September 13, 2016

Injustice for Dominique Dunne

Dominique Dunne was twenty-one years old in 1981 when she met John Sweeney at a party.  Sweeney was seven years her senior and the attraction was instant.  Sadly, rather than leading to love and marriage, it led to love and death.

The petite Dominique, daughter of writer and movie producer Dominick Dunne, sister to actor Griffin Dunne and niece to authors Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, seemed destined to make it in the celebrity soaked world of Los Angeles.  By comparison, the athletic Sweeney grew up in a Pennsylvania coal town, son of an alcoholic who frequently watched his father beat his mother.

Both were creative types; Dominique was an actress with a handful of roles under her belt while John was chief assistant to Wolfgang Puck at the trendy and glamorous Ma Maison restaurant.  On the surface, they made a good match.  Both loved Europe, animals (Dominique was very much an animal rescuer) and cooking.  Her diminutive size contrasted nicely to his just over six foot frame.  Both were ambitious.  Sweeney however desperately wanted to fit into the elegant world of L.A. and Hollywood he saw nightly at Ma Maison.  Dominique gave him entry into that world.

Dominique's last home and where she was strangled
The two moved into a rented house together within weeks of meeting.  What should have been an exciting and romantic time would quickly begin to turn ugly for Dominique.  She found out that Sweeney was no Prince Charming; he began to display controlling and jealous behavior.  They would fight and Dominique would leave their shared home to return to her mother's home to escape Sweeney and his abuse.  Unfortunately, after a few days apart, she would inevitably return.

On August 27, 1982, after a particularly bitter argument, Sweeney grabbed her long, dark hair and yanked her so viciously that handfuls of it came out in clumps.  A frightened Dominique ran to her mother's house, where Sweeney followed.  He banged on the doors and windows, demanding to be let in.   Lenny threatened to call the police.  Sweeney returned to their West Hollywood home to wait out Dominique; she returned a few days later.

Barely a month later, on September 26, 1982, another argument ensued and Sweeney grabbed Dominique by the throat, threw her on the floor and began strangling her.  A friend who was staying with the couple at the time heard the assault and ran into the room where the actress was being attacked.  Dominique told her friend Sweeney had tried to kill her; like any classic abuser, he denied it and suggested that she come back to bed.  She pretended to comply but instead snuck out the bathroom window.  When he heard her car engine start up, he threw himself on the hood of her car and only jumped off when Dominique briefly stopped.  She escaped again to her mother's and also to friends' homes, where she would call Sweeney and end their relationship.  He moved out; she moved back in and changed the locks.

Dominique on Hill Street Blues, no makeup necessary
Despite the volatile nature of her personal life, Dominique's career was steaming full speed ahead.  Her first role had been in a movie of the week in 1979 and by 1981, when she met John Sweeney, she had added several other television movies and some popular television programs of the day, including Lou Grant, CHiPs, Fame and Hart to Hart.    In 1981 she was cast in her first, and what would be only, theatrical film - - Steven Spielberg's classic ghost tale, Poltergeist, which would be released four months before her death.  She also had a memorable guest role on Hill Street Blues in which she played a teen girl abused by her mother.  The day before Dominique arrived to shoot her scenes, Sweeney gave her a beating that resulted in bruises.  Showing up on set with a bruised face, Sweeney's act gave the makeup department a break that day.  No work was needed for Dominique; the bruises seen on her face in the episode are real.

By the time she finally broke off the relationship with Sweeney, Dominique had gotten a role in the upcoming miniseries V, about an alien invasion.  On the evening of October 30, 1982, she was rehearsing scenes for V with actor David Packer when Sweeney showed up uninvited and unexpectedly.  He demanded that she speak with him and after hesitating, she stepped outside to the front yard with Sweeney, leaving Packer inside.     Packer offered to leave but she requested that he stay.  Dominique and Sweeney almost immediately began to argue; Packer later said he heard slapping sounds, two screams and then a thud.  Frightened, he called the police only to be told that Dominique's home was out of their jurisdiction.  He then called a friend and told him if he was found dead, John Sweeney had done it.  Packer then left the home through a back door and found Sweeney near the driveway, kneeling over Dominique.  Spotting Packer, Sweeney told him to call the police.  When the police arrived, Sweeney put his hands in the air and informed them that he had killed his girlfriend and had attempted to kill himself with pills.

While Sweeney was hustled off to jail, Dominique was rushed to Cedars Sinai and placed on life support after her heart stopped.  Her father Dominick would later recall seeing his daughter in the hospital after doctors had screwed a bolt into her skull to relieve pressure on her brain caused by the strangulation.  Her long beautiful hair - - the same hair that Sweeney had grabbed in his fist to pull out - - had been shaved off for the procedure; her eyes were open and grotesquely enlarged from the assault; tubes were everywhere but the marks of John Sweeney's hands were still visible on her purpled and bruised neck.

Dominique would remain in a coma for the next five days, never regaining consciousness.  Once the family realized there was no hope, they had the life support machines that were keeping her heart beating turned off.  It was November 4, 1982 - - nineteen days before her twenty-third birthday. Even in death, Dominique would be kind and giving; her kidneys were given to two patients at Cedars Sinai awaiting transplant and her heart was sent to a hospital in San Francisco.

John Sweeney now graduated from an attempted murder charge to first degree murder. He plead not guilty (no surprise) and was also charged with assault with intent to do great bodily harm resulting from the September 26 incident.  He denied assaulting Dominique, claiming that he had been trying to prevent her from leaving their home. (Because we all strangle someone in order to keep them from leaving . . . at least in John Sweeney's household.)

Sweeney's murder trial began in August of 1983, presided over by Judge Burton S. Katz, a man perhaps best known for being the Los Angeles' Deputy District Attorney that successfully prosecuted Charles Manson, Bruce Davis and Steve Grogan in 1971 for the 1969 murders of musician Gary Hinman and ranch hand Donald "Shorty" Shea.  Katz's involvement in this trial would add grievous insult to injury for the Dunne family.

The prosecution called a former girlfriend of Sweeney's, Lillian Pierce, in order to establish a history of his violent behavior.  She and Sweeney had dated from 1977 until 1980.  During the course of their relationship, she stated that she was assaulted by him on ten occasions and was hospitalized twice for injuries from his assaults.  One hospitalization was for four days; another was for six.  During one of these assaults, she suffered a perforated eardrum and a collapsed lung.  Later she would sustain a broken nose from him.  She recounted how Sweeney would foam at the mouth when he lost control. She had seen him smash furniture and pictures.  He had even thrown rocks at her when she tried to leave him.

Sweeney's attorney Michael Adelson went after Pierce as if she were the guilty party.  He accused her of being a drunk and an addict, even suggesting that she had brought such violence upon herself and deserved what she got.  It was shameful and it was a tact he followed when he attempted to besmirch Dominique's character.

Pierce testified out of the presence of the jury while Katz deliberated over whether to allow her as a witness; while she spoke, Sweeney became enraged, jumping to his feet and toward the door leading to the judge's chambers.  He was restrained by two bailiffs and four armed guards and cried when returned to his chair, where he was handcuffed. He apologized to Katz and Katz not only accepted his apology but did so with "We know what strain you are under, Mr. Sweeney."  Katz, who appeared to have little sympathy for the victim and her family, who ever continuously mispronounced Dominique's name, apparently was empathetic with the man who had killed her.

A reporter from a local paper was in attendance and wrote about the incident.  At Adelson's bequest, Katz would admonish this reporter for exaggerating the incident and issue a gag order to all parties.  This would be the first incident of Katz bending over backwards for the defense.  He would continuously prove to be far more solicitous of a murderer than the victim and her family.

Katz wasn't alone.  Adelson had a particular bone to pick with the Dunne family.  Lenny, suffering with multiple sclerosis, was in a wheelchair.  Adelson felt that her presence in the courtroom with her wheelchair would illicit sympathy from the jury and wanted her banned.  Katz, surprisingly, did not agree.  Adelson did request, and was granted by Katz, an order that any emotional outburst by the Dunne family, including crying, eye rolling and/or making any type of exclamation, would result in their being ejected from the courtroom.  He tried to have Dominique's brother removed one day for having tears in his eyes.  When the brothers changed seats while Sweeney was testifying in order to be in his line of sight, Adelson pissily tried to get the brothers tossed from the courtroom.  He was denied but not for long.

Adelson, requested that Katz rule Pierce's testimony inadmissible as it was "prejudicial" and Katz granted the request.  Katz' action, which was in error in my opinion, meant the jury would not hear of John Sweeney's violent history and outbursts until after the trial.  Katz also refused to allow Dominique's mother Lenny and Dominique's friends to testify about the abuse Dominique suffered at Sweeney's hands and the fear she was in, ruling that their statements were "hearsay."  Worse was to come.

On August 29, Adelson requested that Katz rule that there was insufficient evidence to try Sweeney on the charge of first degree murder as there was no evidence of predetermination or deliberation.  Katz, ever obliging of Sweeney and the defense, granted the motion, taking the first degree murder charge off the table and allowing the jury to deliberate only on manslaughter or second-degree.  This decision, along with not allowing Lillian Pierce, Lenny Dunne or Dominique's friends to testify, effectively dismantled the prosecution's case.

The killer in court
Sweeney took the stand in his own defense, claiming that he and Dominique had reconciled and he had meant her no harm on October 30, 1982.  He stated the two planned on moving back in together and had discussed getting married and having children.  According to Sweeney, Dominique had suddenly changed her mind and told him that she had lied to him about reconciling and had intentionally led him on.  He "just exploded and lunged toward her" but claimed to have no recollection of attacking her until he was on top of her with his hands around her neck and she was not breathing.  He stated he attempted to revive her by walking her around but she fell.  An attempt at CPR was made, which he says made Dominique vomit, causing him to vomit.  At that point he ran into the house and consumed two bottles of pills in an attempt to kill himself.  (Clearly a less than successful venture.)  He then lay in the driveway next to Dominique, after pulling her tongue out of her throat, something he claimed to have done for his epileptic father.  Adelson claimed these actions proved that Sweeney did not act with malice and had in fact acted in the heat of passion, provoked by Dominique.

Dominique's family and friends were rightfully outraged.  They disputed that the couple had reconciled and said that Sweeney had gone to her home on October 30 in an attempt to get her to change her mind because she had firmly told him their break up was permanent.

The police also disputed Sweeney's version of events as there was no evidence he had consumed any pills and they found him to be calm and collected.  The first officer at the scene recalled Sweeney telling him "Man, I blew it. I killed her. I didn't think I choked her that hard but I don't know, I just kept on choking her. I just lost my temper and blew it again."

To further dispute John Sweeney's testimony and in direct contradiction to his claim of "heat of passion," the medical examiner testified that Dominique had been strangled for between four and six minutes.  More than enough time for Sweeney to regain himself and control.  And also plenty of time for him to look into her eyes as he killed her.

Yet despite this, Katz had determined there was not sufficient evidence to try John Sweeney for first degree murder.  My brain still boggles with this information.  If this wasn't first degree murder, what is?

The jury deliberated for eight days, returning with a verdict on September 21, 1983.  John Sweeney was acquitted of second-degree murder and found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a much lesser charge.  He was also convicted of misdemeanor assault for the September 26, 1982 attack on Dominique.  It mattered little to the Dunne family whose wounds were reopened with the verdict.

Adelson, ever the professional, was gleeful at the verdict.  In an act of supreme grossness, he even began calling for Sweeney to get probation.  Thankfully, Katz did not grant it but the damage had been done - - to his own character, to Dominique's loved ones and to justice.

Outrage extended beyond the Dunnes and the courtroom.  A victims' rights group called Victims for Victims, established by actress Theresa Saldano, protested the verdict by staging a march outside the courthouse.  Media outlets debated the outcome of the trial, directing harsh criticism toward Katz.

On November 7, 1983 John Sweeney was sentenced to the maximum - - a whopping six years in prison for murdering Dominique Dunne, plus an additional six months for the misdemeanor assault charge.  Unbelievably, during the sentencing Katz, in a mind altering act of back pedaling, criticized the jury for handing down a sentencing he basically gift wrapped for them, stating that Dominique's death was "a case, pure and simple, of murder. Murder with malice."  (Such a statement does make you wonder if that was the case, how he could have tossed first degree murder out in good conscience.)  The jury foreman would say that Katz' comment was a cheap shot and that if the jury had heard all the evidence (i.e., the evidence that Katz himself would not permit to be heard), they would have convicted Sweeney of murder. Not manslaughter, murder.  The foreman would also later say that the judge's instructions to the jury were incomprehensible.  Four times while deliberating the jury asked for clarification on the instructions and the judge would only say the answers to their questions were in the instructions.  At the time the jury was deadlocked.

Five minutes before handing down his sentence to Sweeney, Katz sentenced a man who had committed a nonviolent robbery at a flower shop to five years.

John Sweeney was sent to a medium security prison in California to serve out his joke of a sentence.  In September of 1986, after serving three years of his six year sentence, Sweeney was paroled.  Three months later he was hired as head chef at the upscale The Chronicle in Santa Monica.  Upon finding out where he was working, Dominique's brother Griffin and her mother Lenny handed out flyers to the restaurant's patrons that said simply "The food you will eat tonight was cooked by the hands that killed Dominique Dunne."  The flyers had the desired effect; Sweeney tired of the pressure and protests and quit, moving away from L.A.

In the mid-1990s, Dominick Dunne was contacted by a Florida doctor who, after reading Dunne's article on his daughter's murder in Vanity Fair, worried that his own daughter was engaged to Dominique's killer.  His name also was John Sweeney, he was also a chef and he was the same man who murdered Dominick's daughter.  Griffin Dunne would contact the woman to try and convince her to call off her engagement and get away from Sweeney; Sweeney accused the Dunnes of harassment and changed his name to John Maura.  It was rumored he relocated for a time to the Pacific Northwest before returning to California.  Most recently there are reports online that a John Patrick Maura lives in California and works for a retirement association.

Dominick Dunne hired private investigator Anthony Pellicano to have Sweeney/Maura followed for a time.  After he learned that the man had relocated to the Pacific Northwest he decided that he did not want to devote his life and energies to the man who killed his daughter.

You do not love me.  You are obsessed with me.
Dominique's letter to John Sweeney, 1982

And so life went on for the principal players, all except for Dominique.

After the virulent opinions on how he handled the Sweeney case and being voted the fourth worst judge to sit on the bench in Los Angeles, Burton S. Katz transferred to Juvenile Court in Sylmar.  He would write a book on the problems with the justice system as well as become a commentator and writer for MSNBC and Time Warner.  As of this date, he is retired from the bench but provides private arbitration and mediation services.

The two prosecutors and two defense attorneys continued on with their legal careers after the Dunne/Sweeney trial.

Detective Harold Johnston, the man who had had driven to Lenny's house to notify her that Dominique was at Cedars Sinai and near death and who had tracked down Sweeney's former girlfriend Lillian Pierce, a veteran law enforcement officer of over twenty-five years, told Dominick Dunne that he had fervently believed in the justice system his entire career . . . until Dominique's case.  That had caused him to lose faith in the system.

Dominique's older brother Griffin would carve out a successful career for himself in Hollywood, acting in television and film, before branching out into producing and directing.  He was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005 for his short film Duke of Groove.  His daughter Hannah, like her father and her aunt, is an actress.

Ellen "Lenny" Dunne founded Justice for Homicide Victims, a victims' rights organization.  Her work on behalf of victims' rights was honored by President George Bush at the White House in 1989.  She would fight a long battle with multiple sclerosis and would succumb to the disease on January 9, 1997 at her home in Arizona.  Justice for Homicide Victims remains active today.

Dominick Dunne would return to New York after the trial.  While in L.A. and attending the trial, he drove around town in his daughter's electric blue convertible VW bug.  He would later recall keeping a pair of her sunglasses in his pocket during the trial to give him strength.  Once the trial was over, he continued his writing career.  He wrote a heartbreaking piece for Vanity Fair, describing the emotional stranglehold his daughter's murder and resulting trial put on his family; he also wrote multiple bestselling novels, some based in part on what happened to Dominique, the 1975 Martha Moxley murder in Greenwich, Connecticut and the O.J. Simpson case in L.A.  Despite his many accomplishments before 1995, he would perhaps become best known to the general public for his constant presence by the sides of the Brown and Goldman families in the courtroom during the murder trial of O.J. Simpson.  He would write (sometimes scathing) observances on the trial and was never reticent about voicing his opinion on the guilt of Simpson or that the Brown and Goldman families were attending the last business of their loved one's life and should be in attendance daily (something the Goldmans appear to have taken very much to heart.)  He most of all knew what it felt like to watch a loved one's killer walk out of the courtroom a free man. He remained very much the investigative journalist until the end, which came on August 26, 2009 from bladder cancer.  He was 83.

The largest tragedy of this story and case is of course the death of Dominique Dunne.  Only twenty-two, she had her entire life ahead of her and it promised to be a golden one. Having only pursued an acting career for three years, and having gotten her first role three weeks after making the decision, Dominique's professional options seemed limitless.  John Sweeney robbed her and robbed the industry of her talent.  He robbed her family of their daughter and sister; in killing her, he killed future generations.

Almost as great a tragedy was the painful and blunt injustice to Dominique and her family. John Sweeney murdered her, he choked the life from her for at least four full minutes and he got the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist.  It is worth noting that it has not appeared in any form that Sweeney apologized to her family for killing Dominique or expressed remorse for doing so.  As the first officer on the scene recounted, his focus was on his screwing up again, not concern for his former girlfriend deprived of oxygen.  To this day, John Sweeney should still be in prison, paying for stealing the life from this lovely young girl instead of having been free for thirty years.  That's thirty years he's had that she hasn't.  He's been able to work, have other relationships, have family.  She hasn't.  There is no limit as to how grievous this is.

John Sweeney is responsible for Dominique's death but Burton S. Katz is responsible for Sweeney getting away with it.  Despite all of his criticisms aimed at the jury, he gave them the ability to find Sweeney guilty only of manslaughter.  It was Katz' decision to take first degree murder off the table.  It was Katz' decision to not allow Sweeney's ex-girlfriend Lillian Pierce testify.  It was Katz' decision to not allow Dominique's mother and friends -- all witnesses to Sweeney's violent behavior and the injuries Dominique suffered - - to testify.  Katz would been the densest person in that courtroom not to realize what effect his rulings would have.  It was an error that simply could not be overcome by the prosecution, who were desperately fighting on behalf of Dominique.  How Katz could have thought that Sweeney's prior history, his violent outbursts and explosions of temper against the women he claimed to love - - his M.O. of escalating control - - weren't relevant, I cannot fathom.  Sweeney was allowed to present his side of the relationship with Dominique; Dominique was no longer available to present her side.  But her family and friends could.  They knew that Dominique had not reconciled with Sweeney, nor did she plan to.  They knew his temper and they knew she had feared him in those last weeks of her life.  Someone close to her needed to speak for Dominique in that courtroom and Katz gagged every attempt for someone to do so.

When I think about Dominique and this case, I am sad for her.  She fell in love with the wrong person and paid for it with her life.  To say that's unfair is an understatement of epic proportions.  No amount of prison sentence could bring her back but the sentence John Sweeney was handed might as well have been a reward rather than a punishment.  I remember that it took six adult men to restrain Sweeney in the courtroom after his outburst.  Six men.  What chance did the petite Dominique have on her own against the burly Sweeney?

Dominique's funeral had been held on November 6, 1982 at The Good Shepherd Church in Beverly Hills.  A friend of hers would later say that it appeared as if a casting call had gone out, there were so many in attendance.  Not the media and not gawkers; all people that Dominique had touched who mourned her loss.  She was buried at Westwood Memorial Park, not far from the grave of family friend Natalie Wood, who had been placed to rest there a year earlier.  Six years after Dominique was laid to rest, her Poltergeist co-star Heather O'Rourke would also find Westwood as her final home.

Dominique's grave marker, with her name, the years of her birth and death, have the notations "Beloved Daughter and Sister" and "Loved By All."  An extremely fitting epitaph.

Dominique's grave, photo taken by me during a visit to Westwood Memorial Park

September 8, 2016

The Disappearance and Murder of Anne Marie Fahey

I am afraid because I am in love with a man who has a family. . . . I fantasize my life with him all the time. He is very gentle, intelligent, handsome and interesting. - Anne Marie Fahey Diary Entry, April 24, 1994

Our relationship is finished. . . . I know it is my problem and my fault. . . . I told him things that were hidden inside me. - Anne Marie Fahey Diary Entry, April 26, 1994

I have finally brought closure to Tom Capano. What a controlling, manipulative, insecure, jealous maniac. . . . For one whole year, I allowed someone to take control of every decision of my life. - Anne Marie Fahey Diary Entry, April 7, 1996

Anne Marie Fahey's disappearance from Wilmington, Delaware on the evening of June 27-28, 1996 did more than eventually destroy Tom Capano's reputation, career and take away his freedom; it crushed the innocence of the city itself.  Capano had been a mover and shaker in Wilmington; one of the people to be admired, awed of and envied.  His relationship with Anne Marie and his decision to murder her would cast a long and ugly light on him and the circles in which he moved.

It says a lot about Capano that he thought he could take Anne Marie out for dinner on the night of Thursday, June 27, 1996, kill her at some point after, that no one would recognize she was missing until at least Monday (as she had that Friday off from work) and that his account of events that evening would be taken and accepted without dissent.  This arrogance would carry over into his trial where it would be out in full force as he took the stand and testified; to say that the jury hated him would be an understatement.

That Anne Marie worked for Delaware Governor Tom Carper and her disappearance would get the attention of the media and other higher ups never seemed to occur to Capano; he must have been shocked when then President Bill Clinton had offered aid in the search for Anne Marie.  When the television cameras from Hard Copy arrived in town a day after a front page New York Times article on the disappearance was printed in early July, he must have been downright apoplectic.

Capano had met the outgoing and bubbly scheduling secretary for Governor Carper in the spring of 1994.  Both moved in similar political/professional circles and when they finally met, the attraction apparently was instant.  Ultimately it seemed not to matter that he was married with four daughters; he told Anne Marie that the marriage was over in all but name and she came to accept that she would be a mistress, a side girlfriend, if the relationship progressed any further than friendship.   This was new to her, a relationship with a married man but Capano was an old hand at the marital infidelity game.  He had cheated on his wife multiple times; at the time he met Anne Marie, he had a fifteen year affair going on with Deborah MacIntyre, the ex-wife of his former legal partner. MacIntyre was also a friend of his wife.  Yikes.

Anne Marie knew nothing about MacIntyre or Capano's previous dodgy behavior.  She fell in love.  Looking at pictures of Tom Capano it's hard to understand but reports say that he was charming, intelligent and self-assured.  That confidence would have been attractive to someone like Anne Marie, whose outgoing nature was a front for the self-esteem issues that crippled her to the point of anorexia and bulimia.  Capano's financial freedom and his generosity would also have been extremely attractive to a woman who had come from a working class household and who struggled financially her entire life.

For nearly two years it seems that Anne Marie Fahey conducted an on and off affair with Tom Capano.  She would vacation with him to Virginia; during the car ride she would make a list of their differences, a list that would be read with great sadness in the future.  Their similarities were slight . . . both came from large families and both appeared to be equally fascinated with Tom Capano.  When Anne Marie needed to repair her car windshield, it was Capano that gave her the money.  He treated her to fancy dinners, new clothing and handbags and even gave one of her friends pro bono legal advice on a new business.  At one point, she fantasized about Capano leaving his wife and marrying her.

It would never happen, of course.  Capano was a serial adulterer; MacIntyre, his longtime mistress, also expected that he would leave his wife for her.  Anne Marie was a lovely young woman, a challenge and someone he could control.  I think the control was the greatest attraction for him.

Anne Marie tried to break off from Capano but he knew too much about her.  He knew of her fears, he knew of her guilt over being involved in the affair.  He knew of her eating disorders; he knew that she saw a therapist and took Prozac.  All these things that made Anne Marie self-conscious, he did not hesitate to use any and all of them against her.    He would call her many, many times during the day; send her flowers and excessive emails, all in an attempt to wear her down and regain the upper hand.  He would tell her he needed her, that he was leaving his family for her.  He would demand that she return everything he had gifted her with.

She thought that even if their romantic relationship ended, they could remain friends.  She was kidding herself.  Maybe she knew it; maybe not.  She told a few people that she was afraid of Capano and his controlling nature; that she worried he would hurt her.  Yet when she fell ill because of her disorder it was Capano she called to pick her up from work and nurse her. She wanted to be rescued but Capano was anything but a knight in shining armor.

At Christmas of 1995, he had gifted her with an airline ticket to Spain.  She refused the gift.  This could have been part and parcel of their relationship history but something else had changed.  She had met someone.  Michael Scanlan was an executive, Anne Marie's age and single.  He treated her well and they had fun together. She fell in love with him and it seems that if he hadn't fallen in love with Anne Marie, he was getting there.  Tom Capano no longer had a place in her life.

I think this is why he killed her.  He couldn't control her any longer.  She was done with him before he was ready for her to be.  She told him no. It would take him seven months following Christmas but he would do it.

It's unknown why, after she had written the diary excerpt above, Anne Marie resumed contact with Capano.  Why didn't she simply walk away?  Why didn't she mention to Governor Carper that Capano was pushing her and making her uncomfortable?  Sure, it would have been embarrassing to admit to your boss that you were in a relationship with Capano but by that point, he and his wife had separated.  I do understand that she didn't want anyone thinking less of her for her relationship with Capano, especially her boss, her family and her boyfriend.  Anne Marie lived in fear that Capano would tell Michael Scanlan everything and it would destroy her relationship with him.

I think Anne Marie broke off the relationship with Capano once and for all the night of June 27.  Witnesses remembered later that the couple having dinner at the Panorama restaurant did not appear to be happy; things seemed to be tense.  Anne Marie barely touched her food, getting the majority of it in a "to go" container.  Their server would recall that there was none of the happy and/or light chatter that was normally exchanged over the dinner table.

Capano would later tell authorities that he took Anne Marie home after dinner, dropping her at her apartment around 10 p.m. and that was the last he saw of her.  I don't believe she ever returned home that evening; if she had, it's unlikely she would have left again to voluntarily accompany him to his home.  Not only that, but the obsessively neat and orderly Anne Marie would never have left her dress slung over a chair or food items on her kitchen counter.  I think he drove her to his home and perhaps cajoled her into staying, at least briefly.  It was a Thursday evening and apparently both enjoyed watching L.A. Law, then airing.  I think it's possible that he suggested Anne Marie get comfortable by taking off her dress, perhaps even gave her something casual to wear, while watching the program.  (I say this because when her dress was discovered in her apartment later there was no blood found on it.)  She may have agreed to watch the show with him in order to maintain some sense of peace; she may have demanded to be taken home.  It's unknown.  What is fairly certain is that at some point, Capano came up behind her as she sat on the sofa and shot her in the head just above her left ear.  Anne Marie, thankfully, probably never knew.

The cooler that held Anne Marie's body being brought into court
He put her body in a large Igloo ice cooler he had purchased a few days earlier; the kind of cooler that deep sea fishermen use for their catch.  She was tall, around five foot ten; he would be forced to break her legs in order to get her body inside and close the lid.  He chained the cooler and left it in the garage.    

It was then that he returned to Anne Marie's apartment to set the stage.  He placed the dress she had been wearing on a chair in her bedroom, along with her shoes.  He had bought her a pantsuit she had admired from Talbot's; the unopened box would be found in her bedroom several days later.  (The tissue paper was still wrapped around the garment with the seal unbroken.  I think Anne Marie had refused the gift that evening, something else that would have angered him.)  He put her handbag, with her wallet inside, on the kitchen counter, next to the takeout container from dinner.  He also left a grocery bag of fruit on the counter, something he had purchased for her earlier.  He turned her air conditioning unit on and then left, locking the front door behind him with her key.

The next day he would talk his youngest brother, the one he had helped repeatedly, the one with a boat, into helping him dispose of Anne Marie Fahey, throwing her into the Atlantic and a watery grave in which she would never be recovered.  It would be his brother's statements and testimony that would finally shed light on what exactly had happened to Anne Marie.

Capano would also discard his sofa and a rug underneath, ostensibly because of bloodstains.  He would clean up his living room but not quite to perfection; a small drop of blood would later be found on the baseboard and be determined to be Anne Marie's.

Later authorities would connect a new rug purchase to the day after Anne Marie was last seen and the ice chest, which would be recovered.  Both were linked to Capano.  It was discovered that Capano told MacIntyre that he was being harassed and worried for his safety; she would purchase the gun that he would use to murder Anne Marie.  Eventually she too would turn against Capano and testify against him.

Before Capano's trial began in October of 1998, excerpts from Anne Marie's diary were printed in the local paper and shared with the media.  If she had known, the painfully private Anne Marie would have been mortified.  Sadly, some of the entries, taken out of context, presented Anne Marie as the "head case" Capano insisted she was, detailing her therapy, her Prozac use and her dysfunctional relationship with food.  She wasn't without her flaws and troubled behavior but she was a victim.  No matter what she did, Anne Marie Fahey did not deserve to be killed.

Capano's defense would claim that MacIntyre had killed Anne Marie accidentally as she and Capano had struggled with the gun, resulting in the gun firing and striking Anne Marie.  The jury, after listening the evidence over twelve weeks, didn't buy it and despite not having a body nor even an absolute cause of death, they found him guilty of first-degree murder.   Capano himself might have done more to insure his conviction than the testimony of MacIntyre and his brother combined.  Neither were particularly likable or sympathetic witnesses.

In January of  1999, he was sentenced to death by lethal injection.  An appeal followed and while the Supreme Court reaffirmed his conviction, his sentencing was remanded due to the penalty being a non-unanimous jury verdict.  The state elected not to go after capital punishment again, giving Capano a gift he refused Anne Marie; he was sentenced to life in prison.

Unlike some inmates, Capano did indeed serve life; he was found dead in his cell on September 19, 2011 during a routine check.  The medical examiner determined that he had died of cardiac arrest due to cardiovascular disease and obesity.  The sleek and suave Tom Capano that charmed Anne Marie Fahey was dead and gone.

As is the case with so many of these stories, I am left wondering why.  Why did Anne Marie Fahey continue the cat and mouse game with Capano?  Why couldn't she seem to let it go?  Why couldn't he?  Not that it matters but Capano hardly lacked for female companionship; at the time he killed Anne Marie he was grooming another mistress (in addition to MacIntyre) and had even gone out to dinner with a former employee, a woman he had had a brief fling with years earlier, trying to woo her back.  Clearly Anne Marie meant little to him; so why not let her go and do her thing?

I think it all boils down to control.  Tom Capano had controlled Anne Marie for more than two years.  He had been able to control her moods, her plans, her entire life with a phone call, email or snap of his fingers.  He liked it.  He didn't want to lose that and certainly not because she decided to end it.  She may have been relieved to have someone control her, in the beginning.  Most sufferers of an eating disorder fear the loss of control; having Capano control her would have alleviated some of that burden.  At least at first.  But eventually she would tire of his neverending need for control and his inability to focus on anyone but himself.  When Anne Marie Fahey said no to him, I think Tom Capano was filled with fear.  Her refusal caused him to question everything he knew about himself, to put a crack in the self-esteem and the narcissistic mirror he looked into daily.  He couldn't have that.  He needed to be in control; he needed those feelings of power back, no matter what it took.  It took killing Anne Marie to get them back.

 I also think he had no desire to "lose" to Michael Scanlan. Capano had been entitled and catered to nearly his entire life; he was his mother's favorite child, the one who could do no wrong, the one who set the bar for his brothers to emulate and follow.  He didn't lose.  Some little secretary was not going to throw one over on Tom Capano.

This is exactly what happened, in my opinion, with the Simpson case.  O.J. Simpson had controlled Nicole Brown from the time he met her, two or three months after she graduated from high school and turned eighteen.  Her entire adult life had consisted of and been controlled by O.J. Simpson, until June of 1994.  Once she had cut the controlling ties, the only way Simpson could possibly control her was by killing her.  Also like Simpson, Capano would present himself to be the victim in the case, aiming to create and receive more sympathy than the actual dead, the woman he claimed to love so much but who he gave little more than passing thoughts to.  Like Simpson, he may have blamed his victim for her death; she made him do it.  Simpson and Capano, two narcissistic, murdering peas in a pod.

I've also thought about why Capano used MacIntyre to get a gun for him.  With his connections and those his brothers had, he surely could have gotten a gun on the down low and then gotten rid of it once it served its purpose, never to be connected to him.  So why bring in MacIntyre?  I think it was his "out" plan for her.  He believed that he had distanced himself from Anne Marie's death; there was no body, he believed no blood in his home and her apartment had no signs of struggle or a crime.  Anne Marie had simply vanished.  I think his thought was that if anything surfaced, he could blame MacIntyre.  He could suggest that perhaps she had found out about Anne Marie and with her crazy jealousy . . . She did own a gun, after all, registered in her name.  MacIntyre was expendable.  It was his Hail Mary.  What he didn't know, of course, was that Anne Marie had written about him in her diary, that she had spoken to her hair stylist about their affair and her fears, that a small drop of her blood was in his living room and that he had overstaged her apartment, leaving it in a way she never would.  He had also overestimated his brother, believing that he would not crumble once the cops raided his home.  He was wrong.

Prior to that summer of 1996, Tom Capano had been the "good" Capano. Two of his brothers had had serious run-ins with the law; one for bribery and kickbacks (and prison time was avoided by his cooperating with the FBI) and one for kidnapping and rape, which resulted in incarceration.  His youngest brother, the one who had helped him get rid of Anne Marie's body and who had testified against him in his trial, was known to run with a questionable crowd, drug dealers and users.  The youngest Capano seemed to live on the edge, with an insatiable need for excitement and thrills.  Tom Capano certainly provided him with that on Friday, June 28, 1996.  He would later say that he would never be able to get the image of a human calf and foot disappearing into the ocean.

Capano destroyed his career and brought shame to his ex-wife, his daughters, his mother and his law firm.  He effectively made his children fatherless.  Worse, far worse, he killed Anne Marie Fahey, the woman who had fallen in love with him at one point and within two years, was calling him a controlling, manipulative maniac.  In Anne Marie's diary, she only referred to Capano by his actual name once and that was in her last entry, the one from April 7, 1996, where she wrote that she had finally brought closure to him.  She wrote this less than three months before he would murder her.

The pain Anne Marie's family and friends felt and feel to this day is a special agony known only to those with missing loved ones.  By his violent and selfish actions, Capano allowed the Faheys to be kept in the dark for weeks while knowing that was dead and never coming home. He denied them the closure of having Anne Marie's remains and giving their sister a proper burial.  They know she is dead and gone - - they probably knew it the moment they saw her apartment and realized she had not been heard from for three days - - but they were never able to say goodbye to her.  They did memorialize Anne Marie and her life with a bench and plaque in a park that she liked to visit.  Dedicated in 1997, it's still there today.

A memorial for Anne Marie in Brandywine Park, Wilmington

August 31, 2016

The Death of Rising Star Dorothy Stratten

Vancouver native Dorothy Stratten very nearly had it all - - small town girl makes good in Hollywood - - living the dream before her estranged husband took it all away.

Dorothy was discovered at the age of eighteen by Playboy, who had received nude photos of the beauty sent by her then-boyfriend Paul Snider.  Snider had found the blonde Dorothy working at a Dairy Queen and, always looking for an angle, the former pimp decided her star potential would allow him to ride her coattails to success.

Playboy liked what it saw and Dorothy headed to L.A., with Snider following her a month or so later.  By August of 1979, she was Playmate of the Month, two months after marrying Snider in a quickie Las Vegas ceremony.  While Dorothy's motivation seemed to be obligation and a sense of gratitude for her "manager," Snider's intent was to keep her from slipping away from him.  Her friends and those acquaintances connected with Playboy were none too happy that she had married the slimy Snider, who began driving around town in a Mercedes with vanity plates - - STAR80- - to indicate where he felt he and his wife were going.

Dorothy and Snider
Dorothy worked as a Bunny at the Playboy Club and acting seemed a natural transition for her.  Hefner believed she could be one of the then few who could move from Playmate to actress.  She got roles, albeit small ones, in tv shows like Fantasy Island and Buck Rogers and the 25th Century and her first film role as a skater in Skatetown, U.S.A.  All of these roles showcased her girl-next-door type of beauty but did little to demonstrate any talent.   Her first starring role was as and in Galaxina, a science fiction parody, released in 1980.    

Her career was gaining momentum but the more success she seemed to gain professionally, the more stress her marriage was put under.  Snider was jealous, not just of Dorothy potentially looking at other men but of her career.  He had wanted to make her a star but now that she was solidly on the way, he began turning on her.

Hugh Hefner encouraged her to leave Snider, calling him a hustler and a pimp but Dorothy felt responsible for her husband and refused.  Friends began to warn her about Snider and his increasingly unstable behavior but again, Dorothy felt responsible.

Dorothy and Bogdanovich
In January 1980, Dorothy received the holy grail of Playboy stardom - - she was crowned the 1980 Playmate of the Year.  She also landed a small role that could have turned the tables completely for her, a mainstream part in the studio film They All Laughed, alongside Audrey Hepburn and Ben Gazarra.    Leaving to shoot in New York must have been a wonderful reprieve for Dorothy; director Peter Bogdanovich kept a tight set and Snider was not allowed to be present.  This breather allowed Dorothy to think about her future . . . and fall in love with Bogdanovich,

Snider, always teeming with jealousy, must have known the end was near when Dorothy left to shoot the movie.  There was no doubt in his mind when he hired a private investigator who gave him details of the director and his star's relationship on set that spring of 1980.

Dorothy told her husband she was leaving him.  Snider had always had other women on the side and in fact was living with one by the time Dorothy was filming in New York but such hypocrisy mattered little to him; he wanted Dorothy if for no other reason than so no one else could have her.

Once filming on They All Laughed wrapped, Dorothy returned to L.A. with Bogdanovich and moved into his home.  Bogdanovich was head over heels for her and believed they had a future together, especially once her divorce from Snider was final.

Snider asked his estranged wife to meet him at their former marital home on August 14, 1980.  Against Bogdanovich's concern and wishes, she went.  She thought she and Snider were going to work out details of their split; she didn't know that Snider had acquired a Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun.

Shortly after noon, Dorothy arrived at the residence with $1,000 to give Snider in hopes of an amicable divorce.

The house where Dorothy died; a news crew is by her car
At 11 p.m., Snider's private investigator called the owner of the home and Snider's current roommate on his private line to say that he had been attempting to reach Snider for hours without luck.  The roommate noted that there was nothing but silence coming from Snider's room; he knocked and called himself without answer before breaking in and discovering the gruesome sight of two dead bodies.

Both had died of shotgun blasts.  Police theorized that at some point that afternoon Snider had raped his wife before shooting her in the face; Dorothy had held her hand up in front of her as evidenced by a wound to her finger.  After that, based on bloody hand prints found on her, it seems likely that he violated her body on a bondage machine he designed and built before turning the gun on himself.

The tragedy shocked and saddened Hollywood.  Dorothy was known to be a sweet and somewhat naive girl; that she could have met such a brutal end and at the hands of a man she had supported and defended was doubly tragic.  Surprisingly, the media did not make mincemeat of her, instead going after Snider and the bitchy industry itself.  Quite a change from the Cielo Drive victim blaming of a decade earlier, where Sharon Tate's slaughter was laid down at her own doorstep.

Peter Bogdanovich, particularly grief stricken, claimed himself to be a widower and doubting that he would ever find such love again.  (He did; he married Dorothy's younger sister Louise in 1988 when she was 20 and he was 50. They would divorce after 13 years of marriage.)   He also went bankrupt in order to finish They All Laughed, which tanked at the box office and wrote a beautiful tome to Dorothy titled The Killing of the Unicorn.  

Two movies were made about Dorothy's life and death; the first with Jamie Lee Curtis and the second, and better known, with Mariel Hemingway and a frightening Eric Roberts as Snider.  The second was very aptly titled Star 80.  Star 80 had scenes filmed at the actual property Dorothy and Snider lived and died at - - even the murder/suicide scenes were shot in the very room that Dorothy was killed.  Bogdanovich dismissed Star 80 as "shit," although he admitted that he had never met Snider.

Why did Snider do it?  Jealousy was a part, although he himself was living with a blonde teenager that he hoped to turn into another Dorothy Stratten.  I don't think it was jealousy based on love he may or may not have had for her; I think it was jealousy based on Dorothy being his property.  In his mind, he had found and made Dorothy.  Based on that alone, he earned the right to be a star himself, he deserved it.  Nobody, and that included Dorothy, was going to take that away from him.

More importantly though, I think fear motivated Paul Snider.  Fear of losing Dorothy.  Fear of losing his golden ticket, his entry into the entertainment world where everybody was somebody.  Paul Snider knew he was nobody without Dorothy Stratten.  Without her, he would be exposed for the fraud and fake he was.  A failed pimp.  A failed nightclub promoter. A failed husband, whose gorgeous young wife had left their marriage for a man twice her age.  He couldn't return to Vancouver having come so close to the top.

I think once he decided to murder Dorothy he elected to do it in a way that would kill her beauty too.  He would destroy that which had initially attracted him, which had opened doors for her.  Why else would he choose a shotgun?  Why else would he aim it at her face and pull the trigger?  I think he felt power by doing so, I think he probably liked seeing the fear in Dorothy's eyes and knowing that he would be the last thing she ever saw on this earth.

I think he was punishing everyone else as well.  Hollywood and the rest of the world had effectively dropped him.  He would show them.  He would take what they loved most, this thing of beauty, and absolutely destroy it.  

Dorothy's story is especially sad as she felt she knew the man who would ultimately kill her. This man who at one time praised her beauty, gave assurances of love had intentionally pointed a gun at her face and pulled the trigger.  Her friends saw the signs; they noticed Snider's eroding behavior.  How had she not seen it?  Was it her youth?  Did she only see what she wanted to?  Was she so naive that she believed in the general good of everyone?

When I think about this case, my mind races with "what if"s.  What if Dorothy had listened to her friends?  What if she had listened to Hugh Hefner?  What if she had listened to Peter Bogdanovich?  What if she had met Snider in a public place or taken a friend?  What if she had never married Snider?  What if Snider had not come into the Dairy Queen in Vancouver on that particular day?  There are so many "what if"s, my brain hurts with them.

This case too reminds me of one that would follow nearly fourteen years later, also in Los Angeles, when O.J. Simpson would decide that his ex-wife should not live and butcher her, along with the innocent Ron Goldman.  I think the emotions were similar - - jealousy and fear.  Simpson was notoriously jealous of any attention being paid to his ex-wife and I think he was fearful that Nicole had moved on from him, once and for all.  Like Snider, if he couldn't have her, no one could.  The difference, of course, is that Simpson was a far greater narcissist than Snider could ever hope to be and played the murders into himself being victimized and persecuted by the corrupt LAPD.  Snider at least saved us all that.

It's been thirty-six years since Dorothy was brutally taken from this life.  Had she been allowed to live, she would be fifty-six years old.  What she might have become, who she might have become, we will never know.  She was in Hollywood only two years, from 1978 until 1980, and yet had managed
to accomplish more in that short period than many artists do in their career lifetimes.  More importantly, she did not allow the seamy underside of the business to change her.  She was still the sweet, kind girl from Canada who wrote poetry.

Dorothy was buried in Westwood Memorial Park, the same location where Natalie Wood would be forever placed to rest a year later.

Paul Snider's body was returned to Canada, where he was laid to rest.  Since he and Dorothy both died without wills, he as her legal husband inherited her estate upon her death which was then reverted to his family upon his death.

August 25, 2016

The Halloween Murder of Ramon Novarro

It was Wednesday, October 30, 1968.  In Los Angeles the temperature had peaked around 75 degrees - - a wonderful autumn day - - dropping to 59 degrees once the sun set.  The American Basketball Association, famous for Dr. J and the L.A. Stars, were in town for a brief stop.  "Hey Jude" by the Beatles sat atop the records charts and dominated the radio airwaves while Airport by Arthur Hailey was the current New York Times fiction bestseller.

At 3110 Laurel Canyon Drive was a Spanish Colonial designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Nestled in the Hollywood Hills, it had been owned since 1927 by former stage, screen and television star Ramon Novarro.  Novarro was now 69 and frail, many days away from his life as a sex symbol of MGM following in Rudolph Valentino's vaulted footsteps after the infamous Valentino had died unexpectedly.  Despite being retired from acting for many years, Novarro had made wise real estate investments with his movie earnings and this allowed him to live very comfortably.

Navarro with the great Garbo
That evening Novarro, in a red and blue robe, welcomed brothers Paul and Tom Ferguson into his home.  The brothers Ferguson had gotten Novarro's phone number from a previous guest; both hustlers, they knew that Novarro was known to use agencies for sexual escorts.

Novarro, ever the gentleman and always gracious, served beverages - - liquor - - and read older brother Paul's palm, ironically predicting a bright future.  He played his piano, sharing with the brothers a tune he had composed and wrote.  He showed them promotional photos of himself as a young and virile MGM star.  It's likely that the former actor engaged in sexual activity with the older brother and then at some point the elder Ferguson demanded that Novarro hand over the $5,000 he was rumored to keep hidden in his home.

The young and beautiful Novarro
Novarro truthfully stated there was no such amount in his home; he never kept such large sums at his residence.  Tom Ferguson, having been speaking to a Chicago girl from Novarro's phone, joined his older brother in jostling, shaking and shoving the older man.  When that didn't net them the anticipated sum of cash, they began to pummel him violently; to keep him from losing consciousness, they dragged him into the bathroom where he was splashed with cold water.  One of the brothers, upon finding a cane, twirled it around and danced with it as their victim was tortured and bleeding.  While the Catholic Novarro began praying "Hail Mary, full of grace," the brothers bound him with an electrical cord and took turns striking him in the head and genitals with the cane.  Tom Ferguson, while carrying the bludgeoned and dying Novarro to his bed, scratched the older man's face in anger.  The two left the man to choke to death on his own blood.

The murderers decided to ransack the house, dumping Novarro's professional stills and photos on the floor, attempting to create a scene of a burglary gone wrong.  Complicating the matters, they also thought it would help matters to make the crime seem as though a vengeful woman had committed it, and so wrote on the bathroom mirror "Us girls are better than fagits (sic)."  They left the house with the cash they had netted from their torture and murder - - $20, taken from the pocket of Novarro's robe.

Novarro with a young Joan Crawford
While the Fergusons were caught and convicted quickly, it was Ramon Novarro who was put on trial.  The soft spoken and gentle star, who had for years struggled with the inner conflict of being Catholic and homosexual, who had stood up to Louis B. Meyer and refused a "lavender" marriage, and who had for years kept this part of his life from the world, now had his private affairs become posthumous fodder for gossips and entertainment hacks.  His killers' criminal trial saw him labeled "an old queer" by the defense attorney, the person defending two killers who were themselves homosexual hustlers, as if Novarro was less than human and somehow deserved or brought on what happened to him.

The Fergusons were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison after each brother testified that it was the other that had killed their innocent victim.  The judge presiding over their criminal trial stated they should never be released; they both were.  The younger Tom was released after only six years; the elder Paul was out in nine years.

Nine years total for the brutal murder of a defenseless man.  It boggles the mind.  I believe the brothers were paroled for one reason only - - homophobia.  Novarro and his lifestyle were made out to be the guilty party.   If you solicit gay sex, look what happens.  It's a sad injustice, most especially for Ramon Novarro.

The Hollywood Hills home where Novarro died
Once the Fergusons were released, both quickly reoffended over the years,both separately committed rape.  Shocker.  In 1998 Paul Ferguson assumed the blame for Novarro's death; he claimed that neither he nor Tom went to the star's home to rob him and the murder happened out of a homosexual panic.  This, despite the fact that both brothers knew about the supposed cash stash and Paul at least had turned gay tricks for cash before.  In 2012, he would claim that he had come to peace with what happened to Novarro and stated that Novarro would not have died if he had not been so drunk.  Victim blaming at its finest and more than 40 years after his death, still putting Ramon Novarro on trial.  For the record, Paul Ferguson is currently serving a 60 year sentence for a rape and sodomy charge; not the rape and/or sodomy is not a grievous crime but telling that his current sentence is much longer than that sentence he served for beating to death Ramon Novarro.

In 2005, Tom Ferguson committed suicide at a Motel 6 by slitting his own throat.  He left no note nor commented on his part in the murder.

Ramon Novarro, toward the end of his life
Ramon Novarro's name would come up occasionally through the years, most notably when Kenneth Anger published one of his Hollywood Babylon books and claimed that Novarro had in his possession a black dildo made to the specifications of Rudolph Valentino's genitalia.  In 2012, Scotty Bowers released his juicy autobiography titled Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars and described gruesome details of Novarro's last moments, including the claim that he had been suffocated with a lead dildo given to him by Valentino.  However, I tend to side with writer William van Meter, who says the dildo is an urban legend that has been repeated often but with no proof.  Surely if such an item existed and was used in the assault, the ever resourceful Paul Ferguson would have mentioned it as yet another piece of evidentiary proof that Novarro brought his death on himself.

The October 30, 1968 homicide was a sad end to the life of a man often described as giving, kind, gentle and unassuming.  A man who not only managed to make a success for himself in silent films but rather easily transitioned into "talkies," a feat that was accomplished by very few, to become our first Latin American star.  It's tragic that his personal life was put on trial and that he is more recalled today for his gruesome end and an urban legend than for the happiness he provided many silent film and Depression-era audiences.

Ramon Novarro should be remembered as a kind, gentle soul who after achieving film success supported his large and extended Mexican family; a devout Catholic who more than once considered the priesthood or monastery, so ardent was his religious devotion; a well liked professional of whom nobody appeared to have anything bad to say; a talented actor who also had a glorious singing voice and a talent for dance; and, as his gravestone memorializes for all time, a beloved brother.


Photo taken in September 2015 during my visit to Calvary Cemetery in L.A.

August 24, 2016

The Infamous 27 Club - Inception through the 1960s

The 27 Club:  a group or club of musicians/artists who died at age 27, often the result of drugs, alcohol or violent means.

Circa 1935; orig pub at
Robert Johnson.  The founding member of this notorious club is called the father of modern blues and the resulting rock and roll.   His unexplained death has become the stuff of legends, due to poison, womanizing and/or a deal with the devil, depending on who you ask.  Robert Johnson created his own songs, mixing his incredible guitar skills with blues of the existing lexicon of the day, turning out music that is still fresh, inspiring and groundbreaking to this day.  His skill and creativity was inexplicably high which led to the rumors both during his lifetime and after his death that he had made a deal with the devil for his amazing ability.  Some of his songs played into this myth, with Johnson singing about hellhounds, a crossroads and burying his body by the side of the road.  Truth or not, or whether he was incredibly media savvy long before others were, he was a gifted musician with a taste for the ladies and a taste for liquor.  His recordings were made only during the last two years of his lifetime, in 1936 and 1937 in San Antonio and Dallas; before then he was often playing on street corners, juke joints and Saturday night dances.  These recordings would change musical history although Johnson himself would never know as he experienced little success or public recognition during his lifetime.

In August of 1938, Johnson had been performing at a dance hall outside of Greenwood, Mississippi.  He was reported to have been flirting with a married woman or women and as he had been in the area for several weeks, his dalliances became well known and to the wrong people.  Some sources theorize that he was given poisoned hooch by an angry man or jilted woman but if the drink was laced with the suspected strychnine it seems that Johnson would have fallen and died sooner.  Not only that but strychnine has a very distinct odor and taste which would make it difficult to ingest unknowingly.  Whatever the means, on August 16, 1938 after three days of suffering, Robert Johnson died of unspecified causes on a plantation outside of town.  The investigation at the time noted that the plantation owner, while not knowing Johnson, opined that Johnson had died of syphilis.

The enigma of Johnson's life and death surround him to this day.  To add to the mystery, the location of Johnson's grave is unknown, with three different markers erected at cemeteries in Mississippi.  In all likelihood, he was given a pauper's grave and buried on or close to the land in which he died.

Jesse Belvin.   While Jesse Belvin's name is not well remembered today, his 1950s melodies of "Earth Angel" and "Goodnight, My Love" certainly are.   Like Robert Johnson, Belvin was a songwriter and singer but rather than strumming the guitar, he tickled the ivories of a piano.  Given the nickname "Mr. Easy," RCA began to mold him to rival Nat King Cole and be a crossover star to white audiences.

On February 6, 1960, following a performance in Little Rock, Arkansas with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Marv Johnson, Belvin and his wife were killed in a head-on collision.  As this concert was the first integrated one in Little Rock's history, tensions had been high.  Belvin received death threats prior to the concert; during the show itself racial epithets had been shouted by whites, leading to interruptions of the concert.  These things had led to speculation that his 1959 Cadillac had been tampered with.  The true cause of the accident was the hired driver falling asleep at the wheel - - something he had recently been fired for by another musical act.  Jesse Belvin's death was a sad and tragic accident, cutting short a talented life.

Rudy Lewis.  Rudy Lewis started his career as a gospel singer before joining The Drifters in 1960 to replace Ben E. King as lead vocalist.  What should have been an incredibly good break, following King proved to be unfortunate for Lewis; King had redefined the group's sound, got the recognition for it and Lewis was never allowed to eclipse that despite singing most of King's repertory in concert.  Lewis was blessed with a rich, passionate voice that made The Drifters' songs vivid and undeniably sensuous.  

Sadly, his place with the group was cut tragically short on the night/morning of May 20-21, 1964.  The group was set to record "Under the Boardwalk," written specifically for Lewis, on May 21 but Lewis did not show.  A check to his Harlem hotel room found him dead in bed.  Strangely, an autopsy was never performed and the authorities ruled his death a probable drug overdose.   Acquaintances would say that Lewis was a binge eater and may have choked to death in his sleep,  His own family and friends believe he died from a combination drug overdose, asphyxiation and heart attack.  Johnny Moore would sing "Under the Boardwalk" in Rudy Lewis' stead and remain with The Drifters for the duration of their career.  The Drifters would record "I Don't Want to Go On Without You" in tribute to Lewis.

Malcolm Hale.  Malcolm Hale, of Spanky and Our Gang had one of the briefest musical careers and yet his death put paid to the band's life span.  Not much appears to be published on his early life, other than being born in Butte, Montana but Hale, along with Spanky McFarlane, was a founding member of the folksy band in 1967.  Officially their lead guitarist, the talented Hale also wrote songs, did some vocal harmonies and played the trombone, horns and keyboards.  The group's first album was released in August of 1967 and scored two hits -- "Lazy Day" and "Sunday Will Never Be the Same."   The spring of 1968 birthed their sophomore effort and this second LP contained big hits "Sunday Morning" and "Like To Get To Know You."  

The summer of 1968 saw the release of a single that would create much controversy, both publicly and within the band - -"Give a Damn."  Many radio stations would not play the single due to the word "damn" being used but the major sore spot was the basis of the song, which was about racial equality, complete with the use of an angry African-American's voice at the end.  The song did manage to become a minor hit, even without popular play; Spanky and Our Gang performed it live on The Smothers Brothers tv show, drawing ire and complaint from President Nixon, among others.

On October 30, 1968, while suffering from a terrible case of bronchitis, Malcolm Hale died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Chicago, due to a faulty space heater in a poorly ventilated bedroom.  With his unexpected death, it was discovered that he was the guiding force and glue holding the band together; without him, it quickly disintegrated, leaving only two albums in Spanky and Our Gang's library.  While Hale is not a well known musician today, his contributions and Spanky and Our Gang's music lives on.

Dickie Pride.   Dickie Pride has the questionable distinction of being the first British rock star to die of a drug overdose.   He began his career singing toward a possible opera career before joining a skiffle group known as The Semi-Tones.  At the age of seventeen he was heard by Russ Conway, who had him signed with Larry Parnes.  Parnes changed his name from Richard Kneller to Dickie Pride and he was soon signed by Columbia Records, who would dub him "The Sheik of Shake" thanks to the way he moved as he sang.  Still only 17, Pride began performing on stage all over England, collecting universal praise.  Not only did he have a splendid voice but he was a natural performer on stage; British TV soon followed.

Despite these successes however, Pride's behavior began to become erratic.  Other singers were fearful of his personality, which apparently could flip on a dime.  He would fight on a moment's notice and began drinking and smoking dope.  It wasn't uncommon for a drunk or stoned Pride to jump into an audience and began beating a heckler, just as it wasn't uncommon for a sober Pride to be kind and friendly.  By 1961, the year he turned twenty, he career seemed to be all but over.  He attempted to record an album of standards for Columbia but the label dropped him, to be followed by Parnes.  He married in 1962; tried to start a band in 1963, without success; and became the father to a son in 1965.  That same year he began performing with a band called The Sidewinders.  Despite this upturn, addiction had reared its ugly head and Pride began using heroin.  At the time he tried to get off the drug, there were only some 600 registered addicts in the entire country so it's safe to say that not much was known about heroin addiction and how to kick it.  The drug addiction, coupled with depression and his marital breakup, led to him being committed to a mental hospital in 1967 and given a lobotomy.  Despite the barbaric procedure, his family and friends claim that the procedure allowed him to return to his normal self for the next year.

On March 26, 1969, Dickie Pride would take heroin for the last time.  Upon arriving home from the jazz club where he had scored his hit, he took his prescribed dose of methadone, went to sleep, woke during the night to take sleeping pills to go back to sleep and never woke again, overdosing on the combination.  After his death, many of Pride's fellow artists came forward to say that he was the most talented of all of them and should have been a major star with a huge career if only fate hadn't been so unkind to him.      

Photo: Daily Mail
Brian Jones.  One of the most infamous members of The 27 Club, thanks to his unusual death happening within a month of cutting ties with The Rolling Stones, who were hitting their peak of success,  Brian Jones was the founder and original leader of the iconic British rock group and specialized in playing the guitar, harmonica and keyboards.  Eventually being overshadowed by the powerful duo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Jones' drug addiction led him to become difficult and cruel at times. The increase of his drug consumption, combined with his girlfriend leaving him for Richards, led to sporadic musical contributions and a boredom with playing guitar.  After two drug arrests led to problems with Jones' visa, making it impossible for him to tour in North America with the group in the fall of 1969, he was fired although the band let him publicly say that he left of his own accord.

A month later, on the evening of July 2-3, 1969 Jones was found in the bottom of his pool, not moving.  Although his girlfriend would state he was still alive when pulled out, by the time doctors arrived it was too late.  The coroner ruled it "death by misadventure," noting his liver and heart were greatly enlarged from drug abuse.  Jones' body was embalmed, his hair bleached white and he was placed in an air-tight metal casket before allegedly being buried 10 feet deep to discourage trophy hunters.  Of his former bandmates only Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman attended his funeral.   It wasn't long after his death before theories on murder began surrounding Jones' end.  Despite the sensationalism of the claims and a 2009 reinvestigation by Sussex police, it appears that the initial ruling was correct and Jones likely died accidentally after tumbling in the pool while stoned/high/intoxicated.

Alexandra. Alexandra was the stage name of a German singer who was born Doris Treitz.  Her mother supported artistic endeavors and before she turned to singing, Alexandra studied to be a fashion designer and actress.  At 19 she fell in love with  the man who rented a room from her mother; the man was 49, Russian and stopping in Germany on his way to emigrate to the U.S.  Despite this, they married and had a son.  The marriage did not last long, with Alexandra's husband continuing to the States and a divorce resulted.

Feeling that her legal name of Doris Nefedov would not be helpful in a career, she took "Alexandra" in honor of her son, Alexander.  Alexandra began wooing Germany audiences with her melancholy voice and style and released her first hit single in 1967.  Several more followed but none became huge hits, in part according to her producer because they were ahead of their time.  Alexandra recorded songs not only in her native German but also French, English, Russian and Hebrew.  In the spring of 1969 she was awarded the Golden Europa award for best newcomer; shortly after she took a holiday in Davos and met a man named Pierre Lafaire.  Their affair was quick and intense, with Alexandra saying they intended to marry.  Her sisters opposed, suspecting fraud and caused the pair to break up.  Alexandra began receiving phone calls after the break-up that led her to sleep in the same room with her son, fearing he might be abducted.  She also decided to write her will, bequeathing everything to her mother and son.  

On July 31, 1969, she traveled to Hamburg to negotiate with her record company and then head out to a holiday on the German island of Sylt.  Alexandra was driving her fairly new Mercedes-Benz with her mother and Alexander in the car with her.  The car had been checked at a service center and yet she still failed to brake at a crossing, colliding with a truck.  Alexandra was killed instantly; her mother survived the accident but died in the hospital.  Alexander survived with minor injuries.  Rumor had it that the car might have been sabotaged.   As an interesting footnote, movie director Marc Boettcher wrote a biography on Alexandra in 1999 and says he received several anonymous threats while researching the circumstances of her death.  In 2004, he pushed for a new investigation into her death based on his research and claiming that state security documents revealed that Alexandra's former lover Pierre Lafaire had been an American secret agent in Denmark  To date, no further investigation has been ordered and no charges have been filed.