Ransacker: Visalia vs Sacramento

On May 18, 1977, at the absolute height of the EAR/ONS panic, the news hit. Fortunately, for Sacramento it hit far away. The Visalia Times Delta issued the story that two detectives were in Sacramento now pursuing the leads that the Ransacker was one and the same with the dreaded EAR.

It was an interesting article that drew highlights over certain similarities between the two crime sprees. It culminated in a comparison of composites.

Visalians were naturally still very interested in the murder of Claude Snelling almost two years before on September 11, 1975. He had been incredibly popular. His murder had shocked the small farm town. It brought to the news the fact that a petty burglar had been working these neighborhoods for a couple of years and using as his signature ransacking of the home. The whole idea there was this careful prowler assaulting middleclass sanctity just to ransack homes really put a sinister light on the Ransacker.

The brief news surge over the Ransacker had came at a strategic time. It came after the Snelling murder, grew larger after a VP stakeout detective, Bill McGowen, got shot on December 10, 1975, trying to confront a prowler in an area they had second-guessed the “Ransacker” would strike. From there the Ransacker had evolved into a sex perv and peeping tom. Logically, the next step would seem to be rapist. But he vanished after that unchancy December 10, 1975, encounter with McGowen.  There were no more Ransacker crimes.

EAR began on June 18, 1976, in Rancho Cordova, east of Sacramento. By May 1977 the EAR was sending the Sacramento area into a panic.

Sacramento Police didn’t see the connection, but they really didn’t have much in the way of the exchange of information. Sac Sheriffs, who had the most cases to deal with, didn’t see the link at all.

An attempted link faded from the news, but for Visalians it registered. Visalia was a small town, and the story just couldn’t die with a long article “Police Seeking To Link Rapist, Snelling Slayer.”

The idea festered for over a year. It finally came to a head and even the Visalia Times Delta had to note in a July 24, 1978, article that “Police Agencies Feud Over Case Similarities.” It wasn’t first page news in Visalia, but 2 days before in it had been in Sacramento.  The problems were such that the Visalia chief of police would attempt to call and talk to the Sheriff of Sacramento County. It was the Sacramento Union‘s front page story that sparked it all. The Union‘s article also indicated there was a rift between the Sac Police and Sac Sheriffs.

Sac Sheriffs had to qualify it had been over a year since they had worked with the two Visalia detectives. This essentially came out of nowhere for them. Bill Miller, the spokesman, recalled that after comparing 9 points of the MO they had discounted 6 of them. They didn’t see any similarity. The suspects didn’t even look remotely identical. Miller condemned the Visalia detectives as “irresponsible.” It got worst. He said he felt they were merely looking for publicity. “It isn’t there.”

The haggis was in the fire for sure.

The Visalia detectives looked bad. But this controversy did an injustice to the amount of time and energy that Visalia PD’s anti-burglary unit had put into the investigation of the “Ransacker.” They went to the mental wards, mystics and “readers.” Because his hair was so short– unusual for the time– they went to every barber shop. Because he ate ice cream out of his victims’ frig’s, they went to the ice cream parlors and showed the composite. They investigated 500 people and thousands of leads. None went anywhere.

However, due to the fact that the Visalia Ransacker case investigation was largely after-the-fact we have to wonder. Were the wrong leads being followed? The composite of the Ransacker was drawn because of only one encounter, one at late night. The Ransacker had merely been classified as a burglar until after Snelling’s murder and then after the December 10, 1975, shootout with McGowen, Visalia PD now took up a different psychological approach to the Ransacker. He was a peeping tom pervert.

But there was really no overt link between “Ransacker” and Snelling’s murder. The best that VP could offer, even as late as 1980, was that both seemed to be left handed and had similar body proportions and height. Aside from that there was much that didn’t fit. The Snelling murder was in the early morning hours. The Ransacker usually struck before midnight. Because two prowlers had been seen on Whitney Lane in the nights before Snelling’s murder, with one described as young and the other one as older, the Ransacker was given an age range between 25-35 years old.

It was clear that the Sac Sheriffs and Sac Police thought that the Visalia detectives were stupid or publicity vultures.

Today, as we seek to revive this old cold case, we are in the wake of these controversies. They mean little to either jurisdiction anymore probably. But the original data was gathered under the auspices of these theories and circumstances.  Not one burglary committed by the Ransacker is within the Statute of Limitations. His link to the Snelling murder is so tenuous that I doubt any DA would pursue a case. He is pursued perhaps because of the then-dominant psychological theory that he will commit other crimes and perhaps he can be sent up for those if captured and identified. Therefore there is potentially a little more than an academic reason to pursue him. . .if he can be identified.

But no one has found the unique, distinctly unique Visalia Ransacker. He was a clever prowler, largely invisible his entire crime spree, given a face only during his last encounter (maybe), and then was given a psychological makeover thereafter. But do we have the right face of the Ransacker?

The only thing that connects the Ransacker with the man that McGowen confronted is that a home was robbed blocks away on Laurel that night that had the Ransacker’s signature. After this it ended. In the tardy police canvas of the neighborhoods where he had struck before, a few homeowners said they had seen a man similar to the composite based on McGowen’s encounter.  . . .But then there were residents on Dollner Street by where McGowen  had his encounter with the suspect on Kaweah, and they too said the prowler they were having trouble with was similar. But someone else was arrested for that by March 1976.

Is more than one person involved in the makeover of the Ransacker? How could someone so unique looking as the Ransacker not be uncovered? It seems hard to believe he was local. He had to be coming to Visalia merely to rob the areas around the College of the Sequoias. This seems to be the only part of town he knew. The police admitted they came across a number of persons who looked like the composite but they were all cleared. Does the composite really reflect the Ransacker or someone else? The perp in the McGowen case could easily be cleared of being the Ransacker. If he was another prowler he could probably give account of himself at a time the Ransacker was known to have struck. That throws out the composite. It applies only to a perp who had nothing to do with the Ransacker crimes. If that is the case, there is no face to the Ransacker.

If that was the Ransacker who shot at McGowen, then we must consider where he went. If he is the Snelling killer we must ponder why he continued his crime spree for a couple of months but then stopped after his encounter with McGowen. Where indeed did he go?

*         *          *

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.

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