Southern California

Jury Recommends Death Penalty for Ex-Marine Convicted in California Serial Killings

The first of five Southern California slayings began in 1986 when a college student was stabbed 41 times

What to Know

  • The serial killings between 1986 and 1995 began with the stabbing death of a college student
  • The case went cold for years, during which the bodies of several women were found in Riverside and San Diego counties
  • Andrew Urdiales, 53, was arrested in three Illinois killings in 1996, then connected to the Southern California killings

An Orange County jury recommended the death penalty Wednesday for a former Marine who killed five women in Southern California and is already serving a life prison term in Illinois for three murders in Chicago.

Andrew Urdiales, 53, was convicted of the Southern California killings May 23. The same jury deliberated for about a day before recommending that he be put to death for each of the five murders.

Urdiales killed five women in Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties between 1986 and 1995, but it was an Illinois triple-murder case that brought him to the attention of investigators looking into the Southern California killings.

The California serial killings began with an attack on a Saddleback College student, according to investigators. The body of Robbin Brandley was found in a school parking lot, stabbed 41 times. She had been working earlier than night as an usher at a campus event.

Brandley's father, Jack Reilley, said as he held hands with the relatives of other victims in court Wednesday that he "felt a lot of pissed-off emotion." Reilley said he was unsurprised by the verdict because prosecutors had put on a strong case.

Urdiales is "like a mad dog, who needs to be put down," Reilley said. "He's non-human. That's what he is to me."

The case went cold for years, during which the bodies of several women with ties to prostitution were found in remote and secluded parts of Riverside and San Diego counties. A break came in 1996 when Chicago police investigating the deaths of three women in Illinois learned that a man later identified as Urdiales had been pulled over with a revolver in his car in Indiana.

That revolver was matched to bullets found in the bodies of the three victims in Illinois. 

Urdiales told Chicago detectives that they also might want to ask him about people in California, Orange County prosecutors said in opening statements. He subsequently spoke with Orange County investigators, and he was arrested in 1997 on suspicion of killing an Orange County woman when he was a Marine at Camp Pendleton. He killed the four other women, in Riverside and San Diego counties, when he was stationed at Twenty-Nine Palms.

He had been sentenced to death in Chicago for the Illinois murders, but when the death penalty was abolished in Illinois he was re-sentenced to life without parole. He was brought to Orange County in 2011 to be tried for the five murders in the Southland.

Jennifer Asbenson, who escaped from Urdiales, embraced two of Urdiales' siblings following the verdicts. 

"I told her I was sorry for this whole situation, sorry they have to go through all of this," Asbenson said she told one of Urdiales' sisters.

When the verdicts were announced in court, Asbenson said she felt "really relieved, like a huge weight was taken off of me."

She recalled that as Urdiales was strangling her, "I imagined this day," and the verdicts, "Made me feel safer."

Asbenson said she was glad Urdiales will be sent to death row because life in prison without the possibility of parole would have given him "hope, and he doesn't deserve hope. He deserves the death penalty."

Asbenson said she has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but she has taken self-defense classes. She revealed that she saw news reports of 23-year-old Robbin Brandley's death and how saddened she was by it.

"A year later I was grabbed by the same guy," she said.

Asbenson said she got a burst of "superhuman strength" to burst the twine Urdiales had used to bind her in the trunk of his car after she prayed for help. With her hands free she was able to get away eventually.

Urdiales' attorney, Denise Gragg, argued Monday that brain scans and psychological tests showed her client had symptoms of someone afflicted with partial fetal alcohol syndrome. The killer's mother was a steady drinker and imbibed when she was pregnant with Urdiales, she said.

That brain damage combined with a childhood of traumatic events left him with trouble managing his anger and emotions. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran performed well in the structured environment of the military, she argued, but did poorly in less-stable conditions.

Urdiales told investigators that he got into spats with many of the women before he snapped and killed them. Gragg said he would dissociate at times so that he wouldn't even be present consciously during the murders.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy argued there was little evidence to prove Urdiales' childhood was as unhappy as his defense attorneys claimed. There also wasn't as much childhood bullying as the defense alleged, he said.

Murphy also argued that jurors should give greater weight to the suffering of the families who lost loved ones at the hands of the killer. Murphy argued that Urdiales was able to control his anger, but chose to attack his victims because he is sadistic and a misogynist.

Referring to the torturous sexual assault and attempted killing of another victim who managed to escape, Murphy said, "She went to hell for the entertainment" of Urdiales.

"This is his hobby. He's doing this for fun," Murphy said of the attack on the victim who escaped.

Urdiales was convicted of killing:

  • 23-year-old Robbin Brandley, who was attacked as she walked to her car following a concert on Jan. 18, 1986, at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo
  • 29-year-old Julie McGhee on July 17, 1988, in Cathedral City
  • 31-year-old Maryann Wells on Sept. 25, 1988, in San Diego
  • 20-year-old Tammie Erwin on April 16, 1989, in Palm Springs
  • 32-year-old Denise Maney on March 11, 1995, in Palm Springs

Urdiales was previously convicted of killing Laura Uylaki, Cassandra Corum and Lynn Huber, who worked as prostitutes in Illinois in the mid-1990s.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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