The Latest From My True Crime Column For Real Clear Life

I write a weekly true crime column for RealClearLife.com. I typically go in-depth on one crime story—often from history—or occasionally break down several in list format. This week I dug into a strange mystery that unfolded across the southwest in the 80s. At least two priests disappeared and two were murdered. Were they all connected somehow to a mysterious John Doe who committed suicide in a Boise church? I found a few extra threads to pull in my research, possible connections. They may even connect to the sex abuse scandals that have roiled the church in the last decade. Follow the link below to read the whole thing.

Source: The Unholy Mystery of the Murdered Priests

Parabon Snapshots of Unknown Killers: Truth and Promise

tinsley1

Part of note from killer

April Tinsley vanished on Good Friday, 1988. According to the FBI page on her disappearance and murder, the 8-year-old Fort Wayne, Indiana girl was on her way home from visiting a friend when she was kidnapped. April’s killer raped then murdered her. She was suffocated to death.

April’s killer has never been caught. Police have a description, an approximate age range, and a psychological profile indicating he is likely a “preferential” pedophile — a pedophile who is specifically attracted to children, likely within April’s age range. There are different kinds of pedophiles, according to most profiling research, and this kind can find it harder than others to hide their attraction to children.

The man who killed April Tinsley even left behind plenty of evidence. Including communications, beginning with a message scrawled on a barn door, reading in part, “I kill April Tisley (sic)… I kill again.”

Michelle McNamara wrote about April’s “communicative” (Michelle’s apt description) killer in a blog post at True Crime Diary in 2012:

Investigators say they believe whoever wrote the message was April’s killer.  They haven’t said why, but there are two possibilities.  The writing implement, said to be crayons, was found nearby, and DNA from the crayons could have been matloched to a sample found on April’s body.  The second possibility has been discussed on message boards, but not confirmed by investigators.  It’s alleged that when April’s body was found she was fully clothed but missing one shoe.  The rumor is that above “ha ha” was the question, “did you find the other shoe?”

As Michelle reported in that post, 7-year-old Sarah Bowker would disappear not long after that message on a barn door. She met the same fate as April. Strangely, while the coroner who examined both girls concluded their murders were related, the FBI disagreed.

The Tinsley murder had long been a cold case by the time April’s killer made himself known again in 2004. He did this by leaving seemingly barely literate notes inside baggies, accompanied by used condoms in various areas, clearly targeting little girls anew.

Still, the FBI didn’t become fully involved until 2009. They created a profile of the killer. CNN reported on some of the FBI’s conclusions about his psychological makeup:

Police believe he is a white male currently in his 40s or 50s who prefers and desires sexual contact with children, particularly little girls.

“This offender has demonstrated that he has strong ties to northeast Fort Wayne and Allen County,” the profile said. “This is where he likely lives, works and/or shops. You may be standing next to him in line at the grocery store, sitting beside him in the pew at church, or working beside him on the production line.”

Such profiles can be helpful in that they might spur local residents to tell police, “You know, I always wondered about this one guy (…)”

Criminal behavioral analysis — profiling — is a fascinating if imperfect art. In development since the 1970s, it’s accrued an aura of myth, thanks in part to great fiction like Silence of the Lambs. The truth about behavioral analysis is that it’s one tool in a vast investigative suite of them, and is rarely the factor that solves the case — it’s simply one helpful way to narrow down a field of suspects.

tinsley2

“Snapshot” of Tinsley suspect

With the advent of easy and inexpensive DNA testing and the parsing of human genetic makeup, a new form of profiling has been filtering into news accounts of cold cases in the last couple of years, and it was recently applied to the DNA of the killer in the Tinsley case.

Parabon is an outfit in Virginia and they’ve been doing a steady business creating suspect portraits using an unknown subject’s genetic history as revealed through DNA. Here’s how they describe what they do with a product they call Snapshot:

Snapshot is a revolutionary new forensic DNA analysis service that accurately predicts the physical appearance and ancestry of an unknown person from DNA. It can also determine kinship between DNA samples out to six degrees of relatedness. Snapshot is ideal for generating investigative leads, narrowing suspect lists, and identifying unknown remains.

Parabon, as best as I can tell, uses the same data that Ancestry.com and 23andMe utilize from submitted DNA samples to develop a portrait of unknown killers as well as John and Jane Does. It’s a smart and understandable use of new technology and when I first learned of it, I was blown away. Anyone who has ever obsessed over a cold case in which there were known samples of the killer’s genetic material hears about what Parabon is doing and gets a little thrill at the prospect: What would a Parabon Snapshot of the Zodiac Killer look like? Or the vicious Golden State Killer, whom Michelle McNamara was writing a book about when she passed away?

My wife and I have had our DNA analyzed by both Ancestry and 23andMe. It wasn’t until I took a deep dive into what 23andMe concluded from my DNA sample that I thought about Parabon’s Snapshot profiles and felt a sudden twinge of disappointment.

As Parabon attempts to make clear in profiles such as the one they’ve released in the Tinsley case, their workups — highly detailed suspect sketches, basically — are based on the suspect’s most probable appearance, based on what their genetic material tends to predict.

Here’s the cold water about this kind of thing: even if your genetic material tends to indicate you’ll look a certain way, there is no guarantee you will. I learned this from my 23andMe experience.

23andMe breaks reports from your DNA down into numerous reports. These include:

  • Ancestry Composition (I am 99.2% northern European and 0.7% Sub-Saharan African)
  • Muscle Composition — I am a “likely sprinter,” my muscle composition primarily “fast-twitch” muscle fibers
  • Caffeine Consumption — I’m likely to consume less. I do not consume less. I consume large quantities of it.
  • Individual reports on your likely hair color, physical characteristics, and skin.

The reports in the last bullet point are where things get interesting.

According to 23andMe’s analysis of my DNA, I am most likely to have “light brown or blond hair.”

On my hair report, 23andMe actually states, “You are not likely to have red hair. 94% of customers who are genetically similar to you do not have red hair.”

I was born with coppery red hair. It’s gotten blonder as I’ve aged, but there’s no doubt about it. The report nails my hair type (lightly wavy), that I’m likely to be balding (I am), and the fact it’s light colored. But that’s it.

It seems like nitpicking but if the same data was used to make an unknown suspect profile, he wouldn’t have red hair — a highly distinctive feature.

My 23andMe profile correctly predicts I have light-colored eyes (green), but the part of the report that details potential facial characteristics of someone with my genetic makeup states clearly: “Steven, you are not likely to have a cleft chin.62% of customers who are genetically similar to you do not have a cleft chin.”

One of my most obvious facial characteristics is a clearly cleft chin.

23andMe also concluded I would have light skin, which I do, but not many freckles. That part is debatable. I don’t have nearly as many as some redheads, but I’ve certainly got some.

So far, it’s not hard to guess that a Parabon Snapshot reaching conclusions similar to 23andMe from my genetic data would have me — a redhead with some freckles and a cleft chin — as a light brown-haired man with few freckles and a square, un-cleft chin. My DNA tends to predict those things. I simply was an outlier and ended up born with the less likely traits. Just as many people are, every day, everywhere.

This is not a knock on Parabon. I think they’re doing very necessary work and hope they keep refining and improving their product. It’s a reality check for the many true crime devotees like me who see intriguing news stories about Snapshot-generated profiles and don’t bother to look past quickly turned-out reports breathlessly hinting that this might the thing that solves the case.

It’s a long-needed and possibly fundamental tool. Truth be told, I have no doubt a Parabon Snapshot or some similar forensic product will one day play a key role in solving a major case, especially when combined with a service that has Ancestry.com’s capacity for identifying possible familial relations, up to 3rd, 4th, 5th cousins.

But Parabon’s Snapshot is not a magic bullet. Reading the fine print on Parabon reports it is clear they are aware of this. Reading interpretations of their work in the press, it’s clear that the media is not. Sober, realistic assessments of possible breaks in long-unsolved and deeply unsettling cases like the murder of April Tinsley don’t traffic quite as well for a TV station or newspaper website.

Pima Jane Doe: Her name was Brenda Gerow

On the last day of 2014, a man named Bill Gerow wrote this comment on my only story in this blog to date, “Pima Jane Doe and the Flower Girl“:

My name is Bill Gerow and the picture of the girl is my sister Brenda, she is from NH and we have been looking for her since 1980, I was contacted by a Det Mark O Dell 2 weeks ago and informed about this recent development ,I had no idea that Brenda was found murdered in Arizona 34 years ago, we are deeply saddened by this recent news to say the least,I am going to post this on all social media that I can so that we can prosecute (Jack) and keep this animal behind bars till he is dead Jack left NH with my sister in 1980 and that was the last we saw of him or her it is with great sadness that we learned of her murder recently,if you need moreback ground on her or Jack please contact me…

Untold attempts at trolling me through the years and the general chicanery that can accompany blogging about crime made me reflexively skeptical of Bill’s comment, even though in hindsight I can see why I shouldn’t have been. I did email him, though, because there was a note of sorrow in his comment that seemed too profound to be totally insincere.

Bill’s first reply to me erased most of my skepticism. A portion of the email:

[Her] full name is Brenda Marie Gerow. Her Birthday is Feb, 18 1960 the last time I heard from her was July 20 1980, and yes Jack left NH as a wanted criminal, that is why he fled with my sister. She contacted me 3 months after she left my parents home with Jack, I have looked extensively looked for her since, I believe there was no missing person report filed at the time she left, she was 20 and of legal age at the time, I was 16 when she left He did go by the name Jack at that time (…)

I was unsure as to what to do. It felt like a major scoop. But it also seemed like there must be a reason police weren’t releasing such a solid lead. I assumed they were working to build a solid case against Kalhauser. And maybe I just wasn’t ready to dive into it, for whatever reason. So after another exchange with Bill, I left it alone. And I left this blog alone, even though it seemed like a pretty good idea.

It’s almost October, nearly 10 months after Bill Gerow left his comment. The story has been confirmed. From Boston’s NBC affiliate, WHDH:

Pima County Sheriff’s detectives now have her name, who she was with before her death, and where she lived.

 “We’ve been able to identify Jane Doe as Brenda Gerow. She was born and raised in Nashua, New Hampshire,” says Pima County Detective Mark O’Dell. “She was about the age of 20 when she left Nashua with John Kalhauser.”

So—from a journalistic perspective, I had the story almost a year ago and I blew it. I sat on it, in part out of respect for Bill Gerow, whose subsequent emails to me made it clear he was in the throes of a deeply emotional struggle. In part out of a hesitance to dive even deeper because it felt like a vastly depressing labyrinth.

That’s the eternal challenge in these kinds of crime stories. They have, as they’ve lingered over the years, developed layers of sorrow that are hard to fathom from the comfort of your living room, typing in a blog edit box.

And I think about, too, the possibilities with a psychopath like Kalhauser. He said something to one of his exes that upon re-reading tonight I found doubly chilling, given his history of dead, anonymous or completely hidden victims:”‘While I was in high school,’ (Janet) Renk said, ‘he told me he was going to take me to some woods in New Hampshire and tie me to a tree and leave me there to starve.'”

“[Woods] in New Hampshire” made me think of the still-unsolved mystery of the Allenstown girls. An adult woman and 3 girls, all unknown, found wrapped in plastic inside barrels near a trailer park. It seemed like a lot of work, even for Kalhauser—but who knows, at this point?

That’s the kind of rabbit hole I’ve been down before when covering crime. It can challenge sanity. I wasn’t sure I was ready a year ago. Maybe no one is ever ready.

At least it’s official. At least Brenda Gerow has her name back. At least her brother can bring her bones home, finally, to this green country, so far from the desert where she was found.

Pima Jane Doe and the Flower Girl, Part 2

Pima Jane Doe and the Flower Girl, Part 1

John Kalhauser’s mugshot, 2011

Michael Renk

It was near midnight on May 19, 1979. Michael Renk drove his girlfriend, Janet Richardson, along Route 3 in Massachusetts, near the New Hampshire border. She was slated to work the night shift as a nursing assistant at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Bedford, MA.

As Renk drove past Middlesex Community College, a white Chevrolet Monte Carlo pulled out and followed him. The vehicle soon drew parallel to Renk’s car and several gunshots rang out.

Michael Renk was struck in the chin, shoulder and back. He hunkered down in the driver’s seat and headed for a police station. Less than a mile from the station, the Monte Carlo broke off its pursuit.

The next day Janet Richardson drove by the home of her ex and saw a white Monte Carlo parked out front.

Her ex was John Kalhauser.

Massachusetts court documents related to later proceedings against Kalhauser drily detail what happened next:

When questioned by the police as to his whereabouts on the occasion in question, [John Kalhauser] claimed to have been with “Debbie in Lawrence, so [he] couldn’t have done the shooting.” He stated further that after his date with Debbie, he went to Litchfield and then to Hudson, New Hampshire, where a police officer stopped him for driving on the wrong side of the road and gave him a verbal warning. He asserted he arrived home in Tyngsborough at around 2:30 A.M. and worked on his motorcycle through the night.   He claimed that he “wouldn’t own” a .25 caliber pistol.

Eventually, the investigation led the police to conclude that the defendant’s story concerning his whereabouts was unsupported. When Deborah Florence was located, she turned over several letters written by the defendant to her approximately three weeks after Renk’s shooting. In them, the defendant proposed that she confirm being with him on the  night in question and keep their statements to the police consistent. Eventually, in August 1979, the defendant was indicted for the assault on Renk.

After the indictment, Kalhauser decided he was done with jail. He jumped bail and he was gone.

Diane Van Reeth

On the morning of August 10, 1995, Tucson resident Diane Van Reeth disappeared without a trace. As reported by the Arizona Daily Star, Van Reeth, a 35-year-old 5’7″ brunette, didn’t show for work one morning. Police found her maroon, 1992 Ford Aerostar near an intersection, no keys, no sign of a struggle.

A week after Van Reeth vanished, her co-workers from Tucson Electric Power ranged across the city passing out fliers about her disappearance. By September 7th rewards adding up to $10,000 were being offered for information about the missing woman, who after all had left behind a husband and two small children, 2 and 5 years old.
On September 18, 1995, Tucson authorities arrested Van Reeth’s husband, Donald J. Stecchi. Van Reeth had filed for divorce in July that year. According to later reports in the Daily Star,  Van Reeth’s attorney had informed Stecchi’s lawyer that he was to leave the couples’ residence on August 9th.

But Stecchi was arrested for old charges, including forgery. He’d been Donald Stecchi while living with Diane Van Reeth at their home on North Lost Horizon Drive. When he and his wife had signed a marriage certificate in Clark County, Nevada on September 4, 1986, he’d used his birth name, John Joseph Kalhauser.

Janet Renk

The revelation that Stecchi was really wanted fugitive John Kalhauser led a reporter from the Daily Star back to New England, and to Janet Richardson. In the years since Kalhauser went to ground Richardson had married Michael Renk. When she spoke to journalist Ann-Eve Pedersen, Janet Renk was ready to tell what it was like to be close to Kalhauser, and the story she told was chilling. It implied that until she disappeared, Diane Van Reeth’s life may have been hell.

Janet Renk first met Kalhauser at a Tyngsborough, Massachusetts skating rink. His conviction for killing Paul Chapman was public knowledge, but she was willing to believe it had been a youthful moment of impulse. She was only 16 at the time.

Soon enough, Kalhauser revealed his true self. He was intensely possessive, Renk told the Star reporter. He didn’t allow her to attend parties at friends’ houses and kept her isolated from her family. And he was physically and psychologically abusive. “While I was in high school,” Renk said, “he told me he was going to take me to some woods in New Hampshire and tie me to a tree and leave me there to starve.”

She tried to break up with him, but Kalhauser’s abusive ways left her feeling trapped in a “Catch-22.”

“He always told me if I left him,” said Renk, “he’d go after my family.”

****

In May, 1999, the Tucscon Citizen reported Ardythe Van Reeth’s words in a courtroom statement to John Kalhauser. Referring to her daughter Diane, she said,”May a day never pass that your thoughts don’t torment you with what you’ve done.”

Though Van Reeth’s body has never been found, Kalhauser was sentenced to 20 years in prison for murder in the 2nd degree. He pleaded no contest to her murder. He would serve 26 years concurrently for his attempted murder of Michael Renk. Kalhauser is serving time in a Massachusetts institution.

Investigators believe Diane Van Reeth was buried somewhere north of Tucson.

Now that John Kalhauser has been named a suspect in the murder of Pima Jane Doe, it may be that the still unknown young woman from that desert back road has something to say about the fate of Diane Van Reeth.

John Kalhauser’s years between fleeing the charges for what he’d done to Michael Renk and his arrest in Arizona aren’t well-documented, but the Star article in which the Renks were interviewed indicated he’d been seen in Tyngsborough with Van Reeth as recently as 1994. It was clear from the use of his real name on their marriage certificate and from court papers Van Reeth filed seeking a divorce that she’d known some truth about him. She had known his real family.

He’d kept the truth about who he was from both the known missing woman and perhaps from the recovered unknown concealed until it was too late.

Below, a drawing of Pima Jane Doe, from CanYouIdentifyMe, compared to the mystery woman from Kalhauser’s photograph.

*Note: I had trouble completing this second post (hence the two+ week lag) because I realized there would be no sense of resolution. There has been minimal coverage of this case apart from the burst of publicity on December 5th. Additionally, one of the largest outlets misreporting Kalhauser’s name (WBZ’s article still refers to him as “Jack,” a name not found anywhere regarding this case except in their post) could skew search results about the case, which means these posts might not trigger a result for searching “Jack Kalhauser” at all. Then I decided I had to commit to the fact that writing about existing cold cases, unresolved crimes, missing and unknown people is inherently a study in hanging cadences. The stories can’t be ignored because they remain in suspension. The reason to report on unsolved cases is to keep that tension–and attention–alive. 

UPDATE: Read “Pima Jane Doe: Her Name Was Brenda Gerow.

Pima Jane Doe and the Flower Girl, Part 1

Unknown woman/Chelmsford, MA PD
Jane Doe 1981

One hand is loose in her lap and the other holds a spray of flowers. Her head tilts to the side and she looks at the camera like this pose somehow pains her. She might be annoyed. She might be scared.

Police in Chelmsford, Massachusetts want to know the Flower Girl’s name. They want to know if the girl traveled across the country from a green New England day, holding flowers in a flower-print dress, to die in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. For a few reasons, including a physical resemblance, they want to know if she became Pima Jane Doe.

In the database maintained by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Pima Jane Doe is “Jane Doe 1981.”

The NCMEC entry states that Jane Doe was found on April 8, 1981 “in a small drainage wash 3.7 miles south of the intersection of Interstate 10 and Houghton Road in Tucson, Arizona.”

Digital reconstruction of Jane Doe 1981/NCMEC

The 5’3″ woman weighed around 110 lbs. Like the mystery woman in the photo, she had light brown, possibly blonde hair. She had a white spot on one front tooth. When she died she was wearing brown suede shoes, ankle socks with pink pom-poms, size 3 jeans and a “Chain Reaction” brand blue blouse with puffy, flower-print sleeves.

An “Oops, California” brand denim jacket was found near her body. The Los Angeles-based brand, defunct since the late 1980s, catered to women. It is tagged in a trademark database related to clothing lines with floral designs.

In a 2013 report detailing the NCMEC reconstruction of Jane Doe’s appearance by the Arizona Daily Star, Pima County Sheriff’s Dept. Detective Mark O’Dell said Jane Doe had been in the desert for a few days when she was found. O’Dell also indicated her death had been a homicide. She had “obvious signs of trauma to her head and body,” he said.

Boston’s WBZ reported the bridge between the Flower Girl, whose photo was first posted on the Chelmsford PD’s Facebook page, and Pima Jane Doe may be a convicted killer named John Joseph Kalhauser (referred to as “Jack Kalhauser” in the WBZ article).

The photo was taken from Kalhauser, who was imprisoned in 1999 for killing his wife in Arizona. He has said nothing about the woman holding the flowers.

When Jane Doe died in Arizona, John Kalhauser’s pedigree as a homicidal psychopath had already been well-established in Massachusetts.


Paul Chapman


Paul Chapman was 52 when he died. His body was found near Route 3 in Massachusetts, not far from the New Hampshire border. Contemporary reports from the Nashua Telegraph stated that Chapman’s body was found after police in Tyngsboro, MA began investigating his bullet-riddled, abandoned car.

Chapman, director of industrial relations at the Johns-Manville Products Corporation, lived with his mother at the time.

He’d been killed with a .22 caliber weapon. At the time, police said they did not believe robbery was a motive.

On May 4, 1971, then 17-year-old John Joseph Kalhauser was arrested for his murder.

Kalhauser underwent a mental evaluation. He was found competent to stand trial. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

He served one year.

After his release, Kalhauser would tell a girlfriend that he’d killed Paul Chapman after Chapman made sexual advances toward him.

Almost exactly 8 years after Paul Chapman was murdered, John Kalhauser tried to kill again.

Pima Jane Doe and the Flower Girl, Part 2

[WBZ]