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Man arrested in Reno murder may be serial killer

RENO — A man arrested in connection to a 1979 Reno killing could be linked to two other decades-old unsolved murders in the area, court documents show.

Charles Gary Sullivan, 73, was arrested in August in Arizona after police used DNA evidence to tie him to the death 21-year-old woman who disappeared after moving from the Bay Area in 1979 and whose body was later found in barren hills north of Reno. Sullivan was extradited to Reno Friday.

Sullivan has only been charged in connection to Woodward’s death. But court documents filed in the case show that law enforcement believe he also killed two other women in the Reno area in the late 1970s, one of whom’s remains were found barely mile from Woodward’s body in the same year.

“All evidence points to [Sullivan] being a serial killer,” lawyers for the attorney general’s office wrote in a motion filed on Nov. 7.

Woodward killing

Late in the afternoon of March 25, 1979, a man on a dirt bike was riding around in desert trails in Hungry Valley some 15 miles north of Reno when he stumbled upon what he thought to be an abandoned mannequin. But he quickly realized that the motionless figure was no mannequin.

What he had found was the body of Julia Woodward, a 21-year-old from San Rafael, California who had moved to Nevada looking for work in Reno or South Lake Tahoe who had been “known to hitchhike,” according to court filings.

She had Band-Aids over her eyes — a makeshift blindfold. One shoe was missing and a zip tie was secured around one of her ankles. Nearby rocks were covered with blood and hair, which police believe were used to kill her. An autopsy showed that Woodward’s underwear and ID were missing, according to the court documents.

The last time any of her friends or family had seen Woodward alive was when a friend had dropped her off at the airport in San Francisco in early February 1979. She had promised her friends she would call soon after she settled into her new home, according to interview summaries in court filings.

But that call never came.

Woodward’s case soon went cold as few leads would emerge. But that changed after the case was reopened by the Washoe County Sheriff’s office in 2015. Police used DNA evidence from semen found on Woodward’s jeans to link the crime back to Sullivan. He was arrested in Yavapai County, Arizona on Aug. 28 in connection with the killing.

Links to other cases

Woodward’s case has long-been linked to another unsolved murder of a young woman in Reno due to how close the two bodies were found as well as many of the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

Eight months after Woodward’s body was discovered in Hungry Valley, the skeletal remains of 17-year-old Jeannie Smith were found barely a mile away in a shallow grave, according to court records. The zipper of Smith’s jeans had been “forcibly opened,” her underwear and ID were missing, and she was killed by blunt force trauma to the head, court records said.

And like the Band-Aids were used on Woodward, police believe the medical tape found in Smith’s hair was used as to blindfold her.

Like Woodward’s case, few leads emerged in Smith’s case. But one of those leads included a composite sketch of a man named “Chuck” who was last seen with Smith at her workplace, the Circus Circus hotel and casino.

“The sketch looks remarkably similar to a photograph of defendant taken near the time of Jeannie’s disappearance,” court documents said.

It was around the time that Sullivan was initially identified as a person of interest in Smith’s case that he left the state. But law enforcement officials believe it was when police started questioning him about the disappearance of a third missing Reno women that he fled.

On March 9, 1979, 23-year-old Reno resident Linda Taylor was reported missing by her roommate.

A tip led investigators to Sullivan, who eventually admitted that he had gone on a date with Taylor but denied having any knowledge of how she disappeared.

Soon after that interview, Sullivan fled the state. Taylor’s body was never found.

2007 conviction

In September 2007, nearly three decades after the three women had been killed or gone missing, a woman identified in court filings only by her initials as “A.E.” was returning from a family funeral in Utah, hitchhiking her way back, something she “had done many times previously,” court records said.

She was standing near the Nevada County border, roughly 45 minutes west of Reno, holding a sign that said “Yuba City,” when a white van heading in the opposite direction made a U-turn and offered her a ride. The man, later identified as Sullivan, said he was going her way but was originally heading the opposite direction to grab coffee.

Sullivan offered to show A.E. where he “mined turquoise,” which she accepted and the two turned off on the road towards Bowman Lake.

After going well into the more remote area of the High Sierra, Sullivan stopped the van and the two started to hike to the supposed mine. But when A.E. bent down to tie her boot laces, Sullivan put a hand on her shoulder.

When A.E. looked up, she said she saw Sullivan holding a handgun and he told her to lay on her stomach. Sullivan used zip ties to bind her wrists and ankles. She asked what he was going to do, and Sullivan replied “the only thing that’s going to be involved is sex, and we’re just going to be out here for a few days having fun.”

Sullivan walked back to his van after he tied A.E.’s hands and feet. But while he was away, she pulled out a small knife she kept in her pocket, cut the zip ties and ran barefoot through the woods looking for safety, leaving her boots behind.

She ran into two men an ATV and told them what happened and they drove her to a cabin where they could call police. On the way to the cabin, they ran into a worker who helped track down Sullivan’s van.

Law enforcement arrested Sullivan, who had changed his clothes, got rid of the gun and tried to discard the personal items A.E. had left in the van.

Registered sex offender

Investigators searched Sullivan’s computer as part of the case, and found that he searched for “naked children,” “child sex,” and “lost hikers in California.”

Sullivan was convicted of false imprisonment and criminal threats in that case, and was required to register as a sex offender in California. But according the the court filing, Sullivan violated his parole three times from 2009 to 2012, and failed to register as a sex offender three other times.

The DNA evidence police pulled from Sullivan during the investigation of the 2007 case is what was later used to tie him to the semen found on Woodward’s jeans back in 1979.

Police have not charged Sullivan in connection to Smith’s death or Taylor’s disappearance.

Sullivan is scheduled to appear in court in Reno Tuesday morning.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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