When this was ‘The Murder Capital of the World’: Local author explores Santa Cruz’s nightmarish moment
A new book by San Lorenzo Valley author Emerson Murray, ‘The Murder Capital of the World,’ is largely the story of three local but otherwise unrelated men — John Linley Frazier, Herbert Mullin, and Edmund Kemper — each lost in his own depraved psychological pathology. The book is a thorough, unflinching, and deeply frightening oral-history-style account of the times and its crimes.
Fifty years ago, Santa Cruz was living through a nightmare.
A tidal wave of horrifying murders, each one seemingly more senseless and/or grisly than the last, turned the early 1970s into an unprecedented period of madness, nowhere more acutely than in Santa Cruz County.
Amidst the carnage, a San Francisco newspaper reporter, speaking at a press conference with Santa Cruz’s District Attorney at the time Peter Chang, attached a label to Santa Cruz. Perhaps to his regret, Chang agreed with the reporter’s assessment, repeating his coinage: “Right now, we must be the murder capital of the world.”
When it came time to write the full story of that grim and terrifying period, Ben Lomond-based author Emerson Murray knew right away what the title of his book had to be.
“There was no doubt that was going to be the title,” said Murray of his new book “Murder Capital of the World,” a thorough, unflinching, and deeply frightening oral-history-style account of the times and its crimes.
Murray was born in 1973, the exact year the chaos unleashed by the killings reached its peak. He grew up in the San Lorenzo Valley, which was also the home of two of three killers most associated with those times. His dad, in fact, was friends with one of the slain victims.
“It’s sorta strange,” he said, “I never thought of us as a morbid family or anything like that, but I remember my parents, at one Halloween party in particular, talking to other people their age about these crimes. It was always just around.”
But his book is not a personal story. Murray elected to keep himself and his author’s voice out of the book as much as possible. Instead, “Murder” is replete with first-hand accounts drawn from court transcripts, parole hearings, previously published interviews, and his own interviews from many of the surviving witnesses and participants from that period.
The book is largely the story of three local but otherwise unrelated men — John Linley Frazier, Herbert Mullin, and Edmund Kemper — each lost in his own depraved psychological pathology.
But what gives dimension and perspective to this story, especially from the high perch of 50 years later, is the context in which all this was happening:
It was less than a decade after the establishment of UC Santa Cruz, which had fundamentally and rapidly transformed the nature of what was once a sleepy retiree town. Amidst a backdrop of wrenching social change brought about by the end of the 1960s, the growing availability of cheap and often dangerously adulterated street drugs, and a poisonous generation gap spurred by political unrest at home and the Vietnam War abroad, Santa Cruz threatened to devolve into a cultural combat zone between “straights” and “longhairs.”
In Los Angeles, the lurid Manson Family murders had horrified the nation and added fuel to a narrative that the peace-and-love generation had transmogrified into the violence-and-hate generation. In Santa Cruz, law-and-order conservatives became alarmed at the number of “hippies” in town, and coined a term that became a rallying cry against what they saw as the rapid decline of their city: “UTEs,” or “undesirable transient elements.” The counter-culture even embraced the term and Pat Liteky, who became the county’s first hippie supervisor, campaigned wearing a UTEs T-shirt.
It was in this super-charged atmosphere, in the fall of 1970, when John Linley Frazier murdered five people — Dr. Victor Ohta, his wife Virginia, their two pre-teen sons, and Dr. Ohta’s assistant Dorothy Cadwallader — at the Ohtas’ mountain-top home in the Soquel hills.
Frazier was a troubled loner from Felton who began hearing voices instructing him to kill as a result of a head injury suffered in a minor car accident in Scotts Valley. He was arrested just days after the killings, but the incident sent shock waves throughout the community. (The Ohta murders happened to coincide with the highly publicized Manson trial).
Frazier had already been sentenced and convicted in 1972, when Mullin and Kemper separately began a pattern of depraved behavior that was soon to be known in the media as “serial killings.” Mullin, who was convinced he needed to kill to prevent earthquakes, preferred shootings and he terrified the community with seemingly random attacks, killing more than a dozen people, including a priest in a Los Gatos church, four teenaged campers in Henry Cowell State Park, and an elderly man who was gunned down while working in the yard of his home on Santa Cruz’s Westside.
Yet Frazier and Mullin were merely prologue to perhaps the most depraved of the Santa Cruz killers. Edmund Kemper was a giant of a man, standing 6-feet-9 and weighing 280 pounds. He was possessed of an intelligence that took the form of masterful manipulation of other people and he was capable of acts of brutality at the very extremes of recorded human behavior.
As a teenager Kemper had murdered his paternal grandparents, but had been released once turning 21 after serving several years in a facility for the criminally insane in Atascadero. It was while living with his mother in Aptos that Kemper began to pick up young female hitchhikers around Santa Cruz County, some of whom he murdered, dismembered and decapitated. Sometimes, he had sex with their corpses. Sometimes, he even ate their flesh.
“When the psychologists evaluated him,” said Murray of Kemper, “they concluded that the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) had not caught up with him and they didn’t know if it ever would. He was just something like nobody had ever seen before.”
Many who have lived in Santa Cruz County over the last few decades (and many more who have not) have had a passing familiarity with the disturbing stories of Frazier, Mullin, and Kemper. But, Murray was surprised to learn, no one had ever put it all together in one definitive account. In 2019, already steeped in the details of the case, Murray attended a talk in Aptos by former Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff Mickey Aluffi, a central figure in the investigations of the 1970s murders.
“Everyone around us were my parents’ age, in their 70s and 80s,” he said. “And Mickey got up and spoke, and I was like, (people involved in the case) were all slowly losing their memories and they’re going to pass away, and we’re going to lose all this history and all these first-person accounts of these stories.”
So he went to work not only gathering his research materials but reaching out to anyone still around who played a central role in that drama. He eventually talked to Aluffi and other lawyers, local investigators and law-enforcement officials including Terry Medina, Harold Cartwright, Richard Verbrugge, and Chris Cottle; family members of many of the victims, most notably Lark Ohta, the surviving daughter of the slain Ohta family; and even murderer Herbert Mullin who corresponded with Murray by letter through the mail (Incredibly, Mullin and Kemper are still alive, as of August 2021; Frazier died by suicide in the summer of 2009).
Not everyone was eager to cooperate — Kemper never responded to Murray’s many attempts to correspond, but his copious output of confessions and details of his crimes is included and form the dark heart of the book.
The Frazier-Mullin-Kemper killings were not the only murders in Santa Cruz at the time. A few years later, Richard Sommerhalder and David Carpenter, aka “The Trailside Killer” were convicted of murder in the area, as well as a few other one-off cases.
About 15 years after the first wave of serial killings, the iconic midnight movie “The Lost Boys,” filmed in Santa Cruz, made the catchphrase “Murder Capital of the World” a kind of dark joke. But in the early ’70s, nobody was laughing. Murray admitted that gazing into the abyss of human evil took a toll on him.
It made me sick. ... Kemper was very exacting and detailed in his descriptions, and when I read the transcriptions or listened to the tapes of some of these interviews, it was very bothersome. I mean, I have a daughter who is 15 and his third victim was 15. That was very hard.
“It made me sick,” he said. “The psychology of it was very interesting to me. That wasn’t too dark for me. And Frazier and Mullin never talked in too much detail about their crimes. But Kemper was very exacting and detailed in his descriptions, and when I read the transcriptions or listened to the tapes of some of these interviews, it was very bothersome. I mean, I have a daughter who is 15 and his third victim was 15. That was very hard.”
One of Murray’s primary goals is to extend to the victims of these crimes (nearly 30 people were murdered altogether by the three killers) the dignity of a life story. Many of the pages of the 500-plus-page book are devoted to the backgrounds of the lives snuffed out, many of whom were tragically young.
“I was determined to tell some kind of story of each of the victims,” said Murray. “I can’t stand what a lot of books and documentaries try to do, the killer as rock star and the victim is just a number.”
The family of Mullin victim Mary Guilfoyle told Murray that almost 50 years after her death, “we have seen all kinds of books and documentaries and nobody, nobody, has ever called to ask us about Mary.”
Yet underneath it all is the story of a community in turmoil, trying to make sense of the senseless, and grappling with a sense of apocalypse that is familiar — for entirely different reasons — to Santa Cruzans today.
One deputy sheriff in “Murder Capital of the World,” speaking at the time of the murders, talks about the phone calls that law enforcement was fielding at the height of the murder panic: “Mostly,” he said, “they call for reassurance. It’s as if they’re asking: ‘Has the whole world gone mad?’”