Yesterday’s Crimes: Murder Prevents Earthquakes

From 1970-73, Santa Cruz was plagued by a trio of brutal mass murderers. This is part two of a three-part series. Click here for part one.

San Franciscans live with the knowledge that their city was once leveled by a massive earthquake. They also know that this will happen again, but when the next Big One will occur remains an enigma.

Reuben Greenspan, then 67, emerged from his hermitage in the Arizona desert like a prophet of old in late 1972 with his prediction that San Francisco would be laid asunder by a massive quake along the San Andreas Fault at 9 a.m. on Jan. 4, 1973. Greenspan, a mathematician from Greenwich Village, had some success predicting earthquakes since the 1930s by matching tidal data to the positions of the moon, sun and the stars in relation to the Earth.

Bruce A. Bolt, director of the seismographic station at UC Berkeley called Greenspan’s prediction “nonsense,” and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen denounced the latest prophet of doom as another of many “charlatans, fakes and liars.”  While Caen could convince San Franciscans not to call their city Frisco, he couldn’t stop them from getting panicky as 1972 drew to a close. State Farm reported increased sales of earthquake insurance, and several Bay Area residents planned to be out of town on January 4, just in case.

Herbert Mullin, then 25, of Felton, Calif. near Santa Cruz, had a plan to avert the oncoming disaster. It involved murdering a lot of people.

“We human beings, through the history of the world, have protected our continents from cataclysmic earthquakes by murder,” Mullin later explained. “In other words, a minor natural disaster avoids a major natural disaster.”

On Oct. 13, 1972, Mullin bludgeoned Lawrence White, a 55-year-old transient, to death with a baseball bat in a secluded stretch of road in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Eleven days later, Mullin picked up Cabrillo College student Mary Guilfoyle hitchhiking. He stabbed her in the chest and the back, and dumped her body in the mountains. She was so decomposed when her body was discovered months later that coroners couldn’t even tell that she’d been murdered.

On Nov. 2, 1972, Mullin stabbed Father Henri Tomei coming out of the confessional booth at his church in Los Gatos. Tomei had fought the Nazis with the French Resistance during World War II, so he proved tougher than Mullin’s previous victims. Even after being stabbed in the chest, Tomei kicked Mullin above the ear during a struggle over the blade. Mullin recovered the knife and stabbed the priest until he died. Since Tomei was killed on All Saint’s Day, the press speculated that some kind of satanic cult was responsible.

Mullin was born on April 18, 1947, the 41st anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. Albert Einstein also died on this date in 1955, an event Mullin later believed had psychically prevented him from dying in Vietnam. Mullin had a relatively normal upbringing, but he started hearing voices sometime after high school. By the time he reached his mid-twenties, those voices started telling him to kill.

Before he committed his first murder, Mullin had been in and out of mental institutions in both California and Hawaii. Psychiatrists diagnosed him with severe paranoid schizophrenia. Unable to ignore Mullin’s increasingly disturbing behavior, his parents sought to have him institutionalized, but Governor Ronald Reagan’s mania for budget slashing had already gutted California’s mental health system. Mullin was allowed to roam free and unmedicated. He was even able to buy a .22 caliber handgun in December 1972 with no trouble at all.

January 4 came and went and San Francisco didn’t crumble into the sea. Reuben Greenspan said that he had gotten his calculations wrong. Mullin believed that the murder spree was working, so he kept on killing.

Mullin murdered five people on Jan. 25, 1973. His youngest victim that day was four-year-old Daemon Francis. Mullin later claimed that his victims had told him through telepathy that it was okay to kill them.

On Feb. 6, 1973, Mullin shot and killed four young men he came across in a makeshift campsite in the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Mullin found a rifle among the dead men’s belongings. He put it in his station wagon in case he needed it later.

A week later, Mullin was set to deliver a load of firewood to his parent’s house when he heard his father’s voice say, “Before you deliver the wood, I want you to kill me somebody.” Mullin complied by shooting 72-year-old Fred Perez with the rifle he had pilfered from his last victims’ campsite. After killing Perez, Mullin got back in his blue Chevy station wagon, and calmly started driving to his parent’s house to deliver the wood. He was caught by police a few minutes later.

Confronted with another, even more prolific mass murderer, Santa Cruz District Attorney described his beachside town as “the murder capital of the world.”

Mullin had confessed to killing 13 people in all, and was sentenced to life in prison, but there were still other unsolved murders of college women that Mullin didn’t cop to. As impossible as it seemed, there was yet another, even more terrifying serial killer stalking the hills and forests of Santa Cruz.

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