Penniless native Mexican Juan Corona arrived in Yuba City, California, sometime in the 1950’s and slowly built a more than respectable living as a labor contractor. He was respected and seemingly happlily married with children. But he was also a schizophrenic and a sexual sadist who truned to murder in the spring of 1971.
Corona found workers in the steady flow of migrant laborers coming out of his home country just plain vagrants that were looking for a paycheck. Most were men that were transient in nature and not likely to be missed. He would simply select a new worker, one that was owed money usually, kill them, nad bury them. The disappearances never raised any concerns. Workers often just up and left without notice.
A fruit farmer in the area found a hole dug on his property on May 19. When the man checked on the mysterious hole the next day, it was filled up. Even to s simple farmer it was obvious that this was more than likely a grave for someone or something and he called the police. Kenneth Whitacre was dug up from the earth, his throat and head hacked viciously and his upper body stabbed repeatedly.
A search for more graves turned up more than anyone would have imagined and by early June the grand total had reached 25 bodies, all men who had been seen with or had gotten their jobs through Corona’s labor contracting business. He was arrested for the murders and tried and though there were murmerings of an accomplice, Corona was found guilty and given 25 seperate life sentences in January of 1973.
After barely surviving a stabbing attack in prison, Corona won an appeal for a new trial about a decade after the original. The basis was that he had been improperly defended and that new evidence would point to his own brother as the true murderer.The second trial was a money-wasting sham and Corona was sent back to the California penal system to continue serving out his life sentences.
Juan V. Corona
A native mexican, born in 1934, Corona moved to Yuba City, California in the early 50’s. He stayed there, and established a family, moving from being a picker in the fields to a labor contractor. He was known to many ranchers supplying cres on demand. In 1970, a young Mexican’s scalp was laid open by a machete, in the cafe run by Corona’s gay brother, Natividad. The victim pressed charges agains Natividad, trying to get $250,000.00 in damages. Natividad fled to Mexico, and the case was left unsolved. Nobody had linked Juan to the crime.
On May 19, 1971, a Japanese farmer was touring his orchard and came upon a freshly dug hole, about the size of a grave, in between two fruit trees. One of Corona’s crews was working nearby so the farmer shrugged it off until later that night when he returned and found the hole filled in. He called the police in to the site the next morning, a bit of digging revealed the fresh corpse of Kenneth Whitacre. The guy had been stabbed, and his skull torn open with blows from something sharp.
Four days later, workers reported finding a second grave. The corpse of Charles Fleming was found in it, before they had him identified, they had found the next burial site, and the next. In nine days of discovering bodies from the orchard, totaling 25, the search was terminated. In one grave, deputies found two receipts dated May 21, and signed Juan V. Corona.
On June 4, another bodie would be discovered with two receipts with the same signature. Most of the victims were stabbed or hacked to death, with many signs of homosexuality being involved. Most of the victims were migrant workers, drifters, and alcoholics. None had been reported missing. The receipts placed Juan at the scene of the crime, and he was taken to trial. The defense tried to place the blame on Natividad, a known violent homosexual.
The jury deliberated for 45 hours, before convicting juan on all counts. He was sentenced to 25 consecutive terms of life imprisonment. While in prison, Corona lost his eye in a stabbing. Currently Juan resides at Corcoran State Prison, in California.
Juan Corona was born in Mexico in 1934. His life there is somewhat of a mystery, but what we do know started when he moved to the U.S. in the 50’s as a migrant worker. From here he turned himself into a successful labor contractor in Yuba County, California. And there were few signs of what really went on in Corona’s head.
In 1970 a young Mexican man was viciously attacked with a machete (he was nearly scalped) in Corona’s gay brothers cafe. The man accused Corona’s brother, Natividad Corona, of the crime and filed a law suit, seeking $250,000, against him. Natividad fled the country not long after this and the case was forgotten. The crime wasn’t linked to Juan, why would it?
On May 19, 1971, a farmer who had hired Corona to arrange labor for his farm found a large, grave shaped, hole between two tree’s. He asked the nearest worker about it but he just shrugged it off, not knowing or caring it seemed. Well this farmer was a nosy bastard and really wanted to know what the hell was going on, so he returned to the hole later that night only to find that it had been filled in. And this bastard was a real nosy cunt. He called police and had them check it out. After a bit of digging they found themselves a nice fresh corpse. It was Kenneth Whitacre, a known bum. His head had been ripped apart with a cleaver or machete. They also found some gay porn buried with him, leading police to file the case as a sex crime.
Police were not that worried about the crime and never suspected what was to happen next.
Four days later on a nearby farm some workers discovered another body. It was Charles Fleming, a known drifter. As police searched the new burial site another corpse was found. Then another. Then another. Then another. I could go on but I’m sure you get the picture. After nine full days of excavation police called the search off. It was June 4. They had 25 corpses. And all had been killed since February. Now if that ain’t prolific I’ll suck Bill Clinton’s cock.
Of the 25 victims police had been able to identify 21. Most were migrant workers, but some had been drifters and there were also a few bums. Most had been attacked with a machete or knife. All had been stabbed to death, a deep puncture to the chest followed by two slashes across the back of the head in the shape of a cross. All had been buried face up, arms stretched above their head and their shirts pulled up over theirs faces. Some had their pants pulled down and had signs of recent homosexual activity. The killer had some fun before or after they were dead.
None of the corpses had been reported as missing by family and if the bodies hadn’t been discovered it would seem plausible that the killer would have gotten away with it all. But he had made four mistakes.
The first was to leave a grave open long enough to be seen by a nosy landowner.
The second was much more stupid. He had buried a receipt with his name on it with one victim, Melford Sample. The name on the receipt was “Juan V. Corona.”
The third mistake was burying two bank deposit slips with the same name on them with another victim.
And the forth was being seen with a victim.
Police picked Corona up on murder charges. The case against him was based almost completely on the receipts found on Melford Sample’s body and purely circumstantial evidence. Unfortunately for Juan when police search his home they found a Machete, a pistol, two butcher knives and a ledger that contained the names of seven victims. Corona’s lawyers tried to argue this and also tried to lay the blame on his brother, a known violent offender with homosexual tendencies.
The only problem with this argument was that Natividad was not even in the country at the time of the murders. Corona’s lawyers only called one witness during the trial, and also failed to mention that Corona was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1956, thereby ruling out any chance of an insanity defence. Despite his hopeless defense it still took the Jury 45 hours to convict Corona of the 25 murders (a record for the U.S. at that time) and a month later he was sentenced to life in prison.
While in prison Corona was linked with a few more murders but nothing even came of it. And then in 1978 an appeals court upheld an appeal by Corona citing that his legal team was incompetent and that he would receive a new trial. Unfortunately for Juan he was attacked in prison while awaiting the new trial. He has never regained sight in one of his eyes. He was then put through an extensive psychiatric observation period, further delaying his retrial.
It never made a difference though. In 1982 Corona was again found guilty of 25 murders. He went back to prison to serve out a new life sentence.
In 1978 Corona was reported to have told a Mexican consulate who was visiting the prison that he was guilty. This is the only reported time of him admitting the crime. The exact quote went – “Yes, I did it, but I’m a sick man and can’t be judged by the standards of other men”.
Location (of Kills): Yuba City, California
Number of Kills: 25
Gender of Victims: Men
Sexual Contact: Sodomy
Types of Murder: Shooting, Stabbing, Bludgeoning
Juan Corona was a farmer in Yuba City, California. Corona had a large orchard, a house (where he lived), and another house (for his workers).
Nearby Corona’s orchard was another farm. The owner of that farm was digging a hole when he found the body of a dead vagrant. After searching other places near his farm he found more bodies. In the pockets of one of the corpses their were two receipts. Both were signed by Juan Corona…
After searching Corona’s orchard, including the other farm, a total of twenty five bodies were found. Most had multiple stab wounds, head injuries caused by a machete, and some had been shot.
Corona was brought up on charges. After forty five hours of deliberation the jury sentenced Corona to twenty five consecutive life terms in prison.
Corona, Juan Vallejo
A native of Mexico, born in 1934, Corona turned up in Yuba City, California, as a migrant worker in the early 1950s. Unlike most of his kind, he stayed on after the harvest, putting down roots and establishing a family, graduating from the role of picker in the fields to become a successful labor contractor. By his mid-thirties, Corona was known to ranchers throughout the county, supplying crews on demand.
There was a bit of trouble during 1970, when a young Mexican was wounded — his scalp laid open by a machete — in the cafe run by Corona’s homosexual brother, Natividad. Upon recovery, the victim filed suit against Natividad Corona, seeking $250,000 in damages, and the accused hacker fled back to Mexico, leaving the case unresolved. No one linked Juan with the crime; its violence scarcely seemed to touch his life.
And yet …
On May 19, 1971, a Japanese farmer was touring his orchard when he noticed a fresh hole, roughly the size of a grave, excavated between two fruit trees. One of Corona’s migrant crews was working nearby, and the farmer shrugged it off until that night, when he returned and found the hole filled in.
Suspicious, he summoned deputies to the site next morning, and a bit of spade work revealed the fresh corpse of transient Kenneth Whitacre. The victim had been stabbed, his face and skull torn open by the blows of something like a cleaver or machete. Detectives logged the case as a sex crime, after finding pieces of gay literature in Whitacre’s pocket.
Four days later, workers on a nearby ranch reported the discovery of a second grave. It yielded the remains of drifter Charles Fleming, but police were still working on his I.D. when they found the next burial site, and the next. In all, they spent nine days exhuming bodies from the orchard, counting twenty-five before the search was terminated on June 4. In Melford Sample’s grave, deputies found two meat receipts dated May 21, signed with the name of “Juan V. Corona.”
On June 4, Joseph Maczak’s remains would be discovered with two bank receipts, bearing the same signature. Some of the corpses were fresh, while others — like that of Donald Smith — had clearly been in the ground for months. (Medical examiners estimated that the first murders had occurred around February 1971.)
Most of the victims were stabbed or hacked to death, with several bearing signs of homosexual assault. Four of the dead were ultimately unidentified; the rest were migrant workers, rootless drifters, with a sprinkling of skid row alcoholics. None of them had been reported missing by surviving relatives. The bank and meat receipts placed Juan Corona at the murder scenes, and he was held for trial.
Defense attorneys tried to blame the murders on Natividad, a known homosexual given to fits of violence, but no one could document his presence in California during the murder spree. Jurors deliberated 45 hours before convicting Corona on all counts, in January 1973. A month later, he was sentenced to 25 consecutive terms of life imprisonment.
The case — which set an American record for individual murder convictions at the time — was not completed, yet. Reports issued in December 1973 linked Corona with the death of a twenty-sixth victim, but no new charges were filed. In May 1978, an appeals court ordered a new trial for Corona, finding his prior legal defense incompetent. The retrial was delayed by periods of psychiatric observation and a jailhouse stabbing in 1980, which cost Corona the sight in one eye. Convicted again in the spring of 1982, Corona was returned to prison on a new sentence of 25 life terms.
Michael Newton – An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers – Hunting Humans
JUAN CORONA: RUSH TO JUDGMENT?
By Katherine Ramsland
A Turbulent Year
In the U.S., 1971 was a turbulent year. The Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family two years earlier in the Los Angeles area had shown people they weren’t necessarily safe in their homes and four students protesting the war in Vietnam had been shot down at Kent State. Blacks were rioting in large cities around the country, and the government was sneaking toward the Watergate scandal.
The Los Angeles police had just learned about the six-year crime spree perpetrated by Mack Ray Edwards when he brought in a loaded gun and said he felt guilty. Since the 1950s, he told them, he had murdered half a dozen children, all of whom had in fact disappeared. Soon Americans would witness the highest known murder count yet by one person. As yet, only the Boston Strangler in 1964, with eleven victims, had shown the country on a spectacular basis what a serial killer was like, and the term itself was not yet in official use.
The case that shocked the nation was covered extensively in San Francisco newspapers, and the definitive book on the investigation and first trial is Tracy Kidder’s The Road to Yuba City (initially published as articles in the Atlantic Monthly). To write a full narrative with a fair sense of the victims, many of whom were farm workers, Kidder rode in box cars as one of them, listening to their concerns, experiencing the cold and hunger, working alongside them picking peaches, and trying to understand how vulnerable they were.
He also traveled to many different places to learn more about the principal players, talked with victims’ families, attended the trial, and contemplated suspects other than the defendant. He wanted to pinpoint the events of 1971 as more than just an isolated case, hoping to capture the inherent dangers of a scorned lifestyle that could terminate as easily as it had for so many men in that one place. Once again, California commanded the world’s attention.
Other books from the case include Ed Cray’s Burden of Proof, taking the side of the defense, Bill Tailbitzer’s pro-prosecution tome, Too Much Blood, and a book about the first jury, called Jury: The People vs. Juan Corona. The investigation and first trial were also given extensive coverage in California newspapers.
In Sutter County, California, near the Feather River five miles north of Yuba City, reports David Frasier in Murder Cases of the Twentieth Century, a Japanese farmer named Goro Kagehiro was touring his peach orchard on May 19, 1971 when he spotted a freshly-dug hole between two trees that appeared to be the size of a man.
He could not understand why someone had dug there. Nearby picking peaches was a crew that he had hired through Juan Vallejo Corona, who managed a labor contracting business. According to Michael Newton, Corona supplied area ranchers with cheap labor in the form of migrant workers from Mexico.
Curious about the hole, Kagehiro returned to the orchard that night and saw that it had been filled in. That made him doubly concerned, so he called the police, who arrived the next morning to see for themselves. At the very least, someone had trespassed on the property, possibly to bury their trash. No one expected to find anything of significance.
Several deputies proceeded to dig, and to their surprise, instead of what they had suspected, it yielded the body of a slender white man. They immediately called in the homicide detectives. The victim, Kenneth Whiteacre, had been stabbed in the chest, bashed in the head, and slashed several times across the back of the skull. His hands also bore deep cuts, as if he had struggled to defend himself. He was fully dressed and in his pocket was literature that suggested he might be homosexual.
At that point, the gay rights movement had just begun in nearby San Francisco. Gay men were agitating and people with prejudices against their lifestyle sometimes struck back out of anger and fear. Yet there were no clues, aside from tire tracks near the lone grave, as to who had killed him and buried him here. It was a homicide, to be sure, but seemingly nothing to be alarmed about. Not that day, anyway.
Kidder hypothesized that two men had perpetrated this murder. Possibly they were out for a sexual escapade, had picked up this man, who perhaps needed money, and then had killed him to avoid paying. The deputies at the grave site made plaster impressions of the tracks, but thought it appeared to have been an isolated incident, probably the unfortunate result of a fight that someone was trying to cover up.
The medical examiner did not even do the tests necessary to attempt to find evidence on the body of sexual assault. After a superficial autopsy in which it was learned that many of the head wounds had occurred after the victim was already dead, they handed him off to a mortician.
The incident, considered random and probably unsolvable, was chalked off to just one more problem in that area with homeless drifters. Given the intensity of the attack, the killer(s) seemed angry, but that’s about all they could say. That is, until four days later on May 24, when workers driving a tractor on an adjoining ranch came across yet an area where the ground appeared to have collapsed.
Foreman Ray Duron checked it out and got the police to come there as well. Given what they had just found, they proceeded with more caution. This second grave yielded yet another male corpse and it took several days to identify him as Charles Fleming, another drifter. For the rest of that day, detectives scoured the surrounding grounds but found nothing suspicious. Then a deputy spotted a pathway into a weedy area next to a peach orchard.
Along the riverbank, they found more soil subsidence that suspiciously resembled graves. They got out the shovels again and turned up some receipts for meat from the Yuba City market, dated only four days earlier and signed with the name, Juan V. Corona. As the deputies dug further into this hole, they exposed another corpse.
Like the other two, this man had also been bludgeoned in the head, crushing his skull, as well as slashed with a large, sharp weapon, perhaps a machete. He, too, had been an indigent farm laborer.
Sheriff Roy Whiteaker considered the situation. He had already picked up information about labor contractor Juan Corona, 37, that disturbed him. According to the story, Corona was a key suspect in an incident across the Feather River in Marysville. A man, José Raya, had been beaten nearly to death in a local café. He was found bleeding in the bathroom from serious head wounds.
The reason that Corona became a suspect was that his half-brother, Natividad Corona, a known homosexual, owned the café. And Juan not only was seen there that evening, but was also rumored to have issues with gay men, to the point of rage. In addition, he’d had a stint in a mental institution during the 1950s, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Even more interesting to the sheriff, according to Kidder about their conversation, was the appearance of a blue-and-white pickup truck in the vicinity of the exhumations – a truck that resembled Juan Corona’s.
But there was little time to do anything about it yet. The digging that evening had turned up more graves.
They referred to the place later as “Graveyard Lane.” As they unearthed more corpses in this area, the Sutter County District attorney, G. Dave Teja, came out to have a look. He’d always wanted the challenge of a first-degree murder case and now he had a whopper. He discussed an arrest warrant for Corona with Sheriff Whiteaker, but Whiteaker hesitated. He wanted better evidence than two receipts and some vague stories about the man’s violent temper.
The fire department set up floodlights so the digging could continue, with the hope of getting something else along the lines of those signed receipts. If a man were that careless to let something fall from his pocket, it was likely that he’d left behind other things that could be linked to him. Off-duty cops and part-timers came to lend a hand, as well as to see this bizarre and grisly find for themselves. They were used to sporadic violence in the area, but nothing like this. A few men shed tears and some got physically ill from the sights and the overwhelming odor.
As each new body was discovered and photographs taken, the diggers made bets on just how many they would find. No one even came close. It was a nightmare, as if they’d come across someone’s personal cemetery. Worse, the evidence of outright molestation kept raising its ugly head, as men were found with their trousers around their ankles, their genitals exposed, or nude from the waist down. This had not just been murder for money; it had a much more unsavory sexual connotation. The diggers never knew what they’d find next.
Sometimes they accidentally cut off a body part with the sharp edge of a shovel, and the deeper they went, the worse the stench of decomposition became. A few bodies had been in the earth so long, without benefit of embalming or a box, that they just fell into pieces when lifted out. As best they could, the crew put individual victims into zippered body bags and left them for pick-up by local morticians. Frasier indicates that this area produced a total of eight corpses. So to that point, there were nine known victims.
In the mortuary, the bodies were laid out, one next to another, to facilitate identification, as well as to try to create a time-line based on decomposition rates. It appeared that all had been migrant workers, and certainly all had been murdered with a similar type of bludgeoning or stabbing. A few had been shot as well, and Frasier indicates that there was evidence of anal intercourse (although this evidence was never brought into the trial, so it may not have been evidence so much as speculation based on rumors and erroneously passed along as fact). Many were old and worn out.
Sheriff Whiteaker kept looking for more evidence, cautioning the diggers to be careful. The meat receipts were good, but they needed something that clearly linked Corona to one or more of the victims. If it was not forthcoming in the graves or on the men who were being pulled out, then it would have to come from whatever people might know about these men. And that would be a much more difficult task.
People were able to put some of the victims who were quickly identified with Juan Corona. It was circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but a sufficient amount of circumstantial evidence can often make the case – especially in the days before DNA analysis and high tech crime equipment. As the DA said, it can piece together a “mosaic” so compelling that the lack of physical evidence won’t become an issue.
For example, one victim had been talking with another job contractor when Juan Corona had driven by. That victim had shouted to the man, asking for work, and when Corona stopped to talk with him, he’d gone off with Corona.
Other victims, too, had been seen with Corona or had worked for him. In some cases, the last time a person had been seen was in Corona’s company. Thus, within a day of stumbling over the graveyard, the sheriff and DA felt they had solid leads that supported a warrant for searching Corona’s home, car and office. Thus prepared, they went looking for him.
They arrested him late in the afternoon of May 26 in his home. His wife and four daughters were shocked, but the sheriff ordered a team to start looking around. Kidder writes that in Corona’s home, they turned up a number of potentially significant items:
a posthole digger
a meat cleaver
more meat receipts
a ledger with the names of thirty-four men
a stained wooden club
a van parked outside that appeared to have bloodstains inside, a shovel, a bag of bullets, bundles of clothing, and an eighteen-inch machete
Corona’s Chevrolet Impala with apparent bloodstains inside
Corona also had an office on the Sullivan ranch, where the second body had been unearthed, so deputies entered it to look around. There they found a loaded pistol and a long knife on which the phrase “Tennessee Toothpick” was printed. They also found more meat receipts and a smaller knife. All of this was collected for evaluation and testing.
As they identified some of the victims, they searched the ledgers and were able to link some of the men with Juan Corona (Kidder says six, Frasier indicates seven). Yet even as these tasks were accomplished, some deputies continued to search the grounds to make certain they hadn’t overlooked anything. Aircraft taking infrared photography, according to Cartel, helped to pinpoint suspicious areas. This killer had chosen a secluded spot for mass burials, but that did not mean he hadn’t done the same thing elsewhere. It was a good instinct. In fact, there was more than one such clandestine graveyard.
Near a prune orchard, deeper in the woods, searchers came across another area of ground impressions, left after the farm had been irrigated and then drained. It looked like there were quite a lot of them as well, so they called for assistance and started to dig. This time, they found even more bodies – around twice as many. In one grave, a man had papers on his person and was able to be identified, as well as linked to Corona. His head had nearly been removed from his body from the force of the blow that had knocked him out. His wallet, lying atop him, had been searched, probably for money, but the ID was left intact.
As the press got wind of this unfolding drama, journalists came in from other areas to write about the victims and the suspect. His ledger was dubbed the “murder book,” as if it had been used to keep a running tally of his dark deeds. And as the newspapers printed the story, people who feared that a loved one might be among the victims sent letters of inquiry or made calls to the sheriff’s office to find out more. The response overwhelmed the staff.
There were over 1,500 such requests. A lot of people, it turned out, had not heard from a relative in a long time. Indeed, many families hit the road, driving to the Sullivan ranch to have a look for themselves. In addition, morbid tourists arrived to take photographs, posing with shovels alongside the vehicle that Corona had used to transport workers. The sheriff roped off the graves to avoid contamination and eventually sealed off the entrances to the ranch.
They worked hard over Memorial Day weekend, digging everywhere just to be sure they had not missed a victim. At least one had been buried in a solitary location, so it was possible there were more like that. While the DA certainly had more than enough victims for an investigation and trial, detectives knew that they had to keep working for the families as well – those people who needed to know what had happened to someone who had gone missing through no fault of his own. With each passing day, reporters camped out to be right there when another body came out of the ground. Bets were lost as the number rose from ten to sixteen to twenty, and the digging continued.
The search for bodies finally ended on June 4. By that time, the toll was twenty-five, and all of them had been migrant workers. Some people believed that there were more victims not yet found, but it was impossible to go from one ranch to another to dig in every area where the ground seemed to dip. As one source indicated, all of the victims had been buried on the north side of a tree, with their arms over their heads, as if there were some ritual or superstition involved. None were Mexican, Kidder writes, and all but three were Anglo-Saxon. Those three were black or Native American. The youngest victim was forty, the oldest sixty-eight. Given their rootless mode of life, the process of identifying them proved to be arduous, but finally 21 were identified and their relatives notified. A few had been in the earth for as long as a month (Frasier says six weeks to two months). Four were never given names.
And there was more evidence. In one grave, diggers had unearthed bank deposit slips printed with Juan Corona’s name. That gave an added boost to the case. But even as this evidence seemed fairly damning, the case was anything but a slam-dunk. Prematurely, Sheriff Whiteaker gave a press conference to announce that they had the man they believed was responsible for the crimes in custody already.
He named Corona and made the mistake of convicting him right then in the press, before the evidence had been examined or a trial had proven him guilty. Corona was booked on murder charges, Whiteaker added, and the search would continue to locate the place where he may have killed these men. In the meantime, they would prepare for trial with what they had.
Portrait of a Killer
Corona was initially assigned a public defender, who proceeded to hire several psychiatrists to do a mental evaluation. As reporters dug around, his background was pieced together. He was a labor contractor making around $20,000 a year and considered a solid family man with four daughters. Cartel writes in Disguise of Sanity that he never missed church. There were no stories that anyone could discover of abuse done to workers, just a few complaints that he did not pay enough for work done. The ranchers who hired him to bring them workers tended to like and respect him. And while the victims were mostly white men, Corona’s crews consisted of mostly workers from Mexico.
Kidder actually met him a year into the case. In his prison cell, Corona seemed sad and worn out, but humble. Knowing about the man’s involuntary stint in an institution after a period of delusions about seeing ghosts, Kidder said, “I looked for signs of madness.” Corona had been subjected to nearly two dozen shock treatments during an era when that treatment was believed to be efficacious in restoring the mind, and had been pronounced cured and released.
A defense psychiatrist believed he was aware of what he was doing and did not suffer from a mental disorder. Yet a prosecution psychiatrist had decided that the defendant was psychotic (it’s usually the other way around). When Kidder met him, he was on Thorazine to treat anxiety as he sat waiting in prison. (Frasier indicates that he had two heart attacks during the course of his trial.) Although Corona reportedly had an IQ of 130, he did not read much and spoke only broken English. To pass time, he was taking lessons in painting and hoping to apply for U.S. citizenship. Overall, he appeared to be depressed.
Cartel adds the stories from sheriff’s deputy Jerry Gregory that some people had seen a darker side to Juan Corona: a terrible temper. A few with whom Gregory spoke also claimed to have seen Corona in the vicinities of the graves.
About a month after Corona’s arrest, an attorney named Richard Hawk arrived in Yuba City and took over the case. He fired the psychiatrists, dismissing their findings, and instigated a hefty lawsuit against the county officials, citing improper evidence handling, violation of Corona’s rights, slander, and causing emotional distress, as a warning that he meant business. He also let Kidder see the evidence, which violated the gag order imposed on all officials in the case. It wasn’t impressive. The names of half a dozen men appeared on the ledger, but the prosecution’s handwriting expert could not say with assurance that Corona himself had written those names. And even if he had, that would not necessarily mean he had murdered them. Alongside the names were a few dates.
As for the forensic tests, “blood evidence” turned out to be paint or animal blood, and no blood had been found on the machete. Blood in one of Corona’s vehicles was explained as originating from an injured worker whom he had transported. On the only victim who wasn’t too decomposed for an examination of whether the machete matched the wounds, it turned out that there was no conclusive link.
The tire tracks also did not match any of Corona’s vehicles, nor the bullet removed from one victim to Corona’s gun. And no analysis had been done on the receipts to prove that only Corona had handled them, or to link the receipts via date to the proper rate of decomposition of the victim in whose grave they were found, i.e., to prove that the receipts had fallen or dropped into the grave on the day that person had been dumped there.
Corona had an alibi as well. During the time when many of the victims had been attacked, he had been on crutches. Hawk even considered having Corona testify on his own behalf, believing he’d make an excellent witness. Yet if Corona did not do this business, then who did? People tended to want a case like this closed cleanly. Sometimes even ambiguous evidence worked for juries because they just wanted an end to it all. Defense attorneys realize that. Hawk realized that. So did the DA.
It took well over a year since the murders were discovered to get this case to trial. Hawk succeeded in getting a change of venue out of Sutter County, considered too inflamed by publicity to offer a fair proceeding. He also cultivated associations among the press to give a more favorable slant to his client (and himself), hinting that the real killer had framed his client by dropping things into one of the later graves to be found to further implicate Corona.
In addition, he brought out the information that Corona’s brother, Natividad, had been accused in the Marysville assault in 1970 and José Raya had won a settlement in that case. While Raya had changed his story several times, in the end, he had identified Natividad as his attacker.
His strategy paid off, writes Cartel, in encouraging demonstrations outside the courthouse on Corona’s behalf, demanding justice and attacking the prosecutor and police. Yet he also got fined for breaking the gag order restrictions. Cartel (who calls him Charles Band) says he spent time in jail for it.
A key issue was whether the corpses could be accurately dated as to the time-since-death interval. The police had made several claims that the defense’s pathologist said could not be proven. At the time, there were little agreement about time of death indicators, especially with respect to the specific factors of burial in those conditions and that climate. Any statements, therefore, were easily questioned.
The trial began on September 11, 1972, in the Solano County courthouse in Fairfield, CA, more than an hour from Yuba City. Jury selection took several weeks, and the trial itself another three months. Richard Hawk believed he could show that Juan’s half-brother had been the killer, not Juan. Since the California Supreme Court had overturned the death penalty in that state, commuting to life all Death Row sentences, it would not be a capital case.
It was Teja’s first experience with prosecuting first-degree murder, and while he followed the case every step of the way, Kidder indicates that he did not bother to have the blood found on the two knives in Corona’s office tested for the blood types of any of the victims. It was a crucial oversight and he had to scramble in the end to get the test results in time. This angered the judge. Teja also got new handwriting experts to compare the ledgers against Corona’s handwriting, and asked for hair samples from the defendant for testing. Yet a cigarette butt in the grave with the meat receipts tested positive for a blood type that matched neither Corona nor the victim. Despite the circumstantial logic, no physical evidence, at least going into the trial, supported Teja’s case.
ADA Bart Williams, who would soon admit in court that he had some doubt about the case, offered an opening statement that took up two days of the court’s time. Teja was aggravated. The prosecution intended to call a long line of witnesses to support its theory and offered a flashy exhibit – an electronic map with twenty-five lights that could be turned on at opportune moments as he recreated the opening of each grave. But the prosecution failed to turn over so many reports to the defense that the judge finally ordered its files brought to the courthouse and made completely available to Hawk. He took hundreds of pages of reports with him to study.
Then it turned out that the tire track cast that had been compared to the tires from Corona’s vehicles was not the cast made at the first grave. Someone had mixed up the evidence from a different case. Finally the correct cast was located and sent for analysis. From the FBI lab in Washington, D.C., the report supposedly indicated an “extreme likelihood” that the tires that made the impressions at the graveside were those on Corona’s van (although it was later stated more conservatively as a “possible” match – Corona’s van could not be ruled out).
This report apparently gave the ADA confidence, and he stated so in court. But Hawk indicated to any reporter who would listen that, since the police still had Corona’s van in custody, they could have faked the evidence. He requested bail for his client for the seventh or eighth time since the case had begun, and again it was denied. Nevertheless, Judge Richard Patton scolded the prosecution for not giving him solid reason for denying bail, which was their job to do.
During the early weeks, the trial would continue to show prosecutorial ineptness as they pleaded for more time to finish forensic testing that should have been done months earlier. It did not look good to the jury, and one member who later was bumped for illness said as much to Hawk. That likely gave Hawk the wrong impression of where the case was going.
The Legal Game
The defense strategy was to get the jury to ponder the possibility that someone had tried to frame Corona by planting receipts in a grave not yet opened. But the victim had been dead for much longer than the four days indicated by the receipts, so the police had done some data reorganization. Hawk accused them of switching body IDs in their analysis to attempt to link one of the fresher bodies with the receipt as a way to prove murder in that case.
Police witnesses testified that the body they had dug up had been so fresh that there was no decomposition odor, and morticians admitted to errors and confusion as they’d picked up the bodies. They had given the bodies a numbering system different from that used by the police, so the end result was that some bodies had received more than one number. That was really what the confusion amounted to, said the prosecution; it wasn’t about intentional evidence manipulation. Yet in the end, no one really knew what the testimony on this issue actually came to. Hawk insisted that the prosecution could manipulate the body numbering system to make whatever case they wished to make. Possibly, they had, but neither side could prove its position. A bag of fingertips removed from the victims to better manage the biological evidence, Cartel indicates, turned out to have been mislabeled in several cases. The judge was once again miffed.
Other items of evidence were a candle and fragments of a candle holder that resembled one from Corona’s Sullivan ranch office, and the prosecution suggested that it had been part of some superstitious religious ritual. Yet once again, Hawk contended that it could have been planted, for why would only one grave contain so much “evidence” – and the last one opened, at that?
He attacked again and again, pointing out one error made after another made by most of the officials involved. There was no doubt that the investigation and handling of bodies had been done badly, and that reports were both incomplete and inaccurate. To some extent, given the conditions during the lengthy and unappetizing dig, it was understandable. As well, no one in that county had ever dealt with a case like that before (nor in the country, for that matter), and so evidence handling was rather unprofessional, with deputies leaving their own fingerprints on items yet to be dusted (although they never were). No fingerprints were taken off any other piece of evidence, either, to ensure that no one besides Corona had handled such things as his pistol and the ledger of names. It was a case full of holes.
Corona himself remained stoic and mute throughout the proceedings, showing polite respect to his attorney and fully supported by his angry and unhappy family. One sister had come from Mexico to attend each day’s proceedings, and his four children were always there. Occasionally he looked back at them.
In a U.S. court to date, no one had ever been tried on this many murder charges – all twenty-five. Even the judge questioned why the People had elected to include them all, which considerably lengthened the trial and strained the county resources, but the strategy was to overwhelm the jury with the sheer brutality of a man who could kill and bury so many men over such a short span of time.
Yet they had not been able to prove that Corona was homosexual, and originally the case had rested on the idea that some sort of homosexual liaison had inspired the crimes. Hawk played this up by explaining that the victims had been exposed in such a way as to indicate that they had played the “male” role, which meant the killer had been the receptive one, the masochist. And masochists, when Mexican, were often filled with shame over their secret desires.
After a sexual encounter, such a person would then become homicidally enraged and able to kill his partner. (Hawk claimed that he had an expert to attest to this, but in the end, he brought no such person into the trial. His information, says Kidder, came from a book.)
This information was Hawk’s attempt to bring Natividad into the picture. He was already known to be gay, so it was a small step to implicate him as the shamed partner who might repeatedly kill. But the police, in their inefficiency, had never even investigated the possibility of any other suspect, let alone an equally viable one. Hawk was not allowed to name Natividad during his opening statement without clear evidence, but the implication hung in the air, strengthened by Hawks occasional hints. Frasier says that Hawk made it clear that the chief suspect had killed the men in rage over a case of syphilis that he’d contracted during some incident of casual sex.
As the case moved along, reporters and jury members alike grew bored and confused. The predictions lined up against Teja and his team, as they appeared to have thrown together a stick house in a hurricane. But there were yet some surprises in store, notably from the defense.
The Weight of the Case
One witness, Byron Shannon, had said that he’d seen Corona pick up several of the victims in his truck, so he offered key testimony for the prosecution. However, his credibility came under attack, and in the end, he was so confused that he himself seemed uncertain as to what he had actually seen.
Following him came several forensic experts. The machete was a key piece of evidence, even though no blood had been found on it and it did not fit the wounds of the first victim discovered. The prosecution’s expert described the kinds of cuts that such a weapon could leave on a surface, and he said that other victims who had been too decomposed for wound analysis nevertheless could not be ruled out as having been cut by such a blade. In a way, he left it open for the defense to prove otherwise, which was not Hawk’s job, so Hawk turned the tables back around. He had only to prove reasonable doubt, he later told reporters.
A ballistics expert said that the bullet removed from the only victim who had been shot, William Kamp, while not traceable to Corona’s gun, was the right caliber and make for being fired from Corona’s pistol. Nevertheless, the blood found on its barrel did not match Kamp’s blood type. Teja merely said that it could have been used to bludgeon one of the other victims. Hawk pointed out that no blood analysis proved that.
A pathologist testified that the knives found in Corona’s office could have made the chest wounds on some of the victims, but he was unable to say with any certainty that they had. Hawk pounded this home to the jury.
Stains found on clothing in Corona’s possession and in his vehicles had proven to be blood, but there was not much of it, so Hawk insisted that had he been the killer, there should have been much more than one might find in the ordinary person’s home from common accidents. Bloodstains proved nothing, especially since not one had been definitely linked to any of the victims.
Another blood expert, Dr. Ruth Guy, said that bloodstains from Corona’s van had indicated at least three types, so even if a witness was produced who would say he had been injured and transported in the van (and none was so produced, despite Hawk’s promises), it would not negate the possibility that the van had transported murder victims. The same could be said about blood types found on the knives and in Corona’s car. Yet there were problems with this witness. She had originally said that the saliva test on the cigarette found in one grave did not match the victim or Corona, and then she had changed her analysis to say that it did indeed match Corona, because the original saliva test from Corona had been in error. That admission gave Hawk some ground for attack – especially when a prosecution criminalist denounced Dr. Guy’s technique.
Teja had also found some handwriting experts to indicate that samples of Corona’s writing were consistent with some of the letters found in some of the names written into the ledger. Yet his analysis was still not overwhelming.
A third prosecutor, Ronald Fahey, entered the case in November. He had plenty of trial experience and he used it to go after Hawk, with both attorneys seeking any excuse to undermine the other. While it evened the playing ground somewhat, the judge often had to break up their petty squabbles. In short, the case got cluttered and unwieldy, but neither side had a clear advantage, according to those authors who were keeping track, so these attorneys were reduced to personal attacks and to promoting themselves among the press corps.
After 113 witnesses and months of testimony, the prosecution rested its case. Then Hawk got up and shocked the court. First he asked for a directed verdict that would essentially dismiss the case. He wanted an acquittal, based on the fact that there was no evidence to support the charges. When he did not get what he’d requested, he told the judge that he, too, rested his case. He had no witnesses to call, despite promising in his opening statement to name the true murderer.
He apparently believed that the prosecution had done a sufficient amount of bungling that there was no need to do anything but allow the jury to condemn them for it. Kidder suggests that he felt over-confident about reasonable doubt because the press had often been on his side and because one witness who had been dismissed had told him that most of the others were not impressed with the evidence. In any event, it was a bold move.
“Looking back at Hawk’s opening statement,” writes Kidder, “it seems to some extent that he tailored his strategy to his ambitions rather than the circumstances.”
Both sides summarized their cases in closing arguments, and Cartel indicates that Hawk’s took only seven minutes, but Kidder says it went over the course of two days, with a lot of side excursions about the law. Essentially, Richard Hawk offered an alternate suspect, but did not address the fact that no one had been able to place Natividad in the area during the time in which the murders had occurred. He had been in Mexico, says Frasier, and Kidder, who went to Guadalajara to meet Natividad, concurs. He could not prove it, but he believed that Natividad had been nowhere near Yuba City during the time of the murders. He had fled the U.S. after the case against him was settled, selling everything and buying a one-way ticket home. Since then, he’d been ill. Kidder also comments that Hawk’s final words, while entertaining, was not the best argument that he personally had heard Hawk give on the case.
After Fahey gave the final rebuttal, the case went to the jury. Their first ballot, says Cartel, was 7 to 5 for acquittal, so clearly Hawk had gotten the right impression. In fact, the jury did tell the judge at one point that they had reached an impasse. But negotiation has a life of its own.
They were to take sixteen more votes over the next forty-six hours of deliberation, and in January 1973 the jury convicted Corona of all twenty-five counts of first-degree murder, more than anyone in America to date. (In short order, twenty-seven murders would be attributed to Dean Corll in Texas, but since he was killed by one of his accomplices, he never stood trial.) Corona received twenty-five life sentences, with the possibility of parole. The jury members who talked about it later said that Hawk had made a mistake resting his case without using any witnesses.
But it was not yet over. The case was appealed and Corona awaited the decision.
Back to Court
By the end of his first year at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Corona was attacked by four other inmates. They slashed and stabbed him so many times (32) that he nearly died. Allegedly, he then confessed the murders to a priest. He lost an eye in this incident, but then recovered. The priest was not allowed to reveal the confession, but somehow it got into some accounts about the case.
And there were two more confessions. According to David Frasier, in 1978, Mexican consular official Jesus Rodriguez-Navarro visited Corona in prison. Later he quoted the convicted man as saying, “Yes, I did it, but I am a sick man and a sick man cannot be judged by the same standards as other men.” That same year, says Cartel, he also agreed to a plea deal by confessing to the murders in a letter to Judge Patton, but he also recanted the contents of this letter.
Five years after the first trial ended, a California appeals court reviewed Corona’s trial records and found that attorney Richard Hawk had not competently represented his client. He had attacked the police instead of exploring other options, such as a defense of mental incompetence (and he had known about Corona’s past hospitalization). He also had called no witnesses for the defense, not even Corona himself (although he had hinted that he would). Frasier says that Hawk was even disbarred after the trial for income tax evasion.
In addition, the role of ghostwriter Ed Cray, who had sat with Hawk during the trial to investigate it and write a book on the case, was scrutinized. The court decided that the arrangement to pay Hawk from book fees, based on an exclusive deal, constituted a conflict of interest.
In February 1982, Corona was back in court for a new trial. It took place in Hayward, California and lasted nearly twice a long as the first trial. Richard Fahey once again prosecuted it, but a better defense team took on Corona’s case. Although several key witnesses were dead, the trial moved forward. Over a period of seven months, writes Frasier, 1,300 exhibits were admitted (Cartel says 620), and 175 witnesses took the stand (135 for the prosecution, says Cartel).
The cost to California taxpayers was just short of five million dollars. But once again, no one offered any of the mental incompetence defenses that the appeals court had expected. Juan’s half-brother, Natividad, was again held up to the jury as a viable suspect and the police investigation was thoroughly criticized. Corona himself took the stand to testify on his own behalf. Speaking through an interpreter, he denied any involvement in the crimes.
The jury took even longer this time – fifty-four hours over two weeks–to return a verdict of guilty. “Afterward,” writes Frasier, “the foreman told the press that the most incriminating piece of evidence against Corona had been the so-called ‘death ledger’ for which the labor contractor had ‘no reasonable explanation.'”
Corona’s sentence of twenty-five concurrent life terms was restored, with parole hearings every four years. The defense attorney requested a third trial, based on jury misconduct, but this was denied. One writer, Bill Tailbitzer, who received complete access to the police files and court records, concluded that Corona was clearly the likeliest suspect. Some people believe that he was railroaded, but others believe he’s guilty of even more murders than came to light in this case. Two juries were convinced, despite the mismanaged investigation, that Juan Corona and no other murdered those twenty-five men. Thus, he remains among the pantheon of American monsters.
Cartel, Michael. Disguise of Sanity: Serial Mass Murderers. Toluca Lake, CA: Pepperbox Books, 1985.
Cray, Ed. Burden of proof: The Case of Juan Corona. New York: Macmillan, 1973.
Everitt, David. Human Monsters: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World’s Most Vicious Murderers. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1993.
Frasier, David. K. Murder Cases of the Twentieth Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1996.
Kidder, Tracy. The Road to Yuba City: A Journey into the Juan Corona Murders. New York: Doubleday, 1974.
Newton, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. New York: Facts on File, 2000.
Tailbitzer, Bill. Too Much Blood. New York: Vantage Press, 1978.
Villasenor, Victor. Jury: The People vs. Juan Corona. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.