Read an ExcerptMEET ME FOR MURDER
By DON LASSETER RONALD E. BOWERS
Copyright © 2008 Don Lasseter and Ron E. Bowers
All right reserved.
AUDITION TO DIE
With a pounding heart and soaring spirits, Kristi Johnson wondered if it could really be happening. The moment seemed right, and the magical surroundings couldn't have been more perfect. She stood in Century City's outdoor shopping mall, built on the former back lot of 20th Century Fox Studios. One block away, Avenue of the Stars intersected with Constellation Boulevard, signaling confluence of astrological destiny with the world of entertainment. Adjacent MGM Drive added yet another golden name, telling Kristi that something very special must have brought her to this spot at this moment. Just a couple of miles away was the legendary site where an editor of Hollywood Reporter allegedly discovered Lana Turner at the soda fountain in Schwab's Drug Store. Maybe Kristine Louise Johnson's film or modeling career, which she passionately desired, had also arrived, just twelve days before her twenty-second birthday.
The man who stopped her near a Victoria's Secret store and admired her beauty wasn't like those other clumsy jerks telling her that she should be a model. That line had worn out long ago. Kristi understood the blessing of her attractive features and the resulting double takes by randy men. Her wide-set luminous blue eyes, middle-parted long blond hair, shapely five-nine figure, and especially her coquettish lips when parted into dazzling smiles drew frequent attention, both pleasant and annoying. Most scam artists hitting on her or playing the role of model seekers used trite, threadbare pitches that were sure strikeouts. The few who tried to be creative still sounded phony.
But this guy obviously knew his business. Dressed in casual clothing appropriate for a cool Saturday in February, he stood a little over six feet and moved gracefully. Perhaps in his late thirties, his distinctive face radiated power, with full lips, an aquiline nose, large blue eyes turned down at the outer corners, noticeably arched brows, dimpled chin, and dark hair thinning a bit above the high forehead. What set him apart from phony "agents" was his calm demeanor and professional certitude. After remarking on her attractiveness, in a cultivated, pleasant voice, he had explained his involvement in producing promotional material for a new James Bond film and that he needed some fresh faces. Hers was perfect, he said, and she possessed other physical attributes to match. He hadn't launched into a windy sales pitch preceded by, "You should be a model and I can help you." Rather, he had simply stated what would be required of her. If she wished to audition, he told Kristi, she needed a black miniskirt, panty hose, black stiletto heels, and a white dress shirt.
Other "photographers" in search of models had never been so specific. This man appeared to be more interested in business than in carnal needs. The amateurs had been pushy and nervous. But this James Bond fellow delivered simple statements that made sense. And he had even mentioned rather offhandedly that if selected for the job, Kristi could be paid about $100,000!
After giving her directions to an address on Skyline Drive high atop a ridge in the Hollywood Hills, where she could audition that same evening, he told Kristi to be there by five-thirty, thanked her, and left. She knew that secluded homes situated up there, mostly in the million-dollar-plus price range, housed all levels of Hollywood's glitterati. The prestige location added even more credence to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Now Kristi ramped up her shopping trip. Her mother had called from Northern California that same morning, Saturday, February 15, 2003, as she did nearly every day, and offered to reimburse Kristi if she would go to the Century City mall and purchase something she liked. It could be for her pending birthday or for the Valentine's Day that had just passed. Perhaps Kristi could buy a set of candles she had recently seen and admired. Or maybe she could find something to wear that night at a rave concert near downtown Los Angeles. Kristi had made reservations, earning her a place on the VIP list to avoid standing in a long line.
The James Bond encounter, though, erased any thought of candles or concerts, and changed Kristi's thoughts about selecting inexpensive casual clothing. Instead, she rushed across the walkway into Bloomingdale's to first pick out two pairs of Sheer Hosiery brand panty hose, then rode the escalator to the second floor to examine white dress shirts. One Styleset Collection blouse stood out from all the others. The price tag of $185 didn't even slow her down. At the checkout counter, Kristi charged a total of $226.24 to her Bank of America debit card at 1:33 P.M.
Still bursting with the thrill of anticipation, Kristi hurried into the adjacent Guess store, and immediately found the perfect black miniskirt for $73.61. She completed the purchase at 1:36 P.M.
The black stiletto heels proved more difficult to find at affordable cost. Kristi hadn't minded the clothing price tags, but didn't want to pay between $500 and $1,000 for Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik footwear available in these upscale stores. Undeterred, she left the mall in her 1996 white Mazda Miata convertible and sped three miles into West Hollywood. She glanced at her watch and realized the need to hurry. On La Cienega Boulevard, she pulled to the curb in front of a corner stucco building painted in blinding pink. A sign told her that the store dealt in TRASHY LINGERIE. Across the street, flashing neon on the facade of a bar advertised LIVE NUDE GIRLS. The gaudy ambience contrasted sharply with the elegant mall she had just left, but Kristi didn't care. She needed those stiletto heels.
Entering the lingerie store, Kristi stopped at a barrier and paid the unusual two-dollar membership fee, which allowed her access to the interior. The management apparently didn't want curious browsers or street "pervs" shopping for nothing but a lascivious thrill. She found the shoes she sought, black ankle-strap Ellie brand, size 9, with six-inch heels, and paid $54.13 for them. So far, she had invested almost $354 for the apparel required to achieve success at the audition up on Skyline Drive. At nearly two-thirty, with about three hours left before the audition, she still needed to return to her Santa Monica residence, shower, do her hair, and apply makeup. Everything had to be perfect.
Satisfied with her purchases, Kristi headed west along Pico Boulevard in unusually heavy and frustrating traffic. Thousands of antiwar marchers had gathered for a demonstration on Hollywood Boulevard earlier that afternoon, near the foot-printed forecourt of iconic Grauman's Chinese Theatre, to protest the threat of a U.S. war with Iraq. Kristi threaded her way through the homeward-bound vehicles, past a parking lot close to Elm Street, where the body of a young model had been dumped a few years earlier after being lured into the desert and savagely slaughtered by a "photographer." That happened long before Kristi moved to the entertainment capital of the world. She zipped past the entry to 20th Century Fox Studios, driving along the greenbelt of Hillcrest Country Club and the Rancho Park Golf Course. Eight miles later, she pulled into a gated underground garage at the apartment building where she shared living quarters with two women. Excitement bubbled inside her like champagne and she couldn't wait to reveal the thrilling events.
Near the walkway entrance, Kristi spotted a neighbor, a young man she had described to her mother as quite attractive. He greeted her and Kristi told him of her exciting encounter at the mall.
Inside her residence, Kristi found only one roommate at home, and rapped on Carrie Barrish's bedroom door. Barrish had just finished showering when she stepped out and saw the flush of joy on Kristi's face. "I am so excited," Kristi gushed, "I even have hives." A reddening rash on her neck verified the self-diagnosis. In breathless bursts, Kristi rattled off the details of her encounter at Century City. She vanished into her bedroom and reappeared in moments. Twirling around, Kristi modeled the black miniskirt, white shirt, and stiletto heels, struggling to keep her balance in the towering shoes. An empty Guess bag on a chair told Barrish where some of the clothing had been purchased. The white blouse, said Kristi, had to be suitable for use with a necktie, which someone would provide at the audition.
The man she had met must be for real, Kristi said while describing the connection to a new James Bond film. Barrish, in her mid-forties, had been around long enough to realize that "discoveries" of young women in shopping malls, or drugstores, were, as Humphrey Bogart once uttered in a classic film, "the stuff dreams are made of." But if Barrish felt any skepticism or suspicion, she kept it to herself. It did sound awfully good. Kristi's enthusiasm was contagious, and Barrish even felt light-headed from all the excitement.
The filming, Kristi said, would take place out of the country, requiring a passport, and would begin within a week's time. The audition was to be held that same evening, at five-thirty, so she needed to hurry.
After her bath, hairstyling, and meticulous application of makeup, Kristi slipped into the new panty hose, but chose to carry the stiletto heels under one arm, and the short black skirt and white long-sleeved blouse on a hanger. She wore corduroy pants and a light-colored blouse, along with tennis shoes. To ward off the anticipated evening chill, she folded a gray hooded sweatshirt over an arm. With a quick hug for Barrish, Kristi flashed a glowing smile and left shortly before five. The daylight now cast longer shadows and began its quickening fade into rosy dusk.
Once again, Kristi accelerated her Miata across town and turned north on Crescent Heights Boulevard, toward the hills and a region known as Mount Olympus. She passed the intersection of Sunset Boulevard where the old Schwab's drugstore had once stood, and crossed Hollywood Boulevard at which point Crescent Heights changed its name to Laurel Canyon. The road morphed from arrow-straight into a winding, ascending gauntlet heavily wooded on each shoulder. On both sides, residential structures gripped tenaciously to the steep slopes. Kristi followed red taillights of drivers climbing the torturous four-mile passage over the hills from West Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley.
The James Bond man had instructed her to turn left on Lookout Mountain Avenue. In the darkening canyon with endless twists and bends, it was difficult to see the street signs, but somehow Kristi made the sharp left turn. Next, she was supposed to veer left at a "Y" intersection and proceed on Wonderland Avenue. After a few hundred feet, she would come to another "Y," at which she needed to turn right on Wonderland Park. With less than one block to go, she should turn right on Green Valley Road, then finally right again on Skyline Drive. That last intersection, she had been advised, would be easy to recognize because a house on one corner looked like a castle.
All of these snaking lanes, no wider than most alleys, would confuse anyone who didn't traverse them daily. Parked cars along the curbless edges made it nearly impossible for oncoming vehicles to squeeze by each other.
Kristi negotiated the first few turns, but soon came to a dead-end cul-de-sac and realized she was lost. The clock had already ticked past five-thirty, blowing her intention to be punctual. Unable to think of any other solution, growing more desperate with each passing second, she snatched her cell phone from the purse on the passenger seat and called information twice. Of course, the effort was futile, and she ended the second call at 5:37 P.M., simultaneously with the red-ball sun disappearing behind the hills.
A ray of hope came to Kristi when she spotted a middle-aged man standing in a driveway. She jammed on her brakes and rolled down her window.
"Where's the 'Castle House'?" she blurted, obviously distressed.
The stranger, with salt-and-pepper hair, startled at the brusque question, looked up and replied, "What do you want?"
Realizing that she had sounded rude in her panicky state, Kristi softened her tone, told the man that she had been driving "all over" trying to find a particular place, and asked in polite terms if he knew of a castlelike house in the neighborhood.
The local resident, recognizing the girl's desperation, relaxed and thought about her question for a few moments before telling her there was no such thing as a castle around the area.
Kristi's face saddened as she explained that she was supposed to turn right at a corner where there was a house that looked like a castle.
A woman standing in shadows up the driveway spoke softly to the man, and like a light going on in a dark room, his expression brightened as if he had solved a perplexing riddle. "You mean the old gray house that looks like a castle on the corner of Skyline Drive. That must be the place you're looking for." He gave her directions to find it.
A beaming grin replaced Kristi's frown and her voice purred. "Thank you so much. You have just saved my life." She gunned the Miata's engine and shot away, not realizing how wrong she was.
The Samaritan shook his head and stared at the vanishing red taillights. He felt good about helping a young lady in distress. Besides that, she was so pretty, attractive enough to be a model or even act in movies. He allowed himself a satisfied smile as he turned, joined the woman, and walked up the driveway to their home.
Following the instructions, Kristi headed downhill and turned on Green Valley. Had she gone in the other direction, to Wonderland Avenue again, she would likely have passed an unremarkable light yellow house, two stories atop a ground-level two-car garage. In July 1981, four people, two men and two women, had been bludgeoned to death inside the home as the result of drug-connected crimes. Unique transactions had been made there by lowering a basket on a rope down from the balconies to pick up money from a buyer inside a waiting car, and then delivering cocaine by the same means. One of Liberace's boyfriends reportedly stopped there frequently. Notorious porn star John Holmes was suspected of participation in the killings, but almost a year later, a jury found him not guilty. Two of the homicide cops on the case would eventually investigate a scandalous double murder about ten miles away, in which a suspect named O.J. Simpson also found a sympathetic jury.
The slayings in the light yellow house, dubbed the "Wonderland Murders," spawned books, television documentaries, and two movies based on the gruesome events-Boogie Nights, in 1997, and Wonderland, in 2003.
The latter film hadn't yet been released when Kristi Johnson drove close to the murder scene, on February 15. She had no idea that the bucolic hills and eclectic homes might attract drug-dealing killers. More pleasant prospects swirled in her mind as she found the "castle house." A gray Norman-style structure on three levels, it resembled a small French village complete with a towering turret capped by a conical blue tile roof. Because Kristi now approached it from the opposite direction of her original route, she turned left on Skyline Drive, looped around a long hairpin turn, and climbed to the top of a narrow house-lined ridge.
A spectacular panorama came into view down below, in several directions. Off to her right, a steep brush-and-tree-covered slope plunged hundreds of feet to the bottom of a canyon, beyond which early lights twinkled in the vast, receding sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. Behind her, on a distant hillside, the venerable giant letters spelling out HOLLYWOOD seemed small in the dimming dusk. From a high lot on the dead end ahead, the silhouette of downtown Los Angeles could be seen. No wonder these home sites were so treasured by enormously wealthy residents.
Kristi Johnson slowed in the 8500 block and sighed with relief when she spotted a fenced-in stucco house to her left. Just ahead, the pavement came to a dead end. She could barely make out the street address numbers given to her by the man she had met earlier on that incredible day of destiny. On a magic Saturday evening, she thought her fondest dreams would soon be realized.
Excerpted from MEET ME FOR MURDER by DON LASSETER RONALD E. BOWERS Copyright © 2008 by Don Lasseter and Ron E. Bowers. Excerpted by permission.
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