By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
For retired detective Manchester, this tale began on a dark, chilly evening on February 18, 1976. A fresh, young homicide detective, his very first case was that of retired school administrator Elizabeth McKeown, whose half-naked body was found in her ’65 Chevelle, not far from her small apartment in a neighborhood between Fox Hills and Westchester.
Manchester, now 64 and living in Reno, never got over the McKeown case. “She had never been married ... she was clean as the driven snow. She was in love, but the guy jilted her. She was crushed. It was pre–World War II. She wasn’t able to establish another relationship of any substance.”
Manchester says today, “I always thought I didn’t want to die without finding out what had happened to [Elizabeth] McKeown.”
Then a crucial coincidence occurred, the kind of thing that would give Harry Bosch pause: It was 1976, and Manchester saw a magazine article about the science of DNA technology. “It was something pretty new,” Manchester says today. In fact, most cops then relied on crime-scene analysis as rudimentary as grade-school math: spraying Luminol to locate fingerprints, and identifying blood types and groups.
Influenced by the fascinating magazine piece, Manchester did something odd for those times: He insisted that the Los Angeles County autopsy technicians save as much human detritus and trace evidence found at the McKeown crime scene as possible. His unusual request would prove instrumental in solving the dust-gathering case, retrieved from a police evidence shelf by Bengtson and his partner Vivian Flores three decades later.
On the February night she died, McKeown had returned home from an event at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Later that evening, a witness saw someone driving McKeown’s car erratically near her home. Another witness heard a dragging noise coming from her apartment — it went on for 30 minutes. Neither alerted police. “We don’t want to get involved,” chides McKeown’s great-niece, Michaels. “That is the epitaph on a lot of people’s gravesites.”
A cluster of similar rape-murders had taken the lives of Cora Perry, 79, of Lennox, and Maybelle Hudson, 80, of Inglewood. “We had a meeting and I said, ‘I think we have a serial killer,’ ’’ recalls Manchester. “Right-hand strangulation, sex assault, older white women. His murder weapons were his hands, his powerful forearms.”
It’s odd that McKeown’s case never ended up downtown at Parker Center, where an elite task force of homicide detectives was looking into a series of 22 rapes and 12 murders of elderly white women within a 20-square-mile area encompassing Hollywood. The so-called Westside Rapist attacks had begun in 1974 with the rape and murder of Ethyl Grimes in her Rampart home and seemed to taper off in 1976 with the strangulation of Hazel Nichols. As with McKeown’s attacker, the suspect’s MO included placing a blanket, pillow or clothing over victims’ faces.
The task force focused on four suspects, including 19-year-old Brandon Tholmer, a handsome musician who was eventually convicted of raping an elderly woman in her home in 1976.
“They all lived within a mile of [Tholmer’s] house,” says In Cold Blog Web site publisher Corey Mitchell, who explains the Tholmer case in his book, Hollywood Death Scenes: True Crime and Tragedy in Paradise. “At 1 or 2 in the morning he would sneak his way in and beat the tar out of these ladies and rape them.”
But Tholmer’s strange MO — he liked to set fires and kill his victims’ cats — did not fit with dozens of the unsolved cases. Over time, the extensive Westside Rapist sleuthing, and the related lore, became “famous in Robbery Homicide Division,” says Bengtson. Next to his desk even today is a poster-sized chart labeled “Westside Rapists — Suspects Time Study Chart,” created by a past era’s stumped detectives. Their effort, “was along the lines of the Hillside Strangler,” Bengtson says. “It was heartbreaking [to cops of that era] that it was never solved.”
The Westside Rapist task force quietly disbanded in 1976, and detectives hoped that Tholmer was their man. But about two years later, another attack occurred on North Madison Street in Pasadena. On that dreadful night, Gary Stellern’s feisty mother, born on April Fool’s Day in 1900, had attended a lecture at Pasadena City College. When the retired social worker got home at 10:15 pm, an intruder wearing gloves tried to strangle her, snapped her ankle, savagely raped her and left her for dead. Her son Gary, now 75, still weeps when talking about getting her phone call for help that night.
Rushing over to her apartment, he found her sitting on the floor. “This is the part that burns my ass,” he says today, crying openly. His mom “was a tough old bird. She wasn’t crying. She had to have been in shock.” Stellern later told police her attacker had “very strong hands.”