Did Herbert Mullin really believe that slaughtering Californians could prevent an earthquake?


When the news of the murder of Father Henri Tomei, 64, appeared in California’s Sentinel newspaper on 4 November 1972, everyone was stunned.

A Roman Catholic priest who was stabbed and stomped to death in a church confessional may have surprised a thief, the report read. Father Tomei was brutally murdered Thursday afternoon by a tall, young man in dark clothing and black boots, it went on.

Father Tomei

‘A woman entering the church during the struggle told the police the young man repeatedly stabbed the 64-year-old,’ a Los Gatos police official said.

Three months later, in February 1973, there was a brutal shooting.

One afternoon, Fred Perez, 72, was weeding the front lawn of his house in Santa Cruz, California when, suddenly, a station wagon pulled up.

A tall, young man in dark clothing climbed out of the driver’s seat, laid a rifle across the bonnet, aimed and fired.

Fred was killed instantly. But his neighbour had seen it all, even managed to get the car’s number plate.

That afternoon, the killer was arrested. He was Herbert Mullin, 26.

And a police search of his apartment turned up Father Tomei’s rosary beads.

They also found newspaper articles about other recent, unsolved murders, and an address book with lists of victims.

The police had uncovered a serial killer they didn’t even know they were looking for.

The murders had been unconnected because, each time, Mullin had killed using different methods.

His victims were all different, too – men, women, young, old.

Herbert Mullin was born in 1947 in Salinas, California. A good boy who’d done well at school, he’d even been voted ‘most likely to succeed’ by classmates.

But then it all started to go wrong for him.

At 18, his best friend Dean was killed in a car accident. The two had been close. Some even thought they were lovers.

Dean’s death hit Mullin hard, and he built a shrine to Dean in his bedroom, with photos and trinkets.

Soon after, Mullin told his family he was gay. But what worried them was his erratic behaviour, as he spent more and more time alone.

Then, one night in February 1969, when he was 21, Mullin started imitating his brother-in-law over the dinner table.

Uncontrollable copying – echopraxia – is an early sign of schizophrenia. With his family’s support, Mullin committed himself to a mental hospital. Only, weeks later, he discharged himself.

For the next few years, it was a pattern that would repeat itself. Between hospital visits, Mullin tried to self-medicate with cannabis and LSD.

But then, three years later, the voices started, at first telling him he was destined for great things.

His birthday was 18 April, after all – the same date as Albert Einstein’s. Mullin didn’t need any more persuading.

Then the voices pointed out that 18 April was also the date of the last massive earthquake in San Francisco, in 1906.

Eighty per cent of the city had been destroyed, and some 3,000 people killed.

Mullin believed that another earthquake was imminent.

Herbert Mullin (Photo: Getty Images)

Suddenly, he saw his destiny… He’d been born to save Californians from another quake – by murdering them.

His first victim was Lawrence White, a homeless man. Lawrence, 55, had been walking along the Santa Cruz mountain road when Mullin drove past.

It was late. Mullin stopped his car – and, using a baseball bat, he beat the man to death.

But one murder wouldn’t be enough to stop the earthquake.

Two weeks later, on 24 October 1972, Mullin picked up hitchhiker Mary Guilfoyle, 24, stabbed her in the chest, then cut her up and scattered her along the highway.

His next victim had been Father Tomei. Mullin told police he’d gone into St Mary’s Church to confess, but thought Father Tomei had offered himself up as the next sacrifice…

Herbert Mullin killed 13 people in total. He confessed to his crimes and was charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder.

But Mullin denied the charges. He claimed he’d been insane, so wasn’t responsible.

Six months later, in August 1973, he stood trial, and a number of expert witnesses agreed that he was insane, that his crimes had been committed mindlessly

Except that not all had…

On 25 January 1973, Mullin had set out to kill James Gianera, 25, who he’d known from high school. James had sold him cannabis – and, to Mullin, that made him responsible for everything.

The two hadn’t seen each other in years, but Mullin tracked down James, then shot him and his wife dead.

Lawyers said it was a premeditated crime.

The jury agreed…and Mullin was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and nine of second-degree murder.

In 1973, Herbert Mullin was sentenced to life in prison, and won’t be eligible for parole until 2021, when he’s 74.