Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Killer Prophet

The Year of the Hippie Murders

In August 1969, Los Angeles, California, was shaken by a horrific murder spree.   It appeared that several diabolical people had entered the home of Hollywood producer Roman Polanski and slaughtered five people in some ritual, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate.  One of the killers used blood to write the word "Pig" on a door.  This gang left similar messages the following night at the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.  No one knew who could have done it, or who was next.  Then a woman named Susan Atkins spilled the beans by bragging about it and the killers were arrested.  The nation learned that a strange-looking drifter, Charles Manson, had gathered a "family" of homeless hippies from Haight-Ashbury and ordered several of them to begin his murderous "revolution" against the white establishment.  They had mindlessly obeyed and showed no remorse.

Charles Manson
Charles Manson
 

Six months later in North Carolina, on February 17, 1970, Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald claimed to have been attacked in his home by a group of hippies high on acid, who had knocked him out and murdered his wife and two young daughters.   He was initially charged, but those charges were dropped and later that year there was still talk of a blond woman in a floppy hat saying "Groovy" as her male companions committed murder and mayhem.

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald
Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald
 

There was already plenty of tension between ordinary people making a living and those who had "dropped out" to get high and find a more communal type of life by rebelling against established traditions.   Each group eyed the other with suspicion.  Now, people believed, some of those hippies were showing their stripes, their peace-loving slogans notwithstanding.

Back in California, where the Manson trial was in the news a year after those attacks, another such massacre was discovered near Santa Cruz.   On the evening of October 19, 1970, two patrol officers noticed thick smoke in the Soquel hills around 8:10 P.M. so they called the Live Oak Fire Department.  Those who responded went to 999 Rodeo Gulch Road, where a fire raced through the upscale home of eye surgeon Victor M. Ohta.  The first arriving firefighters spotted a red Rolls Royce and a gold and black Lincoln Continental parked across the front and rear driveways, locked and blocking their way.  They could see that the mansion's roof was already ablaze, so they smashed the Lincoln 's window to move the car.

Flash Point
Flash Point
 

It soon became clear from the number of separate points of origin, writes Michael Kelleher in Flash Point: The American Mass Murder, that this fire had been an act of arson.  The men would have to work fast to try to put out the multiple blazes.  There was no sign of the inhabitants, so they assumed that when the fire started no one had been home.

In that moment, as bad as it was, they had no way of knowing that they were about to discover the first of three monstrous incidents over the next three years that would soon earn Santa Cruz the reputation of being America's murder capital.

California map with Santa Cruz marked
California map with Santa Cruz marked

Hoping to use the lagoon-shaped, in-ground pool as additional water source, Chief Ted Pound went looking for a fire hydrant that he knew had been specially installed in the yard for that purpose.   It appeared to be hidden within the oriental shrubbery, so he got out a flashlight to search around for it.  His beam cut through the night air over the dark water and illuminated the face of a young boy floating in the pool.

Clearly he was dead.  Perhaps he'd been burned and had run outside to douse himself, but had died in the process.  The chief stepped closer and thought he saw more dark shapes in the water.  His gut told him this crime scene was no mere arson.

 

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