I know it’s irrational but I’ve always found something vaguely sinister about suburban California.
The residences, low-slung and large-windowed,
seem maximally designed to provide easy access for burglars and peepers;
and I can’t help but notice the houses are always placed just far . . . enough. . . apart . . . to muffle
even high-decibel screams.
Not coincidentally, the area is home to two of my unsolved crime obsessions:
the vanished girls of the I-80 Corridor
and Ear/Ons (or as I have personally dubbed him, the Shrinky-Dink Killer).
When I picture California in my mind’s eye I invariably conjure crime scenes—Cielo Drive, Lake Berryessa, Wonderland Avenue. For me, California dreamin’ is a nightmare.
Dublin, California; Friday, January 24th, 1986. Darkness is falling as 9-year old Beth Ringheim exits her mother’s car and approaches the black-shuttered rambler shared by her father and stepmother.
The front door is ajar.
Beth waves to her departing mother and steps inside the house.
“I was supposed to spend the weekend with my dad; the front door was usually kept unlocked for me, but on this occasion I found it propped open.” Beth Ringheim, Oakland Tribune, January 25th, 2006
An eerie stillness pervades the home.
The front door opens into the living room, and there on the floor lay a vision of horror:
the bodies of her father and stepmother, her stepmother’s head submerged in a bucket of water.
Arms duct-taped tightly behind their backs, the bodies have been positioned a few feet apart;
her stepmother has been gagged with a 2” strip of tape.
Unspeakable evil has canceled Beth Ringheim’s weekend visitation—she ran to a nearby home and asked a neighbor to summon the police.
“I stood there and called to my dad; he didn’t respond. I was in shock. I thought at first it was some sort of joke, but as I got closer I knew.” Beth Ringheim, Oakland Tribune, January 25th, 2006
The Ringheims were atypical murder victims.
Harve, age 41, was a well-regarded veterinarian; he and his wife Keiko, age 29, had no known enemies.
Married less than a year, the couple’s courtship had been somewhat unconventional;
in the 1970s Keiko had lived with Harve and his previous wife and daughters as an exchange student.
Keiko had subsequently moved back to Japan and Harve and his previous wife eventually divorced,
though the relationship remained cordial.
Keiko had returned to America in 1984, only two years before the murders—at the time of their deaths the couple had been married nine months.
“It is such a huge tragedy that I can’t even talk about it to this day; it still affects me that much.” Beth Ringheim, Contra Costa Times, January 23rd, 2000
There were no signs of forced entry into the residence and the crime scene offered few clues.
A bedside drawer had been rifled through and some magazines scattered across the bedroom floor—otherwise the residence was undisturbed.
The couple’s emptied wallet and purse were found on a living room sofa,
but no items of value were otherwise missing from the home.
“Basically, the initial investigation didn’t bring anything to light.” Dublin Police Detective Nate Schmidt, Oakland Tribune, January 25th, 2006
The couple’s autopsies revealed they had been slain sometime between 10am and 2:30pm.
Harve had been stabbed a total of ten times in the head, neck and heart;
Keiko had been strangled to death prior to submergence.
The evening before the murders the Ringheims had returned home from a ski vacation;
on their final morning
Harve had been spotted at approximately 10am washing his Nissan 200SX at the Corwood Car Wash nearby.
“We don’t have any leads to go on and everyone wants to know what happened.” Detective Nate Schmidt, Oakland Tribune, January 26th, 2007
The Ringheim home is located across from Dublin High,
and investigators questioned students as well as area residents;
no one had noticed anything amiss the day the couple was slain.
A few months after the murders, however, a neighbor came forward and reported seeing a stranger on the Ringheim’s front lawn at 7:30am the day of the crime.
To date, authorities have refused to reveal whether this unknown male has ever been identified,
and the reason for the delay in the tipster’s disclosure is unknown.
“Everybody that could possibly be questioned was questioned.” Detective Nate Schmidt, Oakland Tribune, January 26th, 2007
Though the Dublin Police Department has been circumspect with many details—the couple’s state of dress
and the amount of cash usually kept on hand is unknown—but authorities
have freely shared several investigatory conclusions.
According to then-Police Chief Tom Shores, circumstances at the scene indicated Keiko was the primary target—Harve may have simply arrived home at an inopportune moment.
Chief Shores also told The San Jose Mercury News robbery and sexual assault have been ruled out as motives—the Ringheims were slain by at least two hired assassins, investigators believe,
although the evidence which led to this conclusion is unclear.
“There is no doubt in my mind there was more than one, and there is no doubt in my mind (the perpetrators) were in the house an extended period of time.” Sergeant Scott Dudek of the Alameda County Cold Case Unit, San Jose Mercury News, January 27th, 2011
Despite the best efforts of the Dublin Police Department
the Ringheim investigation—leads scarce and evidence scanty—soon floundered.
In 2011 the case file was transferred to the Alameda County Cold Case Unit,
and it was shortly thereafter that advancements in technology provided the first breakthrough in decades—confirming investigators’ suspicions,
forensic tests found the DNA of not one but two perpetrators at the crime scene.
Authorities have never revealed the location or source of the biological matter detected,
but they have confirmed the traces were microscopic—too few genetic markers were present
to enter the profiles into CODIS.
Nevertheless, as technology improves it’s possible the samples may be sufficient for entry at a future date.
“We are actively reviewing the entire case as well as all of the evidence to test using the latest technology.” Alameda County Deputy Jason Hawks, Eureka Times-Standard, November 15th, 2014
Law enforcement’s stinginess with the evidence but generosity with their conclusions has always perplexed me—obviously investigators are free to hold back any information they wish
but their reticence leaves so many questions unanswered.
Why was robbery ruled out as a motive if the Ringheims’ wallets were emptied?
If the scene was tidy why do investigators think the perpetrators spent extraneous time in the home,
and what evidence indicates the killers were working on behalf of someone else?
I’ve always felt the details doled out don’t quite mesh with the deductions drawn—why would professional assassins spend more time at the crime scene than absolutely necessary?
It’s possible, of course, the conclusions detectives have publicized are not fact-based
but merely conjecture courtesy of an FBI profile,
and profiling is an inexact science at best.
“People do come forward after many years and give us information that is just huge.” Alameda County Sergeant Scott Dudek, San Jose Mercury News, January 27th, 2011
Personally, I’ve always wondered if the timing and placement of the Ringheim home was significant.
According to Dr. Ringheim’s secretary, at the time there was a common misconception veterinarians had access to PCP (Dr. Ringheim did not).
Perhaps some drug-seeking students noticed the Ringheims had been away for a few days—since Harve was at the carwash the morning of the crime the assailants assumed the home was still empty.
After entering via the door which had been left unlocked in anticipation of Beth’s visit
the killers found Keiko reading magazines in bed and things went sideways—perhaps she was water-boarded in an attempt to locate the (non-existent) PCP.
Of course, if the killers came equipped with their own duct tape this theory is moot;
and it’s only one of many scenarios which jibe with the fragments of publicized evidence.
Without a more complete picture of the scene and circumstances speculation is pointless.
“There has to be somebody out there that knows what happened.” Dublin Police Detective Nate Schmidt, Contra Costa Times, January 24th, 2006
Although the investigation is entering its third decade
neither the Ringheims’ loved ones nor the Alameda County Sheriff’s Cold Case Unit have given up on solving the crime;
a $50,000 reward offered by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for information pertaining to the murders is still viable.
Perhaps this will be the year Harve and Keiko are finally afforded the justice they deserve.
“I think (the reward) will bring light to the investigation.” Dublin Police Lieutenant Glen Moon, Contra Costa Times, March 28th, 2006
And as we wait for justice in the Ringheim murders we will wait for justice in the EAR/ONS case and I-80 Corridor vanishings as well.
Personally, I will do my part—I know it sounds farfetched but sometimes, on moonlit nights,
as I scan through the vintage photographs of murdered couples and missing girls
I feel the stirrings of a kind of enchantment.
The pixilated images on my computer screen begin to feel alive—sometimes I think if I can just sharpen my gaze
time and space will evanesce
and the wind will begin to whisper in the black-and-white trees.
West Coast birds will trill.
And maybe, just maybe something or someone will come into view:
the door of the Ringheim house will creak open, or EAR/ONS will pedal by on a stolen bicycle,
his ski mask whipping in the wind.
The Golden West is the land of make believe—the possibilities are endless.
And that’s the only California dream I wouldn’t mind becoming a reality.