Edmund Emil “Big Ed” Kemper III, also known as “The Co-ed Killer”, is an American serial killer and necrophile who was active in California in the early 1970’s.
Edmund Emil Kemper III was born in Burbank, California, on December 18, 1948. He was the middle child and only son born to Clarnell Elizabeth Kemper (née Stage, 1921–1973) and Edmund Emil Kemper Jr. (1917–1985). Edmund Jr. was a World War II veteran who, after the war, tested nuclear weapons in the Pacific Proving Grounds before returning to California, where he worked as an electrician. Clarnell often complained about Edmund II’s “menial” electrician job, and he later said “suicide missions in wartime and the atomic bomb testings were nothing compared to living with her” and that Clarnell affected him “more than three hundred and ninety-six days and nights of fighting on the front did.”
Weighing 13 pounds (5.9 kg) as a newborn, Kemper was a head taller than his peers by the age of four. Early on, he exhibited antisocial behavior such as cruelty to animals: At the age of 10, he buried a pet cat alive; once it died, he dug it up, decapitated it, and mounted its head on a spike. Kemper later stated that he derived pleasure from successfully lying to his family about killing the cat. At the age of 13, he killed another family cat when he perceived it to be favouring his younger sister, Allyn Lee Kemper (born 1951), over him; and he kept pieces of it in his closet until his mother found them.
Kemper had a dark fantasy life. He performed rites with his younger sister’s dolls that culminated in his removing their heads and hands; on one occasion, when his elder sister, Susan Hughey Kemper (1943–2014), teased him and asked why he did not try to kiss his teacher, he replied, “If I kiss her, I’d have to kill her first.” He also recalled that as a young boy, he would sneak out of his house and, armed with his father’s bayonet, go to his second-grade teacher’s house to watch her through the windows. He stated in later interviews that some of his favorite games to play as a child were “Gas Chamber” and “Electric Chair,” in which he asked his younger sister to tie him up and flip an imaginary switch; he would then tumble over and writhe on the floor, pretending that he was being executed by gas inhalation or electric shock. He also had close-to-death experiences as a child: once, when his elder sister tried to push him in front of a train and another time when she successfully pushed him into the deep end of a swimming pool, where he almost drowned.
Kemper had a close relationship with his father and was devastated when his parents separated in 1957, causing him to be raised by Clarnell in Helena, Montana. He had a severely dysfunctional relationship with his mother, a neurotic, domineering alcoholic who frequently belittled, humiliated, and abused him. Clarnell often made her son sleep in a locked basement because she feared that he would harm his sisters, regularly mocked him for his large size — he stood 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) by the age of 15 — and derided him as “a real weirdo.” She also refused to show him affection out of fear that she would “turn him gay” and told the young Kemper that he reminded her of his father and that no woman would ever love him. Kemper later described her as a “sick angry woman,” and it has been postulated that she suffered from borderline personality disorder.
At the age of 14, Kemper ran away from home in an attempt to reconcile with his father in Van Nuys, California. Once there, he learned that his father had remarried and had a stepson. Kemper stayed with his father for a short while until the elder Kemper sent him to live with his paternal grandparents, who lived on a ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains on Road 224, about two miles west of the town of North Fork, California. Kemper hated living in North Fork; he described his grandfather as “senile” and said that his grandmother “was constantly emasculating me and my grandfather.” However, he made friends for a short while with David “Mike” Dozier, who lived a short distance away and was about the same age. According to Dozier and his mother Elena Dozier, he stopped spending time with Kemper, whom he called, “Guy,” after Elena’s mother’s cat and her pillowcase went missing. Dozier disavowed any knowledge of what happened to the cat and the pillowcase. As a curiosity, Dozier gave his future wife a fifty-cent piece that had the eye of the eagle precisely drilled out by Kemper.
On August 27, 1964, at the age of 15, Kemper was sitting at the kitchen table with his grandmother Maude Matilda Hughey Kemper (b. 1897) when they had an argument. Enraged, Kemper stormed off and retrieved a rifle that his grandfather had given him for hunting; the rifle had been confiscated because he used it to needlessly shoot animals. He then re-entered the kitchen and fatally shot his grandmother in the head before firing twice more into her back. His grandmother’s last words were “Oh, you’d better not be shooting the birds again.” Some accounts mention that she also suffered multiple post-mortem stab wounds with a kitchen knife.
When Kemper’s grandfather, Edmund Emil Kemper Sr. (b. 1892), returned from grocery shopping, Kemper went outside and fatally shot him in the driveway, next to his car. He was unsure of what to do next, so he phoned his mother, who told him to contact the local police. Kemper called the police and waited to be taken into custody. After his arrest, Kemper said that he “just wanted to see what it felt like to kill Grandma” and testified that he killed his grandfather so he would not have to find out that his wife was dead, and that he would be angry with Kemper for what he’d done. Psychiatrist Donald Lunde, who interviewed Kemper during adulthood, wrote, “In his way, he had avenged the rejection of both his father and his mother.” Kemper’s crimes were deemed incomprehensible for a 15-year-old to commit, and court psychiatrists diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic, then sent him to Atascadero State Hospital, a maximum-security facility that houses mentally ill convicts.
At Atascadero, California Youth Authority psychiatrists and social workers disagreed with the court psychiatrists’ diagnoses. Their reports stated that Kemper showed “no flight of ideas, no interference with thought, no expression of delusions or hallucinations, and no evidence of bizarre thinking.” They also observed him to be intelligent and introspective. Initial testing measured his IQ at 136, over two standard deviations above average. He was re-diagnosed with a less severe condition, a “personality trait disturbance, passive-aggressive type.” Later on in his time at Atascadero, Kemper was given another IQ test, which gave a higher result of 145.
Kemper endeared himself to his psychiatrists by being a model prisoner and was trained to administer psychiatric tests to other inmates. One of his psychiatrists later said, “He was a very good worker and this is not typical of a sociopath. He really took pride in his work.” Kemper also became a member of the Jaycees while in Atascadero and said he developed “some new tests and some new scales on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory,” specifically an “Overt Hostility Scale,” during his work with Atascadero psychiatrists. After his second arrest, Kemper said that being able to understand how these tests functioned allowed him to manipulate his psychiatrists and admitted that he learned a lot from the sex offenders to whom he administered tests; for example, they told him that to avoid leaving witnesses, it was best to kill a woman after raping her.
On December 18, 1969, his 21st birthday, Kemper was released on parole from Atascadero. Against the recommendations of psychiatrists at the hospital, he was released into the care of his mother Clarnell — who had remarried, taken the surname Strandberg, and then divorced again — at 609 A Ord Street, Aptos, California, a short drive from where she worked as an administrative assistant at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Kemper later demonstrated further to his psychiatrists that he was rehabilitated, and on November 29, 1972, his juvenile records were permanently expunged. The last report from his probation psychiatrists read:
“If I were to see this patient without having any history available or getting any history from him, I would think that we’re dealing with a very well adjusted young man who had initiative, intelligence and who was free of any psychiatric illnesses … It is my opinion that he has made a very excellent response to the years of treatment and rehabilitation and I would see no psychiatric reason to consider him to be of any danger to himself or to any member of society … [and] since it may allow him more freedom as an adult to develop his potential, I would consider it reasonable to have a permanent expunction of his juvenile records.”
While staying with his mother, Kemper attended community college in accordance with his parole requirements and had hoped he would become a police officer, though he was rejected because of his size — at the time of his release from Atascadero, Kemper stood 6 feet 9 inches (2.06 m) tall — which led to his nickname, “Big Ed”. Kemper maintained relationships with Santa Cruz police officers despite his rejection to join the force and became a self-described “friendly nuisance” at a bar called the Jury Room, a popular hangout for local law-enforcement officers.
Kemper worked a series of menial jobs before gaining employment with the State of California Division of Highways (now known as the California Department of Transportation). During this time, his relationship with Clarnell remained toxic and hostile, the two having frequent arguments that their neighbours often overheard. Kemper later described the arguments he had with his mother around this time, stating the following:
“My mother and I started right in on horrendous battles, just horrible battles, violent and vicious. I’ve never been in such a vicious verbal battle with anyone. It would go to fists with a man but this was my mother and I couldn’t stand the thought of my mother and I doing these things. She insisted on it and just over stupid things. I remember one roof-raiser was over whether I should have my teeth cleaned.”
When he had saved enough money, Kemper moved out to live with a friend in Alameda, California. There, he still complained of being unable to get away from his mother because she regularly phoned him and paid him surprise visits. He often had financial difficulties, which resulted in his frequently returning to his mother’s apartment in Aptos. At a Santa Cruz beach, Kemper met a student from Turlock High School to whom he became engaged in March 1973. The engagement was broken off after Kemper’s second arrest, and his fiancée’s parents requested her name not be revealed to the public.
The same year that he began working for the Highway Division, Kemper was hit by a car while riding a motorcycle that he had recently purchased. His arm was badly injured in the crash, and he received a $15,000 (about $90,000 when adjusted for inflation) settlement in the civil suit he filed against the car’s driver. As he was driving around in the 1969 Ford Galaxie he bought with part of his settlement money, he noticed a large number of young women hitchhiking and began storing plastic bags, knives, blankets and handcuffs in his car. He then began picking up young women and peacefully letting them go. According to Kemper, he picked up around 150 such hitchhikers before he felt homicidal sexual urges, which he called his “little zapples,” and began acting on them.
Between May 1972 and April 1973, Kemper killed eight people — all women. He would pick up female students who were hitchhiking and take them to isolated areas where he would shoot, stab, smother, or strangle them. He would then take their bodies back to his home, where he decapitated them, performed irrumatio on their severed heads, had sexual intercourse with their corpses, and then dismembered them. During this 11-month murder spree, he killed five college students, one high school student, his mother, and his mother’s best friend. Kemper has stated in interviews that he often searched for victims after having arguments with his mother and that she refused to introduce him to women attending the university where she worked. He recalled: “She would say, ‘You’re just like your father. You don’t deserve to get to know them’.” Psychiatrists, and Kemper himself, have espoused the belief that the young women were surrogates for his ultimate target: his mother.
On May 7, 1972, Kemper was driving in Berkeley, California, when he picked up two 18-year-old hitchhiking students from Fresno State University, Mary Ann Pesce and Anita Mary Luchessa, with the pretense of taking them to Stanford University. After driving for an hour, he managed to reach a secluded wooded area near Alameda, California, with which he was familiar from his work at the Highway Department, without alerting his passengers that he had changed directions from where they wanted to go. It was there that he handcuffed Pesce and locked Luchessa in the trunk, then stabbed and strangled Pesce to death, subsequently killing Luchessa in a similar manner. Kemper later confessed that while handcuffing Pesce, he “brushed the back of [his] hand against one of her breasts and it embarrassed [him]”, adding that he said, “‘Whoops, I’m sorry’ or something like that” after grazing her breast, despite murdering her minutes later.
Kemper put both of the women’s bodies in the trunk of his Ford Galaxie and returned to his apartment. He was stopped on the way by a police officer for having a broken taillight, but the officer did not detect the corpses in the car. Kemper’s roommate was not at home, so he took the bodies into his apartment, where he photographed and had sexual intercourse with the naked corpses before dismembering them. He then put the body parts into plastic bags, which he later abandoned near Loma Prieta Mountain. Before disposing of Pesce’s and Luchessa’s severed heads in a ravine, Kemper engaged in irrumatio with both of them. In August of that year, Pesce’s skull was found on Loma Prieta Mountain. An extensive search failed to turn up the rest of Pesce’s remains or a trace of Luchessa.
On the evening of September 14, 1972, Kemper picked up a 15-year-old dance student named Aiko Koo, who had decided to hitchhike to a dance class after missing her bus. He again drove to a remote area, where he pulled a gun on Koo before accidentally locking himself out of his car. However, Koo let him back inside, despite the fact that the gun was still in the car. Back inside the car, he proceeded to choke her unconscious, rape her, and kill her. Kemper subsequently packed Koo’s body into the trunk of his car and went to a nearby bar to have a few drinks, then returned to his apartment. He later confessed that after exiting the bar, he opened the trunk of his car, “admiring [his] catch like a fisherman.” Back at his apartment, he had sexual intercourse with the corpse, then dismembered and disposed of the remains in a similar manner as his previous two victims. Koo’s mother called the police to report the disappearance of her daughter and put up hundreds of flyers asking for information, but she did not receive any responses regarding her daughter’s location or status.
On January 7, 1973, Kemper, who had moved back in with his mother, was driving around the Cabrillo College campus when he picked up 18-year-old student Cynthia Ann “Cindy” Schall. He drove to a wooded area and fatally shot her with a .22 caliber pistol. He then placed her body in the trunk of his car and drove to his mother’s house, where he kept her body hidden in a closet in his room overnight. When his mother left for work the next morning, he had sexual intercourse with and removed the bullet from Schall’s corpse, then dismembered and decapitated her in his mother’s bathtub. Kemper kept Schall’s severed head for several days, regularly engaging in irrumatio with it, then buried it in his mother’s garden facing upward toward her bedroom. After his arrest, he stated that he did this because his mother “always wanted people to look up to her.” He discarded the rest of Schall’s remains by throwing them off a cliff. Over the course of the following few weeks, all except her head and right hand were discovered and “pieced together like a macabre jigsaw puzzle.” A pathologist determined that Schall had been cut into pieces with a power saw.
On February 5, 1973, after a heated argument with his mother, Kemper left his house in search of possible victims. With heightened suspicion of a serial killer preying on hitchhikers in the Santa Cruz area, students were advised to accept rides only from cars with university stickers on them. Kemper had been able to obtain such a sticker, as his mother worked at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He encountered 23-year-old Rosalind Heather Thorpe and 20-year-old Alice Helen “Allison” Liu on the UCSC campus. According to Kemper, Thorpe entered his car first, reassuring Liu to also enter. He first fatally shot Thorpe and then Liu with his .22 caliber pistol and wrapped their bodies in blankets.
Kemper again brought his victims back to his mother’s house; this time he beheaded them in his car and carried the headless corpses into his mother’s house to have sexual intercourse with them. He then dismembered the bodies, removed the bullets to prevent identification, and discarded their remains the next morning. Some remains were found at Eden Canyon a week later, and more were found near Highway One in March. When questioned in an interview as to why he decapitated his victims, he explained: “The head trip fantasies were a bit like a trophy. You know, the head is where everything is at, the brain, eyes, mouth. That’s the person. I remember being told as a kid, you cut off the head and the body dies. The body is nothing after the head is cut off … well, that’s not quite true, there’s a lot left in the girl’s body without the head.”
On April 20, 1973, after coming home from a party, 52-year-old Clarnell Elizabeth Strandberg awakened her son with her arrival. While sitting in her bed reading a book, she noticed Kemper enter her room and said to him, “I suppose you’re going to want to sit up all night and talk now.” Kemper replied “No, good night.” He then waited for her to fall asleep, then he snuck back into her room to bludgeon her with a claw hammer and slit her throat with a penknife. He then decapitated her and engaged in irrumatio with her severed head, then used it as a dart board. Kemper stated that he “put [her head] on a shelf and screamed at it for an hour … threw darts at it,” and, ultimately, “smashed her face in.” He also cut out her tongue and larynx and put them in the garbage disposal. However, the garbage disposal could not break down the tough vocal cords and ejected the tissue back into the sink. “That seemed appropriate,” Kemper later said: “as much as she’d bitched and screamed and yelled at me over so many years.”
Kemper then hid his mother’s corpse in a closet and went to drink at a nearby bar. Upon his return, he invited his mother’s best friend, 59-year-old Sara Taylor “Sally” Hallett, over to the house to have dinner and watch a movie. When Hallett arrived, Kemper strangled her to death to create a cover story that his mother and Hallett had gone away together on vacation. He subsequently put Hallett’s corpse in a closet, obscured any outward signs of a disturbance, and left a note to the police. It read:
Appx. 5:15 A.M. Saturday. No need for her to suffer any more at the hands of this horrible “murderous Butcher”. It was quick—asleep—the way I wanted it. Not sloppy and incomplete, gents. Just a “lack of time”. I got things to do!!!
Afterward, Kemper fled the scene. He drove non-stop to Pueblo, Colorado, taking caffeine pills to stay awake for the over 1,000-mile (about 1,600 km) journey. He had three guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his car, and he believed he was the target of an active manhunt. After not hearing any news on the radio about the murders of his mother and Hallett when he arrived in Pueblo, he found a phone booth and called the police. He confessed to the murders of his mother and Hallett, but the police did not take his call seriously and told him to call back at a later time. Several hours later, Kemper called again, asking to speak to an officer he personally knew. He confessed to that officer of killing his mother and Hallett, then waited for the police to arrive and take him into custody, where he also confessed to the murders of the six students.
When asked in a later interview why he turned himself in, Kemper said: “The original purpose was gone … It wasn’t serving any physical or real or emotional purpose. It was just a pure waste of time … Emotionally, I couldn’t handle it much longer. Toward the end there, I started feeling the folly of the whole damn thing, and at the point of near exhaustion, near collapse, I just said to hell with it and called it all off.”
Kemper was indicted on eight counts of first-degree murder on May 7, 1973. He was assigned the Chief Public Defender of Santa Cruz County, attorney Jim Jackson. Due to Kemper’s explicit and detailed confession, his counsel’s only option was to plead not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges. Kemper twice tried to commit suicide in custody. His trial went ahead on October 23, 1973.
Three court-appointed psychiatrists found Kemper to be legally sane. One of the psychiatrists, Dr. Joel Fort, investigated his juvenile records and the diagnosis that he was once psychotic. Fort also interviewed Kemper, including under truth serum, and relayed to the court that Kemper had engaged in cannibalism, alleging that he sliced flesh from the legs of his victims, then cooked and consumed these strips of flesh in a casserole. Nevertheless, Fort determined that Kemper was fully cognizant in each case and stated that Kemper enjoyed the prospect of the infamy associated with being labeled a murderer Kemper later recanted the confession of cannibalism.
California used the M’Naghten standard, which held that for a defendant to “establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of mind, and not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.” Kemper appeared to have known that the nature of his acts was wrong, and he had shown signs of malice aforethought. On November 1, Kemper took the stand. He testified that he killed the victims because he wanted them “for myself, like possessions,” and attempted to convince the jury that he was insane based on the reasoning that his actions could have been committed only by someone with an aberrant mind. He said that two beings inhabited his body and that when the killer personality took over, it was “kind of like blacking out.”
On November 8, 1973, the six-man, six-woman jury deliberated for five hours before declaring Kemper sane and guilty on all counts. He asked for the death penalty, requesting “death by torture.” However, with a moratorium placed on capital punishment by the Supreme Court of California, he instead received seven years to life for each count, with these terms to be served concurrently, and was sentenced to the California Medical Facility.
In the California Medical Facility, Kemper was incarcerated in the same prison block as other notorious criminals such as Herbert Mullin and Charles Manson. Kemper showed particular disdain for Mullin, who committed his murders at the same time and in the same area as Kemper. He described Mullin as “just a cold-blooded killer… killing everybody he saw for no good reason.” Kemper manipulated and physically intimidated Mullin, who, at 5 feet 9 inches (1.75 m), was more than a foot shorter than he. Kemper stated that “[Mullin] had a habit of singing and bothering people when somebody tried to watch TV, so I threw water on him to shut him up. Then, when he was a good boy, I’d give him peanuts. Herbie liked peanuts. That was effective because pretty soon he asked permission to sing. That’s called behavior modification treatment.”
Kemper remains among the general population in prison and is considered a model prisoner. He was in charge of scheduling other inmates’ appointments with psychiatrists and was an accomplished craftsman of ceramic cups. He was also a prolific reader of audiobooks for the blind; a 1987 Los Angeles Times article stated that he was the coordinator of the prison’s program and had personally spent over 5,000 hours narrating books with several hundred completed recordings to his name. He was retired from these positions in 2015 after he experienced a stroke and was declared medically disabled. He received his first rules violation report in 2016 for failing to provide a urine sample.
While imprisoned, Kemper has participated in a number of interviews, including a segment in the 1982 documentary “The Killing of America”, as well as an appearance in the 1984 documentary “Murder: No Apparent Motive.” His interviews have contributed to the understanding of the mind of serial killers. FBI profiler John Douglas described Kemper as “among the brightest” prison inmates he interviewed and capable of “rare insight for a violent criminal.”
Kemper is forthcoming about the nature of his crimes and has stated that he participated in the interviews to save others like himself from killing. At the end of his “Murder: No Apparent Motive” interview, he said, “There’s somebody out there that is watching this and hasn’t done that—hasn’t killed people, and wants to, and rages inside and struggles with that feeling, or is so sure they have it under control. They need to talk to somebody about it. Trust somebody enough to sit down and talk about something that isn’t a crime; thinking that way isn’t a crime. Doing it isn’t just a crime; it’s a horrible thing. It doesn’t know when to quit, and it can’t be stopped easily once it starts.” He also conducted an interview with French writer Stéphane Bourgoin in 1991.
Kemper was first eligible for parole in 1979. He was denied parole that year, as well as at parole hearings in 1980, 1981, and 1982. He subsequently waived his right to a hearing in 1985. He was denied parole at his 1988 hearing, where he said, “Society is not ready in any shape or form for me. I can’t fault them for that.” He was denied parole again in 1991 and in 1994. He then waived his right to a hearing in 1997 and in 2002. He attended the next hearing, in 2007, where he was again denied parole. Prosecutor Ariadne Symons said, “We don’t care how much of a model prisoner he is because of the enormity of his crimes.” Kemper waived his right to a hearing again in 2012. He was denied parole in 2017 and is next eligible in 2024, he’ll be 75 years old. Kemper remains among the general prison population at California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California.
Kemper has been the subject of multiple books, including “Edmund Kemper: The True Story of the Co-Ed Killer”, “Edmund Kemper: The True Story of the Brutal Co-ed Butcher”, and “The Co‑Ed Killer: A Study of the Murders, Mutilations, and Matricide of Edmund Kemper III”, among others.
“When I see a pretty girl walking down the street, I think two things: one part of me wants to take her home, be real nice and treat her right; the other part wonders what her head would look like on a stick.” – Edmund Kemper
If you want to watch a documentary on Edmund Kemper then just check out the video below: