Five days later, on June 8, Bernard Lee Hamilton was arrested in Marietta, Oklahoma. Sheriffs stopped him driving the Buchanans’ blue van. The van’s passenger wind wing was broken, and other parts of the car had been damaged. Heavy blood stains soaked the blue carpet in the van’s rear compartment. Subsequent testing showed the blood matched Eleanore Buchanan’s blood type and characteristics. The same blood was found on one of Hamilton’s shoes. Investigators theorized it could have been left by one of Eleanore Buchanan’s bloody stumps. Oklahoma sheriffs found Mrs. Buchanan’s class notes, math test, and other belongings alongside the road not far from where Hamilton had been stopped. Investigators learned that Hamilton had used credit cards in Terry and Eleanore Buchanan’s names to purchase gas, food, and other items in stores and gas stations in El Cajon, El Centro, and Tucson, Arizona, beginning early the morning after Eleanore Buchanan disappeared. Hamilton continued using the cards through Texas and into Oklahoma until he was arrested.
At the time of Eleanore Buchanan’s disappearance, Hamilton lived with his parents in a house at 2542 Comstock Street, less than a mile from Mesa College. Twenty-eight years old, Hamilton already had a long criminal history. He had received felony convictions for a 1971 forgery, two 1972 burglaries, a 1976 auto theft, and a 1976 Louisiana burglary. Pleadings filed prior to Hamilton’s trial also revealed that one of the 1972 burglaries occurred in the same Mesa College parking lot where Eleanore Buchanan parked her van.
The day after Hamilton’s arrest, San Diego sheriff’s deputies interviewed Hamilton in Oklahoma. Hamilton told the deputies that he had gone on a road trip with a white woman named Fran and her friend Spider. According to Hamilton, Fran had left her husband for Spider. Hamilton claimed to have driven the couple to Shreveport, Louisiana, where he dropped them off and then proceeded to Oklahoma. In fact, “Fran” was Eleanore Buchanan’s nickname, something Hamilton could have learned from a birth announcement Buchanan had in her purse at the time she disappeared. Deputies also discovered that soon after Hamilton’s arrest in Oklahoma, he had seen a wanted poster offering a reward for a David L. Wall, alias “Spider.”
According to a June 12, 1979, San Diego Union article, Hamilton waived his right to contest extradition to California and arrived in San Diego on June 11. In the photograph published alongside the article, Hamilton walked with his hands presumably shackled behind his back. He frowned at the ground. His hair rose around his head in an Afro, and he had a dark mustache.
Frank Sexton worked for the district attorney’s office, first as an investigator and then as a trial deputy, from 1962 until he retired in 1983. During the course of his career, Sexton tried around 18 murder cases. “I did rape-murders, mostly robbery-murders,” Sexton said during an interview in the fall of 2002. “I only had two death-penalty cases. This and then a retrial of another case.” Sitting at his dining room table in a comfortable retirement condominium complex in Clairemont, Sexton remembered the Hamilton case.
“I’d already had a previous case with him,” Sexton said. “There was this elderly lady in Linda Vista, Mrs. Story, walking down the street. She’d been injured earlier in an automobile accident. He came by and smashed her in the mouth so hard she still can’t eat a hamburger. He took off to Louisiana, and he got caught ripping a TV out of a motel. So they put him on a work farm where the guy sits on a horse with a bullhorn and says, ‘Pick the cotton.’ He wrote a letter to a cop back here and said, ‘I’ll confess to Mrs. Story. Get me out of here.’ The cop brought the letter over to me, and we had a great laugh. The Louisiana Supreme Court threw the case out, and he got out. He was out on bail on Mrs. Story’s case after he got back to San Diego. I objected to the bail. But his parents put up the bail, and that’s when he committed the murder.
“The dad was a Baptist minister,” Sexton continued. “Mother was a stay-at-home mom. They had a bunch of kids. Some of them were bad. But one is a fine guy. So Hamilton doesn’t have that excuse. He was raised in Linda Vista. He kidnapped Mrs. Buchanan out of a Mesa College parking lot. And he’s down there ripping gas out of cars. There’s not a full tank in the lot. It’s a bunch of kids trying to make it. She came out of her math class early to nurse the baby, and that’s when he did it. He did a real number on her. He even stabbed her in the stomach. The pathologist told me it wasn’t fatal, just to have a laugh. So this is a bad dude.”
Soon after Hamilton’s preliminary hearing, he wrote and mailed a letter from jail to Terry Buchanan. At a time when Terry was reeling from his wife’s unspeakable murder, Hamilton told him, “You are probably full of grief when you should be highly pissed-off.” He told Terry that Fran was not dead but had left with Spider and was smoking “Sherman sticks,” a reference to cigarettes laced with angel dust. Terry Buchanan passed the letter along to the police.
Hamilton’s letter to Terry Buchanan was not the first time he had tried to exonerate himself by correspondence. In the Story case, Mrs. Story identified Hamilton in a photographic lineup, saying she was “about 80 percent certain” he was the man who assaulted her. After the preliminary hearing, Hamilton wrote a letter to the district attorney saying, “Your victim definitely knows me personally and intimately. Back in 1967–68 and ’69, when I was just a young buck, she used to pay me for my sexual services.… She is an alcoholic and sex freak, which is no crime, but the fact is, she knows me.” The district attorney found Hamilton’s claims about Mrs. Story unbelievable.