Mack Ray Edwards walked into the Los Angeles Police Department's Foothill station on March 6, 1970, and said he wanted to clear his conscience.
The 51-year-old heavy-equipment operator calmly told a detective that he had molested and killed six children over two decades across Los Angeles County.
Edwards was arrested, pleaded guilty to three of the slayings and was sentenced to death. Before he was sent to San Quentin, he made an even more startling admission: He had actually killed 18 children. Detectives began to investigate the claim, but before they could get more information, Edwards hanged himself with a television cord in his cell on death row in 1972.
FOR THE RECORD:
Serial killer: An article in Saturday's California section about child serial killer Mack Ray Edwards said he hanged himself in prison in 1972. Edwards' suicide occurred in 1971. The article also said the body of victim Dorothy Gale Brown was found by recreational divers off Marina del Rey. Brown's body was discovered off Corona del Mar.
Thirty-five years later, detectives are taking a new look at Edwards, reopening four missing-child cases from nearly half a century ago that they believe are tied to him.
In the last six months, police have uncovered a letter Edwards wrote seemingly confessing to the killing of a Redondo Beach boy, and have used ground-penetrating radar to check for bodies buried at his former home in Sylmar. They plan to send corpse-sniffing dogs to a half-mile stretch of a Thousand Oaks freeway looking for the remains of another possible victim.
The case has plunged detectives from the LAPD, Pasadena and Torrance police, state Department of Justice and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department into the yellowing case files of another era. They are trying to track the movements of a serial killer who died more than 30 years ago, reopening the old wounds of families who lost loved ones.
Police say their interest was sparked by the efforts of Pasadena author Weston DeWalt, who was researching the 1957 disappearance of 8-year-old Tommy Bowman in the Arroyo Seco.
While DeWalt was searching old newspapers, a photograph caught his attention. The black-and-white image, circa 1970, showed Edwards in handcuffs as he was led into court.
"I looked at it and I thought: This face looks familiar, but why?" DeWalt recalled. "I studied it for about five minutes and was struck by the resemblance to a sketch I had seen in a Pasadena Police Department file."
That sketch was of a man seen following Tommy before the sandy-haired Redondo Beach second-grader vanished at the head of an Arroyo Seco trail.
DeWalt, the coauthor of a bestselling book about a climbing tragedy on Mt. Everest, came across Bowman's disappearance while researching hiking trails in the Arroyo Seco. He became fascinated by the case and eventually met with the boy's father and detectives, who gave him access to old police records.
"His work has allowed us to go back in time and open up a lot of windows," said Det. Vivian Flores of the LAPD's cold case unit. "There's a lot of families who do not know what happened to their children."
With DeWalt's help, investigators have the first solid evidence that directly connects Edwards to the disappearance of the Bowman boy.
After a 2006 interview with Edwards' widow and other relatives, a family member showed DeWalt a letter from Edwards to his wife, Mary, when he was on death row.
"I was going to add one more to the first statement" to the LAPD "and that was the Tommy Bowman boy that disappeared in Pasadena," he wrote. "But I felt I would really make a mess of that one so I left him out of it."
Last fall, the LAPD obtained a search warrant and confiscated the letter as well as photos and other items from his widow's home.
The break revived painful memories -- but also offered new hope -- for the boy's father, Eldon Bowman, now in his 80s.
Bowman recalled Friday how the family drove up from Redondo Beach to Pasadena for a hike and dinner that March day in 1957. After Tommy vanished, the father refused to go home, searching the canyon and hillside.
"We went up for an evening's dinner and we stayed for three weeks, searching round the clock," Bowman recalled Friday, adding that even today, "Tommy is never far from my mind."
For years afterward, Bowman, the father of two other children, said he would study the faces of boys Tommy's age, hoping to recognize his son.
But detectives say they are far from solving Tommy's case and starting to clear up three others:
* Bruce Kremen, who disappeared in July 1960 from a YMCA camp in the Angeles National Forest and was never found.
* Two 11-year-old Torrance girls, Karen Lynn Tompkins and Dorothy Gale Brown, who vanished within a year of each other. Tompkins was never seen again, but Brown's strangled body was found by recreational divers July 4, 1962, off Marina del Rey.
Detectives believe the three cases may be connected to Edwards because the children fit the profile of victims he confessed to killing.
Tompkins' sister, Lori Buck, 45, of Enid, Okla., was only 4 months old when her sister disappeared while walking home from school. But the disappearance shattered her family.
"I was sheltered and not allowed to do anything, especially when I turned 11," Buck said Friday. "My mom thinks Karen's gone. My dad, who died of cancer, always hoped she would be found."
Detectives have had a difficult time establishing the movements of Edwards, a construction worker who contracted with Caltrans and other agencies during the freeway building boom of the 1950s and '60s.
Building on DeWalt's research, police traced Edwards to at least 10 residences around Los Angeles, the South Bay and the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys.
Despite the new momentum, detectives say they face obstacles. For one, files kept on missing children during that era were destroyed after the children's 18th birthdays, meaning detectives had to build information about most of the cases from scratch.
Of the six killings Edwards confessed to, the first took place in 1953: Stella Darlene Nolan was an 8-year-old snatched from a refreshment stand in Norwalk where her mother worked. Within days after Edwards confessed, police found her remains near a freeway abutment in Downey.
Three years later, he killed his 11-year-old sister-in-law and her 13-year-old friend.
Edwards told police he stopped killing until the late 1960s, when he moved to Sylmar with his wife, son and daughter.
Detectives recently deployed cadaver dogs and ground-penetrating radar at his former Ralston Avenue home in hopes of finding possible victims.
In December 1968, he broke into a Sylmar home planning to kidnap a 13-year-old girl but ended up shooting her 16-year-old brother, Gary Rocha, according to Edwards' confession.
Also that month, 16-year-old Roger Dale Madison, a friend and classmate of Edwards' son, disappeared from Sylmar. Edwards told police he stabbed Madison repeatedly while they were in an orange grove before burying him under the 23 Freeway in Thousand Oaks, which was under construction.
Edwards was working on the project and said he used a bulldozer to bury the youth. Police plan to search the site soon with dogs and radar.
He also confessed to killing Donald Allen Todd, another neighborhood boy who was found shot and sexually abused in May 1969.
Edwards told police he decided to go to the Foothill station and confess after a mistake.
On March 6, 1970, Edwards and a 15-year-old accomplice kidnapped three sisters, ages 12 to 14, from their Sylmar home. Edwards forced the girls to write a note telling their parents that they were running away from home before taking them to a remote area near Newhall.
The girls were former neighbors of Edwards and recognized him. Two of them escaped and a third girl was rescued; none was assaulted. Fearing he would be identified, he decided to tell his story to police.
More than three decades later, investigators are trying to fill in large gaps to provide some measure of closure for families who spent decades wondering what happed to their children.
"We are depending on jogging people's memories," Flores said. "Edwards said he stopped. We don't believe him. The question is how many more victims are out there and who knows something about these cases."
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