6.10.2009

Murder, He Wrote


Longtime friend Bill Sumrall, an Agatha Christie aficionado, expressed chagrin that none of the lady’s books appear on my “books” sidebar list.

I’m a true-crime buff, much preferring nonfiction to fiction. Since I had never read anything by the Queen of Crime, the Mistress of Mystery, the Duchess of Death, Bill suggested some titles, as did the nice lady on the State Library’s Talking Books Services toll-free. (She, too, said she’s “read them all.”)

If truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction, coincidental timing can be equally compelling.


Seven books into a seemingly endless game of Clue, I received the following email from Father Tim Farrell, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Farmington, New Mexico – my old college buddy who happened to be Bill’s dormitory roommate as the three of us pursued journalism degrees. Father Tim, if memory serves, also loves a good murder mystery.

Here’s what he wrote:

Betty,

In my continuing journey through life, I thought I'd share with you my recent trek to Los Angeles. I rode by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief from Gallup, New Mexico, to Los Angeles' Union Station. I was heading out for the 50th Anniversary of Sister Josephine, one of my parish's Franciscan Sisters.

I had a sleeper car on the train, so I had had a wonderful night's sleep and arrived in LA around 7:15 a.m. Then, I realized (and this might sound peculiar for a priest, but I was a bit disoriented) that I had not gone to Sunday Mass. So, I asked the rather grumpy man at the baggage claim if I could leave my bag with him for a bit and find a church. He asked me what religion I was, and I said, "Roman Catholic." “Oh,” he answered, and then smiled just a little. "I'm Catholic, too." He told me there was a Catholic chapel right up the road, and he thought they had a Mass around 8 a.m.

Sure enough, I found the chapel (restored from the late 1700s), and I went to Mass with mostly a congregation of Mexican-Americans. It was a small crowd of perhaps 30, but the friendliest group I have met in a long, long time. The people run a little gift shop and even a restaurant in the tiny courtyard outside the church. So I got gifts for my staff AND breakfast before heading back to Union Station.

One thing I had always wanted to do was visit the sites of the most infamous crimes in LA history (and certainly well-known throughout the world): the Black Dahlia murder scene, the murder scene of Nicole Brown-Simpson, the home of O.J. Simpson, the sites of the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson gang and, finally, the site of the assassination of my favorite politician of my youth -- Robert F. Kennedy.

You might ask why a Roman Catholic priest would be roaming all over these peculiar and troubling sites on a trip to LA. I am not sure myself. It is perhaps the reporter blood flowing through my veins. But, it is also the fact that many of these sites (except the Black Dahlia murder scene) are fixed in my memories from childhood and early adulthood.

The first site I visited was the Bundy location of Nicole Brown-Simpson's and Ron Goldman's murders. It is an upscale neighborhood, obviously, but much busier than I had imagined. Nicole's condo is right at a very busy corner that during the day is filled with people walking dogs, riding bikes and shopping at the stores at that corner. Life has certainly moved on. People walk past the gruesome site with no sense of what happened there, it seems. I did see one young man show a young woman the site, but that was all. I took no pictures. That would not be appropriate. I blessed the site from my car and moved on to Rockingham and saw the gates of O.J. Simpson's mansion (which I understand has actually been torn down and a new home built since he sold the property and moved away). I blessed that site as well.

Then, I drove to Cielo Drive, which is actually not that far from the first two sites. On Cielo I drove up the winding hill and saw the infamous gate where the Manson gang crawled over, shot the friend of the groundskeeper as he sat at the gate in his little truck. Inside that property Sharon Tate, Abby Folger and several others met their doom at the hands of maniac killers. The gate was closing when I went by, a rather creepy moment as I blessed this horrific site. Then, I moved on to the LaBianca murder site where a husband and wife met their doom at the hands of Manson and his thugs. This site is on Waverly, and it seems the LaBianca home was torn down, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has built a house of prayer there as well as a noviate for a religious order. So, it is nice that prayer takes place there on a constant basis.

At this point, my heart was sad. I visited the site where the Black Dahlia’s body was found, though that is a busy neighborhood, so I stayed very little time there, blessed the site and moved on.

Finally, on a warm, hazy Los Angeles afternoon, I visited Wilshire Boulevard at the site where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. The hotel is gone now, and there is only a rather sad chain-link fence left surrounding the property. Oh, what might have been! I blessed that site and then headed back to my hotel.

In a real sense, I felt I had exorcised some ghosts from my childhood and early adulthood. These infamous sites had been a sad blight on my consciousness, and they still are. But, I offered my blessings for peace and healing there. I wondered if anyone else had done so. Probably. But, it never hurts to add my own small blessings that these places of violence be cleansed by God's almighty love and mercy.

In all these places, life has moved on. No one seemed the day I visited these sites to be there visiting as well. No, life moves on. But, for just a little while this one odd, middle-aged priest visited these places of infamy and said a few prayers. In the City of Angels, I simply prayed, as Abraham Lincoln once said, for the "better angels of our nature."

Well, Betty, I promised I would keep you updated on my journeys, so there it is. No more travels this year. I am just going to spend a nice, quiet summer at the parish. It is beautiful here: 80 degrees and 20 percent humidity. Cool, beautiful mornings. We had tons of snow last winter, so things are green and bright.

Have a great day.

Tim

***

Thanks, Father Tim, for allowing me to share with my readers the consolation that these places of horror have felt the healing power of prayer.

PHOTO: A chain-link fence is all that remains at the site of the Ambassador Hotel where Robert Kennedy was slain by Sirhan Sirhan. Photo by Father Tim Farrell, 2009.

***

Read Father Tim’s “Mass on a Sacred Summit,” DemWit, 20 February 2009: LINK

6 comments:

Frodo, looking for arrowheads said...

Frodo is called often to places he has read about, or to places that seem oddly familiar. The Prison at Andersonville rings in Frodo's memory, as if he were there many years ago. The Jamestown settlement carries shadows of people that remind him of others long-forgotten. The beach at Normandy is now close at hand. Strangely enough, he has had no interest in Dealey Plaza, or to any of the spots Father Tim so eloquently described. Thank him for soothing the souls of the lost, and for enriching the curiosity of the living.

Infidel753 said...

Who has time for murder mysteries when you have cars flying through houses right in the locality?

Seriously, I have read that in ancient Athens there was once a case where a man murdered a prominent citizen simply because he wanted his name to be remembered forever for something. So as part of the punishment for his crime, the people of Athens agreed that none of them would ever mention the killer's name again. And his name has, indeed, been completely lost to history.

I wish that we, too, were mature enough to remember only the victims and to erase "celebrity" killers from the memory of the mass public mind, keeping them only as subjects for the study of abnormal psychology.

B.J. said...

I-753: About that flying car: John Gilbert Ludwig got out on bond, was back in jail in hours, got out on bond again, then was back in court on previous charges, so I gave up on keeping track of him. Will update readers when his murder trial comes up.

Frodo looking for arrowheads: Not to get to far afield from the post, but it might interest you that Father Tim grew up on an Oklahoma Indian reservation where his father served as the government agent.

Bill Sumrall said...

Was Father Tim carrying an umbrella during his trek around LA?
I hate to bother you, as a certain Lt. Columbo might ask, but doesn't that remind you of another priest with an interest in sinners and crime?
I hope you are enjoying Agatha Christie and, afterward, perhaps try a few G.K. Chesterton stories featuring his sleuth, Father Brown (the priest with the umbrella).
BTW, I noted several "mysterious references" embedded within Father Tim's letter, including his being "disoriented" on the train (Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express"), and that he was on a sleeper car, which brought to mind a 1962 mystery by Sebastien Japrisot titled "The Sleeping-Car Murders."
When I visited LA, I also drove past the scene where Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered by OJ, and recall as well that it was indeed a busy corner, very close to the street.

Father Tim said...

Folks,

Betty has it right when she says I grew up on an Indian Reservation, but it was the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico. My mother was from Oklahoma originally. That is probably where that piece of info came from. My Dad was a federal geologist, sent during President Kennedy's term to build roads on the Navajo Indian Reservation. We lived in Shiprock, New Mexico, until I was out of third grade. Then we moved to my father's home state of Mississippi.

Bill, you picked up the subtle hints quite nicely. You caught me! Congrats!

sue said...

Hi BJ, we do have friends in the same circle, sane friends that is!! I stopped commenting to Michael before his recent post went up. I could feel his impatience with the nonsensical talk going on. I remember Lisa commenting to papaM but thought she was liberal, I guess NOT! LOL! Its a crazy addictive world, this blogland, I try to stay clear of the wingnuts posts but sometimes can't help myself, I'm a glutton for punishment! Its like talking to a brick wall, but I guess you can say the same about us. They think the more they talk we will be convinced they are right and we will convert! NOT!! LOL!
Take Care BJ, Sue