ON THE evening of 2 November, a 37-year-old trucker called Wayne Ford walked into the bar of the Ocean Grove motel in Trinidad, northern California, unsure if he should drown himself in drink or confront the terrible demons inside him. He ordered a rum and coke, and then another. He moved on to beer and Irish coffee. He played a few games of pool with the local crowd of fishermen and loggers.
As the evening wore on and his drinking continued, the barman asked him if he was all right. He said all he wanted to do was get drunk and blow his brains out.
Around midnight his brother joined him, and the two of them sat up in the cheapest room in the motel discussing whether he should unburden his terrible secret. Finally, at daybreak, the two of them drove to the County Sheriff's office in Eureka, a half-hour south on the coastal highway, and Ford confessed: that he had killed and mutilated four women and strewn their body parts in rivers and ditches across California.
To demonstrate his sincerity, Ford pulled out a well-thumbed Bible. As grisly proof of his deeds, he presented deputies with a plastic freezer bag containing the severed breast of one of his victims.
Thus began one of the biggest murder cases to hit the rural calm of California's redwood country. Police found two more body parts in the freezer of Ford's trailer home and three more he had buried under a tree in the same trailer park. He was arrested and held in custody against a bail demand of $1m.
What makes the case strange is that a compulsive sexual killer appears to have shown remorse and confessed. "It's almost without precedent," said Mike Rustigan, a criminologist at San Francisco State University. "The only other serial killer who confessed to my knowledge is Ed Kemper, the Santa Cruz Mountains killer who murdered several women. It's a rarity. Usually they delight in trying to outwit the police, and they have absolutely no sympathy for their victims. To see genuine remorse in a guy capable of such savagery is extremely surprising."
Ford showed no overt signs of being sociopath. His neighbours described him as charming, if a little obsessively clean, and his CV included a spell in the Marines and a job driving a bus for disabled children.
According to his own confessions, though, he was also capable of picking up prostitutes or hitch-hikers, luring them back to his trailer for rough sex with ropes, strangling and mutilating them and then hacking their bodies with knives and a saw. The severed breast he brought into the Eureka police station is thought to belong to a prostitute whose mutilated body was found on the edge of the Mojave Desert last month.
Parts of the first of his alleged victims, an unidentified young woman believed to have been a drifter linked to an environmentalist group, were discovered last year along a popular stretch of the Mad River, outside the small college town of Arcata where Ford lived.
In his confessions, Ford has attempted to direct police to the gravel bar where he says he buried the young woman's head and arms, but they are yet to turn up.
According to the police, Ford has been remarkably co-operative but has also shown signs of deep despair, saying he wants to die and deserves the death penalty.
Is he that rare specimen, a serial killer with a conscience? By his own account, Ford acted out of anger towards his estranged second wife, who not only rejected him but was preventing him from seeing his toddler son. He also described a mental breakdown that appears to have led to his discharge from the Marines in 1984.
Police and psychological experts doubted that resentment over a divorce could lead to such extreme acts of violence, but Ford said he turned himself in before his killing spree would lead him to harm his former wife, or his son, who live in Las Vegas. Over the past two years he frequented a Christian bookshop in Arcata and occasionally attended a Bible study group.
His confession and arrest have led investigators from all over California to descend on the Humboldt County sheriff's department in Eureka to see if Ford could have been involved in other mysterious killings over the past few years. He is suspected not only of the four murders he has owned up to, but also as many as eight others.
Ford led a restless life, from his childhood as the son of a military man to an adulthood spent shuttling between the north coast, the Los Angeles area and Las Vegas. Humboldt County is a classic refuge for drop-outs and drifters, a depressed rural area where dwindling logging and fishing industries have left plenty of room for hippies, ex-convicts, environmental activists and loners to carve out a life in their trailer homes amid the wooded hills.
It is the sort of place where few eyebrows are raised when someone vanishes, where the past is an uncomfortable subject for many, and few awkward questions are asked.
"I don't think any of us knew him," one of Ford's neighbours told reporters. "He was a loner and a loser."