A man suspected of raping and killing five women and girls in the 1970s yelled "I am not guilty!" to a jury at the start of his trial Friday for two of the killings.
Rodney Halbower, 69, also yelled "I have never raped or murdered in my life!" to the jury in an outburst that briefly disrupted court proceedings, leading to a request for a mistrial by his lawyer and claims by the prosecution that the outburst was staged.
This trial is for the 1976 murders of high school students Veronica “Ronnie” Cascio, 18, and Paula Baxter, 17, both killed in California's San Mateo County within weeks of each other. Halbower also faces extradition to Nevada for charges in the death of Michelle Mitchell, 19, who was killed the same year. DNA evidence which linked Halbower to the three murders led to his arrest in 2014, according to authorities. He was in prison in Oregon at the time.
Cascio was stabbed 30 times and been sexually assaulted, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Her body was found at the Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica in January 1976. Baxter was found dead a month later near a church in Millbrae after also suffering stab wounds and being sexually assaulted. She also suffered head injuries, which prosecutors called "horrendous" in court last week.
Prosecutors have said they don't plan to try Halbower, 69, for the other killings because a conviction in the current trial — for which their evidence is strongest — would keep him locked up for life.
However, police believe he may be the man responsible for the 1976 killings of Tanya Blackwell, 14, whose body was found on Gypsy Hill Road in Pacifica and Carol Lee Booth, 26, found dead in South San Francisco. The location where Blackwell was found dead spawned the term Gypsy Hill Killings.
After Halbower's outburst, Judge Mark Forcum denied several motions for a mistrial made by Halbower's attorney, John Halley.
"He doesn't get to set up his own mistrial," said Forcum.
Prosecutor Sean Gallagher said he believed Halbower was purposely seeking a mistrial and vowed to talk over any outbursts that might come during opening statements.
Gallagher told the jury that DNA from semen found in both girls and preserved for decades matched Halbower's DNA.
"I wasn't here during that period of time," Halbower yelled out, interrupting Gallagher's opening statement.
Gallagher responded that Halbower's statement wasn't true because he was living in the nearby city of San Bruno in early 1976.
When Gallagher showed the jury photos of bloodied, nude victims, Halbower exclaimed, “He’s a liar!”
In addition to his outbursts, Halbower was often heard laughing throughout his court appearance, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Halbower's attorney told the jury that some of the DNA evidence had been mishandled and that should create enough reasonable doubt for the jurors to acquit.
Halbower was in an Oregon prison for attempted murder when cold case detectives re-opened the Gypsy Hill investigation. Prosecutors say DNA taken from preserved crime-scene evidence match Halbower's DNA, which he provided to Oregon prison officials.
He was charged with two counts of murder and rape in 2014 and transferred to the Redwood City jail to face a trial delayed several times by questions about his mental competency and his insistence on representing himself. A jury last year found him sane enough to stand trial.
It's possible that Halbower would never have been linked to the attacks had he not escaped from a Nevada prison in December 1986. He made his way to Oregon, where he was arrested for rape and attempted murder within days of his escape.
An Oregon jury convicted Halbower and sentenced him to 15 years in prison in that state. First, however, he was returned to Nevada to finish that state's prison term.
When Nevada paroled him in 2013, he was sent back to Oregon, where prison officials took a DNA sample and submitted it to the national database investigators use to revive stalled investigations. Authorities say the results linked him to the Gypsy Hill case.
“I’ve always told the truth, I can’t be quiet,” Halbower exclaimed in the courtroom on Friday, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
His trial resumes Monday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
[Photo: The Associated Press]