A scant six months before the East Area Rapist began his series of rapes and burglaries in the Sacramento area, another prolific spree of odd and brazen crimes was coming to an end in the city of Visalia, roughly 200 miles south of Sacramento. Beginning in April, 1974 homeowners in Visalia’s comfortable, middle class homes were plagued by an unknown burglar known as “the Ransacker”.
Composite drawings of the "Visalia Ransacker"
Between April 1974 and December 1975 dozens of Visalia residents would return home only to find their belongings in shambles. Drawers and cabinets had been thrown open, their contents strewn about, mattresses and couch cushions tossed onto the floor, liquids poured over carpets and clothing. Sometimes women’s underwear would be deliberately arranged. Rarely was anything valuable taken, usually objects of relatively little monetary value such as photographs and inexpensive jewelry. On a few occasions, firearms were stolen from the houses, specifically pistols.
On September 11, 1975, journalism professor Claude Snelling awakened to some unusual noises in his home. Following the source of the sound, he soon discovered a man attempting to lead his 16 year old daughter out the back door of the house. Professor Snelling quickly intervened and was shot and killed by the would-be kidnapper, who quickly fled the scene after delivering several kicks to the girl's face. Through ballistics police linked the pistol used in the murder to one stolen by the Ransacker at an earlier time.
On December 10th of that year, Detective Bill McGowen sat alone in a darkened garage, staking out one of the areas that had been prime Ransacker territory when he saw a shadowy figure move past a side window and then into the garage itself.
At first he thought it was the home’s owner or perhaps his partner, who was staking out another home nearby, but quickly realized it was a prowler.
McGowen followed the prowler outside, where he spotted the man headed towards a gate in the side yard, and ordered him to halt, firing a warning shot into the ground. The man turned, left hand hidden in his pocket while the other pulled a knit cap from his head. In an odd, high-pitched voice he pleaded “Don’t hurt me!”
The prowler quickly produced a gun from his left hand and fired, hitting McGowen’s flashlight and knocking the detective to the ground. The detective's face was injured from the shattered glass of the flashlight lens. The prowler disappeared into the darkness.
In June of the next year, a few hours’ drive away, the East Area Rapist’s crimes would begin.
A number of similarities between the ransacker’s behavior and the EAR’s invites speculation that they were one and the same individual. Both were prolific: the Ransacker committing upwards of 125 burglaries, while EAR was known for multiple break-ins prior to his attacks. Both were reported as standing around 5’ 10” , and speaking in a somewhat high-pitched voice. The Ransacker was estimated to be between 25-30 years old, EAR was anywhere from 18-30. Both employed an ad hoc alarm system using dishes found in the homes they invaded, both had a penchant for stealing items of little or sentimental value rather than high value items, and both, through skill and luck, were able to evade arrest, defying the odds considering the large number of crimes.
Then again, evidence exists to indicate that they are not the same person. The physical descriptions provided by witnesses of the Visalia Ransacker portray a white male with a round face and short, blonde hair. Sometimes he is described as stocky, with thick legs and weighing around 200 pounds. The EAR was slim, athletic, and sported darker hair worn long.
It is tempting to view the Visalia Ransacker as an early iteration of the East Area Rapist. The possible linkage between the crimes suggests a logical progression from burglar to rapist, rapist to serial killer. As with so much else surrounding this case, a definitive link between the Visalia Ransacker and the EAR/ONS remains uncertain.