A woman recounted for an Orange County jury Tuesday how she managed to escape a former Marine convicted of killing eight women, including five in Southern California, after he locked her in his trunk and attempted to sexually assault and kill her in a remote Palm Springs area desert.
Jennifer Asbenson’s testimony came at the outset of the penalty trial of Andrew Urdiales. Jurors who convicted him last week of murdering five women in Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties between 1986 and 1995 must now decide whether to recommend the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 53-year-old defendant, who also killed three women in Chicago in the mid-1990s.
Asbenson described for the Orange County Superior Court panel the sequence of events leading up to her nightmarish escape in September 1992.
Asbenson at the time lived in Palm Springs, near where Urdiales had been stationed in the U.S. Marine Corps, and worked as an overnight shift as a caretaker at a facility for disabled children in Desert Hot Springs.
Asbenson said she had been late for work before and feared discipline when she missed her bus while ducking into a nearby liquor store to get snacks for the children. She testified she was visibly upset when Urdiales pulled up and offered her a ride.
Asbenson said she initially said no, and Urdiales began pulling away. She reasoned that he couldn’t be that dangerous since “a bad person would have attacked me and pulled me inside” the car, but nevertheless attempted to memorize Urdiales’ license plate number and then felt guilty about it because he was so friendly to her.
She said she told him about her job and that she was interested in acting, leading him to ask, “Oh, are you in pornos?” She reacted with disgust, which seemed to irk Urdiales, and there was an “awkward” moment between them for a bit, she testified.
Urdiales, who told her he was a detective “on a hard case,” asked her to have breakfast with him after her shift and she tried to think of a polite way to put him off without hurting his feelings. She said she could not accept because she had a boyfriend, so gave him a fake phone number for her work that was one digit off so she could remember it if he asked again, which he did.
When Asbenson got off work a little early, she walked around the block in a different direction because she felt Urdiales would return, which he did. She said she still didn’t fear him, but wanted to avoid having to tell him she wasn’t interested in him.
“If he wanted to hurt me, under the cover of darkness would have been the perfect time,” she said, testifying that she figured the best way to let him down was to let him give her a ride home.
While driving her home, Urdiales said he dialed the number she gave him, but some “old bitch” answered, Asbenson testified. He went from “calm” to an eruption of anger, even as she kept suggesting that perhaps he dialed the wrong number, she said.
At some point, he slammed her face into the car’s dashboard and quickly bound her hands three times with twine and a knife, she said. The victim repeatedly pleaded for mercy, asking him if it was a “joke,” but he mostly remained silent aside from occasionally telling her to shut up and calling her a “bitch” and “whore,” Asbenson testified.
At some point, she figured he was going to rape her and she told him it was OK as she pleaded with him not to kill her, she testified. Asbenson said Urdiales demanded that she perform a sex act on him, but she said she couldn’t because he was not aroused, which angered him more, causing him to hit her and push her away.
Urdiales eventually turned the car onto a dirt road “into the middle of nowhere, basically,” she said. “I lost hope because I knew he was going to kill me.”
Urdiales used the knife to slash away at her jean shorts, and when that failed, he yanked them off and used the knife to cut off her underwear, leaving her clad only in a sweatshirt, she testified. Then he stuffed the underwear in her mouth and “tried to rape me,” leading her to “go somewhere else in (my) mind” as he repeatedly demanded that she tell him she loved him.
When he realized that she couldn’t speak because she was gagged, he yanked out the underwear and again demanded she tell him she loved him, she testified. She said she struggled to sound sincere, “which is hard when you’re being tortured,” and Urdiales grew angrier and began strangling her.
“My face felt so hot and my eyes were coming out of my head,” she testified.
Asbenson said she lost consciousness, but then slowly came around, sensing he was “shoving me back and forth in the car.”
“I thought he killed me and brought me back to life,” she testified. “I remember wanting to die, not because I’m a coward, but I didn’t want to be tortured anymore.”
She felt her attacker kissing her neck and then saw his blood-filled teeth and realized he had chomped “a chunk out of my neck.” Urdiales got her out of the car, put a gun to her head and again demanded her to perform a sex act on him, but by that time she was resigned to the possibility of being killed so she refused, thinking it would force him to kill her, she testified.
Urdiales popped the trunk of the car and she saw a “bag of knives” and tried to run, thinking it would be better to be shot to death than cut up in the desert. Asbenson said she felt a blow to the head and Urdiales dragged her into the trunk and started driving again. She said she fervently prayed and felt calm before she felt a “burst of hysterical energy” and the twine came off her wrists, allowing her to pop open the trunk and force her captor to pull over.
Urdiales, armed with the gun, “bounced” on the trunk to shut it again and got back behind the wheel, but got “stuck in soft sand,” she testified. She waited for the right moment to climb out of the trunk and ran down the road. She came up alongside a car with a man and woman in it, but the woman slugged the man and urged him to keep going, as Urdiales was running toward them with a machete, she testified.
She then ran in front of a passing truck to stop it, she said. Two men in the truck got out, put her in the vehicle and started to look for Urdiales, but when she told them he had weapons, they decided to drive her to the nearest gas station, where police were called. The men gave her a pair of Levi’s, which “fit perfectly,” she said.
Jurors also heard more details from the reports of prosecutors in Chicago about the murders of Laura Uylaki, Cassandra Corum and Lynn Huber, who worked as prostitutes in Illinois.
In each case, Urdiales, who was working as a security guard at an Eddie Bauer store in downtown Chicago, picked up the victims in his truck and got into some sort of argument with them that led to the killings, according to Urdiales’ confessions, which were read as summaries in court.
Urdiales dumped Uylaki’s body into Wolf Lake around the Illinois-Indiana border. He broke his finger during the attack and had it set at a hospital after he dumped the body.
The defendant dumped Corrum’s body into the Vermillion River. He first handcuffed her and put duct tape over her mouth, then drove for a couple of hours with her bound in his truck before he found a remote rural area where he shot he. After she appeared dead, he stabbed her multiple times because he was still angry with her, he told authorities.
Urdiales also dumped Huber’s body in Wolf Lake. After shooting her, he put her into the bed of the truck and drove south to the lake. Urdiales grew angry when he pricked his finger while undressing her, so he stabbed her in the back multiple times and shot her again. On his way home, he stuffed her clothes into a Salvation Army drop-off box because he figured she didn’t need them anymore and someone else might want them.
Last Thursday, the panel that convicted him of the Southland killings found true the special circumstance allegations of lying in wait and multiple murders, making Urdiales eligible for capital punishment.
Urdiales was originally sentenced to death in Illinois for the murders there, but he was re-sentenced to life in prison after capital punishment was outlawed in that state.
Urdiales’ attorneys maintained that childhood trauma and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder left him incapable of controlling his anger, meaning that Urdiales did not plan the Southern California murders before committing them. Instead, they argued for implied malice, which would lead to a second-degree murder conviction, which would have spared him a possible death penalty.
He was convicted of killing:
— 23-year-old Robbin Brandley, who was attacked as she walked to her car following a concert on Jan. 18, 1986, at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo;
— 29-year-old Julie McGhee on July 17, 1988, in Cathedral City;
— 31-year-old Maryann Wells on Sept. 25, 1988, in San Diego;
— 20-year-old Tammie Erwin on April 16, 1989, in Palm Springs; and
— 32-year-old Denise Maney on March 11, 1995, in Palm Springs.