Wilbur Lee Jennings


Wilbur Lee Jennings

A.K.A.: "Ditchbank Murderer"

Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Rape
Number of victims: 4 +
Date of murders: 1981 - 1984
Date of birth: 1941
Victims profile: Karen Robinson, 21 / Jacqueline Frazier, 26 / Linda Johnson, 28 / Olga Cannon, 23
Method of murder: Drowning or blows to the head
Location: Fresno County, California, USA
Status: Sentenced to death in 1986

25-Year Old Cold Case Solved

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fresno, CA (KFSN) -- A 25-year old murder has been solved, and investigators say the suspects are serial killers.

Wilbur Jennings is already on death row for killing four other people. Alvin Johnson is serving time in a Utah prison for rape and murder as well.

The victim was 76 year old Clarice Reinke she was raped and murdered in her rural home in 1983. The sheriff says DNA helped investigators track down the suspects who were already serving time for the same brutal crimes.

Family members escorted by District Attorney Elizabeth Egan wiped away tears Thursday morning. More than 2 decades after their mother was sexually assaulted and strangled, the suspects will finally answer for the crime.

Margaret Mims, Fresno County Sheriff: "Clarice has been gone for 25 years. She no longer has her physical voice. But her DNA speaks for her."

Evidence collected at the home near Easton where Clarice Reinke was killed matched that of 67 year old Alvin Johnson and convicted serial killer 68 year old Wilbur Jennings.

Jennings is on death row for 4 other murders in Fresno County. Sheriffs say most of his victims were prostitutes. But Reinke, was an elderly woman who lived alone.

Elizabeth Egan, Fresno County District Atty: "There was nothing cold about this case for the surviving family members they've been waiting everyday and every year for today."

Murder charges alleging special circumstances were filed against Johnson Tuesday and they are expected to follow for Jennings.

Sheriff's will not say whether the suspects knew Reinke prior to the evening they are accused of breaking in her home and eventually killing her.

Deputies nicknamed Jennings the ditchbank killer in 1984 since his victims were often found in canals or stuffed in irrigation pipes.

Detectives won't say how Johnson and Jennings knew each other. Johnson was set to be released next year from a Utah prison where he's serving time for rape and murder there.

Family members who declined to be interviewed were grateful detectives finally cracked the case.

Jones is expected to be extradited back to California for arraignment.

Killer linked to other deaths

October 26, 2005

Fresno County's only convicted serial killer has been on death row for nearly 20 years.

But new evidence against Wilbur Jennings may reveal undiscovered secrets about the "ditch-bank killer" who preyed mostly on black prostitutes in downtown Fresno.

Jennings, a laborer from Selma, was found guilty in 1986 of killing four women, but he was a suspect in nine homicides.

And Joe Rascon, the Fresno County sheriff's sergeant largely responsible for catching Jennings, feared there were even more.

"I've always thought that there was other murders that he was responsible for," Rascon said. "It was an impulse for him. He kept coming back."

Now, detectives in Fresno and Sacramento counties confirmed they have linked two cold-case homicides from the 1980s to Jennings.

And though the 65-year-old diabetic with prostate cancer will likely never be freed from prison, authorities in both counties plan to prosecute Jennings for the decades-old crimes.

Jennings was moved in January from San Quentin prison to a Sacramento jail, where he faces charges that he killed a 17-year-old girl in July 1981 and left her on a roadside.

Once that case is resolved, Jennings will likely be moved to the Fresno County Jail to answer to pending charges that he raped and killed a 76-year-old widow in June 1983 in her Easton-area home.

Jennings flatly denies involvement in both homicides. In fact, he claims he has never killed anyone.

"What I'm here on is false charges," he said in an August interview with The Bee at the Sacramento jail. "I've never killed anybody."

According to detectives and court documents, Jennings left his DNA at both crime scenes.

Jennings, however, says detectives planted it after taking samples of his blood.

"They're taking peoples' blood and putting it wherever they want," Jennings said. "This DNA stuff — I don't believe in that."

In 1983, Rascon was a junior detective in the robbery-homicide unit when prostitutes started disappearing. He soon became the chief investigator on a task force assigned to catch the suspect. Now 51, he still remembers most of the details of the case.

Jennings came from a dysfunctional family; his mother had sex with him and bathed him into his 40s, Rascon learned during an interview with one of Jennings' brothers. An aunt told Rascon that Jennings, then a teenager, once crawled under a table to look up her dress.

Jennings, however, says none of that is true.

"I don't even want to hear the lies that these suckers are coming up with," said Jennings, who shaves his head and wears brown-rimmed glasses. "That's a bunch of crap."

Jennings gets even angrier when he talks about Rascon: "I wish I could get my hands on him."

Rascon wonders whether the bathing created in Jennings a fixation with water. Detectives nicknamed him the ditch-bank killer because all the victims in the murders for which Jennings was convicted were found in water-filled ditches, canals or irrigation pipes.

Jennings distrusted women but also craved their love, Rascon said. On G Street, he befriended prostitutes by buying them food and drinks.

During sexual encounters, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound man became almost childlike in his need for affection, asking them to hold him in their arms.

"He would start crying and tell them, 'I want you to be my girlfriend. I want you to love me,'" Rascon said.

Those who rejected Jennings' advances often ended up dead, Rascon said. Between August 1983 and December 1984, the bodies of four women, three of them prostitutes, were found in rural locations in Fresno County. They all died from drowning or from blows to the head.

The victims were:

Karen Robinson, 21, whose body was found in an irrigation pond near Easton on Aug. 23, 1983.

Jacqueline Frazier, 26, found in a Caruthers canal on July 24, 1984.

Linda Johnson, 28, found in a San Joaquin canal on Sept. 13, 1984.

Olga Cannon, 23, found Dec. 18, 1984, in an irrigation ditch near Easton.

Johnson was not a prostitute; her mother lived next to Jennings.

Each woman was black, which is why detectives were surprised when Jennings was linked to the deaths of Clarice Reinke and Debra Chandler.

Both women — one a widow; the other just a teenager — were white, and neither was a prostitute.

On June 23, 1983, a Fresno County sheriff's deputy was called to the 76-year-old Reinke's house on East American Avenue. Reinke's brother-in-law had found her lying on her bed with her head hanging over its edge. She had been raped, sodomized and strangled, according to court documents.

A pathologist found semen during the autopsy. At that time, DNA was a year from being discovered. And it would take much longer for the evidence to point detectives to Jennings.

Marty Rivera works part time in the Sheriff's Department's homicide cold-case unit. In January, he started focusing on unsolved murders of women because killers often left behind DNA evidence from sexual assaults.

In February, the sheriff's department sent the evidence from the Reinke case to a lab for DNA analysis.

Two months later, there were surprising results: There was semen from two men — Jennings and a 61-year-old man named Alvin Johnson, who is serving time in a Utah prison for murder and rape, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in Salt Lake County district court.

Rivera said he didn't expect Jennings' name to surface in that case. Not only did he mainly target prostitutes, but Jennings was known to work alone, Rivera said.

Johnson, who is mentally disabled, was a transient from Texas who spent some time at the Fresno Rescue Mission's homeless shelter on G Street — the same block where Jennings mingled with prostitutes.

When reached by letter, Johnson refused to be interviewed without compensation. The Bee does not pay for interviews.

Jennings, however, claims he does not know Johnson, and says detectives told him that Johnson has already confessed to the crime.

"Who is that?" he asked. "I never met him. I don't know no Alvin Johnson."

Johnson, like Jennings, has been convicted of more than one killing. In 1973, he was convicted of manslaughter in Oregon and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Six weeks after Reinke's slaying, Johnson beat a 38-year-old transient to death and raped and assaulted the man's wife in a Salt Lake City warehouse.

Jennings' other newly alleged homicide victim, 17-year-old Debra Chandler, was killed in Sacramento County in 1981.

Debra, who often hitchhiked, was last seen at her family's house on the Fourth of July. The next day, a passer-by spotted her body near a water-filled roadside ditch, about 15 miles from her home. She had been beaten, and DNA was collected from her, too. It also was matched to Jennings, according to the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department.

Jennings says he will plead not guilty to that homicide. He has a court hearing scheduled for Nov. 18, but no trial date has been set. He seems only slightly inconvenienced by the new charges and isn't fazed by his place on death row. He says he's more likely to die from cancer than by lethal injection and that his life ended with his 1984 arrest.

"I really don't worry about that," he said. "What's the use? I got cancer. I'm not worried about them executing me. You got more people up on death row dying of old age or natural causes than anything else."


MO: Slayer of female prostitutas; bodies dumped in canals

DISPOSITION: Condemned with additional sentence of life + 64 years on lesser charges, 1986.