Yesterday’s Crimes: Strangle and Slash in San Leandro

Who strangled Marian Schiager and left her body in a San Leandro churchyard 57 years ago this month? The mystery persists in this forgotten cold case.

The Halycon Baptist Church in San Leandro, where Marian Schiager’s body was found. (Image: Google)

Marian Schiager, a 44-year-old grandmother and clerk in an Alameda County welfare office, went to a long-defunct San Leandro supermarket at 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10, 1962. She was only there to pick up a paintbrush for her son James, who was painting her hallway. She shouldn’t have been gone long, but she still wasn’t home nearly two hours later.

James and his father, Leo, found the family’s 1961 sedan with the lights still on in the supermarket parking lot at 9:45 p.m. Marian’s coat, glasses, and the paintbrush she had just bought were found in the car along with mud smeared across the backseat.

The police were called. They searched the area. They do not find her. James lingered in the parking lot.

“She’ll be back,” he said. “I know she’ll be back.”

James went home in time to answer a phone call at 1 a.m. on Sunday morning. He was met with eerie silence on the other end of the line.

The next morning, shortly before Sunday services were about to begin at the Halcyon Southern Baptist Church in San Leandro, Rev. George T. Horton found Marian’s body lying face-down in the muddy doorway of an unfinished annex building on church grounds.

Marian was garroted to death and then “slashed about the throat with a heavy blade” according to the Oakland Tribune. A long string of heavy electrical wire was looped over a beam in the doorway where she was found, with more wire looped around her feet. Police found Marian’s left shoe 50 feet away in the church driveway.

San Leandro Police Captain Whitney O. Rosaaen refused to call the murder a sex crime, although Marian’s clothes had been ripped away. Investigators found footprints and tire marks at the scene and compared the mud in the churchyard to what was found in the Schiager family car. The coroner later confirmed that Marian had been strangled with the electrical cord so hard that it bore into her throat — although she had also been cut with some kind of blade.

Police sought a “dapper, hollow-cheeked man” with full sideburns and “a chin rather pointed” who asked about Marian the night before her murder as the Schiagers dined out at a local restaurant. There was another man in a hat seen in the supermarket parking lot before Schiager was snatched from her car. And still another one with “long arms, bulging eyes and thick lips” who creeped out a housewife in the same parking lot where Marian was abducted earlier that same day. This last man had blond, curly hair parted in the middle that police speculated could have been a wig.

A week before Schiager was abducted and slain, 45-year-old Juanita Hernandez was found dead face-down in the mud on West Winton Avenue in Hayward. Where Schiager was strangled and then cut, Hernandez died from a stab wound to the gut and a fractured skull. Investigators still wondered if the cases were related. If they ever found a connection, it went unreported. Hernandez was never mentioned in the press again.

CORRECTION: Detective Nick Paxton of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office informs SF Weekly that the murder of Juanita Hernandez on Jan. 29, 1962 was vehicular homicide. The case was passed on to the CHP and was solved. 

After two weeks had passed with a few leads on Marian’s death, and an investigation that was going nowhere, an exasperated Capt. Rosaaen pleaded with the public in an Oakland Tribune editorial.

“Someone in the Eastbay holds a key link in the chain of evidence that will lead to the killer in the brutal slaying of a San Leandro mother 17 days ago,” Rosaaen wrote. “The one who holds this link probably doesn’t know it.

“You don’t think like a policeman,” Rosaaen continued, “but you may have some slight clue that will help us.”

Three weeks later, cops questioned Gerald Delane Taylor, a pompadoured used car salesman from Walnut Creek who resembled the “hollow-cheeked man” from the police sketch. Taylor faced trial for a separate kidnapping and brutal assault of a 22-year old Oakland coed. He submitted to a lie detector test and confessed to a series of sexual assaults, kidnappings, and robberies, but he didn’t fess up to the Schiager murder. In a trial where Taylor waived his right to go before a jury, the judge spared him the gas chamber by finding him guilty of kidnapping but not rape.

Other serial felons and abusers were hauled in for questioning, but police were never able to make an arrest in the case. By May 1962, poor Marian Schiager didn’t get mentioned by the press at all except for articles listing unsolved Bay Area murders. It was a list that got a lot longer just two years later when three more suburban East Bay women were strangled to death in ways that recalled the Schiager case.

The kidnapping and murder of Marian Schiager is still an open case with the San Leandro Police Department. If you have any information on this case, please contact Lt. Isaac Benabou of the San Leandro Police at (510) 577-3272 or ibenabou@sanleandro.org.

 

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