Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and famous murders throughout history.
California has spawned many a notorious killer, from the Zodiac Killer and Manson family in the late 1960s to the next decade’s Co-Ed Killer to the Golden State Killer. Chances are if you were a California girl in the late ’70s, someone warned you about the I-5 Strangler.
The I-5 Strangler’s “mark,” so to speak, was how he left victims along Northern California’s interstate highway. He preyed on sex workers and women waiting for roadside assistance. In addition to raping and asphyxiating his victims, he was known for methodically cutting away their clothing in a bizarre fetish. “Mark of a Killer,” airing on Oxygen on Sundays 7/6c, offers an explanation for the I-5 Strangler’s mark, while uncovering how Roger Kibbe was finally identified as the serial killer.
Born in 1949, Roger Reece Kibbe had an unhappy childhood. His mother frequently beat him and he endured bullying at school, where other children teased him about his stutter, according to the New York Daily News. In his book “Trace Evidence: The Hunt for an Elusive Serial Killer,” author Bruce Henderson notes that Kibbe was arrested as a teenager for petty theft and prowling after he was observed stealing women’s bathing suits and stockings. The book claims Kibbe enjoyed tying himself up with women’s underwear, and cutting up the garments he stole with a pair of scissors.
As an adult, Kibbe made and sold furniture and spent his free time skydiving. He settled down in Northern California, east of San Francisco, where he married a woman named Harriet, who, like his mother, was domineering, according to “Trace Evidence.” The Record, a Stockton, California newspaper, reported that his brother was a homicide detective. Some, including Henderson, speculated that he picked his brother’s brain about police procedures and the gathering of forensic evidence, knowledge he later put to use as a serial rapist and murderer.
In September 1977, Kibbe placed a bogus job posting at a business trade school in San Francisco with the intent of luring his first victim. Unfortunately, 21-year-old Lou Ellen Burleigh took the bait. According to San Jose’s Mercury News, Kibbe said his office was under construction, so they met in his van. He then drove her to Lake Berryessa in Napa County, where he raped and strangled her, then dumped her body in a nearby riverbed. He was briefly considered a suspect in her disappearance, according to the Los Angeles Times, but no charges were ever brought against him and Burleigh’s remains would remain hidden for more than 30 years.
It would be almost a decade before Kibbe is known to have killed again.
His next known victim would be Lora Heedick, 21, who sometimes picked up sex work in order to obtain money for drugs, according to the Lodi News-Sentinel. On April 21, 1986, she was seen getting into the car of a man in his 50s and was never seen again. Her badly decomposed remains were found that September off Interstate-5, southeast of Sacramento. Odd-sized shapes had been cut out of the tank top she was wearing before it had been used to strangle her to death.
And she wasn’t the only one.
By then, other bodies had begun popping up along the highway that runs the length of the West Coast.
Kibbe’s thirst for sexual violence and bloodshed only increased; he would strike twice in July of that year. On the 3rd, he abducted 29-year-old Barbara Ann Scott before killing her and dumping her body along a stretch of road in Contra Costa County, according to the Lodi News-Sentinel.
His next victim was Stephanie Brown, 19, who was abducted on July 15. Police would find her car abandoned along I-5 before finding her body in a drainage ditch, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Like the other victims she had been raped and strangled, and Sacramento NBC-affiliate KCRA reported that portions of her hair had been cut off with scissors.
A month later, on August 17, 26-year-old Charmaine Sabrah was driving with her mother when her car broke down along I-5. A good Samaritan pulled over and offered to take one of them to call for help, but he only had room for one in his car, according to the Daily News. Charmaine got in the passenger seat and wasn’t seen again until a hunter discovered her remains three months later. Her body showed signs of sexual abuse and strangulation, and both her clothing and portions of her hair had been cut away.
Fearing they had a serial killer on their hands, police began keeping an eye on Kibbe’s hunting I-5 grounds, sometimes deploying undercover female officers to pose as broken down motorists. Witnesses had described the killer as a middle-aged white man with a large nose.
In the midst of their operation, Kibbe was stopped on a routine traffic violation. Officers were struck by how much he resembled the composite sketch of the suspected I-5 Strangler, and photographed his car, according to Henderson’s “Trace Evidence.” He was questioned by police, but released without any charges being filed.
Before the year was out, Kibbe would claim another victim, Katherine Kelly Quinones, 25, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
In September 1987, Kibbe was finally arrested after he tried to abduct a sex worker in downtown Sacramento. After taking him into custody, police searched his car and found evidence which linked him to the I-5 Strangler killings. Believing they had found their killer, and wanting to keep him off the streets, authorities tried Kibbe on charges of battery and solicitation. He was convicted and sentenced to eight months in jail, according to the book “Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate.”
With Kibbe in jail, prosecutors had time to build their case.
Kibbe was first brought to trial for the murder of Darcie Frackenpohl, 17, a runaway whose body had been found in 1987 near Lake Tahoe, where his brother lived, reported the Associated Press. Like the other victims, she was strangled using the same type of cords Kibbe used for skydiving, fibers of which were also linked to three of the other slayings. He was also found in possession of a “murder kit,” which included handcuffs and scissors, according to The Mercury News. On May 12, 1991, The Los Angeles Times reported that Kibbe was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison after being found guilty of first-degree murder. Police and prosecutors were certain Kibbe was the I-5 Strangler, but a lack of hard evidence and jurisdictional complications impeded further prosecutions.
But DNA technology eventually advanced to the point of implicating him in several of the murders. In March 2008, Kibbe he was indicted on six counts of murder and multiple special circumstances, one for each of his victims, which made him eligible for the death penalty, according to the Modesto Bee.
On Sep. 29, 2009, thirty or so years after Kibbe started his heinous spree, he pled guilty to the rape and murders of Lou Ellen Burleigh, Lora Heedick, Barbara Ann Scott, Stephanie Brown, Charmaine Sabrah, and Katherine Kelly Quinones, to avoid the death penalty, reported the Stockton Record. A little over a month later, The New York Times reported Kibbe was sentenced to six consecutive life terms.
As part of his plea deal, Kibbe agreed to help investigators locate the body of his first victim, Lou Ellen Burleigh. For two years, they trawled the Lake Berryessa area diligently, sometimes bringing the septuagenarian serial killer with them. However, the terrain had changed so much over the three or so decades, he was little help. Finally in June 2011, the East Bay Times reported DNA testing confirmed a piece of bone pulled from a creek bed belonged to Lou Ellen Burleigh Kibbe. Her remains were later laid to rest in Klamath County, Oregon, where she was born, reported the Associated Press.
Roger Kibbe is currently incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, about 30 miles east of where he once cruised Interstate 5 looking for women to brutalize and murder. He is 79 years old.
Learn more about how serial killers build their modus operandi and why in “Mark of a Killer” on Oxygen, Sundays 7/6c.
[Photo: Mugshot, Oxygen screengrab]
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