Between 1979 and 1981, David Carpenter murdered so many people along Bay Area nature trails that some parks posted ominous "Do Not Hike Alone" warning signs.
In the fall of 1980, Bay Area police warned the public that a “ritualistic” serial killer with “a severe psychological problem” was on the loose. He became known as the “Trailside Killer” because he hunted victims along local nature trails. But it would take police months to discover that his real name was David Carpenter — and finally catch him.
Carpenter, who had a long history of sexual assaults, killed at least eight people between 1979 and his arrest in 1981. He lay in wait along wooded trails, then raped and psychologically tortured his victims by making them beg for their lives before he killed them.
In the end, it took months for the police to track David Carpenter down, and the grisly murders of the Trailside Killer remain haunting to this day.
The Disturbing Early Years Of David Carpenter
Long before he became known as the Trailside Killer, David Carpenter had a history of sexual violence. Born on May 6, 1930, he was first charged with a sex crime at the age of 17, after he’d molested a three-year-old girl, according to SF Gate. For that, Carpenter was briefly institutionalized.
As an adult, Carpenter showed even more violent tendencies. In 1960, he tried to rape a young woman named Lois DeAndrade — mother of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Rinna — before attacking her with a knife and hammer. His attack was interrupted by a military policeman who had happened to notice Carpenter driving down a deserted road.
Carpenter served seven-and-a-half years in prison but, upon his release, was almost immediately arrested again for robbery, kidnapping, and rape. Around that same time, a psychiatrist profiled Carpenter and offered a disturbing conclusion about his likely future behavior.
“Ever since the age of eight, whenever he was under significant stress, he will commit a sex offense,” the psychiatrist warned according to SF Gate. “The only way he can think straight… is to rape the nearest female.”
The psychiatrist was soon proven right. Shortly after David Carpenter was paroled in May 1979, the Trailside Killer struck for the first time.
The Brutal Murders Of The Trailside Killer
Starting in August 1979, someone started killing women who were hiking or jogging along Bay Area trails. Between then and October 1980, 44-year-old Edda Kane, 23-year-old Barbara Schwartz, and 26-year-old Anne Evelyn Alderson were found murdered on the Mount Tam trail, and 23-year-old Mary Frances Bennett was found murdered at Land’s End.
Kane and Anderson had been shot; Schwartz and Bennett had been stabbed. According to SF Gate, Bennett’s murder had been particularly vicious, as her killer had stabbed her 25 times.
In the fall of 1980, even more Trailside Killer victims were discovered. Eighteen-year-old Cynthia Moreland and her fiancé, 19-year-old Richard Stowers, 22-year-old Diane O’Connell, 22, and 23-year-old Shauna May were all found shot and killed at Sky Trail at Point Reyes.
“Do not hike alone,” warned signs at trailheads in Point Reyes. “Women should be especially cautious.” Police warned hikers who came to the trails, and spread the word across the Bay Area that there was a killer on the loose.
“The killer, who has a severe psychological problem, is motivated to put the victims through some degree of discomfort prior to the killings,” Sheriff Al Howenstein said at a news conference in November 1980. He told reporters that the victims had been found in “submissive positions.”
Though the trails largely emptied out as scared hikers stayed at home, the Trailside Killer continued to kill. On March 29, 1981, the serial killer attacked 20-year-old Ellen Hansen and her boyfriend, 20-year-old Steve Haertle. He killed Hansen, but Haertle narrowing survived after being shot in the neck. And in May 1981, he killed his last victim, 20-year-old Heather Scaggs.
David Carpenter had avoided detection for almost two years. But that would start to change after Scaggs’ death.
How David Carpenter Was Finally Caught
By the time David Carpenter killed his final victim, he’d left a trail of evidence in his violent wake. Haertle, who survived Carpenter’s brutal attack, was able to give police a description of the killer. And Scaggs had disappeared shortly after she was supposed to meet up with Carpenter about a job.
What’s more, tips poured in that led police to Carpenter’s door. The Los Angeles Times reported that three tipsters called a special “Trailside Killer” hotline and recommended that the police look into Carpenter, including an old girlfriend of his who recognized him from a composite drawing.
Until then, David Carpenter had not been among the more than 160 Trailside Killer suspects. He had been living a quiet life while on parole and was not listed as a sex offender. But police were certain that they had their man. In July 1981, they even found a gun that linked to both Carpenter and seven of the Trailside Killer victims, according to SF Gate.
But though Carpenter was found guilty murder, attempted murder, rape, and attempted rape in most of the Trailside Killer’s suspected attacks, he continued to deny that he was the Trailside Killer.
“I was the logical suspect,” Carpenter claimed in a 2013 interview “Everyone was convinced I was the Trailside Killer long before I was charged with any of those murders. Even the investigators knew I was innocent.”
DNA, however, told another story. In 2010, DNA evidence evidence linked Carpenter definitively to the murder of Bennett, though he’s considered only a suspect for the deaths of Kane and Schwartz.
Today, David Carpenter is the oldest prisoner on death row in California. Though the state is currently in the process of dismantling its capital punishment, Carpenter will surely die there.
His terrifying legacy is now all but forgotten. But plenty of people still remember when signs warned people not to hike alone, and when a terrifying killer lurked deep in California’s woods.