- Associated Press - Thursday, January 22, 2015

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (AP) - Northern California prosecutors on Thursday charged an Oregon prison inmate with two counts of murder in the serial killings of six young women that terrified the region nearly 40 years ago.

The San Mateo district attorney’s office charged Rodney Halbower, 66, with two counts of murder during the course of rape for the deaths of Paula Baxter, 17, and Veronica Anne Cascio, 18. Their two deaths were among six police say are connected and occurred between January and April in 1976. Five of the bodies were found in the suburbs immediately south of San Francisco and one was found near Gypsy Hill Road, giving the killings their nickname. A sixth body was found in Reno, Nevada.

San Mateo Chief Deputy District Attorney Karen Guidotti said DNA evidence linking Halbower to both killings was found on each victim. He’s suspected in the other four killings.

“Based on the forensic links between a number of the cases, the time frame of the murders, and the methods used by the offender to commit these crimes, investigators are confident all the crimes were committed by the same offender,” The FBI said in a statement in March after a Gypsy Hill Task Force was created to revisit the cold case using DNA technology. The task force comprised officers and agents from the FBI, the sheriff’s offices in San Mateo and Washoe counties, and police in Daly City, Pacifica, South San Francisco and Reno.

Halbower submitted a DNA sample when he was transferred from a Nevada prison to Oregon State Prison in November 2013. At the time, Halbower was being paroled from the Nevada prison after serving a sentence for the 1975 rape of a blackjack dealer that occurred two months before the body of University of Nevada-Reno student Michelle Mitchell, 19, was found.

Halbower escaped from the Nevada prison in 1986 and committed a string of violent crimes in Oregon before he was recaptured. He was serving a sentence in Oregon for attempted murder, assault and robbery when he was extradited to Redwood City and charged with the two murders.

A woman who was convicted of murder in 1980 in Mitchell’s killing and spent more than 30 years in a Nevada prison was granted a new trial and ordered released on her own recognizance in September.

Cathy Woods’ public defender presented evidence that the DNA on a cigarette butt in the garage where Mitchell’s body was found matches that of Halbower. Washoe County District Judge Patrick Flanagan has scheduled a new trial for Woods, 64, in July.

Halbower denied involvement in any of the killings a jailhouse interview with a local television station.

“I’m confused and I want some answers,” he told ABC7. “I don’t know anything, no knowledge about this.”

Halbower is scheduled to enter a plea in Redwood City on Monday.

The brother of one of the Gypsy Hill victims traveled 90 miles from Modesto to attend Halbower’s court hearing Thursday. John Blackwell, 56, is the older brother of Tanya Blackwell, the 14-year-old girl whose body was found near the Pacifica road that gave the killings their name.

He told reporters he attended the hearing to show solidarity with other victims’ families even though Halbower hasn’t been charged in his sister’s death.

“I feel happy for the families, and I feel some closure,” he said. “Some closure is better than no closure.”

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