Documenting the Co-Ed Killer case

Category: Height

Interview with Dary Matera

Released in 2021, the book Ed Kemper, Conversations With a Killer is an entertaining and detailed telling of Kemper’s life and crimes. We asked author Dary Matera a few questions about the process of writing the book: 

EKS: How did you come about writing the book Ed Kemper, Conversations With a Killer?

DM: The publisher, Barnes & Noble/Sterling, recently republished my 1998 book Taming The Beast about Charles Manson’s wild life in prison post Helter Skelter. It’s part of their Conversations With a Killer series. They liked it so much they contracted me to write a totally new one about Ed Kemper, considering that it covered a similar era in California. I went into the project totally blind as I only had a passing knowledge of Ed’s rampage in the early 1970s. I was living in the Philippines back then as an overseas brat. This enabled to me to take on the project with a fresh objective perspective. 

EKS: What was your research process? Was it easy to access people and documents?

DM: Documents yes, thanks to the Internet and remarkable web pages like yours, Christine. Ed was covered widely then and now. That was before the prison system outlawed interviews with incarcerated criminals, and Ed was very loquacious and gave many before the shutdown. Some of the best complimentary research material, oddly enough, came from long forgotten foreign publications in France, Germany, Australia, Ireland and Great Britain that I found on E-Bay. Those countries appear to be fascinated with American serial killers. As for witnesses, that was far more difficult as this happened a half century ago. I was fortunate that my Taming the Beast co-author, Ed George, was an administrator at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville where both Ed and Manson were housed. Ed George knew Kemper up close and personal for more than a decade. 

EKS: What new information about the Kemper case did you learn that marked you?

DM: As mentioned, all the information on Ed was new to me, so that’s a difficult question to answer. As with Taming the Beast, I believe following Ed’s long incarceration after his killing spree was mostly new. Virtually all previously available stories about Ed, then, through the years, and now focus on his inhuman crimes in the early 1970s. My book, Ed Kemper, Conversations With a Killer, of course covered that in detail, but it also takes readers from his turbulent childhood up until today. 

EKS: Which deceased person involved in the Kemper case would you have liked to talk to, and why?

DM: I would have loved to have channeled the person I felt was Ed most tragic victim, Aiko Koo. She was his youngest, only 15, and was already a nationally known exotic Asian dancer, along with being a brilliant student with an eye toward a potential future in politics. I envision her possibly ascending to Congress or the Senate. Her interaction with Ed, if reports are to be believed, was courageous and even humorous at times. She didn’t believe she was in danger until Ed suddenly transformed into killer mode and became the monster he was. Aiko tragically is the one who Ed accidently locked inside the car, with his gun on the floorboard and the keys inside. She was home free at that point – if she could drive or shoot. But Ed simply motioned for her to unlock the door, and she complied. That gives me the chills.  

EKS: Your book covers extensively all the important events in the Kemper case. Is there any part of his story that remains a mystery to you? If so, what? 

DM: Yes. Despite Ed’s wealth of ever-changing interviews, there are many mysteries. I was never able to lock down where he spent his first three years in prison. Some reports say he was doing hard time in isolation in a harsh prison like San Quentin, Folsom, or Pelican Bay. Others say he was at the much easier “Cuckoo’s Nest” at Vacaville since day one. Ed George, the Vacaville administrator, recalls that Kemper arrived there at least three years after his conviction in 1973. Ed himself wrote and spoke of his horrible first three years in isolation – in the “hole” in prison speak – with spiders, vermin, stifling loneliness and bad food. but he didn’t reveal where that was. His life was much easier subsequently at Vacaville, either from being transferred there, or released from the Vacaville hole and allowed to roam around in population. 

As a former police reporter and true crime author, I can attest that this prison secrecy wasn’t unusual. Thanks mostly to Charles Manson and his devoted family, wardens don’t like to broadcast that they are housing a “celebrity” prisoner. They want to avoid followers like the Manson family camping out at their gates, harassing corrections officers and other employees, and flooding the facility with phone calls. 

I was also never able to lock down why Ed, due to his massive size and strength, didn’t become a high school, college, or professional athlete. As mentioned in Ed Kemper – Conversations with a Killer, he was taller and stronger than 90 percent of the highly paid NBA players of his time. If he wasn’t athletic, he still could have used his size and strength to become a blocking offensive guard in football, possibly channeling his internal rage and making it all the way to the NFL. He could have lived a happy, lucrative celebrity life. Instead, he chose to hack up young women. Boggles. 

EKS: You have also written a book about Charles Manson. Are there any similarities in their cases that you find interesting?

DM: What was interesting about Manson and Kemper, who were incarcerated at the Vacaville Medical Facility at the same time for many years, is that they basically detested each other. One a giant. The other a shrimp. No Of Mice and Men type relationship developed. Manson, despite prevailing beliefs, wasn’t a hands-on killer. He never actually murdered anyone. Manson was convicted and notoriously despised for being the leader of a drugged up hippy cult that acted out the brutal slaughters. Manson either ordered the murders, or didn’t stop them from happening. Manson also tried to clean up the scenes afterwards, making himself legally complicit in the homicides. Ed, in turn, was a lone wolf who was very hands on when it came to murder, post death rape, and horrific mutilation. 

In addition, Manson recruited young California women into his family and didn’t physically harm them. They were his bread and butter, his beloved family and lovers. Ed, in contrast, kidnapped and ripped those near identical victims apart. So, the pair not only had very little in common, they had a strong reason to be enemies at odds. 

Ed sometimes pointed out the difference between himself and Manson due to their physical size and strength and how they dealt with their troubled childhoods and incarcerations. Small and weak, Manson was sexually abused in juvenile facilities. Large and strong from his youth, Ed was spared that fate despite being incarcerated as a teenager in an adult psychiatric facility with nearly 1,000 sex offenders. It pays to be the biggest and strongest monster in the jungle! 

“I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that I liked Ed.”

John Douglas (left) and Ed Kemper (right)

FBI criminal profiler John Douglas talks about his first meeting with Ed Kemper in his book Mindhunter:

“The first thing that struck me when they brought him in was how huge this guy was. I’d known that he was tall and had been considered a social outcast in school and in the neighborhood because of his size, but up close, he was enormous. He could easily have broken any of us in two. He had longish dark hair and a full mustache, and wore an open work shirt and white T-shirt that prominently displayed a massive gut.

It was also apparent before long that Kemper was a bright guy. Prison records listed his IQ as 145, and at times during the many hours we spent with him, Bob [Robert Ressler] and I worried he was a lot brighter than we were. He’d had a long time to sit and think about his life and crimes, and once he understood that we had carefully researched his files and would know if he was bullshitting us, he opened up and talked about himself for hours.

His attitude was neither cocky and arrogant nor remorseful and contrite. Rather, he was cool and soft-spoken, analytical and somewhat removed. In fact, as the interview went on, it was often difficult to break in and ask a question. The only times he got weepy was in recalling his treatment at the hands of his mother. (…)

We ended up doing several lengthy interviews with Kemper over the years, each one informative, each one harrowing in its detail. Here was a man who had coldly butchered intelligent young women in the prime of their lives. Yet I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that I liked Ed. 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 walking 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 violent offenders. Many of these guys are quite charming, highly articulate, and glib. (…)

Quite clearly, some types of killers are much more likely to repeat their crimes than others. But for the violent, sexually based serial killers, I find myself agreeing with Dr. Park Dietz that “it’s hard to imagine any circumstance under which they should be released to the public again.” Ed Kemper, who’s a lot brighter and has a lot more in the way of personal insight than most of the other killers I’ve talked to, acknowledges candidly that he shouldn’t be let out.”

Source: Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit (1996) by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker / Photo: Getty Images

“If I went apeshit in here, you’d be in a lot of trouble, wouldn’t you?”

Left to right: Robert K. Ressler, Ed Kemper and John Douglas

Supervisory Special Agent and Criminologist Robert K. Ressler, from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, famously told the story of his third meeting with Ed Kemper:

Twice before, I had ventured in the Vacaville prison in California to see and talk with him, the first time accompanied by John Conway, the second time by Conway and by my Quantico associate John Douglas, whom I was breaking in. During those sessions, we had gone quite deeply into his past, his motivations for murder, and the fantasies that were intertwined with those crimes. (…) I was so pleased at the rapport I had reached with Kemper that I was emboldened to attempt a third session with him alone. It took place in a cell just off death row, the sort of place used for giving a last benediction to a man about to die in the gas chamber. (…)

After conversing with Kemper in this claustrophobic locked cell for four hours, dealing with matters that entail behavior at the extreme edge of depravity, I felt that we had reached the end of what there was to discuss, and I pushed the buzzer to summon the guard to come and let me out of the cell. No guard immediately appeared, so I continued on with the conversation. (…)

After another few minutes had passed, I pressed the buzzer a second time, but still got no response. Fifteen minutes after my first call, I made a third buzz, yet no guard came.

Robert K. Ressler

A look of apprehension must have come over my face despite my attempts to keep calm and cool, and Kemper, keenly sensitive to other people’s psyches, picked up on this.

“Relax, they’re changing the shift, feeding the guys in the secure area.” He smiled and got up from his chair, making more apparent his huge size. “Might be fifteen, twenty minutes before they come and get you,” he said to me. (…)

Though I felt I maintained a cool and collected posture, I’m sure I reacted to this information with somewhat more overt indications of panic, and Kemper responded to these.

“If I went apeshit in here, you’d be in a lot of trouble, wouldn’t you? I could screw your head off and place it on the table to greet the guard.”

Ed Kemper during the FBI interviews

My mind raced. I envisioned him reaching for me with his large arms, pinning me to a wall in a stranglehold, and then jerking my head around until my neck was broken. It wouldn’t take long, and the size difference between us would almost certainly ensure that I wouldn’t be able to fight him off very long before succumbing. He was correct: He could kill me before I or anyone else could stop him. So, I told Kemper that if he messed with me, he’d be in deep trouble himself.

“What could they do– cut off my TV privileges?” he scoffed.

I retorted that he would certainly end up “in the hole” – solitary confinement – for an extremely long period of time.

Both he and I knew that many inmates put in the hole are forced by such isolation into at least temporary insanity.

Ed shrugged this off by telling me that he was an old hand at being in prisons, that he could withstand the pain of solitary and that it wouldn’t last forever. Eventually, he would be returned to a more normal confinement status, and his “trouble” would pale before the prestige he would have gained among the other prisoners by “offing” an FBI agent.

My pulse did the hundred-yard dash as I tried to think of something to say or do to prevent Kemper from killing me. I was fairly sure that he wouldn’t do it but I couldn’t be completely certain, for this was an extremely violent and dangerous man with, as he implied, very little left to lose. How had I been dumb enough to come in here alone?

Suddenly, I knew how I had embroiled myself in such a situation. Of all people who should have known better, I had succumbed to what students of hostage-taking events know as “Stockholm syndrome”- I had identified with my captor and transferred my trust to him. Although I had been the chief instructor in hostage negotiation techniques for the FBI, I had forgotten this essential fact! Next time, I wouldn’t be so arrogant about the rapport I believed I had achieved with a murderer. Next time.

“Ed,” I said, “surely you don’t think I’d come in here without some method of defending myself, do you?”

“Don’t shit me, Ressler. They wouldn’t let you up here with any weapons on you.”

Kemper’s observation, of course, was quite true, because inside a prison, visitors are not allowed to carry weapons, lest these be seized by inmates and used to threaten the guards or otherwise aid an escape. I nevertheless indicated that FBI agents were accorded special privileges that ordinary guards, police, or other people who entered a prison did not share.

What’ve you got then?”

“I’m not going to give away what I might have or where I might have it on me.”

“Come on, come on; what is it – a poison pen?”

“Maybe, but those aren’t the only weapons one could have.”

“Martial arts, then,” Kemper mused. “Karate? Got your black belt? Think you can take me?” 

With this, I felt the tide had shifted a bit, if not turned. There was a hint of kidding in his voice – I hoped. But I wasn’t sure, and he understood that I wasn’t sure, and he decided that he’d continue to try and rattle me. By this time, however, I had regained some composure, and thought back to my hostage negotiation techniques, the most fundamental of which is to keep talking and talking and talking, because stalling always seems to defuse the situation. We discussed martial arts, which many inmates studied as a way to defend themselves in the very tough place that is prison, until, at last, a guard appeared and unlocked the cell door. (…)

As Kemper got ready to walk off down the hall with the guard, he put his hand on my shoulder.

“You know I was just kidding, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I said, and let out a deep breath.

I resolved never to put myself or any other FBI interviewer in a similar position again. From then on, it became our policy never to interview a convicted killer or rapist or child molester alone; we’d do that in pairs.

Source: Whoever Fights Monsters – My twenty years tracking serial killers for the FBI, by Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shachtman, 1992

“My size has also caused me a lot of problems, what I would call artificial paranoia…

…When I walk into a room, everyone immediately looks at me because I’m the tallest person they’ve ever seen. The conversations stop and all eyes turn on me. And the irony of the thing is that the shortest kid is infuriated because he has always dreamed of being the center of attention. I absolutely do not want to be the center of this attention, I want to blend into the crowd. For large individuals I see that there are two categories, the passive ones, because of everything that befalls them, and those who are aggressive. Those who are short need to surpass themselves and they’re angry at those who naturally attract attention because of their size. At school, I was constantly harassed by smaller kids.” – Ed Kemper (who stands at 6’9″)

Source : L’Ogre de Santa Cruz (Stéphane Bourgoin, 1998)