The murder of Robbin Brandley and how it changed California universities’ safety standards

Street light at dusk.

Street light at dusk. Manfred Richter/Pixabay

Saddleback College is not known for being a campus that regularly struggles with criminal activity. Yet, according to the college police department’s crime log, there have been seven instances of stalking on campus in 2019. While there have been no violent attacks on campus in recent years, one tragic event forever left a mark on Saddleback’s history, the 35th anniversary of which occurred just three weeks ago.

On the evening of Saturday, Jan. 18, 1986, a piano concert was held in McKinney Theatre, followed by a party. As is typical for most events, the organizers and volunteers were the last to leave, and 23-year-old communications student, Robbin Brandley, was among them. After Brandley volunteered as an usher at the concert and the event came to a close, she began walking to her car at approximately 10:30 p.m., located just a stone’s throw away in Lot 12, adjacent to the Fine Arts building.

Unbeknownst to Brandley and others on campus, a vicious, sadistic killer was staking out the concert for a potential victim. Armed with a six-inch hunting knife, 21-year-old Marine stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton, Andrew Urdiales, drove to Mission Viejo that evening in search of any potential prey to attack.

Urdiales observed Brandley as she approached her vehicle unaccompanied. The pitch-black parking lot made for an ideal environment for him to execute his attack inconspicuously.

As Brandley reached for her keys, Urdiales attacked her from behind, stabbing her 41 times and leaving her body in a pool of her own blood beside her car. He immediately fled the scene and returned to Camp Pendleton without ever drawing attention to himself.

Brandley was later discovered by a campus security guard. Horrified by what they had seen, the security guard immediately phoned the police. When the Orange County Sheriff’s Department homicide investigator arrived at the scene, there was no physical evidence, fingerprints or blood from a suspect.

“Without any DNA or any kind of evidence linking a potential suspect to a crime scene, investigators have little to go on,” said Kelly DiStefano, a true-crime blogger. “You literally have to hope and pray that there was a witness that got a good enough look at the murderer and even that isn’t enough sometimes.”

The only evidence of the murder was her wounds. An autopsy of Brandley’s body later indicated that she sustained wounds in her back, chest and neck, along with deep defensive wounds in her hands. The sheriff’s department had no leads, and at one point, it was believed that Brandley had perhaps been a victim of a violent crime of passion.

“Purely based on the number of times the victim was stabbed, my first thought would be that this had to have been done by some crazy ex-boyfriend,” said Jeffrey Davidson, former homicide investigator. “Typically, when you see a victim with this many wounds, they were usually inflicted as a form of revenge, so it’s unsurprising that investigators would’ve initially pursued this route of questioning when it came to witnesses.”

Investigators were looking into her relationship history and questioning witnesses from that evening but to no avail. Urdiales avoided arrest and went on to kill seven more women in a series of violent attacks between 1986 and 1996 in both California and his home state of Illinois.

In 1997, Andrew Urdiales confessed to Brandley’s murder, as well as the murders of the rest of his victims. Urdiales was found guilty in 2002 and sentenced to death for the murder of two victims in Illinois. In 2004, he underwent a second trial for the murder of a third victim in Illinois.

His second trial took place after a 40-hour psychological assessment where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia by Dr. Dorothy Lewis, famous for her examinations of notorious murderers Ted Bundy, Mark David Chapman and Arthur Shawcross.

“Schizophrenia can manifest as delusions, hallucinations and disorganization in speech and behavior,” said Dr. Anthony Garcia Vega, a psychiatrist. “In males, the disease typically presents itself between the ages of 18-24. This sudden onset of mental illness could’ve also worsened his existing tendency for violence, as he appeared to have exhibited those tendencies throughout his adolescence.”

Following Urdiales’ diagnosis, the defense admitted a claim of insanity, but the jury rejected this, and he was sentenced to death a second time. He was a functioning adult, appeared coherent, and did not convince the jury that he was incapable of understanding the consequences of his actions.

“When evaluating a subject for competency to stand trial, you are looking to see if they understand his or her charges and alleged offense,” said Dr. Margaret De Vries, a retired forensic psychologist. “You have to see how much they remember. You have to see if they have the capacity to understand proceedings and whether or not they can work with their defense attorney and, in this particular case, despite his schizophrenia, the defendant was able to do all of these things.”

In 2011, Illinois passed a law that abolished the death penalty, but the Orange County District Attorney arranged to have Urdiales extradited and tried for his California crimes. In October 2018, at the age of 54, he was sentenced to death for the third time. On Nov. 2, 2018, he was found dead in his cell, and his death was later ruled a suicide.

Prior to Urdiales’ capture, Robbin Brandley’s parents argued that Saddleback was partly responsible for her death due to the absence of lighting in the parking lot, where she had been murdered. They attempted to file a suit against the school but eventually dropped it. Brandley’s parents also lobbied for a piece of legislation that required all universities and colleges in California to have proper lighting throughout student parking lots, which was signed into law in 1990.

Research has shown that crime can be successfully reduced by changing the situational environment that potential victims and offenders face, and street lighting is one of those changes. A randomized experiment of street lighting in New York City conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research between March and April 2016 found that sufficient lighting led to a 36 percent reduction in nighttime outdoor crimes.

“Criminals acting at night tend to stray away from areas that are well lit,” said Richard Muller, retired Los Angeles police officer. “I can recall seeing communities that were formerly ridden with crime see a sizable reduction in criminal activity after streetlights or floodlights were installed. If [criminals] don’t want to risk a chance of being caught, then they’ll just avoid those areas altogether.”

Still, students who attend night classes often feel an eeriness about the campus when they walk to their cars alone after class.

“I’ve taken a really late night class before and I remember walking to my car and getting this weird feeling that someone was behind me,” said Rebecca Panning, former Saddleback student. “It ended up being someone that I had a restraining order against. My car was parked right under a streetlight, but I didn’t see any other students around, and if I hadn’t gotten to my car in time, I don’t doubt something bad could’ve happened.”

Saddleback’s safety video series states that students should “always be alert and prepared when walking through the parking lot toward [their] parked vehicle.” Should students feel uncomfortable walking alone to their car, they can request a safety escort by dialing 4444 on any campus phone.