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BOOK REVIEW : Whodunit Unravels Family Dysfunction : FAMILY BLOOD: The True Story of the Yom Kippur Murders by Marvin J. Wolf and Larry Attebery , HarperCollins, $22, 320 pages

October 13, 1993|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the close of the High Holy Days in 1985, an elderly Jewish couple was shot to death in the garage of their apartment building in Brentwood as they returned from Yom Kippur observances. The killers were described at first in the press as "barefoot Ninja warriors," but the family immediately suspected that the estranged sons of Gerry and Vera Woodman were to blame for their murders.

"Murderers!" shouted one relative when Stewart and Neil Woodman showed up at the funeral of their mother and father. "How dare you come to this gathering?"

The mystery of the "Yom Kippur Murders" is unraveled in "Family Blood," a true-crime whodunit that also amounts to a portrait of a tragically dysfunctional family, a primer in how to run a crooked business, and a kind of cracked version of the Horatio Alger story in which the highest expression of free enterprise is the ability to "outthink, out-scam, out-hustle everyone."

"Family Blood" consists of two elaborately interlocking narratives. One focuses on the saga of the Woodman family in a series of flashbacks--it's the rise and fall of a gifted immigrant entrepreneur who made and lost several fortunes in the boom-and-bust cycle of Southern California. The other story follows two LAPD detectives who managed to untangle the conspiracy that resulted in the deaths of Gerry and Vera Woodman, the collapse of the Woodman business empire, and the crashing and burning of the Woodman family itself.

No one in the Woodman family evokes much sympathy. Gerry Woodman was a bully, a tax cheat, a compulsive gambler and philanderer, a "Neanderthal" whose greatest joy was intimidating and humiliating his family, his business partners, even strangers on the highway. "Ugly" was his pet name for his 5-year-old daughter, and "Schmuck" was what he called his sons, especially when co-workers were around.

Neil and Stewart Woodman grew to despise their father and resent their mother, or so we are told in "Family Blood," but they aped Gerry Woodman's sharp business practices, his extravagant spending, his genius for tax evasion, his taste for winning through intimidation. Indeed, even after the utter estrangement of the father and his sons, we are shown that what burned in their hearts was an emotion that more nearly resembled unrequited love than bitter hatred.

"To his family, Gerry was . . . a stubborn, difficult, but commanding presence, a black hole of affection that pulled his children closer and closer despite their intellectual judgments," the authors write. "Despite the scorn and abasement he suffered at Gerry's hands . . ., Neil craved his father's love with all the shuddering compulsion of an addict for his needle."

The Woodman boys may have inherited many of their father's worst qualities--including his gift for the scam, his addiction to gambling, and his coarse language--but they were willing to go one step beyond their father in sheer brutality. According to "Family Blood," they began to cultivate some unsavory friends who were willing to use a little muscle to collect a debt, scare off a competitor, or punish an unruly employee.

Eventually, the same men--including an ex-cop named Steve Homick and a few of his henchmen--agreed to solve the problem that the Woodman brothers were having with their folks. Stewart and Neil had already won a nasty lawsuit against their father and wrested the control of the family business away from their parents, but they were still in financial trouble--and they were beneficiaries of a half-million-dollar insurance policy on their mother's life.

"Steve Homick told the brothers what a hit would cost: about $50,000," we learn. "To Neil and Stewart it seemed like a fair price."

"Family Blood" evokes the dark side of Southern California as surely (if not as lyrically) as a Raymond Chandler novel. One of its authors, Larry Attebery, is already a familiar face on KCOP. But, more important, the authors succeed in drawing an intriguing map of the ethnic, class and cultural boundary markers on the terrain in which the ordeal of the Woodman family took place. At its best moments, "Family Blood" is like a Michelin Guide to a certain time and place in the social history of Southern California.

Now and then, Wolf and Attebery seem to feel obliged to decorate their serviceable prose with rhetorical flourishes that call attention to themselves and distract us from the otherwise taut narrative: "Late afternoon's golden sunlight melted into slanting rays of amber," they write of Gerry and Vera Woodman's last day among the living, "and pools of mountain shadows gathered in the hollows to herald the end of Yom Kippur . . ."

More often, though, the authors of "Family Blood" write with the urgency and clarity of seasoned journalists with a good yarn to tell. And the story itself is colorful and compelling enough, in a kind of accident-by-the-side-of-the-road way, to hold the reader's attention even without the fancy metaphors.

Even though I faintly remembered the "Yom Kippur Murders" from the newspaper headlines, I found myself reading late into the night to find out how the mystery ended.

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