Monday, October 19, 2009
Howard Unruh, who has been called (somewhat errantly) "the father of mass murder," has died in the New Jersey mental hospital where he has lived since gunning down 13 people in Camden, N.J., in 1949. He was 88 and spent more than 60 years in the asylum.
He was not, in fact, America's first mass murderer, nor even the first one to snap, pick up a gun and start killing people. He was, however, a rarity, in that he didn't commit suicide after his rampage.
Charles Cohen, a 12-year-old boy whose parents and grandmother were slaughtered in Unruh's angry, 12-minute spree, became the most outspoken survivor of the so-called "walk of death." When Unurh was seeking less restrictive accommodations in the hospital, Cohen campaigned to keep him under the strictest control. He kept artifacts of the killings in an old suitcase and yearned for the day the seriously psychotic Unruh would be dead, so he could bury the suitcase -- and his memory. Alas, Cohen himself died at age 72 less than two months ago and was buried on the 60th anniversary of the shooting.
Ironically, Unruh was a WWII veteran who might now be eligible for a burial with full military rites. No services have yet been announced.
The story of Howard Unruh's rampage and Charles Cohen's extraordinary survival will be part of a 2010 book by Ron Franscell about survivors of mass killers.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Recently, a local TV crew (the station manager asked that it not be identified) embarked on a story about the 50th anniversary of the murder that changed the face of Beaumont forever. As the crew prepared to videotape a reporter at the long-abandoned hulk of the Hotel Rouler, the videographer was startled to see a misty figure in an empty window. Later, he noticed that an open mike also picked up an eerie sound: A disembodied human voice whispering what sounds like a name.
If you want a real-life scare for Halloween, take a look at the video at BeaumontEnterprise.com and judge for yourself if this ghost really exists. Personally, I'm dubious. The image is verrry faint and the sound is hardly a whisper ... make up your own mind.
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
Then the news broke that just up the road from my house, just a few miles from my own daughter's kindergarten, the bloody bodies of three little girls were found in the county dump, their throats slashed. But one, little 3-year-old Carmina, was clinging to life ... and the unfolding news was pointing to a disturbing suspect: the little girls' own father.
Steve Jackson's latest true crime book, Not Lost Forever ($25.99, HarperCollins), co-authored with Carmina Salcido officially hits the bookstores today (Oct. 6). The publisher describes it this way: "It is a remarkable story of survival and healing after the 1989 murderous rampage by Carmina's father, Mexican vineyard worker Ramon Salcido in the wine country of Sonoma Valley, California. Left for dead at three years old — her throat brutally slashed — Carmina miraculously survived what is widely considered one of California’s most notorious crimes: the unthinkable attack that savagely destroyed seven innocent lives, including her entire family. At once a harrowing true crime story and the inspirational first-person account of a young girl’s strength, heart, and determination in the nightmare’s aftermath, Not Lost Forever is a shocking and profoundly moving tale of perseverance and hope, and of a precious life regained."
As such, she had no idea of what was going on around her: the search for her father and his capture and subsequent trial; the massive national and international response to her incredible story of survival, which at the time made her "the most famous three-year-old in the world"; or the impact of the crimes on what to that point had been the sort of laid-back wine country atmosphere of Sonoma County in 1989.
Still, Carmina wanted to tell her part of the story in the first person, which necessitated what I consider a hybrid of first-person memoir with dramatic narrative for passages such as the hunt for her father, Ramon Salcido, and his trial.
There is also some "as told to" sections from my time spent with her traveling to the crime scenes and reflecting on the past in which as the writer, I felt my observations were important to the story, too. Obviously, as she grew older, her memories of the bizarre life she was subjected to AFTER the murders was much fuller and so the first-person aspect is more dominant. We'll see if I was able to achieve a decent blend -- sticking with the wine country metaphor, perhaps something of a cabernet-merlot mix.
She was greatly aided in this by Capt. Mike Brown (Ret.) who had been the detective sergeant in charge of the homicide investigation team that day. He patiently answered her questions, and also helped her with her research, including gaining access to the police, district attorney and court files, which of course contained much more information than what the newspapers had written.
So Carmina actually knew a lot of the story and was able to relate it to me in her own words and in context with her memories. And once again, Mike Brown was invaluable to me as well in regards to filling in those blanks from a dedicated police detective's point of view.
This wasn't one incident, it was four with significant distance between each episode and location. He continues to deny his culpability -- blaming it all on alcohol drugs and untrue allegations about his wife's fidelity -- and has beaten the system and remained alive on Death Row at San Quentin for 20 years.
So yes, if this was the standard fare of a truly heinous crime and then the machinations of justice, it would indeed be a dark tale with very little light with the exception of the work of the detectives working the case and prosecutor who sent Ramon Salcido to Death Row. However, I see it as Carmina's story -- a story about her courage and strength and, for lack of a better term, her indomitable spirit to overcome not just what her father did, but the misery of her life afterward without giving up, and then her quest to learn the truth and finally to confront the man who had done his best to destroy her and everything she cared about.
That she still laughs with such delight and looks forward to life like any young woman who had not been through what she has, is truly inspirational to me. I think anyone who is deal with the aftermath of a crime, or just having a rough ride through life, who reads this book has to come away thinking "I don't have it so bad. If she can overcome that, I can deal with what I have to as well."
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