Lyman and Charlene Smith’s Funeral | What I Remember

My family isn’t really into funerals. Thankfully, I’ve been to very few in my life but the one I remember the most was my grandmother’s brother. They called him “Unc” (short for uncle) and he was the mischief-maker. The one who would steal the fudge frosting my mom would take off her cupcake and try to save until the end (my mom is weird, we eat that first mom!). When we got to the church, no one prepared me for what I was about to see: my great-uncle’s dead body raised so we could see him. That triggered by first-ever panic attack. No idea why – but I couldn’t breathe and I for sure couldn’t go in.


Note: I am doing this thing on my podcast where I read the news from the event and comment on it – like Mystery Science 3000. It’s cool because I see things in the article I have forgotten or didn’t realize now that we have more information. I don’t read the article before I write this blog because I want to write from my memory, not other people’s interpretation of the events. So be sure to listen to the Newscast episodes on my podcast if you want even more information.


My dad’s funeral was huge. At least it seemed huge to me. I don’t even know if it was a funeral or a memorial service or, as I remember it, the place where we hoped the murderer would show up. I guess my life has been a little weird. But let me slow down and go back to what I can remember.

In which, relatives arrive and there’s lots of crying.

I remember my grandpa crying. He couldn’t seem to stop. I can’t imagine his grief. This was his lawyer son who’d had ambition and was bigger than life. And now, he was gone in the most horrific way possible. His life stolen while on the precipice of a huge honor he was sure would come. That judgeship.

Grampa had come to town with his other son, my Uncle Don. My grampa was about the most cuddly, sweet man I’d ever met. Thanks to him, I thought that’s how grampas were supposed to be. Patient, kind and obsessed with his garden. When we saw him at his house in Sacramento, it always included a walk around the back yard and a tasting of the various things he grew. For a Curtis Park backyard, he managed to cram a cornucopia of plants back there. My favorites were always the tomatoes and berries. I gotta give mad props to my mom because as we kids got bored and ended-up playing on his back lawn, she’d stay with him, listening and talking. She loved my grampa very much – he was like her second dad.

My uncle, on the other hand, is a badass. He tended to be quiet, almost broody; but then, if he had a beer or got a little loose, that Smith charisma would shine through. He served in the Navy and did the survivor training (I know I don’t have the right name for it and my apologies to all who know exactly what I’m talking about). There’s a family story about Uncle Don coming home to see me after I was born, and he was bruised and battered after that training. And he wouldn’t tell anyone what happened. For my mom, who has always loved Don as a younger brother, it upset her. I remember her talking about it. I’m sure it upset my dad too. He was very protective of his brother. I didn’t necessarily think of my uncle as James Bond, but his persona had that mystery for me. He was always gone, was doing good and serving our country.

Going through the motions, getting ready to go.

For me, I had decided I wasn’t going to be emotional. These are things 18 year olds think they can control. The police had told us the funeral was extremely important for them. They were going to be there, under cover, because often perps would show up at a funeral, especially if there were feelings involved (I’ll let you speculate on which exact feelings those might be). They were going to be all over this thing and if lucky, they’d catch the bad guy right at the event. I was completely caught up with the idea of this and it provided a course of distraction that would end up helping me not cry.

We all had to dress nicely – buying clothes had been the bane of my existence. As a heavy-set, short teen, I can assure you looking contemporary was not my strong suit. I wore a blazer, shirt and pants. I know this sounds normal, but when you have extra-large arms (thanks Dad for the genetics), it really means I was hopelessly uncomfortable. The boys were in pants and dress shirts. None of us wore black.

The funeral was in Santa Paula, a smaller town just east of Ventura. We grew up there. It’s an amazingly sweet town and by age five I was proud to declare you could dump me anywhere in town and I could find my way home. I might have already mentioned, it’s also where everyone knew we were Lyman’s kids and we’d be busted if we did anything wrong because of that. As a kid, it was both awesome and kinda sucked. But I made damn sure that was the kind of community I chose to raise my kid – Santa Cruz, while bigger, is a lot like that.

We are not church people.

We always had a strong sense of duty in our house and I was raised with great values, but it wasn’t because “God said”. As a family of principles (if you haven’t picked up on this theme by now, you haven’t been paying attention), we did the right thing because it was right. The result was, we didn’t do church. I had, on my own. I don’t think my brothers did at all. The idea we were having a funeral at a church was weird for us. I have no idea how it was chosen and who set everything up. I had been busy with all the other noise during the week and in my mind, the adults had just done what adults do.

There were a ton of people there when we arrived. We walked into a courtyard, as I remember it, that provided the entry to the church. We were escorted in and taken up front. It was me, Jay, Gary, mom, grampa and Uncle Don. I’m sure my dad’s law partners were there and the Lewis’ – the folks who helped Gary just a week before on that fated Sunday. I bet there were Rotarians and folks from the Latino community – my dad was very supportive of local activities. I swear, he had an in with all the Mexican food restaurants because we’d be treated like royalty whenever he took us to Andrea’s, Casa Manana or Las Quince Letras. And police. Lots of police.

Here’s what else I don’t remember.

I don’t remember what people said about them. I know there was talking and probably some ministerial stuff. But nope. Nothing. I don’t remember where my mom was. I just called her, and she said she sat on the end of the pew trying to be invisible. She said she was the ex-wife and felt kinda odd being at the funeral and in a church. I don’t remember something else I did – and I so appreciated my mom telling me this story – because it made me feel really good. Apparently, Gary was initially sitting next to Grampa. Imagine a small boy, still 12, sitting next to a grown older man who could not stop crying. Mom told me she noticed I saw what was happening and told Gary to switch places with me, so I could help Grampa (and Gary). That explains why I remember what I do – me spending the funeral comforting my dad’s dad.

Charlene had a lot of friends as well. She didn’t really have relatives, but there were people who loved her dearly, like the Doyle family. Mike Doyle was her ex-husband, but his mom and sister didn’t seem to care. They had a soft spot for Charlene and likely knew she needed family. Her best friend was a woman named Jill Morrill and we had done things with Jill’s family. Charlene adored her kids and Jill’s daughter Tiffany was like the daughter Charlene wished she’d had. I have always wondered how Tiffany handled Charlene’s death. I think she was still young when it happened. There were also folks from law enforcement and the legal community who had worked with Charlene.

We don’t have the guestbook.

If I truly wanted to know who was there, I don’t have any way to do it. As I remember – and again I could be wrong here – but as I remember the police took the guestbook. It was potential evidence if the killer had signed in (I’ve asked them to keep an eye peeled as they go back through the evidence today). There are also likely many, many photographs of all the people there. I am sure hours were spent pouring over the faces, as the police tried to see if they’d get lucky. I’m also sure someone will ask, but I have no idea, if Joe Alsip was there. I would expect he was; he wasn’t a suspect and it was good manners to come, but I don’t know for sure.

We didn’t have any kind of reception, or whatever it’s called, after the event. I remember people milling about the courtyard afterward, talking with one another. And then it was over. We went home. I have a feeling my uncle left quickly afterward as he had to get back to his Navy assignment. I’m also pretty sure Grampa went home the next day as well.

There were no bodies at the service. Both Lyman and Charlene were cremated but I think that happened later because for a while both bodies were evidence. I wish I could remember more, but with so much happening on several fronts, this didn’t feel like the most important thing. Maybe I’ll remember more when I read the press clippings. I’ll do that for the podcast.

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.

I Was A Suspect In My Dad’s Murder | Part 2

I’m pretty sure I spent thousands of dollars in therapy to get over this. No, it wasn’t just this, but being a suspect – despite how ludicrous it seems now – was really awful. Therapy can be a real pain in the butt as you go through crap from the past that frankly, you want to leave in the past. But I knew if I wanted to be a good parent one day, I had to get my shit together. I always felt so much shame that folks thought I could do something so heinous. It wasn’t until my therapist re-framed it, that I finally got it. “Jen,” she said, “What if you thought about it like this? Could it be your dad treated you so badly it would have made some kind of sense?” Whoa. Me a victim? Not my jam. But taking it in and thinking about it really did make a difference.

[You really should read part one first.]

Deep down inside I was crushed that someone – anyone – would think I was capable of murder. My god. Two people were dead. It was a messy, complex crime scene. It was an act of brutality. At this point, they hadn’t even told us Charlene was raped. I was convinced they thought I was a horrible person who was capable of this kind of thing. It was so inconsistent with who I was that my friends and I started making jokes about it. Now, as an adult, I get the value of dark humor. I understand irony and how being absolutely twisted is a reasonable way to deal with the unreasonable. As that eighteen-year old, it was the only way I could cope.

For a short while, after the murder, I wore a log necklace. It was a little tiny stick that I attached like a charm to a chain. I know. What the hell? My best friend, Kristin, thought it was hilarious. Or at least let me think she did. I wore it around town and to school. I was no longer a student at Buena High School. I had graduated mid-year because I was so over being in high school. I enrolled at Ventura Community College and was attending classes when the murder happened. I don’t think I ever went back. Somewhere I have a report card from that semester. I can’t remember if I finished those classes. Chances are the teachers knew who I was and just gave me a pass.

My sanctuary was Buena high school.

I had been class president for two years, which meant I was in leadership. This was quite possibly one of the best things that ever happened to me. Our advisor, Bob Cousar, was extraordinary. He believed in young people and he taught us how to govern. We had regular cabinet meetings using Robert’s Rules of Order and we made important decisions about what happened at the school. It was amazing. As a member of leadership, I practically lived at the school. I was always working on projects or events and they let us have run of the place. Needless to say, most of the teachers knew who I was. For sure the administrators did. The Dean of Girls, Lois Shaffer, hated me. I’m not sure why exactly, but I bet it’s because I knew she was a fake. She didn’t care about the students the way the other teachers and staff did. She was a bitter, unhappy person.

Mr. Cousar let me come back to Buena – even though I had graduated – and just hang out that spring. It was incredibly kind and probably saved me from getting in a bunch of trouble or being depressed. I found things to do and was able to spend time with my friends. I also wore my log necklace to campus and it caught the attention of one adult. Lois Shaffer. Apparently when she saw what I had on, and yes, you can now say “Jen, you’re such a dumb shit” with me, when she saw the log necklace she called the investigators. They showed up at campus and asked to see me. I met with them in the Student Center and showed them the necklace. They took it. It was put into evidence. That stupid log necklace is sitting in a box somewhere in the bowels of the evidence room thanks to Lois Shaffer. Lois also blocked me from being Girl of the Quarter and Buena Hall of Fame. It was an honor I had earned and to this damn day I’m still bitter I didn’t get those awards because of that hateful woman.

And then we were done.

When the polygraph test was over, and I passed with flying colors, I was relieved. Intellectually I knew taking the test was a bad thing. I had read stories of people who’d been convicted on bogus lie detector information. There’s one article in the Ventura Star Free Press where I was asked about being a suspect. Of course, I can’t find the darn article but in there, I’m quoted as saying the whole thing was “So Dragnet.” As you might imagine, with some locals, I still haven’t lived that down.

Suspect
This is Mr Cousar. A true hero. He had a huge impact on my life.

 

suspect
This is Lois Shaffer. Nuff said. Don’t let that smile fool you, she was horrible.

I Was a Suspect In My Dad’s Murder | Part 1

Probably the one thing about this whole case that caused me the most shame, was being a suspect. I can’t believe it happened and I can’t believe the police thought I could do something so awful. My mom was my alibi that night and she failed to remember I was home. She was in the bean bag chair when I came home that night, watching Soap, and didn’t know I had gone into my room and jumped on the phone with my friend Kathy. Mom had one job and she blew it. I forgave her. I don’t let her forget, but I do forgive.

I realized this was completely my dad’s fault.

Not because he had been murdered, but because he taught be how to be a jackass.

The room was small but looked a lot like the rooms I had seen on television. Three walls and what I could only assume was a two-way mirror on the fourth wall. Behind the glass I imagined there were law enforcement folks and my mom. I didn’t know my mom was in there, but I figured she’d make her way in to watch. In the middle of the room was a table and two chairs. One chair was facing the wall, the other was tucked under the table. On the table was a lie detector. It looked just like the kind you might see on Charlie’s Angels or the Rockford Files. I could see the little drum that fed the paper and the needle that would move back and forth. The machine was off as we got settled.

I was 18 years old. I had a birthday on February 5th and had only been an adult for a little over a month. I knew I should be taking this seriously, but I couldn’t. The very idea that I was responsible for my dad and stepmom’s life was crazy. They had been found a few days earlier, bludgeoned to death. I had always been a voracious reader, grabbing adult books from my dad’s nightstand when he was done. That’s how I learned about blow jobs at age 13. I had grabbed The Godfather and the wedding party scene pretty much clued me in on the things adults do. Probably not the best primer. The point is, I had read a lot and crime was one of my favorite genres. I knew they always looked at family members as suspects, but this was beyond nuts.

Somehow, they thought, I drove my Honda Express moped to my dad’s house. Grabbed a log off the woodpile. Went into his house while they were asleep and bludgeoned them to death. Then I left, went home, climbed into bed and waited for their bodies to be discovered. On Sunday, when we found out they were dead, I then was able to react with surprise and make all the right moves until the lie detector test on Tuesday. I suppose in some upside-down world, I should have been flattered. Or maybe terrified.

Instead, I protected myself by being a jackass.

I was seated in the chair that faced the wall. To my right was the table with the polygraph machine. The tester – a man who probably had a better title than “tester” – told me he was going to hook me up to the machine and that the test would be easy. All I had to do was answer honestly with yes or no answers. Cool. He gently put the two straps around my chest that would read my respirations. The theory was, people who are lying will breath more heavily. The straps were snug and sat above and below my bustline.

The next step was the blood pressure cuff. If I had a rise in my pressure, it was supposedly another signal that I wasn’t being truthful. It wasn’t too tight, and I can barely remember it being on. What I do remember is the little things wrapped around fingers on my right hand designed to measure my galvanic skin response: aka sweat. The theory was if I was sweating, I must be lying. Mind you this was measuring small changes; not giant flop sweat that I was sure was the outcome for people sitting in this chair who were actually guilty.

I was calm. I wasn’t taking any of this seriously. I’m pretty sure that comes from the privilege of being completely innocent and my insane curiosity about what was going to happen next. The examiner handed me a piece of paper and a pen.

“I’d like you to write a number between 1 and 9 on the sheet of paper, please” he said. I wrote a three.

“Good?” I asked.

“Perfect,” he said. He took the sheet of paper I had written on and taped it to the wall in front of me. “Okay,” he continued, “let’s get started.” He turned on the machine and it made a humming noise. He asked me to breathe normally while I’m guessing he calibrated and tested the machine. I stared at the number on the wall. I wasn’t sure how my “three” was relevant, but I sat quietly while the man prepared.

I looked around the room one more time and my eyes landed on the mirror. I figured my mom would be standing in the least optimum place because the investigators would want to watch me. I winked at the far-right corner. Later my mom would ask me how I knew she was standing right there. I told her that it was the only obvious place. She shook her head. I was always driving her nuts. The examiner moved and regained my attention. I wasn’t looking forward.

“Okay Jennifer,” he started, “Let’s see if this is working. We are going to do a test.”

What happened next wasn’t a plan. It really wasn’t. It was me being a jackass. A smarty pants. I had always been one. I was the kid who never took no for an answer. I could argue anything. I saw through adults and that had been a problem my whole life. I knew when they were full of shit. Someone told me once I am an old soul. That might explain it. Whatever “it” was, “it” kicked in and I did something I honestly did not plan to do.

I lied.

Oh yes I did. I wanted to see if I could beat the machine.

“Here’s what I’d like you to do,” he said. “When I ask you a question, I want you to simply answer yes or no. You can’t shake your head or say anything else. It must be a yes or no answer. Do you understand?” This was a trick. I knew how to answer.

“Yes,” I said. Nailed it.

“Did I ask you to write a number on a sheet of paper?” he began.

“Yes.”

“Did you write a five?” he asked. Oh, trying to trick me.

“No,” I answered. And then, in my head, I said to myself. I wrote an eight.

“Did you write a seven?”

“No,” it’s an eight I thought.

“Did you write a three?”

“No.”

“Let me repeat that,” he said, “did you write a three?” I could feel him looking at me.

“No,” I repeated, and again said to myself, it’s an eight. I looked over at the examiner, I was so excited. “Did I beat the machine!?” I asked with probably way too much enthusiasm. He didn’t confirm or deny but he was not happy with me. I looked at the paper moving across the drum of the lie detector. I had watched enough episodes of Streets of San Francisco to know there was no movement indicating a lie. I flashed one more smile at my mom. She must be so proud (um, yeah, she wasn’t).

“Fine,” the examiner said, “let’s get going.” What happened next isn’t all that clear in my memory. I remember them asking me questions about both my dad and Charlene. He asked if my last time at their house was on the Thursday – the week before the murder. He asked if had been at their house the weekend of their murder. And then he asked the big questions.

“Did you kill Lyman?”

“No.”

“Did you kill Charlene?”

“No.” I didn’t mess around with the real questions. I answered honestly and directly.

[Read part two.]