Jeff Jardine

Family wants closure on '79 triple homicide

Michael Olson was supposed to have the day off, but a co-worker at the Payless store in San Mateo asked him to swap shifts.

"The other manager wanted to spend time with his family," said Ardis Olson Lionudakis of Modesto, Olson's wife.

So Michael worked that Sunday, Feb. 4, 1979. When the store closed at 7 p.m., the 23-year-old husband and father of a year-old daughter stayed with two teenage employees to put the money away and lock up.

A few minutes later, all three were dead -- shot to death in a gruesome murder, police believe, committed by a killer who hid in the store and waited for it to close.

The murderer fled with roughly $30,000 in cash and checks, according to newspaper accounts. But the real cost was to the three families left to mourn their loved ones. He made Olson Lionudakis a 23-year-old widow.

"Sunday morning, we woke up and we were a family of three," Olson Lionudakis said. "Monday morning, when I woke up, I was a single parent."

The killer left Amy Olson, just a year old at the time, to rely on the opinions and stories of others to know her father.

"That's all I have," she said. "Everything I know about him has been told to me by my mom or my aunt or my grandparents or by people who weren't even related. I didn't get the chance to know him, except through them."

Called the "Payless murders," the case remains unsolved. A suspect arrested 19 months after the killings was released because a judge determined there wasn't enough evidence to hold him for trial. The trail has gone cold but never was closed by San Mateo police, making it perhaps California's only open triple-homicide case.

Now, 28-plus years later, Gov. Schwarzenegger has authorized a $50,000 reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of the killer. Olson Lionudakis and other family members, including Michael's mom, Janet Olson, will appear at a news conference Tuesday in San Mateo.

This is the kind of story that would have been relegated to a brief inside the A section had Olson Lionudakis not moved to the valley 10 months after the murder. She came here to be near her parents. Her dad sold home and garden supplies.

"I knew I had to move on," she said. "I had a child to worry about. We had a change of venue. My whole center was to make things the best I could for (Amy)."

Shortly after arriving in Modesto, she went shopping for a house. The homeowner, Ray Lionudakis, had just been divorced and was selling the place.

"One day, my doorbell rang, and it was 'Hello,' " Ray Lionudakis said. They began dating, and she told him about her husband's murder on the first date.

"I remembered it vaguely from reading about it in the paper," Ray said.

They were married in May 1980, in a ceremony in his parents' back yard in Modesto. Amy was 2. Ray Lionudakis raised her as his own daughter. She calls him "Dad" and Michael her father.

"I'm lucky," Amy said. "I have a father who gave me life and a dad who raised me and never treated me like anything but his own daughter."

Amy attended Modesto schools and graduated from Modesto High in 1996. At her wedding, Ray walked her down the aisle.

"And a picture of my father was in my left shoe," she said.

She's now the mother of a 4-year-old son and 14-month-old twin daughters.

Ray and Ardis have a son together, Gary Lionudakis, who is 26 and works as a mechanic.

Other members of the Olson family settled in the valley as well, including Michael's parents, Dennis and Janet Olson, his sister Kay Olson, and brother Tom Olson of Tracy. Dennis died at 70 in 1999. Janet and Kay live in Ceres.

Ardis and Michael Olson first met when they were third-graders. They went to different elementary schools, but both attended Christ the King Lutheran Church in Fremont. They began dating when he called her before school during their junior year and asked her to invite him to his school's Sadie Hawkins dance. That was May 19, 1971. He proposed two years later, to the day.

"I was his only girlfriend," she said.

They were married, and Amy came along in 1978.

"He was a nature lover and loved the serenity of the mountains," Olson Lionudakis said.

He also would take pads to draw sketches of the cabin he planned to own in the Sierra some day, she recalled.

Two things happened before his death that will stay with her forever.

"Nine months before it happened, I had a dream," she said. "I saw him lying in a casket. There were vivid details of the casket and what he was wearing. Of course, I didn't say anything about the dream."

The casket in her dream had oak-leaf carvings. And he wore the Western-style suit she had tailored herself.

After his murder, she went to the funeral parlor to pick out a casket.

"I saw it at the end of the row," she said. "I said, 'I'd like that one.' That was the one in my dream."

Complete with oak-leaf carvings.

The other happened just six months before he died, while they were driving on the Nimitz Freeway.

"Out of the blue, he says to me, 'If something happens to me, you have to teach Amy how to sew,' " she said.

She buried him in the suit she had made.

"There was no question in my mind -- with his boots and his hat," she said. And she buried him with a single red rose and photo of their baby daughter facing his chest, tucked against the left inside of his suit coat.

Two weddings in the family couldn't deflect the pain of Michael's murder.

Sister Kay went ahead with hers as planned, just a month after he was killed.

"It was bad timing," she said. The marriage lasted just three months.

And Michael's brother, Tom, was married six months after Michael died.

"Mike was supposed to be his best man," Kay said.

Ray Lionudakis encourages the efforts of his wife and Olson's family to pursue the truth about Michael's murder.

"I'm really, really glad they're doing this," he said. "Maybe, just maybe, they'll have some closure. The person who did this needs to be caught and prosecuted. That's all there is to it. I'm just supporting here and staying on the sidelines."

Even though she's gone on with her life, Olson Lionudakis wants the crime solved and will do what it takes to publicize the revived investigation.

She's enlisted the help of Kim Petersen of the Modesto-based Carole Sund-Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation to prepare herself for the news conference.

"I think it's necessary to get it out there," Olson Lionudakis said. "If people know how important it is, maybe they'll come forward. Somebody out there has information."

And yes, she wants to know every detail, to understand what drove some cretin to do something so horrible, despicable, cold and callous.

She fainted outside the store that night 28 years ago when told her husband had died. The police gave her virtually no information as the investigation progressed.

"I'd like to hear," Olson Lionudakis said. "I guess I feel death is part of your life. Why shouldn't I know that part as well?"

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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