REDWOOD CITY, California—A career criminal accused by authorities of raping and killing six women in the 1970s yelled “I am not guilty!” to a jury at the start of his trial for two of the killings on Sept. 7 .
Rodney Halbower also yelled “I have never raped or murdered in my life!” to the jury in an outburst that briefly disrupted court proceedings, led to a request for a mistrial by his lawyer and claims by a prosecutor that the outburst was staged.
The killings happened in 1976 in California’s San Mateo County and in Reno, Nevada, and were dubbed the Gypsy Hill Killings. DNA evidence led to Halbower’s arrest in 2014. He was in prison in Oregon at the time.
Halbower, 69, is now on trial in the 1976 rapes and killings of two high school students within weeks of each other. The Gypsy Hill Killings sent fear through the San Francisco Bay Area when they happened.
Prosecutors have said they don’t plan to try Halbower for the other killings because a conviction in the current trial—for which their evidence is strongest—would keep him locked up for life.
After Halbower’s outburst, Judge Mark Forcum denied several motions for a mistrial made by Halbower’s attorney, John Halley.
“He doesn’t get to set up his own mistrial,” said Forcum.
Prosecutor Sean Gallagher said he believed Halbower was purposely seeking a mistrial and vowed to talk over any outbursts that might come during opening statements.
Gallagher told the jury about the two teen girls who were abducted, raped and killed in a once-tranquil suburb, and that DNA from semen found in both women and preserved for decades matched Halbower’s DNA. One of the victims was stabbed to death and the other was beaten in the head with concrete and stabbed in her heart.
Authorities in the 1970s said the killings were linked and dubbed the attacker the Gypsy Hill Killer for the location where one of the first victims was found. Halbower is also suspected of raping and killing a nursing student in Reno during the same period as the five California killings.
“I wasn’t here during that period of time,” Halbower yelled out, interrupting Gallagher’s opening statement.
Gallagher responded that Halbower’s statement wasn’t true because he was living in the nearby city of San Bruno in early 1976.
Halbower’s attorney told the jury that some of the DNA evidence had been mishandled and that should create enough reasonable doubt for the jurors to acquit.
Halbower calmed down and remained quiet in the afternoon.
“I want to note for the record that the defendant stayed silent after opening statements,” Judge Mark Forcum told lawyers after jurors left for the day. “That corroborates in my mind that he picks and chooses his spots to interrupt the proceedings.”
Halbower was in an Oregon prison for attempted murder when cold case detectives re-opened the Gypsy Hill investigation. Prosecutors say DNA taken from preserved crime-scene evidence match Halbower’s DNA, which he provided to Oregon prison officials.
He was charged with two counts of murder and rape in 2014 and transferred to the Redwood City jail to face a trial delayed several times by questions about his mental competency and his insistence on representing himself.
A jury last year found him sane enough to stand trial.
It’s possible that Halbower would never have been linked to the attacks had he not escaped from a Nevada prison in December 1986. He made his way to Oregon, where he was arrested within days of his escape for rape and attempted murder.
An Oregon jury convicted Halbower and sentenced him to 15 years in prison in that state. First, he was returned to Nevada to finish that state’s prison term.
When Nevada paroled him in 2013, he was sent back to Oregon, where prison officials took a DNA sample and submitted it to the national database investigators use to revive stalled investigations. Authorities say the results linked him to the Gypsy Hill case.
Court records show Halbower has spent the past 53 years in prison or on the lam after escaping.
A 1987 psychiatric report for an Oregon court concluded that Halbower was an intelligent man who suffered from “a severe personality disorder, with a propensity toward criminal behavior.”
Halbower earned a high school diploma in prison, but he has had no other education, court records show. He does not appear to possess job skills, although he took drafting classes and dabbled with art behind bars in Michigan, Nevada and Oregon.
The report said Halbower “feels that he is pretty accomplished, that he should be able to teach, that he has a great many qualifications” and yearned to be a famous artist or a rock-and-roll star.
It concluded that Halbower’s “life is replete with poor impulse control, narcissism and a certain grandiosity.”
His trial resumes on Sept. 10.
By Paul Elias