Cold Case: The Gypsy Hill Murders

Series of 1976 Murders, Rapes in San Mateo Area

Baxter and Cascio
Paula Baxter and Ronnie Cascio. Family Photos

During the first four months of 1976, the San Mateo County, California area was terrorized by a series of murders and rapes for five young women, some of whom reportedly had car trouble around the time of their deaths.

For almost 40 years, the case known as the Gypsy Hill Killings went cold until DNA evidence from a murder in Reno, Nevada was linked to the San Mateo cases. Here are the latest developments in the Gypsy Hill case:

Oregon Inmate Charged in Gypsy Hill Case

Jan 22, 2015 - A career criminal who has been incarcerated for the past 38 years has been linked to a series of California murders that took place over four months in 1976 when he was escaped from a Nevada prison. Rodney Halbower, 66, has been extradited to San Mateo to face murder charges in the Gypsy Hill Killings case.

For almost 40 years, the Gypsy Hill murders - given that name because of their proximity to Gypsy Hill Road in Pacifica, California - remained a cold case until a series of events linked them to a seemingly unrelated murder in Nevada. The investigation into the Nevada case turned up DNA evidence that linked to the Gypsy Hill cases and eventually led to Halbower.

In 1979, Cathy Woods, a mental patient in Louisiana, was convicted of the 1976 murder of Michelle Mitchell in Reno after she confessed to hospital personnel that she killed a girl name Michelle in Reno.

In early 2014 however, Woods requested a review of the evidence in the case, and that's when DNA from the Reno case was linked to the Gypsy Hill murders. At the time, the DNA did not match any that was on record.

Halbower's DNA was not in the database because when he was incarcerated in Nevada in the 1970s, DNA was not automatically collected.

Halbower escaped from that prison and authorities believe he committed the Gypsy Hill murders while on the run.

He later committed crimes in Michigan and was finally arrested in Oregon for kidnapping and trying to kill a woman. He was convicted in Oregon, but he was first sent back to Nevada to finish serving his sentence there.

In 2013, when Halbower finished his Nevada sentence and was returned to Oregon to serve his sentence there, his DNA was finally collected. In September 2014, Halbower's DNA was linked to two of the Gypsy Hill murders.

Investigators said Halbower's DNA matched that from a cigarette butt in the Reno murder and sperm from one of the murders in California.

Halbower has been indicted in the murders of 17-year-old Paula Baxter and 18-year-old Veronica (Ronnie) Cascio (pictured above). The murders of three other women that same year -- Tanya Blackwell, Carol Lee Booth and Denise Lampe -- are still being investigated.

Halbower has been cleared in the death of Lampe, authorities said, because he was not in the area at the time of her murder.

Although Halbower has been indicted on murder charges with special circumstances, he will not face the death penalty, because the murders occurred in 1976 during a period when the state of California had a moratorium on the death penalty.

Task Force Probes 'Gypsy Hill' Case

March 6, 2014 - New DNA evidence from a Nevada murder in 1976 linked to a series of murders in San Mateo County, California around the same time has prompted the FBI to launch a new task force to investigate what is known as the "Gypsy Hill" killings. DNA evidence from the murder of Michelle Mitchell in Reno has been linked to samples from the Gypsy Hill cases.

No suspect has ever been named in the San Mateo murders.

In 1976, University of Nevada-Reno student Michelle Mitchell's car broke down in front of the college's School of Agriculture. She called her mother to come pick her up, but was no where around when her mother arrived 10 minutes later.

Found a Half Mile Away

The 19-year-old Mitchell was found a couple of hours later with her hands tied behind her and her throat cut in a garage about a half mile from where she broke down.

A couple returning to their home found her body in their garage.

In 1979, a psychiatric patient in Louisiana, Cathy Woods, told hospital personnel that she killed a girl named Michelle in Reno. Woods was convicted of murder as a result of her confession.

However, about two months ago, Woods requested a review of the evidence in the case and that's when the FBI turned up a link between Mitchell's case and the five San Mateo murders.

San Mateo Killing Spree

During the first four months of 1976, five young women, some of whom reportedly had car trouble around the time of their deaths, were found stabbed to death in the San Mateo area.

Killed were: Veronica Ann "Ronnie" Cascio, Tatiana Marie "Tanya" Blackwell, Paula Louse Baxter, Carol Lee Booth, and Denise Lampe. They were all about Mitchell's age, investigators said.

Investigators believe that the San Mateo killer was an accomplice in the Mitchell murder in Reno. They do not believe Cathy Woods was involved in the California killings.

Cascio, Blackwell, Baxter, Lampe & Booth

On Jan. 8, 1976, the body of Ronnie Cascio, 18, was found on a golf course in Pacifica where she lived. She had been stabbed 30 times.

Weeks later, Tanya Blackwell, 14, disappeared in Pacifica. Her body was found months later on Gypsy Hill Road in Pacifica.

A few weeks after that, the body of Paula Baxter, 17, was found in her hometown of Millbrae.

In April 1976, the body of Denise Lampe, 19, was found killed in her own car in a mall parking lot in Daly City.

Finally, Carol Lee Booth, 26, was reported missing in March 1976.

Her body was found in South San Francisco a month later.

Evidence of sexual assault was found in the Cascio, Baxter and Booth cases, investigators said.