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Bizarre Case Shows Flaky Underside of Santa Cruz

January 28, 1988|MILES CORWIN | Times Staff Writer

SANTA CRUZ — The accused in the murder trial is a pop psychologist whose unorthodox methods intrigued the CIA. The victim was a hooker who specialized in kinky sex. The prosecution's key witness is a former cocaine dealer.

The trial, which goes to the jury today, has packed spectators into the courtroom every day.

This city "has its flaky side," conceded Assistant Dist. Atty. Gary Fry, who is prosecuting the case, and the murder trial has revealed that side to the fullest.

Santa Cruz is an idyllic strip of coastline cut off from the rest of the world by the ocean on the west, and the mountains, thick with stands of redwoods, on the east. It is in a time warp, a hippie museum where men with shoulder-length hair and thousand-yard stares still wander the downtown streets. It is a tolerant city where holistic medical centers and alternative therapies abound. It is an iconoclastic city, where two recent mayors described themselves as "socialist-feminist." Both were men.

So when the bizarre case of the hooker, the coke dealer and the psychologist was first reported, many were not surprised that the setting was Santa Cruz. "It's the stereotypical Santa Cruz case," Fry said.

"The crime itself isn't real strange or gory," he added in an interview. "If there's such a thing as a clean shot to the face, this is it.

"The case has attracted attention because it's got weird sex, lots and lots of drugs, and a victim who was an extremely attractive woman. And there are different versions of how she got killed. It's basically a whodunit."

Like the Japanese novel "Rashomon," the trial testimony about the Santa Cruz murder has differed with each narrator.

The prosecution claims that Richard Bandler, the psychologist, killed Corine Christensen. Bandler claims that James Marino, an admitted former cocaine dealer, killed her.

The trial has been a melange of conflicting testimony, varying interpretations of physical evidence and implausible scenarios. Marino claimed that Bandler was angry at Christensen because she was having a lesbian affair with Bandler's live-in girlfriend, and because she owed him money. Bandler claimed that Marino was convinced that Christensen arranged to have him beaten and was trying to have him killed.

After a preliminary hearing last fall, Municipal Judge Tom Kelly reflected on the confusion. "My mind went back and forth all week (about who killed Christensen)," he said. "The only thing I know for sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, is we had a murderer in this courtroom. Beyond a reasonable doubt I cannot tell you who that person was."

At first glance, it seems more plausible that Richard Bandler would be in court as an expert witness than as a defendant.

Bandler, 37, gained a national reputation in the early 1970s when he and former UC Santa Cruz linguistics professor John Grinder co-founded a discipline called neuro-linguistic programming. NLP, an amalgam of linguistics and hypnosis, studied how people influence each other in subconscious ways. Bandler and Grinder claimed that therapists could use NLP techniques--scanning a patient's eye movements, speech pattern, body language, changes in skin tone or breathing--for a quick fix on the patient's problem. Then hypnotic techniques could be used to reprogram behavior.

The human potential movement was burgeoning at the time, and new ideas were being pioneered just south of Santa Cruz at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. Grinder and Bandler studied many of the innovative therapists who visited Esalen and applied some of their theories to NLP. They began giving seminars throughout the country, and Bandler eventually wrote 13 books on the subject.

He claimed that NLP had a wide variety of applications. Therapists could cure people's phobias in 10 minutes. Salesmen could better understand buyers. Executives could enhance communication with their employees.

Not Certified Therapists

Neither Bandler, who has a master's degree in psychology from Lone Mountain College in San Francisco, nor Grinder, a linguist, were certified therapists. They called themselves "modelers of human behavior."

Bandler is described by many as a man with a dazzling intellect whose insight and charisma made him almost a cult figure at seminars.

"I could imagine him getting a Nobel Prize; it would be a shame if he got one in prison," said Dr. Robert Spitzer, a Palo Alto psychiatrist who is a longtime friend of Bandler.

But the controversial discipline polarized mental health professionals. Some embraced NLP as a great innovation. Many others considered it a fraud.

Dr. William Carroll, a staff psychiatrist at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, is one of the dissenters. He said he finds much of Bandler's work "snake oil, sold like any other kind of snake oil." Many of Bandler's books, Carroll said, "are basically restatements of what other people have done. His greatest gift is as a mimic. He's repackaged other's ideas."

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