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John Getreu trial: Evidence points to fierce struggle prior to killing

Janet Taylor's clothes were torn and her face was battered by her alleged attacker. Her friends said she was trained in martial arts.

Editor's note: Descriptions of crime in this article may be disturbing to some readers.

Janet Ann Taylor was caught in a struggle so intense with her alleged attacker, John Arthur Getreu, that her rain jacket was torn from the shoulder and her shirt was opened all the way down one side, evidence presented on Tuesday in San Mateo County Superior Court showed.

John Getreu. Courtesy San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.

Taylor, who was 21 year old when she was murdered on March 24, 1974, was found in a ditch by the side of Sand Hill Road and Manzanita Way on Stanford University land. She had been strangled by hands strong enough to have left the ribbed impressions of her turtleneck sweater on her neck, a forensic pathologist testified during the second day of Getreu's trial for her killing. Her face was severely beaten.

John Arthur Getreu, now 77, was about 29 when she died. On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Josh Stauffer laid out evidence linking Getreu to the violent crime while defense attorney John Halley sought to discredit how the evidence was collected and handled.

Witness Celia Hartnett, a forensics science consultant and retired criminologist for the San Mateo County Sheriff's crime lab, said she remembered the case particularly because Taylor had been her biology lab partner in high school. As a young criminologist, Hartnett was tasked with examining Taylor's clothes for trace evidence — fibers, hair, dirt and other potential clues. She noted in her report the large rips on a black rain jacket found partially beneath Taylor at the crime scene.

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Examining the evidence again in court on Tuesday afternoon, she noted the right arm of the cloth jacket was dangling from a rip that had nearly detached the sleeve. She found a similar rip on the right shoulder of a blue shirt Taylor had worn, and the tear went nearly all the way down one side. Taylor had worn the shirt beneath a bulky ribbed turtleneck sweater.

La Honda resident Janet Ann Taylor was last seen hitchhiking near Stanford University on March 24, 1974. Her body was found in a roadside ditch in Woodside the next day. She had been strangled. Courtesy San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.

Marks from that sweater on Taylor's neck also showed the full force of her strangulation. The imprint of the turtleneck's ribbed pattern was found in the bruises at her throat, evidence of manual strangulation, according to testimony from the Nov. 5, 2019, preliminary hearing by the late Dr. Peter Benson, a county forensic pathologist who died in 2020. His testimony was read in court on Tuesday.

Taylor had hemorrhages in her neck and a fractured hyoid bone, a free-floating bone that sits on top of the throat. Her lungs were severely congested and were full of blood and fluid, consistent with asphyxia, Benson found. She died as a result of strangulation.

She also had bruises on her face and on her left ear from being beaten. Her right eye was also bruised and there were marks near her chin. Some of the damage was caused by small ant bites, he said.

Benson didn't find evidence of a sexual assault, however; no marks or suggestion of force. There was no evidence of vaginal injury, he said. Yet, he found "degenerated structures," which might be parts of sperm. He found sperm heads and tails in her cervical mucus but he couldn't say when intercourse had taken place.

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Benson's finding of sperm could add to the evidence taken from the outside and inside crotch area of Taylor's green corduroy pants. DNA evidence found on the pants in 2018 linked Getreu to the crime. The possibility of anyone else having that same DNA is 1 in 102 billion from the sample from inside the pants, Stauffer noted during his opening statement on Monday.

Benson hadn't noted the tear in the crotch of Taylor's pants at the time he examined them in 1974, however. He said his job was to examine the body and he probably wouldn't have noted tears in the clothing. Hartnett said that although she noted the torn rain jacket and shirt, those rips were large. On Tuesday after examining the clothing again, she found two small tears in a scarf that also belonged to Taylor but that she hadn't described in her original notes.

"It doesn't surprise me that I missed the tears. In my notes, I said the purpose for which I was receiving evidence was to collect trace evidence," she said.

Halley tried to cast doubt on the methodology used to collect and preserve the evidence. Hartnett dismissed that notion.

Handling of evidence is different now than it was 47 years ago and the way Taylor's evidence was stored wasn't necessarily the same, indicative of sloppy handling, Hartnett said.

"The movement of DNA from one piece of evidence to another wasn't a concern back in the day as it is today," she said, in response to Halley's questions about why multiple items of clothing were stored in the same bag.

"Today, you would expect items to be separate. Packaged separately," Halley said, to which Hartnett said yes. She testified that some trace evidence, such as fibers from the sweater, could be transferred onto the pants in Taylor's case, but whether the "contamination" would be important depends on many factors, including what kind of evidence had been transferred.

A strong woman able to fight back

The man who was closest to Taylor also testified on Tuesday that the 21-year-old woman was well-skilled to protect herself.

"Janet had a brown belt. It really surprised me what happened here because I thought she'd be taking anybody apart if they tried to attack her," said Russell Bissonnette, Taylor's companion who lived with her in La Honda.

Bissonnette said he and Taylor were in love. "We were connected. We were kind of unusual people," he said, living in the woods and the mountains.

On the morning of the day she died, he drove Taylor to her job on Page Mill Road. Her car had broken down and he was trying to fix another one for her. Bissonnette dropped Taylor off on March 24, 1974, at about 10:30 a.m. She wasn't sure if she wanted him to pick her up. She planned to visit with her best friend, Debbie Adams, who was about to return to college out of state and she thought she might hitchhike back to La Honda, he said.

In the late afternoon, Bissonnette drove to his job at the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, a jazz club in Miramar on the San Mateo County coast. He handled admission fees from patrons at the door and took care of security, he said.

When he arrived home at about 10:30 or 11 p.m., Taylor wasn't there. He thought she might be staying overnight at Adams' house. In the morning, however, with no word from Taylor, he was worried.

"I started by freaking out. I knew something was wrong but I didn't think it was that drastic. This just put me in another world," he said.

He and their close friend, James "Gideon" Schroeder, looked for Taylor. Bissonnette called her parents, but they didn't know where she was, he recalled.

Taylor, in the meantime, had been found in the ditch by a Peninsula Creamery dairy truck driver, Ernest Evangelo, who was on his way to make deliveries in Woodside. At first he thought he saw debris by the road, then he noticed a foot, he testified. Seeing Taylor laid out on her back, he checked her pulse, then went to a neighbor's house and asked her to call the police. Taylor was dead, he said.

Bissonnette saw Taylor for the last time in the morgue when he went with her parents to identify their daughter's body, he said.

Schroeder, who also took the witness stand on Tuesday, said during a separate interview that he's been waiting for 47 years for Taylor's killer to be found and tried.

"I'm happy to be here," he said, adding that he planned to watch the trial every day.

Schroeder said he didn't know about the injuries Taylor sustained until Tuesday. She was athletic and strong, and that she could be overwhelmed surprised him.

"I don't know if she put up a fight or not," he said.

Taylor was a warm, honest and loving person; the kind of person who opened her home on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to two strangers. He recalled when he and Bissonnette encountered a couple while picking up some butter at a local market. They took the couple back to the house so they could help fix the woman's broken-down car. Taylor and Schroeder's first wife, Claire, were cooking the post-Thanksgiving dinner and the couple was invited to join them.

"It was just like Russell and Janet to welcome people like that," Schroeder said.

He thinks about Taylor's death "all the time — many times a year," he said.

Sometimes, he feels regret. He and Bissonnette were working on fixing up a car they'd gotten to replace the one Taylor had that broke down. They had it running and only had the interior left to do. If the car was ready on March 24, Taylor would not have hitchhiked and she would still be alive, he said.

"I've thought about this. Why didn't we get that car done? If that car was ready, we'd all be sitting around drinking beer with Janet," he said.

Mostly, though, he thinks about Bissonnette.

"How sad it is for Russell — to have somebody ripped out of your life," he said. "I wonder, why?"

Getreu looked down and seemed disinterested during much of the testimony. It was hard, at times, to tell if he was dozing. But when Bissonnette and Schroeder took the stand, he looked directly at them and they looked back. Schroeder said he didn't feel much when he saw Getreu. Maybe, he said, if he'd seen him 47 years ago he'd feel different.

Now he just thinks "let the court system do its thing," he said.

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John Getreu trial: Evidence points to fierce struggle prior to killing

Janet Taylor's clothes were torn and her face was battered by her alleged attacker. Her friends said she was trained in martial arts.

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Sep 1, 2021, 9:34 am

Editor's note: Descriptions of crime in this article may be disturbing to some readers.

Janet Ann Taylor was caught in a struggle so intense with her alleged attacker, John Arthur Getreu, that her rain jacket was torn from the shoulder and her shirt was opened all the way down one side, evidence presented on Tuesday in San Mateo County Superior Court showed.

Taylor, who was 21 year old when she was murdered on March 24, 1974, was found in a ditch by the side of Sand Hill Road and Manzanita Way on Stanford University land. She had been strangled by hands strong enough to have left the ribbed impressions of her turtleneck sweater on her neck, a forensic pathologist testified during the second day of Getreu's trial for her killing. Her face was severely beaten.

John Arthur Getreu, now 77, was about 29 when she died. On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Josh Stauffer laid out evidence linking Getreu to the violent crime while defense attorney John Halley sought to discredit how the evidence was collected and handled.

Witness Celia Hartnett, a forensics science consultant and retired criminologist for the San Mateo County Sheriff's crime lab, said she remembered the case particularly because Taylor had been her biology lab partner in high school. As a young criminologist, Hartnett was tasked with examining Taylor's clothes for trace evidence — fibers, hair, dirt and other potential clues. She noted in her report the large rips on a black rain jacket found partially beneath Taylor at the crime scene.

Examining the evidence again in court on Tuesday afternoon, she noted the right arm of the cloth jacket was dangling from a rip that had nearly detached the sleeve. She found a similar rip on the right shoulder of a blue shirt Taylor had worn, and the tear went nearly all the way down one side. Taylor had worn the shirt beneath a bulky ribbed turtleneck sweater.

Marks from that sweater on Taylor's neck also showed the full force of her strangulation. The imprint of the turtleneck's ribbed pattern was found in the bruises at her throat, evidence of manual strangulation, according to testimony from the Nov. 5, 2019, preliminary hearing by the late Dr. Peter Benson, a county forensic pathologist who died in 2020. His testimony was read in court on Tuesday.

Taylor had hemorrhages in her neck and a fractured hyoid bone, a free-floating bone that sits on top of the throat. Her lungs were severely congested and were full of blood and fluid, consistent with asphyxia, Benson found. She died as a result of strangulation.

She also had bruises on her face and on her left ear from being beaten. Her right eye was also bruised and there were marks near her chin. Some of the damage was caused by small ant bites, he said.

Benson didn't find evidence of a sexual assault, however; no marks or suggestion of force. There was no evidence of vaginal injury, he said. Yet, he found "degenerated structures," which might be parts of sperm. He found sperm heads and tails in her cervical mucus but he couldn't say when intercourse had taken place.

Benson's finding of sperm could add to the evidence taken from the outside and inside crotch area of Taylor's green corduroy pants. DNA evidence found on the pants in 2018 linked Getreu to the crime. The possibility of anyone else having that same DNA is 1 in 102 billion from the sample from inside the pants, Stauffer noted during his opening statement on Monday.

Benson hadn't noted the tear in the crotch of Taylor's pants at the time he examined them in 1974, however. He said his job was to examine the body and he probably wouldn't have noted tears in the clothing. Hartnett said that although she noted the torn rain jacket and shirt, those rips were large. On Tuesday after examining the clothing again, she found two small tears in a scarf that also belonged to Taylor but that she hadn't described in her original notes.

"It doesn't surprise me that I missed the tears. In my notes, I said the purpose for which I was receiving evidence was to collect trace evidence," she said.

Halley tried to cast doubt on the methodology used to collect and preserve the evidence. Hartnett dismissed that notion.

Handling of evidence is different now than it was 47 years ago and the way Taylor's evidence was stored wasn't necessarily the same, indicative of sloppy handling, Hartnett said.

"The movement of DNA from one piece of evidence to another wasn't a concern back in the day as it is today," she said, in response to Halley's questions about why multiple items of clothing were stored in the same bag.

"Today, you would expect items to be separate. Packaged separately," Halley said, to which Hartnett said yes. She testified that some trace evidence, such as fibers from the sweater, could be transferred onto the pants in Taylor's case, but whether the "contamination" would be important depends on many factors, including what kind of evidence had been transferred.

The man who was closest to Taylor also testified on Tuesday that the 21-year-old woman was well-skilled to protect herself.

"Janet had a brown belt. It really surprised me what happened here because I thought she'd be taking anybody apart if they tried to attack her," said Russell Bissonnette, Taylor's companion who lived with her in La Honda.

Bissonnette said he and Taylor were in love. "We were connected. We were kind of unusual people," he said, living in the woods and the mountains.

On the morning of the day she died, he drove Taylor to her job on Page Mill Road. Her car had broken down and he was trying to fix another one for her. Bissonnette dropped Taylor off on March 24, 1974, at about 10:30 a.m. She wasn't sure if she wanted him to pick her up. She planned to visit with her best friend, Debbie Adams, who was about to return to college out of state and she thought she might hitchhike back to La Honda, he said.

In the late afternoon, Bissonnette drove to his job at the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, a jazz club in Miramar on the San Mateo County coast. He handled admission fees from patrons at the door and took care of security, he said.

When he arrived home at about 10:30 or 11 p.m., Taylor wasn't there. He thought she might be staying overnight at Adams' house. In the morning, however, with no word from Taylor, he was worried.

"I started by freaking out. I knew something was wrong but I didn't think it was that drastic. This just put me in another world," he said.

He and their close friend, James "Gideon" Schroeder, looked for Taylor. Bissonnette called her parents, but they didn't know where she was, he recalled.

Taylor, in the meantime, had been found in the ditch by a Peninsula Creamery dairy truck driver, Ernest Evangelo, who was on his way to make deliveries in Woodside. At first he thought he saw debris by the road, then he noticed a foot, he testified. Seeing Taylor laid out on her back, he checked her pulse, then went to a neighbor's house and asked her to call the police. Taylor was dead, he said.

Bissonnette saw Taylor for the last time in the morgue when he went with her parents to identify their daughter's body, he said.

Schroeder, who also took the witness stand on Tuesday, said during a separate interview that he's been waiting for 47 years for Taylor's killer to be found and tried.

"I'm happy to be here," he said, adding that he planned to watch the trial every day.

Schroeder said he didn't know about the injuries Taylor sustained until Tuesday. She was athletic and strong, and that she could be overwhelmed surprised him.

"I don't know if she put up a fight or not," he said.

Taylor was a warm, honest and loving person; the kind of person who opened her home on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to two strangers. He recalled when he and Bissonnette encountered a couple while picking up some butter at a local market. They took the couple back to the house so they could help fix the woman's broken-down car. Taylor and Schroeder's first wife, Claire, were cooking the post-Thanksgiving dinner and the couple was invited to join them.

"It was just like Russell and Janet to welcome people like that," Schroeder said.

He thinks about Taylor's death "all the time — many times a year," he said.

Sometimes, he feels regret. He and Bissonnette were working on fixing up a car they'd gotten to replace the one Taylor had that broke down. They had it running and only had the interior left to do. If the car was ready on March 24, Taylor would not have hitchhiked and she would still be alive, he said.

"I've thought about this. Why didn't we get that car done? If that car was ready, we'd all be sitting around drinking beer with Janet," he said.

Mostly, though, he thinks about Bissonnette.

"How sad it is for Russell — to have somebody ripped out of your life," he said. "I wonder, why?"

Getreu looked down and seemed disinterested during much of the testimony. It was hard, at times, to tell if he was dozing. But when Bissonnette and Schroeder took the stand, he looked directly at them and they looked back. Schroeder said he didn't feel much when he saw Getreu. Maybe, he said, if he'd seen him 47 years ago he'd feel different.

Now he just thinks "let the court system do its thing," he said.

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