A killer in our midst

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comFebruary 10, 2010 

As he walked up the driveway to greet his parole officer, Rex Krebs was remarkably calm and collected, even though a missing woman's body lay buried just yards away outside his rural Avila Valley home. The agent, David Zaragoza, stepped out of his four-wheel-drive truck and eyed the shoulder harness Krebs was wearing.

"What happened to you?" Zaragoza said.

"I (expletive) fell off the retaining wall into the firewood," Krebs answered, referring to a pile of kindling at the back of his home.

Zaragoza, wanting to conceal his doubt, played along. "Oh, is that right?" But as he further scanned Krebs with shaded eyes, he knew: Someone who falls into a wood pile should have scrapes on his hands and arms.

As he asked Krebs to give a routine urine test, the suspicions Zaragoza had the day before were heightened.

"Now my anxiety started rising," Zaragoza recalled. "Because if I was right about what I was thinking about, here I am with no radio service, no cell service and out here by myself with a potential serial killer."

Ten years ago, many San Luis Obispo residents were terrified that a serial killer was on the loose. Some took self-defense courses, others purchased new locks for their doors and stayed inside at night. Because while everyone knew that women were missing, no one knew who might be responsible. Yet, as investigators from multiple agencies interviewed 82 sex offenders and responded to 500 tips, their search for suspects hadn't expanded beyond San Luis Obispo. As a result, they hadn't spoken to Krebs, a convicted rapist whose sexual fantasies led him to abduct and kill two 20-year-old college students--Rachel Newhouse and Aundria Crawford.

As Krebs' escalating fantasies threatened to claim more women, two men -- Zaragoza and detective Larry Hobson-- cracked the case that would finally put an end to the fear. On April 23, 1999, The Tribune reported that 33-year-old Rex Allan Krebs was in custody and had been named the prime suspect in the crimes.

Krebs, whose crime spree might have ended sooner under a recent law, would eventually be sent to California's death row. But the legacy of his crimes is a reminder that even safe communities like San Luis Obispo are not immune to violent crime.

Playing a hunch

The fear began Nov. 12, 1998, after Newhouse, a Cal Poly nutrition student, vanished after leaving Tortilla Flats restaurant in San Luis Obispo. Four months later, Crawford, a Cuesta College student, was taken from her apartment on Branch Street. (Another Cal Poly student, Kristin Smart, has been missing since 1996, though Krebs was in prison for earlier crimes when she vanished.)

Four days after Crawford disappeared, The Tribune published a story about the investigation with a headline that read: "Police say clues point to abduction." Zaragoza, reading the paper at a Pismo Beach gym, had a hunch. Even though there were more than 100 parolees on his caseload, Zaragoza remembered facts of Krebs' previous cases, from 10 years earlier. In both cases, Krebs had broken into homes. He raped one victim before her roommate came home. Another woman fought him off.

"When I read that article, I reported to the office," said Zaragoza, who was not part of the criminal investigation. "And I remember calling 84 Lumber to find out what his schedule was going to be the next day."

Krebs worked at 84 Lumber, on South Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo. And since Krebs was off the next day, Zaragoza decided to make a home visit. In his time as Krebs' parole officer, Zaragoza had visited the felon 24 times.

"The explanation for his injuries -- I was focused on that," Zaragoza said. "And his normal demeanor wasn't that important to me at that time."

After getting a routine urine sample from Krebs, Zaragoza rushed back to the office and reported his suspicions to the San Luis Obispo Police Department. Initially, the tip was assigned a low priority.

"At that time, they were getting hundreds of leads per day," Zaragoza said. "And they're going to go through every lead. Because you have to -- that's just the way it's got to be done."

Eventually, the lead was assigned to a unit from the Attorney General's Office that was tasked to assist. And agents from that unit, the Sexual Predator Apprehension Team, accompanied Zaragoza to Krebs' home for a parole search. There they found receipts from women who had shopped at 84 Lumber. And in a prison-made jewelry box, Zaragoza found an 8-ball keychain.

"I had been to training the week before, and one of the instructors was talking about how murderers or serial rapists -- violent felons -- sometimes keep trophies because it gives them a little bit of a rush," Zaragoza said. "Every time they revisit the trophy, it keeps it fresh in their minds."

Zaragoza showed the trophy to one of the SPAT agents, who said: "Wow, we're looking for an 8-ball keychain."

Crawford's mother, Gail Eberhart, had told police that her daughter's missing keys had been attached to an 8-ball keychain.

With evidence adding up, Zaragoza asked his boss if he could arrest Krebs on a parole violation. Knowing Krebs had a BB gun at 84 Lumber -- owning even a simulated firearm was forbidden because they can be used to commit crimes -- he arrested Krebs on March 20, 1999, at work.

"When I placed him in the back of the patrol unit, he got very emotional," Zaragoza said. "To the point where he had tears coming out of his eyes."

While the 8-ball provided a key clue, and the story of the injuries didn't add up, investigators still had little evidence to work with. And still no bodies.

If Newhouse and Crawford were ever to be found, someone had to get Krebs to talk.

"There's only one guy I know who could have accomplished that," Zaragoza said. "That's Larry."

Building rapport

At the time, Larry Hobson was a 30-year law enforcement veteran working for the District Attorney's Office. No stranger to interviewing violent criminals, he had once elicited a confession from Richard Benson, who notoriously murdered a Nipomo woman and her three children in 1986.

As heinous as killers' actions could be, Hobson knew he had to build a rapport with them. So he visited Krebs roughly a dozen times before ever pointing questions toward him as a suspect.

"I'd just go out to the jail and pick him up, and I'd go to El Chorro Park," Hobson recalled. "He'd smoke some cigarettes over there, sit around and chew the fat. At that time, I'd say, 'Rex, I need your help. You've told me you weren't involved with this. And you've had some experience being a rapist. So I want to pick your brain so you can help me solve the case.' "

Krebs would oblige, saying, "Here's what I'd do. ..."

For weeks it went on like that -- Krebs even offering names of guys who might have done it--until finally, Hobson had what he wanted: incriminating evidence.

The interview on April 21 began like many others -- with Krebs offering to help Hobson.

When asked what he thought a stalker might have done to the women, Krebs said, "I'm not even going to think like that, Larry. Thinking like that's dangerous."

Hobson at first seemed interested in Krebs' theories, but then he asked about his alibi the night Crawford disappeared. He also asked about the 8-ball keychain that couldn't have come from prison, as Krebs had said. And then Hobson dropped a bomb:

"One other thing that really jumps out is you only have one jump seat in the back of that truck, right?" he asked.

"Mmm-hmmm."

"What happened to the other one?"

When Krebs explained that he had removed his car seat and placed it in a storage area, Hobson said that it had been found.

"And what do you think we did with that?" he asked.

When Krebs shook his head, Hobson told him that the seat had a blood stain someone had tried to clean.

"We sent the whole chair over to the lab in Fresno," he added. "You're familiar with DNA, I'm sure ... and guess whose blood that is?"

When Krebs refused to answer, Hobson did: "Rachel Newhouse."

Immediately, Krebs slumped, the confidence gone.

"I'm sure there's a story to it," Hobson said, gently. "But you're the only one that can tell that story."

Incriminating evidence

The DNA evidence put Newhouse at Krebs' place. Furthermore, investigators had found what they called a "rape kit"-- items a sex offender might use to subdue his victim -- in his vehicle. Those pieces of evidence, plus Krebs' lack of alibis, represented enough circumstantial evidence to take a case to court, said John Trice, the lead prosecutor on the case.

"I think it would have been a prosecutable case, but it would have been more difficult," said Trice, now a Superior Court judge.

But only Krebs knew the details of what happened. And only he could say where the bodies were.

But, as 20 law enforcement agents watched on a monitor outside the interrogation room, Krebs grew silent. Some feared he might either clam up or ask for a lawyer.

So Hobson let him off the hook.

"I thought he would either invoke" -- ask for an attorney -- "which is what we were afraid of, or go silent on me. That's when we had to make the decision to shut it down."

Had Krebs asked for an at- torney, the bodies might never have been discovered. Still, there was a sense of urgency.

Before heading back to the jail, Krebs asked Hobson to drive him to Morro Bay so he could think and see the sights. When Hobson asked what he was thinking about, Krebs somberly said: "Dead man walking."

The next morning, Hobson returned to the jail, and Krebs confessed.

The details were gruesome -- he violently attacked his victims, hog-tied them, raped them and killed them. Still, Hobson believes, Krebs wasn't completely honest.

For one thing, Krebs claimed Newhouse died accidentally, strangling herself while trying to break free from the elaborately tied ropes.

"I'm sure there's a whole lot of things that he lied about that he still hasn't told us," Hobson said. "He's only going to tell you what he knows you can prove."

What he told Hobson was chilling enough: On Nov. 12, 1998, he followed Newhouse as she walked home from Tortilla Flats restaurant in San Luis Obispo. Anticipating she'd walk across the Jennifer Street Bridge, he drove ahead, climbed the stairs and donned a Halloween mask. Once she reached the top, he attacked her, dragged her down the stairs by her hair and took her to an abandoned A-frame near his house.

Several weeks later, he spotted Crawford as she peered in her car trunk outside her Branch Street apartment. In the early morning hours of March 12, he entered her apartment through a small bathroom window. When she went to check on the commotion, assuming her cat had made the noise, Krebs violently attacked her. He later drove Crawford to his house.

More than a month later, Krebs led Hobson and other investigators to the bodies. Crawford was buried a few yards from his house. Newhouse was buried at the abandoned structure up the road.

While the defense team would try to suppress evidence obtained by Zaragoza and Hobson, the motions would be denied.

Tracking sex offenders

Under a voter-approved initiative from 2006, all paroled sex offenders in the state must wear an ankle bracelet that transmits their location via GPS. (Tracking the state's 7,000 sex offenders 24 hours a day costs about $14.5 million a year.) Had that law been in effect in 1998, Krebs might have been deterred from committing his crimes. But it wouldn't have stopped the macabre fantasies that drove him to commit those crimes.

The fantasies, Hobson is convinced, would have led Krebs to kill again.

After Krebs' arrest, Zaragoza was twice promoted. But after four years as a supervisor, he wanted to be where the action was, so he took a voluntary demotion.

"I missed being in the field," Zaragoza said. "I missed interacting with other law enforcement agencies."

Today, he works in a specialized position collaborating with other agencies on short-and long-term investigations, he said, declining to elaborate on his new role.

People at the office and in public still approach him about the Krebs case.

"They'll say, 'You're the guy who broke the case' or 'You're the guy that caught Krebs,' " he said.

Zaragoza said he doesn't see himself as a hero -- just someone in the right place at the right time, doing his job.

"Of course, this is something most people don't experience in their careers," he said. "So it's something I'll definitely never forget."

Cards from prison

Today, Hobson is retired from law enforcement, though he works full time with his polygraph business. His work on the Krebs case will be featured in an upcoming Discovery Channel special, tentatively titled "Secrets of Interrogation"; it does not yet have a broadcast date.

Hobson has visited Krebs at San Quentin since the trial -- to question Krebs for another murder, for which he was cleared. And Krebs once sent him a Christmas card, which had a note for Trice: "I hear John is a judge now," the card read. "Tell him he should mix compassion with justice."

"I thought that was sort of ironic coming from him," Trice said.

For Hobson, who had built a solid rapport with Krebs in order to solicit the confession, the convicted killer had only good words, blessing him and his family.

Just as witnesses testified at trial, Krebs can still come off as gregarious.

"If you would have met Krebs at 84 Lumber or anyplace else, he was a very personable, likeable guy," Hobson said. "You'd never think he was somebody who'd stalk around late at night, peeping in windows and watching women, planning to kidnap them, rape them and kill them."

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