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Randy Kraft Accused in 37 Deaths : Trail of Slain Young Men: 'Investigator's Nightmare'

THE KRAFT CASE: A SPECIAL REPORT: This is the first in a three-part series about the murder case against Randy Steven Kraft, accused of more serial killings than anyone in U.S. history. Tomorrow: The four-year odyssey of Randy Kraft's case through the courts.

March 08, 1987|JERRY HICKS | Times Staff Writer

It began with a routine traffic stop.

At 1:10 a.m. on May 14, 1983, two California Highway Patrol officers pulled over a brown Toyota Celica that had been weaving on the San Diego Freeway in Mission Viejo. Behind the wheel was Randy Steven Kraft; next to him was a Marine in his mid-20s, apparently asleep.

Within minutes, after a rough shake failed to rouse the Marine and they could find no pulse, the officers suspected that they had a homicide on their hands. A jacket covered the victim's lap, and his pants had been pulled down to his knees.

Within hours, investigators searching the car had found color photographs of several other young men. Many were nude; they appeared to be dead. Within a day, Kraft had been linked to four other homicides in Southern California, six in Oregon and two in Michigan.

Before it was over, Orange County prosecutors would conclude that the studious Long Beach computer consultant was one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history--a killer who drugged, sexually molested and strangled young men, mostly hitchhikers, and often mutilated their bodies.

Kraft's neighbors and childhood friends were stunned by his arrest and the sordid revelations that followed. To them, it seemed impossible that the bright, former high school tennis player and Claremont Men's College graduate could have committed the unspeakable crimes for which he is scheduled to be tried in July.

"You know those guys who always carried a slide rule with them everywhere, the bright guys? Randy was one of them," said Santa Ana lawyer Clarence E. Haynes, who was in Kraft's 1963 graduating class at Westminster High School.

Kraft's closest neighbor, Penny Dewees, said she and others who lived nearby "were all just astounded. It wasn't the Randy Kraft I knew."

Nonetheless, Kraft now stands accused in Orange County Superior Court of 37 murders. He faces 16 first-degree murder charges, and prosecutors say they intend to prove during the penalty phase of his trial that he is guilty of 21 others. No one has ever been accused in court of that many serial murders. Prosecutors say it will be the longest and most expensive trial in the history of the county, if not the state.

Kraft, who will be 42 this month, remains in isolation in the Orange County Jail, held without bail. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The complicated, tortuous investigation that led Orange County prosecutors to file the charges they have against Kraft--and, citing a "death list" found in his car, to maintain that he may have killed more than 60 young men in all--unfolded with little of the sensation and fanfare that have surrounded other serial-murder cases. There was none of the public hysteria that accompanied the recent Night Stalker case or the Atlanta child murders of the early 1980s, for Kraft was in jail while investigators were working quietly and meticulously to link him to one unsolved murder after another.

Little Public Attention

As a result, the magnitude of Kraft's alleged crimes has received little public attention. It is only now, through reviews of court transcripts and interviews with friends and acquaintances of Kraft and his alleged victims, that it becomes clear how authorities pieced the case together. And through that process a chilling image of Randy Steven Kraft emerges.

The job of building the case against Kraft fell largely to James A. Sidebotham, the dean of murder investigators in Orange County. The lanky, 51-year-old senior homicide investigator in the Orange County Sheriff's Department, who has called the Kraft case "an investigator's nightmare," was awakened at home at 3:45 a.m. on the morning of Kraft's arrest. He was told only that Terry Lee Gambrel, an El Toro Marine Corps Air Station corporal, had been found dead in a drunk driver's car. The driver had said Gambrel was a hitchhiker.

Sidebotham drove directly to Mission Community Hospital to view the body, only to learn that it had been removed to the county morgue in Santa Ana. There, he learned that Gambrel had been strangled. At 5:45 that morning, Sidebotham walked the short distance from the morgue to the County Jail to ask Kraft about the body. Kraft did not want to talk.

A search of Kraft's car later in the day, after a warrant had been obtained, would produce two key items of evidence linking him to other deaths and drawing authorities from all over Southern California, as well as Oregon and Michigan, into the investigation. One was a packet of 47 color photographs of several young men, many of them nude and apparently lifeless.

The other was a notebook inside a briefcase in the car's trunk. On the first page was a handwritten list of notations such as "Airplane Hill," "Jail Out," "New Year's Eve," "2 in 1 Hitch" and "Parking Lot." Kraft's attorneys call the list "People's Exhibit 25." Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James G. Enright calls it the "death list." Prosecutors contend that each of the more than 60 notations represents a young man Kraft murdered.

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