Crime File

The Railroad Killer – I Connecting the Dots

He used all kinds of household items as well as rocks and axes to kill over 15 people across the United States and Mexico, and was hard to catch because he was always on the move and had no fixed address. But there was one thing that was common to all murder scenes – proximity with the railroad. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the story of the infamous Railroad Killer.

On December 17, 1998, a worried young woman in West University Place, Texas, called the police from outside the house of one of her colleagues, a prominent doctor at a medical school. The colleague had not answered any phone calls all day and was not coming to the door either, which was very unlike her. She sensed that something was wrong. The police arrived at the scene, and after trying the doorbell and after knocking the door a few times, they checked the door and the windows of the house for signs of forced entry. There was none, and from the outside nothing looked amiss. However, when they checked the garage door, they found it unlocked. When they entered the garage, the door to the house inside the garage was found wide open with jewellery scattered on the floor suggesting robbery. The officers moved in cautiously and found things strewn all over. The house had been ransacked, but there was no sign of the doctor on the ground floor. There was a trail of clothes lying around, following which the officers came to the second floor, and found the dead body of the doctor. She had been brutally killed.

West University Place, back then, was a small suburb stretching 2.2 square miles in the middle of Houston with largely residential properties owned by affluent people. Homicide was a very unusual occurrence in the region. The last homicide had taken place over a decade back in 1985 during the robbery of a pharmacy. But a murder of such brutality was unprecedented at least in the living memory. Clearly, it was not a usual crime and while robbery could indeed be one of the motives, it certainly did not look like the thing that drove the attacker to kill the owner of the house – Dr. Claudia Benton (39) – with such brutality. There was something very unusual about the way Dr. Benton had been killed. It was not, strictly speaking, a homicide for robbery. It looked more like a homicide followed by robbery.

A large butcher knife was found lying on a pillow near the body. The knife was one of the two murder weapons used by the killer, the other one being a heavy blunt object made of metal, which was also found lying near the body. Both of these were weapons of opportunity found in the house. So, the killer had not walked into the house with a lethal weapon. Dr. Benton’s husband was contacted. He was away, having taken their two children out of town to the house of a relative for Christmas. They had been away for several days while Dr. Benton had stayed back on account of work obligations.

The state in which the house was found indicated that the killer had spent considerable duration of time in the house. He had torn open the Christmas presents, and had scoured the house thoroughly. The detectives also found a partially eaten fruit in the kitchen. The only set of keys to the vehicle of the victim was also found, but the vehicle was nowhere to be found, but they did find, placed on a workbench by some pry tools, the broken cover of the steering column of the victim’s vehicle, a Jeep. No fingerprints were found anywhere on the garage, including the door of the garage, which was where the killer was thought to have gained entry from. However, the killer had left a workable fingerprint on the broken cover of the steering column when he took it apart to start the vehicle without the ignition key. The cover was carefully bagged for forensic analysis.

The autopsy report identified multiple stab wounds and blunt force trauma to the head as causes of death. The victim had also been sexually assaulted. It was clear to the detectives right from the start that this was not a usual crime and they were not dealing with a regular robber capable of committing murder. Also, it was quite likely that the killer had come to the town from outside, for this was not a region where criminals usually took residence.

Two days later, some 200 miles from the crime scene, Dr. Brenton’s vehicle, with the plastic cover of the steering column missing, was found abandoned in a motel parking lot by the San Antonio police. A meat cleaver and a guitar were found inside the vehicle. Both of them belonged to the victim. The vehicle was processed for fingerprints, but no usable prints were found anywhere.

When the fingerprint taken from the steering column of Dr. Brenton’s vehicle was matched against the records, the name that jumped out was Rafael Ramirez Resendiz. The name was forwarded to FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division for further information about the criminal record associated with the name. The FBI’s extensive database revealed dozens of aliases of the person. Resendiz had a voluminous criminal record for the crimes he had committed in the past two decades, and also had an active warrant in connection with a stolen vehicle. The investigators obtained Resendiz’s records from the United States Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), which revealed that Resendiz travelled quite frequently and illegally to Mexico and back. His last arrest had been in California for trespassing on railroad property with a loaded gun, and the California authorities had deported him to Mexico. But, apparently, Resendiz was back in Texas.

Since Resendiz did not stay at one place for very long time, it was difficult to find him. He had no permanent place of residence. So, the next best option for the police was to look for people Resendiz could be expected to visit. As per Resendiz records, he had a sister. She lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The police department of Albuquerque was contacted, and the Albuquerque police officers arranged a phone conference with Resendiz’s sister. She could not tell much about the whereabouts of her brother, for, she said, she was not in regular touch with him although he did occasionally visit her for a few days every now and then. She was requested to contact the authorities if she heard from her brother again, which she readily agreed to.
The police also got the posters printed with Resendiz’s picture and details on them asking the members of public to report if they spotted Resendiz. All the tips that the police got in response led to nothing. However, in March 1999, three months after Dr. Brenton’s murder, Resendiz was sighted multiple times in the rail yards near San Antonio, but each time he managed to escape before the police could respond. So, Resendiz had travelled some 200 miles from the crime scene in West University Place and had hung around the place for nearly three months. But there was no guarantee that he was going to stay there any longer.

There was no news from Resendiz until May 2, 1999, when in Weimer, Texas, members of the local church went to check on their pastor, for he and his wife had not been to the church that morning, and they were not the kind to miss church casually. The couple – Norman J. Sirnic (46) and Karen Sirnic (47) – was found dead, murdered in their own bed.

Weimer, like West University Place, was a small town where murder was nearly unheard of. The pastor and his wife had been bludgeoned to death with sledgehammer from their own garage. They had been dead for some twenty-four to thirty-six hours before their bodies were discovered. Money and other things of value were lying around, untouched. So, this was clearly not a case of robbery gone wrong and messy. It was a clear case of homicide. But it was not a case of just murder, as the report of the medical examiner would later reveal. The woman had been raped.

The killer had stayed back after the killings and had eaten in their kitchen leaving behind parts of the eaten fruits. The driving licenses of the victims were found lying in such a manner as to suggest that the perpetrator of the killings had taken some time studying them carefully. In the West University Place murder also the license of the victim was found lying around similarly.

However, the killer’s interest in the victims’ licenses was not immediately clear. The detectives that investigated the Weimer murder case were not aware of the West University Place killing. So, to them the killings were indeed unusual, but at that time they had not imagined that it was the deed of a serial killer. They also did not know that the killer had already been identified as Rafael Ramirez Resendiz. And again, a vehicle – a red pick-up truck – belonging to the couple was missing.

The detectives found the crime scene unusual, and it looked like they were dealing with no ordinary criminal. So, the investigators got in touch with the FBI’s field office in Houston to obtain the opinion of profiler so that they had a better understanding of the kind of killer they were in pursuit of. The FBI profiler Mark Young, after carefully going through the pictures of the crime scene and other pieces of evidence picked from the crime scene, found that the killer did act with a lot of rage, but he did not panic. On the contrary, the killer spent an extraordinarily long span of time on the crime scene and in the house after killing the victims. He ransacked the house and went through everything like it was his own house, and he did not take any cash or any of the credit cards with him. Furthermore, the killer had kept striking his victims with the sledgehammer even after they had died, but once they were dead, he covered their bodies with sheets suggesting that perhaps he took no pleasure in the outcome of his violent strikes, and the gory visual unsettled him, too, in some measure.

The act of going through the personal belongings of the victims, particularly the pictures and driving licenses, suggested that the killer might be trying to acquaint himself with the lives he had just stopped from going on any further. The FBI profiler realized that the crime was very similar to another murder that took place in West University Place, which is when he suggested to the investigators that the two crimes could be connected and might have been committed by the same offender. Given the body of forensic evidence found on both the crime scenes, it was not going to be hard to know for sure whether or not the crimes were committed by the same killer. A DNA match confirmed that all three victims had been killed by the same killer.
And the detectives investigating the West University Place murder had already identified the offender, which meant that all they had to do was look for and apprehend a man, one of whose many aliases was Rafael Ramirez Resendiz.

The vehicles were stolen from both crime scenes. So, the killer did use the stolen vehicles to commute, but he could not have used them indefinitely for the fear of being caught through the identification of vehicle. The detectives knew that Resendiz preferred trains to commute, and there were train tracks within 100 yards from both the crime scenes, which provided additional force to the theory that Resendiz was indeed the ritualistic serial killer the detectives were looking for gained greater ground.

The FBI mounted a hunt for Resendiz, but it was difficult to nab him because he was forever on the move, and his family did not know much about him, for none of them had been in regular contact with him ever since he left home at the age of 12. In addition, it was also very likely that Resendiz had fled Texas, which made it even harder to get hold of him. But the FBI did know that Resendiz had been arrested for over 13 times on a variety of charges, which meant that there was a lot about him in the official records.

In the meanwhile profiler Mark Young decided to look into Resendiz’s past in order to determine his future course. He forwarded the details of both the murders to FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) unit. ViCAP analysts, using their sophisticated data analysis tools, could identify another murder case that matched the pattern of the two killings.

To be continued…

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