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Trial Revives Disturbing Memories

Crime: Court proceedings--covered gavel to gavel on cable TV--in slayings of two students rivet a usually peaceful town that was shaken by the attacks.

March 25, 2001|SALLY ANN CONNELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Once again, the disappearance and slaying of two students has riveted this Central Coast town as the trial of the paroled rapist charged in the crimes is broadcast live--the first time in county history a local case is receiving gavel-to-gavel television coverage.

The case of Rex A. Krebs, 35, opened this week in a Monterey County courtroom after it was moved out of San Luis Obispo County because of extensive pretrial publicity. The local cable news service is providing daily coverage of the trial, and replaying it at night.

"There's been tremendous interest," said Charter Communications general manager Edward Merrill. "When we have lost the signal, the phones just light up here."

Krebs has been charged with two counts of murder with special circumstances, including kidnapping, sexual assault and torture. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The trial opened with the prosecution and the defense agreeing that Krebs confessed to investigators that he murdered Irvine native Rachel Newhouse, 20, a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student, and Aundria Crawford, 20, a student at nearby Cuesta College.

The bodies of both women were found in April 1999, buried on or near property Krebs rented in See Canyon, south of San Luis Obispo.

The murder case is one of the most notorious in this town of 43,000, which often earns places on national "best town" lists in large part because of its minuscule crime rate. San Luis Obispo averages one murder a year, and has only two on its unsolved list dating back to the mid-1980s, according to Chief Jim Gardiner.

"It was probably the most tragic event to shape us in many many years," said Bob Detweiler, interim vice president for student affairs at Cal Poly.

Deputy Dist. Atty. John Trice warned jurors that the case will "make you question your basic belief in humanity" and that they will hear horrifying details of kidnapping, torture and sexual assault.

During testimony last week, jurors heard of blood trails and how duct tape, rope and plastic strips were used to hogtie the victims. They saw the mother of one victim break down on the stand.

The strategy of the defense team, led by San Luis Obispo attorney James Maguire, appears focused on saving Krebs' life.

There has been sparse and gentle questioning of witnesses. Maguire quoted from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in describing his client.

"As there is much beast and some devil in man, there is some angel and some God in man," he said.

He promised jurors that he will present evidence of Krebs' horrible childhood and show that he acts on his violent impulses only when drinking alcohol.

Testifying for the prosecution, two rape victims described at length the 1987 attacks on them, of which Krebs was convicted. When Trice finished questioning one victim, the defense asked only if she had smelled alcohol on Krebs during the attack. She said she had.

The defense has objected to the inclusion of what it maintains is illegal evidence linked to testimony from Larry Hobson, the prosecution's investigator who obtained Krebs' confession, and from Krebs' parole officer, David Zaragoza. Zaragoza is credited with noticing the similarities between the students' disappearances and Krebs' past crime. Zaragoza's preliminary search of Krebs' home triggered the wider case against the defendant.

Newhouse disappeared after leaving a tavern the night of Nov. 12, 1998, apparently intending to walk home. Drops of her blood were later found on a railroad bridge near downtown.

Gil Rendon, who reconstructs crime scenes for the Police Department, testified that there was a trail of what tests showed was Newhouse's blood from the top of the bridge to the bottom. He theorized that Krebs struck Newhouse and dragged or carried her to his Ford Ranger pickup.

Rendon later testified that a car seat that had been removed from the truck and left outside Krebs' residence was found by the Department of Justice lab to be stained with Newhouse's blood. Her blood was also found on a couch inside an abandoned A-frame structure near Krebs' home.

During emotional testimony, Gail Eberhart, the mother of Aundria Crawford, broke down in tears as she described her increasingly frantic efforts to reach her daughter by pager on March 12, 1999. She finally drove to San Luis Obispo from Visalia, triggering the search of her daughter's duplex.

A friend of Crawford said he had talked with her on the phone in the wee hours of March 11, and that she spoke about midterms and the health of her cat, which was locked in a bathroom downstairs after surgery.

Sometime after that call, Rendon theorized, Krebs lifted himself into the same downstairs bathroom through a small window, leaving handprints in the skylight area, before dropping himself into the tub. Rendon said Crawford may have heard a noise she thought was the animal.

"She walked down the stairs and he accosted her at that point, knocking her down, and she lost an earring," Rendon testified.

Prosecutors allege that Krebs kept both victims alive for a time at his rural property, where items belonging to both Newhouse and Crawford were found.

"It was all so heart-wrenching at the time," said Dick Armfield, general manager at KSBY-TV in San Luis Obispo. KSBY is shooting the video and providing it for transmission on cable.

"Part of the reason for broadcasting it is that the community doesn't have the opportunity to just go to the courthouse and watch this since the venue changed. Some people need closure."

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