|“||Yes, I did it, but I am a sick man and a sick man can't be judged by the same standards as other men.||”|
Juan Corona, a.k.a. "The Machete Murderer", was a Mexican "house-cleaner"-type serial killer and rapist who murdered at least twenty-five men in California from 1970-1971.
Corona was born as Juan Vallejo Corona in Autlán, a rural population in the state of Jalisco, Mexico on February 7, 1934. Vallejo was one of his two surnames, as is custom in Hispanic America, but he only used Corona. He was one of ten children born to Sebastián Corona and his second wife Cándida; he also had three older half-siblings from Sebastián's previous marriage. The eldest was his half-brother Natividad, who migrated to California in 1944, attracted by jobs that were left vacant by the World War II draft. In 1950, when he was sixteen, Corona dropped out of high school and illegally immigrated to California, where he worked in farms in the Imperial and Sacramento Valleys. He also managed to attend night school to gain fluency in the English language.
In May 1953, Corona settled in the Marysville-Yuba City metropolitan area following Natividad's invitation. On October 24, he married a Sacramento native, Gabriella E. Hermosillo, in Reno, Nevada, at the urging of Hermosillo's parents. The marriage fell apart after three months. In late December 1955, a flood in the Yuba and Feather Rivers broke a levee and flooded much of the Sacramento Valley, including large sections of Yuba City and Marysville; the latter was declared lost at the time and evacuated completely. The flood killed a total of 38 people, many of whom were undocumented Mexican laborers drafted in an effort to fix the levee. This event had a profound effect on Corona, who had always been afraid of water. He suffered a mental breakdown, coming to believe that everyone died and he was seeing ghosts. On January 17, 1956, Natividad had Corona committed to a mental hospital in Auburn, California, where he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
After receiving 23 shock treatments in a period of three months, he was declared recovered and deported back to Mexico, but he later returned legally that year. In 1959, Corona married a second time, to Gloria Moreno, and had four daughters with her. Despite his violent temper, excessive interest in showing off his masculinity, and well-known issues with openly gay men, Corona was a trusted worker. In 1962, he became a licensed labor contractor and hired workers to staff local fruit ranches. In March 1970, Corona had a new schizophrenic episode and was briefly institutionalized again. On May 25, a young Mexican man, José Romero Raya, was found injured in the restroom of Nativadad's Guadalajara Cafe. Romero had been attacked in the face and head with a machete and nearly scalped, prompting Natividad to call the police. Though Romero had not seen his attacker, and Corona was at the cafe and considered a suspect at the time, Romero filed a lawsuit against Natividad instead, and won $250,000. Rather than paying, Natividad sold all of his properties in California and moved back to Mexico.
Arrest, Trial, Incarceration, and Death
On May 19, 1971, Japanese-American farmer Goro Kagehiro found a large, freshly dug hole in the Sutter County peach orchard that he owned. Kagehiro asked his employees (all hired through Corona's connections) about the hole, but they knew nothing about it. At night, Kagehiro returned to the orchard and found the hole filled. He called the Sheriff, who dug up the hole and found the body of a drifter, Kenneth Whiteacre. Though Whiteacre was dressed, the deputies found gay literature in his pockets and the murder was classified as a sex crime. However, the coroner did not look for signs of sexual assault and only performed a superficial examination. On May 24, workers driving a tractor at an adjoining ranch spotted another filled hole. They also alerted the Sheriff, who dug up another male body, and found yet another place where earth had been moved. This contained a third body and a couple of Yuba City Market meat tickets signed by Corona on May 21. All three victims were drifters and farm workers, who had been hacked and stabbed in the same manner, and a pickup truck resembling one belonging to Corona had been seen in the area at the time of the murders.
Because the Sheriff's office was reluctant to make an arrest before the real number of victims was known, they continued to search the area for graves. They found six more corpses in the same orchard, most of them hacked and stabbed, and one shot; many were buried with their pants down or with no pants at all. Like the others, they were drifters and farm workers, and many were seen asking Corona for work or riding his pickup. On May 26, Deputies arrested Corona and searched his home, office, and car. Among the evidence found was an 18-inch machete, a bloodstained club, knives, a pistol and ammunition, digging material, other similar meat tickets, and a blue ledger with 34 male names and dates. Bloodstains were also found in Corona's vehicle. As a result, the Sheriff ordered aircraft to take infrared photographs of the area and locate more graves. By June 4, the day of the search's conclusion, the number of known victims was 25. This was twice the body count of the Boston Strangler, the most prolific, known American serial killer up to that point. Though 1,500 people contacted authorities to report missing relatives who could be one of the victims, four bodies were never identified.
Corona was initially provided with a public defender, Roy Van den Heuvel, who hired several psychiatrists to evaluate his mental state. However, on June 14, Van den Heuvel was replaced by Richard Hawk, a private attorney who took up the case in exchange for exclusive literary and dramatic rights to Corona's life story and the legal proceedings. Hawk decided not to plead innocence by reason of insanity, fired the psychiatrists, made no mention of Corona's schizophrenia, and called no witnesses. The proceedings were delayed twice, once because of Corona being hospitalized after suffering two consecutive heart attacks, and another because of the abolition of the death penalty in California, which took place while the trial was underway on February 18, 1972. Finally, Corona was found guilty of all charges on January 18, 1973, and sentenced to 25 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. However, further changes in the criminal legislation of California allowed him to get a parole hearing after seven years. In 1974, Corona's wife divorced him.
In 1978, Corona's first attorney was ruled incompetent, and he was granted a retrial. Corona's new attorney, Terence Hallinan, called 50 witnesses and attributed the murders to Natividad, who had earlier died in Mexico in 1973. Citing Romero's 1970 lawsuit, Hallinan claimed that Natividad was a violent homosexual. However, Corona admitted to one homosexual encounter in Mexico before he immigrated to the U.S. This time, the main witness for the prosecution was a Mexican Consulate employee who met Corona in jail in 1978 while he was preparing his appeal. According to him, Corona admitted to the killings, stating in Spanish, "Yes, I did it, but I am a sick man and a sick man can't be judged by the same standards as other men." Hallinan countered this, claiming that Corona had not actually said "Yes, I did it", but a hypothetical "If I did it". After seven months, the jury found Corona guilty on all counts again, and dismissed Natividad's involvement, arguing that the defense did not prove he was in California at the time of most of the murders. Shortly after, Corona was stabbed in the face by other inmates and lost all sight in his right eye. He was serving his sentence in Corcoran State Prison. During his last parole hearing in November 2016, he admitted to killing some of the victims before a Californian court for the first time, but claimed that they were all trespassers. Corona died on March 4, 2019 from natural causes, aged 85.
Corona mostly targeted male itinerant farm workers between 40 and 65 years old who abandoned their families. Many were homeless, alcoholic, and slept in a park across the street from the Guadalajara Cafe. Because Corona denied committing the crimes and the workers (known as "winos", "tramps", or simply derelicts) were considered unreliable and not hired by Corona (who only worked with green card-carrying Mexicans), it is unclear how he obtained his victims. They might have asked him for work or been lured with job offers by Corona. Likewise, fifteen of the victims were found undressed in some way, but it is not known how or when it happened. Corona would first club or non-fatally hack his victims in the head with a machete, and later stab them fatally in the chest (excluding one victim, who was shot in the head; and another, who was somehow killed with a knife). He would then hit them in the head again post-mortem and bury them in a pre-dug hole, north of an orchard tree, with their hands around their heads. Either before or after the murders, he would write the victim's name and the date of the murder (or non-fatal attack, in the case of Romero) in his blue ledger.
- May 25, 1970, Marysville, California: José Romero Raya (attacked in the face and head with a machete and nearly scalped; survived)
- 1971, Sutter County, California:
- Sigurd Emil Beiermann
- John Raggio Smallwood
- Mark Beverly Shields
- Joe Carriveau
- Four unidentified men
- May 12: Raymond Reand Muchache, 47
- May 19 (found): Kenneth Edward Whiteacre
- May 21: Melford Everett Sample
- May 24 (found): Charles Cleveland Fleming
- May 25:
- John Joseph Haluka, 52
- Warren Jerome Kelley, 61-62
- May 26:
- Donald Dale Smith, 60
- William Emery Kamp, 63
- May 27 (found; the following were mostly hacked and stabbed, and one shot):
- Elbert J.T. Riley, 46
- Paul Buel Allen, 59
- Clarence Hocking, 53
- James Wylie Howard, 64
- Edward Martin Cupp, 44
- Albert Leon Hayes, 58
- May 28 (found): John Henry Jackson, 64
- May 29 (found): Lloyd Wallace Wenzel, 60
- June 4 (found): Joseph J. Maczak, 55
- Corona remained the worst known serial killer in U.S. history until 1973 when Dean Corll's crimes were discovered. Despite clear indications that there were more victims, the Houston Police Department ended the search when they only recovered 28 bodies, because they feared that the total body count was much larger than Corona's, and thought that this would reflect badly on their work.
On Criminal Minds
While Corona has yet to be directly mentioned or referenced on the show, he appears to have been an inspiration for the following unsubs:
- Season Four
- Season Eight
- Paul Westin ("Broken") - Both were homosexual serial killers who tried to project an outward appearance of heterosexuality, killed their victims by bludgeoning, stabbing, and/or shooting them, had a first and unplanned victim who was the most like them (Westin killed a young homosexual man first, and later killed women or older men, while Corona first attempted to kill a Mexican man, and his fatal victims were non-Hispanic Caucasians, two African-Americans, and one Native American), their first victims discovered were dressed and the following undressed, and both were institutionalized by their family prior to their killings (in Westin's case, it was at a conversion camp rather than a mental hospital).
- Wikipedia's article about Corona
- Murderpedia's article about Corona
- Radford University's summary about Corona's life
- Find a Grave articles:
- Twenty-Five Murders (and probably more): Looking for a Reason (2012)