John C. Holmes, the world's premier pornographic film star, sobbed as he sat in a steaming bathtub early one morning in July, 1981.
Haltingly, Holmes confessed to his wife that he had played a central role in four brutal murders earlier that month in a drug dealers' hillside home in Laurel Canyon.
"There's somebody out there who wants to kill me," Holmes told Sharon, his wife of 16 years.
Frightened, she asked, "Why?"
For a time, John Holmes was silent. Finally, he replied: "The murders . . . I was involved. . . . I know who did it."
In a recent interview with The Times, Sharon Holmes, who divorced the late actor in 1984, described for the first time the story her husband told her less than three weeks after the July 1 killings.
John Holmes recounted how he led three thugs to the tightly secured drug house on Wonderland Avenue, escorted them in, and stood by as they bludgeoned the five people inside, spattering Holmes with blood. One woman survived the attack.
"He said, 'I had to stand there and watch what they did,' " Sharon Holmes recalled.
"I said, 'John, how could you? You knew these people.'
"And he said, 'They were dirt.' "
The actor's wife paused. "I'll never forget that as long as I live," she said.
John Holmes, who was tried for and acquitted of the crimes, never told his wife the names of the assailants, she said.
Another woman who had a lengthy intimate relationship with Holmes told The Times recently of a separate, parallel admission made by the actor shortly after the killings, an account she gave to police in 1981.
Together, the women's descriptions of what Holmes told them largely corroborate the Los Angeles Police Department's theory of what happened on Wonderland Avenue. Police, however, believe that Holmes actually took part in the fatal beatings.
But the new accounts cast doubt on the story Holmes told a biographer before his death March 13. The 43-year-old actor died as a result of complications arising from his infection with the AIDS virus.
In the still unpublished "official" version of his life, Holmes is quoted as saying that he was held at gunpoint at another house while the killers, whose names he did not know, went to the home on Wonderland Avenue.
That version of the story, Sharon Holmes said, is fiction.
John Holmes himself never offered a public account of what happened on that July night. He did not testify at his trial, and his later secret testimony before the Los Angeles County Grand Jury remains sealed.
"We have never heard the whole truth (about the killings) and we never will hear the whole truth," said attorney Earl L. Hanson, who, along with partner Mitchell W. Egers, successfully defended Holmes against the murder charges. Hanson said Holmes never told his attorneys what happened the night of the killings.
But Detective Tom Lange of the Los Angeles Police Department, the lead investigator on the case, said, "There is no mystery, because we know who is involved and we know why. . . .
"There are other suspects that we feel are involved. . . . (But) we have a certain set of rules to follow that the people who go out and perpetrate crimes don't."
During Holmes' murder trial in 1982, then Deputy Dist. Atty. Ronald S. Coen, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, argued that the fatal beatings were intended to avenge the humiliating armed robbery of Los Angeles nightclub owner Adel Nasrallah, also known as Eddie Nash.
In the weeks before the killings, Coen told the jurors, Holmes ferried property stolen by the Wonderland Avenue gang to Nash's heavily secured home in Studio City, where he exchanged it for drugs.
Then Holmes hit on a more direct way to make money. On the morning of June 29, 1981, four men who lived at the Wonderland Avenue address entered Nash's house through a sliding glass door that had been left ajar by Holmes, according to trial testimony. The armed intruders robbed Nash and his 300-pound body guard, Gregory Diles, of $10,000, two plastic sacks of cocaine and other property.
Two days later, Coen alleged that Holmes, acting on Nash's orders, led the killers to the Wonderland Avenue address and then helped murder the occupants.
Pieces of Evidence
The case against Holmes was built largely on two pieces of evidence: An admission that Holmes allegedly made to Los Angeles Police Detective Frank Tomlinson after his arrest in Miami in December, 1981, and a bloody palm print left by Holmes on the rail of a bed on which one of the victims, drug dealer Ronald Launius, died.
At Holmes' murder trial, Tomlinson testified that Holmes told him that "after the robbery had occurred at Ed Nash's house, that Nash had made (Holmes) tell him who the people were that robbed him.
"He said that (Nash) told him if he ever talked to the police that (Nash) would kill someone in his family." The detective added that Holmes "said he was there when the murders happened, but that he himself did not hurt anyone."
Through his attorney, Nash has consistently denied any involvement in the Wonderland Avenue killings. No one but Holmes has ever been charged in the murder case. Nash was separately convicted of cocaine possession and served about two years in state prison.
Sharon Holmes said she is convinced that her former husband was at least present when the murders took place.
In the summer of 1981, Sharon Holmes said, she and John Holmes were living together as the managers of a small Glendale apartment complex. Although he was often away from home, "I was his safe place," Sharon Holmes said. As the 1980s began, and Holmes became more heavily involved in cocaine, his absences grew longer.
One was abruptly interrupted on the morning of July 1, 1981, when a shaken John Holmes crawled into their Glendale bedroom, bleeding, and told his wife that he had been in an accident. Holmes slept fitfully for a few hours, Sharon Holmes said, and moaned about blood and pain.
Nine days later, Holmes was picked up in a Sherman Oaks motel in the company of Jeanna Sellers, a 20-year-old neighbor. Sellers agreed to talk to The Times on the condition that the paper not reveal her true name.
After Holmes' negotiations for an immunity deal with police and prosecutors fell apart, the actor made plans to leave town with Sellers. But before they headed east, Holmes paid a final, early morning visit to his wife.
"Basically, he said, 'I'm going to have to run,' " Sharon Holmes recalled, "And I said, 'You're going to have to tell me.' "
Story Told in Tub
So Holmes summoned his wife into the bathroom, drew steaming water into the tub, slipped in, and began to talk.
"He told me that he had set up the robbery. . . . He had set it up with the other people, the people that lived at Wonderland. . . . "
The day after the robbery, someone who knew Nash apparently spotted Holmes in Hollywood, wearing a piece of jewelry that had been stolen from Nash's home, he told his wife. When Holmes returned to his car hours later, two armed men ordered him to drive to Nash's home, he said.
At the house, Holmes told his wife, Nash pored over Holmes' address book, and stopped when he came to the pages that listed addresses in Ohio, where Holmes was born and where his mother and other relatives still lived.
"He said he was told he would be killed and people in the book would be killed if (Holmes) didn't do what (Nash) wanted. In essence, what they wanted him to do was . . . to tell them who it was," Sharon Holmes said. "He would have to take them to the house."
Holmes told his wife that he rode with three armed men to the address on Wonderland Avenue. Holmes buzzed an outside intercom box and asked someone inside to let him in. A gate was unlocked, and Holmes walked up the stairs to the entrance with the gunmen concealed behind him.
Held at Gunpoint
Holmes told his wife that he was held against a wall, at gunpoint, while the three men beat to death Launius, 37; William DeVerell, 42; Joy Audrey Miller, 46; and Barbara Richardson, 22. Launius' estranged wife, Susan, who was visiting, survived the assault but suffered severe head injuries. She was later unable to identify her attackers.
There was "a lot of screaming going on," Holmes told his wife.
A day or two later, Holmes gave a compressed, but similar account of what happened to Sellers, she told The Times.
"He said, 'They stuck a gun to my head and they made me go back in (to the Wonderland Avenue house) and open the door.' That's what he told me. And (that they) made him watch."
James M. Eisenman, a Century City attorney who represents Holmes' estate and his second wife, said he doubts Sharon Holmes' story.
"Based on the material given to us by John Holmes (for the book), that version of the facts is not an accurate one," Eisenman said.
But Sharon Holmes and Jeanna Sellers insist that it is true.
"(John) was so much of a liar . . . he didn't know what the truth was anymore; about himself, about anything," Sellers said.
"He went out of his life denying," said Sharon Holmes, "(saying) 'I had no involvement.'
"It's a lie."