There’s something about serial killers that strikes a chord in so many of us. As a whole, society is fascinated by these people. Whether it is because we fear what they represent, a looming uncertainty of safety, or by simple morbid curiosity.
It isn’t just the tragedy or gruesome details of a thing that attracts us either. For many, it’s also about seeing justice done in the end. As if by knowing that the killer will be punished is enough to minimize the fear and sorrow we feel. Sometimes though, that resolution doesn’t come until much further down the line.
It began, as many stories do, with a body. 18-year-old Veronica Cascio had gone missing and now, she was dead. They had found her corpse in a creek on the Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, California. They arrested a transient for her murder but released him. It wasn’t he who’d stabbed Veronica 30 times.
Next came 14-year-old Tatiana Blackwell. She had left home to run an errand and gone missing. She was found off Sharp Park Road in the Gypsy Hills section of the San Mateo. Before that, police had believed that Tanya was just another runaway, but they were wrong. This was something far more sinister.
17-year-old Paula Baxter was found next, in the nude behind a church. She’d been killed and sexually assaulted. San Mateo County officers were able to link Paula’s murder with the first girl, Veronica Cascio by way of forensic evidence. If it truly was one killer who had done these terrible things, they were forming a pattern.
Carol Lee Booth’s friends called her “Beedy” when she was alive. She was a tenacious 26-year-old who, despite the dangers and her husband’s nagging concern, had no trouble walking home alone through a dangerous shortcut in San Francisco. One night though, Beety never came home and was found months later dumped in the bushes near the shortcut. She had been stabbed and left for dead.
What Happens in Reno
Though the first few murders were happening in San Mateo County, California, the actual killer wasn’t relegated solely to that region. It was February in Reno, Nevada and 19-year-old Michelle Mitchell was having car trouble. She wasn’t far from her college campus, so she found someone to help her push the car to a nearby parking lot. Later that night, witnesses found her body, trussed-up, and throat slit.
In Michelle’s case, however, the killer left a bit of something behind. Police found the remains of a cigarette at the scene. Before that tantalizing clue could ever come into play though, a mentally-ill woman named Cathy Woods confessed to the murder. Regardless of their doubts, this revelation separated the cigarette from the other murders, until 2014.
Once Cathy was safely in jail, the police believed that the “Gypsy Hill Killings” as they were being called, would cease for good. They were wrong. Denise Lampe, another 19-year-old, was found dead in her Ford Mustang by a mall security guard. She had been stabbed 20 times. The familiar Modus Operandi was quite telling.
The last of these Gypsy Hill Killings involved the death of Idell M. Friedman, a young woman who had been raped, strangled, and stabbed to death while in the midst of an apparent robbery. Because of the robbery, police weren’t sure that Idell’s murder was officially connected, but the number and ferocity of stabs, coupled with the sexual assault, certainly seemed familiar.
Eventually, San Mateo police had to admit how much they needed some help in catching this killer. An FBI task force was formed but came up empty as well. Luckily for them, the killings ceased in 1976. It wasn’t until 2014 when the FBI started using DNA evidence and modern forensic techniques to determine once and for all who committed these crimes
Not Ruled Out
There were also a number of semen samples among the old DNA evidence, this obviously indicated that Cathy Woods couldn’t be the killer. Nevertheless, investigators were remiss to completely rule her out as a suspect; perhaps she had a male counterpart of some kind. They checked the semen against the other existing evidence, including the cigarette.
It wasn’t until 2014, 35 years later, that DNA testing exonerated Cathy Woods. This made her the longest-serving female inmate to ever be exonerated in the United States. It was revealed that the cigarette belonged to someone else. She subsequently sued Reno and Washoe County for wrongful imprisonment.
At the same time as the DNA was being carefully examined, FBI agents were revisiting San Mateo County and San Francisco to interview eyewitnesses from the time of the murders. It had been quite a few years since they occurred but the agents knew how to properly jog their memories. Finally, a viable suspect was identified: Rodney Lynn Halbower.
68-year-old Rodney Lynn Halbower was the type of creep who police officers should have immediately checked during the Gypsy Hill Killings. A career criminal, Halbower had already served time in federal prison for sexually assaulting a female blackjack dealer in Reno. He was paroled in 1975, a year before the first murder.
Eleven years after being paroled, after yet another conviction, Halbower broke out of a Nevada prison. He went on to commit several violent crimes before he was recaptured. It wasn’t until he submitted a DNA sample during a prison transfer from Nevada to Oregon that his DNA was entered into the system.
His DNA was tied to the murders of Veronica Cascio and Paula Baxter but he pleaded not guilty to both. The DNA also linked to Michelle Mitchell’s death in Reno, fully exonerating Woods. Because of his record and the outright violence involved in the crimes, Judge Donald Ayoob set his bail to an astonishing and unobtainable $10 million.
Eventually, the case was tried in front of a San Mateo County jury. The jury deliberated for a mere hour and 15 minutes. When asked why they came to a guilty verdict, the jury said there was no question; the DNA was incontrovertible proof of Halbower’s crimes.
It wasn’t just San Mateo who found Halbower guilty either. Michelle Mitchell’s death in Reno meant that he could also be tried separately there as well. Yet, what about the other Gypsy Hill murders? Was Halbower responsible for the deaths of Tatiana Blackwell, Carol Lee Booth, Denise Lampe, and Idell Friedman?
As it happens, there was another killer involved in the Gypsy Hill murders as well. In 2017, evidence emerged that 71-year-old ex-con Leon Melvin Seymour was responsible for the brutal murder of Denise Lampe. Seymour didn’t have to go far to receive the added sentence though, as he was already serving time in Coalinga State Hospital for 10 different cases of sexual assault and kidnapping.
Thus far, there is little evidence to signify that Seymour and Halbower knew each other at all. They were both career criminals with many convictions against one another, many of them for similar crimes. Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies have yet to find out if they or anyone else is responsible for the other three murders.
In the end, it was DNA evidence which ultimately proved to be both Halbower and Seymour’s undoing. The case is far from solved, but if modern forensic science continues to improve, we may be headed for an age where no crime goes unsolved for 35-plus years. Until then, at least some of the victims’ families can rest easy.