Dateline   |  July 26, 2013

'Secrets in the Desert,' Part 2

Maricopa County detectives worked the McKillop -Sterrenberg murder case for months, but it went cold. And stayed cold for years.  And then a break-- a palm print that matched the one found on Joyce Sterrenberg's Impala and what sounded like a confession.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> the years have not always because of the odd coincidence. that was the very same night or so she remembers that her bill encountered some trouble of his own while driving through another part of town.

>> he came in the house, and he had blood all over him and he told me that there were some kids that were stopped by the side of the road , their car broken down.

>> uh-huh.

>> so he had stopped to help them.

>> yes.

>> and they jumped him.

>> in those days bill worked at his dad's gas station . he remembers as a different night though around the time of the murders, it was, after all, a long time ago. he was checking under the hood of the kid's car, he said, when things turned ugly.

>> just caught a little bit out of the corner of my eye when i turned around the second kid had a tire iron . well, i just -- one reaction was, bam, like that. my left hand , i caught him right there and then got in my truck and got the hell out of there.

>> bill didn't report the incident to the police and carole kept the strange coincidence to herself but from that moment, the date of her husband's frightening roadside scuffle and the notorious des searle murders were somehow linked together and you're pretty sure it was that night.

>> yeah.

>> you're pretty sure that somehow they didn't get conflated and that maybe --

>> no.

>> -- a week apart.

>> like i say, the next day i remember reading it in the paper.

>> maricopa county detectives worked the mckillop/sterrenberg murder case for months, but it went cold and stayed cold for years. bill and carole went on to raise three boys, ron , the youngest, remembers how involved his dad was.

>> i can remember going out to the lake on the boat. i remember going out to the desert. he was my coach when i was racing bicycles. it was a good time.

>> good times for ron . for carole , not so much. the young mother of three was feeling unfulfilled, stifled by her husband. what's your way of telling that story?

>> i grew up. simple as that. he controlled me. he tried everything to control me.

>> and here she was married for a decade, almost 30 years old. she wanted more out of life and so she got a job as a clerk working the night shift at the maricopa county sheriff's department. she took classes on police procedures including one on fingerprinting hope she might become a deputy herself one day. she started hanging out after hours with officers shooting pool, having a few beers.

>> things just began to be obvious.

>> too obvious how. was she seeing other guys?

>> yeah, yeah, i didn't do anything about it. i came home one time and followed them one in the house. and he was a member of the police department .

>> bill's story is that the final nail in the marriage was when he came home one day and found one of those police officers at home with you in the house. he said get out.

>> what?

>> yeah.

>> that never happened.

>> hm.

>> that's a new one. nope. that never happened.

>> accusations, denials, it was a classic and very angry he said/she said. by 1974 they were finished. carole left. bill kept the house and the boys. but if life had been a soap opera in the mckillacumber house, the dramatic outcome would come. that ramped up a month after they split when bill got a late night phone call .

>> said, hello, there's nobody out here and, ping, a bullet comes flying through the require window then i grabbed the gun off the top of the hutch and ran out the back door through the storage room then i heard someone say, oh, no. and i know sure as i know my own flame that was carole in the alley.

>> i can remember dad bursting into our bedroom and basically grabbing us all out of bed and putting us in the bathtub and said do not move until i come back and get you. had no clue what what happened.

>> you must have been terrified.

>> no clue what was going on but i can remember that bullet hole when i saw it the next morning.

>> bill called the police who paid a visit to carole . not as a colleague, but as a suspect.

>> i swear to you the first words out of my mouth were [ bleep ] did it himself. i mean there's just no doubt in my mind at all.

>> they checked carole 's gun. it did not match the bullet in bill's kitchen then out of the blue she told the detectives an incredible story. a few well chosen words and suddenly that long door perhaps case of the killing on lover's lane woke up.

>> i said, oh, as by the way you might be interested in the fact that he told me he killed the two kids out in the desert, you know, 12 years ago.

>> it was, as you might well imagine, quite the bombshell. 12 years after that famous and unsolved murder carole macumber told the police that bill actually confessed that he did it himself. they gave her a lie detector test in an effort to confirm her credibility. she passed. then the detectives called bill in for a talk. the accuser now the accused. they grilled him for hours and when they confronted him with carole 's statement, said the officers, he finally broke down and admitted it, admitted telling carole that he killed the two kids in the desert. things moved quickly after that. they took your fingerprints --

>> and palm print.

>> they took your palm prints also and they came back and said the palm print matched.

>> they said they match.

>> a palm print that matched the one found on joyce sterrenberg's impala and what sounded like a confession. a famous cold case had suddenly turned red hot .

>> all i can remember is backing out of the car and someone came out of the door and said, carole , get the kids out of here, the print match.

>> thus began for ron , a story that was kong fusing. they they arrested his dad and charged him with murder.

>>> coming up, bill macumber had some incredible charges of his own to make against the woman who accused him of murder.