‘The Details, as Much as His Victims, Were the Trophies’
In 28 years as a police officer, Lt. Ray Griffith had never heard a confession as chilling as Andrew Urdiales’.
Not only did he describe how he killed eight women, Urdiales offered a level of detail that left Griffith and a roomful of colleagues incredulous as they listened to the taped confession he had made to Chicago police.
“It gave me cold chills,” said Griffith, who’s investigated hundreds of murders for the Cathedral City Police Department near Palm Springs. “He was very methodical, very calm. I can’t remember what I wore last Friday--I can’t remember the details of my mother’s death--but this guy remembered everything. He sounded like a novelist. It was like the details, as much as his victims, were the trophies.”
Urdiales, 32, was indicted Tuesday on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of aggravated kidnapping. He’s being held without bail in Cook County Jail. He is scheduled to enter a plea June 3.
Regardless of what happens in Chicago, Urdiales may stand trial in Orange County, where he says he killed disc jockey Robbin Brandley, 23, in a dark parking lot in Mission Viejo in 1986, in what marked the beginning of a nine-year killing spree in three states.
He claims to have killed three women near Chicago and five in California: three near Palm Springs, one in San Diego and Brandley at Saddleback College, stabbing her more than 40 times in the back, chest, neck and hands.
Law enforcement officials in Illinois, Indiana and California say they’ve never met a suspect who documented his killings so thoroughly. Urdiales’ attorneys, from the public defender’s office, declined interview requests.
Back home in Chicago, in the Slag Valley neighborhood on the city’s South Side, as could be expected, Urdiales has emerged as a focal point of gossip and consternation.
Locals are piecing together memories and processing the news that one of their own may be less the war hero his parents remember him as than a serial killer who, in a single conversation, may have solved eight homicides.
His confession was so detailed, Griffith said, he could link Urdiales to 11 pieces of evidence to corroborate the ex-Marine’s version of killing Julie Ann McGhee, whose body a jogger discovered in a remote area of the Coachella Valley.
“If he didn’t do it,” Griffith said, “he at least had to be there. He knew how she was dressed, down to the brand of her shoes. He knew where and how he shot her, the ammunition he used, how much he used, the tattoos she wore.
“Granted, killing a human being is probably a significant event in a person’s life, but few people remember significant events in their own lives as well as this guy remembered these. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
Officer Brian Miller, spokesman for the Hammond, Ind., Police Department, believes that Urdiales might have wanted to get caught. Hammond, a working-class city southeast of Chicago, was the end of the line for Urdiales.
In November, a Hammond police officer pulled him over for a routine traffic stop. Asked if he had a gun, Urdiales, without hesitating, answered yes, Miller said. He then handed over a silver revolver that would later prove crucial in putting him behind bars.
Hammond Officer Warren Fryer cited Urdiales for carrying a handgun without a permit. He let Urdiales go, but kept the gun.
Nearly five months later, on the evening of April 1, Fryer was sent to the American Inn Hotel in Hammond, where Urdiales, of all people, had phoned police.
He was arguing with a prostitute, Miller said, accusing her of taking personal papers.
Fryer recognized him from their meeting in November, Miller said.
The prostitute told Fryer that Urdiales had taken her to nearby Wolf Lake, which traverses the Illinois-Indiana border. He wanted to handcuff her and bind her with duct tape before having sex with her, Miller said. She refused and asked him to return her to Hammond, which he did, according to Fryer’s report.
“Fryer looked at this and thought, ‘This doesn’t sound right,’ ” Miller said, remembering two unsolved murders of prostitutes whose bodies were found in Wolf Lake.
On April 23, after test results connected Urdiales’ revolver to the weapon used in the Wolf Lake homicides, Chicago police arrested him at his home. Several hours later, he confessed, eagerly, Miller said, and with details that surprised those in Chicago as much as it would Lt. Griffith in Cathedral City.
James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of “Overkill: Mass Murder and Serial Killing Exposed,” says such detail is not uncommon among serial killers, who revel in their crimes and prize the memories of their atrocities as much as athletes recalling feats on the playing field.
Fox speculates that Orange County’s Brandley might have given Urdiales “his first taste of killing.” She was leaving a jazz piano concert when the killer attacked her from behind in what Orange County sheriff’s deputies called a “stabbing frenzy.” Brandley was the only woman Urdiales admitted killing who was not a prostitute.
“Those who kill prostitutes have often convinced themselves that they’re doing something good for society,” Fox said, “and very often, they’re the serial killers who confess as soon as they’re arrested. They feel they’re cleaning up the streets, that their victims are hopeless sex machines, marginal people. . . . But when they’re confronted with the reality of what they’ve done, a wave of remorse washes over them, and they confess.”
The fact that old friends described Urdiales as an alienated teenager who had trouble with women and then joined the Marine Corps, only to return to Chicago to live with his parents while working as a security guard, sounds eerily familiar to Fox.
It is not uncommon for such men to seek out careers in the military or law enforcement, Fox noted, since righteous indignation and “power are important themes in the lives of people who feel . . . powerless.”
In Urdiales’ case, wearing a uniform meant joining the Marine Corps, in which he served from 1984 to 1991, as a field radio operator. He received a Good Conduct Medal, a Combat Action Ribbon and a National Defense Service Medal for his service during the Persian Gulf War.
He was stationed at Camp Pendleton from November 1984 to March 1986. Brandley was killed Jan. 18, 1986.
From May 1987 until mid-June of that year, he was in Quantico, Va., and by July 1, was dispatched to Twentynine Palms, where he was stationed until June 1989.
Except for the Brandley slaying, the modus operandi was almost always the same. He told police his victims were women with whom he had sex, often handcuffing them and binding them with duct tape, then arguing with them and beating them up.
He then took them to deserted areas, where he shot them or stabbed them--or sometimes did both--and left their bodies behind, according to police accounts of his confession.
In the old neighborhood, the residents of Slag Valley are still trying to process the news. Gary Zabala, 36, who grew up with Urdiales remembers the “quiet, sullen kid” for an odd trait: “He liked to jump out from behind the bushes and scare other kids in a wooded area near an old steel mill called ‘the pony.’
“He did it so often, but every time,” Zabala said, “it scared us half to death. That’s the part he enjoyed--scaring us.”
After he joined the Marines, Zabala remembers “this strange little kid who often felt left out,” becoming even more distant.
Jerry Thompson, 31, recalls an Urdiales who, in recent days, “would just stare right through you, like you weren’t even there. After he got out of the service, he was just not the same no more.”
According to Thompson, his sister, Kathy Thompson, said that long before Urdiales joined the Marines he had a bad temper. “He’d be real quiet, then get [angry] and just explode. That’s why she didn’t want to have nothin’ to do with him no more.”
Kathy Thompson dated Urdiales when they were teenagers--a fledgling romance that her brother said ended badly.
Zabala said it was “common knowledge around the neighborhood” that a girl in Slag Valley had broken off a relationship with Urdiales because he argued with her bitterly and then tried to choke her.
Jerry Thompson said the girl was his sister, who, in her brother’s words, has been “freaked out” by seeing Urdiales on the news, looking pale and impassive as police led him away in handcuffs.
“They had an argument over something trivial, and that’s how the guy handled it,” said Jerry Thompson, who works in a Chicago bakery. “Well, Kathy ended it, but even after he joined the Marines, he kept writing her, like she would care.”
Despite drawing the ire of her brother, who said he warned Urdiales to stay away, Kathy Thompson never filed a police report over the incident. “That’s not exactly how it’s handled in the neighborhood,” Jerry Thompson said.
Kathy Thompson declined to be interviewed, as did Urdiales’ parents, who still live in the same two-flat bungalow on South Commercial where he grew up.
Jerry Thompson said that not too many years ago, Urdiales was writing letters to Kathy Thompson, talking about a girlfriend he had in California.
Urdiales’ sudden notoriety has left others in the neighborhood grasping for answers. Yolanda Ruiz, 46, a Chicago housewife and mother who lives two doors down from the Urdiales’, remembers a boy who was “just real quiet, who never had any friends as far as I could tell.”
Ruiz owns an electronics store that used to be the corner grocery. Andrew, as she calls him, would often come in to do his parents’ shopping, but decades went by, and still, the response was always the same.
“It was just hi, bye, and that’s it,” she said. “But we’re all real shocked by what we’ve heard. It’s hard to believe that that quiet little boy could have done the things he said he did. I guess you just never know people, even ones who look you right in the eye, day after day, year after year.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.