Juan Corona: Rush to Judgment?
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.