"Do you know the area around where Mission Viejo is, and all that?” Max Gambrel asks over the phone. “That’s where Kraft was apprehended. California Highway Patrol made the stop there.”
Max is a truck driver in his mid-40s who lives in Commiskey, Ind., a small farming town not far from Crothersville, where he grew up. There’s not a whole lot going on there—if you need anything much more elaborate than fresh fruit and vegetables, he explains, you’ve got to go over to Seymour, the big town about 15 miles north. Max doesn’t mind. He prefers the gentle pace of life in the country. He’s never been to Southern California, and doesn’t much desire to visit.
But he’s spent a lot of time during the past three decades trying to picture a place in Orange County. Not Disneyland, or the beach, or the luxurious stores at South Coast Plaza. But the otherwise unremarkable stretch of Interstate 5 near Mission Viejo, where, about 1 a.m. on May 14, 1983, two CHP officers spotted a brown 1979 Toyota weaving from the right lane onto the shoulder, and decided to pull it over. At the wheel, the officers discovered a slight, mustachioed 38-year-old computer programmer from Long Beach named Randy Steven Kraft, who had alcohol on his breath. He failed a sobriety test, so they arrested and handcuffed him.
In Kraft’s passenger seat was a man with a dark jacket draped over his lap, who appeared to be asleep. Kraft said he was a hitchhiker he’d picked up. When one of the officers opened the door and pulled away the jacket in an effort to rouse him, he was startled to see that the man’s pants were pulled down, and that he had marks on his wrists, as if he had been tied. The passenger wasn’t breathing, nor did he have a pulse. One of the arresting officers, Sgt. Michael Howard, found it eerie how Kraft calmly asked, “How’s my friend?” when Kraft obviously knew his passenger was dead.
The victim was a 25-year-old Marine corporal, stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro. Apparently, as investigators later pieced together, he was trying to get to a friend’s party after a softball game, and had decided to hitchhike. The driver who’d picked him up apparently offered him a beer, which the hitcher didn’t know was laced with sedative pills like those the officers found on the floor of Kraft’s car.
The passenger was Terry Gambrel, the final victim of one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history. Terry was Max Gambrel’s cousin.
Max has imagined that scene many times. Terry was the friendly, practically-a-big-brother relative who lived next door when Max was a boy. “I remember riding bikes with him and playing basketball and softball,” he says. “A lot of people gravitated to him. He was very likeable.”
Max was 15 when Terry died. His family sheltered him as best they could from the grisly details. It wasn’t until years later, when he started reading true-crime books, that he happened upon Dennis McDougal’s 1991 “Angel of Darkness,” and learned of the sickening things Kraft had done to the bodies of his other victims. He imagines what Kraft might have done to Terry with the buck knife officers found on the driver’s seat. “It’s fortunate he didn’t have a chance to mutilate my cousin,” Max says.
He still misses Terry. “We all miss him,” he says, even after all these years. And he still thinks about Kraft, who was convicted of 16 murders and linked to more than 65 others by investigators. For years, Max read books and articles about murder and watched “Criminal Minds” and other TV crime dramas, hoping to understand what would make someone kill so many people. Finally, he gave up. “I can’t fathom why he did it,” Max says. “There is no why.”
Instead, Max Gambrel wonders why, three decades after his cousin Terry’s murder, the man who was sentenced to death for killing him somehow is still alive.
Illustraion by Keith Negley