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Documents Profile One-Time Suspect in Serial Deaths

Times Staff Writer

A former National City tavern owner believed to have been deeply involved in violent pornography and the production of “snuff films” was once a key suspect in a series of prostitute slayings in San Diego County.

But the death of Richard Allen Sanders in a barrage of gunfire outside Vancouver, Wash., earlier this year came just as San Diego authorities were closing in on his trail, searching for a connection between him and the still-unsolved string of murders in which more than 40 women, most of them prostitutes, drug addicts and transients, have been found slain in remote parts of the county.

According to court records unsealed this week in Vancouver, Sanders, a former police officer, rented a storage locker in El Cajon that was searched by authorities in February for photographs of bodies, as well as videotapes and photos of one of the dead prostitutes.

Seizure Specifics Unclear

They also pored over the locker looking for index cards labeled “San Diego Files” or “Seattle Files,” believed to contain photos of prostitutes who may have been killed here and in the so-called “Green River series” of slayings in Seattle.

The detectives also hunted for so-called snuff films in which the murders of four people--including two children--were videotaped.

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The court documents show that police did seize some or all of the items they were looking for, but the papers do not make clear which items were found.

The search of The Attic storage lot near 2nd Street and Lexington Avenue in El Cajon was conducted hastily, less than two days after San Diego police had arrested Sanders, only to see him make bail, leave jail and disappear.

He did not surface again until March 10, the day he was killed.

Mark Baum, a Vancouver attorney representing one of two men charged with Sanders’ murder, said that almost every person he has spoken to about Sanders has spoken cautiously about the intimidating mountain of a man, described as 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighing as much as 240 pounds.

‘Hated Hookers’

He was profiled as a 45-year-old drug dealer heavily involved in cocaine and methamphetamines. He was described as a man who was “very well to do” and who made a lot of money in producing and selling hard-core porn and snuff films.

And he was described as a man who became very angry and turned on his girlfriend when he learned that she was a prostitute, because “he hated hookers.”

“There are a lot of frightened people out there,” Baum said Friday. “Some are so frightened about this guy that they wouldn’t even talk to us. It’s almost as if they couldn’t believe the man was dead, as if they believed he was beyond that.”

But was he a serial killer, possibly responsible for 41 prostitution-related slayings in San Diego and another 48 along the Green River in the Seattle area?

“I’m not going to claim I’m an expert and call this man a serial killer,” Baum said. “But there’s enough evidence that shows the San Diego Metropolitan Homicide Task Force and the Green River Task Force looked hard at this fellow. And he was an ex-cop and knew how police officers investigate this kind of thing.”

Officials with the San Diego task force refused to comment Friday about Sanders. In Seattle, Capt. Bob Evans, commander of the Green River Task Force, said that, while Sanders once was a suspect in their slayings, he has since been ruled out.

Evidence Made Public

Indeed, Sanders’ alleged tie to the series of killings may never have surfaced publicly at all had it not been for Baum’s persistence in persuading a Clark County Superior Court judge in Vancouver to unseal confidential police records this week documenting Sanders’ activities.

Baum is representing Joel Frederick Hansen, 34, one of two men charged with the first-degree murder of Sanders, whose body was found, with numerous bullet wounds, outside a car he had driven along a rural Washington state road.

Inside the car were several loaded firearms, including an assault rifle, and several “speed loaders,” also known as fast-action ammunition clips, for semiautomatic weapons.

It is Baum’s contention that Hansen and the other defendant, Clifford Breathour, both residents of the Vancouver area, killed Sanders in self-defense, out of fear that he was planning to kill them. Baum noted that Hansen, the son of a former police officer, surrendered to authorities two days after Sanders was slain.

Sanders also was an ex-cop. According to officials, he worked for about a year in 1965 as a police officer in Vancouver, and later for several years in Salem, Ore.

He also spent a lot of time in Southern California, and operated a tavern in National City for eight years until 1984, one year before prostitutes began turning up dead in San Diego.

Balked at First

Baum, to build his case of self-defense for his client, said he subpoenaed Sanders’ employee records with the Vancouver Police Department. The department at first balked at releasing the files, but a judge Wednesday unsealed the records and made them public.

Surprisingly, Baum said, attached with the documents were a lengthy San Diego police affidavit and two Seattle police “tip sheets” tracing Sanders’ activities. It is those records that provide such a startling portrait of this man.

According to the affidavit, David R. Ayers, a detective assigned to the San Diego Metropolitan Homicide Task Force, interviewed two confidential witnesses who had been friends and acquaintances of Sanders. The first witness, identified only as AAA, was a heavy user of methamphetamines and cocaine, and the affidavit says that “Sanders furnished some of the drugs AAA used.” The witness also stated that in January, 1988, Sanders showed AAA some pornographic films, including two in which people were actually killed.

“AAA said that one of the films showed a woman and a male child, and the other showed a woman and a female child,” the affidavit says.

“In each case the children were killed. AAA states that Sanders said he had made the films and referred to them as snuff films, saying he could make a lot of money off them.”

The witness said Sanders shared several porn films he had made in the San Diego area, including some filmed in Ocean Beach. Some of the actors were “local girls,” and AAA recognized one of the girls as Melissa Sandoval, a frequent visitor to Sanders’ home.

Added to the List

Sandoval’s nude and strangled body was found in May, 1988, on Black Mountain Road in the Rancho Bernardo area. Characterized as a prostitute, she was added to the list of other women found dead in rural, isolated parts of the county.

As it turned out, the affidavit said, she was last seen entering a tan or beige Ford Bronco on El Cajon Boulevard, an area infamous for prostitution activity.

According to AAA, Sanders once displayed photographs taken “near Black Mountain Road or Ruffin Road, in the vicinity of a ravine. The photos showed a beige Bronco automobile that contained a dead human body.” The body, according to AAA, “was being removed from the Bronco.”

There were other photos.

The witness said that Sanders had amateur photographs of a naked man who apparently had been shot to death. “The man had blood all over him and is laying over, like, an easy chair, sideways,” AAA said in the affidavit.

A similar photo showed a girl with a chain or a thin, clear, plastic hose tied around her neck. “She didn’t look like she was all there either, you know,” the witness said. “Her eyes were open but her neck looked like it might of been broke or something.”

Notations on Cards

The witness also described file cards kept by Sanders, to which he attached photographs of female prostitutes and transients. The cards were titled “San Diego Files” or “Seattle Files.”

“Some of the cards had notations such as ‘strangulation’ or ‘drug overdose’ on them,” the witness said.

The second witness in the affidavit, identified only as BBB, described the contents of the El Cajon storage locker maintained by Sanders. “Uh, he’s got some of this film and stuff in there,” the witness said.

This witness also said that Sanders once declared that he could arrange someone’s death, “but wouldn’t kill anybody himself.”

“BBB stated that Sanders was heavily involved in methamphetamine manufacturing and distributing,” the affidavit says. “BBB said that Sanders usually had a small quantity--only about an ounce and a half or somethin’, on the average--with him, and that he usually has a firearm with him.

“BBB also said Sanders had a girlfriend who turned out to be a hooker, and it made him very angry in that he hated hookers.”

Tip Sheets

With the affidavits were two Seattle police tip sheets about Sanders.

“Subject travels West Coast and picks up prostitutes, makes porno snuff movies and kills girls at end of movies,” one tip sheet, dated Dec. 11, advises, based on the word of an informant.

He “dumps bodies all over. Movies are made in hotel/motel rooms. . . . (He) had done this two weeks ago in a motel in San Diego and dumped the body in the desert,” the sheet says.

A second tip sheet, dated Dec. 25, quotes an informant who said that “Sanders was responsible for the Green River murders in Seattle.”

Armed with this evidence, undercover San Diego authorities were observing Sanders on the night of Feb. 9 as he drove through parts of Mission Valley and El Cajon Boulevard. He was behind the wheel of a Corvette bearing Washington plates.

But Sanders apparently realized he was being followed. He tried to ram the Corvette into the unmarked police car, but was stopped and arrested. Inside the Corvette, police said, were an unloaded shotgun and a small quantity of white powder “consistent with methamphetamine.”

Moved Quickly on Locker

He was booked on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon (the car) and possession of narcotics. Bail was set at $14,250. But before the next day was out, Sanders had posted bail and been released.

He was gone.

Within hours, police converged on the El Cajon storage locker, worried that Sanders may have already been there and removed incriminating material.

“We woke up about 3 o’clock in the morning with a driveway full of police cars,” said Robert (Skip) Johnson, who owns and lives on the storage property. “They left a list of the things they took, and it seems like there were photographs and so on on the list.”

But Johnson said Sanders never returned to claim the inventory of seized materials. By March 10, Sanders was dead.

“He seemed like an OK guy,” Johnson recalled. “He was tall, well-built, rugged but handsome. He never caused us any trouble. Never did. He’d just come in here once a month whenever the rent was due and throw some cash at us. And then he’d leave.”


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