True crime blogger looks for connections between Juan Corona and his victims | TheUnion.com
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True crime blogger looks for connections between Juan Corona and his victims

Rachel Rosenbaum
Special to The Union
Juan Corona, in this Jan. 23, 1987 file photo, listens during a parole hearing in Soledad. California State Prison-Corcoran inmate Corona, 85, died of natural causes on Monday, March 4, 2019, at an outside hospital. Corona was serving 25 concurrent life sentences for 25 counts of first-degree murder. His victims were all farm workers. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
AP | AP

Editor’s Note: In 2010, Marysville Appeal-Democrat staff members produced an in-depth retrospective of the Juan Corona saga published over three days. Nearly 40 years have passed since the day a Sutter County Sheriff’s deputy dug into what he thought would be an illegal garbage dump on a ranch off Larkin Road – and came up with a corpse.

The discovery kicked off searches that would eventually uncover 24 more bodies. Yuba City resident and soon-to-be accused killer Juan Corona would be a household name for years … For the rest of this story and others, go to http://www.appealdemocrat.com and click into the “Juan Corona Stories” capsule near the top of the home page.

Anna Hill’s latest true crime project was looking for a connection between Oklahoman John M. Spain and Sutter County’s serial killer Juan Corona.

Corona died Monday of natural causes at age 85 at a hospital outside of Corcoran State Prison. He’d been imprisoned since his arrest in May 1971.

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 Corona murdered many more than that. Four of the slain were never identified. Corona targeted migrant workers with no ties to the area.

Spain, a heavy drinker, and his ex-wife divorced and he headed out to California in search of work in the orchards. His last known contact with his family was an April 1971 letter he sent to a daughter, informing her that he was staying at the Twin Cities Rescue Mission and that he planned to return soon to see his new grandchildren. They never heard from him again.

Spain’s remaining family, generations later, found Hill’s blog, “The Deviation Diaries,” and reached out in search of answers. While Spain’s case seems promising, her goal isn’t to solve a case; rather, she describes herself as a resource.

“I don’t like to give false hope,” Hill said Tuesday.

For the last two years, she’s been researching and compiling information on the Corona case partly because she was fascinated, but also because there was no central location for all pertinent information. She also realized that not much was documented about the victims – she hoped to change that.

Hill put her own money and time into hunting down and poring over newspaper archives, Corona’s ledger – which listed 34 names, dates and places, four of which were confirmed victims – court documents, other true crime blogs, and novels (Tracy Kidder’s “The Road to Yuba City: A Journey into the Juan Corona Murders” is her favorite). She’s spoken to about a half-dozen distant family members or friends of victims.

“I want to be the voice for the voiceless because they never had a say-so in the matter,” she said. “I don’t understand how a mass murder happens and virtually no one cares.”

Her work hasn’t come without challenges. For starters, the murders occurred nearly 50 years ago and many archives are not digitized. Most of the victims were from out of town and had strained relations with their families; many also went by pseudonyms. And law enforcement staffing was low and ill-equipped to handle such a large case – an observation not disputed by then-sheriff Roy Whiteaker.

“At that time, I think it was close to impossible to trace each man,” Hill said.

But over time, she’s been able to link photos and short biographies to some victims, and has stumbled across other related stories – like that of a housewife who saved up $700 to purchase markers for the 14 men buried in the Sutter Cemetery.

She tries to remain realistic about the case: In order to get confirmed identification for the four unidentified men at the Sutter Cemetery, DNA would have to come into play. While she’s unsure Spain’s family will ever get definitive answers, all she aims to do is research and present that information to families, who can decide for themselves.

“While we should let Juan Corona rest, I think we can still talk about the victims tastefully,” she said.

Troubling public perceptions of the victims – some whom abandoned their families, some with criminal backgrounds – seems clear: during the time, Sacramento TV news described downtown Marysville, where Corona had recruited his victims, as “13 square blocks of Skid Row.” Now, if you search for any list of Corona’s victims, Hill’s blog is listed third behind two Wikipedia pages.

“They deserve to be remembered as human beings, not numbers,” she said. “That was my goal – not recognition but to have a place for them.”

According to her research, here are those known Corona victims (four are unidentified):

Kenneth E. Whitacre, the first body to be found, was 40, of the Oakland area.

John Joseph Haluka, 52, of New Jersey.

Warren J. Kelley, 62, of Texas.

Sigurd “Pete” Beirman, 62, 20-year resident of Marysville.

William “Henry” Kemp, 62, of Minnesota. He was the only victim to have a bullet in his head.

Clarence Hocking, 53, of Illinois.

Edward M. Cupp, 43, of Missouri.

John H. Jackson, 64, of New York.

Lloyd W. Wenzel, 60, of South Dakota.

Sam Bonafide, also known as Joe Carriveau, 55, of Washington.

Joseph J. Maczak, 54, of Illinois.

Charles L. Fleming, 67, of Louisiana.

Melford E. Sample, 59, of Nebraska.

Donald “Red” Smith, 60, of Kansas.

James W. Howard, 64, of New Mexico.

Jonah “Driftwood” Smallwood, 56, of Tennessee.

Elbert J.T. Riley, 45, of Arkansas.

Paul B. Allen, 59, of Arkansas.

Albert “Scratchy” Hayes, 58, of Pennsylvania.

Raymond R. Muchache, 47, of Fall River Mills, Shasta County.

Mark B. Shields, 56, of Santa Rosa.

Rachel Rosenbaum is a reporter for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. Contact her at rrosenbaum@appealdemocrat.com.


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