When police arrived to the scene of the crime, they were quickly able to put a lot of the pieces together. Someone broke into Karen Klaas’s – the ex-wife of rock star Bill Medley — California home and started sniffing around for things to steal. When Klaas returned from dropping off her son, the thief lashed out in a cold-blooded attack. He beat Klaas, strangled her with pantyhose, and left her for dead. The one piece of the puzzle police were missing was who this murderous thief was. Was this a crime of passion? A random coincidence? 40 years later, authorities finally uncover the dark reality.
This horrific crime took place on January 30, 1976. According to Detective Tom Harris, who spoke to True Crime Daily in 2017, the morning of that day was meant to have been a pretty normal one for Klaas. Harris told the website, “[Klaas] was supposed to go to coffee with her neighbors after she took her child to school.” But that is a long way from what took place on this tragic day.
The 32-year-old mother of two never made it to the meeting with her neighbors. And after her friends became worried, they decided to go to her Hermosa Beach home to make sure that everything was okay. Then, when the group arrived at Klaas’ house, they could tell something was amiss before they went inside.
Harris explained, “They get to the back sliding door, [and] it was open a little bit.” So, Klaas’ buddies called out for the former Mrs. Medley – and they heard a very faint response from inside the house. It could have been nothing – but it could also have been a cry for help. But whatever it was, the friends knew they could not ignore it.
Klaas’ friends knew that something was seriously wrong. And upon hearing the muffled sound, they ran for help from the back of her house toward the front. As the group turned the corner, though, they found themselves in even more shock when they saw someone emerging from the front door of Klaas’ house.
Detective Larry Brandenburg recalled to True Crime Daily, “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 Klaas’ friends quickly called the police, who arrived on the scene and discovered the mother of two naked and bound on the floor of her bedroom.
Someone – perhaps the man who had fled through the front door – had tied one leg of a pair of pantyhose around Klaas’ hands. Investigators later determined that the individual had then used the other leg and a bra to strangle the 32-year-old. But the assailant’s attempt to kill Klaas hadn’t succeeded. She was lying on the floor unconscious, but she was still living. It seemed that Klaas’ neighbors had managed to interrupt her attacker before he’d completed his crime.
First responders then rushed Klaas to the hospital to save her. And then, in Lake Arrowhead, California, ex-husband Bill Medley received a phone call that would change his life. At that moment, he learned that his ex-wife was in the hospital in a coma – and her prognosis was grim.
The pair might have already been separated, but they had been married for years and even had a son together. They’d been friends for much longer, too. In fact, things between them only took a romantic turn when Klaas showed up at one of Medley’s gigs. Yep, he just so happened to be a musician – both as a solo artist and as part of the duo The Righteous Brothers.
In 2017 Medley recalled to People the effect that Klaas had on him – and others who’d known her. He said that he had once peered out into the crowd and seen someone familiar. He added, “Of all the people that were standing in the audience, I just could see her smiling face, and I said, ‘Wow. That’s Karen.’” But now Klaas would never smile again.
Klaas and Medley ultimately got married in 1964, with their union producing son Darrin. Their partnership didn’t last long, as six years later the former high school buddies filed for divorce. But the pair stayed on good terms. That’s even as Klaas wed someone else and welcomed another son, Damien. So the news of her death would still have hit him hard.
Plus, Medley would have to put his music career on hold. His career as part of The Righteous Brothers had taken off since their divorce. In 1965 the duo had a chart-topping smash with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.’” Amazingly, the track now stands as the song most frequently broadcast on U.S. radio.
The Righteous Brothers also had a hit with the classic “Unchained Melody.” And after Medley chased a solo career, he similarly saw a few successes along the way. In 1969, for example, he sang The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” at the Grammys, with this performance subsequently leading to a record deal. Then, three years later, a song called “Freedom and Fear” earned him a Grammy nomination of his own. But he would bring it all to a halt in 1976 to care for his family after learning about Klaas.
Medley told People in 2017, “There was no coming back [for Karen], and everybody knew it.” But while Klaas remained in a coma for five days, he had hoped for a miracle. The star remembered, “I said to her, ‘Come on honey, the boys need you. We all need you.’ Real positive stuff.”
Tragically, though, Medley’s encouraging words did nothing to turn Klaas’ situation around, as she ultimately died five days after the attack. And of that dreadful period, her ex-husband would later recall, “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 meant that Medley’s life drastically changed in another way, too, as her death left their son, Darrin, with only his dad to look after him. Medley explained to People that, at the time, he had been “a single bachelor living on the beach in Newport Beach.” He went on, “[Then] all of a sudden I was a single parent… I took some time off to get Darrin’s life back together.”
While Medley and his son worked to rebuild their lives, though, police found themselves stumped by Klaas’ case. In 1976, you see, they didn’t have DNA testing and profiling as part of their investigative arsenal; such procedures only really came into their own in the 1980s. Still, law enforcement did gather up the pantyhose and bra used to strangle Klaas as well as a towel left in the vicinity of the crime scene.
Of course, there was one more potential lead, as Klaas’ friends had seen that possible suspect leaving her home on the morning of the attack. And although police found themselves unable to solve the case even with the physical evidence and a description of that man, they continued to work on Klaas’ case as DNA testing and profiling became more and more advanced.
For instance, in the 1990s detectives told the public what they knew about Klaas’ suspected killer. According to The Washington Post, he had been “a shaggy-haired, bearded man in a trench coat and blue jeans.” In 1999 investigators also utilized DNA from the towel at the crime scene to rule out five men whom they had previously considered to be suspects.
This DNA testing also exonerated Medley and the other men in her life at the time. As 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.”
Detectives used a growing DNA database to see if Klaas’ killer had committed any other crimes and subsequently had his genetic information recorded. But after that test didn’t provide any matches, law enforcement went back to square one. In 2009 cold-case investigators thus began to get back in touch with sources from the original case files.
That year, Harris told the Ventura County Star that he hoped a second round of interviews might drum up an old forgotten memory that could crack the case. On top of that, he said, “We start all over… see if we can identify people that hadn’t been contacted before.”
Ultimately, though, even these further efforts left Harris, Brandenburg and the rest of the investigators without answers. But, as it happens, all was not lost, as a forensic biologist who had long worked on the Klaas case came up with an idea. According to Brandenburg, the scientist called him up and asked him, “Ever thought about doing familial?”
Specifically, the forensic biologist was referring to a more modern analytical technique known as familial DNA testing. This method allows investigators to compare a genetic sample to those from criminals in a DNA database. And in this way, they can sometimes find partial matches by identifying family members of a suspect, which in turn may eventually lead them to the person whose DNA resembles the sample perfectly.
Yet although this technique provides investigators with a great resource for finding criminals, it has come under scrutiny. In 2008 American Civil Liberties Union science adviser Tania Simoncelli told The Washington Post, “If [famililal 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 decided to use familial testing. Indeed, as Brandenburg later told True Crime Daily, he felt as though it was “all [the team had] left” to try. So, the case’s forensic biologist submitted the suspect’s DNA and awaited word as to whether or not Klaas’ case was approved for such treatment.
After all, familial DNA testing can’t happen in every case; it’s only permitted in a handful of states in the U.S., for starters. Plus, as Brandenburg has since described, access is limited to both the technology and data needed. He added, “You have to go through with the state, [and] they’re very protective of it. It’s very stringent; [there are] restrictions on it.”
Apparently, the California panel took months to decide whether or not to accept the Klaas case. But they eventually did – although another waiting game then began. Would the killer’s DNA prove to be a familial match with anyone else in the system? Well, Brandenburg fielded the response. He reported to True Crime Daily, “They ran [the sample], called me and said, ‘Nothing.’”
It appeared, then, that the failed test was yet another dead end. Nevertheless, the Klaas case investigators didn’t give up on their quest to find her killer. And, fortunately, the team turned out to have someone – or, rather, something – in their corner. In 2016, you see, Brandenburg answered a phone call that would finally crack the case wide open – a whole 40 years after Klaas’ death.
According to Brandenburg, the familial DNA lab phoned him one last time. And of that moment, he later recalled to True Crime Daily, “[They] said, ‘You want us to rerun this? We don’t do that too often, but we’ll do it on this case.’” Brandenburg agreed, saying, “Sure. I got nothing.” Once again, then, the wait was on.
This time, though, the search would end in a strange phone call from the DNA lab. Workers there promised that they had some information to share, but it took them up to two months to do so. Before the results were finally revealed, however, a lab technician apparently told Brandenburg to sit down. Then, according to True Crime Daily, she informed the investigator, “They got a hit.”
It turned out that just after the familial DNA panel had run the first test on the Klaas sample, someone from the killer’s family had committed a crime. As a consequence, then, this individual’s genetic code had entered the system in time for the 2016 test. And after the experts had found the initial match, they performed further analysis to confirm that Kenneth Troyer had slain the mother of two in 1976.
Troyer had a lengthy criminal history, too, comprising mostly of sexual assaults that he had committed in California. But while he eventually landed in jail, he managed to flee in 1982. And while police finally found Troyer in March of that year, he would never return to being incarcerated, as those in pursuit of the criminal ultimately shot and killed him.
Furthermore, despite Troyer’s lengthy rap sheet, none of his DNA had ever been stored or recorded. You see, even up until the time of his death, no legislation existed that mandated this information be added to a database. When detectives had the technology to process Troyer’s DNA in the 1990s, then, they never found a match.
But even with Troyer’s identity finally confirmed, investigators couldn’t answer every question about Klaas’ murder; they couldn’t discern the killer’s motive, for instance. They did know, on the other hand, that Troyer had had one relative who had lived close to Klaas’ Hermosa Beach home – clarifying, perhaps, why he had been in the locale in the first place.
Nevertheless, Klaas’ family still found solace in finally knowing the identity of the person who was responsible for her death. According to a 2017 report by The Washington Post, her son Darrin said that he could finally “experience the joy of closure.” He also lauded the methods through which investigators had solved the case.
Darrin added, “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, shared a similar sentiment with People after learning the identity of Klaas’ killer.
Medley also tried to describe just how much Klaas’ unsolved murder had bothered him over the years. He said to People, “It is really resting on a different 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.”
“But it is also so wonderful that they put an end to all of this so we can close the book on this,” Medley continued. And the singer apparently felt a sense of relief that Klaas’ killer had died long ago. He admitted, “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.”
In fact, Medley had come up with his own way to deal with his grief and anger: music. In January 2017 he said that he planned to finish writing “Beautiful Lady” – a song that he had started to pen in honor of Klaas. He added during his interview with People, “That actually will be a good distraction. The stage has always been a lifesaver for me.”