Old Murders Never Die

by Bruce Anderson, November 22, 2017

The nude body of 18-year-old Barbara Stroud was found by a County road crew north of Willits on Wednesday, January 10th, 1973. The honors graduate of Willits High School had been missing since the previous Sunday.

Miss Stroud and her boyfriend, Bob Burke, had enjoyed a movie at the Willits Theater, then Miss Stroud, driving the sporty blue '65 Mustang convertible her doting parents had given her as a graduation present, had dropped Burke, also 18, at his home in the burgeoning rural suburb of Brooktrails northwest of town.

The only people who saw the young woman after that were the six young men who raped and murdered her.

The Strouds had moved to Willits in 1971 to get their studious only child away from the crime and violence of the San Francisco Bay Area. The Strouds thought bad things were less likely in Willits than they were in San Jose where Barbara, always a good student, had never failed to appear on the Westmont High School honor roll.

The Strouds lived for their daughter, and their daughter was devoted to them, so devoted she had delayed entering college for a year to help her parents manage the Ridgewood complex south of Willits, then a thriving motel and restaurant at the top of the Willits Grade.

Reno Bartolomie was Sheriff, Micky Chapman his ace investigator. Ernie Carlson was principal of Willits High School where Ruth Rockefeller taught ambitious students, Barbara Stroud among them, the finer points of composition. The principal described Barbara as “a very fine young lady who was quiet and reserved, and mainly interested in her classes." Ruth Rockefeller described the diligent Miss Stroud as"honorable," by which the elderly Rockefeller seems to have meant that the girl's earnest, well-mannered demeanor was more like the young women of Rockefeller's generation than the raucous youngsters she now saw roaming the halls of Willits High School.

Having dropped off her boyfriend in Brooktrails a little before 11pm, the last non-lethal person she would see, Barbara drove her collector car Mustang back down Sherwood Road to Highway 101 where she unaccountably turned north towards Laytonville rather than south towards Ridgewood where she lived.

Or did she?

Her Mustang was found north of Willits, she lived south of Willits. It is speculated that the girl was sideswiped then abducted somewhere on Sherwood Road as she was eastbound out of Brooktrails towards Highway 101. If she had reached 101 she would have turned south towards Ridgewood.

The seemingly abandoned Mustang was soon spotted by a Sheriff's Department deputy. It was parked on the shoulder of 101 north of Willits. It was midnight, maybe an hour after its young owner had been strangled to death just up the road. The doors were locked and the keys were still in the ignition. The girl’s purse, coat and shoes were also in the vehicle. The convertible's canvas top had been sliced open. The driver’s side of the perfectly maintained Mustang was dented. The Sheriff's Department immediately announced they were looking for the green vehicle whose paint remained on the battered door of the girl's car.

A petite young woman weighing little more than 110 pounds, Barbara's body had been thrown over a fence near a grove of trees a few yards from a railroad siding not far from where her Mustang was found. A hundred yards from her body was a small cabin, a green truck parked in its driveway.

Mr. and Mrs. Stroud were so distraught at the unimaginable loss of their only child that young Bob Burke, the bereft boyfriend, had to identify Barbara's body for them. They were unable to bring themselves to do it.

The Strouds lived out their days in Willits, crushed, inconsolable, but much encouraged by the cold case diligence of Andy Whiteaker, then a detective with the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department. It was Whiteaker who got the goods on the killers. The Sheriff's Department also had the goods on the six killers back in 1975 when they arrested them; everyone assumed at the time that the six bastards would spend the rest of their miserable lives in prison.

The case was wrapped up.

Or should have been wrapped up, but the killers walked.

The Sheriff's Department and the Willits Police Department had known within days who'd been involved, and arrests were duly made. Although the killers put the fear in their friends and associates, many of whom were also "known to law enforcement," informants were lining up to tell the cops who did it.

The killers were six unrepentant young men, one of them so casually depraved he went on home to his cabin a hundred yards from his dead victim, his green truck parked out front.

He was Phillip Wood. Wood had testified against his fellow killers and rapists in exchange for immunity from prosecution. The Sheriff's Department and the DA's office had injected Wood with sodium amytal, truth serum as it's been called, to help Wood's memory. A judge said the chemical memory enhancer was illegal, and the killers, Mr. Wood among them, went free.

Randy Rowan, Larry Phillips and his brother Milton Phillips, Dennis Weeks, and Harold "Puff" Harrington were named by Wood as the killers. Wood exempted himself from responsibility. He said the others had cut through the ragtop of Miss Stroud's Mustang to open her locked car door from inside so they could pull her from the Mustang and throw her into Wood's green truck.

Wood said he was following in his car. He said he could hear the girl screaming, and he could see her clothes flying out the window of the green truck, but he said he didn't see the rapes or the murder. The other guys did all that, he said. Wood had merely looked on and had gone on home to bed, apparently untroubled by what he'd just witnessed.

Two of the killers — Weeks and Rowan — are still alive. Weeks lives in South Dakota, Rowan in Oklahoma. It is these two that Detective Whiteaker hopes to bring back to Mendocino County and try for murder.

Again.

They got away with it 35 years ago, as Whiteaker says, "Back then, all we had were fingerprint cards and magnifying glasses."

Deploying DNA testing and other contemporary investigative tools, Whiteaker thinks he may at last have the slam-dunk evidence from the Justice Department lab that will put Weeks and Rowan in prison for whatever life is left to them. It wasn't there, though, and Weeks and Rowan eluded justice a second time.

The other four killers?

In 1989 in Montana, Milton Phillips shot his brother Larry to death. Milton eventually died of liver cancer in prison, a painful way to go but not painful enough given the dismal facts of the man's life.

Wood and Harrington are dead from the dual ravages of drugs and alcohol intensified, perhaps, by their memories of that cold January in Willits, 1973.

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