Contra Costa County investigator Paul Holes has spent the past two decades searching for one of the most elusive serial killers in U.S. history.
Several hours before dawn on October 7, 1978, a serial predator known as the East Area Rapist prowled the side of a house in a quiet Concord neighborhood near Treat Boulevard and Oak Grove Road. He sliced through a wood veneer on one of the home’s entrances but was deterred by a security bar inside the door. Demonstrating remarkable deftness, the man—whom investigators believe had already committed dozens of break-ins and sexual assaults in similarly quiet suburban neighborhoods in the Sacramento area—punched a small hole in a window. Using a tool to unlatch it, he slipped inside the single-story house.
In the master bedroom, a married couple was sound asleep. The intruder, wearing a ski mask, crept into the bedroom and woke up the couple. While shining a flashlight in his victims’ eyes, the East Area Rapist (or EAR, as he was known to the law enforcement task forces that had been searching for him since 1976) warned the couple that he was holding a gun and would fire if they resisted in any way.
The criminal gave bindings to the wife and instructed her to tie up her husband, who was facedown on the bed. After checking and reinforcing the bindings, the intruder placed dishes from the couple’s kitchen on the husband’s back and issued a chilling warning.
“If you move and these dishes make a noise, I’ll kill you both,” he said.
With the husband restrained, EAR led the wife into the living room and raped her for several hours. Before leaving, EAR looted the home, stealing 14 sets of expensive Noritake Polonaise china.
Then, silently, he disappeared into the night.
Six nights later, on October 13, EAR returned to the Concord neighborhood and viciously attacked and robbed a married couple in a nearby house. This time, a child awoke and caught him in the act; EAR locked the child in the bathroom and warned the parents that the child would be executed if they made any noise.
Once again, EAR terrorized his victims and left them devastated in their own home. Two weeks later, he committed another rape, this time in San Ramon—one of nine violent crimes attributed to EAR in the East Bay between October 1978 and June 1979, which followed nearly 40 similar attacks in Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, and Davis dating back to June 1976. At a time when the paranoia created by the Zodiac Killer—who murdered at least five victims in the late 1960s and early ’70s—was starting to fade, EAR brought terror to the West Coast for a full decade.
More than a year after the San Ramon attack, EAR shot and killed a couple in Goleta, near Santa Barbara. The man and woman were the first known murder victims of one of the most diabolical serial criminals in American history. They would not be the last.
To date, EAR—also known as the Original Night Stalker and the Golden State Killer—has yet to be apprehended or even identified.
The Forensic Expert
Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office cold-case investigator Paul Holes was just 10 years old when EAR terrorized the East Bay Area in the late 1970s. Holes, who grew up in a military family, was living in Washington, D.C., during that time and remembers watching the NBC mystery show Quincy, M.E., with fascination. The show, which predated the wave of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation detective shows by decades, featured a coroner who solved criminal cases through medical science.
“I watched Quincy regularly,” says Holes, 49. “I was fascinated by the investigative thought process he would employ to solve the mystery—utilizing the medical and forensic evidence and investigative techniques. As I got older, I thought, that is what I want to do.”
Holes has been working in the East Bay for more than 27 years, with roles in the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office crime lab and the DA’s office. His tenure in East Bay law enforcement coincides with the evolution of the use of DNA technology as a law enforcement tool. He became a sworn criminalist in 1994, the same year the sheriff’s lab invested in a DNA program.
DNA technology helped Holes both eliminate suspects and solve crimes, including the 1978 murder of Lafayette resident Armida Wiltsey, a 42-year-old woman who was strangled at the Lafayette Reservoir. Twenty years after her murder, Holes and other investigators paired a DNA sample found under one of Wiltsey’s fingernails with the blood sample of a paroled murderer named Darryl Kemp, who had relocated to Pleasant Hill after being released from prison in Southern California. Kemp was convicted of Wiltsey’s murder and sentenced to death in June 2009. He is still on death row at San Quentin State Prison.
After coming across the EAR cold-case files in 1994, Holes asked a colleague, John Murdock, about the case. Murdock had worked with many others to investigate the crimes and hunt down EAR from 1978 to 1979, compiling detailed evidence reports of each crime scene. Every footprint, point of entry, type of binding, and clue was logged in Murdock’s spreadsheet.
Holes was fascinated by the mystery.
“This is someone who did not want to be caught: He always wore a mask and shined a flashlight in his victims’ eyes,” says Holes. “He’s a white male, very agile. He is tactically sound; he would often use the backyard as an escape route and attack in neighborhoods with single-story homes so there are no neighbors looking out a window that might identify him. The one thing he would not have known at the time of his crimes was that DNA evidence could eventually identify him. And we have DNA evidence [semen] from the crime scenes. We can identify him. This is a solvable case.”
Clues on the Train Tracks
At approximately 2 a.m. on December 9, 1978, EAR broke into a home in Danville and raped a single woman who was renting the house. After escaping through a neighboring backyard, he hopped a fence and followed the train tracks—now the Iron Horse Regional Trail—north for several hundred feet.
Bloodhounds called to the scene that night lost the scent at the intersection of the train tracks and El Capitan Drive, leading investigators to believe he got in a car and drove away. Although he vanished, likely escaping onto Interstate 680, investigators found a few clues, including several papers along the train tracks, likely dropped by EAR as he stuffed his mask and gloves into a bag.
Two pages appeared to be school essays written on notebook paper. One page contained a history report about General Custer. The other was a writing assignment that began:
“Mad is the word, the word that reminds me of 6th grade. I hated that year. I wish I had know [sic] what was going to be going on during my 6th grade year, the last and worst years of elementary school. Mad is the word that remains in my head about my dreadful year as a 6th grader. My madness was one that was caused by disappointments, which hurt me very much. Disappointments from my teacher such as field trips that were planned, then cancelled. My 6th [sic] grade teacher gave me a lot of disappointments that made me very mad and made me built [sic] a state of hatred in my heart, no one ever let me down that hard before and I never ‘hated anyone’ as much as I did him.”
Speculating that the pages may have fallen from a notebook that EAR had kept for years, Holes says, “The ‘Mad Is the Word’ essay was written by a kid with obvious psychological problems.” Holes has interviewed many educators about the writing, all of whom said the essay would raise immediate red flags about the student’s mental stability.
The third page found on the train tracks is a sketch of a lake-centric master-planned community. “Initially, investigators found this hand-drawn diagram of a home development and had no idea what it was,” says Holes, who keeps a copy of it pinned to the wall of his Martinez office, next to an enlarged photo of a suburban development in the Davis area that may contain connections to the drawing.
“I have consulted countless experts across many disciplines,” says Holes, “and the consensus opinion is that it was drawn by someone who has some sort of connection to the development or real estate industry.”
EAR’s 29 assaults in the Sacramento area (the eastern area of the city, hence the moniker East Area Rapist) suggested a knowledge of the area consistent with someone who lived there. However, EAR’s East Bay crimes demonstrated a different modus operandi.
Holes pulls up a Google Earth map on his desktop computer, showing where all nine East Bay rapes occurred between October 1978 and June 1979. All were along the I-680 corridor, most within a few blocks of a freeway on-ramp. Additionally, two rapes in November and December of 1978 occurred in San Jose, leading Holes to believe that EAR was driving north and south along I-680 for work, pulling off from time to time to case neighborhoods with single-story homes.
“Whenever [EAR] has multiple attacks in a jurisdiction, it is in the very same neighborhood,” says Holes. “He already has the mental map of that area. He knows how to get there and escape.”
Other elements of his crimes are less consistent, and clues to his background remain mysterious. The ages of the assaulted women ranged widely, from 13 to 38. Some of the victims received phone calls from EAR months or even years after their assault. One victim received a call in the early 1980s while working her shift at a diner, meaning that EAR might have dropped in the restaurant by coincidence, or he could have been following his victim from home to work. Without question, EAR made the calls because he was thrilled to terrorize his victims.
It’s also possible that some assaults targeted specific people. “One of the original investigators in Sacramento remembers a man standing up at a town hall meeting and making statements about EAR,” says Holes. “Later, that man and his wife were attacked.”
An Attack Goes Sideways
Just before 4 a.m. on July 5, 1979, EAR broke into an East Bay residence, picking a multilevel condominium in Danville instead of the usual single-story home with a yard. The husband in the residence woke up to see EAR standing in the bedroom, putting on his ski mask.
“The husband gets up and faces off with EAR as his wife runs out of the room,” explains Holes. “The attack had gone sideways, and EAR lost control. EAR ran out of the condo, and [the] husband chased after him, but EAR got away. The bloodhounds scented him running for several blocks to where he had parked his vehicle.”
The next time EAR attacked was in October 1979, several hours south in Goleta. Again, the attempt went awry and EAR escaped on foot despite being chased by the couple’s neighbor, an off-duty FBI agent.
On December 30, 1979, EAR attacked Robert Offerman and Debra Alexandria Manning in Goleta. This time, he shot them, leaving their bodies in the house as he fled the scene. Investigators found that the bindings on Offerman had been untied, leading to the theory that Offerman got loose and lunged at the assailant before being killed.
EAR had now become a full-fledged killer. In March of 1980, he murdered Charlene and Lyman Smith in their Ventura home, bludgeoning the couple with a log from a woodpile in their yard. Then in August of that year, he beat to death Keith and Patrice Harrington, of what’s now Dana Point. In both of the 1980 double homicides, the women had been raped.
Three more victims were murdered in 1981: Manuela Witthuhn of Irvine, and Cheri Domingo and Gregory Sanchez of Goleta. Five years later, he bludgeoned 19-year-old Janelle Cruz with a pipe wrench in her Irvine home.
EAR—later nicknamed the Golden State Killer by the late crime writer Michelle McNamara, whose book about the case, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, will be released on February 27—was not suspected in another violent crime after 1981. With the exception of a possible phone call to a victim in 1991, the malevolent criminal disappeared entirely.
Connecting the DNA Dots
Holes returned to the EAR files frequently between 1996 and 2001, whenever he wasn’t working on active investigations in Contra Costa County. During this time, DNA technology was becoming much more sophisticated, and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office crime lab updated its equipment accordingly.
In March 2001, Holes had analysts compare the DNA analysis from EAR’s semen found at three East Bay crime scenes to DNA evidence from other unsolved cases in Orange County, and a match was found. The same man who committed 50 assaults in Northern California between 1976 and 1979 was now connected to the murders of 10 people in Southern California between 1979 and 1986. While the statute of limitations to prosecute the rape cases had long since expired, there is no such limitation on murder charges. That means that Holes, and the many career law enforcement professionals who have spent countless hours hunting this elusive serial criminal, will get to see the Golden State Killer prosecuted—if his identity is ever discovered.
In April 2001, Holes and Southern California investigators went public with the revelation that DNA evidence had connected the Northern California assaults with the Southern California murders. The day after The Sacramento Bee ran a story about the investigation update, one of the Sacramento-area victims received a call from her rapist.
“Remember when we partied?” the voice whispered into his victim’s ear. It had been about 25 years since the assault, but the call brought back the trauma of violence and terror as if it had happened the day before.
In June of 2016, the FBI used the 40th anniversary of EAR’s first crime to ask the public for new information. A $50,000 reward was offered to anyone with details leading to the arrest and conviction of the criminal, who would be between 58 and 70 years old today.
Hunting a Monster
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert was 12 years old when EAR first terrorized the suburbs around Sacramento.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that he was hitting, and I can tell you that this man changed communities,” says Schubert. “The level of violence that erupted in this man is overwhelming. There are families and victims in our community who deserve to see him prosecuted.”
Holes, who is due to retire in March, wants to see the exhaustive work he has put into hunting for the serial criminal—the victim interviews, the crime scene visits, the DNA analyses, the Interpol searches for suspects—pay off with an arrest. It would be gratifying to him and a relief to his victims.
“Many of the female victims I have spoken to over the years have said, ‘I want to do whatever I can do to help you catch this guy.’ It is still an emotional experience, but they are determined to see him brought to justice,” says Holes. “The husbands also want to see him brought to justice, but have a different reaction when speaking with me. Several have instantly become very emotional, having to recall this devastating event when they were unable to protect their wife.”
All this time, Holes says, the criminal could have been hiding among us in plain sight. He thinks EAR could be a successful, white-collar professional. He could be married with children, a pillar of his community hiding pathological secrets.
“I think that when EAR is caught, we will find a man who is similar to the makeup of the BTK Killer, Dennis Rader, of Wichita, Kansas,” says Holes. “BTK stood for Bind, Torture, Kill—just horrific crimes. But when Rader was caught, we learned that he was married with kids, he was active in his son’s Boy Scout troop, and he was president of his church. He had worked installing security systems in houses, which is why he knew how to get in and out of a home.”
If Holes ever gets to interview EAR face-to-face, there are a million questions he would like to ask.
“There are so many things I would want answers to, almost from an academic perspective on serial criminality. I would want to go through the cases from the very beginning: How did you select this victim? What were your tactics? Why did you take this weird thing out of the house?”
Holes stares at the enlarged photograph of a suburban neighborhood on his wall. He takes a breath and says, “But I think the first thing I’d ask is, ‘Who are you?’ ”
For more information, go to fbi.gov and search East Area Rapist or Golden State Killer.