Juan Corona: Rush to Judgment?
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 16 to 20, and the digging continued.
The search for bodies finally ended on June 4. By that time, the toll was 25, 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 40, the oldest 68. 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.