Yesterday’s Crimes: The EST Confession

How a 1970s fad helped solve one of the Bay Area’s most notorious murders of the 1960s.

Judith Gail Williamson was a motivated kid; she won a Bay Area Science Fair award and was an honor student at Albany High in the East Bay. By the time she was 18, she was a sophomore at UC Berkeley taking pre-med courses. Her grades weren’t quite as high as they’d need to be for her to make it into medical school, but this only made her study harder. She wasn’t the type to run away from it all, but on Oct. 29, 1963, she just disappeared.

She left her family home in Albany just before 7 a.m. that Tuesday morning, with an umbrella and a straw bag filled with books and school supplies. A white convertible was seen creeping up behind her as she walked the three blocks down San Pablo Avenue to catch the bus to Berkeley. She never made it to the bus stop.

Dogs and helicopters were used to search parts of the UC Berkeley campus where witnesses saw somebody matching Williamson’s description, but turned up nothing. With $30 left in her dresser and another $2,000 untouched in a savings account, police investigators started to fear the worst.

“As the days go by, foul play becomes an ever stronger possibility,” Inspector Al Smith told the Chronicle on Nov. 7, 1963.

Clues in the case turned up as so much East Bay refuse. An 11-year-old boy found Judy’s broken umbrella in a trashcan outside of an El Cerrito shopping center. Her blood-soaked books and a mechanical pencil with her name stenciled on it were discovered in a trash bin near Dwinelle Hall at UC Berkeley. Despite the ominous findings, Judy’s parents held out hope that their daughter was still alive.

Those hopes were dashed three years later. On April 9, 1966, when four men looking for leaf mold found Judy’s skeletal remains in a wooded ravine in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Her breastbone was pierced by a narrow-blade. The fraying remnants of her sweater that clung to her ribcage bore 15 knife holes. A paring knife with a wooden handle was found in a pile of litter near the corpse along with Judy’s watch and her UC Masonic Club pin.

Exactly what happened to Judy Williamson was known, but who killed her may have remained a mystery — if it wasn’t for the 1970s phenomenon known as EST.

Erhard Seminars Training (EST) was the brainchild of a Philadelphia car salesman named Jack Rosenberg, who took the name Werner Erhard from a GQ article to seem more academic. Chic celebs of the time such as Diana Ross, Joe Namath, and Yoko Ono were fans.

They weren’t alone; Joseph Otto Egenberger, the son of the former mayor of Albany, Calif., enrolled in a weekend EST course in Chicago in 1975. After two days of getting yelled at while holding in his pee, he told at least 100 fellow EST enrollees that he murdered a woman in 1963.

The story emerged from there. Egenberger went to Albany High and UC Berkeley with Judy Williamson. He harbored a crush on her, but she wasn’t that into him. He offered her a ride to class in his convertible on Oct. 29, 1963. He later told a friend that he was filled with “filled with an overwhelming feeling or need to kill her” by the time they got to a campus parking garage.

He picked up a paring knife that he’d left in the backseat of his car and held it against her.

“What will your father say about this?” Judy asked. “You can get help.”

Egenberger tried to strangle Judy with the drawstring to a duffel bag. When that didn’t work, he went back to the knife and kept stabbing her until she was dead.

Bizarrely, everyone at the EST seminar kept their mouths shut, while Egenberger took a year-and-a-half to turn himself in. During that time, he took up a painful form of physical manipulation called Rolfing to prepare his body for prison life. Friends in Chicago urged him to just let the murder go, but Egenberger returned to Albany and confessed to police on Nov. 30, 1977.

His boss at U.S. Steel in Chicago told the press that Egenberger seemed “real relieved.”

He was sentenced to 10-years-to-life on May 24, 1978.

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