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Victims' Relatives Urge Public to Help Solve Serial Killings

Violence: Families say news that murders are linked reopened old wounds, but they voice hope for a solution.

October 05, 2000|JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a painful, reluctant gathering--one that opened old wounds that had never fully healed.

But relatives of two victims of a recently identified serial killer begged the public for help Wednesday as detectives continued an intense hunt for a person who may have committed as many as 10 slayings nearly two decades ago.

Family members spoke of recent breakthroughs in the case. Of a $100,000 reward. Of the devastating losses that still feel fresh today.

"Perhaps it would have been easier not to relive this nightmare, especially in public," said Ron Harrington, whose younger brother Keith was among the victims. "But hopefully--even after 20 years--hopefully this matter can be resolved."

The pleas came after an announcement earlier this week that a team of "cold case" investigators from the Orange County Sheriff's Department had used new technology and a thorough review of case files to link six murder scenes to a single person.

The killer--whom detectives dubbed the "Original Nightstalker"--carefully selected his victims from upscale communities in Orange, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Investigators said they have followed hundreds of leads and considered thousands of possible suspects in their hunt for the killer. But without a name, detectives acknowledge, they have no idea whether the assailant is dead, incarcerated or still on the loose.

For victims' relatives, the last few months have brought conflicting emotions. On one hand, they have learned that detectives are closer than ever to solving the killings. But they also have discovered gruesome details about the violent deaths of their loved ones and they are grappling once more with the losses they experienced more than a decade ago.

"We were very close--we told each other everything," Michelle Cruz said of her older sister Janelle, who was 18 when she was killed at her home. "She was like my twin. When she died, it was like I lost a part of my identity."

Until recently, investigators withheld details about the crime scenes from everyone, including relatives. It was only in recent months that the Harrington family learned about the ordeal Keith Harrington and his wife went through during the last minutes of their lives.

The couple had been married only three months when an intruder slipped into their Laguna Niguel home through an unlocked door on the night of Aug. 19, 1980. They were tied up, Patti was raped and the killer bludgeoned them to death.

"It's ghoulish," said Doug Harrington, one of Keith's three brothers, all of whom attended Wednesday's news conference. "I can't believe what my brother and his wife went through."

The killings devastated the Harrington family. Thanksgiving, once a festive holiday, became a time of painful memories. "Every Thanksgiving, my dad would always say a prayer and remind us that there was someone missing," Harrington said.

With few clues and no suspects, the family was left to speculate about what happened. Doug Harrington said his father sometimes questioned whether his daughter-in-law might have been the target of the attack that also claimed his son. The father died a few years ago, never knowing about the new DNA evidence, which proved the killing was random, bringing the family some small comfort.

"We never could understand how this could have happened," Bruce Harrington said. "Now that we have DNA, we're hoping that it will finally answer the questions we've had for more than 20 years."

DNA Testing Linked Cases

Patti and Keith Harrington were the killer's first Orange County victims. The next, authorities say, was Manuela Witthuhn, a 28-year-old student who was killed in her Irvine home Feb. 5, 1981.

DNA evidence links the same killer to a final victim five years later: Janelle Lisa Cruz, an 18-year-old restaurant cashier who lived in Irvine.

The murder investigations were inactive for years, but blood, semen and hair samples were saved. Four years ago, advances in DNA testing prompted Orange County sheriff's investigators to review old, unsolved cases.

The DNA testing--along with distinct similarities of the attacks--helped investigators link the same killer to three other cases in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Those attacks claimed four more lives in 1979 through 1981.

An FBI-trained profiler at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department suggested that the killer was probably driven by anger aimed at someone close to him--perhaps his mother or a stepmother, said Orange County Sheriff's Det. Larry Pool.

"He probably targets the woman because she reminds him of the target of his rage," Pool said. "The profile would say that he would essentially have no conscience."

The killer is believed to be white and was in his early 20s when he first struck. Sometimes he took a German shepherd with him. Officials guess that he was living in the Goleta area of Santa Barbara County when he surfaced.

Though disturbing, the news that a serial murderer might have been responsible for her sister's death has at least renewed hope for Michelle Cruz that Janelle's killer might be found. Perhaps someone with information about one of the other slayings can help unravel the mystery, she said.

"Maybe's there more evidence out there," Cruz said. "I'm hoping that this will help get someone with information to come forward."

The victims' families have put up a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.

Until then, family members said, they will have to learn to deal with their loved ones' deaths once more.

"It had faded, but the memories have rushed forward," Doug Harrington said as he passed around a photograph of his brother and sister-in-law taken just before their wedding. "It's been a very difficult week."

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