Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Love and Death: The Sunset Strip Killers

A Long, Hot Summer

Karen Jones, victim
Karen Jones, victim

Eleven days passed and two more females were found shot in a similar fashion. First, according to some accounts, just before dawn on June 23, someone discovered the body of prostitute Karen Jones, 24, on Franklin Avenue. She had been shot in the head with a small caliber pistol, according to Michael Newton, and dumped behind a Burbank steakhouse (other accounts say the Burbank studios).

Exxie Wilson, victim
Exxie Wilson, victim

Not long after, around 7:15 A.M., the headless body of a woman believed to be in her twenties was discovered nude beside a steel trash bin, as reported in the Los Angeles Times on June 23, 1980 (the story also indicated that Karen Jones was found after this woman, not before). The bin was at the rear of a Studio City Sizzler restaurant in Los Angeles, California. Sergeant Al Gastaldo made a brief comment for the paper and the incident took up one paragraph just below notices of a bomb threat that had evacuated a British plane and of an earthquake in the Riverside area of California. The victim was soon identified as twenty-year-old Exxie Wilson, also a prostitute—and a friend of Karen Jones. A thorough search of the area failed to turn up her missing head. They had no leads as to who the killer was.

Then on the morning of June 27, Jonathan Caravello went down the alley near his apartment around 1:00 A.M. He tried to park his car, encountered resistance, and spotted an ornate wooden box that looked like some kind of treasure chest. It had an oversized lid. Hopeful that he had found something valuable, he went over to it. Part of the wood was shattered on the outside, as if someone had hit it or thrown it. Leaning over, he unlatched the metal clasp and lifted the lid. Inside was some coarse material, but it smelled of something odd. Rummaging past the material, he got the surprise of his life. Cradled in some discarded blue jeans and a T-shirt was a human head. He could see that this person was female and brunette, and that her mouth was slightly open, but he didn't pause for a closer look. It wasn't hard to see that this was no Hollywood prop. Caravello ran from the open box into his apartment to call the police.

The head, which was considerably colder than the outside air, apparently had been frozen and then washed. It was soon connected via the cut marks with Exxie Wilson.

Raven Automatic gun, police evidence
Raven Automatic gun, police evidence

"We have examined the body and the neck," assistant chief of investigation James Kono told the Associated Press, "and the wounds all match up."

The head and body had been placed approximately eight blocks apart. Inside the skull was a .25 caliber copper-jacketed bullet. Ballistics analysis determined that it was likely from an automatic known as a Raven, and the bullet that had killed Exxie was from the same gun that had killed the stepsisters. So was the bullet that had killed Karen Jones. They had a serial killer, one who apparently did two murders at a time.

The police held a news conference in the Parker Center Los Angeles Police Department, where Lt. Ron Lewis was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that Wilson and Jones had come to the city only two weeks earlier with their pimp, and both were from Little Rock, Arkansas. Jones had been found about three miles from where Wilson was dumped, and two miles from where the stepsisters were found. The pimp, who went by the name "Albright," was questioned but was not considered a suspect.

In fact, they had no suspects for these four murders and would not even make a public statement that they were linked. Jones said that he did not wish to compromise the investigation with speculations. He did say that it was likely that Wilson's head had been placed in the alley only a few hours before it had been found, which the press took to mean that her killer had kept the head with him for a few days. Jones insisted that the purpose of the conference was not to discuss evidence but to solicit help from the public. In particular, he wanted to urge some anonymous callers who had contacted police early in the investigation to call again. He asked reporters to print that their names and information would be kept confidential.

Lawrence Bittaker, Ray Norris and William Bonin
Lawrence Bittaker, Ray Norris and
William Bonin

The murder rate in the City of Angels that year reached an all-time high, as had the number of serial killers at large over the past several years, and people were calling the city the World's Murder Capital. The intense heat wave only exacerbated the violence. The Hillside Stranglers, killing cousins, had been arrested for a string of murders from 1977-78; team killers Lawrence Bittaker and Ray Norris had tortured and murdered at least five young women in 1979; an unknown killer was targeting hapless men on Skid Row; and since 1972, someone had killed and dumped over forty young men along the freeways south of the city. The primary suspect was William Bonin. There were several other killers who remained unidentified and at large, and now the police apparently had someone new to consider. The area homicide resources were stretched to the limit.

Jennifer Furio's <em>Team Killers</em>
Jennifer Furio's Team Killers

It wasn't long before snake hunters roaming around a ravine in the San Fernando Valley on June 30, north of the Golden State Freeway, found the mummified remains of a fifth victim. She was hidden under an old mattress and was quickly linked to the series, which had acquired a name in the news, the "Sunset Strip Murders." Only her reddish-blond hair was visible to those who found her. The medical examiner believed her to be between the ages of 17 and 25, adding that she was about five-foot-seven. Her stomach appeared to have been slit open, according to Jennifer Furio in Team Killers, and she'd been shot three times with a small caliber pistol. She had been dead at least three weeks, placing her first in line in the series of five. There was now fear that there could be more victims in wilderness areas that had not yet been found.

In another press conference, homicide detectives displayed the box in which Exxie Wilson's head had been found, offering reporters a chance to photograph it in the hope that someone might recognize its distinctive style. It was described in one article as a stained pine box, crudely made, ten inches wide, twelve inches high, and eight inches deep , with a brass clasp in front, brass ring decorations, and a metal border. Again, the police would not reveal their evidence, but they did admit that they had physical evidence linking all of the murders. That was interpreted to mean ballistics evidence.

"We believe the killer is someone from this area," said Detective Sergeant John Helvin. "But we don't know for sure."

Many people called in to the police to say that boxes like the one displayed could be purchased at K-Mart and Newberry stores throughout the area. Detectives checked on this but found no other boxes like the one in their possession. The clothing inside—jeans with the crotch cut out and a pink T-shirt that said "Daddy's Girl"—had drawn no additional leads.

Marnette Comer, victim
Marnette Comer,

Then the first victim was identified. She turned out to be seventeen-year-old Marnette Comer (a.k.a. Annette Ann Davis) from Sacramento, who had a history of running away from home, was a suspected prostitute, and apparently had met the wrong person. She had last been seen on June 1. The bullet that had killed her was linked to the four other murders.

In the meantime, the box that had held Wilson's head was traced to a Texas manufacturer, Chicago Arts, which imported and distributed the Mexican-made boxes to Newberry stores in the L.A. area. They had narrowed down the possibilities to a few stores and were working on customer leads.

Then the pattern changed. Another corpse was found, but this one was male. The police would not have thought to link it to the series of female murders if not for a fortuitous incident.

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