Catching a serial killer: How parole agent stopped Rex Krebs from striking again
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San Luis Obispo killer Rex Krebs kidnapped, raped and murdered students Rachel Newhouse and Aundria Crawford in 1998 and 1999. April 23, 2019, marks 20 years since their bodies were found.
In November 1998, as Cal Poly students prepared to enjoy a three-day holiday weekend, one of their own vanished while walking home after a night out in downtown San Luis Obispo.
Blood was discovered on the Jennifer Street bridge, but no one knew at the time the grim connection.
Residents and the student community had already been on edge for close to two years due to the still-unsolved disappearance of Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart.
As businesses posted missing persons fliers for Rachel Newhouse on downtown windows and police and FBI agents chased dead-end leads week after week, tension grew across the city.
Some wondered if the small college town had become stalking grounds for a serial killer.
Then, another woman disappeared, and there was little question.
In March 1999, Cuesta College student Aundria Crawford suddenly went missing, and evidence from her Branch Street apartment indicated she had been violently abducted right out of her home.
“Everybody wanted an answer,” Jim Gardiner, San Luis Obispo’s police chief at the time, told The Tribune on Thursday. “We were all scared.”
Local and federal law enforcement agencies banded together for a manhunt the size and scope of which hasn’t been seen in the county since.
More than 180 people were involved in that sweeping response, and a dragnet expanding outward from the city of San Luis Obispo may have eventually caught the person responsible.
But it was the keen instincts of one state parole agent that narrowed focus onto the main suspect and a District Attorney’s investigator’s patient skills in interrogation that got the confession.
On April 23, 1999, the community’s worst fears were confirmed — Newhouse and Crawford had been kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered at the hands of a convicted serial rapist, Rex Allan Krebs.
Their bodies were recovered over the next two days from shallow graves Krebs dug near the secluded two-story home he rented in the Avila Valley.
Tuesday marks two decades since that grisly discovery, but the chill that permeated San Luis Obispo County back then still lingers for many residents. In a college community where seemingly no one is more than a degree or two separated from somebody tied to the case, those who remember it say it serves as a reminder for young people to keep their wits about them and be aware of their surroundings.
“We all have to have a higher level of awareness that bad things can happen in good places,” Gardiner said.
Blood on a bridge and a missing student
Rachel Newhouse was a popular student who participated in student government at Irvine High School, where she also played sports before graduating in 1996. She eventually attended Cal Poly with several friends from Irvine.
On the night of Nov. 12, 1998, the 21-year-old departed Tortilla Flats, a restaurant and bar in the Nipomo Street building that now houses Ciopinot, and started a solo walk toward home.
The trek took her across downtown and over the Jennifer Street bridge that links the downtown and railroad district to neighborhoods on upper Johnson Avenue.
It is believed that Krebs spotted Newhouse in his truck as she approached the bridge, drove ahead and climbed the stairs. Donning a skull Halloween mask, Krebs attacked Newhouse once she reached the top, striking her in the head with his fists and dragging her down the stairs.
Krebs took Newhouse to his truck and drove to an A-frame structure near his Davis Canyon home, where he hog-tied, sexually assaulted and murdered her. Krebs would later claim that she suffocated while trying to escape her binding while he left her for several hours, but those involved in the investigation have their doubts.
Even 20 years later, friends and members of Newhouse’s immediate family have not spoken publicly about her killing. Contacted for this article, Newhouse’s aunt, Stephanie Morreale of Riverside, declined comment, saying the family still wishes not to talk about it.
At the Jennifer Street Bridge, blood found pooled at the top of the stairs trailing down the steps was reported to police the next morning, but several passersby who saw it told The Tribune they assumed it was from a fight or that an intoxicated person took a bad fall.
“When Rachel was reported missing, we didn’t know it was her blood. We took samples not knowing what was going on,” Gardiner said. “DNA (testing) back then took almost a month.”
Police at that time didn’t know how important a piece of evidence that blood sample would eventually become. But without immediate evidence tying the blood to Newhouse, and without any signs of her, Newhouse’s disappearance was investigated as a missing persons case.
Shortly after Newhouse was declared missing, Gardiner requested the assistance of the FBI, as well as other local agencies including the Sheriff’s Office, to establish a task force assigned to find the young woman. The Police Department’s small conference room bustled with investigators 24/7 as the task force’s command center.
But the leads weren’t panning out.
In the weeks following her disappearance, friends of Newhouse posted fliers around town and went door-to-door asking if anyone had seen her.
By the time police determined in December 1998 that the blood on the bridge had likely come from Newhouse, a reward offered by her family, then-Gov. Pete Wilson, and former Los Angeles Angels baseball player Jim Edmonds topped $110,000.
The FBI brought in a state-of-the-art software system that assisted the task force in gathering and documenting the hundreds of leads it was generating from the public and its own investigative work.
The effort continued for months.
When Crawford disappeared, it kicked into overdrive.
“We were working 24 hours a day on this thing, the task force, as we called them. If you got a lead, you go after it,” Gardiner said. “With Aundria, it stepped it up to the next level.”
A killer stalks again
Crawford was a 20-year-old student attending Cuesta College after moving from the Fresno area. She was living temporarily at an apartment on Branch Street in San Luis Obispo.
Those who knew her said Crawford was a strong-willed, courageous young woman who survived sexual abuse by a family member as a child and later in life befriended other young women who were struggling, her mother, Fresno resident Gail Crawford, said.
“That’s how Aundria was. She accepted everybody at face value,” Gail Crawford said. “She was just a friend to anyone.”
The honey blonde-haired Aundria was a tomboy who liked riding horses and working on her Ford Mustang, who also possessed a classic femininity with her lifelong love of ballet and her bedroom, which she designed with a pink interior, her boyfriend at the time, Josh (who asked his last name be withheld for this article), told The Tribune.
“She had a real good sense of humor and was kind of one of the guys,” Josh said. “She could hang out with the guys, who know, take the teasing and give it right back to them.”
Crawford had planned to pursue architecture or interior design at Cal Poly or another four-year university, her mother said.
“She just had a lot of irons in the fire,” Gail Crawford said. “She wanted to do it all.”
But on the night of March 11, 1999, Aundria Crawford was spending a night alone at home, unaware that Krebs had been silently stalking her and had made multiple trips to her apartment over several weeks.
Despite her practice of locking doors and windows, that night, Crawford left a small 2-foot, 8-inch bathroom window open for her cat, which was sick and confined to the bathroom, her mother said. Her nearest neighbors were out of town.
At some point that night, Krebs crawled through the bathroom window and attacked Crawford when she went to check out the commotion. Krebs drove her to his Avila Beach house, where he bound, raped, and tortured her.
Crawford was able to escape the house, only to be chased down and strangled to death by Krebs. The killer wrapped her in chicken wire and buried her in a 4-foot-deep grave just 20 feet from the house’s back door.
While burying Crawford, Krebs realized he was supposed to pick up his pregnant girlfriend, who worked as a city bus driver. After burying Crawford, Krebs picked up his girlfriend, and the two spent the weekend at the house with Crawford’s body just feet away, one investigator said.
Josh said Crawford called him earlier in the night to come over and watch “South Park,” but because he had a school assignment due, he declined. That decision has haunted him for years, he said, though he’s come to realize there was no way he could have known what Krebs had planned.
“How do you prevent someone from crawling through a bathroom window?” Josh said.
Crawford was reported missing the next day. A search of her apartment showed signs of a struggle.
“When that happened, I remember my operations captain came in and said, ‘Chief, I don’t feel good about this one,” Gardiner recalled.
By the time the task force brought in state parole officers to canvas known parolees and sex offenders, there were more than 180 members of law enforcement involved in the operation.
“This was a team effort,” Gardiner said. “We were focused on a serial killer.”
A parole agent is worried
David Zaragoza first met Krebs in September 1997.
A former correctional officer at California Men’s Colony, Zaragoza had been a state parole agent assigned to San Luis Obispo County for about five years when he received Krebs as part of his case load after Krebs was released from prison for a pair of home invasions he committed in 1987.
“Those guys, the ones who have been convicted of really serious things, when you watch them walk out the door, you get this very uneasy feeling,” Zaragoza said.
Krebs — who Zaragoza described as short in stature but physically fit and agile, a man who could be charming and affable — was released from prison early after serving half of a 20-year sentence at Soledad State Prison for breaking into an Oceano woman’s home and violently raping her, as well as a similar incident in Arroyo Grande in which Krebs entered a woman’s home through a window. The victim in that case was able to escape her captor after sustaining serious injuries.
After the Oceano home invasion, Krebs reportedly told his rape victim as he left, “Have a nice day.”
Following his release, Krebs moved back to San Luis Obispo County and was required to maintain registration as a sex offender and complete drug screenings and compliance checks from Zaragoza and another parole officer.
As a parolee, Zaragoza said Krebs went “way above and beyond” his expectations and requirements, securing within days an apartment and a job at San Luis Obispo’s 84 Lumber, a business housed in the South Higuera property that now contains Meathead Movers.
“That’s not normal,” Zaragoza said.
Because of the nature of his crimes, Zaragoza conducted more checks on Krebs than anyone else in his caseload, he said.
After being “pressured out” of his Atascadero neighborhood in October 1998 once neighbors learned of his past, Krebs moved out to Davis Canyon, a wooded area Zaragoza remembers had no cell phone service and spotty radio reception.
Zaragoza recalls in the weeks following Newhouse’s disappearance that there was growing concern in the community.
“You could walk downtown and feel that tension,” he said. “People were on edge.”
Now the killer is the prey
On March 16, 1999, Zaragoza was reading an article in The Tribune that quoted an investigator saying there was a “struggle” and that Crawford likely didn’t leave her apartment willingly.
In Krebs’ probation reports from 1987, which Zaragoza read in September 1997, Krebs’ probation officer, James Tooley, wrote detailed descriptions of the crimes, including the word “struggle.”
“It stuck to me like glue,” Zaragoza said. “We depend on good probation officer reports. ... If not for (Tooley’s) detailed report, that might not have clicked for me.”
With the Crawford case bearing similarities to Krebs’ past crimes, Zaragoza immediately thought of him.
Knowing Krebs would be off of work, Zaragoza drove to his house to find him outside with a brace wrapped around his rib cage.
“I asked him what happened and he said he fell off a retaining wall into a wood pile, but I know for a fact if you fall into a wood pile, you’re going to have marks, scratches. He didn’t,” Zaragoza said. “Now he’s got an injury, and my first thought was a struggle.”
Not wanting to tip Krebs off, the parole agent told him he needed a urine sample, following the man he increasingly suspected was a killer, into the two-story home, up the stairs, to collect the urine sample.
Out where no one would hear an ensuing fight, Zaragoza knew anything could happen.
“You never let a convicted felon walk behind you,” he said as he described looking around the house but not seeing much else out of place.
Racing back to his office, Zaragoza shared his suspicions with a lead investigator, who initially was not impressed and delegated followup to Department of Justice agents out of Fresno.
At Krebs’ home, a crucial discovery
A day went by without a call, and Zaragoza said he returned to his office March 19, 1998, to find four DOJ agents he called “go-getters” waiting for him in response to his request. They suggested conducting a parole search at Krebs’ house that day, he said.
They did, and Krebs was relaxed during the search and interview, Zaragoza said.
“He was confident he could give a story they would believe,” he said.
Inside a wooden box on a book case, Zaragoza made a crucial discovery: an 8-ball key chain without any keys on it.
“It was unique to me because I had never seen one, and I showed it off to one of the agents,” Zaragoza said. “He said, oh s--t, we’re looking for an 8-ball chain like this, missing from Aundria Crawford’s residence.”
The key chain was placed in an evidence bag, as were CO2 cartridges and BBs presumably for a BB gun. As a felon, Krebs was prohibited from owning realistic-looking guns that could be used in a crime.
But without finding the gun and not wanting to lose a probation violation on a technicality, Krebs was not taken into custody that night. At the debriefing afterward, Zaragoza told the agents, “I think he did it.”
That night, Zaragoza couldn’t sleep. He told his partner, “He did it. I feel it in my heart and brain he did it.”
The next day, he and three agents went to 84 Lumber to try to find the BB gun. Krebs appeared surprised when they walked through the door. Once Krebs produced a black metal BB handgun from beneath the cashier counter he said he used to shoot birds nesting in the store rafters, Zaragoza placed him under arrest.
“In the back seat, he started getting visually emotional, which took me back to the ’87 probation report,” Zaragoza said. “When he confessed to the officer, he noted he started getting emotional ... sobbing.”
Another parole search was carried out March 21, 1999, where a jump seat from Krebs’ truck containing a blood stain was found in a storage area underneath the house.
That blood would later be positively identified as Newhouse’s.
Can they get a confession?
On March 22, 1999, the task force requested Zaragoza report to the San Luis Obispo Police Department, where the command center was filled with about 50 people. That’s where he first met Larry Hobson.
“They said they were interested in Krebs as a suspect,” Zaragoza said. “In Larry’s mind, Krebs was a very good suspect.”
Hobson had at the time worked as an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office for almost 15 years, and had garnered a reputation as the man to call when trying to elicit a confession, having done just that in the case of Richard Benson, who tortured and murdered a Nipomo woman and her three children in 1986. Benson remains on Death Row today.
“He’s the best criminal interviewer I’ve ever seen,” Gardiner said of Hobson.
With Krebs stuck in County Jail on a parole violation in late March 1999, Hobson went to work.
“When they come in and sit down in front of you, you’re already at three disadvantages: They don’t like you, they don’t trust you, and they don’t respect you. Until you can overcome those factors, you’re not going to get anything done,” Hobson said. “You have to treat them with respect, as hard as that is.”
Though Krebs was initially angry he was being arrested and denied any knowledge of the missing women, he never requested a lawyer and Hobson began the long process of building a rapport. After calming, Krebs agreed to “help” Hobson with the investigation into the women’s disappearance, given his criminal history.
“At that point, we spent quite a few days together talking about the case,” Hobson said. “He was extremely cooperative.”
When Newhouse’s blood was identified on the jump seat April 21, 1999, Hobson drove Krebs to the San Luis Obispo Police Department’s interrogation room, where Krebs was confronted with the DNA results.
“At that point, his demeanor changed immediately, he almost got into the fetal position in his chair. ... He wouldn’t talk to me or look at me,” he said. Because he didn’t want Krebs to invoke his right to an attorney, Hobson released Krebs back to his jail cell. “He knew it was over at that point.”
Krebs takes them to the bodies
Returning the next day, Hobson was told Krebs was ready to talk.
“I asked if we would find Aundria Crawford alive. He said no,” Hobson said. “At that point, he detailed (the crimes).”
Krebs agreed to take Hobson to the women’s bodies at his property, but he asked a favor — that he be allowed to break the news to his girlfriend in person. When she was told in a one-on-one visit with Krebs at the station, she got so emotional investigators had to call an ambulance.
That woman, whom The Tribune is not identifying, now lives in the San Diego area with she and Krebs’ son. She did not respond to a request for an interview on social media.
After the April 22, 1999, confession, Krebs led investigators to the spot where he buried Newhouse and Crawford.
“He got up and walked along a hillside and pointed to a location,” Hobson said. “The next day, Rachel’s body was found in that exact location.”
The recovery was conducted by the FBI’s forensics team. Investigators also made another eerie discovery: Inside another wooden box found at his home were 15 to 20 receipts from 84 Lumber bearing the names and addresses of women customers. Hobson said investigators contacted each of the women, and two reported they had experienced a prowler outside their homes prior to Krebs’ arrest.
Asked whether he remains certain Krebs would have killed again, Hobson said, “Oh, yes.”
If not identified as a suspect by Zaragoza, Hobson said, “I don’t know if it would have been weeks or even months before we would have reached out to him.”
‘It’s still hard every day’
Almost two years later, Krebs was convicted by a jury of the murders of Newhouse and Crawford on April 3, 2001, after a months-long trial in Monterey County. He was sentenced to die by lethal injection in May 2001.
The case has been featured prominently on at least four documentaries, most recently on an episode of Oxygen TV’s “Buried in the Backyard” true crime series, and has been the subject of at least one nonfiction novel.
The case continues to have lasting effects on those involved.
Gail Crawford still resides in Fresno, advocating for victims of sexual violence.
“It’s still hard every day,” she said. “(Aundria) was my only child.”
Last month, Gail Crawford and Aundria’s former boyfriend Josh announced they had launched a $5,000 scholarship fund in Aundria’s name to benefit survivors of sexual violence who are pursuing college.
After reaching the $5,000 goal, Crawford said she decided to increase fundraising efforts to $10,000 to benefit two students, potentially one in the Central Valley and another on the Central Coast. The scholarship’s GoFundMe page had raised $5,772 as of Sunday.
Remember the victims
For the key investigators, the case always lingers in their memory.
Gardiner retired as police chief in 2003 and continues to stay involved in the San Luis Obispo community.
Hobson is also retired and now lives in Colorado. Though he gives credit to Zaragoza for following his instincts, Hobson said it was teamwork that ultimately led to Krebs being brought to justice.
“This would not have come together had not everybody in the task force done their jobs,” he said. “This was an almost textbook example of how agencies work together. ... That’s the reason this case was solved.”
Zaragoza retired in 2016, and continues to be involved in law enforcement as a criminal justice instructor at Cuesta College. Though he said he was aggravated initially when his hunch wasn’t taken to the top levels, Zaragoza agreed with Hobson’s assessment.
“We were all driven and obsessed with making sure whoever was responsible for this was going to have to deal with it,” he said.
He said he hopes residents remember most that there were two young women senselessly killed as their adult lives were just beginning, and that a younger generation of San Luis Obispo students take steps to ensure their own safety.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about those two ladies,” he said.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why did we report this story?
The disappearance of Rachel Newhouse and Aundria Crawford affected the entire San Luis Obispo County community and resulted in the largest law enforcement manhunt in recent county history.
Recognizing the significance of the 20th anniversary of the recovery of the students’ bodies, Tribune reporter Matt Fountain reached out to 18 people with varying degrees of proximity to the case, conducting interviews with many of them in person and by phone and email.
Fountain and senior photographer David Middlecamp also reviewed the newspaper’s entire collection of archived clips from the time.