On April 5, 2002, Chris McAmis sat in a cramped interview room at the Placentia police station. Facing the baby-faced, 23-year-old Whittier resident with spiky, jelled hair was Detective David Douglas, who had a few questions about the disappearance of 20-year-old Fullerton College student Lynsie Ekelund. McAmis told the detective that after a trip to San Diego with Ekelund and others, he'd dropped the victim off near her suburban Placentia home in the early-morning hours of Feb. 17, 2001.
Douglas wasn't buying his story. "Did you bury her somewhere?" he asked in a soft voice.
"No," McAmis responded, maintaining eye contact with the detective.
"If she was dead, do you think you would tell me?" Douglas asked.
Chris nodded his head.
"Why would you do that?"
"Because it's the right thing to do."
But McAmis didn't do the right thing until eight years later, when in 2010, he finally confessed to strangling Ekelund and led investigators to her bones. Throughout those years, because Ekelund was technically a missing person, police declined to divulge many details about the case, and little was known about McAmis, other than that he was the last person known to have seen the young woman. But with the 32-year-old killer now set to begin a sentence of 15 years to life in state prison, Placentia detectives granted the Weekly access to tapes of McAmis' interrogation and confession.
"People said he had a very dark side and he was troubled," says Detective Bryce Angel, who was present during the confession. "He had some family issues in the past where he may have been, at the very least, emotionally abused."
Before befriending Ekelund in 2000, McAmis had dated Heather Rockwell, who sought a restraining order against him after he destroyed several toys she had given him, and then spread them across her lawn. After one woman he dated dumped him for another man, a miffed McAmis set up email accounts under various aliases to harass her. "I didn't have any friends that could back me up and say, 'You shouldn't have done that, Chris,'" McAmis told police.
During the investigation, Douglas interviewed a 21-year-old ex-girlfriend of McAmis, Ivy Kwan, who in front of the police maintained a seemingly naive demeanor and downplayed questions about her ex-boyfriend's temper. "Have you guys thought about other possibilities?" Kwan asked detectives when they told her they suspected McAmis of murdering Ekelund. "Maybe [Lynsie] got kidnapped after she was dropped off."
Later, detectives put Kwan and McAmis in the same room. "Listen, baby, they have no evidence whatsoever," she told him, seemingly unaware of the hidden camera. "The only thing they can do to take you to jail is manipulate you to say you did it."
For eight more years, McAmis continued to deny killing Ekelund. Then, Placentia police enlisted the help of Orange County district attorney investigator Larry Montgomery, a clever and meticulous cold-case investigator. On Oct. 27, 2010, Placentia police arrested McAmis at his Fullerton home and took him to the Fullerton police station, where Montgomery, a slender man with well-coifed white hair and a business suit, was waiting in an 8-foot-by-10-foot room.
Angel brought a handcuffed McAmis into the room. Now overweight, with thinning, gray-flecked hair, McAmis sat with slumped shoulders, occasionally uttering a loud grunt, as if to clear his throat. Montgomery took the suspect back to the night of Ekelund's disappearance. McAmis had previously told police that because he dropped Ekelund off two houses away from her home, someone else could have kidnapped her.
"You didn't walk her to her front door," Montgomery reasoned. "That could be true. Most guys would make damn sure she got home. But that could be you. [But] it's a red flag."
However, Montgomery told McAmis, investigators had looked at footage captured by a bank security-camera across the street from Ekelund's house, and what it saw—or failed to see—suggested McAmis was lying. "In fact, your truck did not go by that night," Montgomery said. "It wasn't there."
McAmis had insisted that, after dropping off Ekelund, he'd gone back to his house in Whittier and promptly fell asleep. But Montgomery produced damning evidence to the contrary: a credit-card transaction totaling $33.08 at a gas station in Santa Clarita—a good hour or so north of Orange County—on the day Ekelund disappeared. The card was in McAmis' name.
Investigators knew he operated heavy equipment for his father's construction company. In February 2001, the company had been working on a job at LARC Ranch, a sprawling rural facility for developmentally disabled adults, located in the rugged hills of Santa Clarita. Although McAmis' father had told investigators his son wasn't working that site, a foreman insisted McAmis had been working there throughout the month, except weekends.
"You're not up there working that day," said Montgomery. "You're up there for something the day she disappeared. That's a big red flag."
Suddenly, McAmis said he might need a lawyer.
"It's up to you," Montgomery responded.
At this point, Angel, who had been silently observing the interrogation, spoke up. "Nobody likes to be labeled the monster," he told McAmis. "In this case, that's the way it's pointing. Only you have the other side of the story. Nobody is going to be able to speak for you. That's why we're here now."
McAmis took a quick breath and, after a decade of lies, finally confessed to killing Ekelund. It all happened, he said, because she would have gotten in trouble had she gone home late. She insisted on spending the night at his Whittier apartment and sleeping in his bed. McAmis said he tried to kiss her, but she elbowed him in the chest.
Scorned, he went to the kitchen and began gulping vodka. He returned to his room, where Ekelund pretended to sleep. "I pulled her pants down and tried to put my penis inside her," he said. She grabbed the phone and threatened to call the police, he recalled, then slammed the receiver across his face.
"Being drunk, it enraged me," McAmis told police. "It set me on fire. I grabbed her, threw her onto my bed, got her into a headlock. I just thought she was going to pass out, and I ended up killing her."
Police believe McAmis may have kept Ekelund's corpse, which stiffened with rigor mortis, in his apartment for up to two days. Eventually, he wrapped her in a green blanket, carried her down the stairs of his second-floor unit and loaded her into the extended cab of his pickup. He told police he bumped her head as he hurriedly put her in the vehicle. At the Santa Clarita construction site, he dug her grave using a skip loader; then, after driving his truck into the meadow, he unloaded and dumped her body into the hole during his lunch break.
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Until his arrest two years ago, McAmis occasionally granted interviews. In 2003, he met with documentary filmmakers about Ekelund's disappearance. Sitting on a couch next to ex-girlfriend Kwan, he maintained his innocence. The 40-minute segment never aired, but just before the sound cuts out, a cheerful Kwan came chillingly close to describing the actual murder.
"There's so many people abducted," she insisted. "You say they're missing. But they could be raped and buried in a mountain. How the hell could anyone find them?"
This article appeared in print as "Chris, Portrait of a Cowardly Killer: With Lynsie Ekelund's confessed murderer now behind bars, police unveil his chilling confession."