Friday, June 22, 2012

Nothing Amusing At This Park

In the 1980s Disneyland, the land of fun, magic and enchantment in Anaheim, California experienced the park's first murder. I covered it as a newspaper reporter and followed the case for years. A second-degree murder conviction was won by Orange County prosecutors against the killer, who had stabbed a young man during a fight in Tomorrowland.

What follows is a section of a fictional account I wrote of the incident, which I set at Marineland in the 1970s. For background, the main character, a retired coroner's investigator, is trying to find out why a young man named Joey had killed himself years after the murder. The main character has gone to Los Angeles to read a court transcript of Joey's testimony at the killer's trial.

(From "The Collector" by R.D. Byron-Smith, available at; Barnes & Noble; Apple and Sony books and others (c) 2012.)

Suicide. And, Joey’s over a girl. Lost young love, and then death.

I had seen it often enough over the years at the coroner’s office. And, you know what was common? Once a youth made his mind up to take his own life, he enjoyed an inner peace. He gifted personal items to his best friends: a favorite music compact disc here, a jersey he had worn to baseball games there; things he loved, he could no longer love, so someone else should. I saw it time after time. Yet, Joey’s story gnawed at me, kept me awake, tossing in bed nights, wanting to know what had happened. Finally, Agnes told me that either I had to sleep in the guest room or she would because I was spoiling her nightly rest. We hadn’t slept but a few nights apart in fifty years. I had to lay this thing to rest.

That is when I found myself one morning on the Los Angeles Freeway driving west from Palm Springs. I had found the criminal case number in the Los Angeles County Superior Court index for 1972. I had called the clerk in the court’s archives and had asked that the file be located for my review.

“Your in luck,” said the clerk, an African-American wearing a T-shirt with a hip-hop star emblazed on it. “Here’s the disc and there is a note that it includes the trial transcript. Most don’t. It’s your lucky day, Pop.”

I took the disc to a seating area where you can review court records on a computer and looked through them, carefully. I found the trial transcript and the testimony I wanted: “Examination of Joey Maxwell, Los Angeles County Superior Court, June 10, 1973,” his questioning by a Mr. Gibson of the Los Angeles County D.A.’s office.

Mr. Gibson: “How long had you known the deceased?”

Mr. Maxwell: “All of my life. We went through school together.”

Mr. Gibson: “Would you say that Daniel Darrow was your best friend?”

Mr. Maxwell: “I would.”

Mrs. Dallas: “Objection your honor; relevance.”

Court: “Mr. Gibson, I don’t see what relevance his friendship has. Motion by the defense, sustained.”

Mr. Gibson: “Thank you, your honor. Now, Mr. Maxwell. Did you and Mr. Darrow go to Marineland on February 2 of last year?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah, sir.”

Mr. Gibson: “May I approach the witness, your honor?”

Court: “Yes.”

Mr. Gibson: “I am handing the witness a photograph marked prosecution exhibit No. 27. Mr. Maxwell, have you ever seen this picture before?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah, Danny and me at Marineland. A man took it for me with my camera. The big whale sign’s over us.”

Mr. Gibson: “It shows you and the deceased at the entrance of Marineland, is that correct?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah.”

Mr. Gibson: “Does the photo have a date on it?”

Mr. Maxwell: “2-2-72.”

I skimmed twenty more pages, scrolling the computer screen. Then I found what I wanted.

Mr. Gibson: “What happened when you got to the dolphin show amphitheater?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Danny and me was moving along and there was lots of people jammed up-like, going in. And we was all pushed together.”

Mr. Gibson: “Just to be clear, Mr. Maxwell, are you saying people were bunched together closely like you might be in a crowded elevator?”

Mr. Maxwell: “That’s a good way to say it.”

Mrs. Dallas: “Objection, your honor, the defense would like the witness to testify, not the prosecution.”

Court: “Mr. Gibson please restrict your leading.”

Mr. Gibson: “Yes, your honor. Mr. Maxwell, what happened next?”

Mr. Maxwell: “This girl started screaming.”

Mr. Gibson: “What was she screaming?”

Mr. Maxwell: “She was pointing at Danny and yelling he touched her.”

Mr. Gibson: “What exactly did she yell?”

Mr. Maxwell: (Long pause). “You grabbed my ass, you shit!”

Mr. Gibson: “Then what happened?”

Mr. Maxwell: “He came running at Danny and pushed him and . . .”

Mr. Gibson: “Let me stop you there. You say ‘He.’ Do you see this person in the courtroom?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Him.”

Mr. Gibson: “Your honor the record should reflect that the witness has identified the defendant as the person who pushed Danny.”

Court: “So it will, proceed.”

Mr. Gibson: “Did you hear the defendant, Mr. Drexler, say anything when you saw him push Danny.”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah.” (Pause.)

Mr. Gibson: “What did he say?”

Mr. Maxwell: (Pause). “You m...f... you touched my woman’s ass. You m... f...! Like that. He shouted it mad-like.”

Mr. Gibson: “Then what happened?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Danny fell backwards on the cement. And I pushed him.”

Mr. Gibson: “You pushed who, Danny?”

Mr. Maxwell: “No, I pushed that guy back from Danny. And Danny says, ‘Stay out of it, Joey. I’ll beat him by myself and he got up. And he could of, if he didn’t have a knife.”

Mrs. Dallas: “Objection. Your honor, I doubt whether the jury is getting a clear picture here of this witness’s testimony. I know I don’t know if the victim had a knife or who had a knife.”

Mr. Maxwell: “Your guy had the knife!”

Court: “Please, Mr. Maxwell. Speak only in answering a question. The jury will disregard that last statement. Mr. Gibson the court is going to rely on you to clear up any confusion. Please continue your examination.”

Mr. Gibson. “OK, Mr. Maxwell, you have testified that the defendant pushed the victim and Danny fell to the ground and then you pushed the defendant, correct?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah, that’s how it all happened.”

Mr. Gibson: “You testified that Danny then told you to stay out of it, right?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah.”

Mr. Gibson: “Then what happened.”

Mr. Maxwell: “Danny jumps up and slugs this guy in the face and he falls back against people. And Danny jumps on him and hit him in the head two, three times. Danny was a good fighter. Next thing I knows Danny is yelling that he has a knife and is cut. Danny turns ’round and looks at me and his white T-shirt is all bloody on his chest and he falls over on the ground. And this guy and his girl run away.”

Mr. Gibson: “Just so that we are clear, are you testifying that Danny said the defendant, here, Mr. Drexler, had a knife?”

Mr. Maxwell: “That is what he said and was stabbed.”

Mr. Gibson: “Your honor, this might be a good time for our afternoon break.”

I stopped reading the trial transcript. It was two-thirty in the afternoon and I had to get back to Palm Springs. Driving home I thought how wastefully tragic: a young man had been murdered for touching a girl’s tushie. I had two hours to concoct a cover story about why I had gone into Los Angeles.

Agnes already thought I had gone batty over this “Joey thing,” as she called it.
Later at home, I looked hard at the photo of Joey and Danny under the fluke of the Marineland whale, the photo that had fallen out of the scrapbook. Danny smiling broadly in his still-clean, white T-shirt, and Joey, the skinnier kid whose red, short-cropped hair clashed with the hippies of the seventies, both standing in the sunlight, warmed by it, neither knowing their fate hours ahead inside that celebrated park. And, I thought of the storm, and of Jonah.

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