Bizarre Case Shows Flaky Underside of Santa Cruz

Times Staff Writer

The accused in the murder trial is a pop psychologist whose unorthodox methods intrigued the CIA. The victim was a hooker who specialized in kinky sex. The prosecution's key witness is a former cocaine dealer.

The trial, which goes to the jury today, has packed spectators into the courtroom every day.

This city "has its flaky side," conceded Assistant Dist. Atty. Gary Fry, who is prosecuting the case, and the murder trial has revealed that side to the fullest.

Santa Cruz is an idyllic strip of coastline cut off from the rest of the world by the ocean on the west, and the mountains, thick with stands of redwoods, on the east. It is in a time warp, a hippie museum where men with shoulder-length hair and thousand-yard stares still wander the downtown streets. It is a tolerant city where holistic medical centers and alternative therapies abound. It is an iconoclastic city, where two recent mayors described themselves as "socialist-feminist." Both were men.

So when the bizarre case of the hooker, the coke dealer and the psychologist was first reported, many were not surprised that the setting was Santa Cruz. "It's the stereotypical Santa Cruz case," Fry said.

"The crime itself isn't real strange or gory," he added in an interview. "If there's such a thing as a clean shot to the face, this is it.

"The case has attracted attention because it's got weird sex, lots and lots of drugs, and a victim who was an extremely attractive woman. And there are different versions of how she got killed. It's basically a whodunit."

Like the Japanese novel "Rashomon," the trial testimony about the Santa Cruz murder has differed with each narrator.

The prosecution claims that Richard Bandler, the psychologist, killed Corine Christensen. Bandler claims that James Marino, an admitted former cocaine dealer, killed her.

The trial has been a melange of conflicting testimony, varying interpretations of physical evidence and implausible scenarios. Marino claimed that Bandler was angry at Christensen because she was having a lesbian affair with Bandler's live-in girlfriend, and because she owed him money. Bandler claimed that Marino was convinced that Christensen arranged to have him beaten and was trying to have him killed.

After a preliminary hearing last fall, Municipal Judge Tom Kelly reflected on the confusion. "My mind went back and forth all week (about who killed Christensen)," he said. "The only thing I know for sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, is we had a murderer in this courtroom. Beyond a reasonable doubt I cannot tell you who that person was."

At first glance, it seems more plausible that Richard Bandler would be in court as an expert witness than as a defendant.

Bandler, 37, gained a national reputation in the early 1970s when he and former UC Santa Cruz linguistics professor John Grinder co-founded a discipline called neuro-linguistic programming. NLP, an amalgam of linguistics and hypnosis, studied how people influence each other in subconscious ways. Bandler and Grinder claimed that therapists could use NLP techniques--scanning a patient's eye movements, speech pattern, body language, changes in skin tone or breathing--for a quick fix on the patient's problem. Then hypnotic techniques could be used to reprogram behavior.

The human potential movement was burgeoning at the time, and new ideas were being pioneered just south of Santa Cruz at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. Grinder and Bandler studied many of the innovative therapists who visited Esalen and applied some of their theories to NLP. They began giving seminars throughout the country, and Bandler eventually wrote 13 books on the subject.

He claimed that NLP had a wide variety of applications. Therapists could cure people's phobias in 10 minutes. Salesmen could better understand buyers. Executives could enhance communication with their employees.

Not Certified Therapists

Neither Bandler, who has a master's degree in psychology from Lone Mountain College in San Francisco, nor Grinder, a linguist, were certified therapists. They called themselves "modelers of human behavior."

Bandler is described by many as a man with a dazzling intellect whose insight and charisma made him almost a cult figure at seminars.

"I could imagine him getting a Nobel Prize; it would be a shame if he got one in prison," said Dr. Robert Spitzer, a Palo Alto psychiatrist who is a longtime friend of Bandler.

But the controversial discipline polarized mental health professionals. Some embraced NLP as a great innovation. Many others considered it a fraud.

Dr. William Carroll, a staff psychiatrist at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, is one of the dissenters. He said he finds much of Bandler's work "snake oil, sold like any other kind of snake oil." Many of Bandler's books, Carroll said, "are basically restatements of what other people have done. His greatest gift is as a mimic. He's repackaged other's ideas."

Grows in Popularity

Regardless of its efficacy, NLP has grown in popularity. There are hundreds of NLP "trainers" now giving seminars throughout the country.

Bandler's work also attracted the attention of the U.S. Army, and he gave three seminars in Washington, said Wyatt Woodsmall, a civilian research analyst for the Army at the time. Army officers and CIA agents attended the seminars, Woodsmall said, and he invited Bandler back to Washington several more times for consulting work. Bandler aided in projects on marksmanship, identifying leadership characteristics and classified intelligence work. His work was "extremely innovative and very well received," Woodsmall recalled.

As NLP gained disciples, however, Bandler and Grinder began to disagree about its future, associates said. Grinder, who could not be reached for an interview, wanted to specialize in seminars for the corporate world, and Bandler was more interested in therapeutic applications. In 1980, they split, each to pursue his own vision of NLP.

That same year, Bandler's wife filed for divorce. Court papers, filed during the divorce, allege that Bandler had a violent side. He threatened to kill his wife several times after she left, and he also threatened a man she was dating, his wife alleged in an affidavit.

A former NLP associate said Bandler had a nasty temper but was "not really out of control until the split with Grinder and his wife."

Develops a Problem

At the same time, this source said, Bandler developed a serious cocaine problem. Bandler himself acknowledged in his trial testimony that he had frequently used the drug.

Bandler became increasingly paranoid, the source said, and began carrying a gun. An NLP trainer named Christine Hall testified that Bandler, angered because she refused to deed her home back to Marino, the former owner, once put a pistol to her head and said, "Don't think I wouldn't (pull the trigger)."

Cocaine had brought Bandler, Marino and Christensen together. Marino had been a drug dealer, he told authorities shortly after the killing, and, as he became a close friend of Bandler, began to supply him with free cocaine. Later, when Marino left the business, he said, Bandler bought his cocaine from Christensen.

Marino is not the ideal witness. He once served 18 months in San Quentin for burglary. And after the preliminary hearing in the Bandler case, he disappeared for several months and failed to show up at the start of the trial on Nov. 2. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and when he finally reappeared he told authorities that he had been afraid that Bandler had arranged to have him killed.

Marino's Story

This is Marino's story, according to court documents and his testimony during the trial:

He met Christensen, the daughter of a San Francisco police officer, two years before the murder. Christensen, 29 at the time, was working in a massage parlor, turning tricks on the side and blackmailing important people with sexual secrets. (In her apartment, authorities found leather restraints and a "trick list" on file cards listing sexual preferences of clients.)

Marino became romantically involved with Christensen and eventually moved into her apartment. She also had a fondness for cocaine and they both dealt the drug. The relationship eventually deteriorated and they separated.

The day before the murder, Marino informed Bandler that Christensen had been having an affair with Bandler's live-in girlfriend. Bandler argued all night with his girlfriend, and the next morning--Nov. 3, 1986--drove with Marino to Christensen's to confront her.

Bandler ended up swigging tequila and shouting at Christensen. Marino claimed that Bandler threatened him and would not let him out of the house. Bandler eventually resumed shouting at Christensen and as she unfolded a bindle of cocaine and began inhaling some of it, he put a .357 Magnum to her face and fired, Marino testified. A bloody straw and cocaine residue were found by authorities on the table.

Describes Events

Later that day, Marino's attorney called the Sheriff's Department and Marino described to deputies the morning's events in great detail.

Bandler did not tell his version of the story to authorities until the trial. He testified that he did not contact authorities after the killing because, "frankly, it was kind of a dilemma. On the one hand, James had killed Corine, but I didn't want to turn my friend in." He spent the rest of the day of the murder drinking gin and snorting cocaine because, "I just wanted to push it out of my mind. I didn't want to think about it."

Bandler testified that it was Marino's idea to visit Christensen. Marino had been ranting the night before the killing about how Christensen had arranged to have him beaten, Bandler said. Because he still felt that he was in danger, Bandler said, he loaned his .357 Magnum to Marino.

After they arrived at Christensen's, Marino turned abusive, Bandler claimed. He began shouting and ripping apart Christensen's stuffed animals.

'He Just Fired It'

"When I turned around, he (Marino) had the gun out and he just fired it," Bandler testified. "She slumped over on the table."

Bandler claimed that his clothes were splattered with blood--a fact that the prosecution used in evidence against him--because he had been sitting next to Christensen when she was shot and he instinctively reached out to help her.

One of the ironies of the case is Bandler's supposed expertise on drug, alcohol and cigarette habits. He claimed that he could use NLP to cure people of their addictions. His "arrogance" prevented him from acknowledging his own problems, psychiatrist Spitzer said.

"He saw himself as able to cope with anybody and anything," Spitzer said. "And when he couldn't, some people derived satisfaction from that, like he got his comeuppance."

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