The hitchhiker murders of Santa Rosa, California

Updated: Jan 8



Growing up in the 90’s, I can’t remember a time when hitchhiking was considered safe. It was popular in the 1970’s but, even then, people caught on pretty quickly to the fact that it could be dangerous. Unfortunately, a lot of people — especially young women — still caught rides with strangers, and many of them never came home. This is the story of a series of hitchhiker murders in the 1970’s in Santa Rosa, California. At least seven girls and young women were killed while hitchhiking, and their murders remain unsolved over forty years later.

The story

Our story begins on February 4, 1972. 12-year-old Maureen Sterling and her 13-year-old friend, Yvonne Weber, went missing from Redwood Ice Skating Rink in Santa Rosa. They were last seen getting into a car and, while the Santa Rosa police initially thought they were runaways, Yvonne’s stepfather believed they were hitchhiking.

Just a month later, on March 4, 19-year-old Kim Allen left her job at a health food store in Larkspur, California around 5 pm. Both Kim’s mother and one of her teachers at Santa Rosa Junior College had warned her of the dangers of hitchhiking, but she didn’t listen. On the evening of March 4, she attempted to hitchhike back to Santa Rosa, something she did regularly. Two men gave her a ride but let her out at a northbound on ramp at about 5:30 pm.

Kim’s body was found the next day, in a creek bank just off a road about eight miles southeast of Santa Rosa. She was nude, and there was evidence of sexual assault. However, there were no other obvious injuries to her body except scratch marks where her body had rolled down the embankment and marks on her neck, wrists and ankles probably made by wire or rope. Her cause of death was asphyxiation, and the coroner determined it had taken her at least half an hour to die.

Needless to say, people were shocked by Kim’s brutal rape and murder. A friend of hers, Fred Samia, started a reward fund with a $50 donation. There was a scholarship established in her name, and 10 detectives were put on her case. The same teacher who had warned Kim about hitchhiking later revealed that two of her other students had also been killed hitchhiking. After Kim’s death, police received an increase in rape reports from hitchhikers — in fact, about 80 % of rapes in Sonoma County occurred from hitchhiking.

Less than two months later, on April 25, 20-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student Jeanette Kamahele left home around 9:30 am to hitchhike to class. She was last seen getting into a 1950’s pickup, with a white man in his 20’s or 30’s at the wheel. Jeanette’s roommate reported her missing later that night when she realized she hadn’t shown up for classes and wouldn’t have just skipped on a whim.

Jeanette’s body has never been found, and most people who have researched this case don’t seem to consider her one of the confirmed victims. But after her disappearance, and likely in conjunction with Kim Allen’s murder, students at nearby Sonoma State College set up a carpool so students wouldn’t be as tempted to hitchhike. The carpool was advertised on a bulletin board, along with emergency numbers to call if you were stranded, and a list of alleged assailants and descriptions of their cars.

But on December 14, another body was found. The body of the young girl was found 30 feet down an embankment off Calistoga Road. She was nude and almost completely frozen, making her well-preserved. She was estimated to have died between December 1 and December 8 from a broken neck. She’s thought to have either jumped from or been thrown out of a moving vehicle and down the embankment. There was no evidence of any sort of assault, sexual or otherwise.

The next day, the girl was identified as 13-year-old Lori Lee Kursa. Lori had run away from home about a month earlier and was living with friends in the Santa Rosa area. In addition to frequently running away, Lori was known to hitchhike. She was last seen by her friends on November 30 and, after her body was found, a man contacted the Sheriff’s office with some stunning information. According to him, sometime between December 3rd and December 9th, he saw a white van parked on Calistoga Road. Two men walked on either side of a young girl, leading her. Then they all got in the van and it sped off. His description of the girl matched Lori and what she was wearing that day. Despite her being a runaway, the Sheriff’s office handled Lori’s death as a homicide. A $500 reward was set up for information leading to her killer or to Kim Allen’s.

On December 28, two teenage boys hiking in Franz Valley stumbled on human remains. Other than a necklace and earring, there was no clothing found at the scene and the bodies were completely skeletonized. At first, it was difficult even to determine how many bodies there were, let alone how long they’d been there — though two skulls were eventually found, so it was assumed there were two bodies. And less than a week later, the remains were identified as those of Maureen Sterling and Yvonne Weber. Their bodies had been there too long to determine date or cause of death. But since they went missing February 4, I think it’s safe to assume they weren’t killed too long after that.

On the evening of July 31, 1973, a man riding his motorcycle off Franz Valley Road found the body of another young woman. The body was estimated to have been there between three and seven days, and was found within four feet of the bodies of Maureen Sterling and Yvonne Weber. Understandably, these murders were thought to be connected. I’m not sure if investigators had linked the murder of Kim Allen or the disappearance of Jeanette Kamahele to these murders just yet. The victim was found nude but, due to decomposition, it was impossible to tell if she had been sexually assaulted. A $2500 reward was soon set up in exchange for information about the latest murder victim.

A few weeks later, dental records identified the girl as 15-year-old Caroline Davis. (Some sources refer to her as 'Carolyn.') Caroline had run away from home on February 6 and was reported missing that same day. Soon after, her parents received a letter from her saying she’d left voluntarily and didn’t plan on coming back. She was last seen by her grandmother on July 15 in Garberville, about a two and a half hour drive from Santa Rosa. Her grandmother left her in front of a post office and Caroline set off hitchhiking toward Modesto. She’s thought to have died around July 20.

It was soon determined that Caroline’s death was caused by strychnine poisoning. Strychnine can be administered orally or intravenously, and someone exposed to high enough doses can suffer respiratory failure or death within half an hour, though Caroline’s death was thought to have taken between two and three hours.

The one year anniversary of the discovery of the bodies of Maureen Sterling and Yvonne Weber would bring yet another gruesome find. On December 28, 1973, two teenagers boating in Mark West Creek found the naked body of a woman half submerged under a log. The woman had been dead between two and seven days, hogtied and seemingly strangled. It took investigators two hours to remove her body from underneath the log.

Early the following January, the woman was identified as 23-year-old Theresa Walsh. Theresa lived in a town called Miranda, about 10 miles north of Garberville, where Caroline Davis was last seen. Theresa was last seen on December 22 near Malibu, by friends who said she planned to hitchhike home to Garberville for Christmas. Unfortunately, it seemed like she had never made it.

The last confirmed victim was found in by hikers in Rincon Valley. The body was in a ravine off Calistoga Road, only about 100 yards from where Lori Lee Kursa had been found. The body was almost completely skeletonized, if not entirely. Investigators weren’t even able to determine sex, but assumed the body was a woman because of the small frame. I’d imagine someone today could probably determine sex if they had the bones, but that doesn’t seem to have happened yet.

The (supposed) woman had been hog tied, with ropes around her neck, feet and hands, similar to Theresa Walsh. Teeth and a hard contact lens were also found at the scene.

At first, the remains were thought to be five to seven years old, but I’m not so sure about this. The conclusion was originally made because it was thought that if the body were newer, a soft contact lens would have been found instead. The first FDA approved soft contact lenses came on the market in 1971. They soon became more popular than hard contacts, but plenty of people still wore them in 1979. Even today, about 10 % of contact wearers still wear hard lenses. So I don’t think it’s too crazy that a someone who died in the late 1970’s would be wearing hard contacts.

The body remains unidentified to this day. At first, there was speculation that the body might be that of Jeanette Kamahele, but dental records would eventually rule her out.

These are thought to be the seven confirmed victims of the killer, as well as Jeanette Kamahele, who likely at least met the same fate. But there are a few other unsolved cases some believe may be tied to the hitchhiker murders in Santa Rosa.

Possible victims

Lisa Smith

On March 16, 1971, 17-year-old Lisa Smith was seen hitchhiking on Hearn Avenue in Santa Rosa at about 7 pm. A few days later, a young woman was being treated at Novato General Hospital. She gave her name as Lisa Smith and told the staff she’d been beaten up by a man while hitchhiking. She also gave her age as 21. The hospital has no records of this visit, and I can’t find the hospital online at all — it’s probably changed names since — so it can’t be determined if this was the Lisa Smith that went missing on March 16. She’s never been seen or heard from again.

Deborah Carrick

On September 9, 1975, the body of Deborah Carrick was found off Highway 64, about 13 miles west of Cameron, Arizona. Deborah had been traveling from Maryland to California for a friend’s wedding but planned to visit national parks along the way. Even before her body was found, her ID was found at an intersection in Santa Rosa, close to where the bodies of some of the confirmed victims had been found (though I could never find out which victims). Deborah’s murder remains unsolved.

Kerry Ann Graham and Francine Trimble

15-year-old Kerry Ann Graham and 14-year-old Francine Trimble lived in Forestville, California, about 11 miles west of Santa Rosa. The two friends were last seen alive in December 1978. Some sources said they were going to visit a shopping mall in Santa Rosa, but Kerry’s sister would later say she thought they were going to a party. Regardless of their destination, they never made it home. Their skeletonized bodies were found about 83 miles north, close to Willits, California the following July, but not identified until 2015. Investigators suspect foul play in their deaths, and the investigation is ongoing.

There’s a book called Lost Coast Highway by Gray George that details Kerry and Francine’s case, as well as the hitchhiker murders and the potential connection between the two. I’m in the middle of reading it now, and it’s really interesting. I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in learning more about either of these cases. It’s free if you have kindle unlimited but, if you don’t, here's an Amazon affiliate link to purchase it.

The San Francisco victims

In the summer of 1973, San Francisco had its own string of unsolved murders, and some of the details were similar to those of the Santa Rosa killings. All of the victims were girls or women, in their late teens or early twenties. All of the bodies were nude, but there were no signs of sexual assault. But unlike the bodies in Santa Rosa, all of these bodies were found in schoolyards or parks. I have seen speculation that the murders in these two towns might be connected. San Francisco is just over an hour’s drive from Santa Rosa, so it is conceivable that the same killer could go back and forth between the two towns.

But who committed these murders? Let’s take a look at some of the speculation and potential culprits.

Theories and suspects

The Zodiac Killer

By far, the most well-known theory in this case is that the murders were committed by the Zodiac Killer. One of the most notorious serial killers in recent history, this still unidentified individual has been linked to at least five murders in northern California in the late 1960’s, and is thought to be responsible for many more. During the Santa Rosa investigation, Sheriff Don Striepeke believed those murders were connected to the Zodiac Killer. By this time, the Zodiac had slowed his killings, but said he would continue killing in varying ways. This, in addition to witchcraft symbols found near the graves (also associated with the Zodiac) lends credibility to this theory.

Sheriff’s Detective Sergeant “Butch” Carlstedt thought the Zodiac Killer was making a “Z” over the Bay Area with his killings. Several murders, unsolved at the time, showed this pattern, from California, Washington, Utah and New Mexico. However, most of those murders, if not all, turned out to be the work of Ted Bundy, who we’ll talk more about later.

Arthur Leigh Allen

The next two suspects in the Santa Rosa murders were also considered Zodiac suspects at one point. Arthur Leigh Allen was fired from a teaching job in 1968 after allegations of child molestation. He also lived in Santa Rosa at one point, and would have crossed paths with several of the victims — in fact, he would have been getting home from work on February 4 around the same time that Maureen Sterling and Yvonne Weber went missing.

In his book Zodiac Unmasked: The Identify of America’s Most Elusive Serial Killer, author Robert Graysmith briefly discusses possible forensic evidence found by Sergeant John Burke of the Santa Rosa Police Department. Burke states they found hairs on the Santa Rosa victims’ bodies that matched hairs in the trunk of Allen’s car. Interestingly, the hairs turned out to be chipmunk hairs.

Frederic Manalli

In Zodiac Unmasked, Graysmith also recalls a story told to him by an unnamed woman who was a retired Sheriff’s Department employee. In 1976, this woman found out about a man who taught at Santa Rosa Junior College but had recently died in a car accident. When going through his things, the man’s wife found drawings of several of his students, including murder victim Kim Allen. The drawings seemed to suggest that the man was interested in sadomasochism, and had an unhealthy fasciation with Kim Allen.

The man was never named in the book, and I can’t find substantial confirmation of his name. But online consensus seems to be that this man was Frederic Manalli who, like Arthur Leigh Allen, was considered a Zodiac suspect at one point. However, other than his connection to — and strange obsession with — one of the victims, there hasn’t been anything else to tie him to the murders.

The Hillside Stranglers of Los Angeles

At one point in the Santa Rosa investigation, the Hillside Stranglers were considered as possible culprits by investigators. Angelo Buono and his cousin Kenneth Bianchi were convicted of killing nine women, ranging in age from 12 to 28, in Los Angeles in the late 1970’s and dumping their nude bodies on hillsides. Both were sentenced to life in prison; Bianchi remains incarcerated, and Buono died of a heart attack in 2002.

Ted Bundy

One last person who was looked into that I thought was worth mentioning is Ted Bundy. Like the Zodiac Killer, Ted Bundy needs no introduction, as he’s arguably the most notorious serial killer in recent history. Bundy was executed in 1989 for the murders of two women in Florida. But before his death, he confessed to raping and murdering at least 27 other women. Bundy sometimes drove hundreds of miles to kill and has victims all over the country. He was reportedly in California in 1974. Bundy was eventually ruled out because credit card records said he was in Washington state during some of the disappearances.

Theory: Different killers?

However, this leads me into the next theory I want to talk about, and one that might not rule Bundy out completely: the theory that not all the murders were the work of the same killer. According to this theory, all of the murdered girls, or at least some of them, were murdered by different people and the high body count was a morbid coincidence. Despite its known dangers, hitchhiking was pretty common during this time, and people who chose to do it were leaving themselves vulnerable to all sorts of predators. Most of the victims also had different causes of death: Kim Allen and Theresa Walsh were strangled, while Caroline Davis was poisoned and Lori Lee Kursa was seemingly thrown out of a moving vehicle. It’s unusual for one killer to use so many different methods.

It would also have been very easy for a truck driver to commit these murders. Truck drivers are constantly on the move, and could conceivably commit a murder in one town and be in another state by the time the body is found. It’s conceivable that at least some of the murders were committed by truck drivers who picked up hitchhikers and saw it as an opportunity.

With this being said, let’s take a look at a few other known killers who could have committed one or more of these murders.

Roger Reece Kibbe

Known as “the I-55 Strangler,” Roger Reece Kibbe preyed on sex workers and women waiting on roadside assistance in northern California in the 1970’s and 80’s, leaving their bodies along highways. He was sentenced to six consecutive life terms in 2009 and remains in prison today.

Lawrence Singleton

In 1978, Lawrence Singleton picked up 15-year-old hitchhiker Mary Vincent in Berkley, California. He proceeded to rape her, cut off her arms at the elbows and leave her to die in a culvert. She managed to escape, and Singleton was convicted of her rape and kidnapping the following year. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison but paroled in 1987. Singleton later moved to Florida, where he murdered a prostitute named Roxanne Hayes in 1997. He was sentenced to death for her murder, but died in prison of cancer in 2002.

Edmund Kemper

In 1964, a 15-year-old Edmund Kemper killed his grandparents “just to see what it felt like.” He was sent to a state hospital for mentally ill convicts, but release in 1969. In 1971, he got a job with the Department of Transportation and soon started picking up female hitchhikers. At first, he let them go with no incidents, but later began killing them. In April 1973, he killed his mother and his mother’s friend, then turned himself in. He received eight life sentences later that year, but most of his victims were picked up and killed in Santa Cruz, which is not too far from Santa Rosa.

Jackie Ray Hovarter

In 1988, Jackie Ray Hovarter was found guilty of the 1984 rape and murder of Danna Walsh. Danna was from Willits, California and her body was found in Scotia, about a 3 hour drive from Santa Rosa. Hovarter was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison in March 2019 when California governor Gavin Newson signed an executive order to repeal the death penalty in the state. He remains in prison.

Rodney Alcala

Rodney Alcala is another killer you may have heard of. Known as “the dating game killer” because he was on a TV show called The Dating Game during his murder spree, Alcala killed at least seven people in California and New York in the 1970’s. In 1968, Alcala was caught by a witness raping an 8-year-old girl in Hollywood. He fled to the east coast and was caught in1971, but only remained in prison until 1974. This rules him out for most of the murders, but he did return to California upon his release and killed 12-year-old Robin Samsoe near Bolsa Chica State Beach in 1979. Depending on when Jane Doe actually died, he might have killed her, as well as some of the other possible victims I mentioned earlier who died in the late 1970’s.

Final speculation

One more point I want to share is the idea that the killer lived in the Santa Rosa area, or at least knew it very well. Some of the bodies were dumped in remote areas that wouldn’t have been known to visitors or passerbys. That might rule out most of the men I mentioned here, but I did want to cover every possible angle and theory.

This is my own speculation, based on anecdotal evidence, but I think the killer is probably someone we’ve never heard of. With advancing technology, hopefully we’ll one day be able to find out whoever committed these murders, whether it’s one person or many, and bring them to justice.

Final notes

Jeanette Kamahele is an Asian female who was 20 years old when she went missing on April 25, 1972. She was last seen being picked up by a white man in a faded brown Chevrolet pickup truck. She was 5 feet 5 inches tall, 120 pounds, and had brown eyes and black hair. She was last seen wearing blue denim pants, a dark sweater and sandals. She has a large birthmark under her right breast and wears a dental bridge. If she were alive today, she would be 67 years old. If you have any information about the disappearance of Jeanette Kamahele, please contact the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office at 707-565-2185.

(Note: Some sources spell Jeanette's name with two n's.)

The Sonoma County Jane Doe is thought to be female, about 5 feet 3 inches tall and between 16 and 21 years old at the time of death. She is thought to have died between three and seven years before the discovery of her body in 1979. One of her arms was broken. Also found near her body were a hard contact lens and a metal candy tin with cherries on it. If you have any information about Jane Doe’s identity, please contact the Sonoma County Sheriff Coroner at 707-565-5070.

So what are your thoughts on the Santa Rosa hitchhiker murders? Do you think they were committed by someone mentioned here, or someone else? Or do you think there’s more than one killer? Let me know in the comments.

All photos in public domain or protected under Fair Use. (https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/what-is-fair-use/)

#unsolvedmysteries #serialkillers #truecrime #coldcases

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