Kat Winters is an American writer who just released the best, most comprehensive book on the East Area Rapist / Golden State Killer case. Below is my interview with her.
Thank you Kat for taking the time to talk with Books, Bullets and Bad Omens!
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Kat Winters. I’m a project manager and a consultant by day and a writer by night. My book Case Files of the East Area Rapist / Golden State Killer just came out a month or two ago, and it’s about the strangest, most intense serial killer case that I’ve ever heard of.
How and where did you first come across the story of this killer?
Oh, it seems like an eternity now, but I’ve only been aware of this case for a couple of years. I first heard about it at dinner with my father and a friend of his, who is this really famous cold case detective. And we were talking about some of the work he’d done, and I was hanging on every word because I’ve always been fascinated by this stuff, and he started talking about the East Area Rapist case. He’d consulted on that in the past. And I know California pretty well and I’m there a lot so this became pretty vivid in my mind as he described it. Some time went by and I finally researched it and I just kept getting deeper and deeper into it. It got under my skin big time.
What captured your attention about the case?
The sheer scale of it. Nearly fifty rapes? Ten or more murder victims? Five hundred miles covered? Are you for real? Why are we obsessed with Zodiac when we’ve got this guy? Why isn’t this a household name? Everything about it seemed unreal to me. It still does.
At what point did the idea of writing a book come to you?
Writing a book about this, or at least spearheading the project was like, not even an idea on the table until a few months ago. I just didn’t even fathom it. I’d been collecting the facts and verifying and organizing for several months, but those things were all going on a website. I kept having these conversations with people about demographics and target audiences of the website and you know, this case is forty years old and not everybody in that age group is going onto the internet to read things, so the chances of knocking that clue loose in someone’s memory was kind of slim on the web. It was helping people do research and stuff but I’ve always envisioned it as being multipurpose. So I grudgingly began to accept the fact that we needed something made of dead trees. A book was the perfect vehicle for getting all of the facts into a chronological state and making them accessible to more people. It was a natural progression from the website. The case is so complex, it just needed a book like this. It didn’t have one. And I had the feeling in my gut that I could pull this off so I knew I was in for it, but I started taking those steps.
What was the process of writing the book like?
Excruciating! The subject matter is so dark and there are so many details. Every sentence had to be fact-checked rigorously. When you’re talking about 186,000 words, that’s a lot of work. But the benefit of getting all of this information out there outweighed the cost of my time and my sanity, so I did it. And when the process became difficult and I started to falter, the words of the victims inspired me to keep going. I brought in a cowriter to help me to the finish line and to give me perspective. He saved it. He’s the unsung hero in this. So many other people helped as well. Investigation is a team sport.
Did you meet with survivors and detectives on this case while doing research for the book? What was that like? Did any of the meetings prove particularly meaningful?
Yes, this was the highlight! I have to say, I’m so moved and inspired by the amount of heart and soul that investigators put into this case. This isn’t or wasn’t just a job for them. This case has left a mark on their lives, something you can feel in their writing and see on their faces. Interviewing victims and witnesses was heavy, too. I didn’t really go looking for them. They reached out through the website. So most of them were already familiar with my work in some capacity, so it was easy to explain where I was coming from and what I was doing, and when they expressed gratitude and we talked about what all of this meant, it was so moving. Like, this is what it’s for, you know? Later, those times when I was at my desk feeling used up and trying to get through another chapter, thoughts of them inspired me and motivated me.
When it came to memorable or meaningful time, well, honestly they all had such a profound effect on me. They’re all so different and everyone has been affected in different ways. With a few of the survivors and witnesses, my heart really broke when they relayed how much fear they’ve had to live in. Sometimes suffering in silence, and we know a lot more about trauma and PTSD and stuff like that now, but having a word for it doesn’t make it go away. I’m tearing up just thinking out it. One woman in particular, a sibling of an early victim, has been corresponding with me for several months. We really dove deep into how this affected her family. And as I’m writing the book, I’m thinking, am I even doing this right? I set out to make a book that was only facts and sightings and was held to the same standards as like a master textbook on the subject. That goal was still important to me, but as we were finishing up I couldn’t help but start to add some of these stories in. It was hard because a lot of survivors and witnesses are understandably very private, you know, like I mentioned, the effects are still there. They’ve all moved on and conquered life but this just isn’t a subject that warms them. So a lot of those stories were just between us. But I started putting the heart of the survivors into the book and adding the human element. There’s the story of the cop whose sister-in-law was killed by the East Area Rapist and he the challenges he faced in caring for his brother. The story of the man whose brother and sister-in-law were killed and he spent hours trying to clean up the blood stain that his sister-in-law’s body left. Heavy stuff. It’s not all losses though, we’ve got some wins. Because of the work of a murder victim’s brother, California can now collect the DNA of violent felons, and tons of other cases have been solved. There’s the story of a mother who literally beat the hell out of the rapist before he could attack her daughters. There’s a twelve-year-old that was attacked and no matter what he did, the rapist couldn’t intimidate her. Even hearing about families that stayed together or banded together after the attack or hearing about women who were able to move past it, those are big wins and I’m still like, processing all of that. They still inspire me.
One of the things I loved about your book was that you included strange incidents (sightings of unknown people, weird phone calls etc.) preceding and following the EAR’s attacks, whereas us true crime aficionados often concentrate only on the attacks of serial killers. Can you relay a few of those strange incidents for us?
There are so many! I felt that it was important to include them because a very interesting timeline begins to develop and we can trace his movements. But yeah, some strange ones. There’s one where a suspicious man was dressed in a costume and a cane and he was right by the area of two attacks within the general timeframe. There’s one where a masked man pulls a bicycle out of a dump truck trailer and speeds off. There’s a real early one that might be him where he shouts “Can’t I take a leak in peace?” when he’s discovered in a yard. Sometimes when he was spotted he’d just stand and stare. Other times he’d run away. You know, assuming these sightings are all of him. They might be, or they might not be. I included the most likely ones and it’s clear why they’re likely. There were a whole bunch that I didn’t because the timing or the geography was just too off. I had to draw the line somewhere. After an attack, almost every neighbor had something strange to report.
Another aspect of the case I hadn’t really thought of before reading the book was this: on a few occasions, more than one suspicious person was spotted near a crime scene before an attacks. Can you tell us a bit about this? Do you think the EAR had an accomplice?
It’s hard to think of a guy like this having a partner or a lookout or something. This was a personal thing that he was doing and he wasn’t stealing enough for two people to get a good cut, so you have to wonder what would be in it for someone else if they helped him. A brother or close friend or something might make sense. There isn’t overwhelming evidence that he had help. The crime scenes only had one set of footprints, and no one ever saw two men together at a confirmed attack. Still, there were burglaries and prowlers who would be seen in pairs a couple days or weeks before an attack, and then a nearby house would be hit by the East Area Rapist. It happened a few times, enough times to raise eyebrows. There was one attack where the victims were sure that the rapist was inside, but someone was ringing the doorbell and then knocking on the window. It’s a nagging thing that won’t go away because it’s impossible to know for sure. Did he have help occasionally? You know, the way I wrote this is that I lay out all the facts, and I don’t tell you what to think. I’ll point things out and show you clear patterns, but my opinion doesn’t mean anything so I don’t put my opinion in the book. Not really. I let the facts tell the story, and the reader can decide if there’s something going on with an accomplice or not.
Though all of the EAR’s crimes were horrifying, the murder of Janelle Cruz has always bothered me… We obviously don’t have definitive answers (yet!), but could you speculate: Why did the killer come out of hiding for that one last murder? Why Janelle?
It’s so strange that he would offend on a regular basis and then stop for five years, then do it again, and then stop, right? What happened there? Did he skip town and commit crimes somewhere else? And Janelle Cruz was killed in that same area as one of the other murders. Why come back to the same place? Or did he ever leave? There are so many questions and I try not to speculate too much because I feel like I have a responsibility to just stick to what we know for sure, so that people who follow my work don’t get fact and fiction intermingled.
(Janelle Lisa Cruz)
There has for a long time been speculation that there was some sort of a hospital connection to the crimes. Can you tell us a bit about this?
Over fifty percent of his victims had a direct connection to the medical or dental field. That’s statistically significant. There were a lot of doctors in the houses he attacked, and nurses, medical students, people who had just undergone a procedure or a major surgery, people who worked at a pharmacy, and so on. One of the things we wonder is if there was a way that he was selecting victims through the medical industry. You know, was that his career? What can these facts tell us? We still don’t know for sure, but it’s important to note these patterns.
Another thing your book taught me was that there is some evidence to suggest that the killer may have been alive as late as 2001. Can you elaborate a bit?
The killer loved the phone. He would call rape victims before an attack and sometimes threaten them, sometimes he would call them after an attack, and sometimes he would call them years later. That’s one of the ways he made his presence known and scared his victims. Well, in 1982, during the five year break that he took, there was a big article about him published. Several days later, he called up one of his former victims with threats. She knew immediately that it was him. The same thing happened later, in 2001. Some big articles ran about the DNA from his rape cases being tied to DNA from all of these murders, and this was a huge day, it was the day that we learned that these murders in one part of the state were the work of the serial rapist in another part of the state. Well, the next day, he called up another victim. This was the first time he’d been heard from in ten years, so this was a big thing. And this call came twenty five years after her attack. Police believe firmly that he was still alive in 2001 and he could still be alive today.
The FBI recently became involved in the investigation. What is the current status of the case? Is it actively investigated?
Getting the FBI involved in 2016 was an adrenaline shot, and ever since then things have been on an upswing. There are more resources, and there’s more effort put into publicizing the case, and there’s more potential for fancier technology to be used in the case. It’s definitely being investigated in an active way, and it was even before the FBI became involved. Roughly twelve different jurisdictions were hit by this offender, and most of them have never closed the books on him. There are new suspects being tested on DNA all the time, there are great leads being followed, some new computer models are being applied and some of the results from those are already coming back. More things are known about this offender than ever before, and there’s more coordination to find him. It’s an old case, but it’s not a cold case.
(FBI press conference regarding the EAR/GSK. Photo credit Sacramento Bee)
What do you think, will the case ever be solved?
I’m one hundred percent sure it’ll be solved someday, since we have the DNA profile of the offender. Someday forensic genealogy will become a click it and ticket type of a deal. In fact, this case could be solved today with one of the larger private DNA databases, but there are a lot of legal and ethical questions surrounding those. When it comes to solving the case the traditional way and not relying on a family hit through DNA, I’m optimistic. If the current efforts and resource allocations keep up, then it’s really only a matter of time. How much time, I don’t know and couldn’t even guess. I hope it’s before the victims and witnesses pass on. They deserve closure and justice.
What’s next for you?
The East Area Rapist and Golden State Killer case is something I’ll always be working on in some capacity. I’ve changed gears and now that I’ve done the grunt work of collecting and verifying all of this information about him, and I’m turning energy toward some leads and some technology projects that will help move things forward. I’m a little awkward when it comes to advocating for the case, but my co-author is splendid at it, so he’s been going out and doing some of the television shows and speaking engagements and all of that.
With other stuff, I’m either a slow learner or a glutton for punishment, but I have another book in the works. I have to wait for a few more stars to align before serious writing begins so that’s all I’ll say for now, but writing is such an empowering and productive feeling even though it drains me. I can do good in this world through my words, and I feel a calling, so that’s what I’m trying to do.
Where can people keep up with you and your work?
Thank you, Teemu! I hope you and your readers spend some time learning about this incredible case, so they can celebrate with us when it’s finally solved!