On October 30, 1966, Cheri Jo Bates, an 18-year-old college student, was stabbed to death on the Riverside City College campus. It was believed that her killed messed with her car to lure her away so he could attack.
Due to the graphic nature of her death, it became heavily reported on in the media, but beyond that, she is considered by some investigators and theorizers to be a victim of the Zodiac Killer, given the proximity in both time and location. However, her murder has never been solved.
A BEAUTIFUL LIFE AND A BRUTAL DEATH
Cheri was born in Omaha, Nebraska on February 4, 1948. She was the youngest in the family, born to Joseph and Irene Bates. When her father got a new job in 1957, the family relocated to California. Cheri attended Ramona High School where she was a varsity cheerleader, a member of the student government, and an honor student. The "sweet, outgoing" girl wished to become a flight attendant.
Upon graduation, she enrolled in Riverside City College and started working part time at the local bank. She saved up her money to buy a 1960 lime green Volkswagen Beetle, her dream car.
Her parents divorced in 1965, and Cheri lived with her father, her mother still living in the Riverside area. Her brother, Michael, was serving in the U.S. Navy.
On the morning that would be her last, she and her father attended Mass and then shared breakfast at a local restaurant. Early that afternoon, she went to the college library to study and work on some homework. She called her friend Stephanie at 3 and 3:45 asking if she wanted to come study with her, but she declined. She came home, but went back to the library later, leaving a note for her dad letting him know her whereabouts.
Shortly before she left her home for the library, Cheri called a coworker to ask if she had seen a term paper she had misplaced. The coworker said she hadn't, and Cheri was upset, realizing she would have to start all over. She arrived at the library at about 6:10 pm.
Many eyewitnesses corrobrated that Cheri studied in the library until it closed at 9:00 pm. One witness claimed that a young man, between 19-20, had been lurking around the area of Cheri's car, staring at it. The witness didn't realize it was shady at the time, and she exchanged pleasantries with him when she walked by to go to her car.
Cheri's father became worried when his daughter didn't return home, waiting up all night hoping she would arrive. He finally reported her missing with the Riverside police at 5:43 am. He made the decision after Stephanie told him that Cheri wasn't with her, and hadn't intended to stay the night anywhere that evening. That was when he knew something was gravely wrong.
Less than an hour later, a groundskeeper on campus found Cheri's body on the grounds of the college. She was found face down, sprawled out on a gravel path between 2 unoccupied houses, close to the parking lot of the library. She was still dressed in what she had left the house on, and per ID and purse were next to her. Her clothing was completely saturated in blood. She had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest, shoulder, face, and neck.
A few feet from Cheri's body was a cheap Timex watch and a shoe print. Though Cheri was small, she was strong and athletic. The crime scene provided evidence that she likely put up an intense fight for her life, scratching his entire body with enough force to rip off his wrist watch.
AUTOPSY AND INVESTIGATION
The autopsy revealed a lot about her murder. Cheri had been repeatedly kicked in the head in addition to the stab wounds on her body. Her jugular vein was severed so severely that she was nearly decapitated. It appeared that Cheri had been laying on the ground when she was stabbed in the shoulder and neck.
It was revealed that she was not subjected to any sort of sexual assault.
Fragments of skin and hair were found under her fingernails, further evidence that she fought like hell to stay alive.
Within 24 hours of Cheri's death, investigators had already spoken with 75 individuals including students, nearby military personnel and staff about the murder. They learned that a few students had heard screams at about 10:15 pm, giving investigators a rough time of death. They poked and prodded into her background, but couldn't deduce any real motive for her murder. She was not a typical target for revenge or a random non-sexual attack. It seemed to be completely random.
Cheri's body had been found only 75 yards away from her car, which had the ignition wires deliberately cut. The windows were rolled down, as well, and police began trying to determine the timeline and scenario of what happened.
They believed that someone had disabled her vehicle while lurking around, waiting for her to come out to her car. It is most likely that she repeatedly tried to get her car to start, and after a few failed attempts, her killer approached, offering assistance to lure her out of the car. Then, he lured her into the dark, shielded from any wandering eyes so he could kill her. The keys were still in the ignition of the car, meaning his ruse might not have gone as planned. He may have forced her from the car.
A thorough reenactment was done with 65 people who had been there on the evening of October 30 including students, librarians, and custodians. They were asked to sit where they had sat, to park where they had parked, to wear what they had worn. Putting them back into the night in question did bring about additional information, but unfortunately, nothing that led to Cheri's killer.
THEORIES AND AFTERMATH
A month after Cheri was killed, 2 identical letters arrived at the Riverside police station. The author of the letters described in detail how Cheri was lured from her car and murdered. He said that he had disabled her car, and offered her assistance, promising his car was just down the street. In the letter, the author said once they were far enough away from others, he said "it's about time" and she replied "about time for what?" to which he responded "About time for you to die". The author said he put his hand over his mouth and his knife over her neck while they walked into the alley, and then kicked, beat, and stabbed her until she died.
The author of the letters provided some insight to the motive, explaining that he had known Cheri but she had rejected him. "Only one thing was on my mind: Making her pay for the brush-offs that she had given me during the years prior".
Police believed that the letter could be from the real killer, as he did share information that hadn't been released to the press. However, later advances in forensic technology evaluated the DNA of the letters against the DNA under Cheri's fingernails and found they were not a match, making it unlikely the author and the killer were the same person. What kind of psychopath writes a letter claiming the brutal murder of someone as their own if they weren't involved? Disgusting.
Even more disgusting, Cheri's father has received handwritten letters from an unknown source since her murder, one saying "Bates had to die. There will be more." Police has dismissed it as a horrific hoax, but no one will ever really know.
It has been theorized that Cheri was an early victim, even the first victim, of the never-caught Zodiac Killer who was active in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the clues that supports this theory is a set of initials (r h) scrawled below a morbid poem scratched into a desk at Riverside City College, discovered by a custodian 6 months after Cheri's murder. The poem alludes to assaults on women with knives. Additionally, the letters to the press after the fact was part of the Zodiac Killer's M.O.
The Riverside Police Department remains unconvinced that the Zodiac Killer had anything to do with the murder, journalist Paul Avery and a handwriting expert have concluded that the letters sent to the press, the letters sent to Cheri's father, and the poem scratched on the desk were "unquestionably" written by the same hand as the individual who had written the letters to the press after each Zodiac murder.
Furthermore, in a letter from March 13, 1971, the Zodiac Killer sent a letter to the LA Times saying, "I do have to give the police 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." It is worth mentioning that the Zodiac Killer has claimed 14 victims, but only 5 were ever attributed to the same person... so either he killed more that hadn't been found, or he lies about his crimes.
A former LA police investigator claimed that his father, George Hodel, was the murderer. However, he also claimed his father was the Zodiac Killer, the Lipstick Killer, and Black Dahlia's killer. So he doesn't have a ton of credibility to his name.
Other names that come up in the conversation of "Who Killed Cheri Bates?" are Bob Bennett and Ross Sullivan. Bob was also a Riverside City College student and had been dating her. However, allegedly Cheri broke off their relationship when she accepted a marriage proposal from a boyfriend from a different college. Witnesses claim that the breakup was hard on Bob, and they had gotten into a very public altercation before the murder.
But, the DNA didn't match Bob's, even though the shoe prints and watch were similar to items owned by him. Several friends of his also admitted that in his broken hearted rage, he had threatened to "snuff out Cheri".
So, who is Ross Sullivan? Well, he worked at the library. Shortly before Cheri's murder, he disappeared for about 2 weeks. He was friends with Bob, and gave off an uneasy vibe according to coworkers. Some allege that it is possible that Ross was aware of the situation with Cheri (or was into her himself) and he helped Bob do the deed. One of them may have disabled the car while the other kept lookout.
But honestly, it is most likely someone no one knows. Not her ex-boyfriend, not an infamous serial killer. Just some campus loser who had a crush on her or something. Given the DNA advancements in recent years, I do think this will be solved one day, similar to how the Golden State Killer's case was solved. But who knows.
Cheri Jo Bates was brand new to college, living with her dad and working hard to do well in school. She was a well-liked person with a bright future ahead of her, and that future was stolen from her. And worse, she never received justice for it. I truly hope one day the continued forensic advancements help solve cases like these.
Cheri fought like hell to stay alive. She got his DNA under her fingernails and did everything she could to survive, and when she couldn't, she left behind all of the physical evidence of the crime scene. Hopefully, her brave last moments will one day lead to her case being solved.