At about noon on October 31, 2018, John Getreu, a 74-year-old living in Hayward, Calif., got a ride from his wife to a medical building in nearby Union City. Two Santa Clara County sheriff’s investigators watched as he walked to the pharmacy, stopped to buy a cup of coffee from a kiosk, sat down to drink it, and tossed the empty cup into a garbage can.
Getreu had no idea that his DNA on that cup would provide a key piece of evidence linking him to two of the four decades-old cold cases, the so-called Stanford Murders, that terrified the campus community between February 1973 and October 1974. The evidence languished in boxes, despite repeated sleuthing efforts by law enforcement, until modern advances in DNA techniques would finally break open three of the cases and create new hope for solving the fourth.
On that Halloween day, the two deputies waited until Getreu was out of sight, then retrieved his coffee cup from the garbage can, sending it along to the Santa Clara County crime lab for DNA analysis, says Sgt. Noe Cortez, the lead investigator in one of the cases. And then they waited, like the families of the victims had been waiting for decades, to see whether a killer had been caught.
During the 1970s, the Bay Area had come to be known as a stomping ground for murderers, cursed as it was by such high-profile serial killers as Ed Kemper, who murdered 10 people, stalking young female hitchhikers in the vicinity of Santa Cruz, and the still-unidentified Zodiac killer, who murdered at least five people in secluded areas near San Francisco. The Stanford Murders, coming as they did every few months without a single arrest, brought the fear home to campus.
“The scenario was becoming tragically, frighteningly familiar,” said one Stanford Daily story at the time. “After four unsolved homicides, Stanford is a decidedly grimmer place than the country club most students chose to attend.” Infamous serial killer Ted Bundy was briefly considered a suspect in one of the cases. Another of the murders, which occurred inside Memorial Church, generated rumors of satanic rituals.
Cold case investigators brought in an old suspect for questioning, but this time with new evidence.
The murders began in February 1973 with the death of Leslie Perlov, ’72, a 21-year-old recent graduate who worked at a law library in Palo Alto. Sheriff’s investigators found her strangled body, which showed signs of sexual assault, in the Foothills above campus. Seven months later, the body of David Levine,a 20-year-old physics student who was working late at night in a lab, was found on campus in front of Meyer Library. He had been stabbed several times in the back with a knife. The third murder victim, 21-year-old Janet Taylor, was the daughter of former Stanford athletic director Chuck Taylor, ’43, MA ’47. Like Perlov, she appeared to have been sexually assaulted and was killed by strangulation. Her body was found by a passing milkman alongside Sand Hill Road west of Interstate 280 in March 1974.
And then, with no suspects arrested in any of the previous three murders, there was yet another. On the night of October 12, 1974, Arlis Perry, a 19-year-old newlywed, got into an argument with her husband, a Stanford premed student. Around 11 p.m., she walked to Memorial Church to pray. Her husband, worried when she didn’t return to their Escondido Village apartment, reported her missing around 3 in the morning. At 5:45 a.m., Stanford security guard Stephen Crawford called police to report he’d found a dead body lying between pews when he unlocked the church doors that morning.
“We have a stiff in here,” Crawford is heard saying in a sheriff’s recording of his phone call. It was Perry. She had been sexually assaulted with candles and stabbed in the back of the head, according to a Stanford Daily report at the time. Crawford was a person of interest. But there was never enough evidence to charge him with her murder. And so it remained for four decades.
Fast-forward to 2016. Cold case investigators for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office brought in an old suspect in the Perry case for questioning, but this time with new evidence. In the 1970s, DNA testing didn’t exist as a forensic tool. That began in the late 1980s, and as DNA testing became more sensitive, investigators would routinely run new versions of it on evidence from cold cases, hoping for leads.
Cold case investigators also meticulously pored through boxes of stored evidence in the Stanford Murders, reexamining reams of old newspaper articles, recordings of interviews, photographs, and old clothing. The lead detective in the Perry case, Lt. Rick Alanis, made a surprising discovery. The pants labeled as Perry’s were far too large to have fit her. They had actually belonged to her husband. When Perry’s own pants were sent in for analysis in 2016, DNA from semen found on them matched with that of Stephen Crawford, the former Stanford security guard. After additional investigative work, detectives went to Crawford’s San Jose studio apartment in 2018 with a search warrant. Shortly after they arrived, he shot himself in the head.
Investigators considered the Perry case resolved and thought perhaps other Stanford Murders would soon be too. Cortez, who was part of the team sent to arrest Crawford, had also been assigned in 2016 to lead the reinvestigation into the Leslie Perlov case.
Perlov was last seen at her place of employment when she went missing on February 13, 1973. That same day, her orange Chevrolet Nova was found parked near the intersection of Old Page Mill Road and Page Mill Road. Three days later, her body was found northwest of her car under an oak tree, a scarf around her neck.
“I believe she fought for her life,” Cortez says. He sent her fingernail clippings, preserved as evidence, to the county lab, where criminologists found unidentifiable male DNA on them. In the past, the investigation might have stalled there, but this time there was a newer method of DNA analysis to try.
This method, known as forensic genetic genealogy, has grown increasingly popular with law enforcement since 2018, when it was used to identify Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. as the Golden State Killer. It allows law enforcement to compare DNA samples collected from crime scenes with those submitted by the public to companies that offer genetic testing, such as Ancestry.com. “It’s because one person shares a large enough amount of genetic material with dozens of relatives, many of whom they might not even know, that forensic genetic genealogy can find new connections,” says Noah Rosenberg, MS ’99, PhD ’02, a Stanford professor of biology whose lab studies the practice. The method has raised privacy concerns, prompting some DNA testing companies to inform customers that their genetic information could be used by police, but it is also a powerful technique, he says. “It’s now been used to solve hundreds of cold cases across many jurisdictions.”
‘Diane, we got him. He’s in jail.’
Including Perlov’s. The genetic genealogy company from which Cortez had requested the analysis sent back the name of a suspect.
“It wasn’t Crawford’s,” Cortez says. The DNA, he says, belonged to a different former employee.
John Getreu, who had worked as a lab tech at Stanford around the time of the murder, had been convicted of rape and murder in Germany when he was 18 years old, Cortez says. And he was living nearby in Hayward.
The final step was for investigators to confirm the DNA match by linking current DNA from Getreu to the DNA profile found on the fingernail clippings. Enter Getreu’s discarded coffee cup. A week after sending it to the lab, investigators heard back. Getreu was a match. He was arrested 11 days later at his home. He also immediately became a suspect in the Taylor case due to the similar circumstances surrounding the two murders.
On the day Getreu was arrested, Cortez called Diane Perlov, Leslie’s sister. Diane was forever her sister’s champion, says Lt. Shannon “Cat” Catalano, a member of the Santa Clara County team working the Perlov case. She made sure Leslie was never forgotten and pushed investigators to solve her case.
“Diane, we got him. He’s in jail,” Cortez said that day over the phone.
Getreu was charged with Taylor’s murder that same year, based on evidence that showed that DNA obtained during his arrest matched DNA swabbed from the inside of Taylor’s pants. In 2021, he was convicted of her murder, and in 2023—50 years after the crime—he pleaded guilty to Perlov’s. Diane Perlov was in court for every hearing, Catalano says. At Getreu’s arraignment for her sister’s murder, she asked that he be denied bail.
“The scarf tied around her neck that day was mine,” Perlov said. “I cannot walk alone in the woods. After work, I will not walk through the deserted parking garage. I won’t let anyone touch my neck.”
While the Santa Clara County investigators were relieved to provide answers to the Perlov family, that feeling doesn’t last long, says Catalano. There’s always another cold case waiting to be solved. Santa Clara County has more than 100 cold cases, including the remaining Stanford Murder, that of David Levine, the physics student often described as “brilliant” by friends and family.
“We are actively working his case,” Catalano says—reviewing those old boxes of evidence, hoping for media coverage that will spark new tips, anticipating innovations in DNA techniques that could provide additional leads. “There’s always somebody anxiously waiting for answers.”
Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vintage 1973 Collection
Stanford is 50! It turns out we’re not the only one. Walk with us down memory lane as we sample some of the wonders and horrors of the 1973–74 academic year on the Farm, and in the world around.