Spree Killer, Part 1

For 18 days, from late March to mid-April 1984, a series of rapes and murders spanned California from Oakland to San Diego. The police soon realized that the sexual assaults and slayings were likely the work of one man. All they had to do was find him.

***

On March 25, 1984 a woman was raped at knife point in her San Diego apartment. Two days later another young woman was raped at knife point in Ventura County. Her assailant strangled her until she lost consciousness. She was lucky to be alive.

On April 1, 1984 in Lafayette, California, about 30 miles east of Oakland, Tok Kim met a man named Phil in a local bar. They spent the next several days together and were seen by a few of her neighbors. On April 13th, Tok’s decomposed body was discovered. The cause of death could not be determined, but strangulation wasn’t ruled out. Her car and some of her personal items were missing.

jillette mills

Jillette Mills

Kim’s car was located hundreds of miles away in Culver City parked in front of an apartment building where roommates Susan Knoll and Jillette Mills were found dead. Each of the women had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and then their bodies were stacked in a bedroom closet.

Jillette’s Datson 280 ZX with the vanity plate PHANTM Z, as well as personal items belonging to both women were missing.

The body of Bonnie Guthrie was discovered on the bedroom floor of her Culver City apartment on April 12th. She had been sexually assaulted and died of asphyxia caused by strangulation. Personal items were missing from her residence.

janette cullen

Janette Cullins

Janette Cullins was found in the closet of her San Diego apartment she, like the other dead women, had been strangled. Wood chips were found near the front door, which suggested that the killer had broken in.

***

It was 10:50 p.m. on April 17th when Arizona Highway Patrolman Robert Dapser received a call on his CB radio from a truck driver. The trucker said that “an erratic vehicle had been driving in his location, passed by him twice and nearly cut him off.” The erratic driver, possibly drunk, was behind the wheel of a Datsun 280 ZX with a California vanity plate. The trucker thought it was “PHANTOM 2″.

Officer Dapser flipped on his emergency lights. He caught up with the Datsun and watched it swerve across the center line of the highway. The sports car finally pulled over and the driver, the lone occupant of the vehicle, produced his ID but couldn’t find the vehicle registration. He told Dapser, “I can’t find it, she must not have it in here.” The driver’s failure to produce the registration wasn’t a big deal, but Officer Dapser caught a whiff of marijuana and saw a roach in the center console. There was an empty beer bottle, and several full ones, on the floor on the passenger’s side of the car.

Dapser called dispatch and said that the license plate was not “PHANTOM 2′ as originally reported but “PHANTM Z”. A few minutes later he was informed that the car had been reported stolen. Dapser Mirandized the driver and took him into custody to await detectives from California.

susan knoll

Susan Knoll

 Detectives from Culver City and West Los Angeles arrived in Arizona and inventoried the contents of the Datsun. They found a suitcase containing a few household items identified as belonging to Tok Kim; a supermarket check cashing card belonging to Susan Knoll; workout gear and photo equipment belonging to Jillette Mills; Janette Cullins’ bank card; and three hand knit sweaters identified as Bonnie Guthrie’s.

The detectives were anxious to speak to the driver of Jillette’s Datsun.  Was he a killer and a rapist? Or was he just an unlucky car thief?

NEXT TIME: The killer is identified.

30 More Years of Crime in L.A.

When I  began this blog in December 2012, I arbitrarily chose to examine crime in Los Angeles during the years from 1900 to 1970.  Now, however, I think it is time to expand the purview to include the decades of 1970, 1980 and 1990 to encompass all of the last century. In terms of crime in the City of Angels, the last three decades of the 20th Century are enormously interesting.

The 1970s have been called one of the most violent decades in U.S. history. Homicide rates climbed at an alarming rate and people felt increasingly vulnerable.

dirtyharry

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

Hollywood contributed to popular culture, and helped fuel the debate on crime and punishment, with a slew of vigilante films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish. The films  showed bad guys being blown away by impressively large weapons.  It was cathartic, but not terribly realistic.

It was during the ’70s that the bogeyman got a new name when FBI Investigator Robert Ressler coined the term “serial killer”.

In 1978 convicted rapist and registered sex offender, Rodney Alcala, appeared on the Dating Game. Why wasn’t he more thoroughly vetted by the show’s producers? I have no idea. Even more astounding than his appearance was the fact that he won! The bachelorette who selected Rodney ultimately declined to go out with him–she found him “creepy”. He’s currently on California’s death row and is believed to have committed as many as 50 murders.

ramirez_108a

Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, flashes a pentagram on his palm.

Some people joined cults where they banded together with like-minded folks for spiritual comfort and to retreat from the scary world-at-large. But there is not always safety in numbers, and evil can assume many guises. In 1978, over 900 members of the People’s Temple died in a mass suicide commanded by their leader, Jim Jones. The group was living in Guyana when they drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The People’s Temple may have been founded in Indiana, but like so many other cults before them they established a presence in L.A.

Jim Jones of the People's Temple

Jim Jones of the People’s Temple

A crack cocaine epidemic swept the country in the early 1980s.  It decimated communities and cost many people their lives. Crack  was inexpensive, easily accessible, and even more addictive than regular cocaine.

The 1980s gave rise to a “satanic panic” which resulted in some of most bizarre prosecutions we’ve seen in this country since the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s. The McMartin Preschool abuse trial was the most costly ($15 million) ever in the U.S. and resulted, rightfully I believe, in no convictions.

Surprisingly, there was a decline in crime during the 1990s, and it has been attributed to a variety of factors including: increased incarceration; increased numbers of police, growth in income; decreased unemployment, decreased alcohol consumption, and even the unleading of gasoline (due to the Clean Air Act). Despite the decline, there was still enough murder and mayhem to make us uneasy.

oj-simpson-murdeHere in L.A. there was the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, the so-called Trial of the Century. If you remove fame, wealth, and race and reduce the crime to its basic elements you end up with nothing more than a tragic domestic homicide–the type of crime which is altogether too common everywhere–yet the case continues to fascinate.

Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam, made news in 1993. At her pandering trial actor Charlie Sheen divulged that he had spent in excess of $53,000 for services rendered by Heidi’s girls.

Please join me as I explore the entirety of 20th Century crime in Los Angeles.

Joan