To catch a predator
How the FBI and local cops captured Chico kidnapper and rapist Lonnie Keith
It was a distinctive taillight that first gave away the sexual predator who—in methodical and chilling fashion—had been attacking and drugging young women in Chico.
On this night—the early hours of Saturday, Jan. 28, 2013—10 FBI agents and three Chico police personnel were positioned strategically throughout the student neighborhoods south of the Chico State campus. They were looking to catch a serial kidnapper and rapist who had been abducting college students from the streets and injecting them with sedatives. At the time, law enforcement officials were worried and community members increasingly fearful.
The stakeout that snared Lonnie Scott Keith took place two years ago this week, as a new semester’s first Friday night of revelry was stumbling to a close. An FBI agent noticed those unusual-looking taillights brighten from his vantage point near the hub of Chico’s south-campus nightlife: Fifth and Ivy. In just a few hours, the agent had seen them multiple times. His description was radioed out about 3 a.m.
The taillights stood out because they were of the “racetrack” variety, stretching in a narrow band the full width of the car’s rear-end.
Investigators in two vehicles almost immediately began following those lights, which were attached to a charcoal gray 2013 Dodge Dart, as it made a U-turn and several other turns. Less than five minutes later, the Dart failed to heed a stop sign at Third and Orange streets and was pulled to the curb near Fourth and Orange. Driving that vehicle was Keith, and it was the beginning of the end of his secret life terrorizing women.
The investigative sting that caught Keith with startling swiftness—and the voluminous case that sent him to state prison for 26 years without his victims having to endure the trauma of a trial—was a joint operation of the Chico Police Department and the FBI. Law enforcement “basically went all out,” said Robert Marshall, Keith’s defense attorney, who described the case as “one of the most intensely investigated” he’s ever been involved with.
“When you’re dealing with a serial rapist,” said Mike Ramsey, Butte County district attorney, “everyone brings their A game. … Mr. Keith was a sexual predator, a sexual predator of the worst kind: bright, intelligent, cunning—and evil. … We wanted to put him away for as long as possible.”
Chico police Detective Stan Duitsman, who headed up the investigation that caught Keith, had witnessed a lot in 30 years of law enforcement; however, “kidnapping and injecting victims and committing sexual assault is not something I’d ever seen.”
Following two violent abductions in fall 2012, it was clear to Duitsman that a dangerous predator was at large. Investigators feared the man was refining his techniques and that his attacks could escalate and become even more “diabolical.” And adding to law enforcement concerns was this: As a prelude to assaulting young women, the attacker had been presenting himself as a police officer.
As 2013 arrived, not only did investigators suspect that they could be hunting a medical professional with access to prescription drugs, but also that the perpetrator could be a member of law enforcement, Duitsman said.
Thus, the Chico PD sought the FBI’s help in solving the abduction cases, Duitsman said. The bureau decided to open its own kidnapping inquiry and investigated the case jointly with Chico detectives, said Gina B. Swankie, a public affairs specialist for the FBI in Sacramento. FBI personnel from field offices in Chico and Sacramento, as well as from the bureau’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., worked the Keith case.
“The FBI can and will assist local law enforcement agencies upon request,” Swankie said. “Such assistance is offered in tandem with the local agency and is not a ‘takeover’ of a matter, unlike TV.”
The two law enforcement agencies came up with a surveillance plan for a south-campus area generally bordered by Chico State to the north, Little Chico Creek to the south, downtown Chico proper to the east, and Pomona Avenue to the west. Duitsman described the agents as specially trained for such observation.
According to Swankie, “Agents were looking for vehicles that may have been loitering in the area [or] making frequent, repeated passes in the vicinity of prior crimes or attempted crimes.”
Duitsman said four stakeouts had been scheduled for different dates in early 2013, but the last three weren’t needed because Keith was caught on their first night of surveillance.
Keith was 40 years old and had been married 15 years at the time of his arrest. The father of four was depicted in social media as involved with his children. His wife, Kari Keith, said in a CN&R cover story last fall that an FBI profiler described her husband as a sociopath (see “Collateral damage,” Sept. 18).
Duitsman found that Keith, a physician assistant, was widely respected among his co-workers at the Enloe Occupational Health Department in Chico and at Oroville Hospital. “They all expressed shock,” Duitsman said. “They didn’t want to believe it at first: ‘No, not Lonnie!’”
Among statements that colleagues made about Keith were “his medicine was great” and “he should have been a doctor,” Duitsman recalls.
The drugs found both in Keith’s victims and in his vehicle included diphenhydramine, an antihistamine with the brand name of Benadryl, and haloperidol, an antipsychotic medication with the brand name of Haldol. After being injected, all of the victims became disoriented and lost gaps of time from their memories, said Stacy Edwards, the Butte County deputy district attorney who handled the prosecution. In large doses, diphenhydramine can cause hallucinations, and at least one victim, at Keith’s sentencing, reported “hallucinating around town for [an] hour or so after [Keith] left me in the street.”
Duitsman said Keith stole those drugs from one of his employers, declining to be more specific about where he obtained them.
Keith worked for Enloe from 1998 to 2005 as a clinic technician and from 2008 until his 2013 arrest as a physician assistant.
Physician assistants in the Enloe Occupational Health Department “do not have access to the type of drugs described by the Chico Police Department,” said Enloe Medical Center spokeswoman Christina Chavira.
Oroville Hospital officials neither acknowledged nor responded to multiple inquiries about whether Keith obtained the drugs he used to inject his victims from that hospital.
Based on victims’ accounts, Duitsman said Keith’s method of operation was to troll the south-campus area in his vehicle, “then choose a location where he would sit.” In two abduction cases, he either jumped out of or emerged from behind his vehicle and confronted a lone female passerby.
Keith would then question the woman as if he were a cop and partially blind her by shining a flashlight in her eyes. He would ask her age and how much she’d had to drink, Duitsman said. Victims said Keith’s face was covered by a nylon stocking or a mask.
Keith, at 6-foot-3-inches tall and 215 pounds, was, in Duitsman’s estimation, “very physically fit.” He would force his victims into his vehicle, quickly restraining them with zip ties and putting tape over their eyes. He then injected them with sedatives that made them drowsy.
At least one victim had two needle marks and both diphenhydramine and haloperidol in her system, leading Edwards to presume she was injected with two different syringes. At least one woman was raped. It is believed the victims were released at or near the site of the attacks.
Keith was known to many Chico police personnel because he conducted annual physicals for them at Enloe Occupational off Bruce Road, Duitsman said.
On the night he was pulled over, Keith made a point of correcting Duitsman after the detective referred to him as a “physician’s assistant.” No, Keith told Duitsman, it’s “physician assistant.” While that struck Duitsman as a bit odd, especially given Keith’s stressful circumstances, it’s apparently not unusual for PAs to take exception to the apostrophe “S.”
According to the website for the American Academy of Physician Assistants, a physician assistant, who must be nationally certified and state-licensed, practices medicine on teams with doctors and other healthcare providers. PAs practice and prescribe medicine in all 50 states.
Keith appeared unruffled on the night he was arrested, waiving his Miranda rights to have an attorney present during questioning and consenting to a search of his vehicle, Duitsman said. Although his car had been observed passing through the Fifth and Ivy intersection numerous times over several hours, Keith claimed when stopped to be out looking for something to eat.
“He seemed very calm, very agreeable,” Duitsman said. “He seemed like he wanted to be very cooperative.”
Edwards said Keith “told lie after lie after lie” to detectives. He maintained that the blankets in the back-seat area of his car were for a family skiing trip the next day and that he was in the area that night because he had visited with a former colleague at Enloe Medical Center. Both claims were false.
What officers found was a car staged for another attack, including two syringes loaded with clear substances “and ready to go,” said Edwards. Inside the vehicle was the sort of bedding that Keith’s victims had reported—what DA Ramsey referred to as Keith’s “rape nest.” Also found were adhesive tape cut into strips, latex gloves, several nylons, and a flashlight that doubled as a stun gun.
After a search warrant was obtained, state Department of Justice investigators located a hidden compartment under the front passenger seat. The box contained a startling arsenal of items, including zip ties, multiple syringes, vials of prescription drugs, metal handcuffs and metal leg restraints.
Duitsman said the compartment was not something Keith had rigged but rather came standard with the Dart. The detective said it would be a useful feature for, say, a Bidwell Park jogger to temporarily hold valuables. Keith used it to hide the instruments of his assaults.
Investigators looked into at least 11 similar crimes dating back to August 2011 to determine if Keith could be responsible. Ultimately, he was charged in three attacks on women, all in 2012.
All of the victims had been drinking and were walking alone late on a weekend night. The attacks occurred in the early hours of:
• April 15, with the victim found wandering in the Pomona Avenue area.
• Sept. 22 near Eighth and Cherry streets, where the victim said she’d been forced into a dark sedan.
• Oct. 28 near Seventh and Orange streets, where the victim was shoved into a dark sport utility vehicle.
In December 2012, Keith sold both a dark Hyundai and a dark Ford SUV that were believed to have been used in those assaults. Duitsman said there was no indication the sales were connected to Keith’s life of crime and no evidence was later found inside those vehicles. The new Dodge Dart that would be his undoing was purchased just before Christmas, according to Kari Keith.
A fourth assault from 2012 was looked at closely as to Keith’s involvement, but no charges were ultimately brought forward, Duitsman said.
“We strongly suspected him in other cases,” Ramsey said.
Last August, Keith changed his plea from not guilty to guilty of four felony counts—three kidnappings and one rape. Marshall, his attorney, acknowledged that, given the strength of the evidence from multiple assaults, “there was just too much to explain away with coincidence.” Marshall also said his client wanted to cut short a trial that would be traumatic for his family, his victims and the witnesses.
At Keith’s Sept. 17 sentencing, one victim told Keith of her struggle since the assault: “After you shoved me in the back seat of your car I heard my own screams in my dreams for months. I couldn’t drive a car for those months either or be around anyone who wore Degree Extra Clinical Strength deodorant because it smelled like you. … On top of anti-anxiety pills and therapy I had to undergo continuous bloodwork and take nauseating preventative AIDS medication for six months because you just had to use a needle to inject me with God knows what …. After all this happened I couldn’t go out alone after the moment the sun went down. And I didn’t trust anyone—anyone who spoke to me, anyone who looked at me, or anyone who walked near me for a very, very long time.”
A victim’s father also had his say: “You waited for your innocent prey with your face under pantyhose to hide your cowardly face. You had your syringes, duct tape and zip ties at the ready so you could quickly drug my daughter and overtake her 5-foot-4-inch, 100-pound body with your massive frame. Did I mention that all the while, your beautiful wife and four innocent children were sleeping at home? When you finished with her, you ripped off the duct tape from her eyes and discarded her like a piece of trash.”
Keith is currently housed at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, a “reception center” for state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inmates. He will be evaluated there and then transferred to one of California’s 35 state prisons. According to Marshall’s calculation, the earliest Keith could be eligible for parole would be March 2035, when he will be 62 years old.
Associate Professor Jonathan Caudill, who serves as criminal justice coordinator for the Political Science Department at Chico State, said Keith faces an uncertain future in prison.
“It has been my experience that sex offenders aren’t seen as a con’s con and they risk disproportionate violence at the hands of other, more aggressive inmates,” Caudill said. “Of course, the system takes steps to protect these type offenders, but things still happen. For Mr. Keith, only time will tell as to what role he plays in prison.”
Edwards, the deputy DA, said that, upon Keith’s prison release, if he is found by a court to be a sexually violent predator, he could be committed indefinitely to Atascadero State Hospital, which houses mentally ill offenders.
Given Keith’s lying, given the villainous items inside his Dart, given that the drugs in his syringes were the same as those in the victims, given the DNA match to a rape, the prosecution had an “incredibly strong case,” Edwards said. “You start piling those things on top of each other and it only points to one conclusion.”
The main weakness of the case was the victims’ “fragmented” memories as a result of the drugs Keith shot into them, Ramsey said.
Attorney Marshall said the Keith defense was challenging just given the quantity of evidence to evaluate.
“My DNA expert said it was the largest amount of scientific evidence that he’s ever seen outside of a death penalty case,” Marshall said. “They tested literally dozens of DNA samples.”
Most of the Department of Justice’s DNA testing was done in Redding, but one sample was even sent on to a DOJ lab in Sacramento for “a more complicated analysis,” Marshall said.
The defense attorney said Keith’s attitude helped him avoid a life sentence. “Lonnie was a very good client from a defense attorney’s standpoint,” Marshall said. “He’s an intelligent, likable guy, who was always respectful and grateful for my assistance.”
Duitsman, a 25-year veteran of Chico PD who is now semi-retired, has worked some big cases in his career, including the February 2000 shooting and killing of Louis O’Shea, who managed the Rio Lindo Motel on The Esplanade. The O’Shea murder took more than a year for detectives to solve and became somewhat racially charged after witnesses told police the killers were black and they turned out to be white.
Duitsman puts the Keith investigation in the “top three, if not the most significant case I’ve had because (of) the danger and the other scope of his activity.”
In the Keith case, Duitsman was dealing with young women who had been horribly traumatized. The detective sees it as his “solemn responsibility” to not only work with victims to solve crimes, but to “help them along the path to become whole again” by referring them to other professionals.
The veteran detective said he tried to contact all three of Keith’s victims after the sentencing to have a final conversation, and two got back to him: “They wanted to move on with their lives and were doing really well.”