Deputy tracks down remains of woman slain in 1977 by the ‘I-5 Strangler’
The “I-5 Strangler,” a serial killer who preyed on women in Northern California in the 1970s and ‘80s, confessed to his crimes nearly a decade ago. But the body of one of his victims, 21-year-old Lou Ellen Burleigh of Walnut Creek, had not been found.
In February, Napa County Deputy Sheriff Michael Bartlett took it upon himself to bring some kind of closure to the case. In his free time, Bartlett hiked through the rugged terrain near Lake Berryessa, looking for signs of Burleigh in the area where her killer, Roger Kibbe, said he left her body in 1977.
It was about a month later when he noticed a glimmer of white, no bigger than a quarter, at the bottom of a shallow creek. He reached into the water and pulled it out, rinsing off the silt and mud. It was a bone.
“My initial gut feeling was that I had located Lou Ellen,” he said.
But it wasn’t until last week that DNA tests confirmed the remains were Burleigh’s. Officials announced the break Monday, with hope that the news can finally close the books on the notorious murder rampage.
“For her mother to be able to bury her daughter and lay her to rest — it’s a good feeling to be able to be a part of that,” Bartlett said.
The 1-5 Strangler got his name after six Northern California women were killed between 1977 and 1987 and dumped along highways and in other remote areas. Two of the early victims were abducted from the 5 Freeway after having car trouble. A few were prostitutes. Most of them were raped. All of them were strangled, with their clothes cut to shreds.
The I-5 Strangler rattled Northern California several years after the same region was haunted by the Zodiac Killer.
“People were wary. This was prior to cellphones, so you didn’t really have anything if you broke down,” said Vito Bertocchini, a lieutenant with the San Joaquin County district attorney’s investigations office who has worked the case since 1986. “People were definitely concerned that someone like this would be out there.”
Kibbe was an early suspect in the killings, based on a composite sketch, the type of van he drove and previous attempts to abduct prostitutes.
Bertocchini looked into Burleigh’s disappearance and learned that Kibbe was a suspect in that case as well. As the circle began to tighten, investigators found evidence linking Kibbe to the crimes after he tried to abduct a prostitute in Sacramento.
But when it came time for Kibbe to be charged, prosecutors faced serious problems, Bertocchini said. DNA technology had not yet been developed, making it more difficult to link the cases.
So when Kibbe went to trial in 1987, he was charged only with the murder of Darcie Frackenpohl, a 17-year-old who had been living in Sacramento. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.
In 2000, DNA evidence linked Kibbe to six more slayings. Investigators approached him in state prison with their evidence and, in 2003, he confessed to all seven murders. It took a few years for prosecutors to coordinate their investigations and gather more evidence, but in 2008 Kibbe was indicted by a grand jury and charged.
In order to avoid the death penalty, Kibbe pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with investigators and help them find Burleigh’s body, the only one of his known victims who had not been found.
In the years since, investigators searched the rugged terrain surrounding Lake Berryessa multiple times, often with Kibbe in tow. Kibbe said he left her body in a dry creek bed, and although investigators found a few places that fit his description, no evidence was found.
“We tried everything. We drove over roads, we walked, we even put him in a helicopter, thinking that because he was a skydiver, the aerial view might help,” Bertocchini said. “It just wasn’t there.”
Bartlett wasn’t part of the original searches. The 14-year department veteran said he knew about the case and, after thinking of Burleigh’s family, decided to give it a shot.
“I think it was just the fact that she was never found and that she was somewhere out there and her family had never had any kind of closure,” Bartlett said. “Kibbe confessed to the crime and was convicted of it, but she was still never found. I just wanted to help bring some sort of closure.”
Bartlett eventually found the foundation of an old house and well near an area that fit Kibbe’s description. He remembered something else: Kibbe had told investigators that he could see a radio tower from the place where he left Burleigh’s body. No radio tower had been in the area, but maybe, Bartlett thought, there was a connection.
After scouring property records and construction permits, Bartlett learned that the well had been dug in September 1977, the same time Burleigh disappeared. The drill that was used to construct the well might have looked like a radio tower to someone who didn’t know any better.
The nearby creek wasn’t dry anymore, as it had been when Kibbe was there. But it was the same creek where he had left Burleigh’s body 34 years ago.
Last week, DNA confirmed that the bone Bartlett uncovered was Burleigh’s. Officials told her mother and two brothers, who live in Washington, on Friday.
“I don’t know whether to call it relief, but it’s just a good feeling to be able to give something to the family that they’ve been missing for 44 years,” Bartlett said.
But does this close the books on the I-5 Strangler? Bertocchini and other investigators have long believed that Kibbe, now 72, is responsible for more deaths, pointing to the 10-year gap in slayings as one of the reasons that they’re still looking for other potential victims.
“If we’re linking him between 1986 and ’87 to eight or nine murders, what happens between ’77 and ’86?” he asked. “Yeah, that’s scary. That’s really scary.”
Get breaking news, investigations, analysis and more signature journalism from the Los Angeles Times in your inbox.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.