• Watch Weekly journalists discuss the latest developments in the Arlis Perry murder case on "Behind the Headlines."
Editor's note: The details in this article may be disturbing to some readers.
The primary suspect in an infamous unsolved 1974 murder in Stanford Memorial Church killed himself on Thursday morning as detectives came to his San Jose apartment to serve a search warrant, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith said.
Sheriff's detectives arrived at the Del Coronado Apartments at 5273 Camden Ave. when the suspect shot himself in the head, according to sheriff's office.
Smith at a news conference at sheriff's headquarters in San Jose identified the man as former Memorial Church night watchman Stephen Blake Crawford, 72, who was a suspect in the murder and who lived at the Camden Avenue complex.
"We followed all the leads and unraveled the entanglement of the elements associated with the murder of Arlis Perry," Smith said. "This is a case that eludes us no longer."
Smith said Crawford had been suspected of the crime before, but there wasn't enough evidence to charge him. Recently, however, detectives were able to make the connection using DNA evidence, she said.
The night of Arlis Perry's murder
Crawford was the one who reported that he'd found the body of 19-year-old Arlis Perry at 5:40 a.m. on Oct. 13, 1974, during a check of the church. Perry had moved to Stanford from Bismarck, North Dakota in August 1974 with her husband, Bruce Perry, a Stanford University sophomore, according to a 2017 Palo Alto Historical Association lecture by former San Jose Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold.
Arlis Perry's murder has been the biggest unsolved crime in Santa Clara County history because of where it occurred and how the murder was committed, he said.
On Oct. 12, 1974, the Perrys were walking on campus when Arlis and Bruce Perry got into a spat. A religious woman, Arlis Perry went off to Memorial Church to pray and arrived at about 11 p.m., Herhold said. Others saw her there at about 11:35 p.m., when Crawford told people the church would be closing in about 15 minutes. He told police that he locked the church at 11:45 p.m. and did another security pass at 2 a.m., but he did not see Arlis Perry there.
The Perrys lived in Quillen Hall in Escondido Village. She was working at the law firm Spaeth, Blase, Valentine and Klein, according to a 2014 story by the Stanford Daily.
The book "The Ultimate Evil," written by former New York Post reporter Maury Terry, states that Bruce Perry called the Stanford police at about 3 a.m. to report that his wife was missing after she failed to return home. Stanford police went to the church and found all of the outer doors were locked.
But at 5:40 a.m., police were notified by Crawford of Perry's body, which was in the east transept, to the left of the altar, laid out in ritualistic fashion. She was spread-eagle on her back with her head to the left, her right arm was pinned under her waist and she was naked from the waist down. Someone had plunged an ice pick into her brain from behind her left ear and sexually molested her with a candle. Another candle had been forced into her chest. She also had wounds on her neck consistent with an attempted strangulation.
When Crawford called the homicide in to police, he oddly said, "Hey, we've got a stiff here," Herhold said in his lecture.
Police initially found two pieces of DNA evidence at the scene: a pillow near Perry's body had semen on it and a palm print was found on one of the candles, according to Terry's book.
Perry's distraught husband, also a person of interest in the case, gave police a DNA sample. Police also later obtained DNA from Crawford. However, DNA testing was not yet available in criminal cases until the mid-1980s, and it was only in the past decade that law enforcement began using more sensitive DNA tests with greater frequency.
Investigators serve warrant on Crawford
Detectives' final confrontation with Crawford occurred at about 9:04 a.m. Thursday, when deputies arrived at the apartment building to serve the search warrant, according to Sgt. Enrique Garcia, spokesman for San Jose Police Department. They made verbal contact with him through the closed door, Garcia said. They then entered the apartment and saw him with a handgun, he said.
Deputies immediately backed away, according to Garcia. A short time later, they heard a gunshot. When they entered the apartment, they saw Crawford with an apparent self-inflicted wound, Garcia said.
Crawford was pronounced dead at the scene.
Even though deputies did not discharge their weapons, the incident is considered an officer-involved shooting and, as such, is being investigated by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office and the San Jose Police Department's Homicide Unit, according to Garcia.
DNA's role in solving the case
Smith, who was at the Del Coronado Apartments Thursday, told reporters that advances in forensics allowed the case to be reopened.
"There was no DNA at the time of the murder, but there had been enhancements in capability and we continued to submit evidence to the crime lab," Smith said at the news conference.
She said the new DNA sample had come from an item of Perry's clothing.
Cold-case detectives had contacted Crawford about the case in recent weeks, she said, and he knew he was a "person of interest." During interrogations, Crawford did not provide any information concrete enough to warrant his arrest. However, detectives continued to investigate and were able to secure the search warrant for his apartment based on the DNA evidence pushed forward by the lead detective, Sgt. Richard Alanis.
Alanis has kept a picture of Arlis Perry "as a constant reminder that her life and this case had value," Smith said.
Smith said the case was really personal for her. The murder occurred shortly after she joined the department, and the case has been frustrating investigators for decades, she said.
"It's difficult for her family. It's difficult for the department. But we finally have closure on this case," Smith said.
The Sheriff's Office is planning to release more information about the case on Friday, Smith said.
Victim's family: 'It's about time'
Arlis Perry's mother, Jean Dykema, 88, said in an interview with the Mercury News that the case took a hard toll in recent years on her husband, Marvin, who died three months ago.
Dykema, who was speaking by phone from Bismarck, said she was heartbroken that the perpetrator wasn't captured earlier.
Arlis was the youngest of three children, and Bruce was her high school sweetheart whom she married eight weeks before the newlyweds moved to California, according to Dykema.
Despite initial disapproval over the young couple's decision to marry, Dykema said she and her husband later supported the choice.
Karen Barnes, Arlis' sister, told the Weekly on Friday by phone from Bismarck that when her family members heard about the Thursday development, their first reaction was, "After all these years, it's about time." The family knew that the sheriff's office was still investigating. Occasionally, the family received inquiries from detectives following up on various aspects of the case.
Though the family didn't know Crawford well, Barnes said she wasn't too surprised to learn he was the suspect.
"From what we heard, his story tended to change every now and then," Barnes said.
For Barnes, her mother, Dykema, and other members of Arlis Perry's family, the closure isn't complete. The question of why Arlis was killed remains as unresolved as ever. For one member of the family, Arlis' and Karen's father, Marvin, the resolution came too late.
"My father died three months ago," Barnes said. "This was one of his wishes to know before he died, but he didn't quite make that. That was kind of hard."
"We extend our gratitude to local law enforcement for their efforts over decades to resolve this disturbing case," Lisa Lapin, vice president for Stanford University communications, said in a statement issued Friday.
"It remains a heart-wrenching memory at the university. Stanford has been cooperating with investigators over many years, and we know they’ve been working tirelessly to bring this case to a conclusion," Lapin said.
Crawford seemed 'normal,' neighbor says
At the Del Coronado Apartments on Thursday night, a lit desk lamp could be seen through the vertical blinds in Crawford's darkened ground-floor apartment. Potted plants were lined up under the front window, sitting on a protruding air conditioning unit, next to the doorstep and in metal stands.
Neighbor Yanet Crisostomo said she and Crawford had exchanged greetings several times during the year that she's lived there. He seemed "normal," although he largely kept to himself, she said. They would run into each other in the common yard, when she and her toddler were outside playing, or they'd see one another at the mailboxes or the apartment complex's office.
"He'd wave," she said. "He'd smile."
Crawford lived alone, Crisostomo said.
In her apartment across the courtyard from Crawford's, she didn't hear the gunshot Thursday morning, but she knew something big had happened based on the many officers who were at the complex throughout the day removing bags full of items from Crawford's apartment.
Upon hearing Thursday evening that Crawford was dead, Crisostomo looked saddened. Still, she said as she tended to her toddler, "I didn't really know him."
By evening, the investigators had cleared out, yellow crime-scene tape had been removed and life was returning to normal at the Del Coronado, with children's laughter wafting through the air as they chased each other down an orange slide.
Crawford and the crime from a columnist's perspective
Herhold, who has researched the case since the late 1970s, was present at the press conference at the sheriff's office on Thursday. Since retiring in November, he said he has been looking at the case steadily.
"Crawford emerged as a top suspect early on," he said. He was not surprised that the evidence pointed to the former security guard, but he was surprised by the suicide, he said.
At the time of the murder, a couple of factors had jumped out that made Crawford seem suspect, he said. He didn't take a lie detector test when others did.
On the night of the murder, campus police put out a bulletin about her, after Bruce Perry had reported her missing. Crawford told police that he had locked up the church but he would keep a look out for her.
"But he never checked the church," Herhold said, until he went in and "found" her body later that morning.
Crawford, a U.S. Air Force veteran, began to work for the Stanford Department of Public Safety in 1971 as a police officer and had carried a gun. In 1972, the new police chief began reorganizing the Stanford police department and took a serious look at whether many officers were qualified to carry guns. They were asked to reapply for their positions. About three-quarters of the force did not make the cut, and they were offered the option to become security guards, Herhold said.
Crawford was one of them.
"He complained bitterly about it. He told friends he did not like what they were doing to him," Herhold said.
Crawford stayed on at Stanford until 1976, but he found ways to exact revenge against the university, Herhold said.
"He began stealing stuff from offices," said Herhold, who added examples, including a human skull, a walking cane given to university founder Leland Stanford and rare books. "The kicker was he went down to a print shop and got a degree from Stanford," he said, using a blank Stanford diploma.
Crawford was eventually arrested for receipt of stolen property.
"He claimed he was mad at the university and the police department for treating him as a suspect" in Perry's murder, Herhold said, but the police didn't buy it. Crawford received a six-month suspended sentence, he said.
Investigators initially pursued a theory that the crime was committed by a random intruder to the church, Herhold said. But the length of time that it had to have taken -- at least a half-hour -- and Herhold's own interview with an experienced homicide detective led him to believe the murderer was someone familiar with Memorial Church and its schedule.
An FBI profiler brought in on the case concluded that the killer was 17-22 years old, a loner who kept a detailed diary and would have taken a "trophy" from the crime. Arlis Perry's glasses were missing from the scene, Herhold said.
Over the years, investigators looked into whether known killers, including serial murderer Ted Bundy, had alibis for the the time of the murder. (Bundy did; he was gassing up his car out of the area.)
Herhold never got to interview Crawford, although he had hoped to.
"I knew he was not in good health," he said.
But he has developed a snapshot of Crawford's personality in the years he spent studying the case. He could be charming; but he was a loner and his word could not be trusted, Herhold said.
Crawford claimed, falsely, that his parents had died in a car accident when he and his brother were young. In truth, they died separately when he was in his early 20s. His mother died of a bronchial ailment, according to Herhold.
Crawford was in a square dance group, where his tall tales earned him the nickname "the prevaricator," he said.
As for why Perry was killed, Herhold said he does not believe she was the intended victim. The gruesome crime was against Stanford, he said, and "she paid a terrible price."
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