Busted | Five Myths About the Smith Family

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”.

Myth busting: The Smith Family
Absolutely ordinary. No name brands here.

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.

Myth busting: The Smith Family
New house, new tract house. A lot of these are gone now because of the huge fires a few years ago.

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?

Myth busting: The Smith Family
Me looking concerned. Thought it fitting for this part of the blog.

Fair question. I have three things I think would make a difference going forward:

  1. We all have an obligation to be truthful and if speculating, to name it.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The Day We Learned My Dad and Charlene Were Dead

My grandmother’s piano sat in our front room. It’s dark cherry and well-worn and every Smith kid had to take piano lessons. I wasn’t that great at playing conventionally, but I was good at playing a song by ear. I could read music and loved all things Billy Joel and Elton John. I aspired to nail Funeral for a Friend that starts with what sounds like organ music and ends with pure joy (yes, go listen to it – I’ll wait). The piano was the backdrop for the bombshell my mom was about to drop.  

March 16, 1980

That Sunday afternoon we got a strange call. It came on the mustard-yellow landline that hung on our kitchen wall (sporting the typical tangled 12-foot cord so someone could try and seek privacy). The call was from Phil Drescher. My dad’s law partner. He never called us. Ever. This was my mom’s house and the Smith kids were often considered to be wild children by the upper crust. We hung out with the affluent, but we absolutely were not. While Phil’s kids went to private school, we were JC Penney-wearing public-school kids being raised by a divorcee. Ya know, riff raff.

“Mom’s not home right now,” I told Phil. “May I take a message?” I wasn’t complete trash, we had been raised to one day be ready to have dinner with the President should the opportunity ever arise.

“No,” he sputtered, “I’ll call back.” And that was that. But I knew it was weird. It was mid-afternoon. I was home with my 15-year-old brother Jay. Gary had gone up to my dad’s house to mow the lawn. We lived at 6103 Sutter Street which was about a mile – as the crow flies – to my dad’s house at 573 High Point Drive. It was a way he could make some money as a 12-year-old.

dead
Mom’s house is there in the lower area by the school and dad’s house is up on High Point.

Not long after the mystery call, my brother Gary came bursting into the house and ran directly to his room. We could tell he’d been crying. Mom looked strained and Jay and I came over to meet her at the foot of the piano. I was sitting on our bean bag chair and Jay was standing beside me.

“Your father is dead,” she started.

Just like my mom to just lay it out there. There was a beat while we took in that information.

“Did Charlene shoot him?” I asked. My dad had a conceal carry permit and he kept his gun in his trunk. I always worried one of their fights would escalate into a deadly scene. Not because I thought Charlene wanted to kill him, but she’d do anything to create drama and gunfire seemed like something she just hadn’t tried yet.

One time, my dad called up to the house to break up a fight and Charlene did something that night that I have remembered my whole life. My dad was on the front lawn because she had shoved him out (and probably because he thought walking away would deescalate things). Anyway, before I could do anything to calm things down, Charlene ran into the kitchen and grabbed something. It was the silverware tray that separates the knives from the steak knives and the forks and spoons from the salad forks and dessert spoons. It was loaded with silverware. She took that sucker and snapped it at him sending the silverware hurling – each spinning in rotation as an independent object – toward my dad. Not one piece hit him, but I always thought the move was bad-ass. With the right lighting, it would have looked spectacular. If someone uses this in a movie, please give her credit.

“No,” my mom said calmly. “Charlene is dead too.”

“What!” I nearly jumped out of the bean bag. Jay was quiet.

“Gary found them in the bedroom. The police are there now trying to figure out what’s happened.” I honestly don’t think she said more at that point. She really didn’t know much and had a kid in tears in his room. Jay immediately bolted out the door and took off. He had been preparing to go for a run and this news was all he needed to hit the streets. A few minutes passed and mom went to check on Gary. I had a different plan.

“I’m going to go see if I can find Jay,” I yelled as I grabbed the keys to the VW Bug (yep, the same one you see in those black and white photos). I hopped in the car and headed to Loma Vista, a main drag that connected our neighborhood to others. I figured he was heading toward his good friend’s house. I don’t remember if I was crying. I think I did when she told us. I’m sure I did. But I wasn’t crying when I was driving. I was scouring the streets looking for my brother and yet I knew where I was going to end up. I had to get up to my dad’s house to see if what mom said was real. I headed over.

As I drove up the hill, I could see all the activity. Dad’s house was only about half way up the block. Police were milling around and the yellow crime scene tape was up across the front of the house. Neighbors were outside talking and watching the activity. It was true. They were dead.

dead
Why does it always seem like these folks don’t know what they are doing. Crime scenes always have cops milling around. What’s up with that?

I went back home without Jay. He had made his way to a family friend’s house and mom was glad he was there. They were good people and no matter what, she felt comfortable knowing he was with them. I honestly don’t remember what Gary did after he ran to his room. I was able to learn from mom what had happened. She told me in a quiet moment that we didn’t realize would be one of our last for awhile as police, lawyers and relatives began assembling.

Gary had gone up to mow the lawn.

When we got there, the front door was unlocked so he walked in. It was just as he had expected. Just after noon, he figured they might be eating lunch. Instead he heard their alarm clock going off. If you remember, those awful digital alarm clocks were loud and required an intervention to get them to turn off. He started walking to the back of the house but paused. Maybe his timing was off and they were just waking up. He needed to give them privacy. But after a beat, the alarm kept making noise and he didn’t hear anyone moving. He continued back to the master bedroom.

In the bedroom, he could see two people in the bed. The comforter was pulled over their heads. Gary walked around to my dad’s side of the bed (he slept on the side closest to the sliding glass door) and shut off the alarm. He gently lifted a corner of the comforter. It stuck a little to my dad’s head as he pulled. All Gary needed to see was the scar on the shoulder we all recognized as belonging to my dad. Using the phone on the nightstand, Gary called 911 and police asked him the address. Gary had to run out front and look at the numbers because we hadn’t memorized the house number back then. He came back in and picked up the kitchen phone and gave them the address. They directed him to wait outside so he immediately went out.

While he was waiting, friends of my dad and Charlene, Judge Lewis and his wife Claire, spied Gary sitting on the wall. They lived up the street in the development. They stopped and asked Gary what was going on and stayed with him. Coincidentally, my mom had been at a friend’s house in the same development and she decided to drive by to make sure Gary had gotten there okay and was getting the job done. She passed the house and saw all the activity, so she turned around in the church parking lot and headed back up. She asked to people standing on the side of the road what happened and one motioned “dead” by pulling his flattened hand across his neck.

“Which one?” she asked.

“Both,” he said. Mom parked the car.

All I really remember from that point on, was chaos. People and process and questions and movement. The newspaper wouldn’t break the story until the afternoon edition on Monday. But it didn’t matter. It was a small town and news traveled fast. My dad and Charlene were dead. It would be decades before we understood what had really happened.

dead
My family will kill me for this. One of the few pics I could find. Us at my mom’s house at roughly the age of dad’s death. This was either the Thanksgiving before or after. The women in my family are notorious for gaffing photos. The boys, on the other hand, look adorable. That is my mom’s mom, my favorite person of all, Lila.

The Golden State Killer Has Been Caught

The Golden State Killer has been caught.

I know we still have miles to go before there’s a conviction, but based on DNA, we got him.

In March 1980, my father and stepmother were murdered in Ventura, California.

For twenty years, we thought this was a horrendous murder in a small town.

And then the Orange County Cold Case division linked our murder to a series of others in Southern California. Shortly after, the murders were connected to a series of rapes in Northern California. All of these crimes were connected by DNA. I never thought the killer would be caught. While for many this means closure, for me, it feels like a new beginning. There’s finally a face. And there will be a trial.

Meanwhile, we will all continue to ask, how could one man hurt so many?

I’m going to start writing again. I need to get this stuff out of my head. By allowing myself to believe he’s been dead all these years, I realize, I had found a way to cope and move forward and a single mom. But now, there’s a face. A man. He’s been in Citrus Heights this whole time.

That really pisses me off.

He didn’t deserve to have a life. His kids don’t deserve to have a monster for a parent. His victims didn’t deserve to be haunted by him well after his attacks. There’s nothing I want to say to him.

Here’s what I do know: so many people have been touched by these crimes in some way – and I am hungry to hear their stories. From the kids who used to ride their bikes in front of his house, to the woman who told me her daughter used to baby his kids. To my cousin who served as a Sheriff Reserve Officer that chased the SOB when the police knew he had been in the area. Everyone has a story. Please share them with me. It actually helps.

Please feel free to leave your comments below.