Lewis Griswold

With arrest of 'Golden State Killer' suspect, Visalia mystery may be solved after four decades

Visalia detective James Cummings has been in charge of the Visalia Ransacker investigation since 2014.
Visalia detective James Cummings has been in charge of the Visalia Ransacker investigation since 2014. lgriswold@fresnobee.com

More than 41 years ago, a masked man dubbed the Visalia Ransacker murdered Claude Snelling, who died saving his 16-year-old daughter from being kidnapped in the middle of the night.

Mr. Snelling, 45, was a College of the Sequoias journalism professor. The homicide shocked Visalia.

APRIL 25, 2018 UPDATE: 'Golden State Killer' suspect arrested, identified as 'Visalia Ransacker' suspect as well

The murderer never was caught or even identified. The trail went cold, but the case is not forgotten at the police department.

“It’s one that’s often looked at because of the amount of information we get on it,” said Detective James Cummings.

For a cold case homicide, it gets an unusual amount of attention because of the possible connection to a notorious series of rapes and murders in the 1970s and ’80s – the East Area Rapist in Sacramento and the Original Night Stalker in Southern California.

The killer also terrorized the East Bay and is sometimes called the Golden State Killer, a term coined by crime writer Michelle McNamara.

Last year, the FBI offered a $50,000 reward for information in those cases, which increased attention on the Visalia Ransacker.

Many believe the Visalia Ransacker is the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker (not to be confused with killer Richard Ramirez, also known as the Night Stalker) because of similarities, but the connection never has been proven.

From April 1974 to December 1975, dozens of burglaries of homes in Visalia occurred.

The burglar did bizarre things, such as rummage through underwear drawers; lay out women’s underwear on a bed; move family photos or tear them up; steal a single earring but ignore other jewelry; take Blue Chip Trading Stamps but leave cash untouched; steal piggy banks.

He also took guns and ammunition.

The burglaries almost always occurred when residents were away. No one got hurt, and the burglaries didn’t make headlines – until the night of Sept. 11, 1975.

A man wearing a ski mask entered the Snelling home through a rear window while everyone was asleep, police said.

He prowled the inside of the home, stole a purse, left via the back door, set the purse on the ground, reentered the home, went into the teen girl’s bedroom and forced her into the backyard at gunpoint.

About 2:15 a.m., her father heard a commotion, woke up, rushed outside and confronted the abductor. The masked man pulled out a gun, fired twice, kicked the girl in the face and ran.

Mr. Snelling walked inside, collapsed and died.

Police connected the homicide to the ransacker burglaries.

About two weeks before the homicide, a burglar stole a gun from a home. Police contacted the owner of the stolen gun. He took them to the St. John’s River, and he showed them a sand bank where he had target practice.

Police removed bullets from the sand and compared the ballistics to bullets removed from Mr. Snelling’s body. It was a match. The gun never has been found, but the connection is considered solid.

“I don’t mind bragging on the work these guys did,” Cummings said.

Police re-investigated every burglary and discovered that the ransacker sometimes would return to the homes he had targeted.

Three months after the murder, a stranger was spotted peeping on a teen girl in a home in the Beverly Glen neighborhood, so police staked out the home.

A stranger appeared, and Detective Bill McGowen yelled at him to stop, fired a warning shot and trained his flashlight on him. The suspect screamed “Oh my God, no,” pulled out a gun and fired, hitting the flashlight. Glass from the lens ricocheted into McGowen’s right eye.

The suspect jumped a fence and got away. After that episode, the burglaries stopped.

But McGowen had seen his face, and police issued a composite drawing. He was described as about 5-feet-10, white male adult, stocky build, 180 to 200 pounds. He wore size 9 Converse shoes. His age was estimated at 25 to 35, but he might have been younger, Cummings said. If the Ransacker is still alive, he would be in his late 50s to early 70s, Cummings said.

The Visalia investigation went nowhere until a series of rapes and homicides between June 1976 and April 1978 terrorized Rancho Cordova, Citrus Heights and Carmichael. The suspect, never identified or caught, became known as the East Area Rapist.

Visalia police saw evidence of the Visalia Ransacker’s modus operandi in the East Area Rapist cases: similar method of entry and thefts, such as coins, jewelry and identification. They shared their suspicions with investigators there, but no definitive connection between the Ransacker and the East Area Rapist was made.

The Sacramento-area crimes stopped, followed by similar incidents in the East Bay, then the Original Night Stalker rapes and murders in Goleta, Ventura, Dana Point and Irvine from October 1979 to May 1986. In all, there were 12 homicides, 45 rapes and more than 120 burglaries, the FBI said.

Why did the spree end? Some believe the onset of DNA-matching prompted the killer to cease for fear of capture.

DNA evidence was obtained in East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker cases, but no DNA in the Ransacker case has come to light.

To identify the Visalia Ransacker after all this time could still happen, Cummings said.

“As an investigator, you hate to see any murder go unsolved,” he said. “Maybe there’s one person that’s stayed quiet but has information and hadn’t come forward in the past.”

Anyone with information that might help crack the case should call Cummings at 559-713-4722.

Lewis Griswold covers news of the South Valley for The Fresno Bee: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold