It seems like in the past, it was a lot easier to get away with a crime. With the way law enforcement techniques and technologies have improved, crimes that would have slipped by in decades past are now often caught and their perpetrators brought to justice.
And law enforcement isn’t just getting better at solving crimes that are happening now. They are applying their greater crime-solving ability to some of those very same cases that slipped through the cracks all those years ago…
On a Wednesday in April, way back in 1981, a couple guys from Tucson, Arizona were out in the desert close to Interstate 10. The two men were coworkers at a home improvement store and, both having the day off, they got into a Jeep and headed into the heat to hunt rabbits and look for “treasure.”
They were driving east along a wash when they spotted something strange hanging from a tree. It looked like a bit of clothing swaying gently in the breeze. After driving the car over to the tree, they could see that it was a small jacket.
It was an unusual thing to see in the middle of nowhere and the guys felt obligated to have a look around to see if the owner of the jacket was nearby, possibly in need of help. One of the men expressed his hope to the other that they wouldn’t come across a body in their search.
But in a small tributary wash not far from the jacket, that’s exactly what they found. From far away, it looked like a young woman or girl lying there. The men approached just close enough to see that she was dead before they left to find a phone and notify the authorities.
Investigators determined that the victim was a young adult somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22. She had been badly beaten and sexually assaulted before being strangled to death by some sort of ligature sometime in the last 48 hours. But because she was left out in the elements, she was in an advanced state of decomposition.
That had left her facial features unrecognizable to the point where they couldn’t even determine her eye color. The most distinguishing things about her had been her blouse, which was dark blue with puffy red sleeves and a flower design.
The woman’s fingerprints and dental information were taken, but they didn’t match anyone in police records. She was also compared to any missing-person cases that might possibly be a match nationwide but they were all ruled out one by one. With no further leads, the woman was buried under a headstone with the placeholder name “Jane Doe” with the phrase “UNK – 1981” because her date of birth was unknown.
There wouldn’t be any breaks in the case until 2014 when some cold-case detectives took a look at a photograph found in the possession of John Kalhauser when he was being investigated for an assault back in 1995. They believed that the woman in photograph resembled a new digital reconstruction of their Jane Doe. The photograph also appeared to be taken sometime between 1979 and 1981, fitting the time frame when the victim was found.
The authorities had been circulating the photograph to the public for just a short time before a number of tips from local residents led them to believe that she had been a woman named Brenda Gerow. They were able to track down Brenda’s brother Bill Jr. who confirmed that the picture was of her.
Bill said that he hadn’t seen his sister since she left their home state of Massachusetts with her boyfriend at the time – Kalhauser – back in 1980. Brenda had called Bill a couple of weeks later after she and Kalhauser had apparently relocated to New Mexico. But after that, she had no further contact with her family. They tried various means to locate her but, because she’d left the state at the age of 20 and of her own free will, they were unable to file a missing person report.
Had Brenda known that Kalhauser was already a convicted killer when she’d met him, she probably never would have crossed the country with him. In 1971, he’d been found guilty of manslaughter after shooting a man named Paul Chapman to death. Though he was sentenced to seven years in prison, he’d been released on parole after about a year.
Kalhauser had also been indicted for the attempted murder of Lowell Connector in 1979, but fled the area with Brenda after posting bail and started going by an assumed name. When investigators tried to track him down in connection with her disappearance, they found out that he was already in prison.
Kalhauser had been married to a woman named Diane Van Reeth, who had gone missing in 1995 while she was trying to divorce him. Though her body was never found, investigators determined that she had been murdered by Kalhauser and in 1999. He was convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison.
At the same time as they were tracking Kalhouser down, investigators were applying new DNA technology to help in making certain that the Jane Doe was the missing Brenda Gerow. In 2015, they were able prove that samples taken from the evidence more than 30 years old were a match. “We were able to find who her family was, did some DNA comparisons, and here we are,” said Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy Tracy Suitt.”
Kalhauser was officially stated as a person of interest in Brenda’s death though he was not formally charged. Part of that was because prosecutors wanted to build as strong a case against him as possible and, considering he would be in prison until 2025 for the murder of his wife, they were willing to take their time.
As for Brenda’s family, they had always held out hope that she was still alive and well somewhere, despite being out of contact with her for more than three decades. When they found out her fate, they were naturally devastated.
Why Would You Do This?
Brenda’s father, Bill Sr. said that he was “blown away” by the news. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to wish harm upon his daughter, much less kill her. Knowing that she had been truly gone all of those years made him regret not being able to find her sooner.
But now that they knew her fate, Brenda’s family was at least able to properly say goodbye. Her remains were taken from the Jane Doe grave and returned to her family, who decided to cremate them.
It may never be clear exactly what the motive was behind Brenda’s death. However, if we are to assume that Kalhauser alone was responsible, it would seem that her death was caused by the same thing that caused Van Reeth’s death: one man’s inability to control his rage.
Perhaps Brenda’s story can serve as a warning to some young people out there who are prepared to upend their lives because of a relationship. Take care that you truly know the person you’re getting involved with before jumping in with both feet.