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Murder in the Seaside cottage

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Four women were found brutally murdered at this cottage in Seaside, Calif., on Aug. 11, 1977. (Courtesy photo)

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When police entered the modest cottage in Seaside, Calif., on Aug. 11, 1977, they saw a sight that would forever be burned into their memories.

Josephine Smith, a 66-year-old grandmother, Suzanne Harris, her 27-year-old daughter, and Rachel Harris, her 6-year-old granddaughter, were lying butchered on the kitchen floor. Harris’ niece, 15-year-old Renee Ferguson, was found tied up and stabbed in the bedroom. The women and children had been stabbed more than 100 times and had been lying in the summer heat for two days. Blood and decomposition were everywhere. More than one veteran investigator at the scene left his lunch on the cottage’s lawn.

“It was unbelievable,” said Monterey County Deputy District Attorney William Wunderlich. “Nobody in law enforcement that worked on that case had ever seen anything like it before or since.”

The savagery of the killings put Seaside, a town of 23,000, into a state of terror. Citizen brigades patrolled the streets on foot, and volunteers on CB radios cruised the back roads all night. It was the 1970s, a decade when serial killing slashed its way into the headlines. The Manson Family Murders had occurred just eight years before, a few hundred miles to the south. Ed Kemper and Herbert Mullin, with 23 murders between them, had made their nearby hometown of Santa Cruz the serial killer capital of America.

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The windows and doors of the Seaside cottage were intact, and there was no evidence of forced entry. Nothing valuable was taken from the house or any of the victims.

“It’s a mystery” said Seaside Police Cmdr. Bill Gullett. “We’ve had murders before, but never anything as ugly as this. There’s no evidence of robbery, burglary, sexual assault or occult-type slaying.”

From the crime-scene evidence, police surmised the killer and victims knew each other and that Ferguson, the only victim who was tied up, was the primary target.

There were hundreds of sock prints on the floors in the 700-square-foot cottage. Detective Alan Frees collected comparative marks with an ingenious method: Every person interviewed was asked to put on socks, step in paint and walk back and forth on butcher paper. Police then coated the cottage floor with luminol, a chemical that reveals the presence of blood, and took photographs of the bloody sock prints on the floor. Detectives tapped Louise Robbins, a leading expert in footprint identification, to do the comparisons. Robbins was an anthropologist who had worked with noted scientist Mary Leakey identifying the footprints of the earliest humans.

Police cast a wide net. They interviewed more than 500 people, set up tip lines and followed every clue diligently. But by early October, almost two months after the murders, they had not identified a prime suspect. Relatives of the victims and community members accused the police of incompetence.

Then, police got the break they needed. Rose Dubrow, 19, called the hotline with information on Tami Holger, the 14-year-old girlfriend of the suspected killer. Dubrow named 19-year-old Harold Bicknell, the grandson of victim Jacqueline Smith and first cousin to the other victims, as the killer.

And who was Dubrow? She was Bicknell’s old girlfriend.

Police had considered Bicknell as a possible suspect; he was known for carrying a knife and had joined the Navy only four days after the murders. They took Bicknell into custody Oct. 24 at the Navy Training Center in San Diego. After days of denial, he confessed.

Bicknell’s explanation for the killings can best be described in Shakespearean terms as, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” He claimed he stabbed Ferguson to death because: She started insulting his old girlfriend, Dubrow, and was afraid Ferguson was going to tell Dubrow about Holger, his new ladylove.

“I could not believe these words about Rose,” Bicknell said. “So I stabbed [Ferguson]. All I wanted to do was protect the Rose I knew.”

The other victims were then killed, presumably, because they had witnessed the first murder.

With a suspect in custody, detectives asked Robbins to compare the marks on the butcher paper with the footmarks from the crime scene to see if she could find a match. Robbins identified Bicknell as a suspect. Then, to the detectives’ surprise, she also identified Holger, Bicknell’s new girlfriend, as a suspect. A few weeks later, another teenager, Claire Hoover, was also arrested for the murder.

In December, police found an eyewitness to the murders: Renee Ferguson’s sister, Raylene.

Raylene Ferguson said she was standing outside the kitchen when the attack started. She saw Bicknell, Holger and Hoover swinging knives.

“I tried to move after I seen them swinging, but I couldn’t,” Raylene Ferguson said.

Harold Bicknell is seen at his murder trial. (Courtesy photo)

She was hit in the head and woke up the next morning in Hoover’s house. When she mentioned the killings, Raylene Ferguson was told that it was just a bad dream. She blocked it out of her mind and didn’t tell police until the killers had been arrested.

At his trial, Bicknell claimed to have multiple personalities and talked about the crimes in the third person. One of his personalities tried to present the killings as noble: “When I look back, I see that he was fighting to protect love.”

A second personality was regretful: “When I see how much damage I wrought, I abhor that man.”

The jury agreed with personality No. 2 and convicted Bicknell of the four murders. Now age 60, he is still serving his life sentence.

Hoover and Holger were convicted in juvenile court, and their records were sealed.

Editor’s Note: The names of Tami Holger and Claire Hoover have been changed due to their juvenile status at the time of the crime. Rose Dubrow’s name has also been changed for the sake of privacy.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.

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