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Al Martinez

Could a woman dedicated to helping others . . . suddenly flare into a murderous rage? : A Safer Place in Time

January 15, 1987|Al Martinez

Dora Jane Ashford.

The name evokes different images to different people.

To some, she is the ultimate social activist, living and breathing the causes of those with limited recourse on issues such as tenant discrimination, sexism and community injustice.

To others, she's a case number in the felony files, accused of jealously killing the man she loved.

Dora Jane Ashford. There may be two.

None of her friends believe that the Dora they knew could possibly have fired the gun last Dec. 4 that ended the life of Jeffrey Hintz behind a Santa Monica cafe.

They don't dispute that she was seen there and tracked down by the car she was driving. They just don't believe it was that Dora. They talk of a different Dora.

I wondered.

Could a woman dedicated to helping others, a gentle and good-humored altruist of 42, suddenly flare into a murderous rage?

Friends say it was the illness. Five years ago, Dora discovered that she suffered from a brain tumor after experiencing the blinding ferocity of a grand mal seizure.

Characteristically, she said very little about it but continued to participate in community affairs and

graduated with honors from UCLA Law School.

"I knew her pain was excruciating from the medication she took," friend James Conn said, "but she never said so. She didn't want others to bear any of it."

"It changed her," another friend, Cheryl Rhoden, added.

I asked a neurologist if that were possible. Could a brain tumor turn a pacifist into a killer?

He said it was difficult to say for sure.

"A primary tumor, with drugs and maybe a recent seizure thrown in, can confuse the mind and bruise normal inhibitions," the neurologist said.

"There is distortion, paranoia and an inability to think things through," he said. "Given that, it's possible. There could be an altered personality."

"The Dora I knew for 12 years was passionately nonviolent," Rhoden said. "She supported gun control. She couldn't have hurt anyone. This isn't real. It couldn't have happened."

The disbelief seems universal among those close to Dora. I talked by telephone with her sister, Cheryl Eckley, in Michigan City, Ind.

"I couldn't even conceive of her shooting Skip," Eckley said. "It was another person, not my kindly, peace-loving sister . . ."

Dora, she said, was a bright and happy child, a tomboy who climbed trees and brought home stray dogs, a petite brunette who even downplayed the severity of her illness.

"None of us even realized how sick she was because she dismissed its importance," Eckley said. "She didn't want us to worry."

"I visited her in the hospital when she first became ill," Rhoden said. "She was sitting up in bed with a pencil and a pad, timing the seizures.

"During one of several operations, there was a surgical accident that paralyzed the back of her throat. She had to learn to speak all over again. But she did. She's that kind of person."

"Dora was depressed and taking powerful medication to control the seizures," her sister said. "There were side effects. Blurred vision, slurred speech and a tendency to walk into walls. She was suffering so much."

I asked her attorney, Charles English, if I could talk to her. She is being held in the medical ward of a women's prison.

"Even if I would let you," he said, "she's in no condition to talk. There's a real concern about her ability to survive."

Then he said: "You know, rarely does a criminal lawyer run into someone so loved by the community. At her arraignment, I asked for a show of support on Dora's behalf. Two-thirds of those in the courtroom stood."

"She was involved in so many causes," Rhoden said.

"Her apartment was like a political bulletin board. You could plug into what was going on by just visiting her.

"On Thanksgiving Day we sat on the beach and

discussed a new cause, medical care for the poor. She talked about doing something about it . . ."

"The Dora I knew would hurt herself before hurting anyone else," her sister said. "A month before the shooting, she talked about suicide. She wondered whether it was worth going on."

Dora Jane Ashford.

I have no secret sources of information. I don't know if she shot Hintz.

If she did, I don't know why. Jealousy? The tumor? Both?

And I don't dismiss the pain and horror Hintz must have felt at the end.

I only know Dora deserves better than this. Someone who has given so much to so many should not have to suffer such anguish in return.

Eckley remembers that in conversations last November, Dora seemed to be searching for what she called "a safer place to be."

"I didn't know what she meant then," Eckley said, "but I assumed she was talking about a place away from emotional stress . . . a spiritual place.

"Then when I saw her in jail after the shooting, she was childlike in voice and attitude.

"I said to myself perhaps in her mind she's found that sanctuary. Perhaps she is back to a safer place in time . . ."

I wonder.

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