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Twenty years later, questions still linger in Sam Strange double-homicide case that shook Nevada County

Crissy Campbell
Submitted photo |

It was 20 years ago today that Dawn Donaldson and Crissy Campbell were murdered.

It’s been 18 years since Sam Strange was sentenced to prison for 30 years to life; the last time Strange was mentioned in the newspaper was six years ago, when the lead investigator in the case, Nevada County Sheriff’s Capt. Ron Smith, retired.

But Sam Strange — and the two 16-year-old girls he was convicted of killing — is far from forgotten in Nevada County. Many remember the tragedy — and everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what really happened.

Since shortly after his arrest in 1994 up to his parole hearing last August, Strange has consistently pointed the finger at two other men — Allen Pettus and Dameon Graham. Strange maintains that he witnessed the crime and only disposed of the girls’ bodies, keeping quiet out of fear of retaliation.

Even the families of the victims are divided in their beliefs. Dawn’s mother, Linda Olson, and sister, Amber Raymond, strongly believe Strange was the responsible party.

But the Campbells are not so sure.

Crissy’s father, Doug Campbell, said that he came to believe Strange’s account over time, especially after he talked to Strange’s mother, Kathy Strange Morales, and read the manuscript she wrote about his case.

Bodies discovered week after girls went missing

“It was a whodunit,” recalled Smith. “People didn’t know — was there a killer in our midst?”

The disappearance of Dawn and Crissy originally was treated as a missing persons case, and their bodies were found nearly two weeks later, Smith said.

“They were virtually unidentifiable – we ID’ed them through their DNA,” he said. “The speculation started brewing all over the county. There was concern about a Satanic group, about a hitchhiker murderer.”

Detectives eventually identified Strange as the last person to see the girls alive. His initial story was that they asked for a ride to town and he refused. That account eventually unraveled, however.

“We still really don’t know what happened or why,” Smith said.

He added there never was any evidence to implicate Pettus and Graham.

“They knew (Dawn and Crissy), but there was nothing to support that they had anything to do with the murders,” Smith said. “We all felt he formulated the story based on the evidence we were able to acquire — that the other guys did it and he had to help under duress.”

Pain remains for families

Olson and Raymond said the aftermath of Strange’s arrest and trial were difficult for them, especially since he had been a friend of the family.

“Sam doesn’t have a conscience,” Olson said. “We know he had a part. He came to our house after the bodies were found, before we knew he did it. He was friends with (Dawn’s sister) Rika. How could he come to our house and act like nothing happened?”

Morales remained a staunch believer in her son’s innocence, which also proved difficult for the family.

“Sam’s mom was everywhere … My mom didn’t want to go to the grocery store,” said Raymond, who was 13 at the time.

Morales was “more vocal,” Olson said. “We were just dealing with the grief. (People) heard their side of the story, more than ours.”

“It did rub me the wrong way, friends saying (Sam) didn’t do it,” Raymond said.

Olson ended up moving away to Montana for awhile before returning to Nevada County.

“I can handle it better now,” she said. “The first two years, I didn’t want to go into town. Someone would say they were sorry and I would break down.”

The family had known Strange for about seven years, Olson said, adding that Dawn had been in Oregon taking care of her grandmother and had only returned to Nevada County a few days before her murder.

“Dawn had many good friends in this area and Crissy was one of them,” Olson said. “She loved being with family and friends. She was always talking on the phone. She always stuck up for the underdog.”

Raymond said the two would fight, as siblings do, but added, “She was a great big sister.”

Both women said Dawn had a beautiful voice, with Raymond recalling, “I used to think she was the best singer in the world.”

“It’s a small town,” Olson continued. “I see a lot of her friends who have grown, up, they have families …

“One of her friends wrote me saying how Dawn was like a sister to her and how she wonders what she would be like today, what she would look like, how many children she would have, that their children should have been able to play together like they did; that they should have girls nights out. They will never have that because of him. She remembers sitting in her bedroom with Dawn when they were kids, and talking about their grandmothers and how they always wore polyester pants. Dawn said that she was going to be the coolest old person and that she would never wear polyester pants.”

Thanks to Strange, Olson said, Dawn will never get that chance.

“Her friend Crystal named her daughter after Dawn and just realized that her daughter now is about the same age as Dawn when the murders happened,” Olson said. “Sam has no idea how much pain he has caused to so many people.”

“It’s always hard,” Raymond added. “Holidays and birthdays bring it up again. We just try to focus on the happy things.”

Truth is still out there

Crissy’s adoptive family — Doug and Kathy Campbell, and daughters Shannon and Wendy — attended Strange’s parole hearing on Aug. 27. Linda Olson, Dawn’s mother, said she was not notified.

“What he had to say at the hearing was very believable,” Doug Campbell said. “It is what his mother stated in her book that she wrote 20 years earlier. Sam was hanging out with a group of losers in 1994 and had just been allowed to move back home. He knew if he screwed up again, his parents would no longer allow him in the house.

“Sam was there when these two young girls were murdered and he was the one who dumped their bodies and cleaned up his house,” Doug Campbell said. “He was scared and very stupid that night and should be in prison, but there are two other very guilty buddies of Sam that killed the girls … Sam was a friend of Dawn and had no motive to kill her. I believe there are people in Grass Valley that know what happened that night but are afraid to come forward. To think that Sam did this alone is ridiculous.”

Doug Campbell said he spoke to Morales a few years after the trial, when she was in the process of writing a book to prove Sam’s innocence, and that she sent him a copy — but he didn’t read it at the time.

“She truly believed her son was not a killer,” he said. “She was a bright, aggressive lady. I actually liked her.”

It wasn’t until shortly before the parole hearing that Doug Campbell unearthed and read Morales’ manuscript.

“It obviously brought up some bad stuff, but I wanted to know,” he said. “I felt more relieved that I read the book — I read it three times.”

At the hearing, Doug Campbell admitted to a feeling of unease.

“It was hard to believe 20 years had passed,” he said.

Strange’s story has not changed in 18 years, Doug Campbell noted, adding, “He was very believable.”

The Campbells had moved to Nevada County from the San Jose area to “slow down,” Doug said, adding the transition and “how white” the county was proved difficult for Crissy, who had been adopted from Mexico City.

“She was … a follower — but she worked hard to get good grades in school,” he said. “I deal with my guilt over my lack of supervision of Crissy every day.

“It took me two years to say, ‘My daughter was murdered,’” he added. “I went through therapy to come to grips with what happened. You don’t get over it – you just learn to deal with it.”

Doug Campbell said attending Strange’s parole hearing was therapeutic.

“It felt good that we went and said the things we said; we got it off our chest,” he said. “I’m not a person who holds grudges. I think he deserves to be in prison; we know he won’t get out this time, but he has made some progress. I’m not that concerned – he’s been there for 20 years. I’m more concerned with completing the story.”

Even the Campbells remain divided over whether Strange should be released from prison, Doug Campbell said.

“Shannon really believes Sam has been hurt enough, it’s time to move on,” he said. “Wendy thinks they should keep him in prison until the truth is told … Will it ever come out? I really believe, along the road (someone will talk).”

For her part, Kathy Campbell said she believes that there are two others who were very closely involved and are walking free.

“Any attention to the case is helpful,” she said.” We are always hoping that someone will come forward with the truth.”

‘Complete lack of remorse’

Twenty years after he arrested Strange, Ron Smith has no doubts.

“I do believe he did it,” Smith said. “I don’t believe the other two guys were even there … We worked the case for about three months, a full division worked it solely. All we did was this case, until we made the arrest.”

Smith wrote a letter opposing Strange’s parole, he said.

“Setting him free right now? He’s a threat to public safety,” Smith explained. “We don’t know what happened. Did one of the girls set him off? It could happen again, possibly. If he came out and said he did it, that would be (different).”

While Doug Campbell said Strange appeared very remorseful at the hearing, even coming close to breaking down, Dawn’s family said he had showed a “complete lack of remorse” over the heinous and violent axe murders.

“He told two completely different stories and passed lie detector tests both times, so we know he is very good at lying,” Olson said. “He can’t be trusted.

“I do believe Sam Strange is right where he belongs, and he is a risk to the public,” she continued. “The thought of running into him in town, if he were to be released, would be more than I could handle … He should never get out. Never.”

Raymond said that initially, she wanted Strange to face the death sentence.

“But after a while, I thought that would be too easy,” she said. “He doesn’t get to hug and love his family, just like we can’t love and hug (Dawn). He can see his family. We get to look at pictures — and a lock of her hair.”

Dawn’s family has put up a memorial monument to her in a Montana cemetery, where she was born.

“It’s a beautiful place with a view of the Mission Mountains and the Flathead Lake,” Olson said. “That is where I will scatter her ashes.”

To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email lkellar@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.

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