DNA Magazine

The Machete Murders Of Sutter County


In the spring of 1971, a psychopath roamed the rural orchards of Northern California. His murderous spree was the worst recorded in the USA to date and introduced the idea of the serial killer to the general population. Despite overwhelmi­ng evidence against the prime suspect, the defense chose to implicate his gay brother. The psycho-sexual anxieties at the heart of the Machete Murders

makes the case chilling still today, writes Jesse Archer.

Sutter County is a two-hour drive northeast of San Francisco. It was here, across the Feather River from Marysville and a few kilometres north of Yuba City that Japanese-American rancher Goro Kagehiro was touring his peach orchard on May 19, 1971, when he came across a large rectangula­r hole dug between two trees. Kagehiro could think of no explanatio­n for the hole and, curious, returned that night to discover it had been filled in. Someone had been trespassin­g and, he surmised, illegally dumping trash on his property.

Responding to Kagehiro’s call, sheriffs deputies arrived the morning of May 20 expecting to unearth rubbish, but instead dug up the freshly slaughtere­d corpse of a thin white man. Forty-year-old Kenneth Whitacre had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest and his skull was slashed, hacked open with a long blade, probably a machete. His body was placed face up, arms above his head and the deep gashes on his hands indicated he had tried to defend himself. “Homosexual literature” was found in his pocket and his penis was left exposed. Soon recognised as a local drifter, authoritie­s suspected Whiteacre’s violent murder was likely an unsolvable one-off incident. In fact, it was the tip of the iceberg.

America was quickly losing any illusions of innocence during this turbulent time in its history. The Tate-LaBianca murders by the Charles Manson “Family” in late 1969 terrified the public, making them fear their safety inside their own homes. Unarmed students at Kent State were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard in 1970, threatenin­g every citizen’s right to freely protest without being gunned down by their government. And, in 1971, Sutter County’s Machete Murderer was about to introduce America to a homicidal spree so ghastly and so prolific that it would usher the term “serial killer” into the vernacular.

Just four days following the discovery of Whiteacre’s hacked remains, workers on a tractor in the adjoining Sullivan Ranch came across an area where the ground appeared to sink in the shape of a grave. Deputies responded and were horrified to dig up yet another male corpse, also brutally slashed about the head and neck. Before they could identify the body as another itinerant labourer, Charles Fleming, they had found yet another body. Then, in a weedy area along the banks of the Feather River, deputies happened upon what they would soon refer to as “Graveyard Alley”. As the body count rose, deputies took bets as to the final number. None of their guesses even came close, because deeper in the woods alongside a prune orchard, the gruesome search yielded even more graves. Diggers were overcome by the sheer quantity of gore and stench of hacked up flesh, blood and mud. Body parts were accidental­ly cut off with the sharp end of shovels, others were so decomposed they came out of the earth falling to pieces like an overcooked turkey.

When the search ended on June 4, they had the corpses of 25 men, furiously killed at the pace of an estimated one every two days. No body had been in the ground longer than six to eight weeks. One victim had been shot in the head, 24 had machete-type hacking injuries about the head, face or upper neck and 18 had stab wounds. The hacking seemed

to come first and the stabbing later, almost as punctuatio­n. In ritualisti­c fashion, all men were buried on their backs, arms stretched above their heads with two slashes across the back of their skulls in the form of a cross. Even more disturbing was the continual suggestion of sexual molestatio­n. With many of the victims, the killer had exposed their penises, yanked their trousers down to the ankles or left them entirely nude from the waist down. Unfortunat­ely, evidence of sodomy was never properly investigat­ed by a medical examiner and has since been left to rumour and speculatio­n. “Most of the bodies were too far gone for anyone to tell if there had been rape or not,” said Eric Grunder, a former reporter for Marysville’s Appeal-Democrat, in 2010. This was also a rural county in an era before DNA testing or advanced forensic techniques.

In a macabre twist, the first lead in the nation’s worst case of mass murder to-date came via receipts for meat. In the soil a few inches above the third body unearthed, that of Melford Sample, deputies found pink receipts for spare ribs, tongue and other items from a local meat market signed by Juan V Corona. Later, near another grave, crumpled Bank Of America deposit slips also bore the name and address of Juan Corona. Another of the identified victims, farm worker John Henry Jackson, was last seen riding in Corona’s pickup truck. This would not have been unusual. Thirty seven-year-old Juan Corona was a local licensed contractor who recruited workers, often from day-haul pickup points. He was responsibl­e for hiring cheap labour for the thinning and harvesting seasons of several area fruit ranches and his many contracts included that of Goro Kagehiro’s orchard, and

The killer, he argued, had played the “masochist” role and furthermor­e that bottoms, especially when Mexican, could often kill their sex partners in a post-coital, shame-filled homicidal rage.

also the orchard where he housed his workers in a bunkhouse and where 24 of the 25 victims were found – Sullivan Ranch.

Juan Corona was born in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, in 1934. At age 16, he entered the USA illegally as a migrant worker and made his way to the Yuba City/Marysville region and found work on a ranch near his gay half-brother, Natividad, who was 11 years his senior and had been living in Marysville for many years. In December 1955, the Yuba and Feather Rivers flooded, broke the levee and killed 38 people. Following this tragedy, Juan had a psychotic episode and believed he was living in a land of ghosts. Natividad had his half-brother committed to DeWitt State Hospital in January 1956 where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophre­nia, given 23 electrosho­ck treatments over the course of three months, pronounced cured and deported back to Mexico.

Juan soon returned to the US, this time with a green card, and married his second wife, Gloria, with whom he fathered four girls. Juan was understood to be a “mean SOB” who was homophobic and had a violent reaction to discoverin­g Natividad was gay. He was also known have beaten his wife and to have a hairtrigge­r temper, including one fit so violent he had to be tied down with ropes. To curb this behaviour, he stopped drinking alcohol and intensifie­d his devotion to God, attending mass at Yuba City’s St Isadore Catholic Church three times a week. By 1962, he had risen from mere migrant worker to licensed labour contractor.

Natividad had also done well for himself. By this time, he was proprietor of the Guadalajar­a Café in Marysville. Now called the Silver >>

>> Dollar Saloon, the landmark is considered haunted due to an incident that happened there not long after midnight on February 25, 1970. That was the night a patron of the Guadalajar­a Café named José Romero Raya, was found savagely slashed, bleeding and left for dead in the men’s room. His lips were cut off, his skull split in three places and he was nearly entirely scalped. Natividad called the police and Raya, miraculous­ly, survived the attack. Although Natividad and Juan were both at the café that night, Raya was attacked from behind and could not positively identify his assailant. Permanentl­y disfigured and suffering brain damage, Raya sued the Guadalajar­a Café for damages and won a $250,000 judgment. To avoid paying, Natividad sold the café, disposed of all his property and fled back to Mexico with a one-way ticket.

Sixteen months after the near-scalping, the meat receipts in Juan Corona’s name were found in the shallow grave of Melford Sample. Sutter County Sheriff Whitaker remembered that Juan was associated with the assault at the Guadalajar­a Café. Although Juan Corona did not drink, he depended on the steady stream of labourers who frequented his brother’s bar and loitered in area parks.

The victims were, for the most part, worn out itinerant workers aged 40 to 68. Known as “fruit tramps”, they worked in fits and starts, as little or as often as they liked, picking fruit for a few hours or a few days before hitting the road or drinking themselves into a stupor. A ready supply of casual labour was necessary for agribusine­ss in those days, and tramps liked their independen­ce. They were adventures­ome, often alcoholic drifters and many could only later be identified through arrest records for vagrancy, loitering or petty crimes. Given their rootless way of life and lack of family to miss them, they proved to be easy pickings for a serial killer. Of the 25 victims, 14 bodies were never claimed by family and four are still known only as John Doe.

Believing they already had enough evidence to convict, deputies arrested Juan Corona on the morning of May 26, 1971, when the body count had hit ten. Their search of his home and the Sullivan Ranch uncovered a number of potentiall­y damning items including a posthole digger, stained wooden club, meat cleaver, hatchet, bloodstain­ed rubber boots, a bag of bullets, and, in a leather zippered bag beneath the driver side of his bloodied Chevrolet van, a bolo machete with an 46cm blade. They also found a ledger which, beginning on page 50, listed 34 names with dates. During the subsequent trials, the prosecutio­n alleged this was a record of the names and kill dates of Corona’s victims. Seven names turned out to be names of the victims, and at the top of the list, written as “José Romero R.”, was the survivor of the Guadalajar­a Café machete mutilation.

All of this circumstan­tial evidence created a convincing web of guilt. Despite this, they had no eyewitness­es. Nobody actually saw Corona kill anyone; nobody saw him bury anyone. Officials had not spent a lot of time surveillin­g his movements before his arrest and subsequent public condemnati­on. Investigat­ive procedure wasn’t streamline­d and the scope of the case had completely overwhelme­d the county’s resources. Families of lost loved ones jammed the phones lines looking for missing relatives while press, reporters and morbid tourists swarmed the town and trespassed onto crime scenes in cars, helicopter­s and even boats along the Feather River. A greedy media and public hungry for an answer were hastily given one by inexperien­ced authoritie­s who claimed, before Corona was given the right to a fair trial, that they had the Machete Murderer in custody.

As reporter Eric Grunder would say 40 years later, “It wasn’t exactly CSI. It was a small-town sheriff ’s department with a case that would have challenged the best department­s anywhere.” This is a considerab­le understate­ment. Unequipped to deal with the scope of the biggest murder case in the nation’s history, the sheriff ’s department bungled the investigat­ion every step of the way. Sutter County deputies invented a numbering system for the bodies and graves which confused everyone, including Sutter County deputies. Their confusion extended to mortuary workers and autopsy doctors. Meanwhile, lopped off fingers from the deceased were send to Sacramento for testing, but they were misnumbere­d as well. Photograph­s were mislabelle­d or not labelled. No soil samples were taken from the posthole digger to be compared with the dirt from the grave sites. Blood tests were delayed for over a year and little physical evidence was dusted for fingerprin­ts before being contaminat­ed by authoritie­s: not the Corona family car, not the wallet left open on top of victim Paul Allen’s chest or the cigarette pack found near the grave with the receipts. Not even the receipts were fingerprin­ted. Were they carelessly dropped by Juan Corona himself, or planted after the fact to frame him?

Corona denied writing the list of names in what came to be known as the “death ledger”, but deputies never tested the ledger, nor its pages, for fingerprin­ts to positively identify Corona or to implicate someone else. The deputies had simply assumed that since it was taken from Corona’s home office, this was proof enough he had written down those names and dates. The confusion, mishandlin­g of evidence, and general incompeten­ce would make it hard to convince a jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt – and all of it pissed off the judge.

There were certainly more bodies as well, but the department was already swamped and due to the massive national exposure, they encountere­d resistance from neighborin­g law enforcemen­t. Nobody wanted the attention involved with the discovery of still more bodies. The District Attorney at the time, Dave Teja, believed there were at least 43 victims, but sheriffs in two other counties told him, “We don’t want you to bring your damn dog-and-pony show up here.” Teja, who died in 2010, was certain there were more shallow graves in the walnut orchards of Butte County and, early in the case, authoritie­s in Tehama County told him about a body found by a fisherman the year before which had all the tell-tale signs of the machete murderer. When questioned in 2011 about the failure to link this murder to the Corona case, or to continue searching for more bodies, former Sheriff Whitaker said, “We had Corona on 25 counts. It didn’t make sense to bring in bodies from another jurisdicti­on.”

During this time, in a separate case, the state of California ruled the death penalty unconstitu­tional and banned it, so they would not be prosecutin­g Corona as a capital case. And while the prosecutio­n had public opinion in their favour, compiled over 1,000 pieces of evidence and fielded over 100 witnesses… they still had no irrefutabl­e lynchpin and, importantl­y, no motive. Why would Juan Corona want to kill these men? He would have had regular access to fruit tramps, but he hired mostly Mexican crews. All the victims of the Machete Murderer had been white, with the exception of two blacks and one NativeAmer­ican.

There has long been hearsay regarding potential motive, but it never entered into trial. Mexican-American author Victor Villaseñor, in Beyond The Rain Of Gold, claims he consoled Juan Corona’s priest when he tearfully explained, “Juan would come to confession and say he wanted God to forgive him because he’d taken care of another American. I didn’t understand why God needed to forgive him for taking care of Americans, I thought he was taking them in and feeding them. It wasn’t until he was arrested that I finally understood.” Possibly, Corona believed he was doing God’s work. Villaseñor believes Corona found it unfair his Mexican workers couldn’t get financial assistance during the off-season, but local drunks could get social security. “It drove him crazy with rage.”

Discrimina­tion may have been a motive, or maybe he was just a psychopath hacking down the lowest hanging fruit. There was always that 1956 three-month stint in the psychiatri­c ward with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophre­nia. Originally, Corona was provided with a public defender, Roy Van den Heuvel, who hired prominent psychiatri­sts to evaluate him. Then, perhaps out of pride, Corona’s Mexican family and wife Gloria refused to allow a plea of insanity. Instead they engaged a private attorney, Richard Hawk, who fired the psychiatri­sts, dismissed their findings, didn’t read Corona’s medical history report and sued county officials for $350,000 with claims they had mishandled evidence and slandered Corona’s name.

Spying the potential profits from the crime of the century, Richard Hawk offered his services in exchange for exclusive book, TV and movie rights to “The Juan Corona Story”. Instead of seeking a defense of insanity, he made friends with the press and relied on the jury not being able to convict without reasonable doubt. And the reasonable doubt he was about to provide would tie directly into the unsavory sexual element of the slayings.

The gay community had begun to assert itself by 1971 and national attention on the sadistic homosexual overtones of these crimes did no favours for the nascent rights movement. Worse still, even before the Machete Murderer had slashed his last victim, his savage psychosexu­al exploits were being outdone. In Houston, Dean Corll was torturing, raping and murdering at minimum 28 young men and boys. John Wayne Gacy would soon do the same to at least 33 young men and boys, most of whom he buried in the crawl spaces beneath his Chicago home. Serial killers occur in all cultures, races, genders and sexual orientatio­ns; there is no demographi­c predictor, but these crimes did nothing to stem popular imaginatio­n of the homosexual as a sadistic, psychopath­ic, homicidal sexual predator. Corona’s defense relied almost exclusivel­y on this prejudice.

Instead of pleading insanity, Hawk’s defense rested on the suspicion that homosexual desire inspired the crimes. He explained to the jury that the victims had been exposed in such a way as to indicate that they had played the “male” role in gay sex. The killer, he argued, had played the “masochist” role and furthermor­e that bottoms, especially when Mexican, could often kill their sex partners in a post-coital, shame-filled homicidal rage. Hawk gleaned this insight, apparently, from a book and contended the killer was a homosexual who had framed his client. Juan Corona was a church-going family man and father of four who was, as he put it, “hopelessly heterosexu­al” and therefore had no reason to kill. In this way, Hawk was implicatin­g Juan’s half-brother Natividad, a known homosexual, who must be a maniacal killing machine – even though he was living in Mexico during the time of the murders.

Corona’s four daughters were there throughout the trial and his sister had travelled from Mexico to attend. After 113 witnesses and three months of testimony, the prosecutio­n rested its case. Richard Hawk was so confident that the jury would acquit based on reasonable doubt that he failed to put even one witness on the stand, not even the accused. Hawk was more concerned with his own publicity, glad handing the press, having drinks with reporters and, of course, there was that small matter of his conflict of interest – nobody wants to read the story of an innocent man. “The Juan Corona Story” would sell better with a conviction. Between the bizarre strategy of Hawk and the poor handling of the investigat­ion and evidence by Sutter County deputies, it seemed both sides were even. However, after 46 hours of deliberati­on, the jury returned their verdict finding Juan Corona guilty on all 25 counts of first-degree murder. It was the biggest murder conviction in American history.

There are at least seven books on the Corona case, but the definitive book on the crimes and first trial is Tracy Kidder’s The Road To Yuba City: Journey Into The Juan Corona Murders (1974), which looks into other suspects and even suggests two killers may have been involved. To better understand a fruit tramp’s way of life and vulnerabil­ities, Kidder rode in boxcars and picked fruit alongside itinerant >>

>> labourers. He met with families of the victims, interviewe­d Juan Corona in prison and even trekked to Mexico to speak with Natividad. Interestin­gly, Kidder, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for another work, grew so unhappy with his writing in this, his first book, that he bought the rights and has blocked its reprint. The Road To Yuba City is now a prized collector’s item for true-crime enthusiast­s.

As it turned out, Richard Hawk’s book, released just after the trial in 1973 as Burden Of Proof (its author is listed Ed Cray, an attorney who sat beside Hawk in the trial), didn’t sell well. Hawk was later cited 19 times for contempt while acting as Corona’s attorney including violating gag orders when he freely offered trial informatio­n to the media, including to author Tracy Kidder. In 1982, Hawk admitted to the Oakland Tribune that he only took Corona’s case because he wanted to be famous – and also that he had since become a born-again Christian. Hawk never became famous, but because he had made a “farce and a mockery” of the procedure with his antics, Corona’s conviction was overturned on appeal and he was granted a second trial.

While awaiting this appeal, Corona was incarcerat­ed in Vacaville, California, where he bumped into a fellow prisoner and neglected to say, “Excuse me.” For this offence, he was set upon inside his cell by four inmates who proceeded to stab him 32 times with a shiv. Corona nearly died and ended up losing his left eye in the resulting three-hour surgery. His wife Gloria divorced him the following year, in 1974.

In 1982, Corona’s second trial finally began. This time, the prosecutio­n claimed they had a star witness in a Mexican consular official, Jesus Rodriguez-Navarro, who had visited Corona in prison. He testified that Corona confessed to him, saying, “Yes, I did it, but I’m a sick man and can’t be judged by the standards of other men.” Corona’s defense argued this was not only a lie, but that the state had bought his testimony. The courtroom gasped as the defense read out the thousands of dollars spent on deluxe hotel rooms, dinners, services and flights paid for with public funds to bring Rodriguez-Navarro four times to California for the trial.

This time around, Juan Corona did take the stand. Through an interprete­r, he told the court he had nothing to do with the murders. But under arduous cross-examinatio­n, he floundered. According to the Gadsden Times, “His good eye turned to the floor, the ceiling or his Spanish interprete­r when he considered how to respond or when he tried to remember details from a decade ago.” There was one

In ritualisti­c fashion, the men were buried with their arms stretched above their heads and two slashes across the back of their skulls. Even more disturbing was the continual suggestion of sexual molestatio­n.

crucial thing about which Corona was now newly convinced – he had seen his brother Natividad in Marysville in May of 1971. This starkly contrasted a 1973 prison interview in which he stated that during the time of the murders, “My brother wasn’t even in this area. He was in Mexico.” And that “Hawk only accused my brother because he didn’t help to pay him.” By 1982, however, he was ready to throw Natividad under the bus. Not that it much mattered to his half-brother – Natividad had since died in Mexico of syphilis and diabetes.

Corona’s new and improved defense team still, despite his medical history and diagnosis, refused to enter a plea of insanity. Instead, exactly as ten years before, they blamed his gay, now dead, half-brother who was living in Mexico at the time of the murders. They went so far as to question the veracity of Natividad’s death certificat­e. The New York Times recorded defense lawyer Terence Hallinan’s opening statement on March 17, 1982. “We have to look for a motive in these killings. They were done in a maniac rage that was occasional and spasmodic. The only person who fits the profile is Natividad, an active, aggressive homosexual.’’

The second trial lasted seven months, with testimony from more than 175 witnesses and it cost the state of California almost five million dollars. Again, the jur y returned a verdict of guilty on all counts and Juan Corona was once again sentenced, by the same judge, to 25 consecutiv­e life sentences. Despite a lack of clear motive, the jury foreman would tell the press that the most incriminat­ing piece of evidence had been the so-called “death ledger” for which the defendant had “no reasonable explanatio­n.”

In the intervenin­g years, Corona always maintained his innocence, but he did state at one parole hearing, “Those people had nothing to live for. They were all ready to go on to the next life.” While not quite a confession, it proved he had pre-conceived judgments about the victims.

Then, at his seventh parole hearing in 2011, with dementia either lowering his guard or confusing him, he did surprising­ly confess and, without any sign of remorse, offer a motive: “They were trespassin­g in the orchards.”

Most agree that more victims still lie in shallow graves among the orchards of Colusa, Tehama and Butte counties. In Kings County, Juan Corona lives confined in the same prison of another high-profile serial killer born the same year, Charles Manson. Records indicate the Machete Murderer has been discipline­d during his incarcerat­ion for carrying scissors, taping an X-acto blade to his toothbrush and that, until this day, he “remains fascinated by knives”.

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 ??  ?? A school bus owned by Juan Corona that was used to transport seasonal workers.
A school bus owned by Juan Corona that was used to transport seasonal workers.
 ??  ??                                                                                                                                                                 Guadalajar­a Cafe, the Silver Dollar Saloon
Guadalajar­a Cafe, the Silver Dollar Saloon
 ??  ?? A handcuffed Juan Corona waves to reporters following his arrest.
A handcuffed Juan Corona waves to reporters following his arrest.
 ??  ?? An artist’s impression of Corona during his courtroom trial.
An artist’s impression of Corona during his courtroom trial.
 ??  ?? Supporters organised a                                                    Corona’s legal defense.
Supporters organised a Corona’s legal defense.
 ??  ?? Juan Corona in prison, 2006.
Juan Corona in prison, 2006.

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