Solvang, Part Two: Hitchhiking Isla Vista
This is Part Two of a three-part series about the town of Solvang, California, and Isla Vista, one of its neighboring towns. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!
Hitchhiking Isla Vista
Yesterday I introduced you to the town of Solvang, California, which was established by Danish immigrants. Today I’ll tell you about Solvang’s most famous citizen—a young stripling named Thor Nis Christiansen. And I’ll also introduce you to a neighboring town of Solvang, that Thor frequented—the community of Isla Vista.
Thor was born in Denmark in 1957, and immigrated to the United States when he was five years old. His family eventually ended up in Solvang, where his father, Nis, ran a restaurant.
He was a smart kid, and excelled in school. But in his junior year of high school, he lost interest in his studies, dropped out, and got a job as a gas station attendant. He also put on some weight, expanding up to 275 pounds.
About 20 miles southwest of Solvang, along the Pacific Coast, ponders the college town of Isla Vista, California. Isla Vista is 11 miles west of the city of Santa Barbara, and most of the town’s 15,500 residents are students. Some attend the University of California at Santa Barbara, while others seek their higher education at Santa Barbara City College.
In the 1970s, Isla Vista had a deficient public transportation system, prompting some who did not own cars to resort to hitchhiking. And on November 20, 1976, 18-year-old Thor Christiansen was cruising the streets of Isla Vista, when he stopped to pick up a hitchhiker named Jacqueline Ann Rook.
Jacqueline was 21. She was thin, and had long, straight hair. Thor liked the way she looked, and soon after he picked her up, he shot her in the head with a .22 caliber pistol. He then drove her 15 miles west to Refugio Canyon, and dragged her body to a secluded spot. There, he disrobed her and had his way with her corpse.
A few weeks later, on December 6, 1976, 19-year-old Mary Ann Sarris was hitchhiking in Isla Vista. She too was thin, with long, lanky hair. And she wore similar clothing to Jacqueline’s. Thor picked her up, and a few minutes later blasted her in the head. Then he drove her 200 miles southeast to Los Alamos Canyon, near Los Angeles, where this sick necrophiliac stripped and raped her body.
These two murders seemed to satisfy Thor for awhile. But a few years later, on January 18, 1979, he craved another thrill. This time his victim was 21-year-old Patricia Marie Laney, and like his first two victims, she had a thin build, long, hanging hair, and similar-looking clothing. After putting a hole in her head, Thor drove her to Jacqueline’s resting place in Refugio Canyon, where her corpse was violated.
Three months later, in April 1979, 22-year-old Laura Sue Benjamin, with her thin build, long, straight hair, and familiar clothing, stuck her thumb out and attracted Thor, who happened to be driving by. After unloading a bullet into her head, he drove her body to Big Tujunga Dam, north of Los Angeles, and satisfied his perversions.
That same month, on April 18, 1979, Christiansen offered a ride to 24-year-old Lydia Preston. Within minutes, he pointed his .22 caliber pistol at her ear, and fired. But by some miracle, the bullet did not penetrate through her skull. She managed to jump out of his car and scramble to safety. She found her way to a hospital, where the bullet was removed. Against the longest of odds, Lydia survived.
This was a big break for the cops. The first body they’d found was that of Mary Ann Sarris, in May 1977, near L.A. It took nearly two years to find the next corpse, which was Patricia Marie Laney on January 19, 1979, the day after she’d been shot in the head. And then the next day, they found Christiansen’s first victim, Jacqueline Rook, in the same area as Patricia’s body.
By this time, they knew they had a serial killer on their hands. They dubbed the killings the “look-alike murders,” due to the similarities in body build, hair style and length, and clothing. They found Laura Sue Benjamin’s similar-looking body four months later, in May 1979, and added her to the tally of unsolved look-alike killings.
Detectives had interviewed over 115 persons over a two-year period, before Lydia Preston lived to tell her harrowing tale. But her tale gave them some invaluable clues, as they progressed with their investigation.
And then three months after she told her tale to the cops, their serial-murder case was blessed by yet another strange miracle. On July 11, 1979, Lydia spotted her would-be murderer in a bar in Hollywood. The odds of this happening were astronomical! She called the cops, and soon they were able to track Thor down and arrest him.
He plead not guilty by reason of insanity. But psychiatrists didn’t buy it, so that plea didn’t work out for him. On April 16, 1980, he was found guilty of first-degree murder for the death of Laura Sue Benjamin. Then, on May 14, 1980, he gave up trying to convince the law that he was insane, and plead guilty to the remaining three counts of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
But on March 30, 1981, while Thor was walking in the exercise yard of Folsom State Prison, he was shivved in the chest and killed. He had served less than a year of his life sentence. Nobody snitched, and his killer was never identified.
Ironically, Thor’s third victim, Patricia Laney, had worked as a volunteer with organizations in Isla Vista, that advocated against violence to women. After her murder, she became a symbol for these groups. And since the 1970s, the community of Isla Vista has held an annual juggling festival in Patricia Laney’s memory. So in this way, you could say Thor inadvertently promoted women’s rights, by killing this woman.
But was it enough? Did the people of Isla Vista, and its anti-violence organizations succeed in their efforts to protect women? Or to protect anyone? We’ll find out in the next installation.