Editor's note: Descriptions of crime in this article may be disturbing to some readers.
Forty-seven years after Janet Ann Taylor, 21, of La Honda, was murdered, her alleged killer, who was arrested in 2019 based on DNA evidence and the use of an ancestry database, is finally going to trial.
A jury heard opening statements in the trial of John Arthur Getreu in San Mateo County Superior Court on Monday; Taylor's is one of two cold-case murders of which he is accused and facing prosecution.
A key piece of evidence — Taylor's green corduroy pants — is likely to be hotly contested. The prosecution says DNA found on the pants clearly belongs to Getreu; the defense says that the DNA evidence might have been placed there after the crime.
Getreu, 77, is charged with the March 24, 1974, murder of the 21-year-old Taylor. A passing delivery truck driver found her shoeless body in a ditch on Stanford University land near Sand Hill Road and Manzanita Way the next day.
The case is the first of two slayings for which Getreu faces first-degree murder charges. New DNA testing technology also identified Getreu in 2018 as the alleged killer of Leslie Marie Perlov, who died on Feb. 16, 1973, also on Stanford land.
San Mateo County sheriff's investigators then linked him to Taylor's crime through DNA in 2019. At the time of his arrest, Getreu was a retired carpenter who was married, living in Newark, had two grown children and had been a one-time leader of his local Elks Lodge.
Getreu was also a convicted felon. A decade before Taylor's and Perlov's murders, Getreu was convicted of strangling and raping 15-year-old Margaret Williams while living in Germany with his father, a U.S. Army officer. Williams was a schoolmate of Getreu and the daughter of an Army chaplain. In 1975, he also was charged with raping a 17-year-old member of the Scout troop in Palo Alto that he led. He pleaded guilty to statutory rape. He also had attempted to strangle her, Deputy District Attorney Josh Stauffer said in court on Monday.
Taylor's case has "frightening similarities" to Perlov's and Williams', Stauffer said. The three victims were killed in a similar manner, by strangulation; they were severely beaten around the face. There were sexual elements to each of their murders.
Getreu's DNA was found under Perlov's fingernails on both hands, Stauffer said. The chance that the DNA would belong to anyone else other than Getreu is 1 in 65 septillion, Stauffer said.
His DNA also was found on the outside and inside the torn crotch of Taylor's green corduroy Levi's pants, Stauffer said. The chances of the DNA belonging to anyone other than Getreu is 1 in 102 billion from the sample taken inside of the pants, he said.
The green pants are "pivotal in telling who it is that killed Janet Taylor," Stauffer said.
But Defense Attorney John Halley asserted that the prosecution's key piece of evidence is flawed. Getreu's guilt must be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt" for the jury to convict him. No one — including the coroner and a criminalist in 1974 — ever mentioned that the pants crotch was ripped.
"The prosecution relies on the green pair of pants," but the evidence has been altered, he said.
"It was not in the same condition as when it was collected and placed in a bag in 1974. On March 28, 1974, the criminalist examined the pants. She went through all of the clothing. She noted rips on other pieces of clothing — on a sleeve and shirt. Yet (in a) sexual crime, she didn't make any observation of a tear in the crotch," he said.
Halley instead wants jurors to think the pants were torn later and that Getreu's DNA was added. A 1989 document shows some of the evidence was transferred between San Mateo and Santa Clara county detectives, he said. This record discussed photographs, but Halley raised the question of what other evidence might have been exposed at that time or at other times thereafter.
"That's their jumping-off point — the DNA evidence," Halley said of the prosecution's case. "The question is going to be — beyond a reasonable doubt — if the DNA was put there on March 24 or 25, 1974, or over the last 27 years when it was stored or moved from place to place."
Homicide detective Rick Jackson testified after the opening statements on Monday. On the witness stand, he recalled looking for evidence when the case reopened but said he searched for photographs. He also sought the 1974 rape kit that had been collected at the time of Taylor's death, but it was never found. Likewise, he thinks many more photographs taken of the crime scene in 1974 are missing. It's not unusual in most law enforcement departments for evidence in cold cases to go missing after so many decades, he said.
"Sometimes everything is destroyed," he added.
Deborah Adams, Taylor's best friend since childhood, was scheduled to testify in the trial, but she died on March 31. Stauffer instead utilized Adams' previously video-recorded sworn testimony.
In that recording, Adams stated that, on the day Taylor died, the two friends spent the afternoon together. Adams was about to return to college the next day. Adams' mother's home was on the edge of the Stanford campus. At around 7 p.m. Taylor left to feed her dogs at the home she shared with her boyfriend in La Honda.
Taylor's car was broken down, so she sometimes hitchhiked, Adams said. A meadow behind the home led to Junipero Serra Boulevard, and Taylor headed for it. Adams watched her friend as she walked across the field to reach the road. It was the last time she saw Taylor alive.
The 12-member jury and four alternates will return to the courtroom for a full day of testimony on Tuesday. The trial is expected to last up to a month.