Karen Klaas’ friends shouted out for her from the back of her California home. The response they got was a silent cry and a shocking sound that made them run in fear. As they raced from the back of the house to the front, they saw a man leave the door. What they didn’t know was that this man just killed Klaas, and it would take a 40-year investigation to figure out who he is.
Before we get into the tragic events of January 30th, 1976, let’s talk a little bit about Klaas. While she was a student at California’s Santa Ana High School, she considered Bill Medley her best friend. Things eventually took a romantic turn when she showed up at one of Medley’s performances. He just so happened to be a musician with a solo career and as part of the duo The Righteous Brothers.
Here are all the details about what happened on that fateful night in 1976.
High School Besties
In 2017, Bill Medley told People that he had once gazed out into the crowd and saw a familiar face. He recalled, “of all the people that were standing in the audience, I just could see her smiling face, and I said, ‘Wow. That’s Karen.’ So I got her number and asked her out, and there you go.”
Klaas and Medley fell in love, and in 1964 they tied the knot. The pair had one child named Darrin together before their marriage ended. Just six years after walking down the aisle, the former high school buddies called it quits and filed for divorce. The two remained on good terms, even when Klaas had another child named Damien and married someone else (which would later end, too).
Medley’s Musical Career
After his divorce, Medley dedicated most of his time to music, and his career as part of The Righteous Brothers started taking off. The duo landed a chart-topping smash in 1965 with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Incredibly, the song remains the most frequently broadcast track on U.S. radio.
The Righteous Brothers had another famous hit with the classic “Unchained Melody.” Then, Medley embarked on a solo career and had a few successes along his journey. For example, he sang The Beatles’ hit “Hey Jude” at the 1969 Grammys in a remarkable performance that led to a record deal. Three years later, he earned a Grammy nomination for his own song “Freedom and Fear.”
Where is Karen?
At the time, Medley didn’t realize that he’d soon be putting his career as an artist on an indefinite hiatus. His life and his son Darrin’s and his ex-wife Karen’s were about to change forever, following the devastating events of January 30th, 1976. In 2017, Detective Tom Harris spoke to True Crime Daily and said that morning was a pretty ordinary one for Klaas.
Harris explained, “[Klaas] was supposed to go to coffee with her neighbors after she took her child to school.” However, the 32-year-old mother of two never showed up. Her friends got worried and rushed over to her house at Hermosa Beach to make sure everything was okay.
Something Is Up
When the group got to Klaas’ home, they immediately felt like something was wrong – even before they went inside. “They get to the back sliding door, [and] it was open a little bit,” Harris explained. So, Klaas’s friends called out for her, but they only heard very faint sounds coming from inside the home in response.
At that point, the friends knew something was up. That’s when they ran from the back of the home to the front. As soon as they turned the corner, they were stunned to see someone exiting the front door of Klaas’ home.
The Prime Suspect
Detective Larry Brandenburg also spoke to True Crime Daily, where he recalled, “The front door opened, and a gentleman came out with bushy, kind of long hair and a beard. And he said, ‘Hi, ladies,’ and this really startled them.” So, the girls quickly called the police, who arrived at the scene and found Karen Klaas’s naked body on her bedroom floor.
Someone – perhaps the man who was seen leaving the home – tied one leg of a pantyhose pair around Karen’s hands. Later, investigators determined that the killer used the other pantyhose leg, as well as a bra, to strangle the 32-year-old mother. However, the perpetrator failed to kill Klaas, and she was still living when she laid on the floor unconscious. In fact, it seemed like the neighbors interrupted her attacker before completing the crime.
Hoping for a Miracle
Upon finding Klaas, first responders rushed her to the hospital in the hopes of saving her. Meanwhile, her ex-husband was in Lake Arrowhead, California, when he received a phone call that would forever change his life. He found out that his ex-wife was in the hospital in a coma – and her prognosis was devastating.
In 2017, Medley told People, “There was no coming back [for Karen], and everybody knew it.” But during the five days that Klaas was in a coma, he prayed for a miracle. He remembered, “I said to her, ‘Come on honey, the boys need you. We all need you.’ Real positive stuff.”
RIP Karen Klaas
But tragically, her ex-husband’s encouraging words couldn’t undo the events of that fateful night. Five days later, she met her untimely death from the damages of the horrific attack. Medley later recalled that during that dreadful time, “I was a wreck. It was a big-time out-of-body experience. I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe I am here looking at caskets for Karen.’ It just didn’t make sense. She was beautiful and alive and a wonderful lady.”
Losing Klaas changed Medley’s life in more than one drastic way, as her son Darrin only had his father to take care of him. Medley expressed to People that he was “a single bachelor living on the beach in Newport Beach.” He went on to say that, “all of a sudden I was a single parent… I took some time off to get Darrin’s life back together.”
DNA Testing Wasn’t a Thing
Medley and his son focused on rebuilding their broken lives as police officers found themselves stumped by Klaas’ mysterious case. DNA evidence and profiling weren’t in existence back in 1976 and weren’t part of the protocol when it came to criminal investigations. Those kinds of procedures only became a thing in the 1980s. Still, investigators gathered some evidence, including pantyhose and the bra that were used to strangle Klaas, as well as a towel left at the crime scene.
There was one more potential lead since Klaas’ friends saw the possible suspect leaving her house the morning of the attack. Unfortunately, the physical evidence and the man’s description weren’t enough to crack the case. Still, detectives didn’t give up as profiling, and DNA testing become more advanced.
Ruling Out of Possible Suspects
For example, in the 1990s, investigators told the press what they knew about Klaas’ suspected killer. The suspect was “a shaggy-haired, bearded man in a trench coat and blue jeans,” according to The Washington Post. In 1999, investigators were able to utilize the DNA from a towel that was left at the crime scene and ruled out five possible suspects.
The DNA testing exonerated Medley and other men that were in her life during that time. Detective Tom Harris told True Crime Daily, “[Klaas] had remarried and then was divorced again. She had a boyfriend. We checked his DNA; we also checked her husband’s DNA [and] her ex-husband’s DNA. Everybody was cleared.”
Back to Square One
In addition, investigators used a growing DNA database to see if Klaas’ killer committed any other crimes in the hopes that his genetic information was recorded. Unfortunately, they didn’t find any matches, and detectives went back to square one. But in 2009, cold-case investigators got in touch with sources from the original case files.
That year, Harris told Ventura County Star that maybe a second round of interviews might spark an old forgotten memory that could crack the case. He added that “We start all over… see if we can identify people that hadn’t been contacted before.”
Familial DNA Testing
But ultimately, all these efforts left Harris, Brandenburg, and other detectives with no answers. But luckily, all was not lost. A forensic biologist who had been working on the Klaas case for a while came up with an idea. Brandenburg said he got a call from the scientist who asked, “Ever thought about doing familial?”
The forensic biologist was referring to a specific, more modern, analytical technique known as familial DNA testing. This method allows detectives to compare a genetic sample to criminals in the DNA database. It basically helps you find a partial match by identifying the suspect’s family members, which could eventually lead them to the individual whose DNA matches perfectly.
A Controversial Technique
Despite how much this method helps investigators catch criminals, it has been under much scrutiny. In 2008, American Civil Liberties Union science adviser Tania Simoncelli claimed that “If [familial DNA testing was] practiced routinely, we would be subjecting hundreds of thousands of innocent people who happen to be relatives of individuals in the FBI database to lifelong genetic surveillance.”
Nevertheless, those investigating Klaas’ murder chose to use familial testing in the hopes of solving the case. Brandenburg later told True Crime Daily that they believed it was “all [the team had] left” to try. So, the forensic biologist working the case submitted the suspect’s DNA and waited to hear if Klaas’ case would be approved for such testing.
Not In All Cases
Familial DNA testing isn’t approved for every case. In fact, it’s only permitted in a handful of states in the U.S. Plus, as Brandenburg has since explained, that access is limited when it comes to the technology and data required. He continued, “you have to go through with the state, [and] they’re very protective of it. It’s very stringent; [there are] restrictions on it.”
It reportedly took months for the California panel to decide whether or not to accept the Klaas case, but eventually, they did. Now, another waiting game began. Would there be a familial match between the killer’s DNA and someone in the system? Well, Brandenburg told True Crime Daily, “They ran [the sample], called me and said ‘nothing.’”
Finally Getting Somewhere
The failed test seemed like another dead end in the Karen Klaas case. However, investigators didn’t give up and continued to search for her killer. Luckily, it turned out the team had someone – or something, in their corner. In 2016, Brandenburg answered a phone call that would finally crack the case wide open four decades after Klaas’ untimely death.
Brandenburg said that the call was from the DNA lab. He recalled to True Crime Daily that at that moment, “[They] said, ‘you want us to rerun this? We don’t do that too often, but we’ll do it on this case.’” Brandenburg, of course, agreed and said, “Sure. I got nothing.” So once again… he anxiously waited.
Cracking the Case
This time, however, the search ended with an odd call from the DNA lab. The employees there claimed they had some information to share, but it took them two months to share it. Apparently, a lab technician told Brandenburg to sit down before the results were revealed. Then, she finally told the investigator that “they got a hit,” according to True Crime Daily.
As it turned out, after the familial DNA panel ran the first test, someone from the killer’s family committed a crime. Consequently, this person’s genetic code entered the system in time for the second test they ran in 2016. Experts found the initial match and performed further analysis in order to verify that Kenneth Troyer was behind the 1976 murder of Karen Klaas.
Troyer had a long and extensive criminal record, filled with mostly sexual assaults that he committed in California. He eventually ended up in jail but managed to escape in 1982. Even though cops caught him in March of that year, he never went back behind bars. Instead, the police officers that were after him were ultimately forced to shoot and kill him.
In spite of the criminal’s lengthy rap sheet, none of his DNA was stored. Even by the time of his death, there was no legislation that required his DNA to be recorded in the database. That’s why, in the 1990s, when detectives had the technology to process DNA, they were unable to find a match.
But even once detectives finally confirmed Troyer’s identity, they still had unanswered questions about Klaas’ murder. The main issue was that they couldn’t figure out a motive. They did know that Troyer had one relative who lived near Klaas’ home in Hermosa Beach. Perhaps, that’s the reason he was in the area in the first place.
Either way, Karen Klaas’ family found comfort in finally figuring out who killed her. In 2017, The Washington Post reported that her son Darrin shared that he could finally “experience the joy of closure.” He also praised the investigators and the methods they used to solve the case.
Don’t Lose Hope
Darrin went on to say, “I couldn’t be more blown away with the technology. I want to give hope to other families that this kind of technology can be utilized to identify criminals. It’s extremely important.” His father, Medley, felt the same way, as he told People once the killer’s identity was revealed.
Medley also tried to convey how much Klaas’ unsolved murder affected and frustrated him throughout the years. “It is really just resting on a different type of nerve that I never have felt before. I’ve been on stage in front of presidents, and that is just a different nerve. This is so ugly,” he told People.
It’s Finally Over
He continued, “But it is also so wonderful that they put an end to all of this so we can close the book on this.” The singer also found a sense of relief that the man behind Klaas’ murder also met his untimely death years ago. He revealed, “I thought I would want to look the guy in the eye and deal with him, but now I am just real grateful there won’t be any court.”
Medley found his own way to cope with the sadness and anger he felt: music. In 2017, he said that he planned to finish writing the song “Beautiful Lady,” which he started in honor of his ex-wife. He went on to tell People, “That actually will be a good distraction. The stage has always been a lifesaver for me.”
The Power of DNA Testing
As we mentioned, the L.A. sheriff’s department decided to use a controversial familial DNA testing tactic to solve the case. In 2009, investigators created a DNA profile for Klaas’ killer, but he didn’t match the state felon data bank, which was disappointing.
That’s when investigators decided to search for a relative of the DNA, hoping to find a match that would eventually lead to the man with the original DNA. Luckily, they were successful. L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell revealed in a news conference that the match came from a first-degree relative.
Highly Criticized Method
As it turned out, this was the second time in the history of L.A. County that investigators were able to catch a killer using DNA evidence. The first time was to find the Grim Sleeper serial killer, Lonnie Franklin Jr.
As we know, this kind of testing faces much criticism; it’s not even legal in most states. Civil Liberties advocates claim that these kinds of tests can place family members of a suspect under extreme and baseless scrutiny. It’s not really fair for law enforcement to question siblings or children who have done nothing wrong in order to find the real suspect.
The Grim Sleeper
When authorities used the controversial familial DNA technique to catch the Grim Sleeper serial killer, it was a huge win. They stopped him from potentially murdering more innocent people. After coming up with nothing, they finally decided to check if a relative was in the database.
Luckily, he had a brother in custody, and authorities found the vicious killer. The Grim Sleeper was responsible for murdering at least ten people and remained behind bars until he died in San Quentin State Prison in March 2020. After catching the killer, Police Chief Charlie Beck predicted that this method would “change the way policing is done in the United States.”
Felon on the Run
Authorities revealed that 35-year-old Troyer was killed in March 1982 during a shoot-out with police. The fateful shootout took place just two months after he escaped from prison, where he was sentenced for burglary. He was also an unidentified suspect for robberies and sexual assaults in Orange County, California.
Bill Medley explained that Troyer’s brother lived just a couple of blocks away from Klaas and was able to break into her home through her back sliding door and was still there when she got home. “This guy had been in the neighborhood casing it out, looking for a place to rob,” Medley explained. “He was just out sniffing.”
His Brother was a Neighbor
“I figured that I probably knew the guy, but I didn’t,” Medley revealed to People. “Thank God I didn’t know the guy. He just dropped out of the sky.” Although there was no definitive motive, it seems as though Klaas was a victim of opportunity.
Troyer had a history of burglary and suspected sexual assault. The victim’s family members believe he was truly just trying to break into a home and stumbled upon Karen’s. It is also believed that she came home early, and Troyer was terrified of getting caught, so he killed the only witness.
Knowing the Right People
Apparently, after the Karen Klaas case went cold, investigators shelved it because they had no leads. However, Medley revealed that after he “did a little favor” for a cop friend at his retirement party in 2007, the case finally got a new champion.
“He retired, and I did a little favor for his retirement, so he came to me and said, ‘I am going to get this solved for you,’” Medley said about detective Darrell Hardin. “And he has been on it like a pit bill and got the case reopened.
Medley Misses Her
Understandably, Medley was completely traumatized after Karen’s death. Even though they were divorced, the two maintained a healthy relationship and were co-parenting their son. Despite their differences, Medley cared deeply for his ex-wife.
“She was one of my best friends,” he expressed. He also went on to describe her as “beautiful and alive and a wonderful lady.” Sadly, she was taken away from him and their child in the most horrific way possible. Medley is just thankful that he got to live to see the murder get solved and know that the man who did it is dead.
Medley’s Musical Tribute
Now that the murder is solved, Medley hopes to finish the song he wrote about her called “Beautiful Lady.” He finally found some inspiration, and he told People that this case is “really resting on a different nerve that I never had felt before.”
“I’ve been on stage in front of presidents, and that is just a different nerve,” he explained. “this is so ugly, but it is also so wonderful to put an end to all of this so we can close the book on this. I go from sad to being pissed-off reliving all of it.”
Closure For the Family
When Karen Klaas left the world, she left behind two sons: Darrin, who she had with Bill Medley, and Damien from a different relationship. We spoke a lot about Bill and Darrin Medley, but Darrin also had something to say. He really felt a loss and needed closure.
“For us, this was a book for us that never had the last chapter,” Damien explained. “To be able to have the full story is very important.” Like any good mother, Klaas just took her kids to school when a vicious man broke in. It’s terrifying to see how an ordinary morning could go so terribly wrong.
DNA Solving More Cases
Now that the family is getting the closure they very much needed, they are trying to take steps in recovering. After four decades of wondering, it’s crazy to think that this case wouldn’t have been solved without the magic of DNA testing technology.
Although they cracked the case using a controversial genetic testing method, they ultimately found the man who murdered an innocent woman. Sadly, this isn’t the only family that has to wonder who killed their loved ones. But with modern technology, more and more of these cold cases and getting reopened and even solved!