The Sex Murder Files
nglewood homicide detective Jeffrey Steinhoff was stumped by the March 2002 killing of a girl named Princess: Only 14 years old, the runaway from Hawthorne had been in and out of foster homes and was working as a prostitute when she was murdered. Her nude body was dumped in bushes in an alley.
The trail for her killer had gone cold. But in December 2004, Steinhoff learned of a possible breakthrough: The sheriff’s crime lab found traces of the same DNA on her body and two other slain women. In 2005, another match was made, suggesting that four victims could have been killed by the same person. Further, Princess Berthomieux and one of the women had been strangled; the other two had been shot with a .25-caliber handgun. Ballistics tests linked those two cases with six other handgun killings.
Suddenly, the mystery of Princess’ death triggered more frightening questions: Was a single serial killer responsible for the murders of at least 10 victims in L.A. County? And was this person still on the loose? The DNA didn’t match any names in police databases so there was little the detective could do with the new information. Then, last summer, on August 3, he got a phone call from a Fresno County District Attorney’s Office investigator. A jail inmate named Roger Hausmann, accused of kidnapping two teenaged girls, had allegedly made some troubling statements about killing prostitutes in Los Angeles. Was this guy connected to the murders of Princess and nine others?
The victims, killed between 1985 and 2003, included seven prostitutes, a pimp, a cocktail waitress and a woman who lived at home with her parents. All but one had been dumped and covered with mattresses, blankets or trash. All were African-American.
A DNA test was ordered for Hausmann, but Steinhoff never got the results. When he learned last month that the sample had been lost, Steinhoff went to the Fresno jail to obtain a second saliva sample for the DNA test. Now the detective must wait again. It could be months before the findings are in.
In a wide-ranging series of jailhouse interviews conducted over the past several weeks by the L.A. Weekly, Hausmann insists he is innocent. For two decades, he says, Fresno cops have been getting it all wrong about him. He says he was acting in self-defense in 1991 when he hit a prostitute over the head with a steam iron. He has no idea why she says he told her, “You’re harder to kill than the other ones.” He rejects as pure fiction the idea that he kidnapped two teenage girls in January 2005 and threatened to kill one of them before she jumped out of his moving car.
The 65-year-old Hausmann talks fast as he tries to expose holes in the latest case to land him in trouble. The 5-foot-7 repo man with a broken-tooth smile and long, thinning hair accuses the Fresno police of having a vendetta against him because, as he puts it, he’s a Christian Jew who is fond of black women. Divorced at least three times, Hausmann speaks coarsely about women, calling his ex-girlfriends “hos,” and says one was nicknamed Peanut Butter because “she spread so easy.” By his reckoning, Hausmann figures his most serious run-ins with the law started about 15 years ago, when the Fresno police suspected him in an epidemic of mostly prostitution-related killings. “They accused me of murdering a bunch of black females,” says Hausmann. “I don’t know anything about the murders. They have a personal vendetta against me.”
Hausmann’s crusade to clear his name probably would be confined to the Central Valley, but for one thing: The girls who accused him of kidnapping them told police that he claimed to have made trips to L.A. and would pick up prostitutes and kill them. Hausmann denies ever saying it, but word of the boast soon went out to law enforcement agencies in Southern California.
Hausmann is confident that his DNA will not match that found on any of the victims. “I didn’t do anything,” he says a few hours after providing the test sample. “I don’t play like that. All I know is they [Fresno police] have sold wolf tickets to people down there. We don’t mistreat women, and we don’t hit women. We open the door for ladies.”
Last month, Steinhoff, in a court affidavit seeking a judge’s permission to take the DNA sample, said he expects Hausmann’s DNA to match what was found on the victims. “There is a link between each of the homicides,” he wrote. “Based on my training and experience, I believe that Hausmann is a suspect in these homicides. Hausmann admitted that he has killed people and wrapped them in carpet in the Los Angeles area. One victim was covered with a carpet, one covered with a blanket, one covered with a trash bag, and three were covered with debris.” Hausmann also was cited for a traffic violation in Inglewood three months before Princess’ death.
For now, Hausmann’s most immediate problem is dealing with the kidnapping case. Here’s the police account: Hausmann was driving a 17-year-old acquaintance and her friend, who was 16, around Fresno in search of cars to repossess; the older girl told detectives that she had dated Hausmann’s son Dana. After taking the girls to a McDonald’s, Hausmann announced that he would drop the older girl off first. The 16-year-old didn’t feel comfortable with Hausmann and demanded to be taken home first. Hausmann flew into a rage and punched the younger girl in the face. He told the girls he was going to drive to the highway and kill both of them. The 17-year-old unlocked her door and escaped. She tried to help her friend, but Hausmann pulled the younger girl back into the van by her hair and drove off. She was able to jump out of the van, which was traveling at more than 30 mph. She suffered cuts and bruises.
Four days later, Fresno police found Hausmann hiding in the bedroom closet at a friend’s apartment. He refused to come out and was Tasered by officers. In the jail interview, Hausmann says that the arresting officers stomped on his face, breaking his glasses, and kicked him in the rib cage and the pelvic area. He claims that the two girls assaulted him and that he was robbed by the older teenager, who beat his head and face with the bottom of a pair of high-heeled boots.
“The kidnapping didn’t occur,” he says. “She stalked me. I don’t date ugly women. I don’t date women with big feet.?.?.?.?I didn’t assault anyone. They beat the daylights out of me.”
Hausmann, who is representing himself at his June 12 trial, wrote in a failed motion that sought to dismiss the case that the 17-year-old victim “had exhibited a desire to have illicit intercourse with the defendant upon more than one occasion; advertising the lie that she was the defendant’s ‘woman.’ ” He also accused that same girl of extorting money from him and being involved in a prostitution ring.
t is not the first time that Hausmann, who goes by the nickname Super Honky, has caught the eye of law enforcement. In 1991, the Santa Rosa native was one of the main targets of a task force set up by the Fresno police and sheriff’s departments to look into the deaths of 25 African-American women who died between May 1977 and November 1990, some of whom were prostitutes. Hausmann became a suspect after he was arrested on suspicion of beating a prostitute with a steam iron.
“He has a very extensive violent criminal history,” says Fresno police Lieutenant Randy Dobbins. “He’s been a person of interest on several crimes. Due to his lifestyle and history, we have looked at him in the past, and we do so today.”
According to a Fresno Bee article, the prostitute involved in the beating told police that Hausmann said, “You’re harder to kill than the other ones.” A man who witnessed the beating also heard Hausmann say, “This one is hard to kill.”
The beating, along with those statements, led authorities to refocus their attention on the women whose bodies were found in irrigation canals, standpipes, vacant lots, fields and abandoned houses during that 13-and-a-half-year period. Most of the women were between the ages of 18 and 30.
At the time, Fresno homicide Detective Doug Stokes wrote in a report that Hausmann had “certain traits and attributes which could be attributed to a person involved in the multiple murders of black female prostitutes.” Stokes, the lead investigator in the 25 slayings, says that Hausmann knew some of the women who were killed.
“He admitted that he dated some of the girls. This man was with a lot of prostitutes over a long period of time,” says Stokes, now retired. “Out of all of them [suspects], he was probably the one we looked at the closest or the longest. He preferred younger women, and that kind of fit in with the profile.”
The task force hit a dead end and was disbanded after 10 weeks, with no arrests made in any of the slayings. But as it turns out, the investigation was not complete. Until the late 1990s, police did not routinely test DNA samples. “Now we have to revisit all of the evidence collected at the time to see if we can pull the DNA, ” says Fresno police Sergeant Curt Chastain. “We just started the DNA unit a year ago.”
As for beating the woman with the steam iron, Hausmann pleaded no contest to assault with a deadly weapon and false imprisonment. He spent 29 months in jail and was released in November 1993. According to the Fresno Bee article, Hausmann admitted beating the prostitute and tying her up but claimed self-defense, saying the woman hit him with the steam iron first.
In the jail interview last month, Hausmann says she hit him over the head with a bronze ashtray and stole jewelry from him. He blamed a male friend whom he said knocked her out and tied her up and wanted to roll her body in a carpet and throw it in the lake. Hausmann said he tried to help the woman.
On his left chest is tattooed the name “Stivette” — the mother of Hausmann’s 9-year-old son. In 2003, Stivette Streeter accused Hausmann of kidnapping the boy and taking him to Los Angeles. She also told police that he threatened to kill her. Streeter said that in 1995, Hausmann grabbed her by the throat when he thought she was cheating on him. On another occasion, she said, he beat her head against the wall. One of his former wives told the Weekly that he tried to choke her to death because she refused to have sex with him, and threatened the life of one of her friends.
However, Hausmann denies that he ever hit, strangled or murdered anyone: “I never even slapped one.”
Seated in his auto-sales office in Fresno, Ron Browns can speak for hours about his former employee’s odd nature and skill at repossessing cars.
“He knows a lot about everything,” says Browns, who says he paid Hausmann $125 to $150 per vehicle. “He is absolutely the smartest person I've met. It takes him nine minutes to do theNew York Times crossword puzzle. You have to be crafty to repossess cars. He was very good at his job. He never had any money. If he made $500 a day, he would spend $550.”
Hausmann says that after graduating from Santa Rosa High School, he attended San Francisco State University for two years before he transferred to the University of Southern California in 1959 to study psychology. However, USC found no records that Hausmann ever attended the university. Nor did San Francisco State, though university officials said their records are incomplete.
At the age of 19, Hausmann says, he married his first wife, a 15-year-old girl who looked like the actress Tuesday Weld. Twenty years later, in 1979, Hausmann was arrested in Fresno for having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, but the case was dismissed when he later married the girl. He also claims to have ridden with the Hell’s Angels for eight years, but he dropped out because “they used to talk trash about my black women.” Instead, he and a bunch of friends started the L.A. Deuces, a black motorcycle club that formed in the early ’70s, he says.
Over the years, Hausmann says that he has sold dope and worked as a pimp in Fresno and L.A. His L.A. hangout, he claims, was a now-defunct restaurant at Florence Avenue and Figueroa Street. His stable of girls worked out of bars and hotels along the Miracle Mile and in Beverly Hills. From 1960 to 1995, he sold cocaine out of a “rock house” on 19th Street in L.A., he says.
He also said he sold drugs in Fresno until he was baptized into the full-gospel Christian faith in 1995, which inspired his “flushing down the toilet of two kilos of cocaine, still in the Medellin Cartel wrappers.” That is when he says he went clean.
According to Steinhoff’s affidavit, Hausmann’s arrest record goes back decades. In 1976, he was arrested in Lynwood on suspicion of lewd acts against a child; in 1982, in Bakersfield, enticing a minor female for prostitution and pimping; in 1985, in Los Angeles, assault with a deadly weapon; in 1995, assault with a firearm. Between 1985 and 2003, arrest records show that Hausmann often traveled between Fresno and Los Angeles.
Between 1968 and 1982, Hausmann was arrested on seven weapons charges. In 1968, 1972 and 1979 for carrying a concealed weapon; in 1971 and 1976 for exhibiting a deadly weapon/firearm; in 1981 and 1982 for carrying a loaded firearm. The affidavit does not state how the cases were resolved.
Hausmann claims that over the years he has been beaten by the Fresno police, and that the police are out to get him because he stopped supplying the force with drugs in the early ’90s. He also says that the police don’t like the fact that he likes African-American women and that he was regularly called a “nigger-lover Jew-boy slave” by a local cop.
In May 2003, he says that he was turned upside down by a police officer and dropped on his head on the sidewalk when he was legally trying to repossess a pickup truck. He has also accused the police of failing to come to his aid when he was robbed and hit on the head with a large kitchen pot. He said he went to the police station and was “laughed at by service personnel who were on their break.”
That same year, he wrote to a Fresno judge that he was a “perennial victim” and the “butt of many jokes” by the Fresno Police Department.
“These people in this county have lied consistently ever since I walked out of here in 1993,” he says. “At times I have had traffic tickets, and I was guilty. I haven’t done anything else.”
Hausmann’s court-appointed private investigator, Rick Barclay, puts it this way: “He is a little bit eccentric, but he is sharp. He certainly thinks the police here are after him. I just think they have more pressing things to deal with than Roger. I suppose if the cops had the goods on him, they would have done more than they did. I would hope they would have something better to do than carry on a 20-year vendetta against someone.”
he LAPD's cold-case unit, formed in late 2001 to investigate more than 9,000 unsolved killings, is on the fifth floor of Parker Center. One supervisor and six detectives work in the room, surrounded by thousands of files, some as thick as phone books. One shelf among the many contains eight blue binders — named for the six women and one pimp killed by gunshots along with the lone strangulation victim who have been linked by DNA and ballistics tests. These are the cases that matched up with Princess Berthomieux, the 14-year-old prostitute, and prompted Steinhoff to seek a DNA sample from Hausmann.
Adding to the intrigue is the span of time they represent, from the first one in 1985 to the most recent in 2003, and how it’s possible that the killer could have gone undetected for 18 years.
This is not the first time the shooting cases have been investigated. In 1987, two detectives from LAPD’s robbery-homicide unit began looking into the deaths because they stood out from 20 slayings attributed at the time to the so-called Southside Slayer. All of the shooting victims were black. Some of the women had been sexually assaulted. Ballistics tests found they’d all been shot at close range with a small-caliber pistol. All of their bodies, except for that of a pimp named Thomas Steele, had been dumped in alleys. The seven LAPD cases were later linked to another victim in Lennox handled by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
“Except for the small-caliber bullet there is nothing terribly unique,” says Sergeant Cliff Shepard, who is investigating the LAPD cases. “Some were dressed, some weren’t.”
The first murder occurred around August 10, 1985. Debra Jackson, a cocktail waitress, was last seen leaving a friend’s home in Lynwood to take a bus back to her apartment in South-Central. Days later, her decomposing body was found covered with a carpet in an alley west of Vermont Avenue. She was shot twice in the chest.
A year later, Henrietta Wright was shot twice in the chest. Her clothed body was found wrapped in a blanket and covered with a mattress on August 12, 1986. Wright was arrested for prostitution at 47th Street and Figueroa Street in 1982. She had been sexually assaulted. Barbara Ware, 23, was found on January 10, 1987. She was shot once in the chest, dumped in an alley and covered with trash. A plastic bag was draped over her upper body. She had a prior arrest for prostitution in 1982.
Bernita Sparks, 25, had been shot in the chest, strangled and beaten on April 16, 1987. She told her mother that she was going to go to the store to buy a pack of cigarettes. She was found inside a trash bin the next morning, covered with trash, on the 9400 block of South Western Avenue. Police believe she was sexually assaulted.
Mary Lowe, 26, was attending a Halloween party at a club the night before she was found dead in an alley behind bushes on November 1, 1987. The receptionist, who lived at home with her parents, died from a gunshot wound to the chest. She was arrested for prostitution in 1979. Lachrica Jefferson, 22, died from two gunshots to the chest. She was found in an alley on January 30, 1988, by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies. Alicia Alexander, 17, was found nude and covered with a mattress in an alley around 43rd Place and Western Avenue on September 11, 1988. She had been shot twice in the chest and sexually assaulted.
The only male victim was 36-year-old Steele, who was shot once behind his right ear and dumped along a road. According to detectives, the San Diego native had stopped in L.A. for the day to visit his sister. Police believe his death could have been drug related. He had been arrested on pimping and prostitution charges in Sacramento in 1978.
At the time, police considered many possible suspects. One was a black male, 28 to 35 years old, with a pockmarked face. He had a Caribbean accent. A surviving victim told detectives that a man driving an orange Pinto offered her a ride. When she got into the car, he pointed a gun at her. She was able to jump out of the car and escape.
Detectives began wondering whether the killings could be the work of the Southside Slayer, blamed for 20 other slayings in the Los Angeles area. The victims had been dumped in parks, alleys, roadsides and schoolyards. They ranged in age from 22 to 41. Most were black prostitutes working in South Los Angeles. Some had been strangled. Others were stabbed. Many had been sexually assaulted. Adding to the mystery: Cat hair was found on a number of victims. The first woman identified as a Southside Slayer victim was 25-year-old transient Sonia Smith. Her nude, strangled body was found near Gage and Central avenues on August 18, 1980.
The Southside Slayer was big news at the time. Both the L.A. Times and the L.A. Herald Examiner covered the killings closely. The city and county offered a $35,000 reward. But it wasn’t enough attention for the Black Coalition Fighting Black Serial Murders, an organization formed in 1986 over concerns that “the low-profile media coverage and problems with the investigation are all examples of women’s lives not counting and black prostitute women counting least of all.” That same year, the LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department set up a 49-member task force to examine the slayings.
“This was the advent of rock cocaine,” says Shepard. “It took hold all over the city. It was an explosion down here, and the murder of women suddenly increased and gangs really started taking off.”
Close to 50 black women were murdered that decade alone. But no one was ever charged. Police “were all sharing information,” Shepard says. “They were looking for anyone who fit the description. They didn’t know if they were looking for one guy or multiple suspects. They were looking at everything. They were looking at registered sex offenders. Looking at people who lived in the area where the bodies were found. We have three books of people they were interested in.”
Shepard says that DNA evidence now possibly links two of the Southside Slayer victims with two suspects who are currently in custody on unrelated charges. Whether either one will ever be charged depends on the results of months, possibly years of investigation.
“Not all of our evidence has been processed in the ’80s cases,” says Shepard. “We are looking at all the different murders. We don’t know if we have a serial or individual murders.”
The most recent victim linked to the ’80s shootings is 35-year-old Valerie McCorvey, who was found strangled in an alley near Figueroa Street in 2003. She was sexually assaulted. Originally, the detectives involved in the case believed that her ex-boyfriend was responsible.
“Indications are that detectives made an error,” says Shepard, who picked up the case in 2004. They tried to file charges against him because he was less than truthful. Adds Shepard: “Physical evidence points to someone else.”
In 2004, DNA evidence found on McCorvey was linked to ’80s shooting victim Lowe as well as Princess Berthomieux. In 2005, the lab matched Sparks’ DNA to the other victims.
Inglewood’s Detective Steinhoff said he and Shepard compared notes on the cases. He found out then that the bullets found in Sparks and Lowe matched those found at the crime scenes of Jackson, Wright, Steele, Ware, Jefferson and Alexander in the 1980s.
he uncertainty of whether police will ever crack a homicide case weighs heavily on family members. Mary Taylor remembers her niece, Valerie McCorvey, and how she never finished high school. By the time McCorvey hit her late teens, she had picked up a drug habit. She would enter into rehab, but permanent sobriety eluded her. She would find work for a while and once even got a job helping addicts get off drugs, but her addiction proved too powerful, and she would find herself back on the street. Her hangout was Figueroa Street.
“We couldn’t stop her,” says Taylor from her home in Inglewood. “Her parents were divorced, but she was close to her father. She wasn’t neglected. I would tell her that she would need to get her life together. Once she said she would get her life together.”
Taylor heard from her niece periodically over the years. McCorvey would leave her aunt short messages on her answering machine to let her know that she was fine. But she would never leave a phone number.
The last time Taylor heard from her niece was around March 2003. Four months later, McCorvey, 35, was found dead by a school crossing guard near an alley on Denver Avenue in South Los Angeles. The modest residential street where her body was found was just one block away from Figueroa Street. She was wearing a blue leotard and brown pants. Her death on July 11, 2003, garnered no attention from the local press, and after three initial visits from homicide detectives, Taylor never heard from them again.
“Honestly, I think the police have dropped the ball,” Taylor says with a shrug. “For a while I was disillusioned; then I realized I just had to go on. I would be just stuck on that hill.”
The grieving process has taught her painful lessons. “There are people out there with no heart. It is a different feeling when someone is murdered. If the person is sick, you think this could happen. When it is a murder, you have no control. No chance to say goodbye.”
For now, Detective Steinhoff waits for the results of the DNA test on his suspect, Hausmann, who has grown annoyed at all of the questions. “I haven't killed anyone. It is called intimidation.”
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.