|Mark Arax covers Central California for The Times|
Dec 12, 2004 | 12:00 AM
One day not long ago, I drove into a valley deep in the mountains of Oregon, a swath of green pastures edged by wild blackberries and split by a creek that filled up a nearby lake. It seemed a pleasant enough place in the world, this hidden valley, but I hadn't driven the 500 miles from Fresno simply to take in the fresh scenery. No, what I had come looking for were answers that had eluded me for 31 years. What I had come looking for were the secrets to my father's murder.
He had been gunned down by two strangers in his Fresno bar on a foggy January night in 1972. He was 40 years old and I, his oldest child, was 15. Somehow I knew that the cops would never solve the murder. That night in the emergency room, I told my mother that I would. It was a promise I kept even after she died 12 years later and my wife gave birth to our first child.
All through my 30s, I searched for answers, tracking down barmaids turned junkies, a bouncer who rode with the Hells Angels, a bartender who became a hit man. I even wrote a book about my journey. But I never found his killers, never completely put to rest the rumors of drugs and police corruption and a father who coached Little League by day and entertained Fresno's crooks by night.
Then in the spring of 2002, I was handed a new name: Sue Gage. She was the keeper of the secrets, I was told, the woman who had set my father's death in motion. Not long after the murder, she had left California and moved to southern Oregon. She had been living in a tiny trailer beside a creek ever since, each year breathing a little easier as the trail that led back to Fresno and my father grew more and more faint.
I hadn't known quite how to act when I called to arrange a meeting. What tone of voice do you take when the person on the other end, frightened and cagey, holds answers to questions that have defined—twisted even—your entire adult life? What words do you let tumble out?
Part of me, the son, couldn't stomach the idea of small talk. At the same time, I was also a journalist who had mastered the game of opening doors by playing the earnest good guy. And so I held my nose and put on my best performance. Oh, how I chuckled and listened so intently as she gabbed on about the coyote unnerving her pit bull and the vacation she was about to take with her grandkids.
And now I was headed down a last stretch of road toward her trailer, past Christmas tree farms and cabins with tin roofs that spewed thick gray plumes of smoke. As the hill dipped down into valley, the smoke became mist and the mist turned to rain. Through the windshield splatters, I could see a tiny woman in a red turtleneck and jeans standing at the side of the road. The closer I got, the bigger her smile became. I didn't know what Sue Gage looked like. She had my father's face to know me.
There was a time when I dreamed of nothing but such a moment. I'd sit in bed at night and stare at the police composite of one of the gunmen. He had slicked-back hair, high cheekbones, boot-shaped sideburns and a neat mustache. I spent years lifting weights, transforming my body in anticipation of something primal that would surely come over me when I found him. I imagined how the perfect hardness of his face would melt when he realized that the man standing before him was the 15-year-old son.
Now something else awaited me—not a man, but a woman who provided a gun and a half-baked plan. Two of her former boyfriends, all these years later, had come clean to the Fresno police. They recalled a minor league beauty with a cunning that made dangerous men do her bidding. The woman standing in the weeds at the side of the road was someone quite different—a grandmother with a bad liver and a mouth full of bad teeth who feared that her past was about to find her.
Before I climbed out of the truck, I told myself the years in between didn't count, not to me or to my younger sister and brother. Sue Gage's greed, if that was all it was, had killed our father, sucked the life from our mother and had broken our youth.
She moved closer for what I expected was a handshake. Then the smile vanished. She turned cold. She stared at my hand, the one clutching a notebook and pen.
"Are you here as a son or as a writer?" she asked.
It was a plain question posed in a flat twang. Maybe she thought it deserved a plain answer. The answer was my life. I wanted to tell her that the son had become a writer on account of murder, that he had honed all the skills of journalistic investigation across a long career for just this one moment. Son, murder, writer—we were all one.
Before I could answer, she looked me straight in the eye.
"If you're looking to pin the blame," she said, "you've come to the right place."
My father taught me that the seams on a baseball served a far greater purpose than stitching leather over cork. If you gripped the seams right, you could make a fastball jump. Years before suburban parents began hiring personal trainers to transform their kids' core muscles, my dad preached the wonders of a fit belly button. He'd grab a bat and demonstrate how the midsection was the secret to hitting a ball like Willie Mays.
"When you swing, you're throwing your back hip at the ball, right? But what you're really throwing is your belly button, Markie. Explode with your belly button."
Football season was no different. We didn't play catch with one of those pint-sized rubber balls. Dad insisted on an "Official NFL" pigskin, so fat it kept slipping out of my hands. It didn't matter that I was too light to make the 80-pound minimum for Pee Wee football. Dad had a friend mold a three-pound hunk of lead that fit into my jock for weigh-ins. On the field, what I lacked in size, I made up for with explosion.
My father wasn't the most patient teacher. His irritations, I figured, were those of a natural. If I had managed to hone some rudimentary form of explosion, he had been born with it full flower. How else could a 5-foot-9, 205-pound fullback from Fresno High earn a scholarship to play the line at USC? Whether he was performing his Air Force Fitness program in our living room or smacking golf balls 310 yards off the tee, he approached every challenge the same.
He'd gather all his power in one spot and a split second later erupt in a great unloading. Only if you looked at his mouth, upper lip curled tight under lower lip, could you see the quiet that held the fury.
One of the riddles of my childhood was finding ways to amuse this energy before it turned on me or my mother. Years later, my grandfather would talk about my father's powerful life force—hahvas he called it in Turkish Armenian—as if it were some mythic gift and curse. His energy was something my grandfather clearly didn't share, much less understand, and he apparently never found a way to fully harness it.
"You know Grandpa didn't have a damn head," my grandmother told me. "He should have guided that boy. He was too busy dreaming."
My grandfather had survived the Armenian genocide in 1915 not by out-braving the Turks or outlasting their death marches. Instead, he dreamed away long months hiding in an attic in Istanbul, reading Baudelaire and Maupassant. He was a young poet with the pen name of Arax—the Armenian river—when he arrived in the San Joaquin Valley in 1920. It took him four years picking crops to save enough cash to buy a small vineyard on the west side of Fresno. My father was born on that farm in the summer of 1931 as the grapes were being laid down to make raisins.
When pressed, my grandfather would tell two stories about his second son that had the sound of allegory. Both took place on the farm after Dad had dropped out of USC his first year. Why he left college is one of those questions that become freighted with hindsight when a life turns tragic. He was either homesick (Grandma's version) or worn down by family guilt for abandoning the farm (my mother's version). This much was certain: He had come home with something to prove.
One day, his tractor got stuck on a knoll and my grandfather warned him not to touch it until he could summon help. When he returned a few minutes later, he was amazed to see that my father had moved the tractor several feet by himself, and he was now caught underneath. In a panic, Dad summoned enough desperate strength to pull himself out.
Then there was the day he pruned a row of fig trees and insisted on burning the cuttings. Grandpa told him the branches were too green and the wind too unpredictable. As soon as the old man left, my father poured gasoline all over the pile and lit a match. The fire caught his clothing and he panicked and ran. He ended up with scars from the third-degree burns on his hands and forearms.
"When he got it in his mind, he had to do it," Grandpa explained. "He had to conquer. He had to be hero."
My mother, Flora, worried that his epic gestures might one day consume us. In the mid-1960s, we lost our small chain of grocery stores after Safeway discovered Fresno. Dad took our savings—$25,000—and plunked it down on a restaurant and cocktail lounge just off Highway 99. It had a strange name: The Apartments. My father merely personalized it. Ara's Apartments.
Whenever Mom tore into him, her sarcasm dripped: "Big Ara. Ara's Apartments. Name in lights. Mentor to all the creeps and whores."
Maybe to spite her, he ripped out the kitchen and turned it into the hottest rock 'n' roll club between Los Angeles and San Francisco, even hiring Chuck Berry for a couple of shows in the summer of 1971. It's enough to say that my mother's fears came true. The bar got rough, and the old clientele of lawyers, politicians and jocks disappeared. Fresno had become a western hub for narcotics smuggling. Crop dusters would finish spraying the cotton fields and make furtive runs to Mexico. The Hells Angels moved the marijuana and pills from farm to big city. Our police chief, who was married to the town's biggest madam, didn't seem to notice. The smugglers were good about spreading their wealth. Nowhere did they spend more freely than at my dad's bar.
When the phone rang that Sunday evening, I sensed some terrible news came with it. Maybe it was me, the nail-biting son forever worrying about a car accident in the fog. But I had seen signs of trouble in recent months. I had watched my father lose his temper one too many times trying to keep his employees and patrons in line.
He wasn't supposed to work that night—the day after New Year's 1972—but a phone call had summoned him. I was going to come along, but he found me in the shower and worried that my damp hair might cause a cold. "It's chilly out there. Stay inside," he said. "I'll be back in an hour." The hour passed. A female bartender was on the line. My mother screamed from the kitchen. "Your father's been shot. Your father's been shot."
I bolted out the side door and ran through the fog to a friend's house down the block. I must have been howling because his brother thought a dog had been hit by a car. Five bullets had struck my father. He bled to death 90 minutes later at St. Agnes Hospital.
I was sitting in my office—the Los Angeles Times Bureau in Fresno—on a sunny November day in 2000 when the phone rang. Sgt. Daryl Green from the Fresno Police Department introduced himself, then asked if I might meet with him and a detective named Bob Schiotis.
"He's been working on your father's murder. I know it's been a long time, but I think we've solved it."
"It's been 28 years. My God, are you sure?"
"It's quite a story. Better that we tell you in person. How about meeting us in an hour at the old Peppermill."
Before he hung up, he couldn't resist: "You should know that these guys were thieves. It looks like nothing more than a robbery gone bad."
Ever since that first night when my sister, brother and I crawled into bed with our mother, I had held on to the notion that he had been killed for a larger reason. Maybe it was nothing more than a kid's desire to turn his father into something grand—need I say heroic. But it wasn't just me. The detectives had assumed the same thing back then. They traced the murder to one of two motives: to make my father pay for an indiscretion or to silence him before he could expose something illegal. The old detectives seemed certain that the gunmen had been hired to do the job.
The bar had never been robbed before. That night, no money had been taken from the till, and no demand for money was ever heard by the young female bartender, Linda Lewis. When I tracked her down 17 years later, Lewis related the same account she had given police right after the shooting:
It was 6:30 p.m., and the bar was empty when two men walked in. They looked to be from out of town, something in their fringed leather jackets and gloves. They ordered two draft beers and headed to the back room to play pool. Just across the way was my father's office, the door open. He was sitting at his desk working on the quarterly taxes. They played a game of eight ball and walked out.
Ten minutes passed and the two men walked back in. The place was still empty. Lewis asked if they wanted another beer. One of the men gave her an odd look, and the other headed straight back to the office and began shooting. My father fought back with everything he had. It took both gunmen to bring him down.
"Every single penny was in that register," Lewis told me. "I never heard a word from those two about money. They were there to kill him."
As I drove to the restaurant to meet Green and his partner that afternoon, I thought about all the relationships I had risked trying to solve my father's life. How I had pushed my grandparents, not caring about their own grief, in my greed to understand all I could about him. He was my coach, that I knew, and cared deeply about his community. He outfitted an entire Little League on the poor side of town and did the same with Pop Warner football. He angered my mother by loaning hundreds of dollars to down-and-out patrons and bringing them home to share our Christmas meals. But murder has a way of changing what a town remembers about a man. Good as Ara was, people reasoned, he must have been involved in something no good that got him killed. I heard the whispers at school and church: Ara was involved in the drug trade. Greed got him killed.
I spent seven years, from 1989 to 1996, writing a book that tried to find the truth. Over and over, my hunt kept leading me toward something big, a conspiracy to have my father killed. Perhaps sensing the police were not to be trusted, my father in the winter of 1971 contacted a deputy district attorney and the state narcotic agent bird-dogging several drug rings based in Fresno. He confided that his bar manager and other patrons were smuggling narcotics from Mexico and he was "dead set against it and wanted to cooperate." A few days later, he agreed to hold a fundraiser for a group of reformers trying to clean up City Hall.
"He was very angry and went on and on about the drug trade and how devastating it was to the kids," Linda Mack, one of the reformers, told me. "He said there were some very influential people in town making money on narcotics. He said the Police Department was corrupt and protecting the traffic. He said there were payoffs going on, and he was going to do something about it."
I had concluded that my father became a target for murder while trying to expose drug operations financed by prominent businessmen and protected by Police Chief Hank Morton and his top men. My dad wasn't involved in the trade but had heard and seen plenty from behind the bar. His phone records showed that he placed a last call a few days before Christmas to the state attorney general's office in Sacramento. Whom he talked to, I could never determine. Then the tule fog set down, and two men with the look of another place came and went like locusts, leaving behind two empty beer glasses and a cue ball smudged with fingerprints. I had done my best to put a face on the men who likely hired them and why, but my conjectures weren't enough to send anyone to court. And so I left it there, believing I had cleared my father's name.
Now came this phone call from the Fresno police, four years after I had written "In My Father's Name," and I didn't know what to believe.
"We got a call six weeks ago out of the blue," Green explained. "Some guy got popped by drug agents in Orange County. He says he wants to talk about an old murder at a bar in Fresno. The killers were a couple guys out of Detroit. Not hired guns, but thieves."
Green's voice wasn't smug, but what he was telling me, at least with regard to the murder, was that I had gotten it wrong.
As a journalist, I understood that all the context in the world didn't mean the murder was a hit. My father was talking big stuff, telling a handful of people that his revelations would be felt "all the way to Sacramento." But his actions at the end may have made the murder look more fishy than it really was. The fact that my father confided to more than one person that he was afraid for his life was chilling to know, but what relevance did it have? It certainly didn't preclude the possibility that two cowboys with no particular bone to pick chose his bar from all the other possibilities and stepped inside intending nothing more than an easy robbery. It was my father who did something unexpected that sent the whole thing hurtling in another direction.
Of course, robbery was a theory I had considered—and rejected—long ago. For me to accept it now, I had to be convinced that the Police Department's heart was in the right spot. For one, this was the same department whose century-long corruption I had detailed in my book. Police Chief Ed Winchester, who joined the force in 1967, wasn't pleased with my account of a department that helped cover up the murder.
As I pulled into the restaurant parking lot, I could see one of the detectives reaching into his car for a folder. He had brought the names, dates and motives from an informant in the clutches of the DEA in Santa Ana. The fingerprints from criminal files in Michigan matched the fingerprints lifted from the murder scene. The case was all but closed.
"I hope you understand, but we can't give you the names just yet," Det. Schiotis said.
He was 50 years old with a paunch and bushy mustache, but you could still see the eager kid in him. A cop at the gym told me Schiotis was a quiet bulldog with the reputation of never lying to a suspect or a victim's family. The toughest cases went to him, and he almost always found a way to solve them. Confronted with another long shot, his colleagues started to joke that the chances of solving it were "slim-and-none, and Schiotis."
I liked him from the first handshake, though I did wonder if he was something of a religious zealot. He saw God's hand guiding his movements and told stories of uncanny breaks that helped him solve my father's case. He reached into the folder and took out two mug shots with the names covered up. That's when Green, wiry and hard-edged, the boss of the unit, addressed me.
"These are the guys who took your father's life."
I didn't have to look at the photos long. One mug shot matched almost perfectly a composite drawn from the barmaid's memory. I waited for something to bubble up, an emotion from deep back, as I stared into the faces my father had stared into. Nothing came.
"They're heroin yahoos," Green said. "Both were in prison in Detroit and escaped. They came out to California in late 1971." One gunman had killed himself in 1982 by jumping off an 11-story building. The other was locked up in a federal prison in the East for robbery.
"What makes you so sure of the motive?" I asked. "Detroit is a long way to come out to do a holdup in Fresno."
Green said the man in custody in Orange County grew up in Detroit. He not only knew both robbers but had lured them to California. In early 1972, they told him about a heist that had turned deadly at a bar in Fresno.
"They said they pulled a gun on the owner and what they thought was going to happen didn't happen," Green said. "He fought them."
"So they just happen to be in Fresno and find my father's bar on their own?" I asked.
Green believed someone had sent them—someone who knew there was a lot of money in the safe. I asked if the informant was reliable enough to take to court.
"Everything he's told us checks out. He knew all the drug smugglers. In fact, he was one of them. He said your dad never had a thing to do with their business. He was a good guy."
I didn't need a drug smuggler coming clean under duress to tell me what I already knew. Still, I felt my eyes tear up when he said it.
As we shook hands, Green told me the years of looking over my shoulder were over. "It wasn't a contract hit, Mark. It was just a fight."
A few weeks later, on the 29th anniversary of the murder, the police chief stood before a bank of TV cameras and announced that the Ara Arax case had been solved. I sat behind the reporters with my sister and brother and watched with a strange detachment. Our father, to hear it now, didn't die a hero and didn't die a villain. He was killed for no other reason than his trajectory happened to cross the roaming of two Midwest robbers hoping to taste the California sun. Had he waited that foggy night for me to finish my shower and dry my hair, their arc likely would have missed his. He would be alive today, playing golf and watching my son play left field.
As the cameras cleared out, my sister, Michelle, wondered how the police chief could call a press conference and put forward a motive on the word of one man. Yes, the fingerprints matched and they surely had the right shooters. But no one had talked to two other people central to the crime: the getaway driver and a woman who fancied herself as a young Ma Barker and disappeared from Fresno years ago—Sue Gage.
And nothing the chief said went to the heart of the mystery: Why hadn't my father or the barmaid heard one word about robbery? Why hadn't a single penny been taken?
My cousin Michael Mamigonian, who cleaned the bar when he was in high school, laughed at the notion of my dad resisting a robbery. "Money didn't mean a damn thing to Uncle Ara. If these guys came in with guns and they're holding him up, he would have given them all the money and a couple bottles of whiskey as they were running out the door."
The "Arax story" led the local TV news that night and ran across the top of the Fresno Bee the next morning. My father's face, his ample ears and double chin, smiled beneath a bold-lettered question: "1972 Murder Solved?" I had sat down to breakfast when our fifth grader, Joseph, called from school.
"What's up, buddy?" I asked.
He could barely spit it out.
"Grandpa," he muttered.
By the time I got to the principal's office, his eyes were swollen red. The secretary said his outburst caught the teacher by surprise. "He's mourning a man he never knew," she said. On the way home, he ripped the tissue into shreds.
"Why did he have to die?"
I sensed this was coming, and I did what a father does. I turned it into a lesson. I told him my father's calling in life was to be a coach and teacher, but he never finished college. He chose the wrong business.
"It's too bad he made the wrong choice or he'd be alive today," he said. "His bar was in a bad neighborhood."
His reasoning was as good as any. The town, the bar, the time and place—it was all about bad location.
We pulled into the driveway and I put my arm around his shoulder. I told him that the murder and possible trial of the surviving gunman—all the stuff in the news—was my life, not his.
"How did you get through it, Dad?"
This I didn't see coming. What was I supposed to tell him? That a few weeks after the murder, my uncle came to our house and jammed pieces of wood into every sliding window and drilled a peep hole in the front door? That the face in the composite followed me everywhere, and I'd call detectives with the license plates of look-alikes I encountered at the pizza parlor? That my mother caught me secretly recording one detective and made me promise that I would stop asking questions? That I learned years after she died of cancer that my father had another reason for going to authorities. He was concerned about me, his 9th-grade son who had begun a pathetic little experiment with drugs?
If I answered my son's question that day, it wasn't the whole story. I didn't tell Joseph that I got through it by turning my life into a mission. I became my do-gooder father's do-gooder son. In high school, I was the quarterback who rebelled and started an underground weekly that skewered the jocks and debutantes. Spray can in hand, I sneaked up on the home of the town's biggest developer, a man who had bought off various elected officials, and painted the words "Payola Pig."
As an adult, I toned down my act but never lost my father's passion. I had vowed not to let the murder color my views as a journalist and wrote stories about guards brutalizing inmates inside California prisons. The guards' union couldn't conceive how the son of a murder victim could turn into a "champion for killers." At a legislative hearing on the prison abuses, union leader Don Novey angrily waved a copy of my book. I was a conspiracy nut who had sullied the reputation of one too many public servants. "When is it going to end?" he pleaded.
In the spring of 2003, with the trial pending, my wife, Coby, demanded to know the same: "Seven years writing that book, seven years putting our lives on hold, and it still hasn't gone away?"
I had moved dozens of files out of storage and back into my office at home. Returning to my late-night habits, I added new names and dates to a 7-foot-long timeline. Coby no longer trusted my judgment. She was sure my obsession had gotten the better of me. If I was truly considering her and the children, I would choose to let it go. I didn't see it that way, of course. My fixation on finding one clean answer may have seemed selfish and self-righteous, but there was really no choice in the matter. My father had been murdered, and I had spent the better part of my life turning this way and that way the question why—details I had gotten wrong, details missed, details yet to come. I couldn't very well stop now.
I had the names of four people I never had before—the two shooters, the getaway driver and Sue Gage. I went to the courthouse and pulled criminal files and began interviewing old barflies. To his credit, Schiotis never once told me to keep my nose out of his case. The district attorney's office, in a move that miffed the detective, decided to strike an immunity deal with the getaway driver and Gage to shore up its case against the surviving gunman.
In the weeks leading up to the trial, Schiotis shared his own findings and tried to answer all my questions. He was the one honest, never-say-die cop I had been searching for. He, too, it turned out, wasn't convinced of the motive or whether others had helped set it up. "I'm 70-30 that it's a robbery," he said, "but I won't know for sure until it's over."
Then, on the eve of the trial, he gave me this: The getaway driver's testimony was the most important, and the reason he decided to cooperate was because he had read my book. He had been filled with guilt for two years, looking for a way to unload his remorse.
"He came this close to calling you a few years ago and telling you the truth," Schiotis said. "When we knocked on his door, it all came pouring out. He said he remembered you as a kid in your baseball uniform at the bar. Your book helped solve the case."
The detective saw a larger power at work, a force that connected past to present. He told a story from the late 1960s, when he was a teenager practicing baseball at Hamilton Junior High. He encountered a father hitting ground balls to his young son. "It was you and your dad. I'll never forget it because he kept hitting them over and over."
I vaguely recalled that day, or a day just like it: Charge the ball, Markie. Charge the ball.
"I hope you don't take this wrong," said Schiotis, "but I feel it's almost destiny that this case came to me and I was able to solve it."
The trial that took place over six days last year told its own story. It began, oddly enough, with a German shepherd named Otto. Without him, I would never have had the chance to look Thomas Joseph Ezerkis—one of my father's killers—in the eye.
Otto was roaming the corridors of John Wayne Airport on June 8, 2000, when he detected an unmistakable odor coming from a black tote bag carried by Ronald Young, aka Detroit Ron. That Otto even picked out Detroit Ron—one of 25,000 passengers coming and going that day—was the first of many coincidences that broke open the case. Each coincidence joined up with another until happenstance became fate. Everything fit so neatly that I thought maybe Schiotis was right: The case was God's little puzzle.
At first, Detroit Ron refused to talk about the $300,000 in drug-stained cash he was carrying. He may have looked like a has-been from "Miami Vice"—gray goatee, shaved head, Hawaiian print shirt and Docksiders—but he hadn't survived five decades of drug smuggling by snitching.
For months, he kept mum behind bars. Then his daughter died and her children needed him. His encyclopedic memory became a way out of his jam. If he was going to give up details on this new drug ring, he might as well talk about that old murder in Fresno.
The death of Ara Arax—it, too, was happenstance.
The testimony from Detroit Ron and a host of other rogues would unfold just as the prosecutor promised. No fishing expeditions. No surprises. His only goal was to put Ezerkis, the surviving gunman, away for life. If that meant leaving out tantalizing possibilities of other conspirators and motives detailed in my book, so be it. I was so grateful to be in a courtroom after all these years—close enough that I could hear the defendant grunt—that it hardly mattered. And so I took a seat with my family and quietly watched and listened. It seemed like a birth of some sort. Here is what emerged:
Detroit Ron was serving a term for burglary at Jackson State Prison in Michigan in 1971. In the cell above him was Thomas Ezerkis. They had grown up together on the northwest side of Detroit. Ezerkis' old man was a legendary city cop. He had five children and was extra tough on Tommy, the oldest son, who began injecting heroin at age 20.
In the prison yard, Ezerkis was all ears as Detroit Ron bragged about his California exploits. He had gone to L.A. in the mid-'60s and joined forces with a group of early drug smugglers, some of whom had grown up in Fresno. The wide open farm town remained the base of their operations.
Ezerkis took a mental note of everything Detroit Ron told him. Then, in late 1971, he broke out of prison and headed to California to join one of the smuggling crews. Before escaping, Ezerkis got the phone number of Detroit Ron's old girlfriend—a bombshell named Sue Gage who organized all the Fresno-to-Mexico runs for one group.
Ezerkis arrived in mid-December with his crime partner, Charles Silvani. They crashed at Gage's house in North Hollywood. To raise seed money for a load, they decided to pull a few robberies. Gage loved planning the logistics of a crime, but she left the dirty work to her lovers. Her most recent boyfriend was a sweet-talking, no-honor thief from Fresno named Larry Frazier.
Gage and Frazier happened to be regulars at Ara's Apartments. It was Ara who taught Gage how to shoot pool with her left hand. When she drank too much tequila one night and fired a .357 magnum at Ara's phone—"because I couldn't get a dial tone"—Ara got upset but then forgot about it.
Ara was sweet, but business was business. Gage had spent New Year's weekend at the Apartments before returning to L.A. Ara must have done five grand, she told Frazier. The cash sat in a safe behind the bar. How Gage knew this, she didn't say, but she was certain that Ara would be there at 6:30 p.m. that Sunday to open it up—with the right persuasion.
Gage handed a stolen .32-caliber gun to Silvani. Frazier gave his stolen .38 to Ezerkis. Frazier then hopped into a stolen 1968 Mercury and drove Silvani and Ezerkis to Fresno. They arrived late that afternoon, Jan. 2. Frazier showed the two Detroit men the bar and told them he'd be waiting across the street in a second car at the appointed hour.
At nightfall, they struck. It was misty outside, but Frazier could see the pair running out of the bar and climbing into the Mercury. Frazier gave the signal to follow him. He drove past the west side cotton fields where he grew up, miles and miles until they reached the California aqueduct. There, beside the water that flowed to Los Angeles, Frazier learned the truth.
Silvani had confronted Ara in his office, but he never got a chance to say, "This is a stick-up." Ara exploded out of his chair and charged at him like a bull. Silvani was forced to shoot, but Ara wouldn't go down. Ezerkis had to step up and fire the .38. Ara wrested away the .32 and shot Silvani in the tricep. The gunmen fled without any money.
"We were standing on the aqueduct," Frazier recalled. "I was mad. 'Goddamn it, why did you have to shoot Ara?' They said Ara jumped up and pulled a 'Tom Mix' on them."
Frazier took this to mean that Ara had tried to pull a hero's stunt like those of the famous movie cowboy of the 1930s. Frazier said he grabbed the .38 out of Ezerkis' hand and threw it in the water. Then they pushed the Mercury over the edge and watched it sink.
Of all the testimony, Frazier's account of the killing struck me with the most force. My father bursting out of his chair, the panic that triggered a fury—it sounded like those old stories on the farm my grandfather told. I had seen it so many times myself—at the golf course swinging his driver, in the living room pounding out his exercises, on the front grass teaching me baseball.
My father, hard as it was to accept, had been an accomplice in his own murder. He had misread the gun in his face. All the noise he was making about exposing drug rings and police corruption had put him in a state of mind where a robbery became the very murder he feared. It was the worst case of bad timing. In seven years at the bar, he had never faced the barrel of a gun. And now, on the heels of contacting state narcotics agents and the attorney general's office, comes the first gun. He is waiting for that gun. He is braced for that gun. That gun shows up in the hands of a robber.
The crime eventually came full circle. A month after Dad's murder, trailing a string of robberies, Ezerkis found himself back at Jackson State Prison, where he confessed the entire episode to Detroit Ron.
It took the jury less than three hours to find Ezerkis guilty. Jurors later told me their only regret was seeing Sue Gage go free. At the sentencing, we decided not to give any victim statements. What chronicle of loss could we add that wasn't already in the book? Ezerkis, though, had something to say to us. He turned around and gave us a full measure of his face.
"I know that losing a parent is a traumatic experience, especially under the conditions that they lost their father. But on the same breath, I gotta tell them that I didn't do it. That's all I gotta say."
The judge sentenced him to life. As we walked out, prosecutor Dennis Peterson, a kind man who felt conflicted about the immunity deal with Gage, patted me on the back. "That's it," he said. "It's that simple."
The packet sat on my desk for months after the trial. It was the testimony of the coroner who had taken the stand on a day I didn't make it to court. Truth be known, I didn't have the stomach to attend. I was afraid that one detail might stick—a line from the coroner's notes or maybe the sickened face of a juror viewing the autopsy photographs—and screw up 31 years of healing. When I finally opened the packet and began reading the testimony, it became clear that neither side had bothered to connect the coroner's dots. Had they done so, it surely would have complicated the robbery theory.
Of the first three shots that hit my father, at least one was fired from a longer range. This was almost certainly the first shot. Its angle is consistent with my father sitting in his chair and Silvani firing from a distance of 10 to 15 feet. He takes aim at my father's head. Dad deflects the bullet with his wrist and it grazes the top of his skull, exiting in almost a perfect line out the back office wall.
This first shot, contrary to the prosecution's theory, showed that Silvani's intent was deadly from the outset. He began firing before my father ever made a single move. Dad's last words to the doctors said as much: "I was doing the books and two guys came in and just started shooting."
The fatal shot in the stomach likely came next. It was fired close up at a considerable downward angle, indicating that my father was still coming out of his chair like a lineman driving out of his stance. The third shot also struck his abdomen, its slight downward angle consistent with my father reaching a nearly upright position. Only then did he come face to face with Silvani, back him into the main bar area and take away his gun. My father fired once, but before he could fire again, the gun jammed.
And then there were the other dots that the prosecution failed to connect—all the employees and patrons who lurked in the background of the story. How much coincidence was I supposed to accept? Gage happened to be working with the same drug smugglers who were troubling my father. One of her cohorts, Mike Garvey, was my dad's bar manager. It was Garvey whose alleged drug smuggling in late 1971 had so perturbed my father that he contacted state narcotics agents. Garvey and Dad got into a dispute that December, and Dad fired him. It was Garvey who talked to Dad on the phone just hours before the murder. How did Gage know the precise time he was going to work—on a day he seldom went in?
Why couldn't robbery and murder be part of the same plan? If they needed to silence my father, why not lure him to work on a slow Sunday evening, rip off the money and then shoot him?.
I know it wasn't the simple answer. And the simple answer was almost always the right answer because it fit the small thinking of most criminals. But even Frazier, the getaway driver, had thought it was a hit after reading my book. When the detectives first interviewed him, Frazier said he had been "set up" to believe it was a robbery. The detectives told him he had to testify about what he knew back then, not what he had read in a book years later. So he gave the details of a botched robbery.
Inside a bird's nest of a trailer in the Oregon mountains, it didn't take long for Sue Gage to turn on me. She kept talking into my recorder about what a good man my father was. I kept pressing her about her close connections to bar manager Mike Garvey and Fresno's drug smugglers.
This whole period was an aberration, she said. Her first husband died in 1967 while serving in the Navy. She had a baby daughter and was lonely, and a friend introduced her to the crowd at Dad's bar. Before she knew it, she was running between Fresno and Hollywood, living with wanted men.
Then one day, with no warning, two guys from Detroit showed up.
"Detroit Ron sent them from prison without ever telling me. I let them stay at my house in Hollywood. Very nice and polite guys. And then Larry Frazier comes over and they start plotting. I figured they were going to rip off drug dealers."
She blamed herself for naively giving a gun to Silvani and maybe innocently mentioning that she had spent New Year's weekend at a busy Ara's Apartments. She said it was a week or two later, while attending a party in L.A., that she learned my father had been killed. A group of Fresno outlaws was discussing the murder, and Frazier suddenly pulled her into a closet.
"He told me the two guys from Detroit killed Ara during a robbery. I didn't want to believe it. We swore to each other to never tell another soul. And I would have never told. I would have went to my grave."
I wasn't buying it.
"Frazier tells it differently," I said. "He says you put the whole thing together. You knew my father was going to be at the bar. You knew the precise time."
"That's a lie," she shouted. "Yes, I had a role, but my motivation was to get rid of those guys, to send them on their merry way with a gun."
"You set it up, Sue."
"Listen," she said, pounding the tiny table wedged between her bed and refrigerator. "I'm an old lady. I've had 26 years of being a good citizen, and I'll be damned if you're going to implicate me in a murder."
"You've already implicated yourself."
"I don't think this is a good idea. I thought I was seeing Ara's son. But you've got too much reporter in you."
"What did you expect? Your greed changed my life."
Her hard face twisted into a cruel sneer. "Get over it," she said. "Get over it. Dead is dead. My daughter doesn't even remember her father's funeral."
That daughter had the benefit of an answer. Her daddy died in an accident on a Navy ship.
"What right do you have to preach to me?" I shouted.
My right hand was poised just inches from her face. For the first time in my adult life, for the slightest moment, I wished I was someone else. Not a father. Not a husband. Not a reporter.
"Listen, lady, you've got a lot of gall. If my parents had raised a different son, you and I wouldn't be talking right now. Where do you get off sounding callous?"
"Callous?" she said, backing down. "That I am. That I am. I haven't slept with a man in 10 years. I'm pretty shut off."
Her voice had softened, and I bored in. I described my father's talks with drug agents, how the first shot was fired at his head before he ever made a threatening move.
"What? No one ever told me that."
"Does that sound like robbery?" I asked. "Why was no money taken?"
"Wait, wait, wait," she said, looking confused. "There was no money taken?"
She seemed on the verge of going in another direction. I thought she might tell me that these guys returned from Fresno that night with some payment, after all. But she stopped herself short. And then it was as if she had entered a trance. There was no shaking her out of it.
"No, it's just an old song. Ara taught me how to play pool left-handed. He wasn't like the rest of those guys. It was a robbery. I gave the gun not knowing. Maybe I'll write a book myself and call it 'The Closet.' Because it was in a closet when I first learned about them killing your dad, and it's in a closet where I've kept it ever since."
I got up and walked out the door. The rain had stopped, and she followed me all the way to the truck.
"My biggest crime was to keep you in the dark. I could have fixed all this when you were much younger. I could have come forward and fixed it, but I wasn't a snitch. I owed that to you. I'm sure you've had a long and strange journey."
Am I a son clinging to an end that wraps my father in glory? Is it true, as a friend says, that as long as I keep open the question of who killed him and why, I don't have to bury him?
I am now seven years older than my father was the night he left us. I have three children of my own, the oldest a daughter whose bedroom floor is lined with college applications. Whether she understands it or not, she has lived with the shadow of my father's murder all her life. She was 2 years old when we moved back to Fresno to begin my search. How naive was my promise to keep the past separate from our lives, as if it could be stored in boxes and file cabinets and brought out at night, when my daughter and wife slept and I was free to work on my puzzle. Yes, I did right by my father, but it came at a price that I, alone, didn't pay. The best of me was taken from my own family.
Even today, as a 47-year-old man, the role of Ara's boy, "Markie," still comes as easy to me as the role of husband or dad. But playing that grief-stricken 15-year-old kid is no longer befitting. Dead is dead. My mother would be happy to know that I have made a life apart from the murder. I write and tend to my fruit and vegetable garden. My sister and brother honor our parents in their own way. Michelle teaches at a Fresno middle school and Donnie is the head football coach at our high school alma mater.
They both wonder, for my sake, if I have put it away. Maybe I have.
Ezerkis now lives in one of the California prisons I write about, but I don't feel any need to confront him. Last winter, I picked up the paper and read that the bar, now known as Los Compadres, had been gutted by an arson fire. I didn't bother to drive by for a look. A while back, a dentist friend called to say that one of his patients had new information about my father, but I have never dialed her number. Schiotis says my questions are good ones, and he needs to take a hard second look at Gage, Garvey and others. "It's still open as far as I'm concerned." I like hearing those words, but I don't press him.
Some truths, I am reminded, can never be known. The truth of my father's murder is now less important to me than the truth of his life. I no longer believe that robbery means he died for nothing. What was in his heart at the end counts for something. His fervent wish was for the town he loved to be a better place. He was willing to risk a lot to see that happen. I no longer believe that all that I am is a response to the murder. The older I grow, the more I think that, simply, what I am, at the core, is what I would have become had my father lived.
This past spring, my son Joseph made the move to the big diamond—90 feet between the bases and 60 feet, 6 inches from pitcher to home plate. Not an easy adjustment for a 13-year-old, much less one still shy of puberty. In the batting cage, I sometimes let my irritations show. All the years playing and coaching and learning from the best, and I return to my father.
"Joe, you're swinging too polite. Your power comes from the belly button. Explode with the belly button, son. Explode."