In the early hours of an April morning, a tired police officer reaches to answer the ringing phone. Over the past year, a series of bloody murders has left the Californian city of Santa Cruz in the grip of terror. Now, someone is ready to confess – but the man on the phone is not a stranger to the authorities, and his terrible story is almost impossible to believe.
In May 1972 students began disappearing in mysterious circumstances – presumed victims of the so-called Co-ed Killer. And while police struggled to catch the person responsible, they shared theories over drinks in the Jury Room, a local cop bar. But could the culprit have been staring them in the face the whole time?
At six feet nine inches tall, Edmund Kemper had earned a reputation as a gentle giant among the officers who drank at the Jury Room. And while he lamented the failure of his own law enforcement career, he listened to their thoughts on the puzzling case in the bar.
Born in December 1948 in the city of Burbank, California, Kemper was the only son of Edmund, a veteran of World War II, and his wife Clarnell. After surviving dangerous missions during his time in service, his father settled into work as an electrician. However, family life was far from peaceful, and the relationship between Kemper’s parents was often fraught.
When Kemper was just nine years old, his parents broke up for good. And while he continued living with his mother and two sisters, he often found himself the target of abuse. According to reports, his mom habitually mocked her son for his large size, telling him that he would never find a woman and fall in love.
Soon, Kemper had developed a dark personality – and when he was just ten years old, he killed the family’s pet cat by burying it alive. Apparently, he also played disturbing games with dolls, mutilating them by removing their body parts. According to Katherine Ramsland’s Creating a Killer, on one occasion, he also gave a chilling response when his sister teased him about having a crush on one of his teachers. He said, “If I kiss her, I’d have to kill her first.”
As Kemper’s dark side began to show, his mother grew concerned. Apparently, she took to locking him in the basement out of fear that he might attack his sisters. Eventually, when he was 15, he ran away from home and traveled to California, where he hoped to reunite with his father. However, by that point, the latter had remarried.
After a short stay with his father, Kemper relocated to North Fork, CA, where his grandparents took him in. However, life there was no better, and he complained that his grandmother was also abusive. Then, on August 24, 1964, his displeasure took a more sinister turn – and at just 15 years old, the boy committed his first murder.
Apparently, Kemper got into an argument with his grandmother and responded by shooting her in the head. And even though that first shot killed her, he continued with his assault. Then, when his grandfather came back to the house, Kemper used the same rifle to murder him – allegedly to prevent the older man from discovering the crime.
Having killed both of his grandparents, Kemper telephoned his mother and then the police to confess. Shocked that someone so young could commit such a crime, the authorities decided that the teenager was a paranoid schizophrenic and committed him to an institution. But during his imprisonment, psychiatrists began to reconsider this diagnosis.
Apparently, those who worked with Kemper noted that he showed none of the traits typically associated with schizophrenia, concluding instead that he had passive-aggressive personality disorder. And soon, the young man had begun to win over the psychiatrists with his model behavior.
During his time at the institution, Kemper learned how to perform psychiatric evaluations on his fellow inmates, and even claimed to have developed his own tests. Eventually, when he was 21 years old, he was released and returned to live with his mother – although this arrangement went against the advice of his assessors.
After Kemper’s release, he enrolled in community college and tried his hand at various different types of employment. And eventually, he secured a job working for the State of California Highway Department. But even though he succeeded in moving out of his mother’s home, their toxic relationship continued to haunt him.
As Kemper got older, he started giving lifts to female hitchhikers. But while this activity seemed relatively harmless at first, he soon began experiencing violent urges towards his unsuspecting passengers. And in May 1972 he picked up two 18-year-old students who were trying to thumb a ride to Stanford University.
After driving out to an isolated area, Kemper murdered the two girls and took their bodies back to his apartment. There, he performed sex acts on the corpses before hacking them to pieces and dumping them on a mountain some 25 miles outside of Santa Cruz. But far from satiating his gruesome desires, this act was just the beginning of a violent spree.
Four months later, Kemper gave a ride to Aiko Koo, a 15-year-old dancer. And after taking her to another remote spot, he raped and murdered her, eventually disposing of the body in the same way. And then, in January 1973, he killed 18-year-old Cindy Schall, burying her severed head in the garden of his mother’s home.
By this time, fear had descended on the city of Santa Cruz, and the authorities believed that a serial killer was on the loose. Tensions were so high that students were advised to only accept lifts from vehicles bearing official campus stickers. However, these measures did little to save the lives of Kemper’s next victims.
Tragically, Allison Liu and Rosalind Thorpe must have believed that they were safe when they accepted a ride in a stickered vehicle in February 1973. But the car was Kemper’s – he had acquired a university badge thanks to his mother’s job. And after shooting the women, he took them back to his apartment where he performed sex acts on their bodies.
Then, in April 1973 Kemper’s killing spree came to a head. While at his mother’s house, he stole into her bedroom and bludgeoned her to death. Afterwards, he slit her throat and subjected her severed head to a torrent of physical and sexual abuse. Eventually, he attempted to dispose of her larynx and tongue in the garbage disposal unit – although the former was too tough to destroy.
Having murdered his mother, Kemper then invited her friend Sally Hallett over to the house. And when she got there, he slaughtered her as well, stuffing her corpse into a closet. Finally spent, he drove more than 1,300 miles east to Pueblo, Colorado, where he prepared to confess to his horrific crimes.
The Santa Cruz police department had, of course, been hunting for the criminal dubbed the Co-ed Killer for months. The panic surrounding the murders had begun to die down by now, but officers were still desperate to catch the person responsible. However, when the truth finally came out, it was something that none of them could have suspected.
After his initial release from psychiatric care, Kemper had attempted to pursue a career as a police officer, though his large size meant that he was unable to join the force. But despite this rejection, the young man had developed a social relationship with many members of Santa Cruz law enforcement over the years.
At the time, many of the officers drank in an aforementioned bar known as the Jury Room. And there, Kemper – who was given the nickname Big Ed – befriended them. Hugh Stevens wrote in a 1973 article for the crime magazine Inside Detective, “He played the role of a friendly giant, picking up smaller friends and setting them down on bar stools.”
Kemper himself would later describe his time at the Jury Room – and his relationship with the Santa Cruz authorities. According to author David Jouvent, the former said, “The bar I went to wasn’t in front of the police station, it was more than sixteen hundred feet away, in front of the courthouse. The Jury Room, Joe Mandela’s Jury Room.”
“‘Come in and give us your verdict,’ that’s the slogan under the sign,” Kemper continued. “The establishment is rather quiet and a number of police officers frequent it. At the time I was committing my crimes, I used the friendship bonds that I’d woven with these policemen to learn more about the progress of the investigation.”
However, it was this friendship that almost cost the officers their chance to put the Co-ed Killer behind bars. After killing his mother and her friend, Kemper decided that it was time to confess. But when he first called to notify the authorities of his crimes, the policeman on the other end of the line did not believe him.
Kemper was actually forced to call back hours later to repeat his confession, and this time, he requested an officer acquaintance by name. According to Truecrime.net, he reportedly said, “I killed my mother and her friend. And I killed those college girls. I killed six of them and I can show you where I hid the pieces of their bodies.”
Soon enough, the Santa Cruz officers realized that their friend Big Ed might not be joking after all. After tracing the call, they notified police in Colorado – warning them of the suspect’s intimidating size. And by the time that the law caught up with him, the man behind the Co-ed killings willingly surrendered.
In his 2004 book Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters, historian Peter Vronsky recounted Kemper’s alleged reasons for giving himself up. The killer is quoted as saying, “The original purpose was gone… It wasn’t serving any physical or real or emotional purpose. It was just a pure waste of time.”
“Emotionally, I couldn’t handle it much longer,” Kemper continued. “Toward the end there, I started feeling the folly of the whole damn thing, and at the point of near exhaustion, near collapse, I just said to hell with it and called it off.” And for the officers who had once counted Big Ed as a friend, the development must have come as a chilling shock.
In October 1973 Kemper stood in court accused of the eight murders. But even though his legal team tried to claim that he was insane, the court psychiatrists disagreed. The killer also told the jury that he had murdered his victims because he wanted to make them into his possessions. And in November that year, he was found guilty on each count.
With eight consecutive life sentences hanging over his head, Kemper was sent to the California Medical Facility, a men’s prison in Solano County, where he remains to this day. But in a sinister twist, the personable attitude that helped him to befriend – and ultimately manipulate – the Santa Cruz police continues to win him a form of status behind bars.
According to reports, Kemper has yet again taken on the role of a model prisoner. At one point, he was even given responsibility for arranging psychiatric appointments for his fellow inmates. Moreover, he also committed himself to the facility’s books on tape program, narrating a huge catalogue of literature in order to make it accessible to the blind.
In 1979, six years after his incarceration, Kemper became eligible for parole. However, he was repeatedly denied the opportunity to return to society. And even though he was legally entitled to a series of hearings, he periodically waived this right. Then in 2007 a prosecutor confirmed that he was unlikely to be set free.
“We don’t care how much of a model prisoner he is because of the enormity of his crimes,” Ariadne Symons told the East Bay Times in 2007. And it’s just as well, because Kemper seems to have settled into prison life. In fact, during the same hearing, the killer’s attorney Scott Currey claimed that his client was content to stay behind bars.
“His feeling is that… no one’s ever going to let him out and he’s just happy, he’s just as happy going about his life in prison,” Currey told the New York Post in 2007. But even if Kemper remains incarcerated for the rest of his life, his story has had an impact far beyond the walls of the California Medical Facility.
During his time in prison, Kemper was interviewed by John Douglas, an agent with the FBI. But when he told the lawman about his crimes, he also contributed to a lasting legacy. That’s because Douglas used the information that he learned from the Co-ed Killer – along with a number of other high-profile serial murderers – to pioneer the practice of criminal profiling.
According to Kemper, he believed that participating in Douglas’ work was a way to prevent others from following in his footsteps. Interviewed in the 1984 documentary Murder: No Apparent Motive, the former said, “There’s somebody out there that is watching this and hasn’t done that – hasn’t killed people, and wants to, and rages inside and struggles with that feeling, or is so sure they have it under control.”
“They need to talk to somebody about it,” Kemper continued. “Trust somebody enough to sit down and talk about something that isn’t a crime; thinking that way isn’t a crime. Doing it isn’t just a crime, it’s a horrible thing. It doesn’t know when to quit and it can’t be stopped easily once it starts.”
Eventually, the story of Douglas, Kemper and the early years of criminal profiling was adapted into the hit television show Mindhunter, which debuted in 2017. And now, millions of people around the world are familiar with the Co-ed Killer’s chilling crimes. But perhaps the most sinister thing about Kemper is the fact that he was under the noses of the police the whole time – hiding in plain sight.