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DNA research in Golden State Killer case spurs hope in unsolved killings

San Francisco Chronicle 5/6/2018 By Kevin Fagan and Evan Sernoffsky
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The victims all died horribly — raped, beaten or sliced, and tossed nude into trash cans or empty lots. Some were simply shot while pleading for their lives. Decades have slipped by with no arrests, and no real hope of resolution for their loved ones.

Until now.

The stunning success of DNA research in the Golden State Killer case, leading to the arrest of a suspect after decades of no progress, has electrified homicide investigators throughout the Bay Area with new hope that maybe they, too can get new leads into old homicides with warehoused DNA evidence.

Some 1970s cases stand out in particular for their similarity in depravity, timing and volume to the long Golden State saga of rapes and slayings — including the grisly Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders, the Doodler slayings in San Francisco’s gay haunts, and the killings of six women in and around the city’s Sunnydale Housing Project.

The assumption is that with hundreds of unsolved killings throughout the region — only about half of all killings usually get solved — there must be among them longtime, unusually vexing cases that could be ripe for DNA hits.

Debora Silva poses for a portrait Thursday, May 3, 2018 in Glen Ellen, Calif. while searching for the spot on Enterprise Road where the body of Kim Allen was found.

Debora Silva poses for a portrait Thursday, May 3, 2018 in Glen Ellen, Calif. while searching for the spot on Enterprise Road where the body of Kim Allen was found.
© Jessica Christian / The Chronicle
There was 25-year-old Tommy Wenger, whose body was chopped up in 1994 and thrown into a Dumpster near Polk Street. The plastic trash bags he was found in, still stored as evidence, could have usable samples. There was Jenny Low Chang, 19, bludgeoned to death at San Francisco State University in 1977 as the campus’ first killing. The ashtray used to bash in her head could also have usable samples.

Even evidence in the infamous Zodiac Killer spree that left five people shot or stabbed to death in 1968 and 1969 as he sent taunting letters and cryptograms to The Chronicle is getting new inspection by investigators in San Francisco and other local areas where he left victims. The DNA in the case is so tenuous that it had long been considered largely useless — but the Vallejo Police Department has sent two envelopes with stamps to a lab for updated testing.

With the new realization that technology for more accurately sorting out genetic code has advanced in recent years, and that enough DNA samples are in databases all over the nation through genealogical sites, there is hope that links can be more easily made.

There is a tint of caution around that hope, however, with growing privacy concerns that also followed revelations of Golden State Killer bust.

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Genealogical blogs have been lighting up with concerns from people wondering if they should delete their genetic profiles or mark them just for private research. The idea of loading DNA into a database, they say, is to recreationally find relatives and research family history, not to serve as a search engine for cops.

“It’s a Pandora’s Box,” said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. “Once you open it, the consequences come.”

For now, though, it’s the gumshoes are plunging ahead.

In Santa Rosa, the boxes of homicide tools and rape kits scraped from the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders scenes have been hauled out for a fresh look. Victims’ pictures are up on the walls and potential genetic material is being evaluated, said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Lt. Tim Duke.

“You never give up on these cases, but the fact there have been some new breaks in the technology and techniques around DNA is exciting,” said Duke, who is on the team that re-opened the case a couple of months ago. “We had the hitchhikers case shelved for awhile, but now we’re strongly working it again. We came across some evidence we thought was good enough to send out for testing. We’re hoping for the best.”

Ken Moses, 72, worked at the San Francisco Police Crime Laboratory from 1971 to 1997 and established the Crime Scene Investigations Unit there in 1983. He now works as an independent consultant.

“The DNA situation has been very dramatic,” he said. “In the past, it was limited to violent crimes that had biological fluid, and maybe 2 percent of crimes had that. But the technologies for developing DNA have changed — now you can get DNA from a discarded cigarette butt or something that someone has brushed their fingers against.”

Armed with such advances, cold-case sleuths “go through the file, push the dust off, look to see what evidence is available and see what property was booked,” Moses said. “The problem is a lot of this stuff wasn’t booked, and if it was, it’s in lousy condition or wet. But once they find it, it’s a normal request to the lab who will do the extractions.”

The new developments, he said, have “certainly made the job more exciting and productive ... and it’s only getting more and more exciting.”

The Golden State Killer committed at least 12 homicides and 45 rapes in California from 1976-86, and decades went by with no true leads until investigators ran DNA samples from crime-scene evidence through a genealogical website and got a hit leading to Joseph James DeAngelo. After filling in locations, times, descriptions and other clues pointing to their suspect, detectives arrested the 72-year-old former cop last month at his home in a quiet Sacramento suburb. Prosecutors are now assembling cases up and down the state to take him to trial.

Clifford Moss, the boyfriend of one of the victims in the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders, lives a few miles from DeAngelo’s house, and when the suspect was arrested he was filled with a mixture of the dread it dredged up and renewed hope.

Moss, now 66, lived in Sacramento County during the Golden State Killer’s crime spree years, fearing for his and his wife’s lives. When he learned his near-neighbor was the suspect, Moss’ memory immediately shot back to the Golden State Killer-like homicide that shook his life to the core in March 1972.

That’s when investigators found the naked body of his then-girlfriend, 19-year-old college student Kim Allen, in a creek eight miles south of Santa Rosa. She had been raped and strangled, and she would be the third of seven female victims is what would become known as the Hitchhiker Murders.

Moss is long married with a career at the state Department of Education, and has three children and three grandchildren, but the shock and sorrow of Allen’s death “still plays in my head in times like this,” he said. “That was a long time ago, but the pain never ends.

“This new DNA stuff? It’s about damn time. I hope they can do something. There’s never closure, but I think everyone would feel a little better if they caught someone.”

The DNA evidence collected from Allen’s body is considered among the strongest potential leads in the case. Investigators in 2011 were attempting to test it and other samples for possible links to the notorious Ted Bundy — who was in the area around the time of the killings and was eventually executed for other killings — but that process stalled. It’s not stalled any more.

Deborah Silva has extensively researched the slayings since 1990, when she lived near the spot on Franz Valley Road where three victims were found. So many ghoulish homicide-tourists knocked on her door wanting to see where the bodies were dumped that she started looking up the history, “and I came to really care for all these girls.”

“If these new DNA techniques really work out, it could be the break they’re looking for,” said Silva, 66. “The person or persons who did the murders need to pay for what they did. And if they’re dead, maybe it would be unfortunate for the remaining family, but it might be a real light bulb moment for them — and for everyone else.”

That light bulb moment is rare. According to the nonprofit Murder Accountability Project, there were 112,762 homicides in California between 1980 and 2012 — but only 65,864 of them have been solved. That clocks in at a 58 percent clearance rate.

Among them, practically lost to the mists of time, are a string of killings from 1974 to 1975, in which a serial killer dubbed “The Doodler” targeted San Francisco’s gay community and stabbed at least 14 men to death. Another forgotten wave of killings involved the six women who were raped and slain in and around the city’s Sunnydale Housing Project between 1973 and 1976.

The city’s detectives are sorting through old, unsolved homicide files to see what’s worth sending to DNA labs. It’s a painstaking task. As with most big-city departments, there are hundreds of files to sift through.

“We’re still putting together all the various pieces in the Doodler case to see where it’s at,” said San Francisco cold-case police Inspector Dan Cunningham, who’d been dredging that mystery hard even before DeAngelo was nabbed. “There are things in 2018, with our modern technology and methods, that people think are important that weren’t thought to be important in 1975 or 1976.”

San Francisco investigators would also like to put to rest the cases of Tommy Wenger and Jenny Low Chang, whose families have never given up hope of an arrest.

Cliff Moss, former high school boyfriend of Kim Allen who was murdered by the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Killer more than 40 years ago, looks for photos of Kim in his wife's 1969 Ursuline High Schoo yearbook at his home in Sacramento, Calif. Friday, May 4, 2018.

Cliff Moss, former high school boyfriend of Kim Allen who was murdered by the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Killer more than 40 years ago, looks for photos of Kim in his wife's 1969 Ursuline High Schoo yearbook at his home in Sacramento, Calif. Friday, May 4, 2018.
© Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Chang’s family has hired a private investigator who checks in on the case periodically, and Wenger’s mother calls the homicide department every January around his birthday for an update. Her boy was a street hustler who smoked crack and was chopped to death at 25 — but in her heart he is always the “sweet-natured, soft-spoken boy who would have gotten his life back on track if he’d been given the chance.”

“The DNA in Tommy’s case — they’ve told me they have hope for that, for what they have on the bags he got put into,” said Carol Yost, who lives in Pennsylvania. “I’m hopeful about this new DNA thing. It’s a good possibility.

“Finding out who killed my boy would give me some peace.”

Kevin Fagan and Evan Sernoffsky are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: kfagan@sfchronicle.com, esernoffsky@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @KevinChron, @EvanSernoffsky

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