Our morbid history

The serial murderers, sociopaths and sickos who helped make Sacramento what it is today

Richard Chase, 
The Vampire Killer

Richard Chase, The Vampire Killer

Photo illustration by Margaret Larkin

We know Sacramento as a place in process. Low-rent motels become luxury suites, a worn-out mall becomes a high-tech arena; even the “City of Trees” water tower now reads “Farm-to-Fork.”

But a legacy of horrific crimes is also baked into Sacramento’s foundation, as deeply as any other qualities a politician might tell you we have. Try to forget as we may, we still can’t escape history.

At one point, it was commonly said that 15 percent of all the nation’s serial killers operated in or around Sacramento in the period between 1971 and 1992. To that end, let’s take ourselves on a short walk through the cemetery and visit some of our notorious neighbors.

The Vampire Killer

‘The mortician … got sick when he saw those bodies!’

When it comes to casket-crushing gusto, no local murderer matches Richard Chase, the “Vampire Killer.”

He started in his mid-20s with rabbits. He had been drinking and taking drugs for a while already, and between the LSD, the alcoholism and whatever was going on with his mind before any of those things, he became convinced that his blood was turning to dust. The only way to survive was to inject himself with a fresh supply. That’s how he ended up in the hospital with a case of blood poisoning, as rabbits don’t usually have blood to match our own.

He was often seen covered in blood, thought to be from self-inflicted wounds but later revealed to be blood from all the birds he was decapitating with his teeth. Word around town was that he was blending up animals’ organs for life-restoring smoothies as well. Soon enough, he turned to victims closer to his blood type.

In 1977, he killed a man in a drive-by shooting. He then killed a young pregnant woman, disemboweling her for her blood. The event inspired deeper investigations that started tying together the murders with a series of burglaries and discoveries of drained animal corpses.

Not too long after all that, he destroyed an entire family, entering their home, removing their entrails and taking back choice bits that were found in his refrigerator when he was captured soon after. The remains came to the morgue so mangled that Karen Greenlee, a former apprentice embalmer with her own dark appetite (more on that later), had this to say to author Jim Morton about the stories she heard around the mortuary: “The mortician who embalmed the bodies said he hardly ever got queasy about anything, but he got sick when he saw those bodies!”

Chase killed himself with a stockpile of his own medication in prison, ending his life in December 1979 with six known murders on his hands.

The Golden State Killer

40 years after this string of grisly rapes and murders, FBI continues hunt.

You may know him as the Diamond Knot Killer. Or perhaps as the Original Night Stalker. Today, we call him the Golden State Killer, firmly broadening his scope beyond just one region. He became known for his sickeningly brutal methods of harassing lone women, couples, families and even entire neighborhoods, through the slow and methodical torture of body and mind.

It’s speculated that he started as a burglar in the mid- ’70s, advancing to rape as early as 1976. It started with reconnaissance, calling planned victims before launching his attack in their very homes. At first, he preferred assaulting single women, but then he found that he got more pleasure in striking couples, forcing them to bind each other before executing his plans. Reports from survivors indicated that he took a leisurely pace with his deeds. Afterward, he would take a memento as a way of extending the pain, something like a ring or half of a photograph.

There’s even a recorded case involving a community meeting about him: As neighborhood residents gathered to alert one another to his hideous presence, one man announced in disbelief that nobody could be brazen enough to rape a woman in the same bed as her husband, according to a 2016 article in Crime Watch Daily. Months later, that man and his wife became victims—indicating that the killer was among those at the meeting, quietly adding names to his list.

He racked up more than 50 rapes in three years, earning him the name the East Area Rapist. Why East Area? Because all of these crimes took place in areas east of Sacramento proper: Rancho Cordova, Carmichael and Citrus Heights.

A couple caught him peering into houses, and the encounter ended with their deaths, the first of what would become a long and bloody tally. Soon after, he moved on to new areas, such as Modesto and Goleta, increasing the ferocity of his crimes.

Because he was always able to stay a step ahead of investigators, it was theorized that he was a member of the law enforcement profession. Much of this story is held together by conjecture, though, as he was never caught. Two decades after the trail went cold, authorities are trying to thaw it.

Last year, the local FBI bureau in Sacramento unveiled new sketches of what they think his face looks like, and announced a reward of up to $50,000 for information that leads to his capture. Folks who think they have first-person knowledge of who this killer may be are encouraged to visit https://tips.fbi.gov.

“We’re not quite sure where that person is who has that key piece of information that will break this case wide open,” says Gina Swankie, an FBI spokeswoman.

In the meantime, the trauma lingers.

Queen of the Dead

Karen Greenlee: ‘The Unrepentant Necrophile.’

No pantheon can be complete without a tragic lover. And who better for that role than noted necrophile Karen Greenlee, Sacramento’s own Queen of the Dead?

Karen Greenlee, Queen of the DeAD

Photo illustration by Margaret Larkin

Greenlee loved her work as an apprentice embalmer at Sacramento Memorial Lawn mortuary, so much so that she’d give certain corpses extra attention after-hours. The job provided both access and cover for her interests—aspects that she claimed make necrophiles in mortuaries more common than one might think, not unlike arsonists in fire departments.

In 1979, she took a loaded hearse headed for a funeral and changed course, disappearing for two days before being found post-failed suicide attempt with the body and a four-and-a-half page note confessing her morgue-rat ways. This was a time when there weren’t any laws against necrophilia, leaving her to be charged with illegally driving a hearse and interfering with a funeral, for which she received 11 days in jail and paid a $255 fine.

Then the family of the dead man she drove off with sued in civil court, a case which was settled for more than $100,000.

The incident, lurid enough to draw headlines from The Sacramento Bee such as “She Admits Sex With Dead,” didn’t end her torrid affair with the deceased. In 1987, Greenlee gave an interview to Jim Morton for a book called Apocalypse Culture, and her comments went far further than necessary to earn her section’s title: “The Unrepentant Necrophile.”

Sparing the details, it’ll suffice to say that Greenlee held nothing back about the mechanical aspects of loving the dead. (It’s worth noting that only 1 in 10 necrophiles are women, which adds value to such a candid piece.)

Greenlee changed her name and disappeared some years ago. What won’t leave us, however, are the questions about life, death, love and lust that her story inspires, questions that she seemed close to finding an answer to when she said this in her infamous interview:

“I had a gay friend who, when he found out I was a necrophile, said, ’You can go to hell for that.’ After 1979, when I was put on probation, part of the probation requirement was that I seek therapy. I had a really nice social worker. She was cool. Very nonjudgmental. The more I talked to these people, the more I realized necrophilia makes sense for me. The reason I was having a problem with it was because I couldn’t accept myself. I was still trying to live my life by other peoples standards. To accept it was peace.”

The Unabomber

Hate technology? Not as much as this dude.

Ted Kaczynski’s first murder victim was in Sacramento; he received eight life sentences at the federal courthouse here.

Ted Kaczynski, whose intellect is as certified as his murder convictions, scored his first homicide ever in Sacramento when he killed the owner of a computer store, John Hauser, with a homemade bomb in 1985. At this point, Kaczynski had been building bombs and delivering them around the country for years as part of his anti-technology eco-terrorist crusade, but not one had actually killed until then.

Sacramento wouldn’t get another taste of the Unabomber until his trial at the federal courthouse here in 1997. He got eight life terms for three murders and 10 counts of bomb-making activity, and we get the tenuous right to add his star to the streets we spit on daily.

Killer on F Street

Police found seven corpses in her backyard. There were more elsewhere.

There’s one name that nobody seems to have forgotten: Dorothea Puente, that innocent-looking lady who ended up in prison until her 2011 death, for a formal body count of three, and an informal count of nine or more possible murders.


Photo illustration by Margaret Larkin

By now, even the freshest of Midtown newbies know the story: While running a boarding house at 1426 F Street, Puente would cash the Social Security checks of her tenants until she decided they weren’t worth the effort. Then she’d poison her roomie-victims and deposit their bodies in the backyard.

Police dug seven corpses from the soft soil in 1988, but Puente wasn’t immediately considered a suspect—that is, until she fled. A bit after she took flight, authorities found her in Los Angeles after a pensioner who she chatted up in a bar recognized her from TV reports.

The story of the woman who provided her tenants a deeply permanent home by dumping their bodies in our (and her) backyard has fascinated Sacramentans for decades, so much so that the new owners of her house, Tom Williams and Barbara Holmes, gave tours of the place in 2015. More than $5,000 in proceeds of said tours were donated to Francis House Center.

They bought the house in 2010 for its “good bones” and decent neighborhood, Williams writes in an email interview. Williams, who lives there to this day, also slightly enjoys the notoriety of the building.

“The history of the house holds a particular allure for us, but when it comes right down to it, it’s just our home,” he writes. “It is definitely the most interesting house we’ve ever owned.”

The Gruesome Butcher

Beheaded farm animals, bloody money and dark rituals.


Photo illustration by Margaret Larkin

Gina Knepp knows what I’m going to ask as soon as she picks up the phone.

“You’re calling me about the beheadings,” says Knepp, the manager of Front Street Animal Shelter. “I’m so glad they stopped.”

Knepp is referring to a bizarre series of animal killings that took place in the first half of 2015. A wide variety of corpses—chickens, goats, cows, animals with sacrificial connotations—were found on the Sacramento Bike Trail and Reichmuth Park, among other places, as early as January of that year. Reports from the Bee indicate that the animals weren’t dismembered as precisely as they could be, indicating a real hack job with a cheap saw.

But the presentation proved disturbing enough to go beyond stray animal murder.

Most of the time, the animals would be found in a paper bag with the heads delicately placed nearby, or in a box with a bit of bloody money. Knepp was quoted at the time as saying that “beheaded chickens were found in the city cemetery with these bowls of what was described as bloody oatmeal.”

The depositing of mutilated bodies continued for months, ramping up to an incident every day of the first week of March, Knepp says. She worked with the Police Department as detectives investigated a variety of angles. The most compelling seemed to be religious ritual.

“When I look at some of the evidence, and things like burnt candles, money—dollar bills with blood on them—those are symbolic. We see that in the Afro-Caribbean religions when they use animals,” Knepp says. “I’m certainly not an expert. Whoever was doing it definitely wanted to make it look like that, if it wasn’t indeed that.”

And then, as quickly as it started, it stopped. No arrests tied to the corpses, no suspects named. All became quiet again.

Quiet, that is, until late June 2015, when somebody laid the body of a goat on light-rail tracks on 26th Avenue near Franklin Boulevard in broad daylight. The incident had a reported witness, fuzzy surveillance video, the whole nine. After that, the bizarre cases stopped appearing in the papers, leaving no conclusion. So what happened?

Investigators did reach out in 2015 and 2016 to a couple of people who may have been involved, says Sgt. Bryce Heinlein, a spokesman with the Sacramento Police Department. In an email, he notes, “[T]hey were not arrested, but detectives did speak with them about their religious beliefs and sacrificial activities.”

As for the dumping of animals, no further incidents have occurred since 2015, aside from a goat wrapped in a tarp, found in a dumpster this year—neck intact.

Our Bloody Founding Father

He was a killer, he was a bigot … and he was a real loser.

Of all the historic rapists, murderers and outright villains in Sacramento, there could be no greater king of them all than the big man himself, John Sutter.

The less-curious among us may simply know him as the guy who built that fort we keep forcing third graders to tour. Those of us who paid attention in class know him as the man responsible for this city being where it is.

And one step above them on the scale of condescension are those of us who haven’t forgotten how much of our city is sculpted by his avarice and bloody idiocy.

Sutter was born in Germany and married into money, only to blow all of that capital and abandon his wife and five kids to start again in the United States in 1834.

Through a series of upward failures not worth mentioning here, the man who insisted on being called “Captain” eventually established in 1841 the colony that became Sacramento. Of course, this isn’t the sort of project one man takes on alone. These things go much more smoothly when greased with the blood of indigenous people, and to that end, Sutter took to murdering and enslaving them to take their lands, forcing them to build his fort and suffer as his servants.

Through the denial of food, coerced labor, murder and the rape of girls as young as 12, Sutter ensured his legacy as one of the greatest men in Sacramento history, achieving fame and glory—only to be utterly undone by the discovery of gold that summoned hordes of prospectors. He died alone in Washington, D.C., at the fruitless end of 15 years of petitioning the federal government to pay him for his self-inflicted ruin.

No wonder Sacramento has a complex about what it means to be successful: One of the most important figures in our city’s mythology created a pattern when he turned this land into an Indian burial ground, setting the scene for our fair city, and then still couldn’t figure out how to not die a failure. Of all the freaks we could be idolizing, never forget that the ones after whom we name our streets are almost always the most gnarled and despicable.