“What do you think his sentence should be?” A reporter asked the judge. The judge replied that, if he had it his way, Kemper would be tortured to death.
Instead of fulfilling his wish, during the penalty phase of the trial, the judge sentenced Edmund Kemper to eight concurrent life sentences. Kemper’s sentencing took place in November of 1973. The judge was not able to sentence Kemper to the death penalty, because California had already eliminated capital punishment.
At the time of his sentencing, Edmund Kemper was 25-years-old. He was found guilty on eight counts of first-degree murder and would become known as the “Co-ed Killer,” though his victims were not restricted to college co-eds.
For Edmund Kemper, the descent into madness occurred early on.
Born December 18, 1948, in Burbank, California, Edmund Kemper was large from the start, weighing in at 13 pounds. By the time he was four-years-old, Edmund was a head taller than his peers. Edmund was the middle child of Edmund Emil Kemper II and Clarnell Kemper; he had two sisters. His father, E.E. Kemper II, was a veteran of World War II. After the war, the Kempers settled in Burbank, which at the time was a small town located in Los Angeles County. E.E. worked at the Pacific Proving Grounds, where he tested nuclear weapons. He later became an electrician. The town of Burbank had grown during the war; Lockheed Aircraft had chosen it as a site for the production of planes. By 1943, Burbank had a population of 53,899.
Both of Edmund’s parents were strict disciplinarians, and their marriage was strained. Clarnell Kemper was known to be a difficult woman. It has been suggested that Clarnell may have suffered from borderline personality disorder. Edmund’s father would later state that testing bombs was nothing compared to being married to Clarnell. He even said that being married to Clarnell had more of an impact on him, “than three hundred and ninety-six days and nights of fighting on the front did.”
Edmund felt close to his father; as his mother was distant towards him, rarely showing him any affection. Consequently, Kemper’s feelings for his mother fueled a rage that would escalate with the passing of time — a rage foretelling the destiny of both him and his mother. If Edmund’s rage was a ticking time bomb, then the lighting of the fuse was the divorce of his parents in 1957. Edmund was only nine-years-old when his father moved out; his mother was left with full custody. Clarnell moved Edmund and his two sisters to Montana. It was during this time that Edmund started to express his anger and violent tendencies.
At age ten, Edmund buried the family’s pet cat alive; he later dug up the dead cat and played with it. When he was thirteen-years-old, he killed another family cat because it favored the company of his sister, Allyn. Edmund butchered the cat with a machete knife and placed its remains in a closet. When his mother made the grisly discovery, Edmund denied any responsibility for the cat’s death. Years later, as an adult, Edmund would reveal in an interview that he took pride in the fact that he could successfully lie about the cat’s death, and that he could appear to be an average person despite the rage and fear that he felt inside.
As a child, Edmund considered himself a chronic daydreamer, often fantasizing about committing acts of violence against others, in particular, his mother. He would set fires and engage in play that was violent, like dismembering his sisters’ dolls, or pretending that he was in a gas chamber and mimicking the convulsive movements of a dying prisoner. At ten-years-old, Edmund’s mother made him sleep in the basement of their home out of fear he might harm his sisters. To prepare the basement for him, Edmund’s mother placed a mattress in the dark, barren room. Edmund would later recall the single, bare bulb that provided light in the rat-infested quarters was his bedroom.
A few years later, when Edmund was fourteen-years-old, he could no longer tolerate living with his mother. He decided to run away so he could be with his father, thinking this would make his life easier. His hopes for a better life were short-lived — dashed when he arrived at his father’s home in California to discover Edmund II had remarried, and had a stepson through his new wife. Edmund’s father was less than enthusiastic to see his son, but allowed Edmund to stay with him for a while before eventually sending him back to his mother in Montana.
Upon returning to his mother’s home, Edmund discovered that his mother was also planning to remarry. Like her ex-husband, Edmund II, Clarnell was not interested in having Edmund back. To remedy the situation, Clarnell decided to wash her hands of Edmund and sent him to live with his paternal grandparents in North Fork, California.
Barely a teenager, Edmund was unwelcome by his parents. His father, the only person whom he felt close to, was starting a new life without him. His mother, who he held such deep anger for, was about to marry her third husband. Edmund was unwanted, friendless, and doing poorly in school. He wanted a connection with other people; especially girls or women, but felt completely inadequate. His mother’s cruel and domineering ways had burned a hole in Kemper’s soul.
He went deeper into his fantasies of violence and killing. What he could not anticipate was that his fantasies would materialize into reality upon arrival at his grandparents’ ranch.
The Carnage Begins
The town of North Fork is located in central California, at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The town had three restaurants, two gas stations, and one grocery store. The home that Edmund’s grandparents, Edmund Kemper Sr. and his wife Maude, offered the fourteen-year-old Edmund was not dramatically different from that of his mother. Maude was also an authoritarian in her discipline and emasculated him just like his mother had.
Edmund spent as much time as possible outside to avoid dealing with his grandparents, particularly Maude. His grandfather had bought him a .22-gauge rifle so he could go hunting; however, his grandfather had taken the gun away from Edmund when he discovered he had been shooting birds and animals that were not game animals. Edmund’s shooting had been just for the sake of killing, especially birds. Later, Edmund’s grandfather allowed him to have his rifle back, thinking that Edmund had learned his lesson.
On the morning of August 27, 1964, Maude was in the kitchen, working on a children’s book she was writing while her husband had gone grocery shopping. Edmund entered the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, looking for something to eat. Maude made a comment about his sleeping in late and being useless when it came to helping out around the house. Edmund felt his mind drifting to the dark space, filled with the hate for his mother. He felt a surge of rage and stormed back to his room, leaving his grandmother thinking she could get under his skin
Minutes later, Edmund returned to the kitchen with his .22-caliber rifle. Maude thought nothing of it; figuring he was going hunting. “Don’t shoot any birds!” she said to him firmly. Edmund pointed his rifle at Maude and pulled the trigger. The first bullet went through her head. Still pumped with emotion, he fired two more shots into her back. Edmund felt like he was in a daze when he realized what he had just done. He dragged her body to her bedroom and placed her in the closet. Something about killing his grandmother left him with a sense of satisfaction.
Then his thoughts turned to his grandfather; who would be returning at any time. Out of a distorted sense of compassion, Edmund felt he must also kill his grandfather. He did not want him to go through the experience of finding his wife murdered. Edmund looked out the living room window, and saw his grandfather’s car pulling in. Edmund stepped out the front door, pointed the rifle at his grandfather as he got out of the car. After the shot rang out, his grandfather collapsed to the pavement.
At the age of 15, Edmund Kemper had taken the lives of two people.
With both grandparents dead now, the reality of what he had done hit Edmund; he did not know what to do. He called his mother and told her what he had just done. His mother told him to call the police, which he did. Edmund sat in the kitchen as he waited for them to arrive. He was arrested and taken down to the police station, where he was interrogated. When asked why he had killed his grandmother, Edmund replied, “I just wanted to see what it felt like to kill her.”
When Institutions Fail
Edmund was placed in Juvenile Hall pending the California Youth Authority’s determination of where to place him long-term. Psychiatrists at the California Youth Authority diagnosed Edmund as being paranoid schizophrenic, with an IQ of 136 — near genius level. They decided to place him in Atascadero State Hospital. Fifteen-year-old Edmund entered Atascadero State Hospital on December 6, 1964.
Atascadero State Hospital is a maximum-security facility located on the central coast of California that houses mentally ill convicts. In the late 1990s there was an exodus of clinical staff from the Hospital because they felt that housing sexually violent predators went against the hospital’s mission of providing the highest quality care to those who had serious mental illness, and it diverted time and resources.
Experts who are familiar with Edmund’s case believe that his referral to Atascadero State Hospital was an irresponsible decision. At the time Edmund was admitted to Atascadero, there were 1600 patients. Of those patients, 24 were murderers, and 800 were sex offenders. The hospital only had 10 psychiatric staff members to serve this population.
Not only did Edmund lack the quality of treatment needed for an offender of his age, but his short stay at Atascadero only strengthened his ability to carry out his future crimes. Edmund spent four years at Atascadero. During that time, he gained the trust of his counselor, even befriending him. His ability to act as a model patient earned him the position as assistant to the staff, which meant he had access to psychological test papers and diagnosis criteria. Since Edmund was very bright, he was able to educate himself on how to fool the clinicians into believing he was fully rehabilitated. He passed all their psychological testing with flying colors, leading the hospital’s medical team to believing there was no longer a need to contain him.
Despite the recommendations provided by his doctor at Atascadero, the California Youth Authority released Edmund to the custody of his mother in 1969. His doctor had urged them not to release Edmund to his mother; given her past abusive behavior and psychological issues. There had been no psychiatrist on the panel for Edmund’s parole hearing, and no aftercare plan offered. Edmund was 21-years-old, had killed two people, spent four years in a maximum security hospital, and was being returned to the person he hated the most; his mother.
Clarnell had moved from Montana to Santa Cruz, California. Her marriage to her third husband had not worked out and ended in divorce. Clarnell found a job as an administrator at the University of California. Edmund was once again subjected to emotional abuse from Clarnell. She frequently attacked his sense of self-worth, just like she had with her three ex-husbands.
Edmund attended a community college and worked a series of odd jobs as part of his parole requirements. With his juvenile criminal record expunged, Edmund eventually landed a job with the California Department of Transportation in 1971. Edmund wanted to be a state trooper. He had applied, but was disqualified due to his weight. At 6’9” tall, and 300 pounds, his weight was way above the standard; recruits needed to be between 211 – 234 pounds.
By now, Edmund wanted to get his own place. Through his job at the California Department of Transportation, he was able to save enough money to move into an apartment in the city of Alameda; located near San Francisco. He shared the apartment with a roommate. However, he was unable to pay his rent consistently, and Edmund had to move back in with his mother.
Edmund found himself facing a life that he felt was as confining as being in Atascadero. He had failed in his ability to support himself. He wanted to socialize and meet girls, but he lacked any confidence with women. He had never kissed a girl or even been on a date. As a 21-year-old, having spent the last four years in a mental hospital, and living with his mother, how could he ever hope to start a relationship, especially with his background? At least in Atascadero, his basic needs were met, without the criticism from a belittling mother.
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