RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - It was a crime that shocked a city, perhaps more than any other in its history, casting the spectre of a serial killer stalking Reno.
For a long time no woman felt safe. Parents watched their daughters carefully. A college campus nervously approached each night.
February 24th, 1976. The Four Seasons "Oh What a Night" was big hit on the radio. "Welcome Back Kotter" was must-see TV, and "Taxi Driver" had just premiered at local theaters.
Reno, itself was a much smaller city. Barely 80,000 called it home, 7500 of them were students at UNR.
Nineteen-year-old Michelle Mitchell was one of them. A local student, a graduate of Manogue High School, daughter of two high school teachers, she was enjoying being a UNR nursing student. A fresh-faced, dark blonde beauty well-liked by those who knew her
“She just was extremely kind,” remembers Kathy Milbeck, a close friend. “She just was nice to everybody, no matter who they were. And she was really responsible, she always wanted to make sure she got things done.”
This night would be her last.
At around eight, Michelle was on her way to meet her father at a bowling alley near UNR when her yellow VW broke down on Evans Avenue. She crossed the street and called her mom from a phone booth in front of the Agriculture Building on Campus. Her mother was there within 10 minutes. But there was no Michelle.
With a second panicked call from Michelle's mom to Kathy's house, her best friend started to worry.
“I said Mom, 'ask Barbara,' that was her mom, 'if the car door is locked?' And Barbara said. 'No, it is not. And I said, 'ask her if the tape deck is in the car/' And she said, 'Yeah, the tape deck is in the car.' And I said, 'You need to call the police, something is wrong.'”
For nearly two hours, Reno police and Michelle's mom and dad knocked on doors and searched the area. Then, at 10:30, an elderly couple opened their weathered garage door and there was MIchelle dead on the dirt floor.
Her mother called the Milbecks with the horrible news.
“What she said at that point was, that she had been raped and murdered. And mom just repeated it out loud. I think because she couldn't wrap her mind around it.”
Could Milbeck wrap her mind around it?
“No. Not at that point.”
The word spread quickly around campus. At the Pi Phi house, roomies Ann Langer and Morgan Murphy were studying when police stopped by.
“And somebody knocked on the front door,” Morgan Murphy remembers. “It was the police and they said that they wanted to let us know there had been a murder on campus. And of course we were all freaked out and surprised.”
“A girl had been killed across the street from the SAE house and so we all needed to just stay home,” adds Langer.
At the SAE house less than half a block away, police questioned fraternity brothers. Did anyone see someone suspicious in the area? Had anyone of them seen MIchelle alive? Did someone in this house know something, anything?
Anxiety was at an all-time high in Reno. Just four days before, another woman, Peggy Davis, was found dead at her Ralston and Second Street apartment. She had been stabbed to death.
Investigation would eventually show Davis had been killed in a conspiracy between topless night club owner Morey Kaplan and two women who worked for him. Davis, a dancer at Kaplan's club, was his girlfriend, and he'd taken out a large insurance policy on her.
The culprits were caught and convicted. There was never any evidence that linked them to Michelle's death.
Meanwhile, fear rose that a serial killer was stalking Reno. Personal connections were many and only brought the fear closer to home.
“One of the gals that worked at the Phi Pi house lived next door to the couple where Michelle was found,” says Ann Langer.
Within days, details of MIchelle's murder started to come out.
She had been missing for an unexplainable two hours. Evidence suggests she died shortly after she was taken into the garage about 10:30.
Her hands were bound, her throat slit. At the scene, a burned cigarette, matches that were lit to illuminate the inside of the garage, presumably to find the twine to tie her hands.
There were two sets of footprints to the garage, MIchelle's and someone wearing a common man's shoe. All this information just added to the fear and anxiety in Reno and, especially around campus.
“The fraternity boys offered to walk the girls to class in the evening,” says Murphy. “And it really changed the tone, everybody became very nervous.”
“Oh, there was so much fear on campus from that point on,” adds Langer. “The rest of the year was just abject fear.”
Longtime UNR Professor Howard Rosenberg taught a cinema class at night in 1976 and remembers the atmosphere well.
“The next day people walking around, just completely bewildered that anything like this could happen.”
But for Michelle's best friend, the experience on campus was quite different.
Kathy Milbeck had just lost her best friend. And for abut six months, she says undercover officers followed her around, afraid a serial killer was still at large, and she might be the next target.
What was worse: the reception she received from fellow students once she got back to class.
“I think everyone was scared. But I also think nobody knew what to do with me. So they just avoided me.”
At 19, Milbeck had lost her best friend. Her parents would fear she would be next. How she carried on is anyone's guess. But carry on she did, just as the rest of the student body would.
“I think after living in fear for at least for that year, and probably in my senior year,” says Ann Langer. “There is a time in life that you have to decide to be very careful you know, know what your surroundings are, and live your life the best you can because if you constantly live in fear, you wouldn't get much accomplished.”
THREE YEARS LATER, A CONFESSION
So gradually much of the community stopped looking over its shoulder. Reno police detectives, however, continued their work. It was described as the most intensive investigation in the city's history.
“It was given a lot of priority,” says former District Attorney Cal Dunlap, who as the department's chief deputy would later prosecute the case. “A lot of people were investigated. There were sex offenders living in the neighborhood. I think there were six or seven of them within a ten-block radius that were known perverts that could have been involved and they were all investigated.”
Leads came in but went nowhere. There was no Secret Witness at the time, but the family raised a reward.
Then a break. February 24, 1979, three years to the day of the murder, Reno police received a call from counterparts in Louisiana. A nurse at a mental hospital there had reported that a patient had told her she'd killed a woman named Michelle in Reno.
The patient was Cathy Woods.
Woods had been diagnosed as schizophrenic at 13. In the six months before, she had been hospitalized three times, the last after an attempted suicide.
In 1976, Woods had been living in Reno, managing a topless bar on West Second Street, ironically just a block from the one where Peggy Davis, the other murder victim, had worked.
A Reno detective was dispatched to Louisiana to interview her. He returned with a confession. She would be tried and convicted twice. The first conviction was thrown out on an issue involving a witness who had linked the case to the Davis murder.
Lee Hotchkin, then with the Public Defender's office, was assigned her case for the second trial. He faced an uphill battle with little help from his client.
“She was schizophrenic and she was soft-spoken,” says Hotchkin. “And her body movement, she wasn't expressive, she was you know, comatose, so you know you had to plan on building a defense without her testifying.”
And Woods hardly presented a sympathetic figure. A former manager of a topless club. A self-professed mannish lesbian at a time when homosexual acts were still a felony in Nevada. Someone who, according to her confession, heard voices telling her to kill. The evil opposite to the attractive good girl, college coed victim.
“She was portrayed as a monster,” says Hotchkin. “Just a deviant monster.”
But Hotchkin says her defense team was convinced she was innocent and there were good reasons.
There were problems with the physical evidence. Two sets of footprints going into the garage. Michelle Mitchell's and her killer. Just one coming out and it was a man's loafer a couple of sizes larger than Woods'.
“Why would she wear clown shoes to a murder?” Hotchkin notes.
Witnesses had seen a man running from the area and though Woods often dressed in men's clothing, it was questionable if her physique would be mistaken for a man. Woods would later undergo breast reduction surgery, but her plastic surgeon would testify that at the time of the murder, it was unlikely she could have disguised herself as a man.
But her attorneys felt they needed something more
“The argument was there wasn't proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” says Hotchkin. “But, in a case that high profile, some attorneys will tell you, you have to give them an alternative. You can't just say there isn't enough."
The prosecution was saying Michelle Mitchell had been killed after laughing off a sexual advance from Woods.
Hotchkin and her attorney in the first trial offered a different motive, a different suspect. They tied it to the Peggy Davis murder and suggested Mitchell's real killer was Tony Lima, boyfriend of one of the women convicted in the Davis case.
The confession was harder to attack. Woods had given it verbally to the Reno detective at the Louisiana mental hospital. She hadn't been read her rights, and, it was argued, might not been able to understand them in any case.
She got some of the details right, but some wrong. It was suggested what she said she knew could have been gleaned from news accounts at the time.
And she included some details that were clearly delusional, telling the detective she had been working for the FBI and that her mother had been trying to poison her.
Unfortunately the confession was not recorded. In fact, the detective didn't sign his report until a day and a half later.
The defense tried to keep it out. Both judges allowed it, and the case turned on it.
“If they didn't have the confession, they would have an unsolved murder,” says Hotchkin. “And if you go back, they called it the “Reign of Terror” back then because people were scared; the community did not want to think it was an unsolved crime.”
Hotchkin says five jurors initially voted for acquittal, but eventually sided with the majority. Woods was convicted a second time.
A motion for a third trial failed. The case had been thoroughly investigated and there were no legal errors on which to base an appeal. In time, legal deadlines for any appeal expired.
The community had every reason to believe Michelle Mitchell's murderer was safely locked away for the rest of her life. It would take 28 years and a leap in forensic science to shake that belief.
During those years, DNA emerged as an important investigative tool and has now exonerated more than 300 wrongfully convicted people.
In 2010, Cathy Woods was an inmate at the Florence McClure Women's Correctional Center in North Las Vegas. She had been in custody for 31 years.
A fellow inmate filed a motion for her, seeking to have the evidence in her case examined for DNA.
That evidence had been stored, along with other high-profile cases in a special room beneath the courthouse. Everything was there. Documents, crime scene photos, and physical evidence, Michelle Mitchell's clothing, some of the cord she'd been bound with and, in an evidence envelope, a cigarette butt found near her foot. There was DNA on it and it wasn't from Cathy Woods.
In fact, it belonged to a man, unidentified, but wanted elsewhere.
That changed everything.
DNA LINKS THE MITCHELL KILLING TO OTHERS IN THE BAY AREA
A serial killer was walking the streets of Reno in late February of 1976, but his first victim would not be Michelle Mitchell. It would be an 18-year-old in the San Francisco suburb of Pacifica about a month earlier as she made her way to a bus stop to attend a birthday party.
Veronica Ann Cascio would be found the next day near a stream at a golf course adjacent to the bus stop. She was stabbed to death.
There would be more. Fourteen-year-old Tanya Blackwell January 24th, Paula Baxter February 4th, Carol Booth March 15th, Denise Lampe April 1st.
The murders occurred in Pacifica, Broadmoor, Daly City, and South San Francisco. All were stabbed, sexually assaulted. Bodies dumped, and found days to months later. Local investigators struggled to find a pattern to the slayings.
“Nowhere with all five of these girls were we able to match anything of them even knowing each other,” says retired Millbrae detective Ronald Caine, who investigated the Paula Baxter murder. “The only thing in common between them was the suspect.”
At an FBI press conference in Redwood City in March, authorities announced they were able to link the Michelle Mitchell murder to the Peninsula cases, known collectively as the Gypsy Hill Murders, after one of the locations.
“A light bulb went up in my head,” says veteran Bay Area reporter Vic Lee, now with KGO-TV, “and I, I'm going to say terror in the community because really, parents, some parents were telling their children in news accounts , of changing their hairdo because they didn't want their daughters to become victims.” (All of the slain women, including Michelle Mitchell, were similar in appearance with long hair, parted in the middle.)
Lee says he remembers covering some of these murders, but only slightly. There were other, even more sensational crimes. “It was a crazy time. There was the Zebra killings-racially motivated killings, by these extremists Muslim faction randomly targeting white victims. There was the Zodiac this serial killer who used the sign of the Zodiac sent it to the Chronicle newspaper here every-time he killed somebody.”
Lee says back in 1976, law enforcement agencies didn't typically talk to one another. And the killings may have been perceived as a one-time event in each community.
“You had small police forces with the inability to really to investigate a murder thoroughly. DNA technology? What was that all about?”
All of the cases are now the subject of an FBI-led task force, involving investigators from all of the agencies in Nevada and California.
“For each of these police agencies I think it is always important to conclude a case put a case to bed and say we did it,” says Lee.
Almost 40 years ago many Reno residents suspected a serial killer murdered Michelle MItchell. In 2014 it is more than just speculation.
Law enforcement in the Bay Area is doing an extensive investigation--checking with former witnesses, looking at evidence, and examining suspect case files.
Those who have an emotional stake in this case are left on the sidelines. But they too have a thirst for answers.
“You know as a family member you would like to know without a shadow of a doubt who did it,” says Martha Mitchell. “You know I just feel like if this new evidence can shed any light on these other poor girls who were murdered, then it's a positive thing.”
THE SEARCH FOR JUSTICE
The search for the truth is now taking place on two fronts. As the federal task force pursues that unidentified man, the legal system now confronts a troubling question.
Was justice served all those years ago? Or has a woman spent half of her life behind bars for a crime she didn't commit?
DNA evidence puts another person in that garage with Michelle Mitchell. A man wanted for a series of murders committed at the same time in the Bay Area. A man, not Cathy Woods.
Some still argue that doesn't prove Woods had no part in the killing.
“It was always my belief and the belief of many that there was a second person,” says Dunlap, arguing it's hard to believe someone could be held at knifepoint and bound by one person.
Lee Hotchkin points to the fact there were only two, not three sets of footprints and the DNA is that of a man. “There is no physical evidence at all, to connect Cathy Woods to that scene or that murder. Absolutely none.”
But what about that confession, the key to the prosecution's case?
It turns out that fully a quarter of the convictions overturned by DNA in all kinds of cases in recent years have involved false confessions.
In homicides, they're the leading cause of wrongful convictions.
According to the Innocence Project, fully 64% of the erroneous murder convictions overturned by DNA evidence involved false confessions.
People, even those without Cathy Woods' history of mental illness, apparently do admit to crimes they didn't commit.
Investigators in the task force are tracking down and testing DNA from potential suspects here, in California and, we know, beyond.
One of the first compared was Tony Lima, the suggested alternate suspect in the two trials. He has since died, but a sample from a relative has cleared him.
Neither the investigators nor the prosecution or defense had the advantage of this science thirty years ago.
Today, it could eventually lead to identifying the man, alive or dead, who killed those five young women in the Bay Area and who stood and smoked a cigarette at the feet of Michelle Mitchell as she lay dead and bleeding in that garage.
And it could free a mentally ill woman who's spent 35 years in custody.
Nearly four decades after that grisly discovery in an Evans Street garage, all those years KILLING TIME, justice for Michelle Mitchell, for all those involved, remains elusive.
Her sister Martha speaks for many.
“If this new evidence can come to a resolution for all of us that's what we want.”
Where it will lead isn't known, but the DNA evidence and the connection between the crimes here in Reno and the Bay Area has breathed new life into a very cold case.
Here and there, the new leads are being sought. One tip identifying a potential suspect came directly to KOLO 8 News Now's Ed Pearce following our first reports in March. It's an unlikely lead, but a DNA sample was obtained from a relative and was added to the growing list to be tested.
Anyone with information on this case is asked to call the Reno Police Department or Secret Witness at (775) 322-4900.
A motion for a new trial for Cathy Woods was filed in February and Wednesday, May 14, 2014, she will be back in a Reno courtroom for the first time since 1986 for a hearing on that motion.