In the autumn of 1974, the Peninsula was shaken by a horrific crime. Arlis Perry, the 19-year-old wife of a Stanford undergraduate student, was found slain in the university’s historic Memorial Church.
The prayerful place in which the devoutly religious young newlywed sought solace became the site of her demise, and her body was positioned with what seemed to be eerie ritual significance. The murder captured the attention of the media and local community, and frustrated law enforcement agencies as a cold case for decades. Scott Herhold, who joined the San Jose Mercury News’ Peninsula bureau in 1977, became fascinated by the story and followed it closely as a reporter and columnist over his 40-year career with the paper.
“I always said that if they solved this, I was going to quit my day job and write a book. It had so many twists and turns; it was something that touched a campus and a community and wouldn’t let people go. You had all sorts of people trying to chip in and solve this crime – and in a sense, I was one of those people,” he said. “The fact that it happened in a church with a very innocent victim, in a layout that was just gruesome, it was a story that beckoned to be written about and explained.”
Herhold’s book, “Murder Under God’s Eye: The Nightmare Killing in Stanford’s Church” was published this year.
Over the course of more than 400 pages, Herhold draws on his years of journalism expertise and delivers a deep dive on the case, introducing readers to a plethora of colorful characters along the way.
Police (and amateur sleuths) considered many potential suspects over the years, from Perry’s husband to harmless campus eccentrics to nationally infamous serial killers of the era, including the so-called “Son of Sam,” David Berkowitz. Herhold’s father, a Lutheran pastor in Palo Alto, used to urge his son not to overlook Memorial Church’s ministers in the investigation. Perry’s death also came on the heels of several other mysterious murders in the Stanford area.
The case involved both Stanford’s own police department, during a period of upheaval and reform, and Santa Clara County sheriffs, which at the time of the case’s conclusion was helmed by Laurie Smith, who was later found guilty in a civil corruption trial.
The relationship between law enforcement and the media has changed over the years, Herhold said, noting that at the time of Perry’s murder, “so many of the gruesome details of the killing became public so soon,” Today, he said, police departments are much less inclined to share information on cases, at least at in the early stages of investigations.
The case was finally declared solved by the sheriff’s department in 2018, thanks to DNA evidence pointing to longtime suspect Stephen Crawford – the Stanford security guard who first reported finding Perry’s body. “We got a stiff in here,” he radioed campus dispatch, Herhold notes in the book’s opening. Crawford died by suicide before being arrested, when police arrived with a search warrant.
“That shocked me,” Herhold said of Crawford’s sudden death, recalling that he received the news while he was visiting his mother at Palo Alto’s Channing House.
“As odd as this is, and as probably unwholesome as it is, it did a lot of favors for people. It allowed the sheriff to proclaim the case solved, it allowed the district attorneys to avoid trying the case with loose ends, and allowed me to write with freedom about Steve Cawford,” he said.
With the perpetrator identified, Herhold was able to progress with his research on the subject in a clearer way. “That moment really crystalized and changed things for me,” he said.
Herhold said that while Crawford was always his prime suspect, not all are fully convinced of the former security guard’s guilt, despite the evidence. Some, including some of the original detectives on the case, remain skeptical, believing Crawford, “just did not have the wherewithal, the gumption, the fortitude to commit murder,” he said. “It’s hard for them to change that point of view.”
Crawford did not exactly stay under the radar, either. In later years, he was found to be stealing valuables from the university, and, as Herhold noted, even stole a blank diploma, took it to a print shop and conferred upon himself a fraudulent Stanford degree.
It also surprises people, he said, that Crawford did not, it seems, commit additional murders.
“That’s one of the central mysteries; we’re used to thinking of sex-motivated murderers (though Perry was not raped, her body was sexually violated) as serial murders,” Herhold said. “Everything we know indicates it was a one-off. I’ve given up trying to explain the man’s psyche but I think that’s a question a lot of people ask.”
As for Herhold, now that the case is closed and his long-term goal of completing a book on Perry’s case has been achieved, the San Jose resident and retiree said he’s in “recovery mode.”
He’s proud of his extensive and in-depth research – “I tried to run down every little lead. That's one of the things you can do in retirement because you have the time” – he said. “Murder Under God’s Eye” is a fitting finale on the topic, for now, at least, from the longtime journalist. “The idea here was never to make money on it; the idea was to tell the story as well as I could,” he said. “I think people appreciate the amount of reporting that went into this.”
More information is available at murderundergodseye.com.