Trailside Killer: The chilling story behind David Carpenter

David Carpenter’s mugshot
David Carpenter stalked and murdered multiple women in California. Pic credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

David Carpenter, also known as the Trailside Killer, stalked and murdered multiple young women on popular hiking trails at state parks in northern California in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Carpenter, who was born on May 6, 1930, grew up in the San Francisco area with an alcoholic father and a mother who reportedly abused him.

He had many issues as a child, including severe stuttering, bedwetting, and cruelty to animals.

When he was 13 years old, he was institutionalized for molesting two of his young relatives. 

According to an attorney, John Posey, who worked on Carpenter’s case, “His early experimentation with sexual violence was indicative of a sociopathic personality disorder.”

“A lot of these personalities start at a very, very young age. And that kind of personality really doesn’t stop committing crimes.”

When Carpenter reached adulthood, he was sent to prison for nine years for rape and parole violations.

Watch the Latest on our YouTube Channel

After his release in 1979, he began living with his parents on Sussex Street in Glen Park.

That’s when authorities believe the killings began.

The Trailside Killer murdered five people within a six-week period

Cynthia Moreland, 18, and her 19-year-old boyfriend, Richard Stowers, went to Pacifica for two weeks to visit Moreland’s pregnant sister. While there, they worked and helped out around the house.

On Oct. 11, 1980, the couple left Pacifica in a brown 1974 Toyota Corolla or a blue 1976–1978 Thunderbird. They didn’t have extra clothing or money when they headed back to Point Reyes.

When Moreland and Stowers never made it to their destination, their relatives reported them missing.

Nearly two months later, they would find out that Moreland and Stowers had been murdered on a hiking trail in Marin County.

On Nov. 29, 1980, search dogs from the California Rescue Dog Association in Sonoma County found the naked bodies of two women, Diane O’Connell, 22, of San Jose, and Shauna May, 25, at the Point Reyes National Seashore and on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais.

The dogs then discovered Moreland and Stowers’ fully clothed bodies, which were badly decomposed.

Anne Alderson, 26, of San Rafael, was also found dead on the popular hiking trail.

According to the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, they were all found in shallow graves and had been shot in the head with a 38-caliber pistol at close range.

That’s when the sheriff knew that he was dealing with a serial killer. He then sent out a warning to the public about a killer being on the loose and that he was stalking nature lovers.

If anyone wanted to go hiking, they were advised to go in groups.

He added that the killer was likely going to strike again because “these murders are not satisfying his needs.”

David Carpenter’s surviving victim, Steven Haertle, identified him as the shooter

When Ellen Marie Hansen and her boyfriend, Steven Haertle—both 20 years old—were on a break from classes at the University of California-Davis, they decided to spend the weekend together at the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz County.

Around 5:30 p.m. on March 29, 1981, Hansen and Haertle were walking along the trail when Carpenter attacked them. He tried to rape Hansen, but she fought back, and that’s when he fatally shot her multiple times in the head.

Carpenter shot Haertle four times, and he was rushed to an area hospital for surgery.

Haertle survived, and he was able to give law enforcement a description of his attacker.

During an investigation, detectives learned that during the attack, there were other hikers in the area. but it is unknown if anyone saw or heard anything.

Several hikers stated that they remembered seeing Hansen, Haertle, and Carpenter before and after the shooting, but they didn’t notice anything unusual.

Disappearance of Heather Scaggs lead to David Joseph Carpenter’s arrest

On May 2, 1981, 20-year-old Heather Scaggs, of San Jose, left her home after telling her relatives that she was going to meet up with Carpenter, who she worked with at the California Trade School in Hayward.

Carpenter was going to help her purchase a car in Santa Cruz, but Scaggs told her roommate that she didn’t trust him completely. If she didn’t return from her trip, she asked that they call 911, and that’s what they did.

When detectives questioned Carpenter, they noticed he matched the description of the suspect who shot Hansen and Haertle.

They had also received several tips, including one from a former girlfriend of Carpenter that suggested he was the Trailside Killer.

Later that month, hikers discovered Scaggs’ decomposing naked body at the Big Basin State Park near Santa Cruz.

An autopsy revealed that she had been shot once in the head.

On May 15, 1981, officers arrested Carpenter at his home in San Francisco. He was being charged with the recent killings in the area, including the murder of 23-year-old Mary Bennett.

In 1979, Bennett left her home to go for a jog, but she never returned. Her body was later found in a shallow grave near the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

She had been stabbed over 20 times.

It was later determined that Carpenter’s DNA was found at the crime scene.

Authorities said it appeared Carpenter enjoyed inflicting pain on his victims, and just before shooting them, they believed he would force them to kneel or bend down.

Carpenter’s neighbors were shocked to learn that he was connected to multiple murders because many of them considered him a nice guy.

One neighbor said, “David was always very nice, very neat, and very polite. Nicer people you would never find anywhere. They’re like you and like me. They’re very nice, law-abiding citizens.”

The Trailside Killer attempted to kill Lisa Rinna’s mom, Lois Rinna

In 1960, before the trailside murders, Carpenter tried to kill Lois Rinna, who is the mother of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Lisa Rinna.

It was around 10 a.m. when Lois was at a bus stop, and her co-worker, Carpenter, asked her to see his newborn baby. When she got in his car, he began driving down a deserted road, and it was there that Carpenter attacked her.

What Carpenter didn’t know was that a military police officer had followed them. The officer became suspicious of the vehicle when he saw it driving on a road that wasn’t accessible to the public.

Before the officer intervened, Carpenter had stabbed Lois in the hand, and he hit her multiple times in the head with the hammer. 

He also tried to rape her, but because of the officer, she was saved from the man she thought she knew and trusted.

“That was a really bad thing,” Lois said. “I knew him. I thought that was it. He’s straddling me. He had a hammer in one hand and a knife in another.”

“I was lucky. Very lucky. I shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t even be here,” Lois said to Lisa.

Carpenter was arrested and charged with attempted murder. He was later sentenced to seven years in prison.

Where is David Carpenter now?

In 1984, Carpenter was convicted in the Los Angeles County Superior Court of murdering seven people, but he is suspected of killing several more.

David Carpenter’s mugshot
Mugshot of the Trailside Killer, David Carpenter, 2010. Pic credit: San Quentin State Prison

Carpenter was sentenced to death.

He is currently in his 90s and is now housed at the San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, where he is the oldest inmate on death row.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x