Cold cases grow cold because their stories stop being told. Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office published an interactive map and timeline last year over sixty missing and murdered people whose cases remain unsolved. We have taken on the task of writing about each and every one of those cases, to keep their stories alive and hopefully find justice for the victims and families. Remember, as Jean Racine, the French playwright once said, “There are no secrets that time does not reveal.”
It was Wednesday, January 14, 1976. 21-year-old Karen Fischer* was a University of Colorado Boulder student on Christmas Break. Instead of returning home to Rhode Island for the break, she had gone west to California to visit friends attending Humboldt State. Since she was leaving Friday, her trip would soon be over and she was determined to visit the Pacific Ocean.
Fischer asked her friends about the pristine beaches she should visit before leaving California. They recommended Clam Beach and Trinidad. Being the confident young woman she was, Fischer hopped aboard a bus, said goodbye to her friends, and that would be the last time they would see Fischer alive.
Four days later, on January 18, a group of hikers exploring Trinidad Head, the rocky promontory that shelters Trinidad Harbor, found Fischer deceased at the base of a concrete cross that commemorated the Spanish discovery of the area in 1776. She was fully clothed, except her pants were pulled down, and she appeared to have been raped and strangled.
Fischer’s 1976 death would mark the second of four deaths that year in Humboldt County fitting a similar pattern: a young woman hitchhiking, raped, strangled, and discarded in a rural area.
The public first became aware of Fischer’s death on January 19, 1976. An article entitled “Body found near Trinidad” in the Times Standard informed readers about the discovery of the “body of Karen Frances Fisher, a pretty 21-year-old University of Colorado student” described as “a victim of murder and apparent rape” at the Trinidad Head.
The article quoted then District Attorney John Buffington who divulged Fischer was discovered around 1:30 p.m. the previous day and appeared to have strangled pending confirmation with an autopsy.
Just one day after her body was found, the District Attorney confirmed that Sheriff’s detectives were actively interrogating multiple people who had seen her in the hours leading up to her death to understand her movements that Saturday.
The Times Standard article was released within twenty-four hours of Fischer’s body being located. Despite the fact the investigation was in its infancy, officers opined Fischer’s case “bears some resemblance to the murder of Janet Lee Bowman, 19, whose partially disrobed body was found in brush off Highway 299 on October 6, 1975.” Bowman was also found “throttled to death and apparently raped.”
The interrogations paid off. The following day, law enforcement provided the Times Standard with a significant amount of information regarding Fischer’s last known movements before her death.
Lieutenant Ray Simmons revealed the morning Fischer died, she left Blue Lake aboard an Arcata Mad River Transit System bus that dropped her off at Humboldt State. From there, Fischer hitchhiked to Clam Beach, which law enforcement said indicated was the last known place she was seen alive at 10:30 a.m.
The man who had driven the young Fischer to Clam Beach that morning had actually reached out to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office telling deputies he had picked her up at the 17th Street entrance to Highway 101.
How it came to be that Fischer made it to Trinidad Head was still unclear. Two days after her body was found, detectives asked the public if anyone had seen her in the area or anyone accompanying her to reach out to HCSO.
Lieutenant Simmons went so far as to request anyone that had been parked below Trinidad Head on January 14 contact investigators saying “they have the description of several cars parked in the area and say their investigation would be aided if they can quickly eliminate the cars which are not involved in the case.”
As law enforcement’s understanding of the case grew, their publicly-provided portrait of Fischer became more vivid. She was white, 5’ 7’’and 120 lbs. She had a “medium build with long dark blond hair, a rather round face and upturned nose.” Fischer grew up in Rhode Island, the daughter of Brown University professor Glenn Fischer. On the day of her death, Fischer was reportedly wearing “slacks and casual clothes.”
The Humboldt County Cold Cases website states that on January 15, 1976, her boyfriend actually reported her missing. He said he had last seen her the day before.
Similar to the first, the second article regarding Fischer’s death expanded on the potential connection between her death and Janet Lee Bowman’s. Unlike the first article, HCSO Sheriff Gene Cox broadened out the pattern of hitchhiker deaths saying that within the last 18 months, six murdered women had been found in Mendocino County and seventeen in Sonoma County.
Law enforcement’s investigation into Fischer’s death continued to play out across the Times Standard headlines. On January 21, the paper published an article entitled “Information on pickup truck sought in the murder case of Karen”.
In the article, investigators requested information regarding a specific truck that was seen in the area of Trinidad Head the day Fischer was killed.
Lieutenant Roy Simmons told the Times Standard the truck reportedly drove into the area around 10:45 that morning occupied by four people, including a woman. Notable characteristics of the truck included that it reportedly had a metal ladder “protruding from the bed and racks over the cab to carry lumber of pipes” and had something written on the side of the vehicle. Neither the color nor the make/model of the vehicle were known at that point.
The article once again asked that members of the Humboldt County public who recognized that vehicle or saw anything of note that day at the Trinidad Head to reach out to investigators.
That would be the only novel information offered in this article. The piece went on to outline Fischer’s movement that day, her background, and the troubling similarities between Janet Lee Bowman’s death and Fischer’s.
The following day, in an article, entitled “No new leads found in Karen Fischer case”, detectives told the Times Standard that the driver of the aforementioned pickup truck had been identified and “was not involved in the crime.”
Articles from January 23-January 26 show an investigation stagnating yet still hopeful of finding some workable leads via the vehicles parked at the base of Trinidad Head the day Fischer was killed.
There were four separate vehicles law enforcement was working to identify: a 1942-1945 Army surplus Jeep painted bright yellow, a copper/bronze station wagon, and a red sedan (possibly a Toyota). All three were reportedly parked on the beach below the Trinidad Head that day.
Fischer’s death sparked a protest in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse on January 26. Holding signs like “Keep Rapists in Jail” and “End Plea Bargaining”, a dozen women “were outraged” about the “lenient treatment of rapists between the time charges are pressed and the trial.” The article, entitled “Protest— ‘Keep Rapists in Jail’, revealed that twenty-four of twenty-six men charged with rape in Humboldt County in 1975 (the previous year) were given probation.
In an interesting nod to the modern-day conversation about victim-blaming, the writer recounted a passerby shouting at the protestors, “Why don’t you stop hitchhiking?” One of the protestors told the reporter, “Everyone thinks it’s just hitchhikers that get raped when actually they’re the only ones who have enough courage to come forth and report it.”
The only investigatory detail regarding a suspect was not located in newspaper archives but on the Humboldt County Cold Cases website which states that “members of the Coast Guard actually saw Fischer on Trinidad Head at approximately 12:25 p.m. that day in the company of a male subject described as 6 feet tall, medium build, with blonde/light brown hair, wearing light/tan clothes.”
This is the point where there were no further developments in Fischer’s case. For the rest of the reporting on Fischer, she became one of four young women that would fall prey to a similar hitchhiking/rape/strangle pattern that would prove to be one of Humboldt County’s most enduring set of cold cases.
Fischer’s name would be brought up no longer as the young, round-faced woman from Rhode Island who had the courage to go to the California beaches alone, but as one of many, as one of the victims. Every one of those women has a story— each one deserves to be told.
HCSO asks that if anyone has information to share about unsolved crimes to contact the “Crime Tip Line at 707-268-2539, submit information using our Online Crime Tip Form, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please reference the case number associated with the case when reporting information.” Karen Ann Fischer’s case number is 197600514.
*There are two different forms of Karen’s name attributed across newspaper archives and modern-day information from HCSO. Newspaper archives identify her as “Karen Frances Fisher” and HCSO’s Cold Case website identifies hers as “Karen Ann Fischer”. When quoting from the newspapers, we have retained their original spelling. All contemporary writing, we spell as HCSO does.
Humboldt County Cold Case Series (From the Oldest to the Newes