I applied at city hall for both LAPD and the sheriff’s department.
Two weeks after I had passed both entrance exams and had been rejected by the sheriff’s department at the in-person interview for being too young, I was called in for my oral at LAPD. That went better. I fit their job description as if I’d come right out of central casting. I was a young, trim, tall WASP, who racked up strong written scores on the exam, was married, and had four years of military training. At that time, the department was trying to rid itself of the old image of the fat sloppy cop stealing an apple. They were looking for young, idealistic men that they could mold into professionals. I was what my interviewers said was the “new breed.”
Excerpt from Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder
Most historians acknowledge, “LAPD’s Golden Years spanned almost two decades from the 1960s to the mid-1980s.”
Hollywood started to work its magic in 1949 with NBC’s first radio show, Dragnet, promising “real crime investigations from actual LAPD police files.”
The star was a fictional LAPD cop named, “Sgt. Joe Friday,” played by actor Jack Webb. Actor Ben Alexander took the role of his sidekick/ partner, “Officer Frank Smith.” Where Sergeant Joe “Just the Facts” Friday was a hardnosed and stiff, veteran cop, his partner, Officer Smith, was just the opposite—soft, donut-loving, warm and fuzzy—a perfect Mutt and Jeff team.
The show quickly gained high acclaim, and not just with Angelenos, but nation-wide. Dragnet transitioned from radio to television in the 1960s and 1970s. Its long run gave us over three-hundred-fifty aired programs, each one underscoring and reinforcing the message that “LAPD is the finest police department in the nation”—as the Fifties came to a close, LAPD’s legend had become fact. The whole world recognized LAPD and its “thin blue line” as, Number One.
Dragnet cast its net over me in 1962, shortly after I was discharged from serving four years as a Navy medic. Newly married, I was working as an orderly at Kaiser Hospital in Hollywood and looking for something better. Something steady, but challenging. With just a GED (General Education Development, the equivalent of a high school diploma,) my opportunities were limited. Or, so I thought.
Having just turned twenty-one, I applied for both the LAPD and the LA Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff’s oral came first and the three-man board of veteran deputies, smiling and paternal, simply said, “Come back and see us in about five years son.”
My oral with LAPD was just the opposite. Youth was an asset. They were looking for “a new breed.”
I quickly learned the truth of the adage, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” I wanted a challenge, and I got it. Written exam followed by a psych and then a demanding physical agility test. Four months of “background checks” and finally, I was in. In February 1963, I was certified to begin training at the Police Academy from which only “four-in-a-hundred” made it through the six months of police training to graduation.
A month into my training, on March 9, 1963, the notorious Onion Field Murder occurred. The facts were slow in coming to us new recruits, but eventually we, like the rest of the public, got the full story.
Two Hollywood Division plainclothes officers, Ian Campbell, and Karl Hettinger were working a Z-car (special assignment car) and decided to stop and question a couple of hinky looking suspects. They approached to question the two men, and the suspects surprised them by drawing a gun and then disarmed both officers.
The two men kidnapped the two officers and forced them to drive north from LA about one hundred miles to an isolated onion field in Bakersfield. Forced out of the vehicle, at gunpoint, in the dark of night, they were ordered to lay on the ground.
Officer Ian Campbell was shot first, and at the sound of the gunfire, and with a cloud passing over the bright moon, his partner, Karl, bolted into the dark and managed to escape to a nearby farmhouse and call for emergency backup.
The Onion Field killers were quickly arrested and identified as Gregory Ulas Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith. Both defendants were convicted and sentenced to death, but a decade later, the California Supreme Court overruled the death penalty as “cruel and unusual punishment,” and both men’s sentences were commuted to “life without parole.”
The surviving officer Karl Hettinger was severely criticized by the LAPD high-command for “giving up his gun.” Hettinger was then ordered by then-Chief William H. Parker, to attend all LAPD division patrol roll calls and speak to his fellow officers and forced to tell them, “Don’t do what I did.” Then “Special Patrol Bureau Order No. 11” was issued, which LAPD Commander John “Two-Gun” Powers personally read to all of us at the Academy in the Class of February 1963.
The special order formally directed that “no officer shall surrender his service revolver under any circumstances.”
In my (and most others) opinion, the terrible treatment that officer Hettinger was forced to endure was not only shortsighted and sadistic it was also one of the LAPDs dumbest decisions. Brought on by a few unthinking, small minds, quarterbacking the field tactics of a dedicated patrol officer, as they sat in their ivory tower at the Police Administration Building.
Tragically, Hettinger, forced by his quasi-military command to stand before his brother officers at Divisional roll calls and effectively forced to say, “My partner was killed because I gave up my gun. Don’t you do it. If a suspect has a gun at your partner’s back, don’t give up your gun.”
Psychologically broken, and suffering from severe depression, Hettinger was eventually pensioned off the LAPD. He became a gardener and tried his hand at landscaping, and then relocated to Bakersfield, where he lived in a home just a short distance from the Onion Field murder scene.
He realized a comeback in the last years of his life when he was elected as a Kern County Supervisor in 1987.
He died at the age of 59 on May 5, 1994.
Retired LAPD police Chief Daryl Gates on being informed of officer Hettinger’s passing seemingly reversed the verdict of the earlier chief and commanders when he told the Associated Press:
“He was a great police officer and a great man who pulled himself up out of having been involved in a great tragedy. I think he always felt guilty because he ran. I could never understand it. If he had stayed, he’d have been dead.”
It wasn’t until the Onion Field kidnap/murder of Campbell and Hettinger, a month into my police training that the thought entered my young and rather naïve twenty-one-year-old mind, “Holy shit, a guy can get killed doing this job.”
I graduated from the police academy in the summer of ‘63 and for the next six-years was assigned to work uniform patrol in four separate divisions: WLA, Wilshire, Van Nuys, and then finally transferred to Hollywood patrol after an intense and terrifying two weeks in August of ’65 in South Central Los Angeles, that came to be known as The Watts Riots.
My first marriage lasted just three years from 1962-1965.
Kiyoko Tachibana McIntyre Hodel was Eurasian. Half Scotch, half Saki. A Hollywood actress and dancer as well as a piano teacher and “astrologer to the stars.” Beautiful, smart, and flirtatious. Ours was a whirlwind romance while I was still in the Navy. A sailor home from the sea, I was introduced to Kiyo by my mother at a Hollywood party, and it was lust at first sight.
Kiyo had told me she was twenty-eight and looked it.
I was still a minor, and with her insisting we keep our marriage secret, “nobody should know, not even your mother,” we eloped to Twin Falls, Idaho, which was the nearest state we could legally marry with me not having to obtain my parents’ permission.
Three volatile years later, after returning home unexpectedly and catching Kiyo in flagrante in the arms of a handsome young actor, (“No Steven, we are just rehearsing a part he has in a play.”) I was out the door and filed for divorce the following morning. (As a result of discovering some of Kiyo’s personal papers upon exiting stage right, along with conversations with my mother, I learned that she was not her stated “twenty-eight,” but was actually “forty” when we married.)
Working uniform in Hollywood Division during the 1967 “The Summer of Love” was a total hoot. While a hundred thousand hippies may have headed for The Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, plenty strayed and played in Hollywood.
Flower power and beautiful young women danced on the sidewalks along Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. On weekends as patrol cops, we were assigned to cover the “Love-Ins” at Griffith Park where hundreds would gather to tune in and turn on. As a young man, just a few years older than my counter-culture friends, it was all a definite “contact high.”
I loved working Hollywood. None of the other seventeen divisions could hold a candle to it.
Hollywood in the Sixties and Seventies was magnetic and electric. A perfect microcosm.
Within the division’s seventeen square miles we had it all. Every race and religion. Straight, bi, and gay. Ex-hobos morphed into what we were then calling,“ street bums” and who in a generation would gain a little more respect upon being reintroduced collectively as, “The Homeless.”
The Age of Aquarius arrived early in Hollywood. New Age religious groups popped up like mushrooms on the street corners of Hollywood. Each cult fighting for its own turf at Hollywood and Vine. Hari Krishna, Scientology, Werner Erhard’s EST, all promised Self-Knowledge and Enlightenment for just a few dollars down and, “a regular tithing to prove one was a true believer.”
New musical groups opened on the Sunset Strip. Abba, Aerosmith, the Bee Gees. New pop artists: Jim Croce, Crosby Stills Nash Young, Neil Diamond, The Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac.
As the decade of the Sixty was closing, most of my patrol efforts were centered on youth. Hollywood was second only to San Francisco as the runaway juvenile capital of the nation.
Counter-culture teens, both boys, and girls, as young as thirteen would run away from their home in Small Town U.S.A. They would come west to Hollywood in search of love and acceptance. Many of the boys and girls would have no money and no place to stay and within days, would seek out a “crash pad” and forced to trade sex for food and lodging. Often, by week two the kids had a needle in their arm, and took the second step, prostituting for predatory pimps, who were quick to take advantage of their youth and naivety. A fourteen-year-old hooker (male or female) was not at all uncommon to find working the streets.
By the end of 1969, I had become the divisional expert in sighting runaways and sinking same. I was bringing in an average of four missing kids a day. The Juvenile Detectives were pissed. Why? Because It was their job to conduct a follow-up interview of the arrestee, transport the subject to Juvenile Hall, then file a petition and assure all the paperwork and logistics were in place to get them back into the custody of their parents in Small Town U.S.A. It took a lot of time and made for a lot of work and the Old Salts, a male and female team who loved their three-martini lunches, were not at all happy with my personal crusade.
The two street-smart detectives decided to hatch a plan to end their misery—and it worked.
One of the younger detectives from the Robbery Unit approached me one afternoon with a pat on the back. “Steve, I hear really good things about you.” I turned and looked him in the eye, “Yeh, what’s that?”
He smiled, “Well, why don’t you put a transfer request into the Captain to become a trainee. We need hotshot go-getters like you in the Robbery Detail. You’d love it.” I was flattered and that afternoon put in my request.
A month later, I was in. No more uniform patrol. I was now working plainclothes. Anxious to learn the ins and outs of the elite and quite prestigious Robbery Detail, known in those days as “The Hat Squad,” I reported to work early on a Monday morning.
The captain welcomed me to the Bureau with a handshake advising me that I would be assigned not to the Robbery Detail, but rather to Juvenile. “Your job will be mostly to process the runaway juveniles that patrol brings in.” The captain, with what I can only describe as one of the biggest shit-eating grins on a man’s face that I’ve ever seen, continued, “Runaways are a really big problem here in Hollywood. Sergeant Audrey Fletcher and her partner will show you the ropes. Good luck, and welcome aboard.”
Thus began my career at Hollywood Detectives.
As a detective trainee, for the first few years, I was shuffled from table to table as I learned the Do’s and Don’ts of how to become an effective detective.
I rotated every four months from table to table. First, the Juvenile Unit, then to Auto Theft, Burglary, Sex Crimes, Robbery, then finally, to what was considered the plum assignment, Homicide Detail.
It took me several years to become truly “accepted” within the ranks of the old timers. We, “new breeders” were not to be trusted.
My first call out came on just my second day in the unit.
The patrol watch commander walked into the detective room and briefed the Captain. “ A dead body at the Roosevelt Hotel. Apparent natural. An old guy found by the maid dead in bed. But, one of the doormen thinks he might have been a “trick” as he recalls seeing a hooker having drinks with him the night before in the bar lounge.”
It was lunchtime, and just me and Lt. Cornwell were at the station. “Come on Hodel, no one else here. They’re all out drinking lunch. Guess, I’ll have to break you in.”
The Roosevelt was one of Hollywood’s Grand Dames from the Twenties. Located on Hollywood Boulevard, directly across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theater. (In 1920, the first Academy Awards were held in the hotel’s Blossom Ballroom, which proved too small for future ceremonies. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard paid a whopping five dollars a night for the penthouse suite, which to this day remains named in their honor.)
The lieutenant and I were directed to a room on the tenth floor.
Two uniform officers were waiting inside, one of them, officer Ken Morris, I had trained three years prior. Ken smiled upon seeing me, “Big City detective now huh Steve.” We shook hands. Ken turned to the lieutenant, “The man checked in three days ago. Maid found him an hour ago. Nothing’s been touched, lieutenant.” Cornwell nodded, “You two can take off. We’ll take it from here. “Yes, and thank you, Sir.” The two officers were gone in a flash.
The deceased, a man of about seventy-five was lying nude and supine on the bed. No apparent trauma to the body. No ransacking or evidence of foul play. First glance, indicated nothing more than an elderly man who had passed away quietly in his sleep.
His reading glasses and a book were within arm’s reach atop the bedside table along with his wallet and a small brochure that read, “Map to Hollywood’s Top Film Stars Homes.”
Lieutenant Cornwall walked over and picked up the man’s wallet, opened it and removed a credit card and read the name, “Michael Francis Sullivan,” ah, a good Irishman like myself. He turned away for a moment, then turned back and opened the wallet and removed a fat stack of hundred dollar bills. There must have been close to twenty. He whistled, “And a rich one too.” The lieutenant turned toward me, removed three of the bills and handed them to me. “Here son, take your wife out for a fine dinner on Michael Francis. I’m sure he’d want you to.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. “No thanks, Sir. I’m fine.” The lieutenant looked at me in disbelief and his eyes narrowed, “Suit yourself, detective. Guess we will have to just turn it into the Policeman’s Ball Fund. He put the entire wad of bills in his own pants pocket. “No need for me here. Get the photo lab out and have them take some overall shots, and call the Coroner out. Have to be an autopsy as no known doctor in attendance. Hotel desk should have more on his registration and let’s get his next of kin notified. Looks like he’s an out of town tourist, so you will probably have to contact whatever police jurisdiction covers his home and have them door knock the family residence. We never make a death notification over the phone. Understood?” Be sure to have the Death Report on my desk before EOW.” (End of Watch)
“Yes, Sir. I’ll take care of it.” The lieutenant gave me another one of his hard looks as he walked toward the door. “Officer Hodel, you do understand that these death investigations are strictly confidential and not to be shared with anyone, which includes even your wife or best friends?” I heard the lieutenant loud and clear. It was his way of saying, “Keep your fucking mouth shut about me pocketing the money.”
Three days later, the Coroner’s Protocol was completed. It showed that Michael Francis Sullivan died of natural causes. No crime. No further investigation.
But, there was a crime. Lieutenant Cornwell had stolen close to two-thousand dollars from a dead man’s person. What to do? I knew if I kept silent, I would be an accomplice, no better than the thief himself. But, if I reported him, I would likely be ostracized by my fellow detectives for breaking “the code of silence” and be back working uniform patrol on the next transfer list. I had been wrestling with it for three days, when finally I realized it was a “Fuck It” moment.
On the morning of the fourth day, I asked for a meeting with our divisional captain.
We met, and I provided him with the details. He asked me, “Who else was present and witnessed the alleged theft?” I told him “No one. It was just the two of us in the room.” He asked me “What other evidence did I have to prove my allegation?” I told him, “None, just my word.”
The Captain stood up and told me to “Wait here.” I watched through the glass partition as he walked out and over to Lieutenant Cornwell’s desk and began talking to him. Cornwell’s face flushed as he stood up and double-timed it toward me with the captain hot on his heels. Cornwell grabbed the lapels of my sports coat as he yelled out, “You’re a goddamn fucking liar. A rookie punk like you calling me a thief.” I pushed him back as the captain stepped between us.
The Captain took charge. “Both of you shut up. Will you take a polygraph lieutenant?”
“You’re goddamn right I will and five minutes after it shows I’m clean, I want this motherfucker’s badge and gun.” Hodel, Will you take a poly too?” Yes, Sir, He offered me three hundred dollars just to keep my mouth shut.”
The lieutenant reached into his pocket and took out a wad of hundreds and peeled off the top three. “Yeah, I think it was these three.” I stared at the stack of bills in disbelief.
It was a setup. A test. A secret ritual that every new detective trainee was put through. Had I taken the money, I would have been on the next transfer list out. Unbeknownst to me. The clock was ticking. I had seven days to report the graft to my superiors from the moment I was offered the payoff. If I had failed to report it, I was also gone.
The money belonged to the lieutenant. I quickly replayed our movements at the hotel room, in my mind. He had turned away from my view just long enough to place his own bills inside the dead man’s wallet, then pivoted back, allowing me a full view as he opened the wallet and removed the cash.
But, I had passed the test. Both veteran officers apologized for the deception and wholeheartedly welcomed me into Hollywood Division Detectives. Dinner and drinks (a lot of them) at our local watering hole were on them.
As a young rookie detective, just starting out, I was presented with two major lessons that day.
The first was, “Don’t be too quick to try and read the good guys from the bad one. Things and people are rarely what they appear to be. The second and more important was, “Don’t submit your investigation with just half a case.” A “he said, he said,” will always result in “reasonable doubt.” You will lose your case every time. Make sure your shotgun is loaded with evidence shells in both barrels, and then have a dozen more in your pocket for backup.
Time and time again, case after case, over the next fifteen years, both of those Day One lessons would prove to be invaluable.
The Snake and Bake Murder
When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
Opening lyrics from “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”
By The 5th Dimension (1969 No. 1 Platinum hit record)
During the summer of ’74, Jupiter was definitely not aligned with Mars. At least not in Hollywood. We found no peace.
On the contrary. As a six-man homicide team with new murders occurring every other week, we were busting our balls just trying to keep up. (No female detectives would be assigned to our unit for another decade.)
Every third weekend one of the teams would be “in the bucket.” Meaning we were “on call” and required to drive a city car home and be tethered to a beeper, which remained on and in our pocket for the next 72-hours.
The following is an actual murder investigation. It is just one of the approximately three hundred that I investigated during my seventeen-year assignment in homicide.
The facts are true. Only the names have been changed and the dates slightly modified, to protect the children and the grandchildren of the guilty.
It was a Saturday night in early June. I was home, in my apartment in East Hollywood. Girlfriend and I were on our third Scotch when the phone rang. It was my D3, Paul O’Steen. Old old school. “Steve, we got one. Total clusterfuck, and from the briefing I just got from the Watch Commander, I mean that literally. One wit and three suspects at the station. Get your ass in. It’s a mess.”
Street smart Dolores had known the score before I hung up the phone. “You’re a great guy Steve, but your day job sucks. Worse than a doctor, and I know, I was married to one. This is the third time, and I’ve only known you four months.”
I smiled into those soft sexy eyes, “Baby, you think I like getting waylaid? She smiled back. I headed for the shower. “Sounds like it is going to be an all-nighter, so let’s plan on a little afternoon delight manana, Si?”
She shook her head, “No Senor. I’ve got exams to study for, call me mid-week and we will try again.” A quick “adios” and she was out the door.
Forty-five minutes from call-in to the red zone in front of Hollywood station. I prided myself on getting there in under an hour. O’Steen was sitting at his desk talking to a female with long red hair. Her back was to me.
As I crossed the squad room, I noticed four uniform coppers, coffee cups in hands, standing and talking at the nearby auto theft table. All four kept making furtive glances at Paul and the woman with the red hair.
Paul stood up at my approach, and the woman remained seated but turned in my direction. “This is Detective Steve Hodel. He will be the lead detective on the investigation. Steve, this is Mrs. Brandy Dawson. She and her husband were kidnapped from their home in Laurel Canyon. She’s also a witness to his murder. We have the three suspects in custody in lockup. She’ll give you the full story. Better use the interrogation room. You will want to tape this one.” He glanced over at the blue suiters. “I’m taking uniform with me up to their residence. Need to secure it. The crime started there.”
“Started? I asked.
“Is the husband’s body at the house?”
Paul shook his head as he walked toward the blue suits, “No. His body’s buried somewhere in Arizona. She’ll fill you in.”
I turned to Brandy, “Arizona?”
She gave me a nervous smile, “Yes, it’s a long story. I could sure use some whiskey. Is that possible?”
“Sorry, no, that’s only in the movies. How about some coffee?”
“Guess that will have to do. Black please.”
I escorted her to the “tape room” sat her down handed her a cup of coffee and for the first time gave her a complete once over. She was stunning. Probably in her late twenties, but had a much younger almost Hippie teen look. Long red hair, emerald green eyes, freckles. Tall, about 5-7, trim and was wearing a see-through peasant blouse that revealed an ample pair of breasts. I wasn’t a court certified expert, but my guess was about 38C. She was wearing cut-off Levi shorts and brown leather sandals.
No wonder the uniform guys had been drooling into their coffees. She was the kind of woman that just made you melt on the spot. She had it all, knew it and used it.
My mind flashed back to the Pop rock No. 1 hit single that had come out a few years earlier, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”:
The sailors say “Brandy; you’re a fine girl” (you’re a fine girl)
“What a good wife you would be” (such a fine girl)
“Yeah your eyes could steal a sailor from the sea.”
It was as if that song had been written just for Brandy Dawson. As I set up the tape recorder my mind kept struggling to recall more of the lyrics:
And there’s a girl in this harbor town
And she works layin’ whiskey down
They say “Brandy, fetch another round”
She serves them whiskey and wine
Easy to picture her moving from table to table breaking every sailor’s heart in the bar.
I noticed she had some fresh scratches and bruises on her arms and both legs, and her clothing was heavily soiled with what looked like dark black oil stains. Not to mention her perfume was quite unusual—Eau de gasoline.
I turned on the recorder and began my witness interview.
“This is Detective 1, Steve Hodel. The date is Saturday, June 1st, 1974. The time is 2218 hours. The location is Interview Room No. 4 at Hollywood Detectives, 1358 N. Wilcox Ave, Hollywood, California. This is an interview with witness Brandy Dawson, who I have been informed is also the victim of a kidnapping. Mrs. Dawson, you understand that I am tape-recording our interview, and I am doing it with your consent. Is that correct?”
“Yes, you have my permission.”
“Thank you. Would you state your full name, date of birth and home address for the record?”
“Yes, my name is Brandy Elizabeth Dawson. I am twenty-six. I was born on October 30, 1947. I live at 8344 Weepah Way, in Laurel Canyon.”
“Thank you. First, let me say how sorry I am for your loss, Mrs. Dawson.
“Brandy. Please just call me Brandy detective.”
“OK, Brandy, we will be going into all of the details in this interview, but just let me say out front that it is my understanding that you and your husband were kidnaped, and he was murdered, but you survived. Is that correct?
Also, before we get into the details, I notice you have quite a few bruises on your arms and legs. I’m sure my partner, Sgt. O’Steen asked you this already, but are you injured? Do you need medical treatment or to be examined by a doctor? The Emergency Room is right next door.
“No, I’m OK, I don’t need to see a doctor.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Fine. What I would like you to do is to start from the very beginning and tell me in detail, exactly what happened. Can you do that?”
“Yes, I told parts of it to your partner earlier, but not all of it.”
For the next two hours, intermittently between tears and laughter, and four refills of coffee, Brandy Dawson told me her story. Working Hollyweird for the previous eight years, I thought I had heard it all. I was wrong
Here are the headlines of Brandy’s retelling of the crime.
Brandy had been living with David Dawson for the past four years and considered him her “common law” husband. (In 1974, the State of California required a minimum of seven years for legal status.) David was ten years older than she and they had met at a beach party in Malibu in 1970.
Six months prior, on January 1st the couple had signed a two-year lease on a large private residence in the Hollywood Hills. She described the home as having four large bedrooms, a private backyard with a swimming pool and a long private driveway with off street parking.
In February, the couple opened up what Brandy described as “a private Social Club.”
The rules were simple. Membership (Adults Only) was free, and club meetings were held on both Friday and Saturday nights at the Dawson’s Laurel Canyon home. The minimum age requirement was twenty-one. Free drinks were provided, and admittance was by invitation only and required each adult to present his or her private membership identification card at the door. Each member was allowed to bring one guest.
Drinks, food, and “entertainment” were also provided at no charge. But, a fifty-dollar “club contribution” was required per couple each visit, to help cover the “overhead.”
Brandy went on to explain that their home was in effect “a Swing Pad.” A place where consenting adults could come and realize (make real) their sexual fantasies. Members brought “a partner” and freely engaged in group sex with other members. Twosomes, threesomes, foursomes. Gay, straight, bi, all were welcome as long as they followed the rules: “no drugs and no violence.”
The “entertainment” was provided by Brandy and David, who on both Friday and Saturday nights performed a thirty-minute warm up for the members viewing pleasure. Seeing and enjoying the fact that I had become visibly embarrassed, she went on to inform me that their routine was broken into three distinct ten-minute acts. “Oral, then regular sex, then, you know, the other kind.”
Brandy described her boyfriend as “A John Holmes lookalike in every respect.” (Holmes, aka, “Johnny Wadd,” a rising porn star [pun intended] in the Seventies, became known as “the Sultan of Smut.” At the peak of his film career, Holmes reportedly insured his manhood with Lloyd’s of London for $14 million, claiming he arrived at that number by calculating it at, “$1 million an inch.”)
After the “Brandy and David show” the members would generally engage in a social hour where they could make their preferences known and choose their partner(s). Three of the four bedrooms had wall to wall beds in addition to a half-dozen chez lounges poolside for the warm summer nights.
As she continued her story, it was clear that Brandy was completely open and uninhibited. She saw her role in providing a private place where consenting adults could come and freely engage in group sex as a community service.
I challenged her view by asking her, “Don’t you think that your club is just a cover for pimping and pandering? Semi legalized prostitution?” I pushed it further, “How much money were the two of you making off the club? How many members attended on any given night?”
My questioning really got her blood up.
“Well, fuck you! Usually about twenty-five. But, we had a lot of expenses. We paid for the beer and wine and food. A maid came twice a week. Lot of different expenses. And, NO, it was not prostitution. Nobody ever charged anybody for sex. Maybe you pay for it, detective, but with us, it was all FREE LOVE.
I quickly did the math in my head. ($50 per couple equals $600 a night times eight nights equals $4800 a month, or $25,000 a month in today’s dollars.) That was a whole lot of beer, wine, and baloney sandwiches!
I had upset her and realized that I had momentarily forgotten I was talking to a victim and witness to the murder who had barely escaped being murdered herself.
“I’m sorry Brandy. I apologize. I’m not a vice cop, and I’m here to help you by putting the case together so the men that did this to you and your husband will never get out of prison.
Her demeanor changed. Almost instantly her appearance transformed from “I am a woman, let me roar” to that of a little girl. She now appeared scared and afraid.
She reached out and put her hand on my leg, as tears welled in those emerald eyes. “OK. I am sorry too. The last two days have been a nightmare. I feel like it is all a dream, and I just want to wake up and have everything back like it was before.”
Brandy identified the three suspects we had in custody as her employees.
She had hired the two Alvarez brothers, Ernesto, 22 and Juan, 25, mainly as “security.” After a month of club meetings, she found that occasionally one of the members would have too much to drink and start an argument. Disputes sometimes arose over who was going to do what with whom? “She’s with me, no she’s with us.” The presence of the two “peacemakers” had in recent months all but eliminated the problem.
The third suspect was Dominick “Nick” Vicente. He was 31. Not a lot upstairs, but was great with his hands. He worked as Dawson’s general handyman and gopher.
Early Saturday morning, June 1st at about 1:45 AM, the last couple left the house. Rules required all members to be out the door by 2:00 AM.
David and Brandy were having a cold beer poolside.
Both heard Juan call out from the living room, “Mr. Dawson, I have a question.”
David called back, “Yes Juan. What is it.”
Juan approached the couple with a 4” blue steel revolver in hand. “Do you want me to shoot you here and now, or do you want to come with us quietly and maybe live?”
His brother Ernesto and Nick, the handyman, were right behind him. Nick was holding a large roll of duct tape, and Ernesto had two pairs of handcuffs.
Both Brandy and David were handcuffed and gagged with duct tape and then ordered to walk out the front door.
Ernesto opened the trunk to his 1965 Cadillac Coupe De Ville, and David was ordered to “climb inside.” He complied, and Brandy watched as Nick skillfully hogtied him with the rope just as if he’d been a rodeo steer taken to the ground.
Next, it was Brandy’s turn. Nick’s 67 Ford Galaxie had been parked next to the Alvarez brothers Caddie. He opened the trunk, and she too was forced to get inside and bound in like fashion.
Brandy described the next seven hours as “pure hell.” Her whole body began shaking, and tears flowed as she spoke. “They killed him. They said they would let him live if he cooperated and then they killed him anyway.”
I turned off the tape and tried to calm her. “Let’s take a short break, Brandy. Would you like a coke and cookie? It’s from the machine, but . . .
“Yes, please. Do you have aspirin?
“Yes, be right back.” I dropped the quarter in the machine for a large cookie, and another for the can of coke. Walked to my desk and unlocked the drawer and removed my bottle of Johnny Walker Red, took a large swig, and poured a double into the Styrofoam cup, then topped it off with Coke. I opened my tin of Aspirin and grabbed two tablets and returned to the interview room.
I placed the cup of Coke on the table and handed her the aspirin. “Here, this should help.”
She popped both tabs in her mouth, reached for the Coke and took a large drink. Her eyes widened in amazement as she swallowed and coughed. “I thought you said . . .”
I put my finger to my lips. “Well, only in extreme medical emergencies. You qualify.”
“Thank you. Detective, you are really nice.” I again put my finger to my mouth, “Our secret, OK Brandy.”
“OK, and I’m sorry I said, Fuck You.”
I winked at her and hit “record” on the tape machine. “OK, we’ve just taken a ten-minute break and are back on the record, and I will now resume my interview with witness Brandy Dawson. The time is now 2340 hours.
Brandy went on to describe how the next seven-hour ride in the trunk was sheer terror. She could only breathe through her nose and could barely move. In the darkness, ten minutes into the drive she heard the noise. It was close. A slow clicking sound that increased rapidly to what sounded like an electrical buzzing. She knew the sound.
As a child, growing up in a rural section of Clark County, Nevada, she had heard that sound a hundred times. It was unmistakable. She knew that somewhere in the darkness inside the trunk of the vehicle, just a few feet from her head was a rattlesnake. The snake, sensing a predator was nearby was shaking its tail as a warning that it was ready to strike.
She remained frozen, fearing the slightest movement might cause the snake to attack her. Three hours more of driving, with daylight breaking, she came face to face with her worst fear.
Not three feet away was a glass aquarium with a wire mesh covering the top. Inside it was a three foot Western Diamondback rattlesnake, a pit viper, known to be one of the deadliest snakes of its species.
Brandy went on to relate that she had lost all sense of time but recalled the car stopped on at least three separate occasions each lasting no more than about ten minutes. The second stop was to gas up, and she recalled that the fumes were so overpowering she was afraid she might vomit and choke to death.
On the fourth stop, they opened the trunk and the morning sun flooded in and temporarily blinded her. Both Alvarez brothers grabbed and lifted her out and dropped her on the ground. It was sand. She looked around and could see nothing but small dunes. They were somewhere in the desert.
Her feet were untied, the handcuffs were unlocked and the duct tape removed from her mouth. The brothers roughly pulled her to her feet, each grabbing an arm; they walked her about a hundred feet from the vehicle. She looked down and saw David lying motionless on the ground. He was still tied and handcuffed, and a plastic bag had been placed over his head and then tied tightly around his neck. He was dead.
Juan handed her a shovel and ordered her to dig. “First you dig your husband’s grave. Then your own.” She refused. He slapped her, removed the blue steel revolver from his waistband, pointed it at her head and again said, “Dig.”
She dug. Nick joined the two men, and the three began laughing as they took long swigs of Tequila from the half-filled bottle. She asked them, “Why. Why are you doing this? David and I were your friends? We gave you jobs and money.”
They told her that was exactly why they did it. For the money! They told her they knew exactly how much money was coming in each month, and they wanted it. All of it. They were taking over the business. The house, the running of the club, everything. Their plan was simple. They would tell everyone that the Dawson’s decided to move to Mexico and left the three of them in charge. Nothing would change; everything would stay the same, Just “Under New Management.”
Brandy said she finished digging the hole and Nick and Juan picked up David’s body and threw it into the shallow grave. She then saw Ernesto approach the grave carrying a large heavy bag. He poured the contents, a white powder into the hole and completely covered the body.
Brandy was ordered to fill the hole with sand. They told her that “they had bought some ‘lime,’ and it would dissolve the body so nobody would be able to recognize who he was.”
The men then ordered her to start digging a second grave, “This one’s for you.”
At this point in the interview, Brandy’s whole persona changed. She was back to the woman I had met a few hours earlier. More self-assured and confident. No tears, no fear. Even her voice became more animated. She became excited as she continued her narrative as if she was actually reliving the moments.
“When they told me their plan, I knew it was a do or die moment for me. I knew that if I couldn’t persuade them—then I would be dead in just a few more minutes.”
I didn’t understand what she was saying. “Persuade? Persuade them of what?”
She stared directly into my eyes as she spoke the words, “Persuade them that I wanted him dead.”
I looked at her in disbelief. “What?”
“Don’t you see detective. I had to convince them, and I did! That is the only reason I am alive.”
“How? What did you say?”
Brandy picked up the foam cup and downed the rest of her Johnny Walker coke.
“I told them that they had done me a favor, and I was glad David was dead. I told them that he was a sadist and had beaten me for years, and I hated his guts and secretly dreamt that he would be killed in a car accident.”
They told me that, “they didn’t believe me.”
So, I said, “Well, you can believe this. And I walked over to where David was buried, and I took off my shorts and underpants, and I pissed on him. “I said, “There David. That’s my payback; you’re karma for being such a bastard to me all these years.” I pissed on his grave.”
I had never heard or seen anything like this woman. I tried to conceal my shock as I asked her, “Was he?”
She stared back blankly. “Was he what?”
“Was he a sadist? Had he beaten you for years?”
She shook her head. “Hell no. He was loving and caring and the sweetest man I’ve ever known. He never once abused me. He only brought me pleasure. He was the best lover a woman could ever want. And now he’s gone.” Her eyes welled up again, and more tears flowed.
“I want to see all three of those motherfuckers hang for what they’ve done.”
I shook my head, “Our state outlawed the death penalty two years ago, but if they are convicted, they will all get life without the possibility of parole.”
“She frowned, “That’s not good enough. I want them to burn in hell forever.”
Brandy added, she was quick to follow her grave wetting with words. She told the three that they would all be equal partners. That if they killed her, they would lose the house. The lease was in her name, and the owner would evict them from the property then raise the rent. Only Brandy could keep it locked in at the present rate for the next two years. She told them that with their help she could increase the club hours from two to four nights a week. That would double the income from five to ten thousand a month which split four ways was $2500 a month to each of them. Tax-free!
She could tell all three men were high from booze and popping uppers. She knew she almost had them convinced. She again looked directly at me and with unmistakable pride said, “I closed the deal by pulling off my blouse and telling them again how thankful I was for what they had done and “asked them to fuck me right here next to his grave.”
I had never met this breed of cat before and didn’t know what to think of her. She had the beauty of a Persian, but her speech and actions were pure Feral. Wild and dangerous. A real-life Femme Fatale. I was simultaneously and in equal measure, strongly attracted and totally repulsed by her. “And, did they?”
She smiled. “Fuck me? No, I called their bluff and all three folded. Juan, a big man with a big gun in his hand and I could tell he was afraid of me. No real huevos. All they could think of was how much money they were going to be making.”
We had passed the two-hour mark in the interview. I was exhausted, just listening to her, but Brandy seemed to thrive and grow stronger as she retold the horrors.
I stood up. “What happened next?”
“I told them we should drive back to the Laurel Canyon house and make a plan. They agreed. I rode with Nick in his Ford and Juan, and Ernesto followed us in their Caddie.
I asked Nick where we were, and he said, “Near Yuma, Arizona.”
“We were about a mile off the main highway. I’m sure I can find the place where David is buried. I’m good at remembering places.” Nick also pointed to a hardware store right on the main highway as we drove past it and said that that was where they stopped and bought a shovel and the bag of lime to put over the body.”
I took notes.
“Brandy, Tell me about tonight’s arrest. How’d that go down?”
“It was at Ben Franks’s on the strip. We got back from the long drive from the desert at about 8’Oclock and Nick, and the brothers wanted to stop for a hamburger before going up to the house. We all went inside, and I told them I had to use the bathroom. I went to the back and called Sergeant Kenny Bell at West Hollywood Sheriff’s vice. Do you know him?
“No, I don’t.”
I told him I was at Ben Frank’s, and he had to come quick that my husband had been murdered, and the three guys that did it were there, and at least one had a gun.”
He and his partners, like four undercover guys, were there in five minutes. They walked in and put their guns on all three and arrested them. Kenny found the gun in Juan’s pocket. That was it. I was taken to West Hollywood, and then two LAPD uniformed officers came and brought me here. “
“How do you know Sergeant Bell, Brandy?”
“We met like four years ago at The Troubadour on Santa Monica at a Neil Diamond concert. Kenny thought I was drinking underage, but when I showed him my ID everything was cool, and we became friends.
“Like boyfriend/girlfriend friends?”
“Yeah, I guess. David didn’t mind; he did it too.”
I looked at my watch; it was almost 1:00 AM
“I’m going to have to go out in the field and do some work and then go up to your house and get some photographs of the inside. It’s part of the crime scene, OK?
“Yeh, can I come too.”
“No, not now. Do you have a friend that you can stay with for a few days? Someone nearby that I could drop you off with?”
“Yes, Bonnie Wilson lives in Los Feliz, she’s a good friend. I can stay with her.”
Brandy called and woke Bonnie, who said for her to “come right over.”
I dropped her off and told her I would call her mid-morning and that “she should be ready for another ride out to Yuma. “We need to find David’s body.”
She stood up, and again those emerald green eyes dissolved into a pool of water. “Do you think David will ever forgive me for what I did detective?”
I nodded, “He’ll forgive you. You’re a survivor Brandy, and that’s what he would have wanted.”
She kissed me on the cheek, and I drove her to her girlfriend’s home where she would spend the night.
In the Seventies, Ben Frank’s (now Mel’s Drive-In) was one of Hollywood’s hippest coffee shops. Everyone who was anyone and who was no one went there. First, they went cruising, boozing and schmoozing at The Whiskey, Pandora’s Box, and The Troubadour, and the rest of the nightclubs along the strip. Then it was tradition to end the night with a hamburger and fries at Ben’s.
I picked up the police radio microphone. “This is 6W30, requesting you contact the photo lab and have them meet me at 8585 Sunset Blvd. The parking lot of Ben Frank’s restaurant.” The operator replied instantly, “Roger 6W30, meet you at the parking lot of Ben Franks.”
Two patrol officers were standing next to the suspect’s vehicles as I pulled into the lot. Both the Ford and the Caddie were clearly “beaters.” Just what you’d expect from the three men that Brandy had been describing to me for the past three hours.
The younger rookie officer shined his flashlight on the trunk of the Caddie. “We just relieved the Night Watch guys who had been here for like three hours. They said there is a dead body in the trunk. Is that true Sarge?”
“No. No body. Probably just a live rattlesnake.” He instantly backed up a few steps, “Holy shit.”
The photo man arrived surprisingly quick. I called for a police impound and directed him on what views I wanted. Rule No. 1 at crime scenes, you can never take too many photos.
The Hollywood Tow truck arrived. They were our official police impound. I had known the driver, Dennis Effle, for six years.
“Dennis, you’re going to love this one. I think we are going to find a live rattlesnake in the trunk.
“Fuck that Steve. That shit is above my pay grade. I ain’t messing with it.”
“It’s OK Dennis the snake’s locked in a glass cage, or at least it was. Once we confirm it’s in there, I’ll have to get Animal Regulation out here to remove it. You won’t have to go near it.”
Dennis shook his head in disbelief. “Fucking Hollywood nothing but Fruits and Nuts. You got the trunk keys?”
“No, you will have to pop the trunk. I consider this “exigent circumstances,” so won’t need a search warrant. Just do it.”
“You’re the boss. Dennis went to his toolkit, removed a hammer and punch and had it open in thirty-seconds. The officers standing a good fifteen feet away shined their flashlights into the darkness. There it was. One very mean very pissed off looking snake. It stared up at the four of us from inside its glass cage and shook its rattle as if to say, “Just stay away from me motherfuckers.” We did.
I told the uniform guys to make out the impound forms, but not to touch anything inside either vehicle and to be sure to put a “Hold for Prints.” “Nobody touches anything. This is a Murder One investigation.” I also directed them, to go inside Ben Frank’s and use a landline to call Communications Division and get animal regulation out to impound the snake. Otherwise, the press would pick up the units police broadcast and be there taking pictures before they could say, “Roger that.” I needed another twenty-four-hour lead before the press got wind of what we had.
It was a short ten-minute drive to the Dawson house north of The Strip. In 1974, Laurel Canyon was still Hippieville U.S.A. Actors, Writers, musicians, all still hanging out from the Sixties. The perfect locale for a Swing Pad, and from what I could tell Brandy made for the perfect Hostess.
Sgt. O’Steen and two of the four officers were still at the house. Paul had obtained overall photos of the interior as well as the front entrance and driveway.
I did a quick walkthrough. The place was tastefully decorated. Modern look, with large cushions in the living room. Queen sized beds in two of four bedrooms and two large water beds in the third. The fourth Master bedroom had a king sized four poster bed with a large mirror overhead. Surrounding it on the walls were large framed drawings of East Indian couples, engaged in sex, leaving nothing to the imagination. Guess it was Kama Sutra 101?
Paul motioned for me to follow him, “Check this out.” We walked down the hallway which opened into a small room containing a large glass jewelry display case. The sign on top read, “20% Discount to all Club Members.” Inside were “Adult Toys” of every shape size and color. Next to them were leather restraints and handcuffs. On the second shelf were “French Ticklers” vibrators for “him” and “her,” “Ginseng lubricants” and an assortment of condoms. A toy box with everything a swinging social clubber could hope for—and more, they were offered at a twenty percent discount!
Paul and I agreed that having a SID (Scientific Investigation Division) print man out to the house was pointless. Since all three suspects were employees and had free run of the place, the fact their prints were there was meaningless. We secured the residence and headed back to Hollywood Station.
One by one they were brought into the detective’s interrogation room. First Ernesto, then Nick, then Juan. I took three or four Polaroid’s of each man, set up and started the tape recorder and then individually Mirandized them. (The U.S. Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona (1966) passed a law requiring that all in custody suspects be admonished that he or she had a right to remain silent and to have an attorney present before any questioning by a police officer. )
All three refused to offer any statement and asked that they be provided an attorney. That effectively ended my contact with them. Short and sour. They were then formally booked, mugged and fingerprinted. The charge for each man was 187 PC (Murder)- No Bail.
By the time, I finished writing the arrest reports it was 9:00 AM Sunday morning.
My plan was to borrow a policewoman partner from Juvenile or the Sex Team, pick up Brandy and the three of us would drive to Yuma find, a hotel and stay the night ready for a fresh start and search for the body, early Monday morning.
I called Sgt. Audrey Fletcher at home. She would be perfect. A veteran cop, smart as a whip, and totally non-judgmental. A definite requirement when it came to being around Brandy Dawson.
She picked it up on the first ring. I briefed her on what I had. “God Yes, Steve. Love to get out of town for a few days.”
“Great, can you be ready to go in two hours? I can pick you up. You still living at the house on Beachwood Drive?”
“I’ll be packed and ready to go. Yes, been here since ’52. I’ll probably die here.”
(Tragically, Sgt. Audrey Fletcher was correct. She was still living at that home when she died. Audrey retired from Hollywood Detectives, became a Juvenile Court Judge, then one cold winter evening she drove to the beach, walked out on the sand, and put her service revolver to her head and pulled the trigger. She was my first detective partner, possessed an uncanny ability to read people rightly and was one of the smartest women I have ever met. During those years, the highest rank a woman could promote to was Sergeant. Had Sgt. Fletcher been a man, she would have made Chief. Rest in Peace, Audrey.)
I grabbed a quick breakfast, picked up Audrey, then Brandy.
I can still see her opening the apartment door. She had borrowed her girlfriend’s The Who t-shirt, again, no bra, clean jeans, and the same brown sandals. The grease and sand were gone. Clean and freshly showered, with her long red hair pinned back in a ponytail, she looked like a young Hollywood starlet. An absolute knockout. As I smiled at her, I was forced to admit to myself; I was enchanted. The truth was I had developed a very strong and most unprofessional crush on this witness/victim.
We made the three hundred mile drive in about five hours and checked into adjacent rooms at a cheap motel on Interstate 8, just east of town.
I had called the local sheriff before leaving Hollywood and given him a quick summary of the crime and our reason for coming to his town. He said he would have his detectives ready to assist on Monday morning and suggested we meet at the Yuma Sheriff’s Office at 0900. I agreed.
No rock disco dancing in Yuma, but the three of us had one of the best Mexican dinners I’ve ever had washed down with four Carta Blanca cervezas (Audrey stuck to her vodka martinis (five), and the three of us were off to an early bedtime. The two woman shared a room, and I slept next door, falling off to dreams of the East Indian etchings hanging on Brandy’s bedroom wall, and . . .
It was a freaking convoy. I couldn’t believe my eyes. We were the lead car, followed by Yuma sheriff’s detectives, followed by Yuma PD, followed by a two-man team from the FBI (Fan Belt Inspectors, was our term for them back then. J Edgar Hoover and the LAPD were still having a mini law enforcement cold war.) They were followed by a medical examiner and the Yuma County coroner.
Four cars and a Coroner’s wagon headed down Highway 8 in search of a body buried somewhere out ahead of us. Brandy, true to her word, had an excellent sense of direction. “There is is” she yelled. That’s the store where Nick said they bought the shovel at.”
She was right. The owner himself had made the sale. “Yep, he bought a shovel and a forty-pound bag of Lime.” I showed him the three separate six-man photo show-ups I had made inserting the Polaroid face shot I had taken of each suspect in a separate “line-up.”
He looked at all three displays shuffling from one to the next. He put his finger on the photo of Juan Alvarez, “Well, I’m sure he was the one that bought the shovel but can’t say about the other two. I think one of them waited in the car, so I never did see him anyway.”
With a positive ID in pocket we hit the road again, followed by Yuma Five-O, the Feds. and a Quincy M.D. look-alike.
Brandy was now in her full detective mode, “I think it was like ten minutes from the store to where they drove off the road. I could feel it changed from cement to driving on sand, and I could feel the wheels spin a little.”
I checked my watch and drove for another eight minutes.
Brandy pointed to a small dirt road leading off the highway, “Maybe down there?”
We tried it, but after twenty minutes, we returned and renewed our search from Highway 8. The next hour was frustrating. We had tried three more dirt roads and nothing. All the sand dunes looked alike. It was getting hot, and the uniform Yuma P.D. officers gave up and headed back to town.
Brandy started yelling, “There over there that’s it.”
I looked at the side road, which was identical to all the others we had tried.
“How do you know? It’s the same as all the others?”
“No, no it isn’t. Look, I remember cause when I saw that cactus it reminded me of David.”
Audrey was the first to get it. She started laughing hysterically; it literally brought her to tears.
Standing tall and fully erect at the entrance to the turnoff was a giant saguaro cactus. At its base, one on each side were two large round barrel cacti. The image was unmistakable. It was David, the “Johnny Wadd” look-a-like calling out from the grave, his giant penis pointing the way, saying, “Over here. Over here.”
We located the gravesite in ten minutes. Once it was confirmed, I had Sgt. Fletcher take our city car and drive Brandy back to the motel. I didn’t want her there for the recovery. I would catch a ride back to the motel in the Coroner’s truck.
Photographs and the digging took another half hour. The body, though baking under a hot sun was still remarkably preserved. The Coroner, who had taken charge of the removal, advised me that he guessed that “the suspects had wanted “lye,” but had asked for “lime.” Ironically, their mistake could well have acted more to help preserve the body than to speed up the decomposition.”
The Yuma sheriff’s and FBI decided they didn’t want any part of the whole mess, and both wished me “good luck” and split.
The coroner advised me he would perform the autopsy probably on Wednesday and call me with the results, but from his quick assessment, he said, “the cause of death will likely be due to suffocation. “Asphyxiation” due to the plastic bag tied over the face.”
Despite the fact that we know a gun was present, since Brandy had not heard or seen any shots, and a cursory examination of the body showed no entry wounds, it was likely the coroner
was correct. (The formal post-mortem protocol would later substantiate that fact—“A homicide, with Cause of Death due to Asphyxiation.”)
The drive back to Hollywood was uneventful. Brandy was subdued and silent. Audrey after her four martini lunch mostly slept.
The Preliminary Hearing for the State of California v. Juan and Ernesto Alvarez and Dominick Vicente was scheduled for June 16, 1974. The three defendants had been charged with one count of 187 PC Murder (First Degree) and two counts of 209 PC Kidnap with Injuries.
Even without admissions or a “cop out,” my case was airtight.
I had a percipient witness and actual surviving victim of the crimes who witnessed the killing. Fingerprints of all three defendants were found on the plastic bag used to suffocate David Dawson. Samples of the victim’s blood type (AB Negative, very rare) was found inside the trunk of the Alvarez brothers Cadillac. (DNA would not be discovered for another decade.) I had a witness to the purchase of the shovel and Lime used in the commission of the crime and his identification of one of the defendants as purchasing it from him at his store. A third living witness, the Western Diamondback rattlesnake would be brought to court and offered in evidence. (Brandy later informed me, pre-trial, that the reason for the snake was that the brother’s originally planned to turn him loose inside the trunk of the car and have him bite and kill her. But, her fast-talking “we can make a lot of money together” changed that and put the snake out of a job as well as saving her from a horrible and painful death.)
In California, a preliminary hearing is not a full trial. It is held to “show cause” that enough evidence exists to “bind the defendant(s) over to a full trial in Superior Court. Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is not required. It is procedural, and usually, only a small part of the evidence is presented. Just the bare minimum. Just enough to “hold them to answer.”
The Deputy DA’s plan was to call and have Brandy Dawson testify to some of the main facts and her observations and then have the LAPD print man testify to having found all three defendants fingerprints on the person of the victim, David Dawson. The rest could wait for the full trial in Superior Court.
The case was called, and testimony began promptly at 10:00 AM
Both Alvarez brothers were represented by a Deputy Public Defender, and Nick Vicente had a court-appointed lawyer.
What followed was an absolute nightmare.
Brandy was nervous and forgetful. She was unrecognizable from the self-assured, articulate woman that I had interviewed in the detective bureau just two weeks prior. She became defensive and angry on cross-examination by the defense lawyers and started trash talking using occasional profanity. The judge quickly became hostile towards her, which made conditions worse.
He threatened to hold her in contempt, to which she responded, “That’s fine with me. I don’t care. Fuck it all.”
The judge called for a fifteen-minute recess and told the prosecutor to “get your witness under control, or she will be going to lockup.”
“Yes, your honor. I’m sorry. She’s been very distraught since the death of her husband.”
Brandy, still on the witness stand, yelled out, “Not death, it was murder. They murdered him.”
During the court “time out” I huddled with the prosecutor, and we decided that we needed to get her off the stand and replace her with me testifying to the finding and recovery of the body and then put the print man on and end it there.
The hearing resumed with Brandy still on the witness stand.
The prosecutor immediately thanked Brandy for her testimony and said, “No further questions.”
Nick Vicente’s attorney spoke out. “Just a few more questions, your honor. Because this was a Prelim and not the actual trial, he was severely limited to what he could pursue, but nevertheless, he was able to get a fact “on the record” that I feared just might torpedo the entire case.
With the judge still steaming from what he considered was the witness’ “attitude problem” the defense attorney asked the following question:
“Mrs. Dawson, We learned earlier that my client was in your employ as a handyman at your adult social club, correct?
Brandy responded, “Yes, he did odd jobs.”
“Odd jobs, yes. Speaking of odd, can you confirm for us that you have a piercing? A piercing of a metal ring through your clitoris?”
The entire courtroom looked up at the witness in stunned silence.
The judge was the first to speak. “What did you just say?” He ordered the court reporter to read back the statement.
The court reporter, an older woman of about fifty, turned beet red as she read back the question.
“Odd jobs, yes. Speaking of odd, can you confirm for us that you have a piercing? A piercing of a metal ring through your clitoris?”
The prosecutor jumped to his feet. “Objection your honor. This is totally irrelevant and immaterial. Mrs. Dawson’s personal tastes have absolutely no bearing on the facts of this case.”
“Objection is overruled. The witness will answer the question.”
Brandy now in full defiance answered, “Yes I do. For five years, I’ve had it. Do you have a problem with that?”
Nick’s lawyer smiled at her, “Thank you, Mrs. Dawson. No further questions at this time.”
In what I can only conceive of as being his own personal prurient interests, certainly there was no legal basis for it, the Judge again held a recess. He ordered that Brandy Dawson be subjected to a “full body search” by a female deputy to determine if, in fact, she had a metal ring piercing her clitoris.
The deputy dutifully performed the search and was called and testified before the judge that, “Yes, the witness does have said ring in said clitoris.”
(While this may not seem particularly unusual today, imagine the effect it had on the judge and people in the courthouse some forty-years ago. Back then it was unheard of and simply beyond comprehension.)
I was called as the second witness and testified to driving to Yuma, recovering the body and submitted the Coroner’s protocol which established that the cause of death was due to suffocation/asphyxiation at the hands of another, a homicide.
The SID print man identified all three defendants’ fingerprints as being on the plastic bag which had been placed over the victim’s head and caused him to suffocate.
The judge, despite his obvious personal hostility and disgust for our star witness, really had no choice and bound all three defendants over for trial in Superior Court.
Two months later, I received a call from the prosecutor who had conducted the Preliminary Hearing.
He informed me that “there would be no trial.” His office had come to a plea bargain agreement with all three defendants through their attorneys. They were pleading to Second Degree Murder, and he expected they would serve about 12 years. I was upset.
“Twelve less a third off for good behavior—that means they won’t do more than eight years counselor. Eight years for what should be a capital case? How do you justify that? We can win it. What’s the problem?”
There was a long pause, and he finally responded. “Brandy Dawson. Brandy’s the problem detective. Their defense would have been that she was the ringleader and mastermind. Planned the whole thing herself. They were just “good soldiers, following her orders.” He hung up the phone.
I was steamed and angry, of course, that would be their defense. That had no other choice. Blame the victim. Not exactly original.
But, I also knew he was right. A full trial would have been a disaster. At best it would have probably resulted in the same outcome—at worst a hung jury.
It was a tradition at Hollywood Homicide to name your murders. I don’t know if they still do? It was first started by the press in the old old days. Back in the 1940s. The White Gardenia Murder, the Red Lipstick Murder, the Black Dahlia Murder.
Then, in the Sixties and Seventies, Hollywood Homicide detectives began choosing their own names. They were private, not for public consumption. Admittedly, many were of the locker room variety. Most cops back then were homophobic, so there was, “The Fag in the Bag Murder,” the girlfriend who was shot by her lover after a bicycle ride in Griffith Park was, “The Dyke on the Bike Murder.” The boyfriend/girlfriend dispute that wound up with him shooting her through the heart with an arrow fired from his crossbow became the “Take a Bow Murder” and so on.
This forty-year-old case, which included a real-life Femme Fatal, was one of my most unusual call outs. I called it, The Snake and Bake Murder.
In 2016, I was approached by author/screenwriter David Kukoff and asked if I would be willing to write a short story for an anthology on Los Angeles focused on the 1970s. I and twenty-eight other authors each contributed our unique personal fifty-year retrospective
I agreed and the book, Los Angeles in the 1970s: Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine (Rare Bird Books 2016), was published in November of that same year.
My chapter, “The Snake and Bake Murder,” tells a true-crime story I investigated in 1974 while I was assigned as a rookie homicide detective at LAPD’s Hollywood Homicide Division. That real-life murder case had it all, Hollywood Hills swinging sex pad, drugs, kidnapping, murder all centered around a beautiful Femme Fatale.
Presented here is my original extended version that was edited down in the 2016 publication due to space limitations.
Hope you enjoy the read.
LAPD Homicide Detective III Steve Hodel (ret.)
Los Angeles, California
Steve Hodel is a New York Times bestselling author. He spent twenty-four years with the LAPD, where, as a homicide detective, he worked on more than three hundred murder cases and achieved one of the highest “solve rates” in the force. He is a licensed PI and author and his first book, Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder was a New York Times bestseller and was nominated for an MWA Edgar Award in the Best Fact category. Steve has written three additional books: Most Evil, a Los Angeles Times bestseller, Black Dahlia Avenger II, a sequel and an eight-year follow-up to his true-crime investigations and the recently published Most Evil II (Rare Bird Books, 2015). A fifth book, Black Dahlia Avenger III: Murder as a Fine Art, is scheduled to publish in the summer of 2018. His investigations, now in their eighteenth year, have been featured on NBC Dateline, CBS 48 Hours, Court TV, A&E Bill Kurtis, Cold Case Files, CNN Anderson Coper, and the Discovery Channel. Steve resides in his hometown of Los Angeles.
Images courtesy of Steve Hodel, altered by Cartoonize.net.
4 thoughts on ““Hollywood Homicide in the Seventies: The Snake and Bake Murder” by Steve Hodel”
Hello my friend STEVE,WoW ones again a fabulous reading.I should know for have your books here as gifts from you. This one is great and yes, Would love tohave a signed copy haha.. Wishing you well my friend and thanks for the great reading. Be happy , stay healthy, Your friend in Croatia. Mirosalva Rozman Novakovic.
Lord almighty me, what a time and what a story – lived there as a kiddo that year before movinga, dad was a minister and a member of the church was Bud Shoenheit, the DA who gave chocolate and coffee to the Manson ‘girls’. Bet you both knew each other. Wow!