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Yesterday's Crimes

Friday, May 13, 2016

Yesterday’s Crimes: CIA Plots, Canadian Shootouts and the Disappearance of Valerie McDonald

Posted By on Fri, May 13, 2016 at 12:30 PM

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This is the second installment in a three-part series on the disappearance of Valerie McDonald from her North Beach apartment on Nov. 9, 1980. Click here to read part one.


Valerie McDonald disappeared on Nov. 9, 1980. SFPD missing persons investigators didn’t seem to care even after McDonald’s parents flew down from Oregon to urge them to find their daughter. The ex-cons who ran the apartment building where McDonald lived—men that she was afraid of—were able to get out of the city before an investigation really began.

Phillip Arthur Thompson, John Gordon Abbott, and Michael Hennessey—the potential suspects in the McDonald disappearance—arrived in British Columbia, near Abbott’s hometown, on Nov. 22, 1980. Thompson didn’t stay up North very long before heading back to the Bay Area taking his car keys with him, and forcing his partners to hire a local locksmith to get into their green Chevy Monte Carlo. When the locksmith tried to test the new keys on the trunk, Abbott put his hand over the lock and wouldn’t let him open it.

Abbott had the car towed to a transmission shop in Trail, B.C. on November 24. A day later, he and Hennessey pulled two large duffel bags and a box of papers out of the trunk. When the men showed up to pick up the car the following day, plainclothes Mounties were waiting for them. Abbott and Hennessey opened fire, hitting Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable Jim Lark in the leg. Hennessey was killed just like Abbott’s brother in a similar shootout with Davis police in 1976.

Nobody knows who tipped off the Mounties about Abbott and Hennessey, although Davis police did contact Canadian authorities in 1978 when Abbott had escaped from prison. “It is my belief that Mr. Abbott should be considered very dangerous and would kill without hesitation,” Davis Det. Sergeant John Parsons wrote in a prophetic letter to the RCMP.

When police searched Abbott and Hennessey’s apartment in Rossland, B.C. they found Valerie McDonald’s voter registration and unemployment cards, and one other ghastly piece of evidence: a receipt from San Francisco dated November 5 for 11 bags of cement, two bags of plaster, a tub and a hoe. Robert and Dee Dee Kouns, McDonald’s parents, feared that the men were planning on disposing of a body in the days before their daughter disappeared. Police also found long strands of strawberry blond hair that could have come from McDonald in the trunk of the Monte Carlo.

After the arrest of Abbott in Canada following the lethal shootout, San Francisco Police finally got interested in the case. SF police arrested Thompson in a raid on a Hunter’s Point warehouse used by the gang on Jan. 17, 1981.

In the warehouse investigators found files with plans for a string of elaborate heists throughout the Bay Area, including a pair of robberies that were perpetrated by Thompson on Dec. 24 and 30, 1980, a month after the Canadian shootout. Thompson had kept ominous records on UPS drivers including the ages of the drivers’ children and the routes they took to go to school. Pillow cases were dropped over the UPS drivers’ heads and they were driven to the warehouse.

According to the San Francisco Examiner, Abbott and Thompson used the robberies to get seed money to buy guns to sell to rightwing militias in El Salvador and cocaine cartels in Bolivia and Columbia. Thompson’s ties to the CIA and other federal agencies went from wild conspiracy theory to reported fact, and it was even revealed that he worked as driver for the Nixon campaign in 1972.

“That’s something that always puzzled me,” San Francisco burglary inspector Neil Jordan told the Examiner.

“We had a statement from Abbott acknowledging his and Thompson’s complicity in at least three robberies, and evidence to tie them to three others,” but other Bay Area jurisdictions never moved to prosecute. It was also puzzling to Jordan that Abbott and Thompson got out of San Quentin early on work furlough less than two years after escaping from prison to set up a new burglary ring.

“Why did he (Thompson) get out so early? I don’t know,” Jordan said.

Despite being held in jails nearly 1,000 miles away from each other, Abbott and Thompson both denied any guilt in the disappearance of Valerie McDonald. Without a body or a murder weapon, they weren’t charged in the crime.

“She was just the face of the girl in room 24,” Thompson told the Examiner.

A creepy line in a poem found in Abbott’s journals seized by Mounties seemed to tell a different story, however.

"The Ice Maiden in her fallen beauty also what a dream,” Abbott wrote.
"Flying in the air flowing with the stream."

To be continued: Next week Bob and Dee Dee Kouns continue to search for answers and justice and Phillip Thompson is tied to more brutal murders.

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Yesterday's Crimes: What Happened to Valerie McDonald?

Posted By on Thu, May 5, 2016 at 8:00 AM

RANDY HEINETZ/FLICKR
  • Randy Heinetz/Flickr

When Valerie McDonald, an aspiring actress described as a "stunning blonde, possessed of the sort of beauty that turns heads on the street" disappeared after leaving her North Beach apartment on Nov. 9, 1980 in the company of a suspicious character, San Francisco police were little help. 

Officers told McDonald’s friend that she had to wait 72 hours before they could file a missing persons report. With McDonald still missing a week later, her parents, Dee Dee and Bob Kouns, flew down from Oregon. The cops told them that their daughter had probably taken off for Vegas.

McDonald’s friends and family had a whole clique of suspects for detectives to question, but the SFPD remained uninterested in the case until evidence uncovered after a fatal shootout in British Columbia forced them to take notice.

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Yesterday's Crimes: "Butt" Riley, King of the Hoodlums

Posted By on Thu, Apr 28, 2016 at 11:24 AM

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  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr
James "Butt" Riley claimed he had "the hardest head in all Christendom," and proved it by battering down doors and people with his impervious dome.

Born in New York in 1848, Riley sailed to San Francisco in 1868 where he quickly established himself as the "King of the Hoodlums." Although he wasn't part of any gang, "there wasn't a band of rowdies in the city that wouldn't flock to his support when he called upon it," according to The Barbary Coast, Herbert Asbury's 1933 history of our city's seedy beginnings.

Riley was also reportedly so handsome that he sold nude photographs of himself to the city's prostitutes.

"The greatest pride of scores of San Francisco's most popular and prosperous courtesans was the signed photograph of the King of Hoodlums which hung above their beds," Asbury wrote.

Riley even roamed the red light district with a black satchel filled with images of himself in the buff, selling them to ladies of the evening for 50 cents a pop.

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Yesterday's Crimes: Murdered by the Son of the Sugar King

Posted By on Thu, Apr 21, 2016 at 1:00 PM

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  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr
Blackmail was part of the business model for Charles and Michael de Young in the early days of their San Francisco Chronicle.

Slinging mud at the city's well to do was commonplace for the Chron since its beginnings in 1865, but the paper's founders weren't above taking a payoff to squelch a story. And besides, they needed the extra cash to fend off the libel suits that were a regular cost of doing business for the brothers.

But not everyone decided to settle their differences with the de Youngs in court.

San Francisco Mayor I.S. Kalloch's son, I.M. Kalloch, stormed the paper's newsroom and shot Charles de Young dead on April 23, 1880 after several months of intense muckraking.

Michael, now going by the tonier M.H. de Young, took over the paper without changing the way it did business. It was only a matter of time before history repeated itself.

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Yesterday’s Crimes: The SFPD Bunco Scandal

Posted By on Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 10:52 AM

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  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr
The con artists of the 40 Thieves bunco gang thought that they had a good thing going with San Francisco police — the same cops who were supposed to be investigating them.

Starting around 1910, the con men or bunco men (spelled bunko in the San Francisco Chronicle and named for a crooked card game) had free reign to run their scams, bilking Italians and other unfortunate immigrants out of thousands at a time using what were basically low tech versions of the Nigerian prince email scams of today. The whole time, the bunco men paid off the cops, and the cops promised to keep the bunco men out of jail.

This arrangement seemed to work so well that the 40 Thieves still honored it even when their boss, Mike Gallo, was sentenced to five years in San Quentin in 1913. To smooth things over, the corrupt detectives paid Gallo’s wife $30 a month while he was in prison. Gallo agreed to “stay mum” in the hopes that the rest of his gang would remain free.

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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Yesterday's Crimes: The Great Folsom Street Fire

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2016 at 12:01 PM

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  • Ray Heinitz/Flickr
The Barracks at 1147 Folsom St. between Seventh and Eighth streets was a two-story BDSM wonderland with theme rooms that catered to every fetish imaginable. After opening in 1971, the bathhouse quickly established itself as one of the biggest and best known clubs on Folsom's "Miracle Mile," a stretch of nearly 30 different leather bars and clubs in South of Market.

The club closed down in 1976, and was being redeveloped into a hotel in 1981 until somebody lit a match and the whole thing went up in flames.

The Barracks fire started around 2 a.m. on Friday, July 11, 1981. The flames quickly spread through the warehouses and flats that crowded Hallam Street and Brush Place, a pair of dead-end alleyways that fed into Folsom.

Jonathan Gilcrest, a motel clerk saw the burgeoning blaze while he was walking down Folsom. He charged onto Hallam and yelled for people to get out of their homes.

"Fire started coming out of the windows," Gilcrist told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The next thing you know, a vacant hotel across the alley was on fire. Then everything was on fire."

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Yesterday's Crimes: The Marina Jewelry that ID'd the Night Stalker

Posted By on Thu, Mar 24, 2016 at 3:32 PM

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  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr

Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a three-part series on the murderous trip of Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, to San Francisco in August 1985. Here are the links to parts one and two.


In the days after killing San Francisco accountant Peter Pan in his home on Aug. 18, 1985, Richard Ramirez, now known as the Night Stalker, shot dice on the streets of the Mission District. But the killer felt too confined by the city, and thought that people he knew here were growing suspicious of him.

He was right.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Yesterday's Crimes: How Dianne Feinstein Tipped Off the Night Stalker

Posted By on Thu, Mar 17, 2016 at 9:27 AM

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  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr
This is part two of a three-part series.

Richard Ramirez had killed Peter Pan, 69, in his Lake Merced area home on August 18, 1985, over a year after he had raped and killed a 9-year-old girl in a Tenderloin basement (a crime in which he may have had help).

The evidence linking Pan's murderer to the suspect in a string of Los Angeles County killings — now called the Night Stalker — made its way through the ranks of the San Francisco Police Department up to then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein. She held a press conference on August 23 to sooth citizens' fears.

It almost ruined the whole statewide investigation.


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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Yesterday's Crimes: The Night Stalker Comes To San Francisco

Posted By on Thu, Mar 10, 2016 at 11:55 AM

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By mid-August 1985, Richard Ramirez had murdered 14 people and raped several others in the Los Angeles suburbs. (A first victim, 9-year-old Mei Lung, found murdered and raped in the basement of a Tenderloin hotel in 1984, was connected to him decades later.)  

Since the beginning of his reign of terror the year before, the then-unidentified serial killer collected nicknames the way he did victims. The press and police referred to him as "The Valley Intruder" or "The Walk-In Killer," but none of his aliases inflamed the public imagination until he took a trip to San Francisco and became the Night Stalker.

Ramirez had murdered four people and attacked four others in July 1985. He started off August by attacking a couple in Northridge on August 6. He then killed Elyas Abowath, 31, and repeatedly sodomized Sakina Abowath, 27, in the couples' Diamond Bar home two days later. Fearing that the Southern California media had raised too much awareness of him, Ramirez struck north in search of new hunting grounds.

Sometime after August 8, Ramirez checked into the Bristol Hotel on Hyde Street in the Tenderloin.

"The people we get here I would call third-class types," Bristol Hotel manager Alex Melnikov told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1985. "About 70 percent are on dope. I don't ask a lot of questions."

Ramirez left his room smelling like skunk and drew a pentagram on the bathroom door that police later removed as evidence.

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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Yesterday’s Crimes: Insurance Scams and Killing Kids for Profit

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2016 at 12:30 PM

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  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr

Suulan Chem, 37, and her nine-year-old son, Michael Nguyen, were pulling into the driveway of their white, stucco home on 25th Avenue in the Sunset District at 12:25 a.m. on Sept. 2, 1992 after a friend’s birthday dinner. Three toughs were waiting for them. 

One of the men put a gun to Chem’s head and forced her to the ground. “Be quiet,” he commanded. “Make no noise, or we’ll kill you.”

The other men snatched Chem’s purse and threw her boy into their getaway car. The men sped off while the mother screamed for help on the sidewalk.

Just seven hours later, Michael’s battered body was discovered by a woman walking her dog in what the San Francisco Chronicle described as “a brush covered ravine” in Golden Gate Park. Michael was just a week away from starting  third grade at McKinley Elementary School in Duboce Triangle.

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