Tuesday, October 6, 2009

With Malice Aforethought-6


Rushed to judgment

In a chapter entitled Aftermath toward the end of The Second Power (left), Penn uses O’Hare’s reluctance to sue as de facto proof of his guilt. Discussing the Anthony Hilder interview, Penn disses the two attorneys O’Hare claims advised him not to sue: corporate attorneys Jeffrey Rudman, then at Hale and Dorr in Boston; and Jeffrey Nussbaum, with Stein and Lubin in San Francisco.

Virtually beating the page with his insistence that O’Hare needn’t prove damage to win libel damages if he’s been wrongly accused of a felony, Penn writes that Rudman raised nary a finger as Boston’s WNEV and WBZ television stations rushed out unflattering stories about O’Hare.

Writing that his quarry never demanded so much as a retraction, Penn claimed that O'Hare used at least four different excuses not to sue, telling Boston Herald reporter Eric Fehrnstrom two of them: he couldn’t afford it; and he didn’t think he could prove damages.

“My children still love me; my wife still sleeps with me; and Harvard [O’Hare’s employer at the time] hasn’t fired me yet,” the professor reportedly told Fehrnstrom, who is now former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s press secretary.

“I left journalism 15 years ago, but this story stands out as one of the quirkiest,” Fehrnstrom (left, with Romney) told me. “Gareth Penn and I corresponded and spoke on the phone many times about his theories. Of course, he had no physical evidence tying Michael O'Hare to any crime, only his mathematical calculations. I spoke once to Michael O'Hare, by phone, and he denied involvement in any crimes. He said he was aware of Penn and his book, Times 17. I asked him why he didn't sue Penn for libel or slander, and he said he felt it best to ignore him.”

Twenty years later, on March 2, 2008, Penn renewed his allegations with characteristic fervor. James O’Brien’s Boston Now storyKilling of Harvard grad a mystery: Notorious author maintains prosecutor got it wrong—and its companion piece, a 20-minute online audio interview with Penn—opened O’Hare’s old wounds on the death of Leonard Paradiso.


From his Seattle home, Penn blasted Timothy Burke for of all things, “railroading” Paradiso with a “ludicrous theory.” He then fingered O’Hare, a counter-charge Burke called “absolutely ludicrous…the guy is whacked.”

But to O’Brien, a crime reporter who now works for the Boston Globe, Penn didn’t seem whacked at all. “He wandered off topic a few times, but mostly he was calm and deliberate,” O’Brien told me. Their recorded interview confirms that impression. “Mr. Penn didn’t raise his voice. He never got excited. He laughed a few times, but that was it.”

Vallejo valentine

Sufficiently challenged, Penn will raise, if not his voice, then his pen. Pressed for hard evidence against O’Hare, he provides flimsy suppositions. When that doesn’t work, he attacks.

“Your sophistry and tortured reasoning are wearing me out,” he emailed me after a grueling round of questions. “You are a bottomless pit of substance-less cavils.”

Though O’Hare has confirmed that he worked for Arthur Little in San Francisco “sometime in 1969,” I wanted to know how he knew the Vallejo area well enough to stalk targets on lonely lovers’ lanes and provide precise directions from local payphones to the police: If you will go 1 mile east on Columbus Parkway to the public park you will find the kids in a brown car.

My questions aren’t new. For the producers of the 2007 Zodiac movie, Texas State University professor Kim Rossmo used a computer program of his own invention called Rigel to create a so-called geographic profile of the killer based on the crime locations and other clues. Despite cab driver Paul Stine’s San Francisco murder and all the letters mailed from that city, Rossmo concludes that the killer either lived or worked in the Vallejo area.

“People—criminals included—have regular routine activities, such as commuting to work, shopping, and visiting friends and family,” Rossmo (left) explains. “These locations, and the travel routes between them, make up a person’s activity space or comfort zone. Criminals typically commit crimes in those areas where their activity space overlaps suitable targets.”

But Mike O’Hare appears to have had no activities that overlapped Vallejo or nearby cities like Napa or Benicia, all of which are far from San Francisco.

And if he did, Gareth Penn would have been well positioned to discover them.

Unlike O’Hare, Penn did have numerous ties to Vallejo, including his wife’s 23-year teaching career with the Vallejo School District, which started in the Fall of 1968; their subsequent residence in Vallejo; his daughter’s birth in Vallejo; and his job as a librarian, from 1972-79, at the JFK-Solano County Library in Vallejo, where he ran the Donovan J. McCune archival collection—and met a lover with a definite connection to the Zodiac case.

“When Mary Ann and I had marital problems, I had a torrid and lengthy affair with a Vallejoan who is the niece of the woman who discovered the dead teenagers at Lake Herman Road in December 1968,” Penn told me.

That Vallejoan—Madeleine Borges—went to high school with one of those victims, David Faraday. Her aunt, Stella Borges Medeiros, discovered Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen about three miles from her ranch the night they were shot to death.

Penn insists, however, that his relationship with Borges “had nothing to do with the Zodiac murders. She mentioned her aunt Stella a few times but in other contexts, and I knew that she lived on Lake Herman Road. I didn't know that Stella had figured in the Zodiac story until I read Graysmith's book in 1986.”

Penn also insists that during the murders, he and Mary Ann lived in Berkeley. But Susan Wilkinson’s brief for his 1984 divorce—which she says Penn read and approved—has him living at two addresses in Vallejo from 1969-73. “We lived for only five months in Vallejo, starting in January 1973,” Penn says. “Susan Wilkinson made a mistake.”

Penn deluged me with old records to prove his point.  

But when pressed for evidence of O’Hare’s whereabouts during this time, Penn’s document and memory dump suddenly stopped—for a third time in a year—but not without another round of attachments rebutting his Vallejo connection.
“I have tons more of this stuff and would love to rub your nose in it,” Penn wrote me, recalling the Zodiac’s famous words to the police, that he was “rubbing their noses in their booboos.”

Waifs and Strays

A few days after our go-around about his life in Vallejo, Penn told me National Public Radio correspondent Corey Flintoff (below)—a former student—could vouch for his Berkeley residence.

“Corey and I shared a few beers at 1708 Lincoln Avenue,” his Berkeley address, Penn says. “Corey and his wife Claire came to a few of the lavish dinners Mary Ann and I threw at 1708 Lincoln Avenue, and they helped us move.”

Like virtually everyone else from Penn's interesting past, Flintoff said he remembers him well—as friend, mentor, and German teacher at Berkeley between 1969-70.   

"Gareth was also one of the first true intellectuals I'd met, unapologetic about pursuing a life of the mind," Flintoff said.   "He was fascinated with connecting up all kinds of knowledge."  

Twenty-three at the time, Flintoff  was also taken with Penn's larger-than-life personality.  A "gregarious and kindly man," Penn "attracted a circle of friends wherever he went," Flintoff explained.  "He and Mary Ann built and nurtured their friendships with other people in their kitchen, which had a big center table where they kneaded bread and brewed beer and made pasta.  They were probably the first people close to my own age who I'd ever met who really understood that life and friendship are nurtured by fundamental things like real food, authentic music and art."

The Penn's Thanksgiving "Waifs and Strays" dinner was a "hospitality high point" every year, Flintoff said.  "Gareth and Mary Ann were on the leading edge of the hippie 'back-to-the-land' movement and also fore-runners of today's foodie movement."

Signifying nothing

O’Hare told Mike Butterfield he never sued because “it would just give Penn more attention” and he did not respond to James O’Brien’s interview requests, preferring to let stand his earlier denials.

No surprise. Until our interviews, the accused professor hadn’t said anything to reporters for 20 years.

When I first contacted him, O'Hare rehashed his denial, then clammed up when I asked for clarifications. About a year later, I asked again, and sent him this manuscript.

The story must have jarred O'Hare, who emailed that I was “wallowing in Penn's most ludicrous nonsense,” and “gibbering after a lawsuit that would obviously be catnip for poor Penn and something you could retail, but that cannot benefit me in any way.”

He also responded with uncharacteristic dismay to my request for anything he might have to refute any of Penn’s claims or back up his denials, a question that once had Jake Wark surmise that O’Hare was “teasing Penn—and the rest of us—by refusing to give a decent alibi for even one Zodiac event.”

“Just to clarify, are you seriously suggesting that I owe it to you or anyone else to ‘back up’ a refutation of (for example) the falsehood that my mother sexually abused me?” O’Hare emailed. “To prove that my wife and I stick plants in our front yard in the usual way: ‘Hey, wouldn't a rosebush look good about here?’ To treat the fact that I used a transit to set the grades of the beds (is there some other way) as something inculpatory and suspicious that needs to be excused?”

Concluding that I reminded him of a
kid I knew in high school who was always trying to provoke fights,” O’Hare attached an MP3 file—Signifyin’ Monkey, a song by Oscar Brown, Jr. about a monkey that tries to incite a conflict between an elephant and a lion by using the elephant's words against the lion.

I did not open the attachment.

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