A collation of the information now coming into me is proving disheartening. The image of the Visalia Ransacker seems to be an afterimage. I knew it had come late, but I didn’t know it had come late even with Visalia PD. He took form only after the McGowen shooting in December 1975, and it is this image of which we have an afterimage today.
If the Visalia Times-Delta is correct, the police burglary unit viewed the Ransacker largely as just a burglar. The name “Ransacker” doesn’t even hit the press until after the Snelling murder, at least in what I have preserved before me. After the McGowen shooting, the Times-Delta reported that police canvassed the neighborhoods on both sides of College of the Sequoias and therewith learned about all the old prowler reports. It is then that the Visalia police changed its attitude about the Ransacker. He was no longer viewed primarily as a burglar but as a peeping tom. It is only then that certain clues in the houses were re-interpreted to essentially imply he was a pervert getting his jollies.
These statements tell us a couple of things about the prehistory of the Ransacker, which essentially means his entire crime spree until the Snelling murder of September 1975. The police never canvased the neighborhoods during the robberies and the “peeping tom” clues in the houses simply weren’t that noticeable. Repeatedly the paper tells us that he is believed to have committed 90 robberies. That’s an awful lot for a pattern of perversion in the house not to go noticed even without talking to neighbors and uncovering a pattern of prowling, which they then interpreted after-the-fact as “peeping tommery.”
In reality, the Ransacker would need to be adept at prowling in order to uncover the routines of the homes he intended to invade, rob and ransack. He was obviously good at it. He was never captured. Why should it have been considered essentially peeping tommery? Essentially because he seldom took things of great value. Well, does that still indicate a peeper? Perhaps.
After the McGowen shooting on Kaweah Avenue the Times-Delta did some stories. This highlighted the opinions of the residents of nearby Dollner Street. They had been suffering a number of prowlings in their neighborhood. The descriptions they gave of the prowler matched, according to the newspaper, the composite which was made based on McGowen’s eyewitness encounter.
Combining the prowling episodes and the events at the Snelling house reclassified the Ransacker as a pervert. Here the masked intruder escorted Beth Snelling out into the backyard. This was now looked upon as an attempted rape. It all seemed to fit.
But it was fitted after-the-fact.
On the night of the McGowen shooting a resident on West Laurel was robbed. This is the only Ransacker crime from which we get a specific view of how the house was ransacked, and there really is nothing that indicates a peeping tom perv on the loose. I think if we add this case to the 85 or more previous to it we can safely say there was nothing too “deviant” in the Ransacker’s MO else Visalia’s burglary squad would have long noted it. The one thing that was evident was the ransacking and thus the burglary boys had given the perp the handle “The Ransacker.”
Since a number of residents on Dollner saw the prowler and matched it with the composite, we can deduce the obvious: he wasn’t wearing a mask while prowling. Yet the Snelling killer was wearing a mask and Beth never saw his face. Was this the same man? Both the McGowen shooter on Kaweah Avenue and the Snelling killer on Whitney Lane were described as the same body proportions, with small feet (apparently), height, weight, and, interestingly, both were said to be left handed.
One can reason that the Ransacker put a mask on here because he fully intended to approach Beth Snelling and knew her family was in there. At all of his other burglaries he invaded empty houses and thus had no need for a mask.
By March 1976 it was being intimated that the Visalia police believed there was a solid link between the Snelling murder and the Ransacker. It was never specified in print. I have now been told that it was ballistics from a gun that the Ransacker had stolen in a previous robbery. The owner told the police that he used to practice in a certain location and there led one of the Visalia detectives who dug out of the ground some bullets and tested them and we must assume there was a ballistics match with the bullets that had killed Claude Snelling.
The problem with assuming this is that the police would openly brag about having pulled off this nice bit of detective work. It was actually a superb bit of ferreting. Yet the truth is they wouldn’t disclose why they believed there was a link. This is cause for worry.
There is no reason not to disclose they had ballistics. It is commonplace, even the norm to do so. But they didn’t. One can argue and say that perhaps they thought the Ransacker had fenced the gun. After all he was a burglar, and thus the same gun used on Snelling didn’t mean the Ransacker had pulled the trigger.
But they had descriptions which, if accurate, indicated the Snelling murderer was the chunky, left handed villain. Why not defend their solid link by saying they had ballistics and the Snelling killer fit the description of the McGowen shooter, whom they believed to be the Ransacker? Still, they didn’t.
From this there can be some conclusions drawn. The barreling of the .38 caliber was probably a common barreling. It would identify a model but not an individual gun. Such was the case in the .22 that ZODIAC had used. The ballistics expert said over 200K had been made of that particular model and even if the actual weapon was in his hands he couldn’t be sure. The barreling was just too common.
It sounds like Visalia police were averaging some odds. A common model .38 had been stolen and a common model .38 had been used in a murder. If not this as the cause for reticence to get specific and declare a solid match through ballistics, then perhaps there was too much wear and tear on the bullets after having been buried for a while. If the bullets weren’t lead or copper they would rust.
Snelling’s killer may be the Ransacker, but I don’t think the link was ever solid enough for a DA. After the Ransacker had his encounter with McGowen he never struck again. Yet if he was one and the same as the Snelling murderer, he killed a man and ran away, and still continued to wantonly prowl for months.
In short, we have a tardily drawn image and it is from this image that we have a fuzzy afterimage.
Sacramento and Visalia would get in a heated exchange of words later about whether the Ransacker and EAR/ONS were one and the same. We’ll look at that in our next post. The events on Dollner had given them a final clue.
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Since 1990 Gian J. Quasar has investigated a broad range of mysterious subjects, from strange disappearances to serial murders, earning in that time the unique distinction of being likened to “the real life Kolchak.” However, he is much more at home with being called The Quester or Q Man. “He’s bloody eccentric, an historian with no qualifications who sticks his nose into affairs and gets results.” He is the author of several books, one of which inspired a Resolution in Congress.