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Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Hitchhiking - Sex with corpses
Number of victims: 4
Date of murders: 1976 - 1979
Date of arrest: July 7, 1979
Date of birth: December 28, 1957
Victims profile: Jacqueline Anne Rook, 21 / Mary Ann Sarris, 19 / Patricia Marie Laney, 21 / Laura Sue Benjamin, 22
Method of murder: Shooting (.22 caliber pistol)
Location: Santa Barbara County/Los Angeles County, California, USA
Status: Pleaded guilty. Sentenced to life in prison in June 1980. Stabbed to death in Folsom State Prison on Mar. 30, 1981. The perpetrator was not identified

In late 1976 and early 1977, female students at the University of California in Santa Barbara were terrorized by a grim series of "look-alike" murders, so-called because the victims closely resembled one another. 

The first to die was co-ed Jacqueline Rook, 21, abducted from a bus stop in the Santa Barbara suburb of Goleta on December 6, 1976. A Goleta waitress, Mary Sarris, disappeared the same day, and both were still missing on January 18, when 21-year-old Patricia Laney vanished from another local bus stop. Laney's corpse was discovered next day, in nearby Refugio Canyon, and police recognized the sinister pattern when Jacqueline Rook was found dead, in the same area, on January 20. 

Each had been killed by one shot to the head, fired from a small-caliber pistol. Thor Christiansen first came to the attention of police in February 1977, as one of several hundred persons questioned in the case. Cited as a minor in possession of alcohol, he was not considered a suspect at the time, although authorities confiscated a .22-caliber pistol from his car. 

No one remembered Christiansen on May 22, when the skeletal remains of Mary Sarris were discovered in Drum Canyon, north of Santa Barbara. Homicide investigators wrote him off as one more teenaged punk, picked up with liquor on his breath. 

Linda Preston, age 24, was thumbing rides in Hollywood on April 18, 1979, when Christiansen picked her up, traveling several blocks before he drew a gun and pumped a bullet into her left ear. Bleeding profusely, the young woman managed to leap from his car and save herself, escaping on foot to find medical aid. 

Three months later, on July 11, Preston spotted her assailant in a Hollywood tavern and summoned sheriff's deputies, who booked him on a charge of felonious assault. Police in Santa Barbara noted similarities between the crimes; they also learned that Thor had been arrested on a drunken driving charge July 7, another .22-caliber handgun removed from his car. 

On July 27, Christiansen was formally charged with three counts of first-degree murder in Santa Barbara, held over for trial without bond.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans


Thor Nis Christiansen (b. December 28, 1957, d. March 30, 1981) was a serial killer from Solvang, California.

His first three murders in late 1976 and early 1977 were of young women of similar appearance from Isla Vista, California, and led to large demonstrations opposed to violence to women, and in favor of better transportation for the young people residing in Isla Vista.

His fourth murder in 1979 was of a young African-American woman from Los Angeles. A fifth intended victim escaped with a bullet in her head, and later identified him in a Los Angeles bar.


  • Jacqueline Anne Rook, Nov. 20, 1976, aged 21 (Isla Vista, originally from Del Mar)

  • Mary Ann Sarris, Dec. 6, 1976, aged 19 (Isla Vista, originally from Santa Rosa)

  • Patricia Marie Laney, Jan. 18, 1977, aged 21 (Isla Vista, originally from Huntington Beach)

  • Laura Sue Benjamin, May 26, 1979, aged 22 (body found, Los Angeles County)

Modus Operandi

Christiansen would get his victims in his car; secondary sources indicate that the victims were presumed to be hitchhiking. He would then shoot them in the head with a 0.22 caliber pistol, and then rape them. The fifth intended victim, Lydia Preston, aged 24 of Baldwin Park was shot in the head by Christiansen in his vehicle on April 18, 1979, but ran away severely injured.

Rook, Sarris, and Laney all disappeared without any communication from the killer; all were reported missing. Laney's body was found 2 days after her disappearence on an isolated road in the Santa Ynez Mountains northwest of Isla Vista near Rancho del Cielo; Rook's body was found the next day near Laney's. Sarris' body was found on May 22, 1977 near Los Alamos. Benjamin's body was found in a culvert near Angeles Forest Highway and Big Tujunga Road in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles; she was reported to have been a prostitute.


Lydia Preston met Christiansen again on July 11, 1979 in the Bottom Line Bar in Hollywood, and reported him to police, who promptly arrested him. Because of Christiansen's address in Goleta, California and the similarity of Preston's experience to forensic evidence in the Rook, Saris, and Laney cases, Christiansen became a suspect in the Isla Vista murders.

After his apprehension, Santa Barbara County law enforcement realized they had investigated him as a suspect (among 100 suspects) in 1977, and had noted his possession of a 0.22 caliber pistol when he was arrested for drunk driving.


Christiansen was first tried in early 1980 in Santa Monica for the murder of Benjamin; he initially pleaded insanity, but he withdrew the plea. He then pleaded guilty in June, 1980 in Santa Barbara to the Isla Vista murders, and sentenced to life in prison. At that time, California did not have the death penalty.


Christiansen was stabbed to death in Folsom State Prison on Mar. 30, 1981; the perpetrator was not identified. Psychiatrists had predicted that he was likely to be killed in prison, as he was young, blond, and his last victim was African-American.

Patricia Laney has become a prominent symbol for groups that advocate against violence to women in the Santa Barbara/Goleta/Isla Vista area. She had been a community volunteer with organizations that advocated against violence to women. The Isla Vista Juggling Festival, which had its 30th meeting in 2006, was dedicated to her commencing in 1977.

The murders in 1976-1977 instilled an atmosphere of fear that effectively brought an end to the 1960's era in Isla Vista.


In conjunction with his Santa Barbara sentencing, Christiansen described his version of the events. He was born in Denmark, and emigrated to Inglewood with his parents and on to Solvang when he was five years old.

His father, Nis, ran a restaurant in Solvang, which is noted for its Danish atmosphere. He had a high IQ and was a good student until his junior year of high school, when he began using marijuana, drinking, and neglecting his schoolwork.

He moved out of his parents house, dropped out of high school, and began working as a gas station attendant; he also became overweight at 275 lbs. He stole a 0.22 caliber pistol from a friend, and was overcome with fantasies of shooting women then having sex with their body, and committed the first three murders.

Then he moved to Oregon, lost weight, and moved back to Santa Barbara County and completed his high school diploma at a junior college. He moved into an apartment in Goleta with another women in her 20s, Kathy Soliz, whom he met while she was hitchhiking. Soliz characterized him as "very, very nice" and "not capable of murder." While he was living with her he committed the Los Angeles murder and attempted murder.



MO: Execution-style shootings of young women.

DISPOSITION: Life term, 1980; murdered in prison Mar. 30,1981.



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