News

Five cold-case Peninsula killings linked to 1976 Reno murder

By Laura Dudnick, Bay City News Service

Within a four-month period in the winter and spring of 1976, five young women disappeared in San Mateo County and were later found murdered.

None of the five homicides has been solved, but authorities on Thursday said the person who killed those women is believed to be the same person who murdered a 19-year-old woman in Reno that year.

The connection was announced at a news conference outside the Redwood City courthouse Thursday morning, where authorities said investigators are appealing to the public to help solve the killings, known as the "Gypsy Hill murders."

A joint task force involving the FBI and San Mateo County law enforcement agencies has been created to focus on the cases, and in the coming weeks agents, officers and deputies plan to canvass neighborhoods where the women were last seen or where their bodies were found to try to turn up new leads.

"No tips or observations are too small for us," said Gerald Bessette, assistant special agent in charge at the FBI's San Francisco office.

Authorities are hoping someone will remember a suspicious incident or detail that could shed light on any of the homicides. He said anyone who lived in the Bay Area or Reno around the time the crimes occurred is asked to "reach back in their memories for anything unusual."

The first Peninsula victim was 18-year-old Veronica "Ronnie" Cascio, who was last seen Jan. 7, 1976, walking from her home to a bus stop at Bradford Way and Fairway Drive in Pacifica. Her body was found the next day at the Sharp Park Golf Course.

Fourteen-year-old Tanya Blackwell disappeared next, on Jan. 24. She had left her home on Heathcliff Drive in Pacifica, reportedly to walk to a 7-Eleven store at King Drive in South San Francisco. Her body was located months later, on June 6, off Gypsy Hill Road in Pacifica.

Next to disappear was 17-year-old Paula Baxter, who was last seen leaving the parking lot of Capuchino High School in San Bruno on Feb. 4. Early the next morning, her car, a bronze 1972 Chevy Vega station wagon, was found parked on a nearby residential street, and the day after that, Baxter's body was discovered hidden in brush behind the Latter Day Saints Church on Ludeman Lane.

The next Peninsula victim was Carol Lee Booth, also known as "Beedy," a 26-year-old who was last seen walking from the bus stop on El Camino Real at Arroyo Street in South San Francisco toward her home. Booth disappeared on March 15, but her body wasn't recovered until May 4.

She was known to use a common shortcut across an open area between Kaiser Hospital and Mission Road near the former El Camino Real Driving Range, and her body was found hidden in some vegetation in that area.

The fifth Peninsula victim was 19-year-old Denise Lampe, who left Serramonte Mall in Daly City on April 1 and returned to her vehicle, never to be seen alive again. Her body was found that evening inside her vehicle, a 1964-1/2 Mustang, which was parked in the same location at the mall, between Macy's and the Denny's restaurant.

Sandwiched between two of the San Mateo County murders was the killing of 19-year-old University of Nevada-Reno student Michelle Mitchell.

At about 8:10 p.m. on Feb. 24, 1976, Mitchell's vehicle broke down at the intersection of Ninth Street and Evans Avenue in Reno. Someone assisted her in pushing the vehicle, a yellow early 1970s Volkswagen Bug, into a parking lot across from the university's agricultural building on Evans Street.

Her body was found later that night in the garage of a nearby home.

Based on forensic evidence in a number of the cases, the time frame of the murders and the methods used by the killer, investigators are "confident" that all six murders were committed by the same person.

In addition to the FBI, agencies involved in the task force include the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, the Daly City Police Department, the Pacifica Police Department, the South San Francisco Police Department, the Reno Police Department and the Washoe County Sheriff's Office.

Anyone with information about the case is urged to call the FBI's tip line at (415) 553-7400, then press 0 and advise that the call is in regards to the Gypsy Hill cases. All calls are confidential.

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