When detectives of the Los Angeles Police Department were assigned a cold case from the 70s in 2002, little did they know that it would lead them to Adolph Laudenberg, AKA The Santa Strangler, who had supposedly killed between four to six middle-aged women in Los Angeles and San Francisco. With little to no evidence and the suspect almost untraceable, the police had to execute a tricky undercover operation to prove his crimes. NBC’s ‘Dateline: The Santa Strangler’ delves into the complicated investigation that led to Adolph’s arrest. So, if you wish to learn more about this shocking case, here are all the details you need!
Who Were Adolph Laudenberg’s Victims?
Born on June 13, 1926, in Lexington, Kentucky, Adolph Laudenberg mostly grew up with his German immigrant father, as his mother died a few years after his birth. He initially started whittling intricately designed walking canes and selling them on the streets before joining the US Navy as part of the construction battalion. While serving in Trinidad in 1944, 18-year-old Adolph met Annelle, a single mother of one. The couple eventually tied the knot and he adopted her son, Steve, before permanently moving to California. There, Adolph briefly worked as the security guard of a steel plant and then became a cab driver in the 1960s.
Adolph and Annelle had a son named Greg, yet she separated from him in the 70s after about thirty years of marriage. Later, in 1975, he was introduced to his stepson Steve’s girlfriend, Jeanne, and befriended her quickly. According to the show, Adolph allegedly became infatuated with her and began sending her love letters, much to her dismay. Not just that, during one of their conversations, he confessed his “four sins” to Jeanne, which made her blood run cold. As per Adolph, he had murdered three women in San Pedro, California, and one in San Francisco.
Adolph’s first victim was Lois Petrie, a 43-year-old widow from San Pedro, Los Angeles, who was last seen alive at a local bar on Christmas 1972. When she failed to attend a holiday meal the next day, her partially nude dead body was discovered in her bedroom upon checking. An autopsy indicated that Lois had been sexually assaulted and strangled, the latter causing her death. But given the almost zero evidence left behind by the perpetrator, the investigators could not find any solid leads.
Adolph next targeted 50-year-old Catherine Medina, who was drinking in a local San Pedro Bar on August 18, 1974, following an argument with her husband. Once the latter came to fetch her, the couple began walking home, but the victim suddenly ran off in an inebriated state and reportedly got into Adolph’s cab. The next day, Catherine’s naked dead body was found beside some bushes in Harbor Lake Recreational Park. Medical examiners confirmed that, like Lois, even she had been raped and then strangled dead. Yet, with no evidence and the primitive DNA testing technology, the case went cold.
On September 4, 1974, Adolph preyed on Anna Felch, a 54-year-old hot dog vendor who was last seen leaving a local bar in a drunken state at night. A few hours later, a construction worker discovered her nude and deceased just a few blocks from the bar. As seen earlier with the previous two victims, Anna had been sexually assaulted, after which her attacker strangled and killed her. Adolph’s last proven victim was Leah Griffin, whom he bound, raped, and strangled on March 21, 1975. The 60-year-old was a retired legal secretary who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Leah’s nude body was discovered in her room at the Stratford Hotel in San Francisco, with bruises on her neck. Apart from these four women, Adolph was also suspected of the 1974 murders of 55-year-old Irene Hind and 83-year-old Maude Burgess in San Francisco but was let off the hook when the DNA evidence did not match him. In 2002, almost thirty years after he confessed the murders to Jeanne, he told his son, Greg’s ex-wife, Renée, about the same, in even more detail. Terrified, she immediately approached the police, and thus, all four cold cases were reopened three decades later.
How Did Adolph Laudenberg Die?
Based on Renée’s statement, the police approached Jeanne again, and she confirmed everything that the former said. However, the investigation hit a roadblock, as all the DNA evidence retrieved from the last three victims had been destroyed with time. Luckily, the detectives painstakingly obtained a sample from Lois Petrie’s murder case. Albeit, they struggled to track Adolph and take his DNA sample since he had become a drifter and his whereabouts were uncertain. Eventually, he was tracked down in Torrance, California, where an undercover detective befriended him for a chat regarding recent car thefts.
During a conversation at a donut shop, the detective and his colleague somehow managed to obtain Adolph’s coffee cup and retrieve his DNA samples. Once tested, they matched the ones found on Lois’ body in 1972. Based on this incriminating evidence, the 77-year-old was arrested in August 2003 and charged with first-degree murder. Surprisingly, he outrightly denied committing the murders and alleged that Renee and Jeanne’s statements were false.
Nevertheless, the case went on trial in November 2006, and Adolph was convicted of Lois Petrie’s murder. He was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. He soon appealed in the court, citing privacy issues in the manner his DNA sample was taken, yet the court upheld its conviction. On June 26, 2015, Adolph died of natural causes in prison, aged 89.
Read More: Where Are Jeanne and Renée Laudenberg Now?