by BJW Nashe

In 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 who claimed the lives of at least 23 victims. In Part One of this three-part series, we delved into the deranged mind of mass murderer John Linley Frazier, “The Prophet Killer.” In Part Two, we explore the shocking exploits of Big Ed Kemper, “The Co-ed Killer.” Santa Cruz is cherished in the memories of those of us who have lived there. Like any other American town, however, Santa Cruz has it’s dark side. Big Ed Kemper is about as dark as it gets anywhere in the world of crime.

Big Ed Kemper — The Co-ed Killer

Edmund Kemper was a very bright kid, a near-genius, who unfortunately had to endure a wretched, abusive upbringing. This no doubt helped him to grow up and become a dangerous psychopath who hated women so much he ended up killing eight of them. The twisted Kemper saga is worth recounting in some detail.

ed9Edmund’s parents divorced when he was seven years old. He grew up largely estranged from his father. His mother, Clarnell Kemper, was an alcoholic with borderline personality disorder. A domineering controller with a mean streak, she apparently came from the Bates Motel school of parenting. She raised her son Edmund as if they were playing leading roles in a sequel to the film Psycho. Early on, her mistreatment of Edmund caused him to start acting strangely. This only made her increase the abuse. A vicious cycle was underway. She constantly belittled and humiliated him, blaming him for his father leaving her. She accused him of wanting to rape his sister. She often forced him to sleep in the locked basement of their home. The basement had a trapdoor with a padlock on the outside, so she could control his confinement. Not surprisingly, Edmund’s outlook became morbidly troubled. Preoccupied with fantasies of death and murder, he enjoyed abusing animals and playing with their rotting corpses, which he displayed as trophies in his bedroom closet. He enacted bizarre sexual rituals with his sister’s dolls.

By the time Edmund was a teenager, he was splitting time between his mother’s house in Aptos, CA and his grandparents’ place in North Fork. As a high school freshman, the boy already stood 6’ 4″ tall. One would hope that his grandparents’ home might have provided some welcome relief from “Mommie Dearest.” The problem was that Edmund’s grandmother was nearly as bad — a domineering, verbally abusive woman who only infuriated her already traumatized grandson.

ed5On the morning of August 27, 1965, Kemper snapped. In a fit of psychotic rage following an argument with his grandmother, Edmund shot and killed her as she sat at the kitchen table working on a children’s novel she was writing. Then, fascinated with what he had done, Kemper simply watched her die in a pool of her own blood, staring at her as the life drained out of her eyes. He was just 15 years old.

Realizing how furious his grandfather would be over what he had done, Edmund decided he had only one option: Grandpa also must die. When the elderly man pulled up in the driveway, returning home from the store with a bag of groceries in the back seat, the teenager charged from the house with a .22 caliber handgun and shot him before he had a chance to slam the car door shut. He died instantly.

Edmund called his mother to inform her of what he had done. “Hi, Mom. I just shot Grandma and Grandpa.” Clarnell, apparently not all that shocked by the news, convinced her son to call the police. Edmund ended up at the Atascadero State Mental Facility, where he served less than five years. During his stay at the facility, Kemper’s I.Q. tests showed a very high level of intelligence (scores of 135-145). Using his exceptional smarts, he evidently succeeded in manipulating some of the doctors and facility staff, playing the role of “model patient” in order to obtain their trust. Kemper even worked as an assistant at the hospital, which allowed him access to certain medical records and documentation. Some claim that he was able to memorize the answers to psychological tests to ensure that he received positive scores. Eventually, Kemper was able to convince physicians, attorneys, and various state officials that he was now stable enough as an adult to re-enter society. Kemper was released in 1969, relinquished back into his mother’s custody in Aptos, which is just south of Santa Cruz. Kemper’s juvenile record was sealed.

ed12Fully grown at 6’ 9” and weighing close to 300 pounds, Kemper, now known as “Big Ed,” found himself a free man. He held down a series of menial jobs, eventually gaining a permanent position with the state agency now known as CALTRANS. However, by the start of 1972, his mental state had deteriorated once again. A  psychotic breakdown was imminent. Big Ed wanted a girlfriend, but he had no success in this regard. He grew angry when his mother, who worked as an administrative assistant at UC Santa Cruz, failed to help him meet a female companion among the college students with whom she interacted. Then Mom had the nerve to question his manhood. The house in Aptos was clearly no better than a psychopathology lab. Big Ed’s hatred for his mother turned into hostility toward all women. Even Big Ed’s professional aspirations just led to more aggravation, since he had failed to realize his dream of becoming a police officer. Given what we know of him and his upbringing, it’s probably just as well that he never wore a badge. In any case, his CALTRANS job was not enough to overcome his psychological torments. By early 1972, Big Ed was headed for trouble. He embarked on a horrendous killing spree that included corpse mutilation and necrophilia.

In May of 1972, Big Ed picked up two hitchhiking college coeds, Mary Ann Pesce and Anita Luchessa, both 18 years old. After a tense one-hour journey, he drove them to a secluded area near Alameda, where he smothered and stabbed Pesce to death, before fatally stabbing Luchessa. Big Ed stashed both corpses in the trunk of his car and headed for home. In his room, he took  pornographic photographs of the naked corpses before dismembering them and placing the body parts into plastic bags, which he later abandoned near Loma Prieta Mountain. Kemper had oral sex with Pesce’s severed head before disposing of both girls’ heads in a ravine.

ed4In September of 1972, Big Ed picked up another hitchhiker, this time a 15-year-old named Aiko Koo, who was hoping to catch a ride to her dance class. He kept her captive in the car at gunpoint as he drove to a secluded spot, where he strangled her. He then brought her body back to his mother’s Aptos home, where he had sex with the corpse, dissected and decapitated the body, and buried her head in his mother’s garden. He buried the rest of her remains elsewhere on the property.

In January of 1973, Big Ed picked up 19-year-old Cindy Schall, a student of Cabrillo College in Aptos. He took her to a secluded area, shot her with a .22 caliber pistol, placed her body in the trunk of his car, and drove back to his mother’s house. There, he kept the body in his room overnight until he removed the bullet from her head and decapitated her. He later dissected her body in the bathtub and buried her severed head in his mother’s garden as a kind of sick joke, because, as he later put it, his mother “always wanted people to look up to her.” He discarded the rest of Schall’s remains in a nearby ravine.

ed2In February of 1973, after yet another argument with his mother, Kemper picked up Rosalind Thorpe and Allison Liu, ages 24 and 23, while he was driving around on the UC Santa Cruz campus. Once he had driven away from the university property, he shot them both in the head with his .22 and sped back to Aptos with the two lifeless bodies wrapped in blankets. Safely back at Mom’s house, Big Ed had sex with both of the corpses. There’s no place like home. The next morning, he dismembered and decapitated the bodies, then dumped their remains in San Francisco’s Eden Canyon, where they were found a week later.

Police now were feeling the pressure to apprehend the man known as the “Co-ed Killer.” Ironically, Big Ed liked to hang out at a bar in Santa Cruz called The Jury Room, which was a frequent hang-out for off-duty law enforcement personnel. Kemper was friendly with some of these officers. No doubt he sat and listened to these cops discuss the crimes that he, unbeknownst to them, had been committing.

ed14For some unknown reason, Big Ed decided he was done killing co-eds. He saved “Mommie Dearest” for last. On Good Friday of 1973, fed up with his mother’s endless taunting and complaining, he smashed her in the head with a claw hammer while she slept in her bed. He then cut off her head, used it for oral sex, and placed it on the mantel above the fireplace, so he could use her face as a dartboard. Big Ed also removed his mother’s vocal cords and placed them in the kitchen garbage disposal, which he felt was a suitable end to her “constant bitching.” Apparently, the garbage disposal struggled to break down the tough vocal cord tissue and ejected much of the mess back up into the sink. Big Ed later told authorities that this “seemed appropriate, as much as she’d bitched and screamed and yelled at me over so many years.”

Big Ed wasn’t quite finished yet. His mother’s best friend, 59 year-old Sally Hallert, had also earned a place on his hit list. He phoned Sally, inviting her to come over and dine with him and his mother. When Sally arrived, she was greeted with a violent punch in the gut, which knocked the wind out of her. Then Bid Ed strangled her to death. He promptly fled the scene of his gruesome final crimes, driving east in a hurry.

ed13Kemper drove on through Nevada and Utah, and into Colorado. After hearing news on the radio about his mother’s death, he stopped at a phone booth in Pueblo, Colorado to call the police. On the phone, he confessed to the murder of his mother and Hallert, but the police didn’t take him seriously at first, and told him to get back to them at a later time. Several hours later, Kemper called again and asked to speak to an officer he knew personally. At this time, he made no mention of his crimes as the “Co-ed Killer.” He just waited inside his car until the cops showed up to arrest him for killing his mother and her friend Sally.

Big Ed cooperated fully with the authorities, confessing to all of his crimes, and even escorting officers to the locations of his victims’ remains. At his trial, Big Ed pleaded “not guilty” by reason of insanity. The jury did not agree that he was legally insane, though. In November of 1973 they found Big Ed Kemper guilty of eight counts of murder. He reportedly asked for the death penalty, but since capital punishment was suspended at the time in California, he instead received life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

ed7Authorities at the Correctional Medical Facility in Vacaville have described Kemper as a model prisoner who lives in the general prison population and works at several jobs within the prison. They claim that Big Ed tends to do well in a controlled environment and that he no longer brags about the murders as much as he used to, except during the occasional tours provided to graduating criminal justice students visiting the prison.


Stay tuned for Part Three of “When Santa Cruz Was The Murder Capital of the World”

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

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


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