Families left with a void that can never be filled

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comFebruary 10, 2010 

At the Clovis Cemetery, Aundria Crawford's tombstone features a photo of the former Cuesta College student sandwiched by images of ballet slippers and a barrel racing horse.

While those engravings offer clues to Crawford's joys in life, the epitaph below suggests a grim ending.

"Though taken in darkness, you will live in light forever," the marker reads.

Ten years ago, Crawford was violently taken from her San Luis Obispo apartment in the middle of the night. While her death is a dark tale, her mother, Gail Eberhart, tries to focus on the positive moments of her daughter's life.

But it's not easy.

"I am angry, bitter, sad," her mother wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune. "I cry almost every day. I never listen to music any more unless someone else happens to have it on."

Four months before he devastated Crawford's family, Rex Krebs also forever altered the lives of those who loved Rachel Newhouse. Krebs, a convicted sex offender living in rural Avila Valley, abducted and killed the 20-year-old college students, burying them in shallow graves near his home.

In what became one of the county's highest-profile trials ever, Krebs was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to die of lethal injection. While Krebs will likely live at least 15 more years on death row as his appeals are heard, his victims live in memory only.

"I don't think there's a time we don't think about her," said Newhouse's aunt, Stephanie Morreale of Riverside.

For the survivors, 10 years is just a blip in time. And the healing process is far from over.

Even after a decade, Newhouse's parents have chosen not to publicly discuss the case. (They've also never spoken to Eberhart.) And friends of Newhouse, contacted for this story, declined to talk about her at the behest of the Newhouse family. Eberhart chose to only answer Tribune questions via e-mail.

"I have gone into hiding, I guess," wrote Eberhart, who moved from Clovis to Washington state after her daughter was murdered. "I have no new friends. I rarely or never see old friends. I live with my mom and finally went back to work a little over a year ago."

While Eberhart lost her only child (Crawford's father was out of her life early on), Phil and Montel Newhouse have two surviving children. Rachel's younger sister and older brother have provided their parents with three grandchildren.

Since the murder, the family has tried to move on as much as possible, said Morreale, Phil Newhouse's sister.

"We don't dwell on the negative," she said. "It doesn't do you any good."

Still, no one can resist thinking what might have been.

Lives cut short

At Irvine High School, Newhouse was a popular student body officer who participated in sports before graduating in 1996. She eventually attended Cal Poly with several of her Irvine friends.

Crawford was only a temporary resident of her Branch Street apartment, friend Stephanie Stablein said. Crawford had planned to find a different place, with Stablein as her roommate.

"We were hoping by summer, at the latest," Stablein said.

Friends remember Crawford as a loyal, strong-willed and competitive person with a unique chuckle that made others laugh.

"If she ever got into a discussion with somebody, she had to win," Stablein said.

Once, while Stablein was riding in Crawford's Mustang on the streets of Fresno, another driver challenged Crawford to a race. Crawford dropped Stablein off at a nearby warehouse -- much to Stablein's dismay -- and took the guy's challenge, winning the race.

"She was just a really adventurous person, up for anything," her friend said.

While she was a bit of a tomboy -- she also worked on her own car--Crawford was also feminine, with a pink room, according to her ex-boyfriend.

The boyfriend, Josh -- who didn't want to use his last name because of his career in law enforcement -- said Crawford was also very close to her mother, whom she talked to several times a day.

"Being her boyfriend was a little intimidating," he said, "because she told her mom everything."

Josh said he and Crawford had broken up. But the day before Crawford was abducted, they'd made up. Just hours before Krebs broke into her home, Crawford called Josh to see if he wanted to come over and watch "South Park." Had he come over, he would have spent the night, as was the custom. But he told her he had homework to do.

For years, that decision haunted Josh.

"I had a lot of guilt," he said. "I should have been there."

When Stablein talked to her around midnight, she was still doing fine.

"She was a very conscientious person when it came to her security in her home."

Her doors and windows were all locked -- except for one. Since her cat, Riley, had just had surgery, she put him in the bathroom and left the window open for air. In the early- morning hours, Krebs would hoist himself through that narrow window to enter Crawford's apartment.

While the ensuing struggle might have caused a commotion, Crawford's neighbor was gone on vacation.

Later that day, Stablein began to worry when she didn't hear from her friend.

"I started getting nervous as the day progressed," said Stablein, who was supposed to meet Crawford for a show at the Performing Arts Center. When she drove to her home, the Mustang was there, but Crawford wasn't.

Memories everywhere

Reilly, the cat who was in the bathroom when Krebs broke into the apartment, has since run away. But Crawford's other cat, Roscoe, is a living reminder of Eberhart's daughter.

"Roscoe the talker is doing just fine living here with me," she said.

In addition to Roscoe, she said, she has reminders from her daughter all over her house. "I can look in every room and find something of her."

Eberhart called police when pages to her daughter went unanswered. Soon after Crawford was determined to be missing, Eberhart and her mother temporarily moved to the area to search for her. They looked under bridges and in trash heaps, to no avail.

Today, Eberhart said, she constantly thinks about the everyday experiences she shared with her daughter.

"I will never get to hug her again," she wrote.

In life, she said, her daughter was a kind person who didn't judge people.

"She always wanted to help others first," she said. "Just like the student that was on crutches at Cuesta that told her story about how Aundria was the only person that stopped and helped her carry her books to class even though it would make Aundria late to her class. She always had time to stop and help someone else."

Crawford liked monster trucks, animals and country music. As a student at Bullard High School in Fresno, she struggled, though she eventually

overcame academic problems and attended Fresno City College and then Cuesta.

After originally moving to Los Osos, she relocated to San Luis Obispo to be closer to friends and work.

Bright futures ahead

Both Newhouse and Crawford had high hopes for the future.

Newhouse, a Cal Poly student, had plans to become a nutritionist.

"I think she'd be helping people out," her aunt said. "And I'm sure she'd have a family."

A straight-A student, she loved stuffed frogs and sports. She played soccer, ran cross country and hiked.

"The Newhouse part of her was all very athletic," Morreale said.

While at Cal Poly, Newhouse would call her family as often as four times a week, just to stay in touch.

When asked what memories stand out about Newhouse -- whom another aunt described as "a dream child" during the Krebs trial--Morreale couldn't.

"I couldn't pick out one memory," she said. "There were so many positive aspects to Rachel."

Crawford, who studied interior design at Cuesta College --with plans to transfer to Cal Poly -- dreamed of owning a horse ranch in Wyoming.

"She would have married, had children and a career," wrote Eberhart. "She had written a paper for a class there at Cuesta outlining all of this."

A measure of comfort

While the crime has resulted in many sleepless nights for Eberhart, Krebs' conviction and sentencing offers some solace to the families.

"Just the fact that he was found helps the healing," Morreale said. "That he wasn't going to be out there, hurting anybody else."

Still, friends and family of both victims try not to think about Krebs.

"I try not to think of him being part of her life," Crawford's ex-boyfriend said.

Josh, who entered law enforcement partly because of the experience, remains single.

"Even though it's been 10 years, when I talk about her, I can still see her," he said. "I can still remember what she smells like."

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