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It Can’t Happen Here, Even When It Does

“It’s the tan house.” The cameraman was pointing. “That tan house.”

That one?

“No, not that tan house. That tan house. On the other side of the street.”

Oh. Which tan house, again? By now, all involved were suppressing smiles. This was the Southern California in-joke, the “American Beauty” angle. True crime in the planned community, where even house colors are regulated, where what goes on in them isn’t supposed to bring out the national news crews. Though this was news even by unplanned community standards, this thing out of Irvine, so sad and bizarre that even the local children knew they were supposed to be amazed.

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“The guy in that house? Someone tried to kill his business partner!”

“Yeah, at the Irvine Spectrum!”

This was Beca Gever and Melissa Riggs, 10 and 11, respectively. They were on the sidewalk drawing hopscotch squares, due to their elementary school being evacuated, due to the guy in the tan house. They didn’t know him, though he lived just on the other side of that stucco wall, on Foxboro, in what was said to be Donny Osmond’s neighborhood when he lived here, a neighborhood of Beaver Cleaver-looking houses that go for a half-million dollars and up these days.

“Someone tried to kill the guy’s business partner, and then the guy committed suicide!”

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“And then they found some kind of biological stuff in his house!”

“And then the police came and started digging up his yard!”

“And, like, 50 houses got evacuated! They said on the news it was like the X-files, and nothing like this had ever happened here--"

At which point it was time for the sound bite, since even children know, in this neck of the woods, what to say when true crime visits a planned community:

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“Because this is, like, the nation’s safest city. Or at least--it was.”

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This, of course, was the punchline. Crime stories require a moral, and the moral last week in Irvine was, allegedly, “even in suburbia” or some such. “Allegedly” because, for all the genuine shock value in the tale of the tan house, the good people of Irvine actually didn’t seem all that worked up.

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Oh, they said they were worked up. And there was much to be worked up by. This was late last week. Police were unearthing bins of ammo and “unidentified liquid” from the yard and floorboards of the tan house, and reporters were digging up one unsettling revelation after another about its owner, the late Dr. Larry Ford. Some truly bizarre fallout was accumulating around a true human tragedy, but the reaction had a strange, scripted detachment to it. It was as if people knew the drill even for a neighbor who had turned out to be keeping biochemical waste poolside because they’d seen stuff like this in movies.

And what stuff: Last month someone had tried and failed to kill Ford’s business partner--the two had a biotech venture--and when police questioned the doctor, he denied involvement. After which he came home with his wife, walked into an upstairs bedroom and shot himself. After which the plot, as they say, thickened, with details concerning the doctor’s research, which, depending on who was doing the detailing, involved either vaginal suppositories or biochemical warfare. After which the Irvine police, the FBI, the Orange County sheriff’s bomb squad, a bomb-seeking robot and the assembled news media descended on the tan house on Foxboro while the neighbors were evacuated at city expense to the local Hyatt hotel.

“I have never seen anything this bizarre,” the Irvine police spokesman told the news crews.

“It just keeps getting weirder and weirder,” a stay-at-home mom walking past with her toddlers allowed.

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But the police spokesman couldn’t have been calmer. And the mom couldn’t stop laughing. “Can you believe they evacuated everybody to the Hyatt? What is that, $200 a night or something? I wish somebody would evacuate me to the Hyatt--" She stiffened as her 2-year-old raced into someone’s yard and disappeared behind a box hedge. “Jordan! You come back right now!”

So it went. The news choppers hovered and the TV reporters went live and everyone pretended not to know, in their hearts, what everyone knows. Which is that people go crazy, even smart people, even in safe, well-planned places, and that’s no movie. It’s scary. Better to maintain detachment, to zoom in on the tan house and say: There are 15 million stories in the Naked Suburb. This was one of them.

Shawn Hubler’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com.


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