Police are on the lookout for a serial killer who is targeting middle-aged homeless men in Orange County, Calif. So far, three transients have been brutally stabbed to death in the last three weeks in three neighboring cities, including Anaheim, the home of Disneyland.
“There is a dangerous serial killer operating in Orange County,” said Anaheim Police Chief John Welter at a press conference yesterday. “When you have someone stabbed to death it is a very gruesome crime.”
The first of the attacks took place on Dec. 21, when the body of 53-year-old James Patrick McGillivray was discovered about 8:15 p.m. near a shopping center in Placentia, a bedroom community with a population of about 50,000. His death was eerily captured on a grainy black-and-white surveillance tape. The tape purportedly shows a thin man, between the ages of 18 and 25, wearing all-black clothing, “lying in wait” before he approaches McGillivray and stabs him repeatedly.
McGillivray, a loner with a love for malt liquor, had been sleeping on a sidewalk near Charity’s Closet Thrift Shop in Placentia for the previous few months when the crime occurred.
“He was murdered two doors away from our [thrift] shop,” said Teri Niebuhr, the executive director of His House Homeless Intervention Shelter. “This man was minding his own business, and someone kills him in cold blood. It is horrible. We were so shaken up about it. Ladies at our thrift shop used to reach out to him. They gave him blankets and things like that.”
A week later, and about three miles away in nearby Anaheim, 42-year-old Lloyd Middaugh was found stabbed to death along a popular riverbed bike trail used by families. The area is a well-known gathering place for the city’s homeless population, because it offers bathroom facilities.
And on Dec. 30, the body of a third man was discovered at the bottom of a stairwell outside a library in the nearby city of Yorba Linda. A library patron found 57-year-old Paulus Cornelius Smit, who went by the nickname Dutch, stabbed to death.
All the victims were alone, and killed as they were sleeping.
“It is such an extremely vulnerable population,” said Chris Caster, a case manager with the Anaheim Interfaith Shelter. “It is very sad. It is pathetic. It is easy to get access to these people. You just walk up to them.”
So far, the biggest clue is a white four-door Toyota Corolla that was seen parked in a parking lot near McGillivray just prior to his murder. However, police are not certain if the car belongs to the killer.
“We don’t know if a vehicle is involved in the homicides,” said Anaheim Police Sgt. Bob Dunn. It is also unclear if the killer has a vendetta against the homeless or if he is homeless himself and befriended the victims before their deaths.
This week, the local law-enforcement agencies announced they had formed a task force joined by the Orange County Sheriff's Department and the FBI to look into the slayings.
This is not the first time a serial killer has stalked the homeless of Southern California. In the 1960s and 1970s, “Skid Row Slasher” Vaughn Greenwood terrorized the homeless communities in downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. He earned his nickname because he cut his victims’ throats from ear to ear with a hatchet. Greenwood would occasionally drink his victims’ blood and leave the bloody cups behind at the scene. He was arrested in 1975 shortly after he broke into actor Burt Reynolds’s neighbors' home in the Hollywood Hills. His grisly tally reached 11.
"Skid Row Stabber" Bobby Joe Maxwell was accused of killing 10 homeless men during a yearlong rampage beginning in 1978 in Los Angeles. Maxwell, an alleged Satanist, was arrested while standing over a homeless man, clutching a 10-inch dagger. During the killings, police discovered a message painted on a downtown bus station wall that read: "I'm Luther. I kill winos to put them out of their misery." The message was attributed to Maxwell.
Maxwell was convicted in 1984 in the deaths of two homeless men, but the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned his murder conviction in December 2010 because his conviction, it wrote, was based on a jailhouse informant's lies.
“The homeless are easy targets,” said Los Angeles Police Department cold-case detective Cliff Shepard, who has worked on numerous serial-killer cases. “Many of the victims are alcoholics, so when they are attacked they are easily overpowered.”
So far, the motivation behind the slayings is unknown. “We haven’t made any determination of what the motive is at this time,” said Dunn. “We are very concerned he will strike again.”