Tuesday, October 6, 2009

With Malice Aforethought-5

Bronx cheer

Victor Fershko, Mary Ann Winterrowd’s divorce lawyer, says he doesn’t remember his client from 25 years ago or her former husband and “probably couldn’t talk about them even if I did.”

But of all things, he does remember Michael O’Hare.

In a case filled with baffling coincidences, Fershko added another: He knew O’Hare at the renowned Bronx High School of Science, where he graduated in 1959, one year ahead of the beleaguered Berkeley professor.

“As I recall, Mike had an amazing mind,” said Fershko, who practiced law for many years in Napa and is now retired in British Columbia, Canada. “Brightest guy in his class, maybe in the entire school.”

Fershko also knew the psychiatrist who reviewed Penn's allegations: Leonti Thompson, a 1947 Bronx High School of Science graduate. “Leonti and I actually spoke about O’Hare, back when his name was in the news,” said Fershko, who practiced law in Napa while Thompson was practicing psychiatry. “Leonti chuckled that O'Hare made a pretty reasonable Zodiac. But neither one of us could understand why he tolerated all the accusations.”

The coincidences don’t stop there. At Berkeley during the 1968-69 academic year—the year of the Zodiac murders—Penn lived downstairs from Girard Pessis, Ph.D. (
right), who graduated from the Bronx High School of Science with O'Hare in 1960.

In one of his many stories for the Mensa Ecphorizer, Penn wrote about standing with Pessis outside the duplex they shared, watching a National Guard helicopter circling the Berkeley campus. It was shortly after the People's Park disturbances (below), where on May 15, 1969—“Bloody Thursday”—the so-called “Blue Meanies”—sheriff's deputies from Alameda County—put down a riotous crowd with buckshot-loaded shotguns.

Pessis, Penn writes, refused to believe guardsman were preparing to strafe the campus with tear gas. But Penn, who had completed his Army service two years earlier, knew better. “The next day, when Girard came back from campus, his eyes were bloodshot and watery,” Penn wrote. “For the next month, CS gas was dripping from the leaves of the trees in Sproul Plaza.”

Recalling Pessis and his “goddess of a wife” Maeve forty years later, Penn told me they “gave raucous dinner parties. I have idly wondered if Michael O’Hare was a guest of theirs during one of his many business trips to the Bay Area.”

But Pessis, formerly chief technology officer for the California Medical Association and vice president of emerging technology at Bank of America, told me he and his wife never partied upstairs. “We mostly socialized downtown or with friends.” And though he remembered Penn—“he was a very serious guy who worried if I left the light on in the hallway too long”—and the “duplex we shared on Webster St.,” he never knew Michael O’Hare. “There were 800 people in my high school graduation class,” Pessis said.

Two months after Bloody Thursday, on July 4, 1969, the Zodiac struck for a second time. He would later label his police pursuers “Blue Meanies” with wicked, righteous glee.

Theatric intellect

Part of Gareth Penn’s allure is his proficient grasp of a political, social, and historical repertoire so vast it seems mind-boggling that one man could recall it all with such determined precision.

In the April 25, 1970 issue of The New Republic, he opined about Revolution as Theatre, an earlier article by Yale University drama professor Robert Brustein. Penn agreed with Brustein, that widely televised Vietnam War protests helped transform insurrection into political theatre, with “violent plans” openly displayed “to a wide audience.”

Revolution as theatre was a much-needed tonic to public apathy, Penn insisted. “The revolutionary show has to go into the streets where everyone can see it, must see it, nolens volens, and force itself to the attention of the great unwashed public.”

Two years later, Penn authored another academic treatise, Gottfried von Strassburg and the Invisible Art, a complex reflection on the German author’s use of a medieval mnemonic called “memory theatre” that uses architectural landmarks as memory aides. The prestigious journal Colloquia Germanica published the paper, no mean feat given Penn’s lack of official university credentials.

In dozens of letters to such intellectual chronicles as The Economist, Scientific American, and National Public Radio, Penn has approached a favorite topic—corrections and clarifications— with an edgy, righteous gusto. About a 1994 production of The Mikado—an opera Zodiac frequently quoted—Penn sniped at a Time Magazine reviewer who had mistakenly attributed the lyrics to Arthur Sullivan and the music to William Gilbert:

Let’s see, now. Sullivan wrote the words, and Gilbert wrote the music. Holmes is the doctor, and Watson the detective. Harpo had the cigar, and Groucho tooted the auto horn. Thanks for setting the record straight!

Rabbit holes

To set the record straight about Michael O’Hare, New York Press writer Alan Cabal scheduled a face-to-face interview with Penn in January 1983. He wanted to see and hear the foxy factotum.

Instead, a planned rendezvous at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco became “a bizarre head game,” Cabal wrote, “an authentic run down the rabbit hole of Northern California weirdness, all ambiguity and coded references as we roamed from the Embarcadero to North Beach to Los Gatos.”

Recalling the charade twenty-five years later, Cabal—one of the last Hunter S. Thompson-style gonzo journalists—said that despite the run around, Penn is both “sane and serious.”

“Critics who accuse Gareth Penn of incoherence are probably members of the same crowd that wound up using Pynchon's Gravity’s Rainbow as a doorstop,” Cabal told me. “He’s obscure and ambiguous, but he’s not incoherent and he’s certainly not crazy.”

At first, Cabal thought Penn and O’Hare were intellectual thrill killers tag teaming the Zodiac murders like a modern-day Leopold and Loeb. Now, he’s not sure what the truth is, only that Penn has fashioned an elaborate lie.

“How he arrived at the identity of Michael O'Hare remains the big question,” Cabal said. “His own account of that particular epiphany is patently false.”

Innocent man?

False allegations nearly ruined Michael O’Hare’s grandmother. But “Red Kate”(right, center)—as she was known for her flaming locks and Marxist rants—fought back, starting on the witness stand.

“She vehemently stated her innocence and the absurd nature of the charges against her,” biographer Sally Miller wrote in Kate Richards O’Hare: Selected Writings and Speeches. “Despite her best attempts, she was still sentenced to prison.”

Kate’s behind-bars battle ultimately vindicated her. President Woodrow Wilson commuted her sentence and later, President Calvin Coolidge granted her a full pardon.

These lessons of history seem lost on her grandson, who has withstood Penn’s assault absent even a simple “cease and desist” letter, not only to his accuser, but also to those who publish his tainted biography.

For nearly a decade, O’Hare’s photo has graced a seven-member rogue’s gallery (5th photo, below) of Zodiac suspects at Tom Voigt’s Zodiackiller.com, the world’s largest clearinghouse for information about the case.

The Learning Channel’s Case Reopened highlighted O’Hare for television audiences in 1999. From his home in Larkspur, Calif., a bearded and aging Gareth Penn told the program’s producer that the killer was alive and well—and living in Berkeley.

“The show’s cameraman turned white as a sheet,” Penn told me. “How far from the Claremont Hotel, he wanted to know? 2962 Russell Street, I said. He looked as if somebody had severed his aorta. He lived right across the street from Michael O'Hare!”

When Penn asked what it was like to have a renowned killer as a neighbor, the answer was straight out of Kafka.

“The cameraman said O’Hare (left) had uprooted the flower garden in his front yard and put in a new one,” Penn explained. “But whereas most people would just put a rosebush here and some pansies there, O'Hare sited every plant with a surveyor's transit.”

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