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A Trail of Death : 3 Years After Arrest, Man to Go on Trial in 13 Slayings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The prostitutes trolling along Main Street in Lake Elsinore were the first ones turning up dead, and then it was the women who worked University Avenue in Riverside.

Two bodies were discovered within two days. Then five, 10, 15, 19, over the next five years.

All were strangled. Some had been stabbed, too, their chests punctured in tight patterns. Several were mutilated. Some of the bodies were posed nude in lewd positions to shock whoever found them.

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Among the prostitutes who were interviewed by investigators desperate for clues, four later turned up dead. “We were losing them from right beneath our nose,” one frustrated detective said.

After a newspaper article suggested that the killer was targeting white women, a black prostitute was killed in the most brutal attack of all. When word leaked out in an article that investigators had flown to the Midwest to check out a possible suspect, another woman was killed the next day, back home.

The killer was playing mind games with the detectives.

Finally, a prostitute provided a description of the suspect. She rejected a john who wanted a $10 trick, and then watched the man drive down the street and pick up one of her girlfriends. They discovered the friend’s body the next morning. The lucky one--she had wanted $20--described a gray van and helped an artist draw a sketch of the suspect.

About five months--and three murders--later, a Riverside police motorcycle officer saw a man in a gray van who resembled the sketch of the suspect and who was talking to a University Avenue prostitute. The officer waited for a reason to pull the man over and then stopped him for an illegal turn.

A detective who was called to the scene immediately matched each of the van’s tires to the tracks left at the scenes of the most recent killings, investigators said.

Inside the van, detectives discovered rope, a bloody steak knife and what would become a treasure trove of fibers that literally would thread the case together. Threads and fibers from the rope, the van’s upholstery and carpeting, and a torn, multicolored sleeping bag in the back matched those found on the bodies, the officers said. Prostitution citations given to one of the victims were even found inside the glove compartment.

On Monday--three years after his arrest--William L. Suff, a 44-year-old warehouseman and convicted child killer, will stand trial in the serial murders of 13 women that occurred from June, 1989, through December, 1991.

Suff is suspected in six earlier murders--dating to 1986--but was not charged with them because detectives do not have enough evidence to link him to those crimes despite similarities in the way they were committed.

Suff has pleaded not guilty to the slayings. His court-appointed defense attorney, Frank Peasley, said that some of the murder counts against Suff are weak, based on flimsy forensic evidence, and that his client has alibis for when some of the other killings occurred.

Peasley said he is concerned that jurors, when confronted with grisly crime scene photographs, will feel such disdain toward Suff that they will be inclined to convict him of anything the prosecution wants, evidence notwithstanding.

“It’s easier for jurors to take an objective analysis if it’s a white-collar crime case, where nobody is (physically) hurt,” Peasley said. “But in a case like this, with dead bodies and bloody crime scenes, it’ll be harder to get jurors to do that. There’s going to be pity and sympathy for the victims.”

The Riverside County district attorney’s office is seeking the death penalty and hopes to paint the victims not just as streetwalkers, but vulnerable victims of cruel, torturous deaths.

Most of the victims had young children and had turned to prostitution to feed their drug habits. One victim was pregnant with her fourth child when she was killed. Family photos of other victims depicted happier times in more traditional domestic settings, before the women’s lives changed because of the drugs.

The arrest of Suff, an easygoing Riverside County employee, came as a shock to neighbors and co-workers. Suff had even posed for an employee newsletter--one year before he was arrested--promoting the county’s ride-sharing program.

He stood next to the van that he allegedly was using to pick up his prey. “Bill still has a few seats open,” said the small ride-sharing article about Suff from the county’s Purchasing Department. “Anyone interested?”

To hear prosecutor Paul Zellerbach tell it, the case against Suff seems as solid as it gets, the pieces of a daunting jigsaw puzzle now all cleanly in place.

It would be nice, Zellerbach said, if investigators knew what might have motivated the killings. But that’s all that is missing, he said.

He and the investigators assigned to a Riverside County law enforcement task force have collected more than 4,000 pieces of evidence, compiled more than 16,000 pages of reports, and interviewed more than 400 people.

It has taken three years to build their case against Suff, partly due to the lengthy process of DNA testing and microscopic analyses of evidence. Three years preparation, Zellerbach said, is not surprising, given the scope and complexity of the case.

Suff, meanwhile, has grown pudgy, whiling away the past three years in the Riverside County Jail. He’s holding up “really well,” Peasley said. “But he’s used to it. He spent 10 years in prison in Texas.”

Suff was convicted in Texas in 1974 for the murder of his 2-month-old daughter, who was beaten so badly her liver ruptured. He was sentenced to 70 years in prison but released on parole after 10 years. He returned to the Lake Elsinore area--where he had gone to high school, a “D” student who was considered socially inept but who capably played a trumpet in the school band.

He dodged his past, telling acquaintances that he had been a Texas prison guard. He bought a baseball cap at an Indio swap meet that bore the California Highway Patrol insignia, carried a pellet gun in his van that looked like a .357 magnum, listened to a police radio scanner and made references to neighbors about going on late-night patrols. Everyone breathed a little easier, knowing Bill was around.

Suff picked up jobs here and there--fry cook, delivery truck driver, ambulance aide, parking lot attendant. In 1990, he got married a second time--to an 18-year-old woman he had met a month earlier at a Lake Elsinore convenience store.

By then, nine prostitutes from the Lake Elsinore area had been killed. The crimes all bore remarkable similarities--streetwalkers who were strangled, either by hand or by rope, their bodies dumped in rural fields. Some were nude, some partially covered in men’s clothing.

As the body count grew, the murders grew more heinous; stabbings and mutilations became more frequent. “The mutilations were the killer’s coup de grace,” Zellerbach said.

While the murders were occurring, investigators were collecting hair, fibers and semen from the victims, and preserving shoe prints and tire tracks from the scenes, but had no idea who to look for.

In 1991--after 12 of the 19 homicides had occurred--a law enforcement task force was established by the Riverside Police Department and Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, with investigators, forensic experts and even a deputy coroner assigned to the case.

Their big break came that August when they located the friend of a prostitute who was killed a couple of days earlier. The woman, a prostitute, said a man asked her for a $20 trick. She first insisted on some chicken nuggets, a hot fudge sundae and a Coke. He obliged, then said he’d only pay her $10.

She protested and jumped out of the slow-moving van; he drove down the street and approached another hooker. Despite shouted warnings that the man was a cheapskate, the other woman got in.

The witness gave a general description of the van--she confused its make, it turned out--but provided a very good description of the man. A sketch was distributed among police.

In January, 1992, Riverside police mounted their own dragnet for the killer because one of the predictable patterns of the slayings was that he had struck in mid-January each of the three previous years. Five undercover police units cruised University Avenue.

It was traffic Officer Frank Orta who ultimately pulled Suff over.

It wasn’t the first time law enforcement had encountered Suff during the serial killings, investigators later realized.

Rialto police interviewed Suff in October, 1991, when his 3-month-old daughter sustained brain damage and broken ribs during an apparent battering. Authorities removed the baby from the Suff home, but did not have enough evidence to arrest either parent--and did not realize because of a bureaucratic snafu that Suff had been previously convicted of killing a baby.

A Riverside traffic accident investigator took a report from Suff in December, 1991, when he was involved in a minor traffic mishap. “There was nothing suspicious to the officer about Suff or the van,” Zellerbach said. “He was a middle-class guy, employed by the county, well-spoken, well-mannered.” The accident investigator may not have been privy to the recent sketch of the suspected serial killer or the general description of his van.

Most ironically, Suff helped serial killer investigators on several occasions load up county supplies and furniture for their office. One time, the investigators were paged--and used Suff’s phone to learn of yet another killing.

Once he was arrested, the case against Suff came together quickly.

Detectives pored over old crime reports and remembered an assault victim in Lake Elsinore--a prostitute who said that in 1989 she was picked up by a man and went to an abandoned house for sex. Inside the darkened bedroom, she asked for her $20 upfront. When she shined a flashlight on the single bill, she saw it was only a dollar. And, she said, the man began to strangle her. In the struggle, she knocked off his glasses and escaped as he looked for them. She said the man’s Western-style belt buckle bore the name Bill.

The woman, Zellerbach said, is the only known survivor of a Suff attack. When she first came forward--in 1989, after a fellow Lake Elsinore prostitute had been killed--investigators were not yet looking for a serial killer, and the impact of her initial report was lost on them. After Suff’s arrest, the task force returned to her and she identified Suff from a series of mug shots.

Suff’s wife, Cheryl, told the grand jury she could not account for his whereabouts on many of the nights when the killings took place because she worked late hours. On other occasions, Suff offered alibis that did not hold up, Zellerbach said.

Hair at some of the crime scenes matched those of Suff’s cat, the officers said. A map in his apartment was marked with dots to show where two of the bodies were found. The tread of two pairs of his shoes exactly matched prints at the scenes. And receipts for tire purchases linked specific crime-scene tread marks with the tires on Suff’s van at the times of various killings.

At the county warehouse, co-workers later found a purse of one victim. And Suff’s wife and neighbors said he offered them clothing and jewelry that later were identified as belonging to some victims.

It’s just like a serial killer to keep trophies of his conquests, Zellerbach said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Case of an Accused Serial Killer

William L. Suff worked for the Riverside County Purchasing Department and was pictured in an employee newsletter to promote ride-sharing. Homicide investigators say Suff lured his victims into this same van. When he was arrested, detectives found rope and a bloody knife in the vehicle. Now, he is going to trial for the murders of 13 women, all identified by police as prostitutes.

* Kimberly E. Lyttle was the first of 13 victims allegedly killed by Suff. Her body was discovered June 28, 1989--the day after her 28th birthday--down an embankment of a dirt road between Lake Elsinore and Menifee. She was found wearing a man’s Western-style shirt.

* Kelly M. Hammond, 27, was seen getting into a gray van allegedly driven by Suff on Aug. 15, 1991, by another Riverside prostitute who had rejected the same man because he would pay only $10 for a trick. Hammond’s body was discovered the next morning in a Corona industrial area.

* Eleanor Casares, 39, was the last victim in the serial killings. Her body was discovered in a Riverside orange grove Dec. 23, 1991--17 days before Suff was arrested. A black sweater and jeans she had been wearing were later offered by Suff to friends, witnesses told investigators.


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