Read this exclusive guest post from David Wilson, author of Not Just Evil: Murder, Hollywood, and California's First Insanity Plea, and make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of the novel!
Following a thirty-year career as a private investigator specializing in criminal defense, I wrote a book called Not Just Evil. The book describes the use of the insanity plea by William Edward Hickman, following his confession for the crime of kidnapping and murdering Marion Parker. Hickman based his insanity plea on the idea that he lived in a fantasy world caused by his addiction to the cinema.
Hollywood responded with a media campaign designed to dismiss the validity of his defense. The campaign was financed by Louis B. Mayer, who hired Edgar Rice Burroughs—the creator of Tarzan—to cover the trial as a journalist. I believe it would be fair to say Burroughs was less than objective in his articles about the trial.
Now that the book is in production, I have had an opportunity to reflect on my personal interest in the contrast between true crime as objective storytelling, the media portrayal of historic events from the point of view of entertainment, and efforts to use real cases as a basis for fictional stories. These are three distinct approaches to storytelling and often become blurred in their relationship to actual events.
Growing up, I shared an interest in Westerns with my father, who referred to the genre as “Horse Operas.” In my father’s opinion, a film was a Horse Opera if the hero asked someone sitting alongside the road the question: “Which way did they go?” The response was always: “They went thatta way.”
In the fifties, Westerns were two-dimensional. The good guys were all good, and the bad guys were all bad. As a child, I developed an interest in history and was shocked—after reading biographies of Wyatt Earp, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, and Bat Masterson—to discover their lives were far more nuanced then was typically shown in the movies.
This contrast was heightened by discussions with my father, LAPD Police Officer George Wilson. Because of his training in the military, Officer Wilson went from the Police Academy to work for the Department Intelligence Unit, where he wire-tapped the phones of suspected gangsters. His stories inspired me to read books on the history of organized crime in America. Later on, when the Godfather movies became popular, I was able to recognized the real-life mobsters who were the inspiration for characters on screen.
My interest in the idea of true crime versus fictional crime was solidified when my father became the technical advisor for the television series Dragnet. His partner in this effort was an LA police officer named Gene Roddenberry. It was Gene’s job to review the Dragnet scripts and make sure they were consistent with real police procedure. With the blessing of then Chief William Parker, Roddenberry would pay police officers $100 for story ideas that were turned into scripts.
Gene took his experience with Dragnet and transferred it into the creation of a successful television series called Star Trek. During the first three years of the series, Gene kept his job with the LAPD by taking a leave of absence during the filming. Fans of Star Trek will recognize that Gene was an advocate of multi-cultural equity at a time when it was not necessarily a popular idea. According to my father, Gene was instrumental in pushing Chief William Parker to re-examine what Roddenberry considered biased hiring practices and promotions with the police department.
My father worked with another LAPD officer who was a neighbor and family friend. His name was Joseph Wambaugh, and he changed the genre of fictional police stories as they were popularized in films. Dragnet was essentially a police procedural. In this genre, the emphasis is on how the police solve a crime and arrest the suspect. Wambaugh took this genre and added the elements of the impact of police work on personal lives and the emotional challenges of dealing with crime on a daily basis.
Wambaugh, like Roddenberry, tried to hold on to his job after the release of his first book. Unfortunately, Joseph worked out of the Hollywood Division and was constantly plagued with requests from suspects for an introduction to casting directors. The situation reached a point where it was impossible for him to do his job, and he made the decision to resign from the department.
Fans of Wambaugh will know that most of his books were fictional accounts of the personal lives of police officers. He wrote one book that he characterized as nonfiction called The Onion Fields. That book was the account of the kidnapping of two police officers. One officer was killed, and the other survived. The officer who survived was severely criticized for his actions on the day of the kidnapping. The criticism led to his resignation from the police department and a lifelong struggle with depression. My father knew the officer and was not happy with the dramatic account of his life. He felt the criticism was unfair, and my father’s reaction left a big impression on me in terms of the responsibility of a storyteller to get it right.
In his last decade of service with the LAPD, Officer Wilson became the founder and the curator of the LAPD museum. In addition to gathering historic artifacts, he made a point of interviewing retired officers and gathering a data bank of their oral history. His initial efforts involved the use of a display case in the lobby of the Parker Center Police Administration office. Currently, the museum is housed in what used to be a police station and has creative displays of famous cases.
In my work as a private investigator, I was blessed to work with Bill Turner—who I consider to be one of the legendary investigators of our time. Bill started his career as an F.B.I. agent. He left the Bureau because he felt the restrictions on agents from J. Edgar Hoover made it difficult to develop cases that had an impact on real political and social issues.
Turner went on as an investigator for Jim Garrison, the District Attorney of New Orleans. While working for Garrison, Bill developed a case against Clay Shaw for the conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. Turner’s efforts were the subject of the movie JFK by Oliver Stone. Following his tenure in New Orleans, Bill set up his own business as a private investigator and worked on the defense of Sirhan, Sirhan, James Earl Ray, and Arthur Breamer. He was also the lead investigator for the American Indian Movement in the case of the shootout with law enforcement at Wounded Knee.
In addition to his legal work, Bill was an accomplished writer and wrote books about his involvement in major cases. As a writer, he was fundamentally a journalist and made, what I believe to be, an objective examination of the issue of the lone gunman versus the idea of the assassin as part of a larger conspiracy. This is a controversial topic that Bill approached by simply describing his process in the investigation of major stories.
My favorite example of his methodology is when he first started working on the Clay Shaw investigation. Bill traveled to Dallas, walked to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Dispensary, and looked out the window where Lee Harvey Oswald was alleged to have fired the fatal shots that killed President Kennedy. He discovered there was a tree in front of the window. On the day after he announced his discovery to the media, J. Edgar Hoover ordered the F.B.I. to cut down the tree.
Bill’s work on the defense of Sirhan, Sirhan was a remarkable irony for me personally. The LAPD police reports on the physical evidence related to the assassination of Robert Kennedy indicate thirteen shots were fired in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel where Kennedy was killed. Sirhan’s gun held seven bullets, and there was no eyewitness testimony indicating he reloaded his weapon. In an effort to resolve the discrepancy, Bill subpoenaed Sirhan’s gun. At the time, the gun was a prize exhibit in the LAPD museum set up by my father. I remember my father was shocked and dismayed when he received the subpoena because one day prior to receiving the request the gun was stolen from the display case inside Parker Center.
It was a difficult moment for Officer Wilson, who was actively involved in the efforts of Chief William Parker to rid the LAPD of corruption. As part of that effort, my father was part of a group known as the “Gangster Squad.” His work in that unit was made into a film starring Sean Penn. For me personally, the film was upsetting. Both my father and I are depicted in the movie in a way that had absolutely no connection to reality. Based on conversations with my father, the Gangster Squad did do things that were clearly illegal. They did not, however, drive through the streets of Los Angeles randomly killing gangsters.
His story about those events will be the basis for my next book, Almost at Perfect Murder.
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David G. Wilson worked for thirty years in the San Francisco Bay area with his own company providing investigative services. He was hired twice by the US Senate to investigate political corruption involving elected officials. In 1989 he made the first of seven trips to the West African Rain Forrest where he studied the philosophy, theology and rituals of the indigenous shamans. Based on these studies he has written ten books on traditional Yoruba culture and has lectured extensively on the topic. He lived for five years in Mexico where he studied the system of pyramids built throughout South America. He is currently living in New Mexico exploring sacred sites and working as a Jazz musician. He has three children and four grandchildren.