When he was 15, Edmund Kemper shot his grandparents, curious about what it would feel like to commit murder. A stint in a maximum-security prison hospital did little to cure him; after his release at age 21, his urge to kill led him to a new target: college girls.
His headline-grabbing nickname became “The Co-Ed Killer,” but that chilling moniker doesn’t cover all that made Kemper one of the most terrifying serial killers the West Coast has ever seen. He was enormous (6 foot 9, 300 pounds) and highly intelligent. And he didn’t stop at murder, as Psychology Today recounts:
Between May 1972 and February 1973, Kemper embarked on a series of six shocking serial murders in which he picked up hitchhiking female students along the highway and then transported them to rural areas where he would kill and then decapitate them, and have sex with their corpses. He collected their dismembered heads in his apartment and would later have sex with them also.
And he wasn’t just chopping down students unfortunate enough to seek rides from strangers roaming the Santa Cruz, California area. He had an endgame in mind, with a much more personally significant quarry in his sights: his mother, an alcoholic who’d once disciplined her troubled son (who was fond of torturing cats and menacing his sisters) by locking him in the family basement. She was the reason he’d been sent to live with his grandparents, who were actually his estranged father’s parents. Here’s Psychology Today again:
Kemper finally realized his ultimate fantasy and killed his mother with a claw hammer and strangled her best friend on Good Friday 1973. After having sex with his mother’s decapitated head, Edmund Kemper casually telephoned the local law enforcement authorities to confess what he had done.
(Later reports noted that he’d removed his mother’s larynx and ground it up in the garbage disposal; no doubt there’s some peculiar psychology at work there.)
His arrest took place in Colorado, where he’d fled before having the desire to unload what he’d done. He was only 24 years old; oddly enough, he’d gone out of his way to befriend a number of Santa Cruz police officers, who had no idea about his double life and affectionately called him “Big Ed.” But Kemper’s buddy status didn’t save him from being convicted of eight counts of first-degree murder, in late 1973—not that he was trying to escape punishment. He’d long had fantasies of being tortured and dying in a gas chamber or electric chair. But at that time, California was not issuing death sentences, so he wasn’t able to get what he wanted.
A writer who visited Kemper in the Santa Cruz County Jail while he was awaiting sentencing recorded this macabre conversation, published in the March, 1974 issue of Front Page Detective magazine:
For all of his seeming ability to relate to people in an animated and warm exchange, Kemper also has the ability to withdraw without warning into a kind of frightening reverie, reliving his acts of violence. I watched it happen.
He had paused in his outpouring of talk about himself and looked at me curiously.
“You haven’t asked the questions I expected a reporter to ask,” he said.
“What do you mean,” I replied. “Give me some examples.”
He drawled, “Oh, what is it like to have sex with a dead body? ... What does it feel like to sit on your living room couch and look over and see two decapitated girls’ heads on the arm of the couch?” (He interjected an unsolicited answer: “The first time, it makes you sick to your stomach.”)
He continued, “What do you think, now, when you see a pretty girl walking down the street?”
Again, an unsolicited answer: “One side of me says, ‘Wow, what an attractive chick. I’d like to talk to her, date her.’
“The other side of me says, “I wonder how her head would look on a stick?’”
Now 66, he remains locked up in Vacaville’s California Medical Facility, serving his eight concurrent life sentences. His next parole hearing is in 2017.
Top image: Edmund Kemper is taken to court in Pueblo, CO, on April 25, 1973. (AP Photo)