The Psychos Who Turned Surf City Into Murder City
I imagine the early 70s on the central California coast were an amazing time. The hippie revolution lingered, the weed burned freely and the surf culture was king. Beautiful buzzed people paddled out to sea in Santa Cruz, named Surf City by Surfer Magazine, thanks to its impeccable waves.
But there’s always darkness, and in Santa Cruz the darkness took the form of two psychos, working independently, who managed to kill over 20 people between them during 1972 and 1973. They didn’t know each other, they never met, but they cut a swath of terror through the sunny peace of Santa Cruz.
One believed he was doing the Lord’s work. Herbert Mullin, who claimed 13 victims, thought that the only reason California hadn’t had the Big One earthquake was because the bloodshed in Vietnam had appeased God. By 1972 the war, which had claimed 58,000 American lives, was winding down, and Mullin feared the quake would come. He took it upon himself to commit sacrifices in the name of the greater good.
Edmund Kemper was just evil. His first victims were his grandparents; at age 14 he shot his grandmother dead at the kitchen table just to see what it would be like. When his grandfather got home he killed him as well, assuming grandpa would be mad about the murder. Kemper became active as a serial killer in 1972 and earned the nickname the Co-Ed Killer because he picked up young college students who were hitchhiking and did unspeakable things to them. He usually went hunting after a fight with his mother.
Kemper is very much the image of the creepy serial killer; weighing in at 300 pounds he had an IQ of 145. He had a stormy relationship with his mother. He buried one of his victims’ heads in his mother’s garden; talking to police later Kemper said he did it as a joke, because his mother “always wanted people to look up to her.” After fights with her he would pick up hitchhiking girls, drive them to the woods and murder them. He shot some, stabbed some and suffocated some. Then he would take the corpses home, cut off the heads, rape the heads and chop up the bodies. He took pictures of his hideous, inhuman crimes. He killed five girls. These are the names of his victims:
Mary Ann Pesce and Anita Lucchese, 18 years old.
Aiko Koo, 15 years old.
Cindy Schall, 19 years old.
Rosalind Thorpe, 24 years old, and Alice Liu, 23 years old.
These murders took place between May of 1972 and April of 1973, when he was finally apprehended after committing two more heinous murders. Kemper was never a suspect in the Co-Ed Killings; he hung out at a cop bar called the Jury Room and befriended detectives on the case who shared details of their investigation with him. Calculating and intelligent, Kemper was always a step ahead of the police. He only ended up in jail because he turned himself in.
Meanwhile, Herbert Mullin was going very, very insane. If Kemper was the image of the calm, composed hunter, Mullin was a twitchy maniac. While popular and successful in high school, Mullin started falling apart not soon after, when his best friend was killed in a car crash. It seems likely that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia from his late teens and his abuse of speed and acid probably pushed him closer and closer to psychosis.
Mullin did time in a couple of mental hospitals, always checking himself out. He might have seemed like another acid casualty to strangers - he had LEGALIZE ACID tattooed on his stomach - but in private he was doing really weird things, like burning the tip of his penis with a cigarette after meditating. By late 1972 he was fully cracked; hearing voices in his head (including that of his military man father) telling him only blood could stop the Big One, Mullin beat a homeless man to death with a base. He told police that the man had telepathically revealed himself to be Jonah from the Bible, and asked to be sacrificed to save others.
Weeks later he committed his next murder, butchering hitchhiker Mary Guilfoyle. He actually dissected her, examining her insides like a medical student. The voices kept coming, though, and Mullin decided to confess his sins. On All Saint’s Day, just a few days after, Mullin stumbled into a Catholic church in nearby Los Gatos. He hoped God would help him find the strength to stop murdering. Instead he ended up pulling out a hunting knife and stabbing the priest who heard his confession, Father Henri Tomei. Mullin ran from the church, leaving the priest bleeding to death in the confessional.
He couldn’t get help from God, so Mullin turned to Uncle Sam. He next joined the Marines and actually passed their physical and mental exams. He ended up being turned away, though, after a background check revealed he had been arrested a number of times in the past due to his bizarre behavior (some of which was almost comical; for a time he started wearing a sombrero and adopted a Mexican accent). Convinced that it was hippies that were behind his troubles, Mullin decided to get revenge.
The man he focused on was Jim Gianera. Back in 1968 Gianera had sold Mullin some weed, and the lunatic believed that something in the weed had broken his brain. If Gianera had sold him bennies he would have been artist, Mullin believed. But that weed... that weed had ruined him. And so Mullin got a gun and went to Gianera’s house, expecting to take revenge.
The only problem was that Gianera had long since moved. The new tenant, Kathy Francis, gave Mullin Gianera’s new address, but she didn’t know she was already doomed. The psycho went to the Gianera’s home and killed Jim and his wife. Then he returned to Kathy’s home and shot her and her two sons. They were 9 and 4*.
Mullin lucked out; Francis’ husband, who was out of town, was a drug dealer. The authorities assumed the five murders were drug related, and nobody realized a serial killer was on the loose. Mary Guilfoyle’s body hadn’t even been found yet. Mullin had eight murders under his belt and nobody knew what was happening.
By now Santa Cruz was freaking out. The city was still reeling from the 1970 murder spree of John Linley Frazier, another bloodthirsty member of the Acid generation. Frazier, a totally fried acid casualty and environmentalist, murdered a local eye doctor who he perceived as hating hippies. He also killed the doctor’s wife, his two children and his secretary. He left a creepy note at the scene, along with the five bodies floating in the pool:
"Halloween, 1970. Today World War III will begin, as bought to you by the People of the Free Universe. From this day forward, anyone and/or everyone 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. I and my comrades from this day forth will fight until death or freedom against anyone who does not support natural life on this planet. Materialism must die, or Mankind will stop."
Frazier was captured a couple of days later, but Santa Cruz residents went on high alert. This was just a couple of years after the Manson killings down in Los Angeles, after all. Gun sales rose. And then two years later hitchhikers had been disappearing for a while, the victims of the Co-Ed Killer. In February Mary Guilfoyle’s body was found. Other hitchhikers were being raped. Other murders were happening. Santa Cruz, the beautiful Surf City, was getting a reputation so bad even district attorney Peter Chang referred to it as ‘the murder capital of the world.’
Mullin was almost done, though. The day after Guilfoyle’s body was found the voices started up again, demanding he kill someone. He went wandering in the redwoods and came upon four boys having a good time in a clearing off the beaten path. They had set up a temporary campsite, with a tent made of plastic. They invited Mullin to join them but he was angry. He claimed to be a park ranger, and told them they were polluting the park. He ordered them to leave. They wouldn’t. He told police that he psychically asked them for permission, and once it was granted he shot them all dead. They were Brian Scott Card, David Oliker, Robert Spector, and Mark Dreibelbis. Dreibelbis was 15, the others were 18 and 19.
Mullin had been targeting young people, representatives of the Flower Power generation that he blamed for all his trouble. But his last victim would be a middle aged man who happened to just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Three days after killing the boys Mullin received a psychic transmission from his father - do nothing else until you kill someone. And so Mullin got in his car, drove around and found Fred Perez, a retired prize fighter, weeding his garden. Mullin got out of his car, laid a rifle across the hood, and shot the man dead. He drove away, but not before a neighbor wrote down his license plate. Mullin was arrested not long after.
Cops say that final crime was a ‘catch me’ crime, a desperate attempt to be stopped. When Mullin was arrested he wouldn’t talk, chantin only ‘Silence’ at officers. The police desperately tried to tie Mullin to the Co-ed Killings, but the styles were far too different; the decapitations of the hitchhikers were clean and careful. Mullin was impulsive. Even as Mullin pled guilty, they knew they still had another maniac on the loose.
That maniac was almost done as well. As Mullin was sitting in jail, Ed Kemper was preparing to commit his final crimes. His previous murders had been seemingly motivated by his fights with his mother, and on Good Friday 1973 he beat his sleeping mother to death with a claw hammer. He cut off her head, sodomized it and then hung it on the wall, using it as a dart board. He pulled the vocal chords out of his mother’s neck and tried to destroy them in the garbage disposal, but they were too tough and ruined the machinery.
"That seemed appropriate," he told police later, "as much as she'd bitched and screamed and yelled at me over so many years."
His last victim was Sally Hallett, his mother’s best friend. He called her over to the house; when she arrived he strangled her to death. Then he got in his car and drove out of Santa Cruz. He pulled over in Boulder Colorado and called the police. He wanted to confess to being the Co-Ed Killer, but the cops didn’t take him seriously. He had to call back a few hours later and talk to a cop he knew from the Jury Room in order to be finally arrested.
Kemper pled not guilty by reason of insanity, but on November 8th, 1973 (the exact date of my birth) he was sentenced to life in jail. He asked for the death penalty, but California didn’t have it at the time. Mullin was sentenced to life in jail as well, although he’ll be up for parole in 2025.
Both men are alive today. Edmund Kemper sits in the prison at Vacaville, while Herbert Mullin rots in the Mule Creek State Prison. John Linley Frazier, the first component of what would later be called Santa Cruz’ Triumverate of Evil, hung himself in his prison cell in 2009.
These aren’t the only terrible murders to happen in Santa Cruz. Years later the Trailside Killer would stalk the area, and to this day there are dozens upon dozens of missing persons reported in the area. The city's reputation as a great surf spot brings many rootless people, and drug culture continues to create an environment where the strange and disaffected move unseen through the sunny streets. People passing through may never make it back out of Santa Cruz, and bodies are still occasionally found in the mountains and forests nearby.
The Lost Boys’ fictional Santa Carla was based on the bloody city, and Santa Cruz's boardwalk and bridges were used as filming locations. The murder capital of the world proves to be a great hiding spot for vampires, after all. As Bernard Hughes’ Grandpa put it in that film,
“If all the corpses buried around here were to stand up all at once we'd have one hell of a population problem.”
* It’s worth noting that the timeline isn’t exactly clear. The police claim he returned to the Francis house to kill Kathy in order to remove a witness, but an FBI profiler believes that Mullin probably killed the Francis family before leaving to murder the Gianeras. The idea that he returned is important legally, as it takes those murders out of the insanity realm - they were pre-meditated, calculated killings done to protect himself from getting in trouble.