BY Mara Bovsun
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
Sunday, March 22nd 2009
By any yardstick, Dr. Victor Ohta was a stunning success.
Born in 1925, the son of a Japanese immigrant farmer in Montana, Ohta
studied medicine at Northwestern University and, in 1954, joined the
Air Force, achieving the rank of major.
By 1970, he had established a booming practice in bucolic Santa Cruz,
Calif. Along with a sterling reputation as an eye surgeon, citizen
and friend, Ohta also had earned a considerable amount of money, and
he spent much of it on the trappings of wealth. He owned a maroon
Rolls-Royce, bought his wife expensive jewelry and favored colorful
silk scarves instead of ties. His children attended pricey private schools.
Perhaps his most extravagant belonging was his home, in the
oceanfront resort area of Soquel, 5 miles south of Santa Cruz.
Perched atop a hilltop overlooking Monterey Bay, the mansion had been
designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright.
On Oct. 19, 1970, it all went up in flames.
Firefighters rushed to the blaze, only to find the two dirt roads
leading to the house blocked by the doctor's Rolls and a Lincoln Continental.
What they found when they cleared the obstacles and reached the house
was more than a fire. It was a scene of horror, a mass murder
reminiscent of the grisly Charles Manson cult slayings just 15 months earlier.
The house at first appeared to be unoccupied. Then one of the
firefighters aimed his flashlight at the lagoonlike pool and spotted
a floating corpse. Four more bodies had sunk to the bottom of the
pool. They were Dr. Ohta; his wife, Virginia, 43; their sons Derrick,
12, and Taggart, 11, and Ohta's secretary, Dorothy Cadwallader, 38, a
married mother of two little girls.
All had been bound with the doctor's bright silk scarves, and all,
along with the family cat, had been shot in the neck with a .38.
"Like an execution," one officer observed.
A burglary seemed unlikely, because jewelry, expensive cameras and
electronics had not been touched.
But one of the family cars was missing. The green station wagon
turned up the next day, burned and abandoned in a Southern Pacific
railroad tunnel about 20 miles to the northwest.
There were no weapon, no suspects and no motive. All detectives had
was a typewritten note left on the windshield of the Rolls. Dated
"Halloween, 1970," it read: "today world war 3 will begin as brought
to you by the people of free universe. From this day forward, anyone
or company of persons who misuses the natural environment or destroys
same will suffer the penalty of death by the people of the free
universe. I and my comrades from this day forth will fight until
death or freedom against any single anyone who does not support
natural life on this planet, materialism must die or mankind will."
The note was signed by "Knight of Wands, Knight of Cups, Night [sic]
of Pentacles and Knight of Swords."
The ritualistic nature of the slayings, the cultish tone of the note
and the signature of tarot card characters sparked terror that
another Manson family was about to begin a bloody rampage.
Detectives began probing the many hippie communes that dotted the region.
The idea that the massacre had been the work of hippies gained
momentum when one of Ohta's neighbors recalled that the eye doctor
had recently shooed a handful of them off his porch and out of the
pool in which he was later found dead.
But detectives soon learned that the hippies around Santa Cruz were
as terrified as the wealthy establishment of the phantom killer. Some
expressed true remorse over the doctor's death because Ohta
frequently extended charity to his earthy neighbors in the form of
free medical care.
Ultimately, a tip from the hippies led investigators to the suspect.
His name was John Linley Frazier, 24. Born in Ohio, Frazier had a
history of petty crimes as a youngster but had calmed down after he
dropped out of high school, married and found steady work as an auto
mechanic. Then, six months before the killing, he "flipped out," no
doubt a reaction to the LSD and mescaline he was taking, a neighbor
told United Press International. Frazier left his wife, let his hair
and beard grow and became an eco-freak.
Frazier declared he had stopped driving, for example, on orders from
"He said God had told him that by driving his car he was polluting
the environment and he would be killed if he drove anymore," said one
Always a bit of a loner, Frazier had gone into seclusion in a rundown
shanty near Soquel, about a half mile from the Ohta mansion.
One of his hairy hiking companions reported that Frazier had ranted
about the doctor's materialism, saying that people like that "should
Ohta's mansion was particularly irksome to the born-again nature
lover because trees had been cut to make room for it.
On the day of the murders, Frazier appeared at the San Lorenzo home
he had shared with his wife and told her he was going to New York. He
carried a loaded pistol and a backpack filled with food. As he left,
Frazier handed his estranged wife his wallet and driver's license. "I
won't be needing these anymore," he said.
Four days after the murders, police found their suspect asleep in his
shack. They also found a pair of binoculars that had been stolen from
the doctor's house some months earlier, a wristwatch that had
belonged to one of Ohta's sons and a .45-caliber pistol. The murder
weapon was never found.
'It blew my mind'
Frazier pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and appeared to be
barely in touch with reality during his three trials, one to
establish guilt, a second to determine sanity and a third to decide
upon a sentence.
Although he never offered a confession to police, he gave details of
the killings to psychiatrist David Marlowe. Frazier said he had
broken into Ohta's house when no one was home, spotted what looked
like an animal-skin bedspread, and went berserk.
"It blew my mind," the defendant recalled. He never noticed that it was fake.
Ohta's wife, Virginia, was first to arrive. The intruder tied her up
and berated her for destroying the planet. Next to arrive was Dorothy
Cadwallader. She had offered a lift to one of Ohta's boys after
school. She and the boy were tied up, as were Ohta and his other son,
who arrived a few minutes later. Frazier said he had asked Ohta to
burn the house. Instead, Ohta offered him whatever he wanted. The
offer set Frazier into a rage, and he started shooting.
It took five hours for the jury to find Frazier guilty. During the
second trial, the defendant did his best to look crazy. He shaved
half his head and eyebrows, was heard muttering "far out" and "right
on" to himself, hurled crumpled newspaper clippings at reporters and
was seen reading George Orwell's "1984." Despite his actions, he
looked sane to the jury, which later sentenced him to death.
The sentence would never be carried out. Frazier, along with Charles
Manson and Robert Kennedy's assassin Sirhan Sirhan were among the 107
Death Row inmates to be spared when California ended capital
punishment in 1972. The sentence was automatically commuted to life
in about as unnatural an environment as can be imagined - a prison cell.
Every five years, the longest interval allowed, he comes up for
parole. After his last hearing, in November 2008, Santa Cruz county
assistant district attorney issued a statement: "Some people deserve
to be punished for the rest of their lives. Frazier is such a man."