Editor's note: This article contains graphic references to a violent crime.
A pair of torn, green corduroy pants will likely be the most fought-over piece of evidence in the trial against accused serial murderer John Arthur Getreu, based on preliminary-hearing arguments in San Mateo County Superior Court on Monday and Tuesday.
The green pants allegedly link Getreu, 74, through DNA to the 1974 strangulation murder of 21-year-old Janet Ann Taylor. San Mateo County Sheriff's investigators in 2018 reopened the case and said they found Getreu's DNA on the torn green pants by using modern DNA forensics.
On Tuesday, San Mateo County Deputy District Attorney Josh Stauffer presented evidence indicating the probability that the DNA belonged to anyone other than Getreu was 1 in 102 billion. Around the time of the murder, Getreu worked at Stanford Hospital.
Taylor was hitchhiking home to La Honda at about 7:05 p.m. on March 24, 1974, after leaving a friend's house near Campus Drive and Foothill Expressway, about a five-minute drive from the hospital. The next morning, her body was found in a ditch on Sand Hill Road near Manzanita Way, west of Interstate Highway 280, about 4.3 miles away from where she was last seen. Investigators determined she had not been raped but asserted there was a "sexual motivation" to the crime.
Defense questions lapses in note-taking
At the hearing, Defense Attorney John Halley sought to demolish the integrity of the evidence by questioning why the San Mateo County Sheriff's and Coroner's offices had not noted the tear in the pants until the case was reopened in 2018.
Dr. Peter Benson, a forensic pathologist who at the time worked for the San Mateo County Coroner, testified on Tuesday that Taylor had been strangled, as evidenced by hemorrhages in her throat and fluid and blood in her lungs. Bruise marks appeared to have been made by the design on her brown, knitted turtleneck sweater, as if something had pressed hard against it. The hyoid bone in her throat was fractured. Benson also found evidence of sperm in her crotch area but no injuries, he said.
Benson's notes identified the clothing on Taylor's body: green corduroy pants, a blue T-shirt, a brown turtleneck sweater with a pattern knitted into it and a white bra. He did not notice a black rain jacket police said she wore when they found her. He had noted the fine details of labels in her brown sweater.
As meticulous as Benson's noted appeared to be, Halley attempted to shred his testimony over the key piece of evidence. Benson did not document a tear in the pants.
Halley pounced on the omitted detail. How was it that Benson would make such careful notes of names on clothing labels but not notice the rip?
Benson said a two-inch tear in the pants "is outside my area of expertise to show."
"Criminologists look at the condition of clothing or guns," he said. "I wouldn't say I didn't notice it. I didn't document it."
"But you noticed the color of the clothing, the labels, the manufacturer of the clothing. If you see a tear in the crotch of the trousers of a possible sexual assault victim, wouldn't you note it? Is it possible that rip wasn't there?" Halley said.
Celia Hartnett was a young sheriff's assistant criminologist in 1974. In her decades working in criminology, many cases have stayed with her. Taylor's particularly had an impact. She and Taylor were biology lab partners in high school, she said.
Hartnett's job was to pore over the clothing and other items found in search of trace evidence. She described how while wearing a mask and surgical gloves, she had laid out the clothing on clean, brown Kraft bench paper. She examined the left and right shoes and black rain jacket belt that investigators discovered strewn, presumably from a car window, roughly a quarter-mile away from each other and from the body along Sand Hill Road.
She studied the fingernail clippings that had been taken from Taylor's body and other evidence found near the scene: a piece of yellow paper, a cigarette lighter, a piece of a tie, a pink hairbrush, and from Taylor, the black rain jacket, which had a large tear under the left arm, and the clothes on her body. Using a stereo-microscope to sleuth details in three dimensions, Hartnett looked for hair, fibers, dirt, shards of glass, paint chips — anything that might give a clue about where Taylor had been and what had happened to her.
What she didn't record: any tear in the crotch of the green pants. Hartnett thinks she neglected to notice it. "Our work assignment was specific for trace evidence," she said.
Halley asked about evidence that was around in 1974 but that authorities currently could not locate. Samples of trace materials she had collected haven't been found and her hand-written notes, which might also shed light, are also missing.
Hartnett said the unwritten policy in the lab in 1974 was that investigators took their bench notes, wrote a report, and the report was typed by a secretary. The hand-written notes didn't end up in the case file.
"The unofficial policy by the lab director, Paul Dougherty, was that we not keep the bench notes," she said.
She said she did not agree with Dougherty's policy. She kept her notes on her cases, including the Taylor case, and retained them when she moved to the State Department of Justice. When she resumed work at San Mateo County's crime lab in 1990, she returned the notes to the lab, but she doesn't know what happened to them, she said.
Prosecution: Key evidence was well-preserved
While Halley appeared to score points regarding the examination and retention of evidence, Prosecutor Stauffer successfully fended off Halley's attempts to show a breach in the chain of command regarding the key evidence. The green pants had been stored in a sealed paper bag since 1974 and kept in a sheriff's storage unit along with other evidence in boxes. Each time the bag was opened, an investigator's name and date was added on the outside.
The bag containing Taylor's pants had remained sealed until December 2018, when Alice Hilker, a sheriff's forensic laboratory supervising criminalist, opened the bag to look for DNA evidence on the pants. When she finished her sampling, she put the pants and the old paper sack from 1974 into a new bag and sealed, dated and initialed it.
Hilker was the only witness during the hearing to have noticed the torn seam, where she found Getreu's DNA. Even after taking into account nearly 50 years of natural degradation, storage in a damp environment and mold, Hilker found a credible match to Getreu, she said. DNA found on a snippet she also took from the seam fabric had a 1 in 34,800 chance of coming from anyone but Getreu, she said.
Stauffer showed through witness testimony that overall handling of the evidence and the care taken to protect it from contamination remained consistent. Even in the courtroom, each time an evidence bag was opened, he and sheriff's Detective Gordon Currie donned masks and gloves to prevent contamination. They never completely took any evidence out of the bags.
Investigator Rick Jackson, a retired sheriff's homicide detective now working as a cold-case consultant for the San Mateo County Sheriff, said during a March 2019 interview with the Palo Alto Weekly that Getreu said in the 1970s he lived in San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto and Redwood City. Getreu claimed he had no knowledge of Sand Hill Road. He didn't know the hillside areas around Stanford and he didn't know Taylor.
But asked by Jackson if there is any reason his DNA would be found on Taylor, Getreu allegedly replied, "not unless he had contact with her," Jackson said.
On Tuesday, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Clifford Cretan found there was adequate evidence to hold Getreu for trial in Taylor's murder.
Taylor's case remained cold until late 2018, when Getreu was arrested for the February 1973 murder of another woman, Leslie Marie Perlov, 21, which occurred on the Stanford University campus. The sheriff's department in Santa Clara County used new DNA technologies not available in the 1970s to allegedly match Getreu to Perlov's death. Getreu has not yet entered a plea in that case.
Getreu will appear in court for arraignment on Nov. 20.