Crime & Justice

Until DNA tied his wife's murder to serial killer, an OC man under suspicion 'went off the deep end'

David Witthuhn seated near a Christmas tree after the murder of his wife Manuela Witthuhn in 1981.
David Witthuhn seated near a Christmas tree after the murder of his wife Manuela Witthuhn in 1981.
Courtesy of Rhonda Witthuhn

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Rhonda Witthuhn feared it was only a matter of time until the killer came for her, too.  She’d gotten calls at her home in Irvine. At the other end, a whisper.  

“I’m going to kill you,” Rhonda recalled the voice hissing. “I’d just scream at the phone and hang up.”

For nearly 40 years, that voice crept into her head with each creak and pop in the night.

This week, Rhonda cried with relief when she heard the suspected Golden State Killer had been captured.

Her fears could finally subside: “He wouldn’t come look for me.”

News of the arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer has reverberated through Southern California, where 10 murders are believed to be connected to suspect Joseph James DeAngelo.

One of them was Manuela Witthuhn, who was found bludgeoned to death in her Irvine home in 1981. Authorities in Orange County charged DeAngelo with her rape and murder in addition to the 1980 murder of Keith and Patrice Harrington in Dana Point and the 1986 rape and murder of Janelle Cruz in Irvine.

For years, Rhonda Witthuhn feared it was only a matter of time until the killer came for her, too.
For years, Rhonda Witthuhn feared it was only a matter of time until the killer came for her, too.
COURTESY OF RHONDA WITTHUHN

For a while, local investigators suspected someone else had killed Manuela – her husband David.  Not long after her murder, David remarried, a woman named Rhonda he knew from work. They quickly found it was impossible to leave Manuela’s death behind.

Back in 1981, Rhonda and David worked at the House of Imports dealership in Buena Park. During that time, she’d grown fond of his willingness to chip in and help with her with customers.

“He was one of the good guys,” she said. 

Rhonda was at work when she heard about Manuela's murder. She remembers police coming in and taking over an office in the back, calling in staff one by one.

“They were asking about David,” she said.

David Witthuhn coped the best he could after his wife was murdered in their home.
David Witthuhn coped the best he could after his wife was murdered in their home.
Courtesy of Rhonda Witthuhn

Rhonda thought investigators were off base: David wouldn’t kill Manuela.

“They had their fights and stuff, but he adored her,” she recalled.

Rhonda reached out to David, told him to call her day or night. It’s hard lose a loved one, she thought. And David wasn’t the type of guy who talked openly about how he was feeling. She figured those sorts of conversations were made easier by a woman’s compassion. For all Rhonda knew, she might be one of few David had to lean on.

David called Rhonda his first night back in the house where Manuela was murdered. Local news reported that the killer had used a blunt instrument to smash her head.

David told Rhonda he was having a hard time. He’d been in the hospital the night of his wife’s murder, according to Rhonda. The bedroom where Manuela was killed was still being put back together. A crew had come in to clean up the gore. David walked in to find the walls and cathedral ceilings had been scraped clean of blood.

Rhonda invited him to sleep on her couch. They were soon inseparable. Several weeks later, she moved into the home David had once shared with Manuela – an ill-timed decision that Rhonda soon realized made David look suspicious.

“I probably didn’t help that I came along so soon,” Rhonda said. “Some of the people wondered if David had done it.”

Neighbors kept their distance. It seemed like everyone on the street bought a new home alarm system.

David left the job at the dealership. He told Rhonda he didn’t feel comfortable there anymore. She stayed on until one day Manuela’s father walked up. He was accompanied by David’s former boss, who pointed to Rhonda and said that’s David’s new woman. Rhonda walked out in tears.

Rhonda Witthuhn reached out to her coworker David Witthuhn after his wife’s murder. The two quickly became inseparable, further raising suspicion.
Rhonda Witthuhn reached out to her coworker David Witthuhn after his wife’s murder. The two quickly became inseparable, further raising suspicion.
Courtesy of Rhonda Witthuhn

Rhonda was convinced David was innocent. The killer, she said, continued to stalk them: He called the house several times after the murder.

Local police investigators may have thought otherwise. Manuela, the daughter of German immigrants who lived nearby, was a feisty 28-year-old woman. And when a young wife is killed, you don’t need to be a shrewd detective to know to direct questions to the husband.

David never wanted Rhonda to know what investigators said during the interrogations. Rhonda said he did what he could to shield her from the turbulence in the years that followed. In 1986, investigators questioned David again, Rhonda said, around the time another Irvine young woman, Janelle Cruz, was found raped and murdered. She too was later tied to the Golden State Killer.

“He really thought they were going to lock him up,” Rhonda said. “He was sad that somebody would think that of him.”

David coped the best he could. The rum helped. Until it didn’t. He started his own business, but that wasn’t right either, Rhonda thought. Too much time alone. 

“He went off the deep end,” Rhonda said.  “He literally drank everything we had away.”

Nearly a decade after they were together, Rhonda divorced him. David had lost Manuela, Rhonda, his work and his home. Rhonda heard he was living on the street. 

Rhonda eventually saw David again years later – in the paper. His face was on the front page of The Orange County Register. DNA connected a string of killings in California and had cleared David in the murder of Manuela.

“I was just glad they weren’t going to come after him anymore,” Rhonda said.

When Rhonda heard the suspected Golden State Killer had been captured this week, she turned to Facebook.

“OMG it’s over,” she wrote. “They caught Manuela Witthuhn’s serial killer. I so wish David was here to see justice.”

The suspect had eluded police up to David’s death in 2008. Before that, the death of Manuela and others continued to stoke responses from true-crime enthusiasts on message boards under the title EARONS for “East Area Rapist / Original Night Stalker,” other names given to the Golden State Killer.

David himself occasionally chimed in, Rhonda said. By that time, he was living in Big Bear, perched above the basin where the Golden State Killer claimed so many lives. It didn’t seem impossible that he may unknowingly possess the detail that would help those searching to crack the case. The real killer was still out there. David never stopped looking.