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--------------- Print Magazine --------------
  May 2016
  April 2016
On the prowl for 30 years
Hemraj Singh
He raped and killed four women, and was out there for thirty long years despite having confessed. There was no evidence to bring him to justice. And then he confessed again. This time the forensic science stepped in, and the law caught up with the 80-year-old killer. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the intriguing tale.

Despite loads of evidence to the contrary, criminals generally operate under the false impression that they would somehow be able to escape the penal consequences of their criminal act. True, there have been unsolved cases and also the killers who could never be nailed, like Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac Killer, but there are also cases that remained unsolved for what seemed like eternity, after which the criminal ran out of luck. Lois Petrie's killer was one such person. A delay of a few more years could have resulted in his death from natural causes. After all, thirty years is a long time.

Lois Petrie (43) was found dead on December 26, 1972, raped and killed several hours before her sister, Edith, informed the police after having discovered her body at around 10:30 in the morning. From the look of the crime scene and the state of nudity in which the body was found, it was obvious that sex was involved; consensual or forced, was an open question. She was, in fact, raped and strangulated to death by bare hands.

Edith first told that she had called the police right away, but later said that she did it two hours later. The inconsistency rung odd with the investigators, who became suspicious of Edith on discovering that the two had had a fight in a bar over Edith's boyfriend, Mike Swanson, who was seeing Lois behind Edith's back. The investigator pursued it further with Edith and Mike. Mike, after acting smart for a short while, admitted to the two-timing. However, the forensic evidence gathered from the crime scene ruled out the possibility of Mike being the killer. There were other leads pursued, but none led too far on. The case eventually went into the cold bag.

Some two years after Lois murder, on August 18, 1974, Cathy Masters (50) was at a San Pedro bar, drinking, when she had an altercation with her husband, who had suddenly walked into the bar and had demanded that she left with him. She refused. He was adamant and nearly dragged her out with him. Both were walking home together when Cathy ran off and climbed into a stranger's van to get away from her husband. Her nude body was found the next day in San Pedro's Harbor Lake Park. She had been raped and killed.

The same fate awaited Ann Fellows, a 54-year-old hotdog vendor, on September 4, 1974, when she left a local bar at around 1:30 in the morning all by herself. Her nude body was found dumped in Westmont Drive in San Pedro at 7:30 in the morning. She had also been raped. Nobody in those days thought that there was a serial killer on the prowl because although serial killing was not an unknown phenomenon, the world had not seen as many serial killers till then as to readily see murders from the serial-killing perspective.

There were no leads to follow, and what's worse is that the police had not yet connected the three murders, which meant that they were not looking for one suspect for all three killings but one for each. But the killer was trying to be of help, for he probably found it difficult to silence his nagging conscience.

On July 9, 1975, a woman by the name Jeanette walked into a police station in California with her fiancé and revealed that her prospective father-in-law, Andrew Lancaster, had told her that he had killed three women in San Pedro, Los Angeles, and one in San Francisco. He had also told where he had left the bodies. To the investigators it sounded like they were hearing about the murders of Lois Petrie, Cathy Masters, and Ann Fellows.

Andrew Lancaster was questioned, but he didn't look like a serial killer at all. He had no crime history, not even a parking ticket, and had never been arrested. He was a 49-year-old World War II veteran, who had separated from his wife of 30 years and having moved from San Pedro to the Bay Area, he was living all by himself earning his living from working as a night watchman and a taxi driver.

During the questioning Lancaster denied any involvement in the killings and even agreed to take a polygraph test. However, when the time for the polygraph came, he chickened out. And though the investigators thought they had their culprit, they could not have brought him to justice in absence of concrete evidence. They did have the killer's DNA, obtainable from the vaginal swabs, but in 1975 it could be of little use, for DNA mapping was yet to arrive. So, all they had was Jeanette's statement against Lancaster's denial. And that meant nothing.

The San Francisco woman that Jeanette had talked about as Lancaster's fourth victim was 60-year-old Leah Griffin, who was found dead in her apartment at Powell Street. She had been raped and killed by manual strangulation, and was left tied up in her apartment.

After the questioning by the police, Lancaster decided to travel back to his native place - Kentucky. And then he decided to move to New Orleans. He married a woman and stayed with her for a decade or so assisting her in raising her daughter, but a time came when they could no longer pull together and parted ways some time in the 1990s. Lancaster moved to Los Angeles and was soon in the same region where the bodies of Lois Petrie, Cathy Masters, and Ann Fellows had been found.

Nothing went wrong and Lancaster went on with his life. In 2002, he arrived at his former daughter-in-law Rebecca's place in Santa Clarity Valley, California. He was there to give her a helping hand. Rebecca had divorced Lancaster's son some time back, and found it difficult to be a working mother dealing with both work and kids. She had been a homemaker and the mother exclusively for nearly 22 years and it was difficult for her to cope up with the changed circumstances. She thought Lancaster could be a helping hand, which he was for quite some time. He took good care of the surroundings, had no problems walking the dogs and happily brought kids home from school. And then, gradually his darker side started asserting its presence. The day came when he made the shocking confession to Rebecca. It was March 15, 2002. Rebecca couldn't believe her ears. She wanted to know the details about the murders that he claimed to have committed. She asked how he had killed the women, and Lancaster indicated that he had manually strangulated them.

She found it necessary to report the matter to the police immediately, and as soon as she disclosed the confessions made by Lancaster to the detectives, the LAPD's Cold Case Unit was on it. The Cold Case Unit had been put together to investigate the cold cases with the help of advanced forensic sciences, DNA mapping in particular. The detectives talked to Jeanette again, and she stood by what she had said earlier. But the physical evidence required to arrest and prosecute Lancaster was still not there yet. And for that they needed the DNA print from one of the victims.  L.A. County Coroner's Office was approached for the swabs taken from the three San Pedro victims, but the swabs were no longer available. Detective Bengtson decided to be there in person to look for the swabs. So, on February 28, 2003, he went to the Coroner's office. However, no swabs could be found. As he was walking out, a woman who worked at the Coroner's office called out saying that there was some more evidence in another room and they could check it out. And it was here that the swabs were found. But the good news was still not around the corner because thirty years is a long time and it was difficult for the DNA to survive that long in poor storage conditions.

The vaginal swabs from Fellow and Master had dried and had no usable DNA, but Lois Petrie's swab had a sperm on it. That was quite a breakthrough. They had the killer's DNA. All they had to do is compare it with Lancaster's DNA, which was not easy because the District Attorney had declined to allow the detective to get a search warrant, and since Lancaster had never been to prison, his DNA sample was not obtainable from prison authorities.

The only way left was that they somehow get Lancaster to willfully leave his DNA behind. And for that the detectives devised a ploy. On the pretext of investigating a robbery, a detective approached Lancaster arranging to meet him at a doughnut shop to know if he had seen something unusual around the area. Lancaster talked to the detective for a while. He was drinking coffee, and when he went, he left the cup behind. The detectives had the sample from the suspect. And soon enough the detectives had concrete forensic evidence. The DNAs had matched. Consequently, on September 5, 2003, Andrew Lancaster was arrested for the murder of Lois Petrie.

In November 2006, a jury comprising of eight men and four women found Lancaster (80) guilty, and in May 2007, he was awarded life imprisonment by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anita H. Dymant.

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