The Highway That Crime Cruises

Ortega Highway is a scenic road winding through mountains, pine forests and pastoral valleys connecting south Orange County and Lake Elsinore. It is a crucial link for commuters, a weekend thrill ride for motorcyclists.

But at night, Ortega Highway's dark side comes alive.

The 44-mile stretch of highway, officially part of California Route 74, is a dumping ground used by criminals who wait for the cover of night. It is the stuff of mystery novels, a place where people with secrets push them over steep cliffs or bury them under a thick layer of brush.

Busted-open safes. Incriminating evidence. And more bodies than anyone has cared to count.

"There are shallow graves out here that just haven't been discovered," California Highway Patrol Officer Steve Miles said one recent night as he squinted through the windshield of his patrol car. "People will do anything out here."

Winding through the Santa Ana Mountains and a wilderness park, Ortega Highway remains largely undeveloped, with a few shops and cabins scattered along it.

"I remember driving across it when I was young and looking over the precipitous edge," said T. Jefferson Parker, a crime fiction writer who used the highway's notoriety as a dumping ground in his novel "Blue Hour." "It stuck in my head that this is a place where dangerous people might go."

The latest body off Ortega Highway was found Jan. 31 -- a still-unidentified slaying victim in her mid-30s, about 5 foot 3, 105 pounds. She was discovered by two sightseers who had stopped at a turnout to admire the view.

A yellow blanket authorities used to cover her still clings to a bush.

"A little spooky, huh?" said Miles, aiming a flashlight at the blanket as it drifted in the wind. "Somebody must've forgotten it."

Miles drove on, pulling up to "unlucky call box 74-88," where Kenneth Stahl and Carolyn Oppy-Stahl were found shot to death in their car in 1999 and a CHP officer was beaten by a pair of motorcyclists two years later.

He shined his flashlight down a steep cliff at milepost 14, where two men disposed of their headless, handless mother in 2003.

He peered over two large rocks at milepost 16.50, where William Bonin, the infamous "Freeway Killer," dumped 14-year-old Glen Norman Barker of Huntington Beach in 1980 after molesting and strangling him.

Near the road's summit lies the Ortega Country Cottage Candy Store, where over the years sightseers have breathlessly burst in to report accidents and sightings from the highway.

"Dispatch knows me by name," said store owner Marilyn Ivy, who lives up the highway. "To these people, the highway is just a junkyard where they can dispose of their trash, their bodies, their dead animals."

Nicolai Billy remembers a day in the late 1980s when serial killer Randy Kraft walked into his El Cariso Mountain Restaurant and ordered an avocado sandwich and Coke. He complimented the cook and left Billy a $2 tip.

"I remember thinking he was just an ordinary, nice guy," said Billy, who has since shut down his restaurant and lives in a cabin off the highway.

On May 13, 1989, Kraft's picture was splashed across newspapers, a day after he was convicted of torturing and murdering 16 young men. Kraft's first suspected victim: Wayne Joseph Dukette, 30, a bartender from Long Beach, whose body was found at the bottom of a ravine off Ortega Highway in 1971.

The highway was one of Kraft's favorite dumping grounds, said Dennis McDougal, who profiled the serial killer in "Angel of Darkness."

Bonin dumped at least four of his 21 victims along Ortega Highway between 1979 and 1980. And Patrick Kearney, the "Trash Bag Killer" who terrorized Southern California in the 1970s, stuffed one of his earliest victims in an industrial-sized plastic bag and dumped him along the highway in 1977.

The highway was also near the spot in Riverside County where authorities found the naked body of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion in 2002 after factory worker Alejandro Avila had molested and suffocated her.

Ortega Highway is "this kind of unique strip of remote, undeveloped and primitive real estate for people of ill intentions," McDougal said. "It gained this dark, negative reputation as a place where evil could be done with impunity."

But at dawn, sunlight transforms the shadows of gnarled branches back into leafy trees. Chirping birds pick up where the crickets left off. A stream of early-morning commuters trickles back onto the highway.

Among them is Lake Elsinore resident Tim Gibbons, 45, who maneuvers along the windy road to work in Laguna Niguel. During his commute, Gibbons worries about the highway's sharp turns, precipitous edges and reckless drivers.

But on his way home, his thoughts take a dark turn.

"What goes on out there, what has been found and what hasn't been found," he said, "is enough to give anybody the heebie-jeebies."