At first, the motionless figure lying face-up on the pavement must have looked like a mannequin. There were no street lamps nearby, and perhaps the security guard thought it was a stray dummy left there by a drama student. He kept driving, but something about the shape made him curious; he turned around and drove back to Lot 12, a student parking lot on the west edge of Mission Viejo's Saddleback College. It was about 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 18, 1986. The lot was pitch-black and, other than a few parked cars, completely deserted.
As the guard got out of his car and approached the pale form stretched out on the asphalt next to a Chevrolet Citation, two students walking to their vehicles from the nearby fine-arts building joined him. They gasped in horror.
Lying in a crimson pool next to her car was someone they had seen minutes earlier at a party in the fine-arts building: 23-year-old communications major Robbin Brandley. She had just left the party, which followed a piano concert at which she had been a volunteer usher. Her long, flower-print dress was hiked up above her stomach, exposing bikini-style underwear and knee-high stockings. Her purse sat on the pavement a few feet away.
The blood stained the pavement on both sides of her torso. By the time Michael Stephany, a homicide investigator with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, arrived at the scene, automatic sprinklers in the parking lot had turned on and covered the body in an eerie mist. An autopsy would later reveal that Brandley had been stabbed 41 times. Most of the wounds were in her neck, chest and back, and there were several deep cuts—defensive marks, police figured—in her hands.
But besides the victim's gruesome injuries, there was nothing for police to investigate: no fingerprints; no suspect's blood, hair or DNA; no physical evidence of any kind. It was what prosecutors often call the “perfect crime.”
The grisly murder would remain unsolved for 11 years. Witnesses offered inconsistent accounts of events in the hours preceding the crime; Brandley's parents became convinced that someone she knew was responsible for the killing. Then, in April 1997, a man confessed to the murder—and several others. The cop writing down his confession would note that the killer had simply wandered around Mission Viejo until he ended up at a dark parking lot, where he saw a woman walking to her car.
The victim, in the words of the confessed murderer, “could have been anybody.” She “was just a random female.”
* * *
On a recent afternoon, Jack and Genelle Reilley sit on either side of a table at the Weekly's offices in downtown Santa Ana. They're taking turns answering questions about the murder of Robbin Brandley, their daughter, 21 years ago. It's a story they've told so often that it's almost become routine for them, although there's nothing routine about what they have to say—or about the pain of their loss, still visibly etched in the deep wrinkles on Jack's tanned forehead and the strained, almost helpless smile on Genelle's face. Only a few minutes into the interview, her eyes well up with tears.
Part of the routine is explaining why their daughter had a different surname at the time of her death. Robbin, they explain, was born in Long Beach—the town where Jack and Genelle grew up and became high-school sweethearts—on Dec. 6, 1962, with the name Dana Reilley. She spent most of her youth in Huntington Beach and then St. Louis, where Jack had been transferred to work at the headquarters of Ralston Purina, the company that employed him until his retirement a few years ago.
It was in St. Louis, when Dana was 11 years old, that she changed her name to Robbin Brandley. Genelle, a New Age enthusiast who claims to have psychic visions, says the idea came from a numerological booklet that uses one's birth date to come up with a new name. “It was my idea,” she adds.
Her daughter had been a hyperactive child and poor student in her younger years, but once she had a new name, Genelle insists, she blossomed into a focused, highly motivated child. “I believe in all that stuff,” Genelle says. “If what you're doing isn't working, delve into it. She grew up to be a really fabulous, sensational person. I guess everyone thinks that about their child, but she just loved to make people laugh. She was very funny and very bright.”
In 1983, the family returned to California, settling in Laguna Beach, where Brandley enrolled at Saddleback College to pursue a career in journalism.
She had lots of friends at Saddleback and dated a lot of young men, but, her parents say, she refused to get involved in any steady relationships because she wanted to focus on her career. Aside from her classes, she worked at KSBR, the campus radio station, and helped book performances at the college, including established musical acts such as the Thompson Twins. She loved to volunteer for campus events, like the piano concert that brought her to Saddleback College on the last day of her life.
In the hours leading up to her trip to the unlit student parking lot in Mission Viejo, Brandley spent several hours with her father at their home in Laguna Beach watching television. Jack Reilley was a big fan of Charles Dickens; he was delighted when she told him that the 1946 Hollywood adaptation of Great Expectations was on television. After watching the movie, they sat through several reruns of the popular 1960s black-and-white TV comedy The Munsters.
“It had been 15 years since we'd watched that show, and it was as funny as ever,” Jack recalls.
At around 2 the following morning, Jack awoke to loud knocking at the door: Detective Stephany and another officer were standing on his porch. “He had a big grocery bag,” he recalls. Stephany asked Jack if he could identify anything in the bag. Inside, Jack found Brandley's purse, and inside that, her wallet and driver's license. “The first thing that went through my mind was the drunks in [Laguna] Canyon, a car wreck or something like that,” he says. “And then he said she'd been murdered, and I just couldn't believe it. It was like being hit with a hammer.”
Jack woke up Genelle and told her the news. Four hours later, at sunrise, he called their son Jayeson, and several other family members and friends. They received another visit from the sheriff's department and answered interminable questions about their daughter. “They came down to figure out the sequence of events,” Jack said. “Who her friends were, what type of girl she was, any [love] triangles or anything else. They were curious because her last name is different than ours and thought maybe there was an ex-husband or something.”
* * *
Less than a week later, 300 mourners attended a memorial service for Brandley at a San Juan Capistrano church, an event covered by the Los Angeles Times. “She was a vibrant, energetic, caring person whose concern for and love of other students was the foundation of her existence,” Vern Hodge, then-dean of student development at Saddleback College, told the crowd. The article noted the sheriff's department had “no significant leads” in solving the murder.
On March 7, Saddleback College hosted a series of bands, including Fishbone, the Rave-Ups and Secret Service, for a memorial concert in tribute to Brandley, an event prominent enough that Times music critic Randy Lewis covered the show. His story also noted that the sheriff's department had no leads. “It's very much an active case, but I'm not aware of any new information at this time,” a department spokesperson told Lewis.
By this time, the Reilleys were conducting their own, unofficial murder investigation, based on statements they say were made to them by police and friends of Brandley who called them to share their suspicions. Those suspicions centered on Valerie Prehm, a student at Saddleback College who worked with Brandley at KSBR and who also had volunteered as an usher at the piano concert on the night of the murder.
According to witnesses who spoke to the Reilleys, Prehm had left the party with Brandley, making her the last person to see her alive. More disturbingly—to the Reilleys, at least—was the fact that other witnesses told them Prehm and Brandley had gotten into an argument just a few weeks before the murder when campus administrators had rejected Prehm's proposal to bring Manhattan Transfer to campus, saying they wanted Brandley to handle the project. Furthermore, the Reilleys say, Prehm disappeared for three days after the murder.
Yet police ruled out Prehm as a suspect, citing witnesses who saw Prehm leave the after-concert party alone. And Prehm hadn't disappeared for three days, they said: She was at home in San Clemente all weekend, unaware that Brandley had been murdered until she returned to campus on Monday. Police hadn't been able to interview her sooner because they didn't know her telephone number.
But to the Reilleys, particularly Genelle, Prehm clearly had a motive to harm their daughter. She became convinced Prehm had persuaded somebody to rob her daughter, to scare her into leaving campus in revenge for stealing her project. She even claims Brandley visited her in a psychic vision just three days after the murder. “She screamed, 'Mom, Valerie did it! Valerie did it!'” Genelle says. “I was stunned.”
As the years passed with no progress in the case, the Reilleys say they grew increasingly frustrated with the sheriff's department, especially Stephany, who has since retired and could not be located for an interview for this story. “He said 'Don't call; don't bother me,'” Genelle claims. “He just couldn't solve the case.”
The Reilleys filed a lawsuit against Saddleback College, arguing that the school was in part responsible for their daughter's murder because of the lack of streetlights at the parking lot where she died, but they dropped the suit after their lawyer quit. They also lobbied for a bill to require that all California universities and colleges provide lights at student parking lots, but the legislation, signed into law in 1990 by California's then-Governor George Deukmejian, only applied to future campus construction.
Meanwhile, they continued their private hunt for their daughter's killer, inviting a series of psychics to visit the crime scene in the late '80s and early '90s. A few years later, they also consulted with a pair of psychics on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. Genelle brought a ring that belonged to her daughter to the studio and handed it to one of the psychics, who then closed her eyes and narrated what she purported to be a description of the murderer, a supernatural echo of the killer that was emanating from the ring itself.
“She was holding this ring and looked like she was going to pass out,” Genelle recalls. “She said this person was in uniform, in camouflage, and Robbin knocked the knife over his left eyebrow. She said the man works as a security guard.” After the show, Genelle says the psychic's husband approached her and said his wife would offer her services free of charge in the hope of solving the crime. “I was going to do that,” she says. “But then she died not long after the show. She was a big, heavy woman.”
By then, the couple had hired a private detective to track down Prehm and confront her about the crime. In 1992, Genelle drove to rural Washington, where Prehm was living with a boyfriend, and convinced her to take a polygraph test in exchange for $10,000.
Wanting to clear her name, Prehm took the test and passed. Genelle believes the test was improperly administered. She provided the Weekly with a videotape of Prehm answering questions about Brandley's murder. In the tape, recorded on June 25, 1992, Prehm denied having any knowledge of the crime and stated that while she may have argued with Brandley a few weeks before her death, she certainly wasn't angry enough to kill anyone. She also claimed that she last saw Brandley at the party and left by herself that night.
Asked if she had seen anyone suspicious that night, however, Prehm stated that while she was working as an usher, a man with curly hair and glasses wearing an olive-drab hunting jacket had approached her and asked if Robbin Brandley were in the building. He didn't look dressed for the concert.
“I almost asked for his ticket, but I was too busy, and unfortunately, I just turned and pointed her out,” Prehm said on the videotape, adding that she told police about the mysterious stranger at the concert, but that they didn't believe her because nobody else had seen anyone matching that description. It probably didn't help her case, Prehm added, that she prefaced her statement to police by mentioning that the mother of one of her friends had also told her she'd seen a similar man in a dream.
“The police saw me twice, and they never wrote it down,” Prehm continued. “I don't remember his nose, but I remember his hair and glasses, and he was wearing a dark-green jacket, kind of a backwoods jacket. It was an olive green with long sleeves, like an army jacket.”
* * *
Three months later, on the evening of Sept. 27, 1992, Jennifer Asbenson, a 19-year-old nursing assistant, had just bought a snack at Palm Canyon Liquor in Palm Springs. She was on her way to work at a home for handicapped children in Desert Hot Springs, several miles away. As she waited for her bus outside the liquor store, a young man in a blue car pulled up to the curb and asked her if she needed a ride.
“No, it's okay,” Asbenson replied.
The man smiled. “Are you sure? I'm going to Desert Hot Springs.”
Because the driver seemed friendly and didn't care if she accepted his invitation, but mostly because she did need a ride, Asbenson got in the car. For some reason, she took note of his license-plate number, and as they rode together, she kept repeating it to herself. But after several minutes, she figured she was being paranoid. “'Why do I keep memorizing his license plate?'” she wondered. “'This guy is totally nice.' . . . He was just a really friendly guy, and I thought I was lucky to get a ride with such a nice guy.”
As the man drove through the desert, he asked Asbenson what she did for a living. She told him she wanted to be an actress. “He asked me if I was interested in pornos,” Asbenson later testified. “I said, 'No, that's sick.'” She inquired as to what he did for a living and the man replied that he was a detective. She didn't believe him. She thought it was a little odd that he kept staring out at the desert. Then, halfway through the trip, she got “creeped out” when she told him to make a left turn. He seemed to be ignoring her, but he finally pulled over at the last moment and made the turn.
When the man dropped her off at her job, he asked for her telephone number and invited her to breakfast the next morning. Asbenson, who had a boyfriend, gave him a phony number, hoping to let him down easy. But when she left the building the next morning at 6, she saw the blue car idling down the block. “He just pulled over and rolled the window down and said, 'Good morning,'” she recalled. “And he was nice. I didn't feel threatened at all.”
Asbenson accepted his offer for a ride back to Palm Springs. Almost immediately, the driver became angry about the phony telephone number, and Asbenson realized she was in trouble. “He was being persistent, but then all of a sudden, he just flipped out, and he had a knife, and he just held it up to my throat and started screaming at me, calling me a bitch and telling me to shut up.” The man pulled over on the side of the road, pushed Asbenson's head into the dashboard and grabbed a ball of twine from under his seat.
“He pulled my hands behind my back and just started wrapping them,” she said. “And it just felt like I was doomed. . . . I couldn't believe what was happening, and I couldn't even think, and I just said, 'This is a joke. Oh, my God, all this over the phone number. Oh, my God.' And he just said, 'Shut up.'”
Asbenson asked the man what he was doing, but he wouldn't answer. When she told him he wouldn't get away with anything, he placed a hat and sunglasses on her head, then locked her door and pushed her seat back so other motorists wouldn't be able to see her.
The sun was just coming up over the horizon, and from her vantage point, Asbenson would later recall, she could see nothing but an endless parade of telephone poles in the early-morning sky. She asked if he planned to rape her. “He wouldn't say anything,” she said. “He had a lot of rage. I kept looking at him. I provoked no emotion. No matter what I said, he couldn't feel a thing for me. He was just really pissed off.”
As he drove through the desert, one hand on the wheel and the other gripping a knife to her neck, the man forced her to perform oral sex on him. The road became bumpy, and Asbenson, who grew up in Palm Springs, knew he was taking her to a remote area. After what seemed like nearly an hour, he pulled over, cut off all her clothes and stuffed her panties in her mouth, using her bra as a gag. As he raped her, he began viciously cursing Asbenson.
“And then he just told me to tell him that I loved him,” she said. He removed the gag, and Asbenson did her best to sound sincere. It didn't work. The man punched her in the face. She tried again, imagining what it would be like to say those words and truly believe them. Her second effort didn't fare much better. He called her a “bitch,” and the next thing Asbenson knew, he was strangling her. The world turned white, and Asbenson passed out. When she awoke, the man was licking her neck, biting her. He pushed her out of the car and, holding a handgun to her head, forced her once again to perform oral sex. She thought about biting his penis, but she couldn't muster the courage. Instead, she asked him to shoot her.
The man then forced her into the trunk and began driving down the road, deeper into the desert. Gathering all her energy, Asbenson managed to pop the twine off her wrists. Terrified that she would be cut to pieces by her captor, she tried to strangle herself with the twine. When that failed, she began feeling around the darkness until her fingers gripped a latch. As she did so, the trunk popped open. Asbenson lifted the trunk a few inches and stuck her hand out, hoping to attract the attention of passing motorists. But her abductor immediately noticed the trunk was open and pulled over to the side of the road. He got out and slammed the trunk shut again.
“Keep it shut, bitch,” he yelled. Then he ran back to the driver's seat and revved the engine. But he hit the gas so hard, his wheels spun, stuck in a sandy rut. Asbenson opened the trunk and, naked except for her sweat shirt, ran down the road. In the distance, she could see an approaching truck. She turned around and saw the man running after her, waving a machete. She kept running, eyes closed. When she opened them, the truck had screeched to a halt.
“Catch him!” she screamed. “He kidnapped me! I just got out of his trunk!”
Inside the truck were two Marines who listened in horror as she described her ordeal. “They were really mad,” she recalled. “They said they were going to kick his ass. They started driving as fast as they could, trying to catch him.” The blue car sped off into the distance. Asbenson was treated for her injuries and gave a statement to Riverside County Sheriff's detectives, but they were unable to locate the car or its driver.
* * *
Nearly five years later and more than 2,000 miles away, Officer Warren Fryer of the Hammond, Indiana, Police Department received an emergency call from a security guard at the American Inn, a run-down motel in the working-class suburb 30 minutes east of Chicago. According to the guard, two guests, a man and a woman, were arguing in the motel parking lot.
It was April 1, 1997. Fryer, who was on routine patrol that evening, drove to the motel. As he got out of his car, he immediately recognized the woman mentioned by the guard: Patricia Kelly, a local prostitute Fryer had arrested in the past. Apparently, she had just stolen a personal check from her client while they were having sex in their motel room, and the john was angry, chasing her around the parking lot, demanding she return it, which she couldn't do because she had flushed it down the toilet. Fryer also recognized the john. He was a Chicago security guard and former Marine named Andrew Urdiales.
Some five months earlier, on Nov. 14, 1996, Fryer had arrested Urdiales outside a crack house on Becker Street in Hammond. Urdiales had been sitting in his silver-and-white Toyota pickup with a prostitute. While Fryer talked to the prostitute, his partner, Edwin Ortiz, was questioning Urdiales when he noticed a .38 caliber handgun sticking out from under his seat. They also found a gym bag in the spotless bed of the truck containing a few rolls of duct tape. Urdiales said he used the gun for his security work, but the cops arrested him for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit. They confiscated the gun, and Urdiales spent the night in jail.
At the American Inn, Urdiales was standing in the parking lot, seething. “That bitch took one of my checks,” he told Fryer, who then questioned Kelly separately. She told him that Urdiales, a regular client, would routinely drive her to nearby Wolf Lake and pay her $40 to have sex with him. But that was always during the day, and tonight, she'd refused to go with him because it was dark. Not only that, but she also knew a couple of prostitutes who'd been murdered at Wolf Lake late at night.
“This guy is kind of kinky,” Kelly told Fryer. “He wants to take me in the back of his pickup truck and go up by Wolf Lake, duct tape me, and fuck me in the ass.”
Fryer made no arrests that night, but he typed up a report on Kelly's statement, making sure to note Urdiales' previous firearm arrest—knowing full well that it would be forwarded to other local police departments. He figured a couple of Chicago homicide detectives might be interested in what Kelly had to say.
* * *
One of those detectives, Don McGrath, still works nights for Chicago's Area Two Homicide Unit, which covers the southeast portion of the city. He's been with the force 31 years; so far this year, his unit has handled 135 murder investigations. But he still remembers well the night in April 1997 when he read Fryer's report because it seemed to have everything to do with three bodies that had been found in the previous year, two in Wolf Lake and one in the Vermilion River 100 miles away near Pontiac, Illinois.
Although it was out of his jurisdiction, McGrath was familiar with the Vermilion case. On the evening of July 13, 1996, three young fishermen spotted a body floating in a remote area of the river near a footbridge. It was a nude woman who had been shot above her left eye and stabbed seven times in the chest. She had bruises all over, three broken teeth, duct-tape residue on her mouth and ankles, and strangulation marks on her neck. She also had a small, homemade tattoo on her ankle with the initials “C.C.” Police later identified her as 21-year-old Cassandra Corum, a prostitute from Hammond.
As McGrath saw it, Corum's murder seemed awfully similar to the murders his unit had been investigating at Wolf Lake, a recreational park bordered on the southeast side of Chicago by a chemical plant. The first body had been discovered on April 14, 1996, when a man was driving along the shore, looking for rocks to use as decoration in his garden. From his car, he spotted what looked like a mannequin floating in the water 20 feet from shore.
Police determined the victim was Laura Uylaki, a 25-year-old Hammond prostitute, who had been stabbed 25 times and shot three times in the head. She had been raped anally, and her body was covered in bruises.
A few months later, on Aug. 2, a Chicago city employee was coming home after an early-morning fishing trip with his son, when he spotted what he thought was a mannequin floating in the water. It turned out to be Lynn Huber, a 22-year-old homeless prostitute from Chicago who had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest, back and neck, and then finished off with close-range gunshots to the face and head. The bullets matched those which had been retrieved from the bodies of Corum and Uylaki.
When he read Fryer's report about Urdiales, McGrath immediately called the Hammond police and learned that the handgun that had been confiscated from Urdiales was scheduled to be destroyed in the next few weeks. “I asked would it be okay to pick up the gun and examine it,” he recalls. “We brought it to the crime lab, and it took them about a week to analyze it. They said we had the murder weapon.”
* * *
On April 22, 1997, McGrath and his partner Raymond Krakausky drove to the house on the south side of Chicago where Urdiales lived with his parents. They sat in their car from early that afternoon until 9 a.m. the following day, when Urdiales walked out the front door dressed in a security-guard uniform. “We snagged him in the alley and told him we wanted to talk to him about the handgun charge,” McGrath says. “He said that the matter had already been adjudicated, but he agreed to come with us to the station. He was unremarkable. There was nothing about him that stood out, that would make you look twice, just an average-looking Joe.”
McGrath began his interrogation with a casual chat about Star Trek. Both he and Urdiales happened to be fans of the show, and McGrath was impressed that Urdiales could quote from the series.
McGrath and Krakausky already had a suspect in mind for the murders, a man who knew all three prostitutes, who had failed a polygraph and then tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists.
“He was an evil guy,” McGrath says of their suspect. “Evil incarnate, deep-set eyes, disheveled hair, a Charlie Manson expression, and in my 32 years, I never had the sense of evil like when I talked to this guy, but we couldn't find any physical evidence to connect him. We kind of believed Urdiales acquired his gun from this guy or loaned it to the guy, and he was the guy we were looking for.”
At the station, however, Urdiales insisted he had purchased the gun from a dealer, still had the receipts, kept the gun locked in a box in his basement, and nobody else had the keys. McGrath and Krakausky exchanged glances and informed Urdiales that his gun had been used to murder three prostitutes. Urdiales unpinned his security-guard badge and untied his shoelaces. “I guess I'm not going to be going to work today,” he said, and then confessed to murdering Uylaki, Corum and Huber.
Urdiales described the murders in detail: how he lured them to Wolf Lake for sex but got angry each time. He shot Uylaki after she saw his gun under his seat and tried to grab it. He then removed her clothes, stabbed her and dumped her in the lake. Huber met the same fate after she acted “ditzy” in his car. He grabbed her by the hair, then shot her when she tried to leave and dumped her in the water.
Corum, according to McGrath's notes of the interview, said “something that pissed him off,” so Urdiales hit her in the face, took off her clothes and used duct tape to tie her feet together. He also taped her mouth shut, but he took off the tape to let her smoke a cigarette while he drove down Interstate 55 toward the Vermilion River. He pulled off the freeway near a farmhouse, driving through cornfields to the river.
Once there, he untied Corum, marched her out of the car, shot and stabbed her, then dropped her from a footbridge into the river. “Andrew Urdiales states that he didn't feel anything for Cassie after he shot her,” McGrath wrote. “That she was just a whore. And he was trained to kill in the Marine Corps.”
Urdiales didn't stop there. After confessing to the three Illinois murders, he told McGrath to call the cops in California.
“There are things they'd like to talk to me about, too,” he explained.
McGrath took furious notes as Urdiales recited a list of horrific murders in California. “It seemed he was glad to get it off his chest,” McGrath recalls. “During the recounting of the incidents, we'd crack a couple of jokes, and he'd laugh and go on to tell us about somebody else he killed. Pretty bizarre.”
In 1987, Urdiales said, he'd picked up a prostitute (later revealed to be Mary Ann Wells) in an industrial neighborhood of San Diego. He paid her $40 for sex, then shot her and took his money back. The next year, he returned to San Diego and murdered a woman police identified as Julie McGhee, a 20-year-old prostitute. In 1989, he murdered another prostitute, 19-year-old Tammie Erwin, in Palm Springs. He told McGrath he returned to Palm Springs on at least two other occasions. In 1995, he'd murdered a prostitute named Denise Maney there. And three years earlier, he'd kidnapped and raped a young woman who managed to escape his vehicle.
Within days, police throughout Southern California were matching Urdiales' description of the murders with their unsolved homicides. Urdiales had also talked about a storage locker in Twentynine Palms, where he served in the Marines after leaving Camp Pendleton. Inside the locker, Riverside County Sheriff's detectives found several guns, rolls of duct tape, assorted knifes and a machete. They also tracked down Jennifer Asbenson and showed her a series of photographs. Without hesitation, she identified Urdiales as the man who had kidnapped and raped her and, after she escaped from his trunk, chased her down the road with a machete.
The last person Urdiales confessed to murdering, as he sat calmly across a desk from McGrath inside the Chicago police station, was Robbin Brandley.
* * *
A few days later, then-Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates paid a surprise visit to Jack and Genelle Reilley at their home in Laguna Beach. An ex-Camp Pendleton Marine named Andrew Urdiales, who was in custody in Chicago, had confessed to murdering their daughter.
“Gates was 6-foot-6 and wore a big hat and boots with a 2-inch heel,” Jack recalls. “He showed up with all these detectives and said this guy had confessed in Chicago to all these murders. It was on CNN and all over the news.”
Gates told the Reilleys he was holding a press conference to announce the Brandley murder case had been solved. “He said Robbin was the first [victim], and we are going to get him here [to stand trial] first,” Jack says. “And after that, it went back to nothing again.”
Getting Urdiales to stand trial in California wouldn't turn out to be so easy. First, he'd go to court for the three murders in Illinois. The first case finally went to trial in April 2002, five years after Urdiales confessed. The prosecution's case understandably focused on the three Illinois murders and featured dozens of witnesses: everyone from Patricia Kelly, the prostitute who alerted Hammond police to Urdiales' sexual proclivities, to Don McGrath, who arrested Urdiales. But the star witness was Jennifer Asbenson, who recounted for the jury in gripping detail her ordeal in the desert at the hands of the accused killer.
Urdiales pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He didn't testify during the trial. Instead, jurors heard his voice primarily in tape recordings made on April 24, 1997, the day after his arrest, when Orange County Sheriff's detectives Bob Blackburn and Helen Moreno flew to Chicago and met with him. In his interview, Urdiales described his upbringing in Chicago, how he joined the Marine Corps in 1984, and served at Camp Pendleton before deployments in Okinawa, the Philippines, and California, where he was stationed at Twentynine Palms.
In 1988, Urdiales said, he'd re-enlisted, and the next year, he went back to Okinawa before returning once again to California, and then shipping out to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield. Urdiales served as a radio operator in the Persian Gulf War and received an honorable discharge. After leaving the Marines, he returned to Chicago, visiting California on occasion to visit family members—and, according to his previous confession, murder five women.
He told Blackburn and Moreno that his stint at Camp Pendleton in 1985 was the “best year” of his life, but that things turned sour when all of his buddies were transferred elsewhere in early 1986. Urdiales explained that he had a “rotten temper” and “just couldn't deal with the new group of people coming in” to the base.
On the night Brandley died, Urdiales claimed, he “got mad with one of the other guys” in his barracks. He just needed to “get off that fucking base.” He drove north along Interstate 5, armed with what he described as a “big ol' hunting knife” with a serrated edge and hollow grip for survival gear with a compass on the end.
“I just drove around,” he continued. “I notice this sign said Saddleback College, so I stopped, and I just, I parked my car, and we just, uh, uh, just walking [sic]. I had my knife with me. I don't know why. . . . So I wandered up, probably, wandered up toward the, uh, college. . . . It was dark. . . . No lights, no nothing, just darkness . . . Maybe I just wanted to just kind of have an idea of what would happen if I just, you know, maybe robbed someone or a mugging or something. Maybe just try, you know, just kinda go on the edge. See what happens. 'Cause I was always trained, always trained to kill in boot camp.”
At this point, Urdiales said, he noticed a woman walking to her car. “No one else was around, just the two of us,” he said. “So I just started walking to her, kinda. And she turned around and looked but didn't say anything.” Urdiales kept following her. “I think that it became apparent that something was wrong, and she looked around, and then she saw the knife, and then she screamed briefly.”
Urdiales covered her mouth with his hands. He told the detectives that he doesn't clearly remember what happened next. “It's just kinda like, just dark, fuzzy,” he said. “It's kind of like things going on back and forth in my mind just like, yes, no. Do it now.” Urdiales said he told the woman to hand over her purse. She complied, and he placed it on top of the nearest car.
The detectives then asked Urdiales to describe the purse. “I don't think the purse had nothing to do with that,” he answered. “I think it was her that we wanted, and we just sat there for awhile—I don't know what happened. The next thing I know is the knife went into her back, once, twice, several times. And I don't remember, I just don't remember, just uh, you know, uh, walked away. Wiped the blood off somewhere. I don't remember where we did.”
After murdering Brandley, Urdiales claimed, he cut his hand jumping a fence, then drove back to Camp Pendleton. The Marines guarding the base entrance noticed blood on his clothes, but Urdiales convinced them he'd injured himself fixing his car. “Those guys are so stupid,” he told the detectives. Urdiales kept his knife for a few weeks and even brought it with him when he took a bus to Hollywood and had sex with a prostitute. “I just had sex, and then I left,” he explained. “Lucky for her.”
When he returned to the base that night, a security guard searched his backpack, found the knife and confiscated it. Thus, the Brandley murder weapon disappeared. Detective Blackburn testified that Orange County Sheriff's detectives contacted Camp Pendleton and verified he was treated for a hand injury and, a few weeks later, was found in possession of a large knife, which was confiscated.
Because Urdiales repeatedly used the word “we” when describing the Brandley murder, his confession to Blackburn and Moreno became the centerpiece of his defense team's attempt to convince the jury he was a crazed killer who couldn't be held responsible for his crimes. His lawyers presented evidence that Urdiales had been counseled for depression at a Veteran's Administration clinic in Chicago.
“Andrew is a paranoid schizophrenic,” Kathryn Lisco, Urdiales' court-appointed public defender, told the jury during her closing arguments. “Andrew has brain damage.”
Lisco then launched into a biography of Urdiales that featured repeated injuries as a child, beginning as an infant, when his sister accidentally dropped him on his head. She asserted that he'd been in a car crash when he was a year old, hit his head on a cement step two years later, and then was repeatedly molested by his sister, who in turn had been abused by a family friend. “This went on for several years,” she argued. “He became confused. He became ashamed. He suffered humiliation. And as he grew, this fueled his rage tremendously.”
When Urdiales was a young child, his brother Alfred died in Vietnam. As a result, Lisco argued, his mother “abandoned” him, retreating into her bedroom. Urdiales was bullied throughout high school and joined the Marines to make his family proud. At first, the Marines seemed to provide the discipline and sense of belonging Urdiales lacked at home. But after he was stationed at Camp Pendleton and promoted from private to corporal, Lisco said, he began to lose his nerve—and eventually his mind.
“Andrew begins to hear things in his mind,” she told the jury. “And he doesn't know exactly what they are. He begins to hear things that he interprets as messages and says that sometimes these messages are in code. . . . And Andrew begins to go on missions.”
Lisco told the jury that Urdiales' first “mission” was murdering Brandley. “When he first acted on his delusions and killed Robbin Brandley, he had gone for a drive, nowhere in particular, and at some point, he believed he was on this CIA mission,” she told the jury. “The instructions came to him through his receiver, and he felt that he had a test coming on, and the test was to see if he could kill without any feeling. And this was a secret mission, therefore it's conducted at night. . . . He's looking for his CIA contact. He's looking for his target of opportunity. He sees the sign for Saddleback College. . . . That's where it all started.”
* * *
On May 23, 2002, after a six-week trial,the jury rejected Andrew Urdiales' claim of insanity and found him guilty of first-degree murder of Laura Uylaki and Lynn Huber. The verdict may have been influenced by the fact that despite being treated for depression for several years, Urdiales had never been medicated nor diagnosed with any mental illness or personality disorder.
“The evidence of his guilt is overwhelming, and the evidence of his sanity is even more so,” lead prosecutor Jim McKay told the jury in his closing arguments. “He is angry, he is evil, and he is depressed, but you know what, folks? Mad, bad and sad don't equal crazy.”
Although the jury sentenced Urdiales to death a week later—after hearing from a string of relatives of the victims, including Jack Reilley—then-Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2003, automatically commuting Urdiales' sentence to life in prison. The following year, Urdiales stood trial in Livingston County for murdering Cassandra Corum. Again, he was convicted and sentenced to death. Urdiales appealed both convictions to the Illinois Supreme Court and lost. On Oct. 29 of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his federal appeal of his first conviction. He currently sits on death row at Pontiac Correctional Center, although Illinois hasn't executed an inmate since March 17, 1999.
Although the Orange County district attorney's office issued an arrest warrant for Urdiales when he confessed a decade ago, there's no chance he'll be extradited any time soon to stand trial for the five murders he committed in California. Deputy DA Howard Gundy told the Weekly his office would love to prosecute Urdiales for murdering Robbin Brandley, Mary Ann Wells, Julie McGhee, Tammie Erwin and Denise Maney, but it may be more trouble than it's worth since Urdiales' attorneys could use the extradition to delay the eventual imposition of his Illinois death sentence.
“The irony in this case is justice may better be served if we let the state of Illinois complete the process, because if we don't do that, we may cause delay and a diversion he will look forward to having,” Gundy says. “He's living in a very small cell out there. He's in perfectly good hands.”
Gundy adds that he sympathizes with the Reilleys' anger at the lack of progress in the case. “I understand the frustration of the parents and other people, but part of that is you can never do anything for those poor folks unless you can bring their loved ones back. That's the quandary of a prosecutor.”
Valerie Prehm, the woman whom the Reilleys suspected of being involved in their daughter's murder for 11 years, now lives in Seattle. She says Brandley's murder ruined her life. “I was one of the last people to see Robin alive,” she says. “We were really good friends on campus. She was an outgoing, beautiful person. Everyone loved her.”
In 1991, Prehm's twin, Melanie, was brutally murdered in a Dana Point motel room. Although the police determined she'd been killed by an ex-boyfriend, Prehm says that shortly before Genelle Reilley came to her home and demanded she take a polygraph test, someone sent her a death threat. The message, sent with no return address, was assembled with letters cut out of magazines and newspapers and contained just five words. The first two—”Robbin” and “Melanie”—were crossed out. Beneath those words were “Valerie” and “You're Next.”
Robbin Brandley's murder caused Prehm to experience severe depression and alcoholism. She is currently unemployed. “[Genelle] hired a private investigator and followed me for six years,” she says. “At a time when I should have been getting jobs, I wasn't because she was placing reasonable doubt.”
Echoing her videotaped polygraph statement in 1992—five years before Urdiales was arrested—Prehm still insists that, while the man doesn't match the description of Andrew Urdiales, a mysterious stranger did in fact approach her at the piano concert, asking about Brandley. “When Robbin and I were seating people, some guy tapped me on the shoulder,” she says. “He had dark curly hair and thick glasses and an olive-green hunting jacket. It didn't match [Urdiales'] description, so I guess it's insignificant.”
She vigorously denies playing any role in Brandley's murder, even as a witness. “I didn't leave the party with her,” she says. “I wish I did.”
Although Jack Reilley testified in the penalty phase of Urdiales' first trial, both he and Genelle refused to do so the second time around. They have cut off all contact with the Orange County Sheriff's Department and the DA's office. They believe their telephones have been tapped, that someone has repeatedly broken into their home and that these events have something to do with their daughter's murder 21 years ago.
“Our home has been broken into,” Genelle says. “And guess what they're taking: hairbrushes, frequently worn clothing. Things with DNA are being stolen out of our house, and that freaks me out. [Jack] has a nice camera. Why didn't they take that?”
A decade after Urdiales confessed to murdering their daughter, the Reilleys still believe that while Urdiales may have been present at the crime scene, he didn't act alone. Because Brandley was the only victim who wasn't a prostitute and who wasn't shot with a gun, they're still haunted with doubts about his culpability.
“The question to us is, why was Robbin murdered one way and all the others another way?” Jack asks. “For all these other victims, he used a gun. There's no passion in a gun. How could a total stranger come up and stab her 40 times? You have to have a lot of anger.”
Genelle, for her part, is convinced someone hired Urdiales to rob their daughter and didn't intend for him to murder her, only scare her into leaving the campus. “Brad Gates came to our house and told us this was robbery gone wrong,” she says. “If you want money, you aren't going to go to a community college at 10 o'clock at night and maybe there's a rich student walking around. It's so stupid. It doesn't make any sense at all. And it's not the way it happened.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).