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Fernando Velazco COTA





Classification: Spree killer
Characteristics: Rape
Number of victims: 7
Date of murders: September-October 1984
Date of birth: 1946
Victims profile: Kelly Ralston, 21 / Gwendolyn Hoffman, 57 / Tania Zack / Lori Miller, 20 / Joan Leslie, 28 / Teresa Sunder, 29 / Kim Dunham, 21
Method of murder: Strangulation - Stabbing with knife
Location: San Josť, California, USA
Status: Committed suicide by shooting himself to avoid arrest on October 14, 1984

It should have been a routine traffic stop. Two officers of the California Highway Patrol noticed the white van around 8:00 p.m. on October 14, 1984, weaving erratically in the fast lane of Highway 101, some fifteen miles north of San Jose. 

Suspecting alcohol at work, they stopped the van and left their cruiser, moving in on foot. The driver seemed more nervous than intoxicated. When they asked to look inside the van, their suspect suddenly erupted from the driver's seat, a pistol in his hand. Incredibly, the gunman started shouting, "Kill me! Kill me! I'm very sick. If you don't kill me, I'll kill myself!" With that, he jammed the barrel of his gun inside his open mouth and fired a single shot, producing almost instant death. 

Inside the van, a wooden box resembling a coffin held the body of a young, dead woman. She was nude except for panties and a pair of stockings; chains and rope secured her hands. She had been raped and strangled. Subsequent investigation named the victim as Kim Dunham, 21, reported missing one day earlier. 

The driver of the van -- and Kim's apparent murderer -- was local resident Fernando Cota. An examination of the dead man's record showed a rape conviction from El Paso, Texas, during 1975. Cota had attacked a nurse, and two days later mailed a note which read: "Sorry about the argument we had. Still loving you." 

The "argument" earned Cota twenty years in prison, eight of which he served before parole released him in September 1983. His wife had left him, with their children, while Fernando did his time, and on release he moved to California, settling in San Jose. 

A young woman and her daughter moved in with Cota in May 1984, but they soon departed, citing his behavior as "too weird." Kim Dunham's murder, and the killer's wild "confession," prompted local homicide investigators to review the other open cases in their files. Immediately, they began to see a common thread in other recent sex-related murders. 

On September 10, a co-ed, Kelly Ralston, 21, was stabbed to death by an intruder in her San Jose apartment. 

One day later, housewife Gwendolyn Hoffman, 57, disappeared from her home in Campbell, a San Jose suburb; on September 13, her strangled body was recovered from the trunk of her own car, two miles from her home. Tania Zack disappeared on September 15, when her car ran out of gas near Los Gatos. 

Her body was recovered on October 5, discarded in a roadside ditch; she had been raped and bludgeoned, rope burns on her wrists suggesting she was held alive for some time after her abduction. Lori Miller, 20, was the manager of a cafe in San Jose. 

She was reported missing by her live-in boyfriend on September 26, when he came home from work to find their phone off the hook, eggs burning on the stove, the smoke alarm buzzing in an empty house. 

That afternoon, he told detectives, someone posing as a plumber had come knocking at their door, but Lori, learning that her landlord had no knowledge of the visit, told the man to leave. Her semi-naked corpse was found October 6, in a ravine a few miles south of San Jose. 

She had been bound and tortured, strangled, raped. With hindsight and a suspect's address fresh in hand, detectives realized Fernando Cota had resided in a block of apartments directly behind Miller's home. And there were other victims, tentatively added to the list. Joan Leslie, 28, a transient, had been stabbed to death, her corpse recovered in a subdivision near Aptos, fifteen miles due south of San Jose. 

In San Jose itself, September 30, a group of children had reported rancid odors emanating from an empty house, within two blocks of Lori Miller's home. Inside, police discovered the remains of 29-year-old Teresa Sunder, first reported missing two weeks earlier. She had been raped and beaten brutally by her assailant. 

Fernando Cota, having spared the residents of California an expensive trial, is definitely linked with only one of eight crimes in the five-week murder rampage. Still, detectives are convinced, by the proximity of time and place, that Cota was responsible for all the homicides in question.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans


Six San Jose Slayings Are Linked to Dead Man

The New York Times

October 17, 1984

A man killed himself on a freeway just before the police found a woman's body in his van, and officers who searched his apartment say they turned up evidence that indicated he may have killed as many as six women.

Investigators who searched the apartment of the dead man, Fernando Velazco Cota, turned up bogus identifications, a false badge and other evidence that detectives think may link him with several unsolved homicide cases, according to Lieut. Don Trujillo.

''Crime scene technicians discovered a closet that was apparently used to hold kidnap victims,'' Lieutenant Trujillo said in a prepared statement. ''There were metal brackets secured to the floor that were used with chains and manacles.''

Mr. Cota, 38 years old, shot himself after telling state highway patrolmen, ''I'm a very sick man, kill me. If you don't kill me, I'll kill myself.''

The police said they were investigating the possibility that Mr. Cota could be involved in the slayings of five San Jose area women over the past seven weeks in addition to the death of Kim Marie Dunham, 21, whose body was found in his van.



MO: Convicted rapist, preyed on women ages 20-57.

DISPOSITION: Suicide to avoid arrest, Oct. 14, 1984.



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