The Wonderland Murders: an Interview with Michael Connelly

The part that’s most interesting to me and that’s never really surfaced is what happened after the murders….

By Roger Leatherwood.

This week is the 40th anniversary of the infamous “Wonderland Murders,” in which 5 people were brutally beaten (only one survived) in a Laurel Canyon home at the center of a local drug and robbery ring. The horrific case continues to fascinate, in part because of the lack of convictions in the case, and the involvement of at least two famous people: porn star John Holmes who may or may not have been a participant in the murders, and Scott Thorson, Liberace’s companion during the early ‘80s, who became a de facto partner of Eddie Nash, the drug kingpin who was behind the murders.

Best-selling author Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer, the Bosch series among many others) was a journalist around that time and also remained fascinated about the case and what it revealed about the era. He’s researched the participants and uncovered previously confidential documents to co-create and write 6-hour podcast about the case and its cultural ramifications to appear exclusively on Audible July 1, 2021.

We were able to talk to Michael Connelly on the eve of the podcast being released.

Roger Leatherwood (RL): So I’ve heard the first 4 episodes of what I believe is 8 total. This podcast takes an interesting angle to the true-crime genre in that it tells the story of this crime in a portmanteau manner – with many voices, a mosaic, rather than going through the crime chronologically. Why did you chose to tell this story in such a fractured way?

Michael Connelly (MC): I guess you go with what you got, if you know what I mean. It’s a little chronological. But I was drawing as many voices as possible to give us an idea of what the world was like back then. It’s not just about the investigation, it’s where we were as a culture and so forth. I’m hoping there’s a little bit more of a deeper dive than a just-the-facts-ma’am reporting of a crime.

RL: You have the cops talking, newsmen, and reconstructed interviews.

MC: A lot of people were touched by this case.

RL: The biggest surprise, it seems to me, is Scott Thorson [Liberace’s former lover] is talking to you about his involvement with Nash. Has he ever talked publicly before?

MC: Sure, he has. He’s even testified in some trials. But I don’t think anyone’s done an extensive dive into his part. Because I had – I don’t know if it’s because it’s 40 years later and people are looser with their lips now, but I had cooperation with all the prosecutors and investigators, I was able to get files no one was able to get. Strategy documents, and I got an 80-page transcript with an interview – confidential interview between detectives and John Holmes. Something that’s never come out. This story is a well-trod path, we know that, there was even a Val Kilmer movie.

RL: I remember that. That one was also told in a Rashomon-style. It never really said who did the murders, or maybe they couldn’t at the time?

MC: And remember the movie was told before we knew all the facts. These are all different takes. A lot of stuff is taken as fact is not fact. It’s come out I have a big box of documents that have never come out. So I think calling it a portmanteau is a good description because there’s a lot of different things in there. And there’s a lot of things outside the investigation. Lots of people had a hand in the periphery of this – people like Heidi Fleiss will appear later in the podcast. It’s an interesting snapshot of a time. The part that’s most interesting to me.

RL:  You say it’s a snapshot of the ‘80s? This murder of 4 people?

MC: The part that’s most interesting to me and that’s never really surfaced is what happened after the murders. And when Scott Thorson and Nash kinda became partners and basically were on the ground floor of the crack epidemic. You know, Scott Thorson was cooking crack. What you think about what crack did to this city, this country, the lives wasted, the murders, the violence, the incarceration of so many young people. I think that’s a significant part of this story that’s never been told. That explains where we were going at the time.

RL: You talk about our fascination with the ‘80s serial killers but we haven’t seen quite the same kind of mindless violence. Do you think it has to do with the crack epidemic specifically? Do you have any thoughts on why we don’t see this kind of brutal senseless killing quite as much?

MC: You’re right, look, I’m not a sociologist, I’m a writer. I’m better known for my fiction than for my journalism. I do think the seeds of this is crack. Crack really changed this world. It filters out in ways we can’t immediately connect. Look, it’s extremely addicting. It changed the directions of so many paths. And some of them led to violence. And it strained our system. Strained the entire justice system. So that, the police had so much on their plate that, I think, you can make the case why serial killers slipped through the cracks and weren’t noticed for so long. Because everyone and everything in the justice system was strained to the limit.

RL: You do spend a certain amount of time with Detectives Souza and Lange [the original investigators of the case]. They’re fighting a system that isn’t helping them, and in fact potentially corrupt. Like the good guys in a very dark place. It’s Raymond Chandler-esque in that they’re the last good men in a bad world. They’re fighting against impossible odds.

MC: And this connects with what I do. I write fiction mostly about LAPD detective Harry Bosch in which one of the biggest obstacles he faces is his own department. And the kind of malaise and corruption he has to get around. And he’s relentless and it’s not a relentless system. And when you get to the fourth episode of this podcast, you find out these guys had LAPD trailing them and following them while they were trying to build a case and solve a case against a very dangerous person. It’s kind of incredible.

RL: It’s a great circle-back; they can’t escape, like they’re stuck in hell.

MC: It’s funny – I’ve interviewed prosecutors, I’ve interviewed investigators, all kinds of people on that side of the case and it’s a law enforcement saying but almost everyone of them said the exact same thing: “When a crime is committed in hell, you’re not going to find angels for witnesses.” And you know, it kind of speaks beyond the murders to the whole system at the time.

RL: That’s a great quote – just to point out – this is also so fascinating because of this collection of odd low-life people. John Holmes is such a feckless hanger-on, and he’s on the wrong side of his fame, and Scott Thorson has been abandoned by Liberace, his sugar daddy up to that point. There’s no masterminds or great caper. No grand scheme to it. There’s something fascinating about how these famous, or powerful people, in Hollywood specifically, how poorly they can behave.

MC: Do we think it’s just in that period? No, I doubt it. There’s evidence of that. When we were putting this together, my producers and I, we constantly were saying Thorson is the Joe Exotic of the ‘80s. These characters – the word feckless is just perfect not only for Holmes but Thorson as well. I mean – Holmes is long gone – he passed away some 30 odd years ago – but Thorson is the last man standing. And you’d think you’d be too ashamed to say hey I was on the ground floor of the crack epidemic. But there’s almost a pride in it. It’s almost like, I was there. It’s like, why don’t you step back. Do you really want to admit that you were there? You know, that you were putting crack cocaine in people’s hands. It’s weird. There’s a blind spot – that I find really interesting in some of these people.

RL: The more you learn, the less you like them.

MC: So at the same time you want to be somewhat removed from it. Luckily I did this during the pandemic and all these interviews were zooms. [laughs]

RL: One more question – this podcast is going to be on Audible – you already have a podcast called Murder Book, which is also a true-crime podcast. Why move to Audible? Is that a better place for this kind of thing? Does it change or increase the audience?

MC: Well, we made the podcast long before Audible wanted it. It just had to be separate from Murder Book largely because of some rights issues. Scott Thorson sold his life rights to HBO back when they made that movie where Matt Damon portrayed him [Behind the Candelabra, 2013]. We couldn’t do this under the banner of Murder Book. I will go back to Murder Book in the future, I’m sure. But this is a one-off.

RL: Is there anything else you want to mention about the podcast?

MC: I just think it’s interesting how – see, I’m a novelist, I’m known for that. I was also a journalist but I haven’t been a journalist for 25 years and so I’ve written 36 novels where the bad guys don’t get away. And all the details are nailed down and the loose ends are tied up. And that’s why people are drawn to crime novels. People do think it’s a chaotic world out there and if you can read this book where everything fits together and good triumphs, there’s something reassuring about that.

RL: That’s right, that’s why we go to movies too.

MC: If anyone’s a fan of my books, to now jump into this world where a) it’s 40 years later and people got away with murder, and b) no one was ever convicted. People were publicly accused and tried, but no one was convicted of murder. Eddie Nash finally pled guilty to conspiracy and got, like, a minor jail sentence. But there’s also unknown people. They didn’t do this alone. To kill 4 people in a house like that, it takes more than one or two people. And the police know that. And there’s that dark mystery all these years later and people got away with it. The loose ends are still loose. So it’s antithetical to what I do in my fiction and that’s why it remains so interesting.

Stream the podcast here.

Roger Leatherwood has worked in various aspects of the film industry for the last 40 years from production to exhibition, and studied film archiving at UCLA. He publishes a film-based blog at mondo-cine.blogspot.com and recently wrote about the fan-based archiving of the ephemera surrounding De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) for Bright Lights Film Journal.

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