When Surf City was the Murder Capital

Santa Cruz, California, is a quiet town even now. In the 1970s, it was a community of retirees, Italian fishermen, and people associated with the brand-new University of California. It was (and is) a beach town that attracts year-round surfers and summer visitors to the beach and Boardwalk.

John Linley Frazier

In October, 1970, in the hills south of town, a resident named John Linley Frazier bound and murdered an eye surgeon, his wife and secretary, and the couple’s two children, in an attempt to usher in World War III.

Herbert Mullin

Two years later, in four short months between October 1972 and February 1973, another local resident, Herbert Mullin, brutally murdered 13 people: a girl hitchhiking, a priest in his confessional, a man outside his home, a couple he knew. A woman and her two young sons. Four teenagers camping in Henry Cowell state park. (I’d camped there myself, the previous summer. Alone.) He was caught and arrested when a neighbor of his last victim spotted his license plate.

And yet the deaths continued. Not because the police had the wrong man, but because in May, 1972, Edmund Kemper—a wannabee cop who’d been turned down because he was 6’ 9”—had turned from giving girl hitchhikers rides to abducting, raping, and dismembering them. One pair of girls, then a 15 year old who had missed her bus to dance class, an 18 year old student, another pair of girls—ending with his mother and her friend in the spring of 1973.

Edmund Kemper

Kemper phoned the police to turn himself in—although when they recognized his familiar voice, at first they didn’t believe him.

Both men went undetected, primarily because there seemed to be no pattern in the victims, who were all over the place in age, sex, profession. And yet, pattern there was.

Under the impetus of these and other multiple killers of the time, the FBI started up a Behavioral Analysis Unit, interviewing convicted serial killers in search of patterns and setting up lines of communication between local jurisdictions. Those developments, in addition to profiling, DNA, crime scene analysis, nation-wide databases, and other investigation techniques, mean that instead of the more than 180 US serial killers estimated to be operating in the 1980s, there are now probably fewer than 20.

One of the men mentioned in Back to the Garden is Joseph DeAngelo. A cop and investigator during the early 1970s, he turned from investigating burglaries to committing them. Soon he escalated to rape, then murder, tormenting his surviving victims with mocking letters and phone calls. His last murder was in 1986, although the cruel phone calls continued until 2001. Slowly, the FBI and far-flung Californian jurisdictions put information together, narrowed suspects, and finally identified his DNA—in 2018.

DeAngelo remains in prison. Frazier committed suicide in 2009. Herbert Mullin died last week, on August 18. Edmund Kemper is still alive, at a prison medical facility in Vacaville, where he records books for the blind.

And Santa Cruz, “Surf City,” tries to remain as quiet a town as possible.

Back to the Garden by Laurie R. King

In Back to the Garden, published September 6, SFPD Inspector Raquel Laing hunts for traces of a serial killer of the 1970s.  Excerpt here. Order signed copies from Poisoned Pen or Bookshop Santa Cruz, or unsigned from your local bookshop, Barnes & Noble/Nook, or Amazon/Kindle.

(Photos thanks to Wikipedia.)

Posted in ,


  1. Carolyn pezzoni on August 26, 2022 at 12:28 pm

    I lived here during those times raising my children. To this day I still make sure I lock my doors and windows.

  2. Katie on August 26, 2022 at 2:52 pm

    I hitchhiked then.

  3. Bobbie Beckman on August 27, 2022 at 3:13 am

    I lived in Santa Crus from 1976 to ‘79 and I remember “The Trailside Killer” who operated then, Richard Sommerhalter. My husband was acquainted with one of his victims. Back then people used to speculate that there was “a vortex of evil” surrounding or embedded in that place.

  4. Gloria Goverman on August 28, 2022 at 12:42 pm

    David Berkowitz shot several people in my neighborhood in the Bronx. Some died. Some survived. It was a strange and scary time.

    • Laurie King on August 28, 2022 at 12:52 pm

      And now we have school shootings. Not sure which was more frightening.

  5. Sun on August 28, 2022 at 10:21 pm

    I lived in Santa Cruz 1971-1977 and vividly remember all those murders. You had to live through it to really understand it. I also hitchhiked alone a lot in SC. I look back and feel incredibly lucky.
    I am currently reading The Beekeeper’s Apprenctice and your photo looked familiar. I am also Kresge 77. Small world.

    • Laurie King on August 28, 2022 at 10:30 pm

      Go, slugs!

  6. Lora D on September 17, 2022 at 7:45 pm

    I lived in the Santa Cruz area from 71-77, and for various reasons, drove the coast highway often, going back and forth to San Francisco and Sonoma County in my little bug. I always picked up women and girls I saw hitchhiking, and took them as nearly as I could to where they were going; and I would explain to them what was going on and that they should find another way to travel, or at least not take rides from men. That fear permeated our everyday lives and everything we did in the Kemper-Mullin times. It seemed like it went on forever — it’s odd to realize it was only a few months. My sister and I still talk about how weird it was.

    • Laurie King on September 17, 2022 at 9:58 pm

      It really was, and looking back at it is even weirder. Interesting to read about it so long after the fact and realize how even the police and FBI were baffled.

Leave a Comment