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Unmasked: My Life Solving America's Cold Cases


The End of the Road

MARCH 2018

My ex-wife used to say my job was my mistress, and I chose my mistress over everyone. Those charged conversations from long ago rang in my ears as I stood in my office, boxing up the last of my belongings. Paul, you’ve lost your way.… We need you.… Even when you’re here you’re not really here. Lori was right about a lot of things. I wasn’t there for my family—not then and not now—not in the way they wanted me to be. Not in the way I wanted to be. My work was never a job. It was a calling, my purpose, as vital to me as air and water. For nearly thirty years, I’d chosen my cases over everything. There was always a crime scene to attend, always a predator to chase down. I was happiest when I was digging into a cold case. The challenge of trying to figure out what no one else could was irresistible to me. Now I was facing down the end of a career that had consumed my entire adult life. The time had passed in a blink.

Looking around my office, at the empty shelves, at the bare desktop, I took a deep breath. What was I feeling? Was it uncertainty? Had I been kidding myself when I decided that retirement wouldn’t be so bad? That I’d finally have the time to take guitar lessons and pedal my mountain bike on rocky trails? That I’d find some other way to matter?

My office was in the county complex in the industrial city of Martinez in California’s East Bay. The sun was just peeking up over the horizon when I climbed the stairs to the third floor of the criminal justice building. I had come in especially early to gather my things before my colleagues got there. I’ve always been quietly sentimental, especially about endings and the past. Just the other day, I drove to the first house I owned and parked on the street. The house had been brand-new when I bought it with my first wife in 1992. It was where I’d learned how to take care of a home. I built the deck on the back and planted the saplings that now tower over the rooftop. Sitting in my car, I could almost imagine myself back there, in the family room, playing with my firstborn, Renee, still too young to sit, all toothless grin and happy babble as I prop up pillows to keep her upright. Now she has a little girl of her own.

I’ve never been a crier, but lately the tears were coming without warning, as they did that day, driving away from my old house. Yet another reason to gather my things and get out of town before my colleagues began arriving. Was I becoming a sentimental old man at the age of fifty? My dad got softer in his older years, slowly changing from the detached career-military guy who raised me to the playful grandfather who made funny faces with my kids. I was determined to be stoic on my last day, but this place had been my life. I wasn’t sure I would have chosen to leave the job if California’s pension system hadn’t made it financially irresponsible to stay. I’d spent nearly every day since I was twenty-two years old living and working under the dome of Contra Costa County government. The most relevant chapters of my story had played out here. Every career move. All of the ups and downs of my first marriage. The births of my first two kids. Meeting my second wife, Sherrie. The births of our son and daughter. Dozens of homicides solved. Others still unresolved, but never forgotten, and now headed home with me on a hard drive.

Tomorrow, my office, historically reserved for whoever was chosen to oversee homicides for the district attorney, would be turned over to my successor. They would fill the empty shelves where my collection of books on forensics, sexual homicide, and serial killers had grown. They would sit behind the computer monitor I’d kept at an angle so passersby couldn’t see the gruesome crime scene images that were so often on the screen. Maybe they’d make the time to wipe the years’ worth of grunge off the window overlooking the Sacramento River delta. The shimmer of the water was hypnotic, but I’d barely noticed. I was always too immersed in my work.

* * *

MY JURISDICTION STRETCHED OVER HUNDREDS OF square miles of San Francisco’s Bay Area. With a population of more than a million people, we had our share of crime. Four of our cities were on the FBI’s list of California’s one hundred most dangerous places. I’d worked on hundreds of homicides, but I’d spent the last few years almost exclusively mining cold case files. Every casualty comes with collateral damage, those who are left to pick up their lives in the agonizing aftermath of murder, and nothing motivated me more than the idea of a killer having the freedom to live a normal life after he’d destroyed so many others.

There was never a shortage of bad guys in our slice of the world, and for whatever reason, some of the most sensational crimes in contemporary history occurred in Contra Costa County. In 2003, the bodies of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, washed up a day apart on our shores, four months after Laci’s husband, Scott, dumped her body into the freezing cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. I met mother and child in the morgue, and even with all of my experience with evil, it’s something I’ll never forget. Conner was less than a month from birth when Laci was murdered. What kind of monster kills his eight-and-a-half-months-pregnant wife and goes about his life knowing she and his unborn son are anchored to the cold ocean floor with concrete blocks?

Six years after that, Jaycee Dugard, who’d been famously grabbed at her school bus stop in South Lake Tahoe in 1991, when she was eleven, was discovered 170 miles from home, living in a run of tents and lean-tos in the fenced backyard of her captors, sex offender Phillip Garrido and his wife, Nancy, in our jurisdiction. By then, she was twenty-nine and had given birth to two of Garrido’s children. For eighteen years, she had been right under our noses. My detective buddy John Conaty was at the scene with me shortly after Jaycee and her young children were rescued. “How the hell did we miss this?” he asked, looking around at the cruel, filthy environment that she’d been forced to live in for eighteen years. I just shook my head. I had no words.

I’d caught so many strange cases over the years. Even when a case wasn’t mine, if I thought I could contribute, whether with my forensics expertise or investigative doggedness, I always found a way to insert myself. I always thought maybe I could see something that the last guy had missed. It wasn’t arrogance; it was just that I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Both my wife and my ex-wife have ribbed me about being overly confident in myself and my abilities. I’d say that’s about half-right. I can put on a good show when I have to, but I’m an introvert by nature and painfully reluctant when it comes to personal interactions. Put me face-to-face with a neighbor at a cocktail party, and my insides are twisting in knots. Sitting with a group at a restaurant, I shrink from the conversation. I am Paul the wallflower. And speaking in front of large groups? When I first started, it was paralyzing. It’s better now that I’ve had so much experience talking about the high-profile cases I’ve been involved with, but it still requires a shot of bourbon before I take the stage.

I’ve always been most at home when I’m working on a case, my head buried in a file. I know I’m good at what I do and that I have a fighting chance at solving even the toughest cases that may have stumped others. Before I ever earned the right, I never trusted anyone else’s hunches about a homicide. “I’ll think about it,” I’d say skeptically. My instincts were made for this kind of work, and I almost always follow them. It takes a lot of time before I feel comfortable accepting someone else’s impulses and ideas. I can see how that could be construed as egotistical, and there were times, especially when I was starting out, that I wasn’t always popular. The veteran criminalists never hesitated to let the rookie know when they thought I was overstepping my boundaries. I regularly heard, “That’s not your job,” then shrugged as I dove headfirst into an investigation.

So many cases, now reduced to files on a hard drive the size of a pack of cigarettes. It was kind of funny when I thought about it: the last vestiges of my long and distinguished law enforcement career fit into a single fifteen-by-twelve-by-ten-inch storage box. I tossed in the drive, along with the book on serial predators my parents gave me as a birthday gift twenty-five years ago when I first started, the bowl, fork, and spoon I’d kept for all the meals I ate at my desk, and the tan leather coaster with the logo of a lab equipment company that came in handy for those long days that ended with a nightcap at my desk.

Ripping a piece of packing tape from the roll, I prepared to seal the box when something caught my eye. The morning sun reflected off the glass of a picture frame, drawing my attention to the small cluster of family photographs on the credenza beside me. I almost forgot them. They were happy memories, long ago faded into the background of administrative paperwork and homicide case files. My favorite had been taken a decade earlier, when my youngest son, Ben, was a toddler. It was shot from behind as the two of us walked away from a formal ceremony called Inspection of the Troops, me in my Sheriff’s Office dress uniform—Smokey Bear hat, green jacket, and khaki trousers—my boy in a striped polo shirt and shorts, his little arms swinging as he tried to keep up with me.

I paused to study the image, now faded with time. My oldest son, Nathan, from my first marriage, had recently turned twenty-three, and I’d only just begun trying to get to know him. I was learning how hard it was to foster a relationship, even when it was with my own kid, during weekly phone calls that began and ended with stories about video games. How could I expect my son to talk to me about things that mattered when I wasn’t around for the things that mattered? Nathan once told me that he didn’t even remember me living in the house, he was so young when I left. Ben was from my second marriage, but I feared I had been just as emotionally absent with him and his sister, Juliette, as I had with my first set of kids. Did I have regrets about not being there when they were learning to ride a bike or awakening from a bad dream? On my last day on the job, I was just beginning to realize the consequences of putting my career before everything else. I knew more now with the children I had with Sherrie than I did when Nathan and Renee were growing up, the kind of knowledge that comes with age and maturity, but in many ways, I had not changed at all. My second wife, Sherrie, had some of the same grievances that my first wife, Lori, did twenty-five years ago. Like Lori, Sherrie interprets my reticence as not caring, which couldn’t be further from the truth. She’s told me she never knows what I’m thinking. Even when I’m home, I’m not “present,” she says. I’m always “in my head.” Why can’t I take some time in the evenings to join her and our kids playing board games? I’ve tried, but within minutes of sitting down, I’m squirming in my seat. I move the little pawn around or toss the dice a few times, and my mind drifts to one of my cases. I can’t even hide it. My lips move with my thoughts. “You’re gone again,” Sherrie said the other night when she and the kids were talking at dinner, and I was pretending to hear. “You’re not listening,” she said. “You look like a crazy old man with your lips moving.”

The only way I knew how to bond with my younger kids was the same as it was with my older two. Take them outside and throw the ball. It’s like “Cat’s in the Cradle,” that Harry Chapin song, the one where the father is too busy making something of himself to pay much attention to his son. The kid grows up, and the father retires. He calls his son to say he’d like to see him. The son responds, I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time.… And the father realizes, He’d grown up just like me. My boy was just like me. I choke up whenever I hear it. It hits too close to home. My older daughter Renee and I were hiking recently, and she asked me questions about my marriage to her mom, Lori. “Why did you leave us?” she asked. “Where did it go wrong?” I tried to reassure her, telling her that I would always love her mother, but we’d simply been too young to get married and eventually grew apart. It had nothing to do with her or Nathan, I said. I hoped they knew how much I loved them. “But Dad,” she said, “you were just never there.” Tucking the framed photo of Ben and me into the side of the box, I took a last look around my office. Fighting back all of the feelings that come with endings, I flipped off the light and closed the door behind me. This has been my whole life, I thought. With my box under my arm and a lump in my throat, I walked down the hallway to the stairs and onto Ward Street in the government district of the city. It was now part of my past. The Sheriff’s Office, where I’d gotten my start. The forensics library, where I’d slept on the floor after working a long night at a crime scene or reading case files into the wee hours of the morning. The courthouse, where I’d testified dozens of times. The jail, where I’d lifted weights during lunch hours. The district attorney’s office, where I’d spent the last few years. Every law enforcement position I’d ever held was in Martinez, the birthplace of hometown hero Joe DiMaggio. The city was a little rough around the edges, and night and day from where I lived in rural Vacaville, but it was home.

Tomorrow I’d fill out a bunch of paperwork and be debriefed by the FBI about what I could and couldn’t do as a private citizen. You cannot divulge “top secret” information. You must protect your sources. I’d turn in my gun and my county car and officially retire from law enforcement. After that, there’d be time to think about the next chapter in my life. But there was still one thing I had to do before I closed this one.



Last Act

It was nearly noon when I finally snaked my way out of Martinez, my cardboard box of a career on the seat beside me. A veil of smog obscured the brilliant afternoon sun, just as it had in the spring of 1990 when I arrived after college for my first job interview with the county. I remembered thinking then that I was descending into hell after I drove across the mile-long truss bridge, over the sparkling swells of the Sacramento River Delta, and dropped down into the industrial landscape of oil refineries and spewing smokestacks that led to downtown. The landscape hadn’t changed much since then.

Winding my way through the Shell oil refinery and up over the Benicia bridge, I headed north toward Interstate 80. On a good day, traffic should have been light in the early afternoon, but there is never a good day on California’s clogged freeways. It was a long stretch of highway to get to where I was going. The news stations were prattling about Stormy Daniels and some study about Americans getting fatter. I’m not much of a talk radio kind of guy, and it’s safe to say I’m probably what you’d call apolitical, so the playlist on the iPod was my go-to. Music was my therapy. Which kind depended on my mood. When I was pissed, after an argument at home, or a run-in at work, I punched in heavy metal. Last week, it was Metallica, after a witness in a cold homicide blew up at me for bothering her at home. I don’t do conflict well. Being raised in a military family, and strict Catholics to boot, you learn to keep your emotions locked up (which is not so good for maintaining relationships, I’ve learned), so I usually released mine in the gym or, in the case of that angry witness, by blasting headbanger music and drumming my fingers on the steering wheel. On most days, though, I turned to ’70s ballads to relax—you know, Billy Joel, Jim Croce, Neil Diamond kind of stuff. I didn’t like feeling out of control, and my whole life was about to veer into a direction of unknowns. My house in Vacaville was on the market, and as soon as it sold, I was moving the family out of state to Colorado to enjoy the mountains. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I would do for work. I’d thought about starting my own business, Paul Holes Investigates, and because I’d had a fair amount of media exposure from my high-profile cases, I’d been approached by TV producers about possibly consulting on one of those crime channels or news magazine shows. But nothing was certain, and the uncertainty made me nervous. I’d suffered from panic attacks since I was a kid, and the music helped to keep my anxiety in check.

As my car inched along the highway, my left leg jackhammered into the car floor, and I tried to unwind to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” my all-time favorite song. Pretty eyed, pirate smile … you must have seen her dancing in the sand. And now she’s in me … tiny dancer in my hand. Cranking up the volume, I sang along, which I often did when I was alone and restless. After four or five replays, and a break in the traffic, my anxiety began to subside.

As often happened in quieter moments, my mind took a turn to the inevitable, the Golden State Killer, the masked madman who had raped and murdered his way up and down our state and had never been caught. Cold cases were my passion; this one was an obsession. It had stumped every investigator who had looked into it—and believe me, there had been hundreds. Over forty years, more resources had been pumped into trying to solve it than any other case in California history, and it had still remained in the cold case files. I had revisited it repeatedly since the day in 1994 when, as a curious neophyte criminalist, I stumbled across it in an abandoned file cabinet in our forensics library. There were other cases I hadn’t been able to crack, and I took each one personally, but that one weighed on me more than the others—mostly because the offender had outwitted some of the best criminal investigative minds in the business. And I believed he was still out there. For ten years in the ’70s and ’80s, he’d cut a wide swath of psychological terror across the state with his meticulously planned attacks, breaking into homes in the middle of the night, tying up his terrified victims, viciously attacking both men and women, sometimes in front of their young kids, before eventually graduating to murder—his preferred method bludgeoning. The guy was a psychological sadist. “If you cause any problems, I’ll chop up the kids. I’ll bring you one of their ears,” he told one of his victims before taking the man’s wife into another room and repeatedly raping her. Before the attacks suddenly stopped in 1986, he’d killed at least a dozen people and savagely raped more than fifty women.

Some people thought he was dead, but not me. I imagined him living an obscure life in some middle-class neighborhood in suburbia, a place where no one would ever suspect that a serial killer was among them. He was either one lucky SOB or as cunning as a fox, and probably both. Most people believe the myth that serial killers can’t stop, but they can, and they do. Some have long, dormant stretches, and some stop altogether, usually either because they come close to being caught or they substitute something else for their killing habit—a hobby, a new marriage, starting a family. Sometimes they just get too old. Crazy, right? It had always nagged at me that he was probably somewhere out there living his life—driving his car, taking trips to the hardware store, enjoying family dinners—after wrecking so many other lives. And probably laughing at all of us who weren’t able to catch him.

Before he was called the Golden State Killer in a 2013 magazine story by Michelle McNamara, who would become my friend and confidant, he was known as the Original Nightstalker, and before that, the East Area Rapist, or EAR. The titles evolved as his crimes progressed, from fetish burglaries, to vicious sexual assaults in the middle of the night, to murder. He adopted the nicknames, using them to taunt us. I remember getting hold of an old recording of a call made during the EAR phase to Sacramento Dispatch from a man claiming to be him.

“This is the East Area Rapist, you dumb fuckers,” he says. “I’m gonna fuck again tonight. Careful.”

The voice was menacing. Cocky. Taunting. Brash.

I played it over and over.

“You know about this recording?” I asked Ken Clark, a detective with Sacramento Sheriff’s Homicide who’d put plenty of time in on the investigation.

“Oh yeah,” he said.

“You think it’s him?”


“It really pisses me off,” I said.

“Absolutely,” Clark said. “That’s what he wanted.”

Two years after that call in 1977, his cat and mouse game escalated to murder.

* * *

OVER THE TWO-PLUS DECADES THAT I’D been looking into the cold case, I’d witnessed the suffering of the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters of some of his victims. I’d studied the crime scene photos of his sadistic handiwork. I’d spent hours listening to the stories of men and women who, either by the grace of God or their own raw courage, had somehow survived his merciless attacks, only to be haunted still decades later by what he had done to them.

Not long ago, my cell phone rang. The woman on the other end sounded like she was about to fall apart. “I know he’s coming back to get me, so I’m moving to Mexico,” she said. It had been thirty years since he broke into her home in the middle of the night and terrorized her family. Those were the people that drove me relentlessly to pursue the case, and they had been counting on me to get him. “We know you’ll be the one to do it.” I’d heard that so many times.

I hated disappointing her. I hated disappointing all of them. After working the case in between other open cases, usually on my own time, I’d spent the last few years of my career making the Golden State Killer, or GSK, my top priority. I’d scrutinized thousands of police documents and witness statements and interviewed everyone I could who was associated with the case and still alive. The obsession ran over into weekends, while I was mowing the lawn or playing with the kids. Even on Christmas Day, when the rest of the family opened presents, it was GSK who was on my mind. And through the long nights, when I searched computer databases for clues and drew geographic profiles of his crimes to try to determine his home base, the case played like an endless movie in my head. His victims haunted my dreams.

People like Mary, one of the youngest. She was headed into eighth grade when he forced his way into her life in 1979. Barely thirteen, she still had a playhouse in the back of her home, and her hobby was hopscotch. That summer, he broke into her Walnut Creek home at four in the morning through the sliding glass doors. As her father and sister slept in adjoining rooms, he slipped into hers. She awoke to him straddling her, a knife to her throat. “I hope you’re good,” he said in a menacing whisper. She didn’t know what he meant. He pulled off her covers and savagely raped her in her pretty pink bedroom with unicorns painted on the walls. Mary waited nearly an hour after he was finally gone to free herself from her leg ties. He’d threatened to kill her family if she told, so she’d waited to be certain he was gone. Still shackled at the wrists, she ran to wake up her father. All these years later, she lived with the echo of her father’s voice screaming to her sister, “Get those things off her!” Soon after, Mary had asked a friend’s older sister, “Am I still a virgin?”

Three years after the attack, she found her father dead in his bed. She was certain he died of a broken heart. I didn’t doubt it. I have two daughters. I’m not sure I could survive the grief and regret of not being able to protect my children. Mary was robbed of her innocence and her peace of mind. She’d spent her life looking over her shoulder, wondering if he was still out there somewhere, watching.

The monster had stolen so much from so many. Surely there had to be a reckoning for him. I worried that, after I retired, no one else would take up where I had left off. The investigation would, once again, get tossed into a file cabinet and be all but forgotten—the way I’d found it—and the people who had counted on me to solve it would never forgive me. What would happen to them, those whose lives had been ruined? How would they ever get the little bit of peace that comes with knowing?

So many times over the years I thought I was close to solving the case, only to be bitterly disappointed when I was proven wrong by DNA. The last time had been just a couple of weeks earlier, and it was gut crushing. I’d recently discovered something within genetic genealogy called DNA segment triangulation, a process that could determine biological relationships by combining DNA profiling—which we had for GSK—with genealogical research from paid private ancestry websites. It had gotten my attention when I’d heard it was successful in identifying a woman who was abandoned as a small child. We didn’t know who the little girl was or where she came from, and she had been too young to remember much that could help us. For years, we’d tried to identify her using traditional methods, and we’d always failed. Then, during a conference call about another case, I’d heard that she had finally been identified using DNA segment triangulation. I started to wonder, could that same tool lead us to the Golden State Killer?

Copyright © 2022 by Paul Holes

Unmasked: My Life Solving America's Cold Cases
by by Paul Holes