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Serial killer's lone survivor torn by conscience

Rose Steward woke up, certain someone else was in her bedroom. She saw a man, a red bandanna over his face and a knife in his hand, illuminated by a street light. She began to shake violently.

For the next five hours, the man raped and choked her, twice to the point she lost consciousness. She was certain she would die. She grieved she was too young, only 22, and that her murder would destroy her mother.

She struggled against panic and fought with her wits, pretending to like her attacker, cajoling him and sympathizing with him. When he finally left at dawn, she kissed him goodbye — then ran for help.

After leaving Steward, Dean Carter went on a killing rampage, strangling, raping and stacking bodies in closets. Police say he murdered five women, from San Diego to Oakland, within 18 days. Steward's testimony helped prosecutors win two death sentences against Carter.

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Twenty-eight years after the murders, Carter remains on death row, writing a blog and pressing his appeals. That he continues to live frustrates and angers families of some of his victims. They want to watch him die.

Steward, 50, sees it differently. She has endorsed the November ballot measure — Proposition 34 — to replace the death penalty with life without parole. She said she is tired of dreading the call that will inform her of the day he's to receive his lethal injection, and she's weary of seeing people who worked for his execution die before him.

She has long opposed the death penalty but kept her views to herself during Carter's murder trials. The wait for Carter's execution — and with no immediate end in sight for the appeal process — has merely reinforced her sentiments. She said she wants to move on.

But the wishes of Carter's other victims tug at her. During one of the murder trials, George Cullins, father of one of the murder victims, asked Steward for a favor. Cullins was approaching 70 and knew that Carter's appeals would drag on for decades.

Would she take his place at Carter's execution if he could not be there?

Steward was stunned and did not know how to respond.

"I will try," she said.

::

After her assault, which took place in Ventura on March 29, 1984, Steward started sleeping on her living room floor. She kept a loaded gun under her pillow — even after Carter was arrested during a traffic stop a month later with his victims' belongings in his car.

Prosecutors decided to try him first for her rape and then call her to testify against him in the murder trials, scheduled for Los Angeles and San Diego.

During their first courtroom encounter months later in Ventura, Steward said she managed to stare down Carter and felt stronger as a result. But she couldn't put the attack behind her because she would have to testify about it at the murder trials.

She met Carter when he was staying at a neighbor's house. He was tall, handsome, quiet and "a little odd." Carter, then 28, tried to befriend her, but she went out of her way to avoid him.

Late one night, two weeks after meeting him, she found him in her bedroom. He sexually assaulted her throughout the night, his hand clutching her throat. When she showed fear, he became more violent. So she feigned casualness, telling him she had been attracted to him but had feared rejection.

When the sun came up, she told him she needed to go to work or her boss would come looking for her. Her voice was hoarse and gravelly from the choking. After walking him to the front door, she made him promise to call her.

Once alone, she ran to a neighbor, who summoned police. By the time they arrived, Carter had vanished.

Heading to a Santa Monica courtroom for Carter's first murder trial in 1989, Steward worried about how the victims' families would regard her.

She had come to view the slain women — Jillette Leonora Mills, 25, Susan Lynn Knoll, 25, Bonnie Ann Guthrie, 34, Janette Anne Cullins, 24, and Tok Chum Kim, 42 — as "sisters" and saw herself as their voice.

Would their families resent her for living while their loved ones died? Could she have prevented their murders by doing something differently? Did he kill because he realized she had tricked him and decided to leave no more witnesses?

The loved ones of the other victims did not blame her. They were kind and warm. She especially "bonded" with George and Helen Cullins, the parents of Janette. The Cullinses attended the Santa Monica trial while awaiting their daughter's case in San Diego.

Steward remembered the couple telling her during the trial that she looked like their daughter. "Look honey," Helen said to George one day at court, touching Steward's hand. "Her hair is even the same color."

Once on the stand, Steward captivated the courtroom. The prosecutor considered her the state's best witness against Carter. Jennifer Bollman, a sister of victim Jillette Mills, recalled that Steward was gutsy on the stand, describing her assault in detail even as defense lawyers tried to make "it look like it was her fault."

During the penalty phase, Bollman and other family members of the victims testified they wanted Carter executed. Helen Cullins told a reporter that she wanted to see him strangled, as her daughter was strangled.

When the jury recommended the death penalty, Steward said, the other victims' vehemence muted her reaction. Though she opposed the death penalty, she was happy for the families of the dead women. She did not feel it was her place to express an opinion.

At Carter's second murder trial in San Diego, George Cullins approached her with his request.

::

Struggling to put the crimes behind her, Steward moved to Colorado. She noticed that people seemed to recoil when they learned of her night with a serial killer.

"I was associated with such horror, and it was on me in a way," she said. "I felt people draw away."

She watched from afar as George Cullins became a victims' rights activist, publicly deploring the sluggish pace of the justice system. Determined that Carter's execution remain a priority, he regularly faxed a photograph of his daughter to a deputy attorney general.

Steward shared his outrage when she discovered that Carter was writing a blog — "Deadman Talking" — with the help of someone on the outside. In his writings, Carter professed his innocence, though he never mentioned the crimes, focusing more on life on death row and offering opinions on current events. Steward called the man who was posting Carter's musings and complained.

For a while, she and the Cullinses exchanged notes. She said she grieved when she read last year that George had died after a car accident. He was 88.

"George never got to see the end of this," said Steward, who is now a parent and owner of a painting business.

When she read during the summer that Californians would be voting on a proposition to replace the death penalty, she wrote a note of support to the campaign, which enlisted her to join other crime victims at two news conferences.

Steward has no sympathy for Carter — she regards him as "a shell," a man without a soul — and wants him placed in the general prison population "so he can feel fear." In her mind, death row has given him celebrity status, a podium, and she wants that taken away.

Still, she is worried that expressing her views might offend the families of Carter's other victims, and it has.

Bollman, 55, describes Steward's position as a betrayal. Bollman is furious that Carter, now 56, has been in prison longer than her sister, Jillette, lived. She wants to attend Carter's execution, look him in the eye and say, "Now you are getting yours."

Steward respects those feelings, but for her, a commutation to life without possibility of parole would close the chapter. She knows she will never be able to honor Cullins' request to attend Carter's execution.

"That would bring it all back," she said.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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