Bobby Joe Maxwell was in jail for two murders committed by the Skid Row Stabber. The Skid Row Stabber is suspected of killing as many as 11 people during the late 1970s. But the evidence against Maxwell and the testimony of a man convicted of perjury led to two convictions. Now, many are seeking to have Maxwell released.
Who Was the Skid Row Stabber?
The Skid Row Stabber doesn’t have the name recognition of other California serial killers like the Night Stalker or the Golden State Killer. But during the winter of 1978-79, he is suspected of killing at least 10 homeless people, with 11 victims overall.
The murders began in October 1978 and continued until at least November that year. The victims themselves ranged in age from 32 to 65. With the exception of Jesse Martinez, the victims were homeless and living in Los Angeles’ Skid Row area.
All of the victims were stabbed to death, with most of their stab wounds in the upper-body area. The bodies were found in parking lots, alleyways, and behind bars in the area of 3rd and 7th Streets.
The victims included:
- Jesse Martinez, age 50
- Jose Cortez, age 32
- Bruce Emmet Drake, age 46
- J.P. Henderson, age 65
- David Martin Jones, age 39
- Francisco Perez Rodriguez, age 57
- Frank Floyd Reed, age 36
- Augustine Luna, age 49
- Jimmie White Buffalo, age 34
- Frank Garcia, age 45
- Luis Alvarez, age 26
The search for the killer lasted a number of months. At least two other suspects were arrested and released before police began looking at Bobby Joe Maxwell.
The Life of Bobby Joe Maxwell
Born in Columbia, Tennessee, Bobby Joe Maxwell came to Los Angeles to start over. One of six kids, he had already served time in Tennessee for armed robbery. Maxwell hoped to travel to California and become a karate instructor.
Like many who follow their dreams to California, Maxwell’s didn’t pan out. Within two years of arriving, he was down and out. On August 2, 1978, he was arrested in the Skid Row area of L.A. for assault with a deadly weapon. He spent 60 days in jail. Shortly after he was released, the murders began.
Maxwell was arrested again on December 14; this time he was caught standing over a homeless man while carrying a 10-inch, double-edged dagger. He was charged, plead guilty to possession of a concealed weapon, and incarcerated until January 14, 1979.
The arrests gave police an opportunity to build a case against Maxwell. That case started with a palm print and a jailhouse snitch. Maxwell was arrested in April 1979.
The Case against Bobby Joe Maxwell
The actual case against Bobby Joe Maxwell was fairly circumstantial to start. Near the site of one of the murders, police found a palm print that belonged to Maxwell. Witnesses to the murder of David Martin Jones described seeing a man who vaguely met Maxwell’s description near the scene of the crime. Though there were factors they disagreed on, such as his accent, they all maintained that the man they saw was heavyset, black, and clean-shaven, and that he had approached Jones shortly before the victim screamed.
The final nail in the coffin seemed to be Sidney Storch, who reportedly shared a cell with Maxwell when they were both locked up in Los Angeles County Jail. According to Storch, Maxwell confessed to committing the Skid Row stabbings.
Though the police’s case against Maxwell was flimsy at best, Los Angeles was besieged by serial killers at the time. Memories of Charles Manson and his family were still fresh in the minds of L.A. residents. It was only the year before that the Hillside Stranglers had been working in Hollywood Hills. Once apprehended, the two stranglers, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, were given life sentences for the kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of 10 women aged 12 to 28.
As Vaughn Greenwood, also known as the Skid Row Slasher, had not been captured, police knew that a killer had to be found.
The prosecution painted Maxwell as a Satanist who murdered the men in order to collect their souls for his dark master. This theory came from a diary entry of Maxwell’s where he wrote: “Praise be to the Prince of Darkness.” There was also graffiti left in a bus station bathroom not too far from the location of the murders. Scrawled across a wall was: “My name is Luther. I kill winos. I put them out of their misery.”
From the beginning, Bobby Joe Maxwell maintained his innocence. He wasn’t a Satan worshiper who murdered the homeless, he said. His younger sister, Rosie Harmon, declared the idea to be ridiculous. They were both raised in the church, and Maxwell tried starting a Bible study group while in prison.
At the end of the day, prosecutors could only gather enough evidence to charge Maxwell with five of the murders, including those of Garcia, Jones, Henderson, Rodriguez, and Buffalo. However, they were only able to convict Maxwell on the murders of Garcia and Jones. In the cases of Henderson, Rodriguez, and Buffalo, Maxwell was acquitted.
But two convictions were enough. Maxwell was sentenced to life in prison for the two murders in 1984. But almost immediately, the cracks in the case began to show, starting with witness Sidney Storch.
Lies and Overturnings
One of the key pieces of evidence against Bobby Maxwell was Sidney Storch’s testimony. Storch had shared a cell with Maxwell and claimed that Maxwell confessed to the murders. But as it turned out, Storch had a problem telling the truth.
Storch became the focus of a 1989 investigation into jailhouse informants. As it turned out, Storch had read up on the cases of those he was incarcerated with, enough to get to know the details rather well. He then offered to testify against them for the prosecution. He did this to gain time off of his sentence or special treatment.
In 1992, Storch was charged with perjury and arrested in New York City. Unfortunately, he died in custody before he could be extradited to Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, Maxwell’s attorneys proceeded with their appeals of the case. In 2010, they managed to get the original verdict overturned, but that in itself became just another leg in this long journey.
Retrial and Maxwell’s Failing Health
The overturning of Maxwell’s conviction sent him into a bit of a legal purgatory. He was no longer guilty, but he still had to face a retrial for not only the murders he was convicted of, but also with the three other murders he was initially charged with.
The prosecution was certain that during the retrial, they could get the same result as before—if not more convictions. After all, forensic science and DNA had come a long way; the DNA swab that they got from Maxwell might have contained enough evidence to put him away for more murders.
Both sides faced additional obstacles that weren’t there the first time around. A large amount of time passed. Witnesses had disappeared and passed away. Time may have dimmed the memories of those who were left. The main witness who could have helped, or destroyed, the prosecution’s case, Sidney Storch, had been dead for eight years.
No alternative suspect was ever presented by the defense or prosecution. After nearly 40 years, Bobby Joe Maxwell stands as the only serious suspect in the Skid Row stabbings.
And then there was Maxwell himself. Now in his 60s, his health began to fail him. Just before Christmas 2017, Maxwell had a near-fatal heart attack. As of this writing, he is in a hospital under 24-hour watch. The heart attack left him unable to move or speak.
Eight years after his original guilty verdict was overturned, Maxwell still awaits a retrial, lying in a hospital bed. His lawyers have shifted gears, petitioning a judge to release him on compassionate grounds. Maxwell’s family is hoping that he can finally come home and spend what little time he may have left with them.
When interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Rosie Harmon explained her thoughts on the entire situation with a short sentence: “They stole his life.”