Death by Parking
Death by ParkingBook 3: The Phantom
Chapter 6 - Our LIves Become Complicated
So what else did happen in August of 1962? We went to the L.A. Times and gained access to its morgue. That's what newspapers call their library. We checked the paper thoroughly. There was nothing, nada, zip, except the tragic death of the movie goddess.
Marilyn Monroe had been found by her housekeeper in her Brentwood home. The L.A. County coroner's report showed no foul play. It reported she had overdosed on sedatives that had been prescribed to her. Her death was ruled a "probable suicide." But the rumors swirled around the event.
She partied with the "Rat Pack," and in those days, one of its stalwart members was Peter Lawford, President Kennedy's brother-in-law. Monroe supposedly had had an affair with JFK.
Of course, the conspiracy nuts were coming out of the woodwork. Everyone from the FBI and CIA to aliens from outer space were supposed to have been involved in her death. As with most conspiracy theories, these were strongly denied and discounted by all involved.
But what if ...
Good detectives don't speculate. They get facts, look for data, run timelines, and poke holes in other people's stories. Speculating on the nearly 45-year-old death of a movie star was fruitless. We needed more information; we needed to talk to that woman at Rick Johnson's home.
Paulo and I were pretty sure she was his wife. She was the right age, and she was there. A bit of research in the morgue and we found that her name was Helen, and a picture in the society pages of The Times confirmed our theory. The problem was how were we going to get her to talk to us, and keep her husband out of it for now?
We looked back through the society pages and found that she was a member of the Riviera Tennis Club on Motor Avenue. Although the place was a bit ritzy for my blood, I had a friend who moved in those circles. He was CEO of a small finance company but had made a good living. I called him and he told me that a Clarence Jackson sat on the board and would help.
My friend paved the way, and I called Jackson, who was able to get Helen Johnson's tennis schedule. She was slated for a lesson that afternoon.
Paulo and I dropped by the house and put on some "tennis" looking clothes and headed down Laurel Canyon to Sunset, across to La Cienega and then down to Pico. Motor ends at Pico, just at the Fox Studios. The area is ritzy. A perfect place for a tennis club.
We turned left on Motor, drove through the Rancho Park Golf Course, and were giving the car to the valet at the Riviera just as Mrs. Johnson was starting her lesson.
We sat in the bleachers and watched a bronze god of a tennis pro put her through her paces. In 30 minutes or so, she was finished and started to walk back to the clubhouse. Paulo walked up to her and asked her to join us. How could she turn down a cute 16-year-old in tennis togs? She looked puzzled at first, then when she recognized me, very concerned.
"Mrs. Johnson," I said, "I'm Paul Manning, and this is my son, Paul. We need to follow up on our conversation this morning. You mentioned 'certain people' and 'changing history.' We need more to go on than that."
She began to squirm and then looked around as if we were having a clandestine meeting in a back alley, not sitting in the bleachers at the Riviera Tennis Club.
"I really can't talk to you. There's just too much going on." She started to stand up and I caught her arm.
"Look, Mrs. Johnson, we just need a hint. The only thing that we found that happened in August of 1962 was the death of Marilyn Monroe."
Mrs. Johnson looked confused, then surprised, then started to laugh. "No, they didn't bury Marilyn in the garage, if that's what you mean. This has nothing to do with her. I would suggest you spend less time at the newspaper library and more time at the county Recorder's Office." With that she got up and strode away.
"County recorder's office?" said Paulo. "What do they record?"
"Let's get in the car. I'll explain on the way."
I told Paulo that the Recorder's Office is where all the records are kept as to who owns what in real estate in the county. It also keeps records of marriages and divorces and all major business and financial transactions, and so on. In some cases, I told him, you can trace land ownership all the way back to the Land Grants given to court favorites by the king of Spain.
The king granted large tracts of land to his friends and allies, and when the U.S. took over California, it agreed by treaty that it would honor the grants. However, nothing is quite that simple. Congress changed the rules after the Gold Rush, and many grants were contested in court.
It was a real mess, I told Paulo, and just who owned what became blurry. Often the cost of litigation was more than the land was worth.
I was proud I had remembered what Miss Weaver had taught in my seventh-grade California History class. Paulo was impressed.
When we arrived at the Recorder's Office in Norwalk, a small city southeast of downtown Los Angeles, we asked to see the history of the land where the garage was built.
It took a few minutes as the clerk found the microfilm and queued it up for us. There it was, plain as day, Johnson's company had purchased the land from Caldwell Properties. It all seemed completely above board.
"Who is Caldwell," Paulo asked.
We searched the Recorder's databases, and after a lot of false leads, we found the owner of Caldwell Properties. It was a New Jersey-based partnership: "Palermo Ltd."
We could have dug deeper, but I didn't think it was necessary. Our lives had become much more complicated.
Helen Johnson's husband had purchased the land where the garage stood - and where two people had been killed - from the mob.