Suspect in 1976 Reno murder charged in California serial killings

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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Nearly four decades after a series of murders of young women terrorized Reno and the Bay Area, a 66-year-old career criminal was arraigned Thursday on charges of killing two of the women.

Rodney Halbower's arrest was a victory for advances in forensic sciences and dogged police work, but a good measure of happenstance was also involved.

In 2010 a fellow inmate in the women's prison in North Las Vegas began the process of filing for an reexamination of evidence which had twice convicted former Reno bar manager Cathy Woods of the 1976 murder of Reno coed Michelle Mitchell.

Two years later, DNA tests were ordered. That led to the discovery of DNA on a cigarette butt found at the scene. That DNA didn't match Cathy Woods.

It belonged to a man, an unidentified man linked to a string of murders of young women in the Bay Area, known collectively as the Gypsy Hill murders.

That discovery not only cast doubt on Woods' guilt. It launched a mutli-agency, bi-state and federal task force to take a fresh look into all these cold cases.

In September 2014, investigators got a break. The DNA was matched to a 66-year-old Oregon prison inmate serving a 30-year sentence for the attempted murder of a woman in Medford. Rodney Halbower had been living in the south Bay area in 1976 when the Gypsy Hill murders began.

The first victim was 18-year-old Veronica Ann Cascio, last seen alive on January 7th at a bus stop. Her body was found the next day at a local golf course. She had been raped and stabbed repeatedly.

Three other murders followed and in the midst of the spree, Mitchell was found murdered near the UNR campus in Reno. At the time investigators made no connection with the California murders.

Three years later, Cathy Woods was arrested after a confession she made while a patient at a Louisiana mental hospital.

Decades passed. Woods remained in custody. In the Bay Area, families of the victims waited.

"It was like a hand grenade in our family and just blew us all apart. That's what happened," says John Blackwell, brother of the second Gypsy Hill victim, 14-year-old Tanya Blackwell.

At this point, San Mateo authorities are charging Halbower only with Cascio's killing and that of 17-year-old Paula Baxter.

"It is time to bring this man to justice for the murders that we can clearly prove at this point," said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, "and bring some closure to the families as best we can."

Why it's only those and not the others isn't fully known, but Wagstaffe indicated the DNA evidence is solid in the two cases.

We also have reason to believe investigators have been able to develop information beyond DNA, personally linking Halbower to at least one of those young women.

Following our initial stories on Halbower, we were contacted by a high school friend of Ronnie Cascio who said she recognized him as someone Cascio knew.

The investigation continues, but Halbower's arrest represents a long-sought victory for those involved.

Thursday's announcement and arraignment was especially gratifying for former Millbrae Detective Sergeant Ronald Caine, who knew the Baxter family and worked the case, even past retirement.

"It's wonderful this is solved," he said. "I just wish I could bring the girl back to her mother."

Cathy Woods was ordered released in September after 35 years in custody. A new trial was ordered, though it's increasingly doubtful with little evidence against her beyond-a-questionable confession that will happen.

Halbower faces a possible life sentence. The death penalty was not an option, Wagstaffe said. It was not in effect in California in 1976 when these murders took place.

His arrest came about due to the science of DNA science, which wasn't around in 1976. Wagstaffe was quick to credit the work of crime labs in both states.

But a lot of happenstance was also involved, beginning with the reexamination of the case against Cathy Woods.

Halbower was behind bars for almost all the years since, first in Nevada for a rape which occurred shortly before the murders, then the Oregon attempted murder.

However, neither California nor Nevada required retroactive DNA sampling of inmates.

It was only when Halbower was being transferred from Nevada to Oregon that a sample was taken.

That sample may now identify him as a serial killer in both California and Nevada.