Between 1986 and 1992, serial killer William Lester Suff murdered at least twelve prostitutes in Riverside, California. In 1995, a jury found that the unassuming-looking middle-aged man had picked up street walkers in his van, then strangled or knifed them, and proceeded to do unsettling things with their corpses. His conviction appeared to bring to a close a six year-long manhunt for the so-called “Riverside Prostitute Killer" wanted in connection with the slayings of 19 prostitutes.
To those who knew him, Suff, a stocky, plain-looking 44-year old, seemed to be a normal person. He was captain of his bowling team and had a girlfriend. He worked as a clerk in a Riverside County supply warehouse, filling county office orders for furniture and equipment. But to get his job, Suff had lied about not having a criminal past. In reality, he had been paroled from Texas prison where he had served 10 years of a 70-year sentence for beating his infant daughter to death.
Relocating to California, Suff sought prostitutes in Riverside, a city west of Los Angeles. After sex, he strangled or slashed his victims. His ghastly signature, however, was mutilation and the bizarre redressing of the bodies. In some cases, he cut off their breasts, and in others, he dressed them in men’s clothing, symbolically turning the deceased into males. The bodies were dumped in ditches and grapefruit groves.
Riverside’s long search for the prostitute killer led to Suff’s arrest. On January 9, 1992, police cruising the prostitution district saw a van stopped along curbside, where the driver had a conversation with a woman on the sidewalk. When the van pulled away suddenly and made an illegal U-turn, police stopped it. Although they arrested Suff for driving with a suspended license and lapsed vehicle registration, what he had inthe back of his van was the break detectives had been looking for: a rope, sleeping bag, and bloody knife.
At trial in the summer 1995, the state built a strong case in charging Suff with thirteen murders. Prosecutor Paul E. Zellerbach amassed some 400 witnesses, among them a woman who testified that Suff tried to kill her in 1989 and a warehouse employee who found a purse belonging to one of the victims in Suff’s work area. Suff’s former girlfriend testified that he had bought a t-shirt at King’s Canyon National Park on their vacation in about 1986; such a shirt later turned up on the corpse of one of the victims. Zellerbach also had compelling physical evidence in the sleeping bag in Suff’s van, which contained hair fibers matching those of some of the victims. Suff’s defense attacked the evidence as circumstantial and painted him as a decent man scapegoated because police could not find the real killer. The six-month trial ended with the jury convicting Suff of twelve murders, but deadlocking on the thirteenth. Judge W. Charles Morgan, noting that Suff remained indifferent to his crimes, sentenced him to death.