On March 6, 1970, 51-year-old heavy equipment operator Mack Ray Edwards walked into the Foothill Station of the Los Angeles Police Department and said that he needed to confess to a crime. Calmly, then, he related how he had molested and murdered at least six children between 1953 and the time he turned himself in. He said that he had kidnapped three more children shortly before his arrival there. When two of them escaped, he released the third and, knowing that he would be identified, saved authorities the trouble of tracking him down.
“I have a guilt complex,” he told Sergeant George Rock after his arrest. “I couldn’t eat, and I couldn’t sleep, and it was beginning to affect my work.”
At his trial, Edwards attempted to plead guilty and begged for the death penalty. “Guilty. I am guilty!” he insisted at a pretrial hearing.
“I want the chair,” he said before he was sentenced to death. “That’s what I’ve always wanted. I told them that when I went into the police station, they didn’t say that in court. This was sadistic to bring these parents and other witnesses down here and put them through this.”
Edwards took his own life in prison
Edwards was confined to San Quentin State Prison, where he occupied a cell next to Charles Manson. He never made it to the prison’s gas chamber, however. After several failed suicide attempts, Edwards took his own life by hanging himself with a television cord in his cell on October 30, 1971.
Prior to his death, Edwards confessed to at least six murders, though he was only charged with three, as the bodies of his other alleged victims could not be found. By his own account, Edwards was responsible for the deaths of 8-year-old Stella Darlene Nolan in 1953, 13-year-old Donald Lee Baker and 11-year-old Brenda Jo Howell in 1956, 15-year-old Roger Dale Madison in 1968, 16-year-old Gary Rochet also in 1968, and 13-year-old Donald Allen Todd in 1969. He was only charged in the deaths of Nolan, Rochet, and Todd.
Who were Mack Ray Edwards’ victims?
Edwards’ sexually abused most of his victims prior to their deaths, and he claimed that all of his crimes were motivated by “a desire for sex.”
It is possible that Edwards was responsible for the deaths of more victims than are known, and his own confessions were not consistent. While he was in jail, he claimed, at various times, to have slain as many as eighteen to twenty children, and he remains a person of interest in numerous missing persons cases throughout the region, with the large gap in his known victims leading authorities to suspect that he committed other murders that are as yet unaccounted for.
Other times, however, Edwards insisted that the six murders to which he initially confessed were the only ones that he had committed and expressed his relief that his last three victims had escaped. “I’m glad they got away,” he told authorities shortly after his arrest, “because it would have been nine instead of six.”
Despite the guilt he claimed to feel about his crimes, Edwards’ murders showed premeditation and cold calculus. After kidnapping and raping his first known victim, 8-year-old Stella Nolan, Edwards recounted how he strangled her in the Angeles Forest before throwing her body from a bridge. When he returned to the scene of the crime the following day, she was still alive, having crawled some 100 yards from where he left her. At this time, he stabbed her to death with his pocketknife.
Hidden in plain sight
As is often the case in such grisly crimes, Edwards did not match the image that we frequently associate with child predators. He was known to many of his victims, and he often took neighborhood children on camping trips or let them ride the horses that he owned. He was married, with two children of his own, both adopted, and at least one of his victims was a classmate of one of his own children.
“I never talked to anyone who met Edwards and didn’t like him,” said LA-based author Weston DeWalt, who began digging into the case after becoming intrigued by one specific disappearance in 1957, that of 8-year-old Tommy Bowman. “The father of the girls who were kidnapped in Sylmar said Edwards was a great guy.”
DeWalt was one of the people responsible for discovering that Edwards was, in fact, the likely killer of young Tommy Bowman. In 2006, DeWalt managed to secure an interview with Edwards’ widow and her family, during which time he was told that the killer had left behind a confession letter with his wife before he killed himself.
“I was going to add one more,” Edwards wrote in the letter, referring to his confessed murders, “and that was the Tommy Bowman boy that disappeared in Pasadena. But I felt I would really make a mess of that one so I left him out of it.”
Of course, the letter also claimed that Edwards was only responsible for one of the murders, and that he had taken the blame for the others to shield an unknown paraplegic friend who was the actual perpetrator—one whose identity no one seemed to know, that Edwards had never mentioned under any other circumstances—and so authorities have taken the claims made in the letter with a certain amount of skepticism.
An unsatisfying resolution
Writing about the case for LA Weekly in 2008, Christine Pelisek described Edwards’ actions as having “cheated the victims’ families in more ways than one.”
Because the bodies of several of his victims were never found, and due to the inconsistencies in his own confessions, we may never know for sure how many children Mack Ray Edwards stole from their families. The number is likely at least six, and as many as twenty or more.
And while his suicide in October of 1971 may have ended his danger, the repercussions of his crimes continue to be felt even today.
“If ever there was a case that cried out for the imposition of the death penalty, this is the case,” Deputy District Attorney David Kenner told the jury during Mack Ray Edwards’ trial. “This defendant has forfeited whatever right a person has to live in this society.”
Obviously, given his insistence that he be issued the death penalty, Edwards himself agreed.