Nice-Guy Neighbor: Could He Really Be Serial Killer? : Crime: Bill Suff seemed genial to friends, co-workers. Now, he is charged in 2 of 19 grisly Riverside slayings.
For more than three years, Bill Suff answered telephones, sorted mail and assisted customers at John’s Service Center on Main Street in this formerly elegant resort town, now frayed at the edges.
“He seemed real nice--he used to buy sodas for all the grandkids,” said Eric Snyder, grandson of the store’s owners.
When Suff showed him a book he was writing, though, even the young Snyder was struck by its macabre premise. “It was all about these dogs that went nuts and started killing people,” said Snyder, now 17. “He talked about how we put dogs on pedestals, call them ‘man’s best friend’ . . . but what would happen if they reverted back to their old wolf instincts?”
Five years later, the nice guy who bought Cokes and graciously baby-sat for neighbors is suspected of being Southern California’s latest serial killer, a murderer with a vicious streak who preyed on Riverside County women from 1986 until his arrest in a fluke traffic stop last month.
William Lester Suff, 41--a local boy still remembered by schoolmates and teachers in the Riverside area--has been charged in two of the grisly murders. Authorities say they are confident of linking Suff to a majority of the 19 murders of women, mostly prostitutes and drug users, whose bodies had been dumped in this semirural community and elsewhere in western Riverside County.
Every victim was stabbed or strangled or both, according to new details, and three of the recent bodies were mutilated--a breast cut off each.
“I’d be very surprised if more than two murder counts were not filed,” said Paul E. Zellerbach, the supervising Riverside County deputy district attorney prosecuting the case. Suff is scheduled to be arraigned in Riverside on Feb. 28.
At the time Suff was arrested in downtown Riverside, the pace of killings had accelerated to almost one per month. The degree of violence inflicted upon the victims was also escalating. For reasons that Riverside police have not disclosed, they were on high alert in the downtown prostitution district in the week that Suff was arrested.
Like the canines depicted in his fledgling horror tale, Suff seemed outwardly genial to friends and co-workers, but interviews and court records in Texas depict him as capable of unspeakable malevolence.
He was described as cunning, manipulative, and not unintelligent, but possessed with a volcanic temper and a profound need to dominate women--traits common in serial killers, experts say.
“They like to be very controlling in their relationships,” said James Alan Fox, dean of Northeastern University’s College of Criminal Justice in Boston, who has studied many multiple-murderers. “They can be very kind and loyal and gentle and generous if there’s something in it for them.”
No motive for the Riverside County murders has been publicly suggested, and Suff’s personal demons remain a source of speculation even to friends. But prosecutors would like to prove a motive in court, and they are looking closely at Suff’s tumultuous relationship with his ex-wife, the former Teryl Rose Suff, whom he met at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
The marriage ended while Bill Suff was in prison for the first time--for the 1973 murder in Texas of the couple’s infant daughter, Dijianet. The 2-month-old died of massive hemorrhaging caused by a beating so severe that her liver was ruptured. Both Suffs were sentenced to 70 years, but Teryl’s conviction was overturned.
“I think he should rot in hell,” she said in a recent Texas interview, granted on condition that her current surname and place of residence not be revealed. “He basically destroyed my life when I was at a very young age.”
They were married in 1969 when Suff was on leave from the Air Force. Teryl, at 16, was three years younger than her new husband. Suff was a domineering, jealous husband who frequently suspected her of infidelities and often turned abusive, she said.
She recalled one incident that occurred when Teryl, during a quarrel about his control over her, threatened to take to the streets as a prostitute.
“I told him I’m a woman, I’m not a possession,” she said. “I told him I’d survive, even if I had to go out on the streets and become a prostitute--which promptly got me knocked across the room.”
A low point in Suff’s life that has caught the attention of prosecutors seeking a motive occurred in January, 1976, when the imprisoned convict learned that Teryl would be freed and wanted a divorce. About the same time, he was told that the Suffs would lose custody of their other child, William Jr., then 4, who had been badly injured in an apparent beating.
But the news from Teryl was the harshest blow, according to several despondent letters that Suff penned at the time.
“Divorce is the second worst word in the human language. The first is goodbye!” Suff wrote from a Texas prison to his first wife. Earlier, in the same handwritten correspondence, a clearly distraught Suff declared: “I was never really alive to begin with.”
Suff served 10 years in prison before being paroled home to California in 1984. Teryl said she felt in extreme danger when Suff began looking for her and left a threatening telephone message with a roommate in Texas in 1985 or 1986. “He said he knew where I was, he knew where to get me, and he would get me,” she recalled.
When she heard that Suff had been accused in the Riverside killings, a chilling fear came to mind. “I’ve thought to myself: ‘Is the man trying to kill me, using them?’ ”
The thought also occurred to the accused man’s younger brother, Kenneth Suff, who says he never witnessed his sibling’s violent side, but suspects that any inner rage is rooted in his life with Teryl.
“If he’s responsible for this, I think it’s something that happened back in Texas, something between him and Teryl,” Kenneth Suff said in an interview. In California, none of Suff’s recent acquaintances--including his second wife, Cheryl Lewis Suff, a Lake Elsinore-area native 21 years his junior--seemed to have known about Suff’s past as a convicted baby-killer.
They knew a more benevolent Bill Suff--an amiable family man and clean-cut neighbor who did not smoke, seldom drank and ranted against drug use. To some he was just an introverted Star Trek junkie and amateur computer hacker. One woman recalls Suff as a somewhat nerdy “Mr. Goodie Two Shoes,” a man who hinted easily at marriage and wanted her to meet his mother after only two dates.
“Everyone is really shocked by this,” said Donnella Shearer, who worked alongside Suff for four years at the Riverside County purchasing department, where Suff was employed as a stock clerk since October, 1986. “I’ve never seen that man lose his temper. He was always a really nice guy. He always went beyond the call of duty to help his co-workers.”
Suff was a dedicated participant in the county’s annual chili cook-off and an avid volunteer in the county’s car-pooling program. He is pictured in a county brochure, smiling beside his van with personalized license plates, BILSUF1.
“He used to baby-sit for my little girl,” said Richard Johnson, a former neighbor in Lake Elsinore. “She used to crawl up on his lap and call him uncle Bill.”
Baby-sitting was a task that Suff cheerfully took on for several acquaintances--including, according to a knowledgeable source, one of the murdered women.
Other ex-neighbors recall odd things about Suff--mysterious nocturnal comings and goings in his van, claims of some hazy law enforcement affiliations (he kept a California Highway Patrol cap and handcuffs in the van), and a penchant for secrecy that some found vaguely disturbing.
“There was something about him that just made me keep my distance,” said Jackie Young, manager of the last of a series of Lake Elsinore apartment complexes where Suff resided between between 1984 and 1990.
Suff was extremely reserved, and generally kept his opinions to himself. But he did exhibit strong feelings about prostitutes, some acquaintances say.
On one recent occasion, Suff became enraged after his second wife applied excessive makeup, according to a former roommate who lived with the couple for four months last year in Rialto. “He got real mad and told her: ‘Take that off! You look like a prostitute!’ ” recalled the woman, who asked that her name not be used.
Suff met his young, second wife at a Lake Elsinore convenience store where Cheryl worked. He charmed the teen-ager and they were married after dating only a few months. But their marriage came to involve violence reminiscent of Texas.
The couple’s infant daughter, Bridgette Ann, was taken by authorities in October after suffering brain damage and other injuries from an apparent beating. The Suffs were investigated but never charged with a crime. However, detectives are looking anew at Bill Suff as a suspect.
Today, Suff is angry at what he views as Cheryl’s betrayal, according to his brother, Kenneth, a 35-year-old construction worker and father of five who lives near Perris. Cheryl has not seen her husband since his arrest, according to friends. “She’s already convicted him in her mind,” the younger Suff said of his sister-in-law.
The Suff family settled in the Perris-Lake Elsinore area in the early 1960s. Born in Torrance on Aug. 20, 1950, Bill Suff was the eldest of five children, their father an electrician and sometimes drummer in country-Western bands. “He was a typical, friendly older brother,” the younger Suff said of his sibling, recalling Scouting expeditions to the Cleveland National Forest and other pleasant boyhood memories.
“We got into fights, like brothers do, but I never remember him being violent or anything,” said Kenneth Suff, who added that neither he nor his siblings were abused or excessively disciplined.
In high school, Suff was small of stature--a stark contrast to the beefy, 210 pounds he carried when arrested--and socially inept, said Joseph Beeson, former vice principal of Perris Union High School.
“I think he felt a little bit cheated in life, being small and not being very popular,” said Beeson, adding that Suff was a D student who graduated in 1968 in the bottom third of his class, excelling only at band.
That year, Suff’s parents were divorced. A year earlier, Kenneth Suff said, their father had abandoned the family, forcing their mother to go on welfare.
William enlisted in the Air Force in January, 1969, after a short stint as a state forester. He was sent to Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, where, for 15 months, he served as an aide in the pediatrics ward of the base hospital.
Suff was discharged from the Air Force in December, 1970, well short of the usual four-year hitch. Records explaining the early departure remain sealed, and Suff testified in Texas that he was discharged under honorable conditions and never saw a psychiatrist in the military.
After Suff left the service, he and his bride remained in Fort Worth, where Teryl worked as a waitress and telephone solicitor while he was unemployed or briefly held a variety of low-paying jobs: fry cook, delivery truck driver, ambulance aide, parking lot attendant.
“It probably troubled him deeply to be an intelligent, extremely manipulative man obviously not reaching his potential,” said John L. Gamboa, a Fort Worth attorney who represented Suff in the murder and a previous case in which Suff was convicted of stealing a car from the lot where he worked.
The Suffs’ life, never idyllic, plunged to its nadir on Sept. 25, 1973, when 2-month-old Dijianet was killed in the family flat in Fort Worth. Suff, insisting he was blameless, testified that he found the battered infant dead on the bedroom floor.
Apart from the fatal blows to her midsection, the child also had numerous pre-existing injuries: 13 broken ribs, a fractured shoulder, extensive bruises on the face and arms, a human bite on her abdomen and a cigarette burn through the sole of one foot. An appalled jury took only half an hour to convict both parents of murder.
Upon being paroled to California in 1984, Suff found work in a video shop and general store along Lake Elsinore’s brick-fronted Main Street, longtime cruising strip for women who hustle the sex-for-cash trade. He ate in nearby restaurants, had his hair cut in a Main Street barbershop, dated several area women and generally appeared to be an unexceptional citizen.
“He was a clean-cut, nice guy,” said John Merrifield, who employed Suff between April, 1986, and June, 1989, as a part-time helper at his Main Street store.
In October, 1986, the same month that Suff began his job at a county purchasing depot in Riverside, Michelle Yvette Gutierrez, 26, was found dead in a drainage ditch near Riverside. She was the first in the string of 19 victims.
More than five years later, on Jan. 9, Suff was arrested after police stopped his van for making an illegal U-turn amid Riverside’s seedy sex strip, where many of the victims had last been seen alive.
Authorities said they quickly found evidence that linked Suff to the murders of Catherine McDonald, 30, whose corpse turned up on Sept. 13 at a remote construction site east of Lake Elsinore, and Elenor Ojeda Casares, 39, the most recent in the series of victims, whose body was found in a Riverside orange grove Dec. 23.
Despite a multi-agency task force investigation that had tracked down hundreds of leads, Suff’s name had never before surfaced.
Unspecified evidence, including items seized from Suff’s Colton residence and his van, is strong, officials say, albeit mostly circumstantial--no woman is known to have survived an attack, and there is no confession.
Among the articles gathered from Suff’s apartment, according to the suspect’s brother, were knives, rope and other binding material. Several ex-neighbors have told authorities that Suff was seen with a bloodied and scratched face shortly before the remains of the most recent victim were discovered.
From his cell in the Riverside County Jail, where he is being held without bail, Suff has professed his innocence to visitors. “He says he didn’t do it, that he has all kinds of alibis,” said Kenneth Suff, one of few relatives to pay a call to a man who seldom sees family members.
Does Kenneth Suff believe his brother’s proclaimed innocence? “I’m hoping he didn’t do it,” said the younger Suff, seated on a couch on his cluttered front lawn near Perris. “I don’t believe he’s capable of that, personally. He’s always been gentle when I’ve seen him.”
But, he added: “If he did do it, he’s sick and he needs help. He’s still my brother.”