In The Lost Boys, a young boy recently transplanted from Arizona asks if his family’s new hometown really is, as advertised, the murder capital of the world. His grandfather replies, “Well, now, let me put it this way: if all the corpses buried around here were to stand up all at once, we’d have one hell of a population problem.” Gramps is speaking, of course, of a fictionalized Santa Cruz called “Santa Carla,” and like the movie city, the real town’s grisly reputation is based on some unsettling facts.
In the ’70s and ’80s, things in Santa Cruz were getting, for lack of a better term, very weird. People were disappearing and pieces of bodies were washing up on the beach. Today Santa Cruzans wear our eccentricity as a point of pride, slapping “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” bumper stickers on our cars. But there’s ha-ha-look-at-our-costumed-accordionist weird, and then there’s omigod-what-if-my-neighbor-is-the-Trailside-Killer weird, and they’re real different. In an 11-year span not one, not two, not even three but four mass murderers terrorized this seaside city, making a mark on the collective psyche and guaranteeing that newcomers will forever be a little freaked out at some point in their first six months here.
Today world war 3 will begin as brought to you by the people of the Free Universe. From this day forward any one and-or company of persons who misuses the natural environment or destroys same will suffer the penalty of death by the people of the Free Universe.
The note was found two weeks before Halloween—Oct. 19, 1970—tucked beneath the windshield wiper of a red Rolls-Royce parked across the entrance to Dr. Victor Ohta’s sprawling Soquel property.
Smoke was pouring from the hillside estate shortly after 8pm when firefighters arrived on the scene, tipped off by two deputy sheriffs. Accelerated by thickly insulated walls, the blaze quickly depleted the fire truck’s tank. That’s when Live Oak Fire Chief Dick Pound went looking for a hookup.
“I went to the pool to see where the end of the pipe came through,” Pound told the Santa Cruz Sentinel, “and my flashlight beam spotted one of the children. I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
One body floated on the surface; four others lay at the bottom. The victims included the house’s owner, popular Santa Cruz ophthalmologist Victor Ohta; his wife; their two sons (ages 11 and 12) and the doctor’s secretary.
“There was blood on the deck by the end of the pool,” Pete Amos, chief photographer for the Sentinel, would later tell his colleague Cliff Johnson, “and a stream of blood four or five inches thick across the water.”
The news made the front page of the New York Times. Other mentions appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Time (which dubbed the killer “The Environmentalist”) and Newsweek. The rambling note struck fear in the heart of locals that this was another “hippie killing” like those perpetrated by Charles Manson’s disciples, on trial at the time for the Tate and LaBianca murders.
Every night 24-year-old high school dropout John Linley Frazier seethed at the sight of the Ohtas’ hilltop mansion, visible from the window of the converted milk barn where he lived half a mile away. The shack was accessible only via a rickety rope bridge strung across a ravine from which Frazier was removing slats one at a time, training himself to cross until he would be able to do it on the rope alone.
The killer’s psychologist would later relate the night’s events to a jury. Frazier broke into the Ohtas’ house, taking members of the family and the secretary hostage as they arrived home from work and school one and two at a time. He bound the women and children with silk scarves, but Dr. Ohta he brought outside to the edge of the pool, where he accused him of ruining the mountains with his ostentatious home.
He suggested they burn down the house together, and when Ohta tried to reason with him, Frazier pushed him into the pool and shot him three times in the back. The others were executed one at a time at the pool’s edge. Frazier then set fire to the house and fled in Mrs. Ohta’s station wagon.
Frazier’s long hair and back-to-the-land existence became a flashpoint in the case. “The grisly murder of five people has set a fuse burning on long-smouldering tensions in this oceanside city,” the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel read days after the bodies were discovered.
Santa Cruz, until then a sleepy seaside town, became the latest front in global culture clashes that were pitting the “straights” against the “longhairs.” The Catalyst, a hippie hangout, began receiving bomb threats. In response to the events here, the Vatican’s weekly magazine L’Osservatore warned that too many “stuffed shirts” looked on hippies as “modern witches on whom to cast the blame and collective hatred.” The Christian Science Monitor called for calm, insisting the events in Santa Cruz were not “grounds for panic.”
“Santa Cruz was going through a lot of change,” says former Sentinel editor Tom Honig. “The old town of Santa Cruz was a retirement community—very traditional, very Republican—and all of sudden UCSC is here, and a new era of people.”
Officers, tipped off by three local hippies who recognized the wording in the note as the sentiments of a man they knew, staked out Frazier’s shack for 20 hours until he returned to sleep. He came quietly, speaking only to ask for a glass of water after his arrest.
Mad, Mad Mullin
Two years nearly to the day of Frazier’s crime—Oct. 13, 1972—began the next chapter in Santa Cruz’s history of serial killers. The morning started innocently enough, with Herbert Mullin setting out to return a book to the San Francisco Public Library.
Mullin—varsity athlete, honors student and the individual voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by his classmates at San Lorenzo Valley High in 1965—was driving south on Highway 9 when he spotted a 55-year-old man ambling down the road. Mullin pulled over and popped open the hood of his ’59 Chevy station wagon. When the man offered to take a look at the engine, Mullin cracked him on the back of the head with a baseball bat. He stashed the body in nearby bushes and got back on the road to return his book—Einstein on Peace.
Over the next four months, Mullin continued killing in similarly random fashion. Eleven days after his first murder, he picked up a Cabrillo student hitchhiking. He stabbed her in the heart and left her sitting in the passenger seat of the station wagon as he drove through the city of Santa Cruz and into the mountains, where he disposed of her body. A week and a half later he stabbed a priest three times in a Los Gatos confessional booth.
Retired Watsonville Police Chief Terry Medina, who was with the sheriffs department at the time, said it was difficult to identify Mullin’s victims as such. Mullin had “a number of psychological issues,” Medina says, “so it just depended on the time and who he ran into as to who he killed.”
Mullin’s high school classmate and his wife, as well as the couple’s friend (“eating a dried fig when stabbed three times and shot twice,” the San Francisco Examiner reported) and her two sons, ages 9 and 3, followed on a Jan. 25 spree.
A few weeks later, 72-year-old Fred Perez was shot dead while doing yard work in front of his Lighthouse Avenue property at 8am. A neighbor reported seeing a blue Chevy station wagon with an STP bumper sticker driving slowly away from the scene. Mullin was stopped by police minutes later and arrested, but that wasn’t the end of the saga. Four days later authorities discovered the bodies of four more victims in Henry Cowell State Park.
(“It was a good walk, to get away,” Mullin would later tell a reporter from the Valley Press of the February day when he came upon four teenagers camping. “When I came upon the tent and saw them, the first thing that came into my mind was, ‘Wow, human sacrifices.’” He pled insanity at the trail, claiming voices told him he had to kill in order to stave off a devastating earthquake on the San Andreas Fault.)
“This must be Murdersville, USA,” District Attorney Peter Chang remarked to a writer from the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian while walking up the trail from the scene. As the story goes, an AP reporter walking a few steps behind the pair scribbled down “Murder Capital of the World,” the title that would haunt Santa Cruz for years to come after it was picked up by papers around the country.
Mullin killed 13 people in all. But there were 32 murders in 1972 and an unusually high number in ’73 as well. On Feb. 13, 1973, the day the newspapers reported Perez’s death, another report ran on a 70-year-old woman who’d been raped and murdered in her bathroom in Capitola.
“That was another mystery,” says Medina, “’cause you’re thinking, ‘Is this a Mullin, is this a…? What is this?’ And it turned out to be totally, totally separate.”
Separate too were the disappearances of several young women hitchhikers from the Santa Cruz area. District Attorney Chang later admitted there was pressure at the time of Mullin’s arrest to tie those killings to him, but investigators would have to wait a few more months for a break in that case and a disturbing realization.
Says Medina, “There were two serial killers killing people at the same time—did not know one another, were completely, 100 percent separate. There was no connection.”
The Coed Killer
“This is no prank—I want to talk about the coed murders. You know what I mean.” Six feet, 9 inches tall, 285 pounds, stuffed in a phone booth in Pueblo, Colo., Edmund Emil Kemper III wore a long-sleeved plaid sports shirt and washed-out blue jeans. The dispatcher at the Santa Cruz Police Department refused his collect call. He called twice more, begging cops to take his confessions seriously in conversations that were recorded and played back at his trial.
“I think I’m going out of my goddamn head. I’ve never done that before,” said the 24-year-old.
In fact, Kemper had spent his late teenage years institutionalized for the murder of his grandparents. Days before the April 24 call from Colorado, Kemper had killed his mother, an administrator at UCSC’s College Five, out of fear that she would learn of his other killings—six total, of young female college students over the preceding 11 months. He’d killed her best friend as well, so anyone who noticed his mother’s disappearance would figure the pair had left on a trip.
The man who would gain infamy as “The Coed Killer” may have picked up hundreds of hitchhikers, but he only murdered them when the conditions were right. The night of Jan. 8, 1973, for instance, Kemper picked up two hitchhikers, but too many people saw them get into his car.
“All the other conditions were perfect,” he said at the trial. “It had been raining real hard and people were getting any ride they could get and windows were fogging up.” He dropped them at their destination.
“I had given up on those other two and I was kind of uptight about it, and driving down the street I spotted her standing with her thumb out.” Pieces of Cynthia Schall’s dismembered body would wash up on beaches between Big Sur and Santa Cruz weeks later. Her head, though, he buried outside his bedroom window in the back yard of the Aptos home he shared with his mother, where he could speak to it.
Schall was the fourth of Kemper’s eight victims, six of them hitchhikers. Some of his victims he dismembered, some he dissected, some (including his mother) he conducted sexual acts with post-mortem.
When Santa Cruz authorities collected Kemper (who some officers knew as “Big Ed,” their drinking buddy at the Jury Room) from Colorado and brought him back to Santa Cruz, he led them to various sites at which he had left pieces of his victims around the county and the state.
The Trailside Killer
By spring’s end in 1973, both Kemper and Mullin were safely behind bars (even sitting in adjacent cells for a time), but things didn’t necessary settle down in Santa Cruz. Big cases continued to plague the area.
“These things were kind of coming one after another, and it really taxed the Sheriff’s office and the District Attorney’s office,” Terry Medina recalls.
Beginning in 1979 and continuing through the following year, women began turning up dead on trails on Mt. Tamalpais. Then the criminal dubbed “The Trailside Killer” decided to change venues.
In March of 1981, two UC Davis students came out to the coast on a getaway. They spent an afternoon at the Boardwalk and the next day took a drive down to Monterey. When the couple returned to their campsite at Henry Cowell State Park, they decided to take a short hike down the Ridge Trail to Cathedral Redwoods.
On their way back, Steven Haertle and Ellen Hansen passed a husky older man wearing a dark baseball cap and a gold jacket emblazoned with the slogan “Western Bar Olympic Drinking Team, Billings, Montana” on the trail for the second time that night.
“He says, ‘Ah, we’ve met again,’” Haertle would later recall in court. “Then pulled out a gun from his jacket and pointed it at Ellen and I.” The killer stated an intention to rape Hansen, and when she protested, he shot her in the head and her companion in the neck.
A 69-year-old Ben Lomond woman recognized David J. Carpenter from the police composite sketch based on details Haertle provided. Twenty-six years earlier she’d been one of 12 passengers on an 18-day voyage to Japan aboard the freighter Fleetwood. Carpenter had been the ship’s purser; she remembered his terrible stutter and the “unwholesome” amount of attention he paid her 14-year-old daughter.
Weeks after he was apprehended, another partially decomposed body, Carpenter’s 20-year-old coworker at the California Trade School Hayward print shop, was discovered in Big Basin State Park. She was the seventh of his victims.
“What does all this mean? What is happening?” Medina recalls wondering as the fourth serial killer terrorized Santa Cruz. “It was pretty … pretty … weird.”
John Linley Frazier hung himself in his Mule Creek Correctional Facility cell in 2009. He was 62.
In 1987, Herbert Mullin ran a personal ad in the Scotts Valley Banner seeking “Irish wife.” It read: “I am forty years old. I am 14 years in prison. I desire to sire children now.” This past February he was denied parole for the eleventh time since his 1973 conviction.
Edmund Kemper is still held in Vacaville; he will be up for parole in 2012.
David Carpenter is currently sitting on death row in San Quentin Prison.