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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.
When two young women went missing under mysterious circumstances within months of each other in late 1998 and early 1999, people in San Luis Obispo were scared.
“This story in our tiny town was national news,” Maurica Fitzgibbons, a Cal Poly student at the time, wrote in an email last week. “We felt jinxed after all the disappearances, and we feared we would be next.”
On April 23, 1999 — 20 years ago Tuesday — the bodies of 21-year-old Cal Poly student Rachel Newhouse and 20-year-old Cuesta College student Aundria Crawford were recovered from shallow graves at an Avila Valley property rented by Rex Allan Krebs, a registered sex offender who had spent 10 years in prison for two home invasion sexual assaults on women in the late 1980s.
In the months preceding that day, the tension was palpable across campus, in downtown San Luis Obispo bars and coffee shops, and across city neighborhoods.
Fitzgibbons, an adjunct professor with the university’s natural resources and environmental sciences department, was a freshman when fellow student Kristin Smart vanished in 1996. Smart’s still-unsolved disappearance was already on everyone’s minds when Newhouse disappeared while walking home alone from a downtown nightclub, Fitzgibbons said.
“It was real to us,” she said.
Krebs was brought to justice in a sweeping manhunt driven by more than 180 law enforcement agents across several local, state, and federal agencies. Savvy observation skills by Krebs’ parole officer and a confession drawn by a District Attorney’s Office investigator also played critical roles in the serial killer’s capture before he could find another victim.
Receipts from the lumberyard where he worked listing the names and addresses of about 20 local women were found at his house, the investigator in the case said, and two of those later reported a prowler outside their homes in the months prior to Krebs’ arrest.
Krebs was convicted in April 2001 of murdering Newhouse and Crawford, in a months-long trial in Monterey County. He was sentenced to die by lethal injection in May 2001 and remains on Death Row in San Quentin State Prison.
In recognizing the 20th anniversary of the recovery of the two women, The Tribune spoke to people directly involved in the case, as well as residents young and old who were around in those eerie days to ask their recollections and what legacy the murders have in San Luis Obispo.
A community in fear
Newhouse was abducted in November 1998 on the Jennifer Street Bridge connecting downtown to the neighborhoods across the railroad tracks.
Lifelong county resident and past City Council candidate Sarah Flickinger, then a student living at Stenner Glen apartments (now The SLO) near Cal Poly, remembered Newhouse’s friends handing out fliers across campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods in the weeks following her disappearance.
“It definitely shook our sense of security,” Flickinger said Friday. “I was 18, young, had long hair, (like Newhouse and Crawford) and you worried for your safety. ... Suddenly, you’re feeling like you have to look over your shoulder.”
San Luis Obispo resident Dave Seidenzahl, who said he came across the blood on the bridge the morning of Nov. 13, 1998, recalls mentioning it to friend Bob Mulvaney, an investigator for the Public Defender’s Office who would later work for Krebs’ defense team. Mulvaney, who died in May 2017, recommended Seidenzahl share what he saw with the FBI.
Sure enough, Seidenzahl said that he was visited at his home about three weeks later by two special agents wanting to know what he saw.
A segment of railing on the Jennifer Street bridge — which now bears a plaque in memory of Newhouse and Crawford — still features a welding mark showing where investigators cut out a section for forensic testing.
To be sure, social night life continued over the winter of 1999, but there was a heightened sense of awareness. No one walked alone. Men ensured female friends got to their destination safely.
When Crawford was abducted from her Branch Street apartment in March 1999, Tarrah Leigh of San Luis Obispo said she was a sophomore in high school who had just gotten her first taste of freedom in the form of her driver’s license, able to drive herself and friends to soccer practice.
“After (Crawford’s disappearance), things escalated and it started to really seem scary,” Leigh told The Tribune. “There was the buzz that there was like a ‘type’ — people of a certain build and hair color — and my friends and I all fit that type. Whatever freedom we got was changed pretty quickly.”
“It, I think, permanently changed how SLO didn’t seem like such a little protected bubble anymore,” she added.
Fitzgibbons, the Cal Poly educator, said she still thinks often about Newhouse, Crawford, and Smart, said she thinks the Krebs case continues to weigh on the mind of residents in town.
“It’s just under the surface,” she said.
A reporter’s memories
Patrick Pemberton, a former Tribune reporter who covered Krebs’ trial and interviewed members of the killer’s family, said the case has become an infamous part of San Luis Obispo history, not only because of its brutality, but because it gripped the community for months before the worst possible outcome came true.
“There was this big mystery for a long time,” Pemberton said. “You have two people missing for a long time and no one knew what happened.”
Pemberton said he doesn’t think the role played by David Zaragoza, Krebs’ parole officer who first alerted task force members of his suspicions that Krebs was the killer, is played up enough.
“It’s a like a movie storyline. If (Zaragoza) didn’t act on his hunch, it was really possible that more people get killed,” he said. “You don’t see that in real life where one person really cracks the case. It’s really dramatic.”
Allen Settle, San Luis Obispo’s mayor at the time of the disappearances, echoed that sentiment.
“The parole officer really deserves credit because he really connected the dots that the methodology of the murder was the same as he had done before,” Settle said. “It brought it to conclusion faster than otherwise possible.”
The since-retired Zaragoza continues to live in SLO County and said he still thinks about Newhouse and Crawford every day. His experiences with men like Krebs have made him a strict father, he said, and he tries to not be overbearing to his family.
He said he hopes people will remember the two young women, how they lived, and how much potential they both had. He added that today’s students can learn from the tragedy that San Luis Obispo County’s beauty and relatively low level of crime can promote a false sense of security.
“It’s just tragic. One wrong step, one wrong turn, can make all the difference in the world,” Zaragoza said.
New cases have eerie similarities
If the fears sound hyperbolic, consider the ongoing criminal case against Arthur Rocha, who is accused of sexually assaulting or attempting to sexually assault three sleeping women in two separate attacks in San Luis Obispo in July 2018.
Rocha, who in testimony presented in February indicated he worked late at a downtown San Luis Obispo restaurant, is accused of stalking two different neighborhoods under the early morning darkness wearing a nylon mask, carrying latex gloves, zip ties, and a knife.
In one of the attacks, police say, Rocha entered the woman’s home by cutting through a screen on a kitchen window. He has pleaded not guilty.
Court filings and testimony in other ongoing SLO County cases allege that student-aged people frequenting bars late at night have been targeted.
Two former ride-share drivers, Alfonso Alarcon Nunez and Jason Lamont Fenwick, face charges alleging they sexually assaulted inebriated female riders and burglarized their homes. Alarcon Nunez is alleged to have victimized five women across San Luis Obispo. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Tuesday’s anniversary of the recovery of Newhouse and Crawford’s bodies also comes a week after the Sheriff’s Office’s announced they identified a suspect in the cold cases of two women who were separately raped and murdered in Atascadero in 1977 and 1978.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, DNA evidence shows Arthur Rudy Martinez, now deceased, likely murdered Jane Antunez, 30, and Patricia Dwyer, 28, in killings the Sheriff’s Office called crimes of opportunity motivated by sexual assault.
Asked what he hopes has been learned from the Krebs case, Jim Gardiner, who was San Luis Obispo’s police chief at the time, said public awareness of student safety issues.
“The students are such a critical part of the community,” Gardiner said. “It raises the level of awareness that anything can happen at any time.”
Representatives from Cal Poly’s administration, including its Student Life director, declined to comment for this article.
Crawford’s boyfriend at the time of her murder, who asked to only be identified as Josh, still lives in San Luis Obispo. He said last week that while the loss of Crawford and Newhouse probably lingers for most long-term residents, he fears the lessons learned may not be reaching today’s college students, who may not yet have been alive when the two women lost their lives.
“I think the college community with its high turnover may be quick to forget,” Josh said. “You can’t live in a bubble, can’t lock yourself in a box, but there are simple things — have a plan, stay in a group. Don’t figure it out after the fact.”
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.