He was a married hospital technician and a Boy Scouts leader. Was former Palo Alto resident John Getreu also a serial killer?
Living in Midtown in the 1970s, Getreu's criminal past was unknown; now he stands accused of the cold-case murders of two women on Stanford land
By Sue Dremann
Editor’s note: This article contains graphic descriptions of violence.
The 74-year-old man who has been charged in the 1970s cold-case murders of Stanford University graduate Leslie Marie Perlov and local resident Janet Ann Taylor, both 21, has been a Boy Scouts troop leader, the “exalted ruler” of the Fremont Elks Lodge, a businessman, father, grandfather and husband.
Some who have known John Arthur Getreu have seen a seemingly normal person, a kindly man who left presents for neighbor kids at Christmas, a medical technician who worked for Stanford and Mills hospitals, a carpenter who loved woodworking.
For at least four years, from 1971-75, Getreu lived in the Midtown neighborhood of Palo Alto. Directories from that time show he resided on Avalon Court, off of Loma Verde Avenue, and at an apartment complex on Alma Street at East Meadow Drive.
But other people have harbored deep suspicions that Getreu -- who now sits in a cell in the Santa Clara County Main Jail -- was a violent predator who could be getting away with rape or murder. There was the brother of the teenage girl whom Getreu, then 18, raped and murdered in Germany in 1963. There was the Palo Alto teenager whom Getreu was convicted of raping in 1975. And then there was the sister of Leslie Perlov, who -- even as the murder remained unsolved for more than four decades -- always suspected her sister had been the victim of a serial killer.
Evan Williams, now a pastor at the Sunnyland Christian Church in Washington, Illinois, was 7 1/2 years old when Getreu raped and murdered his middle sister, Margaret, after a dance at a church chapel in Bad Kreuznach, Germany. Margaret, 15, was a freshman at Bad Kreuznach American High School and the daughter of a U.S. Army chaplain. Getreu, then 18 and the child of a military member, was a junior.
On June 8, 1963, Margaret attended the evening dance and later left for a walk, where she encountered Getreu on the street. She was found strangled and raped in a field behind the chapel early the next morning, Williams said. Getreu was almost immediately identified as a suspect and an arrest soon followed.
In court, Getreu claimed she went with him willingly, but he admitted to the crime.
“I raped her. But it did not occur to me that I could have killed her. I just wanted to knock her out,” he testified, according to a 1964 article in the Newark Advocate, the newspaper in the Ohio town where Getreu was born.
Getreu was sentenced in juvenile court to 10 years in German prison. It is unclear how many years of that sentence he served.
Margaret’s murder affected her brother profoundly. Now 63, Williams said that fears about Getreu have haunted him.
“I always had this feeling I might be made aware of him committing crimes later in life,” Williams said.
From time to time, a memory of his sister or a news story about unsolved serial murders has led Williams to research Getreu and his whereabouts. Williams admitted that he’s had to work on himself to prevent the research from consuming him.
“The burden I carried believing that Getreu had likely murdered, raped and harmed more people was one I felt I was meant to carry until any time I might be able to have any influence in justice happening and hopefully some people being spared,” he said.
Williams’ fears resurfaced when the FBI renewed its efforts three years ago to catch the so-called Golden State Killer, a man who had murdered at least 13 people and raped more than 50 women throughout California from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.
“When there was a push to find the Golden State Killer ... I was concerned that the California authorities would not have known about (the murder) in Germany,” he said by phone. When the FBI asked for leads, “I let them know that this man who took my sister’s life was living in California.”
Williams’ concern did not subside, even after authorities in April 2018 charged Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, with the Golden State killings.
“The search for the Golden State Killer had served me notice. My feeling about (Getreu) was on the rise,” Williams said.
While Williams had Getreu in his sights ever since his sister’s murder, Diane Perlov, the sister of Leslie Perlov, has lived for decades not knowing who killed her sister. Nonetheless, she said she has always thought the person responsible could be committing additional murders.
“Absolutely, I was concerned. I knew about Arlis Perry (who was slain in Stanford’s Memorial Church) and Janet Taylor and my sister. They were all killed around the same time at Stanford. I had always considered this to be a serial killing, and I was very concerned he continued to assault other women,” she said by phone earlier this week.
Media reports at the time had also portrayed the crimes as a rash of killings. There was a tremendous amount of fear on the Stanford campus. Students felt a serial killer was on the loose, Perlov recalled.
She said she has kept in touch with investigators for the past 45 years.
“They were constantly chasing down leads and chasing this case,” she said.
It wasn’t until DNA technology was used in a pioneering way to solve the Golden State Killer case that her sister’s case began to break open.
The lab that analyzed DNA samples gathered from the crime scene in the Stanford foothills, where Leslie’s strangled body was discovered, found that Getreu’s DNA was a match, noting: “The probability that a random, unrelated individual could be included as a possible contributor to this deduced profile was approximately 1 (in) 65 septillion.
“I’m just so glad they caught this guy,” she said.
Editor’s note: While accused, Getreu is still presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Victim: 'Oh, my God — I was right'
Another person who has held deep concerns about Getreu knew him as a Palo Alto Scouts leader.
“Ellen Doe,” whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was 17 years old when Getreu was charged with raping her at her parents’ Palo Alto home in 1975 -- one year after Taylor and two years after Perlov had been murdered.
She was a member of the Boy Scouts Explorer troop at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, which included girls, she said during a recent phone call.
It wasn’t unusual for youth groups to need parents and other adults to drive youth to events, she said. Getreu and his first wife -- who married in 1970 -- became involved in the troop, even though they did not have any children. As a Scouts leader, he took the children to dances and other events and acted as a guardian, according to Doe.
“He was a friend with all of the guys, and the guys were all friends with me,” she said of Getreu, whom she’d known for about six months at that point. “Sometimes in high school you have a teacher who you can relate to, and he was one of those styles,” she said.
According to court documents, on the night of Jan. 19, Doe picked up Getreu and three boys from the troop and went to a pizza dinner and a late movie. Afterward, they returned to her home and talked until about 4:30 a.m. Her parents were not there.
Her 14-year-old brother, who was at home, went to bed, and Doe drove everyone home. She dropped Getreu off first, about a five-minute drive away. When she returned home, Getreu had pulled up in his car. He said that one of the boys had called him to say they were coming back to her house, though he didn’t say how the boys planned to get there. She and Getreu entered the house to wait, talking for about two hours. They talked about the troop and people and, according to the court transcript, about male-female relationships. The boys never returned.
Getreu began kissing her, she said in preliminary-hearing testimony. She protested, telling him to think about his wife. He said they were not getting along and continued to kiss her. Getreu pushed her down on the sofa, put his hand around her throat and began to rape her. As she tried to get up, she told him she would call out to her brother if he didn’t stop, she said.
Getreu instead began to squeeze her throat, she told the court.
“Don’t do that. I have my hand at your throat and I could hurt you,” she testified he said.
Doe said she submitted because she was afraid.
Afterward, Getreu said, “I’m sorry; it will never happen again,” she said during the court hearing. He told her not to tell anyone, saying that doing so “would probably ruin my reputation,” she testified. She told him that she wouldn’t because she didn’t want to ruin the reputation of the troop.
But after he left, Doe drove to her best friend’s house, where she became very upset and told her friend and her friend’s mother about the rape. The friend’s family called the police.
Getreu was arrested that same day. He pleaded not guilty to two charges: sexual perversion and rape by threat of great bodily harm. His defense attorney asked the court to dismiss the case during the preliminary hearing, claiming that Doe had been “drawing him forward.” The court instead granted an added statutory rape charge requested by prosecutors, according to preliminary hearing documents.
That May, a trial-court judge dismissed the sexual perversion charge after a defense motion argued that Doe could not recall sex acts sufficient for that charge. The next month, Getreu agreed to a plea deal and admitted to the statutory rape.
He received a six-month sentence in county jail, a $200 fine and two years of probation. The court suspended five months of his sentence and allowed him to serve the remaining 30 days in jail on weekends, according to court documents. The case file does not elaborate on why the judge reduced his jail time, and Doe also said she didn’t know why he received reduced time. Despite all she went through with the court case, however, she said: “I’m very glad I did what I did. I was afraid he would do this to others.”
Standing up to Getreu wasn’t easy. He told the troop members things about her that made them blame her, she said.
“He was a social engineer, talking to the boys. He still had access to them -- and they believed him,” she said.
At the time, she didn’t sense that Getreu would have killed her, she said, even though he had his hand on her throat.
Recently learning of the murder charges against Getreu -- and of his prior conviction -- was “very unexpected,” she said. “I was very surprised that he was a convicted murderer.”
In February, the sheriff in her small Pacific Northwest town knocked on the door to let her know San Mateo County authorities, who were investigating the Taylor murder, wanted to speak to her. She agreed to talk to the arresting officer.
“There was a little bit of, ‘Oh, my God -- I was right,’” she said. “He is a scary, violent man. He is scary because he hides it so well.”
She also received a heartfelt letter from Diane Perlov asking her to make a statement to Santa Clara County prosecutors. Reading the letter brought back the trauma of the assault and also made her think about how Perlov and Taylor died -- and how she had survived.
“When I saw his name in writing, I couldn’t finish the letter. It took me a couple of hours to read it,” she said. “I try very hard not to watch the news about him. I was not expecting that from him.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God. I have a life. I have a husband. I have children. I lived. I don’t know why I lived.’”
As news of Getreu’s arrest last November and again in May for the murders of Perlov and Taylor has spread, some people who knew him in daily life said they are shocked by the charges. But others said they didn’t trust him.
Getreu was born and lived in Newark, Ohio, until he was 4 years old. His military family visited Newark throughout his youth, according to news reports in the 1960s. He and his second wife moved there in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
Jay Mathy, 48, of Newark, Ohio, recalled knowing Getreu and his second wife when they moved to his neighborhood. He wasn’t aware of Getreu’s criminal past and had no knowledge of the current charges against him, he said.
“They were the kindest, nicest, most rational people. No sign of crazy, no sign of mental illness. I never heard them fight. They never yelled at us -- and we were bad,” said Mathy, who was 8 to 12 years old when the Getreus lived next door at 550 Mount Vernon Ave.
The couple rented the home for about three years. Mathy remembered them with fondness.
“John and (his wife) did not have children, so they would give us gifts (at Christmas), and they would come over and they would just sit. I remember there was a couple New Years’ they came over and just hung out with us,” he said.
Getreu was also friends with Mathy’s father and may have built cabinets for a local Boy Scouts camp, he recalled. Getreu was a very nice, calm person who was intelligent and did not cause people to see any red flags, Mathy said.
“I think it goes to the fact that you really don’t know people. And some people are incredibly clever at concealing their past -- you know, moving clear across the country, getting out of the media’s attention. The ‘70s were a very different time and you’ve got to remember, this is almost the same time when Ted Bundy started his killing rampage. (It) was right in the middle of the ‘70s when you didn’t have the internet and you didn’t have huge amounts of communications between police departments of various communities,” he said.
Despite his criminal record, Getreu and his wife joined a Scouts troop while in Ohio. According to an April 1, 1980, Newark Advocate newspaper article, they were in the Hanta-Yo Society, an Explorers Post open to all youth ages 14 and older and adults, which was dedicated to teaching Native American traditions.
After moving back to California, Getreu lived a seemingly unremarkable life in the East Bay from the 1980s to the present, raising a family and joining civic organizations such as the Elks Lodge.
Members of the Fremont Elks Lodge said he was still a member last
November. Getreu was the lodge’s leader -- known as the “exalted ruler” -- in 2007-2008, according to a lodge newsletter.
Lodge officials declined to comment on Getreu’s tenure as exalted ruler. Luis Arrelanes, lodge inner guard, explained that an exalted ruler is elected by all the members after serving in all of the elected-chair positions, starting as a knight. The process to become exalted ruler takes four years, and the ruler must be chosen unanimously.
A few lodge members who were willing to be interviewed had mixed reactions to his arrest.
“Shock. Surprise. Just kind of in shock,” Sharon Van Horne, lodge chaplain, said.
They had been close friends for a time.
“He seemed OK. He was pleasant enough to be around.”
But another Elks member, who asked to remain anonymous, described him as “creepy” and said she never trusted him.
She was friends with Getreu and his second wife because their sons were in high school together. She was also friends with his third wife.
“I think very much of his wife now. I don’t think she knew what she was getting into. She’s absolutely wonderful. This has got to be a true blow for her,” she said.
Reached by phone, the third wife said she never knew about her husband’s past. She said she was not granting interviews regarding their time together.
Other members of Getreu’s family did not return multiple phone calls and messages requesting interviews or comment.
Williams, who lost his sister so many decades ago, said he was unable to find much information about his sister’s convicted killer over the years. He sought contact with some of Getreu’s former high school classmates, even purchasing a copy of the Bad Kreuznach high school yearbook for 1963. There’s a photograph in it of Getreu as a junior, clean-shaven and with closely cropped hair.
Margaret’s picture is there too. Like the Palo Alto teen in 1975 and the two women Getreu is accused of murdering, Margaret was a pretty, fresh-faced girl with dark hair. Williams recalled his sister with great fondness.
“I had nearly eight years with her. My experience of my sister had a lot of impact on me,” he said. “Margaret was really good at playing the piano. I had a little toy instrument, and she was always glad for me to sit next to her while she practiced, and I played beside her.
“She was good at helping me when my parents upset me in the way that parents sometimes do,” he continued. “She soothed and explained in a way that was calm. She was very nice and pleasant.”
While he lost his sister in a terrible way and had to shoulder the grief that followed, his sister’s life and the connection they shared, however brief, was a great blessing in his life that has helped him carry the tragedy of her violent death, he said.
He stressed that his life has been far more blessed than burdened.
Williams feels a mixture of sadness and relief that Getreu has been arrested. His suspicion that Getreu would one day be charged with other crimes has come to fruition, but that validation doesn’t bring Williams closure.
He expressed empathy for Taylor’s and Perlov’s families.
“My heart goes out to them. I think (of) the madness of not knowing who (committed the murders) for so many years. We knew quickly who had committed the crime. It did not feel like this terrible loose end,” he said.
“My prayers continue for the Perlov family and Taylor family and the rape victim in 1975 and my family and the Getreu family and all others badly touched by the disturbed mind and evil hands of John Getreu,” he said in a follow-up email.
Williams said he has often thought about Getreu’s family and the impact of his actions on their lives.
“I care about them. It’s not good to be a family member of someone who was murdered, but it’s got to be horrible to deal with your feelings about a family member who has murdered someone. From day one, my family cared about what the Getreu family went through,” he said.
Santa Clara County prosecutors on Nov. 26, 2018, charged Getreu in the Feb. 16, 1973, strangulation murder of Perlov, and San Mateo County prosecutors charged him on May 16 for the murder of Taylor, who on March 25, 1974, also died by strangulation. Perlov’s body was found in the Stanford University foothills, while Taylor’s body was discovered in a ditch along Sand Hill Road in Woodside, west of Interstate 280. Investigators said both crimes were sexually motivated, although they did not conclude the women had been raped.
Getreu pleaded not guilty in Taylor’s murder on June 14 in San Mateo County Superior Court. He is scheduled to enter a plea in the Perlov case on July 15. Detectives are working to piece together where he has lived to investigate if he could be a suspect in other cold-case murders.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Associate Editor Linda Taaffe, Interns Maya Homan and Christian Trujano and Newark Advocate (Ohio) Reporter Michaela Sumner contributed to this story.