You hear it all the time; “Back then, people didn’t lock their doors at night.” That phrase often gets mentioned when devastating crimes occur in unexpected places that are deemed safe by the community. When those tragedies happen everything changes, but sometimes positives can blossom through the aftermath of the rubble. In the unsolved disappearance of Morgan Nick, her story has remained a beacon of hope that transcended across the nation. This is her story.
On September 12, 1988, John and Colleen Nick gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby daughter they named Morgan Chauntel Nick. She was raised in the small populated town of Ozark, Arkansas, a community of fewer than 4,000 residents. By 1994, Morgan became the oldest of two other siblings, Logan Nick, who was almost four-years-old, and a younger sister, Taryn Nick, who was a vibrant 22-month-old baby.
As a young kid with a wild imagination, Morgan’s aspirations ranged from being a medical doctor to a circus performer. In school, she had signed up for the track team but quickly regretted that decision because she didn’t enjoy sweating. In turn, she decided to start participating in Girls Scouts where they often did indoor activities.
Even at such a young age, Morgan possessed character traits that would undoubtedly lead to a successful future, no matter which avenue she pursued. Not only did she have the uncanny ability to make others laugh, she also never limited herself to experiencing new things. When she was five-years-old, she adopted a kitten she named Emily, and a motherly bond was immediately formed. From then on, the two were thick as thieves and Emily would always be found sleeping next to her at night.
The potential Morgan had was very bright. She enjoyed being around others and people loved being around her, but on a summer day in 1995, everything that should have been for Morgan’s future was snuffed out, and the young girl with a heartwarming smile that could make anyone laugh suddenly had an entire community in shambles.
On the warm summer day of Friday, June 9, 1995, Colleen Nick wanted to share an afternoon with her oldest daughter, Morgan, because they hadn’t had a day for themselves in a long while. They planned to visit Alma, Arkansas — a quaint town thirty minutes west where everyone knew each other — to attend a Little League Baseball game with some friends living in the area while Morgan’s grandmother happily babysits her grandchildren.
Later that afternoon, Colleen and Morgan dined on grilled cheese sandwiches they made together before leaving town in their Nissan Stanza a little early, as this was their first time visiting Alma. They arrived at the local park where the baseball game was being held without a hitch and met up with their friends. By the time the game had started, there was a total of 300 people in attendance.
Throughout the entire evening, everyone was having a wonderful time — people could be heard roaring with cheers and laughter on the bleachers, and Morgan would sneakily untie her mother’s tennis shoes when she wasn’t looking for a funny joke. As time carried on, Morgan became restless. At 10:30 p.m. two of Morgan’s friends, 8-year-old Jessica and 10-year-old Tye [last names are omitted] invited her to play in the nearby field 75-yards away to catch lightning bugs. Morgan asked her mother for permission but Colleen was hesitant due to the late hour and being unfamiliar with the area, but her friends assured her everything would be okay because kids often played in the field next to the parking lot without any hiccups.
Colleen ultimately gave her consent but told her to stay in view. Morgan was hard to miss, as her green Girl Scouts t-shirt and white tennis shoes could easily be seen from a distance. Colleen would periodically glance over to check on Morgan and nothing seemed amiss as she and her two friends pranced across the field, where the parking lot light poles loomed over illuminating the area.
Fifteen minutes had quickly passed by and at 10:45 p.m. the baseball game concluded and people were beginning to gather their belongings and walk to their vehicles. Morgan’s two friends, Jessica and Tye, ran back to the bleachers to meet up with their families but Morgan wasn’t present.
Colleen, confused by the situation, asked where Morgan was, but they said she was in the parking lot near her car emptying out sand that filled her shoes from running amok in the field. She frantically ran to her car expecting her daughter to be there, but she wasn’t in sight. Growing more concerned by the second, she alerted one of the baseball coaches and they began asking Jessica and Tye more questions, and alarming new information came to light.
The two said that while they had been playing, a man they characterized as “creepy” approached and spoke to them as they were dumping sand from their shoes. He had been standing beside a faded red colored Ford pickup truck that had a white camper shell. Not too long after, the baseball game had ended and that’s when they ran back to their parents. An immediate search began but Morgan and the eerie man next to the red truck was gone.
The police were called to the scene and they arrived within six minutes. They performed an additional search thoroughly of the parking lot and fields, but the 4-foot-tall, 55-pound girl with blonde hair and blue eyes was nowhere to be found. Interviews were soon conducted with those still at the park. Several eyewitnesses corroborated the children’s testimony and provided additional details on the suspicious male. He was described as a Caucasian male between the ages of 23-38-years-old and spoke with a “hillbilly” accent. He had a medium build at approximately 180 pounds and was estimated to be 6’0 tall, and he had salt and pepper colored hair that was slicked back, with a mustache and a one-inch thick beard. The truck he was driving was a low wheelbase, red Ford pickup with dulled paint and a white camper shell that had curtains on the inside covering the windows. Witnesses noted the camper shell was too short for the bed and there was rear damage on the passenger side.
The unidentified male was the prime suspect in Morgan’s disappearance and was immediately classified as an abduction. It was soon discovered that her vanishing wasn’t the only terrifying event that transpired that day. Earlier that evening in the same town, an unknown male driving a red truck attempted to lure a 4-year-old girl to his vehicle. The abduction was thwarted when the child’s mother intervened and alerted those around her. It’s unclear whether or not the same man presumably responsible for Morgan’s disappearance was behind this attempted abduction, but the coincidences were notable.
Interestingly, the following day after Morgan vanished, another report came through to the police when an unnamed man matching Morgan’s alleged abductor’s description unsuccessfully tried enticing a 9-year-old girl into a men’s restroom inside of a convenience store fifteen miles away from Alma in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
As for Colleen, she refused to return back home to Ozark, Arkansas without her daughter in hand. For the next six weeks, she remained steadfast and took up residence at a volunteer fire station located next door to the police building — doing anything she could fathom to help spread awareness to bring Morgan home. Flyers were made and distributed to locals, placed on the windows of stationary vehicles, and stapled across light poles all throughout the town. Colleen even faxed over urgent letters to President Clinton hoping to get the federal government to react quicker with nationwide bulletins when children go missing.
During this interval of time, a composite sketch was created of Morgan’s possible kidnapper and media coverage quickly swept the state. This resulted in over 4,000 tips and leads, and the police had to purchase a storage shed to file the uncanny amount of information in extra filing cabinets, but none of the leads panned out.
When Colleen returned home she had to break the devastating news to her children. None of them couldn’t fully comprehend the extent of the situation. Logan, the oldest sibling, only knew that Morgan wasn’t home and would frequently ask, “Why did you lose my sister?” as he broke down into tears repeatedly telling his mother to “Go get her,” because he missed playing with her around the house.
One year later in 1996, Colleen commenced the Morgan Nick Foundation in Alma, Arkansas; a non-profit organization that tries to help prevent children from going missing and offers a support system to families who are facing the hardships of a child disappearing. Likewise, the state of Arkansas honored Morgan by renaming their Amber Alert system after her — The Morgan Nick Amber Alert — that connected the police and over 250 radio stations in a statewide emergency broadcast.
In the subsequent years, Colleen relocated to Alma to make things easier for handling the Morgan Nick Foundation. Meanwhile, the police were still acquiring innumerable tips stemming from reported sightings and false confessions to the abduction, but all of them were ruled out or considered unreliable.
In 2001, Morgan’s case garnished a lot of traction. A new composite sketch was unveiled of her believed kidnapper, as well as an age-progression sketch showing what Morgan may look like at her current age of twelve-years-old. On August 28, 2001, the television program Unsolved Mysteries broadcasted her case which created a massive resurgence that resulted in an ample amount of new tips.
One particular tip suggested that Morgan’s body could be located on a private property in Booneville, Arkansas. The information was deemed so specific and credible that the police initiated an immediate examination on January 15, 2002. After a full day of digging with a backhoe, nothing was unearthed and the investigation was concluded at 9:30 p.m.
In the following years, the police were still receiving regular tips but they were either dead ends or exhausted to their fullest without any positive results, but on the bitterly cold morning of November 16, 2010, a narcotics officer thirty-five miles away in Spiro, Oklahoma, alerted investigators in Crawford County to an abandoned trailer home belonging to a convicted child molester who was serving time in prison. The information supplied wasn’t directly focused on Morgan’s case specifically, but the individual had been considered a viable person of interest since the very beginning of Morgan’s case and hadn’t been ruled out. Detectives in Crawford County assisted with the investigation at the property hoping to locate any DNA evidence pertaining to Morgan but none was uncovered.
Two years later on June 23, 2012 — a little more than 17-years after Morgan disappeared — a brief glimmer of hope emerged and then diminished just as quickly in a despicable turn of events. Tonya Renee Smith, a 24-year-old Hollister, Missouri native who had served time in Louisiana State Prison, tried assuming Morgan Nick’s identity by purchasing vital documents and a birth certificate via the website VitalCheck. Due to the extreme nature of Morgan’s case the police were alerted and on August 2, 2012, Tonya was apprehended in Branson, Missouri. She was soon extradited to Arkansas and spent 120 days in Pulaski County Jail. On February 28, 2013, she was charged with computer fraud and sentenced to six years of probation and ordered to pay a $2,500.00 fine.
Once again, Morgan’s case turned into a standstill, but five years later on December 18, 2017, another seemingly crucial tip regarding a water-well led investigators back to the abandoned trailer home in Spiro, Oklahoma they had searched seven years prior. The LeFlore County Sheriff, Rob Seale, along with the FBI and numerous Cadaver dogs, spent the entire afternoon combing for evidence, but regrettably, their efforts proved fruitless.
It’s now 2018 and Morgan Nick has been missing for nearly 22-years. For the town of Alma, Arkansas, many things have changed since the unfateful day of Morgan’s disappearance, including the baseball field she vanished from, which has since been remodeled into a parking lot, but her spirit still lives on in the community.
At the public library, a bulletin board can be found that features flyers for missing children. There’s also a 5K/1 Mile Walk fundraiser hosted annually that helps provide extra resources for The Morgan Nick Foundation to further help prevent children going missing — an organization that has successfully solved over 40 missing person’s cases –many of whom had gone missing for over twenty years — and returned home safely.
As for Colleen Nick, she remains undaunted that her daughter will be found alive, saying “No one else has to believe it because I believe it enough for everyone. I think there will be people who will be amazed when Morgan comes home.” Though a considerable amount of time has gone by, she continues to fight and pursue closure. While others may not share the same sentiment, Colleen does, and her relentless faith is a testament for anyone struggling with something in their life. Never give up hope.
Urban legends have been around for centuries. Typically, there’s always partial truth to the stories, but they tend to become hyperbole as the tales get passed on to other people. In this narrative, the tragic elements became an anecdote that managed to seep into Hollywood and inspire countless of horror films that have since formed into cult classics such as “Halloween” by John Carpenter and “When a Stranger Calls” by Fred Walton. As you will soon see, the reality is much scarier than fiction.
Janett Christman was born on March 21, 1936. She was the oldest daughter of Charles and Lula Christman, with a younger sister by 18-months, Reta Christman Smith and a newborn baby, Cheryl Christman Bottorff. The young family of five had been living in Boonville, Missouri before relocating to the small, college-oriented town of Columbia, Missouri, known for its football team, Missouri (Mizzou) Tigers, and were living on the upper floor of the business they owned, Ernie’s Cafe and Steakhouse, where they made an honest and reputable living.
Janett was 13-years-old and an 8th-grade student at Jefferson Junior High School. She was described as a loving churchgoing teenager who had a knack for playing the piano in the choir, intelligent, and independent for her age — working fervently for the things she desired.
On the brisk Saturday of March 18, 1950, there was a dance party being held that evening for students. Janett had been invited to go by several of her friends but declined because he had plans to babysit. She would often babysit for two families that were well acquainted with one another; the Romacks and the Muellers. On this evening, she was going to be tending to Ed and Anne Romack’s 3-year-old son, Gregory, hoping the job would provide enough money for a burgundy colored suit she had been saving up for the upcoming Easter holiday.
Dusk began to settle in and around 7:30 p.m. Janett arrived at the Romacks’ residence. The couple had recently moved to a rural and isolated home on 1015 Stewart Road directly on the outskirts of Columbia. At the time, Anne was pregnant, and due to the recent and exhausting relocation they hadn’t been able to have a night out just for themselves in a long while, so when the chance arose to spend time with friends and play cards, they capitalized on the opportunity.
When Janett arrived, Anne assured her that Gregory enjoyed sleeping with the radio on and he shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. Prior to leaving, Ed quickly taught Janett how to load, unload, and fire the shotgun in case anything transpired. As they were leaving, Ed placed the gun near the front door and said they would be back soon and advised her to lock the door and turn the front porch light on if anyone came knocking. With that, they departed in good spirits and went about their night.
Throughout the evening the weather began to worsen. The temperature dwindled down to the mid-twenties with a storm bringing in the rain and sleet. The robust winds swayed the nearby trees and echoed against the home. Despite the unexpected weather, there was no apparent cause for concern until 10:35 p.m. when Boone County Sheriff’s Department received a frantic phone call.
With the treacherous weather pouring in, the night for local police had been going relatively slow. When the phone suddenly began ringing, officer Ray McCowan picked up the receiver and asked what the emergency was. He was immediately met with the howls of a woman screaming in sheer panic, uttering the words “Come quick!” He tried intervening but the phone line was cut short and a dial tone was all that could be heard.
McCowan knew straightaway the horror emanating from the female caller’s voice was genuine and not a prank by doltish teenagers, but all he could do was anticipate the phone ringing again because the call was too short to provide a trace and the woman didn’t mention any additional information as to what was unfolding or her whereabouts.
Shortly thereafter, Anne Romack called home from the Moon Valley Villa — where she, her husband, the Muellers, and other friends were — to check on Janett and see how the night with Gregory was going, but nobody answered the phone. Considering it was quite late, Anne wasn’t too concerned, presuming Janett had fallen asleep. The Romacks continued to spend a few extra hours away before heading home at approximately 1:15 a.m.
It was 1:35 a.m. when the Romacks pulled into their driveway that was filled with rain and seeping mud. They noticed the porch light was on and the front window blinds were open wide. As Ed began to fiddle with his keys to unlock the front door, he realized it had already been unlocked. He was perplexed because of his instructions to Janett before leaving and as he and Anne walked through the front door they were met with a ghastly discovery.
Three days shy of her 14th birthday, Janett Christman was found sprawled out on the living room floor in a pool of blood soaking through the shagged carpet. She had been violently raped and murdered. Her legs were spread out with her right slipper barely hanging off her foot. There was a head wound from a blunt instrument, multiple puncture wounds from a mechanical pencil, and a cord from an electric iron that had been snipped with a pair of scissors was bound tightly around her neck.
A few feet away was the landline phone dangling off the hook — the reason why Anne was unable to get a response when she called earlier that evening. The sight of this horrifying scene sent Anne into a hectic state as she darted up the stairs to check on her 3-year-old son, Greg, who had been unharmed and shockingly still asleep, oblivious to the horror awaiting downstairs.
Ed Romack hastily dialed the police and they he were dispatched immediately. Sheriff Glen Powell from Boone County’s Sheriff’s Department arrived with numerous detectives and bloodhounds. Unfortunate complications soon arose, however, when Lt. Joe Douglas from the city police — a different jurisdiction that hadn’t any authority since the Romacks lived 100-yards out of city limits — arrived at the scene and attempted to take reign of the investigation. The battle of leadership had the separate agencies being uncooperative with one another, and though answers unraveled quickly, there were many disagreements amongst the two groups.
Inside of the home were clear indications Janett had resisted her attacker. Blood smears and fingerprints were found in the living room and kitchen, where the back door had been unlocked and left ajar. As the police followed the trail outside, the search dogs managed to track the assailant’s scent one mile up from Stewart Rd. to West Boulevard and across West Ash St. before losing the trail. Back at the crime scene, an adult male’s footprints were found near a side window of the residence that had been shattered with a garden hoe, where several authorities believed the perpetrator had gained entry, primarily due to muddy papers found on the piano that was situated nearby.
The method of entry is where the two jurisdictions collided. Due to Ed’s instructions he gave Janett, many detectives suspected the perpetrator knew Janett and tried appearing friendly to get inside. This theory was substantiated by the front porch light being turned on, as he told Janett to do if someone came to the door, the loaded shotgun nearby untouched, and the apparent knowledge as to where to locate the electric iron to use the cord for a murder weapon.
With this prevailing theory, law enforcement worked twelve-hour shifts tirelessly performing stakeouts and canvassing surrounding areas under the suspicion the killer may return to the scene to relish in what he had accomplished. Likewise, the police sought assistance from the public, asking for locals to call in if they see anything peculiar or anyone they know acting differently than normal.
Meanwhile, local officers had gone around questioning Janett’s friends, family, and students from her school. During this process, along with local residents phoning in possible leads, potential suspects were formed. However, it quickly became evident that a racial bias was present because the majority of the men brought in for questioning were black men in the community who were unwarrantedly deemed suspicious. Nevertheless, this tactic was fruitless and the police were no closer to resolving Janett’s murder.
This wasn’t the first rape and murder to befall Columbia, Missouri. Four years earlier on the bitterly cold night of February 5, 1946, 20-year-old Marylou Jenkins had been brutally murdered in a similar manner to Janett.
Marylou was at home alone — coincidentally less than a mile away two blocks over from the Romack Residence — while her mother spent the evening a few houses away tending to an elderly couple, while her father was out of town conducting business. When Marylou’s mother had to spend the night away down the street, they conjured up a plan to alert one another if something was amiss. Their scheme was to turn on a light, lift up the shades, and place a phone call.
Late into the night, Marylou’s mother noticed a light on in her house with the shades up, but since she never received a phone call she didn’t believe anything was wrong. The following morning when she returned home, she stumbled upon the gut-wrenching scene of her daughter deceased on the living room floor. She had been raped and strangled with an extension cord.
Two weeks later, Floyd Cochran, a 35-year-old disabled trash hauler, was arrested for savagely murdering his wife. Afterward, he attempted to commit suicide but was unsuccessful. Once the police were aware of what transpired, they took him into custody. Floyd willingly admitted without any remorse that he murdered his wife.
Considering the timeline of events and the desperate need to solve Marylou’s murder, Boone County investigators interrogated Floyd for ten hours, where he supposedly made incriminating statements that led to his guilt, and he later confessed to the crime, despite no evidence connecting him to the murder.
Floyd was subsequently sentenced to die on September 26, 1947, via the gas chamber. A few hours before being executed, he recanted his alleged confession. It was later discovered he was coerced to give a false confession, but the deed had already been done and Marylou’s death is considered solved.
A series of prowlers and peeping Toms would emerge in the following years, and in the late months of 1949, the activity increased with a string of sexual assaults.
The first rape occurred several days before Halloween. A 16-year-old teenager was babysitting on East Sunset Lane, when an unidentified male wearing a white homemade mask with holes cut out for eyes, broke into the residence and violated the young woman in the living room.
The following month on November 29, 1949, 18-year-old Stephens College student, Sally Johnson, became the next target. She lived one block away from where the prior victim was attacked and was home alone falling asleep on the sofa while watching television when an unknown male gained entry and attempted to violate her. Thankfully, she resisted her attacker and was left unharmed, as the perpetrator panicked and fled from the home.
On the very next day, another more brazen incident occurred. A college student enrolled at the University of Missouri was on a date with her boyfriend. They were at Hinkson Creek — a lover’s lane — and in their vehicle when a man draped in a white hood and brandishing a firearm appeared and ordered them out of the car. They did as he instructed and he forced the couple several yards away. He proceeded to rob and bind the male, then ordered the female to walk. When they were a considerable distance away, he sexually assaulted the female and sprinted away from the crime scene.
Days later on December 4, 1949, a 26-year-old black male named Jake Bradford had been arrested after the police caught him in the act of peeping inside a young woman’s window. Bradford spent a week in jail and after intense questioning, he confessed to assaulting the 16-year-old in October and the attempted rape of 18-year-old Sally Johnson, even though she was brought in to ask if he was the perpetrator and was unable to provide an adequate answer.
Nevertheless, the reports of peculiar prowlers and rapes in the area diminished. The police believed they apprehended the right man, and locals began to feel a sense of relief, then all of a sudden the nightmare resurfaced when the tragedy fell upon Janett Christman, with shocking parallels to Marylou Jenkins, causing many people to cast doubt on law enforcement’s original affirmation.
As the police continued on with their investigation into Janett Christman’s murder, one prime suspect named Robert Mueller materialized, and the circumstantial evidence against him began piling up heavily.
Mueller was 27-years-old and friends with Ed Romack since high school. After graduation, Mueller served in World War II as an Army Air Corps Captain and had a distinguishable record. He later returned to Columbia, Missouri, overlooking his father’s restaurant, Mueller’s Virginia Cafe, and working as a tailor. Many people remember him for dressing well and always carrying around a mechanical pencil in his front shirt or jacket pocket.
When Mueller and Ed Romack reacquainted, they shared mutual friends and would frequently spend time together. According to Ed, he had a lustful eye for virgin women and spoke about having a desire to defile someone young. Moreover, he knew Janett since she babysat for him on numerous occasions, and Ed recalled him making lecherous comments about her well-developed hips and breasts.
Additionally, Mueller’s lewd behavior stemmed over to Ed’s wife, Anne, who felt uncomfortable around him because of his uninvited sexual advancements. Much to her dismay, one day before Janett’s murder Mueller had been visiting the home helping Anne hemp a dress and reportedly tried groping her breasts. In a formal statement given to police, Anne described Mueller as a man who “doesn’t use words, he uses his hands.”
The oddities didn’t end there, however. The morning of Janett’s death, Robert contacted Janett to ask if she would babysit his children for the night, but she declined because she already had prearrangements to look after the Romacks’ son. Furthermore, Mueller attended the gathering with the Romacks and their mutual friends but hours into the party he excused himself claiming he had to meet a doctor who was meant to tend to his son. Mueller disappeared for two hours before returning to the party. The police questioned Mueller’s doctor and discovered he never went to the Mueller residence that evening.
To implicate Robert even further, Ed Romack got a phone call from Mueller at his father’s home on the morning after the murder. Supposedly, he had asked if he needed any assistance with cleaning up the blood throughout the house. However, he shouldn’t have known about the tragedy that took place because the crime hadn’t been printed in the local newspaper yet.
Additionally, Ed claimed Mueller would later speak to him regarding the crime and began expounding on how he believed the crime unfolded, claiming that breaking a window to climb into the home would be too loud and noticeable. Instead, it would be much easier to knock on the door and say, “Ed sent me here to get poker chips.”
The circumstantial evidence against Mueller was staggering and overwhelming. In May 1950, law enforcement compiled all the evidence against him and went to his residence to speak with him. Rather than following the basic guidelines of an arrest warrant and interview procedure, the officers didn’t take him into custody — rather, they transported him to a farmhouse outside of city limits and interrogated him at length throughout the course of the night. Mueller was subsequently taken to the state capital, Jefferson City, where he was given a polygraph test and passed.
With the unfortunate results of the lie detector test, the detectives had to let Mueller go free. However, all of the evidence pointed in his direction and the court judge, W.M. Dinwiddle, felt compelled to arrange a grand jury to investigate Mueller’s case further.
Over time and legal issues, Robert Mueller was never charged because of the profound level of incompetence police conducted during their investigation into him. These intertwined factors led Mueller to not be apprehended and he later sued the police department but lost the lawsuit. Afterward, he relocated with his family to Tuscon, Arizona, and in 2006 he passed away at 83-years-old.
After everything that had transpired in the small town of Columbia, it seemed as if all families involved in some form or another needed to uproot their lives from the haunting memories and start anew. The Romacks moved to Idaho Falls, Idaho, and lived with sincere regret that conclusive answers were never given. In the 1980s, Anne passed away. Ed eventually remarried and in 2016 he passed away at 93-years-old. As for his son, Gregory, he grew up successful and settled down in Alaska.
The Christman family remained in Columbia and continued running their business until Janett’s father, Charles Christman, passed away on September 24, 1974, at 60-years-old. After his death, his wife Lula Christman moved to Kansas City, where she would remain until her passing in 2009. Her oldest daughter, Reta, would settle down with a wonderful man and start a family of her own, while the youngest daughter Cheryl — who was only a baby at the time of Janet’s murder — moved to Florida.
It’s now been 68 years, and the once loving, hard-working, and independent 13-year-old who was saving up for a burgundy dress for Easter, would have been 82-years-old on March 21, 2018. While the Romacks and the Christman family believed Robert Mueller is responsible for Janett’s murder, they were painfully stricken with the unsatisfaction for receiving legal justice and closure, and the case officially remains unsolved.
How can someone vanish without a trace? That’s a question that’s difficult to fathom. On the week of Christmas in Fort Worth, Texas, three young women disappeared while shopping at the local mall. What should have been a joyous time to relax and spend the winter break with friends and family, three families spent their holiday desperately searching for their loved ones and praying for a miracle, yet with every passing day, their hope diminished. The whereabouts of the three women are still unknown. This is the enthralling unsolved disappearance of Rachel Trlica, Lisa Wilson, and Julie Moseley.
Mary Rachel Trlica was a 17-year-old senior in high school. She was a middle child and had an 11-year-old brother, Rusty Arnold and an older sister, 19-year-old, Debra Arnold. Though she was young, Rachel was married to 21-year-old Thomas Trlica and was living with him and his two-year-old son from a prior relationship.
Bizarrely, Thomas had been previously engaged to Rachel’s older sister, of whom was living with the couple due to a strained relationship with her then current boyfriend she had been residing with. Though the oddity of the personal relationships between them seemed uncomfortable from an outsider’s perspective, there was reportedly no awkward tension amongst them and they all got along well.
On the cold Monday morning on December 23, 1974, Rachel was planning on finishing up some last minute Christmas shopping. Not wanting to spend the afternoon alone, she asked Debra if she would like to come with her, but she declined. Rachel decided to contact her friend, 14-year-old Lisa Wilson and asked if she would like to join her. Lisa happily accepted the offer but inclined that she needed to be home by 4:00 p.m. because she had plans to attend a dinner party with her new boyfriend, Terry Moseley.
Terry Moseley was 15-years-old and had a younger sister, 9-year-old Julie Moseley. He lived adjacent to Lisa’s grandmother’s home, where she often visited when her mother was working at the dry cleaner’s. Moments before Rachel’s phone call to Lisa, Terry gained the courage to ask Lisa to be his girlfriend — whom she had a crush on for a long time — and was ecstatic when he offered a promise ring to promote his commitment.
Lisa asked if he would like to accompany them for the afternoon. He declined because he had prearranged plans, but he was excited to spend time with her at the party later that evening. Terry’s sister, Julie Moseley, asked if she could go with Rachel and Lisa because she didn’t want to spend all day alone at home. At the time, Rachel and Julie hadn’t known one another and due to this, Rayanne Moseley — Julie’s mother — was hesitant but since she trusted Lisa, she gave her consent after persistent nagging.
Rachel set out in her Oldsmobile 95 to pick Lisa and Julie up and the trio left the neighborhood at midday. Their first stop was to the local Army/Navy Surplus store so Rachel could pay off a few layaway items. Afterward, they visited Seminary South Shopping Center, where Rachel parked her vehicle on the upper-level near the Sears department. Unknowingly to them, this would be their final stop and their whereabouts are unknown.
When the three girls didn’t arrive home at the designated time, family members grew worried. Two hours later panic seeped in further and they decided to go to the mall themselves to search for them. They managed to find Rachel’s vehicle, but the girls were nowhere in sight despite extensive scouring throughout the mall’s interior and exterior layout.
The evidence suggested they had done quite a bit of shopping and made it back to the vehicle safe because Rachel’s car was locked numerous Christmas presents in shopping bags with receipts inside. Several family members continued searching for their loved ones at other varying locations while others remained at the shopping center with the hope of the girls returning, but they never arrived.
At approximately 11:00 p.m. they contacted Fort Worth Police Department to file a missing person(s) report. Law enforcement originally presumed two scenarios — either the girls had met up with acquaintances and would soon turn up or their disappearance was a purposeful runaway case despite no viable motive and the unfamiliarity between Rachel and Julie. With this determination, the investigation wasn’t properly handled, and they released Rachel’s car to her husband–neglecting to examine it for evidence and made no attempts to dust for fingerprints.
The following morning Rachel’s husband discovered a peculiar envelope with a letter in his mailbox that provided a glimmer of hope and sheer confusion. The return address couldn’t be determined because the zip code was smeared. From what was evident, the numbers seemed to spell out “76083,” but the number “3” was written backward. Family members assumed the “3” was actually an “8” which would lead to Weatherford, Texas, thirty-five minutes away. The other possibility was the zip code “76483” that would pinpoint Throckmorton, Texas — a small town two-hours away with a population of less than a thousand people.
As for the contents of the letter, the message was written in childish handwriting and stated, “I know I’m going to catch it, but we just had to get away. We’re going to Houston. See you in about a week. The car is in Sear’s upper lot. Love Rachel.” Rachel’s family members adamantly believe[d] the author was not Rachel for numerous reasons. First of all, her name had been misspelled and the writer seemingly tried fixing the error. Secondly, the family suggested the letter was too formal. It had been addressed to “Thomas A. Trlica,” but anyone acquainted with him always referred to him as “Tommy.” Lastly, handwriting experts inspected the letter and other writings produced by Rachel and the results were inconclusive. Years later when forensic science became more advanced, DNA was uncovered from the letter that did not belong to Rachel, Lisa, or Julie, and it’s unknown who’s it belongs to.
Once the disappearances were made known from local media outlets, eyewitnesses spoke with law enforcement claiming to have seen the girls in the mall throughout the afternoon. Multiple store clerks stated they appeared to be in a joyous mood. Other testimonies provided conflicting reports, however. In one particular account, a woman mentioned seeing several adult men luring the girls into a pickup truck on the upper-level parking lot. An additional witness asserted spotting the girls in a security patrol car that was making the rounds on the exterior of the shopping center near the Sears department. Other reports began trickling in from all over Texas; with people phoning in tips saying they witnessed the girls at various convenient and grocery shopping stores.
All of the latest testimonies presented contrary deductions law enforcement initially thought and valuable time evaporated. In turn, all of these potential leads were fully investigated but nothing tangible was able to be obtained.
Family members were progressively becoming infuriated with what they felt was inadequate police work, so in 1975 they hired a private investigator named Jon Swaim. With Swaim’s tenacity, he received many anonymous tips — one of which was in March of 1976 that took him five hours away to a bayou in Port Lavaca, Texas, where he was told he would locate the girls’ remains. An extensive search was conducted for multiple days but the effort proved fruitless and nothing of substantial worth was gleaned.
A few months later, Fort Worth Police Department received a phone call from a female psychic living in Hawaii. She told them they could find the girls’ remains at an oil well. Sadly, she didn’t specify where and for five years authorities were chasing their own tails until 1981 when an employee working at an oil company in Houston, Texas, unearthed three sets of skeletal remains. Hoping for a big break in the case, medical examiners performed rigorous testing and they concluded the remains did not belong to the missing women.
In 1979, hired investigator Jon Swaim passed away. The cause of death was ruled a suicide by a drug overdose, believed to be initiated by an awful divorce he was dealing with. Upon request via Swaim’s will, all of his research, discoveries, sources, and contacts were discarded. It’s unknown what kind of information he was able to procure during his three-year investigation.
Seven years after the girls disappeared, a new male witness came forward. He told law enforcement he observed an adult male pushing a [lone] girl into a van on the upper-level parking lot of the shopping center. Out of concern, he confronted the unidentified male and was promptly told to mind his own business because it was merely a family dispute. Law enforcement was unable to corroborate the validity of the story, but they did note the similarities from initial eyewitnesses.
Time continued to flow on, as well as the years, and throughout this time the Fort Worth Police Department received a fluctuation of tips and leads from locals, anonymous callers, and even psychics, but they were either unreliable or investigated exhaustively with no pivotal outcome. As a result, the case began to turn cold and remained stagnant for a long time.
Twenty years later in 1995, Rachel’s younger brother, Rusty Arnold — who was only 11-years-old at the time of his sister’s disappearance — communicated with private investigator Dan James to hire him for his service. This would be a decision that created turmoil amongst family members because it separated an already broken family further.
Interestingly, Dan had known about the case for a long time beforehand and had been conducting independent research prior to being contacted. James declined to accept any payment for any additional work because he was investigating purely out of kindheartedness; even offering a $25,000.00 reward of his own money to anyone who could provide pertinent information that would bring resolution to the case.
Throughout the years Rusty and James worked together they managed to unearth shocking information from sources they deemed credible. According to what they were told, Rachel was astonishingly alive and well; and has been purposefully kept away from Fort Worth, but manages to visit every Christmas since her mysterious disappearance, with the latest visit occurring in 1998. Additionally, the source(s) also shared the sentiment that Lisa Wilson and Julie Moseley had been murdered, though they didn’t how and who was involved.
Rusty and James pursued this appalling lead but they were unable to substantiate the claims, but this avenue led to family issues unraveling. According to Rusty, he believes his older sister Debra wrote the strange letter Thomas received the following morning when the girls disappeared and have more answers than she seems to suggest because she was uncooperative throughout the investigation and refused to take a polygraph test. This allegation was shared by some law enforcement officials and private investigator Dan James, of whom Rusty’s mother, Fran Langston, believes is tampering with Rusty’s mind.
Nevertheless, Debra maintained her innocence and in January of 2000, she spoke with Fort Worth’s newspaper, the Star-Telegram, and proclaimed she had nothing to hide. Debra’s public statement caused Rusty, Rayanne Moseley — Julie’s mother — and Lisa’s parents, Judy and Richard Wilson, to respond with a formal letter saying:
We read your statement in the Fort Worth’s Star Telegram on January 9, 2000. You indicated that you ‘had nothing to hide.’ If your statement is true, we beg and plead with you to fully cooperate with the Fort Worth Police Department and the FBI. Please complete the polygraph testing and answer all questions.
Debra, please keep in mind you also have a sister missing.
A resurgence in the case occurred in 2001 when detective Tom Boetcher took over the case. After holding a press conference, another witness named Bill Hutchins came forward detailing an interesting encounter he had with a security guard in a pickup truck as he was leaving the mall at 11:30 p.m. He and the guard conversed briefly, and while doing so he noticed three girls occupying the front seat of his vehicle. From his perspective, they were in good spirits — laughing and joking around with one another.
Law enforcement was skeptical of his testimony and asked why he didn’t report this sooner. Bill told the authorities he did notify them about the incident days after they disappeared but they didn’t follow up with him. Likewise, officers managed to locate the security guard, who denied all allegations pertaining to Bill’s story, though it was consistent with other witnesses at the time.
Subsequently, not an entire lot of substantial information has been released publically. It’s now been over forty years and though the case has seen its gloomy days, new progress is being made that allows hope for optimism. The main consensus amongst law enforcement is that whoever abducted Rachel Trlica, Lisa Wilson, and Julie Moseley — if that indeed is the case — were more than likely acquainted with one of them.
Over time, Rusty has mended the broken relationship he had with Debra, concluding she hadn’t any involvement in her sister’s disappearance. He continues to reside in the town he grew up in and works as a local roofing contractor, all the while admirably seeking answers, closure, and ultimately justice on a daily basis. Only time can tell, but Rusty believes the case will be solved.
When horrific unsolved crimes are committed — whether it be murder, robbery, abuse, drugs — people are left searching for a motive. Sometimes, the victim(s) are at the wrong place at the wrong time and it was merely opportunistic for the perpetrator. Other times, they may have had an altercation that transformed into an awful situation. There are other situations where a victim hasn’t done anything wrong, yet the assailant believes they have and become fixated on repairing the wrongdoing in their own irrational mind. The latter example is a heartbreaking story that remains unsolved to this day. This is the story of Dorothy Jane Scott.
Dorothy Jane Scott was living in Stanton, California with her aunt, Shonti Jacob Scott. She was a 32-year-old single mother of a 4-year-old son, Shawn Scott, and working as a back-office secretary for Swinger’s Psych Shop, a store her father previously owned, and Custom John’s Head Shop — a conjoined business located on 517 South Brookhurst St. in Anaheim, California. Dorothy’s parents, Vera and Jacob Scott often babysat their grandson as she tirelessly worked to provide for her son, considering Shawn’s father was absent from his life and residing in Missouri.
According to friends, family, and colleagues, Dorothy was a very religious and compassionate woman who hadn’t any animosity toward anyone and preferred to stay indoors and attend church rather than dabble in outside influences or attend social gatherings. She would date men on occasion but most of her focus was directed toward her son. However, despite treating other people with generosity and seemingly not giving anyone a reason to dislike her, a man — a monster hiding in plain sight — took a fondness for her that altered her life in such a drastic fashion that remains unexplained to this day.
It all began in the early months of 1980 when Dorothy started receiving anonymous phone calls on a regular basis for months at her place of employment and her residence she shared with her aunt. The unidentified male would often proclaim his love for her; other times he would unleash his malice by threatening to murder her. He openly admitted he was stalking her and substantiated those claims by providing various details regarding the clothing she had on and day-to-day activities at certain times throughout the day.
One phone call in particular haunted Dorothy. In deep animus, the caller told her he would get her alone all to himself and dismember her into bits and pieces. She alerted her parents and even mentioned she recognized the voice but couldn’t recall a name. The alarming telephone calls and violent innuendos continued; so in May 1980, Dorothy signed up for karate classes and was considering purchasing a firearm.
One week later on Wednesday, May 28, 1980, Dorothy, though feeling relatively safer after taking self-defense courses, still felt unnerved as she headed to work early to attend an employee meeting. During the conference, she noticed her co-worker, Conrad Bostron, was looking unwell with a concerning red rash on his forearm. Out of concern for his wellbeing, Dorothy and another colleague, Pam Head, took him to UC Irvine Medical Center, but on the way, Dorothy made a quick stop at her parents’ to change her apparel and let her family know what was happening.
Unknowingly to Dorothy and Pam, the emergency room visit would encapsulate the entire day and night as they remained in the waiting room for their coworker’s discharge. At approximately 11:00 p.m. Conrad was released from the hospital with his prescription script, concluding he was suffering from a black widow spider bite.
Prior to leaving the hospital, Dorothy went to the restroom while Pam waited with Conrad — the only time the two women were separated from one another. Shortly thereafter, Dorothy insisted that they should go to the pharmacy store mere feet away to get his prescription filled while she retrieved her car — a white 1973 Toyota Station Wagon — from the parking lot to pick them up because she didn’t want Conrad walking in his condition.
Pam and Conrad’s business in the pharmacy took only five minutes. They assumed Dorothy would be waiting directly outside for them but she wasn’t there. They proceeded to walk to where Dorothy had originally parked her vehicle, and suddenly they were confronted by her vehicle driving in an unprecedented speed in their direction with the headlights on full-beam, partially blinding them as they waved their arms in the air to get her attention. The driver never stopped, as the vehicle swerved past them erratically and made a sharp right turn out of the parking lot.
Perplexed by the situation, Pam and Conrad thought an emergency came up regarding Dorothy’s four-year-old son and decided to remain at the hospital for two hours, believing she would return, but she never did. Pam decided to call Dorothy’s parents and ask if they had any contact with their daughter but they hadn’t. That’s when they promptly notified the police and reported Dorothy missing.
By 5:00 a.m. Dorothy’s station wagon was discovered up in flames in a back alleyway ten miles away from the hospital, but Dorothy was nowhere in sight. Several search parties were conducted in the following days but their efforts were fruitless. Vera and Jacob Scott feared the worst and those feelings only grew more harrowing when Vera received a phone call from a male remaining incognito saying he had murdered her daughter.
The police were immediately called regarding the disturbing phone call. They told the Scott family to not release any details about their daughter’s disappearance or the phone call to the media in order to have an upper hand with pivotal information and to steer clear of false confessions. After a week had gone by without any positive results, Jacob and Vera’s optimism diminished. They decided to report the story to the local newspaper, Santa Ana Register and offered $2,500.00 to anyone who would provide information leading to her whereabouts, dead or alive.
With Dorothy’s disappearance now in the eyes of the public, Pat Riley — the editorial manager for Santa Ana Register — received a nameless phone call on June 12, 1980. The caller said to him, “I killed her. I killed Dorothy Scott. She was my love. I caught her cheating with another man. She denied having someone else. I killed her.”
He went on to relay intimate details specifically about the night of her vanishing that wasn’t released publically; acknowledging Conrad’s spider bite and the red scarf Dorothy had worn. Even more chilling, he stated Dorothy had called him from the hospital hours before she disappeared. Though the anonymous caller had pertinent details about what transpired, the police were under the impression Dorothy never placed a phone call to the individual; primarily due to Pam being by her side the entire day other than going to the restroom and parking lot to get her vehicle.
After the horrific phone call Dorothy’s mother received one week after her daughter disappeared, she would go on to get anonymous phone calls by the same man every single Wednesday. As weeks turned into months and months into years, Dorothy would remain unfound and the harassing phone calls never stopped. On some days the caller would ask if she was related to Dorothy and when she replied yes, he would respond by saying, “I’ve got her,” and hang-up the phone. Other days he would profess he had killed her. The phone calls lasted four years and despite the police installing a voice recorder in Vera’s home hoping to trace the calls, they were unable to pinpoint a location because the conversations were very brief.
In August 1984 — four years after Dorothy disappeared — a construction worker discovered dog remains at Santa Ana Canyon Road approximately thirteen miles away from UC Irvine Medical Hospital. When he continued digging he unearthed another set of remains that sadly belonged to Dorothy Jane Scott, along with a turquoise ring and a wristwatch that had stopped at 12:30 a.m. on May 29, 1980, one hour after her initial disappearance. An autopsy was conducted but the medical examiner was unable to provide a cause of death due to the state of the remains, though foul play is undoubtedly involved.
Over the years, no conclusive breakthroughs have been made, but there is circumstantial evidence that points to Mike Butler — the brother of a female associate working alongside Dorothy. According to acquaintances, Butler had an unhealthy obsession with Dorothy. Unfortunately, there is hardly any evidence to consider him a suspect and the family, in general, has tried separating themselves from the entire ordeal.
On April 23, 1994 — Dorothy’s birthday — Jacob passed away at 69-years-old. Eight years later in 2002, her mother would also depart. They never received any answers as to who, why, and how their daughter died. Dorothy’s son, Shawn, has gone on to live a meaningful life, but still pursues justice for his mother. It’s now been close to thirty-eight years and Dorothy Jane Scott’s abduction and murder remain unsolved.
Life has a peculiar way of impacting people in unforeseen circumstances. Sometimes, blessings can occur in unexpected ways that transcend the course of one’s life. Other times, tragedies happen in ways that can go unexplained and the turmoil can seemingly never overturn into a positive. In this case, the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert was the catalyst that featured both of these scenarios; a yin and yang event that has left many people affected in different forms. This is the story.
Shannan Gilbert was born on Friday, October 24, 1986, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her family lived in New Jersey, where Shannan grew up with her mother, Mari Gilbert and her siblings, Sarra Elizabeth Gilbert, Sherre Gilbert, and Steve Smith. Her intelligence was exceptional and she graduated high school at sixteen-years-old. Afterward, she was taking online college courses at Phoenix University and held several jobs ranging from being a hostess at Applebee’s, a hotel receptionist, and cooking for the elderly in a senior center. Her goal was to save money to relocate to New York to pursue her ambitions of being an actress, singer, and writer. The jobs she undertook wasn’t enough to fund her transition and she decided to temporarily turn her attention to online escorting via Craigslist.
The profession was going as well as expected until Saturday, May 1, 2010, when 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert was accompanied by her escort driver, Michael Pak, to meet up with Joseph Brewer — a new client living in a gated community in Oak Beach, Long Island. They arrived at his residence at approximately 2:00 a.m. Three hours later everything turned into a hectic frenzy that remains unclear to this very day, but the events changed Long Island forever.
Shortly before 5:00 a.m. Shannan called 911. She was repeatedly telling the dispatcher, “They are trying to kill me!” as she fled from Brewer’s home and sprinted toward the closest neighbor, Gustav Coletti. He was in the process of shaving when he was startled by erratic screaming and knocking on his front door. As he frantically went to open the door, Shannan darted inside with utter terror brimming from her face. Out of concern for her wellbeing, Gustav said he was going to notify the police. Those words caused more distraught which prompted her to run away from his home.
Gustav watched her flee and subsequently noticed a black SUV driving slowly down the road. He proceeded to confront the driver, who was Shannan’s escort driver, Michael Pak. He asked what his intentions were and Pak responded, “I’m looking for Shannan.” Gustav — who was oblivious to her occupation — told Pak that he called the police, causing him to drive away from the residential community.
In the midst of the exchange between Gustav and Michael, Shannan had run to the home of Barbara Brennan and hellaciously pounded on the front door for assistance. Fearing for her own safety, Brennan refused to acknowledge the knocking and called her next-door door neighbor, Tom Canning, to alert him to the situation. He quickly looked went outside to check on the commotion, but Shannan had already fled across the street to the home of Dr. Peter Hackett. From this point onward, Shannan was never seen alive again.
Two days after Shannan’s disappearance, her mother Mari Gilbert received an unexpected telephone call from Dr. Peter Hackett. He asked if Shannan was safe and feeling better but Mari hadn’t any knowledge that anything was amiss. She went on to ask how he acquired her phone number and he mentioned that it was policy to have a patient’s contact information. Perplexed by the response, Mari asked why he was distributing medicine in the first place. As the conversation continued, he allegedly stated he ran a halfway-home for women in dire need and explained the events that transpired–providing medication for Shannan to help calm her nerves (the type of medicine is unclear but it’s presumed to be a benzodiazepine).
With Mari and the rest of Shannan’s family learning of her distress and unaware of her whereabouts, they filed a missing person’s report. Mari relayed the information she received from Hackett’s phone call to the investigators and once media coverage began swarming in, Dr. Peter Hackett was bombarded by several reports about the conversation with Mari. He proceeded to deny all allegations of a phone call ever happening on live television. Shortly thereafter, phone records were obtained and released publically, proving Hackett’s deception. He went on to recant his prior statements but remained adamant about never mentioning anything relating to halfway-homes or treating Shannan Gilbert with an unknown substance drug(s).
A massive search for Shannan went underway but the pursuit was fruitless. Seven months later in December 2010, a police officer conducting a routine training exercise with his cadaver dog stumbled upon the skeletal remains of a woman wrapped in a burlap sack. Two days later, three more bodies in burlap sacks were unearthed in the proximity, none of whom were Shannan. They were all online escorts and determined to be murdered by strangulation.
Megan Waterman was the first woman to be properly identified by name. She was a 22-year-old mother from South Portland, Maine. She had been staying in a hotel in Hauppauge, New York when she disappeared on June 6, 2010, after leaving behind her phone and wallet to meet an unknown client that accepted her escorting ad on Craigslist.
Maureen Brainard-Barnes was a 25-year-old single mother from Norwich, Connecticut. She was visiting New York when she disappeared in July 2007.
Amber Lynn Costello was 27-years-old living in North Babylon, New York. She vanished under mysterious circumstances on September 2, 2010, after meeting an unknown client who called and emailed her numerous times offering upwards of $1,500.00 for her company.
Melissa Barthelemy was 24-years-old from Erie County, New York. She disappeared on July 12, 2009, and when her family reported her missing the local authorities refused to initiate a search until several days later when Melissa’s younger sister, Amanda, began receiving nearly a dozen phone calls from Melissa’s cell-phone.
The caller was not Melissa, unfortunately. Instead, it was an unidentified male who taunted and harassed Amanda by saying crude things. In one exchange, the caller professed, “Do you know what your sister is? She’s a whore. I killed her. I know where you live and I can kill you too.”
Throughout the handful of phone calls made to Amanda, the police attempted to triangulate the caller’s location. They managed to pin him to Times Square in Manhattan but the populated area made it impossible to adequately locate the origin.
According to law officials, the subject is a Caucasian male between 20-40 years old. His demeanor is calm, and his manner of speech is elegant. He also seemed to be acute on police tactics — keeping his phone calls under three minutes. This had the police theorizing he could be an active or retired member of law enforcement. Other officials speculated these type of behaviors aren’t unique and could be gleaned from watching television shows such as CSI or NCIS.
Thereafter, the unidentified male never made any subsequent communications with Amanda. However, the police managed to obtain call records that indicated Melissa was in contact with somebody residing in Manorville, New York, but this lead wasn’t considered entirely beneficial at the time.
Richard Dormer — the former police commissioner at Suffolk County — told ABC News that he believes a serial killer is behind the killings due to the location of the bodies and their cause of death. The news made headlines and sent the media and local residents into hysteria.
The search for Shannan Gilbert continued but the task proved difficult because of the harsh, winter weather. The police orchestrated another search for Shannan the following year in March and April that extended to Nassau County. To their horror, six more sets of remains were discovered.
Unlike the first four victims found the previous year, the remains of these victims were partial, indicating dismemberment. Shockingly, one particular set of remains unearthed was linked to a pair of severed legs wrapped in plastic that washed up on the shore of Fire Island in 1996 — a case that baffled original detectives ever since the discovery was made.
Interestingly, one victim was an Asian male that was wearing women’s clothing. Law enforcement searched their database for missing Asian males from Long Island but none were a definitive match. They hypothesized that he was also a sex-worker and could have been mistaken for a woman.
Another set of partial remains uncovered a captivating tale. The body parts were confirmed via DNA to belong to 20-year-old Jessica Taylor, who was last seen in Manhattan near the Port Authority Bus Terminal in July 2003. Three weeks after she disappeared, a woman walking her dog came across a woman’s torso with a tattoo mutilated from the hip, and a pair of legs. Missing from the crime scene were a skull, arms, and hands — of which were found amidst the multitude of other victims.
Approximately 200 yards away from the partial remains of Jessica Taylor was a female child between 18-24 months old wrapped in a blanket. A name was unable to be provided to the authorities so they referred to her as Baby Doe. She was later linked to being the daughter of an unidentified woman dubbed “Peaches” because of a tattoo found on a torso that was located in 1997 at Hempstead Lake State Park.
Two equally horrifying theories arose from these uncoverings; either two killers were disposing of their victims coincidentally in the same proximity or a lone serial killer was responsible and has been active for at least twenty years.
In the span of six months, ten bodies had been located, none of which belonged to Shannan Gilbert — the missing 24-year-old who unintentionally brought forth the chilling discovery. In December 2011, the skeletal remains of Shannan were finally located, less than a half mile away from Dr. Peter Hackett’s backyard — the last place she was reported to be seen.
After a positive identification was confirmed, the Suffolk County Medical Examiner spent four days performing an autopsy. In the meantime, Richard Dormer preemptively announced Shannan’s death was accidental — drowning in the dense marsh she was found in — even though the results weren’t confirmed. What is known is that Shannan suffered from Bipolar disorder and was off her medication at the time of her disappearance. Nevertheless, the premature answer given by Dormer angered surviving family members, and soon after an official ruling on her death was determined to be inconclusive.
The Gilbert family wholeheartedly believed Shannan was met with foul play and hired an attorney, John Ray, who proceeded to employ an independent coroner to get a second opinion on Shannan’s death. The autopsy indicated Shannan could have met with foul play because of the larynx of her hyoid bone being detached; meaning she could have potentially been strangled, yet a definitive conclusion couldn’t be determined.
Due to inconsistent reports and the oddities surrounding Dr. Peter Hackett’s behavior and false statements, Mari Gilbert forthrightly accused Hackett being responsible for her death and alleged murder. In 2012, Mari and Ray filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackett, but he wasn’t charged with any wrongdoings. Soon after, he relocated with his family to Florida and is not considered a suspect.
Three years later in 2015 — with a lack of headway in the Long Island Serial Killer case — an escort going by the name of “Leanne,” came forward alongside the Gilbert family’s attorney and told the media a fascinating story.
According to Leanne, she had an unsavory encounter with James Burke — the Chief of Police in Suffolk County’s Police Department — at a house party in Oak Beach one year after Shannan disappeared. During the party, Burke partook in cocaine and alcohol that was freely passed around. He made numerous attempts to seduce her, but after all of her declines, she became very aggressive. He reportedly choked her and forced her to provide oral pleasure, all the while proclaiming she was a “No good whore.” She would go on to attest that more law enforcement members were present and some were actually clientele.
Leanne’s testimony came after the events that unfolded in November 2015, when Burke resigned from the position of Suffolk County’s Police Chief after being served a 46-month federal prison sentence for severely beating Christopher Loeb because he stole a duffel bag full of sex toys and pornography from his SUV. Afterward, he coerced other law enforcement members in his jurisdiction and neighboring counties to cover up his indecencies; a series of misdoings that occurred in a three-year time span.
Additionally, Burke refused the FBI’s assistance when they were brought in to take over the Long Island Serial Killer case. The motive behind his intentions are unknown, but the sheer fact of this decision led many people to presume he had a possible tie-in personally in the serial killing(s) and wanted the evidence to remain buried. Others speculated he wasn’t involved at all and wanted to cover his involvement in solicitation and drugs.
In a macabre turn of events that nobody could have predicted, Shannan’s mother was savagely murdered by her youngest daughter, Sarra, in July 2016, who suffers from schizophrenia. She had stabbed Mari over two-hundred times and used a fire extinguisher to bludgeon her. On August 4, 2017, Sarra was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison.
Throughout all of these tragic tangents involved in some form or another in the Long Island Serial Killer case, a suspect named John Bittrolff emerged from all of the rubble.
Bittrolff was making a living as a carpenter and was an avid hunter living in Manorville, New York. In 1993 and 1994, he murdered two women and is suspected of more. His first victim was Rita Tangredi, a sex worker who was found strangled and bludgeoned to death on November 2, 1993, in Suffolk County. Eighteen days later on November 20, 1993, the body of Sandra Costilla was discovered in North Sea, New York, of whom lived a high-risk lifestyle similar to Rita. Two months later on January 30, 1994, Colleen McNamee, another sex worker, was unearthed in Shirley, New York, and disposed of in the same manner as the previous two women.
The medical examiners were able to obtain male DNA and semen samples but the evidence didn’t point to any one person. It wasn’t until 2013 when Bittrolff’s brother, Timothy, was sent to prison for criminal contempt. As a result, his DNA was taken and placed into CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). His DNA shockingly came back as a partial match from one of the murders twenty-years prior and ultimately led back to John, who was subsequently charged in July 2014 for the murder of Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee.
Throughout the examination into Bittrolff, investigators were considering him to be a prime suspect in the Gilgo Beach murders — particularly the first four victims who were found strangled and discarded in burlap sacks. It was learned that Rita Tangredi’s daughter was best friends with Melissa Barthelemy — one of the sex workers who was murdered and had call records from an unknown source in Manorville, New York. Likewise, the torso of Jessica Taylor found in 2003 was approximately three miles away from his residence.
As of right now, the inspection is still ongoing, but John Bitrolff was convicted of the second-degree murders of Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee by a Suffolk County Jury on July 5, 2017, and on September 12, 2017, he was sentenced to 50-years to life in prison at the age of fifty-one-years old.
It remains to be seen if Bitrolff is the Long Island Serial Killer. The investigation is still culminating all of the evidence. As for Shannan Gilbert, she has never been conclusively tied to being a victim of the notorious serial killer, and the Gilbert family attorney, John Ray, is still striving for answers.
On March 6, 2018, Sanford Berland — a Long Island judge — ordered Suffolk County to release the full 23-minute phone call Shannan placed to 911 shortly before vanishing to Ray. They have until March 19, 2018, to produce the recorded phone call and transcript, where it will be reviewed by the judge, where he will ultimately rule whether or not it should be made available.
Shannan Gilbert’s unsolved case is a fascinating one. It paints a portrait of misconception. It’s important to remember that Shannan, along with her mother, Mari, and the rest of the victims, is human. They are more than escorts. Their lives had value, and they had dreams of wanting to become more. Yet if it wasn’t for Shannan’s tragic disappearance, perhaps none of the victims would have been found and more would pile on. Shannan put into motion a tale of horror and corruptness, but also a story of a caterpillar that’s in its growing stages and ready to become beautiful; a butterfly who flaps its wings and creates justice in a case that was buried in the dust without anyone’s knowledge.
With this post, I am going to analyze interesting details the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department unveiled to the public on February 27, 2018, regarding criminal activity occurring in Rancho Cordova and other East Sacramento towns between 1972-1973.
First and foremost, I’d like to examine what this bombshell news could mean. Since the information isn’t necessarily confirmed to be the work of the East Area Rapist, speculation and theories will be a big proponent of this analysis while remaining grounded in the known facts for the East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer case.
This may be overwhelming if you’re a newcomer to the case so let’s start with the basics. The East Area Rapist is a serial rapist and killer who operated in Northern and Southern California for ten years between 1976-1986. For three years he violated fifty women — teenagers, single, married — inside of their homes. In late 1979, he traveled south and turned into a cold-blooded killer. He committed his last murder on May 4, 1986, and vanished into thin air and has remained elusive ever since.
M.O. (modus operandi) and Signature:
Extensive prowling of neighborhoods
Speaking through clenched teeth or a harsh whisper
Waking victims up with a flashlight and gun saying he is only there for food and money, often for his van
Having the female bind the male and then remove her from the bedroom
Stacking dishes on the male’s back and threatening to kill him if he heard them rattle
Forcing the female to masturbate him with her hands bound behind her back
Prank calling or hang-up calls before and after the home invasion and rape
Using shoelaces and cutting towels into strips for binding
Ransacking the home in-between numerous rapes
Eating and drinking food from the victims’ kitchen
Sometimes crying and hyperventilating after raping the women
Stealing odd items that had little value despite items of expensive worth being present (taking coins instead of cash, one earring instead of two, etc)
Physical Description and Characteristics:
Early to mid-twenties (could be in his sixties to seventies as of now)
Blond or brown hair (medium length)
Athletic build and between 160-175 pounds
5’8 – 5’11
Size 9-9.5 shoe
Blue or hazel eyes
Type A blood
Sometimes stuttered and had a high-pitched voice
The first confirmed victim of the East Area Rapist occurred on June 18, 1976. However, there is circumstantial evidence suggesting he may have been active as early as October 21, 1975, when an unknown assailant dressed in camouflaged apparel with a homemade ski mask, and brandishing a large buck knife gained entry to a Rancho Cordova, California home through an unlocked garage with three occupants inside; a mother and her two daughters, ages seven and eighteen.
When he was inside, he cut towels into several strips and proceeded to wake up the oldest daughter, subsequently binding her and threatening to kill her if she screamed. Once she was restrained the perpetrator shifted his attention to the mother and followed the same routine–placing the two women in the same room together. Thereafter, he made his way into the seven-year-old daughter’s bedroom who was still asleep and fastened her hands and ankles and kept her away from her family.
Throughout the course of the night, the mother made numerous pleas with the intruder to leave her family unharmed but she was met with harsh whispers ordering her to be quiet. The mother and oldest daughter were repeatedly beaten and raped. Once he finished, he ransacked the residence — stealing inexpensive jewelry and an assortment of coins before fleeing the home at 6:30 a.m.
The authorities arrived at the crime scene shortly after and took the victims’ statements. They described the assailant to be in his early twenties and 5’7 in height. They also claimed he could have been a black male but couldn’t provide a definitive conclusion because of how dimly lit the home was during the attack.
For approximately a year this assault was considered to be apart of the East Area Rapists’ timeline once he made his presence more apparent in summer of 1976 and the media blackout being lifted the subsequent November. More victim testimonies started piling in and the descriptions of their attacker was that of a Caucasian male. As a result, the October 1975 attack was removed from having any connection to the East Area Rapist.
It wasn’t until a 1977 follow-up interview conducted with the 1975 victims that they recanted their initial statements on their attacker’s ethnicity. They said he could have been a white male. With the inconsistent testimony, the assault was never officially put back in canon with the East Area Rapists’ emergence, but the main consensus amongst the original detectives is that he was responsible.
Aside from this sexual assault, there weren’t many detailed incidents of similar criminal activity available to current detectives predating this crime because the reports were on microfilm. They were recently transferred to digital and Sergeant Paul Belli and other investigators in Sacramento County’s Sheriff’s Department began examining all of the 35,000 plus reports that were filed in 1973 — particularly those that featured similarities to the East Area Rapists’ modus operandi — and are now being presented to the public with the hope of garnishing new leads and tips. With that, let’s look at the latest information revealed by the Cold Case Investigations Unit.
A cat burglar operated in the Rancho Cordova and eastern Sacramento County during 1972 and 1973, striking over 30 times during that time period. His crimes were linked by M.O. and it was recognized by detectives of that time that the crimes were the work of one man. Only one other cat burglary series (albeit brief, and with a different M.O.) was occurring simultaneous to this series. When caught, the suspects in that case said they saw the success the cat burglar of Rancho Cordova was having, and thought it was an easy crime to commit (for them it wasn’t.) A gap occurred at the end of 1972, but by spring of 1973, his offenses began anew and his re-emergence was documented by detectives. His method of operation was to enter a home quietly after the occupants were asleep. The burglar typically exited out a different pre-opened door from his point of entry, and evidence indicated the door was likely opened immediately upon entering the home as an escape route. The front door was frequently the exit point. A commonly hit area was the area between Dolecetto Drive and Malaga Way and near Coloma Road with over a dozen strikes. He also struck other areas of Rancho Cordova, and branched out to Carmichael, Citrus Heights, and other nearby areas. He was known in the reports as “the cat burglar that strikes the Rancho Cordova and East Areas of Sacramento.”
Once inside, the burglar went throughout the home as the occupants slept and took purses and wallets belonging to the victims. Victims included families with children, couples, and single women. Evidence from many of the scenes indicated the burglar had spent extensive time searching the residence, but most of the time items of value outside of the purses and wallets were disregarded. However, the burglar would sometimes take coin collections, silver, or other items including food and alcohol. The burglar also spent considerable time in the bedrooms of the victim(s) as they slept, without disturbing them. The purses/wallets were typically found nearby in an adjacent yard, or on the sidewalk of the residence.
Occasionally they were left elsewhere in groups with other victims’ property from the same night. The only item typically taken from the purse was money, but occasionally small items or identification was also missing. In a few instances, victims awoke as the suspect was in the residence. The suspect would flee the residence out of one of the open doors, sometimes with the victim in pursuit. Additionally, the suspect would frequently strike multiple houses in a single night.
On one occasion, the suspect touched a woman’s breast as she slept, but left when she told him he needed to leave her house. That woman was alone at the time of the attack. In another case, a victim was awakened by a noise in her bedroom. She looked up and saw a man standing near the bedroom door, approximately 8 feet away. She sat up in bed and the suspect pointed a gun at her. The victim said nothing to the suspect, but an odd interaction occurred. The suspect stated “I just took a dollar off your dresser.” The woman told the suspect he should put it back and leave. The suspect complied and returned two dollars to the dresser, despite claiming he had taken only one dollar. He walked down the hallway, but stopped and looked in at the 17-year-old daughter, who then yelled at him to leave. Though the suspect left the residence without further incident, he took a quarter and a nickel from a table near the exit door.
The suspect in this series was seen by several victims and witnesses. Most only observed him briefly and in very low lighting conditions. Descriptions were of a white male in his 20’s, 5’6” to 6’0”, with a slender to average build.
Extensive investigation was conducted in attempts to apprehend this cat burglar, but it does not appear he was ever identified. The areas targeted include Rancho Cordova, Carmichael, Whitney/Mission area, and Citrus Heights. Three of the Citrus Heights cat burglaries were each within a block of one of the two East Area Rapist strikes four years later. The Rancho Cordova strikes were within blocks or closer to the Rancho Cordova EAR attacks. It was also believed the suspect had extensive knowledge of the drainage canals and of the American River Parkway.
Why does this information have valuable importance to the East Area Rapist? The locations are very significant. Rancho Cordova seems to be a vital area for the emergence of this prolific cat burglar. Moreover, he struck residences in Carmichael and Citrus Heights. Not only did he tally up a large number of home invasions, he targeted homes that were in the proximity to future sexual assault victims where the East Area Rapist often frequented between June 18, 1976 – May 17, 1977.
Another intriguing detail is the cat-burglar touching a woman’s breast while she slept. The East Area Rapist hardly ever focused on that region of the body; as if he was uninterested entirely. One of the rare incidents where he focused on the upper-chest was in Walnut Creek, California, on June 2, 1979, when a seventeen-year-old babysitter was raped and had bitten her nipple numerous times. The victim described her assailant to be a slender white male approximately 5’6 tall.
As for the evidence law enforcement has to conclude this cat-burglar had extensive knowledge on drainage canals, the reasons are unclear, but in future events with the East Area Rapist — specifically in the Rancho Cordova area — tracking dogs would often pick up his scent from crime scenes that lead them to canals which were used for making a quick exit. In the targeted locations, there is a significant drainage canal that is easily accessible from each home that was attacked. This trend transcended through several towns he earmarked including Goleta in southern California.
On several occasions, indecent exposures occurred within a couple blocks of the Rancho Cordova cat burglaries, on the same day and in the following days. It is unknown whether these incidents are related to the cat burglaries or if the responsible was a separate offender.
This indecent exposure suspect also struck other areas of Rancho Cordova and Carmichael, on nights where no cat burglaries were reported. These incidents involved a male suspect who would knock on the front window, front door, or sliding glass door of the residence wearing only a t-shirt when a woman or teenage girl was standing near it. It appears based on the timing that he had been watching for a period of time until the desired victim was near the window/door. He was observed by the victim(s), committed lewd acts, and did not leave immediately. He was not observed to be holding anything including pants, and was occasionally chased by males who were also in the home. In one case, the suspect knocked on the front door, stood in front of the victim naked from the waist down, and demanded: “Give me a match.” She screamed, and alerted others in the house, but when they checked outside, the man was gone.
On another occasion, a teenage girl left a party and was walking home on Newton Way in Rancho Cordova at approximately 12:30 a.m. During the walk, she realized a man was following her. She walked faster and the man quickened his pace, but was still a considerable distance away. The girl ran to the home of a stranger and knocked, prompting a middle-aged woman to answer the door. Both parties then observed the man walk to the edge of the driveway, look up at them, and drop his pants to his ankles exposing himself. He stood staring briefly, and The subject then walked from the area on foot. The description of the suspect in the above cases is as follows:
20 to 25 years old
Light brown/reddish brown hair to dark brown hair
5’8” to 6’0”
Thin to average build, 160-170 pounds
I have a hard time believing this Flasher was the East Area Rapist. While the physical description matches, it’s not an uncommon illustration amongst many males in that era. What is notable, however, are where these events transpired and how oftentimes they occurred on the same nights as the cat-burglaries; making it difficult to completely disregard.
There aren’t any details pertaining to the East Area Rapist being bold enough to knock on someone’s front door without a mask on and expose himself as the occupant(s) opened the door. However, there are a handful of incidents that portray his brazenness. A prime example would be his third attack on August 29, 1976, in Rancho Cordova on Malaga Way.
The occupants were a mother and her two daughters ages twelve and fifteen. Their father had recently left for the night shift at his new job. Shortly after 10:30 p.m. the youngest daughter awoke to sounds resonating from the backyard. When she peeked out of her bedroom window she saw a masked individual with gloves on creeping toward her window and attempt to remove the screening. The two locked eyes and she screamed in horror as she quickly ran to her mother’s room.
The mother panicked and quickly ran to her oldest daughter’s room to notify her of the situation but she shrugged it off and continued sleeping. Thereafter, she ran to the kitchen with her youngest clinging to her side and tried calling the authorities on the landline phone. All of a sudden, a loud thud was heard emanating from the youngest daughter’s bedroom. A few seconds later they were confronted by a masked intruder nude from the waist down and armed with a handgun and club.
He immediately blitzed them and the mother attempted to wrestle away his gun. The man retaliated by clubbing her on the head several times until she fell unconscious. He proceeded to force them into the living room where the mother tried resisting the assailant again. She sprinted for the front door and in the process, she was struck again multiple times but managed to break free and scream for help with her youngest daughter following close behind. They hurriedly ran to their neighbor’s home and the oldest daughter met up with her family as she escaped from her bedroom window.
The police were called and they arrived within two minutes. A neighbor living adjacent to the victims told authorities she heard the commotion and glanced out of her window. She claimed to see three women running away while a fourth person wearing a ski mask was pantless and fled across the street to hide behind a set of bushes. Moments later, he stood up and casually walked away into the dark.
It has been theorized the East Area Rapist lived in Rancho Cordova — particularly near his victims — because of him walking away in a calm demeanor without wearing pants of which were never found. This theory can be substantiated if he was the 1972-1973 cat burglar that successfully invaded thirty homes.
Another example showing the perpetrator’s bold demeanor is of him not being deterred from his desired goal. In his seventh attack in Carmichael, California on October 18, 1976, a ten-year-old boy woke up to his dog barking relentlessly. He went to check on his dog and they both went to the kitchen’s sliding glass doors that lead to the backyard. When he let the dog outside, he spotted a man tampering with the kitchen window. The dog darted after the assailant, and he sprinted toward the backyard fence and perched himself atop it until the dog calmed down. The boy immediately ran back inside to alert his sleeping mother and in the process, they heard stampeding footsteps echoing from the hallway to the bedroom, where the intruder pressed onward with his attack.
This level of confidence was built over a period of time as he continued to hone his abilities and escape without being apprehended. If the East Sacramento Flasher was the East Area Rapist — which would mean he successfully outran people chasing him — all of those things culminate into him having the audacity to dive deeper into darker atrocities and still feel in complete control.
The last example would be after his fifteenth attack in Rancho Cordova, California, on March 18, 1977. The media began to point out his cowardliness — mentioning he was only attacking women who were alone, and wouldn’t dare attempt to strike when a male was present — husband, boyfriend, teenager. The East Area Rapist must have kept up with the news coverage because his very next attack was on April 2, 1977, on a couple living in Orangevale, California.
Ultimately, it’s hard to see the connection between the East Sacramento Flasher and the East Area Rapist. Though these crimes were taking place in similar geographical areas, their M.O.’s are vastly different. An argument could be made where — if the two are the same people — the Flasher was relatively young in his criminal maturity. As he got older, he developed a higher level of sexual appetite and was acting on those fantasies in a more upfront way. However, it seems inexplicable that a prolific cat burglar in 1972-1973 would act childishly by putting himself in danger by exposing himself to people when they answered the knock on the front door. It detracts a lot from the methodical nature that was the 1972-1973 cat burglar and the East Area Rapist.
Cordova Meadows Burglar (1973)
A burglar operated in the Cordova Meadows subdivision and nearby area in 1973. He struck at all times of the day and night, including when people were home. It is unknown whether his activities are related to the cat burglaries occurring in the greater Rancho Cordova and East areas of Sacramento that were previously described, but the few descriptions of the suspects are somewhat consistent. These burglaries were occurring at their heaviest in the first half of 1973, and included over 20 burglaries by mid-March. Some of the items taken include coins, piggy banks, jewelry, binoculars, hunting knives (some in scabbards), photographic cameras and movie cameras, two-dollar bills (numerous,) Blue Chip Stamps, handguns, food, alcohol, and prescription medication. Larger items, most electronics, and other items of value were noted to be disregarded by the suspect.
The burglar exhibited numerous quirks both in his behaviors as well as things he chose to steal. On one occasion, the burglar dumped the contents of a bottle of prescription Codeine pills into the sink, but took the empty bottle with him. Among the unusual items stolen by the offender were two sets of two car magnets, which are signs placed on the sides of vehicles typically to advertise a business. Two of the signs taken by the burglar advertised a painting and drywall company owned by the resident, and the other two were for a different business venture, also operated by the victim. Also taken during some of the burglaries were photos of female occupants, including a set of nude photos taken by the model’s husband. Additionally, single earrings were taken from pairs.
Not all of the incidents have all M.O. factors in common, but many are present simultaneously on some of the crime scenes, and some are present on most all of the cases. Geography and links via date and time of occurrence were also considered. Some of the M.O. factors (some quite rare) that frequently crop up in this series include the following:
Entry through a kitchen or sliding glass door.
Opening of a window in a back bedroom and placing of the screen on the bed or inside
Deputies processing the scene noted that, in these instances, the window was as being used as an emergency escape only and was not the point of entry or preferred exit. This escape exit was used on two occasions where the homeowner interrupted the burglary
Unplugging of forced air furnace
Secondary securing of front door by chair, security chain, or other blocking item
Killing of small dogs by blunt force
Heavy ransacking of bedrooms and scattering of clothing articles on floor
Women’s undergarments stacked in other rooms
Ransacking of kitchen
Leaving numerous burnt matches on the floor of the home
In addition, this burglar was responsible for other burglaries of the same type as that suffered by the family of a future EAR victim. The burglary to her home in March 1973 was one of three M.O.-linked burglaries that happened the same day, including one at the residence next door.
In the burglary of the home next door to the future EAR victim, the suspect stole a movie camera, other related equipment, and money from a piggy bank (bank broken by suspect.) The burglary to the future victim was believed to have been a “no loss” burglary, and it occurred at the same residence where she would later be assaulted early in the East Area Rapist series, three years later. This victim also had a single earring stolen from her during the sexual assault incident (1976).
A strange burglary occurred the same night and based on the timing is believed to be the last of the three. This burglary occurred across the river in Carmichael near Mission Ave and El Camino Ave that included the theft of eighty two-dollar bills and silver coins. There was heavy ransacking of the bedrooms, and a small poodle was also killed by the suspect.
In another suspected related burglary two days prior in Rancho Cordova, entry was made through a side kitchen door. The suspect blocked the front door with a barstool, and ransacked the bedrooms heavily with drawers open and clothing scattered on the floor. The suspect took a Ruger, 7 shot .22 caliber revolver, watches, three rings including a ruby “Elks” head ring and an engagement ring, old silver coins and bills, a left handled hunting knife in a scabbard with name “Walt” printed on the scabbard, a single earring, Avon “Model A” yellow after shave lotion, and a broken lamp. Other items of value were left behind.
Hang-up phone calls and odd communications were also present in this series, and were reported by victims in the area. One particular victim, a 17-year-old girl, was living in the 10100 block of La Alegria Drive. She received a suspicious unsigned letter stating:
“I love you.” She then received numerous hang-up phone calls and a final call where a subject with a low, adult male voice, stated: “I love you, this is your last night to live.”
This victim lived next door to the home where the killer of Brian and Katie Maggiore jumped the fence and fell into bushes in his escape from the crime scene on La Alegria Drive five years later.
Out of all the recent information released, this is probably the most significant. There are a few details in the summary above that stand out to me. First of which is the proclivity for Rancho Cordova. Secondly, the modus operandi has many facets of which the East Area Rapist expanded on as he fine-tuned his skills by experience. Third, the stolen items are very common with what the future EAR/ONS would be infatuated with. Here is a comprehensive list of stolen items created by “EchoMint” from the EAR/ONS/GSK ProBoards. I also have created a list of stolen items per home with added context and suspicious vehicles in the area that can be viewed here.
From the list, you can see the glaring similarities between the two offenders and the items they preferred to steal. Additionally, one particular burglary stands out more prominent than the rest. According to the description from the Cordova Meadows Burglar in 1973, he once took:
On one occasion, the burglar dumped the contents of a bottle of prescription Codeine pills into the sink, but took the empty bottle with him.
If you look at attack seventeen committed by the East Area Rapist on April 15, 1977, in Carmichael, California, you will see how similar to a theft the two incidents were. To provide additional context, after the rape he found a bottle of codeine in the victim’s purse that was prescribed by her dentist. He took the pills and discarded the bottle into the kitchen sink. It’s unclear whether or not he actually consumed the pills because he told the victim he was in need of a “fix,” but the following afternoon their neighbor discovered a plastic bag with watered down pills in his backyard.
Overall, there are some slight deviations in the modus operandi. Just because there are similarities doesn’t mean they are the same individual. However, considering the 1973 burglar was focused primarily on stealing — although a sexual component can be attached to it — the method of operation will be different to an extent because the motives vary.
Likewise, the East Area Rapist often gained entry to homes by prying open sliding glass doors or removing window screens. He would occasionally turn off the thermostat inside of the home as well. The theories surrounding that detail have ranged far and wide, but many people believe he did this in order to hear better inside of the home.
Another interesting component of the Cordova Meadows Burglar is how he provided extra security by blocking the pathway or placing something in front of a door to alert him if someone came inside. The East Area Rapist followed the same pattern when he was attacking his victims. Once he began targeting couples, he would take dishes and stack them on the subject’s back and tell them if he heard the appliances rattle he would come back and kill them. Everything these two offenders did was done under the circumstances where they seized control of the entire scenario from beginning to end.
The article also states how a burglary in 1973 happened on El Segundo Drive, and three years later, the occupants — primarily the nineteen-year-old daughter — was a victim of the East Area Rapist. Whether this was a coincidence or something more is interesting. In fact, I have provided an in-depth analysis of these two events. You can read more about those two events by clicking this link.
There are two more characteristics mentioned in the article that I’d like to briefly discuss. The first one is:
Killing of small dogs by blunt force
There aren’t many incidents where animals were killed conclusively by the East Area Rapist, but one explicit account happened mere hours before Dr. Robert Offerman and Dr. Debra Manning were brutally killed by the perpetrator.
A family living on Queen Anne Lane — two minutes from where Offerman and Manning lived on Avenida Pequena — was returning home from a night out when they spotted a stranger inside of their home running into the backyard and jumping a fence leading to Mountain View School. As the homeowners went inside they found their poodle dog had been injured (Some accounts say the dog was murdered while others mention the dog was injured). There were shoe impressions left in their yard and they were soon matched with the prints found at the Offerman and Manning murder scene hours later.
The next characteristic I’d like to bring up is:
Leaving numerous burnt matches on the floor of the home
This may or may not have any significance, but leaving behind burnt matches has its own connections to the East Area Rapist. At the crime scenes of the Goleta murders and the murder of Manuela Witthuhn in Columbus, Irvine, on February 6, 1981, investigators found burnt matches littered throughout the residences. Whether there’s a connection or not is undetermined, and whether or not it has any meaning to when the East Sacramento Flasher said, “Give me a match” is unknown.
Last but not least, we can’t ignore the Visalia Ransacker, who between 1974-1975 was heavily active. His modus operandi and physical description are similar to the Cordova Meadows Burglar and the East Area Rapist. He managed to successfully burglarize upwards of 120 homes. On September 11, 1975, he attempted to abduct sixteen-year-old Beth Snelling, and as her father, Claude Snelling — a professor at the College of Sequoia — went to her aide, he fatally shot him in the stomach and he passed away. Three months later on December 10, 1975, Detective William McGowen encountered the suspect. The assailant shot at him and pierced McGowen’s flashlight. The force caused him to fall down to the ground. The criminal eluded the swarm of police officers and vanished into thin air. Afterward, he never appeared again. Six months later on June 18, 1976, the East Area Rapist made his presence known with a similar modus operandi in Rancho Cordova, California.
Finally, I want to examine the last bit of information released by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department:
Burglary and Assault September 14, 1973
Just before 11:00 a.m. on September 14, 1973, a 28-year-old woman had just put her 18-month-old son down for a nap when she heard a knock on her front door. Assuming it was a religious solicitor, she disregarded it and did not answer. Additionally, she had only a few minutes earlier seen a man in the backyard, prompting her to arm herself with a handgun, although she believed it was just an electrical utility man. He eventually left the area. Within a few minutes, she heard a noise in the rear portion of the home where the bedrooms are located. She went back to check on her son, and when she came to the master bedroom she observed the suspect attempting to break into her house via the master bedroom window. The suspect was removing the screen, and she observed the gate that opened to the school behind her home was open. The suspect, upon seeing the victim, ducked and ran around the side of the house.
The victim secured the residence by checking every door and window. She made sure everything was locked, and put a chain lock in place on the door from the garage to the kitchen. The overhead garage door was open as the victim had been doing laundry in the garage. She called her husband at work and advised him of the incident. A few minutes later, the suspect forced open the door between the garage and kitchen. He also defeated the chain lock by forcing the door open with enough force to pull the nails holding the lock away from the frame base. The victim, still armed, raised the handgun and yelled to the suspect that if he came in she would shoot him. With that, the suspect walked away from the door and out of the garage. The victim called the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department to report what happened.
While the victim waited for the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department, she heard the screen door between the garage and kitchen opening and the suspect came through the still broken door rapidly and attacked her. He grabbed her hands and they struggled over the handgun. The suspect forced the gun towards her, but she was able to quickly pull it up. The gun then discharged over her shoulder and the suspect fled out the garage door again and did not return. The victim passed out briefly as she was recovering from a recent surgery and was medically fragile, but she awakened and began writing a description of the suspect as she waited for the Sheriff’s Department. They arrived and a check of the area was conducted, but the suspect wasn’t found. The investigating deputies felt the incident was likely sexually motivated, and noted the persistence of the suspect.
With this Sparda Way incident on September 14, 1973, a composite sketch was created. What’s shocking is how the sketch is practically identical to one (of two) composite sketches created of a prowler and shooter on Ripon Ct. in Sacramento, California, on February 16, 1977. A big thanks to Mike Morford from True Crime Guy Blog that created a side-by-side comparison.
The two sketches are staggering in their resemblance. However, it needs to be reiterated that this doesn’t mean they are the same person. As the article released by SCSD represents, there were at least three people operating in Rancho Cordova between 1972-1973. These three people could be the same person, but as of right now we have to consider them separate individuals. Subsequently, in 1976 the East Area Rapist emerged, thus making four prolific criminals roaming the area.
There is one more offender who was active for four years between 1972-1976. He was dubbed the Early Morning Rapist and attacked thirty-six women (possibly forty-one) who were typically living in apartment buildings — a characteristic that differs drastically from the East Area Rapist. He often ambushed women at knife-point and forced them into lewd acts. The victims described him to be a white male in his mid-twenties to the early thirties, between 5’8-5’9 in height, and approximately 170 pounds with a stocky frame and potbelly.
Many original detectives who worked these cases — particularly Richard Shelby — believe they know the identity of the suspect but didn’t have enough evidence to convict him. In the spring of 1976, the suspect relocated with his family to Montana. The case officially remains unsolved.
In conclusion, we are left with more questions than answers. Were all of these people separate individuals or were they of one man — the elusive East Area Rapist? We don’t know. What this new information does tell us is that criminal activity is very common, especially for the 1970s.
Likewise, despite variations between the modus operandi of all of the possible offenders above, a lot of the believed-to-be unique traits aren’t as distinctive as commonly thought. Delinquents do not want to be caught or identified. If they have the urge to seek out their desires by home invasions and thievery, they are going to make logical decisions to enhance their possibility of escaping.
While this new information does create more questions, it also allows law enforcement to narrow down a point of origin which could lead to a viable suspect that may or may not have been overlooked. Whatever the result may be, new information is always beneficial. The questions may be growing but the net is closing in. Answers are on the way.
On a brisk Monday afternoon on February 28, 1983, in St. Louis Missouri, two rummagers went looking for scrap metal for their car in the basement of an abandoned apartment building — which has long since been bulldozed — located at 5635 Clemens Avenue. One of the individuals pulled out his lighter to light his cigarette and that’s when they stumbled upon a gruesome sight.
There was an African American girl estimated to be between the ages of eight to eleven and approximately 4’10 – 5’6 in height. She was wearing a blood-stained yellow V-neck sweater with no tags and she was positioned face down with her pants and underwear removed. Her head had been decapitated and mold was growing on her neck. There were two coats of red nail polish on her fingers and her hands were bound by the wrists with red and white nylon rope.
Image Source: Buzzfeed
Image Source: Wikipedia
When homicide detectives Joe Burgoon and Herb Riley arrived at the crime scene they initially thought she could have been a prostitute until they examined the body and realized the victim hadn’t gone through puberty. They determined she was beheaded elsewhere — possibly by a large carving knife because of how cleanly cut her head was removed — due to the lack of blood and was subsequently discarded at a later time. They did find some traces of blood on the side of the walls leading to the basement that indicated she had been carried and her body brushed against it during the process. An autopsy conducted by Mary Case from St. Louis’s Medical Examiner’s Office showed she had been raped and her cause of death was by strangulation three or five days prior to being found.
As for the child’s head, it was never recovered despite an extensive search from Jerry Thomas and Frank Booker. This hindered the investigation because dental examinations couldn’t be provided nor a facial reconstruction through forensic technology programming. The investigators scoured a list of all children at the surrounding schools but everyone was accounted for. They proceeded to look through the database of missing children yet there had been no reports of a young child matching her description being missing, and she was ruled out as being five possible victims of ranging from several states including a Jane Doe from Northampton County, North Carolina.
At one point, detectives sought out assistance from a group of psychics who performed a seance. Herb Riley gave them photos of Jane Doe’s fingerprints, and as they passed the photocopies around they all had the same conclusion; her head would be located on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico and he should immediately contact the Coast Guard. This lead was pursued in-depth but it proved to be a dead end.
Jane Doe’s case quickly turned cold and after ten months of exhausting all possible leads and nobody coming forward to claim her body, she was buried in December of 1983 at Washington Park Cemetary in Berkeley, Missouri.
Ten years later in 1993, investigators mailed her blood-stained sweater and nylon rope that bound her hands to a psychic residing in Florida for further analysis but this was a fruitless endeavor because the evidence was lost in the mail delivery. In 1996, the original homicide detective Herb Riley passed away and Jane Doe’s case was one of two cases he never solved during his tenure with the police department.
Twenty years passed by and in June of 2013, investigators were able to exhume the child’s remains with the hope of gathering new forensic evidence by modern advancements made in science and technology. This task proved difficult because the cemetery she had been buried in was unkempt, appeared long forgotten, her grave was unmarked, and many people were displaced because of insufficient care with the burial records.
With the help of willful volunteers and other various resources, Jane Doe’s remains were unearthed and transported to the St. Louis Medical Examiner’s Office where researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and University of North Texas recalibrated bone sampling and minerals (stable isotope analysis) to attempt to narrow down her native origins based on the water she had drank. The testing revealed she had spent most of her life in one of the numerous southeastern states including Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, and North or South Carolina.
Though new scientific testing provided a glimmer of hope to the child’s case, the police say it’s rather unlikely she will be properly identified unless someone comes forward with vital information. If any light can be shed on this devastating tragedy, it would be the nicknames she was given — “Hope” or “Little Jane Doe” — and her reburial in Calvary Cemetery on West Florissant Rd. in north St. Louis, Missouri, funded by the nonprofit organization, “Garden of Innocents,” where the plot of land is regularly maintained.
Overall, the list of suspects was unfortunately very short. With a lack of evidence from her murder, finding a person of interest was difficult. The authorities suspected a family member may be involved due to no reports of a child being reported missing, but considering they were unable to determine where she was from, that theory was hard to substantiate. However, there was one suspect that caught the eyes of the investigators.
Vernon Brown was born on October 1, 1953. He had a very troubled upbringing and suffered from excessive physical abuse from his grandfather. He dropped out of high school and in 1973 he was convicted of molesting a twelve-year-old girl and subsequently spent four years in an Indiana prison. After his release, nine-year-old Kimberly Campbell disappeared under mysterious circumstances. She was later found raped and strangled in a vacant residence that was owned by Vernon’s grandmother. Though he was considered the prime suspect in the case, there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him with the crime. In 1985, Vernon relocated to Enright Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri, living under the false name, Thomas Turner, where he was living with his wife and stepchildren.
At approximately 3:00 p.m. on Friday, October 24, 1986, he had just arrived home after picking up his stepchildren from school. Afterward, he sat outside on his front porch watching children walk home after being dropped off from the school bus. That’s when nine-year-old Janet Perkins, a bright young student at Cole Elementary School, was walking to her home a few blocks away, excited for the weekend. Vernon took notice and lured her into his home. His stepchildren saw her come inside and he ordered them into their bedrooms and locked their doors from the outside.
Vernon led Janet down to the basement where he bound her feet and hands by using a wire coat hanger. Moments later, he began to strangle her with a rope. Vernon’s stepchildren could hear her screaming and pleading for her life as her voice echoed through the air vents. Thereafter, he discarded her body and went on about his day as if nothing ever happened.
The following day, the police discovered two trash bags containing Janet’s body in an alley behind his residence. Two days later on Monday, October 27, 1986, the police arrested Brown, and a relative of a neighbor testified on his behalf saying they witnessed Janet enter his home. Throughout questioning him by detectives he confessed to murdering Janet on videotape.
Surprisingly, he admitted to murdering nineteen-year-old Synetta Ford one year beforehand on March 7, 1985. She was found strangled by an electrical cord and stabbed multiple times in an apartment basement where he had worked as a maintenance man. At the time, the authorities arrested him for the murder but he was let go after he gave homicide detectives a false alias.
While he was in prison in Bonne Terre, Tom Carroll — a homicide detective in St. Louis — frequently visited and questioned him about other possible murders he may have committed, particularly about the young Jane Doe found in 1983. Brown never confessed to her or anyone else’s murder. However, detectives believe he could be involved with at least twenty unsolved homicide cases but they don’t have enough tangible evidence to conclusively prove their stance.
On Wednesday, May 18, 2005, at 2:35 a.m. fifty-one-year old Vernon Brown was executed by lethal injection. His last words were, “You’ll see me again. To all my friends, don’t think of me as being gone, but there with you. And to Jazz, who has my heart and love. Peace, love. Vernon Brown.” If he participated in any other murders, he took those secrets to his grave.
Jane Doe’s case has never been solved and is one that haunts the original and current investigators, but as long as her case stays in the light, as her nickname given by the police suggests, there will always be “Hope.”