Yesterday’s Crimes: Conversations with Ed Kemper

Before the FBI and Mindhunter, Stanford psychiatrist Donald Lunde was the go-to guy for analyzing '70s serial killers.

Cameron Britton (left) and Ed Kemper (right)

 
June 20, 1973 was a busy Wednesday for Stanford psychiatrist Donald Lunde. He was going to interview two serial killers who had murdered a combined 21 people in around Santa Cruz from 1972 to 1973.
 
Being locked in a soundproof room with both Herbert Mullin and Ed Kemper in the same day worried Lunde’s wife, Marilyn. She asked him what kind of protection he had if the killers turned on him.
 
“I laughed at the notion that they might attack me,” Lunde later wrote. “They had no reason to do so, and besides the panic button would bring a squad of deputies instantly.”
 
The meeting with Mullin went about as smoothly as Lunde expected. Mullin was content to give the psychiatrist “a briefcase full of fullscrap” filled with “neatly handwritten notes” on “his parents’ evil influence over him, earthquakes, the Bible, and homosexuality.”
 
The meeting with Kemper didn’t go as well.
 
“Has it ever dawned on you that I’m a foot taller and weight damn near twice what you do?” Kemper asked after he shambled into the small room.
 
While Mullin had killed 13 people, he was a slight man consumed by his delusions. Kemper was 6’9″ and weighed nearly 300 pounds.
 
Lunde hit the panic button. It was seven minutes before a deputy unlocked the door, and Lunde was saved from “the Co-ed Killer.”
 
FBI agent Robert Ressler described a similar run-in with Kemper in his book, Whoever Fights Monsters (1993, St. Martin’s Press). Where another FBI agent accompanied Ressler for his first two interviews with Kemper, the two men were locked alone in an isolated cell for their third session.
 
At the end of the conversation, Ressler hit the buzzer to summon a guard to let him out of the cell. Several minutes went by and no guard. Kemper picked up on the agent’s unease.
 
“If I went apeshit in here, you’d be in a lot of trouble, wouldn’t you?” Kemper said, getting up from his chair to accentuate his mass. “I could screw your head off and place on the table to greet the guard.”
 
The guard didn’t come for 30 minutes. Ressler, like Lunde before him, managed to talk Kemper out of snapping his neck.
 
The psychiatrist and FBI agent were well-versed in conversing with murderers. Lunde had studied over 40 murderers, including the Santa Cruz mass murderers Kemper, Mullin, and John Linley Frazier, the killer who started the plague of killings that made the coastal college town the “Murder Capitol of the World.” He published summaries of his case studies of the Santa Cruz killers in two books: the Murder and Madness (1975, The Portable Stanford) and The Die Song (1980, W.W. Norton).
 
But despite their common interaction with killers, Lune and Ressler were not exactly friendly. While Lunde’s uncommon studies of murderers should have formed the basis of the FBI’s work with mass murderers, Ressler doesn’t refer to Lunde by name in Whoever Fights Monsters. During one of his noted interviews with Kemper, the FBI agent observed that the hulking killer was “reflecting the position of a leading psychiatrist” who “had written a book about him, and who thought that this sort of criminal case came along once in two hundred years.”
 
If Ressler was referring to Lunde here (and it’s certain he was), this is a gross mischaracterization of Lunde’s work. In his section on Kemper in Murder and Madness, Lunde wrote about other murderers he defines as sexual sadists such as the Boston Strangler of the 1960s and the Lipstick Killer of 1940s Chicago.
 
“The only significant difference between Kemper and other sex killers throughout history was his ability to find his victims easily near freeway onramps,” Lunde wrote.
 
One reason for Ressler’s hostility towards Lunde, could have been Lunde’s dismissiveness towards the kind of criminal profiling that Ressler advocated for.
 
Telling which paranoid schizophrenic or sociopathic person—or anyone else—is going to kill or be violent five years from now is essentially impossible,” Lunde told People in 1977. “One way our system is supposed to be different from totalitarian governments is that you can’t go to jail for what’s in your mind.”
 
Lunde went on to examine Patty Hearst and Dan White during their defense trials. He attained a surprising level of celebrity in the 1970s, but his vocal skepticism of the criminal justice system clashed with harsher attitudes in the tough-on-crime 1980s. He retired to Palm Springs in the 1990s, and died from cancer in 2007.
 
Ressler died in 2013, but his legacy lives on: He is the basis for a composite character played by actors Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany in Mindhunter, a new Netflix series on the FBI Behavioral Unit’s early efforts to profile serial killers.
 
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