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

Max Gambrel isn’t the only one who can’t figure out why the deadliest—and arguably, most loathsome—killer in Orange County history has yet to meet the fate decreed for him in November 1989, when a jury in Santa Ana voted to recommend the death penalty. In sentencing him, Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin noted that Kraft’s extreme depravity—including jamming a swizzle stick up the penis of one of his victims—shocked even the judge’s world-weary sensibilities. “I can’t imagine doing these things in scientific experiments on a dead person, much less [to] someone alive,” McCartin explained. The father of that victim screamed, “Burn in hell, Kraft!” as the defendant was led from the courtroom.

Many years later, we’re still waiting for that to happen. Instead, Kraft, a Westminster High School alum, is going on his 24th year on death row at San Quentin state prison, as his case inches its way through appeals, delays, and lack of political will that is the death penalty system in California. And with no end in sight to the legal maneuverings, it seems more likely that Kraft, who turned 68 in March, will die of natural causes behind bars—which is how the overwhelming majority of California death row inmates have died since Kraft went to prison.

Kraft’s longevity behind bars proves that the death penalty in this state—notwithstanding the voters’ decision in a 2012 referendum to keep it on the books—is hopelessly broken. If we don’t put a needle in the arm of a serial torture-killer who was caught with a dead victim and with a mountain of other incriminating evidence against him—including snapshots of murder victims and an extensive trophy collection of their possessions—then who should we execute? Moreover, Kraft’s interminable saga—and the frustration that continues to bedevil those connected to the case—sends the disturbing message that justice seldom provides a salve for the pain caused by vicious crimes.

Among those most perplexed by Randy Kraft’s ability to avoid execution are the people who voted to convict him. “He’s lived longer in prison than the whole lives of most of the kids that he killed,” says James Lytle, who was the jury foreman. “I mean, come on now.”

Juror Pat Marcantel Springer, a former Anaheim resident who, like Lytle, spent most of 11 months listening to a gruesomely detailed recounting of Kraft’s crimes, agrees. “I think they should execute him,” she says. “He should have been executed a long time ago. It was so obvious; being caught with a dead Marine in your car is pretty much a giveaway.”

Springer, a first-time juror when chosen for the panel, says she knew nothing about Kraft’s case and had a naive notion of the depths of evil. “I didn’t realize that with murder, they don’t always just come up and shoot somebody,” she recalls. “All this torture, I didn’t know about that. I never thought about somebody cutting off another person’s body parts. I would go home at night and lie in bed, and keep visualizing [the victims]. And you couldn’t talk to anybody about it.”

She remembers being taken aback when she first saw Kraft, whose unexceptional 5-foot-10 stature, 160 pounds, and quiet manner were a jarring contrast to the atrocities he committed. “When I first saw him, it was like, ‘I’m your next-door neighbor,’” she says. “He didn’t look any different from anybody else.” But the evidence, she recalls, was overpowering. And despite spending close to $5.5 million on investigators and experts, defense attorneys C. Thomas McDonald, James Merwin, and William Kopeny weren’t able to counter the case presented by prosecutor Bryan Brown of the Orange County District Attorney’s office.

When jurors finally began deliberations, Springer recalls that they almost immediately agreed he was guilty of Terry Gambrel’s killing and some of the others. “He had the pictures of those people in his house, so that was easy,” she explains. They spent most of their deliberations going over a few of the murders in which the evidence was a little more complex. They acquitted Kraft on just one count of sodomy, because they were unsure whether the victim was alive when Kraft had sex with him. When the verdicts were announced to a packed courtroom on May 13, 1989—oddly, almost six years to the day after Kraft’s arrest—this one count led to a painful scene. “The mother of the victim started screaming, I think because she thought we were saying he hadn’t killed her son,” Springer recalls. “That was a gut-wrenching feeling.”

During the penalty phase of the trial, Springer—who took seriously her duty to be impartial—finally allowed herself to form a personal opinion of Kraft. “I’d look at him and think, ‘What a creep. He’s trying to put one over on us,’ ” she recalls. “I think he really thought that we were going to come back and say he didn’t do it, because they kept telling us what a genius he was.” (An employer who tested Kraft reportedly found that he had an IQ of 129, though during the penalty phase of his trial, Kraft’s legal team called UC Irvine neuroscientist Monte Buchsbaum to testify that Kraft had suffered brain damage that might explain his sexual violence.) “But there’s a fine line between being a genius and being stupid.”

Springer had no difficulty voting for the death penalty, and when the verdict was announced and the defense attorneys asked for the jurors to be polled, she stared straight at Kraft when she affirmed her vote. Yet after she went back to her life, Springer says she had trouble putting him out of her mind. “I remember sleeping in my living room, being afraid to sleep in my bed. I had nightmares about Kraft, that he was coming to get me.”

The dreams abated over time, only to be replaced by a more persistent sadness after she was invited to meet with victims’ families. “When I met those people, they told us how their lives just had been torn apart,” she remembers. “Some of them had turned into alcoholics because of it. It was just heartbreaking.”

Lytle, the jury foreman, says he found it hard to listen to testimony about male rape and sexual mutilation—“I think that’s why they only had two men on the jury,” he says with a nervous laugh. He says he’s also still haunted by what he describes as a minor, but still eerie, personal connection to the case. Though he didn’t know Terry Gambrel at the time, he narrowly missed crossing paths with the Marine on the night of his death, because he had been invited to the same party—thrown by Lytle’s future brother-in-law—that Gambrel was trying to get to. (Kraft’s attorneys have tried to raise that tangential link as an issue in appeals, but Lytle, who was questioned by the judge about it during the trial, says he doesn’t remember whether he went to the party, didn’t know Gambrel, and never discussed the victim with his relatives.) “It’s conceivable that I might have met him,” he says. “It was a little side thing that happened, but it brings it close to home.”

Lytle, who was working his way toward an education degree, says he paid a price for serving on the jury. Unable to work for nearly a year during the trial, he got so far in the hole financially that he had to give up his dreams of becoming a teacher and sports coach. After the trial, when he drove the freeways to reach construction sites where he worked, he’d pass the places where Kraft dumped his victims. That made him uneasy. And even after voting to send Kraft to death row, questions about the case still troubled him. One afternoon, before Kraft was transferred to San Quentin, Lytle went to the Orange County Jail and filled out the paperwork to visit him. “I wanted to meet him face to face, and see what he had to say.” Visiting hours ended before he was able to see Kraft, and it’s not clear whether Kraft would have agreed to the meeting, anyway. Lytle eventually moved from Orange County to Arizona, where he works as a cab driver. He’d still like to ask Kraft why he committed such depraved violence. “Being a guy, seeing what we had to see, I still want to know why. Without that, there’s no closure.”

It’s hard to imagine that if Lytle ever did meet Kraft, he’d be able to get him to open up about what motivated him to drug, molest, and slaughter so many young men. Nobody has come up with a good explanation for why Kraft committed his crimes. There’s no indication he was ever subjected to any sort of abuse, though he did suffer a head injury in a fall that left him unconscious as a year-old toddler.

In the only interview Kraft has ever given—a 30-minute meeting with Los Angeles Times reporter Jerry Hicks in November 1983, in which Kraft later said he was misquoted—Kraft claimed he was being unjustly accused because he is gay, and that the so-called scorecard of 61 names in his car was a list of friends, not people he’d killed. Back in 1987, when I was a reporter for the Orange County Register, Kraft angrily slammed down the phone in the visiting area when I tried to interview him, and failed to respond to written questions I recently sent to him at San Quentin. At his sentencing, he continued to maintain his innocence, and judging from court filings, has stuck to that argument ever since. In 2001, a Canadian anti-death penalty website posted what appeared to be a message from Kraft, though he oddly referred to himself in the third person:

“Randy was convicted on hysteria, innuendo and common prejudice against gay persons such as himself. There never was any real evidence against him. There is none today. Instead, the prosecutor lied to make up for no evidence, and hid evidence helpful to Randy. The police also hid helpful evidence at critical times. And the trial judge looked the other way, a Marine Corps veteran prejudiced against gay persons.”

That, of course, is nonsense. Aside from the inconvenient fact of a body in his car, the “real evidence” against Kraft included 47 damning photographs found under his Toyota’s driver-side floor mat. One, for example, showed a murder victim propped on the floral couch in Kraft’s Long Beach home. The sofa and the wall behind it were stained with human blood. There also was the jacket found in Kraft’s garage, which matched the description of one that belonged to a man who’d been strangled in Michigan. In the house, investigators found a shaving kit that bore the name of a murdered Oregon hitchhiker, and a Norelco twin-head razor that the father of another victim had purchased at a flea market and rewired for his son. There was the piece of glass found near the body of yet another victim, which bore Kraft’s thumbprint. And there was the testimony of a man who, as a 13-year-old, had been drugged and raped by Kraft. There’s more evidence against Kraft than there was against Lee Harvey Oswald, another infamous killer who insisted “I’m just a patsy.”

Unlike President Kennedy’s assassin, though, Kraft is better guarded; decades ago, Orange County Jail officials foiled an inmate plot to kill him. Plus, he’s had an unwieldy, glacial process to shield him from ultimate punishment. Kraft, who couldn’t afford a lawyer for his appeal, had to wait more than two years for the state to assign him counsel; he finally got one only after he filed a lawsuit, and a federal judge told California to explain why he shouldn’t be released. Once he finally did get representation, things didn’t move much faster. It took his attorney, Northern California appeals specialist Richard Power, until 1997 just to file his opening brief. The California Supreme Court didn’t even agree to hear Kraft’s appeal until May 2000.

After the state’s justices rejected the appeal in a strongly worded decision three months later, it moved over to the federal courts in 2001 for a new round of litigation. A dozen years later, that process has slowed to a virtual halt and shows no sign of resolution. In a 2009 ruling, a federal judge found that many of Kraft’s appeals claims, which ranged from allegations that the prosecutor withheld evidence to the original trial court’s failure to allow testimony from a psychic, were meritless. But the court concluded that he could continue to litigate other points, such as whether Lytle’s tangential connection to Terry Gambrel should have disqualified him as a juror, and whether the piece of glass with his thumbprint found near a victim’s body was valid evidence. As this article goes to press, the last entry in the federal docket was in August 2011. California Deputy Attorney General Adrianne S. Denault says in an email that the state is awaiting rulings on two petitions by Kraft, one in the U.S. Central District of California and the other by the California Supreme Court.

One factor, undoubtedly, has been the sheer size and complexity of his case—just the 38,000-page trial transcript, in terms of word count, probably amounts to several times the complete literary output of novelist John Grisham. That massive proceeding linked 16 murders, which in turn has given Kraft and his various attorneys over the years a multiplicity of issues for appeal. Power, who handled Kraft’s California appeal, notes that it ran to 717 pages. “We pulled out the stops, everything but the kitchen sink,” he says. “It just goes on forever. The conclusion doesn’t start until Page 685.” (According to a court document, the state paid Power and another attorney $345,000 for the legal work on that appeal—further adding to the millions of tax dollars spent on Kraft’s defense.)

And Kraft’s own maneuvers have slowed the process as well. He seldom seems content with his lawyers, and has changed counsel multiple times. In 2009, he unsuccessfully asked to have a federal judge remove his then-public defender, charging that the state was manipulating the attorney in “puppetlike fashion.” His former attorney Power complained in a 1993 note to a judge that Kraft was an “extremely difficult” client, in part because of his desire to play attorney and file his own “voluminous” motions. Whether Kraft is merely cantankerous, or whether he’s trying to run out the clock, is hard to say.

Either way, it’s costing California taxpayers a lot of money. A 2011 study published in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review found that condemned criminals have cost $4 billion since 1978, due to the lengthy litigation, extra security on death row, and other costs. Kraft’s full cost to taxpayers has never been disclosed, but if we assume his trial cost at least $11 million—what it cost to convict Northern California serial killer Charles Ng in the 1990s, according to one study—and throw in several million more for years of federal and state legal work, and the additional $90,000 per year it costs to keep an inmate on death row instead of in the regular prison population, a ballpark figure of $15 million sounds about right.

That’s why Power—who stops just short of conceding his former client’s guilt—suggests the state should consider cutting its losses at this point. Besides, he argues, if the death penalty were off the table, Kraft conceivably would talk to researchers and provide insights that could prevent future serial killings. “You need to talk to people like Randy,” he says. “You’d be better off studying, trying to figure out what drives things.” He adds: “You might even say, ‘Hey Randy, are there any more bodies out there? People want to have closure.’ You might be able to find out.”

Prosecutors aren’t likely to do that, and even if they did, Kraft never has shown any inclination to cooperate. (In 1989, Judge McCartin said of Kraft: “I sat there for a year and looked at Mr. Kraft. I didn’t see any remorse, feelings, or regret. It was like he was in another world.”) According to author McDougal, Kraft last year rebuffed a Naval Criminal Investigative Service cold-case investigator who wanted to talk with him about the recently identified body of an 18-year-old Marine whose body was dumped near the 605 Freeway in Long Beach in 1974.

Instead, Kraft probably will spend his remaining years in San Quentin as inmate E38700, awaiting the injection—these days, the state is considering a single dose of the animal euthanasia drug pentobarbital—that most likely will never come. (“I was just thinking that I could look at this as being away at some sort of school, taking some class I never signed up for,” Kraft wrote from jail in a 1983 letter to his sister.) In a blog post last year, the death row chaplain, Jesuit priest George Williams, described the accommodations: a dark, cramped, windowless cell, fronted by heavy metal mesh and a barred door, containing a stainless-steel toilet, sink, and stool built into the wall. There’s a thin 1-inch cotton mattress on a shelf, and a small television. The background noise is incessant, the aroma—“a locker room, mixed with a cafeteria, mixed with an outhouse”—tends toward nauseating.

Kraft does get regular exercise, and a mid-2000s photograph he sent to someone, now available for auction on a website devoted to serial-killer memorabilia, shows him in shorts and a tank-top, flexing his aging pecs and lats. He listens to Nat King Cole, Jimmy Buffett, and Brooks & Dunn CDs. For someone who once saw himself as living “on the edge,” his social life isn’t much. Long ago, Vanity Fair reported he was part of a regular bridge game with three other serial killers, but it’s unclear whether the game continued after one of the regulars, “Freeway Killer” William Bonin, was executed in 1996.

Kraft must be at least a little lonely, because he signed up a few years ago for a website that tries to match up prisoners with pen pals. “I’m not an old fogey,” his profile reads. “I like to read all sorts of things and listen to most kinds of music. I enjoy and am pretty good at crossword puzzles and Sudoku and I like to write. … I am friendly, low-key and sincere.” He laments that most of the mail he does get is from souvenir hunters, people with weird fantasies, and true-crime writers. “I’m beginning to wonder if there are any sincere people out there,” he says.

If Kraft is trapped in a cramped, tedious little hell of his own making, that’s the one consolation Max Gambrel clings to when he thinks about his cousin Terry’s killer. He admits he has fantasized about killing Kraft: “If I had five minutes in a locked room, I’m pretty sure I could do that.” But he’s also religious, and there’s that line in Romans 12 about how vengeance belongs to God, not man. “I’m glad he’s still alive,” Max has concluded. “He loved his freedom, and the longer he’s in jail … it’s the only justice my family has.”

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Illustration by Keith Negley

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