John Getreu receives life sentence for 1974 murder | November 12, 2021 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - November 12, 2021

John Getreu receives life sentence for 1974 murder

Family, friends of Janet Ann Taylor, other victims find relief after 47 years

by By Sue Dremann

Calling the string of strangulation murders and sexual assaults by John Arthur Getreu "evil and despicable crimes," San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Robert Foiles sentenced the 77-year-old man to life in prison and a $5,000 fine Nov. 5 for killing Janet Ann Taylor 47 years ago.

"Words cannot begin to express my sorrow in this case," Foiles said.

He wished that Taylor's parents were alive to see the man who killed their daughter be brought to justice and hoped all of the families and the surviving victims would get some solace from knowing that Getreu would spend the remainder of his life in prison.

A jury convicted Hayward resident Getreu of first-degree murder and infliction of great bodily injury on Sept. 14 after a scant hour of deliberation. His trial lasted 18 days. He murdered Taylor, 21, on March 24, 1974, while she was hitchhiking home after visiting a friend. Her body was found in a ditch on Sand Hill Road near Manzanita Way. The La Honda woman had been strangled, beaten and sexually assaulted.

Witnesses, including his family, a former wife, the family of another murder victim and another victim who survived an assault by Getreu provided testimony during his trial.

Getreu was previously convicted and imprisoned in Germany when he was 18 years old for the 1963 strangulation, beating and rape of 15-year-old Margaret Williams. Her father, an Army chaplain, and his father, who was also an Army officer, were serving at a base in Bad Kreuznach.

Getreu spent more than six years of a 10-year sentence — the maximum allowed at that time in Germany — behind bars before returning to his family in the U.S. But his penchant for sexually assaulting and strangling young, dark-haired women apparently continued.

In 1975, he took a plea deal for a lesser charge, statutory rape, after being charged with the forcible rape of a Palo Alto teenager who was in his Explorer Scout troop. She testified during the Taylor case that he had also strangled her and threatened to kill her if she didn't submit to his assault. His stepdaughter and an ex-wife have also said off the witness stand that he sexually assaulted the girl for years during her childhood.

On Feb. 16, 1973, Leslie Marie Perlov, also 21, was found strangled in a remote area near what is now the Stanford Dish hiking trail, which isn't far from where Taylor's body was found 13 months later.

Getreu wasn't on anyone's suspect list, however. Although California had the first mandatory sex offender registry law in the nation, dating to 1947, mandatory federal sex offender registration that could link crimes committed in other states wasn't enacted until 1994. The National Sex Offender Registry database, which is used by law enforcement, wasn't established until 1996, two decades after Getreu's crime in Germany and his Palo Alto conviction.

It was nearly 50 years until modern DNA testing linked him to the Taylor and Perlov murders. (Getreu still faces trial in Santa Clara County for Perlov's death.)

On Nov. 5, Getreu sat motionless in his wheelchair in court wearing a red jail jumpsuit. A pair of headphones was strapped over his ears so Getreu, who is hearing impaired, could listen to the court proceedings.

He remained alert, neither appearing to doze during testimony, nor perking up with interest when photographs of his dead victims were shown on a screen, as he had during his trial.

He didn't swivel his head to acknowledge his only son, the sole member of his family who attended the trial and his sentencing. He didn't look at Taylor's friend, James Schroeder, when Schroeder made an impact statement to the court. During the trial, Getreu had fixed a steady gaze on Schroeder and Taylor's then-boyfriend, Russell Bissonnette, during their testimonies.

Schroeder and Bissonette, who was also present at the sentencing, had been fast friends who met while students at Ca?ada College. Taylor was "a quiet force of nature;" a serious student; and a wonderful, beautiful person who was well-spoken, kind and who loved nature, he said.

Shortly before she died, Schroeder took photographs of Taylor leaning against his favorite car, he recalled. "I'm so glad to have the pictures," he said in court.

The photographs reminded him of Taylor's vibrant life, a life lost before anyone would ever know her promise and what she would bring to the world, he said.

The pictures are grainy, he noted. It took a few years before he had the film developed.

"It was a simple thing that got lost in the aftermath of Janet's murder," he said.

Schroeder said he is glad he was able to testify during the trial. He feels sorry for the Explorer Scout Getreu raped and strangled and for the deaths of Margaret Williams, Perlov and Taylor and the pain their families and friends have experienced, he said.

Schroeder said he wished Getreu had faced the death penalty. Still, Getreu "will get the justice he deserves today," he said of the life sentence.

San Mateo County Deputy District Attorney Josh Stauffer read additional impact statements into the court record. He asked the court to add the statements to Getreu's probation file for consideration if he ever comes up for a parole hearing. Foiles admitted the documents.

In a moving statement read by Stauffer, Perlov's sister Diane noted that she is still traumatized by her sibling's death. She doesn't like tight clothing near her neck and she won't go alone into a parking lot at night.

"The scarf wrapped around her neck was mine," she said.

Fourteen months apart in age, Leslie was the older sister. She was her protector and dear friend.

"No one made me laugh so hard," she said.

Families are affected for multiple generations by murder, she noted. It's not only about memories lost, but the robbing of memories and experiences that can never be made. Diane's son cherishes an oil painting of the aunt he never met and he named his daughter after Leslie, she said.

"I'm relieved that this convicted killer will not murder again," she said. She asked that Getreu not have any opportunity of parole to eliminate any chance of his relief from his crimes.

Stauffer, in his final closing statement, also emphasized the need for Getreu to remain imprisoned to reflect on his crimes.

"John Getreu is the definition of a serial killer. He deserves nothing less than to be alone, locked in a cell for the rest of his life; to be haunted by the killings and rapes" he committed, he said.

Taylor's family has preferred to remain private. Stauffer said her sister thanked the court for the opportunity to view the trial privately from a livestream in the District Attorney's Office. In a report filed in court, she described her sister as fun, pleasant, outgoing, talkative, smart, beautiful, strong, compassionate and well-balanced.

Stauffer also read a victim's impact statement from the brother of Getreu's first known victim, Margaret Williams. Evan Williams, who also testified at the trial, said he was 7 years old when his sister was murdered. Getreu might justify his killings in his mind, leaving their bodies "like trash," but he has seriously damaged other lives. Still, Getreu didn't destroy them. "We have lived and loved," he said.

Since his sister's murder in 1963 to this day, Getreu has never showed remorse for his crimes, Evan Williams noted.

"When you were on trial in 1964, you tried blaming and shaming Margaret" with "twisted lies" during the trial, he said.

"You did not show strength. You showed weakness. You will try to hide in the darkness of your soul. Step up into the light of truth. Stand up and speak the truth," he said.

There's one glimmer of hope that Getreu might someday own up to his crimes, Stauffer noted. On page four of the probation report, Getreu said he wants to plead guilty to the murder of Perlov, Stauffer said. If he does so, perhaps then the families can begin to feel some closure to Getreu's crimes, he added.

Outside of the courtroom, San Mateo County Sheriff's Office Detective Gordon Currie said the most poignant moment for him during sentencing came while hearing the words of the victims' families. He was struck by the effect of Getreu's crimes on all of the families, including the killer's own.

For detectives, a murder and a lack of closure are also emotional and hard. Currie thinks of the many investigators who worked on the Taylor case before him and the avenues of inquiry they went down that only led to dead ends. They didn't have the tools of DNA that he had, he noted.

But Currie knows what it is to live and breathe a case for years in hopes of getting justice for a victim and their family, he said. In that moment, when a long-retired investigator gets a call that a case has been solved, there's a tremendous feeling of relief and closure, he said.

"It's like we're on a peaceful lake and Getreu is a speedboat leaving long wakes in everyone's life. ... I'm glad that he's finally out of gas," he said.

Getreu will appear in Santa Clara County Superior Court for a trial-setting conference for Perlov's murder on Jan. 19.

Email Staff Writer Sue Dremann at [email protected]

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