Yesterday’s Crimes: The Central Valley Machete Murderer is Dead

A notorious serial killer from the 1960s and '70s died in prison Monday morning.

Juan Corona, Northern California’s most prolific serial killer is dead. He died of natural causes at 8:15 a.m. Monday morning at an outside hospital near California State Prison – Corcoran according to a press release from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Corona raped and killed at least 25 migrant farm workers in a Central Valley killing spree that reads like John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath gone horribly bad. The killing spree was discovered by Goro Kagehiro May 19, 1971 when he found a freshly dug hole on his 20-acre walnut farm in Yuba City, a Central Valley farm town north of Sacramento. At first, Kagehiro thought someone from the county may have taken some soil samples, but at three feet wide and six feet long, the hole was too large for that. It was, however, the right size for a grave.

When Kagehiro returned to the hole on his tractor in the early evening and found it filled in, he called the sheriff. Deputies didn’t have to dig long before they uncovered the mutilated corpse of Kenneth Whitacre, a 40-year-old drifter from Alameda who had taken up farm work. Whitacre had been raped, stabbed in the chest, and the back of his head had been split open with “a machete or heavy knife,” according to Sutter County Sheriff Roy Whiteaker.

A few days later, another mysterious mound of dirt was discovered on a neighboring ranch, and authorities soon unearthed the hacked-up body of Charles Fleming, another aging bindlestiff who worked the fields. Sheriff Whiteaker knew he had something more than a random act of violence on his hands. He had a serial killer. 

Sheriff Whiteaker dispatched his men to scour the countryside for recently dug graves. Deputies discovered several more mutilated bodies on the sandy banks of the Feather River. By May 26, 1971, they had excavated 12 bodies in total. Digging crews smoked cigars to mask the stench. By June 4, 1971, 25 victims had been recovered. All of them were men between the ages of 40 and 63. They were all transient farm workers; all but one were white. Each man was lying on his back with his shirt pulled over his butchered head. The oldest grave found was just six weeks old, making these deaths the result of a recent killing spree rather than years of stealthy carnage. Many of the victims had receipts from Juan V. Corona, 37, in their pockets.

Corona was an American success story, immigrating from Jalisco, Mexico, and working his way up from a field hand to eventually starting his own business hiring out migrant workers to local growers. Corona was married with four young daughters, and Goro Kagehiro had even hired laborers from him.

But a state mental hospital had also diagnosed Corona with schizophrenia in 1956, and he was the last person seen with several of the victims.

Police arrested Corona at his beige stucco home in the early morning hours of May 26, 1971. Searching the house, police found a post-hole digger with blood and human hair on the blade, an 18-inch “bolo machete” with possible bloodstains, and some articles of bloody clothing. They also found a work ledger bearing 17 of the murdered men’s names. A few hours later, two of Corona’s young daughters were seen waiting for their school bus, “apparently unaware of what happened,” according to a UPI story.

On Jan. 18, 1973, a Solano County Superior Court jury of 10 men and two women found Juan Corona guilty of slaying 25 itinerant farm workers. Corona’s wife and eldest daughter wept as Judge Richard E. Patton read the verdict over 28 grueling minutes. Corona pressed his fingers against the defense counsel table until his knuckles turned white.

In 1978, the California Court of Appeals threw out Corona’s conviction after future San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan successfully argued that Corona’s previous defense team was incompetent. A new trial was ordered, but Corona was once again found guilty on Sept. 23, 1982, after a retrial that lasted seven months and cost $5.1 million.

Corona was denied parole eight times and lost the sight in his left eye after barely surviving a stabbing attack in 1973 while at California Medical Facility in Vacaville. By the time of his death, he’d spent 48 years in prison.

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