Jim Coit photo, David Diaz collage
The Surfer Motel stands on the boardwalk of Pacific Beach, where Pacific Beach Drive intersects with the shoreline.
The Surfer Motor Lodge is like any other tacky tourist motel in San Diego. It has tan stucco walls, a swimming pool, and redwood picnic furniture on tiny balconies of the motel’s fifty-two rooms. The oceanfront lodge stands on the boardwalk of Pacific Beach, just at the point where Pacific Beach Drive intersects with the shoreline.
The Surfer charges $47.52 a night for a single room with a queen-size bed. It is generally clean and well maintained. Guests can hear the waves shatter on the sand less than a hundred yards away. There are expansive ocean views from nearly every room. It is an almost inconceivable locale for a very curious death to have occurred — a death in which a fifty-five-year-old security guard suffered long and miserably, one in which he vomited up strange chemicals before he died . . . and all for the sake of the Surfer Motor Lodge.
The incident began on Thursday. September 4. just before 10:30 p.m. Two guards from rival security agencies were stationed in different parts of the building. In motel room number ten was James McMurray, who worked for West Coast Detectives and Special Police Patrol. In the lobby, next to the registration desk, was John Wayne Green, of Assurance Patrol Security Services. McMurray had been hired by one of three feuding factions claiming partial ownership of the motel; Green had been hired by one of the other factions.
At the behest of a man named Berrtie Thompson, who represented one of the disputing factions, McMurray walked from room ten and knocked on the door to the motel office. Green answered the knock and recognized the rival security guard. McMurray said his motorcycle had been tipped over and he needed help in lifting it upright. Green kindly agreed to help McMurray. Although the motorcycle was lying on its side in a nearby parking lot. McMurray actually did not require Green's aid; it was a ruse to lure Green out of the office.
The moment Green left, Thompson and a friend of his charged the locked office, broke inside, and secured the doors with rope. McMurray then left Green, returned to room ten. and later joined the others in the office. McMurray called his boss, the owner of West Coast Detectives, who says now he was angry with McMurray. “He was informed that he was not to take part in any regaining of the office. He was to stay out of it." But since a takeover had already been accomplished, the company’s owner decided to send reinforcements. He called two guards to back up McMurray, including Richard Herbert Russell, a lieutenant for West Coast, who was to supervise. Russell and the other guard arrived at about the same time, just before midnight, and joined the three others inside the motel office. The West Coast lieutenant was wearing a holstered .38 caliber revolver — just in case. He told his men to settle in for the night . . . and to prepare for the inevitable counterattack.
When John Wayne Green realized he had been duped into leaving the office, he called his boss, the owner of Assurance Patrol, who jumped on the telephone to some reserve employees, six of them, and commanded them to meet at a parking lot near the motel. Around midnight, eight Assurance guards, including the agency’s owner, planned an offensive of their own. The Assurance men knew one of their own had flubbed a job, had been tricked, bamboozled, outwitted by West Coast detectives. It was now their task to take back the office and regain their honor. At twenty minutes past midnight the counterassault was launched.
One of the Assurance guards used a brick and a billy club to smash out an office window. The owner of Assurance Patrol says both sides fired Mace and chemical fire extinguishers at each other. The owner of West Coast Detectives, who was not present at the time, says his West Coast men did not spray anything. In any case, the fumes from the Mace and the chemical extinguishers — apparently fired by both sides — filled the small office and affected all the men inside. Someone from Assurance sprayed Russell with a squirt of Mace and carbon dioxide from an extinguisher. Russell backed away from the window, and, according to witnesses, was ready to “shoot the first son of a bitch’’ who came through the door.
And the door was indeed the focus of the Assurance attack. Thomas O’Leary, a forty-seven-year-old Assurance guard, told police later that he was ordered by his boss to “break down the doors if necessary, but go into the Surfer.’’ West Coast guards braced themselves against the entrance. Mace and carbon dioxide soon clouded the office. It became apparent that the West Coast guards inside were bound to suffocate in the small, airless office, so one of them kicked out still another window to allow in more air.
The commotion of the battle aroused sleeping patrons in the motel, who called the San Diego Police Department. When police arrived, there was so much smoke pouring from the office that the cops thought the place was on fire. The smoke was so heavy, in fact, that the officers couldn't believe anyone was still inside.
But fifty-five-year-old Richard Herbert Russell was indeed inside. He remained there as the arriving policemen corralled the battling guards for questioning. Russell and others flapped towels in the air in hopes of clearing the room of the chemical fog, but it didn't work. So Russell poured water over a towel and breathed through it to keep the poison smoke out of his lungs.
Nobody had been injured, so the police told the men to go home and stay out of trouble. But Russell refused to abandon his post. After such a fierce battle, no one — no one — was going to force him out now, not after being socked in the face with carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher, not after gulping down a roomful of Mace, not after all he had gone through.
One of the owners of the Surfer motel is a man named Frank Current, a San Diego real estate broker for twenty years. It was in 1967 that Current negotiated the purchase of a leasehold interest in the Surfer Motor Lodge with two partners, Louis Dearinger and Bemie Thompson. Each of them was to own a one-third interest in the partnership, called the Surfer Leasing Company. The motel functioned smoothly for the first few years, but in November of 1973 Thompson sold his interest in the motel to a trust account created by his uncle. Thompson, at the time, was trustee of the account, and so, in effect, retained control of his original interest in the motel.
The partnership was further changed when, on September 17, 1974, Louis Dearinger died. A friend, James Duncan, was appointed executor and trustee of the Dearinger estate, and acted on behalf of the estate in matters regarding the Surfer motel. The beneficiaries of the dead partner’s property were his three children, who soon decided to take more direct control of their late father’s assets. During the years 1977 and 1978, they set about getting rid of Duncan as trustee by filing suit in probate court.
The heirs — who were all adults — were eventually successful in removing Duncan, in 1978. Duncan, however, filed a countersuit against the three Dearinger offspring for ousting him. He was not to win that lawsuit, but the legal action soon sparked others. There were now three controlling factions: the Dearinger children, Frank Current, and the trust controlled by Thompson. Each faction soon filed various suits against the others — claiming misfeasance or seeking dissolution of the partnership — and the fight was on for control of the Surfer.
The managers of the motel. Bill and Bernice Basore, were loyal to Frank Current. So when, on January 24, 1979, Thompson went to the motel office and asked to see the accounting books, the Basores refused. Bill Basore allegedly told Thompson that Current was “running the show.’’ Thompson was furious and retaliated by putting a freeze on the motel checking account at the Mission Bay branch of Security Pacific Bank. The bank manager refused to accept deposits or honor checks and would not open a new account unless all partners agreed. Not only were motel expenditures going unpaid, but cash receipts were mounting and being kept on the premises.
By March 13, 1979, $25,579 in cash and checks had accumulated at the motel and could not be deposited. Bernice Basore said in a deposition that she was fearful for its safekeeping. She talked it over with Current and an attorney for the Dearinger children, and by mutual agreement the attorney took possession of the money and kept it in his firm’s safe-deposit box until April 27, 1979, at which time he delivered it to Current for deposit in a new account Current had opened for the motel.
Then a new participant came on the scene, an heir to the trust account controlled by Thompson. His name was Ray Bemey, Jr. (or just Junior, as he was called). Junior, who was twenty-eight at the time, arrived at the motel in June of 1979 and told the Basores he had been sent to work there by his father, creator of the trust. The following is an account by Bernice Basore given in a court declaration last June:
A week or so after his arrival. Junior went to Bernice, who was in the motel restaurant, and said that “the place is a mess,’’ and that “it should be burned down and the ashes should be shoved into the sea.”
“You’ve got rocks in your head,” Bernice said.
“Why don’t you and Bill take the weekend off?” Junior asked.
Bernice said they couldn’t.
“Well, I wish you would,” Junior said. “I don’t want to see you and Bill get hurt.”
Bernice replied, “You talk like you got rocks in your head.”
“Well,” said Junior, “I am forever warning you.”
A week later, at one-thirty in the morning, Bernice Basore was awakened by the motel fire alarm and the sound of fire trucks near the motel. But it was only a false alarm. Later that morning, Bernice confronted Junior. “Darn you, Junior, you scared me to death last night. The fire trucks were here.”
“Did you take me seriously?” Junior asked.
“Yes,” replied Bernice. “It scared me to death.”
Although Bill Basore was the one who usually opened the motel office in the mornings, Bernice happened to assume that duty on July 25, 1979. She took the motel records with her as she left her apartment in the motel building at about seven o’clock. In front of the motel office, waiting for her, were Junior and two other men. Bernice entered the office and went behind the counter. She set down her keys, a banana, and some cookies she brought with her and opened the door to the telephone room. Junior entered the lobby and approached Bernice. (The following is also taken from Bernice’s sworn declaration.)
“I have some bad news for you, Bernice,” Junior said. “I am replacing you and Bill as managers, and this man is my manager, and he is taking over.”
A large man was standing outside the counter, and another walked behind the counter with Junior. “Give me the keys,” Junior demanded of Bernice.
“No,” Bernice said to him. “I won’t give you the keys.”
Twice more Junior demanded the keys, but Bernice refused. Junior and one of the men left, while the third man stayed behind the counter with Bernice. Bernice telephoned her husband and Current, but before either of them arrived. Junior reentered the lobby with a policeman. The officer said to Bernice, “Are you trying to be obstinate this morning?”
“No, sir,” she answered.
Then, referring to Junior, the officer said, “This young man wants you to get out from behind the counter, so get out from behind the counter.”
“No, I will not leave,” Bernice said. “This young man does not have the right to fire me, and there is an injunction against him interfering with me. ” (Such a temporary injunction had been issued the previous January.)
Bernice then showed the injunction papers to the policeman, who then asked Junior if he had any papers. Junior went out to his car and returned with a letter from Bemie Thompson that said Junior was authorized to manage the property. The policeman was apparently more impressed with the injunction than with the letter from Thompson, especially when Bernice said police had been summoned to the motel for the same reason a number of times already.
The cop was fuming. He snapped at Junior, “Don’t ever call me back again and try to use me as a pawn!”
But Junior had a second plan, which Bernice discovered on July 30. On that day, Bernice went to the Pacific Beach post office on Garnet Avenue, but was refused any mail because Junior had given a change of address for all mail coming into the motel, including that of all employees, the motel administration, and the guests, requiring that it be forwarded to a post office box in Junior’s own name. After extended discussion at the post office, Bernice was allowed to receive her personal mail only.
Both Current and the Basores contacted a postal inspector in early August, complaining of the change of address. On August 6 a postal inspector telephoned Bernice and explained that Junior had been cautioned that it was a federal crime to tamper with the mail and that Junior had been persuaded to withdraw the change of address.
The bickering among the ownership factions continued, though, during the following months. Lawsuits were filed, amended, joined with other existing lawsuits, or withdrawn entirely. But on January 7, 1980, the Thompson faction decided to bypass the courts and take direct action. Thompson, his uncle, and two security guards from West Coast Detectives and Special Police Patrol entered the motel lobby that morning and assumed physical command of the building. Bernice claimed that Thompson and the two guards prevented the Basores from entering the lobby. The Thompson faction was now in charge.
The Basores were fired and ordered to vacate their apartment at the motel. Frank Current asked for and was refused permission to review the motel’s accounting books. After five months of frustration following the takeover. Current filed a civil lawsuit to dissolve the deteriorating partnership. A temporary injunction against the Thompson faction was filed on May 15 by Judge Gerald Lewis, ordering the security guards to be fired and allow ing Current access to the motel records. The Basores were reinstated as co-managers. For the time being, there seemed to be some semblance of order. But on August 1, 1980, all that suddenly changed.
On that day. Current and his attorney suspended the lawsuit to dissolve the partnership — the same lawsuit on which the temporary injunction had been based. As soon as the suit was dropped, so, automatically, was the injunction, including the prohibition against security guards. Directly after dropping the suit. Current and several guards from Assurance Patrol Security Services Company went to the motel to maintain exclusive control.
Thompson, in response, rehired the West Coast Detectives and had one guard stationed at all times at the apartment-office of Al Thorn, who had been hired by Thompson to keep an eye on the motel management. During August of last year, the plan was hatched to take control of the motel from Current and his Assurance guards. The plan would be based on the idea of tricking the Assurance man out of the office — a trick that would prove to be fateful for Richard Herbert Russell.
Russell was sitting home the night of September 4 when he received the call from his boss to supervise the completed coup d’etat. He drove to the motel and sequestered himself with his men in the small office. He successfully held off the attack by the Assurance guards, and he held his ground after the police arrived. At eight o’clock the next morning he was relieved by another guard and went home to rest.
He went directly to bed, but found it difficult to sleep. He was sweating like a horse. When he awoke that afternoon, he managed to eat half a sweet potato and a piece of ham, even though he wasn't at all hungry. He went back on duty that Friday night at the motel office — West Coast still maintained control — and covered the graveyard shift until early the next morning. When he arrived home, he was short of breath and his throat was dry. Russell didn't feel well at all. He was sweating heavily again, but still felt dry, dehydrated. It hurt to swallow, so he couldn’t eat or drink. And although he felt like just staying at home, he couldn’t; it was Saturday night and he had another graveyard shift at the motel.
But this Saturday night, despite his loyalty to the cause, Russell couldn't make it through eight hours of duty. After an hour, he had to go home. He had the shakes; first he felt hot, then cold. He sweated, but he felt dry. On Sunday he worked a twelve-hour shift, but he shouldn’t have. After work he was weak in the legs; he couldn't eat; he was almost too hoarse to speak. He still suffered from shortness of breath.
When he coughed, he threw up. Finally, he decided to find a doctor.
Russell checked into Centre City Hospital that week. He told doctors about the Mace and the carbon dioxide, that he had been losing weight since the battle, and that he vomited when he tried to eat anything. He still had the chills and the sweats. There had been intermittent headaches, too. Following his admission to the hospital, x-rays showed a developing pneumonia on his left side. Russell did not improve the following week. On September 22 he awoke with a searing pain in the left side of his chest and with extreme shortness of breath. More x-rays revealed a further increase of pneumonia. Russell was also having a spiking fever from 101 to 103 degrees. Doctors gave him antibiotics and listed his condition as guarded. Two days later his condition deteriorated even further and he could barely breathe.
Doctors tried various antibiotics but nothing seemed to work. It appeared Russell had chemical pneumonitis with an infection as well. (Two of Russell’s colleagues also developed pneumonia, though not so seriously.) On September 26 he was put in the intensive-care unit and tubes were inserted in his lungs to help him breathe, but he continued to deteriorate. The next day his blood pressure dropped to zero; the heart monitor showed a straight line. Russell was dead.
Even though Russell's death came at the hands of another, the district attorney decided not to prosecute anyone involved, reasoning that it would be difficult to prove murderous intent on anybody’s part (and also because of evidence that Russell himself sprayed some of the poison chemicals as well). Despite the D.A.’s ruling, however, it became obvious to all concerned that the arrangement of ownership could not continue. Frank Current said in a court document filed last October that he believes he and Bernie Thompson together have spent more than $50,000 on security guards. He also said that the problems of the owners of the Surfer Leasing Company J cannot be resolved by any practical method, and that a sale of the Surfer Leasing Company, with court supervision, is i "absolutely necessary.”
The motel was finally put into receivership last December 3 and a trial has been set for March 24. Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell has since ordered the following:
— Milton Friedman and Lewis Silverberg be appointed co-receivers of the Surfer Leasing Company.
— Current, Thompson, and Thompson’s uncle shall not enter the lobby at any time except to receive personal mail or unless invited by the receivers.
— All security guards be terminated.
R. Carter Sanders, the attorney for Bernie Thompson, says this: “Finally, all these people realized that this entire situation got out of hand . . . and it just wasn't worth it.” □