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Why Isn't Randy Kraft Dead?

Thirty years after his arrest in Orange County, one of California’s deadliest and most depraved serial killers still lives and breathes on San Quentin’s death row. What’s wrong with this picture?

Randy Kraft

"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

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  1. Dennis McDougal posted on 04/26/2013 07:01 PM
    A generation has passed since Randy wreaked havoc and still he lives, breaths, sleeps, dreams, eats and lies about his innocence, all at taxpayer expense. I don't believe in capital punishment, but I do believe in putting scum like Kraft into general population instead of tucking him safely away for a lethal injection that will never happen. Kudos to Patrick Kiger for bringing the Randy story up to date and further kudos to Martin Smith and Orange Coast for publishing this important and shameful saga.
    1. Don Halbert posted on 01/31/2014 06:40 PM
      @Dennis McDougal I just finished reading Dennis McDougal's book "Angel of Darkness" detailing the murderous exploits of Randy Kraft.

      It is difficult to believe that after all these years, this creature is still allowed to occupy space on this planet. The California legal system has afforded him far more consideration than Randy extended towards his victims. Should California wish to continue to waste taxpayers' funds on the appeal process for "a waste of space" like Randy Kraft, do the public a big favor and repeal the death penalty!
  2. James E. Lytle posted on 06/25/2013 01:39 PM
    I'm glad Patrick Kiger brought this story back to Life. Their are alot of people that have been Affected by This Man ( Using the word Man with great reluctance) . I don't even think Animal fits the Character of Randy Kraft, because even Animals show some kind of CARING. I still see the Faces of the Parents whom never got to say Good-Bye to their Loved Ones at the Sentencing Day, and Truely feel there Pain and Sorrow! SHAME ON CALIFORNIA!
  3. Keith Atkinson posted on 08/07/2013 08:21 AM
    I am now 47 and live in the Las Vegas area but grew up in Mission Viejo. The question that is this story's headline is one I have been asking for years. Kraft exhausted his appeals in 2001. there is no reason this man should still be alive. The state flatly refuses to carry out its duty. My thought is that if the state refuses to carry out a legal sentencing then no jury... every should come to a verdict... in any case as protest. Every jury should be a hung jury till the state kills this "man." For if the state refuses to carry out this legally binding verdict, then what does a verdict by a jury of our peers mean? There is no question of guilt here. Kill him.
    1. Steven Narbonne posted on 08/31/2013 12:31 PM
      @Keith Atkinson Juries mean nothing anymore. Nor does the vote. We are just sheeple to be raped, tortured, murdered or ignored as suits the state and federal governments.
  4. steven narbonne posted on 08/31/2013 12:29 PM
    Who cares if he killed and mutilated 65 men? They were, after all, just bit players in the play of his life. It is far more important that we understand Randy and give him all the cuddles and love we can. It is never the killer's fault. It is the fault of society, the Republicans and George Bush. Let him live. In fact, set him free as he is a beautiful spirit when he is not dismembering murdered corpses.
    1. Ted Osmundson posted on 10/04/2013 12:30 PM
      @steven narbonne Ok Steve N... I will take the bait. Please explain why killing innocent people is considered by you nothing to be concerned about ?

      Coddling a killer ? You don't think Kraft was pure evil?

      I am sure if he were in Texas and George Bush was giving the final say so on the execution it wouldn't get delayed. However, life without parole is worse than death in my opinion. Death is the easy way out... the suffering of prison life is long and distasteful imho.

      Ok... back to you Steve... what do you say?
    2. Claudia posted on 10/30/2013 05:44 AM
      @Ted Osmundson Welcome to sarcasm, Mr. Osmundsun.
  5. Teresa posted on 11/11/2013 12:49 PM
    My brother was killed by this scum over 30 years ago.It still feels like it just happened I wish my brother could of celebrated his 21st birthday but he didn't Randy kraft is pure evil he will out live us all
    1. Keith Atkinson posted on 12/08/2013 09:23 PM
      @Teresa All of the victims families should connect and work together with willing media to force the state to kill this bastard
  6. Sal posted on 03/31/2014 09:26 PM
    Doesn't he have a family? Why don't they get him to speak about his crimes? Maybe I'm naive, but they surely must be hiding knowing what their sibling, uncle or relative has done, no? Some member of the Kraft clan please step in and appeal to Randy to finally provide some details and belated relief to the still suffering families. Please help.
  7. robin george posted on 04/25/2014 06:00 PM
    The Sad and ugly truth about the justice department here in California is that no Chief Justice wants to sign the bill to kill these convicted murderers. The political will is not their, either Democrat or Republican they all pass the hot potato down the line. I was told this horrid dirty secret by a very senior Attorney who writes appeals for these people. No political will to enforce the law. The law is on the books we all voted for it. Political will not there thats the truth.
  8. Former Marine posted on 06/21/2014 02:00 AM
    Why? Why after 31 years is this man still alive? The California simply decided not to enforce the law? Found with the body of a US Marine dead in his front passenger seat and pictures and evident in his home tying him to no less than 10 or so more odf the 61 he mot likely killed.

    Why is wrong with justice in this state. He needs to die, as his sentence warranted, this in not a question of "did he do it"...he and everyone else knows that he is guilty. How is is possible fro this to occur in any legitimate criminal justice system.
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