Adventures in Wonderland
By Jay S. Jacobs
For a city that is known for many brutal crimes over the years, it takes a real something for a series of murders to stand out. However, forty years ago, the mass beatings and slaying by hammers of four people in a drug house on Wonderland Avenue in the Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles was stunning in its violence.
That was just the beginning of the story. The victims were three criminals who had recently taken part in a violent home invasion of Eddie Nash, a local organized crime figure, nightclub owner, and… it turns out… a business manager for entertainer Liberace. The fourth killed victim was just a girlfriend of an accomplice who happened to be staying there. One of the murder victim’s wife was also there but survived the ordeal.
It turned out that what seemed to be just an extremely vicious drug murder had larger tentacles. One of the people apparently involved in the killings was former porn star John Holmes. A secret witness named “Jess Marlow” turned out to be Scott Thorson, then Liberace’s lover, who later went on the write the book Behind the Candelabra about his relationship with the in-the-closet entertainer. (Matt Damon played Thorson in the movie version of the book.)
Though it was never completely proven, and he was acquitted of the charge, it is pretty much common wisdom that Nash ordered the murders. Though Nash, Holmes and one of Nash’s henchmen were arrested for the killings, all were acquitted. In 2004, Nash went to jail on related RICOH charges, but while he acknowledged sending people to retrieve his money and property, he always claimed he had nothing to do with the planning of the murders. None of the actual killers have ever been jailed for the crimes.
The case has officially been a cold case for many years, but to this day, lead detectives Tom Lange and Bob Souza and Hollywood homicide investigator Rick Jackson have kept the investigation active, well into their retirement.
Another person who has been fascinated by the case over the decades is mystery novelist Michael Connelly, who has written 36 novels, including The Lincoln Lawyer and the Harry Bosch mysteries. At the time of the original trials, Connelly was newly arrived in Los Angeles, working as a crime reporter for The Los Angeles Times.
Now, in time for the 40th anniversary of the crimes, he has put together the podcast “The Wonderland Murders & the Secret History of Hollywood.” Det. Lange, Det. Souza, Jackson and Thorson all sat down for interviews to discuss what happened on that gory day; the mystery, the investigation and the legal hurdles that were encountered.
It’s all part of a busy time for Connelly. Other than the podcast releases, Amazon Prime Video has just dropped the seventh and final season of Bosch, the TV series about his detective for which Connelly has been an executive producer and a contributing writer. His latest novel, The Dark Hours, is due to be released in November.
Days before “The Wonderland Murders & the Secret History of Hollywood” podcast was about to drop, we caught up with Michael Connelly via Zoom to discuss the murders, his career, his books and the final season of Bosch.
What was it about the Wonderland Murders which have intrigued you over the years?
I guess it’s a lot of things. I came to Los Angeles in 1986 as a journalist, and the murders had occurred five years before, but they were moving towards a prosecution. Actually an ill-fated prosecution. A couple of trials began in the late 80s. I was a crime reporter for The LA Times, so it’s something that I was paying attention to. I also ended up living in Laurel Canyon for a number of years in the 90s. I actually lived around the corner from the house where these murders occurred, so that kept it in (laughs) my imagination or my intrigue, all that time.
Yes, that would keep it fresh in mind.
Then finally, why now? Well, one thing, it is 40 years old on Thursday – the 40th anniversary of this crime – and it has lots and lots of aspects of it that are unsolved, unknown, and so forth. I’ve been writing novels for a long time and using a cadre of detectives, real LAPD homicide detectives, to help me with the accuracy of the books. It just so happens that one of those detectives was a key player in this case. I’ve heard him tell stories about it over the years and so forth.
That really was my entree into it. Through him, we were able to locate Scott Thorson, who probably on the dark side of this the non-cops / prosecutor side of this, he’s the last man standing. He tells the story – if you can believe his story. That’s part of the intrigue and fun, if you will, of the podcast – trying to figure out if he’s telling the truth and checking what he says against the known facts. Digging deeper than I think has been done before.
As you discuss Scott Thorson in the podcast, several times you refer to him as an “unreliable narrator.” As a journalist, how do you deal with someone like him that may very well be making things up for his own benefit?
Well, detectives always tell me take nothing at face value. Check everything out. Some of it is tough to check, 40 years later. Even the detectives on the case are relying on memories that are 40 years old. I’ve been able to get the file and a lot of documentation on the case, so I can check the facts. I think that’s, as I said, the fun of it. To see if Scott is embellishing, especially putting himself in a better light. I think there’s some of that going on.
That seems to be his style.
The one thing I say, eventually, I think it’s episode five, I say maybe… just maybe… our unreliable narrator is telling the truth. Because I have been able to check a lot of what he has said against the facts. And then the key thing is every homicide detective I’ve ever asked for advice from – in terms of writing my novels – [they say] that when you have a snitch, a witness, whatever their motive is, you ask them their story many, many times. The details will come out. If they’re telling lies. If they’re embellishing.
I have found the summary documents of Scott Thorson his very first interview with detectives, way back in 1988. His story hasn’t changed. I’ve been able to get versions of his stories over all the decades. His story has not changed when it comes to what he knew about these murders. So, I think that lends some credence to what he what he said. Then I’ve gotten some outside confirmation some of the things that he said. Some of the wilder things he said, I’ve been able to confirm.
I must admit I didn’t really remember the case all that well before listening to the episodes of your podcast. I remember a little bit. I remember the whole thing about john Holmes. I did even see the movie about the case (Wonderland with Val Kilmer) a long time ago. I did not remember the whole Liberace connection. Of course, he was not exactly directly involved, and yet he was connected with both Eddie Nash and Scott Thorson. Were you surprised by his part in the crime?
I was braced for that by the detectives who brought me into the story and brought me to Scott Thorson. So, I knew a little bit about it, but I thought it was a fascinating relationship. Scott Thorson has been played by Matt Damon in a movie (Behind the Candelabra, about Thorson’s relationship with Liberace). That movie stops well short of the Wonderland case. That has nothing to do with it, really. It’s just interesting that this whole thing in pop culture about Liberace and Scott Thorson has this completely separate and very dark side to it. That’s one reason why to explore this.
The one thing I most remembered about it was that the former porn star John Holmes was much more involved. From what I’ve heard in the first four episodes, he was definitely a part of it, but no one really knows how active he was in the crime. How deep do you think he was in it?
My personal opinion is that he was forced to take part. This guy, by the time this all happened, he was a shell of a person. His career was pretty much shot. He was badly addicted to drugs. He was walking through parking lots and stealing stuff out of open windows of car just so he could trade for drugs. He was facing a case like that for stealing its typewriter out of a car when this whole thing went down. So that’s where he was at.
Yes, in bad straits.
He set up the robbery that led to these murders. There’s some severe culpability in that, in my opinion. He never really acknowledged that. He almost always seemed to kind of… not laugh it off, but almost have a humorous view of like, “Wow, look what I have wrought, just because I had this idea of robbing a drug dealer.” All the attention and so forth. So, I kind of look at him as one of the villains, for sure.
They charged him with murder and that was probably extreme. But as the podcast points out, it was all part of a strategy to get him to talk. They were pretty sure he knew all the secrets. He knew everything that went down on this case. He never did talk. Even when he was on his deathbed. He was dying of AIDS. There’s no threat to him there. Why didn’t he tell what he knew? I think, as one of the detectives [said], and a prosecutor echoed, he was just one of these guys that didn’t want to go down in history as a snitch.
Like you said, many of the people involved in the Wonderland crimes are long dead. Ideally, if you could have spoken with anyone who was involved, who would you most have wanted to interview to get their side of the story?
I think definitely Eddie Nash. Now would I get his side of the story? I don’t know. I mean, this is kind of a fantasy question. But he didn’t ever give a like an in-depth interview. He did like stuff when he’s walking out in courtrooms, saying I didn’t do this. But it’s pretty clear. And he ultimately 20 years after the crime, at least went into court and pled guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. So ultimately, he acknowledged his culpability in this, but he never talked about it.
Silence seems to be common here.
He’s an interesting story. There’s a lot of hints of it in the podcast and the episodes to come as to what his character was like. I think he’d be in a good interview. I think most people would say john Holmes, but to me, that’s not as interesting. [Nash would be more intriguing] as the dark genius behind all this.
You’ve been doing fiction rather than journalism for years. Now, was it fun to dip your toe back into the world of reporting?
Yes, it really was. I’ve written 36 novels. They’re fiction. (laughs) No one ever gets away. All the crimes are solved. Here’s this case, and 40 years later, you know people got away with murder. There are people that have never been mentioned in the media that were in that house killing people. It wasn’t just John Holmes and one other guy.
The detectives are pretty clear that to control a house full of five people, it’s probably two carloads of people went up there. The idea is so antithetical to writing fiction, where everything is tied up. Good triumphs over evil. Here’s a case where you can’t say that happened. I was talking to the lead detective a couple days ago. He gave me a great quote that’s going right into the podcast. He said, “Murder is messy. There’s not always answers.”
Looking at it from the point of view of a novelist, what parts of the Wonderland case do you think would be too much of a stretch to put in one of your fictional books?
(laughs) Yeah. When you write fiction, you have to be more believable. There is a few things here that are unbelievable. One, there was a murder in 1987 that was in Hollywood. It was at basically drug den. Another drug den, an apartment building where multiple people in the building were selling crack. A 15-year-old kid got murdered in there. That led detectives to Scott Thorson. [The detective] made a case against the killers and Scott Thorson got ancillary charges because he was like the getaway driver.
That was a Hollywood homicide detective. Then about two weeks after he arrested Scott Thorson, he got promoted to the downtown homicide squad called robbery homicide division. He’s put out a desk directly across – like four feet away – from the lead detective on the Wonderland case. So this guy has the witness that would blow that case open. They end up sitting right across from each other just through like a promotion and reassignment. If I did that in a book, my editor would say, “Nah, that’s not going to work. No one’s going to believe that would just happen.” That’s just one example. There’s a there’s a bunch of those things that a fiction editor would reject out of hand.
Why did you decide you wanted to do this as a podcast, rather than doing a nonfiction book about the case?
I think because it’s more immediate. And I like the voices of the detectives. When it comes to writing, I think I’m going to stick to writing novels. That’s a creative form and an art form that really appeals to me. But as you mentioned, I was a journalist. I haven’t been a real journalist in 25 plus years. But I guess the further I am towards the end of my days, as a storyteller, I get more interested in these true stories.
I can see that.
And, as I say, I’ve been the benefactor of these detectives that surround me and help me write the fiction I write. They help me get it real, the sense of reality. That’s a very important part of my fiction work. At the same time, these people really impress me and inspire me because I know there’s a lot of issues with policing. It’s very of the moment, but there are some people out there that are really relentless and adhere to the code that my fiction character Harry Bosch adheres to. That’s “everybody counts, or nobody counts.”
This is the third podcast that I’ve done. In the first one, I just wanted to give them their voice. I wanted people to hear their voice. I wanted people to hear how dedicated they were. I think you get that in this Wonderland case, as well, because it’s going on 40 years. It was probably maybe 20 to 25 years where it was really active. The two lead detectives who are in this podcast are long retired. They still work it out. They still talk to each other. They still make phone calls. It’s something that sticks with them because as we’ve been talking about here, not all the questions are answered.
What are some other Hollywood mysteries – or just mysteries in general – that you’d like to explore for possible future podcasts?
For good or bad – and I think it’s for good – I’m associated with Los Angeles crimes. (chuckles) You never go wanting here, right? It’s interesting as I said, in my books every, all the details are nailed down, and nobody gets away with murder. When I left being a crime reporter here in town, I took all my files of open cases. I had lots of lots of open cases and I still have those files. I look at him every now and then and think is there a story in here that I could go back to? [It would] be a more personal journey. I enjoy doing that, probably more so than the straight reporting.
You have a new book called The Dark Hours coming out in November. What can fans look forward to from that novel?
That one’s a Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch book. I’m doing some reporting in that. I know it’s fiction, but the Los Angeles Police Department is different now – post-George Floyd, semi post-pandemic. I know, we’re still kind of in it. These things really impact the culture of policing around the country, but also in Los Angeles. I’m writing a fiction. It’s a mystery. It’s a murder mystery. But I’m trying to say what it’s like to be a detective and a police officer in this city, at this time. It’s very different than it was just one year ago.
Speaking of Harry Bosch, the seventh and final season of your TV series Bosch has recently been released on Amazon Prime. What has the experience been like, seeing your books and your characters come to life in such an acclaimed series?
It’s pretty amazing. I wish everybody who has written a book had that happen to him. I’ve been very lucky. I mean, I’ve worked hard to be lucky. I was very hands on in deciding who was going to be involved in making the show. I think I put together – with the help of many people – a crew, if you will, people who wanted to do right by the books. Didn’t want to go off and tell their own stories or say how they could do it differently. They wanted to be very dedicated to what’s in the books. I think that’s what happened with the TV show. I couldn’t be prouder of the TV show. Again, I keep saying, I’m lucky that I got the right people to make the right TV show. All credit goes to them, but it’s something I’m very proud of.
Now, just a couple questions that are a bit off the subject, but both of are everyone’s subjects right now. Like you mentioned, the pandemic is just about over, but it’s not quite. How have you handled the whole last year and a half of all the craziness and tragedy and the sheltering at home and everything?
I get embarrassed to talk about it, because as you say, there’s a lot of tragedy. But I’m a writer. For 25 years, I’ve been writing at home, so I didn’t have a big change in culture. I got to write at home. On top of that, I have an adult daughter, who I said goodbye to. My wife and I were empty nesters. She got furloughed from her job, so she came home and lived with us. So I had that benefit as well. That was someone I thought was not gone from my life, but someone who had moved on with their own life, I got to spend six months under the same roof again. That was a gift to me. So it’s very hard for me that talk about “Oh, woe is me” and how tough it was, when it was so tough on so many people, and so many people didn’t survive it. It’s kind of a question that I like to go, “Next question, please.”
Now that things are hopefully coming back to normal, what are some of the things you’re most looking forward to being able to do again?
It became like, well look at you and me, we’re doing this zoom. I was involved in two television shows. The writing room, that’s where I contribute to the shows I’m involved in, because I don’t know anything about cameras or anything like that, or how to talk to an actor. Where I’m a value is in the writing room, and those were done by Zoom. They worked and we had laughs and stuff, but I’ve been writing rooms before the pandemic, and nothing beats that kind of camaraderie. Where you all have these little offices in a suite, and then you come to the boardroom. You all sit around this table, and you kick the story around. You figure out what the episodes are, what the beats are. I love that. That’s a very creative stew.
It loses something when you move it to Zoom. I’m looking forward to getting into a writing room with real live people and sitting across the table from them. So, that on a professional level. The writing of books is not really changed by the pandemic, as I mentioned before, so that will continue. Then just in personal life, I want to get back out to do some traveling, go to some restaurants, live events, like everybody. Go to some sporting events that I was unable to go to. I mean, my favorite hockey team the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup last year in a bubble. No one could go see those games. They’re back in it right now and I’m hoping to get to one of the games.
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 7, 2021.
Photos #1-2 ©2021 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.
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