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Redux: P-E: Emotions flow in reopened desert killing

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Originally Posted November 4, 2010

 

I got this email from a reader  in Devore Heights, Ca:

Hi Mr. O’Brien:

Don’t know if you’ve heard about this story but it ran in the Press Enterprise last week. It’s literally been haunting me ever since. Would you mind very much doing a piece on your website regarding this? I figure the more info that is thrown out there the better. Can’t hurt, right? Thank you!

http://www.pe.com/localnews/stories/PE_News_Local_D_brother30.13db0dd.html

Sincerely,
Lesley
Devore Heights, CA

I hope the PE doesn’t have a cow, but I agree with Lesley, this is an important story. I have a feeling that she was lead to prod me into reprinting this story for our local High Desert Readers. I’m thinking we can solve this case.

Emotions flow in reopened desert killing

 

04:03 PM PDT on Friday, October 29, 2010

By PAUL LAROCCO
The Press-Enterprise

PDF: Read the case’s original reward flier

PDF: Read a new flier issued by cold case detectives

Slain in a 1974 roadside robbery, Danny Walker left behind a family perpetually searching to fill a void.

His father once hired private investigators to help identify the men who, according to a witness, calmly shot the young traveler in his Volkswagen bus. The elder Walker died nine years later, no closer to knowing.

That left Danny’s brother. For three decades, Doug Walker had little more than old news clippings as his window into the 21-year-old’s final days in the San Bernardino County desert.

 

But this summer, a phone call to the sheriff’s cold case squad set off a journey that ended with a kind of closure, although not what Doug Walker had envisioned.

As Walker meticulously retraced his brother’s fateful route, from ’50s-era cafes to a lonely shoulder off Interstate 40, detectives rediscovered the still-shaken witness. He was a hitchhiker who had been asleep in the back of the VW bus when Danny Walker was shot.

Ken Robinson was 18 in autumn 1974 when Danny Walker picked him up in the Cajon Pass. Hours later, he was startled from sleep by a shotgun blast.

From the back of the bus, hidden from the killers, he heard his new friend futilely beg for his life. He says Danny Walker saved his life that night.

When detectives reached out to him, the emotions he had carried for 36 years rushed to the surface.

“I’ve had no kinfolk of Dan’s to get a hold of for so long,” said Robinson, now 54 and living in Texas. “This has been with me forever. I mean, forever. Loud noises will make me jump three feet in the air, and if I had just a penny for every time they said I worry too much. …

“This whole deal is tough for me,” he continued. “But I want to find out who killed Dan.”

Doug Walker and Ken Robinson knew they had to meet. And earlier this month, a tenuous plan turned into a cathartic exchange in Texas.

The two men talked about families, fears and the chance encounter that brought Danny Walker and Robinson together. They parted with a promise to plan fishing trips, revive official interest in the case, and even visit “that dreadful spot” together.

“Our family kind of walked away from this in shock years ago,” Doug Walker said. “But you always wonder what happened, what’s the real story? That was the point. Now I know who this person is. He’s not just ‘the hitchhiker.’ ”

Doug Walker and Ken Robinson met on Oct. 2, 36 years and a day after the homicide.

Story continues below Special to The Press-Enterprise Danny Walker, a 21-year-old traveler en route to Denver, was shot and killed on Oct. 1, 1974 in a robbery while his Volkswagen van was pulled alongside Interstate 40 in the San Bernardino County desert, west of Needles.

Trying to Find Their Way

In 1974, Robinson was adrift.

With two paper sacks of clothes and a bowling bag stuffed with bull riding gear, Robinson joined a friend driving from Texas to the old Castle Air Force Base south of Modesto. While his buddy worked at the base, Robinson lived off Baby Ruth bars and potato chips, sneaking showers in the barracks.

He hoped to join the rodeo circuit but had no firm plan. When he eventually was kicked off base, he began hitching his way home.

Broke and alone, Robinson found rides into the High Desert. The last driver left him at the pitch-black turnoff between Interstate 15 and Highway 138. It was late on the last day of September.

Then Danny Walker pulled over in a blue VW bus. He had just said goodbye to his girlfriend in Santa Ana and was off to pick up work in Denver.

“He said, ‘I’d love the company,’ ” Robinson recalled. “We hit it off like we knew each other all our lives. He put me at ease. He was like me, just trying to find his way in the world.”

They talked about their families, Vietnam and their paths in life. It was only hours, but Robinson said that if the two had continued on, he could have seen himself ditching Texas to join Danny Walker in Denver.

After a late-night snack at a Denny’s on the north side of Victorville, the pair headed through Barstow and east on Interstate 40. About 62 miles west of Needles, they pulled over to rest. Robinson insisted that Danny Walker should be the one to use Walker’s bedroll and sleep in the back of the bus.

But Walker said he would be OK slouching in the driver’s seat — he wanted to see the sun come up. About five hours later, Robinson was jolted awake by a shotgun blast and heard Walker pleading.

“He’s going, ‘Man, don’t shoot!’ and then it was ‘Bam! Bam!’ ” Robinson said. “I broke out in a cold sweat.”

The killers, two young white men in a metallic gold GMC van, took money but did not look in the back of the bus.

Robinson said he still is haunted by the image of the men leaving.

“They’re walking all casually, just like they’re fixing to go get an ice cream cone,” he said.

‘The Tougher Ones’

After the killers left, Robinson climbed out of the bus and opened the driver’s door. Walker slumped over onto him, covering him in blood.

He tried to flag down a passing motorist for help. A few passed him by, but then a Marine and his wife in a pickup stopped. They put Walker in the back and drove him and Robinson to a hospital in Needles. Walker was dead.

Homicide detectives interviewed Robinson that day and the next. He took a lie detector test before he was allowed to leave. Once detectives were done with him, they drove him from San Bernardino to a truck stop in Ontario to find a trucker who could give him a ride home to Texas.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 2, sheriff’s detectives found a beer delivery driver who had helped two young men pull a similar GMC van out of a ditch near the interstate about 40 minutes before the killing. The two men told the driver they were en route to Indiana to find one of their families.

A $5,000 reward was offered, but nothing came of it.

Thirty-five years passed, and Robinson heard nothing more from authorities.

Unknown to him, Doug Walker’s persistence would soon change that.

In late July, Walker, now 51, called San Bernardino County cold case Detective Greg Myler and relayed his plans to visit Southern California from his home in Minnesota. They met a few weeks later while Walker traveled the route Danny Walker took from Santa Ana to the High Desert.

“We hadn’t had any family members do something like that,” Myler said. “But he’s been longing for answers for so long.”

Myler and his partner, Rob Alexander, pulled Danny Walker’s case file, although they have had to give priority to more recent cases with sure DNA evidence. The detectives are honest about the challenge in solving a very old case without a scientific match.

“These are the tougher ones,” Alexander said.

On a recent afternoon, the accordion folder holding all the old police reports was labeled with a Post-It reading “Look for Evidence.”

“Hopefully someone, somewhere, knows something that can help us,” Myler said. “We’ve got a great suspect description, and a great vehicle des

Even if the case never breaks, Walker said his summer vacation was more about reconnecting with the brother he lost at the age of 15.

He and his wife, Loretta, stopped at the diner where Danny and Ken Robinson ate, The Ludlow Café where the suspects had their meal, the ditch where their van had been stuck and the side of I-40 where Danny Walker died. There, the family formed rocks to spell out his initials above a peace sign.

Returning home, Walker made meeting Robinson his next goal.

“I feel I’ve unleashed a beast here,” he said in August, eager to book his trip to Texas.

A New Bond

Around the same time, Myler called Robinson.

“I cried like a baby when I heard his voice,” Robinson said. “I had been racing to this moment.”

Then, Doug Walker phoned Robinson for the first time. More tears fell, and through e-mails and subsequent conversations, the pair planned their October meeting in Texas, at Robinson’s home.

In the years after the killing, Robinson had two children, who gave him two grandchildren, and he built a successful business. He asked that his occupation and hometown be withheld out of concern for his safety.

“The good die young — I think they’re out there,” Robinson said of the killers.

Doug Walker is more willing to accept the possibility that his brother’s killers are either dead or already jailed. To him, meeting Robinson was like finding the final piece of large puzzle that had gathered dust for decades.

“It’s not like everyone in my family stopped talking about the event after 1974, but there was a defense mechanism emotionally,” Walker said. “People left the funeral and went their separate ways. We didn’t think about it hard.”

But after hearing Robinson’s burden — “I should be dead. I know that,” Robinson says — Doug Walker is shaken by how easily roles could have been reversed.

Special to The Press-Enterprise Ken Robinson, left, was an 18-year-old hitchhiker riding in the back of Danny Walker’s van. Earlier this month, Walker’s younger brother, Doug, right, visited Texas to meet Robinson for the first time.

No matter what happens with the case, Walker said he’s found a new friend. Robinson agreed, but he is holding out hope for even more.

“I know they’re going to be caught,” he said of the killers. “I know this from the bottom of my heart. Because all this is not happening for nothing.”

Cold Case Clues

Call San Bernardino County sheriff’s detectives Greg Myler or Rob Alexander:

Phone: 909-387-3589

WeTip: 800-782-7463

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About the author

Dan OBrien

Publisher

Cactus Thorns has been online in one form or the other since 2001. What started as a personal blog documenting the corruption and lack of Due Process of the 29 Palms Community Development Department has turned into over these many years into a hugely popular Independent Alternative News Media Outlet. We have partnered with other media including The Desert Star Weekly, Joshua Tree Star, other blogs, indie media and an incredible staff of volunteer Reporters, Commentators and Opinion Makers to create one of the most read, honest and dependable alternative to the Local traditional Media services in the country. Thanks to you the reader we are in the 5% of most read sites in the World.

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