In 1970, two brutal, seemingly random murders shook Sacramento, California to its core. The victims, killed just months apart, bore striking similarities: both were professional 20-somethings, recently engaged, and living alone just yards from each other in northeast Sacramento. And nearly five decades later, both cases remain unsolved. Was the same person responsible for the slayings of Judy Hakari and Nancy Bennallack?
This is the Bride-to-Be Murders, Part I: Who Killed Judy Hakari?
On March 7, 1970, Judith Ann Hakari finished her regular shift at Sutter Memorial Hospital in East Sacramento at around 11:30 PM. Before Judy left, the 23-year-old nurse called her fiance, Raymond Willis, to let him know she was on her way home. They planned to meet at Hakari’s apartment at 1720 Markston Way around midnight that evening.
Located on F Street between 51st and 53rd, Hakari’s commute home from the now-defunct hospital was just a ten minute drive down a major thoroughfare. A coworker observed Hakari leaving Sutter Memorial that evening in her shiny new car, driving north on Howe Avenue from Fair Oaks Boulevard. She disappeared into the stormy darkness, presumably en route to her apartment.
Willis waited for Hakari in her apartment. While never explicitly stated—it was 1970, after all—the fact that Willis later reported getting ready for bed while he waited for his fiancee suggests he was planning to spend the night. His concern mounted when Hakari did not arrive home by 1:30 AM. He said that, around 1:45 AM, he nervously checked the parking lot. There he found his fiancee’s 1968 Mercury Cougar—with the light blue body and the black top—in its assigned parking space.
The door was ajar, the keys were on the floor, and Judith Ann Hakari was nowhere to be seen. Willis claimed he then scoured the parking lot and complex in search for his 1, Willis reported scouring the parking lot and complex in search of his fiancee.
It became clear that Judith Hakari did not make it home that night.
At 2 AM, Willis made two phone calls: the first to his fiancee’s parents, the second to the Sheriff. When Sacramento Sheriff’s officers arrived at the Markston Apartments, Willis’s father and Hakari’s brother had joined in the search.
Investigators found Hakari’s scarf in the Cougar, along with buttons from her blue-and-white polka-dot coat on the passenger side of the backseat. Detectives later revealed that they also recovered two hand-ripped strips of a Cannon-brand ribbed towel from the back seat. The towels were commonly used in “institutions having a large number of showers,” like school gyms and health clubs.
After this discovery, however, the investigation stalled.In the pre-technological age, there was little else to go on. The only clear thing that was that Judy Hakari was missing. Everything else—the why and where and how—remained a mystery.
Sutter Memorial Hospital building in 1958 [Image via]
“So Totally Out of Character”
Judith Ann Hakari was born in Sacramento two days after Christmas 1946. Her mother, Evelyn, was a California native, while Wilho settled hailed from Finland. The youngest of three, Judy grew up at 4532 Sycamore Ave in northern Sacramento. City directories list Wilho’s profession as a maintenance foreman at McClellan Air Force Base, where Harriet Riley’s father was also employed.
She was described as shy and fastidious by those who knew her. At 23, she was tiny: only 5’2″ tall and roughly 120 pounds, with dark hair and eyes and a fair complexion. Wilho said his daughter wasn’t “completely crazy” about nursing, but the work satisfied her need to help others.
As a child, Hakari was seriously injured when she was thrown from a horse and needed, “thousands of shots and plastic surgery.” Wilho believed the top-notch care she’d received first sparked her interest in medicine. In high school, Hakari was a candy striper at Sutter Hospital, where she’d later work as a nurse.
She graduated from Mira Loma Senior High School in 1964, according to the Sacramento Bee.3 After briefly attending American River Junior College—the same school Dale Kelley attended at the time of his 1981 disappearance—Judy attended Sac State in the fall of 1965. Presumably, she graduated in 1968 or 1969, but I was unable to find her in either yearbook.
Hakari started dating Raymond John Willis, a student living at 5425 San Francisco Boulevard, while wrapping up her bachelor’s degree in late 1968, according to the Sac Bee.4 Raymond Willis told the Bee he and Hakari decided to get married in November 1969, although they did not become officially engaged until January. Their wedding was just three months away when Judy Hakari disappeared.
But before that—after passing the state exam to become registered nurse in 1969—Hakari decided to move out of her parents’ place. She wanted to live on her own for a bit before committing to long-term cohabitation with her soon-to-be fiance.
She was pleased with the first-floor apartment she found at the Markston Road complex, while her brother and then-boyfriend had reservations. Willis they worried living on the ground floor would open Hakari up to trouble. But, she didn’t fret. At the rear of the complex, a brick wall prevented parking lot pervs from getting a prime view into Hakari’s living space. Plus, being at ground-level meant she could move the family piano into her apartment.
This is Judy Hakari’s story, but it’s worth noting that the reported biography of Raymond Willis is brief and murky: he last appears in a Sac Bee story about his fiancee on April 28, 1970. Not that what was published before then was more than surface-deep: I had only a name, an address, and a (likely incorrect) birth year. This is a striking scarcity of information, given the True Crime-saturated culture with which I’m most familiar. Especially given how well this case jives with the Missing White Woman mold disproportionately favored by the media.
I started researching this case midway through the search for Mollie Tibbetts, the 20-year-old Iowa co-ed who disappeared on July 18th. I didn’t follow the Tibbetts case too closely—shocking, I know—but I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to Hakari’s case.
Both women vanished during their late-night routines: Hakari on her way home from work, Tibbetts on a late-night jog. Like Hakari, Tibbetts reportedly had plans to marry her long(ish)-term boyfriend, and both women last spoke to their respective significant others. Described as motivated and empathetic without mental health histories or flighty behavior, neither fits the profile of someone likely to runaway or commit suicide.
The media almost immediately pounced upon scrutinizing Tibbetts’s boyfriend, family, and social circle. I am fairly sure I scrolled through an interview with her boyfriend’s cousin. But, nothing like that happened for Judy Hakari. Why didn’t journalists probe further? Did they just not want to, or was that just not a thing the Sacramento media did in 1970? Were investigators non-cooperative? Was there too little to go on? What element was lacking from this story?
To craft a three-dimensional picture of Judy Hakari’s life and her disappearance, I needed to know more about the man who first realized she was missing. Through piecing together public records (shout-out to Ancestry and the Sacramento Public Library), I have a more dimensional picture Hakari’s to-be groom.
Raymond John Willis was born to a Sacramento couple in February 1947. His mother, Marjorie Riley, was raised in nearby Woodland, and—in a rather Freudian turn of events—was also a nurse at Sutter Memorial Hospital. His father, Bill Willis, was born in Cornwall, England, but moved to Montana as a young child. Marjorie and Bill married in 1933, and soon had their first of three sons. Marjorieretired from nursing to become a stay-at-home mother in 1940, and seven years later, the couple’s youngest son, Raymond, was born.
Willis was likely one of the first students to attend Hiram Johnson High School, which opened in the Tahoe Park neighborhood of Sacramento in 1958. After graduating high school in 1966, Willis lived at home while attending an area college. As as late at 1976, Willis is listed as a student living at his parents’ address in Sacramento city directories. This may be why I couldn’t find a “Raymond Willis” in Sacramento State yearbooks for either 1968 and 1969 (collegiate yearbooks generally only include the graduating class’s named portraits).
Currently, this part of the story is pretty shaky: I truly don’t know if he even attended Sac State or American River College or Sac City. I don’t know what Willis studied, or in what he received a degree—if he even received a degree at all. I have no idea if he pursued post-graduate education, and in what line of work he eventually found himself.
I also don’t know where, nor how, he met his one-day fiancee. But, by Willis’s accounts, the relationship was solid. Granted, he probably wouldn’t be forthcoming if things were rocky in the wake of his fiancee’s disappearance, but the Hakaris did not explicitly refute Willis’s version of events. From the outside, things looked good, but our sample size is very small.
“From everything we have learned, I just can’t see her voluntarily running away.”
Nothing could be ruled out in the early days of the investigation—including the possibility that Hakari disappeared voluntarily. A sheriff’s detective told the Sac Bee that, because Hakari’s car bore no sign of violence, investigators had to consider if a crime had even been committed. Perhaps the 23-year-old ran away to join the circus, or absconded with a secret lover.
But, Judy’s family and fiance found this unlikely, and the Sheriff’s Office soon recognized that this was an unfamiliar flavor of missing persons case. Judy Hakari simply didn’t fit the profile of the typical missing person in 1970’s Sacramento.
Wilho Hakari described the uncertainty as “hellish.” Baffled, he told the media:
She would not do something hasty. She would think it through. If she had a problem, she would think it out. That is her way to solve it…
Not that Judy Hakari had any major problems in need of solving—at least no obvious ones. By all accounts, Judy was a responsible, driven young woman who didn’t engage in high-risk behaviors. She seemed to be living a fulfilling life. Wilho told the Sacramento Bee:2
She is an orderly, methodical person…She was very close with her money and managed herself very well. She has money in the bank and a late model car.”
The Hakaris also considered the possibility that their daughter was suffering from some “temporary disability” and had wandered off or injured herself.10 Maybe she was dead—but, maybe her death was an accident. Or, maybe she was still out there—and maybe she was alive—but in such a distressed state that she was truly unaware of her own identity.
Evelyn and Wilho Hakari truly believed their daughter was abducted—and investigators soon came to agree. What happened after that, however, remained uncertain.
Perhaps she was abducted, but still alive. Wilho wondered if she was, for some reason, abandoned by her abductor and ended up “in a hippie commune somewhere.” He considered it, but found it improbable, saying his daughter “detested hippies—she liked the good things in life and always worked to get them.”
By Day Four of the search, it of the March 11th, an unnamed investigator told the Sac Bee:
There’s always hope, until you know for sure, but as the hours and days go by, the possibility she was abducted and harmed has grown substantially stronger…From everything we have learned so far, I just can’t see her voluntarily running away.”
Raymond Willis’s gut was also screaming foul play. Judy wasn’t the kind of girl to just up and vanish. He told the Sac Bee:
She just had her picture taken Friday afternoon; the day before she disappeared, which she was going to take to The Bee to run with our engagement announcement…We had been refinishing her parents piano. It’s an old piano, but she liked it…And she wouldn’t go off and leave the car like that. She had had it only three months and was very proud of it…I just don’t understand.”
He also recalled when his fiancee told him that her psychology professor had advised that the best way to survive an assailant was to comply. This strategy made it harder for Willis to understand why someone would kill her.
When she moved into her apartment her brother Michael, and I discussed with her what she would do if someone assaulted her, because she was living alone. She said she would not resist and thought it safer if she would go along.”
Now, you’ve likely heard, “never go to a second location!” in the context of abduction-survival strategies. While I’ve yet to find a study on this claim’s validity, an advisory from the International News Safety Institute states the following (emphasis added):
The first few minutes are the most dangerous, and they become more dangerous if you resist. Often the attackers are armed to deter you from trying to escape. You only have seconds to decide. If there are others around you, this is the best time to fight back in an attempt to gain attention and help. After the abductors have you where they want you (most often in a car) there will be little chance of escape.”
With little else to go on, investigators considered the relevance of two incidents that, in retrospect, seemed suspicious.
Hours before Hakari disappeared, an unfamiliar man in his early twenties—described as red-haired and bearded, of medium build, and roughly 5’7″—5’9″ tall—reportedly showed up at Sutter Memorial Hospital asking about “Judith.” Those who knew Hakari called her “Judy.” Investigators and loved ones wondered if this mystery man was looking for this Judith, unaware she was really a Judy. But, as Hakari’s parents noted, there were at least three Judiths working at Sutter Memorial that evening.
Later in the evening, a sheriff’s deputy parked at the intersection of Arden Way and Markston Road noticed two suspicious vehicles near Hakari’s apartment. A half-hour after Hakari’s last confirmed sighting, a brown car with its headlights off turn into the Markston Apartments. Shortly after and just one block west, a motorist was nearly struck by a dark blue, 1960-model sedan that sped away at a high speed.5
But both fishy incidents fizzled out: investigators could not determine if the two drivers were related to each other—never mind connected to Hakari’s abduction. Once again, the case stalled.
On April 25, 1970, Leonard Theis and Susan Reed traveled forty-odd miles east of their Sacramento home to visit a remote part of Placer County, near Weimar. Now boasting a population of nearly 400,000, the Placer County of 1970 was still just a meh-sized county—home to less than 80,000—with big-city aspirations. The county came into existence in 1851, five years after James W. Marshall discovered gold on the nearby south fork of the American River. While its agricultural abundance—and the Southern Pacific Railroad’s move to Roseville in 1906—cemented Placer County as a key area of industry in the Central Valley, to this day, the area can’t shake its touristy, Gold Rush roots.
After spending the day exploring the north fork of the American River Canyon, Theis remembered the old mine and abandoned cabin he’d previously explored in the area. He persuaded Reed to make a short detour to look at the abandoned mine before heading home. In the mouth of that mine at around 5 PM, the couple noticed a human knee protruding from a thin layer of dirt. And there, in a shallow grave, they discovered the partially decomposed body of Judith Ann Hakari.
Theis gave the following account in the April 27th edition of the Sac Bee:11
We saw a knee protruding from the dirt between the cabin and the mine, a shaft which goes about five feet into a slope. I thought it was an animal. But I’d never seen an animal with a knee like that. It shook us up, disturbed us quite a bit. We decided to get out of there.
“We were riding back, toward Weimar, when I thought: ‘Was it an animal or not?’ I got worried about it, and decided I had just better call the authorities, just in case.
“So we called the telephone operator in Weimar. She contacted someone and told us to stay at the phone. In a few minutes, a Colfax policeman and a deputy from Placer County arrived. They followed us back.
“A sergeant joined us. The officers got a crowbar and started probing around. We stood back a ways and didn’t actually see what they found, but they told us they had uncovered the rest of the leg and a foot. The sergeant told us the foot was that of a young woman.”
Detectives told The Bee5 that Hakari’s body was buried in a white canvas laundry bag manufactured specifically for the San Joaquin school district. They also revealed that a zip-up hooded sweatshirt was found beneath her body. Although found in her nursing uniform and Sutter Hospital name tag, Placer County Sheriff William A. Scott revealed that Hakari was sexually assaulted before her death. Her bra was ripped in half, and her underwear were found beneath her body.
A familiar strip of ribbed towel found loose around her neck indicated Hakari was gagged with the towel, beaten, and then strangled with a nylon stocking. The state of decomposition necessitated conclusive identification by dental records.
“It was a brutal murder.”
On April 26, a Placer County sheriff’s deputy made the trek to 4532 Sycamore Avenue. Wilho Hakari immediately recognized the antique engagement ring found on the body as belonging to his daughter. The search was officially over.
Raymond Willis told the Sac Bee that he’d always known “deep down inside” that his fiancee was dead:
I had a terrible feeling that night, when several hours passed and she failed to show up at her apartment, something had happened to her…We were so close we knew what each other was thinking and I just knew, I could feel it — whatever you might call this sensing — that something had happened to her when she never turned up.”
The Bottle Diggers
On May 6, 1970, investigators from the Placer and Sacramento County sheriff’s offices announced their search for three persons of interest in Hakari’s murder.
Inspector Ed Reynolds of Sacramento and Lt. Arthur C. Ables of Placer County said that, six days after the disappearance, the owner of the land where the body was buried spotted three young, well-dressed men near a parked car with a partially-popped trunk, digging at the site where Hakari’s remains would eventually be recovered.
The men claimed to be “digging for bottles” when asked. The landowner found this suspicious, as the men were too well-dressed for bottle digging (which apparently is a thing). The witness said the mystery men told him not to touch the car, and shut the trunk to obscure its contents from view when approached.
The departments, working together in search of leads, released a composite of one the three wanted men. If the composite’s to be believed, the rather nondescript suspect was roughly six feet tall and of slender build, with an olive complexion and brown hair.
Over 300 Alibis Checked
In the three months after Judith Hakari’s body was recovered, detectives from the Placer and Sacramento County Sheriff’s reportedly investigated over 300 persons in connection with the slaying, according to the Sacramento Bee.7 Investigators checked the alibis of possible suspects in both California and Oregon, and claimed to be checking every new lead they received.
Sacramento County Sheriff John Miserly told The Bee:
We’ve talked to people all over California. We’ve attempted to get in touch with everybody who has known the girl since she was in high school.”
But, investigators said the tips stopped flowing by the end of 1970. Even the disclosure of previously withheld details of the crime did not lead to an arrest.
The Sac Bee added Hakari’s case to its “Secret Witness” program shortly after its inception in November 1971. Modeled after a successful 1967 program in Detroit, The Bee created the program, in cooperation with local law enforcement, to find and convict “the perpetrators of major unsolved crimes.” Through regular publicity, the promise of anonymity, and the allure of a hefty reward, The Bee hoped insiders would come forward and help solve what Sheriff Duane Lowe called, “the most serious crimes which have occurred in the county.”
But, despite the multi-thousand dollar rewards, no secret witness came forward. There were no arrests. Evelyn and Wilho died without receiving justice for their daughter. The Hakaris were never able to revise their $500,000 wrongful death lawsuit against six unknown people, in which they stated they would “insert the names of the defendants when arrests are made.”8 Evelyn and Wilho Hakari died without receiving justice for their daughter.
I wonder how often Raymond Willis thinks about Judy Hakari.
While he disappeared from the news after his fiancée’s body was discovered, Raymond Willis moved on with life in the City of Trees. He married, according to his mother’s obituary, and likely had at least one child. In the early 1980’s, he moved into a home on the banks of the American River where he’s resided for over 30 years. I know he was still alive in January 2015, and I have reason to believe he’s still out there, at the age of 71.
I wonder how often he thinks about Judy Hakari. Time helps; each day turns a tiny piece of oozing trauma scab into shiny scar tissue. But, it does not wholly heal all wounds—at least in my experience. Some days, I can think and speak rationally about the Tragic Death in my life and the pain it caused. Other days, just thinking about a particular song is all it takes for searing-hot grief to donkey-kick me in the sternum and make me cry on a stalled 2 train. But, I’m only ten years out—is it still as painful after five times that long? parallax-scroll id=”6413″]
“And to this day, we have not found the perpetrator.”
In 2016, Hakari’s murder made the news again, as part of the Sheriff’s renewed effort to solve some of its most notorious cold cases. Given their recent success at defrosting the coldest of cases—cough, cough, EAR/ONS—it seems only fitting that this case receive some contemporary attention.
But, this case may actually be harder to crack: the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office is not in possession of the perpetrator’s DNA. Some sources say no DNA was found, while others claim the evidence was “accidentally damaged and couldn’t be tested.” Micki Links, a retired investigator with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Homicide Division, said of the case:
The evidence in this case was pretty degraded…but with the newer technology that we have, we are hoping some of that evidence can be reanalyzed and hope to find some DNA….
“She had been sexually assaulted and battered about the head and strangled. And to this day, we have not found the perpetrator… The bottom line is, a case from 40 or 50 years ago where someone was murdered and taken from their family is not any less important than the homicide that happened yesterday.”
Shortly after Judy’s murder, the Hakaris ensured their daughter’s legacy would live on by establishing the Judith Ann Hakari Memorial Scholarship Fund at Sacramento State’s School of Nursing. By September 1970, the scholarship had funded its first full-tuition scholarship for a nursing student. The fund is still helping aspiring nurses attend college. In fact, when Raymond Willis’s mother passed away in 2015, her obituary requested donations be made in her memory to the scholarship fund in lieu of flowers.
Judith Ann Hakari is interred at the Sierra Hills Memorial Park Cemetery in Sacramento.
Sacramento Bee Sources
- “Police Probe Disappearance of Nurse, 23,” Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), March 9, 1970: 1.
- “For Judy’s Kin, Waiting is Worst Ordeal,” Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), March 10, 1970: 11.
- Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), June 6, 1964: 20. NewsBank.
- “Days Wear On, Fears for Nurse Mount,” Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), March 11, 1970: 1. NewsBank.
- “Judy’s Killer Still Walks the Streets,” Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), May 16, 1971: 4. .Newsbank
- “Sex Angle is Revealed in Nurse’s Death,” Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), May 1, 1970: 10. NewsBank.
- “Nurse Murder Probe,” Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), July 17, 1970: 29. Newsbank.
- “Nurse’s Parents File Wrongful Death Lawsuit,” Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), October 14, 1970: 2. Newsbank.
- “Death Probe,” Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), October 28, 1970: 5. NewsBank.
- “Parents Hope and Pray,” Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), April 7, 1970: 22. NewsBank.
- “Lingering Doubt Plays Role in Finding of Body,” Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), April 27, 1970: 18. NewsBank.
- Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California), September 17, 1967: 136. NewsBank.