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Riverside Man Convicted in Serial Slayings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An easygoing government stock clerk who promoted car-pooling and concocted savory chili at office picnics was convicted Wednesday of murdering a dozen Riverside County prostitutes in a serial killing rampage that baffled authorities for 2 1/2 years.

William L. Suff, 44, a Riverside County warehouse worker who helped deliver office furniture to the law enforcement task force that was searching for the serial killer, was found guilty of luring the prostitutes into his vehicle, strangling or stabbing them and dumping their bodies in alleys, trash bins, orange groves and fields, primarily around Riverside and Lake Elsinore.

Some of the bodies were posed in lewd positions to shock their discoverers, and several bodies were mutilated in ways that investigators said became the killer’s signature as the murders became more gruesome and frequent.

The jury deliberated four days before delivering its verdicts Wednesday on 12 counts of first-degree murder with the special circumstances of lying in wait and committing multiple murders. On Monday, the jury will begin hearing evidence to decide whether Suff should be put to death or sentenced to prison for life without the possibility of parole.

Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Paul Zellerbach said he will present to jurors more of Suff’s dark side, including his 1974 conviction in Texas for the beating death of his 2-month-old daughter, for which he was sentenced to 70 years in prison but was released after 10 years.

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Jurors will also be told of evidence that Suff severely injured another infant daughter in Rialto in 1991, and learn of the 1988 murder of a San Bernardino prostitute for which Suff was not charged but which bore striking similarities to the 12 murders for which he was convicted.

The killings occurred between June 28, 1989, and Dec. 23, 1991. In January, 1992, Suff was pulled over by a suspicious Riverside police officer moments after he saw Suff talking to a prostitute on Riverside’s University Avenue, which was--along with Lake Elsinore’s Main Street--one of his favorite haunts in cruising for prey.

The officer said Suff resembled a drawing of the serial killer that was based on a description provided by a prostitute who had rejected Suff’s request for sex and then saw a girlfriend climb into his van, never to be seen alive again.

Inside Suff’s van, investigators found a bloody knife and other evidence, and detectives matched his van’s tires to tracks left at the most recent crime scenes.

In a police interrogation that was not heard by the jury, Suff admitted that he had come across one of the bodies, took a knife out of the victim’s chest and took the clothing that he said was stacked beside it, but denied killing the woman.

Suff, who has grown pudgy and gray after spending 3 1/2 years in jail awaiting trial, looked glum and wiped his eyes with a tissue Wednesday as the court clerk spent 30 minutes reading the verdicts. He did not appear to make eye contact with the jurors.

“I’d be upset too if I was on my way to the gas chamber,” Zellerbach said afterward in anticipation of winning a death sentence. “And I’ll hand him a tissue when he’s walking into the gas chamber.”

The jury was deadlocked 11 to 1 on Suff’s guilt in the murder of a 13th prostitute, but convicted him of the attempted murder of Rhonda Jetmore, a Lake Elsinore woman who prosecutors believe was the only victim to escape Suff’s grasp.

Reaction from relatives of some of the victims was mixed.

“I still want my daughter back, and I can’t,” said a weeping Ida McDonald, mother of 31-year-old Catherine McDonald, whose body was found Sept. 13, 1991, near Lake Elsinore.

Hester Sternfeld, the mother of 27-year-old Susan M. Sternfeld, whose body was found Dec. 19, 1990, near Riverside, said the trauma of her daughter’s death will never subside, and added that she had mixed feelings about whether Suff should be executed for the murders.

“As long as they caught him and he’s in custody, we’re happy. Even if he’s just in prison, he’s still dead,” she said. “But I’m going to remain sad all my life because I lost my daughter.”

Along with the testimony of the only surviving victim and the Riverside prostitute who rebuffed Suff and provided police with his description, he was convicted on the weight of circumstantial evidence, including robe and carpet fibers, cat and human hairs, tire tracks, shoe impressions and the analysis of DNA in the semen found on 11 victims.

The presentation of the DNA evidence by both sides took eight trial days--in contrast to more than a month of DNA testimony in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Zellerbach said he felt no need to go into great detail for jurors on how DNA is analyzed; part of the jury’s DNA education was presented in a 15-minute video.

“We only needed to provide them with a basic understanding of what it is and how it works,” Zellerbach said. “It’s no different than when you try someone for drunk driving. You explain that a breath analyzer measured the blood-alcohol level but you don’t expect the jury to understand how the breath analyzer works.”

Suff did not take the witness stand on his behalf. Instead, his defense attorneys challenged the statistical reliability of the DNA evidence and said that Suff had alibis for some of the nights the killings occurred.

The jurors deadlocked on convicting Suff in the April 26, 1991, murder of Cherie Payseur, whose body--found behind a bowling alley--was washed virtually clean of any evidence by water sprinklers before she was found.

In addition to the murders of Sternfeld and McDonald, Suff was found guilty of killing Kimberly E. Lyttle, 28; Tina C. Leal, 23; Darla J. Ferguson, 23; Carol L. Miller, 34; Cheryl Coker, 33; Kathleen L. Milne, 42; Sherry A. Latham, 36; Kelly M. Hammond, 27; Delliah H. Zamora, 35, and Eleanor Casares, 39.


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