Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Juan Corona: Rush to Judgment?

A Turbulent Year

Sheriff's deputies, masked
Sheriff's deputies, masked

In the U.S., 1971 was a turbulent year. The Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family two years earlier in the Los Angeles area had shown people they weren't necessarily safe in their homes and four students protesting the war in Vietnam had been shot down at Kent State. Blacks were rioting in large cities around the country, and the government was sneaking toward the Watergate scandal. The Los Angeles police had just learned about the six-year crime spree perpetrated by Mack Ray Edwards when he brought in a loaded gun and said he felt guilty. Since the 1950s, he told them, he had murdered half a dozen children, all of whom had in fact disappeared. Soon Americans would witness the highest known murder count yet by one person. As yet, only the Boston Strangler in 1964, with eleven victims, had shown the country on a spectacular basis what a serial killer was like, and the term itself was not yet in official use.

The case that shocked the nation was covered extensively in San Francisco newspapers, and the definitive book on the investigation and first trial is Tracy Kidder's The Road to Yuba City (initially published as articles in the Atlantic Monthly). To write a full narrative with a fair sense of the victims, many of whom were farm workers, Kidder rode in box cars as one of them, listening to their concerns, experiencing the cold and hunger, working alongside them picking peaches, and trying to understand how vulnerable they were. He also traveled to many different places to learn more about the principal players, talked with victims' families, attended the trial, and contemplated suspects other than the defendant. He wanted to pinpoint the events of 1971 as more than just an isolated case, hoping to capture the inherent dangers of a scorned lifestyle that could terminate as easily as it had for so many men in that one place. Once again, California commanded the world's attention.

Orchard & Feather Rivers
Orchard & Feather Rivers

Other books from the case include Ed Cray's Burden of Proof, taking the side of the defense, Bill Tailbitzer's pro-prosecution tome, Too Much Blood, and a book about the first jury, called Jury: The People vs. Juan Corona. The investigation and first trial were also given extensive coverage in California newspapers.

In Sutter County, California, near the Feather River five miles north of Yuba City, reports David Frasier in Murder Cases of the Twentieth Century, a Japanese farmer named Goro Kagehiro was touring his peach orchard on May 19, 1971 when he spotted a freshly-dug hole between two trees that appeared to be the size of a man. He could not understand why someone had dug there. Nearby picking peaches was a crew that he had hired through Juan Vallejo Corona, who managed a labor contracting business. According to Michael Newton, Corona supplied area ranchers with cheap labor in the form of migrant workers from Mexico.

 

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