Yesterday’s Crimes: The East Bay Strangler

Was an unidentified serial killer stalking East Bay women in the early 1960s?

Betty and Carolyn Martin, victims of an unsolved murder in the Oakland hills in 1964.

On Feb. 10, 1963, 44-year-old Marian Schiager was strangled hard with an electrical cord and dumped in a San Leandro churchyard. Her murder remains unsolved. But nearly two years after her death, a trio of similar murders shocked the East Bay.

Betty Martin met her husband, Dr. Frank Martin, while the two were singing in the choir at their Presbyterian church. As the 43-year-old mother of two teenaged daughters, solving the Oakland Tribune’s crossword puzzle was the one indulgence she allowed herself every morning before caring for her family’s massive, Spanish-style home near Piedmont in the Oakland Hills.

This grueling labor may have been expected of her, but it still had some rewards. She was named Oakland’s “Mother of the Year” before an audience of public officials and thousands of exotic flowers in her city’s Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses in May 1963.

“This sort of thing happens to other people,” she told the Tribune.

Seven months later, Betty and her 18-year-old daughter Carolyn were killed in that immaculate white-stucco home. The sense of shock over the viciousness of the killings was registered far outside of the Martins’ exclusive enclave. Like Betty’s award, this was also the sort of thing that happened to other people.

In the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 22, 1964, Betty and Carolyn took the family’s Pekinese dog TD to the Oakland animal shelter for an examination. The killer was waiting for them in the house when they got home.

He stunned Betty by slamming a heavy ashtray into her skull. He then “clawed Carolyn’s stretch pants and blouse off and raped her” according to the Chronicle. Like Marian Schiager, Betty was strangled to death with an electrical cord. Carolyn was killed with a silk stocking.

Both Martin women were then hogtied post mortem with the materials of the makeshift garrotes used to choke the life out of them. Their bodies were left facedown. Schiager’s body was also left facedown in that muddy churchyard with a stretch of electrical cord wrapped around her feet. If Schiager’s killer planned to hogtie her, he didn’t finish the job.

Dr. Frank Martin was met by police when he returned home from his osteopath practice that day. “Something has happened,” a police sergeant said after Martin parked his car in the garage.

Betty’s younger daughter, Susan, found the bodies when she got home from Oakland High School at 5:30 p.m. Their Pekinese was in the room with the bodies, the only witness to the crime besides the victims and killers.

“I’m thankful my younger daughter got home late, or he would have caught her too,” Dr. Martin told the Tribune.

Police and family members believed—at least for a time—that Betty and Carolyn had walked in on a burglar even though nothing was stolen. Frank Morgan of the Tribune was probably more on the nose by asking, “Were they (the Martin women) the victims of a senseless, random slaying by a depraved psychopath?”

“Frightened residents wonder if he will strike again,” he added in the Tribune’s initial article on the double-homicide.

East Bay residents seemed to have an answer five days later when 40-year-old Jane Stapleton was found dead at 3:30 a.m. by her son in their San Pablo home on Jan. 27, 1964. Stapleton’s skull was fractured and her mouth was bloodied. She died from suffocation but investigators couldn’t determine how. A cord from a soldering iron found near the body was thought to be a potential murder weapon. Investigators also thought a rug could have been used to smother her, but that was soon ruled out.

Stapleton was “a highly religious woman” according to the Examiner, and she was the wife of San Pablo Police Sgt. Hoyle Stapleton, who was driving a patrol car at the time of the murder. She was dropped off at her home by her daughter and son-in-law shortly after 1 a.m. The son-in-law, James Keith, was briefly a suspect in the murder investigation, and checked himself into the psych ward at Contra Costa County Hospital after taking a polygraph test.

Police in the Oakland and San Pablo murder investigations soon found themselves at what the Examiner described as “a blank wall.” The Tribune offered $1,000 rewards for information leading to arrests in the Martin and Stapleton murders in February 1964, but no one came forward. The paper withdrew the reward offers on Dec. 21, 1975.

The murders of Schiager, Stapleton, and the Martins from 1962-1964 are all unsolved. They may have been killed by random weirdoes or not-so-random acquaintances. It’s also possible that a serial killer was stalking the East Bay in the days before the term serial killer even existed.

The San Pablo Police Department is currently in the process of reviewing the Jane Stapleton investigation. Police Captain Brian Bubar encourages anyone with information on this cold case to call the San Pablo PD’s crime tip line at (510) 799-8255.

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