The long frustration of the Los Angeles police force in the investigation of the 13 "hillside strangling" murders of young women continued yesterday with the release of a Beverly Hills handyman who had been arrested last week as a suspect in two of the killings.
Police Chief Daryl Gates said there is no evidence to link Peter Mark Jones, 37, to any of the crimes. Last Thursday, Gates heralded the arrest of Jones as "a major break in the case."
Gates, who headed the strangler task force until he became police chief 10 days ago, said that George Francis Shamshak, the Boston convict who implicated Jones, still is being held as "a prime suspect." But no charges have been filed against Shamshak, who is being held in a San Deigo federal prison pending his return to Massachusetts where he is serving a bank robbery sentence.
It was Shamshak's statement that he drove a van in which Jones killed two of the women that led to last week's arrest. However, police said a search of the van and of Jones' apartment turned up no evidence to support these accusations. Under California law, police had until this morning to charge him or release him.
Privately, at least one member of the 92-person task force expressed embarrassment at the latest in a series of well-publicized failures to solve the case. This officer said there is "a lot of pressure" on the task force and on [WORD ILLEGIBLE]/ as its former boss to solve the killings , which began Sept. 26 and continued every five or six days until Nov. 29.
Since then, there have been two murders, on Dec. 14 and Feb. 17, 1978, for a total of 13. Most of the victims have been scattered on hillsides in the Glendale, Eagle Rock and Highland Park sections of the city, their bodies nude and mutilated. They ranged in age from 12 to 28. Several of the victims had previous arrests for prostitution or were otherwise associated with the Hollywood-Glendale street scene.
A persistent criticism of those familiar with that street scene is that Los Angeles police lack sufficient knowledge of the seamy world of Hollywood vice to find a killer who appears to have intimate knowledge of it. Whatever the reason, all of the police moves so far have ended with Gates announcing that the crimes remain unsolved.
Last December, police extensively questioned a Hollywood security guard who had given refuge to several of the strangler victims. The guard was cleared.
In mid-January a letter from someone purporting to be the strangler was sent to Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley. The letter lay unopened for several days while Bradley was away. An attempt to find the author failed.
In February, Ned York, a 32-year-old actor who claimed to be the strangler, turned himself in, then lapsed into drug-induced unconsciousness while being quiestioned. He later was cleared and released.
In these earlier instances, police were openly skeptical of the information that had received. Last week, with the pressure to solve the murders growing, Gates and other high-ranking officers were jubilant about what they believed to be a definite break in the case.
Gates sad yesterday that Shamshak is still a suspect because his statements revealed "special knowledge" of the killings. The fact that Shamshak is still under suspicion indicates that police have abandoned the theory that a single person killed the 13 women. Shamshak was in prison when three of the murders were committed.
Police found the body of an unidentified and fully clothed young woman yesterday morning in the Baldwin Hills area near the scene of some of the killings, but said the death did not appear to be related.
The collapse of the police case against Jones was disclosed at an unusual press conference conducted jointly by Gates and Albert Johnson, Jones' Boston attorney. Johnson said he had no criticism of police for arresting his client but he was critical of "newspaper stories emanating from Massachusetts" that said Jones and Shamshak are close friends. Johnson said they are only acquaintances.