Monday, November 16, 2015

My Friend Annie: A Thanksgiving Reflection on Jonestown

It was a long time ago, but I remember the moment vividly. We were lying in our sleeping bags, three or four of us, on a wooden tent platform in the Sierra Nevada. The night sky was dense with bright stars. The conversation turned cosmic: we were, after all, teenagers, and it was the summer of 1971. We talked about what we wanted to do with our lives. Annie was emphatic—she wanted to dedicate her life to helping other people. It was a fine sentiment but it struck me as strangely self-erasing. I was focused on finding out what I wanted to be and what I would achieve. The idea that someone would set all that aside and submerge her self to help others was simply beyond me.

Soon enough Bob Brooks, the U.C. Davis wresting coach and camp director, trudged past and told us to knock it off and get to sleep. Tomorrow was the first day of camp and we would all be on deck as counselors. It was the annual Foster Children’s Camp, sponsored by the Davis Methodist Church. We worked all year to make it happen. In March, the Davis Enterprise ran a photo of a bunch of us at the spaghetti dinner fundraiser. Here it is.

I’m in the back in glasses, sleeves rolled up, holding a handful of cash. Annie is seated at the head of the table, her long hair parted in the middle. She was a year ahead of me in high school. She was tall, thin, and pretty and had a dry sense of humor. Everyone liked her.

Annie and I had been acquaintances since her family moved to Davis in 1966. Her father, John Moore, had been pastor of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Methodist Church and came to Davis to be the campus minister. Our family attended Davis Methodist Church. My father was a philosophy professor at U.C.D. and often played the organ at services. He had an interest in comparative religion and would later teach some of the first religious studies courses on campus.

Davis was on the forefront of 1960’s liberalism. Our church took up a collection to send our pastor, Rev. Phil Walker, to the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Rev. Moore fit right in—taking part in anti-Viet Nam war protests and providing moral support as Cal Aggie students burned their draft cards.

I recall our family, along with others, being invited to the Moore’s house for Thanksgiving in 1966. It was an unremarkable event. Annie’s older sister Carolyn was there along with her boyfriend, who struck me as a bit odd and standoffish. For some reason, I remember one detail in particular: when most of the guys moved to the den to watch football on TV, he didn’t join us. The ten-year-old me found that weird.

By 1972, our Foster Children’s Camp days were over. High school ended, I headed to Berkeley for college and found my calling in science. Annie got a nursing degree. I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school at Penn. My Davis friends told me Annie had joined a religious commune. That didn’t seem strange—after all, she wanted to help people.

News of the November 18, 1978 Jonestown massacre hit me like a brick. I soon realized that the creepy boyfriend on that distant Thanksgiving was Larry Layton, who took part in the deadly ambush of Congressman Leo Ryan’s party at the Port Kaituma airport. I searched the New York Times for mention of Annie and found it: she was dead with all the rest. Unlike the rest, she died in Jim Jones’ cabin of a gunshot to the head. She did not drink the Kool-Aid. Nor did Jones.

For a time, I struggled to make sense of her role in that evil place of death. I told myself she was too smart, too caring, to have joined in mass murder. She must have resisted, perhaps tried to stop Jones with a gun in the last moments.

And then the circumstances of her death made the papers. On the table, next to her body, was a notebook filled with her final thoughts as the carnage took place around her. Was it a plea for help? A diatribe against the sick bastard who took out 900 people and left them to rot in the jungle?

No. It was an earnest tribute to Jim Jones, “the most honest, loving, caring concerned person whom I ever met and knew.” Jonestown was a “paradise,” “the most peaceful, loving community that ever existed.”

“What a beautiful place this was.”

I look at the newspaper clippings and high school yearbook photos and wonder how this smart, goodhearted girl ended up in Jonestown with her head blown off. How did she go from the sincere, amorphous ideals of that Sierra summer to arranging cyanide-laced drinks and lethal injections for the people she claimed to care about?

The standard answer, I suppose, is that she came under the sway of a cult leader. That may be true, but it is also true that the evil inherent in Jim Jones was apparent all along, well before the final days in Jonestown. By his own account, Annie’s father had been uneasy about Jones from early on when his older daughter Carolyn became involved with the Peoples Temple. But it’s also clear that he and his wife were hamstrung by their devotion to the liberal pieties, shared by Jones, of reducing poverty, improving race relations, and ending the war. When they visited their daughters in Guyana before the massacre, John Moore saw things that made him uneasy but he also approvingly noted the “no smoking” signs in the encampment.

Jones rose quickly in San Francisco’s political arena because his views were in synch with the emerging liberal establishment that found him useful. With the Peoples Temple congregation at his beck and call, Jones could deliver crowds for events and door-to-door campaigning, and San Francisco Democrat pols like Willie Brown, George Moscone, and John Burton were happy to take advantage.

No one stopped to question the assumptions of the day: that human nature can be shaped by decree, that a utopia can be ours for the asking. And so while Jim Jones led his flock in a mad dance toward death, the earnest, well-meaning, forward-thinking people of the Bay Area looked on approvingly, and my friend Annie knowingly and deliberately took part in mass murder.

I have visited her grave in Davis. I felt sad about the waste of a promising life. But I feel worse about the delusions of the 60s that wrecked so many lives and that continue to wreak havoc today.

Friday, November 13, 2015

As It Was in the Beginning: ISDP November 2015

When we launched ISDP on a Friday the thirteenth back in the misty dawn of Internet time, little did we suspect that it would become the most insanely popular feature of FirstNerve. We continue to disgorge a new collection of these lugubrious stories on the thirteenth of each month, and every so often it lands on another Friday. It just feels so right, does it not?

Cold weather sort of puts the kibosh on ISDP incidents. It snowed here yesterday, so we expected to pull a relatively small batch of reeking items from the depths of the rusty drum where we keep incoming data. And yet we dredged up a full serving of material. Enjoy!

Charles Cole

We have another nominee for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™, the second one this year from upstate New York. Forty-eight-year-old Charles Cole allegedly strangled his mother to death, lived with her body in a motel in Pleasant Valley, New York, for seven weeks, and then drove it to South Carolina where he dumped it in a secluded area off of I-95.
“I find it hard to imagine,” state police Capt. John Ryan said, “the circumstances that would lead a son to strangle his mother, but also to live with the body in a motel room and then travel several states away and dump her like trash.”
Preaching to the choir, Capt. Ryan.

Curiously, the motel staff, who were in the room frequently, claim not to have noticed any malodor. Cole’s wife Ronalda, age 40, has been charged with tampering with physical evidence for her alleged role in helping transport her mother-in-law’s body. She will of course receive her own invitation to the Norman Bates Awards gala and ceremony early next year.

The bodies of a woman and her granddaughter are found in a home in Casa de Oro near San Diego, but is this a bona fide ISDP incident? Reports are conflicting. This report is ambiguous; it sounds like a stench from the house caused neighbors to flag down a police car. However, another report suggests that the concerned friends who discovered the pair smelled a “foul odor” only after opening the door. You know the drill—odor must lead to the discovery, so this one sounds like a near miss. Hmmm . . . In any case, it now appears to have been a murder-suicide.

In Long Beach, Mississippi, police follow up on a missing persons report.
When officers arrived to follow-up on the man they said they caught a whiff of a strong odor coming from the man’s backyard.
That’s where they found the 87-year-old resident’s body in a garbage container. Why are we bothering you with what appears to be another case of “close but no cigar”? Because 63-year-old Christy Lee Zarrella, who had been befriended the deceased and was living with him in the house, has been charged with desecration of a corpse: she allegedly removed the pacemaker from his body.

Stay tuned—this could get weird: it might even result in another Norman Bates Award nomination.

“Mobile home park manager” turns out to be one of those high risk of ISDP occupations. In Joliet, Illinois, the park manager tried to contact a resident after smelling a foul odor coming from a mobile home. Getting no response, he went inside and found the body of the 60-year-old resident, who had been stabbed multiple times.

In St. Louis, Missouri:
Two men working for an asbestos abatement crew were clearing out drywall from the back of a home when they noticed a foul odor. They discovered the body underneath three pieces of drywall.
The body was that of a 22-year-old Army veteran. His was the 159th homicide of the year in St. Louis.

Two men fishing the Brazos River in Waller County, Texas, smelled a foul odor coming from a black trash bag near the river. Sheriff’s deputies found a dismembered body inside the bag.

Meanwhile, in southwest Houston, a “group of juveniles” walking along the 7100 block of Jetty Lane followed their noses to the source of a foul odor. They discovered the skeletal remains of a woman.

Residents in Newark, New Jersey, call the police about a foul odor. In a neighbor’s garage down the block officers find the body of a 50-year-old woman who had been reported missing 10 days earlier. The body wrapped in a blanket and the head was separated from the body.

In the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville, residents call the police about a foul odor near a wooded area. On investigating, officers found the body of a 28-year-old woman in a nearby dumpster behind an oil change service shop. They have arrested the woman’s 42-year-old husband, who works at the shop.

From the October 12 police log in Sausalito, California:
600 block of Sausalito Boulevard. A woman was concerned the bad odor coming from her front yard was a dead body and wanted police to check it out. Officers checked her yard and found no dead bodies but suspected the foul odor was coming from a neighbor’s chicken manure or possibly a dead animal under someone’s home.
Call us paranoid, but we wouldn't consider this case closed just yet.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Departure to Tokyo: The Shores of the Past

The jet took off to the west out of Los Angeles but then turned and followed the coast northward. This was a mild surprise as I hadn't given much thought to the route; my last couple of flights to Tokyo were from JFK. Soon we were passing Santa Barbara, the recent scene of my older daughter's commencement from UCSB. In the clear sky of early afternoon the ridges of the parched coastal mountains were sharp, the ravines deep and in shadow.

As we continued along the coast our altitude was low enough for me to recognize landmark after landmark. Having driven it so many times, the Pacific Coast Highway is ribbon of memories. From the big window of the 787 I looked down into the forested hills of Big Sur and recalled the pre-dawn drive back from Esalen with a Chevy Impala full of friends reeking of sulfur after hours in the hot springs. Further on, the Monterey Peninsula and the guano-covered rocks off Point Pinos. A glorious summer spent at Stanford's Marine Biology Lab in Pacific Grove. As we float past, zeppelin-like, I see the fairways of the public golf course where your putt was likely to be disrupted by the blare of the fog horn.

The big, shallow curve of Monterey Bay was next. On the northern end I see the Santa Cruz pier near the amusement park: summer after summer with the kids, the vertigo inducing rides, the corn dogs, grabbing brass rings on the merry-go-round, and of course the bumper cars. I see Highway 17 winding up and over the hills and try, in vain, to spot P----'s old place on the summit, the one with the view of the entire bay.

By now, all of southern San Francisco Bay is laid out beneath me, the abstract red sections of the salt ponds and Mount Diablo in the distance. From up here the full extent of the sheltered bay is magnificent. I see why sailors loved it, despite the dry, austere hills around it that even the Indians found unforgiving. To me, this familiar grouping of hills and water, freeways and bridges, islands and vistas, is dense with memory and emotion. The great intellectual intensity of Berkeley that exists alongside its pretensions and idiocies. I still feel the pull but now it is my younger daughter's turn; she is making her own path through Cal.

From up here, the enormous green rectangle of Golden Gate Park dominates the tip of the San Francisco peninsula; grids of neighborhood streets to the north and south of it, clusters of silver/gray buildings on the hills to the east. How many hours spent wandering the hidden glens and meadows of the park. And still vivid, the awe-struck moment in April, 1971, when the anti-war parade turned into the Polo Fields, filled with more people than I've ever seen in one place. The loud irrelevance of Big Brother and the Holding Company without Janis. And now the regret that I, and so many others, were so wrong about so many things.

On to the Marin headlands and Mount Tamalpais. There is Stinson Beach and, a couple of minutes later, two bright, irregular lines of white surf along the ruler-straight line of coast running northeast from Point Reyes. We climb and bank west but I can make out the edge of Bodega Bay under a light mist. A fluffy cloud bank adheres to the ocean's edge near Jenner and the mouth of the Russian River. The coastline here is less familiar to me and becomes indistinct in the haze. The far northern reaches, home to cold rolling waves and great piles of driftwood, are the last thing I see as we arc out over the Pacific. To starboard we are edge-on to a thick slab of murky cloudbank. Beneath us the deep blue waters are spittle-flecked with icy white caps. Soon the high slab thickens and descends. A cloud carpet slides beneath us. We are nowhere and anywhere.

On to Japan.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Late Harvest: Pre-Halloween ISDP Edition

It’s been busy here in the drafty shack that serves as FirstNerve Manor on the high plains of Colorado. Mostly we’ve been sampling local IPAs and watching the sales figures surge for our I Smell Dead People T-shirt, which seems to have hit a nerve with Bride of Chucky fans. [And no, Brad Dourif, we’re not going to send you one gratis. Pony up, you cheap f**k! Jennifer Tilly we’ll comp, but that’s a different story.]

With the thirteenth of the month at hand, it’s time to uncork the latest batch of lugubrious ISDP incidents. You know what we’re talking about: those stories that begin with a foul odor and end at the same grim state of corporeal decay. [It never gets old!—Ed.] This pre-Halloween edition is chock-full as the lingering summer heat keeps the relevant bacteria working overtime.

Our first incident combines two great themes of I Smell Dead People. One is the legendary “Body Under the Bed” scenario that inspired our morbid fascination with the entire genre in the first place: in its purest form, a motel guest complains of a bad-smelling room, and the manager discovers a corpse stashed beneath the bed. The second theme is the focus of our insanely popular Norman Bates Award™, given to a person who lives in close quarters with a deceased person, even as said person exhibits the florid and putrescent signs of bodily decay.

So meet Alfred Guerrero, the latest Norman Bates Award™ Nominee and the man who personalized the body-in-the-motel-room routine. A “funky smell” emanating from a room at the Mission Motel in Ontario, California led someone to call the police to investigate. Officers detained long-term motel resident Alfred Guerrero after finding a decomposing body in his room. The remains appear to be those of an acquaintance of his. Guerrero was released without charges after being questioned.

Mixed Doubles

Whitney Gray
Brandon Griswold

A Nashville, Tennessee, couple bludgeons their roommates (another couple) to death, stuffs the bodies into a utility closet, and continues to live in the apartment. The mother of the male victim, who had reported him missing, went to the apartment in search of him. When she “smelled the odor of decomposition” leaking past the door, she called police who discovered the crime scene. Brandon Griswold (20) and his girlfriend Whitney Gray (21) confessed to the murders and were arrested. They are this year’s first dual nominees for the Norman Bates Award™.

Since we’re talking theme and variations, we venture abroad to include an unusual hybrid item from the town of Heerhugowaard in the Netherlands. A local woman let a homeless lady store some personal belongings in her shed. A year later, while rummaging in the shed, the owner notices a foul odor. Searching for the source, she discovered the body of a child, wrapped in plastic. While this qualifies as an ISDP incident, we also wonder whether it might not be something new, a case of Norman Bates by Proxy Syndrome.

Mary Kersting

Finally, 60-year-old Mary Kersting of Gloversville, New York, has pleaded guilty to grand larceny and improper disposal of a body. When her 93-year-old mother died in October, 2013, Kersting kept her body in the apartment below hers while she cashed the old lady’s benefits checks. A police welfare check in December, 2014, discovered the year-old body. Kersting faces six months in jail, but she is also in the running for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™. Congratulations!

Out West

In West Jordan, Utah, a couple of young skateboarders smelled “an extremely foul odor” and successfully followed their noses to the source. They found the badly decomposed body of a 28-year-old man in a utility area near the public library. Evidence suggests his death was the result of a drug overdose.

Someone walking past a camper parked between two abandoned houses in Texarkana, Texas, smelled a “foul odor” coming from it and called police, who found a decomposed male body inside. The body was later identified as that of a 47-year-old homeless man.

Rugged Individualism

A 64-year-old man in Humboldt County, California, is the victim of an attempted home invasion. He fights back with a Gurka knife and the wounded assailant flees with the help of another perp. Two weeks later someone calls the county sheriffs to report a foul odor and deputies discover the decomposed remains of a 32-year-old Sacramento man who may have been the wounded attacker.

It’s not quite “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” but “Texas Woman’s Body Found in Oklahoma Trunk” isn’t bad. A Oklahoma DPS trooper stopped to check out an abandoned car on I-44 near Randlett, in Cotton County. Smelling a foul odor, he opened the trunk where he discovered the body of a 61-year-old woman from Amarillo, Texas. Without impugning the trooper’s olfactory acuity in the least, we are not able to award this incident true ISDP status, as the search was initiated before the officer noticed the smell.

Southern California

Just off the 405 in the North Hills area of Los Angeles neighbors smell a foul odor coming from an apartment and call the police. LAPD finds the decomposing remains of a 23-year-old man who appears to have died from a gunshot to the head.

Neighbors called police about a foul smell coming from parked car in a residential area of San Bernardino, California. Police found a decomposing body in the trunk. The body was later identified as that of the 28-year-old owner of the car, who had been reported missing a few days earlier.

A body discovered in the Angeles National Forest, just north of Glendora, may be that of a man who was digging for gold when torrential rains caused mud slides and fallen trees. He had been missing for about a week, and acquaintances who were searching for him were tracking a “foul odor” when they discovered the remains.

Always Trust Your Nose™

Tenants at a business complex in Santa Fe, New Mexico had been complaining for weeks about a “rancid odor.” One of the properties owners (in what we presume was a search for the source of the stink) lifted the lid on a cistern and discovered a body that police say had been in the water for about two weeks. A lock on the cistern lid appears to have been broken but it is not yet known how the person died.

Last month we referred an incident to the Rules Committee for clarification. In Queens, New York, the body of a 28-year-old woman with stab wounds was found in the trunk of her father’s Nissan. Her boyfriend is still being sought by police in connection with her murder. From accounts at press time, it wasn’t clear whether the car was reported because of a smell, or because police were searching for it. Now we have an answer:
The driver of an NYPD tow truck discovered the Nissan during a rotation tow operation on September 10, police sources said. The victim’s family listed the car as missing when they filed a Missing Persons Report on September 9. A license plate reader in the tow truck spotted the car and the driver alerted the NYPD Missing Persons Unit. Investigators who arrived at the scene were overcome by a foul odor coming from the trunk of the car, police said.
Well, that settles it. Discovery preceded odor, therefore no ISDP.

Breaking News from the World of Science

We’re not sure whether to file this under “No shit, Sherlock” or under “Good to know, Ken.”
The smell of death: evidence that putrescine elicits threat management mechanisms.
Judging from our years of reporting on the topic, we think that the “implicit cognition” mechanisms triggered by the smell of putrescine can be easily overridden by contextual cues (“A dead body? Really? I thought someone was cooking cabbage.”)

Case in point: a woman in Naples, Florida, thought the foul odor in her ceiling might be a dead mouse. She spent $800 on cleaning supplies in an unsuccessful effort to get rid of the smell. Then her apartment manager informed her that her upstairs neighbor had died “quite some time ago.”

Department of Updates

One year ago we reported on an instance of ISDP in Brownsville, Texas, in which a woman and child were found dead. Last month Donald Edward Pierce pleaded guilty to murdering his wife and son and was sentenced to life without parole.

Also last month we posted an ISDP incident in Calaveras County, California, in which a motorist driving through a sparsely populated area noticed a foul odor and called the sheriffs who found a man’s body lying off the road. Soon after, a 71-year-old local woman was arrested in connection with the case and charged with suspicion of murder. [You mean 17-year-old local woman?—Ed.] [No: seventy-one.] Another body was found in the area earlier this year. Stay tuned.

We close with resolution to an ISDP Cold Case File. An 18-year-old man from Woodland Park, Colorado went missing seven years ago. His remains were found two months ago when a local cabin was demolished: he evidently had attempted to enter the cabin via the chimney, gotten stuck, and died. The cabin’s owner told a newspaper that he seldom used the cabin because of its “foul odor.”

A sad story, but a surprisingly common one, as long-time ISDP readers know. For hours of entertainment just type “chimney” into the search box at the top of the page.

Thursday, October 8, 2015


Took my new I Smell Dead People T-shirt on tour yesterday in Fort Collins. The cashier at Whole Foods took one look and knew her nose-ring was suddenly yesterday’s style.


Get yours in time for the office Halloween party.