“Some people kill for love. Some people kill for power. Dana Sue Gray killed elderly women to feed her compulsive shopping habit.”
My gosh, California can be depressing. Not the actual state, mind you, but as a literary subject: Some of the best and most perceptive American writers and essayists (Joan Didion, Jack Kerouac and Hunter Thompson among them) have presented the state as a lonely, windswept landscape populated by an ever-fresh crop of aimless last-chancers, arriving each day from other places in search of they-know-not-what, and never finding it.
So the combination in one book of California and “true crime” can really bring you down. A new one, California's Deadliest Women: Dangerous Dames and Murderous Moms by Sacramento-based David Kulczyk and illustrator Olaf Jens, paints a very bleak picture of a spread-out spiritual desert in which rootless, often drug-addicted people who, as the author says, “never had a chance in life” ultimately slip into criminality and, perhaps inevitably, become murderers. Reading (or wading) through these 28 harsh case histories of women who killed, you may end up agreeing with him on that score, despite the raw and horrific nature of the murders.
Not everyone here was subjected to a deprived childhood, however. The weirdness of a survey like this is enhanced by the fact that so many of the women here were living comfortable, normal-to-bland lives before they exploded into violence — bourgeois housewives with a hidden and serious screw loose.
“Women have been called the ‘gentler sex,’ and for the most part, this is true,” Kulczyk writes, “so when a female does kill, it shocks us.” Also true. (Recall Myra Hindley, a 19-year-old English girl who with her boyfriend kidnapped, killed and buried several young children, just for thrills. Yup, shocking.) It might sound old-schoolish, but it’s still more of a head-scratcher to read about a seemingly cheerful, middle-class housewife, like the aforementioned suburbanite Dana Sue Gray, going out on a murder spree strangling old ladies so she could steal their credit cards and shop, than it is to read about yet another oafish, hairy, brutish male animal committing (yawn) yet another (snore) murder.
The author’s candor in the book’s introduction makes for some amusing reading:
“I wanted to capture the worst of the worst, the sickest of the sickos … the most senseless, insane, idiotic, selfish murders committed by a female in California that I could find,” Kulczyk writes (with obvious relish), opining that his subjects “do not have a single redeeming attribute among them.” I won’t go all PC on him here; he may be right. “There are few heroes in this book and no happy endings,” Kulczyk assures us. “These cases are so bizarre, so puzzling, so corrupt, so disgusting, so gory, so inhumane and so despicable, you will never forget them. … In these chapters you will read about women without conscience, without mercy.” And so we learn about heartless con artists, like Laren Sims.
“Grifters fascinate us,” Kulczyk exults, slathering relish onto his account of Sims’ horrible-and-horrible-er life and career. “The smart grifters have their own cults or religions, but the best grifters are the ones you never hear about.” (I like that “best” part.) The mind boggles and the head shakes reading about the petty cons, scams and lies of a woman who had 30 aliases, a rap sheet of petty crimes more than 100 pages long, who destroyed her husband’s business through massive embezzlement and then killed said husband before he got wise to her (this bizarre human hanged herself in jail after she was arrested). Kulczyk must have enjoyed writing lines like this: “Putting someone like Laren Sims in charge of a multimillion-dollar business was akin to a brewery hiring alcoholics to drive their trucks.”
Here are a few more great one-liners from California's Deadliest Women:
“A couple of rental properties can be a good investment, but it won’t make you rich, and neither will killing your boyfriend.”
“The septic pool that was the Brodericks’ relationship completely backed up.”
“She looked like an extra from a Mexican vampire film but was a walking, disease-spreading skank.”
Like any real murder aficionado, Kulczyk has gone in for the ultra-sordid in selecting his cases: From top to bottom, these are extremely cruel, brutal, almost animalistic murders, spurred on by the lowest and slimiest of motives, and Kulczyk does a good job of describing the gory details. The case of killer Rosie Alfaro (from Anaheim in 1990) provides Kulczyk the chance to put down, in a few paragraphs, one of the most raw descriptions of a real-life murder I think I’ve ever read:
“Rosie told her friends she knew of a house only a few blocks away she could easily burglarize to get money for more drugs. Childhood friend April Wallace lived there … with her small child, Autumn. … Rosie knocked on the door of the Wallace apartment and was greeted by Autumn. … Rosie asked to use their restroom. … Little Autumn, an A student who loved to color and create art, went back to cutting out paper dresses. … Using an excuse that she needed help with an eyelash curler, Rosie called out to Autumn. … While Autumn fiddled with the curler, Rosie used a parry knife … to stab the young girl.”
Kulczyk mentions (too briefly) one of the most baffling young murderesses who ever lived: a cute, 19-year-old blond girl living in 1959 in Daly City near San Francisco named Penny Bjorkland (she looked like Sandra Dee). Penny was just plain nuts. She carried a knife to work every day, and one beautiful Bay Area morning drove out to a windswept hillside to see a local landscape gardener she knew named August Norry; without a pause, she pulled a revolver out and shot him 16 times. “I had the overpowering urge to shoot him. … That was the reason. There was no other.” Bjorkland told incredulous police that she felt “relieved” after the shooting.
(A little background here for Penny Bjorkland enthusiasts: Bay Area writer Bob Calhoun recently uncovered the fact that Bjorkland had met and given her number to Norry a week before the killing, despite knowing he was recently married, and he never called her. It’s still pretty friggin’ weird, of course, no matter what. Calhoun also writes that Norry yelled “You stupid bitch!” as Bjorkland was shooting him.)
Amazingly, there was a very similar case here in 1960, in the San Fernando Valley, when another teenage girl walked out her front door, approached a gardener working at the house next door and shot him. (This obscure case has never been immortalized in a book.)
Here there are many cases of troubled women pushed over the edge of sanity by maladies such as post-partum depression, which, in certain sad cases, has resulted in infanticide:
“Eleven-year-old Chloe Davis woke to a commotion on April 4, 1940. As she stepped out of her bedroom and into the hallway of her home at 1211 West 58th Place in South Los Angeles, she was struck across the head with a hammer. Looking up, she saw her crazed and bloodied mother, Lolita Davis, swinging a hammer. Chloe wrestled the hammer away, but then Lolita tried to light Chloe’s hair on fire. When that did not work, she lit her own hair and nightgown on fire.” Turns out, the mother had just killed her three other children, to save them from demons. “Lolita asked Chloe to kill her with a hammer.” And so it goes on (people who say “there were no good old days” do have a point).
Another thread running through this book is jealousy, and especially for Angelenos, the most fascinating case here may be the incredible story of LAPD detective Stephanie Lazarus, a brilliant investigator with the department’s art theft detail and a high-profile media rep for the LAPD. Lazarus ended up being suspected by her fellow officers (correctly, as it turned out) of having committed the 1986 murder of a Valley woman, Sherrie Rae Rasmussen, who had just recently married Lazarus’ ex-boyfriend. Taking a fresh look at cold case files, the detectives were amazed to uncover the fact that one of their own had once been considered a suspect in a burglary-turned-murder 23 years earlier. “The sloppiness of the 1986 investigation stunned the crew. … To make matters even more fraught, that suspect, now a highly decorated detective, had an office just down the hall from theirs.” Kulczyk devotes six pages to this case (Lazarus’ surprise LAPD interrogations by her fellow detectives are on YouTube and are compelling as heck), but this highlights the frustrating brevity of this book: More breathing space for in-depth details would have been nice.
Kulczyk doesn’t express an opinion pro or con about California’s lack of a “real” death penalty, but he does describe the kind of life his killers are now doomed to live out in prison: “They will never know freedom again. Their lives will be sullen and gray until they die. They will live frozen in time, seeing the latest technical developments on television in the rec room.”
True-crime fans might prefer more old-time cases in a book of this type (Kulczyk doesn’t go in much for murders before 1960), but that is a matter of taste. His contrarian opinion, expressed herein, that the notorious prostitute-turned-killer Barbara Graham, one of the few women ever executed in California (for the vicious killing in 1953 of an old widow in Burbank) was innocent, is another matter, and dubious to say the least (read John Gilmore’s scorching account of Graham’s slimy life and crimes in his book L.A. Despair).
The 1980s were arguably the golden age of the “true-crime anthology,” usually a thick and hefty collection of the “best,” most colorful crimes, formatted as a type of encyclopedia (remember Jay Robert Nash’s best-seller from 1976, Bloodletters and Badmen). Personally, I miss those books. Kulczyk’s is a short “miniaturist” take on the format, but still a very hardcore compendium of what the publisher describes as “pure trashy fun.”
It’s a good, horrific read. Just don’t dip into it too soon after, say, eating.