The Bizarre Story Of The Serial Killer Who Tried To Prevent Earthquakes

In 1972, 25-year-old Herbert Mullin was growing exponentially anxious. He was convinced an impending earthquake would soon devastate northern California and level his hometown of Felton. Mullin also believed that he was being called upon to commit murder to stave off the massive earthquake.

For months, Mullin, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had been hearing voices in his head telling him an earthquake was coming and that only he could stop it, by killing others. Up until that time, Mullin believed, the American death toll in the Vietnam War had kept him from needing to carry out murders. But with the war tapering off in late 1972, in his mind, he would need to start killing to keep the earthquake at bay.

Between October 1972 and February 1973, Mullin murdered 13 people and created a sense of intense panic throughout the region. By the time he was finally caught and his story became known, this serial killer earned the peculiar legacy as "The Earthquake Killer."

A normal beginning gone wrong

Herbert Mullin was born on April 18, 1947, in Salinas, California, and grew up in nearby Santa Cruz. According to All That's Interesting, he grew up in a strict, but nurturing home. Throughout his school years, he had many friends and, by the time he graduated San Lorenzo Valley High School, he was voted "Most Likely to Succeed." But shortly after graduation, tragedy struck. Mullin's best friend, Dean Richardson, was killed in a car accident, leaving Mullin totally devastated. Mullin struggled to get past the loss of his best friend and built a shrine in his basement dedicated to Richardson.

Soon after, Mullin began experimenting with marijuana and LSD, and eventually became a regular user. With the drug use, his family began to see the signs of what would eventually be diagnosed as schizophrenia. Mullin voluntarily entered the hospital for treatment, but left after just six weeks. In the coming years, it would be a repeat pattern of entering institutions and Mullin discharging himself after a short and insufficient period of treatment.

In the interim, Mullin would put cigarettes out on his own skin, skip group therapy sessions, refuse to take his medication, and would frequently shout at people who were not there. In his book "Whoever Fights Monsters," FBI profiler Robert Kessler said Mullin's paranoid schizophrenia manifested itself in his senior year of high school, and may have been accelerated by the death of his best friend and the use of LSD.

Mullin's earthquake obsession begins

By early 1972, Mullin had returned home to live with his parents in Felton. He was routinely hearing voices warning him that an earthquake was coming, and that human sacrifice was the only way to save California. According to The Vintage News, Mullin believed that he was being targeted to carry out the murders because his birthday, April 18, was the anniversary of the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake (pictured above), which destroyed 80 percent of the city and killed more than 3,000 people.

Mullin's sense of urgency to take action only grew when Reuben Greenspan, a mathematician who had achieved some success in predicting earthquakes, assessed that San Francisco would be struck again with a devastating earthquake along the San Andreas Fault at 9 a.m. on January 4, 1973, according to SF Weekly. As the symptoms of Mullin's schizophrenia became more intense, so did his impulse to take action on what the voices were telling him to do: commit murder to keep the earthquake from destroying San Francisco.

In his mind, it was a small price to pay — the death of a few for the safety of the many. "We human beings, through the history of the world, have protected our continents from cataclysmic earthquakes by murder," Mullin later told authorities, per SF Weekly. "In other words, a minor natural disaster avoids a major natural disaster."

Mullin's murders begin

Mullin committed his first murder on October 13, 1972, when he picked up a homeless man who was hitchhiking. Mullin beat him to death with a baseball bat. According to E. Fuller Torrey's book "The Insanity Offense," Mullin later claimed that the victim was Jonah from the Bible, who had told him telepathically, "Kill me so that others will be saved." Less than two weeks later, Mullin picked up another hitchhiker: 24-year-old Mary Guilfoyle, a Cabrillo College student. Mullin stabbed her to death as he drove down the street, per the S.F. Sunday Examiner & Chronicle, partially dissected her body, and chucked her remains in the mountains. Ridden with guilt and anxiety, Mullin went to pray for the dead and confess his sins at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Los Gatos on November 2, but then believed that the priest, Father Henri Tomei, had volunteered to be his next sacrifice. So Mullin beat and stabbed Father Tomei to death in the confessional. 

Shortly after, Mullin tried to escape his troubled life by joining the Marines, but was rejected when recruiters learned of his drug use. The rejection inflamed Mullin's delusions, and he became determined to kill his high school friend, Jim Gianera, for previously selling him marijuana. On January 25, 1973, Mullin killed Gianera and his wife with gunshots to the head before savagely stabbing their bodies. On the same day, he shot and killed Kathy Francis, a friend of Gianera, and her two young sons.

Mullin's killing comes to an end

A few weeks later, with eight people now counted among his victims, Mullin went to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (pictured above) and found four teenagers who were camping illegally. Acting as a park ranger, he told them to leave. But when they refused, he shot all of them to death, The Pajaronian reported. Mullin later claimed the teens had sent him a telepathic message that they were permitting him to kill them. 

Mullin's final murder came just three days later, on February 13, 1973, when he drove past retired fishmonger Fred Perez, who was at his home doing yard work. Mullin made a U-turn, stopped his car, pulled out his rifle and killed Perez with a single shot, per All That's Interesting. Mullin casually got back into his car and drove away. But a number of eyewitnesses had a full description of Mullin and his station wagon, as well as its license number, all of which led to his capture within minutes and without incident.

Mullin is sentenced, but feels justified

Mullin was charged with 10 of the 13 murders he committed and pleaded guilty to all of them, leaving only the question of whether or not he was sane and, therefore, culpable for his crimes. Mullin attempted to represent himself in court, but the judge determined that he was not mentally competent for such an undertaking. Mullin repeatedly tried to fire his appointed public defender, but the judge would not allow it.

On August 19, 1973, Mullin was determined to be guilty in the first degree murders Gianera and Francis, because they were premeditated. On the other eight murders, he was convicted of second degree murder, because they were considered to be more impulsive, The New York Times reported at the time. He was sentenced to life in prison and is currently incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison (pictured above) in Ione, California. He has attempted to make parole 11 times, most recently in March 2021, per CBS, and has been denied each time.

Although Mullin had confessed to all of his crimes when he was first taken into custody, he maintained it was for the greater good. He insisted that the reason no earthquakes had struck California recently was because of the murders he committed.

Just eight days after Mullin was arrested, per the Southern California Earthquake Data Center, the strongest earthquake to hit the Continental United States in 1973 struck California.