The Ventura Murders

Date Published 06.30.09
The French doors were open.  Outside, just beyond the patio, the Pacific Ocean loomed, vast and noisy.  It was after 10 p.m.  The “American Idol” finale was playing on TV in the living room, its familiar theme song resuming after every commercial break.

This was a Wednesday night.  This was a family of four going about the evening in their multimillion-dollar beachfront home, relaxed and unafraid.  The patio doors were open because all that lay beyond them were seawall and sand, water and rock.  The ocean air was sharp.  The ocean sounds, lulling.

This was the good life, until the moment when a man entered the house through the open French doors.  His presence must have been confusing at first.  Strangers don’t approach the house from the beach.  Who was he?  He didn’t want anyone to know.  He wore a dark jumpsuit and a black motorcycle helmet --- a menacing, eerie figure lurking in the doorway with the ocean waves crashing behind him.

Davina and Brock Husted

A short while later Davina and Brock Husted, both 42, were dead, stabbed multiple times.  Their children, ages 9 and 11, hid in the house during the attack and ran to a neighbor’s house to call 911 after finding their parents’ bodies.  Davina Husted was four months pregnant.

The May 20 murders deeply unsettled the community of Faria Beach, an area of expensive beachfront homes just north of Ventura, California.  The Husteds were well liked and didn’t have any apparent enemies.  Brock owned an upscale wrought-iron business in nearby Santa Barbara.  Davina was active in the community.

The murders were vicious and puzzling.  Detectives recovered the murder weapon in the house, but they had no suspect, and no obvious motive.  It didn’t appear to be an attempted robbery or sexual assault.  One area of focus was a nearby campground, where witnesses reported seeing a motorcycle but no rider, or a man carrying a helmet but no motorcycle, or two motorcyclists acting strangely.  The information was incomplete and confusing, but one thing was clear:  no one knew why a man in a motorcycle helmet walked up the narrow, rocky beach, climbed the patio stairs, entered the Husted’s house, and killed them.

Two weeks later and nine miles south, a violent intruder struck again.  

Wendy DiRodio, 61, was living with her elderly parents in the Ventura Keys, an upscale waterfront area, after a late-in-life divorce.  The licensed psychotherapist and author was a bubbly personality, an animal-lover who loved to swing dance.   

Around 3 p.m. on Wednesday, June 3, DiRodio’s parents became concerned because they hadn’t heard from her all day.  They opened her locked first-floor bedroom, which had a separate entrance to outside, and found their daughter’s body in bed.  She’d been stabbed multiple times.

This was the third stabbing death in two weeks in a ten-mile area that sees very little violent crime.  Law enforcement officials acknowledged they couldn’t rule out a link.   In addition to the superficial similarities --- stabbings in beachfront areas, other people in the home left unharmed --- there are other connections. 

The Husteds owned a home they used as a rental property just blocks from DiRodio’s.  The Husted children went to Pierpont Elementary, which is in the Keys neighborhood.  Then there’s the real estate connection --- the Husteds, looking for more space for their growing family, had recently put their home up for sale; DiRodio had just bought a house. 

The Ventura Keys

The specter of a knife-wielding maniac who randomly targets beachfront homes has the Ventura area on edge, but those with longer memories are also unsettled by another possibility:  is EAR-ONS back?

EAR-ONS is an acronym for the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker, an unidentified serial rapist and murderer who preyed on women and couples in Southern California in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The East Area Rapist began his reign of terror in Sacramento in 1976, prowling upper-middle-class neighborhoods and attacking single women home alone.  He wore a ski mask and brought pre-cut lengths of cord.  He threatened his victims through clenched teeth. 

In 1977, the rapist got bolder, and began targeting couples.  In one common scenario he’d order the woman to tie up the man, then he’d place dishes on the bound man’s back, telling him that if he made a move he’d kill everyone in the house.  He’d take the woman in another room and rape her.

The East Area Rapist is estimated to have raped at least 50 women.

By 1979, the rapist appeared to have stopped.  In reality, he’d only moved south, and his appetite for violence had grown --- to murder.

On March 13, 1980, Lyman Smith, 43, a prominent criminal defense attorney, and his wife Charlene, 33, were found in the master bedroom of their hillside home in Ventura. Their wrists and ankles were bound with drapery cord; Charlene was raped. The killer used a log from their fireplace to bludgeon them to death.

Years passed.  A parade of suspects, all known to the Smiths, faced scrutiny.  Nothing stuck.  Looking to generate new leads, investigators sent details about the case to other Southern California police departments; detectives in Niguel Shores, in Orange County, saw similarities to a case they were working.  More cases followed.

The serial killer, dubbed the Original Night Stalker, would ultimately be tied to six murders through DNA, and is suspected of at least four more.

He roamed upscale coastal communities, stalking and targeting couples, often after they’d just had sex.  He shot, stabbed and bludgeoned.  Sometimes he brought his dog.  Witnesses reported seeing a white man jogging away from one crime scene, his German shepherd in tow.  Police believe the jogger was the killer. 

It wasn’t until 2001, when DNA testing became more advanced, that investigators discovered that the East Area Rapist, the man who'd terrorized women in Sacramento County in the late '70s, and the Original Night Stalker were the same man.

The last known EAR-ONS murder occurred in 1986.  Police theorize he died, or went to jail.  It’s a stretch to believe he’s responsible for the recent murders.  He’d be in his late 40s or early 50s now.  EAR-ONS liked to linger at the crime scenes, taking his time with his victims and sometimes eating the food in their refrigerators; that kind of total household dominance doesn’t appear to have happened in the Ventura murders.

Still, there are some similarities.

*EAR-ONS targeted coastal communities and beachfront properties, including Ventura.

*It’s believed he cased his victims by posing as a real estate agent or interested home buyer, as many of his victims lived near recently sold homes or homes for sale; both the Husteds and DiRodio were involved in recent real estate activities.

*DiRodio had recently bought a home in Goleta, a town west of Santa Barbara where EAR-ONS is suspected of killing four people.

*The Husted murderer wore a motorcycle helmet.  EAR-ONS is known to have worn a welders’ helmet in order to disguise himself.

If EAR-ONS has returned, it wouldn’t be the first time a serial killer resurfaces after many dormant years.  The BTK killer, in Wichita, began communicating with the media again after the local paper wrote a story coinciding with the 30th anniversary of his first crimes.

On May 3, Collen Cason, a writer for the Ventura County Star, published a column about the Original Night Stalker (“Tech-savvy sleuths continue quest for Original Night Stalker”).  She mentions the continuing fascination with the nearly-30-year-old case, and even makes reference to the BTK killer.  The article also mentions that on May 6 the E! Network would air a one-hour report on the case.

Two weeks later, the Husteds were murdered.

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.