What may yet prove to be the biggest murder spree in Los Angeles history languished unsolved for three decades, a question mark haunting the files of the LAPD cold-case unit.
The horrors of the so-called "Westside Rapist" were a daily staple of local papers in the 1970s, leaving law enforcement feeling helpless and striking terror in the community, especially those most vulnerable members who fit the profile of the killer's victim of choice.
The unidentified stalker sowed fear with a sickening chain -- dozens -- of rapes and murders of elderly women in their homes.
"He was a pretty vicious guy, frightened a lot of people and killed a lot of people," said George Beck, the now-retired LAPD deputy chief in charge of the case at the time. "He attacked older women living alone. And sometimes women in outside situations, in a parking lot or alley. ... We couldn't catch up with him.
"There was a lot of anxiety on the part of older women."
Now, thanks to cutting-edge lab technology and a dose of luck, Detectives Rick Jackson and Richard Bengtson say they've done what their predecessors couldn't; they finally cracked the case.
The break came in the course of a hunt for another killer, a perpetrator from the 1980s known as the "Grim Sleeper." Lab analysts such as Nick Sanchez were reviewing DNA samples on previous offenders one by one, hoping for a match.
"I had one coroner a vaginal slide to work with," Sanchez said, describing the meager thread of evidence in the Westside Rapist case. "And that was created back in 1972."
Lab Work Produces Crucial Match
The search turned up no matches for the Grim Sleeper. But the 1972 slide did produce one hit.
"I mentioned something about, 'Oh yeah, I just got a 1972 CODIS hit' -- and Detective Bengtson said, 'I think that's my case!'" (CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, is a DNA database.)
The Westside Rapist, police allege, is a 72-year-old insurance adjuster named John Thomas Jr., who's in police custody on two murder charges. He is scheduled to enter a plea in a court appearance later this month.
"We strongly believe that Mr. Thomas is the Westside Rapist," LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck said at a news conference earlier this month.
Police would have the chance to interview Thomas. Meanwhile they drew links from murder to unsolved murder, framing the work of an alleged serial killer of unprecedented proportions.
"The numbers could be astronomical," Bengtson said. "If we are able to put together the cases that we think that he's involved in, it could be in the 20s to 30s for murders. ... If we are able to link him to the cases we think he was involved in, that would make him L.A.'s most prolific killer."
'Westside Rapist' Preyed on Elderly
They found the alleged perpetrator almost by accident, while taking samples from old registered sex offenders.
It was the case of Ethel Sokoloff, raped and murdered at age 68 in 1972, that provided the alleged DNA link to Thomas, as well as an unsolved murder case from 1976.
"This wasn't a first-time offender," said Bengtson's partner, Jackson. "You can tell from the complexity of the crime. ... Complex in the sense that you are taking the liberty of going in a house, most likely knowing somebody is in there, probably knowing that it's an elderly female already, that lives by herself. Because what we saw after this case was a pattern of elderly females that all lived alone being attacked."
The killers' choice of victims made the case even more horrifying, Bengtson said. "It's kind of a sacred victim," the detective said. "It's someone's mother, someone's grandmother."
Police said they now have DNA matches on at least four previous Westside Rapist cases, and as they study the map of elderly women who were raped and strangled in one small area of Los Angeles, they believe Thomas will prove a match for many more.
As a full picture of the crime emerged, police drew a bead on their suspect. He seemed to fit the profile of a serial killer only in that he didn't seem anything like a serial killer.
"They brought him down here and he was very willing to talk to us," Jackson said. "We spent about four hours with him. ... We can't get into the details of the interview, that will be something that will be dealt with in the courts.
"Very pleasant, very pleasant talking with him."
Pleasant to talk to?
"He's very pleasant," Jackson said. "Very cooperative with us, answered our questions, to some degree."
The assessment was echoed by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who worked with Thomas at the State Compensation Insurance Fund, where the accused killer was an insurance claims adjuster.
"What was always interesting about John. [He] was friendly, very affable, very outgoing, always had a smile on his face," Hutchinson said. "He was just a pleasant fellow, so much so that this was a kind of person that you wanted to talk to or you engaged in conversation about various things."
'Westside Rapist' Suspect: 5 Marriages; Assault Arrests
Hutchinson said only two things stood out about Thomas, who was his colleague until last year, when Hutchinson retired: the occasional e-mail he would send preaching Scripture, and his remarkably good health.
"I would say, 'John, you know you have to tell me, what is your secret?" Hutchinson said. "I have to package that and I'll buy it. I got to tell you, you don't look your age!'
"He would always say, 'It's just good living,' he'd smile, say 'Good living ... living right and thinking right.'"
Thomas was married five times. He served briefly in the Air Force in the 1950s; he worked as a social worker and as an electronics salesman in the '70s. And he was twice arrested for sexual assault, with both cases pleaded down to lesser charges.
LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck is now overseeing the case.
"I've seen it again and again, that people who engage in these monstrous acts are thought of as good neighbors," Beck said. "I don't know who he is. I know he's a monster. We talk about predators all the time; you always hear cops talking about predators. Well, this is an apex predator targeting the weak, you know, with absolutely no remorse, no feeling, no compassion."
Beck knows this case better than most.
His father, George Beck, is the retired LAPD deputy chief who was in charge of the case three decades ago.
"It's quite a coincidence, isn't it?" said George Beck. "It kind of blows your mind as the kids say nowadays. ... There is a satisfaction there. I'm very happy for him, that it's happened the way that it has. And I know there are a lot of people that it's gonna be important to. The families of the victims."
Today, the LAPD cold case squad is fielding calls from across the country from grandchildren of women killed in the '70s. They are looking for justice. "It's tough to even hear the call, these stories are horrible," Jackson said.
Bengtson said not all the callers want their cases brought to court. "They are just looking for answers to solve their case, so they don't have to keep wondering who did this. ... 'Just give me the answer and I'll be OK.'"
Charlie Beck saw the story as part of a longer story for law enforcement, and the city as a whole.
"To me, we're just bit players in this drama," he said. "I have my part that I play. Dad had his part that he played. ... I think it emphasizes a couple of things. One is the inhumanity of these crimes, and the other is the humanity of Los Angeles, and the way one generation watches the next, and the way the living find justice for the dead.
"This is a story about humanity."