Valley of death

Spree and serial killers have long stalked the greater Sacramento area, perhaps more than anywhere else

Nikolay Soltys

Nikolay Soltys

The mass murder spree and subsequent jailhouse suicide of Russian immigrant Nikolay Soltys shocked and saddened many Sacramentans. But unfortunately, Soltys’ rampage last year is not unique. The Sacramento Valley may have the dubious distinction of playing host to more spree and serial killers than anywhere else in America.

Mass murderers and serial killers differ in several ways. Mass murderers often erupt in sudden rage, killing over a short period of time. They are usually captured quickly or killed. Serial killers plan their attacks carefully and commit them over an extended period of time, often years. They are very difficult to apprehend, and the rarer of the two breeds.

Comparing this area’s mayhem to other areas is difficult because federal statistics do not include separate listings for serial killers. Yet the book Encyclopedia of Serial Killers indicates that, between 1971 and 1992, 65 serial killers were apprehended in the United States. Of that number, seven were from the Sacramento area. Other research indicates that two more serial killers were apprehended in the Sacramento area during the same time period.

If it’s true that nearly 15 percent of the serial killers in America committed their crimes in and around Sacramento during that time, then we’ve carried a disproportionate share of such pathology. And there have been at least three more serial killers, as well as several mass murderers, since 1991.

One of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history worked the agricultural fields north of Sacramento more than 30 years ago. Labor contractor Juan Corona was convicted of killing 25 farm workers.

His tale began to unfold on May 19, 1971, when a peach grower inspecting his trees just off Highway 99 made an unusual discovery. A large hole had been dug in the ground among his trees. When he returned later in the day, the hole had been filled.

Juan Corona

The suspicious grower made a report to the sheriff and a deputy was dispatched with a shovel. Within minutes, a recently deceased adult male was discovered in the makeshift grave. A subsequent search of the property uncovered nine other graves. All of the victims appeared to be itinerant white male farm workers.

Suspicion quickly focused on Corona, whose crews had been working in the orchard. The victim had been bludgeoned, and Corona had been suspected in a previous near-fatal bludgeoning in a Marysville bar.

The body count continued to grow until a total of 25 victims were ultimately discovered. In one grave, police found two meat receipts for a local market made out to Corona, who was arrested without incident, later convicted of 25 counts of murder, and now lives in Soledad prison.

The next serial killer to make headlines was Richard Chase, the “vampire killer,” who was convicted of six counts of murder in 1979. Chase had been treated for paranoid schizophrenia and committed to psychiatric hospitals several times before his fatal outbursts. Among other things, he claimed that he had circulatory problems and had to drink blood because of his illness.

In January 1978, he broke into the homes of two women in the north area of Sacramento. His victims and their visitors were shot and mutilated. In the second incident, a baby was abducted and the body found later in a cardboard box behind a nearby church.

A massive manhunt ensued and attention quickly focused on Chase, whose bizarre behavior and slovenly clothing had caught the attention of neighborhood residents. After his arrest, Chase’s sanity was questioned, particularly after evidence indicated that he’d been drinking the blood of his victims.

He was ultimately found responsible for six murders and sentenced to die. But he never entered the San Quentin gas chamber. On the day after Christmas in 1980, Chase was found dead in his cell. Like Soltys, he had committed suicide.

Richard Chase

Gerald Gallego’s search for the “ultimate sex slave” led to the deaths of nine young women and one man in Sacramento, Reno and Oregon. Gallego used his mistress and co-conspirator, Charlene Williams, to lure young girls into his minivan. They would then drive to a remote location, where he would rape and bludgeon his victims while she waited in the van.

They were captured after they abducted a young couple from the Arden Fair Shopping Center parking lot. A witness noted their license plate and reported it to police after the couple had been reported missing.

Williams pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, served 19 years in jail on a plea bargain and was subsequently released. She is now living in an undisclosed location and reportedly working for a major supermarket chain. Gallego received the death sentence and remains in the Nevada State Prison.

As grisly as these serial killings seem, they pale in comparison to the acts of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, “the foothill torturers.” Beginning in 1983, they raped, tortured and murdered as many as 25 men, women and children over a period of two years at their remote cabin in Calaveras County, east of Sacramento.

Gruesome videotapes of torture, a common grave containing dismembered limbs and a torture chamber in a concrete bunker shocked the public. Lake committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill shortly after he was captured.

Ng escaped to Canada, where he was captured on other charges and fought extradition to the United States for more than six years. He was ultimately found guilty of 11 counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances.

It wouldn’t take long for the Sacramento area’s next serial killer to appear. Roger Kibbe was a middle-aged, hen-pecked husband with a lengthy record, including two stints in prison for non-violent crimes. In 1985 he began a serial killing spree that earned him the nickname “I-5 strangler.”

Leonard Lake

Kibbe stalked the freeways south of Sacramento late at night looking for young women with car trouble. After offering to help, they were abducted, driven to remote locations and strangled with their own clothing. Kibbe was suspected in four slayings, but evidence was slim.

After two pieces of microscopic evidence linked Kibbe to one of the killings, he was subsequently tried and convicted of one count of first-degree murder and sentenced to prison for 25 years. He will be eligible for parole in two years, but it is doubtful that he will be released, considering he is reported to be a suspect in other unsolved killings.

Morris Solomon was considered a quiet, good-natured carpenter who barely got by doing odd jobs in Sacramento’s low-income community of Oak Park. Few knew he had been in prison twice for sexual assault.

But then a series of seven women’s bodies turned up near areas where he’d been working in 1986. Many of his victims were prostitutes and drug addicts, so their disappearances had gone largely unnoticed. Buried for months in shallow graves in yards around Oak Park, their advanced state of decomposition made it difficult to determine the cause of death.

Although Solomon was under intense scrutiny from the time of the first victim’s discovery, it did not deter him. He continued to kill at least three more times, until he was finally put behind bars. Solomon was the 342nd person to receive the death sentence in California and is now on death row in San Quentin.

It wouldn’t be long before Sacramento was rocked again by not one, but two, more serial murder cases involving six more backyard burials and the random shooting of six more victims.

Early in November 1989, police investigators unearthed six bodies in the yard of Dorothea Puente, just blocks from the courthouse in Sacramento. Her escape, subsequent capture in Los Angeles, trial and sentencing created a nationwide sensation.

Dorothea Puente

With her gray hair, spectacles and grandmotherly demeanor, she seemed an unlikely serial killer. But Puente poisoned at least six of her boardinghouse tenants and continued to cash their monthly Social Security, disability or private pension checks until alert social workers raised questions about a missing boarder.

She was convicted in 1993 and is now serving life in prison.

Sacramento’s reputation as a beautiful city of tree-lined streets and low incidence of violent crime was soon shaken once again. On February 12, 1991, a lone gunman entered a Quik Stop market on Auburn Boulevard and shot two employees and a customer from close range. The shootings appeared to be a robbery, although nothing was taken except a tin of beef jerky and a few other items.

A week later, three workers in a Watt Avenue pizza parlor were killed in a similar manner. Authorities believed that the slayings were done for kicks. The unknown killer was quickly dubbed the “thrill killer” by the media, as an outburst of coverage followed the developments.

A massive manhunt ensued, and may have deterred the killer from making further attacks. But many months passed before police found a troubled young man named Eric Royce Leonard, who then became the 27th Sacramento area resident waiting on death row.

Jack Barron was a mild-mannered warehouse worker with no criminal history who owned his own home in a Sacramento suburb, where he lived quietly with his wife and two young children. Then Barron’s wife was found dead in bed in June 1992, and their son was found dead eight months later in similar circumstances.

While the police were sure that both deaths were homicides by smothering, the coroner’s office listed the cause of both deaths as “undetermined,” because smothering can be difficult to detect. Had the cause been listed as a possible homicide, it would have enabled the district attorney to investigate.

Cary Stayner

Eighteen months later, Barron’s daughter was found dead in similar circumstances. This time, the coroner’s report indicated that homicide could not be excluded, but detectives found that they still did not have enough evidence to charge Barron.

By February 1995, Barron was living with his mother in Solano County, and called the police to report that his mother was dead. Suspicions were raised by the comments of a neighbor, who reported his history to local investigators. Eventually, investigators gathered enough evidence to convict Barron of the deaths of his wife, mother and son. He is now serving three life terms in prison with no possibility of parole.

Yosemite National Park seemed an unlikely location for a serial killer, until February 1999, when Carole Sund, her 15-year-old daughter, Juli, and a friend, Silvina Pelosso, disappeared from the Cedar Lodge in El Portal, just outside the park. The case grabbed national headlines.

On March 18, a man stumbled across a burned-out car on an old logging road near Yosemite. The badly burned bodies of Sund and her daughter’s friend were found in the trunk. Shortly thereafter, an anonymous letter led authorities to a scenic point overlooking a lake off Highway 49. Juli Sund’s body was found nearby, her throat cut.

Several months passed without an arrest in the case. Investigators eventually indicated that they were sure they had the killers in jail on other charges, but additional time was needed to develop more evidence. They were wrong.

On July 22, the decapitated body of Joie Armstrong, a naturalist who worked for the Yosemite Institute, was found in a creek near her cabin in the forest. Witnesses reported seeing a pickup truck that was then traced to Cary Stayner, a handyman at nearby Cedar Lodge.

An all-points-bulletin was issued and Stayner was located at a nudist camp just south of Sacramento, where he was arrested. Stayner later pleaded guilty to Armstrong’s murder in federal court and is currently on trial in state court for the other Yosemite killings.

Has the Sacramento Valley seen the last of its serial killers? Given our area’s violent history, it seems doubtful.