Reno coed's suspected killer cleared for Bay Area trial

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REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (KOLO) Rodney Halbower, suspected of the 1976 murder of Reno coed Michelle Mitchell, has been found competent to stand trial in Redwood City, California for two of the "Gypsy Hill" murders.

The 67-year-old Halbower is charged in San Mateo County with murders of two of the young women killed in early 1976 in the Bay Area. He's suspected in the murders of as many as four others including Mitchell, all in the same time frame.

Halbower was linked to the crimes after evidence found on a cigarette butt left in a Reno garage next to Mitchell's body was tested for D-N-A.

The tests cleared Cathy Woods, a former Reno bar manager who was twice convicted and served 30 years for Mitchell's murder. They matched that of evidence in the unsolved Bay Area cases and eventually traced to Halbower who was serving time for an attack on another woman in Oregon.

D-N-A testing did not exist in 1976 and the match with Halbower may never have been discovered had he not escaped from the Nevada State Prison where he was serving time on rape charges in 1986.

It was while he was free that he attacked the woman in Oregon. Arrested and tried there, he was returned to Nevada to complete his sentence here and it was on his transfer back to Oregon that his D-N-A was taken and added to the National Data Base.

He was transferred from Oregon to California to face the murder charges in 2015, but the case has moved slowly through the court there.

His attorneys moved for a jury trial to determine his competency. An eight-day jury trial was held in Redwood City.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe says Halbower testified for a day and a half at that trial, which ended with a verdict finding him competent to assist in his defense.

The next step is a preliminary hearing. A status hearing has been set in San Mateo County for later this week. A date could be set at that time.

It's not known when a trial date might be set for the California case or if he will ever be returned to Nevada to stand trial for Michelle Mitchell's murder.

The slain coed's sister has told KOLO 8 News Now justice will never be served until that happens.