Lyman and Charlene Smith’s Secret Christmas Wedding, December 12, 1975

In our family, we celebrate any holiday that involves presents and candy. Gotta say I truly appreciate that about my mom. She made sure we had traditions and celebrations and good memories. I think that’s why I love fall so much. It would start with the Ventura County Fair that used to be in late September. Then it was Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remember thinking January was about the worst month in the whole year because nothing happens in that month (except maybe rain) and we all come down from the high of December.

We had been invited to a Christmas party. My dad called and told my mom there was a very fancy party and he needed the kids cleaned up and looking nice because it was going to be in Santa Barbara. He also said Charlene would take us shopping for new outfits, so we’d be holiday-ready for the big event.

We were so excited.

Charlene took the boys shopping without me. Thank god. They got pants and Jay got a camel jacket, Gary a sweater and they spared me the hell of watching them try on clothes. I went with Charlene on our own trip and we found, if I do say so myself, the coolest dress. I didn’t really have boobs yet, well not of any significance and it was a little easier to find things that fit. This was a cool sheath dress that was holiday plaid with a deep emerald green apron that went over the front. I felt amazing in the dress.

Ready to go.

On our way to dad's wedding, only we didn't know that.We looked good. Mom took our photo and even our hair was perfect. I mean damn. For three kids who were constantly on the move and negotiating everything, this level of cooperation was a cool 10. Dad finally pulled up in his leased Thunderbird (leased from Coco Corral for those of you in the weeds), we climbed in and made our way to Santa Barbara. He told us Charlene had driven herself to the party and we’d meet her there. All good with me, that meant I got the front seat (because I was both the oldest and the girl – suck it!). In those days this kind of road trip was still a big deal. Santa Barbara was about 40 minutes away. A gorgeous drive, it snakes up the coast on Highway 1 and then transitions to a tree-filled corridor displaying this lushness of Montecito.

Kids have a way of remembering drives based on landmarks and we passed a few. The oil derricks just past the state beach at Mussel Shoals. Santa’s Village in Carpenteria. It was already shut down but there were buildings left as evidence of the good time had in earlier years. For me, I was always intrigued by the Summerland sign because I had heard there was a nudist beach there (still have no idea if that was true). Then we’d pass the Big Yellow House (a family style restaurant) and before you’d know it, we be at the infamous traffic lights which meant we were in Santa Barbara. And it’s possible we did that whole drive without any fights.

We arrived at a very fancy hotel.

“We’re here,” my dad announced. It was the Santa Barbara Biltmore (now the Four Seasons). Of course, that brand name meant nothing to us, we were young kids. We walked inside, and I remember poinsettias everywhere. They grow amazingly well outside in that area and it’s no surprise the hotel was loaded with them. Not long after we got there, dad handed us off to the Barkers, and he disappeared. That’s when Elaine Barker, my mom’s best friend, told me what was going on. She pulled me aside and first apologized to me.

“Jenny, you need to know I tried several times to call your mom today, but Harold knew that’s what I was going to do, and he refused to stop anywhere with a phone.” She looked honestly perplexed. She would have had to use a payphone, so it would be easy to keep her away from them. “Harold only told me what was happening today. TODAY.” Now she was starting to get upset. I was 13. I knew something bad was going to happen but still didn’t know what.

“Your dad and Charlene are getting married today,” she finally blurted out. This was the worst news I could have heard. The. Worst. I started crying. Elaine held me. There was no way he was going to marry her! No way. Not Charlene. She wasn’t right for him. She hated me. She barely tolerated my brothers.

Funny story: on one of the very first times Dad brought Charlene with us to Thursday night pizza, Charlene was sitting in the front seat with us in the back. Seatbelts weren’t mandatory then so that’s when kids always hung over the middle, so we could participate in whatever was happening in the front seat. Anyway, Dad had to run into Sav-On to get something and we were left in the car with Charlene. Suddenly, one of my brothers grabbed the headrest (I think it was Gary, but I just texted both Gary and Jay and Gary says it was Jay. Gary is also known for blaming Jay and I haven’t heard from him yet so I’m going with “one of my brothers” here). When he did, he pulled Charlene’s wig off. She screamed and all three of us fell out. We didn’t know she wore a wig and so we thought he’d pulled her hair off! For anyone with kids, that’s a totally normal event, but for Charlene it was a no-go. She flipped out. My poor dad returned to a car full of people who didn’t know what was happening!

I was mad my dad married Charlene but it wasn’t why we struggled.

Elaine stayed with me that night. The wedding was a blur. I’ve never tried so hard not to cry. I don’t know if I was all that successful. I had never felt more betrayed. We went shopping. It was supposed to be a holiday party. I looked great. And my poor mom! She still had no idea what was happening. I felt incredibly protective of her and convinced she was also being betrayed. My brothers didn’t seem to care at all. Being younger, they were likely able to accept things at face value. Dad had someone take us back to Ventura that night – he stayed in Santa Barbara with his new wife. Of course my next thought was, he’s going to replace us with new kids. Doesn’t every kid think like that?

If possible, our relationship got worse after that. I had a new stepmother. I had no idea she’d only be around for five more years.

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.

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.

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.

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.