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'Gypsy Hill Killer' Suspect Found Guilty Of Killing 2 High School Students
A jury convicted Rodney Halbower of killing teens Veronica “Ronnie” Cascio and Paula Baxter decades ago. Police believe he is responsible for at least four other murders.
A Northern California jury on Tuesday convicted a career criminal thought to be the "Gypsy Hill Killer" of raping and murdering two teenage girls more than 42 years ago.
The San Mateo County jury deliberated for a little more than an hour before finding Rodney Halbower guilty of killing high school students Veronica “Ronnie” Cascio, 18, and Paula Baxter, 17, both killed in California's San Mateo County within weeks of each other.
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 earlier this month.
Authorities believe the 69-year-old is responsible for other rapes and murders of young women in Northern California and Reno, Nevada, over a five-month span in 1976. In 2004, advances in DNA technology connected Halbower to the murders. He was in an Oregon prison at the time. 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.
Halbower is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 10 in Redwood City, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of San Francisco. The judge is required to sentence Halbower under the sentencing laws of 1976, the year the crimes occurred.
District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said the stiffest sentence available then was life with the possibility of parole. Wagstaffe said the judge can impose consecutive sentences, meaning if Halbower was given parole for one murder, he would start serving the life sentence for the second.
"Our expectation is that this monster of a killer will never, ever, be allowed to be free on our streets again," Wagstaffe said.
The six murders remained a mystery for four decades until a cold-case detective re-opened the investigation. He scraped DNA samples from cigarette butts found at the scene and in 2014 they were discovered to match Halbower's genetic makeup. DNA taken from the victims also matched Halbower's DNA, prosecutors told jurors.
It took four years to start Halbower's after he was charged with two of the murders. He routinely fired his attorneys and demanded to represent himself. A judge also ordered a trial to determine if he was sane enough to stand trial. A jury in 2017 found him sane.
The start of the murder trial almost ended as soon as it started on Sept. 7 with Halbower disrupting the proceedings.
"I am not guilty!" he yelled at the jury. "I have never raped or murdered in my life!"
The judge declined public defender John Halley's calls for a mistrial and Halbower ceased his outbursts.
"He doesn't get to set up his own mistrial," Judge Mark Forcum said.
He stopped the outbursts after that and Wagstaffe said Halbower calmly congratulated prosecutor Sean Gallagher after the verdicts were read.
Prosecutors said they charged him with the two murders with the strongest evidence and expected he would be locked up for life if convicted.
Gallagher told the jury about the two teen girls who were abducted, raped and killed in a once-tranquil suburb, and that DNA from semen found in both women and preserved for decades matched Halbower's DNA. One of the victims was stabbed to death and the other was beaten in the head with concrete and stabbed in her heart.
Authorities in the 1970s said the killings were linked and dubbed the attacker the Gypsy Hill Killer for the location where one of the first victims was found. Halbower is also suspected of raping and killing a nursing student in Reno during the same period as the five California killings.
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 on suspicion of 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, 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.
Court records show Halbower has spent the past 53 years in prison or on the lam.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
[Photo: Associated Press]