by BJW Nashe

During the early 1970s, the charming seaside town of Santa Cruz, California was plagued by a series of murders. The main culprits were a trio of serial killers that claimed the lives of at least 32 victims. Part One of this three-part series delved into the deranged mind of John Linley Frazier, “The Killer Prophet.” Part Two detailed the shocking exploits of Big Ed Kemper, “The Co-ed Killer.” In Part Three, we take a look at the deadliest of the trio, Herbert Mullin. For those of us who have lived there at one time or another, Santa Cruz occupies a cherished place in our memories. Like all American towns, however, Santa Cruz has its dark side. Herbert Mullin’s crime spree was an extreme example of random, senseless violence.


Herbert Mullin

During Big Ed Kemper’s deadly crime spree, another serial killer named Herbert Mullin was arrested for his own psychotic rampage, which was even more deadly than Big Ed’s. Mullin ended up claiming the lives of 13 victims. With all of this carnage, no wonder Santa Cruz District Attorney Peter Chang was quoted at a press conference saying, “We must be the murder capital of the world right now.” Other Santa Cruz residents preferred the term “Murderville, USA.”

erb3Born in Salinas in 1947, Herbert Mullin grew up in the town of Felton, which is located in the mountains just ten miles east of Santa Cruz. The son of a WWII veteran, Mullin seemed to have a “normal” childhood, even though his family was very religious. Mullin was described as a bright and sensitive boy who played sports, and was even voted “most likely to succeed” in high school. How did he turn into a raging serial killer in his mid-thirties?

A key event appears to have been the tragic death of a dear friend. During the summer following his high school graduation, Mullin’s buddy, Dean Richardson, was killed in an auto accident. This seemed to trigger some predisposition to mental illness in Mullin. He built a shrine to his dead friend in his bedroom. He began to dwell obsessively on religious concepts such as reincarnation, as well as the threat of impending natural disasters. Drugs began playing a significant role in Mullin’s life. Massive doses of LSD certainly did nothing to help his fragile mental state. He abruptly shaved his head. He took to burning his penis with lit cigarettes. He told his girlfriend he was worried that he might be “turning gay.” He had the words “LEGALIZE ACID” tattooed on his stomach. He would frequently act up on the street, making a spectacle of himself in public. At one point, he was imitating every move made by his brother-in-law. This behavior alarmed his family and friends, so they tried to get him some help. In 1969, Mullin was hospitalized and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He was in and out of mental institutions for the remainder of his time as a free man.

Tragically, Mullin was quite aware that something was dreadfully wrong. He fiendishly tried to determine the exact nature of the problem, struggling to figure out what had sabotaged his mind. He blamed his father for being too sexually uptight, and later accused Dad of telepathically commanding him to kill. He blamed the drugs he took for messing up his brain, and the drug dealers who sold dope to him. He blamed the hippies for brainwashing him into being a conscientious objector. He entered drug treatment centers, and tried outpatient clinics for the mentally ill, but he didn’t stick with anything. He later even attended Bible study meetings, but made the Christians uneasy when he declared, “Satan gets into people and makes them do things they don’t want to do.”

erbNothing seemed to help Herbert Mullin. He kept complaining that he heard voices, and he adopted various personas, re-inventing himself in such guises as a yoga disciple, amateur boxer, hippie, and a sombrero-wearing Mexican. He could be a counter-culture leftist one night, and wake up on the very next morning as an ultra-conservative John Bircher. Eventually, the voices in his head told him to take on the role of a serial killer.

On October 13, 1972, while driving around near Felton, Mullin spotted a homeless man walking along a quiet stretch of road. Mullin pulled over and lifted the hood of his car, feigning car trouble. When the homeless man approached to offer assistance, Mullin pulled out a baseball bat and bludgeoned him to death. The man’s body was found a few days later.

Mullin was just getting started. He picked up a young hitchhiker in Santa Cruz named Mary Guilfoyle and stabbed her to death, then sliced her body open and pulled out her organs. Mullin later claimed that the dissection was inspired by Michelangelo’s physiological studies. Guilfoyle’s body was not discovered until February of the next year.

On November 2, Mullin had been boozing it up, perhaps in an attempt to make the voices stop. It didn’t work. Mullin strolled into St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Los Gatos. When he noticed a priest, Father Henri Tomei, inside one of the confessional booths, Mullin’s voices told him he better go on inside. He quickly pulled out a knife and stabbed the priest to death. Father Tomei, a former hero of the French Resistance during WWII, was a local leader in the community. His senseless death horrified the public, leading to rumors of a Satanic cult in the area.

Mullin rang in the new year on January 25, 1973 by shooting a drug-dealing acquaintance named Jim Gianera and his wife in the couple’s Santa Cruz home. He repeatedly stabbed them even after they had expired from gunshot wounds. Then Mullin promptly left the crime scene and headed straight to the house of another acquaintance named Kathy Francis. He shot her and both of her two young sons to death, again stabbing his victims multiple times long after they had stopped breathing.

erb9On February 10, the killing continued when Mullin stumbled upon four teenaged boys camping in Henry Cowell State Park. The boys naively invited Mullin into their large tent, who rewarded their hospitality by ordering them to pack up and leave because they were “defacing public property.” When the boys refused to take him seriously, he slaughtered them in a blaze of gunfire. Their bullet-riddled corpses were discovered inside the blood-stained tent a week later. By that time, Mullin had already struck again. He was in a frenzy, killing faster than a typical homicide investigation could keep up with. But his luck was running out.

On February 13, Mullin was driving around at 8 A.M. when he noticed a man puttering around outside in his driveway. Mullin had no idea that this man, Fred Perez, was a retired prize-fighter. Mullin knew nothing about him at all. But the voices told him to pull over and shoot the man for no reason. A neighbor just happened to witness Perez’s murder, though, and Mullin was arrested a short distance away. His murder spree was finally finished, with this last senseless shooting.

erb7Mullin’s behavior following his arrest was strange, to say the least. During the initial police interrogation, he responded to questions by shouting, “Silence!” Mullin did not hesitate to confess to his crimes, but he gave outlandish explanations for why he committed them. He claimed that he had killed his victims in order to stop a huge earthquake from devastating California. He said that the voices who spoke to him had ordered him to kill. He stated that the boys in the tent had telepathically granted him permission to take their lives. He claimed the homeless man he bludgeoned to death on the side of the road looked like Jonah from the Bible. Often, Mullin simply ranted and raved to authorities. He spent considerable time scribbling his deranged theories down on paper.

The Santa Cruz County District Attorney charged Mullin with 10 murders (the other three took place in other counties, and were dealt with separately). His trial began on July 30, 1973. Since Mullin had confessed to  the crimes, the proceedings were focused on whether he was sane and legally culpable for his actions. The prosecutor highlighted the fact that Mullin had shown premeditation during some of his crimes, and had tried to cover his tracks. The defense argued that the defendant had a history of mental illness, and had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

The trial had a freak show quality that may have grown tiresome for both the judge and the jury. Mullin first tried to simply plead guilty, which the judge refused. Mullin insulted and rejected his lawyer, insisting on representing himself. Psychiatrists were consulted and they unequivocally stated that Mullin was a paranoid schizophrenic. Eventually, a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity was entered. It wasn’t difficult to see that Mullin was stark raving mad. The trial, however, would consist of the painstaking process of determining whether Mullin was legally insane at the time of the crimes.

erb8Mullin’s attorney went to great lengths to demonstrate that his client had been out of his mind for years. The jury heard hours of testimony pertaining to Mullin’s psychosis. They heard about his peculiar notion that his family had conspired to hide bisexuality from him as a child. They heard about Mullin’s perverse belief that he should have enjoyed the privilege, starting at age six, of having orgasms while being pleasured by his own family members. They heard about the acid trips, the voices, the pending natural disasters, the philosophical theories concerning sacrifice and reincarnation. All of this combined to form a potent cocktail of insanity.

Mullin ended up taking the stand in his own defense. He preached to the courtroom that there was a grand conspiracy underway to prevent him from becoming “too powerful in his next life.” This fit in with his fixation on reincarnation. Mullin also argued that since Albert Einstein died on his birthday, he, Herbert Mullin, was therefore the “designated leader” of his generation. As for the victims of his rampage, Mullin claimed that they had consented to their deaths. “Every homosapien communicates telepathically,” he told the court, adding that “it’s just not accepted socially.”

Somehow, in August of 1973, the jury muddled through all of this and reached a verdict. They actually found Mullin to be sane — which is a bit hard to believe, but in this kind of trial, anything seems possible. They also declared him guilty of first-degree murder of two of his victims, because the crimes were premeditated. For the other eight charges, Mullin was found guilty of second-degree murder because the killings were deemed more impulsive.

Herbert Mullin was sentenced to life in prison, and will not be eligible for parole until 2025. Now 78 years old, he is incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison, in Ione, California.


The Mentally Ill Elephant in the Room

The Santa Cruz murders have a personal significance for those of us who have lived there — but that’s our problem. Others might view the murders in a historical light. The crimes are indicative of a crazy time in California, when the great tidal wave of Sixties idealism and Summer of Love excess finally crashed on the shores of madness and disillusionment. No surprise that homicide would figure prominently in this social implosion.

erb2It would be a mistake to treat the Santa Cruz murders purely as the product of a uniquely troubled time, however. If only we could dismiss them as a fluke or an aberration. In fact, the Santa Cruz crimes are part of a nationwide trend that has continued to the present day. The crimes of Linley, Kemper, and Mullin resonate deeply with us, because we keep seeing similar tragedies unfold, no matter what the era. Perhaps most relevant is the fact that all three of these men suffered from severe mental illness. They may have been declared legally sane in court, but few of us would deny that severe psychological problems played a key role in their homicidal mayhem. In layman’s terms, they were each stark raving mad, and the warning signs were on full display well before any of them started killing people. To be fair, most mentally ill people do not pose any threat of violence to the community. Those who do should be among the easiest criminals to deter, though, because their problems are highly visible, and easily detected. Yet we have continued to slash funding for mental health services at the federal, state, and local levels. Meanwhile, we are shocked whenever another mentally ill person goes on the rampage — at Virginia Tech, in Tucson, Arizona, in Aurora, Colorado, in Newtown, Connecticut, and most recently in Washington, D.C. If we were committed to making mental health a priority in our communities, we might be able to prevent a majority of these tragic events from shattering the lives of so many Americans.


Click below to view Parts One and Two of “When Santa Cruz Was The Murder Capital of the World”

When Santa Cruz Was “The Murder Capital of the World”, Part One

When Santa Cruz Was “The Murder Capital of the Wolrd”, Part Two


2 Responses to When Santa Cruz Was ‘The Murder Capital of the World,’ Part Three

  1. liselasalle says:

    The mentally ill elephant in a room that happens to be a court of law. Why on earth would they spend time and money to put him on trial instead of alloting funds to treat him? Prison is not where Mullin belongs. The criminally insanes judged by the criminally inane.

    But I have to ask what was in the water in Santa Cruz. The stars seemed to have lined up for that one.

    As usual, I am in awe of your writing. You take us on a roller coaster ride every time. And we come back for more.

  2. Rick says:

    Well done, BJW! I thoroughly enjoyed your latest post on the Santa Cruz murder rampages of the late 60’s to early 70’s. It must have been a horrifying time for the residents.

    On a separate note, do you think the 49ers can beat the Seahawks this weekend? It should be a very close game.

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