Solved: DNA evidence helps unravel the killing of Karen Klaas, a Hermosa Beach mystery 41 years in the making
On Jan. 30 1976, Hermosa Beach resident Kathy Bergstrom was working as a teacher. After the school day ended, she returned to her North Hermosa home, when she noticed a man pacing up and down the street.
The man was a detective with the Hermosa Beach Police Department.
“He told me he had gone to my house and the door had been unlocked,” Bergstrom recalled. “I said, ‘Why would I lock it?’ And he said, ‘Don’t you know what’s happened?’”
Bergstrom did not, but she and the rest of the town soon would. Just up the block, police had cordoned off a grisly crime scene. Karen Klaas, then 32, had been attacked and strangled in her 24th Place home. Klaas was taken to a hospital and survived in a coma for five days until perishing Feb. 4
For 41 years, the case stood as one of the great unsolved crimes of Hermosa. The mystery was lifted Monday with an announcement from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department: a cold-case team had used the latest DNA technology to pinpoint Klaas’ killer. But there would be no manhunt or arrest, no tear-filled trial. The man named by genetic evidence, Kenneth Eugene Troyer, died more than 30 years ago in a shootout with police in Orange County.
Various aspects of the case lent it the feel of tabloid material. Klaas was the ex-wife of Bill Medley, of blue-eyed soul duet the Righteous Brothers. Over the years, various rumors linked the Klaas’ slaying to the McMartin Preschool scandal of the 1980s.
The case was also a thread that linked together dozens of officers who had passed through the HBPD over the years. The failure to solve it was an unresolved note ringing discordantly in the memory of many otherwise satisfactory careers. Tom Cray, a retired HBPD officer and one of the detectives originally assigned to the case, said that the Klaas killing nagged at cops new and old.
“That was the one case that bugged all of us. I always thought, ‘I sure hope they get this solved while we’re on this side of the dirt,’” Cray said. His partner on the case, Detective Paul Bynum, died in 1987. “If Paul is up there, this is going to make him happy.”
For Klaas’ family, the revelation marks a day they were not sure they would live to see. In emotional remarks delivered at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles, Medley said Monday that he was “more rattled than I have been for years.” Though they were divorced at the time of her death, he said he and Klaas remained friends, and he followed the case closely over the years. He complimented Sheriff’s deputies and HBPD officers for their efforts, and said the news provided immense relief to his family.
“I’ve been dealing with it for 40 years,” he said. “Every two years or so it comes up in my mind. A voice in the back of my head, probably Karen’s, tells me to drop it, that the [the killer] is probably dead or in prison. But it’s closure. It’s kind of an out-of-body experience.”
Scene of the crime
It wasn’t like Karen Klaas to be late. Noel Castle, a Hermosa resident who lived next door to Klaas at the time of the killing, recalls that Klaas would come by for coffee every morning after she dropped off her youngest son, Damien Klaas, at McMartin Preschool. Castle thought something was up when Klaas did not arrive for coffee, so she went to check on her.
As she always did, Castle approached Klaas’ home from the back, where there was a sliding glass door. She saw freshly baked cookies on the kitchen counter. She also saw crutches on the floor, so she presumed Klaas was home. (Klaas had broken her leg two weeks prior after falling while attempting to skateboard, forcing them to cancel a planned ski trip.)
Castle called out, “Karen, are you home?” Then she and Sue Croft, another neighborhood resident who typically joined them for coffee, went around to the front of the house and knocked on the door. A man with “wooly brown hair” opened the door. The combination of not recognizing the man and his imposing appearance made them fearful, and they fled.
“We ran across the street to a fireman’s house. I knew he had a gun, but he wasn’t home. There wasn’t a man home on the street,” Castle said.
Castle called 911. She recalls a distraught looking police officer warning her against entering the home, and seeing Klaas’ body brought out on a gurney, “red and puffy” from strangulation.
John Doukakis, a retired Hermosa Beach police officer who was the lieutenant in charge of the detective bureau at the time of Klaas’ killing, described the North Hermosa neighborhood where she lived as “quiet,” and said patrol cars made few visits.
“Transients would have stood out there. He must have had a reason for being there,” Doukakis said of Troyer.
In fact, Troyer did have a reason for being there. According to the sheriff’s department, he had a relative who lived only two blocks away from Klaas’ home. Tommy Thompson, a retired HBPD officer who periodically worked on the case in his 39 years with the department, said the relative was Troyer’s brother, who is now in a mental institution.
According to a memoir Doukakis has written, there was some confusion when he arrived at the scene. Although Klaas was not dead and had been transported to the hospital, he spoke with doctors there and was convinced that she would not live. He deemed it a murder case crime scene, and ensured that nothing was touched.
Doukakis wrote that he then called the Sheriff’s department. Although it is common for the department to help smaller agencies with homicides because of the scale and complexity of the evidence to be collected, they initially refused to send a “rollout team” because the victim was not dead, Doukakis wrote. He eventually reached someone higher on the chain of command, and the sheriff dispatched an investigator and crime scene technician.
Meanwhile, Hermosa officers scoured the neighborhood and began interviewing Castle and other potential witnesses.
Cray and his partner Bynum were the two HBPD detectives sent to the Klaas home. As happens with significant events, he can recall exactly where he was when he heard what had happened.
“My partner Bynum and I were serving a warrant up in Los Angeles, in Hollywood,” Cray said in an interview. “And the call came in to get back to Hermosa: there had been a homicide.”
‘It’s not me’
At the time, crime in Hermosa was not much different than it is now, Cray recalled, primarily property crimes of opportunity. (Things have not changed that much since Kathy Bergstrom spoke to the detective: crime reports today are dominated by cases of unlocked doors and open windows.) The city would have perhaps one homicide per year. The difference, Cray said, was the feel of the town.
“The town back then was a little wilder. This is the drug era we’re talking about, the ‘70s,” he said.
Bonnie Clarke-Johnson was a forensic photographer with HBPD at the time of the killing. She took many of the original photographs that detectives relied on in the case. Like many of those who worked the case, it left a deep impression on her.
“It was terrible. Her leg was in a cast, she was on crutches. She would have been helpless,” Clarke-Johnson said in an interview.
She said that although there were no signs of a major struggle, the house had the appearance of having been ransacked, as if Klaas had walked in on Troyer in the midst of a burglary. Clarke-Johnson recalled that some of her photos showed dresser drawers open.
In addition to the burglary angle, speculation quickly turned to the possibility that the man had been stalking Klaas. Castle recalled seeing the suspect walking down the street. Mary Garrett, who also lived on the street, said the she thought her mother had also seen the man.
Detectives would later put Castle under hypnosis to draw out a detailed description of the suspect. The information she provided led to the creation of a “suspect bust” a three-dimensional version of the facial composite created by police sketch artists. Doukakis said that the Klaas case was the first case in California where the sculpture method, now rare, was used.
The crime immediately generated widespread public interest. Wanted posters went up all over town. But the description of the suspect — a Caucasian man, 5 feet-8 inches tall, weighing about 160 pounds with bushy brown hair and a beard — did not do much to narrow things down. Cray recalled that people matching that description would come by the station to tell police “It’s not me.”
Cray recalled that his partner Bynum also thought he had seen the man around town. Bynum’s suspicions settled on a firefighter from Orange County. Castle identified the man in a photo array. It was, Cray said, “the strongest lead” they had at the time of the homicide, but the firefighter was eventually eliminated as a suspect.
“It turns out he was having his taxes done, we verified it with the tax data,” Cray said. “Knowing how things turned out, it gives me relief. My partner always swore it was him. We even tried to time it, and figure out if he could have gotten back to Hermosa,” from his tax accountant, Cray said.
As time wore on, leads trickled in. Thompson estimated that a new angle would emerge every three or four years. Perhaps the most notable of these was a coincidence-strewn theory connecting Klaas’ killing to the McMartin Preschool scandal, a lurid case involving alleged Satanic rituals and child abuse that for a time was the most expensive criminal prosecution in U.S. history.
In addition to the fact that Klaas was killed shortly after dropping off her son at the school, her husband at the time of the killing, Damien’s father, died shortly after the first arrests in the McMartin case, falling to his death after driving off the side of a mountain in Oregon. And the accountant who handled the taxes for the Orange County firefighter suspected by Bynum also did the books for the preschool. At one point, Robert Philibosian, the Los Angeles County District Attorney at the time of the McMartin investigation, announced that he was looking into into the Klaas case for potential connections; the DA’s office announced the next day that, in fact, the case would not be re-examined.
Time on their side
The Unsolved Unit of the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau began reinvestigating the case in 1999. In the 23 years that had passed since the killing, technology had advanced to the point that police departments could compare the genetic information in one case to that taken in others. Thanks to the work of the officers and deputies who responded back in 1976, the cold-case unit had a DNA sample to work with, taken from a towel in the Klaas home. But in order for the sample to be useful, it had to have a match in a database. And the first comparison, with a database maintained by the FBI, failed find a counterpart.
While time is frequently the enemy of cops working murder cases — the “First 48” phenomenon — the passage of time can actually help forensic-oriented investigations, because criminal DNA databases swell with each passing year. DNA is regularly collected from those convicted of felonies, those arrested on suspicion of felonies, and unknown forensic samples at crime scenes, providing more and more points of comparison.
“It took a long time for science and technology to be able to catch up with the sample,” said
Elissa Mayo, a bureau chief and DNA specialist with the California Department of Justice’s Bureau of Forensic Services.
This became especially apparent when the cold-case detectives began using the familial search protocol. This technology allows law enforcement to find partial matches in DNA, of the kind that would statistically occur with a close relative. Finding a match does not mean that detectives have found the perpetrator, but that the person may be related to the perpetrator.
These technological advances have proven controversial. A California state appeals court ruled in People v. Buza that mandatory collection of DNA from those arrested but not convicted violated the California Constitution; the state Supreme Court is expected to set arguments on the case in the next few months. And privacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have raised concerns that familial search technology inappropriately expands the search abilities of law enforcement.
Officials say the familial search protocol in California is designed with privacy concerns in mind. Local law enforcement agencies submit requests to the state justice department, who decides whether the case “rises to a level of public safety urgency,” to justify using the technology, Mayo said in an interview. And, crucially it looks at only the population of those convicted of felonies, not merely those arrested.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey acknowledged that “there was a resistance due to privacy concerns,” about the use of familial DNA searching, but said it has become “an invaluable resource.” (Her office previously used the technology to secure the conviction of Lonnie Franklin Jr., the so-called “Grim Sleeper” serial killer, for killing 10 black women in South Los Angeles; Franklin was sentenced to death in August.) And when her office made a request in the Klaas case, the possibility of a sexually violent predator still at large was more than enough for the state to grant it.
Waiting for the man
Detective Sgt. Tom Harris, of the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau, joined the case in 2008. He and partner Detective Larry Brandenburg went beyond sorting through DNA, he said, relying on “a combination of every different kind of evidence.” Tips came in over the years, and they kept in touch with retired HBPD officers.
“We were trying to identify people, we re-interviewed witnesses. We travelled around the country,” Harris said.
They first ran a familial DNA search in 2011, again failing to find a match. But around the time of the first familial search, a relative of Troyer was convicted of a “qualifying crime.” Following the relative’s incarceration, the sample was collected and placed in the database.
The familial match was made from a close male relative, with only “first degree” separation from Troyer himself, Sheriff’s deputies said. Due to privacy restrictions in state law, they could not disclose who had provided the sample.
Once the match was found, the case became a matter of eliminating suspects, including the relative of Troyer’s from whom the matching sample in the database was obtained, Harris said. They then began to look at Troyer himself.
Troyer escaped from the California Men’s Colony State Prison in San Luis Obispo on Jan. 30, 1982, six years to the day after the attack on Klaas, where he was serving a sentence for burglary, according to the sheriff’s department. He made his way to Orange County, where he went on a crime spree.
According to a news brief in the Los Angeles Times on March 11, 1982, Troyer got into a fight with a Huntington Beach police officer. An officer confronted Troyer believing that Troyer had raped a woman; Troyer pulled a gun in the ensuing scuffle, and may have been wounded. He escaped into a nearby home following the fight.
Troyer was killed three days later in Santa Ana. According to Harris, officers from departments in Anaheim, Santa Ana and elsewhere in Orange County formed a task force to look for Troyer, and got a tip off about his whereabouts.
According to a subsequent story in the Times, Troyer led police on a high-speed chase before crashing into a tree in Santa Ana. He was hit by officer gunfire after making a “furtive move” while exiting the vehicle, and subsequently died in a hospital on March 14, 1982.
Although Troyer died in police custody, the law at the time did not compel officers to take DNA from a suspect, and there was no database in which it could be entered. Harris and Brandenburg discovered that, thankfully, officials with the Orange County Coroner’s office had maintained a small sample of Troyer’s DNA. The final comparison proved a match.
The news was surprising to those Klaas left behind. Medley kept up with deputies throughout the investigation, but after all these years worried the crime would ever be solved. Finding the match provided measure of relief.
“It’s been a long road,” Medley said. “I’m just thankful I can close the book.”
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