Another entry in my month-long celebration of all things Halloween
In 1966, when Korean American Peter A. Chang, Jr. was elected district attorney in Santa Cruz County, California, he became not only the youngest person in the United States to hold that position (at age 29) but also the first and only Asian American. He served in that role until 1975. This alone would qualify him as an Original Offender, but Chang’s tenure also happened to coincide with a period when the normally bucolic college town of Santa Cruz was suddenly home to three of the most notorious serial killers to ever operate in the United States; earning itself the unpleasant nickname of “the murder capital of the world” (a term Chang himself unwillingly coined).
Chang passed away in 2004 at the age of 67 from lung cancer, but I had the good fortune to talk to him during my time at UC Santa Cruz–exactly twenty years after the unprecedented wave of murders (the fictional town with the title of “murder capital of the world” in the 1987 film Lost Boys was based on Santa Cruz and much of the movie was shot there).
Chang was born in Honolulu and moved with his family to Palo Alto, California, at the end of World War II. After high school, he attended Menlo College for two years before transferring to Stanford University where he graduated with degrees in English literature and American history in 1958. He went on to Stanford law school and graduated in 1961.
He tried to look for a job but ran into resistance at criminal defense firms openly unwilling to hire an Asian American. “No one at that time thought an Asian could stand toe-to-toe with an Irishman in a criminal courtroom,” Chang told me.
He eventually got a job with the Monterey County district attorney, but lost the first eleven cases he prosecuted. This prompted him to take speech and acting lessons and to study all the good local trial lawyers. “I was determined to be the best at what I did,” he explained. And soon, he started to get better.
After becoming Santa Cruz’s district attorney, Chang made a name for himself by doing things like trying to (unsuccessfully) prosecute Santa Cruz Mayor Richard Werner, a Vietnam vet, for tearing down a Vietcong flag that belonged to a citizen. But it was what happened between 1970 and 1973 that really put Chang’s abilities to the test.
No less than three serial killers were plying their trade in the region: Herbert Mullin, a paranoid schizophrenic who killed ten people at the urging of voices directing him to murder to save the environment; John Linley Frazier, who killed a family of six as a warning against those who would “destroy nature”; and one of the most notorious serial killers in American history—Edmund Kemper III who was one of the inspirations for author Thomas Harris to create the character of Hannibal Lector in his best-selling novel The Silence of the Lambs. Chang personally prosecuted Frazier and Kemper and would have prosecuted Mullin had he not been ill.
While the crimes of all three men were horrifying, it’s Kemper’s story that proved to be especially gruesome.
Kemper was born in 1948 in Burbank, California, to a dysfunctional family. His parents separated when he was young and he began displaying sadistic tendencies from an early age by doing things like dismembering the family cats and forcing his sister to play “death-ritual” games. He was sent to live with his grandparents in the hope his behavior would improve. But in 1962, at the age of fourteen, Kemper shot his grandmother and then stabbed her corpse because she upset him. Then he shot his grandfather so he wouldn’t get in trouble for murdering his grandmother.
Kemper was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane but released at the age of twenty-one, over the strong objections of state psychiatrists, to his mother who worked as a secretary at the newly-opened University of California in Santa Cruz. By now, Kemper was six foot nine and weighed in at three hundred pounds. Two years later, the killings began.
On May 7, 1972, Kemper picked up two hitchhikers from Fresno State College, Mary Ann Pesce and Anita Luchessa. He stabbed both women, took Polaroid photos of their bodies, dissected them, played with various organs, buried their bodies in the mountains and tossed their heads into a ravine.
On September 14 of the same year, Kemper gave a ride to Aiko Koo, a 15-year-old high school student, suffocated her, sexually assaulted her corpse, then dissected her. The next day when he had his regular meeting with a state psychiatrist, he intentionally left Koo’s head lying in his car trunk. Kemper found great satisfaction in meeting with the psychiatrist who reported that he was making wonderful progress while the girl’s head was in the car just a few feet away.
On January 9, 1973, Kemper picked up UC Santa Cruz student Cindy Schall, shot her, had sex with her corpse on his bed, dissected her and threw the remains into the ocean. But he tried something new this time—he buried Schall’s head face-up in his backyard looking toward his mother’s bedroom because his mother had wanted people to “look up to her” (Kemper had serious mommy issues as we will soon see). A month later, he picked up and killed two more students—Rosalind Thorpe and Alice Liu.
By now, Kemper was being called the “Coed Killer” and Santa Cruz was gripped with terror. Chang was under a lot of pressure to find the person or persons responsible for these crimes and he was feeling the heat. He told me he loved Santa Cruz because of its idyllic, small town feel. Part of the reason he decided to come here was so his children could grow up in a “safe” environment and now he had not one, but three killers to contend with. So it was especially difficult for him to have to deal with something like the death of the Otha family at the hands of Frazier. “It was pretty awful,” Chang said, referring to the moment when police pulled the body of 12-year-old Derrick Ohta from the swimming pool where Frazier had dumped it. “He looked exactly like my son. I thought I was dreaming.”
Finally on Easter weekend, Kemper, buoyed by the confidence he had gained from all his kills, got up the nerve to do the one thing he had wanted to do all along—kill his mother. While she slept, he repeatedly bludgeoned her with a claw hammer. Then he decapitated her and raped her headless corpse. As his last symbolic act, he cut out her larynx and stuffed it down the garbage disposal. But the disposal jammed and the bloody voice box shot back out and hit him in the face. “Even when she was dead she was still bitching at me,” he would tell Chang and the police later. “I couldn’t get her to shut up!” He then called Sally Hallett, a friend of his mother’s, invited her over for dinner and proceeded to kill her too.
The next day, Easter Sunday, he got in his car and started driving eastward. He expected the bodies to be discovered and his crimes reported on the news but there was nothing. By the time he reached Pueblo, Colorado, he was disappointed his big act had not received the coverage he expected, so he went into a phone booth and called the Santa Cruz Police himself. Chang was one of the first to talk to him.
“He told us he was the Coed killer but we didn’t believe him,” Chang said. It turns out, Kemper was friends with many in the Santa Cruz law enforcement community (he had even tried to join the Highway Patrol at one point) and they couldn’t believe that this man who they had hung out with, had beers with and discussed the Coed Killer case with, was the actual Coed Killer.
Chang and two officers drove out to Colorado to pick up Kemper and then drove him back to Santa Cruz. On the long trek back, Kemper confessed to everything and described his crimes in detail. “It was surreal,” Chang said. “He was telling us about the most gruesome things as matter-of-factly as us talking about the weather.”
Kemper, as well as the other two killers, were successfully prosecuted. When the judge asked Kemper what he felt would be an appropriate punishment, he replied, “death by torture.” He is currently serving a life sentence.
As for Chang, in 1974, he failed in his bid for a Superior Court judgeship and went into private practice in Santa Cruz, but his life soon took a tragic turn. He was drinking so heavily that by 1982, he lost his practice and his family. “Everything that was important to me was gone,” he said. He didn’t directly admit it, but it seemed that the stress he had gone through during those difficult years may have taken its toll. But by the time I met him in the early ‘90s, he had turned his life around. He had joined Alcoholic’s Anonymous, got sober and returned to practicing law.
Peter Chang never really received the proper recognition from the Asian American community for his achievements, but for his accomplishments as a pioneering District Attorney and for leading the fight to demolish Santa Cruz’s status as “murder capital of the world,” he more than earns his title as an Original Offender.