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A grieving son's journey comes to a crossroads

His father's unsolved murder haunted him for three decades. When the mystery was partly solved, he had to decide how far to search for the whole truth.

December 12, 2004|Mark Arax | Mark Arax covers Central California for The Times.

One day not long ago, I drove into a valley deep in the mountains of Oregon, a swath of green pastures edged by wild blackberries and split by a creek that filled up a nearby lake. It seemed a pleasant enough place in the world, this hidden valley, but I hadn't driven the 500 miles from Fresno simply to take in the fresh scenery. No, what I had come looking for were answers that had eluded me for 31 years. What I had come looking for were the secrets to my father's murder.

He had been gunned down by two strangers in his Fresno bar on a foggy January night in 1972. He was 40 years old and I, his oldest child, was 15. Somehow I knew that the cops would never solve the murder. That night in the emergency room, I told my mother that I would. It was a promise I kept even after she died 12 years later and my wife gave birth to our first child.

All through my 30s, I searched for answers, tracking down barmaids turned junkies, a bouncer who rode with the Hells Angels, a bartender who became a hit man. I even wrote a book about my journey. But I never found his killers, never completely put to rest the rumors of drugs and police corruption and a father who coached Little League by day and entertained Fresno's crooks by night.

Then in the spring of 2002, I was handed a new name: Sue Gage. She was the keeper of the secrets, I was told, the woman who had set my father's death in motion. Not long after the murder, she had left California and moved to southern Oregon. She had been living in a tiny trailer beside a creek ever since, each year breathing a little easier as the trail that led back to Fresno and my father grew more and more faint.

I hadn't known quite how to act when I called to arrange a meeting. What tone of voice do you take when the person on the other end, frightened and cagey, holds answers to questions that have defined--twisted even--your entire adult life? What words do you let tumble out?

Part of me, the son, couldn't stomach the idea of small talk. At the same time, I was also a journalist who had mastered the game of opening doors by playing the earnest good guy. And so I held my nose and put on my best performance. Oh, how I chuckled and listened so intently as she gabbed on about the coyote unnerving her pit bull and the vacation she was about to take with her grandkids.

And now I was headed down a last stretch of road toward her trailer, past Christmas tree farms and cabins with tin roofs that spewed thick gray plumes of smoke. As the hill dipped down into valley, the smoke became mist and the mist turned to rain. Through the windshield splatters, I could see a tiny woman in a red turtleneck and jeans standing at the side of the road. The closer I got, the bigger her smile became. I didn't know what Sue Gage looked like. She had my father's face to know me.

There was a time when I dreamed of nothing but such a moment. I'd sit in bed at night and stare at the police composite of one of the gunmen. He had slicked-back hair, high cheekbones, boot-shaped sideburns and a neat mustache. I spent years lifting weights, transforming my body in anticipation of something primal that would surely come over me when I found him. I imagined how the perfect hardness of his face would melt when he realized that the man standing before him was the 15-year-old son.

Now something else awaited me--not a man, but a woman who provided a gun and a half-baked plan. Two of her former boyfriends, all these years later, had come clean to the Fresno police. They recalled a minor league beauty with a cunning that made dangerous men do her bidding. The woman standing in the weeds at the side of the road was someone quite different--a grandmother with a bad liver and a mouth full of bad teeth who feared that her past was about to find her.

Before I climbed out of the truck, I told myself the years in between didn't count, not to me or to my younger sister and brother. Sue Gage's greed, if that was all it was, had killed our father, sucked the life from our mother and had broken our youth.

She moved closer for what I expected was a handshake. Then the smile vanished. She turned cold. She stared at my hand, the one clutching a notebook and pen.

"Are you here as a son or as a writer?" she asked.

It was a plain question posed in a flat twang. Maybe she thought it deserved a plain answer. The answer was my life. I wanted to tell her that the son had become a writer on account of murder, that he had honed all the skills of journalistic investigation across a long career for just this one moment. Son, murder, writer--we were all one.

Before I could answer, she looked me straight in the eye.

"If you're looking to pin the blame," she said, "you've come to the right place."

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