Update: Did not see this press release yesterday. It explains more about the approach to the series and mentions victims! I’m still worried this will romanticize one person (Michelle), but she did write the book!
I didn’t realize HBO was going to drop the teaser on Sunday and it did catch me a bit off-guard. I always do my best to share real-time feelings about these things, so let’s do that. I’m writing first because I need to be thoughtful about what I say.
It’s no secret I didn’t know who Michelle McNamara was or that she was working on a book. I blogged about that as part of the book event held in Citrus Heights, attended by Patton Oswalt, Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen.
Michelle didn’t talk to the Smith’s for the book, and as I mentioned, instead referred to a series of articles that I probably hate more than anything else out there because it was inaccurate, salacious and forgot a whole kid – my brother Jay. How can someone pretend to be a reporter and literally leave out a child. It caused hurt and it stuck in my craw. I was doing interviews – always willing to help anyone or anything that would help catch our killer. But we didn’t hear a word from anyone on the McNamara team. I’ll admit, it’s disappointing. But that’s history, let’s move forward.
HBO did many interviews with the victims
I can’t talk about it in-depth, but I assume they also did interviews with law enforcement and others who dedicated their lives to finding this man. I hope they did. The victims I’ve spoken with about the interviews thought they were comprehensive, thoughtful and for us, deeply personal. For some, it’s the first time they’ve publicly told their stories. While I can’t speak for the others, I know I was honest, vulnerable and willing to help HBO tell our story. The reason I did it was specifically to respect my dad and stepmom who were robbed of their lives at the hands of a maniac.
The intersection of entertainment and true crime
One benefit I have about telling my story is I don’t have to answer to anyone other than my family. Whatever I do, I try to do it thoughtfully because isn’t just my story, it belongs to my brothers too. I also don’t do it for entertainment. I mean if you are entertained, that’s great, but for me, it’s real-time therapy as I work to understand everything happening and essentially summarize it for consumption. When I’m writing or talking, I feel more like a teacher than anything else.
But now imagine being a studio that must profit off the storytelling. The book gets optioned – meaning they license the rights to make a film based on the book – and now you must create something that will make money for the studio. How do you do that? What creative choices will you make? Will you include some “star power” to make sure it has mass market appeal? Will you conduct re-enactments to depict the crimes? Will you edit interviews in a way that increases the entertainment value while maybe compromising the intent? This is the hot mess that truly lies in the hands of the creative team.
I have zero clue about how HBO will do this. I’ve already exchanged tweets with Liz Garbus, Director, yesterday (and she’s agreed to an interview later!), and she shared one from Kris Pedretti (victim #10 and her tweet is gold). Liz’s reputation is outstanding and I have faith in her desire to tell our story with compassion and empathy. Not only that, but her team sang her praises and comported themselves in a way that’s consistent with what I learned about her.
Then why did the teaser knock me sideways
Man, the teaser bugs me. It’s bugging a few of the victims. But we also know, we need to get over ourselves. I think the first misstep was setting our expectations – and honestly, I even think they intended to manage this – but it just got bungled. We did hear promotion would be starting soon. What we didn’t hear was it would 100% focus on Michelle. It’s nothing like what we expected – and it’s just a teaser– we get it. It’s entertainment first and then it’s storytelling. It’s a sixty second teaser. Get a grip. You’re in marketing Jen, what part of this surprises you?
Just the part where I let my guard down.
Seriously. I also wasn’t prepared for the squeals of delight on Billy Jensen’s twitter feed as his fans, and let’s be honest, he has fans and that’s a good thing, but his fans are super happy for him. Alas, all I could think today was damn folks, people died. People were raped. So many lives were tipped over because of DeAngelo, but sure, add memes and emojis and celebrate. How’s that for some honestly. It is hard to look at but that’s only because it’s inherently weird that other people are making money off your traumatic event. I’ve talked about the Golden State Killer economy. With a few exceptions, I don’t have a problem with it.
This is just the beginning
It’s a teaser designed to sell the series. Got it. It’s going to play out over six episodes, and I believe will tell the story from many points of view. My hope is it champions the strength of the people who’ve survived. My hope is this will help people understand what happened in the 70s and 80s. My hope is we get DeAngelo in a courtroom so this perpetual anxiety I have that this guy’s going to escape conviction by dying finally disappears.
I’m genuinely interested in your thoughts about the teaser. Leave a comment here or chat me up on Twitter!
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.
In just a few days, the names of the 9/11 victims will be read again in New York. I can’t listen to them. It tears me up and it’s been 17 years! I get lost thinking about all the little things like did they have kids (who are now grown) or were they engaged or pregnant. They were just people doing what we all do every day – going to work. Firefighters and law enforcement ran in to do what they do every day. And just like that, hate changed us. To the bottom of our collective souls. And so when the names are read every year, it doesn’t feel like enough. I know it’s important – but it resonates with the loss we all shared that day.
You’d think we’d know more about what was going to happen when we all assemble for another hearing day in the world of Joseph DeAngelo. But we don’t. We get email from victim services, but it’s often really cryptic and light. This hearing was a surprise. We’d all been building our lives around today, September 5th, where we were supposed to attend an “update” hearing. We’d even planned a little barbecue at Carol Daly’s house afterward. But the District Attorneys had other plans. Everything got moved up to August 23 and the plan was to file 26 more charges against Wee Willy Winky.
Our group continues to grow with every court date.
As I’ve said, we all meet on this one outside corner before court so our handlers – the Victim Services folks – can wrangle us and get us into the courtroom with minimal drama. Since the courtroom is still in the jail, we have to go through the metal detector and walk the gauntlet of reporters. This time, they actually moved us into an area behind the courtrooms (so we didn’t have to go through the media) and took us into an empty courtroom first where we could play a little and put our anxiety to work. (I don’t think that was their intention, they were just protecting us, but man, it turned out to be a good way for us to touch things and goof around. And yes, I did take silly pictures of people too, but I can’t share them because I want to protect everyone’s privacy.)
It’s kind of funny because as we grow as a group, we are becoming a force: I think there were maybe 20 of us this time! I didn’t realize this would happen – don’t know why, I guess I just hadn’t thought about it before. Of course, I never thought there would be an arrest. I hope it keeps happening. I hope all the Sacramento (and beyond) survivors get to come and feel the power of what it means to have the upper hand. I also really enjoy seeing the friendly media who I’ve come to know and appreciate on a personal level. I guess I better be friendly with them because now that Sacramento is the home for the trial, we are all going to be spending a great deal of time together.
When the time came, they moved us through the back room (where the judge and others typically enter the courtroom) and got us into our regular room, Dept 61. We were greeted by ALL the District Attorneys who were lined up on the prosecution side. I instantly recognized DA Totten, the Ventura DA (my DA as I affectionately call him) and I rushed over to introduce myself and shake his hand. He flashed a giant smile at me – we hadn’t met before – and I had a chance to thank him for being so well-spoken on the press conference held that Tuesday, and for expressing his commitment so eloquently. I am freaking proud of him – he’s been working on this case since he joined the Ventura DA’s office. The Sacramento Bee spoke with him:
Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten said later in an interview Carole’s presence was one of several reasons he needed to be present for the arraignment.
“This was the first case I ever worked on as a young law clerk in the Ventura County District Attorney’s office,” Totten said. “And the daughter of Lyman Smith, who was brutally murdered in Ventura County, was here today, and for me it was personally very important to be here.”
What a guy. He asked to talk with me after the hearing so I hung back afterward and spent a few minutes with him. I think the collaboration the District Attorney’s have managed is amazing. I have worked on some tough cross-functional teams, but I never had to worry about voters at the same time. Seeing them all there, in a row, resolute and committed; it was powerful.
Court’s in session.
With the Honorable Judge Michael Sweet presiding, court started. DeAngelo slid into the cage as silently as I imagine he broke into homes. Not a freaking sound from this man. I sat behind him hoping to see his hands cuffed behind him, but no such luck. Assistant Public Defender Diane Howard was back in court and being as obsequious as ever. She stood close, nearly touching him at the shoulder, and I know she could smell him. Just yuck.
At this point, he’s been in jail for four months and the weight loss is significant. I have no idea if he’s eating, but I know he’s not getting beer. He has lost maybe 40 pounds and this makes him look gaunt and frail. But I think he’s just back at his fighting weight. He stood looking straight ahead as usual in a military-like parade rest – attentive but not at attention. He doesn’t even really look at Howard during the course of the hearing. He looks at the judge and that’s about it. Well, there’s also the mouth breathing. I remember on the phone calls he made, he liked to pant. Maybe he just can’t close his damn lips! The Bee’s reporter noticed how he looked as well:
Looking, pale, thin and frail, the 72-year-old former police officer stood silently inside the courtroom cage on the first floor of the Sacramento County Main Jail building without speaking.
The District Attorneys were introduced and there was a discussion of DeAngelo’s ability to pay for a legal defense. So far, he’s been leaning on the Public Defender’s office. But defending him against these crimes is going to cost a small fortune. It could mean he will lose all his assets as he liquidates them to pay legal fees. I have no idea what that does to his family but I think (hope) they are all adults and somehow finding a way to cope and manage financially. I can’t even imagine how upside-down their world must be. At the hearing in December, we’ll find out if he qualifies for an Indigent Defense.
As he considers that, I’d like to offer a recommendation – and maybe his family can push for this because it would absolutely be a blessing for them – he needs to simply take a plea. Own it man. You thought you were “Da Man”; the bad-ass mother f–ker who could get anyone and not get caught. You had the courage to destroy lives without fear of retribution. If you are all that, then step up. Do it for your family. Own your shit and put this thing to bed. Just admit it was you and we can all get back to living. And you can join the general population instead of death row.
The list of additional charges.
In late April, at his first arraignment, he was charged with the deaths of the Maggiores. That was enough to bind him over and keep him in custody. But the charges read in court were expanded and clarified. There were also 13 counts of kidnap that allowed prosecutors to reach into some of the rape cases and hold him accountable. I need Kat Winters and Keith Komos to map these charges to what they have in their awesome book* to help me confirm these are all DNA cases – but I’m sure they are. We sat for 30 minutes, the gallery in silence, as each charge was read. You wanna freak yourself out? Read these out loud.
Count 1: Murder of Claude Snelling, Sept. 11, 1975, in Visalia; using a .38 revolver.
Count 2: Murder of Kate Maggiore of Rancho Cordova, Feb. 2, 1978; using a gun of unknown caliber.
Count 3: Murder of Brian Maggiore of Rancho Cordova, Feb. 2, 1978; using a gun of unknown caliber.
Count 4: Murder of Debra Alexandra Manning of Santa Barbara County, Dec. 30, 1979; using a gun of unknown caliber and special circumstances because it includes rape and burglary.
Count 5: Murder of Robert Offerman of Santa Barbara County, Dec. 30, 1979; using a gun of unknown caliber and special circumstances because it includes burglary.
Count 6: Murder of Cheri Domingo of Santa Barbara County, July 27, 1981; using a gun of unknown caliber and special circumstances because it includes rape and burglary.
Count 7: Murder of Greg Sanchez of Santa Barbara County, July 27, 1981; using a gun of unknown caliber and special circumstances because it includes burglary.
Count 8: Murder of Charlene Smith of Ventura County, found March 16, 1980; and special circumstances because it includes rape and burglary.
Count 9: Murder of Lyman Smith of Ventura County, found March 16, 1980; and special circumstances because it includes burglary.
Count 10: Murder of Patrice Harrington of Orange County, Aug. 21, 1975; and special circumstances because it includes rape and burglary.
Count 11: Murder of Keith Harrington of Orange County, Aug. 21, 1975; and special circumstances because it includes burglary.
Count 12: Murder of Manuella Witthuhn of Irvine, found Feb. 5, 1981; and special circumstances because it includes rape, robbery and burglary.
Count 13: Murder of Janelle Cruz of Irvine killed May 4, 1986; and special circumstances because it includes rape and burglary.
[Now take a small breath here; we got one, but it lasted just a few seconds while Judge Sweet prepared to read more.]
Count 14: Jane Doe 1 of Sacramento on Sep. 6, 1976; robbery.
Count 15: Jane Doe 2 of Sacramento on Apr. 2, 1977; kidnap and use of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
Count 16: Jane Doe 3 of Sacramento on Apr. 15, 1977; kidnap, robbery and use of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
Count 17: Jane Doe 4 of Sacramento on May 3, 1977; kidnap, robbery and use of a knife and firearm during the commission of a crime.
Count 18: Jane Doe 5 of Sacramento on May 14, 1977; kidnap, robbery and use of a knife and firearm during the commission of a crime.
Count 19: Jane Doe 6 of Sacramento on May 17, 1977; kidnap, robbery and use of a knife and firearm during the commission of a crime.
Count 20: Jane Doe 7 of Sacramento on May 28, 1977; kidnap, robbery and use of a knife and firearm during the commission of a crime.
Count 21: Jane Doe 8 of Sacramento on Oct. 1, 1977; kidnap, robbery and use of a knife and firearm during the commission of a crime.
Count 22: Jane Doe 9 of Sacramento on Oct. 2, 1977; kidnap and use of a knife and firearm during the commission of a crime.
Count 23: Jane Doe 10 of Contra Costa County on Oct. 7, 1978; kidnap, robbery and use of a knife and firearm during the commission of a crime.
Count 24: Jane Doe 11 of Contra Costa County on Oct. 13, 1978; kidnap, robbery and use of a knife during the commission of a crime.
Count 25: Jane Doe 12 of Contra Costa County on Oct. 28, 1978; kidnap, robbery and use of a knife and firearm during the commission of a crime.
Count 26: Jane Doe 13 of Contra Costa County on Jun. 11, 1979; kidnap, robbery and use of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
The other rapes and burglaries won’t be charged because the statute of limitations has run out in those cases.
Guys, I gotta tell you, listening to this list be read out loud was pure hell. A journalist friend had brought a young person with her to court because they had to rush off to Reno after the hearing. Normally this is just a pop-in and get it done hearing with very little drama. But surprise! This was heavy as hell. I spoke to him before it got started and said, “Wow, you’re here to see a murderer,” and my friend waved me off in that parent-way that communicates (dummy-up, he doesn’t know all that). Welp, after this list being read, he knew. I talked to him afterward to see how he took it in, but I have a feeling that car ride afterward might have included a good discussion.
As each count was read, I took notes, which always provides me with cover so my feelings don’t take over. Even with this distraction, as these words were spoken I had this heavy feeling of dread. Every life on that list (and the 100+ more who had been raped, ransacked or intruded upon) had been changed by the actions of this one person. This doesn’t even include his family. Over the decades I’ve had to deal with my dad’s name being in places that don’t necessarily make me that happy. Books, documentaries, news stories and now a list of crimes. It’s surreal: my dad wanted to be famous. But he wanted it for making a difference and being an extraordinary lawyer and judge (and inevitably a elected official). He never wanted it like this. And yet…
I’ll take my dad’s fame from this case.
And here’s why: nothing has had a bigger impact on criminal justice than DNA. I don’t know if anyone is counting (where are my nerds), but many many crimes have been solved since DeAngelo’s arrest thanks to DNA. In addition, missing persons are being identified left and right. And there are new ideas about using DNA with suspects because DNA testing is getting better and much faster. I was tweeting about this the other day – I feel kinda proud to be part of this case with all the good that’s coming out of his arrest.
Finally, as things wrapped up, the media was there and many of the survivors understandably don’t feel comfortable talking with them. I had gotten a call in the morning from Fox 40 and agreed to talk with them after the hearing. That was fine but I had no idea when the bailiffs shooshed us out the door, that there would be a gaggle of reporters and I was basically alone! At the end of the questions, I spent a bit more time with the guy from the Associated Press (he’s the blond guy with glasses on my right). It was his first time on this beat, he’s new to Sacto (if I got his story right) and he was impressed with the gaggle. We had a really nice talk and I welcomed him to our madness: life after arrest.
A group of the survivors got together than afternoon. Sadly I missed it because I had to stay to talk with Totten and then I got back on the road to Santa Cruz because I had knee surgery the next day.
One of the best things about writing this blog, is getting feedback from you either via comments (below) or on Twitter. For long thoughts, commenting here or an email is best. But if you want to just shoot the you-know-what or be silly, Twitter is awesome. You might see my politics leak through but don’t let that bug you; I believe folks with different opinions make good friends. The support I’ve received this summer has been nothing I would have ever expected. Thank you for that – even if all you did was visit this blog. I feel the support and it helped me get through my little surgery, get back to work and find my inner momentum again.
*Their amazing, comprehensive book is currently on back order – let me know if you’re trying to buy it and I’ll hook you up!
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.
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.
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.
I didn’t know who Michelle McNamara was until I heard Patton talking about her on Conan shortly after she died. I had never heard from her nor read any of her work. That was little more than a year ago. I Googled and discovered her LA Magazine article and then read more about her death and the book. How had she never contacted me? How could the Smith murder possibly be included and I never once spoke to the author or her researchers? Oh well, I was super busy with my job and it was bound to happen; someone was going to write a book. I put it out of my mind. Who would know the book would take on a life of its own?
I love writing. I didn’t realize is until I was in my 40s. I had been doing it my whole life but it was for marketing and I didn’t think it was “real” writing. I was paid to tell stories about the companies I worked for and it came easy. I’ve always taken great care when presenting facts or other people’s stories. I had to, we could be sued if I screwed up. When blogging became a thing, I loved it. I blogged about homeschooling Katie and teen life and marketing and even Katie’s summer trips to different countries. It was a way for me to be part of something even if I couldn’t do it my self.
I get why Michelle was consumed by this story. I understand how writing about it enveloped her. It’s happening to me. I woke up on April 25th and my world turned upside down. A day hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t spent at least part of my time thinking about DeAngelo or Charlene or my dad. My thoughts bounce from the legal aspects to the grisly details of the crimes to survivors who are struggling to find out if he was their attacker to media inquires as we piece this things together now that he’s been arrested. Its a hot mess of details, feelings – and here’s the key – extraneous information that isn’t relevant.
With that in mind, I headed toward Barnes and Noble with mixed emotions. I was excited about seeing the folks that were coming. The fans of the book and the folks who had lived through the East Area Rapist’s terrorism were at the top of my list. I was also interested in talking to Patton and his team but I didn’t know if that would happen. I was nervous about what I wanted to say to them. While I don’t regret that the book was published, I was disappointed in a few things and let’s face, my opinions don’t mean shit. But it was my family’s story in that book and I was hoping to at least to be heard. Of course, the extrovert that I am, I calmed my nerves by working the crowd.
My thoughts about I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
The Smith Family wasn’t consulted at all for the book.
The chapter is short and appears to be based on news reports (I have no idea how it was constructed actually so this is speculation based on what was included). That’s a shame because the Ventura reporter that did the last story that was specifically called out in the book, did a bad job. I hate that series of articles more than anything that’s ever been written. The reporter forgot a whole child – my dad’s other son. She made stuff up. She exploited a man who was exonerated and managed to trash him all over again so his grand kids learned things they didn’t need to know. She got details about the killer wrong and she never once worked to fix anything in her fiction-filled story. The fact this book points to that set of articles without confirming accuracy is perpetuating the hurt it caused years ago. It’s a horrendous mistake.
The information shared about Janelle Cruz is unnecessary.
The book is super uneven. You can tell when Michelle tapped something she was interested in. Debbie Domingo had a really good relationship with Michelle and it shows. Her story is full-bodied, maybe with too much personal information about her relationship with her mom, but that was up to Debbie to share and she reports she feels really good about what was written. That’s awesome. But in the case of Janelle, the information about her past was not shared by the family and feels a lot like victim shaming. I know that wasn’t the intent, but when we are dealing with something so incredibly fragile, this is a line that has to be clearly defined. As I understand it, Michelle didn’t get to finish this section personally. I believe Michelle was committed to protecting and representing the victims in the most positive ways. Alas, she wasn’t able to put her seal of approval on this section. ALL OF US had complex, imperfect families with lots of gossipy intrigue and drama. Stop a minute and imagine if your family’s story was put into print! Life is messy and it’s how we survive and endure that’s our legacy.
I hate the name Golden State Killer.
I resent that Michelle named him. I resent she named him something that diminishes the scope of the crimes he committed – rapes, ransacking, terror, brutality, kidnapping, pedophilia, assault, theft – the list goes on. I resent that she had no standing in this case – as either a victim or law enforcement – and because she wrote a damn book, her name sticks. It’s a shame. I love the Golden State. I love the Golden State Warriors. I hate that Cavs fans call Warrior players, the Golden State Killer, because it’s so much more than an insult. It’s disgusting. I get it. They guy had so many monikers. But really, when it’s all said and done, he’s the East Area Rapist. Sure there’s the Visalia Ransaker, but to my way of thinking, that name isn’t toxic enough.
I’m kind of over men telling our story.
My first question to the men at the front of the room at Barnes and Noble was for Patton: why didn’t you have a woman on this team to finish the book? Patton had a throw away answer – both Paul and Billy had been working with Michelle so it didn’t make sense to bring in someone new. Okay. I get that. But the problem is, the empathy that Michelle was bringing to her work kind of fell apart. Can we all agree men are raise differently in our culture than women? And even women have to work hard to push through our societal norms that perpetuate myths about crimes against women. In fact, another question that night revealed a bias Paul has (that we actually talked about in the back). When the team was asked why they thought DeAngelo stopped committing crimes, Paul cited his reduced libido as a possible cause. That perpetuates the myth that sex crimes are about sex. Not true: it’s about power and control. Nope, I’m not sure a woman wouldn’t have made the same mistake – but the right woman would not have.
This book did not solve the case.
That’s not to say it didn’t do good. I believe in many ways it did. It helped people understand the breadth and depth of the damage this monster caused. It tried hard to put the humanity first along with the gory details. Because of her “Hollywood” connections and relationships, I believe this got far more attention than anything I might write. But let’s be really clear: hard working people in law enforcement have spent humongous portions of their lives chasing this guy. Crowdsourced investigations continued on ProBoards for decades (as soon as we had the Internet). I only wish Hollywood would give the same love and attention to the victims as they did to Michelle (whom I also consider a victim). I think that might happen as HBO starts their project. I met with one of the producers and she’s committed to telling the story with humanity and a 360-degree lens. It could be amazing. I told her this isn’t a documentary, it’s freaking mini-series. I’m sure I’ll have more on the HBO stuff as it develops.
Okay Jen, get over your bad self.
Here’s the really good news. I didn’t realize it was going to happen, but we got a chance to talk to the guys after then event. Had I known, I might not have asked my question about fixing errors in the book in public. I thought that was my only chance and it had been bugging me for so long. When I asked, in front of everyone, the guys really had a bad answer. They pointed to the legal team that belongs to the publisher and essentially said fixing things was their job. But that’s a bogus answer. If you write it, it’s your responsibility. And clearly Patton knew that because the minute the event was done, he jumped up and came directly to me and said, “We’ll fix what needs fixing, just let us know.” That was the right answer. He was exceptionally kind when he said it and then Paul Haynes followed up with me backstage (it wasn’t a stage, but that feels like the right word).
The infamous “Melanie”, our crime concierge as I’ve come to know her, really likes Paul Haynes. They’ve worked together over the years as Melanie knows so much about all the cases. She assured me he was authentic and trustworthy and that I could take him seriously. If you get that kind endorsement from Melanie, I know you are a good person. Her BS detector is that powerful. Talking to Paul was really good. I got to tell him about my issues with our content and how pointing to a secondary source (the articles) as something “worth reading” was just plain irresponsible. It’s not even a primary source. It’s just junk. He got it. I talked with him about Janelle and how sometimes it’s better to say less, regardless of where the story leads. And that Michelle seemed to be committed to doing no harm. They should have kept that as their mantra as they finished her work.
Paul explained to me one reason they didn’t write very much about our case is their years-long wait on a file from Ventura. As it turns out, I’ve had the file they wanted the whole time. I got it 35 years ago because like them, I too wanted to know what was true and what was rumor. If only they had reached out to me. Thankfully Paul agreed that our case had so much non-related intrigue, it would have been a rat hole anyway (I kind of agree but I need to watch myself here in case I tell some of the stories – I don’t want to be a hypocrite). I’m grateful to have had his ear and I hope, before there’s a reprint, some things are adjusted for all the families that are looking for fixes.
The secret life of extroverts.
For all of you who are not extroverts, here’s what often happens next to us. We hit a wall. All the energy falls away. It’s like the bones are removed from your body and there’s no structure to hold you up any longer. You can’t listen, see or respond. I knew I had to jam and I slipped out. Yes, we are notorious for not saying goodbye. At that point, it’s too much. I walked out to my car, had one last really nice, gentle conversation and I and started driving. Quickly I realized I was starving. I called my mom as I looked for a place to grab grub. Taco Bell on Auburn. Well lit. Sold.
I got my taco supreme and bean burrito with green sauce (seriously, the only way to eat it, I don’t even know why they have that crappy red sauce). I sat back in my car. All alone. The quiet really setting in. I wolfed down the taco. I really was hungry. And then it hit. I knew it would. Tears. Layers of them. I sat in that damn parking lot and just let her go as I cried for my dad and Charlene. I cried for all the people that had been hurt by him. I cried for the woman who got up and spoke about her rape and abuse that was unrelated to GSK (I wanted to simply stand up and give her a hug, yes, you were seen and heard). I cried because I never expected a man would be arrested and never expected to be involved with the case at this level at this age.
There’s no right or wrong way to do this stuff. The book isn’t bad and I believe Michelle had every right to write it. This story belongs to everyone. It’s been written into the lives of so many people in California and beyond. Its still unbelievable to me that a man got up everyday and made terrorizing his home town his sole mission in life.
I choose to stay involved because it is healing.
I chose to stay involved because this story should not be forgotten.
We were stopped in the left turn lane of an intersection that was five lanes deep. Adrian was super mad and started to get out of the passenger seat – which means he would have stepped out into traffic. I shouted stop! And locked all the doors. For some reason that worked. That moment scared the crap out of me. He could have been killed and he didn’t care.
The car was overly-full of kids. I never owned a van but I probably should have because I was the mom who drove the kids around, dragged them to events or adventures. This time I had signed all the kids up for a day at UC Santa Cruz. It was a kids’ conference or something but it meant these middle school kids had a chance to hang out on campus and see what college might be like. The big promise was I’d buy them lunch at the dining commons. I knew that would blow their minds.
Choose whatever floats your boat.
It did. Never have I seen kids so happy to pick and choose any food they want in any order they want to eat it.
It was on our way home from this outing that Adrian got so mad. The rest of us in the car could never remember what set him off. Based on what I’ve learned since that day, I have a feeling it was the fact we were taking him home. The fun day filled with promise of what the future could hold for these amazing kids, was coming to an end. It was time to go home and as I would learn later, home was even worse than we realized.
That was May 2013.
My daughter Katie (in the rainbow striped dress) and her squad had a busy spring. Eighth grade was ending for the girls and they were ready to hit high school. Adrian was an artist and had connected with the girls around art. He was behind them by one year and in a weird way, Katie and her buddy Em were ready for the change. Adrian was intense and often chatted online with f them at night. Mostly he talked about suicide. It was so bad, I tried to get him help. I had found a counselor and was even willing to pay for it. But if you aren’t someone’s legal guardian, it turns out help is nearly impossible to get.
From what I understood, Adrian lived with his mom who was typically not home. She was with “boyfriends” who lived anywhere from Santa Cruz to San Francisco and points in between. When we dropped him off, we made him wave from the third floor window because we wanted to make sure he got in safely. He thought we were nuts – he was so used to being home alone, he couldn’t figure out this “safe” thing. He was just 13. When he wasn’t home alone, it seemed his life was worse. He could hear his mother having sex with different men. I learned later the walls in his apartment didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling; they were more like partitions creating the illusion of privacy but providing next to none.
The threats of suicide became more frequent as the end of school got closer. He knew he was going to lose the girls as friends because they were moving on. I finally had to coach the girls that they needed to tell him they could no longer talk about his suicidal thoughts unless he got help. He was being manipulative and it was starting to wear on them and he wasn’t taking any steps to change his reality.
One message he sent to Katie turned out to be eerily prescient two years later: “I’m afraid something bad is going to happen in high school.”
On the occasion of Katie’s 16th birthday.
A few days before Katie’s 16th birthday, a news story broke. A young girl, Maddy, was missing at The Tannery. I immediately thought about Adrian. As I had expected, we had lost touch when the girls started high school. A yeaer later Adrian had eventually ended up at Katie’s high school and they had said “hi”, but that was about all. As I listened to the news, I had a dark thought about Adrian but pushed it out of my head. Maddy was missing but she could have just wandered off. Or maybe one of the homeless folks who frequented the San Lorenzo river area had engaged her in conversation and she was just down river somewhere; safe but out of bounds.
And then, two days later I was listening to KGO and the bad news came on. Her body had been found in a recycle bin in the garage at The Tannery. And a boy was in custody. Before they spoke, I knew who it was. A future murderer had been in my house. Had been close friends with my daughter!
Having grown up scared of a murderer I couldn’t see and didn’t know, finding out someone who we trusted and cared about had done something so awful freaked me out. I was blown away and how much Maddy looked like Katie and her friends – especially the freckles. Katie and her friends were struggling too. How could the boy they knew do something so horrendous.
July 30 was Katie’s 16th birthday and we had planned to get her driver’s license that day. We did manage that, but her day started with attending Adrian’s arraignment on her own. I had warned her about the media and she was interviewed, but the kid did pretty great. We didn’t miss the irony that in our teens, we had both dealt with a serious crime.
What is just in this case?
Katie and I provided information to both the prosecution and the defense. Katie had hours of Facebook chats to share and we told both sides about his horrible mother and his depression. We agreed we never thought he’d hurt someone else, but he also talked about dark thoughts he had he couldn’t share with anyone. I have to say, he’s probably right. How could he share these kinds of thoughts with anyone and get real help. Especially as a minor.
Last summer, Adrian was heading back to court and his lawyers asked to talk with me. They told me how many times CPS and others were involved in his life and how every stinking time, the resolution ended with calling his mother. No one ever got she was the problem. Routinely, she blamed him for being bad in some way and convinced these child advocates that really she was the victim and Adrian was just a troubled child. Over and over she blamed him. The kid we knew wasn’t bad. He was an artist and a poet and seriously sad.
They wanted me to possibly testify on his behalf but for the first time, I honestly didn’t know if that was something I could do. The crime was horrendous and I had no idea of he could ever be rehabilitated. For someone who lives with a justice monitor lives in my brain like a smoke detector, I had no idea what justice would mean in this case. I didn’t want him executed, but life in prison seemed reasonable. I like to think people aren’t permanently damaged, but how do we know? And I still felt pretty guilty about not fighting harder to get him help. Instead I joined a long list of adults who failed this kid. And eight year old Maddy paid the price.
I did not testify.
So I’m still knocked a little sideways when I see Adrian in the news. The day after I was laid off this week (let’s remember this was just two days after seeing the Golden State Killer for the first time), Adrian appeared on the front page of our local newspaper. I’m disappointed that he’s pleading not guilty,but I suppose they are working to negotiate some kind of sentence that might one day let him get out.
It’s so strange to be on two different sides of murder.
To understand the “before story” and know when someone is suffering, and yet be unable to do a damn thing to change the course of history. You can’t prove a negative. There’s no way to know if I had been able to do something, if Maddy would still be here today. But that’s the logic being used by politicians today: we need to help the mentally ill. Guess what? It’s really, really hard.
We’ve done everything possible to make it impossible.
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.
The crowd was soothing and peaceful. It’s always interesting to walk alone and drift in and out of other people’s conversations. Overhearing memories of Shannon, discussions of the crime, talk of being hungry and what a nice day it turned out to be.
I took pictures and just felt at peace. I am happy knowing I live in the kind of place that could come together at such a moment. A few tourists were in town and I explained what was happening. I assured them they were safe and this was a good place to visit. I went to my car to to sit a moment and look at the photos I had taken. I wanted to post them to Instagram and so I had to move my car to get signal. I left the parking garage and parked on River Street across from the pedestrian bridge.
At the base of the footpath, there was a crowd of transients, or homeless, or hobos as my daughter would say (why are kids using that term, it kind of bothers me). They were in an animated discussion about the walk. One man was extremely upset that Take Back Santa Cruz has staged the walk and lamented that now there were going to be attacks on homeless people because of our action. That there had already been an attack (in fact true) and that more were going to happen because of these activists.
I sat there feeling kind of surreal. I had just walked. I want Santa Cruz to be safe. But I had never heard the strident feelings of this crowd before. These men were articulate. They knew what they were talking about and they were clearly concerned that being in Santa Cruz was suddenly going to be harder for them. I have to say I had a hard time feeling compassion for them. If they were bright enough to understand the politics of the situation, I felt like they should be bright enough to conduct themselves in a way that didn’t scare or intimidate other people.
If anything, I wish they had been part of the walk.
In an instant, the group disbanded. I don’t know if someone broke them up or they could see the police on the way or what happened. They just evaporated all going different directions.
It was a strange evening. A Santa Cruz evening to be perfectly honest. With all sides presenting themselves. With everyone having an opinion.
In the neighborhood on Broadway where the attack happened.