In Too Deep
Almost everything publicly known about porn king John Curtis Holmes is apocryphal, anecdotal, secondhand or informed by conjecture. Except for the cock. Thirteen inches long, as thick around as a mans wrist, hard on demand, coming on cue: the appendage of the pathological braggarts most outlandish boast and it turns out to be true. At once raw footage and special effect, the fabled tool appeared in hundreds of XXX epics, creating the first and possibly last superhero of the blue screen, polyester-bad private detective Johnny Wadd.
Before Johnny Wadd, though, there was the gangly hillbilly kid from Ohio, born in 1944, product of an impoverished childhood, a puking drunk of a father, followed by a violent drunk of a stepfather. A stint in the Army, hitched up to nurse Sharon Gebenini, a budding career as a forklift operator. Holmes special quality, so to speak, was discovered, in the late 1960s, by a skin photographer in a Gardena poker club mens room. By the time the 70s had shifted into high, Holmes monster of a penis had become the most recognizable and marketable prop in the history of porn.
Later, as the 80s dragged in, the Holmes hydraulics became unreliable and the bookings dropped off. The cult fell away. The film Wonderland focuses on a fateful two weeks during that period, at the end of which the actor left a palm print above a blood-soaked deathbed at the Wonderland Avenue scene of the notorious Four on the Floor murders of July 1, 1981. Four people bludgeoned to death, another left for dead. The film, directed by James Cox and starring Val Kilmer as Holmes, approaches the slayings from multiple viewpoints and attempts to clarify exactly what happened during that orgy of lead pipes and skull fragments.
The gruesome murders were retribution for a home-invasion robbery, two days earlier, of underworld kingpin Eddie Nash. On the morning of June 29, four strung-out ex-convicts had sneaked through an unlatched sliding door into Nashs ranch-style house in the hills above Studio City. The door had been left unlatched for the robbers by Holmes, whom Nash had often spoken of as a brother. Nash and his 300-pound bodyguard, Gregory DeWitt Diles, were rousted out of bed at gunpoint. A pistol went off, and Diles suffered a grazing flesh wound. Nash, the story goes, fell to his knees at the sound of the shot and begged for time to pray. The robbers absconded with cocaine, heroin, Quaaludes, money, weapons and jewelry, a haul that was valued by the U.S. Department of Justice at something like a million dollars. They left Nash and Diles humiliated and stewing inside the house.
Eddie Nash. Real name Adel Gharib Nasrallah, an immigrant of Lebanese or is it Palestinian? parentage. In 1960, Nash set up a hot-dog stand on Hollywood Boulevard. By the late 1970s, if you were young, happening and in L.A., you could hardly spend a night on the town without putting money into Eddie Nashs pocket. One count has Nash holding 36 liquor licenses, mostly in the Hollywood area. Gays dancing at the Paradise Ballroom. Straights doing the hustle at the Seven Seas. Pogo-happy punk rockers at the Starwood. Interracial funk fans at Sould Out. Horny loners at the Kit Kat strip clubs. The cover charges and bar receipts all led to Eddie. If you were a doper, chances are Nash was making some change off you there as well.
Nash had evolved into a notorious, well-rounded crime lord and entrepreneur. The Wonderland Gang, in comparison, consisted of clumsy dope pushers who relied on crude rip-and-run robberies of lesser dealers to maintain their habits and inventory. Their hideout was a much-frequented stucco party house on Wonderland Avenue, leased to Joy Audrey Miller, a 46-year-old heroin addict and ex-wife of a Beverly Hills lawyer. Her live-in boyfriend was Billy DeVerell, 42, also addicted to junk. Ronald Launius who, like DeVerell, honed his charisma in a prison yard was the 37-year-old alpha dog of the pack. Along with overnight guest Barbara Richardson, 22, they all died as a direct result of knowing John Holmes and fucking with Eddie Nash.
Veteran LAPD detectives, just 12 years after Helter Skelter, claimed they had never seen so much blood at one crime scene.
Much of the movie focuses on determining the exact nature of Holmes complicity in the Laurel Canyon butchery. He was indebted both to Nash and to the Wonderland pushers. He was also the sole connection between the two camps. Beyond dispute is that Holmes effected the entry of the Wonderland Gang into Nashs house, and that he later provided access to the Wonderland house for Nashs agents. He is assumed to have been inside the residence to witness the murders, and to have somehow gotten himself wet doing so.
There are two points of contention: Was the idea for the Nash robbery that of the Wonderland Gang, or did Holmes first suggest it? While inside the murder site, did Holmes, presumably under duress, actually swing one of the lead pipes used to smash the victims into nearly unrecognizable pulp? In Wonderland, the murder is approached from one viewpoint after another, time after time, relentlessly, predictably, with each rendering more explicit. There is virtually no suspense, no dramatic tension.
And no cock. Relying on aviator shades as his signature prop, Val Kilmers John Holmes could be anybody any old hustler, any old pimp, any old wannabe rock star who cant remember where he pawned his guitar last night.
The real John Holmes claimed to have had sex with 14,000 women during his career as a professional wad. Sharon Holmes and Dawn Schiller are among the tiny minority who were drawn into Holmes orbit despite the cock. Dawn met Holmes when she was 15. He was her first love. Sharon, married to John at the time, took Dawn in after shed become his mistress and allowed her to live in the couples home. The two women formed a kind of mother-daughter relationship that has endured to this day. On a recent Sunday afternoon, they sit at an outdoor table at a Beverly Hills hotel doing publicity for Wonderland. Dawn is credited as an associate producer on the film. Sharon is listed as an adviser.
Sharon is slight and sinewy, a tough bird with a soft center and a smokers drawl. She wears a black cap to cover a skull that is fuzzy like a freshly hatched chicks: She has just finished chemotherapy after a modified radical mastectomy for cancer.
I am just a cast-iron maiden, she says with a throaty laugh. Im going to get through it, no matter what it is. I do not roll over and play dead for anybody.
Dawn, at 15, was a strikingly attractive woman-child, her huge green eyes brimming over with fragile anticipation. You look at her picture, and you want to protect her. You hope no one will latch on to her and crush her spirit. Today, in her early 40s, Dawn wears a wide, sly smile under those huge green eyes, still brimming with anticipation and intelligent wonder. She has the calm assurance of someone who has been through hell, fought her way out, and has no plans to go back. She is finishing a book on her experiences, The Road Through Wonderland.
I have a daughter, Dawn says when asked about the perils of putting her ordeal into print. Do I want my daughter to hear the story in my own words? Or do I want her to hear somebody elses version, whether I like it or not?
Sharon Gebenini met her husband-to-be in December of 1964, while she was a graduate nurse working at County USC Hospital. Holmes was barely 20. Less than a year later, they were married. He found work driving a forklift at a meatpacking plant. The couple had lived a conventional married life in Glendale for about three years when Sharon came home early from work one afternoon and walked in on John in the bathroom. He had an erection, and he was measuring it. Hed already done a few 8mm film loops and photo shoots for magazines.
He told me that this was going to be his lifes work, that this was going to make him famous, remembers Sharon. I looked at him like, What planet do you come from?
John would never drive a forklift again. Sharon allowed her husband to remain in the home, to eat meals with her, to mingle their dirty laundry together, they were on-site managers of a courtyard apartment complex in Glendale. But Sharon would never touch John intimately again.
Soon after being caught out at home, Holmes met Hawaiian porn director Bob Chinn. Chinn initially dismissed Holmes as some scruffy-looking guy who had this big Afro-looking hair. Then John dropped his pants. That evening, Chinn wrote a script outline on the back of an envelope, and a few days later, he had shot, edited and shipped Johnny Wadd. Despite (or perhaps because of ) Holmes Alfalfa physique and goofy hangdog face, the big-dicked undercover crime fighter captured the imagination of the porn-going public.
The detective persona also appealed to Johns own imagination. In the early 1970s, when the production of pornographic materials was still a felony in Los Angeles, Holmes was busted on a porn set and held on charges of pimping and pandering.
He called me from Ventura, wanting to be bailed out, says Sharon. I didnt have that kind of money.
A few hours later, Holmes was driven up to the house in the car of an LAPD vice squad officer named Tom Blake. While pursuing his crown as the King of Porn, Holmes would carry on a highly productive parallel career of informing on the porn industry for the LAPD vice squad.
John enjoyed playing Dick Tracy, recounts Blake in the excellent 1999 documentary Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes. He loved that role of investigating and passing information along. John was absolute dynamite.
Sharon became very familiar with Blakes voice on the phone. John was giving him regular information, particularly on anybody that had done him dirty.
Enter Dawn. i
Its 1976, and 15-year-old Dawn Schillers parents are divorcing. Rather than stick it out with Mom in Florida, Dawn elects to head west with her 14-year-old sister and her father, a Vietnam-vet hippie with hair down past his shoulders. The family stops for a hitchhiker at the Grand Canyon, thinking he might have a joint to share. He tells them that he sometimes stays with a girl who lives in an apartment in Glendale. He guesses it would be cool with her if the whole bunch of them crash on her floor.
When the family arrives at the Glendale courtyard apartment, the girlfriend calls the complexs manager to ask permission. The managers husband comes over to screen the guests, and Dawn Schiller comes under the scrutiny of John Holmes.
At this time, John is 32, at the height of his XXX prowess. He has all the work he can handle, he picks his co-stars, he is paid top dollar. He has woven a legend around himself, wrapped so tightly in exaggerations and half-truths that he himself cannot see through the web of overlapping reality and fantasy. He claims to have lost his virginity at age 8 to the Swiss maid of a rich aunt who raised him in Paris and Florida. He awards himself various advanced degrees from UCLA and boasts authorship of several books. The hundreds of extremely rich women who pay for his services, to hear him tell it, form a vast, worldwide network of privilege and power. Twelve such women, he says, all married and with the approval of their husbands, are mothers of children he has sired, each for a large fee.
John gives Dawn and her younger sister odd jobs around the apartments, showing me different ways to be creative in the garage and redoing furniture, says Dawn, that kind of stuff.
Dawn doesnt know about Holmes movie career. We related on a really childlike level, she says. I didnt know what business he was in. Hed do silly, cute, charming things around me. He liked my innocence, the fact that I had nothing to do with the porn industry an industry which, he would later tell her, he despised. Dawn likes John for John, but even here the penis intrudes. He was very shy about it, says Dawn in the Beverly Hills sun. He gradually showed me who he was, that aspect of him. He was scared that I was going to be scared of it.
John often took Dawn and her sister on outings around town. Occasionally they would pass a Pussycat Theater. I would see his name on the marquee and get paralyzed, says Dawn. I wouldnt want to look at him. One day, he pulled up to a Pussycat and said, Cmon.
The girls followed him out of the car, he signed an autograph at the box office, and they were in. Dawn, still 15, and her sister, still 14, sat on either side of their chaperon. Were slumped down in our seats, and Im covering my face, and my sisters covering her face. People are walking by, trying to get Johns autograph, whispering, Oh, my God. Hes here! My sister and I are hugely embarrassed.
The movie starts. Dawn looks. John walks into the frame dressed in a monks habit. He opened his mouth and said something, and I immediately cracked up. He got a little upset and jabbed me in the ribs, but I couldnt stop laughing. Then he started laughing, and we had to leave.
Soon after the Pussycat excursion, John takes Dawn on an outing, leaving the sister behind. Although they have not yet had sex, John has become increasingly possessive and controlling. If I didnt come from school on time because I was hanging out with some friends, John would be really angry, she says. He wouldnt say anything, but hed snub you. You knew he was pissed.
They drive to Zuma Beach, where John sits on the rocks, watching Dawn swim. They both sit silently as the sun melts into the liquid horizon. The 32-year-old man takes the 15-year-old girls hand and leads her to the back of his van.
Many, many years later, the girl, all grown up, still seems in awe of the experience. At the time, he was very sincere, Dawn says. I was very much in love with this guy, swept off my feet at 15 years old. Look at Elizabeth Smart. She was 15. Thats a 15-year-olds brain space.
When Dawns father abruptly left Los Angeles to return to Florida, the vulnerable girl became more dependent on Holmes. For a while, Dawn moved in with Johns half-brother, David, and his wife in an apartment they shared in the court. But tensions ran high under that arrangement. Eventually, Sharon Holmes brought the girl into the home she shared with her husband. Sharon knew, by this time, of the relationship between John and Dawn.
It baffles everybody, says Sharon of her bond with Dawn. I hate to see injured people or dogs, and I just adopted her. I couldnt see her staying outside with just a shift on. She became a daughter to me. I needed to tell her she had a brain. She didnt need to accept what was going on.
A big part of what was going on was Johns increasing infatuation with drugs. A teetotaler before embarking on his porn adventure, Holmes had turned to Scotch whisky at first, packing a quart of J&B in his trademark briefcase. Next came pot. Then cocaine as the 1970s peaked, great piles of the white powder seemed to be everywhere you went, especially if where you went was a porn set.
John started bringing drugs home. Just before Christmas 1979, Holmes introduced lines of cocaine. He was always in control of the supply, and he parceled it out very specifically to Dawn. He wanted to be sure I didnt have too much, but enough for me to be with him still. Nobody else wanted to be with him after a while.
He brought freebase in once and had this huge premonition of how horrible it could get. He ritualistically took me out to the street, where we broke the pipe and swore never to bring it in.
Despite their pledge, base pipes and a torch were soon added to the cargo in Johns briefcase. Holmes base exploits eventually eclipsed his legend for cocksmanship, as his penis became less and less functional, on and off the set. His co-workers joked that the only way to ensure his arrival in front of the cameras was to leave a trail of cocaine rocks.
By 1980, Holmes had taken to stealing from parked cars, from airport luggage belts, from the homes of his friends to support his habit. He began serving as a delivery boy for the only people who still tolerated his presence, his drug dealers. (Holmes daily paycheck came in the form of marbles of rock cocaine valued at around $1,000.) He mooched gas money. His only possessions were the clothes he wore, his wifes Chevy Malibu and Dawn.
Dawn started to accompany John on drug runs. Shed stay in the car while he did his deals and based himself into stupefaction. Shed sit sometimes for two days out in front of a dealers house, her only companion a Chihuahua named Thor. She became familiar with the outside of Eddie Nashs house and that of the home on Wonderland Avenue. John wouldnt take Dawn inside either house. Not that she wanted to come inside.
John told me that people had a way of disappearing from Eddies, and that you were lucky if you found their bones in the desert, she says. That was Johns way of telling me he was afraid of Eddie.
To pass the time, she would sleep. There were always blankets in the car, in case she had to hide. Sometimes John would leave a little bit of drugs. Its not a proud year of my life, says Dawn, but its what happened.
On the crash from coke, desperate for cash and more dope, John began beating Dawn and forcing her to turn tricks. After she brought back the money, hed tell her she was dirty, then subject her to scalding baths, scrubbing her until she was again clean enough for him.
On December 25, 1980, despite her apprehensions, Dawn found herself inside Eddie Nashs house. Johns Christmas present to Dawn and his present to Eddie, it turned out, were one and the same. When Dawn returned to Holmes after fucking Nash for money, he smacked her in the face hard enough to pop her tooth through her lip. Nash had given them less coke than Holmes had anticipated. Four days later, on Dawns 20th birthday, he sent her back to Eddie.
In January, John went psycho on the drugs. He put Dawn in the trunk of his car and delivered her to a woman named Michelle, who ran a brothel out of an apartment complex in the Valley. That period is among Dawns worst memories: The two of them watched over me. I was basically trapped in this house for a couple of weeks.
One day Michelle was out, and John was visiting. He ordered Dawn to draw him a bath and fetch him a cup of coffee. While getting the coffee, she noticed that a sliding door, normally locked so as to prevent her escape, was ajar. She left her dog behind and ran.
A stranger at a Dennys gave Dawn enough money to call her mother in Oregon. Mom sent her a bus ticket. It became this big ordeal, because Johns calling every bus station in town, telling them Im his daughter, a runaway.
Following Dawns escape, John started calling her mothers house, day after day. For the first few months, Dawn wouldnt take the phone. She had been unable to tell her family the depth of her degradation. John begged Dawns mother to tell her that he loved her. He sent pictures of himself and of Thor to Dawns sister. He sent the sister five dollars and asked her to send back a picture of Dawn.
Finally, Dawn broke down and talked to John on the phone. He apologized. He cried. He put the dog on the line. He promised that there would be no more prostitution and no more hitting. Dawns resolve crumbled. John was sounding like the old John, the goofy, childlike, paternal and protective John she had fallen in love with five years before, the John she had missed and had been hoping would return.
John told her about how he had one more deal, a big one. Once he turned that, it would give them enough money to leave L.A. behind, to start somewhere new, to be like they used to be in the beginning, a family. Dawn felt herself sliding back in:
He sounded like that original person again on the phone. He was tapping into that strong connection that we shared originally, that was powerful enough to carry me into the bad times, hoping through those times that the good times would come back.
Dawn agreed to return to L.A. Johns one last big deal was the impending robbery of money, drugs and jewels from Eddie Nash.
She flew in to Burbank Airport, and John picked her up. He also lifted luggage that didnt belong to him off the conveyor belt. He was obviously high. Dawn protested, but John grabbed her arm and walked her to the car. He took her to a cheap motel and broke out the pipe. They did some drugs and spent a few days together. The vibe was painfully familiar to Dawn: He kisses me and says, Okay, baby, Im off. This is it. Im going to get the big one. And he doesnt come back.
This is where the movie Wonderland begins.
In the pre-dawn hours after the murders, John arrives at the home of Sharon Holmes, covered in blood and claiming to have been in an automobile accident. He wants a bath. John has a habit, says Sharon, where if he has something unpalatable to pass off, he gets into the bathtub.
She allows him to come in and runs the water. He is scraped, but this cant account for the profusion of blood. His clothing is soaked with it. The bath water turns red. That aint your blood, thinks Sharon.
As John sinks down, soaking in blood, he eventually reveals that he has just seen people killed. He tells her a little about when, where and who. i
These were people you knew, said Sharon. These were friends.
They were scum. They deserved everything they got.
* * *
John returns to Dawn just after sunrise. He immediately chokes down a handful of Valium and goes to sleep. Dawn recognizes the Wonderland house on the news. John is having nightmares, moaning about blood. On the TV, Dawn watches as corpses are pulled out of the house in body bags. When John wakes up, she confronts him. John blows her off. She asks about the bloody nightmares. Hes out of money, out of drugs.
We watched the news a lot, remembers Dawn. I knew it was bad. I stayed really quiet. I didnt know if he was going to flare.
Before John can formulate a plan, the LAPD kicks the door in and hauls them away. Dawn denies recognizing photos of Eddie Nashs house, the Wonderland house or Eddie Nash. Dawn is released with nowhere to go but to Sharon, whom she has not seen in more than two years.
The police install John in a luxury suite at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A., and later at the Biltmore. The homicide cops on the case get nowhere with him. Tom Blake, Johns longtime handler from Vice, is brought in. John attempts to cut a deal, angling to be moved into a witness-protection program while giving up no real incriminating information on Nash. Dawn and Sharon are brought to the hotel as well, for their own safety. Dawn is scared. We were told that Eddies was only one of the contracts out on John. There were all these mysterious other people John was about to rat on. People were afraid he was going to inform.
But Holmes was either unwilling or incapable of telling the truth. The police, frustrated by Johns lack of concrete information, cut him loose. John and Dawn hit the highway, running for their lives.
This is where the movie ends.
Id dyed his hair black, says Dawn. Wed spray-painted the car. The fugitives headed east until they could drive no farther. They ended up at the Fountainhead Inn, a transient hotel on Collins Avenue in North Miami Beach. There was an X-rated motel across the street. Holmes took work at a construction site. One night he snapped and raised his hand to hit Dawn. She ran. She made it down to the pool in front of the snack shop. The hotels manager and a group of regulars were sitting at the snack shop eating dinner.
Dawn: They watched him catch up to me and throw me to the ground and pummel me, then drag me back upstairs.
That night, John put Dawn out to work on a prostitution track by the beach. In the morning, when Holmes had left for work, the residents of the hotel packed Dawn up and whisked her away. She took Johns handgun and the Chihuahua Thor, and moved in with the daughter of one of the hotels residents. John made phone contact soon after and begged for Dawn to return.
I wanted to say yes so bad, she says. He was throwing that I just want to hold you and love you and be with you again, and Im sorry. But I told him, You promised me. You said that was the last time. I couldnt forget that anymore. And I had a safe place. I had other people there. It wasnt like I felt trapped to say yes anymore. A lot of times I had felt trapped to say yes when I really wanted to leave.
Dawn contacted her family to let them know she was safe. At the urging of her brother, she told the police where to find John. He was watching a Gilligans Island rerun when the detectives knocked. He asked if they wanted some coffee . . .
Back in L.A., Holmes stood trial and, in late June of 1982, was acquitted in the Wonderland murders. A grand jury had been convened to investigate the killings, but Holmes refused to answer their questions. He was found in contempt and jailed for 111 days until Eddie Nash had been found guilty on a separate drug charge and sentenced to prison. With Nash gone, Holmes told the grand jury enough to get away. The judge ordered his release.
Nash served only a fraction of his sentence. Nearly 20 years later, in 2001, he pled guilty to a laundry list of racketeering counts, including the Wonderland murders, and was sentenced to just over three years, of which he served approximately one year.
In 1982, Holmes came out of jail a free man, in a sense off dope, for the first time in years. But the cock remained his only resource, and it took him back to porn. A former business partner, Bill Amerson, of whose two children Holmes was a godparent, set up a production company and brought Holmes in as an executive. For a while, he was relatively drug free, halfway reliable, but the old patterns soon resurfaced. Holmes, Amerson contends, embezzled something like a quarter-million dollars from him.
(Sharon Holmes is not surprised: The moral [of Wonderland] for me is your choices and what you do with them. You dig down deep and find something. And John didnt have anything to dig down and find anymore. Thats why he went back to the porn business. Thats why he went back to stealing.)
After Florida, Dawn reunited with her father in Thailand, where he ran a hotel. She spent seven years in Southeast Asia, far beyond the reach of Holmes, where she earned high-school and college degrees. She came back to the United States in 1988. I remember coming back in the late part of February, intent on finding John to tell him, Look. I turned out better than you. Instead, she read in a newspaper that Holmes, age 44, lay dying of AIDS in Room 101A of the Veterans Administration Hospital on Sepulveda. I felt bad he was sick, she says. I was going to go to the hospital. I was all ready to. But I didnt have the nerve.
After a press screening of Wonderland, a CNN journalist crept out of the projection room saying, I feel like I need a shower. And indeed, watching the movie is like being dunked in someones dirty bath water John Holmes, say, on the night of the murders over and over again, for an hour and a half. You walk out of the theater thinking, What was the point of all this? Did anyone learn anything? Was anyone changed for the better? Not Holmes, anyway. Despite his complicity in so much death, and even after testing positive for HIV, he continued working in the XXX industry, knowingly exposing at least three blue-screen actresses to the virus.
When Dawn Schiller, sitting over coffee at a Beverly Hills hotel, tells of Holmes nasty depths, of the repeated pimping and beatings, she also manages to communicate something of the flawed, destructive humanity of the guy. My memories are that I loved him, she says. I want to say that. I loved him. I dont want to say that that wasnt real, or that that wasnt okay. I want to say that it was real, and that it was good. The times that I despised him and feared him are the last times that I remember with him, but they arent the only times. Right now, today, I remember the whole. He lost the battle. He saw it coming with the breaking of the pipe, all the way back then. He tried to stop the freight train.
Sharon nods. It was like putting a piece of chewing gum on the tracks, she says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.