Daniel Rakowitz- The Butcher of Tompkins Square Park

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Despite reading Bonfire of the Vanities, seeing news reports about “wilding” in Central Park, listening to Lou Reed’s New York album, and watching a 60 Minutes segment about the heroin epidemic in the city, I still moved to New York in late 1989.

I first visited the East Village shortly after I settled in New York. Geez, I thought, this place looks like Dresden after the bombing. You had to play hopscotch instead of walk to avoid all the dog shit and garbage on the sidewalk.

 Every odd character in the Tri-State area congregated in the East Village and the adjacent cesspool, “Alphabet City” (Avenues A –D). Of course, this area is now home to luxury condos and hipster shops. In the ’80 and early ‘90s, the East Village was filled with beatniks giving impromptu poetry readings, drug dealers, old hippies, punk rockers, Goths, sideshow freaks, pseudo-religious groups, and the homeless in their tents in Tompkins Square Park.

The bizarre crime du jour around this time was the murder of dancer Monica Beerle and the grotesque disposal of her body. Daniel Rakowitz, nicknamed “The Butcher of Tompkins Square”  killed his dancer roommate by punching her in the throat. He boiled her head, then made a soup from her brain and distributed it to the homeless in Tompkins Square Park. (One of the homeless men allegedly found a finger in his soup.) Then Rakowitz dismembered her and put a bucket containing her skull and her bones in a storage locker at Port Authority Bus Terminal.

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A transplant from a small town in Texas, Rakowitz came to the East Village in the early ‘80s. He sold meth and marijuana and walked around the Village with a rooster. He would sometimes serve chicken and potato soup to the homeless people in Tompkins Square Park.  He dabbled in Satanism and got involved with a group called The Church of the Realized Fantasy.

Not content with being a follower, he founded his own religion, the “Church of the 966”, which relied on animal sacrifice. Rakowitz sometimes left chicken blood on walls as a trademark for his religion.

Unsurprisingly, Rakowitz had a history of mental illness, and had received shock therapy and anti-psychotic medication as a child. (He refused to take this medication as an adult.) He had also watched his mother die in a hotel room in France. (His father married his wife’s sister three months later.)

Years after the crime, a friend of Daniel’s strict father called young Daniel a “mental case.” When Daniel was a teen, his father threw him out of the house. (It was about this time, according to the family friend, that Daniel got into the whole “Jesus thing.” When Rakowitz was 23, he married a 14 year old girl. (Apparently, this was legal in Texas at the time.)  Rakowitz beat his young wife, and would chain her to the refrigerator before he’d leave the house. He had also bragged to his wife about strangling a prostitute and decapitating a dog.

After moving to New York, Rakowitz answered an ad for a roommate, and stayed with a couple for a while. Unfortunately, when the couple broke up, Rakowitz was unable to secure a new lease on his own because he didn’t have a legitimate job. (Marijuana dealer in Tompkins Square Park didn’t count as a reference.)

He met Monika Beerle in Tompkins Square Park around this time, and she took on the lease. When they lived together, she dated other guys, and was somewhat of a free spirit, which Rakowitz didn’t like.  Beerle and Rakowitz may or may not have been boyfriend and girlfriend – it’s hard to tell whether they were romantically involved or just friends with benefits. Like Rakowitz, Beerle used drugs.

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Visitors to the apartment were greeted with a sign on the door that read “Welcome to Span Ranch East”. In the one widely-circulated photo of Rakowitz, he looks like an East Coast Charlie. When Beerle tried to kick him out of the apartment, he killed her.

He dissected her in a bathtub and made soup out of her brains. He tasted it, liked it, and thereafter referred to himself as a cannibal. He bragged about the murder to his friends in Tompkins Square Park. Eventually, some of the park’s inhabitants contacted police, who arrested Rakowitz on September 13, 1989, about a month after Monika Beerle’s murder.

Rakowitz confessed to police. (There’s an interview with Rakowitz available on Amazon.com. ) Along with a play-by-play description of how he dismembered the body, Rakowitz claimed Beerle killed his cat. (There was some suspicion that Rakowitz didn’t act alone in the dismembering and disposal of Monika’s body.)

In February 1991, Daniel Rakowitz went to trail for the murder of Monika Beerle. The jury found Rakowitz “not criminally responsible due to mental disease or defect” after nine days of deliberation. “I hope someday I can smoke a joint with y’all,’ he told the jury after the verdict. He also offered to smoke a joint with the judge.  The New York Times headline read “Man Acquitted of Killing, Boiling Roommate.”

Rakowitz was committed to the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center on Wards Island. He is a diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenic.

In 1992, a member of The Church of Realized Fantasy, Randy Eastherday, was arrested on charges that he helped Rakowitz kill Beerle and dissect her corpse. In a strange addendum to this bizarre crime, former Diner and Dirty Dancing actor turned journalist Max Cantor died of a heroin overdose while researching the case.

As of April 2020, Rakowitz is still in Kirby Forsenic Psychiatric Center, despite several requests to be transferred to a less secure facility over the years. (Rakowitz’s ex-wife testified at one of the hearings.)

There’s not much information available on Monika Beerle. She was from Switzerland, studied dance at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and worked at sleazy dive bar Billy’s Topless to pay the bills. Her father was deceased at the time of her death and her mother lived in Switzerland.

R.I.P Monika Berlee

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The Hubbard Woods School Shooting: The Bizarre and Tragic Life of Laurie Dann

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In May of 1988, Laurie Wasserman-Dann, a 30 year old woman from a well-to-do Chicago family, shot six  students at the Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, Illinois, killing eight year old Nicholas Corwin and critically injuring five others.

The Hubbard Woods shooting was the most highly publicized school shooting since the I Don’t Like Mondays school shooting in San Diego. In that 1979 shooting, a 16 year old girl, Brenda Spencer, shot and injured eight children and a police officer at an elementary school. She killed two adults, a janitor and the school principal. The shooting was the subject of the Boomtown Rats song, I Don’t Like Mondays. The title was based on Spencer’s alleged reason for the shooting. When a reporter asked her why she did it, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays.  This livens up the day.”

Laurie was an introverted girl, but had an uneventful childhood. Laurie was an awkward child, but her parents had the money to make her beautiful. Her parents paid to have her ears pinned while she was in elementary school, and later paid for a nose job.

After a few unsuccessful attempts earning a college degree, she met Russell Dann, an insurance executive, at a restaurant where she worked as a waitress. They got married, but the honeymoon was short-lived. Her behavior became more erratic. She stopped going out in public with her husband, sat around all day watching TV, and wouldn’t cook or do housework. After four years of marriage, the couple divorced.

After her marriage to Russell unraveled, Laurie took the $125,000 settlement and spent her time harassing Dann, various exes, and people in the neighborhood. She started living with her parents again.

In 1985, she stabbed Dann in his sleep with an ice pick. The ice pick missed his heart by an inch. The store clerk identified Laurie as the person who bought the ice pick. Laurie passed polygraph tests, however, and charges against her were dropped.

The FBI put her under surveillance after she made death threats to an ex-flame, but that didn’t stop her psychotic behavior. Laurie got baby-sitting jobs around her parent’s neighborhood in 1987. She didn’t do anything to harm the kids, but parents would come home to find that Laurie had slashed leather sofas or damaged other property. Still, she was hired for new baby-sitting jobs.

She moved into dorm room on the Northwestern campus in the summer, although she wasn’t a student. She stuffed student mailboxes with trash and filled her room with raw meat. Students and the building manager complained, and her father convinced her to come back home.

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Laurie’s downward spiral went out-of-control in 1988. Now living in a student residence at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she walked around the halls naked, and filled her room  with garbage and rotting meat. Finally, a building manager found her lying naked in a fetal position on a pile of garbage in the dorm’s trash room. Although police were called, she was able to convince them that she was all right.

Now, if that incident didn’t convince the police (and her parents) that she needed inpatient care what would? This blatant cry for help, if properly handled, could have prevented the carnage that followed. Still, Laurie’s parents got one more chance to get her the help she needed.

After more death threats to her doctor ex-boyfriend, officials in Arizona  contacted the FBI. The FBI then contacted Madison police and warned them that Laurie might have a gun. The local police went to the Wassermans’ home. Laurie’s father didn’t want to hand over the gun, saying she needed it for protection against her ex-husband. If he had surrendered the gun, it would have at least given the authorities more time to watch her and potentially stop the bloodshed.

Two days before the school shooting,the Arizona doctor told the U.S. District Attorney in Arizona  to delay an indictment for threatening phone calls Dann had made to him. He was concerned about his family’s safety.

 

The Day of the Shooting

On  May 20, 1988, the day of the shooting, Laurie delivered poisoned Rice Krispie treats and poisoned juice boxes at homes and frat houses. On May 22, 1988, Laurie drove to the home of the Rushes, former babysitting clients, to take their sons on one more outing before the family moved. She gave the boys tainted milk, but it tasted so bad they spit it out. She set a small fire at one school, and was chased away from a second school by an employee. She returned the boys to their home and set a small fire on the stairs. The family escaped.

The rampage continued with a shooting at the Hubbard Woods Elementary School. Laurie shot a boy in the stomach in a restroom before killing eight-year old Nicolas Corwin and wounding five other children in a classroom. She fled the school and ended up holding 20 year old Phillip Andrew and his family hostage.

Laurie used the excuse that she had been raped and had just shot her attacker. She held them for six hours, until she phoned her mother who urged her to turn herself in. Phillip and his family began to leave (Laurie had had allowed  this, but Philip wrestled the gun away from Laurie and she shot him the chest.)

Laurie then killed herself in an upstairs bedroom in the Andrews’ home.

Seven people were shot, and a young boy died. No one died from the poisoned treats or drinks, although a college student and one family pet became sick. (Both quickly recovered.)

 

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The Book and Made for TV Movie

The Laurie Dann case spawned a non-fiction book and made for TV movie, like many major crimes of the era.

The made-for TV movie Murder of Innocence starred Valerie Bertinelli in a rare dramatic role. I was surprised to see how well Valerie handled the material, since I’d never seen  her act in anything other than One Day at a Time or glitzy TV movies/mini-series (I’ll Take Manhattan, etc.).

Valerie was a little too attractive to play Laurie Dann, she but she got all the mannerisms of a mentally ill individual down, from the subtle to the bizarre.

Laurie was shown to be indecisive and nervous at the beginning of her relationship with Russell Dann, but those problems are common and easily remedied for most people with proper behavioral therapy.

In an early scene at a picnic, Laurie says she doesn’t know what she wants to eat and says she’ll have whatever Russell is having. At their wedding reception, she freezes, and can’t even read a prepared statement in front of the guests.

Russell Dann coached Bertinelli for the role, which would explain why Laurie’s descent into violence was so detailed and believable.

Could Involuntary Commitment Have Prevented This Tragedy?

 The shooting raised questions about committing mentally ill people without their consent. The debate still rages today, with no clear-cut answer. Even when authorities involuntary commit someone, there’s always room for error.

One problem seems to be that the people in charge of deciding who to institutionalize invariably make the wrong decision (or make the right one too late.) Sending non-violent mentally ill people to an institution and letting ones with a violent history go free, for whatever reason (family connections, clerical errors, emotional manipulation, etc.) is certainly a possibility in this system.

Russell Dann knew that Laurie had stabbed him, but the police never charged her for the reasons mentioned above.

Outsiders, the babysitters’ families, the people in the dorms, the police, the FBI, her ex-husband and boyfriends’ and their families had evidence that she was a danger to herself and others. But nothing became of these complaints.

I always found it odd that Laurie was hired as a babysitter. Back in the day, neighbors always gossiped about weirdos and stayed away from them, especially in a well-heeled community. However, there was no internet or social media then, so the gossip couldn’t travel too far.

No one listened to Russell Dann, who probably tried to help her more than anyone, because she was his ex-wife. Everyone’s ex-wife is crazy, right? So the police may not have pursued the case seriously enough. Laurie’s parents were in Florida a lot, and didn’t seem to care that she was on her own most of the time.

A psychiatrist in Madison wanted to institutionalize her, but her parents refused to listen to him. Laurie went to several doctors, and there appeared to be no communication between them. Therefore, she may have received prescriptions for contraindicated drugs. This only made her condition worse.

The book, Murder of Innocence, was originally published in 1990, and the made for TV movie was released in 1993.  You don’t hear about this case anymore, except for the occasional podcast or true crime blog. At the time it happened, this type of crime was almost incomprehensible because it involved a young woman killing children in a school.

But the case was also unusual because of all the missed opportunities to prevent the tragedy. The police, the doctors, Laurie’s parents, college security, and others all saw red flags for years. Yet she was left free to do whatever she wanted.

A legal podcast from the Chicago Bar Association featured an interview with Murder of Innocence author Eric Zorn, and raised many excellent points. Would the police have taken Laurie’s violent behavior more seriously if she had been a man?

 

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The book highlights time and time again, the parents’ refusal to institutionalize Laurie. Even though she was too much for them to handle, they responded by sweeping problems under the rug. Their ongoing denials allowed Laurie’s illness to fester until it exploded.

A wealthy or upper middle class family can use their money, not only for medical and psychiatric help, but to move the adult child around from place to place after their illness has caused problems with a particular neighborhood or school.  We see this in the Dann case, but also with the cases of other mass shooters, such as the Sandy Hook shooter, who was protected by a doting mother.

A poor or lower middle class family can’t financially support, or “hide” a child with a severe mental illness. The child may be kicked out of the home to live on the streets, or sent to a group home or other public program.

I lived with a mentally ill roommate and it was frightening – and she was on medication. (As far as I knew she did take her medication as prescribed.) It was hard to tell if the medication made her better or worse.

Eventually, neighbors and friends described the situation as “Single White Female.” The movie was released a few years before I unwittingly entered this situation, and there were a few life imitates art scenarios. One evening, I was walking home from the subway, and I swear I saw my roommate directly across the street from me, wearing an outfit that looked exactly like mine.

I’m not sure what happened when I got home – I don’t remember if she was there or not, but I was freaked out for the rest of the time we were roommates. After she moved out, I choose the most sedate and conservative-looking girl I could find as my next roommate.

Of course, it’s one thing if a person is a little weird or has depression or anxiety, but stalking or violent behavior isn’t something to be ignored. The Hubbard Woods school shooting  brought up so many questions in 1988 – about involuntarily committing the mentally ill, gun control, and protecting schoolchildren.

That was almost 32 years ago, and  these questions still remain.  School shootings aren’t an anomaly anymore, they’re practically a weekly occurrence.  Many times, these shootings don’t even merit a headline on many websites. And there are more mentally ill people than ever who don’t get the help they need, many of them living on the streets in big cities. People still argue about gun control, but it’s easier than ever for criminals and people with mental problems to buy guns.

Phil Andrew grew up to be an FBI agent and currently heads the anti-violence program for the Chicago Catholic Church.

R.I.P Nick Corwin

A park in Winnetka was renamed for Nicholas Corwin in late 1988.

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The Disappearance of Billy DeSousa

 

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While researching the Grimes sisters story, I discovered a crime that hit even closer to home. Ten-year old Billy DeSousa attended a carnival in the parking lot of the Scottsdale Shopping Center in Chicago in June 1972. He didn’t return home, and was never seen again.  Billy was a student at a Catholic grammar school I once attended, and my family probably attended the same carnival. A massive search ensued for weeks after the carnival, but the police were unable to find Billy.

According to several news sources, the boy’s skeleton was finally found in 1975 in a tree hollow in Palos or Orland Park. For all I know, that tree could have been located near the property where someone I know now lives. Although some people surmised that the boy had been one of Gacy’s early victims, the serial killer Charles E. Pierce confessed to the murder shortly before he died. William “Freight Train” Guatney, a carnival worker in that area in the early 1970s, was another suspect, but he was never charged. Like many similar cases in the 1960s and 1970s, it was never officially solved.

According to the February 5, 1975 issue of a local newspaper:

“Two and one-half years of waiting by Donald and Isabelle DeSousa came to an end this week when the body of their 10-year-old son, Billy, was found in a remote section of forest preserve near Palos Park.

The remains were skeletal and he was identified by clothing and possessions, including a key which opened Billy’s bike lock.”

In those days, no one talked about the few crimes that occurred in the area. Neighbors didn’t leave flowers, candles, and stuffed animals at the family’s home like they do today. The disappearance and discovery of Billy’s remains weren’t mentioned in the community at all, except by parents behind closed doors. I found a message board post from a classmate of Billy’s who stated that the nuns at the Catholic grammar school Billy attended never mentioned anything about the disappearance.

Everyone in the community knew each other, although some neighbors were friendlier than others. Shop owners, teachers, policemen, and firemen lived in the same neighborhood. There was no apparent crime or danger – no street gangs, graffiti, or any visible crime, not even litter or an unmowed lawn. Children played outside unsupervised until dinnertime. In the summers, they played outside at night until the streetlights came on without fear of foul play.

That’s why Billy’s disappearance came as a shock. Such a crime was incomprehensible, and the adults didn’t know how to process the reality of it or address it.

If a kid asked why their classmate hadn’t been in school, it seemed like the kind of situation where the adult would say, “He transferred to another school” or “Mind your own business.” Even marginally unpleasant things weren’t addressed between adults, much less to children, at that time, in that neighborhood. (I think that’s still the attitude in many Midwestern bedroom communities today.)

Rest in peace, Billy DeSousa.

Here is a link to a message board discussion about the case on Websleuths.

The Unsolved Murder of the Grimes Sisters

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Two teenage sisters, Barbara and Patricia Grimes, left their home in the McKinley Park neighborhood of Chicago on the night of December 28, 1956 to see “Love Me Tender”, Elvis Presley’s hit movie, at the Brighton Theater on Archer Avenue. The sisters were Elvis fanatics, and had seen the movie about a dozen times. They stayed at the Brighton to see the movie two more times that night.

The girls were supposed to arrive home by city bus right after the movie, but they never returned. Their mother Loretta called the police at two the next morning after contacting the girl’s friends and sending their siblings out to find them. The police didn’t take Loretta’s concerns seriously at first, reasoning that the girls had run away and would return on their own.

Eventually, the police discarded the runaway theory and one of the most intense searches in the history of the Chicago Police Department. About 2000 people were seriously questioned by the department, and police conducted door-to-door canvassing in the neighborhood.

There were hundreds of alleged sightings of the girls, but none of them provided any substantial leads. Some people claimed they saw the girls drinking at local bars. Barbara was 15 and Patricia was 12. Even in the lax days of the 1950s, it seems improbable that bar owners would let young teens hang out in their taverns drinking alcohol with men twice their age. And given the way working class South Side girls were raised in that era, it’s highly unlikely the girls ever drank alcohol or even had “gone all the way” with any boyfriends, if they did indeed have boyfriends.

The sightings of the sisters around the city may have been due to hysteria surrounding the case. Chicago had already seen high-profile child abduction cases throughout the ‘50s, but the Grimes case proved to be the most publicized and bizarre one of all.

Advice columnist Ann Landers received an anonymous letter claiming the girls were forced into a car by a young man. The letter was never authenticated and police weren’t able to find the car. Elvis recorded a plea to the girls, imploring them to call their mother if they had run away.

 

 

The autopsy placed the death at no more than five hours after the girls left the theatre. The cause of death was listed as secondary shock. There was some controversy about the cause of death, as Harry Glos, the Cook County Chief Investigator at the Coroner’s Office, believed the girls had been held captive and sexually assaulted, and had not died shortly after returning from the theater.

A few years ago, a local CBS news affiliate reported contacting a man in his 70s who knew the whole story but didn’t want to elaborate because so much time had passed. It would be interesting to hear what he knows.

On January 22nd, 1958, a construction worker named Leonard Prescott saw what he thought were mannequins just off German Church Road. Police were called, and recovered the nude bodies of Patricia and Barbara Grimes. The bodies had been hidden by the snow for several weeks.

Bennie Bedwell, a borderline mentally challenged man, was questioned by the police and arrested. A confession was coerced out of him. It was easier to coerce confessions out of people in the 1950s, as detectives were pressured to find a suspect by the public, and suspects had little knowledge of their rights.

There were several other suspects at the time, but they had tenuous links to the sisters or the murders at best. That is until 1958, when Bonnie Leigh Scott, another teenage girl, was found dead in a suburban Chicago forest preserve.

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Where the Grimes sisters’ bodies were found, Willow Springs

The Connection Between the Scott Murder and the Grimes Sisters Murders

Loretta received ransom notes, and a phone call from someone bragging about the crime. The caller said he knew that one of the girls crossed her toes when she was nervous. Was this caller Charles Melquist, the convicted murderer of Bonnie Leigh Scott, or some random sicko? I wouldn’t doubt that Melquist was the caller.

The Grimes case is a prime example of a case that suffered from antiquated police procedures and societal attitudes. The police initially dismissed Loretta’s missing person report, and assumed the girls had just run away. Caller ID or call tracing could have identified Melquist as the creepy telephone caller. Even without these modern police techniques, it’s hard to believe that the cops didn’t question Melquist about the Grimes sisters after he was arrested or soon after the Scott killing. However, Melquist’s attorney at the time, didn’t allow him to talk to police. (And probably for  good reason.)

Melquist’s modus operandi in the Bonnie Leigh Scott murder was similar to the Grimes murders. Bonnie was a 15 year girl who had been killed and decapitated in September 1958. Her nude body was dumped ten miles from where the Grimes sisters’ bodies were found.  A group of Boy Scouts on a hike discovered the body in the Argonne Woods off LaGrange Road.

Bonnie, unlike the Grimes sisters, had run away from home before, and occasionally skipped school, so the police had a legitimate reason for not jumping on the case right away.

Bonnie’s parents were in the midst of a divorce, and she lived with her aunt, uncle and grandmother. The Grimes sisters’ parents were also divorced. In the late 1950s, few people got divorced. Maybe the killer had targeted the Grimes and Scott because he knew they were vulnerable children of divorce.

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The few photos of Melquist are pretty creepy. (Like the Grimes sisters and Scott, he looks a lot older in photos than he actually was.)

He dumped the body over the guardrail, and then came back to mutilate and decapitate the body. The knife he had used was never found. He confessed to the murder, but later recanted after he hired an attorney. His excuse for the murders now had to with some sort of psychic manipulation.  The jury seated on his trial wasn’t having it, and he was convicted.

Melquist served 11 years of a 99 year sentence. He died in 2010. It’s perplexing that he was released so early (Why? “Good behavior?”), and that researchers never explored the connection between the phone call Mrs. Grimes received from the caller with the chilling voice and Melquist. After all, Melquist had called up Bonnie’s guardians after her murder, albeit not with the same creepy information.

 

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Melquist has always been unofficially linked with the Grimes case.  Some researchers believe that he also murdered the Grimes sisters. Even amateur sleuths would agree that Melquist was a likely suspect. He had the phone numbers of neighbors of the Grimes sisters, so it’s possible he found out about Barbara and Patricia through them.

Raymond Johnson, a retired Chicago Heights police detective, has written and v-logged extensively about the case and has a Facebook group dedicated to the Grimes sisters’ murders and strange Chicago crimes. He believes that Melquist committed the crime, but that he had accomplices.

I’m not sure about the accomplice theory. No hard evidence points that way, and (to my knowledge), there were few crimes of this nature that involved more than a lone psycho in that ‘50s. Occasionally, there were cases with an obvious accomplice, but any team effort in this case remains a mystery.

The entire Willow Springs area today looks green and clean today, perfect for biking and jogging, and you’d never guess the entire southwest suburban area is home to several freaky backstories. America’s most haunted cemetery, Bachelor’s Grove, is located in Bremen Township, close to Oak Forest. (I passed by it many times on my recent trip to the Southwest Suburbs, but didn’t get a chance to explore it.)

There have been sightings of a ghost called Resurrection Mary in the area for decades, especially in the 1970s. Resurrection Mary is said to be the ghost of a woman who was first seen in the 1930s. A young man danced with her at a local dance hall (the now demolished Oh Henry, later Willowbrook, Ballroom) and then drove her home – the woman directed him to Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, where she disappeared.

But back to the Grimes sisters. A house close to the spot where the Grimes sisters were found was abandoned shortly after the police recovered the bodies. It’s not known if the inhabitants were involved in the murder or just freaked out that the bodies were discovered nearby.

Maybe public records could show who owned he house at the time and give us some ideas as to why they left so quickly. A house near the site where the bodies were found burned down in the 1980s. (It may or may not have been the abandoned house.)

(Source: http://www.hauntdetective.com/hauntings-legends-folklore/chicago/southside/66-grimes-girls)

Loretta Grimes died in 1989 at the age of 83 without ever knowing who killed her daughters.

Teen Girls Who Murdered Their Parents (1970s)-Marlene Olive/The Barbecue Pit Murders

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About a year before the Columbo murders, on June 28, 1975, the Barbecue Murders took place in the toney Terra Linda neighborhood in San Rafael, Marin County, California. Sixteen year old Marlene Olive didn’t actually kill her parents, but she convinced her submissive boyfriend, Chuck Riley, to off her abusive, alcoholic mother, Naomi. Chuck was an overweight, small-time drug dealer who never had a real girlfriend before  – so he’d do anything for sexy, dangerous Marlene.

This case has some similarities to the Manson murders in that a manipulative individual (Marlene), used sex and charisma to get a naive misfit (Chuck) to do her bidding. Charlie used the same method with his “lost” girls.

Marlene Olive was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1959 and given up for adoption by her single mother. A middle aged couple, Jim and Naomi Olive, adopted her. The family lived in Ecuador when she was a child. Jim Olive had a high-paying job at an oil company. The family had servants and Jim treated little Marlene like a princess.

Naomi, however, became paranoid living in the lap of luxury. She began drinking heavily and had seizures. When Marlene was ten years old, she found adoption papers in her father’s office. Hurt and confused, she wondered why her biological mother didn’t want her.

Bad Girl

Lots of teen girls were fascinated with the occult, LSD, wild sex, and related subjects in the early ‘70s. A whole genre of TV movies catered to the “teenage girl as deviant seductress or victim of perverts/the devil/drugs” crowd. It’s interesting to note that many of these movies were released before “The Exorcist”.

Marlene acted on the messages in the sleazy pop culture of the time, instead of merely being fascinated by them. When her family moved to northern California, Marlene, now in junior high, fell in with a slutty crowd. She did drugs, slept around, and dressed up as a glam rocker. She dabbled in sex work and witchcraft. Her platform shoes and tight skirts infuriated her mother. Naomi verbally abused Marlene, berated her, and called her a whore.

At one point, Naomi, in a totally psychotic state, walked around naked in front of Marlene, and taunted her. “You real mother was a whore,” she said.

Jim didn’t spend much time with Marlene. He did try to protect and comfort Naomi, which made Marlene angry.

I wonder if Jim ever tried to get Naomi treatment for her alcoholism or mental illness. It doesn’t appear so, from everything I’ve read. Even if he had, the treatments for paranoid schizophrenia in the 1970s were pretty ineffective, and at best would have turned her into a zombie.

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Master and Slave

Marlene met 19 year old high school dropout Chuck Riley when she was 15. He was instantly smitten with her and she knew she had an easy mark.  She relented to his advances after initially rebuffing him when he brought her free drugs and expensive presents he had shoplifted.

Riley and Marlene became a couple, with Marlene as the master and Riley as the slave. Riley did as she commanded, and she rewarded him with sex.

Marlene started shoplifting and used her parents’ credit cards. Chuck committed burglaries and gave Marlene the bounty. This strained Jim and Naomi’s relationship and exacerbated Naomi’s alcoholism and mental illness.

Marlene and Riley once stole $6,000 in merchandise (mostly women’s clothing). Jim bailed the couple out of jail. He threatened to send Marlene to a juvenile facility after this incident. And, as in the Columbo case, the father warned the no-good boyfriend to stay away from his daughter. (Jim didn’t knock out Riley’s teeth, however, like Frank Columbo did to Frank DeLuca.)

Back at home, Marlene got into a bitter fight with Naomi. Afterward, Marlene called Chuck and said, “We’ve got to kill that bitch today.” Of course, obedient lap dog Chuck followed Marlene’s orders. He went to the Olives’ house to kill Naomi while Marlene went out shopping with her father.

(Marlene had once tried to kill Naomi by crushing up prescription medicine and putting it in her food, but Naomi refused to eat the food because it was too bitter.)

LSD-addled Chuck hit Naomi in the head with a hammer and strangled her. She still moved around in bed and he panicked. He ran to the kitchen and returned with a steak knife and stabbed her. He had a gun, but didn’t want to use it because the noise might alert the neighbors.

Marlene had only wanted Naomi dead, but things didn’t go according to plan. She returned home with Jim to find a blood-drenched Chuck still struggling to kill Naomi.

Jim tried to kill him with the steak knife, but Chuck shot him four times, killing him. Some people believe that Marlene killed Naomi instead. The savagery of the murder seemed more in line with a personal vendetta. However, the facts and timeline of the case make this unlikely. (Naomi actually liked Chuck and thought he was a nice, quiet  young man – at least before Marlene got to him.)

The couple drove to China Camp State Park, and burned the bodies in a barbecue pit. The next day, firefighters extinguished the blaze and mistook the charred remains in the pit for animals.

Marlene and Chuck went back home, and a friend helped clean up the blood. They bragged about the murders to friends. Marlene and Chuck then spent four days living in the house partying, going to concerts, and ordering meals on her deceased parents’ credit cards.

Worried associates called the police when Jim Olive hadn’t shown up for business meetings for a week.

The cops couldn’t find the couple or their teenage daughter, but Marlene came to the police station with a bunch of conflicting stories. She told the officers her parents had gone on a vacation and not returned, and then said the Hells’ Angels had kidnapped and killed them.

Finally, she lead the detectives to the firepit where she and Riley burned her parents’ bodies.

Since Marlene was a minor (16) at the time of the murders, she was sentenced to two years in a juvenile detention facility, and then spent a few months in another center before her release (minus the time she escaped to become a prostitute in New York).

Riley wasn’t so lucky. He was charged with two counts of murder and found guilty. He was originally sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life in prison after California abolished the death penalty in December 1976. Riley earned his high school and college degrees while incarcerated. He was paroled in December 2015.

Marlene visited Riley in prison in 1980 or 1981. It was the last time they saw each other.

Maybe I wouldn’t be writing about this bizarre tale today if Naomi had been properly treated for her mental illness, or if screening procedures for adoptive parents were more thorough. (An alcoholic, mentally ill woman isn’t the best choice to raise an adopted infant.)

Maybe Marlene would have turned into a murderous teen even if the family had stayed in Ecuador, or if she’d been adopted by younger, more stable, parents. She may have been just a “bad seed.”

The out-of-print book Bad Blood, written in 1983, is the only published, longform account of the murders. The book consists of research based on interviews with Marlene, Riley, friends, relatives, lawyers and teachers. I compiled information about this case from researching blogs, news reports, Wikipedia, and the book Bad Blood.

The Barbecue Murders were also featured in Killer Kids, a Canadian documentary series originally broadcast on The Biography Channel/FYI.

After Marlene was set free, she continued with a life of crime in the Los Angeles area. She now specialized in check forgery, and has been in and out of prison ever since. Her last known conviction was in 2003. There are no current reports on her whereabouts as of September 2019.

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Teen Girls Who Murdered Their Parents (1970s) – Patty Columbo

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Before the Gacy Murders and after the Speck Murders, the murders of Frank, Mary and Michael Columbo shocked the Chicago area. The Elk Grove Village, Il. police entered the family’s home on May 7, 1976 to find auto parts salesman Frank Columbo, his wife Mary, and their 13-year old son Michael brutally murdered.

Frank had been shot and his skull was crushed with a lamp. Mary had been shot and had her throat slit. Michael had almost a hundred stab wounds.

After ruling out robbery or a Mafia hit, the police arrested Patty Columbo, Frank and Mary’s 19 year old daughter and Michael’s sister. The cops arrested her lover, Frank DeLuca, a few months later.

She met Frank DeLuca, a married man with five kids, when she was in high school and he was in his late 30s. She soon began working at the cosmetics counter in the same Walgreens where he worked as a pharmacist. They carried on a seedy affair for a few years. (DeLuca was a swinger and even subscribed to a swinger’s lifestyle magazine.) At one point, Patty lived with the Delucas and had sex with him while his wife and kids were frolicking in the backyard.

She showed her classmates photos of her having sex with DeLuca’s dog. (What the hell was the deal with girls and dogs in the ‘70s? Linda Lovelace did a “loop” (short film) with a dog, and half the sleazy paperbacks in the back section of downtown Chicago  bookstores were about Nazi girls and German Shepards.)

Patty had amassed a few non-sexual offenses as well. She racked up thousands of dollars in charges on stolen credit cards, and her father paid them off for her. Eventually, Frank Columbo paid for an apartment for Patty. When he found out DeLuca had moved in with her, he confronted the couple in a parking lot. Frank knocked out a few of DeLuca’s teeth with the butt end of a rifle.

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Photo of Columbo home via Murderpedia.com

Shortly after this incident, Patty and DeLuca decided to off her family for her inheritance money. ( Her parents had written her out of their wills by this time, unbeknownst to Patty.) She hired some “hit men” at a bar, but they backed out of the deal, after they had sex with her and absconded with $2,000.

Patty and DeLuca snuck into the home and shot Frank and Mary. Patty stabbed her brother so many times with a scissors the first police on the scene thought he has the measles. Patty and DeLuca turned the thermostat to almost 100 degrees to make the bodies decompose faster.

The cops first entered the house to question Frank Columbo when they found his car in a bad neighborhood on the West Side. Patty and DeLuca had taken Frank’s car and deposited it in a bad neighborhood to make it look like a street gang had committed the crime.

The police were suspicious of Patty from the start, as she came to the police station with theories about who killed her family, instead of crying or asking questions about what happened. The cops sent a good-looking officer to the services to possibly ensnare the oversexed Patty and get the truth out of her. As expected, she flirted with the cop and feigned grief while throwing herself at the coffins.

A friend told police about the hit men Patty had contacted, and a few of DeLuca’s employees told investigators that they’d seen him burning bloody clothes the day after the murder. He threatened their families to keep them quiet.

Eight days after the murders, Patty was charged with three courts of first degree murder. (DeLuca wasn’t charged until a few months later.)

By the summer of 1977, they were convicted and sentenced to several life sentences. Patty and DeLuca went to separate prisons, and have had no contact since the trial.

DeLuca and Columbo weren’t finished with criminal activities even after going to jail.
DeLuca threatened to have certain witnesses killed by fellow prisoners while he was in jail awaiting trial. Columbo ran a prostitution ring in the Dwight Correctional Center in the ‘80s, and pimped out prisoners to guards. Since then, she’s been a model prisoner, and has earned a Bachelor’s degree.

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Frank DeLuca – Photo via Daily Herald.com

DeLuca and Columbo are still incarcerated as of 2019.

When Murder in the Suburbs Was a New Thing

The Columbos lived in a middle-class bedroom community, and the neighbors weren’t forthcoming with any information about the family or the murders. Petty crime was unheard of in the ‘burbs in 1976, much less parricide. Maybe today, people are willing to go viral and bask in the infamy of a local crime, but back then, most people didn’t want anything to do with such heinous acts.

My girlfriends and I were a few years younger than Patty, and we lived in the same sort of Chicago-area bedroom community, with Old-World Italian, Irish, or Polish parents. Our neighborhoods were bereft of predatory married men. We played our Led Zeppelin albums too loud and smoked pot behind the bleachers, but that was the extent of our sleazy rebellion against Mom and Dad. I don’t think most of us lost our virginity until the summer after high school. Yep, we were raised Catholic and stuck to it, at least until we graduated.

The story of Patty Columbo may just as well have occurred in Beverly Hills or Timbuktu, not in a nearby cookie-cutter suburb. We all worked at stores or restaurants, and couldn’t believe someone who worked at a Walgreens (just like some of us did) could commit murder. It all seemed so unreal.

While the investigation and trial were covered extensively by local media, we weren’t very interested in the salacious details, and concentrated instead on our albums and teen magazines. You can’t find much about the killings online today, and the only documentary I could find was on an episode of Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Women.  I found a few podcasts with mentions of the case, but they weren’t very in-depth.

Two books about the murders were published in the 1990s. (Both books are long out-of-print.)

Love’s Blood by Clark Howard (1994) traces the story from Patty’s point of view. She tells the author that she was allegedly abused by a friend of the family in his candy truck as a child. The well-written book draws you in from the first paragraph about the Columbos’ poodle guarding Mary Columbo’s body before the police uncover the murders. As the book progress, Clark interviews Columbo, and it becomes apparent that the author is somewhat infatuated with his subject.

Bonnie Remsberg’s Mom, Dad, Mike and Pattie (1992) has none of the sensationalism of Clark’s book. The book focuses more on the victims, the dynamics between family members during their lives, and the police investigation.

A few years after the Columbo murders, the police arrested John Gacy, with the excavation of his victims’ bodies covered on live TV. We couldn’t ignore the horror hidden away in the suburbs anymore, even if we changed the TV station. It was there, right in front of  us, a precursor to 24/7 true crime on the internet and cable TV.

P.S. – A drawing of Columbo (and Marlene Olive, a teen murderer turned hooker from CA) was featured in this art exhibit.

More photos from the Columbo case are posted at DailyHerald.com

Review- Helter Skelter Made for TV Movie, 1976

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One of the best true crime movies ever made, the original, made-for TV version of Helter Skelter was first aired in 1976. There have been dozens of dramatic versions of the murders and Vincent Bugliosi’s book since then. This version remains the most popular – and frightening – film based on the best-selling book.

 The sense of foreboding is firmly in place from the opening narration. “One of the killers would later say, the murders took place on “a night so quiet you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon,” The narration is followed by a woman waking up in her bed, barking dogs, and a couple drinking cocktails in their backyard. The wife thinks she hears gunshots, but the husband sloughs it off and says “Let’s go to bed.”

The L.A. cops bumble almost from the beginning, as one cop presses the button that opens the Tate house gate without gloves. (And then there’s the kid who finds Charlie’s gun in the backyard, which the LAPD tags and forgets about for months, and the TV crew that finds the killers’ bloody clothes.)

George DiCenzo plays prosecutor Vincent Bugolsi in a no-nonsense way, as he plows through the case, despite death threats from the Family. In real life, he was more of a firebrand, but the performance is a fulcrum to the craziness of the other participants. Bugolsi is onto Manson’s modus operandi from the start.

 Steve Railsback was so spot-on in his portrayal of Manson, he was typecast and never graduated from playing heavies in  B and C films for the rest of his career. He was up for the part of the villain in Lethal Weapon, but Gary Busey got it instead. When you see Railsback, it’s often impossible to tell that you’re not looking at or listening to the real Manson. He even got the wild eyes down perfectly.

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Nancy Wolfe played Susan Atkins, aka Sadie, as a smug, laconic killer, and her performance is chilling even during repeated viewings. She nailed Atkins’ look and baby voice. The grisly details of the murders are made more chilling by Wolfe’s/ Atkins’ matter-of-fact delivery.

A theater actor, Wolfe has had roles in a few short films and on the stage over the past few decades.

Marilyn Burns, better known for the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, has one powerhouse scene on the witness stand. As Linda Kasabian, she stands up to Charlie, and its her testimony that helped convict him and the others.

 

 

All the girls are constantly mad at Buglosi and the “pigs”, snarling at prosecutors and the prison guards.

The interviews Bugliosi conducted for the case are accurately recreated. When Buglosi interviews Paul Watkins, Manson’s former lieutenant, the exchange reveals Charlie’s entire “race war” plan. As you watch Watkins (Jason Ronard) talk, you wonder how such an intelligent guy ended up with the Manson family.

“You seem like an independent sort of guy, not just a follower, yet you stayed with the family for a long time. Was it the girls, or was there some other reason?” Bugliosi asks.

“Because Charlie was Christ”, Watkins replies to a shocked Bugliosi.

Interesting side note- Watkins’ daughter is a Guggenheim fellow and author of an award-winning book of short stories.

There’s a scene where Charlie and the girls are on a bus to jail for Grand Theft Auto – before anyone knows the Family was involved in the Tate murders.  Charlie leads the family in a sing-along, which sounds much more ominous than 99 Bottles of Beer on the wall. Right here, near the beginning of the film, we see how he has total control of his followers.

Even the brief scenes of the girls in front of the courthouse are creepy. The girls made a vest for Charlie containing locks of their hair, embroidering it outside the courthouse, and we see Charlie wearing this vest in a few of the courtroom scenes.

Manson’s attorney, Irving Kanarek  (renamed Everett Scoville for the film) was a controversial lawyer who used constant objections and delays, even in his pre-Manson cases. In one case, Kanarek objected to a witness stating his name because the witness had first heard it from his mother, according to Bugliosi in the book Helter Skelter. Kanarek/Scoville was played by American character actor Howard Caine.

Since the movie was made in the mid-70s, the actors still have that authentic hippie/counterculture look. The clothes and hairstyles in the modern fictionalized Manson movies look cleaner and more “hipster” looking as the years pass. If you were around in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, you can tell the difference.  Even the biker characters look every bit as dirty as their real-life counterparts.

 Today’s films and books about Manson and The Family often have an agenda. They want to prove that the race wars theory was fake, or that the still-incarcerated Watson, Krenwinkel and Van Houten are political prisoners, etc. Strict retellings only capture the public’s attention for so long.

While some people looked at Manson as a criminal mastermind, the devil, or Jesus Christ, Bugliosi knew the truth. “His troubadour act is part of a con to get us to underestimate him,” Bugliosi says during one of his first in-court glimpses of Charlie. During the last scene, when Charlie talks to Bugliosi for the last time before being taken back to prison, he says “I almost did it. I almost pulled it off” (referring to the race war).

“No, Charlie, you took a bunch of sad kids and played jailhouse games on them.”

Many films and TV shows people found frightening as kids seem tame or boring when you see them as an adult. Helter Skelter has some of the over the top background music prevalent in 1970s horror movies and occasional jarring editing, meant to make the film more menacing. These effects may seem silly to some viewers, and add to the intensity for others.

The courtroom scenes still scare me even after four decades – when Charlie leaps at the judge, for example, and Sadie/Leslie/Patty’s orchestrated outbursts.

This made for TV movie was broadcast in two parts on CBS in 1976, on April 1 and 2.  Some affiliates showed the movie late at night, while a few refused to show it. Many sponsors refused to advertise during the movie. It’s hard to believe the movie caused such a ruckus; while disturbing, it was hardly explicit or gory. The verbal descriptions of the murder scene (and a few brief shots of bloody bodies) were enough to scare off advertisers and some viewers.

The second made-for TV version of Helter Skelter, starring Jeremy Davis as Manson,  released in 2004, features more details about Manson and life in the Family. Ultimately, it wasn’t as well-received as the 1976 version, and garnered an average three-star rating  on IMDB.

Helter Skelter is available on DVD and Amazon Prime.

 

 

 

How the Front Door from 10050 Cielo Drive Ended up in New Orleans

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When I lived in New Orleans from late 1994 to the summer of 1995, industrial music and Goth kids inundated the Quarter. Lots of black hair dye, black lace, Doc Martens, and eyeliner everywhere, despite the humidity. Many of the kids traipsed uptown on a pilgrimage to Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails’ Nothing Studios. “He’s got the door! He’s got the Tate door,” they’d say. It was the scuttlebutt around the French Quarter.

Did these kids even know why they were so excited? I doubt any of them were old enough to realize what “the door” really represented. They seemed to have a vague idea that the door came from a house where a gruesome murder took place, and that was the extent of their knowledge.

It was the front door to the house at 10050 Cielo Drive, where Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski, were murdered on Aug 9, 1969. The murderers wrote PIG in Tate’s blood on the doors. Of course, by the time Reznor rented the house, the door looked like any white door with nine small window panes you’d find at Home Depot.

Nine Inch Nails recorded The Downward Spiral at the Tate House, which Reznor rented in 1992 and 1993.  He said in one interview that he had no idea it was the Tate house -he just liked the way it looked. That’s hard to believe, given Reznor’s musical and video output at the time. Anyone with even a vague interest in the macabre or gory true crime would surely recognize the address?

When Reznor had a chance meeting with Sharon’s sister, Debra Tate, his story changed. His explanation for why he rented the house? “It was just my interest in American folklore.” The encounter made him have second thoughts about living in the house. However, he allegedly took the front door with him when he left. (The recording studio at 10050 Cielo Drive was sometimes referred to as “Pig” or “Le Pig” Studios.)

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Photos of Nothing Studios in New Orleans seem to confirm this rumor. The Tate residence was demolished in 1994 and the address – 10050 Cielo Drive-doesn’t exist anymore. Nothing Studios fell into disrepair until the current owner bought it. The property is now slated for redevelopment.

New Orleans in the mid-90s was a magnet for a new brand of vampires and witchiness. Read The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, Marilyn Manson’s autobiography, to find out a bit more about the unsavory goings-on in New Orleans circa 1996. Anti-Christ Superstar was recorded at Trent’s Nothing Studios in 1996.

“Gave Up” from “Broken” recorded at 10050 Cielo Drive, 1992

 

 

Tate-LaBianca Crime Scene Photos

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I’d avoided looking at most of the Tate-LaBianca autopsy photos for decades, probably because you had to find a book, magazine, or broadcast TV show displaying them in pre-internet days. (It’s easier to ignore photos when they’re in a book than when they’re a click away on the internet.)

I guess didn’t really want to see them, because that’s when the reality hits you. It’ not a bunch of people talking anymore, or some fictionalized version that exists on a movie screen or in your imagination.

The photos are widely available now because of social media and the internet. Yet for all the articles, videos, and social media shares about this case, you rarely hear people mention the hard evidence and the autopsy photos.

You hear about El Coyote, George Spahn, dune buggies in the desert, the conspiracy theories, LSD orgies, and the glamorization of these events.

But when you see the autopsy photos, the endless speculation and all the background characters fade away. These photos are real – not Photoshopped, not part of a reenactment.

You can hear people describe how the victims died on podcasts, or read about it in books or on websites, but the photos tell their own story. Even after hearing about the murders for all these years, I wasn’t prepared to see these all these photos. I felt sick and, like some of the YouTube viewers, “hid in the comment section.” Of course I’d seen a few of the crime scene photos before, including the photos of the door and the refrigerator, but not all of the photos in this video.

The PIG door may or may not be in Trent Reznor’s possession. More on that in a future post.