In the late ’90s and early 2000s, seven women were brutally murdered in Bakersfield. Some were prostitutes, some were single moms living alone. None of them were wealthy. None of them were prominent. Most were African-American. All had been stabbed and slashed. The crimes went unsolved.
In 2008, a series of savage rapes led investigators to a 33-year-old ex-con named Michael Charles Brown. He was arrested and charged and his DNA entered into a national data base.
That DNA connected him to one of the earlier murders.
He was convicted of the rapes and of that one murder.
But what about the other six victims?
For decades their families have sought answers. They’ve sought justice.
When Channel 17 began looking into cold cases in 2016, families of some of the victims reached out to us. For more than year now, we have been looking into the killings of Mary Ann Perkins, Leslie Dawn Preston, Catrina Antoinette Pink, Billie Jean Bear, Patricia Bessie Martin, Wendy Kyle and Kathleen Heisey. We’ve found similarities that cannot be ignored.
Most significantly, weeks of poring over court documents allowed KGET reporter Olivia LaVoice to develop a timeline that shows every time Michael Charles Brown was out of jail, someone died. When he was in custody, the killings stopped.
Along the way we met a dedicated detective, now retired, whose commitment to forgotten victims led him to the same conclusion we reached.
And he showed us how the killings of those forgotten victims might be connected to one of the highest-profile murders in Kern history.
These murders occurred from 1996-2001 but our story begins on Union Avenue in the late hours of a summer evening in 2000.
A young woman, stranded when she could not contact friends or family for a ride, decided to walk to a friend’s house. She didn’t get far when a car pulled over. The driver demanded she get in. Too afraid to attempt to run, she obliged. He tried to soothe her fears, saying his name was Mike, and that they were going to pick up a friend of his. He pulled over near Golden State Highway and Frontage Road, where raped her.
He got away, but the 19-year-old victim was able to give police a good description of her attacker – and his car.
A few weeks after, the young woman saw the car again.
She took down the license plate number and called the police. Officers found the car registered to Brown, whom she picked out of a lineup. He was arrested and charged. He was in jail, facing life prison term for rape and kidnapping, when he was offered a deal: Plead guilty and be sentenced to only eight years in prison.
Brown refused the deal.
Three months later, the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case. On Dec. 4, 2000, Brown was free to go.
After the dismissed kidnapping and rape charge, Brown’s criminal record describes a domestic violence charge and a few DUIs.
On Jan. 25, 2002, Brown, then 27, was arrested for murder. He and his three brothers had been in a fight in the 900 block of N Street – eight blocks west of Union Avenue – and Josea “Joe” Kent was stabbed to death. All four brothers were arrested, but no one could say who struck the fatal blow. All four released and never charged in court.
A year later, on March 30, 2003, a week after Brown’s 28th birthday, Brown and his brother left the Red Robin restaurant at the Valley Plaza Mall after drinking, according to police reports.
With his brother in the passenger’s seat, Brown drove down Union Avenue and at around 8:30 p.m.
He hit a pedestrian named Gary White, 40, killing him.
The impact threw White through the windshield of Brown’s car.
Brown drove several blocks down Union with the body protruding from the windshield before he pulled the parking lot of the Wienerschnitzel restaurant at Union and California avenues to dump White’s body.
Brown and his brother fled.
Brown reported that he had been robbed and his car stolen. Officers said Brown was “relaxed and nonchalant” as he described the attack.
But his story didn’t add up and police finally got the truth out of him. Eventually he confessed, and they considered him “very cooperative.” At 1 a.m., over four hours after leaving the restaurant, his blood alcohol levels were recorded at 0.14 percent. He was arrested and charged. He again rejected a plea deal, but this time he was convicted and sentenced to nine years. He was paroled on Feb. 8, 2007, having served less than four years.
Nine months later, a prostitute who went by the name Gypsy Rose was on Union Avenue looking for one last customer for the night. At Union Avenue and Eighth Street she got into a car with a man who drove her to an area near Central Park and offered her $30 for sex. The price was too low but when she refused, the man said, “It doesn’t matter, I was going to take it anyways.” When he demanded she remove her clothes, she refused, but complied when he began to hit her. As he raped her, she felt “there was something” about man that told her not to resist or fight back.
She said he sodomized her with foreign objects as he bragged about women he had raped and killed.
He even claimed to have kept some in the basement of a home on Bank Street, just off Union Avenue. He told her, “I could imagine waking up in the morning and using you for a few days. I have kept some women for as long as a few weeks,” she said.
She managed to escape as the sun came up and a street cleaner drove by, startling the man. Humiliated by the experience and living under the shadow of her prior criminal record and life as a prostitute, she didn’t report the rape until, gathering her courage, two days later.
That was November, 2007. A few months later, she told police, he was back. He pulled over to her on the street and said, “Remember what I told you,” before driving off.
Less than a month later, according to court documents, at Union Avenue and First Street on Christmas Eve of 2007, another prostitute agreed to engage in sex for $30. He drove her to a secluded area where, she later told detectives, he became violent, choking her while repeatedly raping her. She said he told her he had killed other women before, but if she did what he said she wouldn’t get hurt. The assault continued for two hours, with Brown alternating between threatening her and telling her that he loved her. Eventually, Brown got dressed, told her to get out of his car and drove away.
Four months later, on March 19, 2008, on Michael Charles Brown’s 33rd birthday, a man in a car approached another woman walking down Union Avenue at 3 a.m., according to police. They sparked up a conversation, and she asked if he would give her a ride to Kern Medical Center.
When she was in the car he told her, “You’re mine now … you’re not going anywhere,” and locked the doors. He drove her to a secluded area and began to beat and rape her. After sodomizing her, he forced her to eat her own feces. She begged to be let out of the car to urinate. When she was outside of the vehicle, she attempted an escape. The man tried to run her over with his car. She bounced onto the hood and clung to the windshield wipers. When he slammed on the brakes, she was catapulted onto roadway, a windshield wiper in her hand.
He attempted to get her back into the car, but, still naked and badly beaten, she managed to get away.
Three days later, officers were called to Kern Medical Center where another woman was being treated after being beaten and assaulted. She told officers that she and a man in a gold-colored Mercury agreed on a price for sexual services but when they reached a secluded place, he began to choke her. As she lost consciousness, she soiled herself. The man pushed her from the car and drove away. She noted that the car had a cracked windshield and the driver had a gold necklace and a tiger tattoo.
Two days later, Bakersfield Police officers on patrol spotted a gold Mercury with a cracked windshield. They pulled the car over and found that the driver had a gold necklace and a tiger tattoo.
When they examined the car, they noticed that one of the windshield wipers had been ripped off.
They arrested the driver – Michael Charles Brown, the same man who avoided prison in 2000 after prosecutors dismissed a case that accused him of kidnapping and raping a woman he met on Union Avenue in 2000, the same man arrested for murder but never charged in the party stabbing in 2002, the same man who killed a pedestrian on Union Avenue on 2003.
Arrested for the prostitute rape, adamantly denied ever having had contact with a prostitute. He was convincing, and it was his word against hers.
Until the DNA results came in.
His DNA matched that of three of the four assaulted women. Gypsy Rose was the only one who had not reported her attack in time to complete a rape kit, but she was able to give a detailed description, and Brown was charged with all four rapes.
His DNA was entered in the national DNA database.
There was another match.
Brown suddenly was linked to the vicious killing of Ruby Lee Jackson Merriweather.
Merriweather’s case had long run cold since her death in 2000, more than eight years earlier. The mother of four had been savagely raped and murdered in her own home, in the 500 block of Grace Street in East Bakersfield. There was no sign of forced entry. She had been stabbed 18 times.
Her body was “posed,” in the words of criminalists. The corpse was positioned at the foot of her bed, arranged in a sexually humiliating display.
Beside the body was a chair, leading investigators to speculate her killer sat and admired his cruelty.
The body was found by one of her daughters. She remains unable to speak about what she saw.
Brown’s DNA matched with DNA in feces left on Merriweather’s body.
It took nearly eight years, but ultimately, Brown was convicted of Merriweather’s murder and the rapes of the four women – 17 felonies in all.
On March 9, 2016, he was sentenced to death for the murder and 115 years for the rapes.
He’s now on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison.
He’s off the street and no longer a danger to the people of Bakersfield.
The Merriweather family feels a measure of justice has been done for their mother.
But what about the forgotten victims? The six other women murdered in the same time period in the same area?
There are six other families still wondering, still in anguish, still aching over not knowing what happened to their mothers.
Could Brown be connected?
Was Merriweather the only woman he killed?
What about his repeated boasts that he had killed before?
Is it possible the convicted serial rapist might be an unpunished serial killer?
Those are the questions that prompted Channel 17’s Olivia LaVoice to spend a year investigating Brown.
Ruby Merriweather’s sister, Zelma Jackson, said she long suspected Merriweather was murdered by a serial killer and there must be more victims of Michael Charles Brown.
Zelma feels connected to the families that may have been affected by Brown, and welcomes those families to reach out to her.
One of those families may be that of Mary Ann Perkins. Born and raised in Bakersfield, Perkins grew up in a close-knit family, one of 12 children. Family remembered she’d overcome a lot in life, including multiple seizures caused by childhood epilepsy, to become a humble, grateful, single-mother of three. She was 44 when she vanished from her neighborhood in mid-December, 1996. When she didn’t show up for Christmas, her family knew she was dead. Her body was discovered a day before New Year’s Eve in the back yard of a vacant home just a few blocks from where she lived. Prospective renters of the home discovered the nude, decomposing body tied up in a blanket. Detectives were able to identify her only through denture records.
Two years later, a similar tragedy stuck another big Bakersfield family. Leslie Dawn Preston was one of 11 children but only had one child of her own: A daughter named Shannon. Shannon said she and her mother were very close, seeing each other regularly and speaking several times a day. Shannon said she knew something was wrong the instant she couldn’t reach her mother one late June afternoon in 1998. Several days later, Preston’s nude body was found in a field off Madison Street, a mile and a half from where Perkin’s body was found. Preston had been stabbed 19 times over her face, neck, chest and back. She had defense wounds on her hands and blood under her fingernails, suggesting she had fought for her life.
Catrina Antoinette Pink was born in Oklahoma but moved with her family to Bakersfield when she was just a child. In an interview with Channel 17’s LaVoice, Pink’s grandmother, recalled her granddaughter’s intelligence and high moral character that belied her criminal record of drug use and prostitution. Pink was 27 and had a 10-year old son when friends last saw her at the Tropicana Motel on Union Avenue on Dec. 12, 2000.
Her partially nude body was discovered in a field near Ridgeview High School two days later. She had deep gashes across her neck.
Billie Jean Bear was the youngest of three girls and shared a middle name and a troubled childhood with both her sisters, Beverly and Barbara, in the icy town of Fairbanks, Alaska. Their mother left the family when Billie was 3, leaving them in the care of their abusive, alcoholic father, according to court records. Beverly described her sister’s dream of becoming a doctor, but their family life made it difficult to follow that dream after her high school graduation. After a brief, rocky marriage and an attempt to reconnect with her mother, her sister said, Billie found work in Bakersfield as a hostess, but was living at the Bakersfield Homeless Shelter. Court records show Billie had also recently been arrested for prostitution. Billie was stabbed over 13 times, mostly around the neck, and was left partially nude in bushes on O Street. Her body was found Jan. 13, 2001, just weeks after Pink’s murder.
Patricia Bessie Martin was born and raised in Kern County to a close-knit family. Her mother and sister say Martin loved reading and always got good grades in school, a trait they say her four children have inherited. They remember her as a loving, good person who had, at times, hung out with the wrong crowd. Court records show she was arrested for prostitution a few months before she was killed.
Her body was found in the 2100 block of East 21st St. – just a few feet from East Truxtun Avenue – on April 25, 2001. Her clothes had been ripped off and her throat was slit.
Wendy Kyle was born near Pasadena but spent most of her life in Kennewick, Wash. From a young age, Kyle displayed her passion for art and animals, often combining the two. In Washington, she volunteered at animal shelters and when she died, her family requested donations to a local animal shelter. Kyle moved to Bakersfield about a year before her death to be closer to her paternal grandmother.
She lived in a converted garage behind a house on Circle Drive, near North Chester Avenue and China Grade Loop. The little house burned on May 29, 2001. Firefighters her body inside. She was partially nude and was near the foot of the bed before fire fighters removed her while fighting the fire. An autopsy showed she was stabbed numerous times before the fire was set. There was no indication of a robbery or break in.
Kyle’s friends said the group she hung out with at the Mint bar in Downtown and at the VIP Lounge was rougher around the edges than Kyle was. Some said it appeared Kyle was much more innocent than her friends, but just wanted to fit in.
One friend, who provided information to police through the Secret Witness Program, said Kyle and Michael Charles Brown were acquaintances at the Mint bar.
Questioned by sheriff’s detectives investigating Kyle’s killing, Brown admitted he knew her. He said they once “made out” but that he had never been to her apartment.
(To protect the integrity of the Secret Witness Program, KGET is not naming the woman who was a friend of both Kyle and Brown.)
Bill Darbee is a retired Bakersfield Police Department sergeant. In the spring of 2001 he was a new patrol officer and one of the first to see Patricia Martin’s body, near the railroad tracks near East 21st Street and East Truxtun Avenue.
The scene stuck with him.
The case never got much attention. She was a prostitute and, as murders go, it was pretty routine. He was not assigned to investigations.
But Darbee’s mentor had taught him a treasured cop philosophy: “Everybody counts.”
He was just a uniformed rookie, but to him, Patricia Martin counted. “I don’t know if it was the first murder I had seen, but it was the first murder I had seen to that extent and viciousness,” he recalled. He carried the case in his heart. He still does.