Everyone’s heard the precautionary warnings against hitchhiking, but back in the 1970s it was an easy means of transportation for young students and drifters. By then the practice had been romanticized by beat writers like Kerouac and the idea that anyone could just hold out a thumb and suddenly be transported to wherever it is they wanted to be, without any money or any solid plans, was a liberating notion. But prior to the 1980s, not everyone holding out their thumb was a free spirited dreamer hoping to leave the world they knew behind. Hitchhiking had also been the preferred method of transportation for broke college students.
Though statistically speaking, you’re more likely to be killed by falling than being murdered while hitchhiking, the sheer necessity of the practice gave rise to serial killers like Ted Bundy who cruised college campuses looking for pretty, young brunettes in need of a ride. Even more frightening is that Bundy wasn’t the only killer on the road and the 1970s had been open season for young women trying to hitch a ride to class.
On March 6, 1972, two teenage boys were out joyriding on their motorcycles when they decided to take a break near a creek in Santa Rosa. Looking out over the water they spied what they believed to have been a mannequin. It turned out it wasn’t a mannequin, it was the body of Kim Wendy Allen, a 19-year-old student at Santa Rosa Junior College. She was found to have been raped, hogtied and strangled to death before being thrown down into the creek from the embankment above.
She was the first to be discovered, but Allen wasn’t the first victim to be dumped at the site. Soon, more bodies would be discovered.
12-year-old Yvonne Weber and 13-year-old Maureen Sterling would be uncovered in the area in December of that year. The two were last seen alive in February 1972 at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena and later attempting to hitch a ride home on Guerneville Road. Like the first discovered victim, the two young girls had been dumped down an embankment. By the time investigators had found the bodies they were nothing but bones.
Lori Lee Kursa would be the killer’s fourth victim. As a teenage runaway known to hitchhike around the Santa Rosa area, she was the perfect target. Her body was hurled 30 feet over an embankment and her frozen remains were discovered just two weeks after she had last been sighted. Her cause of death was a broken neck. A witness claimed they had seen a woman fitting Kursa’s description being pushed into a van by a white man with an afro around December 2nd or 3rd before heading north on Calistoga Road near where Kursa’s body was later recovered.
Another teenage runaway was last seen hitchhiking along Highway 101. The body of 14-year-old Carolyn Nadine Davis was discovered in July of 1973, only 31 feet from where the bodies of Weber and Sterling were found. Unlike the others, she had died of poisoning. Was the killer changing his M.O., or were there multiple killers cruising along the highways and byways of Santa Rosa in pursuit of vulnerable young hitchhikers to murder?
Theresa Walsh would be the killer’s most gruesome conquest. She had been hogtied, raped, tortured and strangled with a clothesline before being dumped in the Mark West Creek. She had also been hitchhiking, hoping to join her family in time for Christmas 1973. She would never make it home that year.
There were other victims believed to be connected to the killer, including the remains of a Jane Doe and Jeannette Kamahele, who was last spotted hitchhiking to class along Highway 101, but has never been found. Together the eight victims would become known as the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders.
At the time there were many speculations about the unknown killer and his identity. Some were certain that it had been the work of the Zodiac Killer, who stated in his final letter that he would change up his M.O., but swore that he would continue to kill. There was also Ted Bundy, but it was well known that Bundy had never left the state of Washington during the time of the young women’s disappearances.
Some of the women had chipmunk hair in their hands, leading others to believe that the murders had been the result of some sort of occult or satanic ritual, but very little evidence was able to point to ritual slayings in all of the cases.
Investigators thought they had a strong lead with Arthur William Allen, a former teacher and suspected child molester who wound up in a trailer park in Santa Rosa. Allen had been attending college full time at Sonoma State College at the time of the murders. In addition to the hitchhiker murders, there had been some evidence to suggest that Allen had been behind the unsolved Zodiac murders. Police were able to obtain a search warrant, but nothing of substance was able to tie him to either murder sprees. In 2002, Allen was eliminated as a Zodiac suspect, when DNA testing on the postage stamps used to mail the cryptic letters came back inconclusive.
Today these tragic cases remain unsolved, but they were never forgotten. In 2011 a fresh set of investigators were sent to work on the case. Armed with DNA, left behind in the form of semen within some of the victims’ bodies, there is hope that a killer will be brought to justice and closure will be brought to some of the 54 unsolved homicides in Santa Rosa.