It’s no secret you know I grew up in a household of Democrats. My dad was fierce about justice for all, equality, civil rights and human rights. He was sexist as hell but after that, I saw him out in the community as a fair man committed to community and hard work.
It’s no surprise that when I finally caught up with all the talk about the murders and the years y’all spent investigating and researching to find our perp, I was truly surprised by the impressions folks had of our family and about dad and Charlene.
Here are the hot five myths that I’ve found most challenging.
Dad and Charlene were no way close to a “golden couple”.
Here’s the deal. My dad started, um, sleeping with Charlene before my parents were divorced. I know there are things that have been written that said my dad was like, oh no, I’m not interested. But that’s not true. Their relationship was nearly a cliché in that it was an “up and coming” successful lawyer who decided to get down with his law secretary who was ten years his junior. This not only crushed my mom, but it also crushed Charlene’s husband. For a thousand reasons, romanticizing their relationship just isn’t right. It was messy, normal, selfish and loud.
We were not affluent.
I know this will likely bum people out, but it just wasn’t true. That doesn’t mean my dad didn’t have status, he did. But we lived in a small town. In 1980, the whole county had just 500K people representing 2% of the state. We were known in Ventura and Santa Paula because my dad was extremely active in the community. He was often in the newspaper. But we weren’t wealthy. At my mom’s house, we lived very frugally. My dad paid little child support. It might surprise you to know he had saved nothing for his kids’ education. Also, there was no “estate” that we inherited. The money we got came from life insurance and it essentially saved us.
The house was unbelievably regular.
There’s so much talk about this wonderful house on a hill. It was a tract home in a new tract that dozens of folks lived in. It was rare to have a tract in the Ventura hills. The expensive homes were the one-offs that line the foothills of downtown Ventura. And then there was Ondulando where the rich people lived. Those were fancy houses and one of dad’s law partners lived there. Our house was as regular as the houses in Sacramento – that’s one thing that intrigued me is how much our house looked like the others.
The police knew Charlene was raped on Sunday, March 16, 1980.
It’s weird what happened the days and weeks following the murder. I am absolutely clear, because of my conversation with Dr. Speth, that investigators knew Charlene was raped. This makes me wonder why they put me through the lie-detector test. It’s interesting, because Speth also said the evidence ruled-out Joe Alsip but other players didn’t care, they wanted to prosecute regardless. I’m so tired of stories about our justice system that are more about a conviction than actual justice. Wrongly accusing someone is unacceptable. I know it can happen, but in this case, there was no reason other than mens’ egos.
There’s nothing about these murders that is romantic.
From a very popular website,
Charlene was a vivacious, slightly femme fatale, figure. Less charitably, perhaps, a cut rate gold digger. The papers noted that she was Lyman Smith’s “attractive wife.” No one who saw her would not think that. She was indeed a lovely woman. She went from being Lyman’s secretary to his second wife. She was on the fringes of Bohemia and wanted much more. She sold jewelry at fashionable Tupperware type parties. Her own personal jewelry was far superior. She was also an interior decorator. Their High Point house was immaculate and elegant, though the furniture was imitation.
Here we go – this is a hot mess. What impression to you get of Charlene based on this? Sure, it’s sexist and has some trigger words in here, “gold-digger”, “fashionable”, and “elegant”. Holy cow. But what really gets me is the tone. For some reason, when folks write about them, they cast things in salacious terms with plenty of hyperbole. And I assure you, our furniture was real. I have no idea what the heck “imitation furniture” is.
Here’s another passage that’s just nuts:
Lyman never met a business deal he didn’t like, whether it be gold and jewelry import or livestock export to Iran; real estate, whatever, if there was a possibility of riches there was Lyman.
My dad didn’t import jewelry or gold, he did have a livestock and real estate venture, but the last phrase is just bunk. My goodness.
And finally, a legacy I inherited that’s just a bunch of garbage. This passage is a classic example of how their existence was turned into something unreal.
Venturans received the news of the double slaying in the Monday editions of the Star-Free Press. The headline read: “Lawyer, wife found slain in Ventura home.” It ran with a photo of the couple — Charlene with her Miss America smile, Lyman with a twinkle in his eye.
Good lord, “Miss America smile”? I get it, it’s a metaphor, but it’s tone deaf. Charlene was an ethnic Jew. There’s no way in 1980 she could be a Miss America. In fact, there’s only been one Jewish woman, Bess Myerson, who has won. That was in 1945 and the timing is interesting because of WWII. As for the “twinkle in my dad’s eye”, that’s not reporting. That’s assigning feelings and there’s no way this reporter knows anything about whether or not that was a twinkle. She never met him in person.
Many of us have had to deal with our story being documented in ways that aren’t true. It’s maybe one of the things we talk about most among the survivors. We aren’t naive. We understand there are people who want to tell the story. The key to telling a good story is fact checking and not characterizing people you don’t know. Also, there’s been way too much trust in non-related people’s point of view. Unfortunately, those people are identified as tertiary and disconnected from the bigger picture. It happened in McNamara’s book and Larry Crompton’s book. My god, it’s the whole basis for Anne Penn’s book.
So Jen, what do you want from folks?
Fair question. I have three things I think would make a difference going forward:
- We all have an obligation to be truthful and if speculating, to name it.
- Reporters, writers, anyone telling the story, need to do better. They need to weigh the information they get based on who they are getting it from. Several articles refer to Hal Barker as my dad’s best friend. I’m not sure who decided that. Hal, Harold when we knew him, was a great guy and super close to my dad but I wouldn’t call him his best friend. There’s someone else who fit that bill. Harold had his own mess he was dealing with. When I see the things he’s said to reporters, I think his comments seemed colored by what he was going through.
- Friends, witnesses, associates need to be careful about what they say. That quote it going to have your name on it. Be truthful and if you don’t know, admit it. When you give “deep background” that still is only from your point of view. Own that.
Alright, I’m pushing my soapbox back under the bed. Thank you for understanding.