When you investigate the life of a rapist based on a decades-old case file, you don't expect to be confronted by the rapist's family member. Yet that is exactly what happened April 11, when author Joel Engel read from his new book, L.A. '56: A Devil in the City of Angels, at Book Soup on the Sunset Strip.
The book tells the story of Willie Roscoe Fields, a serial rapist who terrorized countless women in the summer of 1956. A middle-aged woman in the third row asks Engel how he came up with the book's subtitle. “Did you really think he was a 'devil'?” she says. The question hangs over the room for a moment.
Engel knows that the woman asking the question is the rapist's daughter. He looks uncomfortable. His editors in New York suggested the subtitle, he says. “The 'devil' refers to the crimes and not the criminal,” he adds.
In 1990, when Engel went hunting for a juicy tale, he netted a doozy from Danny Galindo. A suave former detective and one of the first Mexican-Americans in the Los Angeles Police Department, Galindo fought racism and corruption in his struggle to catch Fields and exonerate Todd Roark, the black ex-cop who had been arrested for his crimes.
Even though Roark was officially cleared before his case went to trial, the full story was never covered by L.A.'s mainstream newspapers. Roark spent the rest of his life in fear of retaliation, hiding out in Fresno.
In fact, until two years ago, when Engel contacted Roark's daughter, Teri Denise, she believed her father had been a serial rapist. Her mother had been bitter that Todd Roark had cheated on her while she was pregnant — and conveniently omitted Roark's exoneration from her version of the story.
Teri Denise's younger half-sister, Toni, was never told that her father was a rapist. But her mother did try to convince Toni that he was a corrupt cop, despite Toni's belief that the father she saw only infrequently was a good man. Before Todd Roark died in 1978, he gave Toni a slip of paper with Detective Galindo's name on it, hoping he would set the record straight, but Toni misplaced it.
At the Book Soup reading, Toni Roark sits next to the real rapist's daughter.
“I had a hard time concentrating when I looked down and saw the two women sitting next to each other,” author Engel says a few days later. “There were times I looked down and my hand was shaking.”
After meeting at the reading, the two women discover they have more in common than their shared elation at Engel's long-overdue revelations. Both were asked to drop out of college by their families; both are now divorced and fiercely independent; both have complicated relationships with their slightly older half-sisters.
Engel's page-turner unearthed a variety of secrets, and some relatives of both Roark and Fields would prefer to see those skeletons pushed back into the closet. The two daughters, however, view Engel as a savior, a beacon of honesty in lives otherwise haunted by unanswered questions and murky facts.
The convicted rapist's daughter, whom the Weekly is identifying only as Linda, grew up in New Orleans' 7th Ward, raised primarily by nuns and her Creole maternal grandparents, who often passed for white. Linda's father left when she was a baby, and her mother's family worked hard to conceal not only his atrocious crimes but also his entire existence. Linda's mother actually claimed, absurdly, that Linda had the same father as her older half-sister, even though Linda's sister is redheaded and fair, while Linda and her mother are dark.
Still, even questions about Linda's supposed father often went unanswered. “Go get me two aspirin!” Linda's mother would say. “This girl is asking me questions like this again!”
Now 69, Linda didn't learn about Fields until she was 29 — and then, she was given only shards of the real story.
“[My mom] went out to a county fair or something like that, hooked up with my dad, and she says to this day that he raped her. But she liked it. Go figure. That's how I was conceived,” Linda says with nervous laughter. Fields stayed with Linda's mother for about a year and a half. The only other scrap her mother would share about Fields was that he had been strikingly handsome.
Then, this spring, a 2 a.m. Google search made on a whim revealed L.A. '56. Shocked, Linda left a voicemail at Book Soup in an attempt to get in touch with Engel.
When Engel initially heard that his villain's daughter had called, he thought, “Oh no, is my life in danger?” But the two soon were exchanging information. When Linda and Engel finally meet face to face, about an hour before the Book Soup reading begins, they embrace.
After Engel finishes his reading, he goes to a back room to sign books and Toni and Linda head across the street for a cup of coffee.
“I remember my dad had an expletive for your dad,” says Toni, 55. “I don't remember what it was.”
Linda giggles. Her therapist tells her she handles stress with laughter, she confides later.
“Was it something like whoremonger?” she asks.
Now Toni, an ordained minister, is blushing and laughing as well. “Something like that …” she says.
“You look a lot like how I pictured your dad,” Toni tells Linda.
“Really? People say I look just like him,” Linda says. She has her father's big build and good looks; she won quite a few beauty pageants back in Louisiana.
“You remind me of my sister as well,” Toni says, and goes on to compare the instant connection she felt with Teri Denise, when they met as young adults, to the crackling affinity between her and Linda.
As it grows late, Linda speculates aloud on what might have motivated her father's crimes. Why did he assume that every woman he met wanted to have sex with him, deep down, even if he had to hold a gun to their heads? Could it be because he never made it past the seventh grade? Or did his depravity somehow have its origins on the plantation?
“That's what they told the slaves to do, right? Father more kids for master, so master could be rich,” she says, and Toni nods in agreement. “Not that I forgive anything that he did,” Linda continues, “but I see where it came from.”
Meanwhile, Linda says her mother remains cranky about the fact that her daughter has finally discovered the truth. “I swept that under the rug for it to stay there,” Linda quotes her as saying. “I don't know why you want to sweep it up again.”
“I said, 'I didn't do it,' ” Linda tells Toni. “ 'Joel Engel did it.' ”
Toni shakes her head and tsk-tsks. “Secrets, secrets, secrets,” she says.
Linda laughs again. “That's the American way,” she says.