Juan Corona, convicted in the slayings of 25 itinerant farm laborers in one of America’s worst serial murder cases, has died, California state prison officials said Monday.
Corona, who was 85, had been held at California State Prison-Corcoran, where he was serving multiple life sentences following his conviction nearly five decades ago for hacking to death farmworkers. He died of natural causes Monday morning at a hospital, the state said.
The Mexican-born farming contractor was arrested in 1971 after a farmer in Sutter County found a freshly dug hole in a peach orchard. The farmer, who had contracted with Corona to hire field workers, returned the next day and saw the hole filled with dirt. To allay his suspicions, he called sheriff’s deputies.
In the shallow grave, deputies found a man’s body on May 19, 1971. His head had been hacked off, and his body was riddled with stab wounds. The man would later be identified as Kenneth Whitacre, a 40-year-old homeless man. Four days later, at the nearby Sullivan Ranch where Corona housed laborers, investigators unearthed more butchered bodies. Corona was arrested a week later at his home, south of Yuba City. Over the next two weeks, police recovered the bodies of more slain farmworkers from shallow graves along the Feather River near Marysville, north of Sacramento.
The vast majority of the 25 victims were viciously slashed and hacked with a machete, and many bore deep puncture wounds to the chest. One victim was shot.
Investigators found meat receipts signed by Corona in one grave and bank deposit slips in two other graves with Corona’s name and address.
Authorities said the dates recorded in the ledger corresponded with the killings over a six-week period.
The motive around the killings has remained a mystery. But since the 1950s, Corona had struggled with mental illness, twice being admitted to a state mental hospital in Auburn, Calif., where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He had been in a hospital just a year before the bodies were discovered.
From Corona’s home and vehicles, investigators confiscated a green ledger with the names of eight of the victims, along with an 18-inch machete, a post-hole digger, a wooden club and a gun. He would be dubbed the “Machete Murderer.” Four of his victims have never been identified.
After a lengthy trial in 1973 and following 45 hours of deliberation, a jury found Corona guilty of the slayings. Corona was sentenced to 25 consecutive life terms — a penalty so harsh that it elicited gasps in the courtroom when the judge handed it down.
A state appellate court, however, overturned the first conviction in 1978, blasting Corona’s defense attorney for mounting a farcical defense and calling no rebuttal witnesses to counter the prosecution’s 119 witnesses.
A second trial began in 1982 and was notable for Corona’s defense offering an alternative theory behind the slayings. His attorney told jurors that it was Corona’s late brother who carried out the killings, driven by a “maniacal rage” that originated in “the frustration of a morbid sexuality.” The lawyer argued that Corona was more mild-mannered than his brother, and innocent. Corona himself took the witness stand and denied having anything to do with the killings.
After closing arguments that took 12 days to complete, the jury of seven men and five women convicted Corona of all charges.
Not long after his imprisonment, he was stabbed 32 times at California Medical Facility at Vacaville. While in custody, he lost an eye from an inmate attack, his wife divorced him, he had at least two heart attacks and he suffered from dementia.
Corona intimated his guilt for the first time in a 2011 parole hearing, saying the men were “winos” and had trespassed in the orchards. He was repeatedly denied parole over the years.
“He just doesn’t seem to realize that what he did was wrong,” a Sutter County prosecutor said at the time.