On March 24th, 1985, an employee was just getting into work at his job in a local department store in Los Angeles, California. He was in a storeroom down in the basement under the “Ross Dress For Less” clothing store, with his punch card in his hand ready to check in for his shift. He slipped the card into the punch clock on the wall, but what would happen next would go on to shape law and legislation in Los Angeles to this day.
The spark from the punch clock stamping the time and date onto his punch card would cause an explosion that blew the roof off of the building. The shop windows shattered, the metal clothing racks curled and splintered, sending pieces of sharp shrapnel through the entire store and out onto the streets.
And for blocks around the building, and in the adjacent parking lot, cracks and fissures formed in the pavement, bursting into flames and terrifying the locals and the emergency crew that quickly showed up to help.
Miraculously, no one was killed, including the employee who was at the heart of the explosion, but twenty-three people ended up in hospital for their injuries.
But what happened and how did a punch clock cause so much devastation?
Well, it didn’t, not on its own anyway.
Los Angeles sits on top of the Salt Lake Oil Field which was discovered back in 1902 and since then, major industries have been set up to mine and extract the oil and other natural resources in and around the area. The Ross Dress For Less store was not necessarily near any active mines, but it was very close to old mine shafts and other underground tunnels that were slowly filling with the toxic gas, methane.
The thick layer of concrete that lines the city through all of the buildings and pavements and roads, created a layer that blocked all of that methane gas under the surface and, eventually, it had nowhere else to go. It broke through where it could and started accumulating in the basement of the department store until it reached explosive levels and one spark led it to doing what it did.
No one noticed the dangerous levels of methane in the basement because there were no sensors down there to actively check for it and natural methane is odourless. Companies actually add chemicals to the methane and natural gas that we use at home to try to make sure that we notice if there are any leaks in our systems and so we can, hopefully, get out before anything like that explosion happens or that we just inhale too much gas and die.
But there was no odour that day in March, 1985, and so the police and other emergency services evacuated four blocks around the area of the explosion, especially when the fire kept spreading and bursting through the cracks in the pavement, still burning and spouting flames long into the night.
Within days, a drill rig was brought in to test for any other gas accumulations under the surface and they found a large pocket of pressurised gas 42 feet below the parking lot of the Ross Dress for Less store, as well as similar but smaller pockets in and around the area. They quickly installed pressure gauges, control valves and a valved flare pipe was installed over that big pocket which would essentially allow people to release the gas in a controlled way that wouldn’t end up with another explosion.
But all of this created much bigger problems than just what to do with the gas that was building underneath the city. Dealing with natural gas build-ups was not a new thing for the city of Los Angeles, in fact, a school just across the street from the Ross Dress For Less store, had fans underneath it to help keep the air circulating underneath the building and make sure that dangerous levels of methane couldn’t build up.
But there were huge plans to build a subway underneath that particular stretch of the city. And it would make sense, the idea was to create a line that would allow people to travel from more of the suburban areas into the more industrialised areas of town, like the part of the city with shops like that department store, but there were already big petitions against it even before the explosion happened.
Now public representatives had something more to argue with for why there shouldn’t be any more digging going on under the surface of that stretch of the city and things got a little sticky.
A city task force was quickly put together to try to figure out where this big pocket of pressurised gas had come from and they came up with the theory that subsurface bacteria had been eating underground biomasses, including oil, and these bacteria had actually left that big pocket behind, but not everyone agreed. A lawsuit was filed against McFarland Energy who had drilled slanting mines from their property into oil reserves under the surface of land that was adjacent to theirs. The lawsuit claimed that the explosion had been a result of one of these mine shafts being incorrectly capped and sealed, but McFarland disagreed. They said that the methane gas had been created by natural causes and had nothing to do with their mining activities, but then they settled out of court and the lawsuit was dropped.
But it wasn’t this lawsuit that was the final nail in the coffin for the plan to create a subway in that area. Isotopic tests done on the gas revealed that it had, in fact, been produced by the Salt Lake City Oil Field and that meant that there could only be more.
The City of Los Angeles quickly declared approximately 400 blocks that were over the oil field as a “High Potential Methane Zone”, a term that hadn’t even existed before that explosion in 1985. They ordered the construction of several gas monitoring and venting wells throughout the city, that every building in that 400-block area should be equipped with methane detectors, and, of course, the plan to build a subway was scrapped.
This was a huge victory for the locals who had been petitioning against the project since it had been approved back in the 1980’s, but it wasn’t the end of the Salt Lake City Oil Field’s explosive behaviour.
Just four years later, so in 1989, another explosion happened because of a build-up of methane gas not too far from the Ross Dress For Less department store. To call it an explosion is probably a bit of an exaggeration on our part, but a build-up of methane gas, that was actually a result of the secure defences put up in the neighbouring area after the 1985 explosion, caused a big burst of mud, silt and methane gas to come streaming out of a bank. There was no explosion this time because there was nothing to ignite it and it was quickly determined that it was caused by one of the improper management of one of the relief wells, so luckily no one was hurt and it was a relatively easy fix.
It did lead to stricter regulations on methane monitoring, but due to advances in technology today, they’re not as closely monitored as they used to be. These advances in technology have also led to the construction of a subway that does now go through that once “no-go” area, so if any of you have ever been on the purple line in the Los Angeles, California, you’ve actually gone through a piece of land that helped shape the City of Los Angeles’ laws on methane and other natural gas regulations.
Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr, otherwise known as Charlie Chaplin, was the British actor, composer and filmmaker who took to our screens and forever changed the history of film. He’s most known for his on-screen persona, The Tramp, a character who often finds himself in comedic and slapstick situations, but The Tramp was also one of the last great characters of the silent film era. In a time filled with daring heroes and beautiful heroines, The Tramp appealed to the general public with his working-class background and he quickly grew a huge following.
And Chaplin was able to hold onto silent film and to the legacy that The Tramp created when so many other filmmakers had moved to films with dialogues because, by this point, his work had become so successful that he was able to co-found his own studios, giving him better control over the movies he produced. But when he did finally make the switch to the new medium, the first movie with dialogue that he made was named “The Great Dictator” and it was a satire of Adolf Hitler and with that, Chaplin set the tone for how he meant to continue making movies.
Chaplin’s films and the man himself always made big waves, sometimes for his films’ comedic value, sometimes for their political or social messages, but one thing you may not know about Charlie Chaplin is that he continued to make headlines even after he’d died.
Chaplin’s life had been filled with many ups and downs. His childhood was a difficult one, with his father being absent for most of it and his mother struggling to make ends meet. From a young age he started performing in an attempt to keep himself afloat and out of the workhouses, but it was through these performances that he was picked up by an agency that took him to America. It was in the States that he became the Charlie Chaplin that we all know and love, but under the surface, Charlie Chaplin had his fair share of struggles.
He married four times and it was only his marriage to his fourth wife, Oona, that would last. They had married in 1943, when Oona was eighteen years old and Chaplin fifty-four, and they were still married when Charlie Chaplin was banned from reentering the States when he was accused of being a communist sympathizer The couple and their eight children moved to Switzerland where they settled down and it was here that Charlie Chaplin would live out the rest of his life.
Charlie Chaplin Last Photo Taken
He died on Christmas Day, 1977 and he was buried in a cemetery near Lake Geneva, but just a few months later, in March 1978, his body was gone. Charlie Chaplin’s grave was robbed. The police launched a five week investigation after Oona received a ransom note, demanding 600,000 dollars for the return of her husband’s body, but Oona refused. She said that Chaplin would have found the whole thing ridiculous and eventually the police were able to track down the culprits behind the scheme.
Two refugees from Eastern Europe, Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev, were the men who’d stolen Chaplin’s body. The two led the police to a cornfield where they had reburied his coffin and Roman Wardas was quickly identified as the mastermind behind it all. The two men were looking to fix their financial problems when Roman Wardas read of a similar scheme that had happened in Italy. The two quickly came up with the plan to steal Chaplin’s coffin and extort his family for the return of his remains, but Gantscho Ganev ended up with an eighteen-month suspended sentence and Roman Wardas with four years’ hard labour instead.
Charlie Chaplin’s coffin was returned to his family who then reburied inside a concrete grave to make sure that another attempt to steal it could never be made.
1983 looked like a promising year for model and actress Tammy Lynn Leppert. She was only seventeen years old at the time, but already by then, she’d won over 280 beauty pageants, started a professional modeling career and had broken into the film industry. Her first big break happened just the year before when she had a role in the teen exploitation movie: “Spring Break.” This is where The Tammy Lynn Mystery begins.
Tammy’s mother would describe her as an exceptionally beautiful child who “woke up with a smile on her face and went to bed with a smile on her face”, as someone who could light up the room when she walked in and on the surface, these may just look like the words of a loving parent, but Tammy’s mother was also something else.
Linda Curtis was Tammy’s agent and the one who worked tirelessly to help her daughter succeed and she was also the main force behind the busy schedule that was Tammy’s life. She would run Tammy from pageants to rehearsals to casting interviews, but things at home weren’t always picture-perfect. When Tammy was seven, her parents divorced and she would move out with Linda to set up their own home where they would continue with Tammy’s busy schedule.
And it was during this period that Tammy gained a sibling. She already had a sister, but it was during this time that she got a brother too. Wing Flannagan was eleven years old when he moved in with Tammy and Linda. He was also one of Linda’s clients and it didn’t take either of them long to start acting like siblings, and it was in this patchwork-family that the children grew up.
Wing remembers how Tammy would kiss him on the cheek whenever she was on the way out and he hated it. She would leave a patch of lipstick on his cheek and he would get embarrassed, but over time, he grew to love it and wear it as a badge of honour.
And he was proud again when Tammy went to Florida to play her role in Spring Break, but he, just like the rest of the family noticed a huge shift in Tammy’s behavior when she came back. After filming had finished up, Tammy went on her own to a staff party and something happened on that trip that would forever change her.
When she came home, it was like she had shut down. She was always worried and would watch the street through the windows. Then she started not eating any food or drinking anything that didn’t come in an unopened package, and then she started talking about things that would just leave her family chilled. One day when Wing answered the phone, Tammy told him to tell whoever was calling that she wasn’t there. Wing didn’t know what to do, but when the caller, a man Wing didn’t know or recognize, asked for Tammy, Wing told him that she was out of town.
That seemed to put Tammy a little more at ease, but when Wing hung up the phone and asked her what was going on, she told him that she had seen something awful and she wasn’t supposed to see it. Wing tried to get more out of her, but Tammy wouldn’t say anything else about it, and it wasn’t long after that that she asked her mother, Linda, what she would say if Tammy told her that someone was trying to kill her.
Linda didn’t know how to answer that and instead asked Tammy what was going on and what had happened, but Tammy told her mother the same thing. She said that she had witnessed something that she shouldn’t have and “they” would kill her if she ever talked about it.
Then Tammy started spending more and more time in her room, sometimes not coming out for days at a time and at one point, she called Wing over to the window. She told him to look across the street and tell her what he saw and he saw that the neighbors had a new van so that was what he told her. At first, Tammy only said, “Exactly,” but when Wing asked her why it was so important, Tammy told him that the van had mirrored windows which meant that the people inside could see out but the people on the outside couldn’t look in, and then she went on to explain that that was where “they” were watching her from.
This kind of behavior went on for two weeks, but when Tammy was offered a small role in the Al Pacino film, “Scarface”, she made her way to Miami to the film set. Things went well enough at first, but then came the day when they were shooting a scene with a lot of blood and Tammy went ballistic. She started hysterically crying and no one could calm her down and eventually they had to call the family friend that she was staying with to come and pick her up.
When he got to her trailer, she was still crying and saying things about money laundering and how “they” were going to kill her and she didn’t know where to hide. He didn’t know what to do with her either, so he called Linda to come and pick Tammy up and told Linda that he should get Tammy to a hospital and to make sure that she talked to the police so they could look into what she was saying.
Linda did take Tammy home and she did take her to their local sheriff station, but when Tammy was there, she never once told law enforcement that her life was in danger or even that she thought it was, so they sent her home.
But Tammy’s behavior only got worse. She then started only eating from other people’s plates to make sure that her food wasn’t poisoned and she sometimes asked Wing to taste her food to make sure that it was safe.
But she had her good days. Her family remembers times when she was almost herself again and they held onto that hope that she would come around and deal with whatever it was that was going on, but one day, Tammy just snapped.
Wing was on the couch reading a book and she accused him of looking at her. When he said that he wasn’t and asked her what was going on, she blew up, yelling at him and running outside of the house. She only made it a few steps out onto the porch before it all got too much and she turned around and tried to get back in, but the wind had blown the door shut and she was locked out. She started screaming, banging on the door and yelling at everyone inside to let her back in, but then she grabbed a baseball bat and started smashing in the windows.
Wing opened the door for her and tried to calm her down, but then she pounced on him, pinning him down on the floor and attacking him with her hands and screaming at him. She accused him of locking her outside of the house, but at that point, Linda had made it out there and she tried to get Tammy off of Wing. She kept telling Tammy how much she loved her and saying things like: “It’s your mother. It’s me, Tammy, I love you,” and eventually, Tammy came around.
It was after that that Linda checked Tammy into a mental hospital. She was afraid of what would happen if Tammy lost it again and she was either not around to help her or that maybe the next time Tammy just wouldn’t listen to her. Tammy stayed at the hospital for 72 hours while doctors ran tests and observed her behavior, but they didn’t diagnose her with anything or find any evidence of drug or alcohol abuse and Tammy was sent home.
As soon as she got back, Tammy told Linda that “he” was still going to try to kill her and that Linda had to promise to get him back when he did.
A friend picked Tammy up the next day and she would tell him that she had seen something that she wasn’t supposed to and they would both go together to church so that she could pray. While she was there, Tammy kept uncontrollably crying and then she told her friend that she loved him and she may be going away for a while.
The next day, she woke up and made plans to go to the beach with another friend and he picked her up around 11:00. Linda remembered getting incredibly nervous as she watched Tammy get into her friend’s car, but she bit it back and tried to be happy that Tammy was out and about and trying to be her normal self, but this was the last time that Linda would actually ever see Tammy again.
Tammy’s friend, Keith Roberts, said that when they were driving towards the beach, he and Tammy started arguing. She got more and more upset and finally she asked him to just drop her off somewhere. He dropped her off in a parking lot around five miles away from her home and then that was the last he saw of her. Tammy tried to call her aunt’s shop, which was very close to where Tammy was dropped off, and she left three messages, but her aunt was on vacation and didn’t see them until she got back. Then Tammy tried to call a friend who also couldn’t answer the phone, and then Tammy just disappeared.
The police would question everyone, including Keith Roberts, but eventually the case went cold. Everyone pointed the finger at someone else. Tammy’s friends said that Tammy had been having problems at home, that she and Linda had been arguing over her career and that Tammy had told them that she was going to get out of there as soon as she turned eighteen so she’d probably just had enough and left on her own.
But Linda said that everything was fine between them. She admitted that they had had some disputes over Tammy’s career, but nothing that would’ve warranted her running away and she pointed the finger back at Tammy’s friends, especially Keith Roberts. She said that Tammy had told her that Keith wanted to kill her and Linda suspected that Keith was the man that Tammy had been warning her about all along.
But the police didn’t believe he was a suspect.
Has Tammy Lynn Leppert ever been found?
They actually looked into several possible suspects, including a few serial killers that were active in and around the area at the time, but Tammy’s case still remains open to this day.
Some people believe that Tammy had a mental breakdown and suffered from paranoia. Her family believe that she was telling them the truth and that something happened to her because she witnessed something that she shouldn’t have. They wish that they could go back in time and believe her from the very start and that, maybe, they could’ve asked her something that would’ve been able to help her before she disappeared.
But Linda would die in 1995 without ever finding out what happened to her daughter and both Wing and Tammy’s sister, Suzanne, are still fighting for her case to be solved and are hoping for someone to come forward with the truth.
Al Capone. Zoot Suit Riots. Watts Riots. Bloody Christmas.
Nightmare On Elm Street. The Long Goodbye. Caged Heat. LA Confidential.
These make up only part of the story of of LA’s dark history…
The Lincoln Heights Jail operated from the 1930s to the 1960s before being decommissioned. Before its closing, the jail even housed Al Capone himself and became infamous for an incident later titled “Bloody Christmas”. The jail was then used for various things such as a popular filming site for big Hollywood movies and music videos, and even home to the Bilingual Foundation Of Arts. Despite plans to redevelop the imposing structure, Lincoln Heights Jail currently sits empty and abandoned.
The Lincoln Heights Jail, located near the Los Angeles River, was built in 1927 and cost a massive $5 million. It opened its doors in 1931 and was initially made up of 5-stories with space to house 625 prisoners. Things had changed rapidly by the early 1950s though, with the jail growing to hold 2800 prisoners. In 1951, the unwarranted and unprovoked beatings of seven prisoners. This is what became known as Bloody Christmas. It all started on Christmas Eve of 1951 when LAPD officers Julius Trojanowski and Nelson Brownson headed out to a call that had reported minors drinking. When they arrived, the so-called minors were seven adult men. Daniel Rodela, Elias Rodela, Jack Wilson, William Wilson, Raymond Marquez, Manuel Hernandez, and Eddie Nora. The men produced their identification documents showing their age but still, the officers said they had to leave. The men all refused. The officers then tried to forcefully remove them and a fight broke out. The one officer needed stitches and the other got a black eye. Seven hours later the men were arrested. 6 were taken to the jail. Daniel Rodela however, was horrifically beaten by multiple police officers. On Christmas morning, a rumor broke out between a large number of drinking officers at a Christmas party that Julius Trojanowski had lost an eye. The 6 prisoners were then taken from their jail cells and beaten for 95 minutes by approximately 50 officers. All of the men received severe injuries. A cover-up attempt followed and shockingly the results of the eventual trial were as follows: 8 officers were indicted and tried between July and November of 1952. Five were convicted, but only one of the men got a prison sentence of more than a year. 54 other officers were transferred and 39 were temporarily suspended without pay.
Al Capone was detained at Lincoln Heights Jail along with other notable individuals such as those arrested during the Zoot Suit Riots and the Watt Riots. Lincoln Heights Jail also had a high number of LGBTQ+ inmates. These inmates were all kept in a separate wing. The Los Angeles Police Department had a heavy crackdown on LGBTQ+ activity during the 50s and 60s. Undercover officers would go to bars and parks that were known hangouts for members of this community and then arrest anyone they suspected of soliciting non-heterosexual sex and prostitution.
The jail was officially decommissioned in 1965 after the LA City Council and LA County Board of Supervisors decided to rather consolidate inmates to nearby county jails as it would be more cost-effective. In 1979, Lincoln Heights Jail became the home of the Bilingual Foundation of Arts as well as a gym. This arrangement lasted until 2014, the operations were closed after asbestos and lead paint were discovered at the building. Mysteriously, before this happened the gym’s owner was found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
In 1994, a local boxing champion, Johnnie Flores, fell to his death in the elevator shaft after leaving the Los Angeles Youth Athletic Club. The community champion and amateur boxer was found at the bottom of the service elevator shaft just steps away from the boxing gym he founded and where he spent most of his days. This boxing gym made use of the former jail cells and holding tanks to provide athletic training for local youth.
The Lincoln Heights Jail has served as the backdrop to many of our favorite movies since its closure. These include The Nightmare of Elm Street, Caged Heat, The Long Goodbye, L.A. Confidential, and American History X and more.. It has also been used by musicians such as Lady Gaga and Blink-182 as the setting for their music videos.
Various film and TV crew members as well as building staff and visitors have reported experiencing unexplained or paranormal activity.
In 2016, there looked to be a new lease on life on the horizon for the Lincoln County Jail after the City of Los Angeles issued a Request for Interest to garner development ideas for the property. Permission was granted to Lincoln Property Company and Fifteen Group to redevelop the prison. The Lincoln Heights Jail was set to become Lincoln Heights Makers District. The space was going to have commercial and manufacturing spaces, recreational areas, an office space, live-work housing, and an amphitheater with green space. But, March 2020 saw things come to a halt after the site was put on hold due to environmental issues. There was hazardous material and trash that needed to be removed that apparently required more effort than initially expected.
As of 2022, the Lincoln Heights Jail is littered with graffiti and there seems to be no work being done on it. At the moment, it is off bounds for the public and is surrounded by a chain-link fence and protected by security guards. It is unclear what the future plans are for this historic building.
If you’ve read the incredible book “The House of Gucci,” by Sarah Gay Forden (yes, it’s the one that the 2021 movie starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver was based on), you might recall the stunning, 200 foot wooden yacht that Mauritzio Gucci bought and remodeled at the height of his control over the Gucci Brand…this boat, called the creole, was notoriously cursed and with it, brought about death, destruction, and ghosts? Today, we’re talking about the creole, and it’s curse that spanned millionaires and generations.
Built in 1927, its first owner was all american millionaire, yale alum, and industrialist Alexander Cochran. Christened the Vira, it was the largest wooden sailing yacht ever constructed. In the words of veteran photographer Gilles Martin-Raget,the boat was “outside all the norms of size, aesthetics and history”. And it would continue to be, without its maker at the hem. Why? Because with all its grandeur and glamour, Cochran didn’t have time to enjoy the yacht- he died suddenly of cancer in 1929.
His heirs sold the boat to a man named Maurice Pope, a British yachtsman who renamed his new purchase the Creole after a particularly delicious dessert invented by his personal chef. The ship’s name change was not a good move- if you’re familiar with ships or sailing culture (I’m not, and even I knew this was probably not kosher) sailors think that renaming ships is very very bad luck. The origins of this go back to Greek and Italian folklore, saying that When a boat is christened its name goes into the Ledger of the Deep, an old book of ships owned by Poseidon himself. When a boat is renamed, Poseidon is insulted and yes, the ship’s owners pay dearly for their name swapping hubris. BUt nothing happens like that to the creole, the rest of the owners live peaceful and uneventful lives. JUST KIDDING, of course they don’t.
In 1937 the creole was bought by financier Sir Connop Guthrie, who had just been made a baronet. Guthrie was a dedicated sailor who restored Creole’s rig and keel and raced her successfully until the Second World War, the British government requisitioned the Creole as a mine-hunting ship they named the Magic Circle (yes, another name change. Yikes). In 1953, The boat was purchased by Greek billionaire and playboy Stavros Knee-arch-os. Restoring the war-torn Creole to its pristine condition, Knee-arch-os made an addition- an upper deck cabin, as he refused to sleep below deck for fear of drowning.
Knee-archos loved the creole, until two tragedies struck.In May 1970, the creole was docked on Knee-archo’s private island, Spetsopoula, in the Aegean. With Knee arch os was his wife, Eugenia Livanos and her sister, Christina. What happened that night was disputed, but the official version is that Eugenia killed herself with an overdose of barbiturates. At a post mortem on the mainland, the pathologist reported severe bruising on Eugenia’s body and the investigation began. Knee-arch-os was cleared but a witness says Eugenia had caught Knee-arch-os trying to force himself upon her sister, and a violent fight broke out.
Soon after, Knee Archos went on to marry Eugenia’s sister (yes the one who was there) Christina Livanos. In 1974, she ALSO overdosed and died.
Heartbroken, Niarchos swore to never set foot on the Creole again, selling his once pride and joy to the Danish navy in 1977. The Danes put the ship to use…it was repurposed in the late 70s as a floating rehab clinic. Not joking.
Enter Maurizio Gucci who In 1982, buys the creole on a massive spending spree. His then wife, Patrizia Gucci used psychics and healers near constantly, and was immediately suspicious of the boat. She told her husband that there was a negative aura lingering around it,, which was not great news for Maurizio who set in motion a multi-million dollar restoration on the boat.
Not to stop the spending train, Mauritzio docked the Creole at Italy’s La Spezia shipyard, and had a psychic come exorcise any spiritual riffraff. Accompanied by Maurizio, Patritzia, and two crewmen, the psychic-named Frida- boarded the ship.
Sarah Gay Forden, sets the scene saying, At first, Frida walked about the ship in a trance. Finally, the five came to an open corridor. “Open the door, open the door,” she cried. As far as the ghost hunting party could see, there was no door, just a hallway. Then a dark look came across the face of one of the crewmen. Before Maurizio’s recent renovations, there HAD been a door right in that exact spot.
How did Frida know a door had been there? The psychic then strolled towards a nearby kitchen. She demanded to be left alone. This puzzled the group. Until one of the crewmen explained. This had been the kitchen where Eugenia’s body was found.
At this moment a gust of cold wind ran past them. Frida informed Maurizio, Patrizia and the crew the exorcism was complete. “It’s all over,” Frida said, “There are no more evil spirits on the Creole. Eugenia’s ghost promised me that from now on, she will protect the Creole and its crew.”
And then everything was fine. NO! Of course it wasnt! Maruzio Gucci was charged with tax fraud, money laundering and illegally acquired funds that were of course used to buy and refurbish the Creole. Maurizio was later acquitted but in massive debt. In 1993, Maurizio sold his share in Gucci, the last family member of the company his grandfather started back in 1921. The buy out was a not so modest 170 million dollars, so Gucci kept the Creole and a couple years later, Maritzio gucci was killed mafia style by his vengeful ex wife Patrizia.
Maurizio’s daughters Allegra and Alessandra inherited the Creole and maintain her to this day. The Gucci sisters say the Creole keeps their father’s memory alive, but a curse? No comment on that.
The Tragic Tale of Sesame Street’s Northern Calloway
Northern Calloway was an American actor and singer, best known for his role as David Robinson on Sesame Street from 1971 to 1989. The 50th anniversary of the show came around in 2019 but unfortunately some of the original stars didn’t live to see the day, Northern Calloway was one of them.
Northern James Calloway was born on September 10th, 1948, in New York. He graduated from New York City’s High School of Performing Art in 1966 and joined the Lincoln Center Repertory Company just 2 days later. Northern performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Three Musketeers at the Stratford Festival in 1968. He also played the lead in the New Federal Theater production of The Louis Armstrong Story.
Northern started his Broadway career in that same year and featured in Tiger at the Gates in 1968 and The Me Nobody Knows in 1970. He didn’t give up his stage career when he landed his job on Sesame street and performed in six productions on Broadway from 1968 to 1980.
1971 was when Northern joined the Sesame Street cast. It was during the show’s 4th season and he came on as David Robinson, the boyfriend of the character Maria. Actor and fellow castmate Will Lee passed away in 1982 and after this, the series decided to make Northern’s character the new owner of what was Will’s character, Mr Hooper’s, store. Northern was one of very few human characters for 18 years. He appeared in 1268 episodes.
What happened to Northern Calloway?
Northern Calloway was arrested on September 19th, 1980, in Nashville, Tenessee. He had been at Mary Stagaman’s home, the marketing director of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, after he performed there on the 13th of the same month. Something happened while he was there and Northern assaulted Mary with an iron and caused serious head and rib injuries to her. After this, he fled the scene and broke into two other homes, destroying some of their valuable property while he was at it.
Northern didn’t stop there, though. He proceeded to steal a first grader’s backpack, break a windshield with a rock, and steal a bag of herbicide from elderly Douglas Wright. He then spilled the herbicide on his body and began rolling on the ground and running around. Douglas tried to hold Northern at gunpoint and even fired a warning shot at him. He responded to this shot by diving to the ground and screaming that he had been shot, before jumping back up and washing his hands and face in Douglas’ bird bath. Northern then fled the scene. Witnesses at the time recall he was wearing nothing but a superman t-shirt.
Northern was arrested after being found hiding in a couple’s garage. He was screaming, “Help! I’m David from Sesame Street and they’re trying to kill me!” He was immediately taken to a mental hospital for an examination. This was all kept quiet from the public and Northern was allowed to continue appearing on Sesame Street while he received help.
Northern’s final years on Sesame Street were reportedly spotted with times of erratic behaviour and deteriorating health. He was said to have even bitten the music coordinator Danny Epstein during an on-set fight. Northern was also unable to participate in the filming of Follow That Bird since it took place in Canada and his criminal record meant he wasn’t allowed to enter the country. That is why he didn’t feature in the film.
By 1987, the executive producer, Dulcy Singer, had become concerned about the viability of Northern’s future with Sesame Street. This led to the show’s writers slowly ended David and Maria’s relationship in the storyline. In 1989, Northern Calloway was dismissed from Sesame Street after the biting incident. David was last seen on the 20th season finale that aired on May 12th, 1989. The 21st season started and David’s absence was explained away by saying that David had gone to live with his grandmother on a farm to look after her.
It wasn’t long after he was terminated from Sesame Street that Northern was placed into Stony Lodge Hospital, a mental institution, which was located in Westchester County, New York. He was being treated for bipolar disorder.
On January 9th, 1990, Northern and a staff member were involved in a serious altercation. He was transported to Phelps Memorial Hospital in North Tarrytown but there was nothing anyone could do. At the age of 41, Northern Calloway was pronounced dead. His cause of death was listed as exhaustive psychosis, which is now more commonly known as Excited Delirium Syndrome. It is described as a “controversial condition” that is mainly given to those who die while in restraints in custody. Northern was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery.
In 2007, the lives of two promising artists ended in tragedy. Their journey takes us from Los Angeles to New York by way of paranoia and conspiracy. This, is the story of The Golden Suicides.
Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake met in 1994. They were both activists involved in the punk-rock scene in Washington hanging around bands. They both would move to New York a year later and run into one another yet again backstage at a concert. Duncan would go on to hire him as her illustrator and art director for her CD-ROM’s. Both each other’s artistic inspiration.
Duncan and Blake seemed like the perfect couple. Happily, together for over 12 years until their untimely end. Duncan was a very prominent actress, game designer of multiple award-winning CD-ROM’s such as Chop Suey and Zero Zero, film director and over all beautiful. Blake was a growing digital artist with his moving artworks very quickly gaining popularity. The pair, although seemingly talented artists, appeared to also become enthralled in rapid paranoia and a much wider story. The couple had been living together in New York since 1995 and moved to Los Angeles in 2002. Both riding a high of fame and talent, each gaining large scale deals in their careers at that time. Duncan also was struggling to get her script for Alice Underground made, between 2002 and 2004 which was only upsetting her more. In her attempts to find backing for her film Duncan openly would boast how she had acquired rock star Beck to act in the movie. She stated they had met repeatedly to discuss the movie and his involvement. Beck, however, emailed Vanity Fair to say that this was not true. He had read her script but never agreed to act. Duncan continued to say how close the couple was to Beck and his wife and sent photos showing the two couples hanging out together on Malibu beach. Beck’s wife was clearly pregnant in the images which dated the photos showing that they were no longer friends. Duncan was very frustrated and upset over this setback and would blame the Church of Scientology once again which would later make more sense when Beck publicly told The New York Times about his involvement with Scientology but stated that he had nothing but good things to say about them and would never have told Duncan and Blake that he wanted out of the church like they would claim.
Only a few years later in 2006, Blake had sent an email to a friend of his depicting how the couple had decided to move back to New York after having to leave their Venice bungalow upon receiving notice from their landlord that they were not allowed to stay. Blake went on to tell his friend that Duncan and himself had been harassed and “defamed by crazy Scientologists,” and threatened to the point of needing to leave. The Church of Scientology has since denied knowing the couple. Blake continued to appear paranoid towards the Bush administration who was in power at the time as well as calling out a few media companies for leaning towards Republican. It appears that one of their neighbors, also a couple would go on to state how Duncan continuously would show up at their apartment while Blake was away to harass, accuse the girlfriend of being a “cult whore” and even went on so far as to send letters to her filled with defamation and implications that the girlfriend was involved in Scientology.
Duncans paranoia would only continue to increase. Feeling that she could trust no one and that men were following them and stalking their home in New York. Her accusations increasing and going so far as to say that one time while walking their dog a man had said, “Hey, what a sweet dog. It would be too bad if something happened to it.” She also said that they found a dead cat on their roof as if someone had put it there. Constant phone calls with no one on the other end of the line. She was terrified and Blake wanted to protect her. Friends said they had believed her since they had never seen her this way before. The paranoia was unlike her. Blake, however, would tell friends that it would die down and she would be fine. She unfortunately would not be. Duncans behavior would become erratic, ruining friendships and business opportunities for both herself and Blake. Duncan would go on to write a 27-page document to be used for a lawsuit against the Church of Scientology. She blamed famous actor, Tom Cruise, for ruining her film project deal with Paramount, Cruise denied this claim. She would call out people on her blog she launched in 2005 about conspiracies, Blakes ex-girlfriend, old friends and others.
In early January of 2007, the couple would move into the St. Mark’s Church rectory in New York and almost immediately befriended Father Frank Morales. Morales was also quite interested in conspiracies. The apartment at the rectory was quite beautiful and said to be haunted by famous individuals such as Edgar Allen Poe and Harry Houdini. The couple had one issue though, finances. Morales felt that they belonged there and after they borrowed money for the deposit from family the place was theirs for $5000 a month. Blake had a very important art show coming up and need money so he would accept a consulting job at Rockstar Games, famous for creating Grand Theft Auto where he had worked 10 years prior. He did not want to go back but they needed money.
They both were drinking more frequently, paranoia only continuing. Morales claimed that Duncan would reach out to him about what troubled her. She would often ask Morales to share his conspiracy theories when out with friends which in night club settings felt odd to him. Blake told Morales he had purchased a gun for protection as the couple’s worries grew and grew. A psychiatrist friend of Blake’s was concerned for him although interview footage of the couple with Blake talking about his art works showed them as happy and just as in love as they always had been. Duncan would organize a fundraiser for the church as they become frequent attendees to Sunday mass. They would, however, not make an appearance that night which Morales found odd. The night before Duncan’s death, the couple had met at a restaurant with film producer Cary Woods and George Pelecanos. They seemed interested in their ideas for a new movie called Nick’s Trip. Things seemed promising for the couple. The next day, July 10th, Blake had come home to go for lunch with Duncan like he normally did. No one knows where they went or what they talked about. Later that night, at around 7pm, Blake returned home from work. He invited Morales upstairs who he had met in the church’s garden. Morales said he would join them in a few minutes. 10 minutes later, the police arrived at the home. Morales rushed up the stairs to the apartment to find Blake hysterical, screaming “this can’t be happening”. Duncan had been found by her boyfriend dead in bed. Empty bottles of pills and a glass of champagne on the bedside table. Her face seemed frozen in a smile, one hand reaching up to her face. Morales would stay with Blake until the body had been removed and friends arrived to care for Blake. Her death was too hard to believe or understand for those that new her. Blake would continue for his upcoming art show and stated he would have it once he recovered which unfortunately, he never would.
A week after Duncan’s suicide on July 17th, Blake had been meant to travel to Detroit with friends the next day. He went to work like normal, insisting to friends he felt ok. He never came home. He said he was going to visit a sound designer friend who lived in Brooklyn but also never showed up. It turns out that after leaving the Rockstar offices Blake had taken the train to Rockaway Beach, where his mother had been born. He stripped his clothes, left them on the beach and walked into the water. Around 8pm, a woman called 911 saying she thought she had seen a man matching Blakes description walk naked into the water and never come back. On the back of a business card left with his clothes it read, “I am going to join the lovely Theresa.” On July 22nd, fisherman would find his body washed up in New Jersey.
The couple’s tragic love story peaked major media attention in New York and even peaked interest in a film. At this time author of American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis, was hired to write the screenplay. Talks on twitter by Ellis implicated that Ryan Gosling may have been meant to play Jeremy Blake alongside Naomi Watts as Theresa Duncan. The directors would go on to say that they did not feel the pair were a good casting choice and since 2011 we have not heard more about this possible film.
15 miles from Ithaca, New York is Dryden: a quiet, cloudy upstate town with a population of less than 2,000 people. In fact, it’s rumored that Frank Capra was inspired by Dryden when scouting locations for “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Still, the dark days aren’t just the cloud cover, it’s a pallor over the town that’s existed in earnest since the mid-1990s, when a series of truly horrifying and morbid deaths all connected to the local high school changed the town forever.
Dryden High School was a nice place for an education- the red brick building is welcoming and statuesque, it has a vibrant sports program including running tracks, an expensive football field and a skating rink. Its enrollment at the time was around 732 students, who would show school spirit by throwing bonfires in the fields and woods close by.
On September 10th, 1996, spirits were …high. Dryden Football team was coming off of a division championship the previous year, and the team had just won the local Preseason Invitational football game. The day culminated in practice, lasting until about 6:30 pm. Scott Pace attended that practice, and he’s a pretty big deal. Popular, handsome, and one of the most talented football players ever to attend Dryden high, really, the unofficial leader of the team, rushed out of the school after practice to meet his parents and… is immediately killed in a car crash.
It’s a tragedy in and of itself. But what makes it even more bizarre is that Scott’s older brother, Billy- similarly beloved and talented on the football field- was ALSO killed in a car crash almost EXACTLY One YEAR before!
Everyone is absolutely fucked up by both Billy and Scott’s death. People use words like “recovering from tragedy” community and “pulling together, but the truth is, it feels like a greek tragedy. But it’s only the beginning.
Three weeks later, Dryden had another home football game. This is Friday, October 4th, 1996. 17 year old Tiffany Starr, captain of the Dryden cheerleaders, arrived in pigtails in her purple uniform. She’s a math honors student, on student council, is the point guard on the girls’ basketball team, and has been voted “Best Actress” and “Class Flirt” by her peers. She’s preceded by her equally loved twin sisters, Amber and Amy, who graduated from Dryden two years before. If I haven’t emphasized what a big deal it is to be a cheerleader at Dryden, here’s a quote from Tiffany’s sister, Amber:
“Being a cheerleader at Dryden is the closest thing to being a movie star as you can get. It’s like being a world-class gymnast, movie star, and model all in one. It is fabulous! Fab-u-lous! It’s so much fun! Because we rule.”
They did rule. The Dryden High squad won their region’s cheerleading championships a whopping 12 years in a row. The leadership and spirit of the three Star sisters might be credited to their father, Stephen, the former Dryden High football coach. We’ll jump back to the Starrs in a bit, another missing piece of this whole nightmare puzzle…
So on Friday, October 4th, 1996. Tiffany walked in, and huddled with her quad. One of them makes note that their friends and fellow cheerleaders, Jennifer Bolduc and Sarah Hajney, never showed up to school that day. Jennifer and Sarah are juniors and Tiffany is close with them- so much so that Tiffany knows that Sarah’s parents were out of town the night before, and that Jen spent the night at Sarah’s house, located in nearby McLean. The two would never miss a game, considering how high profile the cheer team is, and also, just knowing the girls themselves.
Jen Bolduc was 16, tall, popular, a varsity track star, a champion baton-twirler, and a volunteer at Cortland Memorial Hospital.
Sarah Hajney was as dependable and loved, beautiful, on varsity track and did volunteer work for children with special needs.
The football team loses the game, and the anxious cheer team decides to spend the night at the Starr house. As they head back, New York state troopers William Foley and Eric Janie are inside Sarah Hajney’s house. Both live in Dryden- they know the family. But they aren’t alone in the house.
“There are a lot of people, concerned family members, inside the house,” says Janie. “And the first obvious fact is: There’s a problem in the bathroom.”
In the bathroom, they see a shower curtain pulled down and the soap dish is broken off. On the towel rack is Jen’s freshly washed purple-and-white cheerleading skirt. Sarah’s skirt is discovered twirled over a drying rack in the basement.
Seeing signs of struggle, Janie and Foley treat the area like a crime scene, and Sarah’s parents- who were vacationing in Bar Harbor, Maine, are on their way back home.
Seven miles from the house in a fly fishing store parking lot authorities find The Hajney’s Chevy Lumina. Inside the car is mud, pine needles, charred wood, blood, and diamond-patterned fingerprints suggesting the kidnapper wore gloves. Inside the trunk…is evidence that two bodies have been there. But nothing else.
Waiting outside the Hajney home for information, along with many others, is Sarah’s best friend, Katie Sorvino. What nobody knew yet is that Katie had made plans to spend the night with Sarah and Jen but, at the last minute, decided to stay home.
So the town is losing their mind even more. State Troopers are everywhere, the high school is in an even higher state of tragedy and the investigation begins in earnest as to what happeend to the girls. The first people to be questioned are the Hajney’s neighbors- John and Patricia Andrews. Their six-year-old son, Nicholas, attends Dryden Elementary. From the Andrews’ upstairs bedroom, one can look down easily into the Hajneys’ bathroom.
John Andrews is acting weird and it doesn’t look good at all. And his questionable history is reason for suspicion.
Andrews is a shy, car-loving guy who went to Dryden High and came from an unstable family. His father is an abusive alcoholic who later commits suicide. John, trying to escape is situation, quickly marries his high school sweetheart, Patricia and then joins the Air Force. Twice at his German base, John attacks two young blonde women who are his neighbors. He’s found guilty of the second assault, dishonorably discharged and then buys a house for his family in Mclean.
A year later, in August 1996, the Hajney’s buy the house next door to the Andrews, and John quickly becomes obsessed with their beautiful, outgoing daughter Sarah.
The search for the killers of Sarah and Jen alarms Tiffany Starr and the whole cheerleading squad. “We keep hearing different rumors all day. The house where I live is five minutes from the place where Sarah and Jen have been kidnapped. Of course I go wild, thinking they’re coming to get me next. We’ve been imagining that they’re after cheerleaders. And Saturday night and Sunday it’s just me and my mom at home, and everybody knows that. By Sunday, I’m freaking out. And I say, ‘Mom, we have to leave now! We have to get out of here!’ And my mom says, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ And we throw our stuff in a bag. I can’t be in that house another minute. I’m terrified. I’m sure somebody is gonna break in, and we just get in the car and go.”
To fully understand Tiffany’s absolutely warranted fear, we need to go back two years and examine what happened December 29th, 1994. We’ll definitely do that, after the BREAK.
On December 29th 1994, things feel good with the Starr family. Tiffany is a sophomore, her sisters are seniors, and their father, Stephen is the star Dryden High football coach….
The Starrs live in Cortlandville, which, like McLean, feeds into Dryden High.Stephen Starr is happy being the football coach along with teaching sixth grade, loves his wife judy and his three successful daughters- whom he affectionately called Pinny, Bamber and Shrimper. It’s a good life.
After a dinner with his family, Stephen Star grabs a plate of cookies and milk. Says Amber:
“So I’m on my way up to bed, and he’s on his way downstairs, he has a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, and for some reason this really overwhelming feeling comes over me. And I say, ‘Dad! Wait!’ And I say, ‘Stop! I love you!’ And I give him this really big hug, and he’s like, ‘I love you too, kiddo.’ And he goes on downstairs. And that’s the last time I see him alive.”
Yes, Another person affiliated with Dryden High is killed.
Earlier that year, a moody teenager named J.P. Merchant moves from Truxton, New York to Dryden, and meets the charming and beautiful Amber Starr. She’s aggressive, dynamic, intelligent. J.P falls in love with her, and Amber…while finding him attractive in that emo way, doesn’t reciprocate the feeling. They date briefly but she breaks it off wit him, and things quickly starts to get weird. He calls, shows up at her home, harasses her friends. He says if they dont’ get back together he will kill himself. Amber is accommodating; she talks to him, is still nice to him, tries to let him down gently. But she moves on, and soon starts dating someone else. J.P. doesn’t like that- and in late december he threatens to kill Amber’s new boyfriend. Tiffany and her mom go to the County Sheriff on December 27 and file a complaint.
The sheriff arrests JP, but his family posts the $500 bail. Right after his release he threatens amber AGAIN, and this time Amber goes with Tiffany and their mom back to the Sheriff’s department, begging for help and protection.
On December 29, a sheriff’s officer watches the Starrs’ house during the day time, but after his shift ends, Stephen starr returns from a conference and the whole house is unguarded. That’s where Stephen Starr says goodnight to his kids, eats his plate of cookies, drinks a single beer and heads to bed. Hours later, J.P. Merchant shoots the locks off the Starr’s back door, climbs the stairs, and sees Tiffany standing in her bedroom doorway.
At that point, he aims the Ithaca 20-gauge shotgun at her. “I am ready to die,” Tiffany says. “I think for sure this is it. But something as simple as shutting my door keeps me alive. He is not after me. He wants Amber. He just isn’t going to let anyone get in his way. And I don’t try. I shut my door and let him go.”
Seconds later, J.P. wakes Amber up and Stephen, hearing movement, runs to protect his daughter. Turning, J.P fires two shots and kills Stephen Starr.
The girls and their mother scramble out of the house, and Merchant reloads his shotgun and follows. He fired into the woods at the edge of their house, thinking they were hiding there. But the family goes in the opposite direction instead, racing across the yard to a neighbor’s. J.P. spotts them and almost follows…but instead, he drives to the grave of his high school sweetheart, Shari Fitts. Shari committed suicide three years before this, while she was dating JP. There, he puts the gun to his head, pulls the trigger, and kills himself.
Let’s get back to October 6th, 1996. After Sarah and Jen go missing, Tiffany and Judy pack their backs and go to TIffany’s grandparent’s house in Pennsylvania, not wanting to deal with any more tragic and fatal bullshit. At the same time, the police are narrowing the suspects for Jen and Sarah’s murder down to four—the Hajneys’ neighbor, John Andrews, and three others. At 10 P.M.a call comes in from a woman in her early 30s named Ann Erxleben, another Dryden alumni. She works with Cheryl Bolduc, mother of Jen Bolduc.
Ann and her fiance own a cabin out in the country, and a friend of theirs is staying there over the weekend. This friend notices a red puddle on the floor- something that looks suspiciously like blood. They go up to the cabin to check it out, and call a trooper because the puddle does, indeed, look like blood. THe trooper asks if anyone else had been to the cabin recently, and Ann searches her memory, realizing actually…her brother had been there not long before. Her brother was… wait for it…John Andrews, the Hajney family’s neighbor.
John Andrews is arrested the next day and troopers start to find body parts all around the cabin.
His confession is…chilling, and soon the story unfolds: Three days earlier, the day the girls never show up to the football game, John Andrews ducked under the Hajneys’ garage door and cut the phone wires. Wearing a ski mask and rubber gloves and carrying a bag with duct tape, six knives and even more gloves, Andrews entered the unlocked door from the garage to the kitchen, and crept down the steps to Sarah’s room. He tied Sarah up and putsduct tape on her mouth.
Turning, he saw Jen, who had just taken a shower. Naked, she fought back as he ties her up too, and put both girls in the back of the Chevy Lumina. He drives an hour to Ann’s cabin, builds a bonfire and by the light of the bonfire tortures the two girls and cuts them into small pieces. He drives back down to civilization, throwing bloody body parts and his own clothes out the window as he goes.
On Monday, October 7, Dryden High administration sends ominous notes to teachers in each first period classroom. “Each teacher has to read to the students that Sarah and Jen have been found and that they are definitely dead,” says Tiffany. “When the teachers read the notes to the classes, people jump out of their seats and run down the hallways, screaming. Everybody gathers in the gym and just screams and just cries and cries. And then people speed out to the parking lots, and they just, like… leave.”
Superintendent of Schools Donald Trombley is quoted in The Ithaca Journal: “It is unbelievable hysteria.”
Katie Savino, Sarah’s best friend, is taken out of class and told privately- after she hears, she runs toward Sarah’s locker and collapses.
On Saturday, November 2, one day after being indicted on 26 counts of murder, kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, auto theft, burglary, and criminal possession of a weapon, John Andrews hangs himself in his jail cell with his shoelaces.
Afer this, things get quiet…for a bit. Scott and Tiffany’s class graduates in 1997.Sarah and Jen’s class graduates in 1998. In June 1999, Gary Cassell, the young Dryden High athletic director and the man who became a surrogate father to the Starr sisters, dies of a sudden heart attack. Three days later, Judy comes home from work and sits down Tiffany and Amy, telling them that their friend and fellow cheerleader- the one survivor of of that fateful night of Jen and Sarah’s murder- Katie Sorvino is dead.
Katie had been a huge part of what helped Dryden feel a little normal after Jen and Sarah’s murder. But on on June 11, 1999, 19-year old Katie Sorvino is killed by her college friend Cheryl Thayer in a drunk driving accident. Cheryl was pulled out of the burning car by a truck driver, but he couldn’t grab Katie in time, seconds later the car exploded.
Twenty-three hundred people attended the memorial service for the popular Katie Sorvino, who for the short rest of her life was haunted by her best friends’ deaths. Says Tiffany “when Sarah died, Katie took a lot of her clothes and wore them. She wore Sarah’s belt every day. I think it really terrified her that she was supposed to have been [at Sarah’s house the night of the kidnapping]. And then on top of it, she lost her best friend in the most painful way that you could possibly imagine.”
Three months later, Katie’s good friend Mike Vogt, the class clown and Dryden High’s Division All Star middle linebacker, was so depressed by both Scott Pace and Katie Sorvino’s death that he walks out to a cabin in the woods puts a 12-gauge to his head and shoots himself.
I think a quote from a student at the time sums this whole episode up: “We felt like we’re living in the Village of the Damned,” “We’re like, ‘When is this going to stop?’”
Stephen Starr, Billy, Scott, Sarah, Jen, Katie, Mike…“It’s weird, but young death almost seems to be the norm here,” says a mother of a Dryden Elementary School student. It’s insane, intense, bizarre, mythic, and horrifying, all these deaths that seem to be interwoven with one another. The community, of course, will never be the same.
The Dark History of The Dark History of the Blackburn Cult
The Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven also known as the Great Eleven Club or later, the Blackburn Cult was, arguably, one of the strangest religious cults to have operated in Los Angeles.
The Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, or The Great Eleven was founded in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Downtown Los Angeles by 41-year-old Matilda May Otis Blackburn and her 24-year-old daughter, Ruth Wieland Rizzio. The two were failed actors – their most notable credit was starring in and producing a film called A Nugget in the Rough in 1917, Portland, Oregon’s first feature film. They’d moved to Los Angeles a year later, but by 1922, Ruth was supporting them by working downtown as a “taxi dancer,” the early 20th century’s version of an erotic dancer, like a host who works in cars. That same year, May and Ruth had a revelation: the two publicly proclaimed that the angels Gabriel and Michael appeared to them and declared them to be the “two witnesses” described in the Book of Revelation 11:3.
“And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.”
The two women swore that the angels visited them, directing them to write a book of divine knowledge and revelation that, upon publication, would foretell apocalyptic events. This book was supposed to be titled “The Seventh Trumpet of Gabriel”but was later changed to “The Great Sixth Seal.” Along with sharing future prophecies, this game changing book would also reveal “lost measurements” that pinpointed hidden riches and oil deposits around the globe. May later described being willingly chained to her bed for several months in conceiving of the book.
So what does the Great Eleven even mean? According to a LA times article from 1925 called (“Angel Gabriel Girls Quizzed,” it’s…more complicated than what you might expect.
“They had been taken to a spot outside of Bakersfield, where just below the surface of the earth they were shown huge stores of golden nuggets and precious stones—which was to be theirs upon the presentation to the world of The Sixth Seal. The Royal Family of the Chosen Eleven was to consist of nine ‘queens’ and Ruth and May. For each queen a marble palace was to be erected on the Mount of Olives [which, only enough, is present day Barnsdall Park] in Hollywood, and was to be supplied with eleven ‘kings’ chosen by the Angel Gabriel. The queens and their respective entourages were to rule the world with the advent of eternal life.”
May and Ruth called themselves queens and high priestesses, and people believed them. Los Angeles locals paid to hear their answers, with a small membership fee they would help produce the book and have privileged information to success and future events, and of course, an affiliation with the divine Great Eleven. May and Ruth could do this because, simply, the women were really attractive, and charming. As mentioned, they worked in entertainment and got things done. They were especially good at getting money from potential suitors and having men do whatever they wanted.
A man named Sam Rizzio was one of those men, until he wasn’t. Sam had only known Ruth and her work a short time when he married her in May of 1924. He moved into the organizations headquarters with his wife, where Koreatown’s MaDang Mall is today. But after realizing how intense the cult of the great eleven really was, he begged ruth to leave with him. In a heated fight he supposedly hit her so hard that he drew blood, causing her followers to form a wall around their queen. After the fight, Sam abruptly disappeared. He was never seen again, and a note to Sam’s mother ominously said that he “ is now a high priest, invisible to less spiritual eyes.”
Sam’s younger brother Frank Rizzio was suspicious of the whole thing. He decided to do his own snooping, infiltrating the Great eleven by getting May to hire him as her chauffeur. After only a few days, Frank discovered his brother’s clothes and suitcase, and confronted May. She tersely responded that maybe it meant Sam would be coming back soon.
The Rizzios threatened to go to the police, but never did, perhaps because they were trying to escape their own criminal past. Sam Rizzio had already served nine months in juvenile hall for altering checks, and his father had been wanted for a triple homicide in Chicago. So the Rizzio family backed off and things quieted down. Ruth and May honed in on the book, which was mostly just religious ranting on paper.
The irony of Ruth and May basing their religion on producing this book is that they were both horrible writers. One of the few people who actually saw a draft of the The Sixth Seal called it “the most astounding, bewildering hodge-podge of biblical and mythological references,” which is probably why its release was constantly delayed, and then it just never happened.
While the prophesied Great Eleven book was continually getting underway, One original Great Eleven follower was Clifford Dabney, a goofy nephew of an oil magnate, who turned over $50,000 in cash and assets to May Blackburn (worth approximately $750,000 in 2019). In return, he was promised to be among the first to see the Blackburn’s book (with its “lost measurements”, for more profit, of course) ahead of publication. Dabney also donated 164 acres of land in the Santa Susana area of Simi Valley in Ventura County so May and Ruth could construct a commune to preach their truths and way of life.
May Blackburn also married one of her followers, a handsome, much younger, mustachioed man named Ward Sitton Blackburn. The new couple instructed May’s followers to build cabins on the Simi Valley property where they would take up residence, and chill until Christ returned.
It was called Harmony Hamlet by the press, and the first thing constructed on the property was a temple featuring an elaborate guided throne that was reserved for Christ. Cult members residing at the property were told to leave their cars in the woods and walk up to the area, work at a nearby tomato-packing house and turn all their pay over to may and ruth. In the evenings, robed members gathered for rituals in a natural amphitheater on the property and sacrificed mules and, according to some witnesses, danced naked. Whatever May and Ruth said went, no matter how insane.
During this time, it was alleged that one sick member of the Great Eleven was placed in a hot brick oven in order to get over a common sickness, and she died as a result. Four other cult members were also reported to have mysteriously disappeared, likely poisioned- including Sam Rizzio.
On New Year’s Day of 1925, 16-year-old cult member Willa Rhodes died from a severe infection as a result of a toothache. MAY assured her grieving parents, also in the Great Eleven, that the girl would be resurrected to life after 1,260 days had passed and the book was published. All they had to do was preserve her body for the event. SO, THEY DID. Willa’s body was immediately placed in a bathtub filled with ice, spices and salt. Fourteen months later, when the girl’s parents moved back to Los Angeles and into a home in Venice, they brought Willa’s preserved body with them and placed it in a mental coffin beneath the floor of their house. Next to her coffin was another coffin containing the sacrificed bodies of seven puppies, said to represent the seven tones of the angel Gabriel’s trumpet.
The rituals were amping up, and inexplicably, plans for a large refrigeration unit began on the commune. One year before her arrest, May traveled with nine followers to Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley to perform a ceremony. Although no details are known, it is believed that she equated the wells with “the bottomless pit” in the Book of Revelation, and police later investigated rumors that Sam Rizzio’s body was disposed of there, though nothing was found.
By 1929, Dabney and other Blackburn followers lost patience for the completion of Blackburn’s book and her promised apocalyptic events. They filed charges of fraud and theft against May and Ruth for as much as $200,000 (approximately $3 million today). As allegations also emerged of unreported deaths and disappearances, police expanded their interest, leading to the discovery of the mummified body of Willa Rhodes beneath her parent’s Venice home. It could not be determined that Willa had died from anything other than natural causes, but At the same time, Sam Rizzio’s disappearance- and others, could not be ignored.
Unfortunately, police were unable to uncover any viable evidence regarding the disappearances of the four missing cult members, including Sam Rizzio. Prosecutors also could not substantiate the allegations of a cult member’s death from being baked in an oven.
Nevertheless, in 1930, Ruth and May were charged with grand theft. The charges against Ruth were dropped, but May was sentenced to a minimum of eight years in 1930. She appealed, claiming that stories of Sam and Willa had been improperly admitted to frighten the jury, and had nothing to do with whether she’d committed theft. In 1931, a judge agreed with May and let her go. Remarkably, Ruth and May were never charged with any deaths or disappearances, and The Great Eleven continued to exist a bit, though the publicity and scandal eroded membership and credibility, as you might imagine. In 1936, May Blackburn actually did publish a book, called “The Origin of God.” Which was confusing and bad, riddled with weird religious imagery. It didn’t change the world or get anyone rich.
May Blackburn died in Los Angeles in 1951- I’m not sure about Ruth. To this day, you can check out the commune area in simi valley, though I don’t think you’ll find any jewels or gold.
On October 13th, 1982, concerned neighbors went to the house of the Salomon family, a well liked, social family on their Northridge, CA street. Noticing that the Salomon’s pool had overflowed and it was spilling into their yards, she and a group of concerned friends found a locked door, cars in the driveway and the family’s cocker spaniel, Mishmish, hanging out in a soaking back yard. It was a puzzling scene. But this was only the start to a ten year nightmare, spanning Southern California to London, spawning three trials and countless legal hearings exposing family secrets and heartbreak. This is the the mysterious and unsolved disappearance of the Salomon family.