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Two Other States Were Closing In on Kraft

Times Staff Writer

The arrest of Randy Steven Kraft, accused of 37 murders in three states, was a fluke. On May 14, 1983, two California Highway Patrol officers pulled him over for a routine lane violation on the San Diego Freeway in Mission Viejo--and found a dead Marine in his car.

But testimony in recent weeks at a pretrial hearing in Kraft’s serial-murder case shows that law-enforcement officials in two other states may have been on the verge of linking him to as many as five killings at the time of his arrest.

“It would not have been easy--there were still some stumbling blocks,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan F. Brown, one of the prosecutors handling the Kraft case in Orange County Superior Court. “But I think the net was definitely getting tighter around Mr. Kraft.”

Kraft, 42, is formally charged with 16 murders in Orange County between 1972 and 1983. But county prosecutors have notified his attorneys that they intend to introduce evidence at his trial that he killed an additional 21 people, including six in Oregon and two in Michigan.

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A Long Beach computer consultant who had never been arrested on a felony charge before May, 1983, Kraft has pleaded not guilty to the 16 murders and has vehemently denied all the killings.

But according to recent testimony and interviews outside court, investigators in Oregon and Michigan may have been about to identify Kraft as a suspect in these killings when he was arrested:

On Nov. 24, 1982, Brian Whitcher, 26, was found dead near Wilsonville, Ore., 20 miles south of Portland.

On Dec. 3, 1982, Anthony Silveira, 29, was last seen in the Salem, Ore., area, 20 miles south of Wilsonville on Interstate 5. His body was discovered Dec. 18, along I-5 near Salem.

On Dec. 7, 1982, two cousins, Christopher Schoenborn, 20, and Dennis Patrick Alt, 24, were last seen at a horticulture conference at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Mich. They were found dead in a rural field near Grand Rapids on Dec. 9.

On Dec. 8, Lance Taggs, 19, was last seen hitchhiking late at night along I-5 south of Portland. He was found dead near Wilsonville the next day.

Kraft, a computer analyst for Lear Siegler Inc. at the time, was in Oregon on business during much of the last six weeks of 1982, according to company and hotel records made public after his arrest.

According to those records, he was staying at a Holiday Inn in Wilsonville at the time of the deaths of Whitcher and Silveira and had flown to Grand Rapids, where he was staying at the Amway Grand, when Schoenborn and Alt disappeared.

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He then returned to Oregon and was in Wilsonville at the time Taggs was killed, the records show.

It was not until after Kraft had returned to Southern California that Oregon officials first realized the deaths in their jurisdiction might be related to killings in Michigan. The link was a nationwide teletype from Grand Rapids describing the deaths of Alt and Schoenborn.

The circumstances of those killings were unusual enough to catch Oregon officials’ attention, said Lynda Estes, a Sheriff’s Department investigator in Clackamas County, Ore., who spent two days testifying at the Kraft hearing. She was in charge of the Taggs and Whitcher investigations.

The teletype indicated that alcohol and a tranquilizer known as diazepam had been found in the bodies of Alt and Schoenborn; the same was true of the victims of the Oregon killings. And one of the Michigan victims had been sexually mutilated in a way similar to one of the Oregon victims.

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“We were convinced the same person had committed the murders in both states,” Estes said in a recent interview. “But we thought, ‘My God. What’s this guy doing--flying around the country killing people?’ ”

The investigators also were convinced that the killer had ties to Orange County.

Teletype information showed that three earlier murders in Oregon, in 1980 and 1981, bore such strong similarities to a series of unsolved murders in Orange County that Oregon State Police Detective James Reed had begun talking regularly by telephone with Orange County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. James A. Sidebotham. Reed testified he called Sidebotham nearly a dozen times.

After the December murders, Oregon officials again were on the telephone with Orange County investigators.

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In the final days before Kraft’s arrest, Reed had a proposal awaiting approval from his superiors that Oregon investigators travel to Orange County to look into possible links between killings in the two areas.

A March 30, 1983, report by Estes shows she talked by telephone that day with Ron Shave, a Garden Grove Police Department investigator, about the Oregon-Michigan-Orange County connection. That was just two weeks before Kraft’s arrest.

And at the time of Kraft’s arrest, Michigan investigators, cooperating with officials in Oregon and Orange County, had already begun checking registrations at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, according to Estes’ testimony. They were looking for hotel guests with ties to either Oregon or Southern California, Estes said.

Kraft had not listed his home address when he registered at the Amway Grand. Instead, he listed the address of the Lear Siegler subsidiary in the Grand Rapids area.

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But Estes is convinced that would not have kept them from finding Kraft had their investigation not been brought to an abrupt halt by the arrest in Orange County of a suspect who fit what they were looking for.

Oregon officials had already begun compiling registration lists from hotels and motels in the Wilsonville area--including the Holiday Inn where Kraft had stayed.

In addition, Oregon and Michigan investigators were making plans to check airline travel between Oregon and Michigan, comparing a passenger list against the hotel registrations in Oregon and the Amway Grand Plaza registrations.

If the investigation had continued to focus on the Amway Grand, it might have turned up yet another striking piece of evidence: A fatigue jacket worn by Silveira, the Oregon victim, was found in a lobby of the Amway on the same floor where Kraft had been staying.

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“We can never say for certain whether all that work would have led us to Kraft,” Estes said. “But it sure looks like his would have been the only name to show up on every list.”

One other key Oregon investigator, who asked not to be named, is certain the tedious computer work would have led to Kraft. But he questioned how soon it might have happened.

“The real question would have been how much manpower we could have given to this lead,” he said. “It might have been a few weeks; it might have been a year.”

Two days after Kraft’s arrest, investigators from both Oregon and Michigan flew to Orange County to participate in searches of Kraft’s house in Long Beach. There, items belonging to Taggs, Whitcher and Michael Cluck, another of the six victims in the Oregon killings--as well as clothing belonging to Schoenborn--were found.

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Kraft’s attorneys are in the midst of a four-month hearing challenging the validity of the searches of Kraft’s car and three searches of his house, as well as a search of boxes Kraft had left at an office in Anaheim.

Estes praised the way the house searches were handled.

“If I’d been in charge, the last thing I would have wanted would be for a bunch of investigators from Oregon and Michigan getting in my way trying to find ties to their own cases,” Estes said. “I’m still amazed at the way Jim Sidebotham remained so calm and kept everything under control.”

The issue currently before Superior Court Judge James K. Turner is whether Sidebotham overstepped his authority in gathering so many items from Kraft’s house and garage.

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The hearing, which was interrupted last week when Turner underwent emergency heart surgery, is scheduled to continue in February. One of the first witnesses then will be Michigan investigator Larry French.


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