“With age, I have learned that unless you’re dead, life can always get worse.”
—Ronnie Kale, narrator of Bruce Kalberg’s autobiographical novel, Sub-Hollywood
Limo driver Byron Baker was between jobs on September 11, 2008, when he stopped at home for a late-afternoon break. A day later, the TV would be full of stories on the Metroliner rail crash in Chatsworth, but for now, the story that caught his attention was a fatal shooting in a loft downtown, which the reporter labeled “roommate rage.” Remembering that his drinking buddy and friend of 20 years Peter Haskell was staying with friends on North Main, he put in a call.
“Hey, Peter, it’s Byron,” says his message on Haskell’s cell phone. “I just wanted to see if you’re okay. I heard there was some kind of funny business down in some loft by the San Antonio Winery on the news just now. Just checking on you, man. Hope everything’s okay.”
It wasn’t. At the time Baker’s call came in, Haskell had been dead for at least three hours, maybe more, shot once through the heart at point-blank range with a .25 caliber handgun.
That evening, the killer was identified as Bruce Kalberg, 59, then being held on a $1 million bond. Like Haskell, 51, Kalberg was a veteran of the early punk scene. He had been the editor of No Magazine, a scrappy chronicle of L.A.’s teeming punk subculture, which he self-published with then-girlfriend Ewa Wojciak from 1978 to 1984. Though no longer a couple, Kalberg and Wojciak continued to share the loft where the shooting took place.
Haskell, a strapping 6-foot-2 raconteur and bon vivant, was a peripatetic filmmaker, musician, artist and actor, who had dated Exene Cervenka of X in the mid-’80s and directed a number of her videos, and who seemed to have crossed paths with everybody. As charter members of the small, intense scene centering on the Masque in Hollywood, Haskell and Kalberg had known each other for 30 years, haunted the same clubs and parties, even dated the same woman — Heather Haley (of the Zellots), who went out with Kalberg “three or four times” and was later married to Haskell for four years. (After his death, she wrote on her blog: “That means my ex-husband has been murdered by my ex-boyfriend.”) All four — Kalberg, Haskell, Haley and Wojciak — worked at L.A. Weekly soon after its launch, in 1978. And in 2005, under the name of Bruce Caen, Kalberg self-published a thinly veiled roman à clef about the period, called Sub-Hollywood, in which (arguably) all of them appear as characters, and which Haskell was helping to promote in exchange for a place to stay, making him both roommate and employee.
Kalberg told the police that Haskell, having been evicted from the loft, had broken in and attacked him, whereupon Kalberg fired the pistol he had been carrying due to Haskell’s repeated threats. Kalberg was released four days later, when the District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges, in effect ruling the shooting self-defense.
As the story radiated outward, rumors swept through the punk diaspora: Both Haskell and Kalberg were crazy, and had been for decades; a major drug deal was about to go down; Kalberg, an avowed gun enthusiast, had always wanted to kill someone to see if he could; Haskell, down on his luck, had attacked an armed man as a form of suicide. There were tales of incriminating messages on each other’s answering machine, and of a perfect storm of strong drink and prescription meds. There was even a mysterious figure known as the Spanish Guitarist, who could attest to Haskell’s movements and frame of mind leading up to the shooting.
Said one observer, “This is like a David Lynch movie.”
Peter Haskell was born and raised in South Carolina, a scion of the Southern aristocracy: Tidalholm Mansion, the family home of his father, Roger, in Beaufort, South Carolina, where Haskell spent his summers as a child, is featured in The Great Santini and, most prominently, The Big Chill. This destined life of privilege came to an end when Roger was diagnosed with advanced Tourette’s syndrome and eventually institutionalized.
Filmmaker John Waters remembers Haskell from the Baltimore punk scene, where he put in a year at the Baltimore Institute of Art. “I liked Pete,” says Waters, with whom Haskell shared a lifelong correspondence. “I thought he was incredibly handsome when he was younger, and funny and nice and smart. I never saw it, but I could imagine there was a dark side to him. When I first heard about this, I could imagine he was completely innocent of everything he was accused of, and I could imagine that he’d killed eight people. Nothing would surprise me, and I’d probably like him the same either way.”
Driving cross-country in 1978, Haskell showed up on the Hollywood doorstep of X bassist John Doe, another Baltimore renegade. Soon enough, he was a charter member of the intense Hollywood punk microcosm — living with the Controllers and the Mau-Maus at the punk-rock apartment building at 8228 Sunset. Later, studying filmmaking at CalArts in the mid-’80s, he lived with Cervenka for two years and was speculated to have broken up her marriage to Doe. (Cervenka considers the matter personal.) Haskell created the cover painting for X side project the Knitters’ Poor Little Creature on the Road and went on to direct the X videos for “Wild Thing” and “Because I Do,” as well as music videos for Medicine, Barnes & Barnes and others. He worked on his own films, including The King of Nothing, with a painfully young Don Bolles, the drummer for the Germs; and a Super 8 feature called The Lowlife, starring novelist Richard Lange (Dead Boys, This Wicked World), with a cameo by Flea. Haskell’s matinee-idol looks won him acting roles in Modi Frank’s 20-minute Western, Bad Day, scripted by Cervenka and featuring an unknown Kevin Costner; Baltimore filmmaker Michael Gentile’s Gang of 25; and Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch’s notorious Fingered, in which he is stabbed in the thigh and dragged from the bumper of a ’50s-model Cadillac.
“Back then, especially, I liked to push people’s buttons,” says Lunch by e-mail from her home in Barcelona. “[I] liked to play dirty puppet master, and loved guys who weren’t intimidated by my own macho posturing but used it as a springboard to skyrocket themselves (and me with them) off the deep end. And Pete, at least with me, fit that mold: He liked to drink, get drunk, act out, play dumb. And he wasn’t dumb. He was clever, poetic and, like myself, romantic in the worst way possible. And that makes you dangerous. It was part of his incredibly irresistible sex appeal.”
“The thing that stands out the most in my mind about Pete is that he was a very gentle person,” Cervenka says. “He was a really great artist, visually — a great writer, a great filmmaker. He was very wild and emotionally like all of us — no different than me, fucked up — and I think that prevented him from doing a lot of really great things with his life. But I never saw him be violent. The best thing that someone said is that this was a very film noir ending to Pete’s life.”
Whether due to his peripatetic nature or the ferment of the times, Haskell could never seem to focus his talents, preferring instead to pursue any artistic challenge that presented an immediate hurdle. He was the drummer for Thelonious Monster long enough to wind up on the cover of the Weekly in a cowboy hat and a T-shirt that read, “I Lease by the Piece,” and, by most accounts, a pretty good singer and rhythm guitarist. He wrote scripts, poetry, short stories and long letters to friends, as he oscillated between coasts and passed in and out of their lives. He and Haley produced four issues of a poetry zine called Rattler from 1982 to 1987 (with design credited to both Haskell and Wojciak), and he leaves behind hundreds of paintings, cartoons, photographs, carvings in antler and bone, and a dozen 18-inch dolls, replete with hand-stitched clothing and papier-mâché heads, based on characters he saw on Hollywood Boulevard.
“He understood that after the accidental beauty of youth, we’re all just stumbling around out here trying to do something great,” says Doriandra Smith, a seamstress and one of Haskell’s many non-romantic kindred spirits. “He just had an incredible penchant for everything that was curious and out-of-the-box, and a really intense artistic eye.”
“His intuitiveness was so acute, it bordered on spooky,” adds Heather.
People continually refer to Haskell as a Renaissance man, jack-of-all-trades, die-hard bohemian and beautiful loser. James Dean and Jack Kerouac are frequent touchstones. He rarely held a steady job, worked just enough to facilitate his art, frequently stayed with friends or moved in with girlfriends (his brother calls him “the houseguest from hell”), and slept outdoors when necessary. And he was generally charming enough to get away with it — he cultivated a chivalry and Southern gentility, especially around women.
“He was a really lovely guy if you were a girl,” says longtime friend Beth Thompson of the band Medicine.
But seen from a different vantage, bohemian can also be another word for deadbeat, or, worse, opportunist. At some point, living on the margins of society invariably makes you someone else’s problem. (Haskell once lived in comedy writer Tom Stern’s garage for four years in the late ’90s.) And ambition, especially when diffused through alcohol and contempt for commercial success, can turn bitter — or, worse, mean, even if friends never saw him cross the line into violence.
“He was a seriously flawed human being,” says photographer John Eder, summing up their 20-year friendship. “Serious alcoholic, although you rarely saw him fucking up. But he would get really wasted and live off the generosity of other people, or kind of worm his way into their lives. So many people would look at that guy and think, If only he would get his shit together and stop drinking, then he could rule the world.”
For the past three years, Haskell had bounced around between relatives in Charleston, South Carolina, and his mother’s house in Charlottesville, Virginia, and spent time working in Germany with an old friend. But eventually, whether by design or default, he decided to take one more run at L.A.
Haskell hit town for the last time on May 24, 2008, first crashing in Los Feliz and West Covina with friends of friends, and then sleeping in spare rooms, parks or his car. He found pickup work where he could, including porn shoots, but for the most part, he did not find Los Angeles overly receptive to his return.
Byron Baker describes attending a party in late July at an old friend’s house with Haskell in tow, and then a phone call several days later telling him Haskell was still there. “So I drove over there, and there’s Peter sitting out in the back,” Baker recalls. “I said, ‘Well, I see the party’s still going on.’ And he just kind of hung his head and said, ‘I know, I was gonna go.’” This is also where Haskell met the Spanish Guitarist, who was teaching him to play classical guitar (and who chooses not to be identified out of fear for his personal safety).
That summer, Haskell stayed off and on with photographer Ed Colver and his wife, Lani, at their Highland Park home, preferring a pallet in the converted garage to the antique bed in the guest room. Colver got his start in 1979 shooting punk shows for No Mag and knew both men for decades. Out of the blue one night, Colver got a phone call from Kalberg.
“I said, ‘Hey, guess who I’m sitting here with? Pete’s in town,’” Colver recalls. “I put him on the phone, and they were chatting it up for quite a while. Bruce said, ‘Hey, you can come stay with us and maybe I can get you some work,’ and then it was probably within a few days that he was down at their place. From what I heard, it was one big, happy family for a while.”
Bruce Kalberg started No Mag in 1978 with Michael Gira, a friend from Otis College of Art and Design, who left for New York after several issues to form the early noise band the Swans. Aside from the requisite profiles of X, Fear, the Germs, Johanna Went, Phranc, Suicidal Tendencies, ad gloriam, this sub-Slash tabloid fanzine amply captured the corrosive admixture of medical atrocities, sexual pathology, gallows humor and political anarchy endemic to the times: autopsy photos; profiles of working dominatrixes; textbook entries on female circumcision and how to synthesize heroin from morphine; cartoons of “Nancy Reagan’s favorite color” (bloody Tampaxes); and house ads featuring photos of progressive gum disease, with the caption, “You liked our smile, now catch our disease” — what Kalberg once called “the old cliché of shit-and-guts imagery” by which to wage war on polite society. It also frequently bordered on the pornographic — Susanna Hoffs topless, Belinda Carlisle naked under tights, Germs producer Geza X with his cock in his hand, the Cramps’ Brian Gregory with a semi-erection and a python, and the irrepressible El Duce shitting on a plate are a fair representation -- forcing him to manufacture it in San Francisco, where printers are apparently more tolerant.
“We wanted to make the most evil, nihilistic magazine ever,” he says in a 2007 profile in the ANPQuarterly by co-editor Aaron Rose. Kalberg is widely remembered for shaving a reverse Mohawk into his head and covering it with liver, a look he wore out to the clubs and later re-created for a full-page ad in Slash — garnering him the nickname Liverhead.
“He was a really strange guy,” Cervenka says, “but once you got to know him, he fit in with all the other weirdos, if you can imagine that becoming normal, him walking around like that.”
Heather Haley met Kalberg in the clubs shortly after relocating here from Vancouver in 1978, and dated him briefly. “He took me to his apartment and introduced me to his pet cockroach,” says Haley. “And I knew he was doing it for effect — I was supposed to be shocked or repulsed.” She also recalls him saying he had — or else planned to get — a gun for the car, because “when you drive around and you’ve got a loaded .45 in your glove box, it gives you a hard-on.”
None of this is at odds with the self-portrait Kalberg creates in Sub-Hollywood. The narrator, Ronnie Kale, is from a dysfunctional San Francisco family, and runs away to art school, where his innate nihilism, contempt for authority and penchant for gore and viscera find purchase in the small, energized music scene surrounding the Masque in Hollywood, which he undertakes to document in his own magazine, called P*NK. Published in December 2005 under the aegis of Yes Press (the name is a takeoff on No Mag), the novel displays almost no literary conventions (such as character development or forward momentum), but it is a detailed evocation of a certain moment in time, particularly the Zero-One Gallery and club scene, and the crushing paranoia of protracted methamphetamine use. (“Zanna claimed that I had the biggest methamphetamine habit in L.A.,” says narrator Kale, citing the Wojciak character.) Caen/Kalberg crafts a protagonist consumed with self-loathing, gun fetishism, hard-drug addiction, sex with underage women and darkness visible.
“People rarely like me,” Kale says at one point, and at another: “It always surprises me when any person doesn’t appear to dislike me on sight.”
Writing in the Weekly, Greg Burk called Sub-Hollywood “a dirt-stylish experience of absurd and stupid lowlife,” stressing its autobiographical elements: “The author breaks no sweat fictionalizing, since the real mammals and their behaviors are plenty fantastical.”
When asked about the book today, Burk says, “It is 90 percent real ... with different people’s names, and sometimes one person’s name assigned to a different person’s activity.”
Haskell called it “a thinly disguised autobiography” and wrote to an ex-girlfriend that Kalberg “had to change names and stuff to avoid lawsuits.” As Kalberg himself wrote in promotional materials sent as an e-mail to Haskell, “The scene is re-created as a fiction novel although I lived the life.”
What is disturbing about Sub-Hollywood is its intimations of violence. As an adolescent, Kale diverts the pipes from a nearby slaughterhouse and fills a local creek with animal blood. (Haley remembers Kalberg bragging about this.) Kale does 800 pushups a day and confesses to hoarding firearms and explosives, like a self-styled Travis Bickle. In art school, he fashions a performance piece around killing live rats; later, he befriends Liz Taylor’s daughter (a classmate of Kalberg’s at Otis) and contemplates “cutting her head off and keeping it in a jar of formaldehyde.” He variously dreams of killing his parents and setting his father’s head on fire, throws his mother across the room (comparing it to unleashing a Hail Mary pass), and tries to kick his girlfriend with enough force that he breaks a window.
“I’ve always had a penchant for temper tantrums around four in the afternoon, but anytime will do,” says Kale. “It’s possibly caused by low blood sugar and a lack of vitamins. Once you get in the habit of fighting every day, it becomes difficult not to go there.”
This culminates in a series of events, where, after his girlfriend dies of a drug overdose cooked up by a malevolent drug dealer named Royal, a speed-crazed Kale outfits a Smith & Wesson .38 with a Coca-Cola-can silencer, dresses up in a blond wig and miniskirt — a garish image rendered in pen and ink by Gary Panter on the book’s cover — and, in the novel’s one, sustained burst of dramatic license, rings Royal’s doorbell (the latter greets him as “Liverhead”) and shoots him once in the heart. “A bullet in the heart, you drop dead, guaranteed,” Kale confides to the reader.
From there, he drives north to Darwin, California (pop. 54), on the edge of Death Valley, and burns down a home owned by Royal and his half-brother, in the process incinerating a mentally challenged caretaker and his wife. This sole diversion into outright invention begs the question: Could such crimes, in fact, be real, especially since the novel ends with the disclaimer, “TO THE LAPD — This book does not contain the confessions to any past unsolved crimes (murders, shootings, arsons, narcotics infractions)”?
But the LAPD checked into it. “We looked at [whether] they have anything unsolved from way back then in that particular part of town,” says Detective Jake Dugger, who was present at both the crime scene and Kalberg’s initial police interview, and was later assigned to look into irregularities surrounding the case.
Haskell’s friends who read the novel — Haley and Baker among them — didn’t necessarily recognize him in the portrayal of the drug dealer, Royal. Unlike Royal, Haskell didn’t live in the Fairfax District, nor did he have a bird of paradise tattooed on his right arm to mask drug tracks, nor was there evidence of jail time etched in his face. Yet, according to police, Haskell had two drug arrests in the ’80s (neither violent), and had recently admitted to dealing drugs while at CalArts. Royal’s “mouth had long, thin, dark-purple lips sculpted with a cruel twist like something imagined by Mary Shelley,” while Haskell (according to ex-girlfriend Liza Walsh) “thought he looked like Frankenstein.” And like Haskell, Royal “was able to come off as uncannily complex, and ... talked with well-informed repartee.”
Regardless of the character’s origin, the police saw similarities in the way Royal was described in the novel and Kalberg’s later account of the real-world shooting. “I looked at the book myself and highlighted some things that were very coincidental,” says Detective Dwayne Fields, who was also present at Kalberg’s initial interview.
In the book, Kale says of Royal: “His hands were so large that I estimated it would take five or six of my hands combined to equal the mass of one of his knuckle-busters.” Later, during the shooting itself, Kale braces himself against a stucco wall so that Royal couldn’t “kill me with his enormous hands.”
Detective Fields: “Once you look at the video of the interview and then read that part of the book, [it seems] almost rehearsed to a degree. Little things — talking about the hands, like how small [Kalberg’s] hands were. The shooting itself doesn’t coincide with our shooting at all — not even close. But little things that he said, I thought, ‘I’ve heard this somewhere before.’”
Peter Haskell moved in with Kalberg and Wojciak during the first week of August. He was a skilled handyman with a full complement of power tools, and his responsibilities eventually grew to include grocery shopping, light home improvements and other household chores. But from the start, in exchange for a place to stay, his primary job was to promote and sell Kalberg’s book, thousands of copies of which remained stacked on pallets in the loft.
In e-mails to friends and family, Haskell described his new benefactors as old friends with an off-and-on relationship going back 20 years, who now lived in separate bedrooms at opposite ends of the loft, with their coterie of tiny lap dogs. Wojciak taught design at USC, and photography and imaging at Art Center. They also operated two businesses out of the loft: Yes Press, their publishing company, whose only title appeared to be Sub-Hollywood, and Clean Advertising, a freelance design business that, according to records, Wojciak founded in 1996. Kalberg seemed pleased with Haskell’s efforts, at least initially, but throughout the month, tensions between them steadily mounted — two alpha males locked in close quarters, with Wojciak the only buffer.
This tension was exacerbated by the prescriptions Haskell told Thompson and others Kalberg was taking, and which, he said, the couple traveled to Tijuana in mid-August to acquire in bulk. (LAPD crime-scene photos show prescriptions for Tramadol, an opiate-like painkiller, and Diazepam — generic Valium.)
“A couple of days after they came back, [Haskell] calls me and says, ‘It’s just bedlam over here; it’s hell — he’s on all these psychotropic drugs,’” says Doriandra Smith, a friend who visited him several times at the loft. “He just said that it would become incredibly unmanageable to be there because Bruce was acting so psychotic and nervous.”
But from his comments to various women friends, Haskell’s friendship with Wojciak — the loft’s sole leaseholder — seemed to blossom the more strained his relationship with Kalberg became. And, he suggested, he wasn’t the only one feeling the strain. Inviting another old girlfriend, Zuade Kaufman, to dinner on Olvera Street on Friday, September 6, he wrote in an e-mail that he and Wojciak “really need to get out of here later.”
“He told me, ‘Ewa is so supportive of me,’” says Thompson, with whom Haskell was shooting a music video at that time. “‘Every time Bruce freaks out, she comes and she pulls me aside and she says, ‘Aw, forget about him. He doesn’t have any power here. I’m the one who’s hiring you; I’m the one who wants you here. You don’t have to go anywhere. Everything’s fine.’”
In an e-mail he sent to Haskell at 1:43 a.m. on August 26th, Kalberg addresses the topic of Wojciak, as well as Haskell’s increasingly precarious tenure, in the form of what might be interpreted as a veiled threat. In the course of a long, rambling tirade, he introduces a character he calls “Gay Pervert Fucker,” an ex-employee of Clean Advertising who Wojciak was allegedly afraid to fire: “I walked out of my office room on Beverly Blvd. by Erewhon, then I said, ‘GPF clear out of this office or I will kill you from behind and splatter your head all over the wall.’ Then I walked back into my room… If or when I make it to Nogales or even Tijuana, Ewa and yourself will have some halcyon days (Springtime in Germany for Hitler or however the song goes)… Then you will find yourself repeating yourself yelling and generally going crazy like moi (francaise for ‘me’)… Lastly, if you sit around here long enough you will acquire a motorcycle or a better auto by dint of being patient with my vociferous obnixious [sic] temper and helping Ewa and selling books which in turn frees up some space and will make us money.”
With Kalberg and Wojciak in Tijuana, Haskell put into motion a longstanding plan to shoot a music video for Thompson, who was looking to revive her music career. “Pete said that he’s gotten and refused more opportunities than most people get in a lifetime, and he wasn’t going to do that again,” says Thompson. “He was going to take every opportunity he got this time. This isn’t the first time he left L.A. in frustration and came back.” They filmed at the loft on August 23rd and 30th, both Saturdays. On Thursday morning, September 4th, at 8:30 a.m., Thompson got a call from Lani Colver, Ed’s wife, a professional makeup person for TV and film who was helping Thompson with her makeup, concerned that Haskell had showed up at their house the night before in a highly agitated state, so drunk that they wouldn’t let him leave.
In the week before his death, Thompson says, Haskell told her that Kalberg had pulled a gun on him. (Photos were discovered in Haskell’s digital camera, dated August 10, 2008, of Kalberg holding the gun he used in the killing.) “Pete was really upset about that,” she says. “He said, ‘If that motherfucker pulls a gun on me again, there’s gonna be a problem.’ He said it a number of times, and every time he brought it up, he said, ‘I’m not going to back down next time. I’m not going to leave next time.’”
When Thompson next talked to Haskell on Tuesday, September 9, he reported that Kalberg was finally leaving for Mexico to work on his next novel. “I said, ‘Our problems are over,’” says Thompson. “And Peter said, ‘Well, if he goes.’”
By this time, Haskell had already left the loft and gone to stay with his friend the Spanish Guitarist. Showing up on Tuesday evening, he spent the night in a hammock in the courtyard.
“He expressed repeatedly that day that he needed a place to stay,” the Spanish Guitarist recalls. “He was confused about going back. The guy had screamed in his face four times. He said the guy was dangerous, or he was crazy. I think he also felt humiliated by the guy. He said something like, ‘Oh, his wife is on my side.’ I said to him, ‘You see, now you’re talking to his wife. You’re talking to my wife, I’ll be angry with you, too.’ Haskell was calling [Kalberg] repeatedly, because he was angry.
“But then there was a last call. When they started talking, they became friends again, and then at the end, he said, ‘Oh, we’re okay now.’ But then he said, ‘If he screams in my face again, I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ That moment is when I said, ‘You know what? If it’s going that way, don’t go there.’ He was drunk. He gets hectic when he drinks — he can bump into something he’s going to regret later. And then he stayed and talked, drank some beer, and he started to mention how depressed he felt. He looked kind of suicidal. And things he mentioned, like ‘what life was about’ and ‘being tired,’ ‘I don’t know what’s worth living’ — things like that. And then he took off.”
Later, on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 10, at 4:51 p.m., the day before the shooting, Wojciak left a message on Haskell’s cell phone. Her tone was tentative, distracted, as if there was something central that was being left unsaid: “Hey, Peter, it’s Ewa. It’s, I don’t know, close to 5, I think. I was wondering if you had a chance to go over there and get your stuff yet, because I’ve gotten a couple more messages and I don’t know if you have or not. [Deep sigh] All right, I’m going back to my class now, so if you haven’t gotten your stuff, you should, and if you leave anything behind or whatever, I will help you with that. Okay, ’bye.”
This was followed at 6:33 p.m. by a message from Kalberg. He seems conciliatory, although there is still an implicit threat — or, if not a threat, at least leverage — close to the surface: “Peter, this is Bruce. There’s one big problem here. The problem isn’t us. We have a few items to work out, a few little arguments to have, and we can put our business in the black. So if you want to argue it out, hash it out, come over tonight and we’ll work it out. But other than that, you’re out of here. I’m all for working it out. I still think you’re the right guy for the job — and I don’t think it’s an easy job. So let’s try to work it out, all right?”
“I called Peter [Thursday] morning after he left because I was concerned,” the Spanish Guitarist says. “Apparently [Haskell and Kalberg] had contact for a whole day. He said they’re not okay. He doesn’t like what he sees. He said, ‘We’re still having some sort of a conflict.’ And that’s when I said, ‘My friend, just get out of there.’”
On the Saturday following the shooting, Beth Thompson called Wojciak at the loft and asked if she could come by to get the tapes of the music video she and Haskell had been working on. “Ewa told me that Peter had attacked Bruce and slammed his head into the ground, and that if I didn’t, I should know that he was acting really crazy,” says Thompson — destroying things, dumping cat litter on her bed. “Well, I had talked to him two days before, and he wasn’t acting crazy.”
When Thompson arrived at the loft the next day, Wojciak told her that Kalberg had called her twice the day of the shooting — once to report that Haskell was on his way over, and then again to say that he had killed him. She said she told Kalberg to call 911. Thompson adds that as she went through Haskell’s things, Wojciak recounted the incident to two female friends who were helping her to clean and organize the loft. “The feeling I got was that she was solidifying her story,” Thompson says.
After getting back in touch with writer Richard Lange early last year, Haskell invited him over to the loft to meet Kalberg and Wojciak and answer some questions about the publishing trade. “We talked for an hour or so, and everybody seemed to be getting along great,” Lange remembers. “I call them ‘cryptsters’ — they were old hipsters.”
On October 5, Lange attended an event downtown at Señor Fish and saw Kalberg and Wojciak selling books at a table. “Ewa gave me this really strange look,” Lange says. “And then, all of a sudden, she grabbed me and pulled me aside and said, ‘You don’t know, do you?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ She said, ‘Pete attacked Bruce and Bruce shot him and killed him.’ She went on to tell me that Pete hadn’t been doing well the whole time that he was there. He’d been drinking a lot and kind of acting bizarre, and that the best day they ever saw him was the day that I came over. There was something about building a mandala out of power tools, drinking all the booze in the house, and I guess he might have attacked Kalberg a couple of times before that. And evidently, they kept throwing him out, but then they’d relent and let him come back” — culminating in the altercation and shooting. On the way out, Lange offered his sympathies to Kalberg, and Kalberg recounted the event a second time in florid detail.
“He just laid it all out, very graphically,” Lange recalls. He said Pete had come in, busted through, grabbed him around the neck, [Bruce] had a .25 Beretta, he shot him in the heart — it was pretty graphic — and Pete kind of looked down, like, ‘You got me,’ and then he was dead. Bruce was very emotional when he was saying this. He was obviously supertorn up about it. Then he started going off about how he’s got too many leukocytes in his frontal lobe, and so he sometimes has premonitions. There had been other attacks, but he knew this was coming. ...He said, ‘I’m 60 years old, and I never, ever thought I’d kill a man.’”
Lange also reports that Wojciak confided to him that when the police returned Kalberg’s guns, it sent him into a tailspin, and she had to admit him to the L.A. County Hospital/USC Medical Center psychiatric ward for a five-day stay. Police confirm having also been given this information. In any case, it wouldn’t have been Kalberg’s first visit: In the acknowledgments to his novel, Kalberg singled out “the dedicated nurses, interns and doctors of L.A. County-USC Hospital who took me from Emergency Intensive Care back to health through a long illness.” He also called for “a prayer for Elliott Smith, who died in L.A. County-USC-Emergency at the moment I was released.” (Smith died on October 21, 2003.) And in the ANP Quarterly article, Kalberg says he wrote the novel after “numerous breakdowns.”
Outside of referring to the incident as a “tragedy involving 2nd Amendment rights and a homeless man,” Kalberg declined to comment for this story. But in a Facebook post on March 14 of this year, at 12:42 a.m., since removed, he had this to say: “LAPD tells me that I must learn to love my friends & psychopathic acquaintances whom I have recently met. LAPD is OK. In the Valley of Death, pack a Roscoe.” And in another post, on March 26, at 12:13 p.m., also since removed, he wrote, “Not in jail. D.A. called it self-defense. A person cannot murder another person in their home. It is legal to use deadly force against a killer, psychopath within one’s walls. A murderer may be sweet until he/she kills another person. There is no bail because there was no crime, save your money.”
According to police, before the alleged break-in, Kalberg and Wojciak had not taken out a restraining order, and had not contacted them as a precaution, nor did they claim in official statements that Haskell was acting crazy. As noted, there was no sign of a break-in at the loft. Although Tom Stern recalls that Haskell once told him, “In a street fight, go for the voice box,” police characterize the extent of Kalberg’s injuries as “redness on the back of the neck” — an observation borne out by LAPD photos. Kalberg had no blood splatter on him, despite an autopsy report confirming powder residue inside the wound, indicating a proximity of about 18 inches or less — surprising if Haskell was straddling his chest. Detective Dugger reports that rigor mortis evidence “didn’t jibe with the time frame,” suggesting Haskell had been dead for some time prior to the 2 p.m. 911 call. He also says that Wojciak was not interviewed extensively at the scene because, “Bruce told us she had left that morning and gone to a hotel.” (Wojciak did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.)
When police finally returned four handguns that were registered to him, Kalberg initially brought them back to the station, claiming he didn’t want them (he later reclaimed them), and then called the police incessantly for weeks afterward, often just to make small talk.
“His story is fathomable, but personally, I didn’t buy it completely,” says Detective Fields of Kalberg’s statement. “My gut feeling was that in the back of his mind, he had a gun for a reason.”
After repeated queries, Haskell’s older brother Mark, a nutritional consultant in Washington, D.C., eventually received a one-page letter from Deputy Thomas P. Higgins of the District Attorney’s Office that stated, “The suspect removed your brother’s possessions from the suspect’s residence and placed them in the hallway. Upon discovering this, your brother confronted the suspect and, according to the suspect, tried to choke him. As a result, the suspect shot your brother in apparent self-defense.”
Except that when police arrived, Haskell’s possessions were still inside the loft — including his computer, which was booted up and running. According to Detective Dugger, “There was nothing in the hallway but a desk and a chair.”
When the toxicology report was finally released a day after Halloween, it confirmed that Haskell was, in Coroner Ed Winter’s words, “double-drunk,” with a mean blood-alcohol level of 1.6 percent, twice the legal limit.
Reached by phone, Deputy Higgins says that some time after their initial assessment, he ordered investigators to look into “troubling aspects about the case.” Additional interviews have been conducted with Kalberg, Wojciak and others, but, Higgins says, the report is not yet complete and he is unable to determine a course of action until it is. “If we feel at that time, after additional investigation, there is sufficient evidence to file a homicide murder case, we will do so. But I can’t prejudge it, because I don’t know what that material is going to be.”
For his part, Ed Colver is clearly torn between protecting two of his oldest friends and making sense of an unfathomable event. In the living room of his Highland Park Craftsman, amid three decades of punk and fine-art detritus, he claims Haskell was “drinking like a fish” after his return to L.A., something he hadn’t seen before, and he recalls a night in late August, when Haskell got into an argument with someone he’d just met and put his hands around the guy’s neck.
As recently as mid-March, Colver also reports, Kalberg called and “rambled for about an hour” about the shooting, fixating on certain words that Colver jotted down on a notepad — “synesthesia,” “palimpsest,” “trepology” (possibly a variation of “trepanation,” the practice of drilling a hole through the center of the forehead to alleviate depression or enhance psychic aptitude). “He just seemed really distraught or upset or flipped out over it,” Colver says.
During that conversation, Kalberg also related a version of the assault that contradicts both what he had told Colver previously and what he told the police in his initial statement. “I’d heard [from Wojciak and others] that since they kicked Pete out of there, he had started living on the roof of the building,” Colver says. “[Bruce] had gone up onto the roof armed with a gun that he said he fired off in front of Haskell, then reloaded in front of him with one more bullet. He told him he would have to leave the building. And then he said that he went back down to his loft and Haskell came breaking in there and knocked his bedroom door open and jumped on him and was banging his head into the concrete saying he wanted to kill him. [Haskell’s body was found in Wojciak’s bedroom, not Kalberg’s.] Bruce said that he managed to get the safety off the gun when [Haskell] was on top of him, and shot him. Then last week when he called, he said that Peter had gotten up off him or something and that he had reached behind his back and was laughing and then Bruce shot him then. ...Which story is true? Was he on top of you when you shot him, or was he standing in front of you, laughing?”
Actually, technology can place Haskell inside the loft more than four hours before he allegedly broke into the apartment and was shot in self-defense.
On the morning of September 11, Haskell sent three e-mails: one to Zuade Kaufman at 9:51 a.m., inviting her on the Downtown L.A. Art Walk that evening; one to Roberto Fonseca at 10:10 a.m., inquiring after a mutual friend; and one at 10:16 a.m., to Dara Gorelick, an old friend with a prospective spare room. According to the unique IP address contained in the message headers, the originating address is registered to “Clean Advertising,” the name of Kalberg and Wojciak’s small business. Haskell used a Yahoo e-mail account he accessed through the Web site. (Police used the same technology to apprehend the recent craigslist killer.)
According to Kevin Mitnick, a world-famous hacker, who now runs his own computer-security consultancy, there are only four ways such messages could emanate from that IP address: The e-mail came from Haskell’s computer — a Power Mac G4 desktop unit that was on when the police arrived — or another computer at that address; he was using a wireless connection in the vicinity of that IP address; he was using a VPN [virtual private network] tunnel, which employs special software; or there was malware — malevolent software — on the computer that he could operate by remote control. Haskell had no laptop, portable device or external directional antenna to access a WiFi signal from outside the loft — say, on the rooftop — nor did his utilitarian Samsung SGH T329 cell phone have Internet capability. No malware or VPN software was discovered on his computer, and there is no indication of remote access in his system log, nor did he possess the technical know-how (or, for that matter, the motive) to have marshaled either, making his presence inside the loft space a certainty.
This is significant, in that, as it appears in the California Penal Code, what is commonly known as “the Castle Doctrine” — Kalberg’s stated belief that “a person cannot murder another person in their home” — justifies the use of deadly force against any person “not a member of the family or household” who unlawfully and forcibly enters the domicile. If Haskell was no longer a member of the household, it had apparently been for less than four hours.
What’s more, we may be able to reconstruct Haskell’s last conversation — or at least his side of it. A handwritten letter or hastily scrawled speech was discovered lying outside his backpack next to his body, obviously intended for Kalberg. It reads, in part:
“You, the suffering artist. Old school all the way. But you do use computers, it’s true! One thing that you do that is really old school hip is make everyone close 2 you suffer 4 your art too — every day in every way. And by the way, that is exactly the reason new artists don’t do that — it burns bridges, contacts, opportunities, friends, lovers, money — everything, every reward consumed by the great flaming genius. The world is not a support system 4 your genius, your art. No — wrong — bad answer . You’ve tried so hard 2 make me hate you, to argue with you, injure, punish or even kill you. I won’t — I am stronger than you. You actually have no clue, no idea, how strong I am. You have never encountered an ‘adversary’ like me.”
On April 18th of this year, USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts hosted a one-day symposium titled “Shelf Life: A Big Day for Small Press.” Organized by Ewa Wojciak, it was an outgrowth of a design class she taught there two years ago, and as much as anything, seemed an extension of her work with Kalberg in publishing No Mag and Sub-Hollywood: In addition to Kalberg (under the name Bruce Caen), the main panel featured, among others, ANP Quarterly co-editor Aaron Rose (and author of the No Mag profile); RE/Search Magazine editor V. Vale, who wrote about female circumcision in Africa for No Mag and favorably reviewed Sub-Hollywood on his website; and Joe Carducci (the memoir Enter Naomi) who identified himself as No Mag’s distributor. To the strains of the Cramps’ “Human Fly,” a slide show introducing the panelists opened with the cover of Sub-Hollywood and a dozen No Mag covers.
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Sitting stage left on the dais in a green long-sleeved T-shirt, and looking like a slightly more leathery Sam Shepard with a propensity for non sequitur, Kalberg was the first to field a question -- on his influences and aesthetic choices. “The idea behind No was that it wanted to negate everything it touched,” he began. “It was an antithesis to punk rock, an antithesis to art, an antithesis to itself… We scared people.” He credited the magazine with a “Buñuelian sense of humor,” by which he apparently meant The Exterminating Angel -- “Like when they’re trapped in the house and the windows are shut and no one can get out” -- and the social order disintegrates.
And then, somewhere in that first answer, he paused, as if bridling his train of thought. “Last year, I had a psychopath try to kill me,” he said. “And he was an ex-reader.” This drew mild, puzzled laughter. “He had all these tools” – he described Haskell’s power tools in some detail – “and he spent two weeks planning out the murder, and then when he broke in I killed him. So… what was the question?” This got a bigger laugh, as people assumed it was a goof. “I get hung up on that,” he said. “I have Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome over this; I keep looping on the murder.” He followed this with a long story about a No Mag photo essay on a putative dinner party where human flesh was secreted into the Beef Stroganoff for purposes of unwitting cannibalism. “It was done so deadpan that people believed it,” he said. This became a running joke throughout, as more and more outlandish examples of No’s staple interests turned into a schtick. “I had the best artists, worth thousands and thousands of dollars, working for me for free,” he said. “And they would do whatever I asked them to, because I was shooting methamphetamine and they were scared not to.”
At one point, on a roll, Kalberg recounted the Liverhead story (another huge laugh), to which moderator Rachel Kushner (of the online journal Soft Targets) added her own anecdote about a San Francisco fixture known as “the Liver Man,” who also wore liver on his head in the late ’70s. “We call that the zeitgeist,” she said in an aside to the audience. “Write it down: ‘zeitgeist.’”
“If I knew that guy was wearing liver in San Francisco,” added Kalberg, once the laughter had died down, “I would have gone up there and hit him on the back of the head.”