Santa Cruz’s true-crime classic

Author Emerson Murray
Author Emerson Murray.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Nine months after the publication of “Murder Capital of the World,” his book on Santa Cruz’s serial-killer history, author Emerson Murray is pursuing offers to make it into a documentary and engaging with fans online.

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For close to 50 years, the darkness has hung over Santa Cruz like a persistent morning fog.

In the early 1970s, three men — each in thrall to his own separate demon — engaged in three separate and unrelated murder sprees that left nearly 30 people dead, a period of terror that has haunted Santa Cruz ever since.

Over the years, the story of the killings has moved through various stages, from taboo to urban legend to barstool speculation to often sensationalist and sometimes cryptic references in the media. Now, there’s a definitive oral history of that period.

Last year, Ben Lomond-based author Emerson Murray published “Murder Capital of the World,” an exhaustive look back at the crimes of John Linley Frazier, Herbert Mullin and Edmund Kemper that draws from the first-person accounts of victims’ families, cops, prosecutors, investigators, journalists and even the convicted murderers themselves.

On Thursday, Murray will discuss his book and the period of the infamous serial killings in a virtual event presented by Bookshop Santa Cruz. Murray — a local native who was born in 1973, the year when the madness unleashed by the murders was at its peak — said that it’s always been his dream to host a book event at Bookshop. This one, however, will be online, which will allow for the widespread interest of his story from outside the area.

The book

“It’s going to be a slide presentation,” he said. “I’m going to be talking about why I wrote the book, who I reached out to, some funny stories, some sad stories, basically the journey of getting this thing onto the bookshelf. I thought I’d give them a little behind-the-curtain sense of what happened to me and why I did this.”

Since the book’s publication last year, it was optioned to be made into a documentary series. “They’re shopping it around currently, to get a network to pick it up,” Murray said. “It feels like we’re close, but we’ve been close for months and months. So I don’t know when that’s going to happen. But it’s exciting.”

He’s also been interviewed several times for other productions having to do in some way about the crimes of Mullin, Frazier and Kemper.

One of Murray’s main goals with “Murder Capital” was to give a spotlight, and with it a sense of dignity, to the lives of the murder victims. At the same time, he wanted to offer a counternarrative to the often overly romanticized and lurid serial-killer-as-rock-star approach that is a big part of true-crime entertainment.

“Yeah, that bothers me a lot,” he said. “And I would include that phrase (serial killer as rock star) in my letter to victims’ families. We’ve had enough of those books. This is going to be something different. The victims, most of them had very short lives, so I knew there would not be this massive amount of material on them, but their stories are worth telling.”

Still, the book has put Murray squarely in the sights of the burgeoning online culture centered on interest in the serial killers, most famously the 6-foot-9 Edmund Kemper, whose brutality and intelligence made him one of America’s most notorious criminals.

“When it comes to fandom, you have to take the good with the bad,” said Murray. “The book’s been picked up on these weird serial-killer websites and message boards.”

Murray created a Facebook group for the book, and he said he’s been amazed at the community that grew up from it. “You have a real mix of the fans of the book. There are a lot of people in law enforcement, whether they’re retired or just interested in the criminal-justice side of it,” he said. “They’re generally more conservative. Then the pendulum swings really far the other way to people who have tattoos of Kemper, and just want to hear about the blood and guts. So these people all have to kind of live with each other. I saw when I created the Facebook group, oh, this is going to be a nightmare. But everyone’s been really amazing, super friendly with each other.”

All of the attention — the fan interest, being interviewed, the optioning of the book to make into a documentary series — has taken Murray by surprise. “I thought it was going to be this small local history book about Santa Cruz,” he said. “I did not think it was going to catch this true-crime wave that’s going on right now. I did not expect that. But I’m not going to fool myself and have any delusions of grandeur that this book is going to change the world, but maybe just a little adjustment in the way we think about these people. That’s sort of the secret goal, I guess.”

Emerson Murray will talk about “Murder Capital of the World” in an online event presented by Bookshop Santa Cruz. The event will take place on Thursday at 6 p.m. It’s free, but all interested arerequired to register.

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