Thomas Braun and Leonard Maine were teenage killers and enjoyed it. Both 18 and self-styled hippy rebels, they roamed Washington State and northern California in a succession of stolen cars in the summer of 1967 carrying loaded revolvers and looking for defenceless and unsuspecting victims. By September 1967, they had killed three young women and a man, hitch-hikers who had welcomed a lift on a hot day and had then been driven swiftly and violently to their deaths and left spread-eagled on some deserted road, thrown out of cars as their killers drove away. Police in Snohomish County — the area in which the murders occurred — were getting nowhere. Detectives particularly hate what they call roving killers — murderers who don't fit any profile but travel large areas killing randomly and unpredictably.
That's certainly what was happening in Snohomish County in the summer of 1967 and Thomas Braun and Leonard Maine went on their murder spree secure in the knowledge that there were no witnesses and no victims left alive to tell the tale. Earlier in the summer, while driving a stolen car through Cannon Beach, Oregon, they had a blow-out and while changing the tyre by the side of the road, salesman Sam Ledgerwood pulled over to help. It was the last act of kindness he would perform. Minutes later Ledgerwood lay dead by the side of the deserted road with two .22 slugs in his head. Braun and Maine then set fire to the Buick saloon they were driving and continued their journey in Ledgerwood's blue Dodge.
Three days later a woman hitch-hiker, Carine Schwartz, was shot dead in Cedarwood, Oregon and thrown from the car at speed. Once again the crime had taken place at dusk on a deserted road with no one to witness the mindless killing. On a Saturday afternoon in August, Deanna Buse, a pretty 22-year-old, married less than a year, left home in Redmond, Washington, to drive three miles to visit her mother. She never arrived, and was never seen alive again. For three days, police, helped by family and friends, scoured the area for some sign of Deanna or her grey Ford car. Eventually both were found in a wooded area about ten miles from Redmond. Deanna's body was lying a few yards from the car. Apparently she had tried to crawl for help and had then been shot five times in the head, killing her instantly. She had not been assaulted or robbed. It was yet another apparently pointless killing.
Police were beginning to despair that they would ever catch the roving killer or killers when the unbelievable courage of a 17-year-old girl named Susan Bartolomei gave them the breakthrough they wanted. The tragedy was it had to happen in the way it did. Four days after the discovery of Deanna Buse's body, Mrs Howardine Mease and her husband and two children were driving back to their home in Santa Barbara, California, after visiting their eldest daughter in Lake Clear, when the car brakes began to over-heat. It was now dark and rather than risk an accident, the Mease family pulled off the road and spent a safe, if uncomfortable, night in sleeping bags in the car.
"We woke up about 6am," Mrs Mease recalled, "packed up our sleeping bags and drove off. We had only driven about a mile when we came across a girl lying in the middle of the road. We thought at first she had been hit by a car and was dead. "When I took her arm I found a faint pulse. While my husband flagged down vehicles to get help, I comforted the girl and assured her that she would be OK. She could hardly speak but told me that her name was Susan Bartolomei.
"She gave me her parents' phone number and told me that she and her boyfriend, Tim Luce, had been hitch-hiking after their car broke down and two young men in a green Mercury with Oregon licence plates gave them a lift. Minutes later they had shot her and, she presumed, killed her boyfriend."
Mrs Mease told police that Susan said that after being shot she had been thrown over an embankment by her attackers. She knew her only chance of survival lay in being found quickly and with superhuman effort managed to drag herself back up the embankment and on to the road. She told Mrs Mease that the gunmen had boasted about the number of people they had shot and how they enjoyed doing it. By the time an ambulance arrived Susan was deeply unconscious and was rushed to Sonora Community Hospital where she was found to be hovering between life and death, with four bullets lodged in her brain.
But where was Tim Luce, 17-year-old son of the district attorney of Lake Country, California? Had the gunmen killed him too? Any hope of his survival was dashed the following day when his body was found in a ditch alongside Highway 101. He had been shot several times in the head and then run over — tyremarks were still visible on his body. Just who were these brutal killers who apparently murdered for fun? Now, thanks to Susan Bartolomei, police had the licence number of the green Mercury. And the fact that Susan was alive had been withheld from the press in the hope that the murderers would stay in the area, confident that they could not be identified. The following morning, Patrolman Ed Chafin, making a routine visit to a small village called Jamestown, three miles from Sonora, spotted a green Mercury parked outside the only hotel and checked the number. It was the gunmen's car. Chafin looked inside. The interior was a mess, full of cigarette packets, food cartons and crumpled clothes. Chafin radioed for back-up and when patrolmen Bob Andre, Bill Endicott and State Trooper Lloyd Berry arrived on the scene, they entered the hotel.
Soon the two rooms occupied by the suspects were surrounded and Endicott and Andre, armed with handguns, burst in. Two men were still asleep in bed. They put up no resistance and seemed sleepy and bewildered. Within seconds they were overpowered and handcuffed. "How the hell did you find us?" one wanted to know. "There's no one alive who can identify us." "You're wrong there," Patrolman Chafin told him. "One of your victims is alive and will testify at your trial."
A search of the room revealed an arsenal of six guns and bags of bullets. Finally the now-nervous teenagers revealed their identities: They were both from Ritzville, a little town near Spokane, Washington. Their names were Thomas Braun and Leonard Maine. A police check revealed that, surprisingly, neither had a criminal record. Braun had worked in a gas station and Maine, married with a three-month-old baby, did odd jobs.
Why had they gone off on a murder spree? They never gave a plausible explanation but Maine insisted that he was frightened of Braun. "I only stayed with him because he said he would kill me if I didn't," was his explanation. It took two years to get the cases to court and when Braun and Maine appeared before Judge John McCrea in San Jose, California, they were thin and gaunt with a prison pallor. The sensation of the case was the appearance of Susan Bartolomei, the girl neither prisoner had expected to see alive again. Miraculously she had survived massive brain surgery, but at a price: she was paralysed and could no longer speak.
But painfully, slowly and with the use of hand signals, Susan was a devastatingly damaging witness and it took the jury only an hour to find both men guilty of her attempted murder, and of the murder of Tim Luce. But more trials lay ahead. Six months later, in Everett, Washington, the pair went on trial for the murder of Deanna Buse, when the prosecution alleged that Braun had taken his helpless captive into woods and shot her five times. Once again both men were found guilty. Similar verdicts were returned in other parts of Washington state when the deaths of innocent victims were finally avenged. Neither Braun and Maine gave evidence nor gave any explanation of apology for what they had done but the juries had no doubt about their guilt. Both men were found guilty of first degree murder, Braun was sentenced to death and Maine received life imprisonment. Braun's sentence was later reduced to a life sentence. Neither man will ever leave jail. Only one person who faced the guns of Braun and Maine remains alive: Susan Bartolomei, now spending her days in a wheelchair, speechless and with impaired vision.
But she survived. Had it not been for her incredible courage in crawling, appallingly wounded, up a steep bank on to the road on that scorching August day, detectives can only imagine how many more victims would have been added to the list written in blood by Thomas Braun and Leonard Maine.