Ed Kemper was the most disarming of American serial killers: He appeared as a gentle giant on the surface, in both enormous physical size and personality, but he was a monster in secret, murdering his own grandparents and mother and slaughtering a string of young college women, mutilation slayings that earned him the nicknames “The Co-ed Killer” and “Co-ed Butcher.”
Kemper is a key character in Netflix’ new original series, Mindhunter. The series, set in the 1970s, explores the real-life story of FBI agent John Douglas and his partner, Robert Ressler – yes, it’s mostly a true story – as they try to crack the mindset of a new kind of killer along with a Boston professor, Dr. Ann Burgess (she’s now a professor at Boston College’s Connell School of Nursing; Douglas went on to author a book by the same name as the series, and he was the inspiration for the Jack Crawford character in The Silence of the Lambs.)
Parts of the show are fictionalized (such as the characters’ names; they are called Holden Ford and Bill Tench in the Netflix series), but their encounters with serial killer Ed Kemper are based on the true story. Ed Kemper is real, and some of the quotes in the series are as well. It’s true that he befriended local cops at the community watering hole, throwing them off with his appearance of normalcy. If anything, the heinous nature of his serial crimes is boiled down by Netflix, although actor Cameron Britton bears a startlingly uncanny resemblance to the real Ed Kemper, who was born Edmund Emil Kemper and stood six foot nine inches tall, weighing more than 250 pounds.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Kemper Had a Disturbed Upbringing That Eventually Culminated in the Slayings of His Own Grandparents as a Teenager
Ed Kemper terrorized college co-eds in the early 1970s in northern California, but before those serial murders, he demonstrated disturbed behavior in childhood that eventually boiled over into the murder of his own grandparents. According to Biography.com, he was born on December 18, 1948, in Burbank, California, to E. E. and Clarnell Kemper (the middle child.) His parents divorced in 1957, and Kemper’s mother moved him and his two sisters to Montana. She was an alcoholic, reports Biography.com, relentlessly criticizing him. “He blamed her for all of his problems. When he was 10 years old, she forced him to live in the basement, away from his sisters, whom she feared he might harm in some way,” the site notes.
Kemper was eventually sent to live with his grandparents on their farm after a failed attempt to be with his father. His mother had grown troubled by some of his more bizarre behavior. “He cut off the heads of his sisters’ dolls and even coerced the girls into playing a game he called ‘gas chamber,’ in which he had them blindfold him and lead him to a chair, where he pretended to writhe in agony until he ‘died,” Biography.com reports. “His first victims were the family cats. At ten he buried one of them alive and, the second, 13 year-old Kemper slaughtered with a knife.” According to Crime and Investigation, “Ten year old Edmund buries alive his cat. Once dead, he digs it up, decapitates it, and displays it on a spike. This is his first trophy. At 13, he uses a machete on the replacement cat.”
He turned that malevolence onto his grandparents two years later. In interviews, Kemper said that his grandmother resembled his mother and became a proxy kill; he considered the grandmother “very abusive and he disliked her intensely. In 1964, at the age of 15, Edmund shot his grandmother in the head allegedly just to see what it felt like,” Psychology Today reported. He then killed his grandfather, too, “because he believed that his grandfather would be angry at him for killing his grandmother.” Kemper was sent to a state psychiatric hospital, likely due to his young age. “To his chagrin, he was released into his mother’s care in 1969 after less than five years of confinement and treatment. His juvenile criminal record was expunged,” Psychology Today reports.
Kemper began killing again in 1972, within three years of his release from the psychiatric hospital. Kemper discussed the influence of his mother on his murders and psyche in a 1984 documentary interview. The series of murders he perpetrated next would shock northern California, as, according to that documentary,”college girls disappeared while hitchhiking.” It wasn’t happenstance that Kemper picked up some of those women at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where Ed Kemper’s mother was working as an administrative assistant. Again, it was about his mother.
“I was also involved in killing co-eds because my mother was associated with college work… and had a very violently outspoken position on men for much of my upbringing. My mother was a sick, angry, hungry and very sad woman. I hated her. But I wanted to love my mother. I watched the alcohol increase… I watched her get bizarre,” Kemper said in the documentary. Of killing co-eds, he said, “It represented not what my mother was, but what she lived, she coveted, what was important to her, and I destroyed it.”
2. Horrifically, Kemper Performed Sexual Acts on His Victims’ Severed Heads
Kemper then set out on a horrific crime spree that spanned two years and resulted in the deaths of at least six young college women. In addition to murdering them, he mutilated their bodies and performed graphic sexual acts on the corpses. Kemper’s first two victims “were 18-year-old Fresno State college coeds, Mary Ann Pesce and Anita Luchessa, whom he stabbed to death May 7, 1972, after he picked them up in Berkeley,” reported Front Page Detective Magazine in an article that detailed a 1974 interview with the then 24-year-old serial killer (he had just been convicted of eight counts of first-degree murder.) He commented in the interview that he had a particular fondness for Pesce, saying, “I was really quite struck by her personality and her looks and there was just almost a reverence there.”
In what would become a pattern, Kemper cut the heads off his victims. “Kemper decapitated the girls’ corpses, burying Miss Pesce’s body in a redwood grove along a mountain highway and casting that of Miss Luchessa out in the brush on a hillside. He kept their heads for a time and then hurled them down a steep slope of a ravine,” the article reports, saying that the co-eds were initially reported as missing for months. Crime and Investigation detailed the horrors: “Death is usually quick as his perversion doesn’t involve torture. Instead, he takes their bodies’ home so that he has the time and space he needs. His necrophilia involves photographing the body, then having sex with it. After dissection, and decapitation, he has sex with the head, and with the viscera. Twice, he butchers his victim and uses their flesh in a macaroni casserole.”
His next victim was “beautiful Aiko Koo, 15, a talented Oriental dancer” who “was hitchhiking from her home in Berkeley to a dance class in San Francisco. She never arrived. Kemper literally snuffed out her life in the darkness of an isolated spot in the mountains above the city of Santa Cruz,” reported Front Page Detective Magazine, and, then, “Cynthia Schall, a 19-year-old Santa Cruz girl…He carried her body into his mother’s apartment near Santa Cruz, kept it in his bedroom closet over night and dissected it in the bathtub the next day while his mother was at work.” The final two co-eds massacred by Ed Kemper were “Rosalind Thorpe, 23, and Alice Liu, 21, on the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). He shot them both to death in the car before driving off campus and later cut off their heads in the trunk of his car,” noted Front Page Detective.
3. Kemper Used His Mother’s Severed Head as a Dartboard & Put Her Vocal Cords in the Garbage Disposal
As Hitchcock could have told the FBI, Norman Bates was motivated by his mother too; a matriarch’s power – for good or for worse – over a son can be great indeed. Kemper claimed the same psychological motivation, and he stopped killing – confessing and giving himself up – once he eradicated her from the earth. “Just before Easter 1973, Kemper enters his mother’s bedroom with a knife and a hammer. He smashes in her skull and then cuts off her head and has sex with the remains,” Crime and Investigation reports. He then performed what could be taken as symbolic acts against her mutilated body.
“In one of the more symbolically resonant acts in the annals of criminal depravity, he jammed her larynx down the garbage disposal-which promptly spat it back out into his face,” the site reports, quoting him as later telling police: “That seemed appropriate, as much as she’d bitched and screamed and yelled at me over so many years.” Psychology Today noted, “After having sex with his mother’s decapitated head, Edmund Kemper casually telephoned the local law enforcement authorities to confess what he had done” after leaving on a road trip.
According to the New York Post, “He cut off her head and used it as a dart board before ripping out her vocal cords and tossing them in a garbage disposal, which he turned on. Kemper then phoned his mom’s best friend, Sally Hallett, luring the 59-year-old over to the house so he could fatally strangle her.” Authorities didn’t believe his confessions at first, but eventually they did, and, “At his trial, Kemper pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but was found responsible for eight murders and sentenced in November 1973 to life with the possibility of parole,” reported The Post. He remains incarcerated in the California prison system to this day. The newspaper reported that Kemper is happy in prison and has no desire to ever leave it.
4. The Real Douglas Admitted That He Liked Ed Kemper
It’s famously called the banality of evil. Ed Kemper had a way of disarming even the most seasoned law enforcement officers (and, at one point, was able to secure his release from the psychiatric facility where he’d been sent following his grandparents’ murders by convincing psychiatrists to let him out.) This attribute – which makes the serial killer all the more chilling (and sort of an oversized Dexter able to camouflage monstrosity in seeming normalcy) – is captured by the Netflix show. In real life, John Douglas admitted that he liked Ed Kemper.
“I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that I liked Ed,” Douglas wrote in his book. “He was friendly, open, sensitive and had a good sense of humor. As much as you can say such a thing in this setting, I enjoyed being around him. I don’t want him out on the streets, and in his most lucid moments, neither does he. But my personal feelings about him then, which I still hold, do point up an important consideration for anyone dealing with repeat offenders. Many of these guys are quite charming, highly articulate and glib.”
It’s true that Douglas’ and Ressler’s real-life interviews with Ed Kemper changed law enforcement; they helped the pioneering agents develop the FBI’s then new, but now roundly accepted, behavioral science approach, in which they attempted to profile serial killers, digging into their backgrounds and plumbing them for insights, while categorizing them as “organized” and “disorganized.” It was an era of a modern murderer, in which motive seemed more elusive as society itself began to fragment. One can’t but help think of Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock’s seemingly motive-less and impersonal massacre, as the show punctuates that point.
5. Kemper Gave a Series of Interviews in Which He Provided Insights Into Why He Killed
“Well I’m not an expert. I’m not an authority. I’m someone who has been a murderer for almost 20 years,” Kemper said in the chillingly insightful 1984 interview for the documentary, Murder – No Apparent Motive. Asked how many people were committing serial crimes like he had done, he said, in a comment also echoed by the character in Mindhunter: “Far more than 35. It isn’t that impossible in this society. It happens…I gave up. I came in out of the cold. There are some people who prefer it in the cold.”
At the time, the modern serial killer – who murders with no obvious motive – was not a concept that was known to society. Thus, Kemper’s interviews allowed law enforcement a glimpse into the twisted mind of what was at first called a “sequence killer.” Kemper described how he was able to carry on a semblance of normalcy. “I lived as an ordinary person most of my life, even though I was living a parallel and increasingly sick life, other life,” he said in the documentary.
“One victim let me back in the car, I locked myself out. She opened the door for me. My gun was under the seat…I’m trying to show you just how awful this got. How commanding these rages got. I was raging inside. It was just incredible energies, positive and negative, depending on my mood that would trigger one or the other. And outside I looked troubled at times. Other times I looked moody. Other times, perfectly serene. Not very sane. But again people weren’t even aware of what was happening.”
He said that “my inability to communicate socially, sexually…emotionally I was impotent. I was scared to death of failing in male/female relationships.” He went a little farther each time. He’d put a gun in the car, hidden. He’d go to vulnerable places. “I could feel it consuming my insides. This fantastic passion… it was like drugs, like alcohol. It finally came down to do I dare to bring that gun out,” he said in the documentary.
On one occasion, he picked up the two roommates in Berkeley. “That first killing in May of 1972…it was something that had been thought out in fantasy…hundreds of times before it ever happened.” He took one into the woods, leaving the second girl tied in the car. He stabbed the roommate. “And I’m walking back there bewildered,” he said, and he thought he had to kill the second girl or she would tell on him. She saw the blood on his hands. I said, “Your friend got smart with me, and I hit her.” She was about to die, but he said he couldn’t deal with telling her that. It was a story that highlights the essential contradictions within Ed Kemper’s personality: Worrying about his victim’s feelings before he was about to kill her. That’s likely something that society – and even the most determined FBI profiler – will never be able to completely understand.