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Corona at age 77
Juan Vallejo Corona
February 7, 1934
|Died||March 4, 2019 (aged 85)|
Yuba City, California, U.S.
|Other names||The Machete Murderer|
|Spouse(s)||Gloria I. Moreno (m. 1959)|
|Conviction(s)||25 counts of murder in the first degree|
|Criminal penalty||25 life sentences with possibility of parole|
Span of crimes
|Approximately February 1, 1971–May 19, 1971|
|May 26, 1971|
Juan Vallejo Corona (February 7, 1934 – March 4, 2019) was a Mexican serial killer who was convicted of the murders of 25 migrant farm workers found buried in shallow graves in peach orchards along the Feather River in Sutter County, California, in 1971. At the time, the crimes were characterized as among the most notorious in U.S. history. The exact victim total remains unknown and may be significantly higher, according to local authorities.
Corona was convicted of 25 counts of first-degree murder in 1973. An Appeals Court overturned the conviction in 1978 on the basis of incompetent legal representation and granted him a new trial. In 1982, he was again found guilty of all 25 homicides. He served out a life sentence in California State Prison, Corcoran.
Juan Corona was born in Autlán, Jalisco, Mexico on February 7, 1934. He first entered the United States illegally in 1950. Crossing the border into California, the 16-year-old picked carrots and melons in the Imperial Valley for three months before moving on north to the Sacramento Valley. His half-brother, Natividad Corona (c. 1923–May 23, 1973), had immigrated to California in 1944 to work and settled at Marysville, across the Feather River from Yuba City.
Corona moved to the Marysville/Yuba City area in May 1953, at the suggestion of Natividad, and found work on a local ranch. He was first married to Gabriella E. Hermosillo on October 24, 1953, in Reno, Nevada. In 1959, he married Gloria I. Moreno and they had four daughters.
In late December 1955, a flood occurred on the Yuba and Feather Rivers. It was one of the most widespread and destructive of any in the recorded history of Northern California. A rush of water broke through the west levee and flooded 100,000 acres (400 km2), killing 74 people. Corona was compelled by authorities to aid by digging victims out of the mud.
Corona was suffering from an episode of schizophrenia. On January 17, 1956, Natividad had him committed to DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, where he was diagnosed with "schizophrenic reaction, paranoid type."
In 1962, Corona returned to the U.S. legally, with a green card. At this time, he stopped drinking. Aside from schizophrenic episodes and a reported violent temper, Corona was regarded as a hard worker. This same year, he became a licensed labor contractor. He was in charge of hiring workers to staff the local fruit ranches.
Corona had anger issues with homosexual men. His half-brother, Natividad, who was gay, owned the "Guadalajara Cafe" in Marysville. Early on the morning of February 25, 1970, a young man named José Romero Raya was brutally attacked with a machete in the restroom of the café. He was discovered by customers at 1:00 a.m., hacked about the head and face, and Natividad called the police. Raya filed a lawsuit against Natividad, winning a judgment of $250,000, which prompted Natividad to sell his business and return to Mexico instead of paying. The attack occurred after Raya rejected Natividad's sexual advances.
On May 19, 1971, a farm owner who had used Corona to contract field workers noticed a freshly dug hole in his peach orchard. The next day, the hole was filled with dirt. The farmer was suspicious and called the police. When they investigated, they found a man's body that had been stabbed and hacked.
In one grave, deputies found two meat receipts bearing Corona's signature. In another two graves, there were two crumpled Bank of America deposit slips printed with Corona's name and address. This circumstantial evidence gave an added boost to the case.
In the early morning hours of May 26, 1971, police entered Corona's Yuba City home with a search warrant and arrested him. Evidence indicating his guilt was discovered and seized, such as two bloodstained knives, a machete, a pistol and blood-stained clothing. There was also a work ledger that contained 34 names and dates, including seven of the known victims. The ledger came to be referred to as a "death list" by the prosecution, who alleged it recorded the dates the men were murdered.
Corona had been supplying workers to the ranches where the victims were discovered. He housed many of the men who worked for him in a bunkhouse on the Sullivan Ranch, where most of the victims were discovered.
Corona was provided legal aid and assigned a public defender, Roy Van den Heuvel, who hired several psychiatrists to perform a psychological evaluation. Although the sheriff, Roy Whiteaker, said the prisoner was in no apparent or immediate danger from his fellow townsmen, Corona was moved to the new and larger county jail in Marysville, on May 30, 1971, for "security reasons."
By the time the search was terminated on June 4, a total of 25 male victims had been discovered. Four of them were unidentified. Whiteaker said he believed that even more bodies might have been buried in the area.
On June 14, Van den Heuvel was replaced by Richard Hawk, a privately retained defense attorney. In return for his legal representation, an agreement was made granting Hawk exclusive literary and dramatic property rights to the defendant's life story, including the proceedings against him. Under the agreement, Corona waived the attorney–client privilege. Shortly after taking over the defense, and even before seeing Corona's medical record or reading any of the reports, Hawk decided against having him plead not guilty by reason of insanity and fired the psychiatrists.
Corona complained of chest pain from his cell in Yuba City, on June 18, and was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with having had a mild heart attack. The grand jury returned a 25-count murder indictment against him on July 12. In early August, Corona was hospitalized again after complaining of chest pain and saying he had not been able to sleep because of it.
It took over a year after the murders were discovered for the case against Corona to come to trial. The California Supreme Court voided the death penalty in the state on February 18, 1972, ruling it unconstitutional, cruel and unusual. Therefore, it would not be a capital case. Hawk succeeded in getting a change of venue from Sutter County, to Solano County.
The trial began on September 11, 1972, at the courthouse in Fairfield, California, more than 60 miles (100 km) from Yuba City. Jury selection took several weeks, and the trial another three months.
Though Corona denied culpability, he was not called to the stand to testify in his own defense and no defense witnesses were called. The jury deliberated for 45 hours and returned a verdict, on January 18, 1973, finding Corona guilty of first degree murder on all 25 counts charged. The judge, Richard Patton, sentenced Corona to 25 terms of life imprisonment, to run consecutively, without the possibility of parole. Despite being sentenced to so many consecutive terms, the Department of Corrections said that Corona would be eligible for parole in seven years, citing section 669 of the penal code, which mandates that when a crime is punished by life imprisonment, with or without the possibility of parole, then all other convictions shall be merged and run concurrently.
Corona was first incarcerated at Vacaville's California Medical Facility, nine miles (14 km) from Fairfield, because of the heart irregularities he had experienced. On December 6, 1973, he was stabbed 32 times in his cell because he had bumped into a fellow inmate in a corridor and failed to say 'excuse me.' Of the five men questioned, including the one involved in the bumping incident, one identified as the man's[who?] sexual partner and three inmates identified as friends of the partner, four were charged with assault with a deadly weapon.
Corona was transferred to the Correctional Training Facility (CTF), Soledad, California. In early January 1974, Corona's wife, Gloria, filed for divorce in Fairfield, citing irreconcilable differences. It was granted on July 30.
On May 18, 1978, the California court of appeal granted Juan Corona a new trial based on his Appeal and Petition for the Writ of Habeas Corpus filed by his lawyers, Alan Exelrod and Michael Mendelson. The Appeals Court based its decision on two primary issues raised by appellate counsel; first, trial counsel did not do the requisite legal and factual investigations required; second, trial counsel's obtaining publication rights as part of his fee created an impermissible conflict between trial counsel and Juan Corona.
The second trial began on February 22, 1982, in Hayward, California. Corona's defense posited that the real murderer of the ranch workers was most likely Natividad Corona, a known homosexual who was accused of attacking Romero Raya at his cafe in Marysville, and, after losing the lawsuit Raya filed, had fled back to his native Mexico. Natividad had died eight years earlier in Guadalajara.
This time around, more than 50 defense witnesses were called to the stand by Hallinan. Corona was called in his own defense. He was asked only two questions, through an interpreter, taking only two minutes. "Do you understand the state has accused you of killing 25 men?" "Yes", Corona answered, almost inaudibly. "Did you have anything to do with killing those men?" "No", Corona replied. Hallinan then turned Corona over to the prosecutor, Ronald Fahey, for cross-examination. Startled prosecution attorneys requested a brief recess to gather their wits and prepare some of the more than 630 exhibits for their cross. Later, Fahey questioned Corona about various vans and cars he used at the ranch where he worked and where he lived, in which some weapons were found.
The trial lasted seven months. Corona was again convicted of the crimes on September 23, 1982, and returned to prison after the strategy failed to persuade the jury, which deliberated for 54 hours over a two-week period, of his innocence. Afterward, the foreman told the press that the most incriminating piece of evidence against Corona was his work ledger, for which the labor contractor had "no reasonable explanation." He said the jury had dismissed the defense contention that Natividad committed the murders. "He wasn't in Marysville enough to have committed the bulk of the killings", he said.
Later years and death
Corona was transferred from CTF at Soledad to Corcoran State Prison, Corcoran, California, in 1992, where he served a life sentence in the Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY), because he had dementia. He was denied parole eight times.
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During a 2011 parole hearing, he confessed to killing the men. Corona, who was 77 and suffering from dementia at the time of the hearing...
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