Forty-five-year-old Tom Megill, his baseball cap matted with blood, lay dead in the dirt outside the chain-link fence that corners the house on Sycamore Road in San Ysidro. Towering over him, with gun in hand, stood his roommate Brian French. It was 3:30 p.m. on the first Sunday in March.
Within the hour, French was transported to the San Diego Police Department Headquarters downtown, where he waived his Miranda rights and confessed to the killing without an attorney present. He was booked into county jail.
At St. Charles Catholic Church near Imperial Beach, Mrs. French, Brian’s mother, went about her chores at the parish rectory, cooking and cleaning for the priests, as she had for the past eight years. She would not know for another day that the second oldest of her seven children had been taken into police custody.
On Monday morning, March 2, Larry French, Brian’s younger brother by eighteen months, had just gotten off work at Alpha Beta, where he stocked shelves in the dead of night. Larry returned to his rented house, three blocks from the beach in this working-class community, fixed something to eat, and turned on the television to watch the morning news. The announcer was talking about a Brian French who had been taken into custody in San Ysidro for the shotgun shooting of Thomas Warren Megill. French sat stunned on the sofa. Then he picked up the telephone, dialed the county jail, and asked if there was a Brian French in custody. “We have two,” the clerk replied. “What’s his middle name?”
“Richard,” Larry replied.
“Yes, he’s here.”
“What are the charges?”
French hung up the phone and drove the few blocks to the house where he grew up on Citrus Avenue. The house was still and empty. His parents were out, his youngest sister was still asleep. He woke her, asking if she had heard any news about Brian. She said she hadn’t, and when Larry told her what he had heard on television, she began to cry. His parents arrived home shortly in a jovial mood. His mother, he recalled, walked through the door and kissed him on the cheek. Larry asked to speak with his father outside the house, and when Mrs. French began to follow, he insisted that she stay behind. As the two men walked toward the driveway, Larry told his father he had news about Brian. “Did he have an accident with the truck?” Mr. French asked. He had lent Brian his truck a few days earlier. “No, it’s not the truck,” Larry replied and repeated the news he had gotten from the television. His father leaned against the car in the driveway and began to weep.
Mrs. French, watching from the front window, ran into the yard and demanded to know what was wrong. “Is it Brian?” she asked with a mother’s premonition. For the third time, French repeated what he knew.
Larry French related the morning’s events in April, a month after the shooting, as he sat in a twenty-four-hour coffee shop on the outskirts of Imperial Beach. His brother had remained in county jail, and his father had called a number of defense attorneys. The quoted rates ranged from $50,000 to $125,000, far beyond the family’s modest means. Mr. French is retired from the navy on an enlisted pension. Mrs. French works six days a week at St. Charles, where all seven of the French children went to school.
Across the table from Larry sat P.K., a childhood friend and former classmate at Marian High School, where Brian was an all-CIF basketball champion in 1968. After coffee, P.K. drove his Chevy convertible past their old alma mater. Two tall, blonde cheerleader types dressed in white drifted across the school lawn. P.K. honked his horn and called out to them, “Marian High School, right on!”
By April, thirty-six-year-old Brian French had been promoted to tank captain at county jail, a supervisory position that entails overseeing a group of some thirty other men either serving time or awaiting trial for felonies. As such, he was entitled to five one-hour visits per week, as opposed to the half-hour visits on weekends only that are allotted to the majority of other inmates.
Mondays are the most crowded days for visitors. Wives, girlfriends, and mothers sit patiently in plastic chairs that crowd the narrow hallway. Some, like their men, are thin and tattooed; others come straight from work and are dressed in pastel business suits. Many bring children, carrying them on public transportation to visit their fathers. The children while away the time, playing on the floor. A hired security guard patrols the halls, making sure that the visitors do not consume food or beverages while they wait for visiting hours to begin. The only drinking fountain is out of order.
The visiting-room walls are stained with smoke and despair. Communications here is by telephone through small, thick plates of barred glass. Nearly a dozen conversations with Brian French took place here as he related the series of events in his life that led up to the fatal shooting of “Tin Can” Tom Megill on March 1, 1987. The story that ended in the dust and heat of San Ysidro began decades earlier in Imperial Beach.
A hundred years ago, before there was a city called Imperial Beach, a small group of settlers came to this place by the ocean. They called their community by the Iroquois name of the place they had left behind in central New York state, Oneonta, which means “a place to rest.”
The residents of Oneonta, California, envisioned their beautiful village near the sea as a nationally famous resort, where the wealthy from the East Coast would bask in the golden rays of California sunshine. Advertisements in national magazines were placed to tout “Oneonta by the Sea.” But soon the houses built upon sand began to shift, ruining their foundations. A series of fires plagued the village. Flooding from the Tia Juana River destroyed property, ruined crops, and crippled the railroad that was to carry visitors to beautiful Oneonta by the Sea. The community ceased to exist. The site of the original village is now occupied by the military helicopter station of Ream Field. The only reminders of the settlement are a street and an elementary school that bear its name.