There’s no question that “The Ransacker” was a puzzlement to Visalia Police’s burglary boys, and they were used to home invasion robberies. “Jewel of the Valley,” as this verdant oasis in San Joaquin’s arid valley liked to call itself, it felt it was a little more offset than the rest of the valley’s cities from the crime that dominated the inland cities. But it wasn’t. To locals it was the city of trees amidst the checkerboard of fields. Unfortunately, the rest of California’s center valley cities had little claim to pride. Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton were and remain in the USA’s top 10 worst cities for crime. It is Visalia’s pride in its unique distinction that perhaps blinded Visalians to the origins of the Ransacker.
California is two states. Many think this is northern and southern California. As a native Californian I can tell you that is not true. There is coastal California and then the arid inner valley of San Joaquin. There are the coast cities and the inland cities. Within this division there are a few unique pockets. San Francisco stands distinct in all the world and thinks Los Angeles is superficial and crude. Los Angeles looks down on San Diego as flippant, some loosely organized vacation mecca. San Diego doesn’t care and bills itself as America’s finest city. It thinks Los Angeles is pretentious and San Francisco snobby.
All citizenry has heard of Fresno and Bakersfield, even Stockton if they must. Some of the other, smaller satellite cities ring a bell– Tulare, Modesto, Merced, and even Visalia, the farm town. Many have heard of Los Banos, which everybody giggles off and then reaffirms that it means “the toilettes.” Everybody agrees. Mojave has some ambiance because it is a desert. Barstow is on the way to Vegas. Sacramento is the capitol, so Californians are reminded of its existence frequently. But outside of Jerry Brown being considered unique, Sacramento held no interest. It is the city of allergies.
Highway 99 connects all the valley’s cities. It’s little tributaries lead to small, cattle ranching towns and an isolated gas station amidst miles of orchards. California has everything– mountains, deserts, coastline, and farmland. It could feed itself, but most Californians don’t really know the San Joaquin Valley . . . except those that live there. It is California’s bread basket. It is to California what the Nile delta was to Egypt. But most just want to sample it on their dining table.
It is a crime infested, rural area.
Visalia was not immune. It was not a suburb of any big city. It stood on its own and had a large college south of Highway 198, which rudely passes through the town and leads to the Sierras. In a way it is the jewel of the valley, but it was and is not an unassailable jewel.
Visalia had lots of burglary and lots of prowling. Like a light upon a hill it was the only target in the area and it attracted all the nightlife.
Within this crime circuit the “Ransacker” stood out. He needlessly ransacked a house. He robbed very little. He seemed to get in by open windows or doors. He dumped items out of the master bedroom dressers. He stole some jewelry, loose change, emptied piggy banks and had a fondness for blue chip stamps. Drawers were sometime open in the kitchen. He ate ice cream from the victim’s frig. He placed dishes in certain areas so as to alert him the homeowners were arriving. He struck only when the families weren’t home. That took quite a lot of prowling. He seemed to have been active from late 1973 or early 1974 to late 1975.
The Visalia Ransacker, as the rest of us know him, largely remained south of Highway 198 in the neighborhoods on both sides of College of the Sequoias. Given this tight area of turf, he was remarkably successful in eluding the neighbors and the police. Some 90 burglaries are attributed to him over close to 2 years. He was indeed adroit.
What did he look like? Hard to say. He really wasn’t seen, and the police didn’t canvas the neighborhoods, apparently, to get reports of prowlers, until his crime spree was essentially over.
For 2 years the Ransacker was a unique source of irk and wonder amidst the other rap sheets. Burglars were being arrested and sentenced. But the Ransacker crimes continued. Obviously, VP wasn’t getting their man. . . if that’s what he was. His crimes seemed those of a kid.
After Claude Snelling was murdered on September 11, 1975, at his home on Whitney, right in the heart of Ransacker’s turf, Visalia homicide got involved and the burglary unit told them about this “Ransacker” who remained at large. They wondered if there wasn’t a connection.
This, of course, jacked-up the Ransacker from what appeared to be a kid tearing up homes and taking mostly inconsequential stuff to a stalking murderer and major threat to the community.
The “Ransacker” now became news, and because his crimes continued he remained news, most of which surrounded speculation that he was Snelling’s killer. The burglary guys did a stakeout and finally came across a suspect. He was prowling by houses on the corner of Kaweah and Dollner. A cop, Bill McGowen, confronted him. The perp jumped the backyard fence to the front yard. McGowen jumped up, hands still on top of the fence, and a loud burst blew his flashlight out of his right hand and gun powder got in his right eye. He fell back in shock. The perp scrammed. Another cop came up and thought McGowen dead. He rushed off in pursuit. The police tightened the dragnet and closed in. Nevertheless, the perp got through the narrowing police dragnet and made off.
McGowen and the others were sure this was the Ransacker. Yet McGowen alone had seen him. He was about 200 pounds, knock-knee, sandy hair, very short hair parted on left, about 5 foot 10 inches, wore a camo jacket and dark pants, wore tennis shoes– size 9– so he had small feet. He had a strange, higher pitched voice. A baby face. He seemed around 25 years old. This dufus was the Ransacker. He was a squirrelly guy, but he was obviously a killer at heart.
Put together this jacked-up the image of the Ransacker into an unstoppable deviant; some baby-faced jacket job who liked ransacking houses for very little and didn’t mind shooting if he was interfered with.
Prowlings continued on Dollner Street after this. The Times-Delta followed it now. The residents were looking at the composite based on McGowen’s nighttime encounter. They said the guy they had seen looked like that. One resident had even chased him and grabbed one of his shoes when he loped over a fence. A few months later one of the Boren brothers was arrested for robbery on Dollner. It seems they had caught the Dollner Street prowler. But Visalia Police was dogmatic that he was not the Ransacker. This means the Ransacker had stopped after his encounter with McGowen in December 1975.
Not so . . . it seems.
Thus we have a provocative chain of events. Dollner was a new neighborhood, most of it freshly built. Visalia actually had quite a few prowlers and home robbers. Both Ransacker and another prowler could have independently been in operation on that street. The Ransacker vanished after December 1975. EAR– who would become the infamous East Area Rapist and later the Original Night Stalker, who would become California’s No. 1 serial predator, began his crime wave in the summer of ’76 in Sacramento’s “east area.” His MO would evolve into using new neighborhoods more than older ones. He had a size 9 and a half shoe. He was about 5 foot 9 inches tall, but lean and agile. He was thought to have a higher pitched voice which he disguised. He ransacked houses, stole very little, but he was a vicious, uniquely vicious rapist and terrorist.
Some on Visalia’s homicide began to wonder. They inquired of Sacramento’s Police and Sheriffs. At the height of publicity on EAR, Visalia went public. They thought that the phantom-like EAR began in Visalia and was the aloof and phantom-like Ransacker; that he graduated from peeping tom to rapist. Both Sacramento Police and Sheriffs held unique irk for Visalia PD, and they expressed this equally publically.
The combined result was that the obscure “Ransacker” was jacked-up again to a unique pedigree. He was now the bud that had bloomed into the most evil rapist and home terrorist the state, if not the nation, had ever known. Sacramento said with one loud and not so solemn voice– BS.
In our next post we must delve into the controversy and start to divide bone and marrow.
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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.