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DNA testing sheds new light on Original Night Stalker case

Investigators confirm through DNA that the man who killed a Goleta couple in 1981 is the same one they believe responsible for a string of crimes that started with dozens of rapes in Northern California and ended with multiple slayings in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Orange counties.

May 06, 2011|By Steve Chawkins and Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times
  • Cheri Domingo, 35, and Gregory Sanchez, 27, were killed in 1981 while housesitting a residence in Goleta.
Cheri Domingo, 35, and Gregory Sanchez, 27, were killed in 1981 while housesitting… (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's…)

Whether the serial killer known as the Original Night Stalker is still alive, nobody knows.

But 30 years after a couple died while housesitting in Goleta, investigators have confirmed through DNA testing what they long suspected: The man who killed them is the same one they believe responsible for a decades-long crime spree that started with dozens of rapes in Northern California and ended with as many as 10 slayings in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Orange counties.

The last known crime associated with the Original Night Stalker took place in 1986, but his notoriety lives on. In 2004, California voters passed an initiative, bankrolled by the brother of one of his victims, that mandates collection of DNA samples from people convicted — or even arrested — in felony cases.

Authorities are no closer to pinpointing an identity for the killer, who was usually masked and sometimes accompanied by his German shepherd. Still, officials in Santa Barbara said Tuesday they've answered a crucial question in the 1981 slayings of Cheri Domingo, 35, and Gregory Sanchez, 27.

"We now have concrete evidence that links their deaths to the horrific individual that terrorized both Northern and Southern California," said Drew Sugars, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department.

About six months ago, the state crime lab in Santa Barbara offered sheriff's investigators a chance to scrutinize old evidence with cutting-edge DNA technology.

Using a recently developed technique, scientists could wring usable DNA out of samples that had been seen as too old and degraded to be of much value, said Colleen Spurgeon, the lab's assistant director.

In the Goleta case, Sanchez was shot and bludgeoned. Domingo died of massive head injuries. Some of the grisly details matched those at other crime scenes associated with the Original Night Stalker: Sanchez and Domingo lived in an upscale neighborhood and were killed in bed. Domingo's hands had been tied — as had the hands of victims at other scenes.

Eighteen months before, another couple had been killed at home in Goleta. Dr. Robert Offerman, an osteopathic surgeon, and Alexandria Manning, a clinical psychologist, also had their hands bound with twine. Authorities believe their assailant was the Original Night Stalker.

The sheriff's office dug about 50 pieces of evidence out of storage. Detectives studied blankets, bedspreads, hair, and semen stains. Scientists at Spurgeon's Santa Barbara crime lab sent samples to another federal lab in Richmond, Calif., for further testing.

In the last month, a search of DNA databases found matches between the Goleta case and three Northern California rapes. Before he became known as the Original Night Stalker — so named to distinguish him from Richard Ramirez, the serial killer known as the Night Stalker who terrorized the Los Angeles area in the mid-1980s — the killer was called the East Area Rapist and was tied to no fewer than 52 sexual assaults in Sacramento County and the Bay Area.

Then there were the 1980 murders.

In Ventura, Lyman Smith, an attorney days away from being appointed a judge, and his wife, Charlene, a court clerk, were bludgeoned to death with a fireplace log in their home.

Later that year, Keith Harrington, a medical student at UC Irvine, and his wife, Patrice, a pediatric nurse, were beaten to death with a blunt instrument in their Laguna Niguel home.

Finally, in 1986, 18-year-old Jannelle Cruz was fatally bludgeoned in her family's Irvine home.

In the last couple of weeks, authorities in Santa Barbara have matched the DNA found in Goleta to those crime scenes.

That wasn't a surprise to many investigators. But for Larry Pool, a detective with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, it was a break that might "breathe some life" back into the aging cases.

Finding the Original Night Stalker has become his life's mission.

In his work space, he has two composite drawings prominently displayed. He keeps a recording of the killer's voice — from a phone message to one of his victims — in the top drawer of his desk.

"He is cunning," Pool said. "He has a degree of tactical soundness to the way he operates. He is able to adjust tactically to improve his effectiveness as a killer."

Pool once thought the suspect could be in prison. But that theory came to seem less plausible as the state's DNA database grew.

As he hunted for the Original Night Stalker in the early 2000s, Pool had a buried man exhumed. The DNA didn't match.

Investigators said the killer would be in his 50s or 60s today. He usually hid his face under a dark ski mask or kerchief and was under 6 feet tall. His shoe size was about 9.

Relatives of the Original Night Stalker's victims were quietly heartened by the news from Goleta.

Bruce Harrington, a Newport Beach developer, spent nearly $2 million to pass Proposition 69 after the killing of his brother Keith.

The DNA match this week was further validation of its need, he said.

Like Harrington, Jennifer Smith, who was 18 when her father and stepmother were so brutally slain, doubts the Original Night Stalker is still alive.

"I personally have resolved  that he's not," she said. "That's how I live with it."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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