From 1970-73, Santa Cruz was plagued by a trio of brutal mass murderers. This is the first in a three-part series.
Sheriff’s deputies were the first to arrive on Monday, Oct. 20, 1970 at the scene of the fire at 999 Rodeo Gulch Road, a $300,000 flagstone home (now worth over $2 million) in Soquel hills overlooking Santa Cruz and the ocean. Things were odd about this fire from the beginning. Deputies had to push away a red Rolls Royce and a black Lincoln that were parked across the driveway so fire crews could get in.
Fire Chief Ted Pound went through the backyard to try and tap the home’s swimming pool as a source of water to fight the growing blaze. He found something far worse than the fire there.
The body of Dorothy Cadwallader, a 38-year-old medical secretary, was floating at the top of the pool. Beneath her were the bodies of homeowners Victor and Virginia Ohta, and their two sons, Taggart, 11, and Derek, 12. It was a massacre.
All five victims had been shot in the back of the head, and their hands were bound with what were described as “colorful scarves.” Three of the victims’ faces were also covered by scarves.
“It was pretty awful,” Santa Cruz County District Attorney Peter Chang (1937-2004) said, recalling the sight of young Derek Ohta being pulled from the pool. “He looked exactly like my son. I thought I was dreaming.”
Dr. Victor Masashi Ohta was a prominent eye surgeon who had moved to Santa Cruz after being discharged from the Air Force in 1960. Virginia Ohta sang in a local chorus and modeled gowns for a Santa Cruz Woman’s Club fashion show only months before her death. The Ohta’s two daughters, Tara and Lark, were fortunately both away at school while their family was slaughtered.
Making a strange case even stranger, a bizarre typewritten note was found on the window of the Rolls Royce.
“today (sic) world war 3 will begin as brought to you by the people of the free universe,” the missive began, all in lowercase. The writer of the note promised “the penelty [sic] of death” to “anything or anyone who dose [sic] not support natural life on this planet.”
The note closed with a listing of tarot cards in bold print:
KNIGHT OF WANDS
KNIGHT OF CUPS
KNIGHT OF PENTACLES
KNIGHT OF SWORDS
Down the hill from the Ohta’s opulent home were a rusty trailer surrounded by rickety cabins, and a dry creek bed filled with broken-down cars. Scruffy and bearded John Linley Frazier had been living in a cowshed by his mother’s trailer for the past four months as he descended into the madness of paranoid schizophrenia. He murdered the Ohtas and Cadwallader believing that he had been chosen by God to save the environment.
Frazier had convinced himself that he was the John referred to in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations, and incorporated the occult into what Stanford psychiatrist Donald Lunde described as “a confusing system of delusional beliefs.” Frazier saw his wife and mother’s desperate attempts to get him to seek therapy as a conspiracy against him and his mission. A week before the murders, he told his wife that “some materialists might have to die” for him to fulfill his destiny.
Neighbors who had seen Frazier patrolling the wooded hills around his and the Ohtas’ home with a gun reported their suspicions to police. Frazier had also been seen driving the Ohtas’ station wagon after the murders. Police found Frazier asleep in his cabin on Friday Oct. 23, 1970 and arrested him.
A jury found Frazier to be legally sane, and he was tried and convicted of five counts of murder. During his trial, he appeared with the left side of his head, beard and eyebrows shaved bald, making him look like a deranged Batman villain.
Victor Ohta’s mother and his daughter Tara both killed themselves in the wake of the killings, leaving Lark Ohta as the family’s only survivor. Frazier committed suicide in Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif. in August 2009.
The Ohta murders appeared to be an aberration to the people of Santa Cruz at the time, but they were just the beginning.