Famous Berkeley criminal cases

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Berkeley doesn’t seem like a stomping ground for serial killers. We experience our fair share of petty crimes — burglaries, robberies — but homicides and abductions are reserved for creepy, isolated towns … right? As it turns out, the city of Berkeley has seen quite a few gruesome murders and other crimes in the past few decades, and many of them are still unsolved. Here, we profile seven cases that occurred in the UC Berkeley area.


Patty Hearst

One of the most famous cases of “Stockholm Syndrome,” Patty Hearst was a kidnapping victim turned bank robber. Granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the subject of Orson Welles’  film “Citizen Kane and son of major UC Berkeley benefactor Phoebe Hearst, Patty Hearst gained notoriety when she was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment on Feb. 4, 1974, by the Symbionese Liberation Army, an American left-wing revolutionary group.Patty Hearst was kept in closed confinement and sexually assaulted by members of the group.

On April 3, 1974, Hearst announced via audiotape that she had joined the SLA. For this reason, she is often referred to as a victim of “Stockholm Syndrome,” a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with them.

Later, Hearst was apprehended after having taken part in a bank heist with other SLA members. She was imprisoned for less than two years before her sentence was reduced by President Jimmy Carter. In 2001, she was granted a presidential pardon by President Bill Clinton in his last official act before leaving office.  She was also depicted in an episode of the Comedy Central show “Drunk History,” played by Kristen Wiig.


Kristen Modafferi

Eighteen-year-old Kristen Modafferi, a college honor student from North Carolina spending her summer taking photography courses at UC Berkeley, mysteriously vanished from her summer job at a coffee shop on June 23, 1997. Seventeen days after she vanished, a man called a local news station and claimed Modaferri had been murdered because of a lesbian affair gone wrong. 

Detectives tracked down two women, who claimed they didn’t know Kristen and had nothing to do with her disappearance. The two women did, however, direct the police to a man named Ryan, whom they claimed had long held a grudge against them and might falsely implicate them. Ryan told police the two women were his girlfriend’s employers and that they had been harassing his girlfriend at work. He was the one who phoned in the false tip in an effort to get back at them.

The police decided to look into Ryan’s history, and, upon investigation, found allegations that he had abused women in the past. Furthermore, a clue was found at the home of Ryan’s girlfriend that connected him to Kristen. Her diary was missing several pages covering the same time period Kristen had been in the Bay Area. The girlfriend told police that Ryan was the one who had torn out the pages. Nevertheless, police say they have no clear evidence that Ryan was involved in Kristen’s disappearance. He was eventually cleared as a suspect, and the investigation continues to this day.

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Adolfo Ignacio Celedon

On the morning of Sept. 12, 2010, about 3:41 a.m., Celedon and his fiancee, Amber Nelson, a graduate student in the architecture school at UC Berkeley, were walking home after attending a 35th birthday party for Celedon. At the intersection of Adeline and Emerson streets, two men confronted the couple. Celedon was shot and his fiancée was punched in the face before the suspects fled in an SUV. Celedon died later at the hospital. No motives have been identified.


Tatiana Tarasoff

Prosenjit Poddar entered UC Berkeley as a graduate student in September 1967. In the fall of 1968, he met Tarasoff at a folk dancing class held in International House. On New Year’s Eve, Tarasoff kissed Poddar. Thinking that Tarasoff’s kiss indicated that she was interested in an intimate relationship, he was resentful when she informed him otherwise.

Poddar became obsessed with Tarasoff, going so far as to tape-record their conversations to find out why she did not love him. During the summer of 1969, Poddar sought psychological assistance under the care of Lawrence Moore, a psychologist at UC Berkeley’s Cowell Memorial Hospital. During one of their meetings, Poddar confided his intent to kill Tarasoff. Moore diagnosed Poddar with paranoid schizophrenia and requested that the campus police detain the student, recommending that the defendant be civilly committed as a dangerous person.

Poddar was detained but shortly thereafter released. He stopped seeing Moore, befriended Tarasoff’s brother and moved in with him. In October 1969, Poddar carried out the plan he had confided to his psychologist, stabbing and killing Tarasoff. Poddar was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder, but the conviction was later appealed and overturned on the grounds that the jury was inadequately instructed. A second trial was not held, and Poddar was released on the condition that he would return to India.

Tarasoff’s family sued the university, and the case eventually went to the Supreme Court of California. In Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (1976), the court ruled that mental health professionals have a duty to protect individuals who are being threatened with bodily harm by a patient.


Rick DeVecchi

On Dec. 17, 1998, about 7:15 a.m., DeVecchi noticed a male prowling around the bed of his truck, which was parked on the 1900 block of Second Street in Berkeley, close to his family’s business. When DeVecchi went to investigate, he was standing in the roadway of Second Street and was intentionally struck by a different car driven by the prowling suspect. The car sped from the scene. DeVecchi was critically injured and died later at the hospital.  The crime remains unsolved, and the family continues to search for the suspect and the vehicle that ran down DeVecchi.


David Nadel

On Dec. 19, 1996, Nadel was shot at his business, Ashkenaz Dance Club, located on the 1200 block of San Pablo Avenue. He would die two days later. There is an arrest warrant for Juan Rivera Perez for the murder of Nadel. That night, Perez had been thrown out of the club for unruly behavior. He later returned with a handgun and knocked on the door of the nightclub. When owner Nadel answered the door, Perez shot him once in the head at point-blank range.


Stephanie Bryan

On April 28, 1955, 14-year-old Bryan did not come home from school. The police carried out a search, but nothing was found. A few months later, the police received a call from Georgia Abbott, mother of Burton Abbott, who said she had discovered Bryan’s purse and ID in her basement. They decided to search the Abbotts’ weekend cabin located in the Trinity Mountains. In a shallow grave close to the cabin they found the decomposed body of Bryan. She had been bludgeoned to death.

The main evidence that helped to convict Burton Abbott, a 27-year-old student at UC Berkeley, were hairs and fibers found in his car that matched those from the girl’s head and clothing. Burton Abbott was arrested and charged with kidnapping and murdering Bryan. He was put on trial in Oakland where the prosecution established that he was a “sexual deviant.” The jury took seven days to return a verdict of guilty. He was sentenced to death in the San Quentin State Prison gas chamber.

Image sources: Patty Hearst WikipediaCLCLT.comrewardstvJames HooperFugitiveAshkenazfindagrave.commurderpedia 

Contact Daniela Grinblatt at [email protected].