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Center of the Universe
I was a young Marine scout sniper, definitely his type. And for a single, unforgettable afternoon, Orange County’s most notorious serial killer coaxed me into a place from which many didn’t escape.
I read something on the Internet one recent evening that made a brief and tangential reference to a serial killer preying on Marines in Southern California in the 1970s and early ’80s. Having been stationed at Camp Pendleton, I thought, “How come I never heard about this?” I had returned to the East Coast upon my discharge in September 1980, but still. So I searched “serial killer California Marines 80s” and came up with the name Randy Kraft.
There’s plenty of information on the Web; the short story is that Kraft is possibly the most prolific serial killer in American history, far worse than those with more notoriety, such as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Some investigators believe he may have killed as many as 100 people between 1971 and 1983 when he finally was caught in Orange County, driving on the 405 Freeway with a dead Marine in the seat next to him.
Kraft liked to photograph his victims before, during, and after his acts of sex and torture, and further memorialize his kills in a notebook. The perverse cruelties he inflicted while his victims were still alive are beyond imagination. Quite a few were young Marines he picked up in bars, or hitchhiking. They ended up as strangled, mutilated corpses dumped on roadsides.
He even had a preferred type of Marine. Ideally, they were white, near his 5-foot, 10-inch height and 160-pound weight, and with light brown hair. He liked them youthful and tough, a Marine’s Marine. He also liked straight men. Maybe he took this as a challenge.
Kraft didn’t assault or use weapons to subdue his victims. Typically, he won their trust while plying them with beer, Valium, and similar drugs, then waited for them to become incapacitated. He often was described as notably warm and charismatic, intelligent, and prosperous, with an IT career, active in the Long Beach gay community, and living with a long-term partner who never was implicated in any of his crimes.
So imagine my surprise when my Web search brought up photographs of Kraft, and my first reaction was, “Oh dear mother of Jesus, that looks exactly like that guy ... .” My second thought: A photo of me may well have been among those in Kraft’s possession when he was arrested.
The following is a story I’ve never told in 33 years.
I don’t remember the month exactly, but it must have been early in the spring beach season in 1980. It was a beautiful, balmy day, shortly after lunch, and there were few people on the San Clemente beach where I was loitering in the parking lot next to my motorcycle, looking at the ocean since there were few girls about.
At some point, a stranger approached and struck up a conversation. Older than my 20 years, he was probably about 30, I guessed. Neatly attired in collared shirt and dark pants, he gave off the aura of a yuppie. Broadly spaced eyes, a prominent chin, not really massive and jutting, but a distinct breakpoint where his chin began below his mouth. We started chatting; he clearly was just lounging, loitering, enjoying the ocean view like me. He was engaging, intelligent, and pleasant—a warm guy with a wry smile.
He said he was down from Canada. His speech, soft yet precise, and his general manner fit my stereotype of Canadians, and would have been disarming had my guard been up. But I was totally relaxed. As we talked, it became clear we were both enjoying the conversation. We talked for several hours about everything—books, current events, and travel. We were becoming fast friends, and we remarked on this, perhaps more than once.
About 4, as seaside time was winding down, neither of us seemed to want to part ways. He suggested continuing the conversation just up the hill in his motel room, where he had some “good beers.”
Normally, I wouldn’t have gone to a motel room with a stranger, but I never gave it a thought. I just liked the guy so much, and he seemed so kind and together, that it never occurred to me he could be dangerous. But even if he were, I was a U.S. Marine, and of the pure canonical type—hard-core infantry, a rifle range coach at times, finishing the final leg of my four-year enlistment as a scout sniper with the legendary 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, “The Walking Dead.” And although I served in peacetime, I was not a stranger to hands-on violence. But such thoughts were the farthest thing from my mind.
So I hopped on my Kawasaki KZ750, my pride and joy, and followed this guy’s dark car up the hill to his motel near the main drag through San Clemente. Although I didn’t notice it then, in retrospect, I realize this supposed Canadian tourist took a side-street shortcut that I didn’t know about.
While not the Hilton, the motel was someplace you’d expect somebody like him to stay, business class, which was the Ritz for me back then. The room opened up to the left of the door, with the head of the large bed to the left and a low chest or table under a large mirror on the right. I remember a briefcase or bag on the low chest and a notebook on the bed. But for a Canadian tourist, he was traveling awfully light, with no suitcases about.
As with the shortcut, I didn’t think twice about it then.
The heavy drapes were open, the gauzy white ones shut and enough late-afternoon light filtered in for a pleasant cast. I took a chair. He produced a “good beer” from somewhere beyond the low chest, from a minifridge or cooler. I remember him handing me the open bottle down low at waist level, the male-bonding way, because good beer was so unusual for a poor junior Marine accustomed to cheap domestic swill. It was a dark-green longneck bottle with a somewhat ornate label.
We sat for a while and continued our conversation. Eventually, apropos of nothing, he asked me, in the same manner we had been discussing everything else, “What do you think of sex with guys,” or words to that effect. Very nonthreatening, very abstracted. Finally, the long-delayed light bulb went off for dumb, naive me.
Now, at that point in my life, gay men might as well have been Martians. I grew up in Georgia and Ohio, where gay men were deeply closeted. Until that point, it never occurred to me that this man, or nearly any other I’d encountered in my life, had anything other than a platonic interest in me. What surprised me is that I didn’t jump up and immediately leave, or punch the guy—one for the Corps—and then leave. While I’m no gay-basher, gay sex never had been my bag before that afternoon, and never has been since. I never had the slightest murmurings, yearnings, confusions, or inclinations. Ladies were my prime off-duty interest, in competition or in combination with beer and motorcycles. But in that room, it just felt like another of the many topics we discussed.
At one point, he observed that lots of Marines like gay sex. I voiced my surprise at that notion, and was even more surprised when he said this was one of the attractions of this area as a vacation destination for him. He told me he had friends who did the same, organizing their vacation travel to Southern California where there most certainly was no shortage of Marines. There were 50,000 of us at Camp Pendleton, El Toro, and assorted smaller facilities. Still, the idea that sex tourism just outside Pendleton was a popular Canadian vacation option seemed outlandish. Based on what I knew about Marines, I told him that approaching them for gay sex seemed like a foolproof way to get a right proper ass-kicking.
He responded with a line I remember more than anything else said that afternoon, and I was struck by how casual, confident, and analytic he was about the thought: “No, you just have to get them away from their friends.”
The manipulative implications of that didn’t occur to me then; it seemed a reasonable procedural precaution someone would take when handling potentially dangerous wildlife, or Marines like me. It makes sense to be careful in such situations. I also saw an analogy to my role as a sniper, and from our forays down to Ensenada to hit on Mexican babes, the idea of separating one from the herd.
And he undeniably had a point. Here I was, a standard-issue Marine who, at that moment, was alone with him in his motel room, away from my friends, being propositioned, and things already had proceeded in a way I never would have foreseen. That made me think maybe this guy might know more, perhaps a lot more, about Marines than I did.
I don’t know how long I was there, or how much beer I drank; one or two more perhaps, three at the absolute outside. It was far from a dedicated boozing session. And despite my overwhelming fascination with this guy, gay sex was just not my bag. We were both clear on our respective positions, and, to my amazement, completely friendly, objective, and open about the issue.
We discussed what that meant in our developing friendship. One of his points—a major one to which we returned a number of times—was that maybe I should try it once, that I really couldn’t be sure until I had done so. As a logical debate point, you could see the merit.
My counterpoint was that it was something I just never had any urge to do, unlike my keen interest in the female form, the possibilities of which I’d only begun to explore. But I didn’t express even the slightest revulsion for gay sex as a concept. I was always a live-and-let-live guy, although among my buddies in the Corps, I’d naturally hew to the standard convention that all practitioners of homosexuality should instantly be put to the sword.
I’d joined the Corps a week after my 17th birthday, and by then it seemed like I’d been a Marine forever; I scarcely remembered another life. Pendleton, Lejeune, Okinawa, Norway, Germany, England, wherever the Corps took me, was invariably a bone-wearying physical grind of field operations, Spartan living, and bad food. I spent off-duty hours in cheap dives getting blotto on cheap beer, playing pool on ratty tables. And while my Marine pals were brothers to whom I was profoundly attached by both policy and esprit de corps, they were largely a young, brawn-over-brains, unsophisticated lot exactly like me.
This afternoon was a world away from all that, and I was enchanted. Eventually, though, we were at an impasse on the sex stuff, so I mentioned that perhaps I should go. I thought maybe I’d led this guy on by coming up to his room, and it wasn’t fair to him for me to be sitting there being a tease. I was astonished that a gay dude had lured me to a motel room, made advances, and here I was, feeling bad for him because I was rejecting him. In addition to my fascination with this guy, I was also fascinated with how I was reacting to this alternate universe.
When I finally made a sincere effort to leave, he asked if he could at least take a picture of me to remember this wonderful afternoon. I said sure, of course, and stood in front of the mirror at the foot of the bed. He asked me to take off my shirt, in the wide-eyed way kids do when asking for extra sauce on their sundae or something. So I pulled off my shirt, struck a pleasant pose, and he snapped a picture.
As I stood shirtless before his camera, his demeanor changed; I sensed a hint of neediness in him, a powerful worship of my young Marine self. Not really my body or my physique, but rather the whole package of me as young Marine, an icon. Afterward, I stood next to him; we were slightly turned toward each other, he on my left, both admiring, beholding actually, the instant black-and-white of me with my shirt off. Buff, handsome, and young, with the charming innocence many of us young Marines possessed. We called ourselves baby-faced killers, and back then I was as baby-faced a killer as they came. I looked 15. A sergeant on Okinawa had nicknamed me “Sweet Pea.”
And I was still there in that room. And my shirt was off. Quite comfortably off.
I had taken a seat again—I so hated to go—when he suggested another pic. Maybe with your belt loosened a bit? Something faintly clicked at that suggestion, a vague awareness that, having already crashed blithely through all sorts of boundaries, I inevitably would end up doing something that I’d prefer not to if I were to stay. “Prefer not to” was a dramatic softening of my opinion about things and, amidst the fog, I understood that even that inhibition eventually would crumble. It took a supreme act of willpower to force myself to leave. As I turned away, he looked at me with an expression I can only characterize as winsome disappointment. I felt profoundly sorry for him.
I walked into the fading sunshine. It was about 6, the sun low enough to cast the first hint of the vivid gold that graces stucco buildings during a California sunset. Walking down the steps, I thought of going back, of saying, “Aw man, sorry for screwing up the afternoon.” I had to command myself, “Get on your bike and leave.” It’s trite to say this, but my head was reeling. I turned out of the motel parking lot, and in the direction of Pendleton.
As I headed south, the Earth rocked like a ship at sea. I looked back at the motel; the window of our room was visible. I’m not sure what I expected to see, but I envisioned this guy sitting alone with his notebook in his lap, looking dejected and deep in thought. Amid my cluttered thoughts, it wasn’t hard to imagine him sighing. Gunning the bike, I looked forward again, and I remember nothing further about that day other than a glance at the road ahead.
To say I was one woefully confused baby-faced killer after that afternoon would be a massive understatement. For starters, I had posed for a beefcake photo in a motel room after drinking beer with a guy I adored, who freely acknowledged he was trying to seduce me. Even without the photo, what was I doing in that room in the first place? And that isn’t even getting into the whole “prefer not to” business—the biggest can of worms of all. This was not a post-liberty tale for my STA Platoon pals back at 1st Battalion, 9th Marines; not a topic fit for the hallowed halls of “The Walking Dead” trod by hundreds of spit-shined boots.
But something awesomely big, loud, and powerful had happened. I had been drawn in by something every bit as mysterious and inevitable as sexual attraction. Maybe there were still more sides of me to be revealed in that room. When I turned out of the motel parking lot, was I fleeing him, or something I couldn’t confront?
I didn’t like the sound of that much. But how could I be gay and not interested in sex with guys?
I had no ability at that point in my life to come up with credible answers. So began the natural human process of mild denial, hedging, and minimization of things we don’t understand to relieve our conscience and confusion. A tweak here, a tuck there, and along with the passage of time, things became at least livable if not understandable. Eventually, the afternoon and its events reached a state of equilibrium, and I thought about it less and less. When I did think of it, I recalled it as an anomaly, a magic afternoon where I had been swept away by my attraction to an interesting guy. But in the end, no harm, no foul—especially if I kept my focus off that photo out there, and the mortifying dread that it would someday turn up.
I never told a soul, and I suppose this alone says something.
As for that guy, I remembered him fondly. I always thought highly of him for being such stimulating company, and particularly so for being such a proper gentleman about the sex and all. I concluded it would have been a wonderful friendship if not for that pesky gay-straight complication.
At my keyboard, I recognized Randy Kraft immediately—the chin, the eyes, the eyebrows, the expressions. It would have been shocking to recognize an acquaintance as a serial killer under any circumstance, but recognizing Kraft as the guy I met on that long-ago afternoon took my breath away for days.
You blink. You look again. You look at other photos. You wonder if you’re being melodramatic, if your memory is faulty. You wonder if people will believe you, or simply think your imagination has run away with you. You wonder if there is a class of neurotic people who make up false accounts of run-ins with serial killers. You realize that to be true to your story and yourself, you can’t let what you are reading create false memories.
It took me days to accept this really happened. The only hint I got of any sociopathology would have been his remark that “You just have to get them away from their friends.”
Oh, and about that motel. I remember it being within a few blocks of an onramp to the 5 Freeway, heading south toward Pendleton. That onramp is a premium spot for Marines, primed by alcohol, hitching rides back to base after an evening of liberty.
Now, I’m not a detective, but I am a former Marine scout sniper. And as I remember that long-ago afternoon now, I think, “Bingo!” Kraft had set himself up in a motel that was the perfect place—a motel where, with discretion, stealth, and convenience, he could monitor the comings and goings of guys like me. It was the most astonishingly well-wired place imaginable for someone hunting drunk Marines.
Draw your own conclusions; I’ve drawn mine. One is that Kraft had identified a number of such locations throughout Southern California for when he slipped away for a few days. All were places where he could monitor his prey, and then conveniently move in for the kill. He may have found similar locations in Oceanside at the other end of Pendleton, or by the Marine Corps Air Ground Training Center at Twentynine Palms, or the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. The entire circuit is a loop through Southern California, a long drive, but if he departed Long Beach early, he would be settled in somewhere before evening.
I know that because I trained to go invisibly solo, or in a very small team, for long periods, to study a large body of prey that grossly outnumbers you, to identify a target among them, then patiently draw closer, considering every detail of the environment, and all the time without the slightest false move, or rustle of underbrush, or snap of a twig that would alert your target and blow the hunt. Then, at the perfect moment, after all this painstaking care and preparation, take one shot to claim your victim and disappear like a ghost, leaving behind just a body.
In that business, location is everything. It begins with an optimal observation post from which one conducts surveillance and target acquisition. That’s what makes STA Platoon the sharp edge of the USMC sword. Along with about a dozen others, I provided that service to the 800 or so regular infantrymen of “The Walking Dead.”
My second conclusion is that, after finding a base at San Clemente that day, Kraft simply went to the beach to unwind. He found me there, a target of opportunity away from my friends—a 5-foot-9, 160-pound, sandy-haired, peach fuzz-faced, and mulishly unreconstructed straight Marine. With my motorcycle and the beach as a backdrop, I was a Randy Kraft pinup boy.
Bagging me was an opportunity too good to let pass. So, there beside the beach, I enjoyed an hours-long command performance from a world-class sociopath, its sole object being that I would unthinkingly follow him up the hill and deliver myself to that room.
I read a German short story many years ago—I’m sorry, the reference eludes me—and I’ve forgotten everything about it except its closing line: “Sometimes, when you open a grave, it only contains dust.” The corollary to this, of course, is that other times it contains much more.
After I discovered my seducer’s identity, I confided to several friends, and wrote several long emails to others to help understand my distress. Those small beginnings, through many revisions seeking answers, became a story—the one you’re reading now.
I found that far from having disintegrated into dust, Kraft remained alive and well and with me through the years and places I’ve been since leaving California in 1980—through college, a tour as a submarine officer, graduate school, a tech career, a marriage, and a son. And the reason I’ve never left him behind is simple: He made me feel special in the most irresistible way. For one impossibly beautiful California afternoon, I was very much in love with him. And I’ve never had another man, before or since, affect me that way.
That’s what Randy Kraft found in me by the beach, the thing that got me up that hill. It could have been drugs, or sex, or money, or his comic book collection; he’d work with whatever he could get. But in me he found the capacity for loving a man, one like him, such as I did that afternoon. When he took that picture of me, I felt cherished, even venerated, and I enjoyed it. Immensely. That’s a difficult truth to face. The little voice saying, “Hey, isn’t this sorta out of bounds?” was no match for being the center of someone’s universe.
And what began as me recounting a horrific anecdote to friends ended up as a love story, one of a most unusual sort. Simply put, that afternoon, we—the serial killer and the young Marine sniper—were perfect for each other. How could I fall in love with Randy Kraft for an afternoon? I still haven’t found the answer within myself. Maybe he’d begun drugging me; suspiciously, the rest of the day is a blackout. But blaming it on Valium would be denial; I already was infatuated enough to follow him up the hill.
The most unsettling aspect is that Kraft is the only man who has ever made me feel that way, to have identified and then acquired that thing in my heart. As I once wondered what loving a man meant, I now wonder what …
I can’t even finish that sentence.
Ultimately, Kraft’s final intentions for me are unknowable. The only proof that he wanted to kill somebody is when he did it. And he didn’t kill me as he did so many Marines who were very much like me.
I’m tempted to speculate, to view this in a way that could help numb at least part of this horror. Maybe we really did connect that afternoon, somehow via his human side, if he has one at all. And so, when I was as vulnerable as an infant in that room, he stayed his hand from my bared neck and quietly watched me, no—and this is no fine distinction—quietly let me depart that room and that afternoon.
You don’t know how much I need to believe something like that, that somehow I was different, that even a Randy Kraft would give me a pass, that if asked, he’d remember that room and that afternoon and say it was such an uncommonly lovely day, and we were having such a grand time as newfound friends, he decided not to ruin it for me, and gave me my life back.
Everyone wants to believe that they are special.
Publishing this story raises a question: Was the photograph of writer Jay Roberts among the many pictures—including some of victims and potential victims—in Randy Kraft’s possession at the time of his arrest?
Dan Salcedo of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department was kind enough to locate the warehoused case files to see if a snapshot matching Roberts’ description might be in it.
“Unfortunately I did not locate the photo Mr. Roberts was speaking of,” he wrote in an email. “As I understand it, all photographs located during the searches related to the Kraft case were collected as potential evidence. It doesn’t mean the photo doesn’t exist, but from everything I reviewed, that particular photo was not located or collected as part of the investigation.”
Roberts says he was disappointed, but not surprised. “I had some morbid curiosity about it. But there are tons of unknowns between 1980 and an evidence search today.”
—Martin J. Smith
For more background, read “Why Isn’t Randy Kraft Dead?” by Patrick J. Kiger, May 2013.
Lettering by Dan Hoopert / Illustration by Polly Becker
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue.