Did an innocent man die in prison for one of the East Area Rapist’s crimes?
The day after Christmas in 1975, Donna Jo Richmond, 14, was expected home before dark.
She had left her house in Exeter — the Central Valley town between Fresno and Bakersfield — earlier that afternoon, wearing new clothes she’d received as holiday gifts and riding her bike to feed some farm animals and visit friends.
But as the sun sank and the valley fog thickened, she had not returned and her mother grew concerned.
Richmond’s family went looking for her, but all they found was more worry and her bicycle, damaged and abandoned, in a neighbor’s orange grove. Underneath it was a handyman’s invoice book with a name inside that pointed to a suspect: Oscar Archie Clifton.
Police knew Clifton, then 35, a carpenter and painter, with a decade-old conviction for assault and attempted rape, who lived nearby. Just after midnight, they arrested him for kidnapping. Hours later, a farm worker found Richmond dead in another grove a few miles away. She had been strangled and stabbed and was naked from the waist down.
The charges against Clifton were upped to murder, and a year later, he was convicted of abducting, attempting to rape and killing Richmond. He died in prison in 2013 while serving a life sentence, but maintained his innocence during his decades of incarceration.
Recently, Joesph DeAngelo Jr., was arrested at this home in Citrus Heights on suspicion of being the East Area Rapist (aka the Golden State Killer), thought to be responsible for more than 50 rapes and a dozen murders throughout California. Authorities also believe he is responsible for a series of burglaries and Peeping Tom incidents in Tulare County, credited to the Visalia Ransacker.
DeAngelo worked in Exeter, near Visalia, as a police officer at the time Richmond was murdered. Now, as authorities examine cases that could be connected with DeAngelo, Clifton’s quick arrest, problems with the evidence used against him and a years-long effort by a private investigator have raised a troubling question: Did Clifton serve life in prison for a crime committed by the Golden State Killer?
“He was innocent,” said Tony Reid, a Los Angeles lawyer and detective who has extensively examined the case and documented his findings on the podcast 12-26-75. “Wrongful convictions are ... difficult to decipher because there are half-truths and lies. (But) the truth speaks for itself. The evidence speaks for itself.”
Richmond’s body was found close to the site of another vicious crime that local police were struggling to solve at the time.
In November 1974, about a year before Richmond was killed and a year-and-a-half after DeAngelo began working in the area, Jennifer Armour, 15, was found dead, drowned in a canal with her bra knotted around one wrist as if her hands had been bound with it.
Unlike Richmond, whose family was established in the area (her father worked in the county assessor’s office), Armour was new in town. Her parents were recently divorced, said her brother, Rob Armour, and the family was “falling apart.”
Armour’s dad was a Coast Guard officer and her mother had stayed home. Now, their mom was struggling to support three kids. Jenny started “ditching school” and running with a tough crowd of boys who lived nearby, Armour said.
The night she vanished, she was walking to the Visalia Kmart to meet friends and go to the Cowhide Football Game, an annual rivalry match between the two local high schools. Like Richmond, she never made it home.
Armour was found more than a week later in the Friant-Kern Canal, two miles north of where Richmond’s body would be discovered along the same man-made waterway.
Rob Armour, then 13, remembers officers coming to his door with a leather necklace he had made for his 6th grade girlfriend, then given to Jenny when the girl broke up with him. Police asked him to identify it.
“It was like on TV,” he said. “You just know why they are there before they say anything.”
He and his brother were taken to the station and questioned, then left to walk home alone, he remembers.
Police initially looked at the young men Jenny hung out with as suspects, Armour said. But no arrests were ever made, and over the decades, the case was largely forgotten. Armour and his family didn’t talk about it, he said.
But last November, cold case detectives with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office unexpectedly put out a public call for information attempting to link Clifton to the Armour killing.
In a press release from Nov. 16, the department wrote: “Tulare County Sheriff’s Cold Case detectives are asking the public to think back to the mid-1970s for information about a man who was convicted of murdering an Exeter teen, Donna Richmond. ... Her killer, Oscar Clifton, may have murdered a Visalia girl the year before, said Det. Dwayne Johnson. ‘There are similarities in the cases,’ he said. ‘Both girls were blonde and blue-eyed and their bodies were discovered south of Woodlake and north of Exeter about a year apart.’”
Police re-interviewed the Clifton family, apparently also trying to connect Oscar Clifton to the Ransacker case, said Clifton’s daughter Annette O’Hara.
“They asked, ‘Did he leave at night at odd hours and come back at odd hours?’” she said. “They were simply trying to close the Jennifer Armour case and say the person who killed those two girls was the Visalia Ransacker.”
Rob Armour, who lives in Visalia, said he was taken off guard by the police’s press release. He said he believes the initial investigation of Jenny’s case was rudimentary, and the push to link it Clifton now “too convenient,” especially since Clifton is dead.
“I think (Clifton) got a bum deal,” Armour said. “There’s just too much that says ‘no’ to Clifton and points to DeAngelo.”
The Visalia Ransacker
Three months before Richmond’s death and a year after Armour’s, another local teenage girl was dragged from her bed in an attempted kidnapping.
Investigators suspect DeAngelo did it.
Beth Snelling, a blond, 16-year-old cheerleader, was asleep on Sept. 11, 1975 when she awoke to a man on top of her. He ordered her to come with him, Snelling has said, and led her out of the house. The noise woke her father, Claude Snelling, a college professor who taught journalism.
The father ran into the backyard to help his daughter. The attacker pushed Beth the the ground, then pulled a gun and fatally shot Claude twice. He kicked Beth in the head multiple times and ran off.
Police quickly linked the attack to a series of home burglaries and Peeping Tom incidents that had plagued the area since spring 1973. A criminal dubbed the Visalia Ransacker had broken into more than 100 homes, taking only souvenirs such as a single earring and sometimes guns, including the one used to shoot Snelling. But the intruder also liked going through women’s undergarments, and was suspected of watching houses and victims prior to and after his break-ins. One of his victims was a female cousin of Richmond’s, according to her older sister, Debra Richmond.
John Vaughan was a 35-year-old sergeant with the Visalia Police Department and was in charge of the case. After the Snelling attack, he and other officers held multiple nighttime stakeouts to catch the Ransacker, he said.
In December 1975, Vaughan got a break. A homeowner noticed a flowerpot under a teenage girl’s window had been moved, possibly so a peeper could get a better view. Vaughan and his team set up a watch, “and here comes the Ransacker, wearing a ski mask,” he said.
One of Vaughan’s men, Det. William McGowen, confronted the man. The Ransacker pulled up his mask with his right hand as if to surrender, then shot at McGowen with a gun in his left hand. The bullet blew out McGowen’s flashlight and the Ransacker fled.
Vaughan said the Ransacker never struck another house after that confrontation, which occurred about two weeks before Donna Jo Richmond was killed.
DeAngelo left Exeter in spring 1976 and began working for the police in Auburn, north of Sacramento, in August of that year. In June, 1976, the East Area Rapist began a series of home burglaries and rapes that terrorized the region. Seeing the similarities with the Ransacker, Vaughan and McGowen came to Sacramento, but Sacramento Sheriff’s deputies didn’t agree the crime sprees were linked.
In a public spat, the Sacramento sheriff’s office accused McGowen and Vaughn of being “irresponsible” and “unprofessional” in a Bee interview on July 23, 1978, and of seeking publicity.
When DeAngelo was arrested in April, the Visalia Ransacker connection was acknowledged by authorities, though it is still under investigation. The statute of limitations has expired on the burglaries, but Visalia Police Department spokesman Sgt. Damon Maurice said the allegations about the Snelling murder have been submitted to the Tulare County District Attorney, where spokesperson Stuart Anderson said no charges against DeAngelo have been formally filed but are being reviewed.
Jenny, Beth, Donna Jo
Investigators also have started examining if DeAngelo could be the perpetrator in Jenny Armour’s unsolved killing.
“He is one of the suspects,” said Chris Dempsie, a cold case investigator for the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office. “He was employed in Exeter at the time. ... We know DeAngelo is capable of killing.”
If police think DeAngelo could have killed Armour, and also believe the Richmond and Armour cases could be linked, as evidenced by the November press release, some wonder if they should investigate DeAngelo for the Richmond case as well.
“After you learned all about him, don’t you think it could be (DeAngelo),?” said Vaughan, the retired Visalia Police detective who investigated the Ransacker. “That’s the way I feel. ... It’s a lead. You should reopen the case and investigate.”
Dempsie said at the time of the original Richmond investigation, “the similarity was noted,” between Richmond’s killing and Armour’s. But he doesn’t believe there is cause to reopen a case with a conviction.
“I haven’t seen any evidence (Clifton is) the wrong guy. ... It seems solid to me,” Dempsie said.
Clifton was convicted largely on a circumstantial case that centered on the invoice book with his name inside found by Richmond’s bike and tire imprints that police said were similar to the wheel’s on Clifton’s truck. Richmond’s clothes also were found strewn along the roadway between the body and Clifton’s house.
The strongest physical evidence was a single hair found on the white sweater Clifton was wearing the day of the crime. An expert who testified at trial said the strand could have belonged to Richmond — but also could have been a match for Clifton’s youngest daughter.
There was no physical evidence such as blood found on either Clifton or Richmond that definitively linked them — a substance suspected to be semen found on some of Richmond’s pubic hair proved inconclusive.
In the decades Clifton fought his conviction, unsettling details emerged about the investigation and trial.
The day after he was arrested, Clifton’s picture ran in the local newspaper in the small town of about 5,000 people, before some witnesses at trial had identified Clifton to police, said O’Hara, Clifton’s daughter. Public sentiment was fierce, and grew worse when information reported in media and shared with the public said Richmond had been raped and sodomized — though Clifton was charged only with attempted rape.
Those claims were never publicly corrected, but Richmond’s autopsy concluded she was “virginal.” The autopsy report examined by The Bee also noted that Richmond’s mouth and genitalia were found to be “free of trauma.”
“They painted a horror into a bigger horror, so it was unfathomable and people couldn’t believe this could happen,” O’Hara said. “People wanted that person to be convicted and killed because this is what (he) did.”
O’Hara said police had animosity toward Clifton.
In 1966, he was arrested for assault with intent to rape, according to newspaper reports and court records. Clifton had allegedly attacked an 18-year-old woman while she was sunbathing along a riverbank. The woman said Clifton was wearing a blue bathing suit and a stocking mask over his face when he grabbed her and pinned her to the ground. Clifton fled when a car pulled up. Police subsequently located and arrested Clifton at the scene. He was convicted and sentenced to 180 days in county jail.
Prosecutors in the Richmond case also failed to turn over all evidence before the trial, including fingerprints taken from Clifton’s truck and a witness interview that might have placed him elsewhere at the time of the crime, according to court documents. Later, the tire information used to place him at the scene also proved flawed — one key measurement had been recorded incorrectly, according to court documents.
Less than a year after Clifton’s conviction, police destroyed all of their physical evidence in the case, before Clifton had a chance to appeal.
More than three decades later, the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law took on Clifton’s case and helped him locate 46 slides of hair samples, as well as personal and clothing items of Richmond’s that had escaped destruction because they had been left at a lab and in the court’s evidence room. Among the items were three hairs taken from a ski mask found near Richmond’s body.
The items were tested for DNA, but nothing that either proved Clifton’s guilt or cleared him could be obtained, said Linda Starr, co-founder of the Northern California Innocence Project.
But what struck Starr about the case was the way evidence seemed to appear and disappear. “It was very troubling to me that every time someone looked at the case, something turned up after being told there was nothing,” Starr said. “It was so significant that a federal magistrate commented on it.”
‘Stick with Clifton’
The Richmond family does not think Clifton was wrongly convicted. Brenda Richmond was married to Donna’s brother before he was killed in an accident. She said Nancy Jo Richmond, Donna’s mother, is certain of Clifton’s guilt and doesn’t feel there is enough evidence to reopen the case.
“(In) her mind, she’s positive it was Clifton,” said Brenda Richmond. Nancy Richmond declined to be interviewed.
Brenda said the killing devastated Nancy Richmond. “She didn’t celebrate Christmas ... for years,” she said. “I think that the family will just stick with Clifton. I would hate to see my mother-in-law have to hate someone else again.”
Debra Richmond, Donna’s sister, said investigators had additional evidence against Clifton that wasn’t shared at trial, and she believes the right man was put in prison.
“Even though it wasn’t legal evidence in court, they did double check just to make sure,” she said. “They knew he had done it.”
The Clifton family said they respect the Richmond family’s pain, but they want to be certain of the truth.
“I think that not only does (Oscar) deserve it, but Donna deserves it and Jennifer,” said O’Hara. “Honestly, the only reason we are talking is because we as his children believe that ... it needs to come out in the open.”
Clifton’s daughters said their family also was devastated by the crime.
Relinda Narciso, Clifton’s younger daughter, was in junior high when Richmond was killed, she said. After her father’s arrest, her family was harassed and ostracized. She said that days after the news broke, an older boy at school put a knife to her neck and said it should have been her who was killed. For years, she believed the murder was somehow her fault.
O’Hara said she was treated “like I was guilty of something.” She said she didn’t think her “mom was going to survive it.”
“Everybody knew and they were not nice,” O’Hara said. She joined the Marines to escape town. “I never plan to go back,” she said.
Narciso stayed to help her mom and “just kind of bottled things up,” she said. “People need to understand it’s not just the person who is convicted. They have to think about the other people in their lives too.”
When DeAngelo was arrested, “I sat here on the couch and cried,” Narciso said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this could be the man. This could be the one that actually committed the crime.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated July 22 at 7:54 a.m. to clarify a detail about hair evidence presented at Clifton’s trial.