The ultimate question posed by Orange Coast magazine's cover story on Randy Kraft is whether California is truly a death penalty state. Kraft was arrested almost 30 years ago with the body of his latest victim in the front seat of his car, and photos of many other victims under the Toyota's floormat. After a sensational trial that revealed Kraft as one of the most depraved serial killers in California history, he was sent to Santa Quentin's Death Row to await execution. The story by Patrick J. Kiger says that many of the jurors in that long ago trial can't believe Kraft is still alive, nor can some others in Orange County.
The arrest occurred just by fate, on Interstate 5 near Mission Viejo.
About 1 a.m. on May 14, 1983, two CHP officers spotted a brown 1979 Toyota weaving from the right lane onto the shoulder, and decided to pull it over. At the wheel, the officers discovered a slight, mustachioed 38-year-old computer programmer from Long Beach named Randy Steven Kraft, who had alcohol on his breath. He failed a sobriety test, so they arrested and handcuffed him.
In Kraft’s passenger seat was a man with a dark jacket draped over his lap, who appeared to be asleep. Kraft said he was a hitchhiker he’d picked up. When one of the officers opened the door and pulled away the jacket in an effort to rouse him, he was startled to see that the man’s pants were pulled down, and that he had marks on his wrists, as if he had been tied. The passenger wasn’t breathing, nor did he have a pulse. One of the arresting officers, Sgt. Michael Howard, found it eerie how Kraft calmly asked, “How’s my friend?” when Kraft obviously knew his passenger was dead.
The victim was a 25-year-old Marine corporal, stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro. Apparently, as investigators later pieced together, he was trying to get to a friend’s party after a softball game, and had decided to hitchhike. The driver who’d picked him up apparently offered him a beer, which the hitcher didn’t know was laced with sedative pills like those the officers found on the floor of Kraft’s car.
The passenger was Terry Gambrel, the final victim of one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history.
Kraft was convicted of 16 murders and linked to more than 65 others by investigators.