Daily Breeze (Torrance, CA)
July 7, 1996
FIGHTING A KILLER
Author: Tim Woodhull
Only Patrick Wayne Kearney knows how many he murdered, dismembered and dumped.
The Redondo Beach resident told police he began killing in 1962, then started his deadly once-a-month spree in 1974, preying mostly on hitchhikers, hustlers and street kids -- one-third of them from the South Bay area.
Kearney claimed killing dozens of boys and young men. He copped to 21, ages 5 to 28.
Dubbed the "trash bag murderer" for sacking and scattering body parts and corpses along culverts and sand dunes and hillsides and freeways across five counties, Kearney's methods changed little through the years. Usually, he'd shoot a victim, sodomize or beat the corpse, then dismember him in his bathtub and scatter the remains on his way to work or during his lunch hour or late at night or while cruising on weekends.
And this October, Kearney gets his third parole hearing -- alarming the cops who put him away and enraging the families of his victims.
"I plan to contact as many of those families as I can," said retired sheriff's Detective Al Sett, lead investigator on the case. "I have a certain integrity about working homicides. . . . I like to see killers in jail. That's where they belong. The mere thought this guy could get out. . . . Who knows what a parole board will do after three times? . . "
Said Elizabeth McGhee, whose brother was murdered by Kearney: "We just always presumed he'd be in prison for more than 100 years."
She forgot -- or didn't know -- the law that applied at the time.
The state's death penalty didn't exist in the 1970s. No one could be sentenced for first-degree murder to life in prison without parole. And anyone sentenced to life behind bars couldn't receive consecutive sentences. So Kearney is serving concurrent life sentences for murders of 21 people and has a parole hearing every six years.
"This guy's a killer, a serial killer," said sheriff's homicide Detective Louis Danoff. "He's got a master's degree in murder. We're trying to alert people about him to keep him where he is. . . . One of our concerns is, people have forgotten about him."
No wonder. The 5-foot-5-inch Kearney, more the stature of a Mr. Peepers than a hardened killer, wasn't in the spotlight long because he never went to trial. Instead, he pleaded guilty at his arraignment in Riverside County, then pleaded guilty in Los Angeles County to 18 other murders.
"He wanted to be done quickly, so quickly that I don't think we even had the probation reports (usually reviewed by the court) when I sentenced him," recalled retired Superior Court Judge Paul Breckenridge.
As soon as Kearney was locked away, the glare of public attention shifted to the Hillside Strangler case -- involving 10 murders -- and to the Lawrence Bittaker-Roy Norris trial, involving five sex torture slayings. While those took center stage, Kearney quietly slid behind bars, where he continued writing detectives to help identify victims and find their remains so families could be officially notified and the cases could be closed.
For families of the victims, however, the case never stops. Not as long as Kearney lives. Not as long as he pleads for parole.
"I thought my world was coming to an end when my son was murdered," said Michael McGhee's mother, Elizabeth, who left the South Bay shortly after he died. She works as a cook near San Miguel. "It's never out of your mind. It never goes away. It never will. . ."
The case in Los Angeles County started Jan. 24, 1977, when a laborer virtually stumbled over a tightly-bound bundle in the Lennox Boulevard tunnel under the San Diego Freeway. It was the corpse of 28-year-old Nicolas Hernandez-Jimenez of Los Angeles.
"The body was wrapped in a fetal position, using heavy-duty nylon fiber tape," Sett reported to the district attorney. The body "was then placed in two heavy-duty commercial plastic trash can liners. He was then placed in a common household green plastic trash bag which was also wrapped with tape."
Sett sent teletypes to other police agencies. Their response was swift: Orange County had a body found in a trash bag. So did Riverside, dating back 21 months.
By summer's arrival, eight more bodies had been found -- shot and dismembered and stuffed and sacked, strewn like trash through Los Angeles, Imperial, Riverside, San Diego and Orange counties.
Detectives worked the streets. Several South Bay boys and men reported missing had been discovered dead in similar fashion. Some hadn't been found at all.
There was John LaMay, 17, of El Segundo.
And Merle Chance, 8, of Venice.
And Ronald Dean Smith, 5, of Lennox.
And Kenneth Eugene Buchanan, 17, of Lawndale.
And John Demchik, 13, of Inglewood.
And Wilfred L. Faherty, 20, of Redondo Beach.
And Michael McGhee, 13, of Redondo Beach.
LaMay, for example, had disappeared March 13, 1977, after visiting friends in El Segundo. His torso was found in Riverside five days later, squeezed into a trash bag that had been stuffed inside a 55-gallon drum. His legs were disjoined in two places. His head, his hands and his feet were missing.
Sett and partner Roger Wilson quizzed LaMay's friends. Where'd you last see him? Who'd he run with?
Dave and Pat, came the answers.
David Hill, 34.
Patrick Kearney, 37.
Roommates for 15 years, Hill was unemployed and Kearney worked at Hughes Aircraft. They shared a house in north Redondo Beach on Robinson Street near Aviation Boulevard.
Riverside was interested. Its investigators had found blue carpet fibers and white animal fur mixed in with LaMay's remains.
Detectives met Hill and Kearney and searched their house, taking with them hair samples from the two men -- plus hair from their white poodle and threads from a blue rug: The samples proved similar to those found with LaMay.
The court issued a search warrant. Detectives from Riverside called Kearney and Hill to tell them they were coming back. The two men fled to Texas, where Hill had family. And then, at the family's urging, Hill and Kearney gave themselves up at the Riverside County Sheriff's station on July 1, 1977.
Meanwhile, a search of the house uncovered numerous incriminating items including a hacksaw with a blood-stained handle.
Kearney began confessing within a few days, telling Sett and Wilson during their first interview about the murders, providing names and details he remembered.
"He wanted to talk," Sett said. "For some reason or another, he wanted to talk. I was known as a pretty good interrogator . . . but Kearney really wanted to talk. He wanted to get this stuff off his chest."
During that 3 1/2 -hour session, talking in a tone as if discussing the weather, Kearney cleared his roommate of involvement: Hill never knew of the murders, Kearney said, because Kearney committed them when Hill was away, sometimes for months at a time. Only once did he almost mess up, Kearney said -- Hill walked in before Kearney could dispose of one victim and had to store the corpse in his closet for a few days.
On some killings Kearney was vague, unable to remember names or method of disposal. On others he was very clear.
He killed his first victim, he told investigators, when he lived in Culver City. After shooting the man between the eyes, Kearney said, he dismembered and skinned the corpse. Then he decided to dig for the bullet so it couldn't be traced to his gun. He used a hacksaw to retrieve the slug.
A week later, detectives recovered a skeleton from underneath the house, exactly where Kearney said he'd buried him. The skull showed evidence of a bullet hole between the eyes, and a 1 1/2 inch-by-5 1/2 inch hole that appeared to have been cut with a saw.
For a period of months, detectives met with Kearney. Sometimes they drove him to remote sites where he remembered leaving a body. Other times, they showed him photographs to help identify victims. They needed to make sure of a killing, they said, to close their cases and help the survivors get on with their lives.
They also quizzed him about missing persons. Michael McGhee, for example. What had happened to Michael McGhee?
Michael Craig McGhee was, his sister recalled in an interview, a "rebellious teen-ager." Records show he was well known to local authorities, having virtually dropped out of school at age 12 and been involved in numerous crimes or incidents including burglary, sex offenses, runaway, incorrigibility and car theft.
Kearney said he knew Mike McGhee, having picked him up hitchhiking on Inglewood Avenue near Lennox and giving him a ride south to Torrance.
According to police, Kearney later invited McGhee to go camping at Lake Elsinore -- one of Kearney's favorite hang-outs and dumping grounds for the bodies. McGhee couldn't go that time, but asked Kearney to call him again.
Kearney told police he stopped by the following week to ask McGhee out. McGhee's sister answered the door. She remembers a "little guy" in glasses wearing camouflage clothes. Her brother couldn't go, she told Kearney. Kearney left -- and so did Michael, running after him to catch up.
Michael's brother, Robert, tried to catch up, but failed. Michael was never seen after June 16, 1976.
In a jailhouse interview with detectives 18 months later, Kearney said he'd intended to take McGhee camping, then changed his mind after stopping to get some things for the weekend. Kearney said he knew the teen-ager had been arrested for stealing a car and believed he was going to steal from him, too.
That's when he decided to kill him.
"We were going to spend the weekend just outing and . . . he kept talking about how he stole this guy's truck," Kearney told detectives. "And, then, when I got him in the house, he kept asking me, he said, `Oh, you have all these things around,' you know, had all my radios and stuff, and he kept talking about, you know, `You don't have any burglar alarms, do you? If you do, where are they?'
"You know," Kearney continued, "he kept asking very pertinent questions. I thought, `Yeah, I made a mistake in befriending this kid. Letting him know where I live. And I shot him before we ever went anywhere. Didn't go anywhere for the weekend. . .
"I disposed of the body. . . . You aren't going to find him."
McGhee's family accepted the news. They'd guessed what had happened, but at least now they knew for sure. All except brother Robert. He felt guilty for having barely missed Michael, as if he could have prevented his death.
All these years, Robert coped with Michael's murder by pretending it didn't happen: "I just refused to believe it," said Robert, now living in San Luis Obispo. "There was no body. There was no physical evidence. . . . I would rather think Michael's off in Mexico, goofing off, maybe on a beach somewhere."
Said McGhee's mother, Elizabeth: "It was hard for everybody."
Kearney's attorney, Jay Grossman agreed. "Pat was very personable, very easy to get along with in interviews. But the case itself was horrible, very, very, very hard even on the most experienced homicide investigators."
Still, detectives pressed on, hoping to pry information from Kearney to help them close their murder books, help them understand.
Two weeks before he was sentenced in Los Angeles Superior Court, Kearny met one last time with Sett, Wilson, Grossman and Los Angeles police Detective John St. John. And throughout the 5 1/2 -hour session that January day in 1978, transcripts show the question they kept returning to -- and the one Kearney couldn't easily answer -- was: Why?
Why kill these 21 people?
Partly sexual gratification, Kearney answered. Partly fantasies. Sometimes anger at roommate David for running off so much. And, in one case, fright, when he was sure the boy he'd picked up would tell his mother on him.
Why dismember them? To make them easier to get rid of, Kearney said. And morbid curiosity, he added.
Kearney remains behind bars at the state prison at Corcoran, a maximum-security penitentiary near Fresno that also houses Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan and Juan Corona.
Kearney's allowed to attend college equivalency classes, but has a cell to himself and is confined mostly to it.
"He's in a protective housing unit like some of the others," said prison Sgt. Tony Diaz. "Otherwise, their safety would be jeopardized. This keeps him away from others who might want to do him harm. And it keeps him away from those he might want to hurt."
And that's where he should stay, Sett said.
"It's critical that we testify at his (parole) hearing to make sure we keep him where he belongs," Sett said. "This guy's a killer. A brilliant mind. My fear is if he gets out, he won't make the same mistakes again. And we'd never catch him. . ."
1) The Redondo Beach man became known as the `Trash Bag Murderer' for a string of grisly slayings. Now Partrick Wayne Kearney, above, is up for parole. 2) Retired Detective Al Sett stands in the Lennox Boulevard tunnel under the San Diego Freeway, where Kearney dumped a body. 3) Patrick Wayne Kearney arrives at court in Los Angeles ion Feb. 21, 1978, to plead guilty to multiple murders.