RENO, Nev. – When a California judge holds a plea hearing this week for Joseph Naso, the 77-year-old photographer will likely be in court on his own, a rarity in a case like this one, which ultimately could bring the death penalty.
But for Naso, charged in the killings of four Northern California women — all of whom had the same first and last initials — going it alone against the government strikes a familiar theme. Court records hint at Naso's deep distrust of authorities, whom he thought of as corrupt or unethical.
Those records, along with interviews with former neighbors and acquaintances, also offer details on an apparently frustrating personal battle with officials over custody and care of his mentally disabled son.
While Naso is charged with murdering the four California women with matching first and last initials, he also is being investigated for possible links to New York's "Double Initial Murders" in the early 1970s in which three girls were killed, each with matching initials.
A Marin County judge has allowed Naso to act as his own attorney in the California case, with a plea hearing scheduled for Friday.
Naso's combative spirit was evident when he lived in Reno, Nev. and his son, Charles, was placed in a group home. He waged a legal war with Nevada's mental health system.
Attempting to regain guardianship and control of Charles' disability payments, Naso represented himself. He accused the government's attorneys of conspiring against him, saying the public defender representing his son and the Nevada attorney general's office were working against his son's best interest.
"I have (too) high a standard when it comes to fair and ethical performance and practice regarding both medical and legal areas," Naso wrote in court documents. "I was taught at age 16: a professional worker must never ever knowingly or unknowingly mislead a client."
"Misrepresentation, deception and malpractice is alive and well," he said.
For years, Naso moved around, in some cases saying he was seeking better care for his son. In Reno, where he moved about seven years ago, he and his son lived in a dingy, white clapboard house surrounded by a tall wooden fence.
Inside, investigators found boxes of photographs and journals they say tie him to the four murders. One person interviewed by investigators told The Associated Press that some of the journals contained torture fantasies and lists of women.
In a black pickup truck in his cluttered backyard, an issue of an anti-government militia newspaper lay near a piece of paper on which a lawyer joke was typed.
"I've no social life. I do not indulge myself or seek pleasures," Naso said in documents related to his son's guardianship case. "My mission in life, my time, and much of my expense revolves around trying to provide care and welfare for my son. (24/7)."
In a running feud with the Social Security Administration over his son, Naso's legal arguments — often in hand-written letters, sometimes typed all upper case — were sometimes well thought out and organized. But he also frequently digressed, once writing that a female SSA clerk named "Ronnie" in 2005 "seemed cold and bored as she went through some paperwork."
In 1999, Naso lost a legal fight to Mildred Gardner, an elderly woman who claimed he swindled $17,000 and a snub-nosed revolver from her with promises of marriage. She sued after learning of his criminal history of petty theft convictions, and she said he became angry.
"Joe started demanding very angrily, that I get back everything I ever gave anyone," Gardner wrote. "He would not let up. He forced me to give him a .38-caliber snub nose revolver which he still has. My family has been very worried."
Gardner's suit was filed five years after prosecutors say Naso killed the last of the four Northern California women he is charged with murdering: Carmen Colon, Roxene Roggasch, Pamela Parsons and Tracy Tafoya. Naso is also still under investigation in the upstate New York killings of three girls, including a girl named Carmen Colon, the same as one of the California victims.
In California, Naso had moved with Charles in tow to San Francisco, Oakland, Yuba City and Sacramento. In Yuba City, he attended a therapy group for the parents of children with mental illness.
"He was very, very concerned about his son, that's what so strange about this," said Roberta Fletcher, who was president of the Yuba City chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Fletcher said she attended about 10 group sessions with Naso.
Legal documents also show that Naso struggled with Charles' mental illness, and in 1996 he obtained a restraining order against his son for protection against domestic violence. The order was dropped years later, but Naso would find himself in court again over guardianship of Charles.
Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services argued that Charles should be in a group home.
"Staff believe that Joseph Naso provides alcohol for Charles Naso and does not appropriately administer his medications," Nevada Deputy Attorney General Julie Slabaugh wrote.
Last year, a parole office conducting a routine search of Naso's home discovered ammunition and evidence he had a gun. The discovery spurred a larger search, and his arrest for the murders.
Now, authorities throughout the country are looking at their cold cases for any ties to Naso.
Authorities have said that they are seeking out cases that fit his "MO" — women victims who had been strangled, and whose bodies were dumped in rural areas, said San Anselmo, Calif. police Detective Julie Gorwood. And even though the New York murders involved children, not women, investigators there say Naso is still a suspect.
Mark Mariano, 51, a retired Rochester police investigator who was on the cold-case team re-examining the child slayings, doesn't discount the possibility that Naso might have also targeted children: Naso lived in Rochester at the time of the slayings, and the victims, like those in California, had double initials.
"The first thing cops always say is, `I don't believe in coincidences,'" Mariano said.
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