Gaviota Beach Murders

The Domingo-Edwards Case

Gaviota Beach Murders

"Laughing Boy Sought in Sweethearts Slaying"

On June 4, 1963, a highway patrolman was called to the Gaviota Beach in Santa Barbara County, where the bodies of two high-school sweethearts had been found. The teenagers, Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards, had been shot numerous times and their bodies placed in a wooden shack, which the killer had attempted unsuccessfully to set on fire. Several days later two Santa Cruz teenagers were picked up by police due to their suspected involvement in several thefts, as well as the murder of a Lompoc quarry worker. The boys admitted to perpetrating the crime spree, but denied any involement in the murder, telling investigators that another teenager they knew only as “Sandy” had been responsible for the death of 63-year-old Vernon C. Smith.

Police strongly suspected that “Sandy” had also been responsible for the double murder at Gaviota, and two composite sketches were created of the suspect by those who met him. Despite a thorough search, the youth was never apprehended. In subsequent years, investigators have drawn comparisons between the Gaviota Beach murders and the Lake Berryessa killings committed by the Zodiac Killer, and many amateur sleuths have theorized that “Sandy” and the elusive Zodiac were the same person, and the slayings at Gaviota were possibly the first victims of the notorious serial killer.

On June 4, 1963, Robert Domingos and his girlfriend Linda Edwards decided to go to a secluded beach near the local Gaviota State Park, rather than going to their school’s official Senior Ditch Day party. They had arranged to go to the beach with Linda’s friend Shirley Gnesa and her boyfriend, but when they were unable to attend, the couple decided to go by themselves. When they failed to return home that day, their worried parents contacted the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office and reported their disappearance.

The missing teenagers were both students at Lompoc High School, and were about to graduate the next day. Robert Domingos was a varsity football lineman and for two years was the vice president of the Lompoc chapter of the Future Farmers of America. Friends of the teenagers would later tell the local press they were engaged and due to be married that November. On the evening of June 5, 1963, the father of Robert Domingo went with several others in search of his son, after their failure to return home.

Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards

Although George Domingos spotted his son’s 1956 copper and black Pontiac parked in some bushes near Gaviota Beach, there was no sign of the young couple. The remote beach was situated 3.32 miles east of Gaviota State Park, alongside Highway 101. Later that evening, at around 10:00pm, Highway Patrolman Paul Schultz was directed to a driftwood beach shack by 19-year-old Lee Gnesa, the brother of Linda’s friend Shirley Gnesa, where the officer found the bodies of 18-year-old Robert George Domingos and 17-year-old Linda Faye Edwards.

Murder of Gaviota Beach

The victims had been shot numerous times by someone who placed the bodies inside the shack, and then attempted to set a fire by piling leaves and other debris around the lean-to, which could have accounted for the partially burned state of the structure. Investigators made a thorough search of the beach and found some matches, which they believed were used to burn the shack, along with rope, which could have been used during the crime to restrain the young couple.

The driftwood shack at Gaviota Beach

Ejected .22 caliber shell casings were located in a creek bed near the beach, alongside tracks which seemed to indicate the couple were shot there and then dragged to the shack by the killer or killers. Inside the shack, detectives found three ammunition boxes, one of which was empty, whilst the other two contained some .22 caliber bullets. The autopsy, conducted by Dr. John P. Blanchard, found that Domingos had been shot eleven times, and Edwards had been shot nine times with a .22 caliber long rifle.

It was believed that Domingos had fought with their attacker because of the bruises to his face, which seemed to indicate he put up some resistance. His body had been placed facing down inside the shack, then the body of Edwards had been placed on top of him, facing upwards. Domingos was still wearing his surfer shorts, however Edwards’ bathing suit had either been cut off or ripped from her body. Despite this, Dr. Blanchard could find no evidence that Edwards had been sexually molested.

Although investigators know what brought the couple to the beach that day, they had to employ some speculation to fully understand the sequence of events that led to their deaths on that sunny June day. It was known that Domingos and Edwards had decided to spend their Senior Ditch Day at the beach, and had invited Shirley Gnesa and her partner, who both declined to join them. They decided to go sunbathing by themselves at Gaviota, which was a remote beach accessed from a decline trail off the main highway, where the couple left their car. They had spread a blanket on the ground over the sand, not far from the water where it was later found by police.

It was at the beach that the killer had either surprised or confronted the teenagers, who would have complied with their captor who was brandishing a rifle. The rope found at the scene could have been used by the killer to tie up the victims, however neither body was bound when discovered, so it was possible they somehow managed to escape. The bruising on Domingos face seemed evident of an altercation between him and their assailant, and it was highly likely they attempted to run and were shot down by the killer, who proceeded to shoot both execution-style as they lay bleeding.

For unknown reasons, the killer then proceeded to drag the bodies over 30 feet to a nearby shack, where he placed them inside, one on top of the other. At some point Linda’s swimsuit was cut off, revealing her breasts. It was believed the killer then attempted to set fire to a tarpaulin covering the door of the shack, indicative of the scorch marks, however it was impossible to determine when these were caused and the attempted arson was pure speculated because of spent matches found at the scene.

The Murder Investigation

Seasoned Santa Barbara County detectives considered the murder sloppy, and the killer amateurish, primarily because there was numerous pieces of evidence left at the scene, including footprints and spent and un-spent ammunition casings, that had been discarded inside the shack where the bodies were discovered. The brand was believed to be .22 caliber Western Super X long rifle ammunition, and the un-used ammunition boxes had a lot number, and were sold locally, although not exclusively at the nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base.

However, there were no price tags on the boxes, meaning they were probably part of a larger consignment. On the same day the bodies were discovered, detectives questioned a youth they believed could be connected to the homicides. The 17-year-old Lompoc boy had been arrested on suspicion of intoxication in downtown Lompoc, and during questioning claimed to have known both both victims well, stating that he had been jealous of Domingos.

Under questioning, he said he was at the Refugio Beach on Tuesday, the day of the double murder, which was several miles from the crime scene. The boy, who was described by Sheriff’s deputies as having a badly bruised hand, with knuckles “pushed in”, was belligerent when arrested and had a previous arrest warrant with the Lompoc Police Department. Although the Lompoc youth had access to firearms, he was later ruled out of the investigation and released.

Newspaper Article mentioning "Sandy"

Overnight Santa Barbara Sheriff’s deputies travelled to Santa Cruz at the instigation of police Lieutenant Richard Overston, and returned to the County jail with two other youths who had admitted being implicated in the murder of a Lompoc man early on Monday. 16-year-old James L. Coleman and 17-year-old J. C. Reed, Jr. had been overheard by a hotel clerk talking about getting ammunition for a gun they had. During questioning the boys began to provide more details about another youth they knew, who had talked lots about buying .22 calibre rifle.

Because of these interrogations, both youths were found to have been complicit in the murder of Vernon C. Smith, a 63-year-old quarry worker in Lompoc, who had been brutally stabbed to death on June 2, 1963, and died the following day. The boys admitted to being involved in a crime spree over the course of several days, but they denied having murdered Smith, telling detectives that a third youth by the name “Sandy” had been the one who committed the murder.

The Mysterious Sandy

The boys explained how they first came to know the youth they called “Sandy”, who they met at the beach boardwalk area in Santa Cruz on May 30, 1963. Other people had met “Sandy” there too, and Steven Straub, a Santa Cruz resident, would later draw a sketch of the youth for investigators. That night Coleman, Reed and “Sandy” along with others spent the next two nights sleeping at the beach. The three youths began a crime spree, stealing a Sunbeam to drive to the Lompoc area, where they arrived by Sunday, June 2.

There they robbed $20.00 from 59-year-old Nellie Harris at her apartment at 529 Chestnut Street. They then proceeded to drive around the Lompoc and Santa Maria area during the day, and by the evening they came across Vern C. Smith, deciding to rob him. At sometime around 11:00pm, they approached Smith and “Sandy” told him they had run out of gas, and asked for help near his camper truck in which he lived in San Miguelito Canyon.

Smith obliged and as he was bent over refilling their tank with a portable gasoline tank, “Sandy” pulled out a knife and stabbed him in the back. The blade went straight through into his heart, and while both Coleman and Reed later claimed to be shocked, they inexplicably decided to rifle Smith’s body, stealing $360 from him. As the three youths fled, they decided to stay in motel.

The Straub Composite drawing of "Sandy"

Coleman and Reed were now unnerved by “Sandy’s” coldblooded slaying of Smith, and gave him £20 to rent a room at the Royal Motel at Arroyo Grande. As he went inside they decided to ditch him, and as they drove away, they tossed out the clothes he had left in the car on the roadside to Santa Cruz. Police later found these clothes, exactly where the boys said they threw them from the car. Inside the clothes there was a name tag sewn into the lining with the name Bob Coffman, which detectives suspected might have been stolen.

The Sheriff’s investigation concluded that “Sandy” did exist, because at the motel he registered under the name William Carr, providing a fake address in Bakersfield. The boys testified that they had asked “Sandy” why he stabbed the man, and he replied, “I don’t know”. Sheriff’s detectives theorised the youth might have been a run-away from the San Francisco Bay area, and was described as between 17-18 years of age, 5ft 6in tall, around 140 pounds, with blue eyes, blonde hair combed down over his forehead and wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a buttoned down collar and a black slip-over shirt.

The Clark composite drawing of "Sandy"

He was described as smoking Pall Mall, as well as other cigarettes and holding them close to the base of his fingers. On June 11, 1963, Santa Barbara County police Leiutenant H. C. Clark produced a composite drawing of “Sandy” based on the descriptions given by Coleman and Reed. Detectives appealed for any information about the youth, who was being sought under a coast-wide all-points bulletin over the murder of Vernon Smith. “Sandy”, who was referred to as the “laughing boy”, and the “laughing killer”, was now strongly suspected of involvement in the double homicide at Gaviota Beach. Newspaper articles at the time made reference to “Sandy”, with the headline “Laughing Boy Sought in Sweethearts Slaying”.

At the time of the Domingos and Edwards murders, Santa Barbara was a very sparsely populated county, and the murders attributed to “Sandy” had taken place in a close-knit and rural area, which consisted mostly of farmland. Coleman and Smith confessed to their involvement in the robbery and murder of Smith, and their hearing was set for June 28, but investigators ruled them out of having participated in the Gaviota Beach murders. Despite a thorough investigation, the youth known as “Sandy” was never identified.

Several other suspects were investigation for the murders of Domingos and Edwards. On June 11, Sacramento Sergeant John Gabrielli announced that investigators had cleared another suspect, who had been arrested in Sacramento two days earlier. The suspect was a 17-year-old youth who resigned from his job at a car wash at Lompoc on May 31, 1963. His physical appearance was similar to the description of “Sandy”, and he was seen wearing surfer shorts and had scratches on his wrists and arms, which he claimed were caused by a dog.

The youth had a .22 calibre rifle, and admitted under questioning to stealing a .22 calibre pistol and ammunition from a relative in Lompoc, on Saturday June 1, 1963. He claimed he returned to Sacramento on June 2, and was witnessed attending a baseball game in Sacramento on 4 June, which ruled him out as a suspect. One week later a 17-year-old boy from Newport Beach was taken to the Orange County Juvenile Hall after police received reports he had a .22 calibre rifle, whilst his physical description matched that of “Sandy”. He was eventually cleared as a suspect. On June 28, 1963, the Juvenile Court hearing of Coleman and Reed began in Santa Barbara.

Both boys were officially charged with the murder and robbery of Vernon Smith on July 3. Santa Barbara County Superior Judge C. Douglas Smith ruled that both youths would be tried in adult court and were held with bail. On September 20, 1963, Coleman and Reed were arraigned before Superior Court Judge John Westwick. During the trial, the two boys had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit robbery and were sentenced to five years to life.

Meanwhile the investigation into the murders of Domingos and Edwards continued, and Santa Barbara detectives announced on October 25, 1963 they were searching for a vagrant who had allegedly been living in the driftwood shack at Gaviota Beach, and was seen by witnesses using a rifle several weeks before the murders. Composite drawings were made by witnesses to assist with searching for the suspect, who was later identified as 50-year-old George Edward Gill, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Gill had been born in South Dakota, and had been in the US Army from 1943-1945, when he was honourably discharged after injuring his back. The whereabouts of his wife and son were unknown to police. A similar crime to the Gaviota Murders occurred on February 5, 1964 in San Diego, when 20-year-old Johnny Ray Swindle and his 19-year-old wife Joyce were shot to death at the boardwalk on Ocean Beach. The killer had shot the recently married couple from above, hitting them twice before moving closer to shoot each of them in the head.

Investigators determined the weapon was a .22 calibre gun, and soon there were suggestions the killer was also responsible for the deaths of Domingos and Edwards. Ballistic tests would prove the gun used to kill the Swindles was different than the gun used at Gaviota. Police Sergeant Ed Stevens made an announcement to the press that they knew there was at least one witness to the double murder whom they were seeking.

It wasn’t until December 1964, that George Gill was arrested by police. He was apprehended by Officer James Picco near a shack he was living in on East Warren Street in Santa Ana. Gill was now considered a suspect in the murders of Domingos and Edwards and the Swindle murder in San Diego. He was also suspected of pawning stolen guns in San Francisco, and was taken to Santa Barbara for questioning, where he later admitted building and living at the driftwood shack at Gaviota Beach.

Gill explained he was working at an orchard in San Jose, where he was also living at that time, on the day of the murder and so couldn’t have committed the crime. The next day, on December 3, Gill took a lie detector test which but the results were inconclusive. After detectives verified his alibi, he was cleared as a suspect and released the following day.

The Zodiac Connection

Santa Barbara County detectives were still pursuing leads on the murders into the early 1970’s. William “Bill” Baker of the Sheriff’s Department had been assigned to investigate the Gaviota killings, and issued a teletype press release to other jurisdictions seeking any information on similar cases. He was soon contacted by Inspector Bill Armstrong of the San Francisco Police Department who had been working the Zodiac serial murder case.

Armstrong and his partner Inspector Dave Toschi shared their suspicions that the Zodiac killer may have been responsible for the murders of Domingos and Edwards because of the numerous and similar elements to that crime and the Lake Berryessa attack attributed to the Zodiac. The murders at Gaviota Beach shared many hallmarks of the Zodiac’s attack on Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard at Lake Berryessa on September 27, 1969.

When Baker revealed to Armstrong and Toschi that the killer used some pre-cut lengths of rope to tie the victims, it was very similar to what the Zodiac had done. Similar to how the killer ordered Shepard to tie Hartnell and then restrained her, it was believed the Gaviota killer ordered Edwards to tie up Domingos. But they suspect Robert Domingos somehow managed to free himself and lunged at the man, who shot him to death and then killed Linda Edwards to prevent their escape.

This was almost exactly the same circumstances as the events which transpired at Lake Berryessa, and the same victim type, a young couple alone at an isolated spot with no witnesses. The use of a .22 calibre gun and Super X ammunition was not lost on investigators, because it was the same type of weapon and ammo the Zodiac used in the Lake Herman Road Attack on December 20, 1968. It was also not lost on detectives that the sketch of “Sandy” bore some measure of similarity to those of the alleged Zodiac. But there were also distinct differences between the crime in Santa Babara and those of the San Francisco Zodiac. At Gaviota, the killer either ripped or cut Linda Edwards bathing suit, exposing her breasts, while the Bay area killer never interacted with his victims in such a manner.

The 'Original' Composite Sketch of the Zodiac

The killer of Domingos and Edwards had also lingered in the area after committing the murders, even handling the victims bodies, dragging them to a nearby shack in an attempt to hide the evidence of his crime, whereas the Zodiac would linger only momentarily at the scene of his crimes, and took no effort to move the bodies or hide the crime. Indeed the Zodiac only made one concerted effort to remove evidence during his crime spree, at the Presidio Heights attack against Paul Stine on October 11, 1969, in which he wiped down both the inside and outside of the cab for fingerprints.

The Zodiac often claimed credit for his crimes, but he didn’t mention the Gaviota murders in any of his lengthy communications with the police and press of San Francisco. The murders of Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards predate the Riverside murder of Cheri Jo Bates, which many Zodiac investigators suspect might possibly have been the killer’s first crime. Although the Gaviota crime bears a striking resemblence to the Lake Berryessa attack, there was little evidence to attribute the murders to the Zodiac.

On November 3, 1972, George Gill passed away in San Bernadino County. Sheriff John Carpenter made an announcement ten days later at a press conference of the Santa Babara County Sheriff’s Department. Carpenter hinted there was “other evidence which I am not at liberty to disclose at this time”. The press release made a specific reference to the Zodiac and said, “We have information to be investigated further, which may place him in the Santa Barbara area in 1963.” It made no mention of the Swindle murders, the murder of Vernon Smith or the suspect known only as “Sandy”.

Despite the apparent links between the crimes of the Zodiac and the Gaviota slayings, no further arrests were made in the case, and San Francisco police have been unable to identify and prosecute the elusive Zodiac killer, or definitively determine how many victims the serial killer claimed. In one of the last verified communications from the Zodiac on March 22, 1971, the killer stated, “I do have to give them credit for stumbling across my riverside activity, but they are only finding the easy ones, there are a hell of a lot more down there.”

The Zodiac was apparently claiming responsibility for the 1966 Riverside Murder of Cheri Jo Bates, and proclaimed there were more as yet unidentified victims for authorities to discover. The suspect known as “Sandy” was never identified, and investigators were only able to speculate if he was the same individual who later went on to become the serial killer known as the Zodiac. The Gaviota Beach murders have remained as equally unsolved as the Zodiac case.

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