Harry Major Took in Ex-Cons for Sex and Friendship. Then He Turned Up Dead

Harry Major
Harry Major

Update, 10-21-15: Scott Kratlian has been convicted of first-degree murder for the killing of Harry Major

Harry Major was ready to die.

The 82-year-old retired Hollywood High School English teacher had been preparing Steve Schulte for the job of executing his will, and gave him strict instructions: no funeral.

"No memorial, no funeral. Just burn the carcass," Major told Schulte. "You know, we live too long. People used to go to the forest and wolves would carry their bodies away."

But Schulte held a memorial service anyway, after Major was murdered in February and his body cremated, the remains sprinkled into the cold Pacific Ocean. About 65 people came, mostly former Hollywood High students, some from a senior gay men's support group that Major attended every Wednesday in Plummer Park.

Clearing out Major's apartment, Schulte made a startling discovery: a 4-inch-high stack of letters — hundreds of letters from state and federal prisoners from all over the United States. Some were mundane; others alluded to offers of money or bus tickets to Los Angeles. Others were sexually graphic.

"There were guys who wanted help, wanted guys to write to them," Schulte says. "Guys who promised to be a good lover. All kinds of stuff. A few of them were of that sort of no-strings-attached intimacy."

Major left all household possessions to his friend and real estate agent, Dale Rowse, who also dug through the stash of letters. He says some came with photos of naked men: "There were certainly some very adult images."

Though few of Major's friends knew it, for years he had been inviting ex-cons to stay with him after their release from prison, turning his one-bedroom apartment into a veritable halfway house.

"He had very weird visitors," says Luz Maria, whose front door is a few feet from Major's (she declined to give her last name). "They looked like criminals. One regular visitor, he would always come in the nighttime. He was drunk. He had a beer in a bag."

Major's friend Ron Gordon says the elderly retiree "saw himself as a transition point. He gave them money, found jobs for them. A couple of times, he persuaded me to give $50 to people I didn't know."

But Gordon would say to him: "Harry, you don't know these people. They may be dangerous."

One of these men was Scott Kratlian, a lonely 45-year-old released in late 2013 from Marcy Correctional Facility in New York, where he'd served 21 years for first-degree manslaughter.

In New York on the day after Christmas in 1992, then–19-year-old Kratlian strangled 66-year-old Salvatore Caggiano with a belt, leaving his body in a bathtub. Kratlian claims that Caggiano had sexually abused him since childhood, though he has little to back up the story.

In prison, Kratlian became pen pals with Major; after Kratlian was paroled last year, Major convinced him to come to L.A. Kratlian arrived in late January and lived with Major in his apartment for about 10 days.

On Feb. 12, shortly after Kratlian moved out, Major's cold body was discovered by his longtime friend Rowse in the bathtub. Major had been strangled, possibly with a belt, and his head bashed in.

Scott Kratlian is now housed in Men's Central Jail downtown, awaiting a preliminary hearing on charges that he murdered Harry Major.

"You probably don't believe me, but I didn't kill Harry," the pale-faced Kratlian says. "At a time when my family had turned their backs against me, Harry was the only person in my life that actually gave a damn about me. He was a good guy and I would never, ever take advantage of him — or hurt him in any way."

Every year, Harry Major sent out Christmas newsletters, long screeds typed on his old electric typewriter, full of cantankerous observations and laced with humor that managed to be both dark and corny.

Harry Major Took in Ex-Cons for Sex and Friendship. Then He Turned Up Dead

One year, his letter opened with the declaration, "I hate my mother and my sister."

In 1999, his four-page missive began: "This year I turned 68, an age of distinction, according to some. Well, better distinction than extinction. Better to be over the hill than under it. One friend commented that I had reached an age when my bank account looked a lot better than my face."

Major knew he wasn't much to look at. A birth defect left him with a withered left arm and webbed fingers on his left hand. (Many of Major's friends believe his mother used the disastrous morning-sickness drug Thalidomide, but the drug wasn't in use until Major was already in his 20s, and it affected fewer than 20 babies in the United States.). He also had a peculiar face, as if wearing a rubber mask, with droopy eyes, and big lips that to some looked like plastic surgery gone awry.

He didn't like being photographed — toward the end of his 28 years teaching English at Hollywood High, Major's face rarely appeared in the school yearbook.

Eve Babitz was a student of Major's in the 1960s. She became a sort of California version of Marianne Faithfull, designing album covers for Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds, writing books and having romances with such stars as Jim Morrison, artist Ed Ruscha, Harrison Ford and Steve Martin. There is a famous photo of her, naked, playing chess with Marcel Duchamp.

Babitz lived near Major, and they kept in touch. Perhaps because of her own storied past, Major confided to Babitz what he really wrote about to all those prisoners.

"Poor Mr. Major," Babitz tells L.A. Weekly. "He was in love with all these prisoners.

"That was his only romance," she explains, yet they quickly soured. "He was bitter because they always turned against him. I don't know, there was always something. He'd give them money. What he didn't like was them stealing and all that."

One of his many ex-con partners was James DiRocco, who'd done 17 years in a Nevada prison for robbing a video store with what he insists to the Weekly was a BB gun. The two were pen pals for many years.

Major wasn't DiRocco's type, but that didn't matter. They were friends — friends who had sex.

"He was always nice and kind of generous with me, so I would cuddle with him, and I would let him suck my dick, and we would have sex," says DiRocco, 54, by phone from a Nevada prison, where he's incarcerated for violating his parole. "He was my friend and I respected him."

According to DiRocco, Major had sex with all the former prisoners who stayed with him. In fact, it was a rule.

"Even straight guys," DiRocco says, a bit astonished. "Harry would tell them, the only way they would stay there is if they had sex with him. That's the rules. He would be very up front with his pen pals."

But it wasn't all about sex. Major tried to help many of the inmates, including Scott Kratlian. Major said he would help Kratlian enroll in college, perhaps even pay for it.

Babitz compares it to John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation: "There are people who think they can get across the wonders of life and all that [to] people that are out to rob them."

Scott Kratlian looks a bit like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights, with a pallid complexion and thinning, greasy hair. He has a kind voice and a deadpan sense of humor — when asked the best time to provide a phone interview from Men's Central Jail, he replies, "Well, I have a tennis lesson at 10?...?"

Against the urging of his public defender, Angela Cheung, Kratlian gave a number of interviews to the Weekly, in person and by phone. He wanted to clear his name; he was also lonely.

"You're the closest thing I have to a friend," he said at one point.

Though many of Kratlian's claims beggar belief, he's oddly trusting — even giving the Weekly his password to the Gmail account he'd created in a three-month break between jail stints. In jail, he couldn't check his email, and he asked that his messages be printed out and snail-mailed to him.

There was one email in particular that he was eager to see: an impromptu photo of him in a Sherman Oaks 7-Eleven, posing with soap opera star Lesli Kay, known for her work on The Bold and the Beautiful and General Hospital.

 

Alleged killer Scott Kratlian with soap star Lesli Kay — a photo she emailed to Kratlian after Major’s murder but before Kratlian’s arrest
Alleged killer Scott Kratlian with soap star Lesli Kay — a photo she emailed to Kratlian after Major’s murder but before Kratlian’s arrest

In the photo, Kratlian wears a T-shirt Major bought him at Goodwill that reads, "Wanted: Meaningful Overnight Relationships"; Kay is wearing blue hospital scrubs. The photo was emailed to Kratlian from Kay's phone on Feb. 12 — two days after Major was murdered, and five days before Kratlian was arrested in the slaying.

Kratlian grew up in Merrick, a working-class Long Island suburb. He was adopted as an infant by Salvatore and Katherine Maenza, both now deceased.

"The stereotype of Italians that you see in the movies — that's basically my family," he says. "My brothers were like that. Goombas. I never really could relate to them."

As a kid, Kratlian would run away to Coney Island. "I'd go on all the rides, eat a bunch of junk food. Then, when I spent my money, I would go home. Then I would get the crap beat out of me by my father. But for that day, it was the best day of my life."

He says his dad routinely beat him and his mom once burned his arm with a lit cigar. And when he was little, he says, his uncle sexually abused him.

"I had blocked it out," he claims today. "I was acting out, but I never knew why. I was cutting my wrist. Then my mom had put me in a Manhattan children's psychiatric center. No one knew what was going on with me. I didn't know until years later. Then something triggered everything [my uncle] did to me."

Kratlian dropped out of high school in 10th grade, left home and became essentially homeless, staying at various people's houses — and using aliases. Arrested in 1992 for burglary in Orange County, New York, he gave the name Martin Kobak. Arrested in 1993 for Salvatore Caggiano's 1992 murder, he claimed he was Scott Porter, borrowing the surname from his then-boyfriend.

Kratlian's story, in the immediate aftermath of Caggiano's death, was that the victim was his grandfather. Caggiano's neighbor told Newsday at the time that Kratlian "kept screaming in the hallway, 'Help me, help me, somebody killed my grandfather!'?"

Kratlian insisted he'd found Caggiano in the bathtub and then started screaming. But that story soon changed.

"It was an accident," read Kratlian's first handwritten confession to police. "He had been hitting me for years. These scars are from him. I went to his house today @ 3:30 p.m. He hit me I hit him back we fell on the floor. I got my belt off & got it around his neck. I twisted it."

When the 66-year-old stopped breathing, Kratlian tied Caggiano's arms and legs with a pair of shoelaces, dragged him to the bathtub, covered him in a towel and set the towel on fire. Perhaps he thought that he could dispose of the body in this manner. The futile act did little more than singe the corpse.

Helen Sturm, the district attorney who prosecuted Kratlian, says his second story fell apart as quickly as the first.

"When I was questioning him, there were a lot of things that didn't ring true," recalls Sturm, now retired.

"It was so clear that he didn't know this person. ... It didn't take long to shake the story," Sturm explains. "He had picked the guy up — in that time the West Village was a real gay pickup place. They met near the PATH station. They went back to the man's apartment. Scott was very adamant in denying there was any sex. I know that he took some stuff out of the apartment. It was a very violent death. He attempted to incinerate him."

She adds: "I will tell you that we made an extensive effort to find out if there was any familial relationship."

There wasn't.

Today, Kratlian — who, it goes without saying, is hardly a reliable narrator — claims that Caggiano was the same uncle from his childhood, the one who sexually abused him.

When told of ex-prosecutor Sturm's challenges to his story, Kratlian remains obstinate: "He would come over my parents' house. I was always led to believe that was my mother's brother. Maybe I was wrong. I know that he came over my house a lot."

Harry Major grew up in Chatsworth and Arcadia, where he lived and worked on the family farm during the 1940s, when orange groves still grew in L.A. He graduated from Pomona College, and started teaching English at Hollywood High at age 25.

His class was renowned for being among the hardest at the school — and for some students, who read books such as Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One and Albert Camus' The Stranger, among the most rewarding.

"He was committed to really shaking people awake through literature," says Carrie White, who had Major in the early '60s. "He was a very strict, demanding teacher. If there was any humor, it was sarcastic." (White would become a successful Hollywood hairdresser and recently penned a memoir, Upper Cut.)

Major wore suits with cream-colored bow ties and always kept his deformed left hand in his pocket. Kids joked about throwing something at him to see if he would catch it with both hands.

Despite his peculiarities, Major had a devoted following among students, at least for a while. But Hollywood High began to change. By the 1980s, it was filled with Latino students. For Major, this marked the school's academic downfall.

Throughout his life, Major was severely opinionated. He was a militant atheist, aggressively pro-choice, pro–gay rights and, rather incongruously, anti-immigration.

"He was a mean bastard," recalls a Voice Media Group employee who was Major's student in the 1980s. "And unapologetic about not being happy about the amount of immigrants in the school."

In 1985, the year after he retired, Major told the Los Angeles Times: "The whole situation was just so overwhelming. ... Students were checking in and out of my classes all the time. Hardly any of them understood what I was trying to teach. I never knew if I was getting in a new crop of kids. ... I used to try to put a positive tone on it, but after a while, I realized I didn't know where to even begin with them."

"I couldn't believe he left Hollywood High," Babitz says. "He said they had him [teaching] six remedial classes. That's why he left."

At retirement, Major had accumulated a tidy savings by buying and selling apartment buildings. For the next three decades, he traveled the world.

"He went to over 90 countries," friend Susan Kurtz says. "He went on these senior tours. He was always booking a tour. Always off on these great adventures."

Major otherwise lived frugally, eating one or two meals a day, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. He sometimes splurged on friends, sending Kurtz $100 each Christmas.

"He gave a lot of the money away," says Ron Gordon, who knew Harry from the Plummer Park senior gay men's meetings. "To various groups he believed in — the gay movement, Planned Parenthood."

The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center was, at one point, the main benefactor in Major's will. But a dispute over immigration policy led him to cut the center out and replace it with Planned Parenthood.

"Immigration and God were the two subjects that would get him animated," Steve Schulte says. "He apparently had ticked off a lot of people."

Major had many acquaintances, most of whom he kept at arm's length, meeting them on his terms or not at all. Relationships would end suddenly and ruthlessly. He and Ron Gordon used to go to Denny's every Christmas and Thanksgiving. Major always paid. Then one day, Gordon got an unexpected letter from him.

"I think our friendship has to go to a new level," it said. "We can continue to speak, but no more dinners."

"He just decided I wasn't worth his time," Gordon says. "That's Harry. I thought he might change his mind later. He was odd. I know of several other people that he cut off in the same way."

After Major's murder, the L.A. Times would later report that ex-con Kratlian had met Major years earlier through a General Hospital fan club. Kratlian denies this, saying Major had been writing to another Marcy inmate who "didn't want to write to him no more. And I was looking for a pen pal."

According to Kratlian, Major wrote to him about the other inmates staying with him. Kratlian wrote to Major about what he did all day, the groups he attended, the classes he took. Sometimes they would flirt.

"That's what he liked," Kratlian says. "I didn't see the harm in that. One letter I wrote him, [I said] I would show up on his doorstep with a trench coat and a hard-on. Things like that."

Kratlian never dreamed he would meet Major.

After all, he'd been turned down by the parole board in New York four times. When he came before the board for a fifth review in 2013, it again rejected him, declaring: "After a careful review of your record and this interview, it is the determination of this panel that, if released at this time, there is a reasonable probability that you would not live and remain at liberty without violating the law, and your release at this time is incompatible with the welfare and safety of the community."

The panel cited the "heinous, brutal nature" of the murder of Caggiano, Kratlian's "lengthy, multistate criminal history" and his "horrendous disciplinary record."

Kratlian was convinced he would "max out" — serve his full 25 years and get out in 2017. But then a counselor told him about a so-called time allowance committee, which allowed early release to some inmates if they completed certain prison programs.

From February to September 2013, Kratlian attended the programs every day that he could. He behaved. And after he appeared before the time allowance committee, it sent him a letter with a release date on it: Nov. 26, 2013.

After being incarcerated for more than half of his life, Kratlian moved into a single-room occupancy building in the New York area. He was given an EBT card (welfare funds to live on) and a free cellphone. He used it to call Major.

"I just started trying to rebuild my life," he says, clad in an L.A. County baby-blue jail uniform. "I went to my [parole officer] every day. I went looking for work. I was going to church. I had a little support group."

But Major wanted Kratlian to move to L.A. and stay with him.

"I told him I was on parole," Kratlian says. "He said, 'What if I got the parole transferred?' I said, 'If you did that, then all my dreams would come true.' I like New York, but it was cold. So when he told me that, it never dawned on me that he was lying."

It's unlikely that Major could get a violent felon's parole transferred, and James DiRocco, who was living with Major when Kratlian was released, doubts Major ever said he would.

But Major did wire Kratlian a one-way bus ticket, as he had done for DiRocco and many others.

In violation of his parole, Kratlian took a three-day Greyhound ride across the country to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, where Major and DiRocco were waiting to pick him up.

"Harry was nothing that he portrayed himself to be," Kratlian says. "Like, he never told me he was 82 years old. I always assumed that he was in his 60s."

Though separated by 37 years, Major and Kratlian weren't entirely dissimilar. Both were quiet introverts who liked having time alone, and both were obsessively neat. Major's sparsely furnished apartment was meticulously organized — even the spices in the kitchen were alphabetized.

 

A police mug shot of James DiRocco, currently doing time in Nevada
A police mug shot of James DiRocco, currently doing time in Nevada

The two ex-cons living with Major took an instant dislike to one another. Kratlian says he slept on the couch and could hear DiRocco having sex with their host. Kratlian says he never had sex with Major. But DiRocco says: "Scott and Harry were having sex more than me and Harry. Because Harry's known me for many years."

Both inmates accuse the other of smoking cigarettes — much to the displeasure of Major, who didn't smoke or drink alcohol or coffee. Kratlian says DiRocco raided the fridge constantly; DiRocco says Kratlian was always borrowing money, and one time stole a roll of quarters.

According to an LAPD search warrant, a friend of Major's stopped by on Feb. 1 and saw two white men staying with him. Four days later, the same friend met Major at the local senior center. "Major seemed distraught," according to the friend, telling him that "the two men staying with him had an argument. He then said both men left his residence and returned home."

DiRocco says the argument erupted after Kratlian stole the roll of quarters.

"He accused me of following him around," DiRocco says, and DiRocco called Kratlian a "fat fag." Kratlian grabbed DiRocco by the neck.

"He just reached around and tried to choke me out," DiRocco says. "He let me go. I went to my room, put a chair under my door. He would have killed me that night."

Kratlian denies getting physical with DiRocco: "I'm one of the most nonconfrontational people there is."

The next day, DiRocco asked Major for a ride to the bus station and urged him to throw out Kratlian.

"Harry, this guy's gonna hurt you," he remembers saying.

"Oh Jim," Major said, chuckling. "Let me worry about that."

"No, Harry. This guy is evil."

Kratlian says doctors at Marcy Correctional Facility diagnosed him with borderline personality disorder. Its essential feature, according to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is "a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image ... and marked impulsivity." Its symptoms can include "frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment."

"We see things in black-and-white," says Kratlian, when asked to describe how the disorder affects him. "Once you stab me in the back, that's it, I'm not gonna give you another chance to stab me in the back."

When Kratlian moved from New York to L.A., he went off his psych meds. Sometime around Feb. 6, Kratlian says, he took a bus to an ER and told doctors he was suicidal. He ended up in the mental health unit at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena. There, he was given a prescription and discharged after a few days, returning to Major's apartment.

"Harry said, 'Talk to me,'?" Kratlian recalls. "I couldn't explain to him that that wasn't possible."

Each time the Weekly asked what happened in the eight days between Major's murder and Kratlian's arrest, Kratlian's story changed. He claims he barely remembers the week the murder occurred.

In his most recent narrative, he says that on Sunday, Feb. 9, Major confronted him about choking DiRocco and the two men argued. The next morning, having lived with Major for about 10 days, Kratlian says he moved on, telling Major, "I'm gonna give you some space."

Major handed him some money, and Kratlian says he left at about 11 a.m. or noon.

Major had taken Kratlian and DiRocco to Santa Monica Pier; now Kratlian went back. He bought a wristband that let him take every ride on the pier as many times as he wanted. It reminded him of Coney Island.

Kratlian's movements for the next few days aren't clear. He says he planned on saving some money and returning to New York.

The same day Kratlian met Lesli Kay at a 7-Eleven and grinned for her camera, Major's body was discovered by Dale Rowse, and the LAPD homicide investigation was opened.

On Tuesday, Feb. 18, eight days after Major's murder, Kratlian was arrested by a joint LAPD/FBI task force while staying at Las Encinas, the mental health facility.

He says he'd returned to Las Encinas because he was depressed and worried they'd given him a wrong prescription. There is another possibility: It is a common misconception, advanced by the film Clean and Sober, that such facilities don't disclose patient identities to police, even if they're suspected of a crime.

Some people think it's a good place to hide.

Kratlian's version of his whereabouts in the days after Major's murder is muddled; it reeks of someone trying to make up a story. But there are also one or two questions about the prosecution's version.

Major's neighbor, Luz Maria, was getting ready for work on Monday morning, Feb. 10, when, at about 10 a.m., she heard a loud crash in Major's apartment next door. Her bathroom shared a wall with Major's place, and the crash she heard was distinct: a human body hitting the floor. She ran to knock on Major's door.

"Harry, are you OK?" she asked.

"For two or three seconds I don't hear anything," Luz Maria recalls.

Then a female voice called out from behind the closed front door: "Harry's not here. He went to the store."

"So everything is OK?" Luz Maria asked.

"Yes, everything is fine."

"I never imagined what I hear," Luz Maria tells the Weekly. "I had to leave for work. They were killing him when I left for work. It batters me."

Who was this woman behind Major's front door? L.A. County prosecutor Tony Cho says there was no woman; the voice was Scott Kratlian's.

"He's got a very high voice, is my understanding," Cho says. "I can understand why someone would mistake that for a women's voice."

In fact, Kratlian does not have a particularly high voice — certainly not one that would be mistaken for a woman's — unless he was trying to mislead.

What's more, on Tuesday, the day after Major was killed but the day before his body was discovered, Luz Maria's sister was visiting her and saw two people, a man and a woman, next door.

"She saw them going inside the apartment," Luz Maria says. "She heard a lot of noises. It sounded like they were moving stuff."

Kratlian says DiRocco was friendly with a couple that lived next door, and suggests the couple may have been plotting to rob Major. DiRocco dismisses this theory.

"I think Scott felt rejected," DiRocco says. "Harry can be really firm."

Harry Major led a bifurcated life. He showed different sides to different people. In relationships he sought complete control, whether by paying for Christmas dinners at Denny's or offering prisoners shelter in exchange for physical affection.

Yet that control was elusive. And it left him lonely. After he was murdered, Major's body went undiscovered for two days.

Jimmy DiRocco, the second-to-last ex-con to see Major alive, is sad he's gone but hardly surprised: "He had a dangerous habit that finally caught up to him."


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >