Serial killers : the serial homicide case of the day

The Serial Homicide Case of the Day, from "Hunting Humans, the Encyclopedia of 20th Century Serial Killers" , by Michael Newton

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  Corona, Juan Vallejo

Police mug shot of Juan Corona.

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.

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