Many residents of the North Coast have heard a rumored serial killer lurks in their midst. Web sleuths have surmised upwards of four deaths spread across Mendocino, Sonoma, and Napa Counties were the result of this murderer.
In the last week, a Reddit post claimed the speculated serial killer’s territory grew dramatically after a poster claimed the murder of 20-year-old Rancho Cordova Emma Roark woman was the work of the North Coast Killer marking the fifth victim.
That theory was proven false yesterday when the Rancho Cordova Police Department announced a 37-year-old transient from the Sacramento area named Mikilo Morgan Rawls was arrested in the “brutal sexual assault and homicide of Emma Roark.” As per a press release issued by RCPD, he was booked into the Sacramento Main Jail on “felony charges of murder, rape, and sodomy and is being held without bail.”
The internet’s reflexive instinct to invoke this unsubstantiated killer reared its head in the comment section of Redheaded Blackbelt and its coverage of Leah Hoffman, a 30-year-old woman who went missing in Trinity County this last Monday, February 7, 2022.
One commenter responded to the news saying sarcastically, “And there is no serial killer in this part of CA. Get it together cops!” Another commenter offered, “There may be a serial killer in the Northern part of the state. Trinity county is no longer such a faraway place. We have had several dead women in Sonoma and Mendocino County in suspicious circumstances.”
However, as was reported here, Hoffman was found, alive and well, two days later.
Though these two cases were quickly proven unconnected and not the product of a speculated serial killer, four active investigations of North Coast women are continuing to fuel the belief that a serial killer could be preying up the area’s women.
- Cynthia Crane, a 33-year-old Guerneville woman’s death was labeled “suspicious” after she was found floating in a rural Sonoma County waterway on December 18, 2021.
- Crystal Lea McCarthy was found deceased floating in the Napa River on December 23, 2021.
- On January 7, 2022, 33-year-old Willits woman Amber DIllon was found deceased in a rural area near the Mendocino/Sonoma County line. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office would later deem her death as “suspicious.”
- 22-year-old Alyssa Mae Sawdey was found dead north of Ukiah. Later the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office would also deem her death as “suspicious.”
These four women had lost their lives within one month of each other. All four were young, the pictures of them floating around online showed them all as vibrant and attractive, and they would be found dead within a 90 miles radius of each other.
Compounding the public’s speculation, all three law enforcement agencies uttered almost the exact same words regarding their deaths deeming them “suspicious” and saying they were unable to release more information on the cases pending toxicology and autopsies.
We reached out to Sacramento Sheriff’s Sergeant Rod Grassman, the lead investigative agency looking into the death of Rancho Cordova woman Emma Roark recognized these sorts of responses from law enforcement can prompt public speculation which he described as “human nature.”
Knowing that potential suspects could be watching the news, Sergeant Grassman said during active investigations, law enforcement will release very limited information and if a suspect thinks law enforcement is searching for them they could “destroy evidence or start changing their patterns.” Releasing information to satisfy a curious public would “do nothing but compromise the investigation and is a disservice to victims,” he added.
Having multiple law enforcement officials attest to the information vacuum typical of active investigations and the public’s habit of filling the void with speculation, we sought out a third party who could offer insight into the tension between law enforcement’s process of identifying a serial killer and the internet’s stubborn instinct to blame a serial killer for deaths even when that speculation is not backed by concrete evidence and is contradicted by law enforcement
Professor David Canter is currently a Visiting Professor at Liverpool Hope University in England who has made a career in forensic and investigative psychology. He wrote seminal texts in the field of serial killer profiling such as Criminal Shadows: Inside the Mind of the Serial Killer, Mapping Murder: The Secrets of Geographical Profiling, and Investigative Psychology: Offender Profiling and the Analysis of Criminal Actions. Professor Canter’s collaboration with London law enforcement in 1985 led to the identification of the infamous Railway Killers,
From 1982-1986, southern England was terrorized by a pair of men who came to be known as the “Railroad Killers” responsible for raping upwards of twenty-five women and killing three others.
On the evening of December 29, 1985, 19-year-old Alison Day exited a train to visit her boyfriend who worked near Hackney Wick Station. The “Railway Killers” saw Day exit the area of the train station, confronted her on a darkened path and sexually assaulted her. She walked away across a nearby bridge, falling into a canal below, and the Railway Killers met her on the bank and strangled her to death.
Four months later in April 1986, 15-year-old Dutch school girl Maartje Tamboezer was raped and murdered by the men after she collided with a metal wire tied between two trees while riding her bike.
The last killing associated with the men was in May 1986 when 29-year-old Anne Lock was abducted and murdered after getting off a train near Hertfordshire.
Dr. David Canter, a psychologist from the University of Surrey at the time, was consulted to help solve the crimes in what would be British law enforcement’s first use of psychological offender profiling. Dr. Canter examined each crime and built up a profile of the killer’s habits and traits. Police investigation and Dr. Canter’s profiling would lead to the identification of the Railway Killers as John Francis Duffy and David Mulcahy.
Hoping to understand a different perspective on the tragic deaths of four North Coast women and the internet’s stubborn instinct to blame a serial killer, we sought the knowledge of Professor Canter.
When presented with the serial killer narrative that has arisen amongst Northern California residents, Professor Canter did say there was a concept that could cause law enforcement to overlook a possible killer, he called this “linkage blindness”, which he attributed to the University of Illinois Steven A. Egger. “Linkage Blindness”, Professor Canter explained, is a tendency for American law enforcement to have difficulty forming a “coherent view” about potential connections between crimes. This tendency is an outgrowth of law enforcement agencies “not sharing information with each other.”
Another factor that informs this “Linkage Blindness” is “a reluctance to identify serial killings because of the pressures that puts on the whole investigation process and the need to get help, say, from the FBI”, Professor Canter told us.
Asking Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall about this concept of “linkage blindness” and how it could manifest in Northern California, he did not think it was a factor in counties like Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt, Sonoma, and Trinity, where staffing is limited and jurisdictional collaboration is commonplace.
“We are not an island unto ourselves,” Sheriff Kendall said. “We talk about what is going on, our detectives work together. When we need assistance on a homicide, nearby agencies send personnel,” Sheriff Kendall told us.
Another tool of Northern California’s law enforcement infrastructure that keeps agencies abreast of any potential connections between cases is the Department of Justice Regional Laboratory in Eureka that serves the counties of Humboldt, Del Norte, and Mendocino. Sheriff Kendall explained investigators there actively look for connections between any cases that might inform local agencies.
Sheriff Kendall also pointed towards technology and the move towards surveillance in various forms has led to a world where citizens are “constantly being watched.”
Sacramento Sheriff’s Sergeant Grassman agreed with Kendall’s point saying his agency is constantly utilizing data to look for patterns in local crime, a methodology he told us could “tie things together.”
Through a combination of license plate readers, the ubiquity of surveillance cameras, and tracking human movement with GPS technology, Sergeant Grassman assessed the possibility of a serial killer moving across a large geographic footprint and entering multiple municipalities unnoticed: “It’s almost impossible to get away with that [anymore].”
These technologies, Sergeant Grassman said, have created a world where “you’re not going to see another serial killer like the Zodiac or the Unabomber”
Professor Canter provided us with traits often represented in serial killers:
- Serial killers “typically have no pre-existing relationship to their victims, who are often typically women.”
- Victimss of serial killers often “are vulnerable women, such as street sex workers, or people living on the street.”
- Serial killer behavior usually involves “some sort of related sexual activity, unless there is robbery or some other obvious crime involved.”
- Geographically, serial killers have “a tendency to keep some distance from the previous offense.”
- The method of killing will often have “some obvious similarities, as will how the victim’s body is dealt with, but can change over time as the offender becomes more ‘expert’.
Another metric that could suggest a serial killer is at play, Professor Canter said, is what he called the “base rate” of murders within a given area. If deaths are occurring “in an area with very few murders, especially stranger murders, rather than the more common domestic/associate murders, then the possibility of one culprit increases.”
When presented with his base rate murder metric, Sheriff Kendall agreed with Canter’s concept but added that environmental factors need to be taken into account as well. A common environmental factor shared across the three counties where the four women whose deaths have not been explained publically is the accessibility of fentanyl and overdoses that result from use.
When asked whether social media users and web sleuths could be an antidote to the “linkage blindness” and recognize potential criminal patterns before law enforcement, Professor Canter said, “The problem with social media…is that people can work up a storm just because it seems interesting.” The online ecosystem is one where “conspiracies thrive” and Professor Canter joked, “It won’t be long before someone claims the Clintons are behind these murders!”
Professor Canter did give ground that “there are also examples of the citizenry drawing attention to something important because they are all in touch with each other.”
We spoke with Sergeant Juan Valencia regarding the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office investigation into Amber Dillon and Cynthia Crane. As in previous inquiries, more information regarding their deaths would not be released until the completion of toxicology and autopsies.
Sheriff Matt Kendall said the investigation into Alyssa Mae Sawdell is stalled at the same point.
The only law enforcement agency we were unable to get an update from was Napa Police Department and their investigation into Crystal Lea McCarthy’s death.
These agencies are tasked with bringing closure to these womens’ families and making sense of their untimely deaths. In those efforts, they are asking the public for information regarding these four cases.
If you know anything about the circumstances surrounding Dillon’s or Crane’s death, contact Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office at (707) 565-2650.
If you have information about Sawdey’s death, contact Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office at (707) 234-2100 or the WeTip anonymous crime reporting hotline at (800)782-7463.
If you have information about the death of Crystal Lea McCarthy, contact Napa Police Department Detective Brendt Keown at (707) 257-9592.
- Conjecture on Social Media Grows as a Central Valley Woman’s Homicide Is Added to the Dubious North Coast Serial Killer Narrative
- Despite Law Enforcement’s Emphatic Denials, Social Media Insists Four Women Are Victims of a North Coast Serial Killer
- Sheriff Kendall on Rumors a Serial Killer Is Behind Recent ‘Suspicious’ Deaths of Mendocino County Women: ‘Currently, There Is No Evidence They’re Connected’
- Amber Dillon
- Alyssa Mae Sawdey