High Life, Death : Investigation of Costa Mesa Murder Uncovers Trail of Sex, Drugs, Deceit
It was about a quarter to midnight on Aug. 2, 1983, when tall, blond, handsome, 37-year-old Jeffrey Molloy Parker was shot to death in cold blood on the front porch of his mother’s Costa Mesa home.
Police felt it could be a contract killing. Some of Parker’s friends thought it was a mob hit.
Whatever it may have been, Parker’s murder has become the focal point of a saga of death and drugs, sex and deceit. Perhaps, a prosecutor suggests, even revenge.
But this mystery goes beyond Parker’s life and death. It encompasses not one but two unsolved homicides and reaches from the parlors of proper San Francisco families to fast times in nightclubs on Los Angeles’ Westside.
It features a cast of three leading characters, who outwardly appeared to abe models of success and propriety, but who each allegedly had another, wildly dangerous side.
Ultimately this spelled doom for two of them. The third was in court Friday for a hearing to determine whether he should be tried for murder.
A few weeks after Parker’s mother found her son on her porch, shot in the chest and head, Costa Mesa police shelved their investigation. The case lay dormant for nearly four years. But on April 29, after being indicted for murder, a San Francisco accountant named Richard Dale Wilson turned himself in to Orange County authorities.
The case against Wilson is based primarily on the testimony of his brother and brother-in-law, who said that he told them of the killings in 1983, but that they didn’t believe him. Wilson has pleaded innocent. His defense attorney maintains that the two men have a bitter, longstanding dislike of Wilson and are lying. The attorney says Parker could have been killed by some of his enemies in the drug world.
Parker and Wilson had a common bond. They both knew Joan McShane Mills.
Wilson and Mills had been living together for three or four years and in 1983 were planning to marry, Wilson said in a recent interview.
Wilson, now 46, is a 1963 graduate of San Jose State University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance. He had joined an accounting firm in San Francisco, where he met his future business partner, Donald Biddle.
Together they opened their own accounting firm in San Francisco in the early ‘70s--"a small practice, a living, nothing spectacular,” says Biddle. He recalled that Wilson met Mills in the mid-'70s.
Joan McShane Mills came from a middle-class, Catholic family, described by a friend as “extremely conservative.” But, one family source said, she apparently had concealed from her relatives a large portion of her life.
“What I gathered was, the family has this portrait of her,” said A.J. McShane, Mills’ sister-in-law. “She didn’t want the family to know another side of her--the side of cocaine, partying, going off with strange men. She always believed in an open marriage. She was really free-spirited, but she was secretive when it came to the family.”
At the time of her death on Saturday, April 30, 1983, Mills, 33, owned an apparel import business in San Francisco with her friend Anita Lococo. On Friday, April 19, 1983, the two women flew to Los Angeles to “complete an overseas clothing industry deal.”
After dinner that night with a business associate, the two women went to the Hard Rock Cafe. They wound up at the table of a stranger, Jeffrey Parker.
Lococo said Parker apparently was attracted by Mills’ “very theatrical” way of talking. Parker told the women the club next door was a good place to dance and suggested he would meet them there later. He did.
So began a long night of drinking, drugs and partying.
Lococo later told police they each had about 10 drinks and smoked a marijuana cigarette. Parker gave them a small vial of cocaine that they took to the lavatory and used. It was so powerful, Lococo said, that it fogged her memory for part of the evening.
Went to Mills’ Room
The three wound up at a post-midnight party in the apartment of a Beverly Hills attorney whom Parker knew. Eventually, Parker and Mills left and Lococo remained behind, Lococo told police.
Parker took Mills to her room at the Beverly Crest Hotel.
At 5:22 on Saturday morning, April 30, 1983, Beverly Hills paramedics were called to Room L-28. They found Mills nude and lifeless, lying on a mattress that had slid or been pulled onto the floor. A mask from an oxygen bottle was over her face.
Sitting on her abdomen was shirtless Jeffrey Parker. He was pressing forward and down on her chest “using extreme pressure,” paramedics reported.
“He was doing some pretty frantic, deep compressions,” recalled Christopher Giatras, one of the paramedics first at the scene. “They were not the depth of compressions we’re taught--1 1/2 to 2 inches deep . . . He was using his whole upper body, rocking back and forth, much too deeply. You find that a lot in people who are in a panic state. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Mills’ heart was not beating and paramedics could not restart it. She was rushed to UCLA Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead at 6:57 a.m.
Police arrived at the hotel. A Fire Department captain mentioned that there was something suspicious. The woman’s face was bruised, he said.
Parker gave police varying accounts of what had happened.
First, he said that back in Mills’ hotel room the two had had “several sexual relations,” then slept “a couple of hours,” then engaged in sex again. Then she collapsed, Parker said.
In another discussion with police, Parker said he and Mills had not engaged in sex and that she had collapsed very soon after they arrived. In one version he revived her, but she collapsed again. In another, she collapsed once and never revived.
Both of them were “pretty drunk,” Parker told police.
People in rooms above and beside Mills’ room told police they heard thumping and banging and a man saying “Come on, baby” several times.
Jeffrey Molloy Parker was arrested on suspicion of murder.
The next day, an autopsy revealed the extent of the battering Mills had received.
Her right wrist, left arm, right side, chest, eyes and inner lips were bruised. Her eyes were swollen shut. Twelve of her ribs were broken, her lungs were collapsed and her liver and other internal organs were lacerated. Tests of her blood revealed cocaine and alcohol.
A Los Angeles County deputy medical examiner, Dr. George E. Bolduc, declared the cause of death to be “blunt force injuries to her chest and abdomen,” but concluded that they “could have been caused by poorly administered CPR.”
Parker had said he’d tried to slap Mills into consciousness, and Bolduc concluded that the face bruises could have been caused by “extremely hard” slaps.
“Some of the circumstances and the victim’s death appear strange, but there is not enough evidence at this time to disprove the suspect’s story,” concluded the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, which decided, at least for the time, not to issue a murder complaint against Parker.
The sordid details of Joan McShane Mills’ death shocked her conservative family and friends in San Francisco.
McShane, Mills’ sister-in-law, said none of Mills’ family--two sisters and two brothers, one of them a Catholic priest--knew of her cocaine use or even of her living with Wilson. She quoted one sister as saying she had not even known Mills had divorced her husband, which had occurred four years earlier.
Upset that Parker had not been charged with murder, the family hired an attorney, former San Francisco police officer William Murphy, to arrange a private autopsy and to apply pressure on Southern California authorities.
“The first step was to go . . . and talk to this fellow Wilson,” said Murphy. “Wilson was taking charge of the body. He wanted it cremated immediately and the family was intimidated by him.”
Murphy, who told police he was threatened, described his encounter with Wilson this way:
“Six or seven of the family went with me . . . to persuade him that he was not related by blood or marriage to Joan Mills and that he had no jurisdiction over the disposal of the remains and the family wanted a traditional Catholic burial.
“All hell broke loose. He made obscene, violent epithets at the sister. When I called his attention to the fact that he was out of line, he attacked me--grabbed me by the neck and started to throttle me.
“I thumped him a couple of times and knocked him against the wall, and suddenly the door burst open, and a big, tall guy--at least 6-3--comes in. . . .”
Wilson’s attorneys say, however, that it was Murphy who first became belligerent.
“The family was very upset with Dick for several reasons,” said Wilson’s lawyer, Joel W. Baruch. “They were upset about his influence over her, about the $250,000 life insurance policy she took out with him as beneficiary, not them. Friends were saying things in the paper about her that weren’t true, and naturally emotions were running high.”
Murphy, on behalf of the Mills family, said he decided to take some precautions.
Through an acquaintence, George Steil, chief of security for San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, Murphy hired bodyguards.
One of them, Lance Luke, recalled the bizarre circumstances that surrounded the burial in Colma, just outside San Francisco.
“We were securing the place and hiding the body because there was a firm belief (that someone was) going to go ahead and take the body--try to keep the body away from the second autopsy,” Luke said.
The bodyguards exchanged stares eye-to-eye with Wilson and another man, whom they dubbed “Genghis Khan” because of his large size and imposing demeanor. But there was no incident.
“We were pretty sure he was coming back for the body later that evening,” Luke said. Genghis Kahn did return about 1:30 or 2 a.m. after the wake.
According to Luke, Genghis Kahn went to a bar across the street from the mortuary.
“Genghis Khan kept coming out, watching the place, waiting for people to leave,” Luke said, adding that no attempt was made to steal the body.
Decoy for Casket
Still, as a decoy, an empty casket was driven in one limousine to the cemetery where Mills was to be buried. In another, Mills’ body was taken to a medical examiner for a second autopsy.
In the meantime, Beverly Hills detectives met with J.J. Ferrer, an assistant medical examiner in San Francisco who had been hired by Mills’ family to conduct a second autopsy.
The officers quoted Ferrer as concluding that Mills’ injuries were not “consistent” with misapplied CPR. The internal injuries--lacerations to kidneys, pancreas, liver and adrenal gland--would have required “a great amount of force,” and the “tremendous contusions to both sides of victim’s face (were) not consistent (with) a slapping.”
The detectives also reinterviewed Bolduc, the Los Angeles County deputy medical examiner. Bolduc revised his original opinion.
“The bruising to victim Mills’ face was too extreme to be caused by slapping,” Bolduc now concluded. “It was more consistent with punching to the face. The bruise to her right side could not be explained by anything that the medical personnel did trying to revive the victim.”
During this time, San Francisco was learning another side to the life of Joan Mills, who had grown up in the city and had attended the Catholic schools favored by San Francisco’s elite.
Mills had worked as an executive of various small enterprises, some of which she had formed herself. She had co-authored a book about female executives and had co-founded Roundtable, an organization of women executives in San Francisco.
Illusion of Wealth
But articles in the San Francisco Chronicle declared Mills to be “a master of illusion,” who “acted like she was on top of the world.” She was described as flamboyant, flighty and someone who spent approximately $90,000 in inheritances on expensive clothes, cars and travel to give the illusion of position and wealth.
Mills once rented furs and expensive clothing to wear when an overseas friend came to visit, a friend said.
“Joan, in herself, was not wealthy,” said her sister-in-law, McShane. “She only made around $20,000 a year. She gave the impression of being wealthy and famous and a socialite. Most of the money was from the inheritances (from her mother and uncle), and that was quickly gone.”
Revelation of Mills’ cocaine use also shocked the family, McShane said.
“The family didn’t know that, either,” McShane said. “She was very sociable, partly to do with her job. She met many, many people and probably a lot were into cocaine and dealing. It was like she couldn’t back away from it. It was part of the environment. And her being a party girl, she was just into cocaine.”
In a recent interview, however, Wilson said the image of his lover that emerged after her death was grossly inaccurate. He characterized Mills as faithful and “the straightest person I’ve ever known.”
Mills was not the only person whose public face seemed to contrast with an allegedly secret life style.
By now, Jeffrey Parker had been formally charged with Mills’ murder. It was time for his friends to be shocked by news reports.
“This whole thing is amazingly strange,” said one of Parker’s friends. “When I read about the gal (Mills) who died, it almost sounded like a mirror image of Jeff. I mean, she had a bent side, too. At least, that’s how it looked.”
Parker, the only son of a working-class family, worked at a number of jobs, attended USC between 1963 and 1969, majored in political science, joined the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and became a cheerleader.
Importance of USC
“He was extremely proud of the fact that he had gone to SC,” said another close friend, who asked not to be identified. “Even when I met him after college, he had this incredible SC-ness. Some people think it’s great and some consider it a disease.”
Even long after Parker had left USC, “his personal schedule was pretty much scheduled around USC football,” the friend said.
Leonard Levine, a Beverly Hills attorney who roomed with Parker in college and later would be hired to defend him, described Parker as “one of these fun-loving guys who things seemed to come easy to.
“I guess part of me thought he’d never really grown up. He was always a kid at heart and probably always missed the days in college and the fraternity when the only thing important was having a good time. But he was a sweet guy.”
‘Making Big Bucks’
Shortly before Mills’ death, Parker was working as a salesman for Jeffries Banknote Co. in Los Angeles, a printing firm. Those who knew him during those the years thought “he was making the big bucks. He certainly gave that impression,” the friend said.
But news of Parker’s arrest brought out facts most of his friends did not know.
During his six years at USC, Parker completed the equivalent of only two years of schooling. He left before graduating.
“Jeff’s not the type of guy to stay up until 2 in the morning to study for a test,” one friend recalled.
Though “probably one of the brightest, most articulate persons on the staff,” Parker was fired from his job at Jeffries, according to then-sales manager Stan Byrum. Parker refused to do the mundane chores of salesmanship to the extent that he went to the Super Bowl rather than show up at a mandatory sales seminar, he said.
“I terminated him the next day,” Byrum said. “He was absolutely flabbergasted . . . I don’t think anybody’d ever done that to him.”
Most shocking to some friends was the revelation that Parker had a criminal record.
According to his probation report, Parker met a woman at a restaurant in June, 1981, offered her cocaine and drove her to her Los Angeles apartment. Once inside, he offered her more cocaine. When she refused, Parker twisted her arm and tried to force her to take it.
The woman locked herself in the bathroom all night. At daylight, she wrote a distress note with lipstick on paper and dangled it out her bathroom window. A passer-by called police, and officers found Parker outside the apartment waiting for a taxi cab.
Officers reported that after they approached Parker, he sat down on grass. When he got up, a bag containing 23 grams of cocaine was lying there.
Parker pleaded guilty to possession and sale of cocaine. In his letter to the court requesting probation, he said the incident was a misunderstanding.
“I misread her,” Parker wrote, describing himself as “deeply sorry.”
A Lesson Learned
The probation officer characterized Parker as an unsophisticated cocaine user who “apparently had no knowledge of his limits nor how an excess of cocaine might affect his behavior. The lesson of having to draw his limit of cocaine at none at all has been rather heavily learned.”
Parker assured the court: “This kind of incident will not occur in my life again.”
He was granted probation.
Parker was still on probation when he was arrested for Mills’ murder. A briefcase containing cocaine was found in his car trunk.
Gary Fetherstone, now serving a prison sentence for rape, robbery and burglary, was in the jail cell next to Parker’s. They became friends and talked about the Mills case.
In a recent prison interview, Fetherstone said Parker thought he may have panicked and accidentally hurt Mills when trying to resuscitate her.
“He never said per se that he dealt drugs,” Fetherstone said. “All I knew is that he was tied in with some people somehow, because he made a statement to the fact, ‘I can get out of jail on bail anytime I want to. But I don’t want to be obligated to nobody.’ ”
Relatives Raised Bail
Relatives in the Midwest ultimately raised money for Parker’s bail, according to Levine, his attorney.
“When Jeff left, Jeff asked me if something happened to him that I would look into it, and I gave my word I would,” Fetherstone said.
Did Parker think something might happen to him?
“Yes,” Fetherstone said. Parker told him the drugs had been in his possession, but did not belong to him. “Those drugs found in his car were not his drugs . . . Where he got these drugs, I don’t know. All he told me was these drugs didn’t belong to him.”
According to Parker’s attorney, he had no reason to be fearful about the outcome of his trial for Mills’ murder.
“I honestly felt he was innocent of the charge and quite confident we’d prevail,” Levine said. “There was no denying he was involved in cocaine, but that was a separate issue.”
“I’ll never believe that he intentionally hurt this girl,” Levine said. “I think if (Mills’) family hadn’t been pushing it, it would have been ruled accidental death and (Parker would be) prosecuted for possession of drugs.”
After some time people began reporting to police threats made by Mills’ fiance, Richard Dale Wilson.
The Costa Mesa Police Department said in documents filed in Superior Court that Wilson threatened one of Mills’ cousins, telling him that if the family interfered with the funeral “they would be killed.” Police also quoted Mills’ friend, Anita Lococo, as saying Wilson had threatened her.
Costa Mesa police said in 1983 that Wilson also was overheard making threats against Parker. They wouldn’t elaborate.
About 11:45 p.m. on Aug. 2, 1983, 13 1/2 weeks after Mills’ death and a day before he was due in court for a hearing on the murder charge, Parker returned to his mother’s Costa Mesa home, where he also lived, after a visit to his sister’s.
As Parker walked up the driveway, his mother testified, she heard “a couple of pops.”
“I thought, ‘So one of the neighborhood kids still has some fireworks.’ They were just small pops,” she said.
The “pops,” in fact, were two bullets fired into her son. When she opened the front door, he lay unconscious and dying on the porch at her feet.
Costa Mesa police got nowhere in their investigation, and after several weeks, it was shelved.
Nearly four years later, it was reopened.
Last March, Costa Mesa police received an anonymous telephone call. According to defense attorneys, the call was traced to Wilson’s brother-in-law, Robert Clinton Hale of Wilmington, who was brought before the Orange County Grand Jury.
According to transcripts of the grand jury proceedings, Hale said Wilson was staying at his home a few days before Parker’s death. He said that the day before the murder, Wilson told him “he was going to try to kill (Parker).”
A day or two before the killing, Wilson had shown him a large-caliber derringer, a short-barreled, two-shot pistol, Hale said.
According to Hale, Wilson had left his house the night Parker was murdered, presumably to go to San Francisco.
Instead, Wilson returned late that night, saying he wanted to “wash up,” Hale testified. Wilson made a call and said something like “It’s over,” or “I’m finished,” then borrowed Hale’s truck for the drive back to San Francisco, saying his own car was not running well.
About a month later, Hale was summoned to San Francisco by Wilson and taken to the home of an attorney. There, according to Hale’s grand jury testimony, Wilson told the attorney “he (Wilson) killed the guy, and he described how he did it. I mean, he said he shot him. . . .
“He said that he caught him alone and he shot him, and he shot him twice, and that he screamed . . . I can’t recall anything else he said.”
Why didn’t Hale call police at that time?
‘Can’t Believe It’
“I really wasn’t sure he did it,” Hale told the grand jury. “I’m still not. I just can’t believe it.”
In other testimony before the grand jury, Okel Wilson of Modesto described his younger brother Richard as being “addicted to drugs.”
According to Okel Wilson, his brother visited him shortly before Parker’s murder and as the two men snorted cocaine and drank whiskey, Richard Wilson suddenly announced he was going to kill Jeffrey Parker.
After Parker was killed, Richard Wilson returned to Modesto and bragged of the murder, Okel Wilson testified.
But Okel Wilson said he, too, did not report the boast to police because “I didn’t believe him.”
“I laughed it off,” Okel Wilson testified. “My brother is a braggart and he has fantasies, and I . . . didn’t believe him, and I laughed at him.”
Nevertheless, Okel Wilson said his brother had recounted lurid, grisly details of the shooting:
“He said he went down there . . . and watched the guy, and the night of the murder he went down and waited in the bushes for him to come home. He knew when he was coming home.
“When Jeffrey Parker came home, he went up on the . . . front porch and shot him in the chest, and as Jeffrey Parker went down, Jeffrey says, ‘Please don’t shoot me anymore,’ and he got him by the hair of the head and shot him in the temple.”
In his testimony before the grand jury, Okel Wilson conceded being an alcoholic and having consumed alcohol and cocaine when his brother allegedly told him the story of Parker’s murder.
“I have a lot of blackouts and things I did during the blackouts I will never remember . . . in my entire life,” Okel Wilson testified.
Last April, the Orange County Grand Jury indicted Richard Wilson. Police described him as “dangerous” and “violent,” referring to the alleged threats against people in San Francisco.
Witnesses Were Afraid
“Fear of Richard Wilson was a common denominator in the witnesses we have contacted,” the officers swore in an affidavit.
Prosecutors allege that Wilson sought to avenge the murder of Mills. After threatening Parker, they assert, Wilson traveled from San Francisco to Costa Mesa and waited in ambush.
“We know that Mr. Wilson had a clear motive to kill Jeffrey Parker, in that Jeffrey Parker was charged with the murder of his (Wilson’s) live-in girlfriend . . . " Deputy Dist. Atty. Douglas Woodsmall told grand jurors in April.
But Wilson’s attorneys scoff that the charge is incredible. They maintain that Parker was a drug dealer and police informant, more likely the victim of the drug-dealing scene.
If Wilson made any threats, his attorneys say, they were meaningless, merely the emotional reaction of an ordinary person.
“What happens if your fiancee was killed and you mouthed off?” said defense attorney Baruch. “It doesn’t mean you do it. This was his fiancee. He loved her. He was shocked by her murder.”
Richard Wilson surrendered in Orange County Superior Court on April 29.
He is free on $250,000 bail. His preliminary hearing began Friday in Harbor Municipal Court in Newport Beach.
Baruch, Wilson’s attorney, maintains that the prosecution’s case is based so heavily on the testimony of the two relatives that it is bound to fail.
“Both witnesses have motives to lie about Dick, and these motives will come out at trial,” Baruch said. “The fact remains that the physical evidence surrounding the facts and circumstance of Jeffrey Parker’s death are not consistent with the statements attributed to Richard Wilson. . . . They don’t have a murder weapon, because there probably never was one.”