the spot near our house where Kathleen had been attacked. On the
ground I saw pieces of her shattered Walkman. I picked them up. I felt no fear,
just an electric curiosity, a current of such unexpected, searching force that I can
recall every detail about the moment—the smell of newly cut grass, the chipped
brown paint on the garage door. What gripped me was the specter of that
question mark where the killer’s face should be. The hollow gap of his identity
seemed violently powerful to me.
Unsolved murders became an obsession. I was a hoarder of ominous and
puzzling details. I developed a Pavlovian response to the word “mystery.” My
library record was a bibliography of the macabre and true. When I meet people
and hear where they’re from I orient them in my mind by the nearest unsolved
crime. Tell me you went to Miami University of Ohio, and every time I see you
I’ll think of Ron Tammen, the wrestler and bassist in the school jazz band who
walked out of his dorm room on April 19, 1953—his radio playing, the light on,
his psychology book open—and vanished, never to be seen again. Mention
you’re from Yorktown, Virginia, and I’ll forever connect you with the Colonial
Parkway, the ribbon of road snaking along the York River where four couples
either disappeared or were murdered between 1986 and 1989.
In my midthirties, I finally embraced my fascination and, thanks to the
advent of Internet technology, my DIY detective website, True Crime Diary, was
“Why are you so interested in crime?” people ask me, and I always go back
to that moment in the alley, the shards of a dead girl’s Walkman in my hands.
I need to see his face.
He loses his power when we know his face.
Kathleen Lombardo’s murder was never solved.
I would write about her case now and again, and mention it in interviews. I
even called the Oak Park Police to fact-check some things. The only real lead
was that witnesses reported seeing an African American man in a yellow tank
top and headband watching Kathleen intently as she jogged. The police
debunked a rumor I remember, that witnesses had seen the killer exit the El train
and begin following Kathleen. The rumor’s intent was obvious: the murderer had
slipped in among us from somewhere else.
The Oak Park cops gave me the distinct impression that the case was a dead
end. And that’s where I thought it stood, until that day when Dan Olis’s name
appeared in my inbox. Dan had copied another person on his e-mail to me: Terry
Keating. I vaguely recognized the name as a boy a year above us at St.
Edmund’s. Dan and Terry, it turns out, are first cousins. They were reaching out
to me because they, too, were haunted by Kathleen Lombardo’s murder, but for
different, and far more personal, reasons. In his e-mail Dan said hello, how are
you, then got right to the point.
“Did you know that some nice St. Edmund’s boys found Kathleen?” he
The experience had been gruesome and rattling for the kids. They spoke of it
often, Dan wrote, mostly because they were angry—the well-known, accepted
theory of what happened to Kathleen that night was wrong, in their opinion.
They felt they knew the identity of her killer.
In fact, they had encountered him that night.
family lived on the first floor; Terry’s, on the second; and their grandmother, on
the third. Terry and I survey the back of the old place from the alley.
“How many people would that be?” I ask Terry. The house is about three
thousand square feet at most.
“Eleven kids, five adults,” he says.
Just a year apart, Dan and Terry were, and remain, close.
“That summer was a real transition time for us,” Terry says. “Sometimes we
stole beers and got drunk. Other times we messed around like when we were
He gestures at the slab of concrete that abuts the garage in the backyard.
“I remember we were playing hockey, or maybe basketball, that night.” The
group comprised Terry, Danny, Danny’s younger brother, Tom, and two gradeschool friends, Mike and Darren. It was a little before ten p.m. Someone
suggested they head down the alley to the White Hen, a small convenience store
on Euclid, about a block and a half away. They went to the White Hen all the
time, sometimes three or four times a day, for a Kit Kat or a Coke.
Terry and I head north from the house. He spent so much time in this alley as
a kid, he can spot all the little ways it’s changed.
“It was darker at night back then,” he says. “Like a cave almost. The
branches would stick out and hang down more.”
An unfamiliar tree in a neighbor’s backyard draws his attention. “Bamboo,”
he says. “Can you believe it?”
About fifty feet from where the alley intersects with Pleasant Street, Terry
stops. A gaggle of preteen and teen boys shooting the shit, as Terry recalls them
doing, can be raucous. They distracted themselves with goofball antics. This spot
haunts him. Looking straight ahead you can see the mouth of the alley across the
“If we’d been paying attention, we might have seen her run by,” he says.
“We might have seen him grab her.”
We cross the street to the alcove behind 143 South Wesley Avenue. The five
boys were walking together in a straight line. Danny was on his right, Terry
remembers. He puts a hand on the fence near the garage and rattles it.
“I think this is the same fence, but it was painted red then,” Terry says.
He thought he glimpsed a rolled-up rug near the garbage cans. Kathleen’s
legs were very pale, and in the dark Terry mistook them for a light-colored
carpet. Then Danny, who was closest to her, shouted.
“That’s a body!”
Terry and I stare at the spot alongside the garage where Kathleen lay on her
back. It was clear immediately that her throat had been slashed. Blood pooled
around her feet. There was a terrible smell. Probably her stomach gases, Terry
guesses now. Darren, a “delicate kid,” as Terry describes him, walked slowly
backward to the opposite garage with his hands on top of his head, bugging out.
Tom took off toward the nearest back door, yelling for help.
The next moment is where the accepted narrative of Kathleen Lombardo’s
murder diverges from Terry and Dan’s memory. They remember that Kathleen
still had vital signs but died in the minutes between their discovery of her and
the arrival of a swarm of police. They remember the detectives telling them they
must have just walked up on the guy.
They remember a man emerging from the alley almost simultaneously as
they discovered Kathleen’s body. He was tall and appeared to be of Indian
descent. He wore a linen shirt opened to his navel, shorts, and sandals.
“What’s going on here?” he asked. Terry says the man never looked in the
direction of the body.
“Someone’s hurt. We need to call the police,” Mike shouted at the man. The
man shook his head.
“I don’t have a phone,” he said.
The chaos of the scene obscures the next sequence of events. Terry
remembers the patrol car pulling up, driven by a skeptical uniformed cop with a
mustache who asked sarcastically where the body was. He remembers the
change in tone and urgent radio for help when the cop saw Kathleen. He
remembers the cop’s partner, a younger guy, maybe even a trainee, leaning
against the side of the car, retching.
He remembers Darren against the garage, his hands still to his head, rocking
back and forth. And then a siege of lights and sirens, the likes of which Terry
had never seen before or since.
Seven years later, Terry happened to carpool to a concert with a guy named
Tom McBride, who lived a few doors down from the murder scene. Terry and
Tom had been enemies as kids, in the way you are when you don’t know each
other and go to different schools. Tom, Terry says, was a “public,” as the
Catholic kids called them. But Terry discovered that Tom was actually a really
good guy. They gabbed all night.
“Weren’t you one of the kids that found that body?” Tom asked.
Terry said he was. Tom’s eyes narrowed.
“I always thought someone in the neighborhood did it.”
An image came back to Terry, the man in the open linen shirt, the strange
way he wouldn’t look at Kathleen’s body. The way he’d asked them what was
going on here, when it was clear something horrible was.
Terry’s stomach tightened.
“What did he look like?” Terry asked.
Tom described him. Tall. From India. A real creep.
“He was right there when we found her!” Terry said.
Tom’s color drained. He couldn’t believe it. He remembered clearly that, in
the clamor after the discovery of the body, the neighbor, who appeared freshly
showered and was dressed in a robe, came out his back door to survey the police
cars. He’d turned to Tom and his family, who were out on their back porch.
“Did he say anything?” Terry asked.
Tom nodded.
“What’s going on here?” the neighbor said.
that I picked up at her crime scene are jangling around in my head thirty years
later as I steer my rental car onto Capitol Avenue in Sacramento. I take it east,
out of town, until it turns into Folsom Boulevard. I stay on Folsom, past Sac
State and the Sutter Center for Psychiatry, past the empty lots of scrub and
scattered oak trees. Running parallel on my right is the Gold Line, a light-rail
transit system that runs from downtown to Folsom, twenty-five miles east. The
route is historic. The tracks were once used for the Sacramento Valley Railroad,
built in 1856, the first steam railroad to connect the city with the mining camps
in the Sierras. Crossing Bradshaw Road, I spot signs reading PAWN and 6 POCKET
SPORTS BAR. Across the road are petroleum storage tanks behind a rusty chain-
link fence. I’m at my destination. Where it all started: the city of Rancho
Sacramento, 1976–1977
American River bisects the east side of Sacramento County, and Rancho
Cordova, on the south bank, is cut off from the leafier, more genteel suburbs on
the other side of the river. The area began as a Mexican land grant of five
thousand acres for farming. In 1848, after James W. Marshall, thirty-five miles
upriver, glimpsed glittering metal flakes in a water-wheel drain and declared “I
have found it,” the gold dredges descended on Rancho Cordova, leaving huge
piles of river rock behind. For a while, it was a vineyard. Mather Air Force Base
opened in 1918. But it was the Cold War that really changed Rancho Cordova. In
1953 Aerojet, the rocket and missile-propulsion manufacturer, opened its
headquarters here, and with it came a boom in residential housing for its
employees, the town’s twisty roads (Zinfandel Drive, Riesling Way) suddenly
paved and neatly divided into modest single-story tract houses. Everyone’s
family seemed associated with the military or Aerojet.
A rougher element lurked. A man who grew up on La Gloria Way in the
midseventies remembers the day the ice cream man who worked around
Cordova Meadows Elementary School disappeared. Turns out the guy with the
long hair, big beard, and mirrored aviator glasses who had been selling the kids
Popsicles was selling LSD and cocaine to a different set of clientele, and he was
hauled away by the cops. Stories of growing up in Sacramento in the seventies
are often bait-and-switches like this, a tangle of sweet and scary, small-town
postcards with foreboding on the back.
On hot summer days, we waded in the American River, a woman recalls;
then another memory, this one of running along the trails by the river and
coming upon a homeless camp in the dense brush. Parts of the river were said to
be haunted. A group of teenage girls hung out at Land Park and watched shirtless
boys wax their cars; they went to Days on the Green in Oakland, that era’s
Lollapalooza, to see the Eagles or Peter Frampton or Jethro Tull. They drove up
to the Sutterville Road levee and drank beer. They were on the levee drinking the
night of April 14, 1978, when a convoy of squad cars, sirens blaring, flew past
them on the road below. The convoy was endless. “Never saw anything like it
before, or since,” one of the teenagers, now a fifty-two-year-old woman, said.
The East Area Rapist, or EAR—the man I would come to call the Golden State
Killer—had struck again.
From Folsom I took a left onto Paseo Drive, into the heart of residential
Rancho Cordova. This place meant something to him. He attacked here first and
kept coming back. By November 1976, there were nine attacks in Sacramento
County attributed to the East Area Rapist in six months; four of those took place
in Rancho Cordova. In March 1979, when he hadn’t attacked in a year and it
seemed he’d left for good, he came back to Rancho Cordova one last time. Was
it home? Some of the investigators, especially the ones who worked the case in
the beginning, think so.
I pulled up to the site of his first attack, a simple L-shaped single-story
house, about a thousand square feet, with a cleanly shorn tree stump in the center
of the yard. It was here that the first call came in, at five a.m. on June 18, 1976,
from a twenty-three-year-old woman who was speaking into the receiver as best
she could from where she lay on the floor, her hands tied behind her back so
tightly that she’d lost circulation. Sheila* had backed up to the phone on her
father’s nightstand, knocked it to the ground, and searched with her fingers for 0.
She was calling to report a home-invasion rape.
She wanted them to understand that the mask was strange. It was white and
made of a coarse, knitlike material, with eyeholes and a seam down the middle,
but it fit very tight against his face. When Sheila opened her eyes and saw him in
her bedroom doorway, she thought she was dreaming. Who wears a ski mask in
Sacramento in June? She blinked and absorbed more of the image. He was about
five nine, moderately muscular, wearing a navy blue, short-sleeved T-shirt and
gray canvas gloves. Another detail, so unnatural it must have strayed in from her
subconscious—a pair of pale legs with dark hair. The parts flew together and
formed a whole. The man wasn’t wearing pants. He was erect. His chest rose and
fell, exhalations of the real.
He leaped onto Sheila’s bed and pressed the blade of a four-inch knife
against her right temple. She pulled the covers over her head to will him away.
He yanked them off. “If you make one move or sound, I’ll stick this knife in
you,” he whispered.
He tied her wrists behind her back with cord he brought with him, then tied
them again with a red-and-white fabric belt he found in Sheila’s closet. He
stuffed one of her white nylon slips into her mouth as a gag. Already hints
existed of the behavior that would become so recognizable. He put baby oil on
his penis before he raped her. He rummaged and ransacked; she could hear the
little knocker handles on the side tables in the living room clattering as he
opened drawers. He spoke in a low guttural whisper, with a clenched jaw. A oneinch cut near her right eyebrow bled from where he’d pressed the knife, ordering
her not to make a sound.
Common sense, and any cop, will tell you that the no-pants rapist is an
unsophisticated teenage peeper who just graduated from misdemeanor to crudely
conceived felony. The punk doing the no-pants dance suffers from poor impulse
control and will be arrested swiftly. His lingering stare has no doubt afforded
him creep status in the neighborhood. The cops will kick him awake at his
agitated mother’s house in no time. But this no-pants punk wasn’t caught.
There exists something that I think of as the paradox of the smart rapist. Roy
Hazelwood, a former FBI profiler who specializes in sexual predators, talks
about it in the book The Evil That Men Do, co-written by Stephen G. Michaud:
“‘Most people have no trouble connecting intelligence with a complex robbery.
But rape-torture is a depraved act, which they cannot remotely relate to. They
therefore resist crediting such offenders with intelligence. This is true even of
police officers.’”
A closer look at Sheila’s rapist’s methods reveals a calculating mind at work.
He was careful to never remove his gloves. Sheila received hang-up phone calls
in the weeks leading up to the attack, as if someone were monitoring her
schedule. In April she had the feeling she was being followed. She kept seeing a
dark, medium-size American-made car. But it was curious—though she felt sure
it was the same car, she could never quite make out the driver.
The night of the attack, a birdbath had been moved to a spot under the
telephone line in the backyard, evidently to stand on. But the line was only
partially cut, the clumsy hesitation mark of a trainee, like the bent nail of an
apprentice carpenter.
Four months later, Richard Shelby was standing on a curb on Shadowbrook
Way in Citrus Heights.
Based on the rules of the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department, Shelby should
not have been on this or any other case. He shouldn’t have even been in uniform.
Shelby knew the rules—to work for the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department in
1966 you had to have all ten digits in their entirety—but he had passed the
written exam and physical, and thought he’d try his luck. Luck had been good to
him; even the fact that he was missing a good portion of his left ring finger was
lucky. He should have been cut in half by the hunter’s errant shotgun blast. The
doctors told him he came very close to losing the whole hand.
When the screener spotted Shelby’s finger, he halted the interview. Shelby
was curtly dismissed. He wouldn’t be joining the Sacramento Sheriff’s
Department after all. The rejection smarted. All his life, Shelby had heard his
family speak reverently of an uncle who was a sheri…
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