SLO sheriff announces a suspect in two Atascadero cold case killings
Jane Morton Antunez and Patricia Dwyer lived separate lives, but they were bound forever in death.
The Atascadero women were believed to have been murdered by the same person in the late 1970s, yet their case languished, unsolved, for more than 40 years.
On Wednesday, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office identified the man authorities believe killed them: a convicted rapist from Fresno named Arthur Rudy Martinez.
In the days, weeks and months after the killings, detectives scrambled to find leads, the community mourned and some people took matters into their own hands.
Then, the case went cold.
Here’s a look back at the two murders, which now appear to be the work of a serial killer.
A killer strikes
The story of a cold case that went unsolved for more than four decades began on a fall afternoon in 1977.
That’s when David Morton, the brother of Jane Morton Antunez, discovered his sister dead with her throat slashed in the back seat of the family’s gold 1972 Datsun, according to Tribune accounts at the time.
The day was Nov. 18, and the car was found parked on a side road off Santa Barbara near Highway 101, about a mile from the Mortons’ home.
Antunez had left home at about 7:30 p.m. the night before to go visit a friend. When she didn’t come home by early morning, Morton began searching for her.
His sister’s killing was the second tragic death in the family: In 1965, their 16-year-old sister was killed in a car crash.
At the time, Antunez was divorced and had a 13-year-old daughter, Michelle, who lived with her father in Portland, Oregon, according to a Tribune article from Nov. 21, 1977.
Since the divorce, Antunez had lived with her parents in a home on El Camino Real. Her mother, Mary Morton, told The Tribune at the time that Antunez had been dating an Atascadero construction worker, John Stanhope.
Morton said in the same article that Antunez “was very popular and well liked by a large circle of friends.”
A 1965 graduate of Atascadero High School, Antunez briefly attended Cuesta College and was employed as an eligibility worker for what was then known as the San Luis Obispo County Welfare Department from September 1970 through October 1972.
After Antunez left that job, she helped care for her mother, who had fallen ill with a heart condition.
Another mysterious killing
Two months later, tragedy struck Atascadero again.
On Jan. 11, 1978, Patricia Dwyer was found dead in her rented home on Del Rio Road by a friend who came to visit her that afternoon, according to a Tribune article published the next day.
She had been stabbed in the chest with a knife from her kitchen drawer, the Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday.
Dwyer reportedly told a friend on Jan. 10, 1978, that she was going to the grocery store and then staying home to clean.
There were no signs of forced entry, which initially led detectives to believe that she may have known her killer. While Dwyer reportedly wouldn’t let a stranger in her home, she had a key under the mat, the Sheriff’s Office said.
Dwyer was a psychiatric technician at Atascadero State Hospital and had worked there for about two years at the time of her death, according to Tribune articles from Jan. 12 and Jan. 19, 1978.
She “attended city schools” and Cuesta College, and was survived by her mother and her sister, Anne Betts, who both lived in San Luis Obispo, The Tribune wrote on Jan. 14, 1978.
Dwyer was “known to have dated several men” but was not married or dating anyone specific at the time of her death.
Similarities in the cases
Antunez, 30, and Dwyer, 28, didn’t know each other, but they had friends in common and often frequented the Tally Ho Tavern in Atascadero, according to Tribune reporting at the time.
The women “apparently also shared many of the same personality traits,” then-Sheriff George Whiting told the newspaper in a Jan. 19, 1978, article. Whiting didn’t go into depth on what those traits were.
Jeffery Morton, Antunez’s older brother, knew Dwyer through work, The Tribune reported on Jan. 13, 1978.
An autopsy indicated that Antunez was killed between 11 p.m. Nov. 17 and 1 a.m. Nov. 18. Dwyer was also reportedly killed either late at night or early in the morning.
Both women had been sexually assaulted and both had their arms tied behind their backs by “different bindings” that were found at the scenes, the Sheriff’s Office said.
Investigation goes ‘full bore’
After Antunez’s killing, sheriff’s Det. Sgt. John Hastie said in a Dec. 9, 1977, Tribune article that the investigation was “ ‘going full bore’ and would continue until all leads were exhausted.”
In the same article, Hastie said 250 fliers had been mailed to people in the Atascadero neighborhood where Antunez lived.
Authorities also publicly called for assistance in Antunez’s case on Nov. 22 and received “numerous” responses, but Whiting said most led nowhere, according to archives.
In the Dec. 9 article, Whiting likened the investigation to the Hillside Strangler case in Los Angeles, which hadn’t been solved at the time of publication.
That case was solved soon after: Cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr. were charged in 1979 and later convicted of kidnapping, raping, torturing and murdering 10 women and girls from 1977 to 1978.
Following Dwyer’s death, Whiting told The Tribune on Jan. 19, 1978, that six full-time detectives were working on the Dwyer and Antunez cases under Hastie. In the same article, Whiting said authorities concluded that both women were killed by the same man.
“I feel the people of this county, particularly the Atascadero area, have a right to know there is probably only one kook running around out there, not two,” Whiting said at the time.
By the end of January 1978, authorities had brought in a 32-year-old Atascadero man for questioning. The man, who was never identified by name, was a former Atascadero State Hospital employee who reportedly knew both women, according to a Jan. 27, 1978, Tribune article.
The man was questioned “almost non-stop for more than 30 hours” by authorities, according to an update three days later.
Whiting told The Tribune that the man “was a very strong suspect,” but that investigators were ultimately convinced that he was innocent of the crimes.
On Wednesday, Sheriff’s Det. Clint Cole told The Tribune that investigators did look at the unnamed man again during the investigation that began in 2017, but he was cleared by DNA evidence.
The community pitches in
As investigators chased clues, the community rallied to help find the person responsible for Antunez’s and Dwyer’s murders.
Ken Carner, the owner of the Tally Ho Tavern patronized by both Dwyer and Antunez, announced a $200 reward for information “leading to the arrests of the killer or killers” of both women, a Feb. 1, 1978, Tribune article reported.
Carner kept a “large jug” at the end of his bar with a sign asking for donations to the reward fund.
That reward money was in addition to the $500 reward put up by the Atascadero Contractors Association.
Just days later, the total bounty grew to $1,700, according to a Feb. 3, 1978, Tribune article.
Marvin Cothran, a retired businessman who lived in San Luis Obispo, offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who would give him information that would lead to an arrest and conviction.
Cothran told The Tribune at the time that “he was enraged when he first heard of only the $200 reward.”
“That doesn’t seem like very much money for a couple of human lives,” Cothran said, adding that he didn’t have long to live because of his diabetic condition.
“Cothran said he hopes the killer himself responds to his offer and visits him at his Foothill Boulevard home,” The Tribune reported.
“If he’ll come here and talk to me, I’ll give him the money or anyone he wants me to give it to,” Cothran told The Tribune.
Christopher G. Money, then the San Luis Obispo County assistant district attorney, said that he thought Cothran’s conditions were reasonable.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How did we report this story?
Reporter Gabby Ferreira reviewed several months of 41-year-old Tribune reporting and clips to understand the killings of Jane Morton Antunez and Patricia Dwyer in Atascadero, two months apart in late 1977 and 1978. Because the crimes occurred so long ago, it has been difficult to locate key figures involved in the case, as well as friends and family of the victims.
We are hoping further explore the case, but we need your help. If you knew either of the victims or the suspect and are willing to talk, please contact Ferreira by email at email@example.com or by phone at 805-781-7858.
A year after the killings
About a year after Antunez’s slaying, officials hit a dead end in the investigation, The Tribune reported on Nov. 18, 1978.
“It’s just a case of there’s not much new information coming in to work on,” Whiting said at the time. “We’re following any new leads we can get.”
Hastie said in the article that authorities had identified “multiple suspects,” but that all but one were cleared after investigation.
“That does not mean that suspect who has not been cleared is guilty,” Hastie said at the time. “It just means we have been unable to clear him through investigation.” The suspect was not named.
None of the Sheriff’s Office’s leads panned out in the year following Antunez’s killing, Hastie said, and detectives re-evaluated the cases looking for missed leads.
“The problem lies in the connection of knowns to a suspect,” Hastie said then. “You can only hope that everything of an evidential value was collected early in the investigation.”
Hastie said in the 1978 article that, in the previous 10 years, there were 65 homicides in the county. Five of those — including Antunez and Dwyer’s cases — were unsolved at the time.
A suspect found
Dwyer’s and Antunez’s cases went cold for many years, but the investigation was re-opened in June 2017, the Sheriff’s Office said.
On Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office announced that it had identified Martinez, who has been dead for nearly five years, as the suspect in both killings.
Martinez lived in Atascadero and Paso Robles for roughly six to seven months leading up to the murders, said Det. Cole, the Sheriff’s Office cold case investigator. At the time, Martinez was on parole after serving about a decade in prison for attempted murder and rape in Fresno.
Cole said Wednesday that authorities found no evidence that Dwyer or Antunez knew Martinez, and he is believed to have fled the area soon after Dwyer’s killing.
As it turned out, the key to cracking the case was sitting in a medicine cabinet in Fresno: a razor Martinez had left behind at a girlfriend’s house. In addition to DNA evidence, authorities were able to corroborate Martinez’s identity with a witness report.
“There’s many in the community that still recall the homicides that occurred at that time,” Sheriff Ian Parkinson said at Wednesday’s news conference. “The solving of the case brings closure to the family and the community.”