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New DNA information links two more murders to Original Night Stalker, rekindles memories of two more in Niguel Shores in 1980
By Andrea Swayne
As a place for newlyweds to start their life together, Niguel Shores was hard to beat. The year was 1980 and the Harringtons, Keith, 24, and Patrice, 27, wed a mere three months before, were just settling into their new home. Keith’s dad Roger owned the house and graciously allowed his son and new daughter-in-law to call it home. Keith was a medical student at UC Irvine and Patrice was working as a nurse.
In terms of a first place, the house must have seemed like a great place to start their lives together. For the young couple, everything was new—the marriage, the home, even the community growing up around them.
Dana Point, as we now know it, didn’t exist. The city wouldn’t even become incorporated for another eight years. But according to records maintained by the city, Dana Point was in the midst of a housing boom. Homes were being built at the fastest pace in the area’s history. During the 1970s and ’80s Dana Point was brimming with new construction. Roughly 5,000 units were built in both decades, the largest number of new homes in the city’s history (the decade between 1990 and 2000 saw only about 150 new homes). It is difficult to know what the population of what is now Dana Point was back then because the area was included in a large area of unincorporated Orange County in the 1980 census.
And although the Harrington’s home like others nearby—in the area neighbors then referred to as the Berkus homes, after the original architect—were built in the early ’70s, there were still many empty lots and houses under construction.
While the Harringtons were enjoying their new lives together, someone else new to the area was about to make himself known.
On August 19, 1980 the serial murderer now known as the Original Night Stalker (ONS) struck in the middle of the night, raping Patrice Harrington and then bludgeoning both Patrice and Keith to death in their Niguel Shores home on Cockleshell Drive.
It was the first time the ONS had killed in Orange County. His violent spree began in the ’70s when he terrorized the Sacramento/Contra Costa as the East Area Rapist (EAR) area committing at least 40 rapes. The violence of his attacks escalated and he began moving south through Central California, leaving Santa Barbara and Ventura County murder victims in his wake. The unknown killer began being referred to as the Night Stalker and changed the way people in the sleepy seaside neighborhood felt about their safety.
(The killer was renamed the Original Night Stalker by police, to avoid confusion, after the Night Stalker Richard Ramirez was taken into custody in 1985. As advances in DNA technology grew over time the EAR attacks and ONS homicides were linked and investigators have come to refer to him as the EAR/ONS.)
The community began to question their sense of security. How could this happen? How could this happen behind the secure gates of Niguel Shores?
These days it’s a challenge to find many in Dana Point, who recall details about the crime, but Jim Smith, now retired in Oregon, who lived next door to the couple at the time of their murders recalls speaking to the police a day or two after the grisly discovery was made.
“We heard nothing that night. I had a dog that would generally bark at the sun coming up and my dog didn’t make a sound,” said Smith. “It was a very normal evening. I didn’t even immediately realize that a murder, much less two, had occurred. I knew someone died but assumed it was due to natural causes, a suicide maybe, perhaps even a domestic dispute. Murder never even crossed my mind initially.”
Smith recalled how tight the neighborhood was back then. Everyone knew and watched out for each other. The children often went from house to house and it wasn’t unusual for a neighbor to host others’ kids for an impromptu cookies and milk break. There was almost no crime at that time, aside from the usual teenage mischief like toilet papering and mild vandalism. “A bike went missing every now and then but we never gave a thought to the possibility of violent crime happening in our neighborhood,” Smith said.
Residents immediately became more guarded. “We had an alarm installed and became more vigilant about locking our doors,” said Smith. “One of my neighbors told me that they bought a gun.”
Mark Carey’s home, where he has lived since 1974, is right across the street from the Harrington house, added that many neighbors, like his family, bought dogs and installed more locks. “We all began reacting to even the smallest noise coming from the bushes,” he said. “Everyone was sleeping much lighter after that.”
The last known crime of the ONS occurred in 1986 and the memory of his reign of terror began to fade.
“I’m not surprised that many don’t remember it after 30 years,” said Smith. “Life got pretty fast after that and the city grew quickly. People came and went and though it still comes up from time to time, folks mostly moved on.”
As the fear and intrigue faded, most who recalled the homicides said that they came to the belief that it just didn’t seem like a random act and that they took a bit of comfort in that fact.
Ingrid McGuire, longtime resident who was a member of the original Dana Point City Council and now serves as South Coast Water District Director recalls coming to that conclusion as well. “I remember doubting that the killing was random. I think that this killer had some motive to kill this particular couple,” she said. “And I still hold hope that justice will be served—that the killer be held to task for his crimes—even if it is such a long time later.”
Now, three decades later, police may have come one step closer to finding out who is responsible for the violent crime spree.
Last week the cold case made headlines once again when on May 11 the Santa Barbara County Sheriffs Department issued a press release announcing that DNA evidence has linked two slayings in Goleta to the EAR/ONS. Although police have long held the theory that the 1981 murders of the Goleta couple, Cheri Domingo and Gregory Sanchez were the work of the EAR/ONS, the new finding brings confirmation and, investigators say, new interest in a cold case.
This new development has prompted people to reach out with names and new information, according to Orange County Sheriff’s Detective Larry Pool who has been on the case since 1986. Although he declined to divulge just how many new leads he’s received since last week’s announcement he would say that over the years he’s looked at over 8,000 suspects and he has no intention of every giving up the search for this killer.
“This new link got my phones ringing again,” said Pool. “The good news about the case being back in the media is that it motivates law enforcement agencies to keep up the search. It’s only my own speculation, but I think that since it’s been so long, many members of the public may have forgotten and dismissed the ONS murders as the work of Richard Ramirez. People may have wanted to believe that Ramirez was responsible and knowing that he was arrested made less people less fearful, coaxing them to forget.”
Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Drew Sugars confirmed that his department’s announcement has also led to at least one new lead, though he declined to comment on the merit of it.
For years, detectives have held several theories about the whereabouts of the EAR/ONS. Such theories say that he could be incarcerated in another state, physically incapacitated or even dead.
Though family members of the Harringtons lent monetary support—heavily financing Prop. 69 to change the way DNA collection is handled—and joined other victims advocates to lobby for changes in the sharing of DNA among law enforcement agencies nationwide, the sad irony is that this case has yet to be solved.
“If he is in fact deceased, that does nothing to dissuade me from making a concerted effort to identify him. I think about this case, every day and every night. I have composite sketches posted on my bulletin board. I have his DNA profile on my wall. There are case binders on my shelf at work and even next to my bed,” said Pool. “I want to see this case closed. I don’t care if I do it or some other agency, but I won’t rest until it’s solved. It’s number one on my professional ‘bucket list.’”