K. Mennem 7:17 p.m., June 17
Several immortal memories remain from my long residency in University City. They are crimes, and they stand out in my mind like landmarks, among them a double murder, a car bomb, an arson, and a divorce. An unfriendly, unfortunate divorce. For me that was the biggest crime of all.
I don’t know why—perhaps for the same reason a moth is drawn to fire—but after years I decided to go back and have a look, to revisit the scenes of the crimes.
I drove a familiar route into my old neighborhood, via Regents Road, and turned onto Honors Drive, the street of the double murders, where 19 years ago, during broad daylight and seemingly out of the blue, a man entered a one-story, four-bedroom, unassuming home and plunged a butcher knife deep into a daughter, then into her mother.
For weeks yellow police tape surrounded the house and squad cars filled the driveway. Passers by huddled, whispered, and pointed. No one had heard screams, and no one had seen the murderer flee. But he was discovered months later, at his home in Alabama, when, arrested for burglary, his DNA matched semen from one of his previous murders.
My old house—another crime scene—was in the same neighborhood, where my wife and I had raised two sons and I had raised my wine sales company. In those days my sons and I spent hours in the back yard, playing homemade baseball or watching jet liners whisper overhead, trying to identify the aircraft and guess the airlines. When I flew home from business trips in Napa and Sonoma I invariably took a window seat so I could pick out our house in the crowded neighborhood, heartened by the thought that maybe my sons were in the backyard looking up.
But now, just blocks away, I stood at the stop sign. I wasn’t ready. Not yet, anyway. So I turned towards other University City crime scenes.
I drove north on Genesee, towards the intersection with La Jolla Village Drive, keeping an eye out for the darkened spot of pavement where, in 1989, someone had attempted to blow up Mrs. Rogers’s minivan. Mrs. Rogers was the wife of Captain Rogers, who had been the commander of the USS Vincennes, which, in the summer before, was patrolling the Persian Gulf when Iranian Airlines Flight 655, with 255 aboard, took off from a joint civilian/military airport at Bandar Abbas and flew straight at the heavily armed cruiser, disregarding requests to identify itself or to change direction. Captain Rogers, believing he was following defense protocol, gave the order and a missile disintegrated the airliner in the morning air.
Nine months later, Mrs. Rogers, on her way to her teaching job at La Jolla Country Day School, waiting at the stop light, felt a jolt from a pipe bomb attached to the underside of her minivan and saw the flames in her rearview mirror, right there, in the middle of traffic, at the corner of La Jolla Village Drive and Genesee. Mrs. Rogers escaped—she was the only occupant—and watched from the curb as the family minivan was consumed by flames.
The incident exploded in the international media. As a wine salesman I sometimes was accompanied by winemakers and winery owners as we called on accounts, and I always pointed out the scene of the crime, which they had heard about, and where University City had been in the world’s camera. It was never determined if the pipe bomber (bombers?) was attempting murder, retaliation, or a warning, but it was later determined that it was not terrorism but a personal vendetta. Now the spot is invisible, obliterated by tires and sunshine and rain, but the landmark of the crime remains in my memory.
More recently, in August, 2003, three years after my divorce, while flying home in the night, I saw large flames licking the edge of University City. Environmental arsonists had attempted to halt residential growth by torching the wooden framework of an apartment complex being built near UTC.
Construction cranes toppled and a 500-gallon fuel tank exploded. In nearby buildings windows cracked and blinds melted. No one was hurt, but hundreds were evacuated. Roads were closed, and a layer of soot blanketed University City.
That night, from my window seat, I watched the 200-foot flames while the world watched on their televisions.
Perhaps you remember the brazen banner hung on the chain link fence: If You Build It, We Will Burn It. Several members of the Earth Liberation Front, which proudly claimed responsibility for the arson, were harassed and jailed, but never charged. In the following months the charred lumber was hauled off, the concrete slab swept clean, and the building project re-started.
I now drove through the completed five-building, five-story complex, and it was like driving through mountains, landmarks of a crime that made no sense.
What the hell, I thought, it wouldn’t hurt to return and take a look. So I drove back in the direction of my old house, through other crime scenes. I drove past the Chabad Center that once had been a bank, so convenient to get-away routes that it was robbed annually; down the street where parked cars had been vandalized after a high school football game; past the Mexican restaurant shut down after repeated incidents of food poisoning; near the shopping center that a real estate agent had sold to three parties simultaneously, then absconded with their deposits.
I drove along Governor drive by the tennis courts that used to be lighted until ten o’clock. I was playing with my new love-interest, disguised as a tennis partner, when my wife clung to the chain link fence and screamed that the family dog had encountered a skunk, and would I please come home and take care of it. I should have, but I didn’t, choosing to finish the set. That was another crime, and so very close to home.
I parked in front of my old house and the memories rushed out to meet me. This one-story, four-bedroom, unassuming home had been my castle, where I had landscaped the front yard, remodeled a bathroom, replaced the roof, painted inside and out. Where as a family we had started gardens, sung Happy Birthdays, opened champagne, packed for trips, finished school science projects at the 11th hour, buried hamsters, endured chicken pox and identified jet liners. And where, in our bedroom, after the boys were asleep, my wife and I had made passionate and promising love.
We were on the back patio, which my brother and I had tiled, seated on the benches a neighbor had helped me build, next to the wisteria my wife and I had planted. I was smoking a cigarette, and she quietly told me she wanted a divorce. I never asked her why—I didn’t feel like arguing anymore—I just nodded. But the scenes of an empty house whooshed through my mind, like the air in a room where the pressure is too high and you open the door.
The perpetrators of this crime were certainly caught and punished. The penalties included separation, divided assets, split custody, alimony and many, many broken dreams.
I didn’t get out of the car, but sat there, in front of the old house, and smoked a cigarette, staring at the scene of the crime, now repainted, re-landscaped, re-inhabited with a new family.
You can’t help but learn something, right?