More than three decades ago, Debra Ann Chandler’s lifeless, exploited body was pulled from a North Highlands ditch and examined for clues that would lead authorities to her killer.
An arrest would come later, but no justice. A four-time convicted murderer from Fresno County who left California’s death row to be tried for Chandler’s murder has died, apparently after a battle with cancer.
Wilbur Jennings, 73, had been in custody in Sacramento County since Jan. 24, 2005. Although the Sheriff’s Department will investigate his Tuesday death in accordance with procedure and state laws, it does not appear suspicious, said sheriff’s Sgt. Lisa Bowman.
After his transfer from San Quentin State Prison, Jennings was arraigned in 2005 on felony charges of murder and rape in Chandler’s case. The prosecution stalled, however, as the District Attorney’s Office awaited the outcome of an appeal Jennings had pending in federal court associated with his Fresno County killings.
Evidence from that investigation was to play a part in the Chandler case, said Shelly Orio, a spokeswoman for the DA’s Office.
Having been booked in 2005, Jennings was the longest-running resident of the Main Jail. Most inmates stay at the facility – designed to hold pre-trial inmates – for a few years maximum, Bowman said.
His death was an end to a sordid life that the killer predicted himself. In the fall of 2005, he told a Fresno Bee reporter that he was more likely to die from cancer than by lethal injection.
“I really don’t worry about that,” he told the reporter. “What’s the use? I got cancer. I’m not worried about them executing me. You got more people up on death row dying of old age or natural causes than anything else.”
He also denied killing anyone, and claimed the police were planting his DNA at scenes, The Fresno Bee reported.
About the time that a DNA hit linked Jennings to Chandler’s death, another hit made him a suspect in the 1983 rape and killing of 76-year-old Clarice Reinke in Fresno County. He was to be transferred back to that jurisdiction after the Sacramento County case was adjudicated, the Fresno Bee reported.
Reinke’s body was discovered in June 1983. She had been raped, sodomized and strangled. Two months later came the killing spree for which Jennings was convicted in 1986: Between August 1983 and December 1984, Jennings drowned or beat four women, three of them prostitutes. The deaths earned Jennings the nickname “the ditch-bank killer” because the women were all found in ditches, canals or irrigation pipes.
Chandler, at 17 years old his youngest suspected victim, was last seen alive walking from her apartment at 16th and P streets. The next morning, her body was discovered in a drainage ditch alongside Roseville Road, west of Palm Avenue, according to a Sacramento Bee report from the time. The Sheriff’s Department reported she has been asphyxiated and then dumped with her head in about 6 inches of water in the ditch. The DA’s criminal complaint filed in 2005 indicates she had been raped.
Investigators said Chandler sometimes hitchhiked and she might have sought a ride after leaving her midtown apartment, about 15 miles from the crime scene.