By Mary O’KEEFE and Charly SHELTON
On Saturday, authors Mike Lawler and Gary Keyes spoke to a packed house at the La Crescenta Library about their latest book, “Murder and Mayhem in the Crescenta Valley.”
Although CV is a bedroom community with a “Mayberry” personality, it also has a dark side – so dark in fact that the authors are now working on a second book in their murder series.
Keyes shared some shocking truths about the murderers that were among us.
“Red Jensen was a sociopath for sure. He was a sick boy who committed his first crimes at age 6,” Keyes said. “He started stealing, he was involved in burglaries, vandalism. He wasn’t good at it. He got caught all the time.”
In the 1930s, Richard “Red” Jensen and his family lived in La Crescenta. Jensen was a troubled kid from an early age and, as Keyes pointed out, he was arrested several times. He would go into juvenile halls, be released, commit another crime, get arrested and go back into jail.
In 1939, at 14, Jensen was released into the care of his parents.
“At 14 he murdered a13-year-old neighbor kid who called him an ex-con,” Keyes said. He killed Billy Williams in the basement of the Jensen’s home. His mom knocked on the basement door and Jensen told her he had just murdered the neighbor. Jensen was arrested but was too young for the death penalty. He was put into juvenile hall and released in 1952.
“This time he rigged a murder machine in his car,” Keyes said.
He had a gun set up in the backseat of his vehicle facing the passenger seat and rigged a wire that would allow him to pull the trigger. His first victim was a 17-year-old hitchhiker. The second victim was not only a hitchhiker but also a U.S. Marine.
“The bullet struck a spring in the car,” Keyes said.
The Marine was hit but not killed. He staggered out of the car. Jensen hit him several times with a hammer, then shot him and left him to die. But he survived and was able to testify against Jensen.
Murders linked to Crescenta Valley have happened for decades it seems.
In the 1970s, the Hillside Strangler terrorized the Los Angeles area. Young girls were being murdered and their bodies dumped in areas all over L.A. County. In 1977, one of the Strangler’s victims was found in La Crescenta. Fifteen-year-old Judy Miller’s body was found on Alta Terrace.
The Hillside Strangler was actually a pair – Angelo Buono and his cousin Kenneth Bianchi. They continued their killing spree, ultimately murdering 10 young women. Buono and Bianchi began arguing and Bianchi moved to Washington. There he killed two girls but was caught by police. That led to the capture of Buono and connecting the cousins to the Hillside Strangler.
Their court case, which lasted two years, was in progress when Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris began their murderous crimes.
“These were real monsters,” Keyes said.
They too murdered young girls, many of the victims chosen as they hitchhiked. The two “monsters” disposed of their victims’ bodies in the foothill area. A warning went out to women in the area to be cautious and definitely not to hitchhike.
“But during this time when young girls were being warned not to hitchhike I would see my [female] students hitchhiking along Foothill Boulevard,” Keyes said. Keyes was a teacher at Crescenta Valley High School.
Keyes and Lawler had no trouble holding the audience’s attention as they told stories that stretched from the late 1700s to the present of the darker side of a small town.
An audience member asked Lawler what it was like living with these gruesome tales as he worked on the book.
“I can tell you that I was really happy when it was over,” he said.
Lawler is a member of the Historical Society of Crescenta Valley and has “lived” with this subject matter for a long time. Years ago, the historical society conducted a tour titled “Dirty Laundry” when participants were taken throughout Crescenta Valley learning about murders, mayhem and “wicked” places.
“That is where these books come from,” Lawler said.
The second book in the series will be titled “Wicked Crescenta Valley” and will cover the subject of brothels, gambling and swindlers.
“We were originally going to do one book but we found so much to cover the publisher said to make it into two,” Lawler said. “[For the first book] we still had to throw [out] many stories.”
The “Wicked Crescenta Valley” will be released this summer and Lawler said there are plans to create historical society tours based on both books.
Lawler and Keyes will speak again about their “Murder and Mayhem in the Crescenta Valley” on Nov. 18 at the Center for Spiritual Living at 7 p.m.
“Murder & Mayhem in the Crescenta Valley” is available through History Press, www.historypress.net, or at bookstores including Once Upon a Time in Montrose and Flintridge Bookstore in La Cañada.