Serial Killer Brings Urban Realities to Lake Elsinore : Crime: There have been 17 victims, mostly drug addicts and prostitutes, in western Riverside County.
After almost five years, there are 17 bodies now, 17 dead faces. Urban reality has followed a serial killer into the western reaches of Riverside County. It has crept into the rustic, sunlit places where people move in the hope of some respite from city life and city crime.
For the longest time, if people gave much thought to all the murdered women, the bodies flopped onto a trash heap or under a eucalyptus tree or in an alley, it was perhaps with the defensive notion that it can’t happen here.
And anyway, some people told themselves, or even said aloud, it’s not like those women were Miss America or the homecoming queen. They used dope, they picked up men for money, or both.
But now it is inescapable. Urban reality has set up shop in Lake Elsinore, population 15,000. Here, where most of the bodies were dumped, is where the serial killer task force operates. It just trebled its ranks to 14 detectives and investigators, the biggest law enforcement effort assembled in Riverside County in living memory.
Network cameras and out-of-town headlines have chronicled all this, of course. The mix is irresistible: a lakeside town, furtive sex, violent death. Already there is a movie about it; the crew of “Roadside Justice” was filming in Corona when the 16th victim was found a few miles away. It seems as if almost all the tabloid shows have been here except “America’s Most Wanted,” and that, says a sheriff’s deputy, may only be because “we don’t know who we want yet.”
The men and women who work to bolster Lake Elsinore’s image and its fortunes do not relish being singled out.
“It happens in every city,” argues Chamber of Commerce President David Steele. “In Skid Row, how many bodies are they finding left and right? But it’s not publicized as much as it is out here, in this small community. . . . Channel 9, 4, 7, they find another body, they say Lake Elsinore. And if they find it in Riverside, they say it started in Lake Elsinore.”
Tough, says the father of one victim. Robert Chapman knows his daughter, Julie Lynn Angel, turned tricks to buy drugs, stole his $500 suits and his Weed Eater to buy drugs. Whatever she did, it was not nearly as bad as what was done to her--beaten to death, a deep hole smashed into her forehead.
“It sure is a bad rap for Lake Elsinore,” says Chapman. “So let’s get busy to get the damn thing cleared up and quit fighting against the people trying to do something.”
The mother of one victim who asked not to be named has taken to writing poems for catharsis.
“Some people just say: ‘Oh, they’re whores.’ They don’t stop to think this girl was somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s mother,” she said.
“I can understand Lake Elsinore not wanting the publicity. I can understand that’s bad for business, and it’s unfortunate these bodies were dumped at Lake Elsinore,” she said. “But it’s more unfortunate that they were killed in the first place. And he’s still gonna kill more.”
The latest victim, Catherine McDonald, found this month on Friday the 13th, had recently left Los Angeles for Riverside. She is the only black victim, a woman who like the others was riding both ends of a seesaw of drugs and prostitution.
Symbolically, her body was found on a scalped brown hillside, at the edge of a construction site for one of those new planned communities whose advertising, vivid with blue lakes and blue skies, has lured ever more people out of the cities and into the hills.
In the flattop building that shelters the courts and sheriff’s station, on a table in Capt. Bill Reynolds’ office, is an elaborate puzzle of twisted cords and wooden rings. There is a good chance that they will find the serial killer or killers (it may be more than one) before he untangles the damn thing.
“I’m confident we’ll get him.” Reynolds knocks the wooden tabletop. It may not be tomorrow, he says. It may be serendipitous; “the greenest rookie” could stop the guy for a broken taillight and crack the case--like the CHP officer who in 1983 pulled over serial killer Randy Kraft’s car for erratic driving in Orange County and found a murdered Marine in the front seat.
The task force was recently assembled from a department stretched thin by Riverside County’s recent growth spurt. Today, two Riverside police detectives, a third of the city’s homicide-major assault team, will join the 14 other members.
They have consulted the experts: investigators of the Pacific Northwest’s still-unsolved Green River killer, the San Diego officers looking into a string of prostitute killings there, the FBI and the state Department of Justice, the cities where long acquaintance with serial killers has equipped police to put together a task force about as easily as they can put together a pickup basketball game.
“We wanted to find out how they handled an investigation of this magnitude--how did they catalogue the hundreds and hundreds of calls,” says Detective Henry Sawicki. “There’s no point in reinventing the wheel.” Their own calls come in on a new 24-hour hot line.
There have been some flubs and false starts.
A leaked internal Riverside police memo, with a sketch of a man seen with a victim and wanted for questioning, got posted in the window of a print shop here before sheriff’s investigators had even seen it.
In April there was a wild goose chase to Wisconsin, seven or eight investigators flying in to interview a jail inmate who had inside information. He got it from a cellmate, a husband of one victim. But the “inside information” was from a coroner’s report the husband had seen legitimately a year before.
Annoyed investigators flew home and sealed all the files about the cases, some retroactively. While they were in Wisconsin, the killer murdered Cherie Mayseur. “I’m convinced he did it just to let us know he was here” while they were away, Reynolds says.
A lot of people get killed out here, says Reynolds, but usually it’s “domestic stuff . . . not anybody laying waste, nothing like this.”
The snapshots of the dead show some sullen, mug-shot faces. Before some bodies were identified, authorities had guessed that they were five or 10 years older than they were, so ravaged did they look. Some had worked together along University Boulevard in Riverside, or Main Street in Lake Elsinore. Most had apparently been strangled or stabbed.
Here is a picture of the last victim, Catherine McDonald, her earring casting a shadow on her cheek. The 15th, Sherry Ann Latham, eyes narrowed and lips tight. Kimberly Lyttle, No. 6, poses in a child’s room between a stuffed bunny and a balloon. At least nine of the women had children.
“We don’t care if they’re drug addicts or prostitutes,” Reynolds says, a line he surely had used before. “They’re getting the same resource level as if they were cheerleaders.”
The fact that some of them were prostitutes strolling the short blocks of Main Street here had been grounds for complaint well before they were murdered.
In February, a real estate agent told The Times sardonically: “We have a health nut. He’s just cleaning up the town a little.”
Jim Andres, managing editor of the weekly Sun-Tribune, says he and his staff sometimes “talk about how little the community cares, really. . . . There’s even been some comments (that) the reason it’s like that is they’re prostitutes.”
The publicity-shy mother of one victim knows not everyone feels that way, but she read the other day that one woman wanted the killer caught “so Lake Elsinore wouldn’t be on national TV. That hurts. I wish she’d said she wished they’d find the guy so he’d stop killing.”
The notoriety is a heavy cross for a blue-collar town working hard to recover its glory days, when evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson built herself a lavish retreat, when the sulfur springs drew the rich and dyspeptic.
Lake Elsinore calls itself the “playground of the Inland Empire,” promoting water sports on an unpredictable lake that flooded 10 years ago and has lately dropped to drought levels. The city is stabilizing the lake and building parks. A designer outlet mall opens soon. Brick-fronted Main Street is being reworked to 1920s quaintness. And a 1992 tax vote to double the number of sheriff’s deputies here might pass, as much because of the serial killer’s handiwork as because of complaints about response time.
Lynette Burk owns the cycle gear shop on Main Street. Personally, she’d just as soon see prostitution legalized and regulated, to get the women off the streets, where they now parade around in grubby bathing suits, buying drugs, maybe getting AIDS and who knows what else. “I’m a woman and I hate to see that.”
Prostitutes have not been so much in evidence on Main Street lately, and “it’s nice not having them around,” Burk admits. “I think business is better since they’ve been gone. And I think whoever was doing it was out to get ‘em.”
On that point at least Chapman would agree. The retired Pinkerton man is conducting his own investigation. He takes reporters on his rounds, trolling the less savory parts of town for any fragment of news about his daughter’s death. He talks like a Dutch uncle to the prostitutes who knew her and know what happened to her and still go out there risking themselves for drugs.
Not far out of town, among the congregation of the First Southern Baptist church, this killer has not aroused the kind of terror the Night Stalker did, ranging across the state in the mid-1980s, killing without pattern or motive.
Some bodies were found within a couple of miles of the church, whose congregation is mostly the new families who come here for cheaper houses and clean air and, perhaps, a safer haven.
“The Night Stalker held everybody captive,” Pastor Jim Davis says. “But since this has been confined to a particular segment, we’re not experiencing that. But of course there’s concern about a continuing problem, and concern about the families of these victims.”
Fred Dominguez’s shop fronts on Main Street. As barber and city councilman, he hears everybody’s gripes. “The feeling is we’re all sorry its happening in our community and to these girls, but they put themselves on the line.
“It happens to the best of communities. . . . These are things that I guess are part of growing.”
Serial Killings The bodies of 17 women have been found in Riverside County since October, 1986. All the deaths are considered homicides and Riverside County authorities are investigating the possibility the victims were murdered by a serial killer. 1 Michelle Yvette Gutierrez, 26, found Oct. 29, 1986. 2 Charlotte Jean Palmer, 25, found Dec. 10, 1986. 3 Linda Ann Ortega, 37, found April 29, 1988. 4 Martha Bess Young, 27, found May 2, 1988. 5 Linda Mae Ruiz, 37, also known as Diane Talavera, found Jan. 17, 1989. 6 Kimberly Lyttle, 28, found June 28, 1989. 7 Julie Lynn Angel, 36, found Nov. 11, 1989. 8 Christina Tina Leal, 23, found Dec. 13, 1989. 9 Darla Jane Ferguson, 23, found Jan 18, 1990. 10 Carol Lynn Miller, 34, found Feb. 8, 1990. 11 Cheryl Ann Coker, 33, found Nov. 6, 1990. 12 Susan Melissa Sternfeld, 27, found Dec. 19, 1990. 13 Kathleen Leslie Milne, 42, found Jan 19, 1991. 14 Cherie Michelle Payseur, 25, found April 26, 1991. 15 Sherry Ann Latham, 37, found July 4, 1991. 16 Kelly Marie Hammond, 27, found Aug. 16, 1991. 17 Catherine McDonald, 31, found Sept. 13, 1991. Source: Riverside County Sheriff’s Dept.