Deconstructing Paradise

Deanne Stillman's book "Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mojave" was published on March 27

Several years ago at dusk, I was coming home from a baseball game at Dodger Stadium, turning left at the well-traveled Venice intersection of Rose and Hampton.

As I completed the turn, I heard a blood-curdling scream. I looked to my left as I hit the brakes. A rusted-out Pontiac--'70s, I knew right away--was turning east on Rose. A girl was hanging onto the wide-open rear passenger door. "My babies," she screamed. "My babies!"

Heavy metal blasted from the radio. Foreigner? Boston? I wasn't sure. The girl, probably in her 20s, hung on and kept calling for her babies. The man in the driver's seat--goatee, long hair--gunned the engine, tossing something from the car. It hit the curb. The girl lost her grip and fell to the pavement. The Pontiac sped east--"East," it registered in my bones, "into the desert. East, toward Twentynine Palms."

I pulled over and got out of my car to help the girl. On a good day she would be pretty--willowy, long brown hair, model looks. But today--and I figured most days were not good--her hair was stringy, dirty. Her jeans and T-shirt were dirty and torn, not so different from some of the gathering bystanders except that their dirt and tatters were a function of beach-town noblesse oblige. She had just about stopped crying as she turned to me and said thanks. One eye was black and blue.

I helped her to the curb. She bent down and picked up what had been thrown from the car--a filthy teddy bear that bled stuffing--and clutched it to her chest. I asked her what had happened. She said that her husband had beaten her up and kidnapped her babies.

"Where's he going?" I asked.

"Home, probably," she said. "To Joshua Tree."

Joshua Tree is a town short of Twentynine Palms, both stops on a picturesque desert highway that feeds into an interstate leading to Los Angeles. Both towns are portals into Joshua Tree National Park, and both are civilian outposts on either side of the world's largest Marine base.

Almost as soon as I arrived in Los Angeles 15 years ago, I began heading east toward that wide-open space, east toward freak-show plants and rocks, east into quiet and breath. As I shed Los Angeles, I found comfort under the at-once frenzied and ever-still arms of the Joshua tree. Here was a plant that over time had responded in strange and beautiful ways to its world. The quieter things got, the more I heard: There was the blood coursing through my body, the ancient news carried on the whispering sands.

And then one day in a desert bar, I heard something that was bizarre, powerful and sad. Was it the beginning of a dirge? A tragic opera? I didn't know. But the information was this: Two girls had been stabbed to death in an apartment in Twentynine Palms. "Who were they?" I asked, and the answer conjured a painful part of my past.

"Just two girls."

It seems I've always been writing. My father taught me when I was little. Our family lived in an upper-middle-class home in a suburb of Cleveland. The house had a fireplace in every bedroom, eight bathrooms, lots of chandeliers and marble. My sister and I wore tailor-made clothing, had horseback-riding lessons in the afternoon, and were not unfamiliar with filet mignon and cherries jubilee. My father and I would sit in his library and he would read aloud from the classics, and we would make up our own characters and plays and stories and often I would write them down.

Then it all vanished. My parents divorced and my mother, sister and I moved to a tough neighborhood where large families lived in small houses and shared a single bathroom. Over time, I came to know quite well the children of the working class, kids whose parents worked in tool-and-dye plants, and hoped that the plants lasted long enough so their kids could work there someday too. My old world had disappeared, and I could see all too well that this new one counted for little to those on the outside. People looked away when I told them where we were living--the neighborhood was insignificant, embarrassing even. Somehow we had become small. Our new neighbors even dreamed small, or of nothing. And then after the partying and the fighting and the OD'ing, there were always the girls stitching it all back together.

By the time I heard the story of Amanda Scott and Rosalie Ortega, I well understood their urgent lives. In 1991, the year Mandi and Rosie were sliced up by a Marine who left his bloody palm print on the wall, one in five children in San Bernardino County was living in extreme poverty (almost twice the national average); a year after the murders, 19 of the approximately 900 students in the Twentynine Palms high school system that the girls attended were pregnant, and there were seven teenage mothers. The area was rife with gang activity--Crips, Bloods, bikers, all manner of latter-day tribes forming allegiances to deal with the Marine Corps presence in town, everyone vying for girls and turf. It sounded a lot like my old neighborhood.

Even the girls' nicknames were an echo from deep in my past. I could have grown up with "Mandi" and "Rosie"; I knew lots of girls with cute names who were always in trouble, always running against fate, all the while taking care of each other and their friends and their boyfriends and their bone-tired parents. Countless communities around the country were held together by girls like this. Now two were gone.

And so began my quest for what happened to two girls whose names everyone would know had they been wealthy or famous and grown up with a fireplace in their bedroom. Asking around, I picked up shards of information about the girls--they "partied too much," they "liked to dance," they "shouldn't have hung around with Marines"--all code, of course, for something much more complicated and awful.

The truth went much deeper, and it was time for the world to know. For the next 10 years, the story of Mandi and Rosie told me where to go; I dropped everything except for a few money-making writing gigs and followed this trail of tears deep into the American Dreamtime.

It took months to reach the key players. I read the autopsy reports, the court records. I got to know Mandi's friends, a tight circle that Mandi's mother, Debie, had called the Lunch BoxGang. I visited shacks in the middle of nowhere and met kids who were so shellshocked by life that they rarely laughed or cried. One dwelling would lead to the next phone booth, which in turn would lead to a crash pad. A week later phones would be disconnected, sources would be in jail. Some just disappeared.

I would start all over again, walking new paths, retracing the old, circumscribing a web of misery that left nothing and no one out. Everyone I met--adult and child alike--had a terrible tale to tell. Each involved violence, abuse, parental neglect, time in rehab, strange run-ins with veterans of various wars. There was something really awful afoot in the promised land and it was not part of a Nasdaq-obsessed national conversation.

One day after following the trail for a few years, I decided I had had enough. Even though I had contracted with a publisher to write about the incident, I could endure this fetid heart of darkness no longer. I began to ignore phone calls from Twentynine Palms. I lived near the beach, after all, and did not have to face this gnarly and funky stuff playing out at the fringes of civilization; in my Los Angeles, the violence was merely social--unreturned phone calls, being snubbed at cocktail parties--more insidious in certain ways, but not the result of cycles of family violence or just plain bad luck going back for generations.

So, the hell with the desert, I told myself. Its pretty pictures and scents and sounds were inside me now, and that was all I needed. If I got really still, from three counties and four mountain ranges away, I could hear the sweet song of a cactus wren just above the vines of bougainvillea on my patio, see the tortoise hatchlings skitter across a dune. I would stay in L.A., I resolved, to get away from the desert town with the romantic name, away from the desert itself with its endlessly warm and open arms. The human story had obliterated nature's prayer.

And that's when the girl with the black eye was thrown out of her car. I called the cops. The watchers drifted off. The girl told her story. The cops said her husband would be charged with child kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon--in this case, his car. I was called as a witness but never had to testify. The guy was about to be locked up for a few years on a different charge.

But at that point the message was clear: Twentynine Palms had called me many times and in many ways. Now, try as I might to escape the tale of Amanda Lee Scott and Rosalie Ortega and what happened to them in the desert, I could not. Once again, I headed east, away from the sea, and picked up the trail.

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