Unsolved: 1979 Payless murders
SAN MATEO, Calif. (KTVU) - "Why did you do it and and did you realize what you did?"
Those are a widow's unanswered questions in California's oldest unsolved triple homicide. Almost 40 years ago, three employees were shot in the back of the head - execution-style - during a robbery at the Payless drug store in San Mateo.
"One of the most notorious in the history of San Mateo County, before and after, to this day," said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.
The victims were Tracy Anderson, only 16 years old. Billy Baumgartner was 17 and Michael Olson was 23.
Olson was a Payless assistant manager. He left behind his wife, Ardis and their daughter, just a year old.
"The next morning I woke up, and I was a single mother," said Ardis Lionudakis. "I had to do the same thing I had done the day before."
The day before was Feb. 4, 1979. The victims were killed as they closed the store for the night. It was "Dollar Days" that Sunday, meaning more money in the cash registers.
"They were innocent promising kids with great futures," said John Christgau of Belmont, who wrote a podcast on the triple slaying called the "Payless Podcast." "These three young employees had been murdered in cold blood."
Christgau said he believes at least two other robbers were involved - and that they're now dead. He says that includes the shooter, who wanted no witnesses.
"And that's why they shot them. 'Boom boom boom.' 'Now, nobody can identify us,' " Christgau said.
Wagstaffe said, "Ultimately, we determined there was $18,000 that was stolen during the course of this robbery."
Wagstaffe says investigators didn't have to look far for at least one of the suspects.
"We ultimately concluded the theory that it was, as we call it, an inside job," the prosecutor said.
More than a year after the killings, authorities arrested and charged a former Payless employee with murder. But at a preliminary hearing, a judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence. That man now spends time in Mexico.
Wagstaffe, who was one of the prosecutors at the preliminary hearing, says investigators have reached out to that man in recent years.
"Efforts made. And of course, not willing to talk," Wagstaffe said.
And despite a reward, justice for the victims has been elusive.
"And it was hard to realize it will never get better, but it does get easier," said Lionudakis, who was widowed at 24. She and Olson's sister, Kay Olson say there will always be a void.
"Time has healed and time has changed, but there's always an empty spot in my heart," Olson said.
The Payless is now a Rite Aid store. Although some may not realize what happened here back in 1979, this tragedy is never far from the minds of the investigators.
At the San Mateo Police Department, the case fills more than 9 thick binders.
"It's always going to bother me that there's not somebody looking out from a jail cell," said DA's Inspector Rick Decker. He was the lead cold-case investigator when he was with the San Mateo police. Decker says the man once behind bars has all the answers.
"I think he has a story to tell," Decker said. "I don't think he was ready to tell it in 1979."
Relatives are still holding out hope that the case can be solved.
"I would beg and plead, please come forward," said Olson. "Give us the information we need so we can get a little resolution. We can close this and know what really happened."