The Juan Corona Trial

In May of 1971, the police in Sutter County, California, began to find men buried in the ground outside the town of Yuba City, in the central Sacramento Valley. The graves weren’t widely scattered. All of them but one were in the peach and prune orchards and the river-bottom brush of the Sullivan Ranch.

There were men lying underground out there with their shoes untied, and from their faces and their clothes the police could tell that they belonged to Skid Row and the open road. Some men were found fully dressed, but some had their flies unzipped and some had their pants around their feet and a few had no pants at all. Altogether, twenty-five bodies came up: two black men, one Pit River Indian, and twenty-two “Anglos.” Several had only head wounds, one had just a single stab wound, but most were both stabbed and chopped about the head. One man had been stabbed and chopped and shot.

The sheriff of Sutter County, Roy Whiteaker, arrested a man named Juan Corona before even half of the graves were open. Corona was a farm labor contractor who worked for the Sullivan Ranch. In 1970 Corona had been a suspect in an unsolved crime. Corona had been suspected of hacking a young man’s head and face in the men’s room of the Guadalajara Cafeé, a bar in Marysville which was owned by Juan’s brother Natividad. Whiteaker also knew that in 1956, Juan Corona had been committed to a mental hospital, where he had received shock treatment. An informer told the sheriff that Corona was so violent sometimes that his family had to tie him down. The informer said Corona grew violent just at the mention of homosexuality.

On the evening of May 25, deputies found a grave with two meat receipts in it, slips of paper dated May 21, signed “Juan V. Corona.” A few hours later they found the corpse of a man named Bierman. In a missing persons report from Marysville, Corona was named as the man last seen with Bierman. Corona wasn’t really identified, but the witness seemed to think it was Corona in the truck that had picked up Bierman not far from the Guadalajara Café. Corona was arrested early the next day in his living room.

When deputies searched Corona’s house and the mess hall of his labor camp, they found many possible weapons: a pistol, knives, a machete. In his bedroom they found a ledger. They did not know it then, but the ledger contained the names of seven identified victims. About a week later in the twenty-fifth grave, they found some of Corona’s bank deposit slips. The deputies searched for but never found the place where the murders were committed. The investigation continued. Two years later, it still does.

Meanwhile, Juan Corona languished in jail, growing fat and ill. Friends urged him to declare himself mentally incompetent, but he refused. A psychiatrist visited him and asked, “Mr. Corona, what would you think of a man who killed twenty-five people and buried them in shallow graves on the John L. Sullivan Ranch?”

“I don’t know the man,” said Corona.

Paul Allen

Eight miles out of Yuba City in Sutter Cemetery are fourteen of the men who died. They are the unclaimed men, and no one knows the names of four. Someone, pondering that, once wrote that in their lives as in their deaths these were men without identities. But that was facile stuff.

They were men without women, remnants of the Okies and Arkies, a dwindling, migrant breed, giving way now to the Mexican field hand, who will in turn give way to machines. Some were local winos, others California tramps. Some were far-wanderers from many states, who came to Yuba City in the spring of 1971. They came on their own “rubber” or hitchhiked or took the bus. Others took the train.

Once, fancying myself an adventurer, I rode freight trains for a season in the West. Several years later, when I read about the murders and saw the pictures of the victims, I knew that some of the men who died had been tramps of the oldtime road. Some must have come this way: Out of the “Starvation Army” building in Minneapolis in the spring, and down to the freight yards. On “Old Dirty Face,” the freight train, through North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. From Seattle south to Portland, up the banks of the Columbia, then up the Deschutes to Bend. Klamath Falls is the stop after Bend, then come the high mountains, then Feather River Canyon and then Oroville. At Oroville they would have changed to a local and ridden it down the valley to Marysville and Yuba City. They would have come to get in on the peach-thinning. Perhaps they planned to ride back north the first week in June, when many ride up to Wenatchee for work in the apples. A tramp by the name of Paul Allen had come that way out of Portland.

Like most men on the road, Paul Allen was a working stiff. He was born in 1911 in Ione, Arkansas. He and his brother had worked their parents’ farm until the Depression drove them off onto the freights, which they rode to California. Paul kept to the road after that.

“He was actually, a transient bum’s what I call ‘em,” said his brother, Edwin, who is a retired postman now, with a nice little spread in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Edwin had found a job and earned a home, but Paul never became respectable. He was arrested forty-five times in his years on the road, mostly for vagrancy and drunkenness. But under California’s penal code 290 he had also been forced to register as a “sex offender.” I told Edwin that people were saying a homosexual had killed the men, and I said that in a hobo jungle in Montana I had seen tramps go into the woods with a little round-bellied local citizen, who came to the jungle when a train pulled in and offered to pay for buggery.

“There’s a lot of things I don’t know about Paul,” Edwin said. “But I do know he’s honest, he’s willing to work. He had fast hands and he believed in God. If they say he’s a homosexual, if they say something about Paul, they better tell the truth.”

In the spring of 1971 Paul wrote his monthly request for his veteran’s check.

Dear Edwin,
Got up here to Portland. Hardly Know Why. at this time of year. the rain has slacked up. but not much work that I can do. Anyway I can sign up for. the VA Home at White City. any time I want. I didn’t want to lie in that one in Lasangles. because of. the Colored People. They run and boss it when I go. I want to go down here to White City. where I was. there is plenty of work here later on. straw berries in Bloom now. so you see how it is. rent is cheap here, meals also.

Paul got his check by return mail and crossed the bridge to the Vancouver freight yards. Then he rode what is known as the High-Line Run. It would have been a trip of about two days from Portland to Oroville. At night, laying his bed in the forward corner of the thundering, rocking boxcars, Paul probably wrapped himself in cardboard; he did not have a bedroll. Years of wine and an accident that took one eye had made him ill, and he must have suffered in the mountains.

“Many of these men had empty stomachs,” the autopsy surgeon said at the trial. But Paul’s life had compensations. The train to Oroville will always stop once or twice in the lovely high desert of Oregon. Then Paul would have talked plans with his partner; most men travel in pairs, “because the road’s a little rough,” they say. When he had done some work and collected some “babbitt,” maybe Paul planned to come back there to the Deschutes and live off it like a fishing-pole tramp the rest of the summer. There was an Oregon hunting-fishing license in his torn wallet.

There is one long stop and a change of trains in Klamath Falls, which is cold and misty in the early morning. Then on to Oroville, where Paul changed to a local freight and rode it into the valley, the land changing into farms and orchards and a smell in the air, promising work, that only men like him would fully know.

At the railroad bridge, just across from Yuba City, Paul got off the train. He walked down the levee until he reached Marysville’s Skid Row. It was spring, the nights were warm, the orchards that ring the twin river farm towns were full of green, budding fruit. When he got to Marysville he found some friends to drink with. They spread a bedroll on the grass beside the levee and lay around on it, drinking little bottles of wine called “mickeys.”

That time of year Marysville’s Skid Row is full of men, and they lounge outside the bars or in front of the Men’s Day Center. Newcomers hang around a day or two, but then many walk down D Street early in the morning. They carry their lunch in paper bags and join the little groups of men who gather in front of the Los Amigos restaurant. A little man with a red face says, to no one in particular, “Old Snuffy’s gonna go out and thin some of those little green peaches. Then he’s going back to Ogden, Utah.” It isn’t dawn yet; men leaning on doorways grunt in reply. They wait for the ranchers and labor contractors. Paul was in town several days before he looked for work. Then one morning he got a job from someone cruising by the Guadalajara Café in a pickup truck.

The crime

One day the murderer dug a hole for a man he hadn’t killed yet. The rancher found the empty hole one morning, between two trees in an orchard where Juan Corona’s crew was thinning peaches. The crew left the place around noon, and the grave was full by six that evening.

On the same morning the hole was spotted, four different people saw a man walking on the roads west of Yuba City, an unshaven man in a long gray overcoat. The man was Kenny Whitacre, a California tramp. Whitacre was born in Alameda, California, in the midst of the Depression. At the age of six he was shining shoes, and not many years later he was working to support his mother and his sister, Elva, who lives now in a development beside the Nimitz Freeway.

“Kenny was good-looking,” Elva said to me. “He had beautiful teeth, and he loved music! Oh, he loved highly classical music, though.” She showed me some pictures. He had eyes like fjords.

Kenny enlisted twice in the Air Force, but midway through the second hitch he was suddenly discharged, not with an honorable but with a general discharge, and Elva did not know why.

“I think it was just that all his life Kenny had so many responsibilities,” she said. “I think he just wanted to be free.”

Kenny worked the harvests but never traveled very far, just through California and sometimes up to Oregon. “Kenny would pop up when we least thought about it. Our dream was someday he’d drive up in a big Caddy and have the world by the tail. Of course,” Elva said, laughing, “he never did.” But Elva wasn’t ashamed of him. “He used to tell me how terrible it was. They huddle them on buses, you know. You’re just so much cattle is what he told me. I said to myself, Somebody ought to put on a crusade! How the hell, pardon my French, do people think all those vegetables get to market? Somebody has to do that work. Even if you pick radishes, you’re still a human being.”

Kenny worked the farms and orchards, but he does not seem to have come to Yuba City for farm work. For three days he wandered the roads west of Yuba City and came to town for just a little while in the evenings. “I just come up here for the festivities,” he told a cop who stopped him outside town. “Officer was unable to obtain any further information regarding what the ‘Festivities’ he mentioned may have been,” wrote the cop. Kenny told him he was going up to the Bay Area, and while the cop was following him, Kenny started walking that way. But the next morning he was walking the roads west of Yuba City again.

He wasn’t drunk. Elva thought maybe he was reluctant to come back near her home. But I think Kenny lingered outside Yuba City because he was meeting the killer out there. I think Kenny met the killer several times and that the grave which was dug ahead of time was prepared especially for him.

In front of me I have a map of Yuba City. People in cars and in their houses saw Kenny walking on the roads west of town for three days before his murder. On the map Kenny wanders in a circle past some of the same places at the same times, from one day to another. I imagine he walks north on roads that crisscross orchards. It is afternoon and the sun is high when a pickup truck stops near him. The door opens; he gets in. That night he sleeps in the tall grass beside Colusa Highway. He rises early the next morning, because some dogooder stops his car, wakes him up, and asks if he is all right.

About one o’clock in the afternoon, a little girl called Gina Chapman looks through her bedroom window. She sees Kenny stop on the road and look around and then walk on. I imagine that a truck approaches. It pulls over and once again Kenny gets inside. Down the road a way, the truck turns off, drives in among old trees, raising dust, and stops beside an old tool shack you could not see from the road. The killer holds the door of the shack open for Kenny.

Afterwards, the killer gets up from his hands and knees, pulls on his pants and goes outside. Kenny dresses slowly. He is lacing his shoes when the door opens again. Kenny looks up and shakes his head.

The killer is coming toward him. weighing a machete in one hand. Kenny backs away, and as the steel flashes at him he raises his arms. The killer swings again, backhanded, and knocks Kenny down. Then, dropping to his knees, the killer pulls out his knife. And when he is done he turns the body over with his foot and swings the machete again and again, stroking.

He drags the body to the truck. He will not bury him here, because he has a grave prepared elsewhere. He knows the crew has finished working near his grave. No one will think much of the rectangular hole, he supposes; if they notice it, they’ll think it’s the state agriculture people making soil tests. But he will drive around that orchard once to see that it is empty, then he’ll turn in and drive between the trees and stop right next to the grave. He can make it in unseen or anyway unnoticed. It is the burying he fears, so he hurries, dragging the body by the feet. He throws in the long gray coat, then the body, then the dirt.

Sitting on her sofa, Elva tried to recreate it. The machete blows, the wounds on the hands and the wrist—she knew those details.

“I wonder, what were Kenny’s feelings before he was murdered? Your imagination runs away with you in something like this. I thought maybe he wasn’t dead when they buried him. Did he suffer underground?” But he did not. Only the man named Riley, a friend of Paul Allen’s, had dirt in his throat, the sign that he may have been breathing in his grave.

There is no proof that the murders were connected with overt sex, but surely they were sexual and done to satisfy a sadist’s lust. In Kenny’s case, for instance, most of the head wounds were delivered after Kenny was dead, which reminds me of some of Krafft-Ebing’s characters, who kill and then play with the corpses. “Whoever did this was real angry and hit them additional times,” said the autopsy surgeon.

Elva didn’t think pictures of Juan Corona revealed a man who could do something like that. “And like I say, if you’ve got a Mexican last name you’ve got a strike against you.” But she allowed that appearances could be deceptive.

“And like I say, it couldn’t have been for money.”

Paul Allen may have been robbed, but others still had cash on them, anything from a few pennies to nine dollars.

“Anyway,” Elva went on, “my husband comforts me. He says, ‘Honey, Kenny never knew what hit him.’ ” But Kenny was the youngest of the twenty-five known victims; and the wounds on his hands and his wrist show he fought hardest of them all. And the killer was most fierce with those who resisted him.

Perry Mason

While bodies were still being found, there was a traffic jam on the highway outside the Sullivan Ranch. The cars belonged to folks with Instamatics trying to get a shot of a corpse. Later in the summer, those people grew bolder and drove onto the ranch and up to the place where Corona’s yellow school bus was parked. Whole families got out and posed for pictures under the inscription on the side of the yellow bus: JUAN V. CORONA FARM LABOR CONTRACTOR.

On the road to Yuba City, I had gathered up stories about contractors and their camps. I heard that these men robbed helpless wetbacks, cheated Anglos, that their camps were full of bugs. I heard they fed their workers green meat, charged them a dollar for a pack of cigarettes, a quarter for three ice cubes.

In Yuba City and Marysville some people told the police that Corona didn’t always keep his camps clean or feed his men well. Others praised him for the way he handled laborers. One farmer told deputies, “If I had any problem with one individual the only thing I had to do is to contact Mr. Corona and the subject would be removed from the property and another fellow would take his place.” Men who worked for Corona weren’t especially anxious to condemn him. One said Corona didn’t pay enough, but had no other complaints.

Corona did well in the business of supplying laborers to fruit ranches. He made about $20,000 a year, a good wage for a contractor. Like the other contractors, he got 10 percent of his workers’ wages and money for their board. Well liked by ranchers in general, including the powerful Mr. Sullivan, Corona was probably not among the worst of the farm labor contractors, but typical of the breed.

The citizens of Marysville and Yuba City had grown weary of the case by the time I got to the twin river farm towns. But most had kept their opinions.

I talked to Sheriff Whiteaker, and although the district attorney, G. Dave Teja, wasn’t speaking much to newsmen then, I know both men were sure that they had the killer in jail. Then I called Richard Hawk.

Hawk is the man who appeared one day in Yuba City and replaced the public defender as Juan Corona’s lawyer. After I told him the name of the magazine that had sent me, Hawk said to meet him in a restaurant outside town. He was the short, chubby man with the missing thumb, wearing a blue windbreaker jacket, who came striding up and said to the bartender, “I got ‘em by the balls.” He tossed an officiallooking paper on the bar beside me, and then he turned and grinned at me. “Man, I’m ready to go to trial tomorrow.”

The official-looking paper was an affidavit. It seemed to say that Corona didn’t write the seven names of dead men that appear in the “murder book,” the ledger that police had found in Corona’s home.

“Didn’t tell you about that, did they,” said Hawk. “That’s a hole big enough to drive a Mack truck through.” He got a Margarita and sat down.

“Tell you the truth, Juan’s the only murder client I ever had who’s innocent. Know how I can tell? Every time somebody opens their mouth in this case, there’s another hole.” Hawk put down his drink. “They tell you about the blood?” he said. “Tell you how they switched the bodies?” Hawk said that the police had confused some of the bodies, so that no one could tell which body had been found with Corona’s meat receipts. He explained that it was important because most of the bodies were weeks old and the meat receipts were only four days old.

“Ever hear of striations? You know they can’t match Juan’s machete with the victims’ skulls? They tell you how much blood they found? They didn’t find enough blood to make it from here to popcorn fart.”

I left the restaurant and rode off with Hawk in his powder-blue Cadillac. He said, “If I win this case it’ll put me in the Lear Jet class.” Besides, he had learned to “love Juan like a brother.” Hawk’s children were fond of Juan too. Hawk had taken pictures of them with the accused mass-killer. “It’s something my kids can show their kids,” he said. “Something their old man did.

I think this’ll be one of those cases people remember. Yeah, if I win this one it’ll propel me past Bailey. Lee hasn’t done that much. . . .”

We went to see Corona’s wife, Gloria, and his mother, who was up from Mexico to be near her son. Speaking pidgin English, Hawk explained the affidavit. “This mean. We can prove. Juan no write names of dead men.” Hawk turned to me. “We have a special way of communicating with each other,” he said. Then Juan’s wife translated for the aging mother and she said, “Ah.”

Afterwards, Hawk took me out to the Berg Ranch where one of Juan’s brothers, Pedro Corona, was working. We sat on benches in the wood-and-screen mess hall of the migrant camp. Pedro, like Juan, is a contractor. He smiled to see the affidavit. Two of his front teeth are ringed in silver, and he is handsome. Hawk recited his version of the evidence, until it seemed a fabric he had woven in the hot night. At length I asked, “OK, if Juan didn’t do it, who did?”

That was the sheriff’s problem, snapped Hawk. “But I’ll tell you who could have.” He mentioned the foreman of the Sullivan Ranch, the owner, a hippie commune north in the hills, the sheriff himself. At protest rallies for Corona there were always some signs that read: SHERIFF

WHITEAKER IS THE MURDERER. “How about the Hindus?” said Hawk.

A number of people from India have settled in that part of the valley. Some own orchards. “They’ve got strange customs,” said Hawk. “You know how valuable life is in the Orient?”

“Pretty cheap,” said Pedro.

“Not worth a nickel,” said Hawk.


When I saw Hawk again he was dealing in corpses. I went with him to see a Dr. George Loquavm, who spoke about mortality, about skin slippage in the corpse, marbling of the dead man’s skin, change of colors, rigidity, putrefaction. The doctor looked over the top of his glasses. He spoke about odors of the grave. Hawk listened carefully and took a few notes.

Later, at his home, Hawk showed me pictures, first the black and white glossies of dead victims. Then he told his pretty teen-aged daughter, Chris, to get out the slide projector and show the color pictures. Except for one that showed a wounded eye, they were really not so ugly and half attracted me. Hawk’s daughter looked at them calmly. “What happened to his eye?” she said.

Then in the evening Hawk drove me to Yuba City to visit Juan Corona in his cell. Hawk and I sat down, but the infamous man remained standing before us. He seemed to have some awkward notion about the propriety of standing for guests. Corona had been committed to a hospital long ago, suffering the delusion that everyone he saw was a ghost, that they had died in the Feather River flood of 1955. He had been given twenty-three shock treatments and had been released as cured. Hawk said Juan had only two phobias now. He was afraid of snakes and high water.

Corona did not seem crazy, but very depressed. (“Christ,” Hawk said later when I mentioned it, “he’s accused of twenty-five murders. What’s he supposed to do, sit there and giggle?”) Part of his depression was caused by the Thorazine doctors had given him for the anxiety that endangers his heart. And the only strange thing about the Thorazine was that for a while they had given Corona huge doses, ones that would have knocked out an “ordinary” man. Hawk didn’t tell me that, but a man is not judged insane by the way he reacts to a drug.

Hawk spoke to Juan of inconsequential things, of Juan’s favorite TV show, The Big Valley, which came in Spanish, of the time police shook down his cell and took away his cookies. Hawk joked, and Corona laughed with him once, in short bursts, and was silent abruptly.

When Hawk told him that Angela Davis had just been acquitted, Corona said, “She already free now?” And Hawk said, “That’s right, just like your case.”

But Corona looked at the floor. “So she can do what she wants.”

Hawk told me that Juan had painted the walls of his cell. Juan listened. “I paint the floor, too,” he said. He had also been painting pictures, had given some to a prisoner here, but when that man got out he tried to sell the paintings to a newspaper. Now the police didn’t want Corona to paint. They would not allow his young, female painting teacher in anymore. “They think he’s gonna kill her,” said Hawk.

“She show me how we make good pictures.” said Juan. “Ones without numbers, you know?”

It was well after dark that night when Hawk drove me out to the Sullivan Ranch. You could smell rich earth in the air as he drove onto the ranch, past the labor camp, over the levee, and into riverbottom land, partly orchards, partly woods. Hawk said, “Damn it, I forgot my gun. I always bring a gun out here.”

In one place we both got out of the car and walked through brush toward the river until we stood on the grave of an unknown victim. Of course, he was not there. It was just a spot among tall trees and chinhigh brush, and the ground there was a little soft, less overgrown.

I saw what Hawk had brought me there to see, what the sheriff freely concedes, that there is no reason to suppose twenty-five bodies are all. Twenty-five is just a number, and the river bottom is miles of dense and lonesome ground.

Hawk said that no one could know if the killings had stopped.

“Scared?” he said. Suddenly he turned out the headlights. “See how dark it is?”

Once I was startled by something shiny in the bushes, but it was just the luminous numbers on a highwater stake, rising out of the river, which I could not see. And Hawk said, “You know Juan’s afraid of high water? Can you imagine him standing on that riverbank digging holes?”

On our way out Hawk told me, “Everyone expects me to be like Perry Mason and pop the killer out of the back of the courtroom before the commercial.” He added that the danger in a case of this enormity was that a jury might expect him to prove Corona innocent; they might put the burden of proof on him, instead of on the prosecution, he said. He mused on that, and in a moment he spoke again. “I really like those little girls.”

“Which girls?”

“Juan’s kids.” He smiled. “Yeah. They call me Perry Mason, stuff like that.”

The district attorney

As the trial approached and Hawk reached one newsman after another, stories began to appear hinting that Corona might have a defense after all. Perhaps public opinion in California began to sway a little. But many people were steadfast, especially county officials, many of whom seemed to feel that their reputations, perhaps their careers, were staked on Corona’s conviction.

G. Dave Teja, the district attorney of Sutter County, was detached and didn’t take the murders personally. But he never doubted who should be punished. “When and if the truth is known.” he told me, “Corona’s gonna be responsible for at least forty murders.”

Strictly speaking, it is the sheriff’s job to make arrests and investigate, but Teja and the sheriff are close friends, and Teja wanted to stay with the case from beginning to end. So he helped the sheriff direct things, in addition to fighting defense motions in court. He fought the change of venue, one of the few legal arguments that he lost to Hawk. When the court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional and it looked as though all murder suspects awaiting trial would be entitled to bail, Teja fought hard to get the decision amended. He succeeded, and Corona didn’t get bail.

Teja is tall and portly, wears muttonchops, cowboy boots, and packs a pistol outside court. He is an East Indian with olive skin and a button nose. His father is a Sikh, a small rancher of long standing outside Yuba City and the ranking Democrat in that Republican region. Teja grew up here in the country, and went to college nearby, majoring in public administration specializing in law enforcement. Then he went on to law school, and for a short time when he came home he was a public defender. But defending criminals did not suit him, he told me. He has been reelected twice as district attorney.

Some people are offended by Teja’s sense of humor. When a reporter pronounced his name with the Spanish j, Teja allegedly snapped, in mock anger, “The name’s Teja, I’m not a goddamn Mexican.” He has called the victims “bums,” and that annoys some people. Once Teja was standing in the elevator outside the courtroom, and Corona’s wife, Gloria, walked by, weeping. Newsmen heard Teja say, “That’s all right, Gloria. Maybe you’ll get conjugal visits.” His former campaign manager says Teja has a “high school mind.” But others enjoy him. They say he is witty and candid, that he says what he thinks.

“The district attorney is a complex man,” Teja told me, speaking of himself at dinner one night. He explained that one of the things he meant was his politics. He was “left of center” on foreign policy, “moderate” on finance, “liberal” when it came to social issues, and “conservative on law enforcement.” He said there was only one way to enforce the law, rigidly and by the letter. He said he had once convicted an innocent man. knowing the man was innocent; it was just a misdemeanor and they fixed the man’s record afterwards, though Teja felt it was the man’s own fault that he was convicted, because he didn’t defend himself. It was not Teja’s job to judge but to prosecute and secure convictions. He spoke of “the good old days” of the death penalty, of the third degree, of a time when it was all right to comment on a defendant’s failure to testify.

In all his years as D.A., Teja had never prosecuted a murder case from beginning to end, and I felt that this case was something he had been waiting for, as it was for Hawk.

Teja allowed that Corona probably deserved the death penalty. As far as the victims went, some people might think they weren’t significant, he said. But he would hate to be the one to decide whose life was significant, whose was not. Still, he did not agree that this case called for anything special in the way of attitude. “I believe,” Teja said, “that anyone who breaks the law has a constitutional right to get his ass prosecuted.”

The trial

The trial began on September 11, 1972, in a modern windowless courtroom seventy miles away from Yuba City. It ended four months later, with demonstrators pounding on the roof of Dave Teja’s car, throwing rocks through the courthouse windows.

A jury of ten men and two women convicted Corona of twentyfive murders, and everyone, including the prosecution, was surprised. Most observers thought that the prosecution’s evidence had not been conclusive. Hawk’s arguments had made a shambles of the first part of their case, and in the middle of the trial the judge had stated, “At this point it appears that the investigation was inept, the preparation inefficient, and the prosecution inadequate.” Near the end of the trial, newsmen were writing that the best Teja could hope for was a hung jury, and transcripts of conversations in the judge’s chambers show that essentially the prosecutors agreed.

In the weeks that followed the conviction, when newsmen began to talk to jurors, it became clear that something had gone wrong.

Before he sent them out to deliberate, Judge Richard E. Patton had read the jurors their instructions in the law, but they do not seem to have understood what he said. Among other things, he told them that they must not surrender their individual convictions merely to come to a verdict. He said it wasn’t necessary for the jury to come to a verdict at all. But several days later a juror voted to convict Corona even though she felt he was innocent under the law.

This was Naomi Underwood, the last holdout juror. When asked why she had finally given in, she said, “I was under the impression it had to be a unanimous verdict before we quit deliberations.” She says that her conscience bothers her now.

The prosecution had a case against Corona, but it had not seemed that way at first when Teja and his assistant, Bart Williams, began identifying the victims. Crossexamining the state’s police witnesses, waving his thumbless hand at them, Hawk made the entire investigation of the murders look foolish, and perhaps a little sinister.

Hawk attacked so quickly and so well that just a couple of weeks after the start of the trial, prosecutor Bart Williams was talking about dropping the case. Transcripts, leaked by Hawk to the Los Angeles Times, show that in the judge’s chambers Williams admitted that he had “reasonable doubt” about Corona’s guilt, which meant that under the law Williams thought Corona was innocent.

Later, Williams took back the statement, but not before Hawk had blurted it out in front of the jury. The judge yelled for Hawk to stop and in chambers cited Hawk for contempt. Hawk had seventy-four days in contempt by the end. Some of his citations seemed unfair. He got five days once for disobeying the judge and calling Corona “Juan,” while the prosecutors got nothing at all for a bald lie they told the judge. But most of Hawk’s citations came as the result of calculated attempts to influence the jury. “Improper influence,” Judge Patton called it. But Hawk was not disturbed by the judge’s wrath. He went on picking up contempts, and he kept attacking.

After Williams’ statement, Teja did not come back to court for several weeks. Continuing with the identification of victims, tall, pothellied Bart Williams was alone; he shuffled around the courtroom with his hands in his pockets and was so meek at times that the judge was sustaining objections against Hawk that Williams never made.

Meanwhile, Hawk made police witnesses admit that the body found with Corona’s signed and dated meat receipts had been confused with another body, that, in all, four corpses were confused. Three victims had been reported in two graves apiece, and a fourth had been reported in possibly three different graves. Stretching his chubby neck as he paced around, shouting, then speaking gently, Hawk made policemen admit to dozens of errors like that, until at length you could see these well-dressed deputies as they had been, digging up graves on the riverbank. Working under floodlights, the stench in the air like some phantom chasing them, they trample over evidence, misnumber bodies. When the meat receipts appear on the blade of a shovel, they grab the paper, covering it with their own fingerprints.

Fingerprints were Hawk’s main theme. He established that no one had tried to get prints off Corona’s ledger or his pistol, or off items the killer must have handled, such as the torn wallet found lying on Paul Allen’s chest.

Hawk caught Teja withholding evidence at least seven times, a violation of Corona’s constitutional rights, according to the judge. Hawk accused the sheriff of manufacturing evidence, and he tried to establish that the police had never investigated anyone except Corona.

It went on that way for a long time, but the prosecutors kept promising that things were going to change. It was not as if there was no evidence against Corona.

The trial fell roughly into two parts, and it was during the first part, when the prosecutors detailed the recovery and identification of the victims, that they took their worst beating from Hawk. After they were done with corpses, Teja and his assistants began to produce the bulk of their evidence.

They did not have a motive for the killings. “We have suggestions that homosexuality was involved,” Williams said in the judge’s chambers. The prosecutors believed Corona was homosexual, but the only thing they offered in the way of proof was a conversation overheard back in the 1960s, and the judge ruled that conversation was inadmissible as evidence.

Neither Teja nor Williams was adept at examining witnesses. Sutter County hired a third prosecutor in mid-trial, a short, feisty man named Ronald Fahey. But Fahey stammered with witnesses and sometimes obscured evidence, and the prosecution’s case was so complex that it sometimes took weeks of separated testimony to establish the meaning of a single item.

Murder book

But Teja had collected a great deal of evidence, and although some of it did not seem very important. its sheer bulk was impressive. Because no one item was completely damning in itself, Teja felt that the evidence must be seen altogether in “a mosaic.” There was Corona’s ledger, which had been found in his bedroom. It contained the names of seven identified dead men, and beside the names were dates close to the last known times when those men were seen alive. Two handwriting experts testified that Corona had written all the names in the ledger, and a third expert said that Corona had written at least some of the letters in the names. Teja called the ledger “a murder list.” He said it was not a normal Corona work record. At least one of Corona’s work records, which Teja showed the jury, listed names, social security numbers, and amounts paid. But the ledger with the seven victims’ names in it contained only names, dates, and sometimes places.

José Raya was the young Mexican who had been hacked up in the bathroom of the Guadalajara Cafeé in the early morning hours of February 25, 1970. Raya had said that Juan’s brother Natividad Corona had attacked him. But for some reason, Raya decided in the middle of the trial that he wanted to change his story and say that Juan was his assailant. Ruling that the crime was not similar to the murders, the judge would not allow it, and it is doubtful whether Raya really knew who attacked him. But he testified to other matters.

Fahey examined him, while the jury looked at Raya’s lopsided face, his glass eye. Fahey carried Corona’s ledger to the witness stand. “Do you see your name on this ledger list?”

“Yes.” Raya pointed to his name in the ledger.

Written in the so-called “murder book” above Raya’s name was the date, Feb. 24, 1970. Raya looked at the date. He said that was the evening Juan Corona had offered to drive him and a friend out to the Sullivan Ranch to give them work the next day. Through another witness Fahey established that Corona had no work to give anyone at the Sullivan Ranch around February 24, 1970. The inference was clear. “Our only living victim,” Williams called Raya.

The prosecution produced two knives which had been found in Corona’s office at the Sullivan Ranch. One knife was huge and had human blood and dirt on it. The other was smaller and it, too, had human blood on it. A surgeon said the knives “could have” made the wounds in the victims’ chests.

Deputies had found human blood in the trunk of Corona’s car and in the back of his van. Not much blood in the van, but an expert from Dallas testified that what blood there was represented all four types in the ABO system. Other witnesses proved that, together, the victims had possessed all four blood types.

Inside Corona’s van the state’s criminalist had found a pair of boots with some blood on them and a shovel.

Workers from the ranch were called. They said they had seen Corona in various places around the ranch at what in retrospect seemed peculiar times. Apparently these sightings of Corona had led the police to many of the graves.

There were months of evidence, and gradually the clerk’s corner of the courtroom began to fill with photographs, maps, tools, clothes, and many legal weapons. Day after day, Juan Corona sat in his new suits and watched the prosecutors carry things he once owned up to the witness stand, and he showed no emotion but sometimes turned his face away from former friends who came to testify against him. He sat demure and silent beside Hawk, who was never silent long.

Hawk tried to show, through cross-examination, that just because an expert had said the knives “could have” caused the chest wounds, that did not mean they had. And since the prosecution couldn’t prove that the blood on the knives was victims’ blood, it was reasonable to infer that blood had gotten on the knives in some innocent way. The same, Hawk argued, was true of the blood in the van, because everyone in America has one of the four blood types in the ABO system.

As for the ledger, Hawk tried to attack the credibility of the handwriting experts, one of whom had said last summer that he couldn’t be sure the writing was Corona’s. But even if the experts were right. Hawk said, there were twenty-one identified victims but only seven of their names in the ledger. There were, in the ledger, many names of men who were not among the victims. The prosecution couldn’t explain these inconsistencies, so Hawk asked the jury to infer that the ledger might have served some innocent purpose.

Hawk was able to show that if Corona had offered Raya work, the offer might well have been legitimate.

Teja called Byron Shannon, a black man from Marysville. Shannon said he had been talking with Paul Allen and two other identified victims outside the Guadalajara Café on May 12, 1971.

“Did you see Mr. Corona?”

“He come in a pickup and asked them if they wanted work.”

“What happened then?”

“Riley and Allen got in the back. Smallwood got in the front with Corona and the other man that was with Corona.”

Shannon, who knew Paul Allen by his black eye patch, told the jury he had never seen any of the victims again. Trying to attack the witness’s credibility. Hawk went over Shannon’s prodigious felony record and established numerous inconsistencies in Shannon’s story.

Teja proved that the bullet found in one victim’s skull was the same caliber and maybe even the same make as the bullets found in Corona’s pistol. But Hawk noted that the bullet couldn’t be matched to any particular gun and there were plenty of nine-millimeter pistols and Remington bullets around. Besides, the blood on the pistol’s barrel didn’t match the blood type of the only victim shot.

Teja said, “There is no evidence the pistol wasn’t used as a bludgeon on some other victim.” An autopsy surgeon said he had “found nothing to suggest” that the victims’ wounds had been caused by such a bludgeon.

Deputies had found a machete in Corona’s van. Metal tools such as machetes leave unique “striation” marks on solid things they cut. Corona’s had been tested on Kenny Whitacre’s skull, and it was definitely not the machete that chopped Whitacre. Nor had the prosecution produced any other weapons that might have caused the victims’ head wounds.

The jury

But the jurors said they were satisfied with Teja’s arguments. They were satisfied that Corona had left his signed and dated meat receipts, his deposit slips, in graves, even though Hawk had established that the four-day-old receipts might have been found with a body that was more than four days dead. The jurors said the meat receipts and the blood evidence were “damning,” that the ledger was “a definite link between Corona and some of the dead men.” “It was just impossible to explain away,” said the jury foreman, Ernest Phillips, speaking of the evidence in general.

The jurors had seen enough evidence to make them suspicious about Corona, and it was their job to decide whether Hawk’s inferences “pointing toward innocence” were “reasonable” or not. But after the trial many jurors revealed that they had rejected many of Hawk’s inferences because he hadn’t proved they were true. They reached their decision in that way even though the judge had told them that the defense was not required to prove anything, that the burden of proof rested solely on the prosecution.

Because Hawk did not produce evidence of his own, they felt they had to convict Corona. “We had nothing for Corona,” Naomi Underwood said, when asked why the jury had voted for conviction, why, among other reasons, she had given in. “All we had was prosecution evidence.”

Long before the trial Hawk had been worried that the almost palpable presence of twenty-five corpses might lead the jury to demand some substantial proof that Corona was innocent. Hawk felt he had to give the jury other suspects. For one thing, his defense against the meat receipts had to rest on the notion that someone had planted them.

The state’s witness, Byron Shannon, had said there was another man besides Corona in the truck that picked up Paul Allen and two other victims. What Hawk needed was suspects, and so when he questioned Shannon about this other man in the pickup truck, Hawk brought up the name Emilio Rangel. Through his questions to Shannon and other witnesses, Hawk made it clear that Rangel had been Corona’s crew chief, that he had lived in a little house on the Sullivan Ranch where some bloody clothes were found, and that he had disappeared a few weeks after Corona’s arrest.

The prosecution claimed that Corona was the only good suspect who had access to the Sullivan Ranch. Hawk argued that men like Rangel had free access. And so did Ray Duron, Hawk said. Duron is foreman of the Sullivan Ranch and was in business long ago with Natividad Corona, a professed homosexual. Hawk tried to cast suspicion on Duron with questions to police witnesses such as, “Did you know Ray Duron was in business with a wellknown homosexual?” And because Duron and his workers had helped police find a number of the graves, Hawk asked witnesses, “Ray Duron. Pretty helpful finding graves, wasn’t he?”

But Hawk had someone more important in mind than either Duron or Rangel. In his opening statement Hawk told the jurors that he was going to show that the murders were homosexual. Hawk said that when his case started, he was going to call an expert on homosexuality who would tell the jury about the Mexican pasivo homosexual.

“She will tell you that these men are driven by masochistic tendencies. That in Mexico the ultimate act of humiliation is to play the part of a female. That underneath this masochistic tendency is a broiling, bellowing rage, and that it is not uncommon at all for the pasivo homosexual to turn, to turn into a homicidal rage and destroy or mutilate the man he has just had intercourse with.” Everyone, except possibly some jurors, knew that Hawk’s murderous pasivo was Natividad Corona. And transcripts show that in chambers Hawk told the judge, “I truthfully believe that Natividad Corona is the one that killed these people.”

Natividad once owned the Guadalajara Cafeé in Marysville. He fled to Guadalajara, Mexico, in December of 1970, after he was named as the man who chopped up José Raya. According to Raya, Natividad had propositioned him just before the attack. And police reports show that before he left for Mexico, Natividad voluntarily gave information to the police against Juan, information concerning the Raya incident.

Transcripts show that in chambers Bart Williams argued that Natividad was in Mexico in 1971, the year of the murders. Hawk claimed he could prove Natividad was in the Yuba City area that year. The judge said he had seen no proof that Natividad was involved in the murders. And Hawk was not allowed to speak of him directly in front of the jurors.

One time, in open court with the jurors absent, Hawk managed to bring out some of Raya’s previous statements about Natividad. And he was able several times to refer to him obliquely during his crossexamination.

Hawk asked deputies to describe the victims’ clothing. Many victims had been partly undressed and one man had been found in long johns with the backflap buttoned up but his penis hanging out. Hawk said that this man’s “state of disrobe” showed that the victim had played the male role with the “female” killer. Now and then Hawk went on from there and asked the witnesses if they knew about the well-known homosexual who once owned the Guadalajara Café.

Natividad vehemently denies that he was anywhere but Mexico in 1971. He never appeared in court, nor did Rangel. As for Ray Duron, to the jury he seemed a credible witness. Hawk’s innuendos about these men remained vague in court and had less effect on the jury than they did on the general public.

By the end, none of the things Hawk did affected the jurors as much as the things he failed to do. As Naomi Underwood put it, “We figured Mr. Hawk should’ve come through with certain promises.”

In his opening statement Hawk said it would be obvious that the murderer was homosexual. Pacing around in front of the jury box, Hawk said his homosexuality expert had examined Juan. “And this same expert will tell you that Juan Corona is helplessly heterosexual.” Hawk said that when the prosecution’s case ended and it was his turn to call witnesses, he would produce a worker who had been injured and had bled in Corona’s van, a pathologist (Dr. Loquavm) who would say that no matter which body the four-day-old meat receipts had been found with, all the bodies on the riverbank could have been dead for more than four days. Hawk said he would prove that Corona had been innocently working on a screen door the afternoon of May 19, when Kenny Whitacre was killed. Hawk had seemed eager to make clear that he was going to shoulder some part of the burden of proof. “I don’t have to prove Juan’s innocent,” Hawk told a TV newsman. “But I will.”

By Christmas there wasn’t much left of the prosecution’s case, just a few witnesses and some intrigue in the judge’s chambers. The prosecutors rested their case on January 3, 1973. Then it was time to hear defense witnesses, and the judge leaned down from his high bench and said, “Are you ready to begin now, Mr. Hawk?”

“Yes, your honor.” Hawk took off his glasses. “The defense rests.”

After the trial, Teja speculated that Hawk’s homosexuality expert was backing out on him, and that was why Hawk rested without calling any witnesses. Hawk said he felt he was winning and didn’t need to put on a case.

But Hawk himself hinted that there might have been other reasons. Once he said to me, “If I get a hung jury, people’ll say it’s because I didn’t put on a case. But maybe I knew some things they don’t know.” He gave his emphatic wink and walked away.

Whatever his reasons, it was a dangerous move, because he had already committed himself. He had promised the jury evidence, and now, having failed to produce it, it was as if he were telling them that the evidence didn’t exist.

Hawk also gave the prosecution a weapon for their closing arguments, and Teja did not hesitate to use it.

Speaking to the jury from a portable podium, Teja opened the state’s final arguments with remarks such as: “The defense’s unfulfilled promises here amount to quite a few.” “Where is the evidence that the defendant did not kill twentyfive men?”

When Teja said that Corona was now “stripped” of his presumption of innocence. Judge Patton responded to Hawk’s objection by stopping Teja and telling the jury that Corona was presumed innocent until proven guilty. In chambers the judge said to the prosecutors, “I think you are on very delicate and very dangerous ground, and it really almost suggests to me that the People are inclined to just risk anything to get a conviction in this case.”

Teja spoke for a day and a half.

Then Hawk got up and compared Teja to “a serpent.” He said that if Teja had his way and shifted the burden of proof to the defense, the dawn of a new fascist era was at hand. Hawk went over the evidence and told the jury that he didn’t put on a case because through crossexamination he had already proven “a whole bunch of reasonable doubt” about Corona’s guilt.

Ronald Fahey, who delivered the prosecution’s rebuttal, agreed with Hawk that cross-examination was a sure “test of truth” and said he wished the prosecution had gotten a chance to try it. Fahey excused the state’s failure to provide a motive for the killings. It would take “ten psychiatrists” to figure out what was going on in the mind of a massmurderer like Corona. “Experts still don’t agree on why Hitler wanted to conquer the world.”

Of the three arguments, Fahey’s was the most effective, and jurors said it helped to sway them. Fahey reviewed the evidence as if he were a policeman discovering it piece by piece, and when he was done everything seemed unusually still for a moment in the courtroom.

Then Judge Patton turned to the ten men and two women, who sat stiffly in the jury box, and read them their instructions. Among other things, he said the defendant’s failure to testify must not be held against him. But later, when the jury foreman, Ernest Phillips, was asked, “Did it have a big effect on you that Mr. Corona didn’t testify?” Phillips said, “It sure did. As I’m sure it did on all of you.”

Judge Patton said that the fact that the defense did not put on a case must not be held against Corona. But when he was asked if Hawk’s failure to produce witnesses had affected his decision, juror Richard Bremen said, “I can’t say it didn’t have any influence on me.”

Judge Patton told the jury that the lack of a proven motive could tend to establish the defendant’s innocence. He also told them that their decision must be based solely on the evidence presented in court. Meanwhile, at least one juror had figured out for himself that Corona killed the victims because he didn’t like winos.

The jury deliberated for seven days. “First day,” said Naomi Underwood, “it was seven to five for not guilty. It went back and forth awhile until it winded up eleven to one. That was for guilty. The TV had it wrong.”

They took secret ballots, but someone knew her writing and, as they voted again and again and it kept turning up eleven to one, a certain juror would point at her and say, “There’s the one!”

Naomi said, “I don’t know why I kept having the feeling that they wanted out of it quick.”

In the evenings the jurors and their police guards went to various hotels, where, in spite of the judge’s repeated warnings, several jurors watched the Corona news on TV. The last evening a conversation took place between Naomi Underwood and a police matron. The matron claims she didn’t say anything specific about the case but only tried to soothe Naomi. According to Naomi, the matron told her not to worry about voting for conviction, and said that the police hadn’t found a lot of blood on Corona’s clothes because his wife had washed it all away. But Naomi said it didn’t matter, she had already made up her mind, she would give in the next day. Among other things, she wanted to get home; she was worried about her cats.

And so on the seventh day the jury came in and handed over the verdict sheets. The judge read silently, then looked up and read aloud: “As to the first count of the indictment herein, which said count accuses Juan Vallejo Corona of the murder of Kenneth Edward Whitacre . . . we the jury find as follows. Guilty of murder in the first degree.” The Corona women began to weep; so did Hawk’s daughter and a newsman who was drunk. For half an hour the judge’s even voice read out the twenty-five guilty verdicts, and the only other sound came from the women. They wailed like a Greek chorus.

It was over then except for the sentencing, which the judge accomplished two weeks later. First he said that Teja’s final argument had stayed, just barely, within the law, and that he wasn’t satisfied that jury-tampering by the matron had occurred. So he denied Hawk’s first appeal. Then he sentenced Corona to twenty-five consecutive life terms. The sentence was meaningless, because under California law consecutive life sentences are automatically merged into a single life sentence. But Judge Patton’s intentions were clear.

As he was led away, Corona carried his Bible and smiled for the demonstrators, who yelled things like, “Viva Corona! Viva Corona!” Another appeal began its tortuous way toward the higher court; it was expected to take a year getting there.

Teja popped some champagne, and later he went back to Yuba City, where he will no doubt be the D.A. for a long time to come. Hawk went to jail for contempt but stayed only a day before an appeals judge released him on bail. A month later he was arraigned on the charge of “willfully failing to file returns” on about $100,000 of income. He pleaded innocent. Months later, while the contempt and income-tax charges were still pending, Juan Corona and his family grew disenchanted with Hawk. They began to look for a new lawyer.

In his home in Fairfield, a juror, George Muller, hunted in his mind for the right words. “I think myself and other people more or less thought Corona was guilty, but I think everybody, even today—of course, it’s my opinion and only my opinion—but none of us knows for sure.”

Last winter, almost two years of harvests since Kenny Whitacre’s body was found, a tombstone was placed at Sutter Cemetery. Underneath it two to every vault, were the unclaimed and the four unidentified victims. They were some of America’s last bindle stiffs, and the epitaph on the tombstone took note of their occupation:



Three local preachers and a woman who headed the victims’ fund-raising committee presided over the ceremony. There were three spectators, two of them local newsmen.

It was a clear winter day. But the wind was blowing out of the north, so when the preachers said their prayers over the stone, they kept them short, about a minute apiece. Then they shook hands. “Our work is done here,” one of them said, and everyone hurried away.


REPORTS & COMMENT CONTRIBUTOR Tracy Kidder is at work on a book about the Juan Corona case.