A Community in Fear
"The grisly murder of five people has set a fuse burning on long smoldering tensions in this Oceanside city." That was the opening to an article in the Sentinel directly after the discovery of the massacre. Longtime residents, who did not appreciate the recent influx into the community of young people sporting unkempt beards and long hair, blamed hippies for the incident, and in their turn the "longhairs" were fearful of vigilantes seeking retribution. One unnamed young man who sported the hippie look vowed that if the killer turned out to be a hippie, he would shave and get a haircut.
Santa Cruz Mayor Ernest Wicklund issued a plea for people to remain calm. He'd been requested to declare a state of martial law—"or else!"--but he thought the measure too drastic. He asked people to be reasonable and to allow the law enforcement agencies to carry out their work.
Jack Cadwallader, husband of Ohta's murdered secretary, spent the night after hearing about his wife's death with a loaded gun, guarding his two children. He would not allow the newspaper to publish his address. "I don't want any crazies coming around here," he was quoted as saying. He believed this was the work of a Manson-like cult in the area.
Others shared his fears. Whoever the killers were, they appeared not to be motivated by robbery, so it seemed to many residents that the incident could only have been inspired by the same mindless urge to kill that had triggered Manson's followers. In fact, someone told reporters that Ohta had been bothered by hippies dropping into his secluded home. At one time, someone said, Dr. Ohta had chased six such vagabonds off his porch.
Cadwallader denied speculation that his wife had gone to the home to baby-sit the boys while the Ohtas went to a dinner that evening. All he knew was that his wife, who had worked for Dr. Ohta for eight years, had not come home on Monday night from the office. She did not work at Ohta's home, so he had no idea why she had been there.
The Ohtas also had two daughters. Taura, 18, had left on Monday to return to school in New York, apparently just escaping being a victim herself. Her younger sister, Lark Elizabeth, 15, was away at boarding school. Both were called immediately to come to Santa Cruz to meet with relatives to prepare for the funerals.
Then late on Tuesday afternoon, Virginia Ohta's car turned up. A slow-moving switch engine had smashed into it around 4:45 inside the Rincon tunnel of the Southern Pacific Railroad, near Henry Cowell State Park Whoever had stolen it had driven it about 150 feet into the tunnel, set fire to the seats, and then fled. The damaged car was empty but the motor was still warm, an indication that the car thieves were not far away.
More than 200 police and firefighters were called in to help. Some fanned out into the redwood forest near the tunnel to look for the people who had escaped, while others sealed off the ends of the seven-mile-long gorge of the San Lorenzo River, hoping to trap the suspects. Crime scene technicians began working on the car, hoping for fingerprints or other evidence that would lead them to the suspects. Reportedly, a woman had seen three people in the vicinity of the stolen car earlier that day, and three sets of footprints, including one set made by bare feet, led from the tunnel to the river.
Reporters learned that a woman had called the police on Tuesday afternoon to report the car parked in Bonny Doon. She had spotted a woman and two men nearby. They appeared to be in their early 20s, all had long hair, and one carried an orange backpack. Police arrived quickly, but the car had already been moved. Nearby were the remains of a campsite. Then a call had come in that the car was seen heading toward Highway 9, but before anyone could respond, the police learned about the train accident. No more than half an hour had elapsed between the first and last reports. They felt sure they could catch the perpetrators, who could not be far away.
As police searched the San Lorenzo valley, residents huddled behind locked doors, ready to "shoot anything that walks." Deputies checked dozens of people throughout the night, but when it got too dark to see in the rugged valley, the search was called off. The three mystery "hippies" were not caught.
Around the area, gun sales had jumped that day—one store reported a 500% rise. With rampaging hippies on the loose who might be anywhere, perhaps planning yet another massacre, residents were being careful.
A white van, which had been spotted on Rodeo Gulch Drive around the time of the fire, was impounded to search for evidence.
Then the media learned via a press release that a typewritten note had been found on the night of the murders under the windshield wiper blade of Ohta's Rolls Royce. Its contents reinforced the fear that this was yet another "hippie" attack. One reporter, Cliff Johnson, took the release into the "hip" community Wednesday evening to ask questions. His enterprising act turned out to be fortuitous, and even as the note was appearing for the first time in the press, the police were on to a productive lead.