By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
To DeWalt, the 51-year-old sketch resembled a black-and-white photo, circa 1970, that he had seen while researching child abductions, of a man being led into a Los Angeles courtroom in handcuffs.
“I was thinking to myself that this guy looks familiar,” DeWalt explains to L.A. Weekly. “I recalled the photo I had seen of a guy who turned himself in to the LAPD in March of 1970, after he and a juvenile accomplice botched a kidnapping of three Sylmar girls.”
That man was the then-51-year-old heavy-equipment operator Mack Ray Edwards, who admitted to LAPD Foothill Division detectives in March 1970 that he had planned to sexually assault and murder the three girls. Because he was a former neighbor of the girls, “he knew he was made” and turned himself in, says DeWalt.
Edwards, a married man with two adopted children, confessed to kidnapping and murdering six children between 1953 and 1969, including one of his own relatives. His victims were Stella Nolan, 8, who disappeared on June 20, 1953, from a flea market in Norwalk; Gary Rocha, 16, who was found shot in his Granada Hills home on November 26, 1968; Donald Todd, 13, who disappeared on May 16, 1969, after leaving his Pacoima home; Don Baker, 13, and Edwards’ own sister-in-law, Brenda Howell, 11, who disappeared on August 6, 1956, after they went bicycling together in San Gabriel Canyon; and Madison, 16, his teenage son’s classmate, who disappeared on December 14, 1968.
Edwards, a native of Arkansas, led police to Nolan’s remains a few days after he turned himself in. A freeway worker who operated large equipment and sometimes worked under contract for Caltrans, Edwards had buried the child in an embankment along the Santa Ana Freeway near Downey.
His family and neighbors were shocked. Yet the news barely made headlines. Nothing could compete with the huge story that June of 1970: Charles Manson and his followers were in custody and about to go to trial for the murders of actress Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.
Edwards, with his glasses and dorky demeanor, was a heavy-equipment expert who worked as a combat engineer during World War II. In the ’50s, he became a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 12. He settled in middle-class Sylmar, kept horses and allowed neighborhood kids to ride them. He took local kids camping.
“I never talked to anyone who met Edwards and didn’t like him,” says DeWalt. “He didn’t drink. He didn’t cuss. ... The father of the girls who were kidnapped in Sylmar said Edwards was a great guy.”
Edwards pleaded guilty to three counts of murder and three counts of kidnapping, and was sentenced to death. But he saved the executioners the trouble: He hanged himself with a TV cord in his Death Row cell in November of 1971.
He cheated the victims’ families in more ways than one. The bodies of children Don Baker, Brenda Howell and Roger Madison were never found, and Edwards never confessed to murdering Tommy Bowman or several other murdered children now thought to be his victims.
IN AUGUST OF 2006, DEWALT got a huge break in the case. He had the chance to have dinner with the killer’s 76-year-old widow and her family, and took along with him Bill Gleason, a consultant to the California Department of Justice. Sitting at dinner, the widow’s sister-in-law divulged a terrible secret to DeWalt and Gleason: Edwards had given his wife a confessional letter before he killed himself, essentially admitting to being Tommy’s abductor.
“I was going to add one more” name, the serial killer wrote, “and that was the Tommy Bowman boy that disappeared in Pasadena. But I felt I would really make a mess of that one so I left him out of it.”
Gleason, who had investigated the Manson murders for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said the letter also implicated an alleged crippled neighbor of Edwards’ in the killings of five of the six children Edwards is believed to have murdered. In his letter, Edwards told his wife that he’d killed just one child, but took the rap for the rest of them because he wanted to spare his crippled friend.
“He wasn’t really a bad guy, but he confessed to the murder to help the paraplegic,” Gleason tells L.A. Weekly, laughing darkly. “There was no paraplegic that anybody knew of. He also never mentioned the paraplegic at his trial.”
DeWalt then made another key link — he figured out that Edwards’ employer, Kirst Construction, kept an equipment yard less than half a mile from where Tommy Bowman was snatched at the Arroyo Seco.
By coincidence, while DeWalt was conducting his private cold-case probe, LAPD cold-case detective Vivian Flores was digging into the disappearance of 11-year-old Karen Tompkins, who vanished near her school in Torrance on August 18, 1961. Flores recalls that DOJ consultant Gleason told her about DeWalt’s private investigation, suggesting, “Maybe [Edwards] did this one.”