SAN RAFAEL, California (Reuters) - An elderly former photographer acting as his own attorney was found guilty on Tuesday of first-degree murder in the serial slayings of four northern California prostitutes dating to the 1970s.
Joseph Naso, 79, now faces the possibility of the death penalty for the “Alphabet murders,” so called because of the matching letters of the first and last names of each of his victims.
Naso also remains a suspect in the killing of at least two other California women whose cases could have a bearing on his sentencing, and authorities believe he may have slain four more.
According to prosecutors, Naso drugged his victims, sexually assaulted and strangled them before dumping their bodies in remote places.
Investigators found pictures of two of the women he was convicted of killing in Naso’s safe-deposit box and notes about all four of the victims on a list prosecutors described as a roster of dumping grounds.
The balding, stooped-shouldered Naso insisted on defending himself at his two-month trial, during which he admitted taking pictures of women in nylons and high heels and boastfully displayed some of those photos in court while maintaining he never killed anyone.
After weeks of testimony from roughly 70 prosecution witnesses, Naso called only a handful of individuals to the stand, including a woman who once posed for him as a model and an artist whom he asked to vouch for his work.
Naso himself declined to testify and told the jury he wanted to explain why although the judge would not allow him to offer a reason.
The jury of six men and six women began weighing the evidence on Monday and deliberated less than six hours before returning their guilty verdict on Tuesday afternoon.
Naso showed no visible emotion as the verdict was read. He sat stone-faced at the defense table, staring down but casting occasional glances at the jury. He later asked for a mistrial, saying the jurors had been inattentive during the trial.
“I think they were kind of sitting through this thing, waiting until it was over,” he said. “I think they just relied on the decision of the foreperson.”
Marin County Superior Court Judge Andrew Sweet denied Naso’s mistrial motion and ordered him to remain held without bail.
“What you’ve expressed to me, Mr. Naso, I think it’s an invented paranoia about what happened in the jury room,” the judge said. “The jurors seemed fully engaged throughout the entire proceeding.”
Sweet scheduled a motions hearing for later this month and ordered jurors to return on September 4 for the start of the sentencing phase of the trial.
Prosecutors have said they would seek to admit evidence in the penalty phase from two additional slayings for which Naso has been suspected but never charged.
Investigators began to tie him to the California slayings in 2010 after law enforcement officers visiting his Nevada home while he was on probation for an unrelated felony theft conviction found ammunition there.
A further search of the Reno house turned up what prosecutors have described as diaries of sexual assaults, a list of 10 victim dumping grounds and hundreds of photographs of scantily clad women, many appearing dead or unconscious.
During the trial, Naso insisted that prosecutors lacked any physical proof that he killed the four women he was charged with murdering. However, he conceded that DNA found in the pantyhose worn by one of the women, Roxene Roggasch, might justify the conclusion that he had sex with her.
Roggasch, 18, and Carmen Colon, 22, were slain in the 1970s. Two other victims, Pamela Parsons, 38, and Tracy Tafoya, 31, were killed in the 1990s.
Roggasch’s older brother, Larry, the only relative of the victims to attend the trial, said of the verdict: “It’s been a long time coming.”
“I was hoping it would feel a lot better. Right now, it don‘t. It won’t until he’s dead and gone,” he said of Naso.
An investigation is continuing into the fate of six other women included in what authorities call Naso’s “list of 10.”
Prosecutors have linked Naso to the disappearance of two of the six, including Renee Shapiro, a Bob Dylan fan who went by the name of the musician’s former wife, Sara Dylan, and vanished in 1992. Her skull was found in 1998 but only identified as Shapiro’s earlier this year.
Investigators said they found Shapiro’s driver’s license and passport in Naso’s safe-deposit box, as well as newspaper articles about two of the murders of which he was convicted. The second suspected victim lived in a building in San Francisco that Naso once managed. Her body washed ashore in Marin County some years ago.
Reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Andre Grenon and Cynthia Osterman