Read The Laughing Gorilla Online

Authors: Robert Graysmith

Tags: #Social Science, #Criminology, #Fiction, #General

The Laughing Gorilla (32 page)

BOOK: The Laughing Gorilla
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Fell thought a moment and replied, “You’ve been swell to me, guys, Jimmy, Tom. I’ll tell it all when we get back.”
Britt decided not to hurry him. “Let’s go get something to eat,” he suggested. “Sure, why not.”
So instead of returning him to the Redwood City Jail, Britt and Maloney took Fell to the most popular restaurant in Berkeley. He smiled when they arrived, even executed a snappy tap dance for them on the gravel of the parking lot—“Me and my baby . . .” Fell’s lighthearted mood vanished when he spied a hoard of East Bay reporters converging on them. Outpacing the mob, they dashed inside. When an attractive waitress came over, Fell began kidding her. She found it impossible to believe such a “personable young man” could be in police custody. She delivered their order of T-bones and fries, steaming coffee, rolls, and pie, then, seeing the reporters outside, asked Fell to autograph her starched white collar. He scrawled his initials there. “Boy—won’t she get a jolt when she finds out who I really am!” Fell said.
After dinner, they drove to Ada’s El Cerrito home (two carloads of reporters still behind) and made a fruitless search for her corpse in Fell’s presence. Next they got to the Rice house in Woodside Glens to find the stout Sheriff McGrath and two other men outside. The rocky area around the knoll had been completely dug up. Everyone climbed the steps and went up to the door. Dorothy Farnum answered the door in her blue jeans trousers, gray sweater shirt, and brightly colored suspenders. Her tap shoes gleamed in the light from the porch.
Once inside, they allowed Fell to bathe, shave, and don fresh clothes—gray trousers with a neat crease, a light gray V-neck sweater, black Oxfords with no socks, an Ascot scarf, and a blue zipper jacket. He combed his thick dark hair back until it was smooth as a phonograph record. He was happy to be spending some time with his “friends.” This respite allowed him time to consider what he was going to say. The police were thinking, too. Disturbing new information that threatened any conviction had come to light. Two of Ada’s neighbors were positive they had seen her alive and well months after she vanished.
“I am positive I saw Mrs. Rice one day last August,” Mrs. Ted Rawlings said. “I remember wondering why she had returned, for we hadn’t seen her since June 13. It was in the daytime and she passed within a few feet of me, driving her car toward her home. I couldn’t be mistaken.”
Mrs. Fred Walther also told Britt she had seen Ada in a Woodside Glens election booth during the August elections. “We had talked together about the elections,” Mrs. Walther said, “and as I was leaving one election booth I saw her entering the next booth and said hello to her.”
It was dark out now. There was no fog and wouldn’t be until the heat wave ended. Fell came out and helped the officers down into the basement where it was cooler. “Perhaps you will find something there,” he said and indicated a corner of the basement where gophers had pushed up the earth. “Why don’t you look there?”
Britt saw a red spot on a windowsill. “Is that blood, Jerry?” he said. “No, it looks more like catsup to me,” Fell said. They went back upstairs and DA Gilbert D. Ferrell, the stout Sheriff McGrath, court reporter William Girvin (ready to take notes in shorthand), Maloney, Britt, and Fell took their seats at the big round table. Boots brought them cold drinks and then was ordered into a back room to wait.
Fell stood by his claim that Ada Rice had gone away with an army officer to marry and was on her honeymoon this moment. At first McGrath asked his questions in a serious vein, but this elicited only silence. From then on, by prearrangement, no one spoke of a confession, only traded stories informally as if they had been buddies gathered together to play cards. Of them all Fell was having the best time.
But after a bit, the officers fell silent, tilted back their heads and stared fixedly at the chandelier around which blowflies chased each other. The only sound for minutes at a time was their droning. Odd, Britt thought, blowflies aren’t usually active at night. Hypnotized, Fell watched their metallic bodies shimmer green and blue in the light. Then the five men lowered their eyes and began telling jokes and drinking again.
“How do you get the rooster to stop crowing on Sunday? Eat him on Saturday.”
With knowing winks, Fell nudged the policemen as they attempted to kid him into a confession of one murder and maybe four or five others. He was a big kid trying to please. “Draw one down for Gracie Neff,” toasted Fell. “She never screams; her mother’s deaf.” Nervous laughter. The drink washed over Fell, made him feel warm and confident he could bluff this out. “Drink one down for my old frail, she told her pa, now I’m in jail.”
The detectives, who knew they sat in a house of death, became silent again. The psychological war between the detectives and their suspect continued.
“You know,” said McGrath, “funny thing about those blowflies.” He laced his fingers over his ample belly, lifted his chins, and peered upward. The flies continued to circle and lose themselves in the dark corners of the bungalow. “Now I wonder what they are doing. I wonder . . .” he tilted his head farther back. Everyone followed suit. More minutes of silence elapsed as everyone studied the flies. Round and round.
Now the cops began to speak again, not of a confession, but about prime bangtail. Fell was having a fine time. Because most cops on the SFPD were Irish, he told his Irish jokes. “What’s an Irish beauty?” he asked and answered, “A woman with two black eyes.” “What’s Irish confetti?” he asked and answered, “Bricks.”
Drinks went round and everyone drank until McGrath and his men put down their glasses, fell silent, and studied the circling flies again. Transfixed, Fell followed their gaze. “Now I wonder about those flies,” said the sheriff. “I wonder what they’re doing.”
“Stop it! Stop looking at those damned flies,” Fell cried. “Stop talking about them.” He pointed his finger at the light, then darted it from man to man accusingly. “Stop looking at them! Stop looking at me that way . . . let me think . . . let me think.” He folded his arms like a child.
After more chatter and another silent treatment, Fell put his head between his hands. The only sound was the monotonous buzzing of flies.
“Well, Jerry,” said the sheriff with his biggest smile, “aren’t you going to tell us what you did with the body.”
“No, I’m not and you’re never going to find it! You’ll never find it, because I won’t tell you where it is.” He thought about what he had said, then laughed at himself and looked a little sheepish. His friends seemed disappointed in him.
Close to midnight, Fell stood solemnly. “All right, fellows,” he said calmly as all his breath ran out, “if you want it, I’ll give it to you.”
Girven reopened his pad, licked the tip of his pencil, and poised to take shorthand. McGrath lit a cigarette and took a puff. Britt looked the saddest Maloney had ever seen him. “You were right,” Fell said haltingly. He put both hands on the table palms down and sat down. His eyes were wet. “Yes, I killed her—but you’ll never find the body. I have taken good care of that. I killed her with a poker, but her death was an accident. I returned to the darkened house on the night of last June 13—a night I will never forget. Ada had told me I could come up that night and leave some things. She was getting ready to leave almost any day. When I drove up in front of the cottage there wasn’t a light about the place. That struck me as funny.” He chuckled throughout at himself and at the oddness of the events that had brought him to the remote bungalow with his friends.
“As I walked into the living room I had a ‘sixth sense’ feeling that somebody else was in there, although I couldn’t have seen my hand in front of my face. I sensed the presence of two persons in the room. I still couldn’t see. Then somebody sloughed me. It felt as if somebody had crowned me with a sandbag. I was dazed, but went down fighting. I fell to the floor and I guess I must have fallen in front of the fireplace. I felt my hand close over the poker. I don’t know how it got in my hand. Anyway I grabbed the poker, and came up fighting. Again I sensed—still I couldn’t see—that someone was standing in front of me. I couldn’t see a thing but I began swinging thinking I was hitting at a man. I lashed out with the poker and it hit something. I struck again quickly and I hit again! I heard a body thud to the floor. Then I heard someone burst through the French doors there in the back.” Fell pointed toward the room where Boots was sequestered out of earshot.
“I heard him run out and away. There was enough moonlight outside for me to see. I saw a husky man as big as myself running away with a saber in his hand and slashing at the darkness behind him. I was still a little punch drunk from the blow I had received and it took me a minute or two to pull myself together. Finally I turned on the lights and saw Mrs. Rice lying on the floor, clad only in a pair of step-ins. She was almost naked. Blood was running from her nose and ears. Her head had been bashed in with a heavy fireplace poker. I had killed Mrs. Rice.”
Fell explained how he wrapped the body in a quilt and sat down to think things out. “It looked bad,” he told Britt and the others, “although my conscience was clear. How could I explain how I came to kill a woman in her own home? Would anybody believe the truth?” He feared the authorities would discover he’d served time in the Alcatraz disciplinary barracks in 1931 and hold that against him. “Well, I figured it all out and decided the only thing to do now was to hide that body where no one would ever find it.”
He felt confident people knew Mrs. Rice had planned to take a trip and lease the cabin to him while he went to college. Later he could say he received a report that she’d died abroad and in that way explain everything.
“I carried her body out, loaded it in the back seat of my sedan and drove down the Skyline Boulevard. I knew the country pretty well and I knew a good spot to hide it.” He paused and looked each of them in the eye. “Say, if you want a sensation, fellas, try hauling a corpse around the country at night and have the owls hooting overhead. Whoo-ooo! Whoo-OO-OOO! Hooooot! I can still hear those owls laughing at me. Say, I haven’t had any breakfast yet. You guys got any gum?” Britt shook his head. It was silent except for the buzzing flies until Fell continued.
“I turned off at the Saratoga Gap and onto a side road, turned four miles on the road to Big Basin. I lugged the body away from the car a piece and rolled it down the hill into a canyon, then drove back to the cottage and went to sleep.” All the next day he thought about his problem and finally decided to fix the body so that nobody would ever find it. “I left her nude body under the trees for two nights. The next night I went into Palo Alto and stole two bags of lime from a warehouse and went back on a motorcycle bringing along a shovel.” When he found the body just as he left it, he dug a little foxhole through the grass about three feet deep and broke the shovel handle in the process. He couldn’t make the grave deep enough, so Fell buried her in jackknife fashion, with her head down and hands behind her back. “I loaded the grave with lime and put the lady in it. Then I poured the rest of the lime over her and covered that with dirt. Then I kicked the rest of the lime around so it wouldn’t be noticed and left.”
That seemed to be the story. The sheriff got up and went back to talk with Boots, a woman he considered a “tough proposition, one of the toughest” he’d ever stumbled across.
“It’s nobody’s business I lived with him,” Boots told him. “It is strictly my own and nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to discuss. He treated me all right and was very much the gentleman. Why, there wasn’t a thing improper in our relationship.”
“Did you know he was a confessed murderer?”
Her eyes grew large; the slender girl flushed. “Goodness, no.” She paused. “He isn’t. Aw, you’re kidding me, aren’t you? T’aint so! Why, it can’t be so. Why . . . why. . . I refuse to believe it. I don’t believe it!” She shook her head violently. “Anyway, I don’t know anything about it. I thought I was safe when Jerry invited me to stay.” She ran her hand through mousy hair. “Is it so? That nice fellow?”
“It’s so. He said he’s going to lead us to the spot where Mrs. Rice is buried.”
The petite woman’s eyes grew wider. “I am sure he never would have harmed me. My suitcase fell apart,” she said, “and he gave me another. The writing on it said, ‘Ada French Rice.’” The attractive girl rambled on. After a minute or so she said, “I’m going to have to start keeping a diary. That’s the one thing I haven’t got even if I have been traveling for two years.”
“Do you love him?”
“Shucks, no—I don’t hardly know the fellow. I didn’t even learn his real name. I just called him Jerry.”
“Have you ever been in trouble before?”
“I’m not in trouble now am I?”
“Have you ever been in jail before?”
“Well you are now, as a material witness.”
She shrugged. “You’ve got to learn to take it on the chin,” she said. “I’m used to that. There are good and bad people all over the country. That I lived with Jerry is strictly my business and nothing to be ashamed of or nothing to discuss. As far as I can tell it’s simply something that’s causing a great deal of fuss for no apparent reason. It’s just a lark. But I tell you I yearn for the road right now. I just know I’m going to miss the Dallas walkathon.”
Fell entered and smiled at Boots. “All right, Sheriff. Come ahead. I’ll show you where it is.” He led the way to the sheriff’s auto. McGrath, Maloney, and Britt followed. “Well, Jimmy,” Fell said to Britt, “Win, lose or draw, we’ll still be friends. I’m going to Hollywood when I get through here.” He sat next to McGrath and Britt took the wheel.
Following Fell’s directions, they drove down Skyline Boulevard under a high moon. Every tree was tinged with silver. Four miles south of Saratoga Gap close to the Santa Cruz County line at the junction of Skyline Boulevard and Boulder Creek Road was a desolate area. As they drove, they could hear the rush of the nearby San Lorenzo River. Finally, about eleven miles northeast of Saratoga, Fell asked Britt to turn off the main highway onto a lonely side road. Two hundred feet along the narrow twisting path and about fifty feet from the highway, he raised his hand and signaled. “Stop here,” he said. “In there.”
BOOK: The Laughing Gorilla
9.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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