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'All Evidence Points To Defendant Being A Serial Killer:' Could Man Suspected In 1979 Murder Have Killed Others?

The bodies of Julia Woodward and Jennie Smith were found half a mile apart. Both had their eyes bandaged, their underwear stolen and were left wearing only one shoe. 

By Gina Tron
Charles Gary Sullivan Ap

Could an Arizona auto dealer charged with killing a California woman in northern Nevada 40 years ago be a serial killer? Nevada’s attorney general believes so, and has theorized that he may have killed other women in the late 1970s.

“All evidence points to defendant being a serial killer,” State Attorney General Aaron Ford said in a court filing submitted ahead of Charles Gary Sullivan’s arraignment Tuesday in Reno in the 1979 bludgeoning death of 20-year-old Julia Woodward. Sullivan, 73, pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail.

However, no specific evidence was described in court and Sullivan’s attorney, David Houston, said in an interview he doesn’t believe DNA evidence that was presented to a grand jury ties Sullivan to Woodward’s killing.

“Even if DNA shows he had contact with her, where is the act of murder proved?” Houston asked.

Houston and Sullivan didn’t challenge a no-bail order, and a judge set another hearing for Jan. 30. Ford said on the courthouse steps in Reno that the long-unsolved cases remain open.

“Evidence may have gone cold, but our tears have never run dry and our quest for justice never ends,” he said.

In the court filing, Ford and prosecutors called Sullivan a suspect in the killing of Jennie Smith, a 17-year-old waitress at a Reno hotel-casino whose body was found in November 1979, as well as the unsolved disappearance of Linda Taylor, 23, in March 1979.

Sullivan was identified as a person of interest after Smith was reported missing in March 1978. Investigators said she told a friend she was going to buy cocaine from a man named Chuck.

Police determined that Smith and Sullivan knew each other, but Sullivan was not arrested and later moved out of Nevada.

In Taylor’s case, prosecutors say a tip led investigators to Sullivan, who admitted dating Taylor but denied knowing what happened to her. The woman’s body was never found.

Smith’s skeletal remains were discovered in November 1979 off a remote hiking and biking trail outside Reno, not far from where Woodward’s bludgeoned body was found in March 1979. The bodies were found just a half mile away from one another.

Woodward, of San Rafael, California, had been last seen by a friend a month earlier at San Francisco International Airport, where she planned to board a flight to the Reno and Lake Tahoe area, authorities said.

Prosecutors said it appeared both Smith and Woodward had their eyes bandaged, their underwear and identification stolen, and were left wearing one shoe. A man on a dirt bike came across Woodward’s body while driving on a desert trail north of Reno. He at first thought that her body was an abandoned mannequin, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. There were band-aids over her eyes and a zip-tie around one of her ankles. Rocks, which investigators believe was used as murder weapons, found nearby were covered with both blood and hair.

Like Woodward, Smith died of blunt force trauma. Investigators believe her killer blindfolded her with medical tape.

Prosecutors say DNA evidence found on Woodward’s clothing led to Sullivan, who was convicted of a 2007 sexual assault in California. A woman referred to only as “A.E.” in court records, was attacked by Sullivan in 2007 while hitchhiking near the Nevada County border, about 45 minutes west of Reno. He picked her up in a white van and drove her to a remote area before binding her hands and wrist at gunpoint, according to the Review-Journal. She said he told her they were going to spend days having sex. 

However, she was able to break loose using a pocket knife. She ran until she could flag two men on an ATV for help. Sullivan was subsequently convicted of false imprisonment and criminal threats and the DNA used in that case led to investigators connecting him to Woodward’s murder.

Before being registered as a sex offender in California for the 2007 attack, investigators said he conducted internet searches that included the terms “naked children,” “child sex,” and “lost hikers in California,” according to the Review-Journal.

Sullivan was arrested in August in connection with Woodward’s murder. He was taken into custody in Arizona, where he most recently worked as an auto dealer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.