Doreen Erbert: A Halloween Slaying in San Jose

According to the FBI, It’s estimated that a murder occurs in the US once every 33.5 minutes. That is irrespective of state, locality, town reputation, remoteness, or any other circumstance, really. Even in areas like Baltimore with a high volume of violent crime, a single murder is one too many. 

While we know homicide is a serious social problem, we don’t always fully understand the motives behind why they occur. Perhaps that is why only 51% homicides go on to be solved. 

The slaying of Doreen Erbert on Halloween in 1986 is a case that was solved. However, it’s harrowing circumstances bear strong scars on national Halloween crimes. Doreen Erbert was pregnant at 31 years old when she was murdered brutally in front of her four-year-old daughter by a man wearing a wolf costume and wielding a machete. To this day, the question remains: “how?” and “why?”


Who was Doreen Erberts?

Doreen Erberts was born Doreen Rae Hitchens in Santa Rosa, California in 1952. Her childhood upbringing was described as very peaceful, loving, and supportive. Later in life, she went to school to become a physical therapist, and she eventually assumed the position out of an office in the San Francisco Bay area.

Pregnant Doreen Erberts

Pregnant Doreen Erberts

Doreen was married twice, first to a man named Michael “Mike” Dennis, and then later to a man named Charles Ebert, a carpet store owner. She had one son with Mike, Paul, and a daughter with Charles, Deanna. She was eight months pregnant with her second child to Ebert the day she was murdered, and tragically, Deanna witnessed the murder.

It’s widely believed that Paul’s death was a significant influence in Doreen’s homicide.


What happened to Paul Dennis?

Paul Dennis was born April 17, 1976 in Santa Clara County to Doreen and Michael “Mike” Dennis. Paul was the only child born of the two, and Mike’s only child. Paul lived with both of his parents until he was about a year old and his parents divorced. 

Just about three years following his parents divorced did a tragic accident occur. At the age of 4, Paul climbed a fence and fell into the backyard pool. Unable to swim, he drowned to death before Doreen was able to save him. She rushed him to the hospital but it was too late–Paul was put on life support for three days before being pronounced dead. 

No matter how clearly tragic and accidental the incident was, Mike never forgave Doreen for her negligence.


Who was Michael “Mike” Dennis?

Doreen’s loving, gentle, generous spirit attracted a large volume of clients to her office. One of which was her ex-husband, Michael “Mike” Dennis. Mike worked as a sprayer for the Lockheed factory next door to Doreen’s job. Dennis suffered from a hearing loss issue that caused him to stutter. His medical issues prevented him from socializing and dating normally, which allegedly caused him to suffer from depression.

The loss of his only son likely hit him harder, on a deeper level, than it would’ve for other parents. Dennis filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Erberts in March 1982 but the ruling was in favor of the Erberts. Around the same time, he had lost his job at Lockheed. 

However, nothing could excuse what he decided to do next.


The Night of October 31, 1984

On Halloween in 1984, Doreen was 8 months pregnant, and Deanna wanted to go trick or treating. The two went trick-or-treating and returned home. Charles left the house for about 15 minutes to go to the liquor store and buy more candy for trick-or-treaters.

Photo of the Erbert's home at 2792 Guildhall Dr San Jose, CA

The Erbert’s San Jose home at 2792 Guildhall Dr.

There was a knock on the door at around 9pm. Doreen answered the door to a man wearing a wolf mask wielding a machete. He muttered, “I’m going to kill you.” Panicking, Doreen instructed her four-year-old daughter, Deanna, who was in the room with her, to hide behind the couch. In later interviews, Deanna said it was a night she will never forget.

The man in the wolf costume proceeded to brutally murder her with his 18 inch machete. In front of four year old Deanna, the man sliced Doreen’s head, body, and unborn son. He had actually removed the fetus and hacked it apart. Charles later remarked that there was so much blood he had actually slipped on it on his way in. He took his wife and their unborn baby to the hospital, but it was too late. Doreen and the baby died on the way there.


The Evidence Against Mike

When the police arrived, they discovered blood coating the entire floor and significant parts of the wall, furniture, and even parts of the ceiling. Charles was there weeping hysterically covered in blood. Deanna was hiding in the room. At first, police looked to Charles as a person of interest, but then realized the wolf mask that had been left by the front door. 

There was a trail of blood leading from the Erbert’s house to further down the block. Blood samples were taken and information regarding their previous difficulties with Mike was also documented.

They promptly interviewed Mike, who didn’t answer right away, despite the police noting the lights that were on, and hearing running water inside the house. When he answered the door, there were a few dead giveaways that connected Mike to the murders:

  • The bandage covering a wound on his hand (to which Mike explained he sustained from “playing with a knife”).
  • Blood around his house.
  • A bloody gauze and clothing that was also stained with his blood.
  • Blood on the steering wheel in his car and on the shifter.

He was immediately arrested for murder. After his arrest, police continued to search his home to find:

  • The receipt for the 18-inch machete.
  • Two handmade coffins and body bags (police suspect he had intended to kill Charles as well, although Charles wasn’t home when he arrived).Mike Wearing the Wolf Mask at a Previous Halloween Party

Despite all of that, he was released for “lack of evidence.” He was arrested again not even a week later when his blood type matched the blood samples collected at the scene.

A woman from a Halloween party that Mike had attended a year ago said she recognized the wolf mask that had been found at the scene as the same wolf mask he had worn at a  Halloween party he attended the year before. 

There really wasn’t much else to discuss. He was convicted of first and second degree murder for the killing of Doreen and her unborn baby in 1988. He was sentenced to death in September 1999, though as of 2023 Mike Dennis is currently being kept on San Quentin death row.


Charles and Deanna’s Response

It must not be easy to go through such an emotionally jarring, intense experience at such a young age. And for Charles, his whole entire life changed after returning from the trip to the liquor store. 

In 2016, Charles and Deanna were interviewed by the Lake County Record-Bee. From two homicide survivors, the interview revealed some of the most fascinating perspectives.

  • Despite the dominant political attitudes of the state, the two support the death penalty and would like to see it enforced for their situation.
  • The two both publicly state that they want Mike to acknowledge them as survivors who haven’t been defeated by what happened. “We’re making it. He hasn’t conquered us,” Charles stated.

Why Mike chose October 31st–it isn’t clear. Perhaps he felt that it provided him with the opportunity to dress up and forage the task masked–thus alluding to some degree of anonymity. Perhaps it was that he had some prior knowledge the family would be home. It isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that the tragedy showed that it is possible to be brave and resilient in times of extreme hardship. And here is that story of hope proven through the San Jose Halloween slaying in 1984.



Are you hungry for more true crime? Take a look at the famous murders that changed America or other murders that changed Halloween forever.