Monday, April 27, 2015

Pearblossom Highway – Was He The Zodiac Killer?

After watching a program on a cable channel about a notorious killer back in April of 2012, a frightening and long dormant memory was sparked within me.  My memory was from back in 1981 and I had possessed my California Driver License for about a year at that point.  My cousin, K.C., who was seven years my senior, was in town visiting when two friends from high school, Tim and Kim, and I decided we wanted to go skiing at Mt. Waterman in the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles.  K.C. decided he want to go too, so one sunny, winter Saturday morning, we all piled into my mom’s yellow Volvo station wagon, and I started driving us to the ski area. 

My parents’ house was in Studio City, so I decided that instead of taking Interstate 10 east to Interstate 15 (the 210 freeway did not go farther than the 57 freeway at that time), I decided to take us around the back of the San Gabriel Mountains.  Mt. Waterman sits in the very northeastern corner of this range, just to the west of Interstate 15.  The route I chose required us to drive west on Highway 101, north on the 405, north on the 5, north on the 14, and finally, east on Highway 138, which is also called, Pearblossom Highway.  After negotiating all of these freeways, which was relatively easy on a Saturday morning, we turned east onto Pearblossom Highway and headed straight east for Mt. Waterman. 

This section of the 138, which begins way back west at Gorman’s Interstate 5 and Highway 138 interchange, and which ends at Interstate 15 north of the Cajon Pass, is a rolling highway.  It’s relatively straight, but it has these fun ups and downs which follow the topographical intersecting contour of where the Mojave Desert and the northern San Gabriel’s join.  Back then, it was a two lane road with no divider.  There were a lot of accidents back then with vehicles trying to pass with less than sufficient viewing corridor.  The evidence was in the signs that dotted the rolly up and down portions of the highway reading, “Do Not Pass On Hills.”  But I had driven the road on several occasions prior in my exploration of areas outside of Los Angeles. 

We had gotten through most of the up’s and down’s of the 138 and were on a straight, flat, and remote section of the route.  All of us were yapping about what the snow would be like and telling silly stories inside the yellow Volvo with four sets of skis strapped onto the roof luggage rack, when we all started hearing honking.  I looked around and behind us was a early 1960’s dark teal station wagon, maybe a Ford Falcon type of wagon, flashing their lights at us.  Upon closer look in my mirror, I saw that it was a white male with a gray crew cut and maybe of about fifty-five to sixty-five years old.  He was slightly pudgy/husky, and he wore a white t-shirt, and he looked determined to pull us over.  He kept honking and flashing his lights.  

We all couldn’t figure out what he could have wanted with us.  I was driving the speed limit, our skis were still solidly attached to our luggage rack on top of the car, and we had not had any interactions at all with any other drivers during the entire trip thus far.  Tim and Kim wondered if maybe he thought we were lost and going the wrong way.  For, perhaps seeing the skis on our vehicle, and not having known a lot of drivers to take the back way around the San Gabriel’s, he thought we were lost.  However, I countered their theory on two points.  First, he couldn’t be from around the area and still presume that we were lost with skis on our car because this road, Highway 138, lead right to the Mt. Waterman Ski Resort.  And second, how would he know that we were not coming from, say, Bakersfield.  A driver from Bakersfield could end up at Mt. Waterman either via Highway 58, and then skirt south a number of ways to Mt. Waterman, or they could also turn south onto Highway 14, then turn east onto Pearblossom Highway, as we had.  If he were a local, he would know that too. 

All the while, this man was still honking and flashing his lights at us.  He would even start to swerve out of his lane, partially into the on-coming lane, I think to make the point of how dire he wanted us to pull over.  I thought that the only other possibility was that there was something wrong with our car that we couldn’t see.  Yet, it was driving fine.  There was nothing wrong with it, and really, I didn’t want to stop to find out what this crazy man wanted.  My internal instinct told me that if someone was trying to do something friendly or considerate for another driver, they wouldn’t display behavior with an urgency that would cause the other driver and passengers to be frightened.  It finally came down to a panic induced democratic vote.  Tim and Kim thought we should stop and just find out what he wanted, and I didn’t think we should.  We still had maybe forty or fifty miles to get to Mt. Waterman, but I didn’t want to stop and deal with this man. 

Finally, I asked K.C., who had been mostly silent, and I realized had already calculated the varying scenarios on his head.  I asked my elder cousin, worried that I was an overly paranoid teen, “Should we stop?”  K.C., to my relief, responded simply and emphatically, “No, don’t stop.  Just keep driving.”  And that was that.  The man continued this behavior during all of this for literally four or five miles, and then he finally turned off to the south.  We were emotionally spent and we continued to Mt. Waterman, somehow stupidly without ever having reported any of this to law enforcement.  I think that we were all relieved to get it all behind us and forget it with a good day of skiing, which we did indeed all have that day.  To get home, I drove us back the regular route; 138 east to 15 south to 10 west to 5 north and into the San Fernando Valley.

With the exception of one time, I think when Tim and I were both in our University years, none of us four ever talked about that episode again, and we all obviously completely forgot about it until I saw the documentary on the Zodiac Killer in 2012.  In fact, in 2012, when I was reminded of this, I contacted each of my compadres to see what they remembered.  K.C. recalled none of it as did Kim.  And Tim remembered vaguely some guy honking at us from a blue or green car, but not the feeling of helplessness that we all experienced at the time.  I think that the reason that it stayed with me so poignantly, once something cued me back to it, was that at the time I felt an extra burden.  Though I was not the oldest in the bunch, the fact that I was driving the group gave me the sense that I had responsibility to keep my passengers safe, and if something had happened, I would have felt it to be my fault in not protecting everyone from a stupid decision.  I think that's why I asked for a vote as it was happening; to lessen my own emotional liability in some way.

What sparked my memory of this incident was when the show discussed an attack that happened in Modesto, CA, a portion of which I have noted below.  The woman and her daughter who were taken by the Zodiac Killer, and later escaped, described something not dissimilar to what we all experienced that day in 1981.  Upon further reading, I found that there was some question of whether the killer had done some harm in San Bernardino County, which was well southeast of where we were that day.  This would have meant that the killer’s predatory domain would have included the area that we were in since he was known to be active in the San Francisco area.  At the end of the program, they said that the case was still open and to give any tips, strange or incidental as they might seem, to the Vallejo Police Department.  I did just that.  You never know if there is some weird piece of this story that fits something else.

It seems that the Zodiac Killer ended his spree sometime in the mid 1970’s with some possible communication to law enforcement and newspapers overlapping a little later.  So, in 1981, it would have been five to eight years after the Zodiac Killer was still known to be active.  But who knows? Maybe he was still testing the waters later and was re-tracking or expanding his predatory routes in those years.  What would have happened had we stopped for him?  Would he have told us our wheel was wobbling, that our back gate was coming loose, or that he was of some authority and that we didn’t have the proper license tags to be in the area?  What would we have believed at age seventeen without twenty-four year old K.C. there to keep reason in our heads.  Would this driver have shot the three of us guys and then sexually assaulted Kim and then done away with all four of us?  Was this the Zodiac Killer, or just guy just someone coincidentally acting the same way as the notorious killer?  I have also since learned that there were copy cats with one well-known case in New York.  Or was he just a random nut job harassing four teens?  I'll never know what that was all about.  All that I know is that we all felt terribly helpless and scared traveling on a desolate stretch of road at sixty-five miles per hour at the time.  Thinking of it still gives me the chills. 

Here is the except of the account below that sparked my memory.  Rather from the television program, this is from Wikipedia:

“On the night of March 22, 1970, Kathleen Johns was driving from San Bernardino to Petaluma to visit her mother. She was seven months pregnant and had her 10-month-old daughter beside her. While heading west on Highway 132 near Modesto, a car behind her began honking its horn and flashing its headlights. She pulled off the road and stopped. The man in the car parked behind her, approached her car, stated that he observed that her right rear wheel was wobbling, and offered to tighten the lug nuts. After finishing his work, the man drove off; yet when Johns pulled forward to re-enter the highway the wheel almost immediately came off of the car. 

The man returned, offering to drive her to the nearest gas station for help. She and her daughter climbed into his car. During the ride the car passed several service stations but the man did not stop. For about 90 minutes he drove back and forth around the back roads near Tracy. When Johns asked why he was not stopping, he would change the subject. When the driver finally stopped at an intersection, Johns jumped out with her daughter and hid in a field. The driver then closed the car door and drove off. Johns hitched a ride to the police station in Patterson.

When Johns gave her statement to the sergeant on duty, she noticed the police composite sketch of Paul Stine's killer and recognized him as the man who abducted her and her child. Fearing he might come back and kill them all, the sergeant had Johns wait, in the dark, at the nearby Mil's Restaurant. When her car was found, it had been gutted and torched. 

Most accounts claim he threatened to kill her and her daughter while driving them around, but at least one police report disputes that. Johns' account to Paul Avery of the Chronicle indicates her abductor left his car and searched for her in the dark with a flashlight; however, in one report she made to the police, she stated he did not leave the vehicle.”