Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Killer Calling

           In the early 1980s a male nurse turned psycho and murdered upwards of 50 elderly people in their hospital beds, heinous crimes that brought health care in Southern California to its knees, and made international headlines. Sometimes even while he held their frail, withered hands or wished them happy birthday, this sadistic killer injected defenseless old people with lethal doses of the heart stimulant, Lidocaine, which caused horrific seizures and death. It's a cardiac drug still commonly used in hospital emergency rooms, and, in the hands of sane medical professionals, has saved millions of lives. I covered the hospital murders for a daily newspaper, and once even interviewed the killer over a bloody plate of beefsteak -- months before his arrest -- where he actually described the last minutes of life of victims.

          Here's a scene from Chapter Five of my memoir "Dinner With A Killer," available at all Web booksellers. The scene shows how a reporter's professional life can spill into minor chaos at home.

“You gave a mass murderer our home telephone number?”

I had just told my wife that I had given our home telephone number to Robert Diaz, the nurse suspected in the hospital deaths.

She was incredulous, and to make her point dramatically sharper in an illustration that shouted “just how bone-headed can you get,” she wrapped her arms around our three-year-old daughter, protectively.

“He only kills old people,” I said, trying to bring a little brainy logic into her much-too emotional state.

“Well that’s comforting.”

“Look, he might be willing to sit and talk; that would be great for my career. It’d be a huge headline. I gave him my home number to show some trust.”

“How about your family’s safety?”

I could see the frightened glazed look of being axed to death in her eyes.

“He’s only a suspect,” I said. It was lame but true. “He hasn’t been arrested.”

“You didn’t hand him our home address along with it, did you.”

I paused, making kind of a mock sweep of guilt with my eyes around the living room. It was all for effect, and that’s what I got.

“You gave a mass murderer our God damn address?”

She was yelling now, and -- as she gathered up the kid as if to run off to mother for safety -- I intervened. “Of course not.” I thought about telling her that it was a simple reporting skill to look up an address in the Crisscross Directory once you had the phone number but held up: why poke the bear, as they say.

“I’m done,” she said. She was calming down I could feel it.


“I’m not answering the phone anymore.”

“Why?” I asked the question but I knew it was rhetorical.

“It might be him.”

I thought about saying, “I hope it is,” but said, “Oh, he’ll never call.”

That night I slept on the sofa, feeling the true depth of her anger.

About a month afterward ... the telephone rang around nine at night. On a morning daily newspaper a late-night call to a reporter from a copyeditor about a story the reporter had written that day was nothing unusual. The call was likely the copydesk, I figured.

My wife answered the telephone, and after a male caller asked for me, she asked, “Who’s calling, please?”

“Bob Diaz,” the voice said.

She hurriedly cuffed her hand over the phone receiver and said in an animated whisper, “It’s him, Diaz.”

I’m sure my eyes were pretty wide open when she handed me the phone. She immediately left the room, probably to make sure our daughter was in bed, and more importantly, safe.

He was calling to set up an interview at his home in Apple Valley for June 15th. It would be the first of two interviews I had with him months before his arrest. Each lasted more than an hour and one was conducted in the restaurant of then-fashionable Apple Valley Inn near Diaz’s apartment. The Inn which was a stone’s throw from where Roy Rogers lived in a new horseshoe-shaped home built by his son, Dusty Rogers, had gained local fame two years before as the location where movie star-director Robert Redford had directed actors Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland in scenes for his hit movie, “Ordinary People,” which won Best Picture Oscar in 1981.
-- From "Dinner With A Killer" by R.D. Byron-Smith.
(Blog readers interested in my "run-in" with Mary Tyler Moore on the set of "Ordinary People" at the Apple Valley Inn during filming can read about it in my new memoir, to be published soon. For a taste, see blog "Getting the Lead Out," 6-10-13, a scene from the new memoir to be published by Pilar Publishing,  

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