Terror in the Night – Part 3
August 19, 1980
It was a warm summers night in the extravagant Orange County, California neighborhood of Laguna Niguel. A young married couple lay asleep peacefully, however that peace was soon to be shattered by the appearance of a phantom laying in wait to commit a crime so heinous and brutal it would shock the entire community. Keith Harrington and his wife, Patrice had both been bound and murdered after suffering repeated blows to the skull while Patrice had also been raped.
Detectives would later surmise that the murderer had entered through a window the couple had left open as they were unable to find any indication of forced entry. From the outset however, investigators could not find a motive for the crime. The Harrington’s had lead a rather quiet life having only been married for a few short months and neither appeared to have any known enemies. Nobody ever imagined that this could be a random crime given the terrifying nature the scene of the crime presented.
The degree of blood splatter was so severe that the comforter was soaked all the way through which had been placed on top of the victims before they were bludgeoned. Perhaps in an attempt to minimize the degree of blood splatter overall, which may have begged the question that has this offender tried this before and let the blood splatter get out of control?
At the time of this offense, the Southern California detectives were completely unaware of the phantom who was the East Area Rapist who had haunted the northern and central parts of the state for years prior. They were unaware of the signature Diamond knot that was used to bind both the victims like his many victims prior. Crime scene photo’s show the offender removed the ligatures upon completion of the assault but left them distributed across the room and with further examination the rapists signature knot can be seen.
Within months after the double murder however, investigators were still without solid leads and it was not long before the Harrington case went cold. But it was not before DNA had been recovered from Patrice and placed in a rape kit which would be used many years later to form a genetic profile of the offender. Yet this was still 1980 and DNA evidence was limited in its application as an investigative tool and was the only real shred of evidence the investigators held.
It would not be until the following year that the offender would strike again as the all too familiar MO of the case would be recorded again in the city of Irvine. However there were some slight differences this time and and it would not be until years after the event that it would be linked to the Harrington case as DNA technology had advanced sufficiently to provide a conclusive link for the investigators.
February 6, 1981 – Irvine, California
Almost a year later and only seventeen miles from the Harrington crime scene, the unimaginable happened again. Manuela Withuhn, 28, lay asleep in the apparent safety of her home in a rather upscale neighborhood. That was until a predator managed to pry his way into her home through a screen door at the rear of the property. He then proceeded into the bedroom and repeated the horrific deeds that had terrorized the state of California for the past five years.
Manuela was disturbed by the sudden intruder, bound and sexually assaulted before being bludgeoned to death. Like the Harrington case, the ligature marks were present on both her arms and ankles. Unlike the Harrington case, the killer appeared to have removed the bindings and murder weapon upon his departure from the scene. All detectives managed to collect from the scene were some wooden matches from the front of the house and down the sideway leading to the backyard.
Before these cases were linked years later through the DNA profile of the offender it was apparent what the authorities were dealing with, a clever and ruthless predator. Detectives managed to lift several footprints from the rear of the Withuhn home that appeared be from a tennis-style shoe. After conducting interviews with the neighbors, police gathered a report from a neighbor from the property directly behind the crime scene which stated that the resident returned home at approximately 11PM to find her dead-bolt unlocked. She believed this to be unusual but as nothing else was disturbed, decided that it was not worth reporting.
May 4, 1986 – Irvine, California
Although unbeknownst to anyone at the time, chronologically this would be the last recorded offense of the man who would go down in history The Original Night Stalker or the East Area Rapist depending on where you come from. To detectives of the day, this was another case of murder albeit extremely brutal. In a big money neighborhood of the city of Irvine that lies only three miles from the Withuhn crime scene five years prior, 18 year old Janelle Cruz lay on her bed and had been bludgeoned to death.
Upon closer examination it would become clear he had also been raped before suffering the same grotesque fate as many of the victims prior. The scene was discovered by a real estate agent who arrived the following evening to preview the home. Friends would later state that Janelle rarely locked doors to the home which provided the offender easy access to the property since no signs of forced entry were ever recorded.
However unlike both the Harrington and Withuhn crimes however, police investigating the crime managed to develop a suspect. A male friend of the victim was the last person to see Janelle alive and lied to investigators about being present before the offender struck. He did note that Janelle kept hearing noises coming from outside her bedroom window as they sat down. Time passed before they heard more suspicious noises, this time coming from the garage that sounded like somebody shutting the main door.
The male friend left with Janelle just before 11PM to return to his own home and a neighbor verified the story as they noted the distinctive muffler sound returning at approximately 11:15PM. The investigators failed to find any evidence to link the friend to the crime and eventually cleared him as a suspect. Therefore the offender they realized, was lying in wait upon Janelle’s returned to the home.
Walking down the hallway towards her room, Janelle was struck from behind with a heavy object and violently dragged into her bedroom where the sexual assault began. Brutalized and raped, Janelle suffered arguably the most brutal assault this offender ever committed. In a shark like frenzy, the offender repeatedly raped Janelle before bludgeoning her so severely that her teeth would not only be found scattered around her body but also in her digestive system.
Like the previous assaults her face was covered while she was bludgeoned to minimize the degree of blood splatter. Despite there being no bindings found at the scene or ligature marks on the body, bruises and scrapes were found on Janelle’s wrists and her bra was dragged down to around her waist. Blades of grass were also found scattered around the body and a Medium-Blue colored lint was found next to the body from material that had been ripped from fabric, possibly to be used as bindings.
Although Detectives of the time were unaware of the East Area Rapist at the time, the tearing of the fabric would later prove to strengthen the links identifying this serial killer as the same man responsible for the approximately fifty cases of rape in the northern parts of California. Police would also speculate that the offender later spent time in the house after the murder as patches of blood would be found throughout the house.
Tennis shoe prints, similar to that of the Withuhn crime scene were also discovered along the east side of the Cruz family home. The investigators were also unable to locate the murder weapon at the scene of the crime but a pipe wrench was reported to be missing from the garage and upon further examination was the offenders likely weapon of choice. One can surmise that the offender removed it from the garage when Janelle and her companion heard the garage door closing earlier in the evening.
This had many of the hallmarks of an East Area Rapist case, but this was before computers, databases and the internet revolutionized the way law enforcement would investigate and combat crime. These crimes would all find their ways into the cold case files with the limited evidence being put into storage. Over a decade later and with advancements in DNA technology, the Orange County Crime Lab conducted testing on the biological evidence recovered from the Harrington, Withuhn and Cruz cases turned the case in a completely new direction.
Orange County California, 1998
In 1981, a staff journalist wrote an article speculating the presence of a serial killer operating in the southern California area entitled. The opening line of the article read: “Is a psychopathic ‘Night Stalker’ murdering Southern California couples in their beds?” Until now all none of the cases could be conclusively linked and the investigators in the respective counties had no leads to go by in developing a suspect.
With the formation of a Cold Case task force known as Countywide Law Enforcement Unsolved Element or simply CLUE in 1997, Detectives reviewing each of these crimes began to give credence to the theory of a Night Stalker operating in their jurisdiction but the proof would not come until the following year. In the Autumn of 1998, a criminalist at the Orange County Crime Lab finally took the biological evidence collected from Harrington, Withuhn and Cruz crime scenes for DNA testing and produced results that would shock those involved with the case.
The theory that a “Night Stalker” was operating in the south of California was finally proven to be true albeit ten years after the fact. Five victims brutally assaulted in their homes by a predator who had moved through California fifteen years prior without the authorities of the day even recognizing the series of murders present. Yet given the heinous nature of the crimes investigators began forming their theories on the case and began examining other cases that they believed might be connected to these crimes and noted the case numbers in the files of each case.
Detectives working with CLUE discovered the case numbers years later scribbled into the files and began examining each of the cases the original investigators considered to potentially be related to the Night Stalker crimes. In doing so they stumbled upon a case that predated even the Harrington case in Ventura, California. After establishing contact with the Venture Police Department, the detectives of CLUE managed to reach the original investigators of the 1980 Smith double murder who shared a horrific story of a crime that would soon bring the Night Stalkers body count to six.
Ventura California – March 13th, 1980
A fast lane couple were Lyman and Charlene Smith who lived a lifestyle many would envy. Their home was located in the hills above Ventura Harbor with a distant ocean view and both led successful careers. Lyman was a prominent lawyer who was waiting to hear the success of his application to be appointed to the California Supreme Court, while his wife Charlene was an interior decorator with a beach front office.
In a tragic turn, the location of her office may have been what drew their murderer to their home. On the afternoon of March 14th, Both would be found beaten to death in their bed by Lyman’s twelve year old son from his first marriage. Blood stains covered the walls and pieces of bark littered the floor with a blood soaked log being the murder weapon sitting at the foot of the bed. Investigators arrived shortly after and were horrified by what greeted them.
Both Lyman and Charlene bound with drapery cord using the suspects signature ‘diamond-knot’ and lying face down on the bed. After further examination it was determined that Charlene had also been raped and Lyman was the first to be killed determined through the analysis of the blood splatter patterns. Police also theorized that the offender may have been in the home before and knew the layout of the home and the bindings could have been pre-tied due to the complex nature of the knot and the disturbed cushions in the living room.
Investigators would later recount the crime scene as being an act of rage stemming from the massive amount of blood splatter in the bedroom. The examiner later determined that Lyman Smith was killed by a single blow to the head but was continually bludgeoned regardless. Just like the other cases in this series, the offender was so excessive in bludgeoning his victims were almost beyond recognition upon their initial discovery.
Conducting the standard procedural neighborhood canvas police began to learn of a prowler who had been reported in the vicinity of the Smith home in the days before and after the homicide from multiple sources. A neighbor reported hearing a suspect in their backyard while another reported having a window screen in their infant sons bedroom and was also missing. The neighbor reported an attempted burglary to the Ventura police after waking to their crying infant in the late hours of the night.
One could only conclude that if they had not woken to their babies cries, the neighbor and his wife may have also fallen victim to the same man responsible for the Smith’s murder. His wife went to check and settle their child at approximately 3:00 AM after hearing a noise coming from his bedroom. But as she reached the room there was no sign of an intruder. When checking the perimeter of their property a few days later the husband discovered the missing screen.
This had all the signs of an East Area Rapist case despite being in a completely new geographic region than the series that gave rise to the moniker for which he had become known. The prowling, the sexual assault, the crime scene possibly prepared ahead of time, the bindings and of course the signature knot used to prepare the bindings. Not only did this MO seem identical to the East Area Rapist before now but also to the recently identified Orange County Night Stalker.
Although a link between this series and the rapist case from the north had yet to be officially established, some of the detectives still working the East Area Rapist case had followed the murders in the southern parts of the state in their own time and were certain that they were dealing with the same madman. The details in each case were so similar yet when they tried to coordinate their investigations many of the Southern California officials brushed off such speculation as mere conjecture. Now it was undeniable.
Linking this series of crimes together sparked even greater levels of speculation about the case. The cold hit generated in the Orange County Crime Lab forced detectives in the South to consider the possibility that this was only the beginning of something much bigger? The precision and brutality demonstrated by the offender caused them to wonder if there were other crimes of this predator that were lying in the files of another department waiting to be discovered. Such a line of enquiry would soon pay off.
This line of enquiry would take investigators back to the year 1979 and the rural town of Goleta, California almost six months before the Smith double murder and nearly a year before the Harrington case. Using the all too famous MO of the Night Stalker, they found an incident that shared many of the same characteristics of the crimes they had already identified. Yet this time there was one important difference, there were witnesses!
Goleta, California – October 1st 1979.
A couple in the rural California town of Goleta were fast asleep in their beds until their peace and tranquility was shattered in the early hours of the morning. An intruder disturbed the couple by waking them with a flashlight and hissing at them to wake up. Waking slowly the victims realized that this wasn’t a dream as the flashlight blinded them and were ordered bound all while being threatened that if they did not comply, they would be killed.
Much like the East Area Rapist before now, the attacker had the female bind the male before he proceeded to tie her up using the signature diamond knot before retying her boyfriend in a similar manner. Again like the rapist he claimed all he wanted was money and proceeded to ransack the kitchen in his search after he was directed by the victims to a purse next to the kitchen sink. When he untied the females legs so she could lead him to the money, he instead laid her down on the living room floor and retied her ankles.
Laying on her back, she could hear what sounded like the intruder masturbating nearby. He returned with a pair of shorts in order blind the female and said he was now going to kill her by slashing her throat. While being overwhelmed by fear the female heard the suspect return to their kitchen whilst repeatedly whispering to himself “I’ll kill ‘em.” She soon heard him heading back down the hallway and began to make a run to the front door only to fall down. Despite being unable to see through the blind fold, she made a second effort and managed to make it into the front yard and scream for help.
That was until she felt a pull on her arm. The suspect pulled her close, placed a knife to her throat and hissed into her ear “I told you to be quiet and not to move.” While being dragged back into the house, the boyfriend was still laying bound hand and foot in bed heard the screams and decided to make his move. Hopping to the screen door at the rear of the house towards the back fence. Unable to break the fence to get it free, the man decided to conceal himself in the bushes adjacent to the fence. Soon noticing the flashlight of the offender searching the yard, he concealed himself behind a tree until the suspect re-entered the house.
Once he was out of sight he began to call for help after noticing the lights in his neighbors home. Meanwhile as the offender moved to return to the female, she had already seized the opportunity to make another dash to the front door. Now there was a man in the backyard and a female in the front yard signaling for help, the offender seemed to realize that he had lost control of the scene. He then grabbed a bicycle and departed the scene.
A neighbor who was also an FBI agent gave chase to the suspect before losing him after he dumped the bicycle and proceeded to run between adjoining properties. A black handled steak knife and the bicycle were later recovered. The bicycle had been taken from a nearby property at between 7pm and midnight on the on the night of the assault. Shoe impressions matching those from the scene were also found at the property where the bicycle was stolen from and matched those at the crime scene.
The detectives who arrived on the scene initially found the female victim still in the front yard screamingly hysterically and the male still concealed in the rear of the property. A description of the attacker profiled him as caucasian, approximately five foot ten inches tall and wearing a ski mask, all the same vague details of an East Area Rapist case. The point of entry to the property was also discovered to be the rear sliding door that was forced open with a screw driver.
Two months later the suspect would strike again in Goleta and his next victims would not be so fortunate…
Goleta, California – December 30th, 1979
In an assault carried out in a manner almost identical to the aborted attempt almost three months prior, The Night Stalker returned to Goleta and took the lives of a well-established physician and his partner. Dr Robert Offerman and Alexandria Manning lay sleeping in the doctor’s condominium when their slumber was interrupted by the stealth-like predator. However this time would be different and police could only speculate as to what occurred during the event.
Upon their arrival at the scene, deputies found both Dr Offerman and Ms Manning naked and deceased in the bedroom of the condominium. The doctor had been the victim of multiple gunshot wounds while Alexandria had a single shot to the back of the head. Offerman still had cord tied around his left wrist which would help investigators paint a portrait of what happened in the early hours of the morning.
Like the prior assault, detectives would theorize that the suspect entered the property through the sliding door at the back of the property and confronted the victims while they slept. Unlike the prior assault it appeared that while the offender was attempting to bind Alexandria, Dr Offerman managed to free himself and in an attempt to confront the suspect was gunned down. There was no evidence found to suggest Ms Manning was sexually assaulted and simply executed.
The same shoe impressions from the earlier Goleta assault were lifted from the backyard and appeared to be that of a star shaped design of an Adidas runner type shoe. Turkey scraps in a plastic bag were also found in the backyard of the property. Police would theorize this was used to feed the dog the offender brought to the crime scene as paw prints were found along side the shoe impressions.
A neighborhood canvas revealed residents hearing gunshots at approximately 3AM and a bicycle that had been stolen during the night. However none had made an effort to contact law enforcement. The property next to the crime scene also showed signs the offender had been inside as similar pry marks were located at the rear sliding door along with a window screen that had been removed and the same shoe impressions in the yard.
Did the killer enter the property before hand as it was for sale and prepare it for his eventual return or use it as a hiding place upon the completion of his assault? The evidence collected from the scene would support both conclusions and in some degree’s differentiate this crime from other’s in the offenders already well established MO. For example, there was no evidence of sexual assault at the scene of the crime. All that could be determined by investigators was that victims may have believed the offender was simply a burglar given jewelry being found stuffed down the side of the bed. When they realized there was more occurring than just a simple burglary, the doctor tried to fight back before being shot repeatedly and his girlfriend was promptly executed afterwards.
Once news of these grizzly deeds reached the detectives back in Sacramento and Contra Costa counties that were still investigating the East Area Rapist cases, they realized the possibility of the prolific rapist and southern-based killer being one in the same. In their attempts to inform the Santa Barbara County law enforcement of their theories and willingness to share the evidence already gathered on the suspect, they were brushed aside. The Sheriff’s Department told them they had nothing similar to their case and refused to cooperate any further.
Despite the many similarities in the MO of the case and characteristics of the offender, the Santa Barbara officers brushed aside possibilities of the offender being the same individual. If it were not for such stonewall tactics on the part of the southern detectives, one can only wonder how differently the case would have unfolded. Would lives have been saved if a link between the two cases were established earlier? Would the offender have even been arrested? Tragically however, there was still another case in Santa Barbara County lying in wait to be attributed to this offender…
Goleta, California – July 27th, 1981
Upon their arrival at the crime scene, the sheriff’s deputies found Gregory Sanchez lying face down in the closet and his girlfriend, Cheri Domingo lying on the bed completely covered by the bedding. Pulling back the sheets revealed yet another horrifying sight, Cheri’s body lying face down on the bed with ligature marks on her wrists and ankles indicating she had been bound with her harms and legs behind her back.
Like the Offerman case, Police would speculate that Sanchez attempted to lunge at the offender only to be shot through the cheek. Although this wound was non-fatal, the more than twenty blunt-force wounds to his head were while Cheri was killed by only a single blow. The story told by the crime scene suggested that after the killer shot Gregory, he fell to the floor and was struck in the face. He later managed to make it back to his feet before being struck again by the suspect and then crawled into the closet and died. The murderer’s weapon of choice was never established. All the police were able to ascertain was that both victims were killed with the same weapon. Upon examining the house, a window in the bathroom was found to be wide open and no signs of forced entry were found. The standard canvas of the neighborhood produced a number of leads, more than many of the other cases had ever provided. Despite hearing a gunshot at approximately 3:30 AM and hearing a scream, neighbors failed to react.
However, multiple witnesses reported prowling in the vicinity of the home on the same night and in days prior to the assault. The subject was described as being between 5’9 and 5’11 with an athletic build, shoulder-length blonde hair and between 25 and 30 years of age. The same tiresome description featured in the case of the East Area Rapist and now the Original Night Stalker. Police were also told stories of the suspect being spotted with a German Shepard from neighbors descriptions. The paw prints were similar to the ones lifted from the Offerman-Manning case only months prior.
Cheri Domingo happened to be house sitting for a friend as the house was coming up for sale. When Police made contact with the agent responsible for the property, they were informed of a gentleman who met the description of the reported prowler. Supposedly the man came in for the open inspection and proceeded to scope the interior of the house while the agent was busy with some other clients. The killers reported point of entry was a window where the screen had been removed which later gave credence to speculation that the man scoping the homes interior was also the murderer.
Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office – July 8th, 2000
Two decades after the Original Night Stalker or East Area Rapist had been attributed to a rape or homicide in their respective counties. Larry Crompton, one of the original investigators from the East Area Rapist case received a call from Criminalist Paul Holes in the Contra Costa County crime lab. Holes had stumbled across a series of files in the archives labelled “E.A.R” and upon opening them stumbled across the case of arguably the most brazen, most prolific serial sex offender of the modern age. Approximately fifty counts of rape all linked by the unquestionably unique modus operandi of the suspect.
He also found that the lab still had the rape kits from multiple East Area Rapist cases and contacted Detective Crompton with the news that they had been able to provide the definitive link between at least three cases. Despite the statute of limitations expiring on the rape case, they were able to provide the original case detectives with their assurance that their original assumptions about the case were correct.
Working with the retired Detective, Holes learned of the Southern California assaults and how the Sherrifs Department in Santa Barbara county failed to cooperate during the original investigation. In taking Crompton’s advice, he contacted the Orange County Crime Lab and in October of the same year managed to conclusively prove to that the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker were actually the same individual!
After countless investigative hours, a prolific serial rapist and a stealth-like serial killer were actually the same man. However there were still more questions than answers. The DNA profile that linked the two cases failed to produce a match in the national database. Despite a break in the case of gigantic proportions, one of the most prolific criminals in the history of the American justice system was still without a face. One interesting piece of evidence came from this inquiry though.
The profile generated on the suspect did not yield a blood type. The majority of any population can be classified as having various blood types such as “A-Positive” or “O-Negative”. The East Area Rapist on the other hand was without such a classification. This placed him in approximately a minority of twenty percent of the overall American Population who are known as “Non-Secretors”.
Those still working the case just had their total suspect pool narrowed to my a gigantic margin but unfortunately still came up empty in unmasking the predator who’s name still struck fear into those who knew him. Now all one can do is speculate Who he is?, What does he do?, and Where is he now? The victim’s deserve closure, their families deserve closure and the communities he victimized deserve closure.
The original investigators assigned to this case deserve to see the reward of all their exhaustive efforts finally realized with the identification and apprehension of the Original Night Stalker. But like any classic cold case, all we are left with is speculation. There a still more questions than answers. After reading the book “Sudden Terror” by Detective Crompton, I learned that out of the numerous counts of rape where both a man and woman were present that only one of the couples remained together after they fell victim to the rapist.
Its been more than twenty years since the Original Night Stalker was attributed to a murder or rape. The most likely scenario is that the man responsible for these heinous assaults is dead or in prison on an unrelated charge. Which raises a more terrifying possibility that he may be released one day and be free to strike again. What happened to the suspect after the murder of Janelle Cruz?. If someone is able to answer that question, we may finally able to unmask this terrifying predator.