Part 2: The Clues

Date Published 04.26.11
Above all else, he was a coward.  He hid behind a mask and talked with clenched teeth, in an exaggerated whisper.  He adhered obsessively to the same script --- swearing, threatening, and insisting he was just there for food and money.  He wasn't.

He roughly bound his victims with shoelaces.  He raped the women.  Some would argue the disguise was obvious: he didn't want to be caught.  I believe it was more than that.  During the day, his real face and voice were a disappointment.  It was only in the middle of the night, when his victims were most vulnerable, that in disguise with a gun in his hand the little man got to feel big.

EAR/ONS, or the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker, began his reign of terror on June 18, 1976, in Rancho Cordova, outside Sacramento.  Some experts believe EAR/ONS got started earlier, in the town of Visalia; there's also compelling evidence he was responsible for the murders of several couples in Goleta, outside Santa Barbara.  For simplicity's sake I'm going to focus solely on the rapes and murders that are unquestionably his.

EAR/ONS terrified Sacramento until April 1978.  He then moved to places like Modesto, Davis, and Danville.  On March 13, 1980, a prominent criminal defense attorney, Lyman Smith, and his beautiful wife, Charlene, were bludgeoned to death in their hillside home in Ventura with a fire log.  EAR had turned into ONS.

But it would take almost 20 years and the advent of DNA profiling for authorities to put it together, to trace a zigzag line of violence down the state of California and know, finally and certainly, that it was the work of one man.

On May 4, 1986 a pretty 18-year-old named Janelle Cruz was visiting with a male friend at her parent's home in Irvine.  They heard a strange noise outside her bedroom window.  Janelle dismissed it, believing it was the washing machine.  The friend left.  The next day, a real estate agent previewing the home discovered Janelle's body lying diagonally across her bed.  She'd been bludgeoned to death in a frenzy of violence.  A pipe wrench was missing from the back yard.

Tennis shoe impressions were located outside the house, a hallmark of EAR/ONS.  He had a penchant for blue Adidas.

Janelle Cruz's murder was the last known EAR/ONS crime.  He didn't appear to court notoriety; he certainly didn't get it.  A conflux of circumstances allowed him to go underground with a high number of victims, but low name recognition.

Janelle Cruz

EAR/ONS struck in multiple jurisdictions, which made coordinating an investigation difficult.  He targeted upscale areas that weren't always eager for negative publicity.  It took a long time for DNA to tie the crimes together; by then some of the original, key investigators had retired, or moved on.

He shouldn't breathe easy.  Larry Crompton, a former Contra Costa Sheriff's Detective, has recently published a meticulously detailed account of the crimes, Sudden Terror, which reads like a stack of page-turning police files.

In addition to Crompton's book, an impressive community of people has come together at an A & E sponsored website.  Posters exchange theories and sift through details, adding bits of expertise or geographic knowledge.  If the subject wasn't so serious, and the goal noble, joining the board might feel like trying to gain acceptance into a secret society without having the right handshake, or password.  There's a shorthand long-time case studiers have developed.  If you don't know what the "bull tattoo" or "green fibers" mean, for example, you might want to read up before you join the discussion.

But unlike other unsolved mystery communities, where one senses catching the suspect would almost be disappointingly anti-climatic for them, the EAR/ONS community's desire for justice feels strong and sincere.

EAR/ONS wasn't a supervillian.  He was a man, a guy with habits and traits and preferences that, with enough examination, should shine like Hansel's breadcrumbs in the woods.

One of the many EAR ONS composites

The key to identifying EAR/ONS now is finding the right combination of clues to plug into a search engine; to hone in on the neighborhoods where he attacked, narrowing the parameters until, at last, his house comes into view.

It's believing that if the details get enough publicity, the right person will come across the dates and locations, the clues --- a description of his jackets, say, or his fondness for bikes --- and suddenly look up from her computer at her husband, father, or brother across the room, fearful but knowing what she must do.

The details in this case are complicated, sometimes contradictory, and dense.  Here are some I feel are potentially significant:


EAR/ONS targeted middle class areas.  Many of his victims, especially some of the couples he murdered, would be considered high status people (doctors, lawyers).  He obviously felt comfortable in these neighborhoods.  There's evidence he did a lot of surveillance on his victims; he roamed backyards.  Jiggled doors.

People didn't report a disturbing, suspicious man lurking in the neighborhood before the attacks.  This means he didn't stand out.

Further evidence that he was middle class is the fact that he often had the opportunity to take more money than he did.

And his DNA isn't in the system, meaning he's thus far avoided any serious arrest.

Identifying Traits

Perception of his age in the mid to late '70s ranged from late teens to early thirties.  My guess is that in 1976 he was in his early to mid twenties.

Physically he's most often described as 5'9 to 5'11, with a swimmer's build.  Lean, but with a muscular chest and noticeably big calves.  Very small penis, both narrow and short.  9-91/2 shoe size.  Dirty blonde hair.  Bigger than normal nose.  Type A blood, non-secretor.

He used the phone to contact his victims.  Sometimes before an attack, sometimes after.  Hang-ups, but also theatrical, scary-movie deep breathing calls.

He wore ski masks.  Brought guns.  Had what looked like a pen style navigator flashlight, and liked to startle victims awake by beaming it in their eyes, blinding them.  He tore towels into strips, or used shoelaces, for ligatures.

He had a script, and stuck to it.  Some variation of, "Do what I say, or I'll kill you."  He alleged he only wanted money and food.  Sometimes he said it was for his apartment.  Other times he mentioned his van.  He would make the woman tie up the man, then separate them.  Sometimes he'd stack dishes on the man's back and tell him if he heard a crash he'd kill the female victim.

He frequently brought baby lotion to the scene to use as a lubricant.

He liked to steal neighborhood bikes, and escape on them.

Some personal items associated with EAR/ONS:  a bag with a long zipper, like a doctor's bag, or duffel; blue tennis shoes; motocross gloves; corduroy pants.

He took drivers licenses and jewelry, particularly rings.

Many details suggest a military connection.  The way he carried himself, his clothing, the background of some of his victims, his use of ornate knots.

Some of the things he said, which may or may not be true but are nevertheless interesting:  Killing someone in Bakersfield; moving back to LA; "I hate you, Bonny"; being thrown out of the Air Force.

Something may have been going on with him in late October 1977.  In two different attacks around that time he was described as sobbing.

Some vehicles possibly associated with EAR/ONS: green Chevy van, 1960s yellow sidestep pick-up truck, VW bug.

Another EAR/ONS composite


My feeling is that the two most important locations are Rancho Cordova and Irvine.

The first and third rapes were only yards apart in Rancho Cordova.  He walked away in an unhurried fashion from the third attack without his pants on, suggesting he lived close by.

He murdered Manuela Witthuh on February 6, 1981, in Irvine.  Five years later he murdered Janelle Cruz.  Manuela and Janelle lived in the same Irvine subdivision, just two miles apart.

Interestingly, Manuela's answering machine tape was stolen in the murder.  Was the suspect's voice on the tape?  Was it recognizable?

What kind of man was he?

One of the things I most strongly believe about this case is that EAR/ONS is not a criminal mastermind.

For years people waxed on about the unknown Green River Killer and his obvious genius at eluding authorities.

Gary Ridgeway turned out to have the I.Q. of a smart dog.

But what about the quality of surveillance EAR/ONS was able to do?  He knew when victims would be alone.  He hid pre-cut ligatures, and emptied victims' guns before they woke and then dared them to shoot him.

He had skills, certainly.  But I'm reminded of the documentary Hands on a Hard Body, about an endurance competition in Longview, Texas.  The notorious yearly contest has contestants putting their hands against a pick-up truck to see who can remain standing there the longest without leaning against the truck, or squatting down.  The winner gets the truck.

People do this for days.  Several days.  All I could think while watching the film was, "Imagine if that energy and commitment was channeled into something useful, for example something that would make you the kind of money where you could buy yourself a pick-up truck."

What we're seeing in EAR/ONS is the pure, jacked up concentration of one man's compulsion.

There's a popular saying about work --- 90% of success is showing up.  EAR/ONS showed up, again and again.

He's not a mastermind.  (I use the present tense, because relying on statistics about life expectancy I believe he's probably alive, and will be caught).  He's lucky.  But I guarantee he doesn't hear how lucky he is in his everyday life.  The kind of person who's driven to startle innocent peope awake, terrify them maximally, then bludgeon them to death doesn't do so because his life is a gauzy, endorphin-filled ride of high-fives and hugs.

Meanwhile, the circle on the map is getting smaller.  The amount of searchable data is growing larger.  Things are going to get much worse for him.

Some excellent resources on this case:
Sudden Terror by Larry Crompton
AETV discussion board

*Interesting timing --- the 1981 murders of Cheri Domingo and Gregory Sanchez, in Goleta, California, have just been positively linked by DNA to EAR/ONS.  Hopefully this new revelation will bring authorities closer to identifying him.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.