Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Coming Home to Murder

by Holly West

A murderous timeline
During the summer of 1984, three teenage girls were murdered in my hometown. I turned sixteen that June, eight days after the first girl, a fourteen-year-old who was part of a set of identical triplets, disappeared from the downtown area. The second girl, aged eighteen, disappeared from the same area seventeen days after the first. Their skeletal remains were found in a remote area of the county the following month, within a couple miles of each other.

Four days later, the identical triplet sister of the first missing girl disappeared. Her skeletal remains were found that fall. Though it's impossible to say whether the third triplet was at risk, she was living out of the area at the time, which might've been the only thing that saved her. That, and the fact that a suspect was arrested in November 1984. He was subsequently convicted of committing all three murders and now sits on death row at San Quentin.

All this might be a bit confusing, but I'm not going into further detail because I'm in the process of writing a detailed narrative of the events leading up to the murders, the murders themselves, and the aftermath. But I need to acknowledge my friend Maria Alexander, who wrote a blog post about the murders a couple of years ago. Her memory is far better than mine, because until I read her post, I didn't remember the girls or the murders. You can learn a bit more about the murders from her post if you're interested.

The story is horrifying, tragic, and complicated. I've spent the last two weeks combing through news reports, piecing together what happened and trying to make sense of something that ultimately makes no sense. The district attorney who prosecuted the case seemed to have the same problem--though the suspect knew all three girls, there seemed to be no obvious motive. The DA ultimately came up with one, which was basically that the defendant had taken what we now call slut-shaming to its extreme by executing three girls he'd judged as being "sluts, tramps, and whores."

I don't buy that motive one hundred percent, but the DA centered his case around it and it resulted in the conviction of a man who almost certainly would've gone on to commit more murders. I'll take it.

My own amateur investigation of these killings has taken a personal turn I never expected. Many of you know I moved back to my hometown two and a half years ago after living for nearly thirty years in Los Angeles. While the move has resulted in many wonderful changes in my life, I've struggled with aspects of it: It's much more politically conservative here than I'm comfortable with, I miss friends and colleagues in Los Angeles, hell--I miss people in general since this area is far more isolated than anywhere I ever lived while I was in LA, and I miss the diversity. When I left the city, I lost a big part of my identity, and creating a new one in this new-but-old place has been difficult. Plus, I might've been connected to people in my hometown, but I was never connected to the place.

Somehow, delving into these thirty-plus year-old murders has helped me forge a connection to my hometown that didn't exist before. What began as a closer look at the killings of three teenagers who were about my age at the time (one of them attended my high school and appears in one of my high school yearbooks) has resulted in the rediscovery of a time (my youth) and place (this town) I had no desire to revisit. For a variety of reasons, I wasn't a happy youngster and even as my husband and I packed our belongings in anticipation of the long move from Los Angeles to Northern California, I knew that the boxes filled with cooking utensils and books weren't the only baggage I was bringing along with me.

But if I'm to be happy here, I need to make peace with being back in my hometown. And weirdly, investigating these murders--the events themselves and the context in which they took place--has helped me do that. The reasons are twofold. First, the year the murders took place--1984--was in the smack-dab center of my high school years. It was the summer after my sophomore year and I was miserable. But though I still struggle with bouts of misery (who doesn't) I'm not the same person I was then and as I read through newspaper articles written at the time, I view them through a different lens than I did when I first lived here. I'm here on my own terms now and I'm no longer a teenager with all the bullshit struggles teenagers live with.

Second, my hometown is pretty damned cool. At the very least, it's gorgeous, especially in the spring. I do still miss the hustle and landscapes of Los Angeles, but I can't argue that these green hills aren't a significant improvement over the typical views I encountered in LA (though I miss the ocean so very much). Plus, I love my hometown's history. This is a gold rush town and reminders of that are everywhere. I miss LA and its Hollywood folklore, but I've come to appreciate the quirks of this small town in a way I never did before. Investigating the murders has required a deeper examination of the place itself and that's led to endearment, not scorn.

I'll likely be writing more about my investigation in the future because there are related topics I'd like to discuss. But for now, I'll end this by saying I haven't been this excited about my work in a long time. That, more than anything, might be the reason for my new appreciation of my hometown.


Art Taylor said...

Great post here, Holly--and looking forward to more of your research/writing on this.

Bob Mueller said...

It's interesting how things change through the lens of time, isn't it? We're of the same vintage - I graduated in 83 - it seems some similar HS experiences. I've visited my hometown several times since I left in 94, and I've always felt like an outsider. It's hard to reconnect with a place and a time you weren't always fond of.

The story sounds fascinating. My hometown in SE Ohio has similar mysteries. (The sheriff's office just broke a 28-year-old murder case.) Looking forward to your story.

Holly West said...

My immediate family still lives in my hometown, so the move made sense in a lot of ways. I'm pretty close with them so that's been the best part of moving back.

I think every town has it's secrets and mysteries. The one I'm writing about is largely solved but there are a few things that niggle at me. I feel like we don't know the whole story.

dave said...

What a unique lens you have on this event, and it's interesting because I was there too - and totally unaware! Where was I? No clue. Was Ron Tepper the DA on this case?

Andrew Jetarski said...

This seems like such a strange gift. This is a very thoughtful - and intriguing - piece you've written here, Holly. I hope to learn more.

Ellen Byron said...

Very powerful, Holly. And moving. Thanks for sharing.