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Santa Strangler: the non-holiday story of a gray-haired California maniac



Adolf Theodor Laudenberg is a handsome gray-haired old man of 94 years old. Looking at him, hardly anyone can imagine that before him is a ruthless maniac who killed and raped women in the 70s of the last century, says

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The chances of catching the killer were slim, and only his own confession helped solve a series of crimes. Laudenberg went down in crime history as "The Santa Strangler", because he looked like a kind Christmas hero or a pretty bearded gnome. The maniac dealt with his victims mainly on holidays and weekends.

Due to the fact that Laudenberg looked like Santa, his activities soon became overgrown with speculation and the story of a Christmas killer with a beard, gifts and a red suit appeared. Adolf made his attacks all year round, including during the Christmas holidays, but this was not at all connected with his beliefs.

On weekends and holidays, it was easier for the killer to find a victim, because in bars and on the streets it is much more likely to meet lonely tipsy women whom he hunted. A rapist and a murderer got caught, one might say, by accident, through his own fault. His long tongue let him down and a completely innocent, even positive hobby, unusual for serial killers.

Laudenberg was born in 1926 in Kentucky to a family of German settlers. Adolf was very little when his mother died and his father, a butcher by profession, began to take care of him. It is known that the mother of the future serial killer drank heavily and, possibly, due to childhood trauma, he chose drinking women, older than himself and often sick, as victims for the rest of his life.

When the time came, Laudenberg went to the army. He served in the city of Trinidad, California, in the naval construction battalion. The guy was a little over 18 when he met his love in one of the local taverns - a dancer named Annelle. He proposed to her and soon the couple got married. The girl had a son, whom she gave birth to very early from an unknown man. But this did not bother Adolf, and the young family looked quite happy.

But young Laudenberg was actually a very peculiar type. If his wife preferred to spend time in noisy companies with music and drinks, then Adolf was a recluse. His behavior seemed strange to many - he did not leave the house unnecessarily, he could stare at one point for hours, and his hobby was carving walking sticks from the branches of manzanita - a tree that we call bearberry.

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Soon the Laudenberg family broke up - his young and overly sociable stripper wife was too fond of other men, while completely refusing intimacy to her legal spouse. It is possible that something was always wrong with the guy, but it is known for sure that after the failure in family life, he went crazy even more. After the divorce, Adolf remarried, but this marriage was even more fleeting than the first. After the second divorce, the man no longer made attempts to arrange his personal life and always lived alone. He did not receive an education, so he worked either as an assistant, or as a watchman at a steel plant, or as a taxi driver.

It was the work in a taxi that allowed Laudenberg to start killing with impunity. The first victims of the maniac appeared in the early 1970s. The taxi driver always acted in a standard way - he picked up drunk middle-aged women on the streets on weekends and holidays and asked them about life. If the life of fellow travelers was full of disappointments, and they themselves were sick, the maniac sincerely sympathized with them, and then killed them.

It is noteworthy that another maniac and also a German, Fritz Honka, was operating in Europe at the same time. He is more famous than Laudenberg, and in 2019 he was even made into the movie The Golden Glove. The killer, who operated in Hamburg, also chose elderly and sick women. True, it later turned out that these were not the quirks of a sick psyche, but simply the result of Honka's cowardice - it was easier for him to deal with weak victims.

Laudenberg's rejection required a more careful approach to the selection of victims. Women were supposed to be drunk, sick and unhappy, like his mother, remind him of his first wife and be no younger than him. If some criterion did not match, the taxi driver simply gave the woman a lift to the specified address and said goodbye to her sweetly. Due to his strict requirements, Adolf was not a particularly productive killer - only 4 victims of his attacks have been proven, although there are suspicions that there were more.

Laudenberg strangled the first woman on Christmas Day 1972. It was Leah Petri, a 43-year-old alcoholic whose husband had recently died of cancer. The second was 50-year-old Catherine Medina, expelled by her husband from home for drunkenness and treason. The third victim, Anna Felch, was 54. She is a hot dog vendor who got drunk on the job and walked along the beach. The latest was 60-year-old Leah Griffin, a successful lawyer who flooded her grief after the news of her breast cancer.

The “Santa Strangler” committed all the murders in California, where he lived and worked, and with some victims very close to his home. The list of victims “in question” even includes two women over the age of 80. As we can see, each time Laudenberg found more and more elderly and unhappy women - he simply enjoyed their grief posing as a sympathetic good man. Having learned another story, Adolf attacked the woman, tied her up, raped and strangled her. At the same time, he acted very cautiously as for a simple guy who had only graduated from school.

The maniac left no evidence, except for traces of DNA, which he simply could not know about then. The police had a great chance to catch the killer in 1975. Then Laudenberg himself spoke in detail about his murders to a girl who was preparing to become the wife of his adopted son Steve. The guy whose mother was that same Annelle, Adolf's first unhappy love, chose a bride that his stepfather did not like. He decided to scare her away with hints that she might become the next victim.

The frightened bride turned to the police, but they only laughed at her story, believing that they just want to intimidate the future daughter-in-law. And this despite the fact that the entire California police force at that time was actively looking for a serial killer. It is difficult to say how many women this negligence of the cops cost their lives. In 2002, history repeated itself again. This time, the only native son of Laudenberg from his second marriage was going to marry. But this time the old maniac also managed to fall in love with his young daughter-in-law!

He watched her, wrote notes to her, leaving them under the car wipers, and in response to attempts to stop courtship, threatened to kill her. One day, Adolf got so upset that he told about the murdered women, and this time the son and daughter-in-law went to the police. Fortunately, this time the officers took the statement seriously and, after checking the details of Laudenberg's story and the facts, they were convinced that he was the killer. But this was not enough to bring charges, and the investigators had no direct evidence. The police had sperm samples from the Santa Strangler, but there was nothing to verify them with.

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In California, there are many bureaucratic obstacles that make it difficult to simply ask relatives of a suspect for his hair or any other materials for genetic analysis. The samples, oddly enough, must be provided by him himself, but it was impossible to contact Laudenberg directly so as not to frighten him off. It was possible to expose "Santa the Strangler" thanks to his passion for all his life - woodcarving.

Adolf actually reached certain heights in his skill and generously gave away his handicrafts to all those in need or sold them for a symbolic cost. In an interview with one of the local newspapers, the old maniac said: “I just love to give good things, I like that thanks to my canes it becomes easier for older people.” What a cute old man! One of the policemen, posing as a collector, made an appointment with Laudenberg in a cafe. From this short rendezvous, which discussed the intricacies of woodcarving and the properties of wood species, the investigator took valuable evidence - a coffee cup with a DNA sample from Adolf. The rest was already a matter of technology.

In 2003, Adolf Laudenberg was sentenced to life in prison for the first-degree murder of his first victim, Leah Petri. Now the "Santa Strangler" is living out his days in solitary confinement. He is deprived of the society of unfortunate women and his favorite hobby - woodcarving. They say that his crafts are now in great price.

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