Category Archives: murder

Dead Boys and Dumb Questions

7099864_128646597515I can’t remember what was written in the tiny notebook, though I do remember the handwriting: large, child-like, looping letters in slightly faded pencil, mostly cursive.

I stood in the dim, cobwebby Chicago basement with my friend Mamie, gently…respectfully…turning the pages of the palm-sized pad of paper she had just handed me.

“When the  men took Bobo,” she said, “this was left behind on the dresser at his Uncle Mose’s house.”

I also remember thinking, “why isn’t this in a museum somewhere?”

emmett_tillThere were other artifacts in that basement:  Bobo’s bicycle, dusty but in mint condition, and  a 1950’s television set from an old black and white photo I’d seen with the boy standing in front of it.  This was the same television set that, over 40 years ago, had been broadcasting an episode of I Love Lucy when reports of the boy’s kidnapping and murder had interrupted the show.

Fascinated, I could have spent hours more in that melancholy basement time-capsule, but a delicious smell was wafting down from the tiny kitchen, and Mamie suddenly announced,

“Seems like Gene’s almost done with that catfish.”

I closed the notebook and handed it back to her – gingerly…almost reverentially – then followed her up the stairs, which she climbed nimbly despite her considerable size and advanced years.

Over a supper of fried catfish (with Louisiana Hot Sauce, which Mamie insisted I try) and collard greens, I found myself wanting to ask more questions about her dead son, but restrained myself. Instead, we talked about more mundane topics: southern style cooking, her husband Gene’s starting-to-fail-health, how different the Chicago weather was from the weather in my hometown, Los Angeles. Tomorrow would be the day for questions, when my camera crew would arrive and I’d begin my interview with her. Tomorrow, I’d ask all the questions that still haunted me about her only son, fourteen-year-old Emmett…nicknamed Bobo…who had traveled from Chicago in 1955 to visit his cousins in rural Money, Mississippi, and had returned in a wooden box, his body tortured and disfigured beyond all recognition.

Mamie and I had been telephone friends since 1992. I’d found her name in the Chicago telephone directory after watching the PBS civil rights documentary series, “Eyes on the Prize,” and had been deeply touched by her story. Dialing her number from my small office in Century City, I’d been surprised when she answered the phone.

“Hello?” she’d said, in a lovely voice.

“Hello,” I had stammered. “Is this Mamie Till-Mobley? You don’t know me. My name is Andy and I just watched “Eyes on the Prize” and I wanted to tell you how much your story touched me.”

I immediately felt ridiculous. Some stranger…some white stranger…calling her out of the blue and reminding her that her fourteen-year-old son had been lynched and tortured and murdered almost forty years ago, simply for having (allegedly) wolf-whistled at a white woman.

I waited for her to hang up. I expected her to say, “how did you get my number?”

Instead, she said sweetly: “Well, that was very nice of you. Tell me your name again, honey?”

mlk480dotearthWe talked a little bit about Emmett, we talked a bit about her life, her work with The Emmett Till Players, which over the years had taught hundreds of young black children the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King. We also talked a little about my life: I was twenty-seven years old, and I knew very little about the state of race relations in the United States. What little I did already know was from that PBS documentary, which had shocked me to tears with its black and white images of dogs and fire hoses being used on people in the South. I’m ashamed to say that I’d really had only a scant idea that this savagery had gone on, and so recently. I’d either missed that lesson entirely in grade school or high school, or I just hadn’t paid attention. Either way, Mamie was incredibly patient with me and my great, yawing pit of ignorance, answering questions that, at the time, seemed logical, but now make me cringe with embarrassment.

“Did they really have separate drinking fountains for black people and white people…I mean, like, really?”

Even typing that remembered, incredibly dumb question makes me blush red with shame. Ugh. How could I know so little about all this? Of course, I knew blacks had, and sometimes still were, treated abysmally, I wasn’t a total idiot. I’d watched every episode of Roots. I’d heard people throw the “N” word around. But back then, it had never seemed real to me, having never actually known a black person when I was growing up in my all-white suburb in California’s Central Valley. It was all just stuff in the history books, like the Pilgrims and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Stuff that happened a long time ago and was done and finished for the most part. It was history.

Mamie was patient, though, and after we hung up I resolved to learn more. And I did. Periodically, I’d phone her with questions on any number of topics: Rosa Parks. Brown Vs. Board of Education. The SCLC.  She was always kind, her sweet-honeyed voice telling me what she knew of these things – and she knew much – and helping nurture the seed of indignation that Eyes on The Prize had planted in me.

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This was before the internet, and I had to order a copy of Jet Magazine from a rare books and magazine company to view the photos of Emmett’s mangled corpse, a much-younger Mamie standing beside the open coffin, her face contorted with pain. We discussed the open coffin itself: her decision to defy the state of Mississippi and their edict that the box containing her son’s remains not be opened. Open it she did, and when she saw what had been done to her only son, she decided that the world needed to see “what hate looks like.”  Thousands of people viewed Emmett’s terrifyingly damaged remains (he’d been tortured, shot in the head, tied to a heavy piece of machinery and dumped in the Mississippi river, where it had stayed for days before being discovered.)  Photos were taken and published in the aforementioned Jet Magazine, and the resulting national outrage is credited by many as being among the earliest galvanizing moments of the Civil Rights Movement, pre-dating even Rosa Parks’ courageous stand by several months.

Emmett-Till-1In 1994, I left ABC Productions and began working as Director of Global Production for a massive documentary project, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Founded by Steven Spielberg in the wake of Schindler’s List, the Foundation’s mission was to record full-length interviews with survivors of the nazi Holocaust.  Though it had been a bit of  a culture shock transitioning from a gig where the most emotional requirement might be viewing dailies of the current episode of “My So -Called Life” to one in which every single interview (and we conducted almost 50,000 of them) could instigate an emotional breakdown, I loved the work. I felt like I was contributing to something that mattered.  Our  interview subjects were initially Jewish survivors, but almost immediately grew to include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others persecuted by Hitler’s army of hate.

Mamie Till, supported by friends, at Emmett Tills funeral_jpgIt was while doing this work that I pitched the idea of interviewing my friend Mamie, as an example of how the cutting-edge protocols for conducting these interviews could be utilized by other groups seeking to document their history.  My executive Producers, James Moll and June Beallor….amazing people, both….agreed to the idea, and before I traveled to Chicago I began doing further research on Emmett’s case.

When I arrived at Mamie and Gene’s house on Wabash Avenue in Chicago, I was nervous.

I shouldn’t have been: Mamie and Gene made me feel at home, the same warmth I’d known on the phone for six years was even warmer in person.

We spent the day together, reviewing artifacts of that dark time in 1955 that would be videotaped for posterity following the next day’s interview.

The interview itself went on for hours, Mamie patiently and bravely answering questions with a level of detail that required little of me in the probing department. She was eloquent, she was dignified, even when I saw tears begin to well up in her eyes when we reached the part of the interview about Emmett’s murder. She’d spoken about this for the last forty years, determined to keep his memory alive, but the pain of her recall was still seemed deep and immediate, as though it had happened only yesterday. She described in minute detail the arrival of the box containing her son’s body: the room, the emotions, the smell.

I returned to Los Angeles the following day, Emmett’s notebook safely tucked away in my briefcase. The small artifact was on the verge of decay, and Mamie had asked me if there was any way to preserve it. I told her the first thing that needed to be done was to have it digitally scanned, and she insisted I take it back with me and do so. It felt strange, carrying with me this small notebook that had been held by the hand of young boy, so long ago, on the very day he was brutalized and killed, simply for being black and for having the audacity to whistle at a white woman (if, in fact, that had actually happened.)

206021_2222327952805_7885367_nI saw Mamie only once after that, when she and Gene…and a cadre of her young Emmett Till Players…came to Los Angeles for some event and stopped by Universal Studios to tour the Shoah Foundation. We spoke on the phone a few more times before my addiction to crystal meth kicked in and I lost touch with her…with everything, and everyone, actually. She passed away in 2003, but I was so far gone down the rabbit hole of substance abuse that I didn’t even find out she had died until sometime in 2005.

She never saw justice for her son’s murder…the all-white, all-male southern jury had deliberated for slightly more than an hour (One juror said, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long”) before acquitting the proudly racist pair of Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam of  murder. A few months later, in an interview with Look Magazine, the pair openly admitted to…bragged about, even…murdering the young boy.

In addition to the stupid questions I remember asking Mamie, I also remember some incredibly ignorant statements. One of which stands out in my mind today:

It must make you feel good to know that you…and Emmett…played a part in making the world a better place today, knowing that what happened to Emmett couldn’t happen now.”

I remember, clear as day, the look that clouded her eyes, magnified behind her big glasses, as she responded, carefully, skillfully avoiding the condescension that oblivious comment deserved:

“Things are better. But  what happened to my boy still happens, honey. Don’t forget that.”

I haven’t. And today, with the decision that just came down in Ferguson, I was reminded yet again.

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Ghosts of Los Angeles: The Hillside Stranglers

“I have never experienced another human being. I have experienced my impressions of them.” – Author Robert Anton Wilson.

7d_4It is one of the many sad by-products of human nature: the more brutal and prolific a killer is, the more likely he or she is to be enshrined in infamy, bestowed with awe/fear-inspiring nicknames, and garner legions of morbid, gore-crazy disciples. The names Charles Manson, The Night Stalker, Jack the Ripper and The Green River Killer are forever enshrined in our lexicon.  Conversely, only a few victim’s names are easily recalled (Sharon Tate, for example), while those of Kristina Weckler, Elizabeth Stride, Kelly Ware and countless others are remembered only by grieving family members, police officers intimately involved with the case, or hardcore true-crime buffs with particularly muscular memories.

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our former home in the Chevy Chase Estates

In 1998, my partner and I had just purchased a home in the Chevy Chase Estates in Glendale.  I had recently become interested in the true crime genre, and was voraciously devouring Darcy O’Brien’s “The Hillside Stranglers,” a compelling account of the brutal, late-70’s murder rampage by Los Angeles cousins Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi that terrorized the city and held the world in its thrall.  It was extremely disconcerting, some thirty-odd pages into the book, to read that the third victim of the depraved pair had been discovered only yards from the house into which we’d just moved.

Overcome by morbid curiosity, paperback in hand, I walked down the front pathway of our hilltop home and made my way up Chevy Chase Drive, until I located the spot described in the book.  Referring to the paperback in my hand, I read O’Brien’s words:

Between the golf course fence and the road lay a deep drainage ditch, then a steep embankment, then a metal guard rail about three feet high.  They swung the body out over the guard rail, trying to heave it into the ditch. But she landed heavily and rolled with a rustling of leaves down the embankment about fifteen feet and came to rest against an invisible guy wire.”

There was the guard rail. And there was the wire with the steel guard at its base, some twenty years later, still rising out of the leaf-covered ravine.  This was, beyond a doubt, the right place.  Having once visited Auschwitz, and having stood on the same platform that so many unfortunates – including several of my friends – had poured onto from countless railroad cars, I recognized the feeling I was experiencing now: the almost tangible sense of sadness associated with being in a place where something horrible had once happened.

I stared at the spot for several minutes before heading back to my house to continue reading, where I soon learned that the Los Angeles girl who had lived 21 years of hopes, frustrations and dreams – before that night she was kidnapped, tortured, killed and dropped on this hillside – had been named Lissa Kastin.

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Lissa Kastin, widely-circulated victim photo

The book offered a grainy, black and white photo of Lissa and it was, to be blunt, unflattering. A three-quarter view of a face that looked too round and too large-nosed to ever be called pretty was the only image presented of this young woman.  Somehow, the homeliness of the photo made her tragic ending seem even more pathetic.  The description of her final hours…both horrific and nauseating…saddened me deeply.  Reading of her final torment while less than a mile away from where she had been tortured and strangled, and only yards from her interim resting place, removed the comforting filter of distance usually present when reading about the ugliness of murder.

“From time to time as they drove towards Glendale, Lissa Kastin continued to protest, and when at last Bianchi pulled into Angelo’s driveway and cut the motor, she refused to get out of the car. But Bianchi coaxed her into the house, suggesting that she had no choice, which she did not.” – excerpt from The Hillside Stranglers, by Darcy O’Brien

The book offered little detail on her life: she worked at a restaurant called The Healthfaire on Vine near Hollywood Blvd., she lived in an apartment on Argyle near Dix street; she was health-conscious and wanted, like so many other 21 year-old Angelenos, to break into show business.   I barely knew this girl, yet I felt strangely connected to her. Perhaps it was because we had both ended up, through quirks of circumstance, in the hills of Chevy Chase Estates, where my burgeoning meth addiction had already, even in its infancy, brought me into contact numerous times with the dark underbelly of Los Angeles.  Or perhaps it was just a vague sympathy I felt for the girl in that unattractive photo. Whatever the reason, I found myself on the internet, researching everything I could find out about her.  Aside from a few stories in the LA Times that noted that she and several other victims had lived in or near Hollywood, there was very little information.  I also noted that in almost all of what little did exist, her name had been spelled incorrectly, as Lisa Kastin. In fact, even in the written indictment of Angelo Buono for the murders of ten young women her name had been spelled wrong, adding for posterity yet another layer of indignity to the brutal conclusion of Lissa’s life.777c331ea62badd02a7ea16fcd1a16ff

Years later, long after we had sold the big house on the hill and moved away from the conservative surroundings of Glendale and into our current home in the more bohemian climes of Mount Washington near downtown LA, I continued to think occasionally of the pudgy, moon-faced, and sadly doomed Lissa Kastin. Once, having told another true-crime aficionado about having lived at the place where the third victim had been discovered, she screwed up her face, thought for a moment, and then replied: “Wasn’t that the ugly girl?”  That sickened me a bit, and I bizarrely began to argue in defense of this person I’d never met.  However, with little evidence to counter my friend’s assessment, I realized that Lissa Kastin would always be regarded by true crime fans as the Unattractive Victim of The Hillside Stranglers. This was the girl, according to  O’Brien’s book, with the unshaven legs, the girl whose killers had deemed too unattractive for their usual modus operandi and so had devised more horrific means of violation. To me, it seemed like the ultimate heaping of insult upon the ultimate injury. Perhaps it was this, the continued degradation of this young woman even after death and my sympathy for her,  that kept her in my thoughts long after I’d forgotten details of other crime victims from the pages of other true crime books.

“From that point on the procedure was the same as with Judy Miller, except that Angelo worried that this girl might fight, so he kept her handcuffed and cut off her clothes with a big pair of upholstery scissors. Naked, she appealed to neither cousin. Angelo especially was put off by her unshaven legs and derided her as ‘some kind of health nut.'”  – excerpt, The Hillside Stranglers by Darcy O’Brien

Lissa Kastin (center) with fellow “L.A. Knockers” dance troupe members.

Not long ago, having watched an abysmal film version of the Strangler story, I googled her name for the first time in years and discovered that a second photo of Lissa Kastin had been introduced to the internet.  The difference between the grainy, black and white photo circulated after the crime and this one was enormous. This had been no ugly girl. While perhaps not a great beauty,  the photo that I found showed her in full, crisp, color: standing by a brick storefront on Melrose Avenue flanked by two friends, and it would be no great stretch to describe her as “cute.”  They are all wearing t-shirts that read “L.A. Knockers,” the name of the modern pop-dance troupe she had belonged to.  She looks off into the distance, a cascade of dark curls falling over her shoulders.  There was so much life in this photo, and for the first time, I felt like I was seeing the real Lissa Kastin.

Further googling lead me to a Youtube video of a late 70’s performance by the L.A. Knockers.  They were a campy, not overly polished but highly enthusiastic and clearly committed troupe of young women having a balls-out good time. It was strange – almost shocking considering the impressions I had gleaned of Lissa Kastin over the years –  to imagine her strutting onstage with them.  Yet, clearly, not only had she danced with them, but the L.A. Knocker’s blog states that she was among the founding members. This girl, who has been in and out of my thoughts for years, had just undergone a radical image transformation in the space of five minutes.  This girl, who was already dead for more than ten years before I even moved to Los Angeles, and who I have been fascinated by despite knowing so little about, was suddenly, if only momentarily, alive again, smiling and dancing to 70’s disco music.  All former impressions of this girl whose body had ended up near my front lawn were wiped away.

ishot-1345231I found myself annoyed that so much detail regarding the lives and personalities of her killers was part of the public record, while so little effort had been taken to accurately convey even a portion of the joyful personality I was seeing in this one new photo. I was able to imagine her now not as the black-and-white, tragic sad girl, but as a flesh and blood, full-color human being. Even if this new perception was based only on a single photo and therefore possibly a false perception, It mattered only to me that it was a better, and probably more accurate fiction than the one the media had led me to believe about this girl I’d never met, yet somehow cared about.

It continues to dismay me that the mention of the names “Hillside Strangler” or even Bianchi and Buono will elicit recognition from anyone who is old enough to remember those years.  The name Lissa Kastin, however, will usually draw a blank stare.   And although I suspect few will really care, if the subject ever comes up again I will be sure to say that she was cute, in a unique way. I’ll tell them that she was a dancer, and I’ll do whatever small part I can to humanize this young woman – who had family and friends who loved and cared about her – and who has been reduced by news accounts to a statistic and by true crime literature to an unattractive girl who had the misfortune to not be aesthetically pleasing to the monsters who raped and killed her.

As someone who spent years saddened by – yet, blindly and stupidly believing – the unflattering characterizations of this young woman, it’s the very least I can do.  And I when I look at new photographs of victims that are found on the pages of the LA Times on an almost daily basis – like little newsprint ghosts – I will remind myself that any impression I glean from them is only a captured split-second of a full and hopefully rich life that has been wiped away forever.

Forward to the 4:27 mark to watch Lissa Kastin performing with Los Angeles-based avant-garde dance troupe “L.A. Knockers.”  She’s the girl on the far left.

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