A lot of times when we read about serial killers, one recurring characteristic pops up: mother issues. Think of Ed Gein, Henry Lee Lucas, and even Ted Bundy. They all had problems with female authority figures during their formative years.
Edmund Kemper was no different. The man nicknamed the “Co-Ed Killer” could trace all his rage, hostility, and anger to one source: his dear old mother.
Kemper was a bright kid with a very high IQ, but he was also deeply disturbed, mostly due to his upbringing. Though he was close to his father, his parents divorced when he was young, and he had to live with his alcoholic mother, Clarnell, and his sisters in Montana. Kemper’s father, a World War II veteran who tested atomic bombs after the war, said of his ex-wife, “Suicide missions in wartime and the later atomic bomb testings were nothing compared to living” with her.
Clarnell mentally abused Kemper – seemed to enjoy humiliating him, in fact. She mocked him, calling him “a real weirdo” and telling him that no woman would ever love him. At the age of 10, she forced him to sleep in the locked basement because she was afraid young Edmund would harm his sisters. Understandably, Kemper hated his mother with a passion. Kemper began acting strangely, torturing and killing cats and other neighborhood animals, and playing games he invented like “Gas Chamber” and “Electric Chair.”
At the age of 14, Kemper decided he’d had enough of his mother’s domineering ways. He left home to find his father in Los Angeles. Much to his disappointment, Kemper discovered his father was remarried and had a stepson. So much for a happy family reunion. After a short time with his father, Kemper was sent to live with his paternal grandparents on their ranch in the mountains in North Fork, California.
In August 1964 – when Kemper was only 15-years-old – he murdered his grandparents in their home after an argument with his grandmother. Kemper then did the only thing he could think of: he called his mother. Clarnell told him to call the police and wait at the house. When questioned by police, Kemper said he “just wanted to see what it felt like to kill Grandma.” The court deemed Kemper a paranoid schizophrenic and locked him up in a unit for the criminally insane at Atascadero State Hospital.
Kemper remained at Atascadero for over 5 years, eventually being released on his 21st birthday in December 1969…into his mother’s custody. He went to go live with her in Aptos, California, just outside Santa Cruz.
Kemper tried to live a normal life on the outside; he even took classes at a junior college to try and become a state trooper. Unfortunately for him, during his time at Atascadero, Kemper had grown into a 6 foot, 9 inch, 300 pound giant. His massive height immediately disqualified him from becoming a trooper. Kemper spent a lot of his free time hanging around police officers, and he frequented a cop bar in Santa Cruz, where, as he later said, he was a “friendly nuisance.”
Kemper also did something else with his time: he fought constantly with his mother. Tired of constantly quarreling with Clarnell, he moved in with a friend as soon as he saved enough money. Kemper could escape his mother, at least for a while, but he couldn’t escape the murderous rage that was building up inside him.
Kemper tried to suppress his homicidal urges, but he eventually realized he could not control them. He began picking up hitchhikers around Santa Cruz (remember, this was the early 1970s). Kemper estimated he picked up and dropped off around 150 hitchhikers during this “trial run” period. Finally, in May 1972, Kemper gave in to his desires and began a murder spree that caused a major panic in and around Santa Cruz.
Kemper’s murders were spread out over a year and claimed the lives of 6 young female hitchhikers. Kemper would pick up the unsuspecting girls, drive them to isolated areas, and shoot, stab, and strangle them. His gruesome rampage included dismemberment and even necrophilia. Kemper moved back in with his mother during the spree, and he brought some of the dead bodies back to her house to have sex with. He even buried one of his victims in his mother’s garden.
The Santa Cruz area was on edge because of the unsolved murders. A warning posted at the University of California, Santa Cruz read:
“When possible, girls especially, stay in dorms after midnight with doors locked. If you must be out at night, walk in pairs. If you see a campus police patrol car and wave, they will give you a ride. Use the bus even if somewhat inconvenient. Your safety is of first importance. If you are leaving campus, advise someone where you are going, where you can be reached and the approximate time of your return. DON’T HITCH A RIDE, PLEASE!!!”
But Kemper wasn’t finished. On April 21, 1973, he decided there was one person he still needed to kill: his mother. While Clarnell was sleeping, Kemper snuck into her room, bashed in her head with a claw hammer, and slit her throat. Kemper then cut off his mother’s head and used it as a dart board.
Later that day he invited his mother’s best friend, Sally Hallett, over to eat dinner and watch a movie. When Hallett showed up, Kemper strangled and decapitated her. He then fled California in Hallett’s car, driving until he reached Pueblo, Colorado. From there, he phoned police and confessed to killing his mother and Hallett.
Authorities brought Kemper back to California, where he confessed to the murders of the young hitchhikers as well. He stood trial and was found guilty in November 1973. Kemper asked for the death penalty, specifically requesting “death by torture,” but, since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a moratorium on the death penalty from 1972 until 1976, he had to settle for life in prison.
Today, Kemper is 67 years old and a model prisoner at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. Asked why he killed his victims, Kemper responded, “My frustration, my inability to communicate socially, sexually; I wasn’t impotent but emotionally I was impotent. I was scared to death of failing in male/female relationships.”
If you want to hear Edmund Kemper talk about his life and crimes in his own words, check out this 1984 interview.