California’s most prolific serial killer Juan Corona dead at 85
Special to The Union
A serial killer convicted of killing 25 migrant farm workers in Northern California has died.
Juan Corona — whose killing spree in the Yuba-Sutter area made news around the world — died Monday morning of natural causes.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced that Corona, who was 85, died at 8:15 a.m. “in the community” outside of Corcoran State Prison, but would not clarify where exactly.
While 25 bodies — found buried in shallow graves in orchards and along the Feather River — were found, it was believed by many in law enforcement that he may have murdered many more than that.
Four of the slain were never identified.
He’d been imprisoned since his arrest in May 1971 and had been denied parole multiple times, with another suitability hearing scheduled for 2021.
A LOOK BACK
His crimes were from another era, when mass murder was still considered out of step with the American ethos.
He was the man who, they said, put Yuba City on the map.
There were books, TV documentaries and much speculation about how one person could butcher 25 men. One documentary was dubbed “Machete Mangler.”
But in the end, like his crimes, Juan Corona was a mystery.
Corona, who has been imprisoned since his arrest in May 1971, died Monday at the age of 85.
He had been denied parole on eight occasions following his two convictions on 25 counts of murder. The first conviction was tossed out, and he was tried again. And, not surprisingly, he was convicted again and sentenced to 25 life sentences.
In his declining years, Corona was in a wheelchair and was, at times, lucid, although things got worse as severe dementia took its toll. During his 2011 parole hearing, he admitted the killings, in grisly detail.
He had a known history of mental instability, dating back to the mid-1950s when his brother, Natividad, had him committed to DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, where he was diagnosed with “schizophrenic reaction, paranoid type.”
Corona had suffered a mental breakdown in the December 1955 Yuba City flood and believed he was living in a land of ghosts.
He received 23 shock treatments, before being pronounced recovered and released three months later.
Corona was deported to Mexico but returned to the U.S. legally with a green card. In the early 1960s, he became a licensed labor contractor, a job that would accommodate his killing spree.
The most prolific killer in Sutter County history murdered migrant workers without ties to the area, including the four who were never identified.
The bodies of his victims were recovered from crude grave sites discovered in a weeks-long search of orchard lands adjacent to the riverbank. The murders took place between February and May of 1971. The Sheriff’s Department discovered the first body in May and stopped digging in early June.
All but one of his victims had incurred injuries to the head. There were slashing wounds and severe chop wounds with a machete. Most of the wounds typically appeared in horizontal lines across the head and face. Some had stab wounds in the upper left chest that penetrated the heart, lungs or aorta.
All victims were buried in the same general area. All were on their backs with their hands on their head, chest or stomach, with a shirt or other clothing pulled up over the head.
Corona, it was said, had anger issues with gay men. His brother, Natividad, who died in 1973, was gay and was later fingered by Corona’s attorneys as the real killer. The jury in Corona’s second trial didn’t buy it.
When Richard McPherrin found a rectangle-shaped hole on his Sutter County property in the spring of 1971, he assumed it had been dug by farm workers for an outhouse.
The pharmacist and part-time farmer had been working in his recently purchased orchards at night. He filled in the hole by the light of his truck’s headlights and a shovel.
But a week later, a body was discovered in a neighbor’s orchard, and McPherrin began to wonder.
He remembered that the hole he’d seen was 6-feet long and 2 1/2 feet wide.
25 LIFE SENTENCES
A Fairfield jury convicted Corona in 1973 of 25 counts of murder. He received 25 life sentences, though investigators at the time believed there were many more victims whose bodies have never been found. The trial was moved to Solano County because of pretrial publicity.
Corona was first incarcerated at Vacaville’s California Medical Facility, nine miles from Fairfield, because of the heart irregularities he had experienced. On Dec. 6, 1973, he was stabbed 32 times in his cell because he had bumped into a fellow inmate in a corridor and failed to say, “excuse me.”
His conviction was thrown out in 1978 after an appeals court ruled that Corona’s attorney had not provided an adequate defense.
Concord-based attorney Richard Hawk, who was cited 19 times for contempt while acting as Corona’s attorney, had made a “farce and a mockery” of procedure, according to the decision. He had failed to call any witnesses to consider an insanity defense or present a formal case of any kind on his client’s behalf.
Furthermore, Hawk had been more interested in cashing in on a book about the case than he was in defending Corona. Hawk told an interviewer from the Oakland Tribune in late February 1982 that he had become a born-again Christian and admitted that he had taken Corona’s case “because I wanted to be famous.”
In spite of Corona’s inadequate defense, however, the state appeals court noted in its decision to retry him that circumstantial evidence presented at the trial in Solano County did point “overwhelmingly” to the labor contractor’s guilt.
A second jury trial in Hayward commenced in February 1982 and resulted in a second conviction in September of that year.
The 16 regular and alternate jurors in Hayward would ultimately sit through more than seven months of testimony from psychologists, blood test, fingerprint and handwriting experts. The witness lists totaled 175 — mostly for the prosecution.
In addition to reports that jurors stretched, slept, read, worked on crossword puzzles and even whistled during the lengthy proceedings, defense attorneys complained about “hissing” from the jury.
In the end, evidence surrounding Corona’s ledger proved impossible to refute effectively. In September 1982, the jury convicted Corona.
The district attorney who prosecuted Corona, G. Dave Teja, died in 2010. In Tierra Buena, he is remembered with streets named Dave Place and Teja Place.
Teja suspected Corona killed at least 43 men. Resistance on the part of law enforcement authorities in nearby jurisdictions to allow for searches, he said, prevented a genuine accounting of victims.
“They told me, ‘we don’t want you to bring your damn dog-and-pony show up here,’” Teja told the Appeal-Democrat. “They didn’t want us to find anything there, plain and simple.”
A modest plaque installed at the Sutter Cemetery during the first Corona trial memorialized 14 victims whose bodies were not claimed. The word “unknown” appeared four times in the list of names.
The legacy of Corona’s unfortunate victims includes a state law that was initiated locally and passed by state legislators in the wake of the Corona trials. It helps small counties like Sutter pay for prosecution of big cases without bankrupting themselves.
The total bill for the Juan Corona case came to $5 million.
Harold Kruger is a former staff member and Rachel Rosenbaum is a reporter at the Appeal-Democrat in Marysville. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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