|Illustrations by Joel Kimmel|
Jack Irwin wasn’t a recluse. He liked people just fine. But he liked them in small doses. For 18 years he lived alone in a small cabin on a steep, rocky slope on Mount Baldy, a mile or two below the ski lift. Raccoons and bears ambled through the brush at night. Squirrels and blue jays scolded each other from the towering fir beside his deck, and on weekends the smell of scorched brake pads came up from the sharp two-lane switchbacks just below his house.
Although Jack was long retired, he never lacked for things to do. He kept his countertops clean and the pencils on his desk sharp. He religiously changed the oil every three months in his beloved 1993 Subaru, even though he’d driven only 60 miles since the last oil change. When work was done, he would sit in a rocker in a sunny corner of his living room, with its sweeping vistas of high snowcapped ridges and the San Gabriel Valley far below, reading the novels of Tom Clancy, Louis L’Amour and John le Carré.
At 71, Jack was quite comfortable financially, thanks to a real estate investment that enabled him to put $234,000 in his savings account. He generally kept another $10,000 around the house and carried a wallet so thick with bills it looked like he had a knot in his rear pants pocket. Despite his money, he was frugal to a fault, never coming close to spending the $722 disability check he received from Social Security each month, his only expenses being $20 a month for his Forest Service lease, another $20 for water, $6 to $9 for electricity, a few bucks for gas, plus whatever minor outlay it took to keep him in peanut butter, Cup-O-Soup and frozen hash-brown potato patties, which Jack would heat up two at a time, spread with ketchup and eat like a sandwich.
As an Army vet, Jack didn’t worry much about creature comforts. He slept on a regulation steel-tube cot with a thin, hard pad. He bought his clothes at thrift stores and wore the same (carefully washed) T-shirts until they were virtually transparent. His cabin was so cold on winter nights that the water froze in the toilet bowl. It wasn’t that Jack was too cheap to buy propane, but he thought the propane man cheated him and thereafter refused on principle to have his tank refilled.
Life at the 5,700-foot level wasn’t easy for someone like Jack. He’d been gravely wounded in the Korean War while working on a helicopter MEDEVAC team: He was smoking a cigarette when he saw what he thought was a brown football flying over a tent. When he woke up (in a hospital in Japan), he discovered he’d been blown up by a hand grenade. Jack was subsequently transferred to military hospitals in Hawaii and San Francisco, where a superior told him they were throwing him out of the Army.
“How come?” said Jack.
“Your eye is funny.” Jack had a wandering eye.
“My eye was funny when you drafted me,” he said.
Before the war, Jack had been a vital, active guy. A picture from the late ’40s shows him in standard hot-rodder attire — black engineer boots, blue jeans and a white T-shirt with a cigarette pack rolled up in the sleeve. He raced hot rods and motorcycles up and down Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard and speedboats around local lakes. But, perhaps as a result of his war injuries, he’d never gotten married. His neighbors on Mount Baldy felt sorry for him. Tom and Sandy Bailey made it a point to invite him to their home for Thanksgiving every year and on Christmas take him out to dinner. At times, just for company, he’d sit for hours in the lobby of a mountain lodge, sipping on a soda.
Jack’s problems went beyond mere loneliness or the lingering effects of war wounds. He also suffered from dystonia, a progressive neurological disorder that began as an uncontrollable nose twitch and ended up as a crippling affliction of his fingers, foot and, most distressingly of all, his vocal cords. Strangers couldn’t understand him. He sounded as if he were trying to talk and gargle at the same time. The doctors inundated him with pills, and then, every time he went to the VA hospital, tried to run another battery of tests. He got so depressed, he once told Tom Bailey, there were times he wanted to die.
He got his wish in a way he never dreamed.
In the winter of 1998-1999, after nearly two decades on the mountain, Jack announced that he was “cold.” He got in his car, drove 10 miles down the mountain, and, for $160,000 cash, bought himself a two-story, four-bedroom house on a neat and comfortable cul-de-sac in Upland. Shortly thereafter, he sold his cabin for $48,000 to two women — Marcia Ann Johnson, a sometime computer programmer with long, blond hair and a hot temper, and her partner, Judy Gellert, a reserved and sober-minded drug counselor at Chino women’s prison.
Perhaps because he was so lonely, Jack offered Marcia and Judy surprisingly generous terms — he would hold the mortgage for them, and they in turn would pay him $582 a month for the next 10 years. As part of the deal, Jack also offered to throw in his washer, dryer and refrigerator. At first Marcia was disdainful — “I don’t want your stuff, old man” — but when she looked in the refrigerator and saw that it contained nothing but peanut butter and Rice Krispies, she felt so bad for Jack that she brought him a roast. “That’s the kind of person I am,” she said. It was only later, Marcia would come to admit, that “I began to wonder how I could use him in my life.”
Actually, the person least likely to know “the kind of person I am” was Marcia herself. Over the years she’d been variously declared to be suffering from “poor” insight, “impaired” judgment, “auditory hallucinations,” “a history of panic” and bipolar manic depression, a cyclical syndrome in which Marcia alternated between feverish activity and suicidal depression.
By Marcia’s own account (as revealed in court records), her childhood was one disaster after another — a “nervous breakdown” at age 10, molestation by the police officer next door at age 13 and poor parenting by what she claimed was her “mentally sick” family all her life. Her mother, she said, “never talked to me. She never said she loved me. She showed me naked to my father.” By her account, her father beat her, her grandfather tried to rape her, and a violent ex-boyfriend “fuckin’ almost killed me.”
Angry at the world, Marcia dropped out of school in the eighth grade. She lied, stole, cheated, got drunk, did drugs and started having “sex with anyone.” “I became very hateful as a child and never grew out of it.”
She was so starved for attention, Marcia said, she initially welcomed the molestation by the cop next door, even though it made her hate her “sex parts” so much she couldn’t have an orgasm. She also became “very selfish and dishonest,” repeatedly trotting out her molestation stories to “make people feel sorry for me and get what I want.” Concluding in her late teens that men were “gross,” Marcia became a lesbian. In her mid-20s, she began experimenting with suicide, slitting her wrists, spraying her wounds with Raid and trying to shoot herself in the head (“the bullet went somewhere else”).
In 1985, just before her 25th birthday and after two perhaps not entirely sincere attempts to kill herself, Marcia ended up at San Diego Mental Health Services. As a nurse noted on her intake report, “She and a friend got drunk, decided they were over-stressed and should drive off a cliff together. As they were contemplating the advisability of this, they were arrested.” Finding out that jail was no fun, Marcia tried to hang herself with a shoelace. After that, police took her to a psychiatric-care facility, where she came across as a “giggling, extroverted white female who seemed to think all this is a lark.”
In March of 1990, Marcia ended up in another psychiatric facility after she tried to kill herself with a knife. A month later, she was back again, complaining (with rare insight) that her lover had left her “because I’m crazy.”
In 1993, despondent over losing a ring, denting her car, fighting with her girlfriend and disappointing her family by breaking three years of sobriety, Marcia ended up comatose after she swallowed 150 Navane and Traxadone capsules, followed up by three Zantacs (to calm her upset stomach). In December of 1996, she overdosed yet another time after hearing her dead father’s voice on the wind, calling her to join him. In September 1998, she ended up on a temporary psychiatric hold for banging her head on the floor and trying to “jump out the window.”
Marcia had often worked as a waitress and had even graduated from a computer-programming institute in 1998, but such recurring psychotic episodes made it hard for her to hold a steady job. Compared to Marcia, Judy Gellert was far more stable. She had grown up on a farm in Indiana, majored in physical education at Ball State and got married. After she divorced seven years later, she became dependent on alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamines. When she got straight, she volunteered to work at Stepping Stone, a drug-treatment center in San Diego, which later hired her as a counselor. It was there, in the late ’80s, that she met Marcia.
Although they spent the next 10 years together, Judy once wrote in a journal that she and Marcia tended to “fight, disagree and pick at each other over small things.” Marcia, who at 39 was seven years younger than her partner, complained that after Judy went through menopause, she wasn’t interested in sex anymore. In late 1998, Judy declared bankruptcy, claiming debts of $95,000 and assets of only $33,000, including a $250 Jack Russell terrier. Later, Marcia declared bankruptcy too, listing debts of $44,000 and only $900 in assets.
To save money, Marcia and Judy had spent the better part of the last five years living in a 1989 Gulfstream motor home, moving between RV parks in Chula Vista, Alpine, Pepperdine, Santa Anita and finally, by Christmas 1998, to a small campground at the 4,500-foot level southwest of Mount Baldy Village in an area known as Cow Saddle. They had met the campground owner, Ron Curtis, at a chili cookoff. He subsequently let them stay for free in exchange for watching over the place and collecting camping fees from the occasional visitor. It was a lonely, desolate place in the dead of winter, when cold winds swept up the canyon and freezing rains drummed on their metal roof. Deciding they needed a more permanent home, in January 1999 they stopped by the Mount Baldy community bulletin board, where Jack’s real estate agent had posted a listing for “the cleanest cutest cabin you ever saw.”
As his new neighbors Susan Hegemier and Doug Hopkins soon discovered, the disabled old man who had bought the house next door to theirs in their cozy Upland cul-de-sac was funny, friendly and almost compulsively neat. Every morning when Hegemier left for the office, she’d see Jack standing in his already-immaculate front yard, picking up stray leaves and waving goodbye to the neighbors as they drove away to work. When Hegemier finally traded in her sagging 1981 Olds Tornado for a new Chevy Cavalier, she remembers, Jack was as happy for her as she was for herself: “Suzie, you got a new car! A new car! Congratulations!”
It was in the summer of 1999, when he started sharing his big two-story, four-bedroom house with two women — Marcia Ann Johnson and Judy Gellert — that Hegemier first began feeling nervous about Jack.
Sensing perhaps that the neighbors might think it strange that two openly gay women would want to live with a disabled old man, Marcia and Judy explained to Hegemier that in the process of buying his cabin they’d become so fond of Jack that, when they had trouble reaching him on the phone, they decided to move in with him to keep house, cook his meals and make sure he took his meds on time.
Prior to this, Jack’s lifestyle had been so austere that his dinner service consisted of little more than one cup, one bowl, one fork and one spoon. But after the women entered his life, he began spending money like a sailor, buying in rapid succession a new stove, dishwasher, satellite dish and color TV.
“I can get 400 channels, Doug,” he told Hopkins. “400 channels!”
That’s great, said Hopkins. “How many do you watch?”
When Jack first moved in, in February 1999, his only living-room furniture was an easy chair and a tray table. Now that room featured a large painting of two naked women, shown from the rear, exchanging adoring glances. Whereas on Mount Baldy Jack never left the cabin except to go to the grocery store or gas station, now, he proudly told Doug, he and “the girls” had been to San Diego to see a gay-pride parade. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Jack told Hopkins. “There were people walking around with their rear ends showing.”
Jack had always been the most accessible of neighbors, but now it became hard to talk to him without “the girls” hovering around in the background, reminding him to eat and cloyingly calling him “Dad.” Once, when Hegemier knocked on Jack’s door to tell him to turn off his long-running lawn sprinklers, she found the three of them sitting in a dark room filled with candles, holding what she first thought was a séance.
“What are you doing?” said Hegemier, a short and feisty Italian-American.
“Oh, now that we’re family,” explained Jack, “I’m telling them my life story and they’re telling me theirs.”
In mid-August, Hegemier went out to get the mail one day, when Jack called her over to ask her opinion. What did she think? he wanted to know. He’d put all his assets in a trust and then put both the girls’ names on it.
“Why?” said Hegemier. “Are you crazy?”
“Well, we’re family now,” explained Jack. “If I die, they get everything I have. And if they die, I get everything they have.”
“But Jack,” said Hegemier, “they don’t have anything.”
As it turned out, the girls had plans to do a lot more than just make sure Jack had a clean house and hot food. A longtime bachelor, Jack also had a habit of getting up as soon as he finished eating and washing his dinner plate. But when he did it around Marcia and Judy, Jack later told Hopkins, he was informed it wasn’t “polite.” Once, said Hegemier, Jack complained to her that he wanted to do something, such as plant a tree, but Marcia and Judy flat out told him “no.”
“It’s my house,” said Jack.
“You can’t do it,” they replied.
The last time Sandy Bailey phoned him to chat, Jack said that Marcia and Judy had completely taken over. “When I go out, the girls change things around. I’m not in control of my own house.”
In early September 1999, Hegemier suddenly realized that she hadn’t seen Jack around lately. She couldn’t ask Judy and Marcia about him, because they’d moved back to the cabin on Mount Baldy. So the next time Marcia came down to pick up the mail, Hegemier asked her, “Where’s Jack?”
“Oh, he’s traveling,” answered Marcia.
“Why would he do that?”
“He went to see the Space Needle,” said Marcia. Jack had seen this travel program on TV. The next morning, saying he was going to see the Space Needle, he took $5,000 from the bank and a change of clothes in a paper bag. Then he asked Marcia to drop him off at the Upland Metrolink stop, from which he planned to ride to Union Station and then catch Amtrak to Seattle.
“Where’s he staying?” asked Hegemier.
“I don’t know,” said Marcia.
“When’s he coming back?”
“I don’t know.”
To Hegemier, Marcia’s explanation simply didn’t make sense. Jack found it so difficult to speak clearly that the first time Hegemier heard him, she thought he was drunk. One foot was twisted so badly, his shoe wore out on the side, not the sole. In all the years he had lived on Mount Baldy, Jack had virtually never gone anywhere, and now she and Hopkins were supposed to believe he had suddenly traveled alone all the way to Seattle without saying where he would be staying or when he might return?
After that, every time Hegemier and Hopkins saw Marcia, they made it a point to ask about Jack. “Has he called? Have you gotten a post card?”
“Not yet,” said Marcia.
“Don’t you find that strange?”
“We’re going to give it another few days.”
Fed up with Marcia and Judy’s apparent lack of curiosity about someone they considered “family,” on October 3 Doug Hopkins told the women to go to the Upland Police Department and file a missing-persons report. “And if you don’t do it, I will.”
Marcia subsequently called Detective Steve Foulks, an Upland missing-persons officer, to report Jack missing. Foulks in turn posted fliers around town noting that Jack had last been seen at the Upland Metrolink station on September 13, wearing a purple shirt and green jeans and carrying $5,000 in cash. He also came out to Jack’s cul-de-sac to ask a few questions, which was when Hegemier confronted him about Jack’s supposed trip to Seattle. At this point, Foulks didn’t believe anything was wrong. Jack was a grown man, he said. “He has a right to go anywhere he wants.”
“Yeah,” said Hegemier. “But he didn’t go anywhere.”
Sandy Bailey, Jack’s longtime friend from Mount Baldy Village (he was godfather to her son), first noticed in early September of 1999 that Jack was no longer returning her calls. The next time Marcia came by the Mount Baldy post office, where Bailey worked as a clerk, Bailey told her she couldn’t seem to reach Jack. “Is everything okay?”
When Marcia told her that Jack had gone on a “vacation,” Bailey was aghast. Bluntly telling Marcia that such a thing “could not happen,” she went home and called the Upland police chief, who referred her to Detective Foulks, who was polite but again not overly concerned. Although Bailey repeatedly called back over the following weeks and months, Foulks dismissed any notion of foul play, telling Bailey he’d talked to Marcia and Judy, and he believed they were telling the truth: Jack had gone to Seattle.
Taking matters into her own hands, Bailey put up “missing” posters of Jack all over the village, on utility poles and at the entrance to the post office, where Marcia would see it every time she came by to pick up her mail. She also left messages for Jack on his answering machine in Upland, including one in early November cheerily reminding Jack that she was expecting him for Thanksgiving again this year. “I knew Jack was dead,” says Bailey, a deceptively mild-mannered woman with a steel backbone. “I did it just to aggravate Marcia.”
A short while later, says Bailey, Marcia confronted her at the post office and told her, “I’m sick and tired of your leaving messages.”
“That’s Jack’s house I’m calling, and that’s his answering machine I’m leaving the messages on,” pointed out Bailey.
A month or so later, Marcia was back at the post office again, this time blaming Bailey for spreading rumors that she killed Jack. “I’m suing all of you for slander. And don’t think I don’t have the money to do it. I have more money than anyone on Mount Baldy.”
Bailey didn’t doubt that Marcia now had money. The question was, where did she get it? When the women first arrived in the village, all they had was an old motor home and a Ford Expedition with a “Girls Rule” window decal. But no sooner had Jack vanished than Marcia bought a Jeep Wrangler for Judy and traded in Jack’s green Subaru (forging his signature in the process) for a white Corvette for herself. Then, in November, two months after Jack disappeared, the women bought a 37-foot, $172,000, 330-horsepower, eight-miles-per-gallon Serengeti motor home, the kind that typically came equipped with twin air conditioners, a microwave, a refrigerator-freezer, an icemaker, a dishwasher, a satellite dish, surround-sound speakers, a walk-through bathroom, a washer-dryer and a queen-size bed. It was so wide that when they parked it on the narrow switchback outside Jack’s cabin, it blocked the downhill lane.
It also blocked the drive of Mary Lou Young, a former ski instructor who lived just down the hill from Jack. In response to her complaint, U.S. Forest Service ranger Larry Brown came by one day to tell Marcia she would have to move the motor home off the mountain.
“This is harassment!” exploded Marcia. “I’m tired of this.”
Driving the motor home down the mountain later that day, Marcia passed Brown, whom she saluted with a blast from the air horn and an upraised middle finger. In due time, she also flipped off Jack’s neighbors in Upland, a second ranger, a fire dispatcher and Mary Lou Young, who complained to the sheriff.
To the irritation of Jack’s friends and neighbors, Marcia and Judy both acted as if the residents’ attitude toward them had nothing to do with Jack’s disappearance and everything to do with bias against lesbians. “They hated us,” Marcia would later say. “They were really shitty. They were so mean to us we quit going to church.” Judy, normally the peacemaker of the two, was apparently so disturbed by the encounter with the ranger that she noted the confrontation in her diary: “I knew I reacted in an extreme manner, but I could not take another round of hate and bigotry.”
The summer of 2000 was a bad time for Marcia and Judy. At the end of June they went to San Diego on vacation. When they returned, in early July, Marcia reported to Sheriff’s deputies, they discovered that someone had entered their cabin through “the doggie door” and took a Sony camcorder, a DVD player, earrings, a laptop computer, a printer, a CD writer and a camera. The crime was never solved, though Judy’s insurance carrier, State Farm, did send Marcia a check for $9,193 to cover her and Judy’s losses.
That August, in response to what the women saw as continuing hostility from the community and Judy’s feeling that she wasn’t safe in the cabin anymore, Marcia and Judy left Mount Baldy and moved to an RV park in Lake Elsinore, where, on August 11, 2000, they got word that the cabin was on fire. The Mount Baldy Volunteer Fire Department was still mopping up the blaze when the women came racing up with two friends. Upon hearing that the fire investigators suspected arson, Marcia immediately began denouncing the neighbors. “They started the fire because they hate us because we are lesbians,” Marcia told former neighbor Kerri Walter. “One hundred years ago, they would have strung us up a tree.”
“No one up here would start a fire,” answered Walter. “It’s like starting a fire in your own back yard. And don’t play the lesbian card. No one up here cares.” Besides, added Walter, if the neighbors were suspicious of Marcia and Judy, they had good reason — if Jack died, she told Marcia, “You had a lot to gain.”
Despite the fire’s suspicious origins, State Farm once again came to the rescue, sending the women a $170,402.58 check, which included $58,000 for the cabin and $112,000 for everything else, including $20,000 for clothes, $8,800 for computers, $9,000 for a Bose home-theater system, $2,400 for 150 videos, $600 for two satellite dishes, as well tens of thousands of other dollars for a jewelry box, an antique brush-and-mirror set, a mantel clock, multiple cookbooks, diet books, self-help books, a pet feeder, a tea strainer, corn holders, and a long list of other missing and presumably burnt items.
By June of 2001, Upland’s missing-person case on Jack had gone cold. Despite Sandy Bailey’s repeated phone calls, Steve Foulks had long ago run out of people to interview, and police chief Marty Thouvenell, fearful that the case might be slipping through the cracks, picked up the phone and called San Bernardino district attorney Dennis South. “I think there’s a problem here,” he told him. “I can really use your help.”
A few days later, the case landed on the desk of Morey Weiss, a straightforward, 49-year-old elder-abuse investigator with thinning hair, a ragged goatee and a briskly conscientious manner.
Weiss quickly established what was already clear to Jack’s friends on Mount Baldy. Within hours of Jack’s having disappeared, Marcia began systematically looting Jack’s estate. She made her first withdrawal from Jack’s trust (for $4,000) the same day she said she dropped him off at the Metrolink station to go to Seattle. Two days later she drew $7,000 from Jack’s account, then two days after that she wrote a $6,693 check (to buy the Jeep Wrangler for Judy). Three days later she withdrew $10,000.
Marcia continued writing checks and making withdrawals every few days for the next two months, by which time she’d whittled down Jack’s account from $73,500 to a mere $14. At the same time, acting in her capacity as a trustee, Marcia transferred Jack’s $160,000 Upland house from the Jack Irwin Trust to Judy Gellert, who promptly took out a $128,000 mortgage on it. A year later she would sell the house for $190,000.
It was no wonder Marcia bragged that they had more money than anyone on the mountain. After buying Jack’s cabin, the pair had made exactly two $582 mortgage payments to him. In return, they’d variously collected approximately $450,000 from a combination of Jack’s trust, his house and the two insurance claims.
Although Weiss had not the slightest doubt that the women had illegally drained Jack’s estate, unless he could also show that they were in some way responsible for Jack’s disappearance, the women, he knew, would claim that the trust gave them every right to Jack’s money. Even so, Weiss’ goal wasn’t merely to convict the women of elder abuse and financial fraud; his real goal was to put together a murder case — no small matter given that Weiss had no body, no blood, no proof whatsoever that Jack was even dead.
As was so often the case, Marcia herself provided the clue. Two days after the cabin fire, Tom Fee, an arson investigator hired by State Farm, taped a rambling two-hour interview with Marcia and Judy, during which Marcia happened to mention that she was suing her psychologist, with whom she’d had, she said, a four- or five-month affair. To Fee, that was just too bizarre to let slide. So when Weiss came to see him to ask about the fire, Fee recommended that he check out the lawsuit too.
At the time, Weiss was too busy nailing down the financial end of the elder-abuse case to worry about some apparently unrelated she-said/she-said woman-scorned affair. But a year later, in late August of 2002, just before Labor Day, Weiss contacted the state Board of Psychology, which by then had already done its own investigation of Marcia’s complaints against her psychologist. And after reading the depositions, Weiss suddenly realized that he’d just been handed the key to the case on a silver platter.
If Marcia was unstable before Jack disappeared, she was a lot more so in the days and weeks that followed. Nine days after Jack went missing, she landed incoherent in a San Diego emergency room, where she was diagnosed as “acutely psychotic and suffering from hallucinations” (she also had a blood-alcohol level of 0.26 — three times the legal limit for driving). Before she was released, Marcia blurted out to Judy, her mom and the hospital staff that she’d killed Jack, but, as Judy would later testify, no one really believed her, because in the same breath she’d also confessed to killing her brother and sister, both of whom were alive and well.
Judy subsequently took Marcia to Chino’s New Day Institute, where Marcia announced that she “hated” men and could talk only to a female therapist. In an effort to make her comfortable, Marcia was subsequently assigned to Dr. Debra Martin, a registered “psychological assistant” (she’d earned her doctorate but had yet to pass her boards).
Fragile and belligerent, Marcia initially spurned the idea of therapy, saying she came only because “my girlfriend dragged me here” and that therapy was beside the point when her real problem was the possibility of ending up in jail “for spending between $60,000 and $70,000 of Jack’s money.”
Despite taking Prozac, Wellbutrin, Tegretol, Vistaril and Benadryl (or perhaps in part because of it), Marcia suffered three more hospitalizations over the next four months. After her November 19, 1999, hospitalization, Marcia left a message with Martin saying that she was terminating her therapy. But not apparently their relationship. Marcia soon began paging Martin at work. Martin would call back. And pretty soon they were fast friends, chatting regularly on the phone, exchanging Christmas gifts, and driving around San Bernardino County while they talked things over (a practice the state Board of Psychology would later sourly describe as “car therapy”).
As time went on (and as Marcia’s relationship with Judy became increasingly tenuous), Marcia got closer and closer to Martin, who called Marcia “Big Doggie” (for her aggressive decision making) and referred to herself as “Little Debbie” or “Little Girl.” By this point, at least in Marcia’s telling of the tale, an erotic element had now entered their relations. When Marcia once showed up in makeup, Martin told her she looked so good that “if I wasn’t straight, I’d go for you.” (Martin was living with a guy at the time.)
Although Martin would later vehemently deny under oath ever having had any sexual attraction to Marcia, she said she considered Marcia “one of the best friends I ever had” and thought that Marcia felt the same way about her. (It never occurred to her, she would subsequently testify, that Marcia “was fattening me up for the kill.”)
On January 20, 2000, Marcia drove Martin to Tijuana, where Marcia spent $1,000 buying “Debbie” prescription drugs. (Martin suffered from reactive hypoglycemia, chronic bladder inflammation and endometriosis, a condition where uterine tissue grows into cysts and tumors outside the uterus.) On the way home, they stopped at Sunset Cliffs to watch the sun go down. “She’d never been there before,” said Marcia. “We were watching the waves crash and we started kissing. It was a mutual thing. We said we loved each other. And she thanked me for buying all the medication.” (Martin also disputed this under oath, saying that all that happened was that Marcia, to her dismay, tried to put her arm around Martin’s shoulders.)
By this time, Marcia’s sometimes-tenuous relationship with Judy had fallen apart, and Marcia was living in the motor home on a mechanic’s lot in Upland. One evening, said Marcia, she invited Martin over for an intimate dinner of crab legs and artichokes. Then, after sharing a bottle of wine, said Marcia, “we went into the bedroom.”
Altogether, said Marcia, she claimed to have performed oral sex on Martin on three different occasions, but only in the dark. “She was embarrassed about her body,” Marcia said. “She was flabby and she had scars.” (Martin would later testify that she never had sex with Marcia. The only thing that ever happened was that she once stayed the night and was shocked when she woke up to find Marcia asleep in the same bed, albeit outside the covers.)
In an effort to win Martin’s affections, Marcia said, she twice deposited $1,000 in Martin’s account, paid for Martin’s test-preparation class, paid off two student loans of $721 apiece, gave her $200 a week for unofficial therapy, and bought her an Oriental herbal pot, a Movado watch, a purple cell phone (service included), diamond earrings, sunglasses and a Tigger varsity jacket.
In February 2000, according to a subsequent Board of Psychology deposition, Marcia popped the big one — she bought an $800 ring and asked Martin to marry her. According to Marcia’s deposition, Martin tentatively agreed, though she couldn’t do anything until she passed her boards — a significant hurdle, given that, according to a Board of Psychology disciplinary report, she’d failed the written part four times and the orals twice.
The next couple of months were a frantic time for both women. Martin was constantly running between meetings with patients, studying for her April psychology boards and dog-sitting to earn money. When Marcia (who hated being alone) left her a message complaining that Martin seemed to be “pulling away” from her, Martin left her a long explanatory reply: “I work two jobs now. I’m taking over for my boss, who is out of the country . . . I have paperwork out the ass. My car looks like a fuckin’ caravan. I have two dog-sitting jobs going on . . . I’m doing this study for the doctor. My secretary resigned. I’m training somebody now. I’m running around like a maniac.” On top of that, menopause had her “flashing like crazy” and she was “exhausted” from getting a mere two hours’ sleep a night.
Marcia wasn’t in any better shape. Now that she had left Judy, she was getting high on three to five Klonopins every day and regularly getting drunk at night. Some nights she’d have conversations with Martin, completely forget them, and then leave hurt messages the next day asking Martin why she hadn’t called.
In March, Marcia and Debra Martin were talking on the motor-home sofa, when Marcia said, “Debbie, I have to tell you something. I have to tell somebody.”
As Martin would later testify, Marcia then told her that she killed Jack. She shot him in the back of the head — he made a “terrible sound” — then cut up his body, wrapped the parts in Saran Wrap and aluminum foil, and placed them in a Rubbermaid container.
“Like meat?” said Martin, horrified.
“Like meat,” answered Marcia. “And don’t make that face, because you’re making me feel bad.”
Marcia, who was a font of gory details, said the ground where she cut up the body was so bloody that she had to keep hosing it down with water for days and weeks afterward. Otherwise, the dogs went “crazy” and kept digging the area up.
Marcia later asked if Martin would like to see where she threw Jack’s body parts.
“No,” said Martin.
Eventually coming to the conclusion that Debra Martin never had any intention of marrying her, Marcia reconciled with Judy, a development that would later prove a disaster for both of them.
Judy had never cared for Debra Martin, and she had her reasons. Once, after taking Marcia to the hospital, Judy played back the messages on Marcia’s cell phone. She was appalled to hear Martin call Marcia “Big Doggie” (the same thing that Judy called her), tell Marcia she loved her and express the hope that she hadn’t “worn out” Marcia the night before.
Now that she was back with Judy (and, as she said, sober for a change), Marcia privately turned on Martin with a fury. According to Martin, Marcia had once called her in a drunken stupor and threatened (once again) to commit suicide by driving off a cliff. Martin (presumably facetiously, if the conversation happened at all) told Marcia that if she was going to do that to take Judy with her.
After that, Marcia began secretly taping all of Martin’s phone calls, hoping, she said, to catch Martin urging her to “kill Judy.” In the meantime, perhaps to try to make Martin fly off the handle, Marcia told Martin that Judy was planning to sue her for “rape” (an encounter that supposedly took place when she and Judy once both came to see Dr. Martin for joint therapy).
Finally, at Judy’s urging, Marcia also then did something that in retrospect was either extraordinarily greedy or amazingly stupid — she filed a $300,000 professional-misconduct lawsuit against Debra Martin, the one person who knew the details of how she killed Jack. Then, to seal the deal (not to mention her fate), Marcia reported Dr. Martin to the Board of Psychology for having allowed Marcia to perform oral sex on her.
Following lengthy depositions, the case was settled before trial, with Martin agreeing to pay Marcia $35,000. After deductions for attorney’s fees and expenses, Marcia netted $15,016, after which the case was sealed.
The discovery of Marcia’s confession to Martin was a simultaneous bolt from the blue and brow-mopping relief to Morey Weiss. He’d been working the case for an entire year, weekends included, like a dog with a bone he couldn’t let go of. Now, for the first time, he says, he had someone saying “the murder actually happened” and, furthermore, it was Marcia who said it.
The problem, as always, was that he didn’t have a body — though not for lack of trying. Sometimes, when he went up the mountain, he’d pull over in a likely spot and hike down the mountain slope. Sheriff’s deputies also checked out Ron Curtis’ campgrounds, which wasn’t easy, given that in the months following Jack’s disappearance, he’d enlarged the camping area with some 4,000 cubic yards of landfill. At one point, Weiss even contracted for a cadaver dog, only to discover, after waiting for a year for it, that the dog handler had been fired. Some of Jack’s neighbors even went looking for his body on their own, digging up places around the cabin where they thought the soil had been disturbed or a bush transplanted.
Just to make sure that Jack hadn’t actually gone to see the Space Needle after all, Sheriff’s deputies contacted every VA hospital between L.A. and Seattle, and the Department of Justice, regarding any unidentified bodies. Weiss went down to the county morgue to look at photos of unclaimed corpses. Finally, he got a search warrant allowing him to test the soil around Jack’s cabin. The test did come back positive for the presence of blood, but 22 months had gone by, and the sample was so deteriorated it was impossible to say if it even came from a human being, let alone Jack Irwin.
The lack of physical evidence left Weiss in a quandary. Although Marcia’s confession to Debra Martin was great news, he still was worried that without Jack’s body, it might not be enough. To make sure the jury did the right thing, Weiss felt he needed something even stronger, such as, for instance, a confession from Marcia’s own lips. But to have any hope of getting that, Weiss needed a judge’s authorization for a wiretap and, more important, a way to get Marcia to talk about the murder.
On September 4, 2002, Weiss met with San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department detective Bobby Dean, and together they concocted a plan “to stir the pot.” The idea was to confront Marcia and Judy with one legal problem after another — search warrants, arrest warrants, Board of Psychology subpoenas, a County Code Enforcement Division declaration that their cabin was a fire hazard. If it worked as planned, the women would soon be so rattled, they’d be calling each other for comfort and support and, in the process, making incriminating statements on the telephone (a judge had approved a wiretap of Judy’s and Marcia’s phones for two weeks).
Weiss launched the plan on September 27, 2002, with a phone call to Marcia at her and Judy’s new home in Alpine, a small town 25 miles northeast of San Diego. He just “happened to be in the area,” he said (actually, he was right around the corner), and he wanted to “drop off some paperwork.”
“ ‘Drop paperwork,’ meaning?” asked Marcia.
“Well, remember I told you I wouldn’t arrest you?”
“I’m going to give you a chance to surrender yourself. I just wanted to be sure you’re there.”
“Have you contacted my attorney?”
“I haven’t spoken to anybody, no.”
“So maybe . . .”
“All I’m doing is giving you a piece of paper,” said Weiss.
The document that Weiss gave Marcia was a good deal more than just a piece of paper. It was an arrest warrant, signed by Deputy District Attorney Tristan Svare, notifying Marcia (with a second warrant for Judy) that they were being charged with “secondary commercial burglary, grand theft by embezzlement, theft from elder, recklessly causing fire to an inhabited structure, insurance fraud and grand theft auto.” They had two weeks to turn themselves in.
Quite intentionally, there was no mention at this point of murder. But even without it, the charges left the women breathless.
“I am fucking scared to death right now,” Marcia told Judy on the phone as soon as Weiss left.
“Okay,” said Judy.
“I’m fucking scared to death.”
“Okay. I know. Okay.”
Over the next couple of weeks, the women would call each other upward of 10 times a day. Sometimes they’d just chat aimlessly, assure each other of their love, then hang up and call back four minutes later.
Surprisingly enough, Marcia seemed more than eager to take all the blame for the mess they were in. “I just feel really, really bad,” she told Judy at one point. “I’ve just done you real dirty, and you’ve never deserved this, never.”
When Weiss first dropped off the arrest warrants, he’d emphasized the importance of their showing up in court on the specified dates. And if they didn’t, he observed, they’d better be wearing some “good running shoes.”
“But he was really nice,” Marcia told Judy. “He was really sweet.”
“You know what, Marsh?” said Judy. “If it was that bad, they wouldn’t be doing this. Why give — we’re a flight risk. You know what I’m saying?”
“Well, that’s what I’m saying,” said Marcia. “You have nothing to worry about.”
“Well, you too,” said Judy. “You too.”
Three days later, on September 30, to avoid the embarrassment of having Weiss show up at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Center, where Judy then worked as a counselor, Judy asked to meet Weiss at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro. But when Judy, who was driving Marcia’s white Corvette, pulled into the parking space, Weiss wheeled in right behind her, as if to block any escape attempt. “It was so fucking dramatic,” Judy told Marcia. “I was a nervous wreck.”
The psychological ploy of not mentioning anything about murder on the arrest warrant was cruelly effective. Between waiting for the other shoe to drop and the faint hope that the financial charges were nothing more than a misunderstanding of their rights under the trust, Marcia began to hyperventilate. “I mean, I’m like fucking losing it,” she told a friend after she rear-ended another car on her way to see her attorney.
The whole thing made no sense to Marcia. If the D.A.’s office didn’t suspect her of murdering Jack, she wondered, then why was it making such a big deal out of the relatively minor matter of her writing checks on Jack’s trust?
“Jack only had $65,000,” Marcia plaintively complained to Judy. “It’s not a whole lot of money . . . And we were within our rights. We were totally within our rights with everything that we did. Everything that Jack owned was ours!”
Actually, the matter was a bit more complicated than that. While Marcia and Judy, as co-trustees, were entitled to spend Jack’s money, they could only spend it for the benefit of Jack. It would be hard to argue that Marcia’s selling of Jack’s beloved Subaru to buy herself a white Corvette was somehow for Jack’s benefit. Same thing for selling his house, using the proceeds to buy the motor home and draining his bank account.
Realizing from Marcia’s increasingly agitated conversations that the women were starting to crack, on October 2, 2002, Weiss and Dean ratcheted the pressure to the next level. They sent deputies to the prison where Judy worked, called her to the front office in the presence of her supervisors, and served her with a search warrant to seize the Ford Expedition and test it for blood. Now it was clear, Weiss and Dean weren’t just trying to arrest Marcia and Judy for fleecing a senior citizen — their goal was to put them away for murder.
Marcia hadn’t quite grasped all this, however, when Judy called to tell her the deputies had seized the Expedition. Instead, Marcia was typically irate. After first checking with their attorney, James Brown, she immediately called Judy back to say that Brown had said the deputies had “no authority” to take that car. “We owned that car before . . .”
“Marcia . . .”
“. . . we even knew Jack.”
“Marcia, Marcia . . .”
“James Brown wants to know why they took it,” said Marcia.
“Because Debra Martin said that you confessed to her that you murdered Jack and that you transported the body in that car.”
“Oh, Jesus fuckin’ Christ.”
Now Marcia finally understood. If Weiss knew about Debra Martin, then he knew about her confession. And if he had the confession, the game was up. Impulsive as always, she immediately called her mom to announce her decision. Then, when she couldn’t get her mom, she tried her aunt Janie.
“Hi, listen,” began Marcia in an angry and bitter tone.
“What?” said Aunt Janie. “Are you okay?”
“It’s over. Everything is over.”
“ ‘Everything is over’? What do you mean?”
“I’m turning myself in for killing Jack.”
“They took the Expedition. They confiscated that. They already know. They’re building their case. It’s over. Judy has been getting dragged through the mud, so I’m going to turn myself in.”
“I don’t know if you should do that, Marcia.”
“Aunt Janie, I got to.”
“It doesn’t mean they know,” pointed out Aunt Janie.
“It doesn’t matter if they know. I’m just not going to do this to Judy anymore. She doesn’t deserve it.”
Despite her insistence to Aunt Janie that she was turning herself in, Marcia didn’t actually get around to it that night, or in the week that followed either. So on October 9, 2002, Weiss and Dean dropped the big one. They went to Judy and Marcia’s cozy wood-paneled house in Alpine and arrested a stunned and silent Judy as an “accessory to murder.” While there, they told Marcia they were planning to charge her with murder too, but to her astonishment, they said they weren’t going to take her in at the present time.
Marcia was still sitting there in her living room, surrounded by deputies and investigators, when she got a cell-phone call from Laurie, a friend who had called to invite Marcia to a birthday party.
“Stop your car for a minute,” said Marcia.
“Why?” said Laurie.”
“Just stop your car for a minute, because you’ve got to hear what I’ve got to say. They’ve just arrested Judy for accessory to murder of Jack. They’re charging me with murder. The detectives are here right now . . . They just took her away.”
“She didn’t do it, did she?” asked Laurie.
“Fuck no. Please. Oh my God. Judy is the straightest person there is. They’re saying I did it. Dr. Martin, she turned me in basically. Her name is on everything. The cops keep saying Dr. Martin said this or Debra Martin said that and Debra Martin said this . . .”
“Well, why aren’t you in jail?”
“Because they’re going to put the squeeze on [Judy] and try and make her testify against me.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“No,” said Marcia. “That’s what they do.”
“And you didn’t kill Jack?” asked Laurie.
“I know you didn’t.”
“It’s just people saying shit,” said Marcia.
When Judy was arraigned, bail was set at $500,000, which meant Marcia needed to come up with $50,000 to pay the bail bondsman. By maxing out all their credit cards and pressuring their mortgage company to rush through a previously-applied-for $10,000 second mortgage, Marcia was able to assemble almost $40,000, but the bail bondsman wouldn’t take anything under a full 10 percent. “I begged. I cried,” Marcia later explained in a call to Judy’s mother. “I told them she didn’t do anything wrong. And they’ve heard that a thousand times. They just don’t [care].”
For Marcia, the most frustrating thing was that the jail wouldn’t accept her calls to Judy. Instead, she had to wait for Judy to get a turn at the jail pay phone and call her. When Judy finally did get through to Marcia, she put her foot down.
“Listen, listen, listen, listen,” said Judy. Marcia had to get out of that house. If Weiss and Dean came back to arrest her, they’d both be in jail, and no one would be left to bail the other out and, just as importantly, take care of “the kids,” meaning their three dogs, Cassie, Hollywood and Harley. “You just do this,” urged Judy. “Do it.”
Marcia agreed to leave the house, but she wanted to keep the dogs with her. After all, she said, “they’re being so quiet.”
“Marcia, Marcia, you gotta listen. Marcia.”
“This is what I’m going to do,” said Marcia. “I’m going to find a motel that will accept — because there are motels that accept people with dogs — and that’s what I’m going to do tomorrow.”
“Damn it,” said Judy. “Listen to me. Okay?”
“You have got to start following some directions, okay?”
“Okay,” said Marcia. “All right.”
Judy told Marcia to call Aunt Janie, meet her someplace and give the dogs to her. Then get out of the house. “Will you do that? Will you please do that?”
“Yes, Judy, I will. I’m not listening to my thoughts. My thoughts have gotten me nowhere, so, for the first time in my life, I’m listening to everybody else. I’m going to take the dogs back. I’m listening.”
“Please don’t go yourself,” said Judy. “You know what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, I understand. Yeah.”
“I got to go,” said Judy.
“I love you, baby.”
“Got to go.”
“Okay, I love you,” repeated Marcia, but Judy was already gone.
For Marcia, promises were in effect only as long as it took to make them. Despite having told Judy she would immediately take the dogs to her aunt’s, Marcia soon decided that she wasn’t going to leave the dogs after all. Instead, she drove to El Cajon, where she found a budget motel by the freeway that accommodated both people and pets.
Marcia was not the kind of person who could stand being alone. After drinking half a pint of vodka (and some Bailey’s Irish Cream and beer as well), she rashly called her home answering machine to see if Judy had called from jail. Using caller ID, the Sheriff’s Department wiretap room quickly traced the call to her motel, and Weiss and Dean headed for El Cajon to pick her up.
Arriving after midnight, they parked out front of Marcia’s motel room, where Dean took out a cell phone and dialed her number. “Marcia,” he said, pretending he was in Alpine. “We’re at your house. How come you’re not home?”
Marcia hung up on them.
Dean and Weiss got out of the car, walked up to her room and knocked on the door. When Marcia peeked through the curtains, she realized the game was up and let them in.
Surprisingly, not only was she not defiant, she even thanked Weiss for finally bringing an end to all the chaos in her life. On the way back to San Bernardino, she repeatedly told Dean, “I’ll tell you everything.” He just had to remember, “Judy didn’t do anything wrong.”
Two hours later, at 2:30 a.m., Marcia was sprawling in a chair in a Sheriff’s
Department interrogation room, cigarette in one hand, Diet Coke in the other,
telling a disarmingly sympathetic Bobby Dean that she never meant to hurt Jack.
“I really never did. I just, I just snapped. I just thought, ‘No motherfucker
is going to hurt me again.’”
To read the second part of Beheading
on Mount Baldy, click here.