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“Evil to the Bone”: O.C. College Student Stabbed 41 Times in Campus Parking Lot
Robbin Brandley was found slain with “her eyes were wide open staring into the sky.” It took 32 years to convict her killer.
For Robbin Brandley, a 23-year-old student at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, being in a dark parking lot after a school concert turned out to be fatal.
Shortly after 1 a.m. on January 18, 1986, Robbin’s body was found near her car by sheriff’s officials responding to a 911 call. She had been stabbed multiple times.
Robbin had been stabbed from the front and back, and the overkill indicated rage. “There was a tremendous amount of blood, the number of stab wounds were way, way in the overkill category. Whoever did this, there was a lot of anger in them, for sure," said Kim Markuson, a retired investigator with the O.C. Sheriff’s Department.
The search for physical evidence was hampered by the fact that sprinklers had come on, washing away potential clues. "It's basically like hosing down a crime scene," Murphy said, adding it was "frustrating."
Investigators learned that Robbin grew up in Huntington Beach. She was a star journalism student with a radio show and a “positive and joyful human being,” said her teacher, Julia Brady-Jenner, who’d made the 911 call.
Did Robbin Brandley know her killer?
Because of the extreme violence of the crime and the fact that her purse was still in the car, detectives began with the possible theory of a spurned boyfriend.
They discovered that a young man named Will had left a single rose on Robbin’s doorstep days before the murder.
“Her friends said that a fellow student by the name of Will was pursuing her … his personality just seemed to be a little bit off,” said Markuson. "He was fairly persistent and Robbin was polite and pretty much dismissed him."
Officials interviewed Will at his family’s home in Laguna Niguel. He admitted he was interested in Robbin but said that he'd been home all night, a claim corroborated by his mother. He was cleared as a suspect.
As investigators ruled out their first suspect, the autopsy report came in. Mark Lesneski, a forensic technician with the O.C. Sheriff’s Coroner’s Office, recalled the case, sharing that Robbin had suffered 41 stab wounds. “Robin was stabbed so much that there was virtually no blood left in the body at all,” Lesneski told producers.
A wound to one of Robbin’s ribs indicated that the knife had gotten stuck when she’d been brutally stabbed.
"There was no appearance of rape. Somebody was out to kill her," said Helen Moreno, retired investigator for the O.C. Sheriff's Office.
Robbin’s brutal murder sent shockwaves through the community, said Nick Schou, former editor in chief of O.C. Weekly. “It was an extremely violent murder on a college campus in a very safe part of Orange County.”
While locals feared there was a mad man on the loose, the extreme violence of the crime suggested a personal element to the murder. Investigators dug deeper into Robbin’s fellow students and associates.
A potential lead about a classmate named Valerie, who allegedly envied Robbin’s high-flying status on campus, was investigated. It turned out to be a false tip. She was cleared immediately.
"This young woman had absolutely nothing to do with the murder," Murphy said.
Investigators pressed on as Robbin’s grieving family spread her ashes in the ocean that she had loved so much.
“It was really painful,” said her brother, Jayeson Brandley. “It was difficult to just realize that a week ago, she was just this perfectly normal, happy loving person.”
Was Robbin Brandley's killer a perfect stranger?
As going through potential suspects based on people in Robbin’s life, investigators considered that the killer may have been a perfect stranger. The lack of connection to the victim makes these types of cases very challenging.
Months passed and detectives were still at square one. On January 20, 1987, another female Saddleback College student was violently attacked and abducted.
The 22-year-old victim, like Robbin, had been walking in a dimly lit parking lot at the school. The perpetrator sexually assaulted her and drove back to the campus, where she was able to escape.
The attacker was immediately stopped and arrested by campus security, giving the detectives working on Robbin's case the opportunity to interview the suspect. However, after interrogating the man, they determined that he wasn’t connected to her murder.
“We thought we might have a good solid lead and it turned out to be nothing,” Markuson said. Then the case went cold.
Eight years passed with no breaks. In 1994, the case landed on Moreno's desk and she was determined to get justice and closure for Robbin’s loved ones. She had been working on the case for three years with no leads when a phone call cracked the investigation wide open.
“A detective from Chicago called me and said, ‘Hey, we have somebody in custody here who may have had something to do with a murder in Orange County,’” she told producers.
Andrew Urdiales suspected of killing Robbin Brandley
Andrew Urdiales, a former U.S. Marine and veteran of the Gulf War, was a security guard who was charged with the murders of three sex workers in Chicago.
“During their interviewing process with him, he said that he had committed five murders in California,” said Moreno, who flew to Chicago with her partner to interview Urdiales.
The stakes were enormous. But the investigators knew that when serial killers know they’ve been caught, they sometimes confess to crimes they didn’t commit. "I think a lot of them just like the control of muddying the investigation," Murphey explained.
Urdiales claimed that, in early 1986, he was at Camp Pendleton, a military base located just a half an hour away from Saddleback College. On the night of January 18, he left the base after fellow Marines had enraged him, driving around until he noticed Saddleback College. He parked at a nearby strip mall and was carrying a knife with him when he saw Robbin in the parking lot. Still angry about what had occurred on base, he attacked Robbin.
"Next thing I know, the knife went in her back," Urdiales said, according to an audio recording of the interrogation.
Moreno asked questions about Robbin’s murder that only the killer would know – details that were never made in news reports. That's when Urdiales said that he’d stabbed Robbin and his knife got stuck in her body — a detail that convinced Moreno she’d found Robbin’s murderer.
"The further and further we got into the interview with him, the more the puzzle pieces matched up with the crime scene," Moreno said.
In 2002, Urdiales was convicted and sentenced to death for three murders he committed in Chicago, nbclosangeles.com reported. In 2011, after a long and complicated series of legal battles, appeals, and reversals, Urdiales was extradited to face charges in California.
Robbin’s murder has left an indelible mark on Markuson “because of the brutality." He said, “Nobody does this without being through and through evil to the bone.”
In November 2018, Urdiales, 54, committed suicide while in San Quentin State prison.
To learn more about the case, watch The Real Murder of Orange County, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.