by BJW Nashe

When I lived in Santa Cruz, California from 1982-87, I had no idea that this pleasant seaside town was once dubbed “The Murder Capital of the World.” By the time I moved there to attend UC Santa Cruz, where I majored in philosophy (with an unofficial minor in hallucinogens), there was little or no mention of murder. The mass killing had occurred a decade earlier. The only murders I recall were found in existentialist novels by Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I lived a block and half from the sea. We liked to stroll along West Cliff Drive late at night. Everything seemed perfect.

frazz11Only recently did I discover that Santa Cruz was once a murder capital — and I happened upon the information solely by chance. Last month, I was intrigued by a work of fiction by Grace Krilanovich called The Orange Eats Creeps – which I highly recommend, if you’re in the mood for a freestyle gothic tale of teenage-vampire-hobo-junkies misbehaving in the Pacific Northwest. While googling some interviews with the author, I learned that she grew up in Santa Cruz. In one interview, she pointed out that during the early 1970s — before she was even born — her hometown was plagued by an epidemic of serial killings. Sure enough, a quick online search yielded a whole trove of information on these crimes, and the deranged individuals who committed them. Praise the Lord for the bounteous Internet. When it comes to true crime and porn, the World Wide Web really delivers. And it’s fascinating to see how transgressive fiction sometimes bleeds right into true crime.

It may seem odd to realize that one’s college town — the source of so many fond personal memories — has a buried history that includes a bunch of shocking frazz6murders. But this shouldn’t seem odd at all, because that’s how it is here in America. Every town has its own buried past, or occult history, which includes an abundance of scandal and crime. Some towns might be considered virtual plague yards. In California, the occult history runs counter to the official version of the Golden State as a success story characterized by progress, wealth, fame, and innovation. The occult history forces us to confront the dark side of the story, which includes child abuse, misogyny, drugs, murder, madness, greed, and exploitation. We might prefer to forget the truly hideous stuff, and hope it all fades away, but it’s still there, waiting to resurface again and again, like some horrible repressed memory that won’t leave us alone until we deal with it effectively once and for all. Perhaps the true arc of human history, as Professor Norman O. Brown used to explain in his seminars at UC Santa Cruz, resembles nothing so much as a patient’s struggle to overcome a debilitating neurosis.

frazz13For a town such as Santa Cruz, neurosis is one thing. “Murder capital of the world” takes us to another level altogether. The exaggeration is understandable, however, when you get into the details. During the span of just a few years from 1971-73, three individuals were convicted of 23 separate murders in Santa Cruz County. Several other deaths and disappearances remain unsolved to this day. Given the population and demographics of the region, that’s quite a record. With the high-profile crimes of the Manson Family in Los Angeles and the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco still big news at the time, people in Santa Cruz were justifiably terrified when similar atrocities began to afflict their community.

The murders committed by John Linley Frazier, Big Ed Kemper, and Herbert Mullin in the Santa Cruz area never achieved the same level of national attention as the Tate-LaBianca slayings. Yet the Santa Cruz murders were just as shocking as those committed by the hippie death cult down south. Moreover, the Santa Cruz murders were just as relevant to the troubled zeitgeist of the early 1970s, which was marked by extreme civil unrest, rampant drug abuse, profound disillusionment, and the ongoing tragedy of a doomed war in Vietnam. Even more significant, perhaps, is the fact that all three of the Santa Cruz killers were men suffering from mental illness. One of them was preoccupied with targeting women. Clearly, mentally ill criminals and violence against women are problems that continue to wreak havoc in American society, even in sunny California.

We can think of the following three psychopaths as anti-celebrities starring in their own deranged counterpart to SoCal’s Hollywood Babylon. Think of them as “NorCal Gothic,” or “Breaking Bad in Santa Cruz.” Like it or not, their stories belong to us, are part of who we are, and we need to somehow understand them if we ever hope to move beyond the twisted psychology of murder.


John Linley Frazier — The Killer Prophet

frazz14The Santa Cruz murders began on October 19, 1970, when police discovered the bodies of five people at the affluent Soquel home of a well-respected local eye surgeon. Dr. Victor Ohta, his wife Virginia, their two preteen sons, and the doctor’s secretary all had been shot and left floating in the family swimming pool. The victims were blind-folded, and their hands were bound behind their backs with colorful silk scarves. The killer had left a rambling letter behind, which was evidently typed on Dr. Ohta’s typewriter:

“Halloween, 1970. Today World War III will begin, as brought 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.”

The note was signed in a distinctive manner: “Knight of Wands, Knight of Cups, Knight of Pentacles, and Knight of Swords.”

Since several groups of hippies were living nearby, authorities quickly assumed that they were dealing with another Manson-style massacre. In questioning the local long-hairs, however,  cops received a tip that led them to focus on a single suspect — John Linley Frazier. The ensuing investigation painted a distressing picture of a young man driven to random murder by a disastrous combination of mental illness and drug use. The man who penned the “Knight of Wands” note became known as “The Killer Prophet.”

frazzFrazier was considered a “fairly normal guy” growing up in Santa Cruz. A high school drop-out, he worked as an auto mechanic in town, and lived with his wife, who called him a “beautiful person.” As a young man, however, Frazier seems to have developed symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. When he began experimenting with drugs, this condition worsened. His marriage eventually fell apart, and he began espousing increasingly radical environmental views, seasoned with apocalyptic visions and mystical readings of the tarot cards. He quit his job at the auto shop, telling his boss he refused to “contribute to the death cycle of the planet.” Fiercely paranoid, plagued by voices, he didn’t fit in too well with the laid-back lifestyle of the local hippie communes. His intensity frightened the pot-smoking vegetarians seeking harmony together. Frazier tended to tune in, turn on, and freak out. When he took LSD, God told him to do bad things.

Soon isolated from the communes, he began living as a self-styled Aquarian Age hermit, residing in a six-foot-square shack in the woods, not far from Dr. Victor Ohta’s property. Frazier had a good look at Dr. Ohta’s place. Right away, he knew that the owners were “too materialistic.” Once, while the Ohta family was out, Frazier broke into their house to creep around. Before he left, he stole a pair of binoculars.

frazz2Not long after the binocular theft, on October 19, 1970, Frazier returned to the Ohta mansion. The doctor’s wife, Virginia, was the only person home. Brandishing a .38 revolver that he found inside, Frazier bound Virginia’s wrists with a scarf and waited for the rest of the family to come home. Soon, the doctor’s secretary, Dorothy Cadwallader, showed up, along with one of the Ohta boys. Then Dr. Ohta returned home with their second son. On arrival, each of them were tied up at gunpoint. Standing with his captives outside by the pool, Frazier lectured them on the evils of materialism and the ways in which it was destroying the environment. Dr. Ohta, no fan of hippies to begin with, started arguing with Frazier, who promptly shoved him into the pool. While the doctor thrashed around trying to get out of the water, Frazier shot him three times. One by one, Frazer then killed all four of the others — Virginia, Dorothy, then the boys, Derrick, and Taggart. Frazier went back inside the house, typed his “Knight of Wands” note, and set the house ablaze. When firefighters showed up they found the five bodies in the pool, and the typewritten note tucked under the windshield wipers of Dr. Ohta’s Rolls-Royce.

When the “Knight of Wands” murder note was published by the local press, several hippies recognized the bizarre discourse as possibly belonging to the man who had frightened them with his crazy talk — John Linley Frazier. They told the police where to find his shack in the woods. Police were also able to lift Frazier’s fingerprints from the Rolls-Royce and from a beer can found at the crime scene. Frazier was apprehended five days after the murders.

courtroom08_PH3The murder trial was a three-part spectacle. Frazier was first convicted in just two hours. A second trial was held to determine sanity, and then a third trial to determine his sentence. For the sanity trial, Frazier showed up in court with one side of his head completely shaved, and half of his mustache and beard shaved off. The jury was treated to lengthy testimony regarding acid trips and messages from God and ecological tirades. Some thought Frazier was putting on an act to win an insanity plea, but his psychologist thought otherwise. While Frazier never confessed his crimes to the police, he did tell his shrink all about it. He said he had broken into Dr. Ohta’s house when no one was home, spotted what looked like an animal-skin bedspread, and went berserk. “It blew my mind,” the defendant recalled. He never noticed that the animal-skin was fake.

In the end, Frazier was found to be sane, and he received the death sentence. He regarded the gas chamber as preferable to “having fascist pigs working on my head.” Frazier’s preference became irrelevant, however, when the California Supreme Court abolished capital punishment in 1972, and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. Thirty-five years later, “The Killer Prophet” took matters into his own hands. In August of 2009, he committed suicide by hanging himself in his single occupant cell. He was 62 years old.

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


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