Santa Rosa hitchhiker murders

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Map of California with Sonoma County highlighted and (inset) map of Sonoma County with Santa Rosa highlighted.

The Santa Rosa hitchhiker murders were a series of at least seven unsolved homicides involving female hitchhikers that took place in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa of the North Bay area of California in 1972 and 1973. All of the victims were found nude in rural areas near steep embankments or in creek beds near roads.[1]


Maureen Sterling and Yvonne Weber[edit]

Maureen Louise Sterling, 12, and Yvonne Lisa Weber, 13,[2] both Herbert Slater Middle School students,[3] disappeared around 9 p.m. on February 4, 1972, after visiting the Redwood Empire Ice Arena.[4] Both girls, like other young people in that era, often hitchhiked. They were last seen hitchhiking on Guerneville Road, northwest of Santa Rosa.[1] Their bodies were found on December 28, 1972, [5] 2.2 miles (3.5 km) north of Porter Creek Road on Franz Valley Road, down a steep embankment approximately 66 feet (20 m) off the east side of the roadway.[4] A single earring, orange beads and a 14-carat gold necklace with cross were found at the scene.[6] The cause of death could not be determined[4] from the skeletal remains.[6] Sterling’s mother identified the cross necklace and earring as her daughter’s property. The mate to the earring was not found at the scene.[2]

Kim Wendy Allen[edit]

Santa Rosa Junior College art student[7] Kim Wendy Allen, 19, was given a ride by two men on March 4, 1972,[6] from her job at Larkspur Natural Foods[8] to San Rafael.[6] They last saw her at approximately 5:20 pm hitchhiking to school near the Bell Avenue entrance to Highway 101, northbound,[4] carrying a large wooden soy barrel with red Chinese characters on it. Her body was found the following day down an embankment in a creek bed 20 feet (6.1 m) off Enterprise Road in Santa Rosa. The victim had been bound at the ankles and wrists, raped and slowly strangled with a cord for an estimated thirty minutes.[6] Semen was recovered from the body and a single gold loop earring was found at the site.[4] Markings at the top of the embankment and a possible leg impression in the loam indicated the assailant likely slipped or fell while throwing or transporting the body.[9] The two men who gave her a ride, one of whom was given and passed a polygraph test, were ruled out as suspects.[10] An aluminum-frame orange backpack that Allen had been carrying at the time of her murder was found several weeks later and her checkbook was deposited in a drive-up mailbox across from the Kentfield, California Post Office sometime on the morning of March 24, 1972, 20 days after she was murdered. Police thought two fingerprints on the checkbook might belong to the killer. When she was found, Allen also had an oily substance on her right side that authorities said was similar to the oil used in a machine shop.[11]

Lori Lee Kursa[edit]

Lori Lee Kursa, 13, a Lawrence Cook Middle School student,[12] had been reported missing by her mother on November 11, 1972[4] after disappearing while they shopped at a U-Save and was last seen on November 20 or 21 in Santa Rosa while visiting friends,[12] having deliberately run away.[6] She was a frequent hitchhiker and habitual runaway.[12][2] Her frozen remains were located on December 14, 1972, in a ravine approximately 50 feet (15 m) off Calistoga Road,[4] northeast of Rincon Valley in Santa Rosa. The killer had thrown the body at least 30 feet (9.1 m) over an embankment.[12] The girl had a single wire loop in each earlobe, but the rest of the earrings were missing and were not found at the scene.[2]

The cause of her death was a broken neck with compression and hemorrhage of the spinal cord. The victim had not been raped and likely died one to two weeks prior to discovery.[4] A possible witness to her abduction later came forward stating that on an evening somewhere between December 3 and 9, 1972, while on Parkhurst Drive, he saw two men push a girl fitting Kursa's description into the back of a van driven by a Caucasian man with an Afro-type hairstyle. The vehicle then sped north on Calistoga Road.[13]

Authorities speculated that Kursa was kidnapped, forced into the van, stripped of her clothing, and that she opened the passenger door of the speeding vehicle in an attempt to escape her captor or captors, fell or jumped or was pushed out and broke her neck in the fall into the ravine. Her captor or captors left her by the side of the road. The broken neck would have prevented Kursa from moving, but it would have taken some time for her to die from the injury.[2]

Carolyn Davis[edit]

Carolyn Nadine Davis, 15, ran away from her home outside Anderson in Shasta County[3] on February 6, 1973[14] but disappeared July 15, 1973, after being dropped off by her grandmother at the Garberville Post Office.[6] She was last seen hitchhiking that afternoon near the Highway 101 ramp,[4] southbound,[15] in Garberville.[4] Her body was discovered on July 31, 1973, just 3 feet (0.91 m) from where the remains of Sterling and Weber had been recovered seven months prior. Cause of death was strychnine poisoning 10–14 days before discovery.[6] It could not be determined if she had been raped.[4] An autopsy found that Davis had an injury to her right earlobe that appeared to be an attempted ear piercing. Her left earlobe had not been pierced.[2] Investigators postulated that her body had been thrown from the road as the hillside brush appeared undisturbed.[6] An investigator said a witchcraft symbol meaning "carrier of spirits" was found by her body.[16] Police reported in 1975 that it was “a rectangle connected to a square, with bars running along side” constructed of twigs or sticks. It was identified as an occult symbol dating back to medieval England and suggested a possible connection to the Zodiac Killer.[17] The symbol was located on the roadway above the site where Davis was found. Other investigators later cast doubt on the meaning of the twig figure and whether it had any connection to the girl’s murder.

Theresa Walsh[edit]

Theresa Diane Smith Walsh, 23, of Miranda,[18] was last seen on December 22, 1973, at Zuma Beach in Malibu, intent on hitchhiking to Garberville and joining her family for Christmas.[6] Her partially submerged body was found six days later by kayakers in Mark West Creek.[19] She had been hogtied with clothesline rope, sexually assaulted, strangled and was determined to have been dead approximately one week.[20] Due to recent heavy rains in the area, high water marks suggested the body could have drifted several miles.[19]

Unidentified remains[edit]

On July 2, 1979, the skeletal remains of a young white female were found in a ravine[14] off Calistoga Road approximately 100 yards (91 m) from where the body of Lori Lee Kursa had been recovered seven years earlier.[21][22] Due to the age of the remains, authorities initially believed them to be those of Jeannette Kamahele[14] until a comparison of dental records later proved negative.[23][24] The victim had been hogtied[25] and her arm fractured around the time of her murder,[22][26] and her corpse had been stuffed into a laundry or duffel bag before being dumped in the ravine,[24] but there was no other evidence to establish a cause of death.[14] It was determined that the unidentified victim was approximately 16 to 21 years old, wore hard contact lenses (kept in a metal candy tin with a picture of cherries on it), had red, auburn, or brown hair, was about 5 feet 3 inches (1.60 m) tall and at one time had broken a rib which was healed by the time of the murder.[24][3][14] Her weight and eye color could not be ascertained, and no clothing was found.[24] One expert consulted by authorities determined that the victim was likely killed between 1972 and 1974 and was about 19 years old. Hard contact lenses were not often sold in the United States and Canada after the mid-1970s, when soft contact lenses became available. She had also been bound in the same manner as Walsh.[2]

Possible victims[edit]

Lisa Michele Smith[edit]

According to some reports, Lisa Michele Smith, 17, was seen hitchhiking on Hearn Avenue in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California and her disappearance was never solved. She was initially reported missing from Petaluma, Calif., by her foster parents on March 16, 1971. Authorities suspect it is possible she was a victim or an attack on her was related to the other attacks in the area during the same time period. An article reportedly published on April 1, 1971 in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that Smith had apparently hitchhiked to San Francisco and, on March 26, 1971, was picked up there by a male driver. Smith jumped out of the pickup that was going 55 miles per hour south of Novato, California, after the driver brandished a gun and threatened to rape her. She was treated for a concussion at Novato General Hospital but left before authorities could interview her and hitchhiked back to San Francisco. Her biological parents located her and took her back to their home in Livermore, California, according to the article, which quoted a juvenile officer from the sheriff’s office. The newspaper clipping was posted on a 2016 blog entry on the Questersite blog at Wordpress.[27] A 2011 article in the same paper states that Smith was not found. All of the hospital and law enforcement records related to the case were missing by 2011 and authorities hoped to find Smith or someone who knew her to determine what happened, according to the 2011 article.[28]

Jeannette Kamahele[edit]

Jeannette Kamahele, a 20-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student,[29] was last seen on April 25, 1972, hitchhiking near the Cotati on-ramp of Highway 101.[14] A friend witnessed her likely abduction and reported that she entered a faded brown Chevrolet pickup truck fitted with a homemade wooden camper and driven by a 20- to 30-year-old Caucasian male with an Afro hairstyle. Her body has never been found.[3]

Kerry Ann Graham and Francine Marie Trimble[edit]

Kerry Ann Graham, 15, and Francine Marie Trimble, 14, of Forestville, disappeared in mid-December 1978. Skeletal remains were found the following July in Mendocino County where they were dumped off the side of a rural highway, but they weren't identified as belonging to Graham and Trimble until 2015 thanks to DNA analysis. A high school friend said she last saw the girls on a morning in December when all of them were smoking outside the high school. Graham and Trimble, who had been associating with classmates who used drugs, had gone to school that day but did not attend classes. The girls told their friend that they were going to hitchhike to a party in Santa Rosa but did not say who they were meeting. The friend said someone else they knew had seen the girls hitchhiking at a Chevron gas station in Forestville. It was not clear whether this occurred on the day the girls went missing. [30][31]

Trimble had also told her mother she intended to do some Christmas shopping at Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa. Trimble’s mother had seen the girls at her home sometime on December 15, 1978 and Graham’s sister recalled seeing them at her parents’ home either on December 15 or 16, 1978. The girls also mentioned to Graham’s sister that they planned to go to a party, but she did not recall further details. Graham was recovering from surgery to remove her appendix but had left the antibiotics she was still taking behind at her home.

Trimble’s mother reported her missing to police within a few days when she hadn’t returned home. Graham had a habit of running away to stay with friends, as had her older siblings, and her parents were not overly concerned at first when she did not come home. They did not tell her brother that Graham was missing until they saw him in person years later. Police also did not question any of the girls’ classmates and many were not aware they were considered missing. No official missing person report was filed for Graham until decades later, when Graham’s sister suspected the victims found were Graham and Trimble and urged police to conduct DNA testing. Police had believed the girls were runaways and had not thoroughly investigated their disappearance.

Authorities could not identify a cause of death for the victims who were found in 1979 but duct tape was found at the scene, likely indicating the two girls had been bound. A single bird-shaped earring was found at the scene that Graham’s sister later identified as one she had given to Graham. A mate to the earring was not found at the scene. No clothing or other items belonging to Graham or Trimble were found at the scene.[2]

FBI report on additional victims (1975)[edit]

In 1975, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a report stating that fourteen unsolved homicides between 1972 and 1974 were committed by the same perpetrator.[32] These consist of the six found victims (as of 1975) and the following:

  • Rosa Vasquez, 20, last seen May 26; her body was found on May 29, 1973.[33] near the Arguello boulevard entrance at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.[33] The victim had been strangled[34] and her body thrown 7 feet (2.1 m) off the roadway into some shrubs.[35] Vasquez had been a keypunch operator at Letterman General Hospital on the Presidio.[33]
  • Yvonne Quilantang, 15, was found strangled in a vacant Bayview district lot on June 10, 1973. She was seven months pregnant.[36]
  • Angela Thomas, 16, was found July 2, 1973, smothered on the playground of Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in Daly City.[34] She had last been seen the previous evening at the Presidio of San Francisco. A locket was recovered near the body.[37]
  • Nancy Patricia Gidley, a 24-year-old radiographer[38] last seen at a Rodeway Inn motel on July 12, 1973, was found strangled behind the George Washington High School[36] gymnasium three days later. The victim was unclothed except for a single[34] fish-shaped[38] gold earring and was determined to have died within the previous 24 hours.[34] Gidley had served four years in the Air Force and told friends and family in Mountain Home, Idaho that she intended to become a freelance writer for the San Francisco Chronicle[36] and was going to San Francisco to be the maid of honour at the wedding of a friend from Hamilton Air Force Base, all of which proved false.[39]
  • Nancy Feusi, 22, disappeared after going dancing at a club in the Sacramento area. Her remains[40] were found on July 22, 1973, in Redding.[41] She had been stabbed to death. In 2011, one of Feusi's five children, Angela Darlene Feusi McAnulty,[40] was convicted of torturing, beating, and starving to death her 15-year-old daughter Jeanette Marie Maples.[42] McAnulty became the second woman ever sentenced to die in Oregon[43] and the first since the 1984 reinstatement of the death penalty.[42]
  • Laura A. O'Dell, 21,[44] missing since November 4, 1973, was found three days later[45] in bushes behind the boathouse[44] at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. O'Dell's hands were tied behind her back, and the cause of death appeared to be from head injuries or strangulation.[45]
  • Brenda Kaye Merchant, 19, was found stabbed to death at her home February 1, 1974, in Marysville.[46]
  • Donna M. Braun, 14, whose strangled body was found on September 29, 1974 in the Salinas River near Monterey.[41]


The Zodiac Killer[edit]

The unapprehended Zodiac Killer is a suspect,[47] due to similarities between an unknown symbol on his January 29, 1974 "Exorcist letter" to the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he claims 37 victims,[48] and the Chinese characters on the missing soy barrel carried by Kim Allen,[49] as well as stating an intention to vary his modus operandi in an earlier November 9, 1969 letter to the San Francisco Chronicle: "I shall no longer announce to anyone. when I comitt my murders, they shall look like routine robberies, killings of anger, + a few fake accidents, etc." (sic)[50]

Arthur Leigh Allen[edit]

Arthur Leigh Allen, of Vallejo,[51] owned a mobile home at Sunset Trailer Park in Santa Rosa[52] at the time of the murders. He had been fired from his Valley Springs Elementary School teaching position for suspected child molestation in 1968[53] and was a full-time student at Sonoma State University.[54] Allen was arrested on September 27, 1974, by the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office[55] and charged with child molestation in an unrelated case involving a young boy.[56] He pleaded guilty on March 14, 1975, and was imprisoned at Atascadero State Hospital until late 1977.[57]

Robert Graysmith, in his book Zodiac Unmasked, claims that a Sonoma County sheriff revealed that chipmunk hairs were found on all of the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker victims and that Allen had been collecting and studying the same species.[58] Allen was the main suspect in the Zodiac case from 1971 until his death in 1992. [51][53] Fingerprints in blood recovered from the taxicab of Zodiac murder victim Paul Stine,[59] a writer's palm print found on the Zodiac letter of January 29, 1974, and handwriting exemplars failed to identify Allen as Zodiac.[53][60]

Ted Bundy[edit]

After his capture for similar crimes in Washington, Colorado, Utah and Idaho,[61] Ted Bundy was suspected in the murders.[1] Bundy had spent time in neighboring Marin County,[62] but was ruled out by a Sonoma County detective in the 1970s and again in 1989.[3] Detailed credit card records and known whereabouts of Bundy reveal he was in Washington on the dates of some of the disappearances.[1][62]

Fredric Manalli[edit]

Fredric Manalli, a 41-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College creative writing instructor,[63] was suspected[64] when, after his August 24, 1976 death in a head-on collision on Highway 12,[65] sadomasochistic drawings he had created depicting a former student, Kim Wendy Allen, who was one of the victims, were discovered among his belongings.[64]

The Hillside Stranglers of Los Angeles[edit]

Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, Jr., the Hillside Stranglers of Los Angeles, were also considered suspects at one time.[3]

Current status[edit]

These cases represent eight of 54 total unsolved homicides between the years 1970 and 2006 within the jurisdiction of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. In 2011, cold storage DNA from some of the cases was submitted to Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a national DNA database.[3] In 2018, DNA was brought out for testing hoping to identify the killer(s) in the same manner the Golden State Killer was caught.[66]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d Fagan, Kevin (7 July 2011). "Ted Bundy a suspect in Sonoma County cold cases". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h George, Gray (2017). Lost Coast Highway. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 978-1547105472.
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  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Female Homicide Victims Report". Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office. Archived from the original on 1 April 2013. Retrieved 6 March 2013.
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  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Johnson, Julie (28 July 2011). "Sonoma County trail of death". The Press Democrat. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  7. ^ "Murdered Girl Was JC Student". The Press Democrat. 10 March 1972. Archived from the original on June 2, 2013. Retrieved 7 March 2013.
  8. ^ Graysmith, Robert (2007). Zodiac Unmasked. Penguin. p. 100. ISBN 9780425212738.
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External links[edit]