The 13th Floor

The Disturbing, Unsolved Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders

On March 5, 1972, two high school students made a terrifying discovery: the nude body of a woman lying in a creek bed. The body was that of Kim Wendy Allen, a 19-year-old who had last been seen hitchhiking to school and carrying a wooden soy barrel with red Chinese characters on it. Coroners soon discovered that the Kim was tortured to death before being dumped. Her wrists and ankles had been bound, and she had been raped before being strangled by a cord. Investigators determined that she was strangled slowly over the course of a half-hour. Kim was last seen on Enterprise Road in Santa Rosa. Her body was found eight miles east of there. And it wasn’t going to be the last body the police found.

Santa Rosa is a town located north of San Francisco just twenty miles from the California coast in Sonoma County. During the late 60s and early 70s, it found itself caught in political upheaval because of its proximity to the hippie movement in San Francisco. In March of 1972, a prison riot broke out at the county jail. In 1968, the infamous Zodiac Killer was making headlines for several murders in the San Francisco Bay area and down in Los Angeles, around that same time, Charles Manson and his followers were the lead suspects in a series of home invasion killings in and around the Hollywood Hills. In other words, there was no shortage of crime, murder, and mayhem in California during this period.

That’s why the discovery of a body on the side of the road, although a major cause for concern, probably didn’t raise a lot of eyebrows.

On April 27, 1972, almost two months after the discovery of Kim Allen, friends reported the disappearance of twenty-year-old Jeannett Kamahele who was last seen hitchhiking some 20 miles from where Kim was found. Rumors and connections were immediately made as officials began warning coeds against hitchhiking to class and work. Residents were beginning to think a serial killer might be at work, a belief that was further fueled by the discovery of two more bodies in an embankment north east of Santa Rosa.

The bodies were that of Maureen Sterling and Yvonne Weber. Both 12-year-old middle school students were last seen February 4, 1972 hitchhiking on Guerneville Road. Their skeletal remains were found 6 months later. Their cause of death would never be determined.

 

Before police could even completely identify their new victims, another body emerged.

Lori Lee Kursa’s mother reported the 13-year-old girl missing on November 11, 1972. Believed to have run away from home and known to hitchhike, Lori was last seen visiting friends in Santa Rosa ten days after her mother reported her missing. On December 14, the 8th grader’s body was found down an embankment off Calistoga Road in north Santa Rosa. The cause of death was a broken neck. But with Lori’s death came a potential break in the case. A witness came forward claiming to have seen two men force a young girl matching Lori’s description into their van. The witness claimed that two men grabbed the girl and threw her into the back of a van which was being driven by a white man with an “Afro hair style”.

Despite this fresh lead, the killings did not stop.

Carolyn Davis was a 14-year-old run away from Anderson, California, a small town three hours north of Santa Rosa. Carolyn ran away from her home on February 6, 1973. She was last seen alive by her grandmother who dropped her off at the Garberville Post Office, two hours north of Santa Rosa, on July 15th. Witnesses claimed to have seen a young girl matching Carolyn Davis’ description hitchhiking down Highway 101  heading towards Santa Rosa. Her body was discovered one year after Maureen Sterling and Yvonne Weber vanished and only three feet from the exact spot where their bodies were discovered. The cause of death was strychnine poisoning.

Theresa Walsh was last seen on December 22, 1973 at Zuma Beach in Malibu, California, 460 miles from Santa Rosa. Friends said she was intent on hitchhiking north to Garberville so she could spend the holidays with her family. She never made it home. Instead, on December 28th, 1973 the 23-year-old’s body was discovered by boaters, partially submerged in Mark West Creek just west of Santa Rosa. She was the 6th victim found in Sonoma County in just two years.

With very few leads, the police looked at other known killers.

Rumors and theories began to circulate. The most popular theory was that these were victims of the Zodiac Killer. The Zodiac Killer, who operated mainly during the late 60s, was known to taunt authorities by sending cryptic letters to San Francisco Chronicle. On January 29, 1974, the Chronicle published the Zodiac Killer’s “Exorcist letter”. In the letter, he claimed to have killed 37 victims.

The letter also contained a strange character that very closely resembled the soy barrel Kim Allen was carrying.  Adding to the belief that this may be the work of the Zodiac Killer was a letter he had written in 1969 which stated that he would no longer be announcing his killings and would be changing his modus operandi, making his killings resemble “routine robberies, killings of anger, + a few fake accidents”, etc.

zodiac-killer

Another potential suspect was Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen had originally been a suspect in the Zodiac killings. However, fingerprint evidence and eventual DNA testing ruled him out as the possible Zodiac Killer. Allen was a resident of the Sunset Trailer Park in Santa Rosa, and he had recently been fired from his teaching job at Valley Springs Elementary School in 1968 for suspected child molestation. On September 27, 1974, Arthur was arrested and charged with molesting a young boy in his trailer.

 

Ted Bundy was another theory authorities tossed around after discovering that the prolific serial killer was living in nearby Marin County during the Santa Rosa killings. However, credit card records put Bundy in Washington state during the dates of the victims’ disappearances.

 

On August 24, 1976, the police found another suspect. Forty-one-year-old Frederic Manali was a creative writing instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College. When he was killed in a car crash on Highway 12 police found disturbing drawings of former student Kim Wendy Allen among his possessions. The drawings featured Kim, who was once his student, performing extremely sadomasochistic acts. However, no other evidence linked him to the case. Other killers like the Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, Jr. also known as the Hillside Stranglers, were considered. Unfortunately, every suspect led to a dead end.

 

Discoveries and links continued to emerge.

In 1975, the FBI released a statement that the six Santa Rosa victims, as well as the Jeanett Kamahele disappearance were linked to the same killer, as were eight other killings:

  • Rosa Vasquesz (20), found strangled at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on May 29, 1973
  • Yvonne Quilantang (15), found strangled in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco on June 10, 1973
  • Angela Thomas (16), found smothered to death on the Benjamin Franklin Junior High School playground in Dale City, California
  • Nancy Patricia Gidley (24), found strangled behind George Washington High School in Richmond District of San Francisco on July, 12, 1973
  • Nancy Feusi (22), found stabbed to death in Redding, California on July 22, 1973
  • Laura O’Dell (21), found beaten to death behind a boathouse in Golden Gate Park on November 7, 1973
  • Brenda Merchant (19), found stabbed to death in Marysville, California on February 1, 1974
  • Donna Braun (14), found strangled in the Salinas River near Monterey California on September 29, 1974

In 1979, another set of remains emerged. Only 100 yards from where Lori Lee Kursa’s body was discovered, authorities found the unidentified skeletal remains of a young woman believed to be in her late-teens. Originally believed to be the remains of Jeanett Kamahele until dental records proved it wasn’t her, authorities found that her arms and legs had been bound, and her arm and one rib had been broken.

 

By the 1980s the case had gone cold and has remained that way ever since. Even with advancements in investigative techniques, the local police and FBI still have no new leads in any of these murders. The young woman found in 1979 has never been identified, and Jeanett Kamahele has still never found.

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