Why Oh Why
May 1962–May 1969
In the spring of 1962, the greater Phoenix area had not yet sprawled haphazardly across the high desert floor. To the northeast, where luxury resorts would later rise in Scottsdale, open reaches of barren sandy land rolled on for miles and miles. Yet the Scottsdale desert had its inhabitants, at least at night, when young people from all over Maricopa County would arrive to party, drink and build bonfires—or park in isolated lovers’ lanes. There might have been one thousand teenagers in the vicinity on any night. Sometimes one party would be romping just two hundred feet away from another. Little trails crisscrossed the desert, created by cars driving off-road, which they did for good reason. If you circled your cars and started drinking right on the edge of the desert, twenty-five feet from Scottsdale Road, the cops would catch you. So everyone drove deeper in, at least two hundred feet. Despite that act of caution, most of the kids would then go ahead and build a bonfire, only to wonder later how the cops managed to find them. By dawn, everyone would be gone, the desert abandoned to the heat of the day.
Out there, where the pavement gave way to sand, a school bus full of students drove by at 7:30 a.m. on May 24, 1962, a Thursday. The students, from the small town of Cave Creek, were on their way to Paradise Valley High, two miles north of Phoenix. They were laughing and talking until, looking east out at the desert, they saw a car parked some three hundred feet off Scottsdale Road, just north of Bell Road. Near the car, they saw two people—bodies?—lying on their backs. The students rushed to tell the bus driver, who at a stop sign called out to a state highway crew foreman, Joe Armos, asking him to notify the sheriff’s department. Armos instead flagged down two deputies on their way to target practice at the sheriff’s range. It had been their day off, but now Joe Duwel and Don Spezzano turned and drove into the desert. They reached the car—a 1959 Chevy Impala, white with a red stripe—at 7:54 a.m. It sat under a palo verde tree, some thirty-eight feet up one of the many desert trails. Beside it lay the body of a young man, his head facing the car, and, six feet south, the body of a young woman, on her back with her legs pointed toward his. Both were fully and neatly dressed, he in Levi’s and a short-sleeved striped shirt, she in yellow capri pants and a checked yellow blouse. Both still had their wallets, money and jewelry, with her purse untouched in the car, a man’s class ring on her left index finger. Both also had holes in their heads—her right temple, his left. They had each been shot twice. Deputy Duwel called his supervisor. Within twenty minutes, Sergeants Jerry Hill and Lester Jones arrived at the scene, summoned from their breakfast at Helsing’s Coffee Shop.
It did not take the sheriff’s detectives long to identify the victims. Tim McKillop and Joyce Sterrenberg, both twenty—he six foot four, 180 pounds, blond hair and blue eyes, she five foot nine, 125 pounds, brown hair, blue eyes—had been employed by Mountain States Telephone. They’d been engaged, with plans to marry. They had left Joyce’s home near 8:00 p.m. the previous evening, after celebrating her dad’s birthday over ice cream and cake, saying they were going to look at model homes in a new development. Their parents had wakened in the early morning to find Tim and Joyce’s beds made up and empty—they’d never come home. Tim’s father, Jim McKillop, had called the Sterrenberg home at 5:30 a.m. Cliff Sterrenberg had filed a missing person report and cruised the neighborhood. Back home, near 9:30 a.m., both he and McKillop heard the same news report on their kitchen radios: two bodies, a young couple, found shot to death in the desert north of Scottsdale. McKillop just knew it was Tim and Joyce. Sterrenberg braced himself and called the sheriff’s department.
At the murder scene, Sergeants Hill and Jones took notes, shot photos and collected evidence. They found four spent .45 reloaded gun casings (new bullets in old cartridges), one live shell, one mutilated slug, tire tracks, Joyce’s purse, Tim’s wallet, a handkerchief and a thatch of hair—the last recovered some sixty feet from the car. They noted that the front passenger door was locked, suggesting that both victims had gotten out on the driver’s side. Tire marks told them that another car had backed up and sped out to Scottsdale Road, the tires digging into the desert floor as a car does when it accelerates rapidly from a dead stop. According to Hill and Jones’s initial report, they marked, tagged and placed all items of evidence in envelopes labeled maricopa county sheriff’s office property.
Yet it can’t be said that the deputies ran a sophisticated operation. They didn’t identify the type of blood at the murder scene. They didn’t make casts of the tire tracks. They didn’t secure the site—on the morning of May 24, journalists and TV crews joined investigators in tromping around the area. Stranger still, the deputies didn’t lift fingerprints off the car out in the desert. Instead, they had the Chevy Impala towed to a sheriff’s department lot in downtown Phoenix, without monitoring the route taken or the departure and arrival times. Once there, the car sat in an open, unsecured area before being moved into a garage.
Shortly after noon, a sheriff’s fingerprint technician, Sergeant Jerry Jacka, arrived at the garage to start his process of photographing, dusting and lifting latent prints off the Impala. In all, he came up with fifteen latents, but most were either the victims’ or unintelligible. Two weeks later, he sent just one latent lift to the FBI’s fingerprint section; he’d taken it from the bottom of the left front door handle, thinking it the best possible for a match. When that yielded nothing, Jacka sent the FBI three more lifts, apparently the remaining intelligible ones, noting that “these latent impressions are the only physical evidence that we have at this time.” Again, nothing.
By then, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office was in a frenzy. The pressure had been on from the first day, when news of the murders claimed front-page banner headlines (“Authorities Sift Slender Clues in Savage Slaying of Young Pair”), supplanting news that astronaut Scott Carpenter had landed after three orbits of the earth in the Mercury-Atlas 7 rocket. On the second day, a renowned Arizona State University psychologist told reporters that the killer either knew and had been rejected by Joyce or was a sadist who would strike again. In an interview at his home, Jim McKillop sobbed and pounded his thigh with a fist. “What is there to say,” he asked, “when you learn your only son and the girl he was going to marry have been shot to death by a madman? Why oh why? Is there anyone in the world who had anything against either one of those kids? They were good kids who wanted to get married. Neither had ever hurt anyone.” McKillop seemed to be in a state of semishock as he rose to show the reporter bowling trophies he and Tim had won together in a church league. “My pal, my hunting and fishing partner, that fine boy gave me a lot of proud moments, the little fella I watched grow into a real man. We fished, we camped, we’d go everywhere together. It made me glad when I learned my boy had met a girl he wanted to marry. He had planned a big wedding for next April.”
Cliff Sterrenberg also spoke to a reporter: “You read about these things in the newspapers. You think it can’t happen to you. . . . They’d been going steady since they were introduced last October. They were buying things as they planned their wedding.” He recalled the last time he’d seen his daughter: She at the door, leaving to get gas in her car, saying, “We won’t be long.”
Sheriff L. C. Boies soon had seventeen investigators assigned full-time to the Scottsdale lovers’ lane murders, working twelve-hour days in five separate teams, helped by 110 other deputies ordered to funnel information to a coordinating captain. Officers spread through the Phoenix area, canvassing citizens and gun dealers, collecting and test-firing many dozens of .45-caliber pistols, focusing on people known to use hand-reloaded .45 shells. They questioned informers, visited pawnshops, talked with parolees and crackpots—anyone with an idea or a theory. Hundreds of telephone tips began flooding the department, the numbers rising along with the growing total of reward money contributed by businesses and community groups—$1,000 became $5,000, then $7,000, finally $10,000.
Theories abounded. The investigators variously thought the murders the work of a jealous suitor, a robber, a madman or an enraged driver. Some in the sheriff’s office believed the killer had certainly known his victims. But Sergeant Lester Jones suspected a gang of roving thrill seekers. “This was a spur of the moment slaying,” he told reporters. “It is the type committed by a bunch of punks driving around looking for trouble.” Sergeant Jones said he had a number of reasons to believe there was more than one person in the killer’s car, “but I’m not ready to release this evidence for publication. It could hurt our case.” Also: “There’s a possibility there are two or three teen-agers that witnessed the crime and are now reluctant to come forward with their accounts because they fear the gunman who fired the fatal shots.”
What “number of reasons” did Sergeant Jones have? What evidence that he was “not ready to release?” The Macumber file never yielded answers to these questions. Not a single sheriff’s report—at least not a single surviving report—addressed or documented this possibility. Whatever the deputies’ theories, the investigators appeared to still have no solid clues or leads when Joyce and Tim went to their graves together at a double funeral held on Monday afternoon, May 28, in the Memory Chapel of A. L. Moore and Sons Mortuary. Two gray caskets rested end to end in a dimly lit room, draped in flowers, with more than three hundred mourners attending—including a team of plainclothes detectives, watching for a possible killer among them.
“To those who love God all things can work together for good,” the Reverend Philip A. Gangsei reminded the mourners. “Blessings can come, and usually do, from trouble and difficulty.” He knew everyone was asking why this young couple had been so brutally murdered. The young pastor could only say, “We live in a world where men’s minds sometimes become twisted.”
In the ensuing weeks, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office continued to search frantically but vainly for clues and leads. Sheriff Cal Boies issued a public appeal for assistance, as did Cliff Sterrenberg. “We’ll continue to check out every lead including crank calls,” Captain Ralph Edmunson vowed. “We can’t pass up one because you never know when the right tip will come in. . . . Neither I nor all the men who have been working this have been able to get it off our minds. None of us will rest until it’s over. Someday we’ll get the guy.”
In time, though, every tip started feeling like a crank call. A local attorney thought a former client he’d represented years before in Montana on a grand theft charge might be the killer. A man reported that he’d been getting annoying phone calls from a stranger in the middle of the night, someone talking about “the deal out on Scottsdale and Bell Road.” A priest reported a boy who was “acting abnormal” and rambling on about the double slaying. Women at bars tried to turn in ex-lovers, ex-husbands and anyone who’d done them wrong. Others thought their next-door neighbors had been acting oddly. An alcoholic ex-con fingered his brother, with whom he’d been arguing all night. A woman jailed on a drunk driving charge loudly accused her husband, who when contacted by investigators said, “She sure must be mad at me.” Another wife, deep into a custody dispute with her estranged husband, insisted that he’d killed the couple in the lovers’ lane. A disturbed young man tried to confess so he could be committed to the Arizona State Hospital and get help. Jim McKillop even had some suspicions about Cliff Sterrenberg.
In issuing his fiscal year report at the end of June 1962, some five weeks after the Scottsdale murders, Sheriff Boies could claim a generally high crime-solution rate—they’d solved 59 percent of all felony cases, more than twice the national average. During that year, they’d arrested fifteen persons in connection with ten homicides. They’d solved nine of those murder cases—all but one: the double slaying of Timothy McKillop and Joyce Sterrenberg on May 24.
Then, amid all the crank calls and false leads, came another tip. On August 25, three months after the Scottsdale killings, an informant advised sheriff’s investigators that a seventeen-year-old girl confined at the Maricopa County Detention Ward had told a matron a story that seemed to place her at the scene of the murders.
The tip went to the chief investigators, Sergeants Jerry Hill and Lester Jones. They tried to interview the girl, Linda Primrose, who was temporarily in the detention center over a stolen car charge, her usual domicile being the Good Shepherd Home for Girls, where she’d been placed by her mother. But Primrose wouldn’t cooperate with Hill and Jones. Despite what she’d told the matron, she now resolutely denied any knowledge of the homicides.
Hill decided to try again with another deputy sheriff, Sergeant Tom Hakes. On September 9, Hakes visited Primrose at the Good Shepherd Home and found her much more cooperative. She told him her story: On the night of May 23, she’d been picked up near her home by a man named “Ernie Salazar,” a girl known as “Terry” or “Theresa,” and two other men. They were all drinking and smoking pot, and she was skin-popping, too. While driving north on Scottsdale Road, they spotted the Sterrenberg Impala at a gas station. They followed the Impala up Scottsdale, being on their way to pick up a “stash” out in the desert. About a half mile north of Bell Road, the Impala turned onto a dirt road. Ernie drove his car past the dirt road for a tenth of a mile, then made a U-turn and came back. He pulled his car almost parallel with the Impala and stopped. He got out of his car and walked over to the Impala, where he started talking to the couple inside. Primrose heard Ernie shout some profanities, then saw him return to his car and get something from under the driver’s seat. Everyone was outside of their cars by now. Primrose heard a shot, turned, and saw the young man lying on the ground. She saw Ernie shoot the young woman—once, then again while she was lying on the ground. The girl named Terry or Theresa began to scream and yank at her own hair in a fit of sorts. Primrose pushed Terry back into Ernie’s car, and they quickly drove off.
Six days later, Sergeant Hakes met Primrose again, along with two other deputies. During a two-hour interrogation, Primrose once more told of being at the scene of the murders and seeing “Ernie” kill Tim and Joyce. This time, the deputies took shorthand notes and transcribed her statement. Primrose offered a revised version: Now they’d initially come across the Impala in the desert, while looking for their “stash,” rather than at a gas station. Otherwise the details remained much the same, though Primrose at moments appeared somewhat confused. The interrogators kept asking this teenage addict to be precise, and she kept telling them she couldn’t remember and didn’t care: I didn’t notice. . . . Like I said, I was high. No, I can’t think of her name because I don’t give a damn about her name.
Yet she did remember the victims’ car: a white Impala with a stripe. And she remembered the murders: We couldn’t pick up our stash because those people were there. Ernie was mad. Bang. There was a shot. When I heard the shot, I looked up. The girl was running. Bang. They came up close to her head. Bang again.
Deputy county attorney Joe Shaw did not regard this one as a crank lead. Two days after Primrose testified, he arranged for her to take a polygraph test. Shortly past noon on September 18, a team of deputies brought Primrose to John McCarthy at the Arizona Polygraph Laboratory. There he interviewed and tested her. She resisted and tried to evade, taking long, deep breaths while answering questions. Yet McCarthy offered the deputies an unequivocal conclusion: “Primrose was present at the time of the homicide and does have firsthand knowledge of the crime and other persons involved.”
Joe Shaw next arranged for Primrose to visit Dr. Milton Erickson, a prominent psychiatrist. He spoke to her for three hours on September 20, then for another hour on September 26. Again she resisted, flaring angrily at the doctor. Yet Dr. Erickson thought that what she told him confirmed her previous statements. She talked to him of being present at the murder scene. She described how she’d stood over Joyce’s body. Dr. Erickson ended up firmly convinced that she was telling the truth. He believed “she could give further good information on all subjects present at the scene of the crime.”
Another day that September, Hakes and a second officer put Primrose in a car and invited her to direct them to the scene of the murder. She took them straight there and accurately described the layout—the position of the cars and the bodies—in detail not available in the newspapers. “She led us by direction,” Hakes later testified. “She knew where she was going. She knew what the area was.”
Then came investigative roadblocks. Hours after Primrose first saw Dr. Erickson, deputies took her to the southeast section of Phoenix, where together they vainly searched for “Terry” or “Theresa,” the woman who’d pulled her hair at the murder site. Two days later, a team of investigators spent all day and night in the Deuce area, prowling the streets in an attempt to locate “Ernie,” “Terry,” and the others who populated Primrose’s story. That same night, Hakes and several colleagues spent three hours in and around the area of Second Street and Madison, Third Street and Jefferson, and Third Street and Washington. “Numerous subjects were questioned,” Hakes noted, “but very little information was obtained.”
The last line of his report: “Investigation continues.” It did not. Here the Primrose file ends. Unable to locate “Ernie” or “Terry,” the investigators didn’t follow up. They never connected “Terry” tearing her hair with the thatch of hair found at the scene. They never tested that thatch of hair.
As time went by, the unsolved Scottsdale lovers’ lane murders hung heavily over the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Yet the case no longer consumed the public’s attention. By early June, the story had disappeared from the local newspapers’ front pages, and then it left even the inside pages. After their encounter with Primrose, sheriff’s investigators added just a few scant reports to their own file—they had nowhere left to go. Only on anniversaries did the case recapture attention. “Year Passes Since Desert Killing of Engaged Couple; Clues Meager” read a headline in the Arizona Republic on May 23, 1963. His office, Sheriff Boies reported, had conducted more than three hundred investigations into leads. They had test-fired more than seven hundred pistols. They had questioned burglars, armed robbers, sex perverts and dozens of gun owners. They had given lie detector tests to all known rapists and other men with records of violent crime in the area. Yet they’d come up empty. Boies couldn’t believe that the $10,000 reward hadn’t brought the hoped-for results.
In October 1963, the sheriff’s department released to the news media copies of the four latent fingerprints they had earlier provided to the FBI, and sent flyers featuring the prints to law enforcement agencies across the country. “Double-Murder,” read the banner atop the flyer. “Information Wanted. $10,000 Reward Posted.” This, too, yielded nothing.
In May 1964, newspaper headlines recognized the second anniversary: “Still a Mystery; Sweethearts Murdered in Desert 2 Years Ago.” By then, deputies had conducted ballistics checks on more than eight hundred guns. They’d talked to yet another group of informers, mental patients and barroom drunks. They’d written jurisdictions nationwide, whenever word came of a murder in another state that resembled the Scottsdale lovers’ lane killings. “Today the case still remains open and periodically officers go over the file looking for any little detail they may have overlooked,” reported one newspaper account that May. “Every large community seems to have a murder that plagues the police. In Boston there is a strangler at large, in Los Angeles the ‘Black Dahlia’ is still unsolved. In each instance the police never close their files. They never forget and the killer or killers will never really be safe from apprehension.”
Less than three months later, another intriguing lead emerged. On August 13, 1964, Sergeant Ralph Anderson of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office received a phone call from an Officer Shaver of the Scottsdale Police Department. Shaver was just then booking a twenty-year-old man on a charge of joyriding—a man who believed “he was the one who committed the double homicide north of Scottsdale.” The subject’s name: Ernest Valenzuela. Ernie.
Sergeant Anderson drove to the Scottsdale Police Department to interview Valenzuela. It turned out Valenzuela had confessed once before to the Scottsdale lovers’ lane killings. In early 1963, while serving ninety days in a Phoenix jail on a burglary charge, he’d told a fellow inmate, Richard Green, that he’d killed Joyce Sterrenberg and Tim McKillop. Green had relayed this information to authorities, who’d arranged for a psychologist to examine Valenzuela. Nothing more came of that incident, other than a note in Valenzuela’s file. Now here he was, again volunteering a confession.
Valenzuela grew worried and nervous, he explained to Sergeant Anderson, every time he heard or thought about these murders north of Scottsdale. He wanted to clear up his mind about this murder. He’d been drinking heavily and smoking marijuana that night—not unusual for him—so his memories were hazy. As he recalled, the murders took place in the desert north of Scottsdale. There were two victims, a male and a female. He killed them, he believed, because he saw this good-looking gal with this man and wanted to prove to her that he was a better man than her guy. He believed he used a .45-caliber automatic he’d borrowed from his nephew.
Sergeant Anderson, knowing the evidence, asked: Did the female attempt to run or resist? Yes, Valenzuela said. He thought she attempted to back away or run, and then he shot her.
One more thing: Valenzuela thought that “an unknown girl” was with him that night.
He stared at Sergeant Anderson, his tone even and uninflected. He was of Native American heritage—a Pima Indian—with close-cropped hair and an impassive manner. Though not big, at five foot nine and 156 pounds, he looked well muscled, in good shape. His record, just in the past year, included a string of burglaries, a grand theft auto and an assault with a deadly weapon. He’d been in and out of trouble since the age of eleven. He’d recently traveled to Oklahoma with a pistol, aiming to kill a former girlfriend who’d ratted him out on a burglary, but instead ended up being arrested for carrying a concealed deadly weapon. Sergeant Anderson, weighing all this, decided to take him to the sheriff’s office for further questioning. There, deputies made arrangements for a psychiatrist, Dr. Maier Tuchler, to interview Valenzuela.
They met the next day at 2:50 p.m. Before beginning, Tuchler warned Valenzuela that he, though a doctor, might be subpoenaed to testify in a courtroom about this communication. Tuchler advised Valenzuela of his legal rights and explained that he didn’t have to continue with the interview if he didn’t wish to. Valenzuela said he understood and wanted to keep going. They talked for one hour, in the presence of Anderson and a second sheriff’s investigator. Five days later, Dr. Tuchler wrote a report of this encounter, addressed directly to Sheriff Cal Boies. Valenzuela, he began, is “a very dangerous and impulsive young man who is capable of homicide for justification and reasons which appear to him adequate.” Tuchler continued:
He gives a long history of a pattern of aggressive behavior involving carrying a gun and disturbing lovers in various lover’s lanes in this area. For example, he carried a .22 rifle to a lover’s lane in Laveen, held the gun to a chap and a girl who were involved in some romantic act, found himself quite enjoying the confusion that ensued. He did not at this time shoot. He reports on another occasion having his cousin’s pistol or revolver and aimlessly wanting to shoot someone. This suggests a rather cold blooded and emotionless individual with little concept or value for human life. Needless to say the officer who apprehended [Valenzuela] and reported this statement to [me] recognizes the potential homicide capacity in this individual. [I] emphatically agree.
In the end, on the basis of a limited one-hour interview, Tuchler felt unable to rule out, with certainty, the possibility that Valenzuela was just fantasizing or projecting. The doctor nonetheless had a definite judgment of Ernest Valenzuela: “This is an exceedingly dangerous young man and whatever possible legal means are available to keep him under observation, such means should be evoked. . . . [If] released on bond, we are dealing with a potential homicide in a lad who is rather devoid of conscience and feels little or no remorse. This case deserves intensive investigation.”
Despite this warning, authorities—on the very day Tuchler wrote his letter—released Valenzuela after just five days in jail. The records document no follow-up or evidence that detectives ever connected Valenzuela with the statements made by Linda Primrose two years earlier.
As the months passed, investigators still chased odd tips, always in vain. In May 1969, seven years after the killings, another clue of sorts emerged. The Sterrenberg and McKillop families notified the sheriff’s office that at times when they visited Tim and Joyce’s side-by-side graves, they found roses placed on them. For a while, deputies staked out the cemetery to see if they could catch a remorseful killer, and the lovers’ lane killings became known as the Rose Petal Case. Journalists once again came to interview Tim’s and Joyce’s parents. “Neither Cliff nor I bear any malice against whoever did it,” Jim McKillop told them. “We’d just like to know why. That’s the question: Why?”
Copyright © 2013 by Barry Siegel