Copyright © 2015, William J. Cronin
All rights reserved
Key West – 1996
If a muse were a place, Key West would be mine. If you stripped away the hordes that descended upon the island from cruise-ships, the brashness of Duval Street, the carnival atmosphere on Mallory Square at sunset and those who searched for the hard-drinking ghost of Ernest Hemingway, a quaint island remained, whose laid-back atmosphere inspired creativity like no other place I knew.
Yes, Key West was a harlot. She applied gaudy makeup to appeal to the tourists searching for “Margaritaville” and those who wished to explore the lower keys on their hands and knees. Once she removed her carnival makeup, she was charming, an exceptional beauty and accepting of artists of any creative stripe. Hemingway was emblematic of the Conch Republic. He drank and caroused to excess, but his artistic side enriched people worldwide. Key West inspired me as it had inspired Hemingway to write his most noteworthy novels. In my bleakest hour, when I couldn’t write a single sentence, I found my literary footing here. I bound my emotional wounds and stitched together the tattered threads of my life.
My half-sister Billie, her partner, Alexandra and my childhood sweetheart, Jody Holland lived here. I was on the mend, thanks to them. Under the threat of a lawsuit by my ex-publisher, I had returned to Mount Dora and embarked on a writing marathon. I produced two novels in less than three months. In the midst of this herculean effort, my wife of eight years divorced me. When the court had finalized the papers and I had finished the novels, Jody invited me to return to Key West to rest and heal.
It was April and only a faint wisp of spring remained. In just a few weeks, oppressive humidity and heat would return. The snowbirds would withdraw beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. The change in seasons would return control of the Jewel of the Caribbean to the “Conchs,” a nickname for those who call Key West home.
Hoping to hit the seven-mile bridge south of Marathon at sunrise, I left Mount Dora by car at two in the morning. I crested the bridge just as the sun breached the horizon and bled out purple, pink and orange on the calm aquamarine waters. At seven-thirty a.m., I called Billie and asked if she, Jody and I could meet at her restaurant at ten thirty for brunch. After I got off the phone, it occurred to me that Billie had always been the arbiter between Jody and me. Billie introduced us when we were fourteen years old. We attended the same swimming and diving classes in Hollywood, Florida. I was too shy to introduce myself to her. Billie mediated. Jody was my first love and the first girl I had ever kissed. Tragedy struck Jody’s family and circumstances forced her to move away. After a separation of more than 30 years, Billie brought us together again just a few short months ago.
Seeing Jody was like walking back through a wrinkle in time. Her gracious, calm demeanor remained. She drew me into her warmth as she had so many years ago. When I was with Jody, it was like one continuous emotional embrace. Perhaps it was the softness in her light brown eyes; the way she scoured my face looking for emotional clues. She leaned in close when we talked and she was always touching me. She made every moment feel intimate. As much as I had loved Emily and others before her, I had never felt this way in the presence of anyone else.
“The Mangrove” was Billie’s restaurant. On the eastern end of Duval Street near the lighthouse and close to Hemingway’s house, it was a courtyard restaurant at the base of two enormous Banyan trees. The boughs of the trees provided shade to the entire property. An older remodeled two-story home housed the kitchen and interior seating. Paved in red used-brick and crammed with round teak tables shaded by green canvas umbrellas, the courtyard was appealing and casual. The bar, a long thin Victorian structure of white painted wood and stained teak, ran the length of the left side of the property. A white picket fence framed the corner lot so that the front and right sides of the courtyard were open to the streets.
I parked my car on Duval Street a few steps from the restaurant. From the host station, at the locked gated entrance, I caught the attention of one of the servers preparing for lunch.
“Hi, I’m Billie’s brother. Could you please let her know I’m here?”
I peered over the gate and admired the ambiance of the courtyard as the server disappeared into the main building. The smell of sautéed onions, garlic and peppers filled the air.
“Hey, you,” she said, with a tap on my shoulder.
“Hey, you.” As I turned to face her, Jody extended her arms around my neck and enveloped me with a hug.
“I’ve missed you, Jack. I’ve been counting down the days.” She moved away from me enough to kiss me on the cheek.
Jody was tall, athletic, tanned and wore her dirty blond hair straight back into a ponytail. The smile on her lips transmitted what the sunglasses hid – joy. She dressed in white shorts, orange sleeveless top and white, thong sandals.
“I’ve missed you, too.” This time I initiated a hug of my own.
“Ahem.” I heard Billie behind me. “Am I interrupting something?”
“I wish you were, Billie,” Jody said, laughing, as she pushed away from me to greet Billie.
Billie unlocked the gate, and we took turns giving Billie a hug.
Billie said, “I’m so glad you’re both here.” To me, she said, “Jack, I’m so sorry about the divorce.” To Jody, she said, “I’m amazed you could carve out the time from the gallery. Every time I go by there the place is so busy.”
Jody said, “No ships in port. It’s a Monday. Duval Street is a ghost town right now. I’ll take all the breaks I can get.”
“Let’s go find a table and lock this gate. I don’t want anyone to think we’re open.”
Billie turned and led us to the main building. Jody slipped an arm through mine as we followed behind. I had never been inside the main building. The front door opened into a foyer of sorts. Straight ahead were Dutch doors that led to a kitchen. To the left were bathrooms, and to the right, where the living room of the house would have been, was the dining room. To the rear, there was a private room. Billie led us to a table next to a picture window that looked out to the courtyard. The room was white, with white painted trim. Framed, colorful Key West scenes lit up the walls. Servers had placed multi-colored gladioli on the tables.
“I made us something special for brunch. I’ll put it in the oven.” Billie backtracked to the foyer then disappeared into the kitchen.
I pulled Jody’s chair out. Once she sat, I slid into the chair next to her.
“I had hoped you would’ve come sooner. I’ve been so worried about you, with your father and Aunt Ruby passing away, the divorce, and the mess with your publisher – well – I was just worried.”
“I know, Jody, and I appreciate your invitation. If I had come before I finished the last novel, I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate. I was making good progress and I needed to keep at it. Now, the pressure is off and you have my full attention.”
Jody shifted in her chair to face me. The light from the plate glass window backlighted her hair and her light brown eyes. She put my hand in hers. “How have things gone with Emily? Billie told me you’re worried about working with her.”
“What did I say?” Billie asked, dressed in black slacks and a black long sleeve blouse. She raked her rusty colored hair with her fingers as she sat down in a huff.
Jody repeated her question for Billie’s benefit.”
I said, “I think it will work out. She’s good at what she does, we work well together and I need her. After my publisher fired me, she and Lisa, my agent, have been searching for another publisher. Working with her is awkward at times, but, so far, we manage.” What I hadn’t said was the divorce was painful. It had wounded me. I had hoped coming to Key West would aid the healing process.
We caught each other up on events since my last visit. Billie announced a lease burning celebration now that she’d purchased the restaurant with her part of my father’s estate. She wanted to wait to schedule the event until I could be there.
“Now that I have the funds, I want to upgrade the kitchen. It’s small and out of date. I have a commercial kitchen designer working with my architect and our head chef to create a state-of-the-art facility. I want to elevate food quality and expand our menu to appeal to more sophisticated customers.” There was excitement in Billie’s tone and her passionate gestures hinted at the love she had for her business.
Jody’s gallery, which featured an eclectic mixture of local art, was successful beyond Jody’s expectations. She said, “The greatest challenge is keeping high-quality pieces in my gallery. I have a stable of artists who can’t keep up with demand. I’m running ads in every town between here and Miami looking for talented artists and craftsman.”
“That’s a good problem to have, Jody.”
Our server brought our food. All three plates were the same.
Billie explained, “This Mexican egg-casserole is a western omelet with a kick.” There were three individual servings accompanied by sausage patties and cantaloupe slices cut into the shape of porpoise. The chef had divided the golden-brown crusted casserole into squares. As soon as the server delivered the food, another brought three Bloody Marys. “Something to start the day.” Billie raised her glass. “To three healing souls.”
While we ate, we chatted about how the cruise ships had changed Key West and brought a more sophisticated tourist to the island. Yes, Key West had a bawdy reputation to maintain, ala Sloppy Joes and The Hogs Breath Saloon. But, the ships brought more upscale patrons to the Southernmost City. They were willing to pay for an upmarket experience and both Jody and Billie hoped to appeal to this class of visitor.
After the second round of Bloody Marys, the servers cleared the dishes from the table. Jody looked at me then Billie. “I want to talk about my mother.” Jody’s forehead creased, and her shoulders slumped. “She wants to meet in person. I haven’t seen her in thirty-five years. She says it is important. She hired a private-detective to track me down, of all things.”
I asked her, “Did she call you?”
“An investigator delivered a letter to me three weeks ago. That’s when I called you, Jack, about telling my story. To be honest, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget it.
Billie stretched across the table and patted Jody’s hand. “What does the letter say, Darlin’?”
Jody pulled out a well-worn folded piece of paper from her shorts and handed it to Billie. After she read it, she passed it to me.
For years, I have been working up the courage to reach out to you. Until now, I have bowed to your need for privacy and your need to forget about what happened. I just turned seventy-three. It occurred to me that opportunities to tell you how sorry I am face to face are dwindling. What I put you through and the trauma you suffered at my hand are unforgivable. Given the circumstances, I expect you to be skeptical of my expressions of love, which are true and deep. There is another side to the horror of our story, an explanation of how and why it happened. I would like the opportunity to tell you my side of the story before the opportunity is gone forever.
I would like to come see you. I would completely understand if you declined or don’t respond. I think, though, what I have to share with you will sharpen your understanding of what happened and why. I suspect that, deep down, you may want to know – at least I pray that’s the case.
She signed it, “Helen.” Below her signature were Helen’s address and telephone number.
I folded up the fatigued paper and gave it back to Jody. “Are you going to meet with her?”
Jody moved the note from one hand to the other and then laid it on the table in front of her. “I don’t know. She’s right about one thing. There is much I don’t know. First, my family protected me from any news about my mother. Then, I tried to bury it with drugs and alcohol. When I was in counseling, information about what happened could only come from my mother. I had no idea of where she was and I had no desire to dig it all up again.”
I asked her, “How can I help?”
Jody reached out to me and took my hand in hers again. “I want you to help me find out what happened, Jack. I don’t want to do it alone.”
“I want to know what I’m getting myself in for before I agree to meet with my mother.”
“I understand, Jody.”
“Then you will help?”
“Yes, of course.”
Billie said, “Jody, digging around in family closets can be painful. You sure you want that?”
“That’s exactly why I want Jack’s help. I’m not strong enough to face this alone. But I need to confront it. This is an open wound in my life that needs to heal.”
At 5:30 a.m., Mario Moretti couldn’t sleep. The FBI had been investigating the Hollywood Police Department for corruption. Mario’s Italian heritage and previous employment history with the New York Police Department, known for corruption issues of its own, made him an easy target for investigators. He was clean, but he understood why he was under suspicion. While Mario felt the PD command staff was above corruption, he knew many of the cops he worked with were not.
Kathy, his wife of twenty years, got out of bed, reached for a robe, slipped her arms in and straightened the thin garment around her.
“You’re wide awake.”
He said, “The FBI thing.”
The day prior, an FBI agent cornered him at a local burger joint and threatened to subpoena him if he didn’t cooperate with their investigation.
“What’re you going to tell them?”
“No matter what I say, I’m screwed.”
“Tell them you’re clean, and that you refuse to comment on anything else.”
“If I say that, I’m admitting that the department is on the take. Then they’ll crush me to tell them what I know. If I refuse to tell them anything, then they’ll assume that I’m dirty, too.”
“Take your shower, and I’ll fix some coffee. We’ll figure something out,” Kathy said over her shoulder as she aimed for the kitchen.
As Mario pulled clean underwear from his dresser, the phone in the kitchen rang. He sat on the mattress knowing the call was from the PD; no one else would call at this hour.
“It’s the chief. He says it’s urgent,” Kathy stood at the doorway.
“Is he still on the phone?” He turned around to see the expression on her face. Kathy was forty-four and Mario thought she was still as attractive as the day he married her. Her braided black hair hung down to her waist and her narrow thin face showed concern.
“No. He just asked that you come to a crime scene immediately. I wrote down the address.”
“Did he say what it’s about?”
“Nope. He didn’t sound good, though. Not his business-as-usual manner. He sounded upset. You get your shower, and I’ll make some coffee.”
Mario scrambled to get dressed. “No time. I’ll get some coffee from the donut shop on Johnson Street later.”
Kathy moved to her side of the bed and sat down. “You don’t think the subpoena threat could be a fishing expedition do you? A way to sweat you for information.”
Mario considered it. “I hadn’t thought about that. I wouldn’t put it past them.”
“Then I wouldn’t worry about it until you get served some paper. You don’t have anything to worry about do you?”
Mario looked at her. The Italian evil eye, Kathy liked to call it.
“Well that came out wrong. That’s not what I meant. I’m sorry. You know how cops are. When they go down the toilet, they like to flush everyone with them. I just don’t want you caught in someone else’s backwash.”
Kathy had been a dispatcher on the job with him in NY. She’d witnessed corruption inquisitions launched by NYPD Internal Affairs. She knew, when the shit hit the fan in corruption sweeps, everyone caught their share.
“I’m good, Kathy. I wouldn’t jeopardize what we have over a few lousy bucks.”
“Aren’t you at least going to shave?”
“I’ll use the electric razor at work. This sounds pretty urgent.”
Mario kissed Kathy, bent down and hugged her.
She said, “Don’t forget Clarissa’s birthday. Dinner and party at six-thirty.”
“They grow up so fast.” Mario couldn’t believe Clarissa was fourteen today. “Before you know it all four of them will be grown up and on their own. Sorry to run.”
Due to the insane hours he worked, the chief had assigned Mario a city cruiser he drove home at night. When he got in the car, he flipped on the Motorola police-band radio mounted under the dash. All he heard were multiple ambulances dispatched to Pierce Street, the location Kathy had given him.
“What the hell’s going on?” he said to himself.
When Mario turned onto Pierce Street, between the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, emergency lights from half the cars in the department washed every surface in red. Several ambulances helped to make the street impassable. Homes around the scene were lit up and residents huddled together at the curb observing the melee. Mario parked on the side of the road behind the chief’s car and jogged to the subject house. As he approached the front door, a patrol officer bolted out and puked into the hedges. As Mario walked in, he met the chief as he came out.
“Phil, what’s going on?”
Ignoring his question Chief Thompson said, “Good, you’re here. I want you to take a look at this.”
Mario followed the aging chief into the home. Lying face down, just inside the door, was a man dressed only in his underwear. Blood was draining from a wound in the middle of his forehead. Behind him, another patrol officer had placed a small, frail woman – in her late thirties – in handcuffs. A girl, Clarissa’s age, stood behind her suffering from a wound to the right side of her head. Blood covered her pajamas, but she appeared to be all right. The woman in cuffs kept saying, “Oh God what have I done? I killed them. I killed them all.”
Chief Thompson looked at Mario and said, “This is just the beginning. Come with me.” He followed Thompson to the back of the house and turned into one room where medics had loaded the body of an infant girl onto a backboard. She’d been shot in the temple from what looked like a small caliber weapon. The smell of gunpowder filled the room.
There was a crib, from which the attendants had just removed the infant child, and two other twin beds occupied by children both of whom had been shot in the head. One boy about three or four and another older male about seven or eight lay on their beds in a pool of blood. One of the medical technicians said, referring to the infant, “She still has a pulse.”
Another attendant huddled over the younger boy and said, “I don’t know how, but this boy is still alive, too.”
Phil walked over to the older boy, felt for a pulse at the neck and shook his head. “Let’s get these kids to the hospital ASAP.”
To Mario the chief said, “We aren’t done.” Phil led Mario out of the room as medics raced the surviving children to awaiting ambulances. In the next room, a female child lay on the floor with a gunshot wound to the temple. Attendants lifted a girl onto a gurney and covered the child’s face. Blood covered both beds. The other bed must have belonged to the surviving girl.
“Find out what happened here, Mario. Drop everything you’re doing. You’re lead on this.” The chief pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes. “Sometimes I hate this job.”
Mario followed the chief out of the bedroom and back to the living room where the handcuffed woman sat on the couch. “Mario, interview the girl while things are still fresh, then get her off to the hospital. Make sure the Identification Bureau scours the crime scene. Keep me posted.” The chief left him standing in the living room. A medic bandaged the head of the older girl while the woman sat on the couch repeating that she’d ‘killed them all.’
The child cried. Blood matted her blond hair. Blood and tears covered the right side of her face. Still standing, she rocked back and forth on bare feet. All Mario could think about was Clarissa as he watched the medic clean the wound above her ear. The attendant dashed into the kitchen, returned with a wet washcloth and cleaned her face. The young girl stared at him, still producing tears faster than the medic could wipe them away. Mario took a handkerchief from his pocket, handed it to the girl and she leapt into his arms and sobbed. He just held her and rocked her back and forth.
Mario told the patrol officer standing next to the handcuffed woman to take her to the station. That he would be there soon.
He looked down at the girl’s bandaged head buried in his chest. “Come with me, sweetheart.” He considered going out the front door, but thought better of parading the girl before gawkers on the street. The Florida room was empty of any evidence of carnage. Mario led the girl to a small wicker couch with green and red floral cushions. He eased her into a sitting position then sat next to her. She was taller than Clarissa but the same age. He wondered if they went to school together. He could see a crucifix hanging from the wall in the living room. They appeared to be Catholic, and Clarissa went to Little Flower School, a Catholic elementary school in town not far from the crime scene.
The girl sat with her hands in her lap, her head down and still crying. “What is your name, sweetheart?”
“Jody,” she said without lifting her head.
Mario slipped his forefinger under her chin and lifted her face up. Her eyes were light brown. Her face tanned and her hair sun-bleached. The bandage the medic had wrapped around her forehead and ear stemmed the flow of blood. He wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Jody, I know this is hard, but can you tell me what happened?”
She sniffed back a runny nose. “I was asleep and heard this bang and then another right next to me but I couldn’t wake up.” Her eyes welled up, her mouth contorted and her shoulders heaved.
He hugged her and told her it would be okay, knowing it wouldn’t. She regained a modicum of composure. “I kept hearing more explosions. When I woke up, I was bleeding and I saw Jeannie on the floor. There was blood everywhere. I ran to get my mom. Dad was lying on the living room floor and I found Mom sitting on the floor in their bedroom trying to put bullets in the gun. She’d shot everyone!” She looked up at me. “She told me, ‘Go call the police.’ I called the operator and asked her to call the police. Then I took the gun away from her. She was trying to kill herself! I put the gun on their dresser and just held her until the police came.” She wiped her eyes again. “She tried to kill me!” She looked at me, then into the living room as medics loaded her father onto a gurney and removed the last body from the house.
Mario signaled for one of the patrol officers. “Call the station. Have Rodriguez get over here on the double. I want her to escort Jody to the hospital. And clear the crowd away from the front of the house. I want to take the girl out of here and I don’t want a circus.”
The girl asked Mario, “Can’t you stay with me?”
“Jody, sweetheart, the doctors need to take a look at that wound on your head. You need stitches and I need to look after things here. Officer Rodriguez is a nice woman. She’ll take good care of you. Would that be all right with you?”
“Do you have any family here in Hollywood?”
“No. My Grammy and Poppy went back to Pennsylvania a couple of weeks ago. My aunt lives in Atlanta.”
Mario got their names and he wrote them in his notebook. He escorted the girl through the house and out the front door. Officers had moved the curious back down the street behind barricades. He led Jody to Sergeant Rodriguez’s pool car. The sergeant, who headed the dispatch unit, introduced herself to Jody, gave her a hug and opened the passenger door.
“After you take her to the hospital,” he tore a page from his notebook and handed it to Rodriguez, “I want you to call her aunt and grandparents and let them know what happened. Make sure someone stays with the girl until she has family with her.”
Mario, put his hand through the passenger window and touched Jody’s cheek. “Doris will take you to the hospital and I’ll be by to see you later to make sure you’re okay.”
Jody nodded, her cheeks still wet with tears. He watched her as the car pulled away. The sun broke on the horizon. Humidity clung to his skin in beads. A breeze blew off the ocean, a half a block away, as though this day were no different from the millions of days that had preceded it. As Mario watched the car stop and turn left on A1A, he knew this horrific day would change Jody’s life in ways no one could predict.
Mario stepped back toward the Holland home. The Identification Bureau had arrived and unpacked their equipment. Dressed in street clothes, their first step was to rope off the yard. The street dead-ended at the Broad Walk, a macadam strip that separated the beach sand from the homes and businesses that abutted it. To the west, at Mario’s instruction, barricades blocked vehicular and pedestrian traffic several doors down from the Holland’s home. The scene was secure.
To John Williams, the technician-in-charge, a short heavy set black man, Mario said, “Get a hold of yourself before you go in there.” Even though medics had removed the bodies, the scene was gruesome.
Once in the house, Mario retraced his steps. From the blood patterns on the pillows and crib, Mrs. Holland had shot each of her children at close range in the head. The second oldest girl had crawled from the bed after her mother shot her and succumbed to her injuries on the floor.
From the position of the husband on the living room floor, the gunshots had awakened him and he came to investigate. Mrs. Holland intercepted her husband in the living room and shot him in the head.
In the master bedroom, the .22 caliber revolver Jody had wrestled from her mother lay on top of the dresser as she’d reported. Where Jody had said her mother had attempted to reload the handgun, an empty cartridge box lay on its side; .22 caliber shells covered the floor.
To the ID Unit, he pointed out the location of the father, and the second oldest daughter both found on the floor, and then the location of the other victims. “Find the six slugs and casings, John. Take plenty of pictures.” Williams was as thorough a crime scene investigator as anyone from the NYPD. Meticulous, competent, patient and organized, he commanded the quiet respect of his team. “There is little doubt what happened. How it happened and why, those are the real questions,” Mario said to Williams. “And when you’re done, tag and bag the sheets and transport them to the coroner’s office so that positive blood matches can be made.” Although there were two children still alive when medics transported them to the hospital, Mario knew their gunshot wounds were so severe they wouldn’t survive.
Satisfied Williams had the crime scene under control, Mario walked from the Holland home to his car. Except for his vehicle and the ID unit’s van, all emergency vehicles, save one patrol car, had left the scene. One officer remained to keep on-lookers away. He opened the door, sat behind the wheel and took a deep breath. The horror of what he’d just witnessed consumed him. “Lord, Jesus,” he said and tried to remove the pictures of each of the blood-splattered children from his mind. “How could a mother do this to her children? How could she perform such a monstrous act?” he asked himself. The parallels between this family and his were stark. They were both apparently Catholic. He had four children under fourteen, the Hollands, five. Kathy and the woman they hauled off in cuffs were close in age. That this could happen to such innocent children was beyond Mario’s experience.
Senseless violence had surrounded his childhood in Brooklyn. As an NYPD cop, gruesome murders had hardened him. By the time he’d made detective and began to investigate the murders that plagued the city, seeing dead bodies murdered in every conceivable fashion, was commonplace. Nothing in his past, nothing in this job or any other job he’d had in law enforcement, had prepared him for what he’d seen this morning. Nothing! All he thought about was his own children and how he would have felt if this had happened to them. He wrestled with his emotions. He pulled out his note pad and made detailed notes on the crime scene and other details that came to mind that he would need when he questioned the suspect.
Mario radioed ahead to have Mrs. Holland placed in an interrogation room. On his way in, he stopped at a donut shop for coffee, passing on food. At the station, several of the officers who were at the scene, huddled around the desk sergeant each sharing what they had seen and heard. He made his way to his desk in the detective bureau bullpen and asked bureau secretary, Mable McBride, to bring a recorder and steno pad with her and follow him to the interrogation room. When they entered the room, a uniformed officer stood guard and Mrs. Holland was still in restraints. She looked bird frail. There was no expression on her face. She sat quietly, eyes fixed on the blank grey wall in front of her.
To the officer, Mario said, “Why don’t you wait outside. We can take it from here.”
Constructed with soundproofing, the walls were painted battleship gray. Except for glass in the door, the room was windowless. A gray military surplus table and four chairs filled the space. The white linoleum tile was permanently soiled. A fluorescent light mounted to the cracked plastered ceiling added to the room’s harsh appearance.
Helen Holland sat with her hands in her lap, with her back against the chair. Her face was expressionless. She hadn’t moved since Mario came into the room. McBride placed the reel-to-reel recorder in the middle of the table and plugged it into a nearby receptacle. She placed a fresh tape on one reel, fished the new tape through the recording head and then strung the magnetic tape around the empty reel. She plugged a microphone into the machine and placed it in front of the suspect. She took a seat opposite Mrs. Holland, placed a spiral steno pad in front of her. Mario took a seat next to McBride. He thought Holland’s eyes looked dead and black as charcoal. Mario signaled to McBride with a nod to turn on the recorder.
“For the record, the following statement is given by Helen Holland to detective Mario Moretti and police secretary Mable McBride on July 21, 1961 at,” Mario looked at his watch, “eight a.m.” McBride used shorthand to document the interview.
“Mrs. Holland, I’m Detective Mario Moretti of the Hollywood Police Department. This is Mrs. McBride. It is my duty to advise you of the seriousness of this case, and to question you about the events this morning. Before asking you any questions, I want to advise you that you may first consult with an attorney before you say anything. I also want to advise you that whatever you say may be held for or against you in a court of law. You don’t have to tell me anything. Do you understand this?”
“What is your full name?”
“Helen Marie Holland.”
“How old are you?”
“Where do you live?”
She gave Mario the correct address.
“Mrs. Holland, for the record would you describe for us what you did this morning?”
“I killed them all.”
“By all, who do you mean?”
“My children and my husband.”
“Do you believe that what you did was wrong?”
“Oh, yes. I know it was wrong. But, I didn’t have a choice.”
“Would you say that what you did was morally wrong?”
“Legally and morally wrong,” she said.
“When did the thought of doing this first enter your mind?”
“A couple of weeks ago.”
“Did you think how you were going to do it?”
“Yes, there was only one way.”
“And what was that?”
“Let’s go back to earlier this morning when this happened. Approximately what time was it when you decided that you were going to kill your family?”
“I’ve been trying for maybe two or three weeks.”
“You kept thinking about it?”
“What time this morning did you finally decide that you were going to do it?”
“I’ve been trying to decide, and then I said, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”
“What time was it when you fired the first shot?”
“I don’t know. It must have been close to five-thirty.”
“At five-thirty this morning?”
“Had you slept at all?”
“No, not really. I don’t sleep very much.”
“Alright. Now, tell us what you did when you got up this morning. Tell us, step by step, exactly what happened.”
“When I woke up, I laid there for a while thinking. My thoughts always came back that we can’t go back and we can’t go forward. We just don’t belong here. We can’t go on this way. The children don’t have a mother or father. I can’t take care of them. God won’t take me back and let me live my life over again. I thought of Hell, like I always have. I thought, “Oh God, I can’t go to Hell,” but I know we’re going to Hell. They can’t live any longer. We just can’t go on like this. It’s been the same way every morning. Every morning, every morning, every day, every day and every night; and then I got up and smoked a couple of cigarettes and paced up and down the kitchen like I always do. I went in there and got the gun, and I put it under Jody’s bed. Then I thought some more and smoked another cigarette and then went back and stood over her for a long time and said, “I can’t, I can’t, I just can’t. And I said, “You have to. You’re going to Hell anyway. You can’t do anything about these kids anyway. They’re all sick. They have no mother or father the way they should have. Thomas was a good father, but it takes a mother. And then, I just stood over her and over her again. I don’t know how I pulled the trigger. I just don’t know how. But I did. I know I did. And then, I said, “Oh God, Oh God” and I went around and killed Michael, Jeannie, Daniele and then the baby. And Thomas came running into the living room and I shot him. And I went into our bedroom and Jody came in. I thought she was dead, but anyway I tried to load the gun again, but the shells wouldn’t go in. Something on the gun was jammed. Then I told her to call the police. I tried to load the gun again, but Jody grabbed it from me. Then the police came. That’s all, I guess, but I’m sane.”
Mario couldn’t believe this diminutive woman recounted such a heinous crime without a shred of emotion. She spoke as matter-of-factly as one would describe rising in the morning, reading the morning newspaper and then going for a stroll. She sat with her hands folded in her lap.
“Mrs. Holland, just for the record, which one of your children did you shoot first?”
“How old is Jody?”
“In the order of their ages.”
“I shot them from the oldest to the youngest.”
“From the oldest to the youngest?”
“You said you went and got the gun. Where was the gun?”
“On the shelf in the closet of our room.”
“The master bedroom?”
“And the bullets, they were there, too?”
“Yes, in a box with the gun.”
“And whose gun was it?”
“Where did you sleep last night?”
“Things have been a little messed up since I came home from the hospital. I slept in the baby’s room.”
“Yes, I was in the hospital for a couple of months.”
“Why were you in the hospital?”
“I’m dead inside. I have no emotions.”
“When did you begin to feel this way?”
“After I had the baby.”
Mario looked down at his notes, “Robert?”
“Yes, when I came home I just wasn’t right. I just couldn’t manage. I couldn’t sleep. I went back to the doctor that delivered the baby and he said I had a bad case of the baby-blues and sent me to some jerk psychiatrist. And he put me in the hospital.”
“And how long were you in the hospital?”
“The first time was for a few days. They said I needed to rest. But I knew I wasn’t right. I was afraid to touch the baby. Afraid that I would hurt him.”
“And who was the doctor that put you in the hospital?”
“Dunfree, in Fort Lauderdale.”
“And what happened when you got out of the hospital the first time?”
“I tried to kill myself.”
“I felt dead. I knew God hated me. I hated me. I was a horrible mother. I didn’t want my baby or to be around anyone.”
“Did you have thoughts of killing your family then?”
“Yes, but I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t.”
“How did you try to kill yourself?”
“I took some pills. But I couldn’t even do that right.”
Mario had interrogated murders of every description; they were all crazy to some extent. But it wasn’t his job to make a determination of sanity. As obvious as her poor mental state was, his job was to get the facts, charge the defendant and, in the case of felony murder, turn the case over to the State Attorney for prosecution.
Mario asked her, “Did you ever try to talk with your husband about how you were feeling?”
“No, no one understood. Not even him. I had no feelings, no emotions. I can’t talk to anyone about this because it doesn’t make sense to anybody but me, and I’m not crazy. Nobody can understand.”
“Do you have any remorse?”
“No. I have no feelings. I lost them a long time ago. I just know it was wrong.”
“When did you lose your feelings?”
“When the baby was born.”
“Are you sorry you did it?”
“I wish I hadn’t, yes. But we couldn’t go on. I just wish that Jody hadn’t taken the gun from me.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I wanted to kill myself. That’s the only way we could all be together.”
“How many bullets were in the gun?”
“Six or so, I guess.”
“Did you load the gun yourself?”
“Where did you shoot the children, what parts of their body?”
“In the head.”
“Why did you choose the head rather than some other part?”
“So they wouldn’t suffer.”
“How old were your children, Mrs. Holland?
“Fourteen, ten, eight, four and five months.”
“And your husband, how old was he?”
“Mrs. Holland, why did you feel it necessary to kill your family?”
“We just couldn’t live anymore.”
“Because I couldn’t be a mother. I couldn’t take care of them. I’m a terrible mother.”
“What made you think that?”
“Cause I have no emotions. I lost the children a long, long time ago.”
“They were good children weren’t they?”
“No, but it wasn’t their fault. It was my fault because they didn’t have a mother. I wanted to love them, but I couldn’t.”
“When did you stop loving them?”
“Now that I look back, I guess I never loved them, but I thought I did.”
“Even that tiny five month old baby?”
“Yes, I’m dead inside.”
“When did you first feel that none of you could go on living?”
“I’ve been thinking of it for the last month. I couldn’t go and leave them here.”
“You mean you couldn’t commit suicide and leave them behind?”
“Yes. Since the baby was born, I was just not right. I knew that when I came out of delivery. I didn’t want my baby, and didn’t want to be with him. I had thoughts of dropping the baby out the window. I saw myself throwing him out the window of the hospital. I knew I was a horrible mother to think those things and didn’t deserve to be a mother. It wasn’t the children’s fault they had no mother and no father. We just couldn’t go on that way. So I tried to kill myself.”
“Did you tell anyone that you wanted to kill your baby?”
“No, if I told them, they would take my babies away. I couldn’t trust anyone. They would hurt my children. I couldn’t let that happen.”
“Did you want to kill your family, Mrs. Holland?”
“No, but I had no choice.”
“Why did you feel you didn’t have a choice?”
“I couldn’t take care of them. No one could take care of them. We were going to Hell if I didn’t do something. I couldn’t leave them behind. I had to take them with me. We just couldn’t go on the way it was.”
“Is there anything you would like to say before we conclude this interview?”
“Has anyone mistreated you in any way?”
“I don’t understand why everyone is trying to be so nice to me after what I did.”
“For the record, this interview was concluded at . . .,” he looked at his wristwatch, “. . . eight-twenty a.m.”
Mario looked at McBride and signaled her to turn off the recorder.
“Mrs. Holland, I’m going to charge you with the murders of your family, and the attempted murder of your daughter, Jody. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she said without reaction.
“You will remain in the holding cell for a few hours until we can complete our paperwork. Then we will transfer you to the Broward County Jail. The State Attorney’s office in Fort Lauderdale will handle your case after that. Do you have any questions?”
She shook her head.
“I’ll have an officer come and escort you.”
Mario opened the door and asked the officer to take Holland to a cell.
When the officer and Holland left the room Mario sat across from McBride, “What are your thoughts, McBride?”
“She’s obviously sick.”
“Anyone who deliberately shoots another is sick in my book, McBride. She planned the murders and she knew what she was doing. She even admitted it was wrong. This is no crime of passion. These were cold-blooded and calculated murders. She planned every detail; even killed those children in birth order. You should have seen those kids, McBride. It makes me sick to my stomach.” Mario pushed himself away from the table, stood and began to pace the small, square room. “And she sits there,” he points at her empty chair, “cool as a scotch on the rocks, not a stitch of remorse and says ‘she’s dead inside.’ That little bitch took five innocent lives this morning. Five!” Mario couldn’t erase the picture of the infant shot in the temple. “It was a massacre. And, the oldest girl? The irony is that the Holland bitch shoots her oldest girl and then the girl saves her life! The only good to come out of this is I’ll get to see this monster fried in the electric chair.”
Mario looked down at McBride and realized that the intensity of his anger had made her feel uncomfortable. He didn’t care. He said. “I called the Sheriff’s office earlier and asked them to assign a detective to the crime scene. Call the Sheriff’s office and find out whom they’ve assigned, I want them to meet me at the Sheriff’s office. Then call the State Attorney and try to get an appointment with Jonathan Richter after lunch. If they haven’t heard what’s going on, fill them in. Warn them about the press. And before you do anything, get Holland’s shrink on the line. I want to talk with him as soon as you can arrange it.”
“Alright. Anything else?”
“I’m worried about the girl, Jody. Call Rodriguez. I want to know that the Holland kid has family with her. What a nightmare for her. Post two officers at the hospital entrance with instructions to keep reporters outside. I don’t want the press anywhere near that kid. Call the administrator of the hospital and make sure they’re prepared for the press onslaught.”
“Pray for that little girl in Hollywood Hospital. She needs all the help she can get. Find out if I can stop and see her after I talk to the shrink.”