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True Crime Is Never Quite Enough : DADDY'S GIRL The Campbell Murder Case by Clifford Irving (Summit Books: $19.95; 516 pp.)

June 05, 1988|Bill Blum | Blum is a Los Angeles attorney specializing in criminal and constitutional law

As heinous crimes go, the murders of Houston attorney James (Snake) Campbell and his wife Virginia were coolly efficient. In the sultry predawn hours of June 10, 1982, a masked figure entered the Campbell home through an open downstairs window, crept silently into the master bedroom and methodically extinguished the lives of his victims with six shots from an automatic pistol. Left traumatized but entirely untouched were the couple's two grandsons, ages 7 and 8, who had camped out in sleeping bags at the foot of their grandparents' bed.

Was this the handiwork of a professional hit man? A pay back from some disgruntled client? "America," Clifford Irving reminds us in his study of the Campbell case, "is a nation with a complex tradition of violence, and we love the trappings of a good murder." Indeed, since the publication of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" in 1966, a parade of notable writers, from Norman Mailer to Shana Alexander, has transformed the "true crime" nonfiction novel into the most lucrative journalistic genre this side of the celebrity biography.

Unfortunately, "Daddy's Girl," Irving's first foray into the field, lacks both the suspense and authenticity of its worthier counterparts. Billed as a real-life mystery, the Campbell murders fail miserably as a whodunit. From the beginning, Houston police suspected the guilty parties--the Campbell's estranged, overweight and alcoholic daughter, Cindy Ray, and her equally deadbeat ex-boyfriend, David West, a former Marine with a pet pit bulldog and a predictable fascination for things paramilitary. The problem was building a provable case against the pair, who left only a surgical glove at the crime scene and constructed an airtight alibi.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 20, 1988 Home Edition California Part B Page 4 Metro Desk 2 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
Some California Assessment Program scores for the third grade at 3rd Street Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District were inadvertently omitted from last Sunday's listings in The Times. The school's scores for 1987-88 were 286 in reading, 316 in writing and 317 in math. An incorrect third-grade reading score was listed for La Canada Elementary School in the La Canada Unified School District. The correct 1987-88 score was 365.

Houston's finest struggled mightily for more than two years to bring David and Cindy to heel, but it was not until other members of the Campbell family retained the services of a savvy private eye named Clyde Wilson that the case broke. Realizing that the weakest link in the suspects' armor was West's runaway male hormones, Wilson assigned a sexy newcomer to his staff, 23-year-old Kim Paris, to cozy up to David and get him to bare his soul.

In just two short months, David succumbed to Kim's halter tops and come-hither voice and revealed all. Yes, he had pulled the trigger, but not for a share of Cindy's inheritance, as the police surmised. Rather, West acted at Cindy's behest to avenge the lifetime of physical abuse, including incest, that she had suffered at the hands of her father. In West's warped mind, he was simply administering justice.

Paris' surreptitious tape-recording of West's confession was all that was needed to rev up the engines of the criminal justice system. In return for a plea bargain that saved him from the death penalty, West agreed to testify against Cindy. After one mistrial, she was convicted of first-degree murder as West's accomplice and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Irving does a creditable job developing the fascinating pretrial phases of the case, especially the masterful "sting" performed by Paris. However, his coverage of the court proceedings against David and Cindy, occupying a full two-thirds of the book, is tiresome and tedious.

To generate dramatic tension in a story whose ultimate outcome is never in doubt, Irving inflates the importance of several collateral subplots. The foremost of these, and the source of the book's title, was West's belief that Jim Campbell had fathered Cindy's eldest son, thus providing her with a motive for patricide. Although he offers absolutely no evidence to support the theory, Irving maintains to the end that it was true. Even the appearance and testimony at Cindy's first trial of the boy's natural father do not deter Irving from hyping the lurid controversy out of all proportion.

But perhaps the most interesting subplot is Irving's attempt to portray himself, after the fashion of "Fatal Vision" author Joe McGinnis, as a vital actor in shaping the outcome of the Campbell case. "I started out in Houston as . . . an observer," he writes in the book's preface, "but I became an investigator, a friend to many of the dramatis personae and a trial witness. As a result, my surprise and brief discomfort . . . , I helped to determine the outcome of events."

Intrigued by such claims, and mindful that this was the same Clifford Irving who served 16 months in a federal prison for conning a small fortune from McGraw-Hill over the phony autobiography of Howard Hughes, I decided to contact Rusty Hardin, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted both David and Cindy. In two lengthy phone conversations, Hardin discredited Irving's account.

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