When Santa Cruz Had Two Serial Killers

Ed Kemper and Herbert Mullin terrorized the same town at the same time

There aren’t enough content warnings in the world for the story of Ed Kemper and Herbert Mullin, two serial killers who simultaneously stalked Santa Cruz in 1972 and 1973. They’re the subject of our latest “Shoot This Now” podcast, available on Apple or Spotify or right here:

On every episode of “Shoot This Now,” we talk about stories we’d like to see made into films. Kemper, a 6’9” figure with a high IQ, has been onscreen before: Cameron Britton’s portrayal of him is a highlight of Netflix’s “Mindhunter.” As we explain on the podcast, the story of his and Mullin’s overlapping murder sprees remind us of “Zodiac” meets “Donnie Darko” — times two.

Kemper posed as a wanna-be cop and Good Samaritan to lure hitchhikers into his car and do horrific things. Mullin believed his murders were human sacrifices to prevent earthquakes. Their paths eventually crossed.

This episode, clinical psychologist Dr. John Meigs joins us to talk about how to stop the next Ed Kemper or Herbert Mullin. Both men have been diagnosed with the same mental illness, and we discuss whether better detection and treatment of serious mental illness in this country could prevent mass killings.

We can’t stress enough that most people with mental illnesses will never behave violently. As Dr. Meigs explains, they’re far more likely to suffer a stressful and difficult effort to manage and hopefully overcome the situation. Illnesses don’t discriminate: Any of us could suffer mental illness. And we need to remove the stigma attached to seeking help.

But Kemper and Mullin are extreme outliers. And the failure to diagnose and treat people with similarly severe mental illnesses, coupled with dangerous impulses, can be calamitous. The mental health group the Treatment Advocacy Center reports that “at least one third of mass killings are carried out by individuals with untreated serious mental illness” — a finding that cries out for better treatment.

We talk this episode about whether our current emphasis on punishment over prevention makes sense.