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What I learned from visiting the sites of murder

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I’ve spent the last month driving up the east coast of the US on my honeymoon, and in that time I’ve managed to visit the sites of four infamous and brutal murders.

Don’t be too shocked. That’s not even the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.

For the true crime nuts among you, (and I know there are a few), I thought I’d write a little bit down about what visiting those places was like and the feeling they have left me with. Because I guess all us crime freaks imagine ourselves getting some kind of strange pleasure or satisfaction out of being in a place where something that intrigues us so deeply occurred. I was drawn to these places as though by animal instinct, and approached them with my heart thumping. But what did I really expect to find?

I guess in some ridiculous corner of my mind I imagined that if I could actually physically go to where Hae Min Lee of Serial was buried, for example, I’d find answers as to who killed her. That there’d be some soiled confession letter buried under the log itself, or a symbol carved into a tree, or a wispy shred of fabric that defied every police search, every curious websleuth who trudged that rugged path before me. Something that eluded even the family of Hae herself, who had surely been there themselves to see where she had been laid to rest by her killer. Predictably, and sadly, there was none. I guess you (and I) both knew that deep down. Such a find wouldn’t hold water even in the realms of the worst fiction.

I guess I also wondered if by going to the site of this terrible loss if I might be able to feel some of it more tangibly, and with some further legitimacy. That I might somehow become worthy of the sadness I feel for these strangers. These families I have never met and these victims, some of whom were born and died before I was even born. Because I do feel sad, but I don’t feel like I deserve to. I don’t feel like I’ve earned it. And I can’t think of a way to do that. This seemed like a pretty good shot.

I found the site of the infamous log behind which Hae Min Lee was found in Leakin Park, Baltimore, by following the instructions here. My husband parked the car at the nearby rest stop and walked back through the park with me, a little embarrassed as we ducked off the path by the side of the road and made out way into the bramble. It was tangly but not terribly dense in there, which is something Sarah Koenig was right about in Serial – you could still clearly see the road and the cars going by from 127 feet into the bush. Tim and I were a little confused as to which log we were looking for, but used pictures from Google to narrow it down from two potentials to one. I sat there, expecting something, looking at the leaf-littered earth at my feet, the place where she had lain. My husband stood nearby looking at the creek, probably wondering who the hell he married. I think he gets my weird desire to visit the places from traumatic stories to a certain point. He does it himself. We trudged around Boston making note of the sites of scenes from his favourite Spenser novels. So there.

But, granted, he might not have understood completely when I got my phone out and played ‘All My Life’ by K-Ci and Jo-Jo for Hae. Ok, Ok, Ok, I know how weird that sounds. But hear me out. I don’t know if there are ghosts or spirits or whatever the hell floating around in the universe, and I’m not prepared to completely reject the idea just yet (I’ve seen some shit, ok?). And I’ve never been given a really good guide. I spent most of my high school science classes quietly lighting things on fire at the back of the room. And my mother’s interpretation of Catholicism somehow includes reincarnation (and mermaids!). I have no grasp on the afterlife or whatever the hell happens in it.

But I figured that if even the tiniest part of Hae was around there somewhere, I knew she liked the song, and I thought it was unlikely she’d heard it in a long, long time. Because as I sat there listening and waiting for whatever might come, I realised how incredibly lonely a place this was. Yes, the road was just nearby. People, too. We’d even passed a group of school kids and teachers doing a nature walk by the bridge not a half a kilometre away. But the place where Hae was buried was closed in on all sides by thin green forest, making a sort of timeless bubble. I felt sick to think that she might have lain here forever, had she not been found, so close to life, but so completely detached from it. And even though she had been found here, there was not a thing to mark that horrible consequence. No shrine. No stone marker. Not so much as a cardboard ‘DON DID IT!’ sign pinned to a tree, which I would have put money on being the first indication that we were in the right place. Just an old, rain-soaked wooly rug someone had dumped (I checked it for bodies) and liquor bottles scattered here and there throughout the brush (there was one brandy bottle, but not the same as the brand mentioned in Serial). If some tiny part of Hae resides in this place so full of, and empty of clues, she has nothing but the sound of the slowly wandering creek to latch on to. In Hae’s diary, which Sarah read on Serial, she wrote that she was so excited Adnan danced to ‘All My Life’ with her instead of Stephanie at their prom. I wondered if playing it might help her, if she was there, return to a happier time. I know it’s weird. I’m weird. Get over it.

If the absence of any marker of the loss of Hae Min Lee at her burial site surprised me, it didn’t prepare me for the lack of, and sometimes deliberate erasing, of evidence from the three other sites I visited. Tim and I used our GPS and some co-ordinance obtained online and stopped on the side of a featureless stretch of parkway at Oak Beach, Long Island, where the bodies of ten people were found. Most of them were prostitutes working off CraigsList, but one was an Asian man in women’s clothing, and one was a toddler. Standing far out on the edge of the marshland where crab boats rocked back and forth, we could see a single white cross, but there was no way of knowing if it was related to the finding of the remains of these women (and one man and one child). The bramble at the side of the road was impenetrable. Whoever the killer was, he (or she) likely pulled up to the side of the road along this parkway at various spots and dragged or threw the bodies of his victims in, as each was found less that ten feet from the asphalt, some wrapped in burlap. The Long Island serial killer, sometimes known as the Gilgo Beach killer or the Craigslist Ripper, is still out there.

In LA, we drove along the private and leafy Cielo Drive looking for number 10050, where the glamorous Sharon Tate and the friends and employees with her that night lost their lives at the hands of the Manson family. The residents of Cielo Drive have obviously become tired of the ghost rides and celebrity murder tours roaring up and down their street, as they’ve done a good job of scrambling the house numbers. Tate and Polanski’s house is gone, and there’s no way of really telling where it stood. Walls of desert peppered with harsh plants creep up on each side of the street between the mansions, and a lone security guard loiters in someone’s doorway looking bored.

We took the car to 875 South Bundy Drive and found that there remains some scattered pieces of the scene burned on my mind of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman’s murders. Those peach-coloured tiles are still there, but the famous gateway has been blocked off and turned to the side, where a tall wooden gate guards the residence within. The house number hides behind the fronds of a potted palm, and the garden on either side of the doorway has been allowed to grow over, sheltering the dark space that so many remember from those awful photos.

In the end, I found no clues, and I felt no more justified for the sadness I feel over all these lost lives. And because I don’t feel like I’ve earned my grief for them, the guilt of a ‘gawker’ haunts me. Because surely I’m not the first to have come to these places and closed my eyes and breathed the air, tried to understand what happened, how it might have been interrupted.

As we turned and headed back toward Redondo Beach I posed a hypothetical to my husband. If I could have made a video of one of the killer’s lives after the murders and showed it to them, what did he think they would have done? I asked him to imagine that somehow, for example, I could take snippets of a greying and bloated OJ Simpson in prison coveralls and cuffs at his kidnapping trial, and splice it with pictures of Nicole’s crime scene. If I could have cut in images from the murder and civil trials, the aftermath, the strangely behaved and lonely OJ devoid of friends. If I could have showed him OJ not as the star but as the murderer who got away. What if I could have taken this short video from a future that may never have been and showed it to OJ himself back in time, if I could have put it in his hands just as he was getting in his Bronco that night, just as he pulling out and turning to drive to Nicole’s condo.

Would seeing what was to come change his actions? Or is killer rage just killer rage? Is fate, fate? Were these people meant to die?

Are monsters just monsters, no matter what you try to do to stop them?

Tim didn’t know. I don’t think I do, either. We drove on through LA toward the airport, and left these scarred and barren places behind.

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