Donna Crowe knew someone was out there killing women, mutilating their bodies and dumping them in the Arizona desert. That didn’t stop her on Feb. 29, 1976, from going into an empty workshop with a stranger who picked her up while hitchhiking.
Crowe, a petite blonde in blue jeans, said she’d run away from home and had no place to stay. The man offered some small talk and a Pepsi, and, as they were looking at a race car of his, he gripped her arms. “I want to talk,” he said, face to face in a narrow space between the car and a work bench.
Crowe would be the last woman serial killer Joseph Clarence Smith would ever touch.
Although she posed as a runaway, Crowe was an undercover Phoenix police officer armed with a .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver and wearing a wire.
Her bravery and some crack police work helped end a gruesome killing and rape spree that captured the attention of the Valley and played out in endless headlines, much like the serial killings of today.
“In 1976, Phoenix was a whole lot smaller, and this kind of crime just didn’t happen,” said Chief Jesse Locksa of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, who worked on the case as a detective.
The Valley has had its share of killing sprees since Smith’s, with the two most recent cases occurring simultaneously.
Police continue to hunt for the man known as the Baseline Killer, while a 14-month string of random shootings might have ended Aug. 3 with the arrests of Dale S. Hausner, 33, and Samuel J. Dieteman, 30, of Mesa.
Smith and today’s killers have their unique methods of operation, but the fear they provoke and the determination of police to put an end to their crimes are no different.
The Baseline Killer has committed 23 rapes, robberies and homicides since at least Aug. 6, 2005 when two teenaged girls were raped. Police believe his first homicide victim was Tempe resident Georgia Thompson, 19, on Sept. 8.
The most recent and eighth homicide victim was Carmen Miranda, 37, on June 29, when a surveillance camera captured her attack at a Phoenix carwash.
The core of the 150 investigators on the case are not frustrated because they are seasoned professionals who understand the ups and downs of an investigation, said Phoenix police detective Alex Femenia, the lead investigator.
They also understand that crimes like those of the Baseline Killer — ones in which the assailant is a stranger — are the most difficult to solve.
“The golden rule is to follow the evidence, follow the leads,” Femenia said.
Locksa’s agency is not part of the Baseline Killer investigation, but with 36 years’ experience to speak from, he says the investigators are probably feeling anxiety and concern and think constantly about the case.
“People talk about the cliche of ‘protect and serve,’ but that’s very real,” said Locksa, who had a direct hand in apprehending Smith.
From 1971 to 1976, the bodies of eight Valley women were found in the desert, drawing speculation of whether a serial killer was on the loose and giving rise to the moniker of the “Desert Slayer.”
But it wasn’t until the deaths of Sandy Spencer, 18, and Neva Lee, 14, that the pieces fell into place, Locksa said.
Spencer disappeared after leaving work from a West Valley Jack-in-the-Box, and Lee disappeared after walking out on a session with a family counselor.
Their bodies were found a month apart in early 1976, each having suffocated from dirt forced into their mouths, which were taped shut, and then stabbed repeatedly in the groin and breasts.
An Arizona State University professor who was a pioneer researcher in the geography of crime analyzed the locations associated with the lives, disappearance and crime scenes of four victims, including Lee and Spencer, according to news accounts.
He determined each had passed 35th Avenue and McDowell Road on the day of her abduction.
Smith lived and worked in the area. He was on parole for a 1973 rape of an 18-year-old New Mexico woman, and he drove a retired Arizona Department of Public Safety cruiser with a police scanner installed.
“We started following the guy around,” Locksa said.
Crowe, 24 at the time, was just six months out of the police academy when she agreed to serve as a decoy.
At about 9:30 p.m. on that leap year day, she went to 43rd Avenue and McDowell Road and stuck out her thumb, knowing Smith would be driving by.
“As soon as he sees her he pulls over,” Locksa recalled.
A helicopter followed from above and detectives tailed them on parallel streets while Locksa monitored Crowe’s conversation.
“It came in loud and clear,” he said.
The ride was short and Crowe told Smith she was a runaway on her way to her boyfriend’s house near 43rd Avenue and Thomas Road, where he dropped her off.
Two hours later, Crowe was back on the street to lure him again.
This time, they drove to a parking lot, presumably to look for her boyfriend’s truck, which wasn’t there, so they talked for a short time.
“He asked me if I wanted to talk about it and he asked if I wanted to go to the shop,” Crowe said in court testimony. “I agreed to go.”
Locksa said it was a tense evening and the detectives gave her the option of calling it off but she declined.
She entered the workshop knowing her surveillance team was close by and awaiting her distress signal.
“I was told they could see inside the window,” she said.
Locksa said he was about 50 yards away and heard Smith’s attack unfold.
“I said, ‘Hands off, hands off.’ Then I gave the signal, ‘What’s going on?’ “ Crowe said. “He said, ‘OK, OK,’ but still he held onto my arms.”
They heard a noise at the door but Smith still held her arms firm.
“The next sound was when the door opened,” Crowe said. “He relaxed his hold and I could break away.”
About 12 armed detectives, one with a shotgun, burst in and arrested Smith, Locksa said.
“What she did, we’ll always be grateful,” said Gwendolyn Spencer, Sandy Spencer’s mother.
Police found a knife on him and later found belongings of Lee and Spencer in searches of his home and shop.
A jury convicted Smith for Lee’s death and he pleaded guilty to Spencer’s. He has had the longest stay of Arizona’s current death row inmates.
He also was convicted in the July 1975 rape and attempted murder of a 15-year-old girl he stabbed and left for dead in the desert, and also convicted for the February 1975 rape of a 17-year-old pregnant girl.
“He was suspected of other (murders). Did we connect him up to them? No,” said Locksa, who wants to live long enough to witness Smith’s execution.
Locksa said it was a combination of hard work, luck and tenacity to solve the crime, but most important, it was done legally so the prosecution stuck.
Femenia preached the same message during a recent news conference, except adding that it’s going to take some public help to catch the Baseline Killer.
“I feel confident this investigation is going to be successful,” Femenia said.