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A Desert Death: the Road Show Comes to an End

<i> Steve Wick is a bureau chief with Newsday and spent three years researching "Bad Company." A member of Newsday's 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting team, he lives on Long Island, N.Y., with his wife and three children. </i>

The killing of theater impresario Roy Radin in June, 1983, was originally considered just another unsolved homicide case. But investigators soon uncovered a complex trail of drugs, corruption and dizzying amounts of cash.

In Southern California, the country near the town of Gorman is remarkably rugged. There are ravines and gullies where the terrain is steep and irregular, rising and falling sharply. The soil is alternately rocky and sandy, covered with thin grasses, scrub oaks, and desert bushes.

On the morning of June 10, 1983, Glen Fischer was headed toward Gorman in his Ford pickup. He was looking for a remote canyon where he could store his 120 beehives. With temperatures rising into the high 90s, it was important that he get his day’s work done quickly. At 8:30, he was to meet a park ranger, get into her truck and scout out possible sites.

The ranger, a pretty, well-spoken woman named Lynn, arrived and Fischer proceeded north on the interstate in her truck. At the Hungry Valley exit, they turned off, continuing north on a frontage road, then east into a narrow canyon on a poorly maintained dirt road, called, on some older maps, Caswell Canyon Road. A quarter-mile east of the frontage road, it abruptly ended. Fischer jumped out.

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“I really think this is perfect,” he said, wiping the sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief. He was about 100 yards from the truck when he smelled something truly horrible. Something’s dead, he thought.

He walked in 15 or 20 feet, toward the far side of the dry wash, and when he came around a greasewood bush, he saw a hand sticking up toward the sky, with two fingers extended and partially separated, in the manner of a ‘60s peace sign. The flesh was yellow, the color of skin stained by nicotine.

He slowly approached the hand, and as he got closer, he could see it was attached to some blue cloth. He could make out legs, or rather the shape of legs under more blue cloth, and the other arm and a portion of the top of a head, with a shock of brownish hair. He stopped again, staring at the ground in front of him.

He inched a bit closer, his eyes focused on what was left of the head. One side of the face was mostly gone, leaving a portion of the skull on top and the jawline at the bottom. There was nothing in between but stained earth.

Jesus Christ, he thought, deliberately averting his eyes. The head had been destroyed, blown away. The body seemed to have crash-landed against the bush. Suddenly, Fischer pulled back. Overcome by the stench and the grotesque condition of the body, he turned quickly and went to find Lynn.

By early afternoon, the box canyon was crawling with Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies. Those who went over to examine the remains did so with handkerchiefs across their mouths.

Must have been a struggle, homicide detective Willi Avila thought. Probably more than one shooter. Then they blasted him in the head, maybe six or eight times, a goddamn free-for-all. The whole side of his face, from the temple to the jaw, was sheared off, as if by a buzz saw. Considering the condition of the skull, it was certainly possible that a shotgun had been fired at point-blank range, sending the body reeling backward into the greasewood bush.

A check by Avila of the Los Angeles Police Department’s computer records of missing persons cases revealed a month-old case concerning the disappearance of a New York theatrical producer named Roy Alexander Radin. The suit found in the canyon matched the one Radin had worn on the night he disappeared.

On the evening of May 13, 28 days earlier, Roy Radin had been seen getting into a limousine in front of the Regency Hotel in Los Angeles with a beautiful woman from Miami named Laney Jacobs. They were going to dinner in Beverly Hills. He was never seen alive again.

In the late 1960s, while he was still in his teens, Roy Radin discovered that there were places in the American heartland where people would pay to see a kangaroo act. He also discovered that people in out-of-the-way towns would pay to see singers who had not had hits in two decades and comedians who had long fallen out of favor.

Enterprising and imaginative, Radin rounded up singers, jugglers, fire-eaters, kangaroo and chimp acts, comedians, magicians and sword swallowers, and booked them into Masonic temples, motel banquet halls, and high school auditoriums. Admission was cheap, and the lines on opening night were long.

Radin was an instant success, if an unheralded one. In just a few years his income was such that he and his wife were able to move into the 72-room mansion he called Ocean Castle in the wealthy village of Southampton.

All the while, Radin was developing a new persona--the rich entrepreneur, the self-made man. He donned fedoras and capes at some of the shows, acting the role of an impresario, the new P. T. Barnum.

In 1980, Radin’s name began popping up in the New York tabloids’ gossip pages. Sometimes the papers would print his picture, too--a smiling fat man in an expensive suit, ducking into Studio 54. He was practically a fixture at the club, where he would spend the night snorting cocaine in a private room and talking about his deals. Radin always had grand schemes. He was going to finance a Broadway show, buy a circus in Florida, bring back old-time theatrical musicals. An abundance of ideas was his trademark.

Until the weekend of April 11, 1980, however, the name Roy Alexander Radin had not made any headlines. The event that launched him into tabloid history began innocently enough on Friday afternoon, when a young, beautiful model and sometime actress named Melonie Haller walked into Ferrara’s, a busy Southampton pharmacy. She was with a date, a management consultant from New Jersey named Robert McKeage, and they were on their way to Ocean Castle. In a few minutes, she bought Topol toothpaste, Nivea skin cream, cologne, hair coloring, tampons--and three dog chains.

The couple were to be Radin’s dinner guests. Their visit had been arranged by a friend of Haller’s who had told her that Radin might be able to help her. Up until then, her career had included modeling assignments, including a photo spread in Playboy, and several episodes on the television show “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

That night, McKeage tried to woo Melonie and another woman house guest into bed with him. He showed the women his impressive drug collection--cocaine, Quaaludes, amyl nitrite, and mescaline. After midnight, McKeage and Melonie dressed up in skimpy leather outfits and Nazi caps and marched into Radin’s bedroom, where they began whipping each other. Both were wearing dog collars and chains.

Early Saturday morning, Melonie went back to Radin’s bedroom to show him her portfolio, which contained her photo spread in Playboy. Radin did not wish to speak with her, however, and at his direction, Melonie was taken downstairs to her bedroom, where she began fighting with McKeage. At some later point, Melonie again went into Radin’s bedroom, and in a wild thrashing about, broke the lens on his video camera, which was set up on a tripod and pointed directly at his bed.

The house guests spent most of Saturday sleeping. Late that night, as if enough had not happened in the house, Mickey DeVinko, a moody and often depressed man, swallowed a bottle full of sleeping pills. He was rushed to Southampton Hospital, where his stomach was pumped. To his dismay, when Radin returned from the hospital at dawn Sunday morning, he found Melonie screaming hysterically and running around the house. She was cut and bruised and appeared hopelessly disoriented. Radin ordered her out of Ocean Castle.

Shortly before 8 a.m., one of Radin’s employees, Ray Wounters, was summoned to take Melonie to the train station. He found her in the foyer, stumbling and staggering around and mumbling incoherently.

Wounters went and got McKeage, who, upon seeing Melonie, threw her to the floor and kicked her in the ribs, face and chest. Wounters stopped McKeage when he threatened to smash Melonie’s skull with a porcelain dog. Wounters picked her up, put her in the car, and McKeage drove her to the station, where she was dumped on a citybound train.

That morning, just before 9 a.m., a railroad conductor found Melonie slumped over a seat. She was taken to a hospital, and a Suffolk County police detective, Lee Roman, was summoned. He found her in the emergency room, her long blond hair pushed straight back out of her face, which was bruised and discolored. One eye was partially shut from a swollen eyelid. There was a line of blood on her lower lip.

“I was beaten,” Melonie mumbled to Roman, her voice quickly dropping off. “They dumped me on the train like I was baggage.” She began to cry. “They beat me and kicked me.”

Before noon on Monday, reports that a model who had posed for Playboy had been beaten up in Southampton were all over the airwaves, and reporters began descending on Ocean Castle. Inside, at his desk, Radin told one of his assistants that he could not believe this was happening to him. A publicity hound at heart, Radin instructed his staff to record all the radio and television news and clip all the newspapers.

Later in the day, Roman and his partner, Detective Bob Heller, took another statement from Melonie, who now added that she had been raped at Ocean Castle. She also mentioned seeing a gun in Radin’s bedroom, as well as large amounts of cocaine. In the course of describing the sexual attack, Melonie said the video camera had been on the entire time, and that she had broken it in the struggle.

Radin learned through a police friend that his house would be raided on Monday night. The household staff was ordered to do a complete cleanup. The sheets were stripped off his bed and dumped in the washing machine, the carpet was vacuumed, drawers were cleaned out, pills flushed down the toilets, and ashtrays emptied. Most important, the tape that had been in the video camera was erased. Then someone yelled out that there were 50 cops in the driveway.

Roman was the first through the door. “We are Suffolk County police officers,” he called out. “We’re here to execute a search warrant.”

In Radin’s big bedroom, a detective found a pistol in his walk-in closet. Heller presented it to Radin and asked him if it was his. Radin said no, adding that it belonged to a cop in Louisiana.

“You’re under arrest for illegal possession of a gun,” Roman asserted. Radin was handcuffed and taken away.

After he was booked, photographed, and released on bail, Radin found himself deluged with embarrassing publicity. At first, he tried to laugh it off, saying it would work itself out. But he knew it wouldn’t. He sank into depression, complaining to friends that he did not see how his vaudeville business could survive.

He wondered whether people on the West Coast were reading about him. Perhaps it was time to think about leaving New York and setting up business in California. He had produced records there in the past, as well as managed several actors. And he had always wanted to produce movies, seeing it as a natural extension of his road show business.

In October, 1982, Laney Jacobs was in Los Angeles to be the West Coast end of Milan Bellechasses’ multimillion-dollar cocaine-smuggling operation.

She decided to buy a large house in Sherman Oaks. It was set back from the street on a quiet cul-de-sac reachable only by twisting roads through the hills. There was a garage, which she required for her cars and as a place to store large amounts of cocaine and money. It suited her needs perfectly.

It took almost no time to get their business in order. Selling cocaine in Los Angeles through a network of distributors was simple. To transport the product to Los Angeles, Bellechasses hired a courier named Tally Rogers.

Every six weeks or so, Rogers would drive from Miami to Los Angeles, the trunk of his car stuffed with 10 to 12 kilos of cocaine in packages wrapped with duct tape. He would pick up the drugs at Bellechasses’, where on one trip he saw 2,200 kilos of cocaine stacked in his basement, floor to ceiling. At the Los Angeles end, Rogers was also a money courier. As cash accumulated in the storage closet in the back of Laney’s garage, he would box it or pack it in suitcases and drive it to San Francisco. There, he would hand it over to two Latinos, whose job was to deposit it in local banks so that it could be wired to bank accounts in the Caribbean.

With her cocaine business operating smoothly, Laney turned her attention to the dream she had been talking about for years--movie making. A friend in Palm Beach had referred her to a limousine driver named Gary Keys, an employee of Ascot Limousine, which was partially owned by Robert Evans, the former head of production at Paramount.

When Keys mentioned to Laney that he could introduce her to Evans, she screamed with delight. A few days later, Evans called her, and they arranged to meet. Laney was beside herself with excitement.

Evans was a genuine Hollywood legend, a onetime actor who, at the age of 36, had become Paramount’s head of production. Under his supervision, the studio released films such as “Love Story” and “The Godfather,” which were box-office smashes. He was friends with the biggest names in Hollywood, among them Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, who was perhaps his closest and most loyal friend. He had had brief, if well-chronicled, marriages to Ali MacGraw and later Phyllis George.

By the late 1970s, Evans was an independent producer. On his own, he seemed to lose his way. In short order, he produced a string of flops, including “Black Sunday,” “Players,” and “Popeye.” To make matters worse, he was convicted in New York in 1980 on federal charges of possessing five ounces of cocaine.

The conviction only served to underscore what had been whispered in Hollywood: that Evans had a drug problem. By way of explaining the downward slide of his career, people who knew him spoke of his sloppy cocaine use. Some said he was an addict.

After his flops and his drug conviction, Evans found that his calls were not being returned. It was said that he had not stopped using cocaine. Perhaps the worst thing said about Evans was that he was no longer in control of his own life; therefore, studio bosses were reluctant to lend him the millions necessary to make movies. Evans was now a non-player. He began complaining to his closest friends that he was going broke.

Then he met Laney Jacobs.

Charming, alluring, and mysterious, Laney told him that she had $5 million of her own in Miami, and on top of that she had friends with access to even larger amounts of disposable cash, perhaps as much as $50 million. If Evans was suspicious of the source of her money, he did not immediately say so.

It now seemed that Laney, after only a few weeks in Los Angeles, had hit the jackpot. Here, money was what mattered.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert Evans went on to work on “The Two Jakes,” a sequel to the movie, “Chinatown.” In a 1989 interview with The Times about his then just-concluding deal for his autobiography, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” he discussed his battle with drugs and said “I’ve been clean for two years now, and have never felt better in my life.”

From the book “Bad Company: Drugs, Hollywood and the Cotton Club Murder,” by Steve Wick. Copyright, 1990, by Steve Wick. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.)

COMING UP

* THURSDAY: After Playboy centerfold Melonie Haller was assaulted at Roy Radin’s Southampton, N.Y., beachfront home, Radin moved to the West Coast in hopes of starting over. There he met Karen (Laney) Jacobs, an aspiring producer who offered to introduce him to a man who could make his dream of a Cotton Club musical a reality. Radin regarded Jacobs as the perfect Hollywood playmate, but he would soon learn that she was a lot more than fun and games.

* FRIDAY: The prospect of a partnership between Roy Radin and producer Bob Evans enraged the woman who introduced them. Laney Jacobs wanted in on the deal to produce “The Cotton Club,” which she felt she had put together. She also accused Radin of having knowledge of a $1-million cocaine theft from her garage, where she stored the powder before distribution. Despite the bad blood between them and warnings that she was dangerous, Radin agreed to meet with Jacobs.

* SUNDAY: After Roy Radin’s disappearance, film producer Bob Evans, believing he was Jacob’s next target, traveled to Las Vegas seeking help from two friends who he thought were connected to the Mob.


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