Excerpt from a book about the case, coming in Spring 2019. To request a review copy, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
An episode of the television detective show Columbo aired on March 2, 1975. The episode was entitled “Playback.” It told the story of a man who had installed closed-circuit television cameras in his posh Southern California mansion. The sophisticated cameras were activated by motion detectors and heat sensors. The surveillance system was monitored in real time by a security guard. The system also recorded thick reels of video tape.
One night, the man decided to murder his mother-in-law in his office at the mansion. He switched the live television feed of his office to a pre-recorded loop of tape that showed an empty office. The security guard didn’t notice the switch. The man stood off camera in his office and shot his mother-in-law, who was on camera at the time. Thus, the murder was recorded on tape but not seen by the guard. The identity of the shooter was concealed on the recording.
The murderer left the woman’s body on the floor of his office. He rigged a timer to his video system so that the loop of empty-office tape would later switch to a clip of the shooting, and to a live feed of the woman dead on the floor.
The man left his mansion to attend a party at an art gallery, making sure that the security guard and others would remember where he had gone and at what hour. When the timer switched to play back the shooting, the guard believed that he was witnessing a murder in progress in real time. Meanwhile, the actual murderer was miles away with an airtight alibi.
The police assumed that the victim had been shot by a mysterious intruder. But Lieutenant Columbo was skeptical. The presence of video cameras inside the mansion made him suspicious.
The actual murderer was eager to show Lieutenant Columbo the video of the shooting, convinced that it proved his own innocence. Columbo studied the video and saw a crucial clue that demolished the murderer’s alibi. At the time of the shooting, on the man’s desk was the invitation to the party he had attended at the art gallery. When the man left the mansion to go to the party, he had taken the invitation with him. Therefore, Columbo concluded that the man had been in the mansion at the time of the murder. Busted.
Exactly 39 years after this episode was broadcast, on the night of March 2, 2014, another man was prowling around a house that he had rigged with surveillance cameras. I’m referring to my sister’s husband: Mack.
Mack isn’t his real name, it’s just what I call him—after Bertoldt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and the unsavory character known as Mackie Messer or “Mack the Knife.” Some people romanticize this character as an anti-hero whose crimes are justifiable. His smile is charismatic and deadly. He is skilled at concealing murder evidence.
I don’t like Mack. I tried to like him because my sister loved him. I always thought she would be better off without him, but I had never seriously imagined the possibility that he might kill her.
While the murderer in the Columbo episode lived in a mansion in a monied enclave like Bel-Air, my sister Dana and her husband Mack lived in a relatively modest house on a public golf course in the El Dorado Park neighborhood of Long Beach. My sister bought the house in 2001, several months after they were married.
Mack was a general contractor. His finances had always been sketchy, and his assets few. Dana knew that Mack wouldn’t qualify for a mortgage. So she bought the house herself. She thought of it as their house regardless of what the paperwork said.
It was a 1950s ranch-style, single-family, detached home. It had potential, but it was cramped and outdated. The plan was for them to gain sweat equity by remodeling it themselves. Mack grumbled about the arrangement, saying that Dana was exploiting his labor to fix “her” house.
I asked her why she wanted to be with him. She told me that after divorcing her first husband, she consciously made a wish. She wished for someone to come into her life who would show her things that she had never seen. She told me that on their first date, Mack picked her up in an elevated truck that she thought was hilariously awful—a jacked-up, wannabe monster truck—ridiculous for a grown man to be driving. Never had she imagined dating someone who prized such a truck. It occurred to her that Mack might be exactly the person to introduce her to things that she couldn’t even imagine.
Mack had grown up in Huntington Beach, California. He portrayed himself as a carefree surf punk who prioritized fun and sun. Ever since her teen years, Dana had a thing for surfers. She and I had grown up in Littleton, Colorado, which is about a thousand miles away from Southern California, and far from any ocean. In June 1977, when Dana was 14, I was 12, and my brother 10, my parents took us on a family trip to Disneyland. We visited Huntington Beach, too, and saw the immense, glittering Pacific Ocean for the first time. It was magical.
In high school, Dana and I drove around the sleepy-and-boring suburbs of southwest Denver in a 1971 Volvo station wagon, which we could imagine one day carrying us and our surfboards along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. We romanticized a wholesome, sanitized version of surf culture that we imagined from listening to pop songs by The Beach Boys and The Ventures.
I can see how, decades later, my sister would similarly romanticize Mack. To her, he was a real-life beach boy.
Dana took romantic love very seriously. It wasn’t her style to flirt or date casually. I think she believed that romantic love was inherently tragic yet beautiful in a high-stakes way. A favorite song from her early teen years illustrates this. In 1976, when Dana was 13, Blue Öyster Cult released the song (Don’t Fear) The Reaper, and she loved it.
This was long before the advent of the Internet and music streaming. If a 13-year-old girl of limited financial means wanted to hear her favorite song, she had to monitor the radio and hope for a DJ to play it. Dana would listen to the radio for hours to hear (Don’t Fear) The Reaper as often as possible.
The song has a distinctive guitar riff and lots of cowbell. The lyrics conflate death and eternal love. In the song, a man persuades his lover that there’s no reason to fear death. She takes his hand, and they become like Romeo and Juliet, famous dead lovers, together forever.
I like the song, but listening to it now—and thinking about how it must’ve sounded to my 13-year-old sister—I get an eerie sense of retrospective foreshadowing. The song is not explicitly about murder or suicide, perhaps. However, regardless of the songwriter’s intent, the message for girls is: if he really loves you, he’ll lead you into death; and if you really love him, be brave and embrace your own death as an act of love.
I doubt that Dana consciously heard the song this way. She probably heard it as a great guitar riff with poignant lyrics. Maybe she saw Mack in a similar way. He was like an edgy song with dark, haunting words that were intended to be more poetic or metaphoric than literal. Others might perceive him as sinister, but to her he was cool. She could listen to his same old song, over and over, and never tire of it.
To Dana, Mack was a “bad boy,” a guy who got into trouble, but who had a heart of gold. To Dana, he was fragile and misunderstood. He’d had problems with alcohol in his past, she told me, although he’d never specified what problems. He was not an alcoholic, he assured her, but he had sworn off alcohol because it made him do foolish things. Dana admired Mack for not drinking. She thought he must be very sensible. Dana had a surplus of love to give, and it seemed to her that Mack was a worthy beneficiary.
It’s important to stress that Dana saw Mack as a bad boy, which implies harmless, youthful indiscretion—not a bad man, which implies malice and grave threat. Even though they were both in their mid-thirties when they met, Dana saw Mack as a lovable scamp more than an adult, and she liked this about him.
Most people thought of Dana as a good girl, and she was. She earned high grades in school. Instead of playing sports, she preferred to read books. When she was very young, she had a slight speech impediment, and had to go to speech therapy to resolve it. This experience helped her to become an excellent, empathetic listener. She was patient, especially with people who struggled to communicate.
Parents and teachers saw the halo over Dana’s head. As her little sister, I saw her mischief. When I say mischief, I mean tame rebellion. In high school, for example, she would listen to music that was turned up too loud, dance wildly, and drive around past curfew with her friends.
It’s not accurate to say that Dana had a wild side. Rather, she wished she had a wild side. She was too practical and responsible to cut loose in any truly dangerous or destructive way. Part of her attraction to Mack was the sense that he was wild, or had been in his youth. Dana could be wild vicariously thanks to him.
My sister invited Mack to move into her Long Beach condominium very soon after they started dating. Mack would benefit from a stable, comfortable home, she believed. So she invited him into hers. If I make it sound as if she was adopting a pit bull terrier rather than cohabiting with an equal partner, I think it’s an accurate characterization of the emotional reality of the situation.
Dana protected and defended Mack, even at her own expense. At the condo, one of Dana’s neighbors and friends told Dana that Mack was abusive. Mack countered that the neighbor was just jealous of Dana’s new romantic relationship. Dana took Mack’s side, rupturing her friendship with her neighbor.
At the time, I was living in a condo in West Hollywood. I had a minor renovation project that I wanted to do. Dana suggested that I hire Mack. He blew my electrical budget by installing several recessed lights in one small room. He told me that he had “tricked it out” for me, expecting me to be impressed.
I complained to my sister that he had gone over budget on the lights, and hadn’t done the electrical work that I wanted him to do. She said that I must not have communicated clearly enough with Mack. Besides, the work he had done was good. I was lucky that he was willing to drive all the way to West Hollywood to complete the remaining tasks. He finished the work. I paid him more than I had planned. It was fine. No big deal.
Dana made excuses for him and protected him from consequences even when she thought his behavior was unacceptable. One Fourth of July, Mack inexplicably started lighting firecrackers and dropping them off the balcony of Dana’s condo onto passersby on the sidewalk below. It was shockingly juvenile, and he kept doing it despite her protests. Later, she asked him why he’d done it. He explained tearfully that the firecrackers were his inarticulate way of coping with painful childhood memories regarding his mother and her sisters. Dana believed him, forgave him, and married him.
He cried at their wedding. He blubbered and wiped tears from his eyes at the conclusion of the ceremony. Dana thought this was sweet; it confirmed Mack’s delicate soulfulness. I thought he was crying fake tears, and that he was doing it to upstage the bride and be the center of attention. This is a good example of how Dana and I disagreed fundamentally about the nature of Mack.
Dana never felt threatened by him. I told her once that I thought Mack might physically hurt her. We ended up having an argument about it. She told me that he would never, ever hurt her. He might raise his hand to their dog, or threaten self-harm, but he would never hurt her. She was certain of it.
Now that she’s dead, the questions, “Why did she marry him?” and, “Why did she stay with him?” often sound like victim-blaming. Implicit in these questions is the sense that, somehow, she is responsible for her own death. She married him, after all. She listened to (Don’t Fear) The Reaper a thousand times. What did she expect would happen?
But Mack didn’t seem scary. His bullying seemed petty and manageable. If Dana confronted him—which she rarely did—he would cry and say that he felt suicidal. He would insist that he was just putting on a tough-guy act to protect himself.
He was a coward, I thought. He was a paper tiger. Besides, my sister loved him, and there was no way to talk her out of it.
Lots of people believe that women “get themselves killed” because of the choices they make. A less-popular belief is that angry, controlling men make choices to inflict harm. Generally, people prefer to believe that these guys are just “that way.” That’s how he’s wired. It’s understandable that he killed his wife—because he loved her so much. We should feel sympathy for him. Women, on the other hand, get little sympathy because it’s presumed that they somehow invite harm by caring about such men.
For what it’s worth, my sister did not choose to be harmed. She chose to have faith in Mack’s goodness. She chose to believe that she could make a positive difference in his life. She didn’t expect this to be easy. She felt strongly that Mack was worth her time and effort. The choices that Mack made in the relationship were Mack’s choices, not Dana’s.
As much as I disliked Mack, I was not aware—not consciously aware—that he had ever physically harmed my sister. Mack was muscular, certainly, and my sister joked that he was built like cartoon character Fred Flintstone. Even so, I thought that his real strength was gaslighting, or undermining Dana’s trust in her own accurate perceptions. Mack was great at it, and he did it all the time. He did it so frequently, and about such inconsequential things, that I stopped noticing it.
One example comes to mind. When he did the electrical work on my West Hollywood condo, he installed audio speakers, too. A couple of years later, after I had sold the condo and moved back to Colorado, he reminded me of the specific style of speakers that he had installed. He and I ended up arguing about it. I was sure that he had misremembered the style of speaker. He insisted that I was wrong and he was right. He was so earnestly, sincerely adamant about it that I started to doubt my own memory. Was I crazy?
I ended up rifling through old photographs taken in my condo to find a picture of the actual speakers. I found one. Turns out, he was wrong, and I was right. I had a photo to prove it. I sent him a copy of the photo. Mack told Dana that only a “psycho bitch” would go to such lengths to prove a point.
Dana learned early in their relationship that there was nothing to be gained from engaging in a dispute with Mack. Ordinary conversations with him could be exhausting because he seemed to be in need of constant validation. Disputes were even more taxing. Eventually, my family and I learned to follow Dana’s lead and go along with whatever story he told, whatever claim he made. It’s as if my sister had learned to shut down her critical faculties when it came to dealing with him. Life was just easier for her that way.
Probably, this was the goal of Mack’s frequent and otherwise pointless gaslighting: influencing the perceptions of others by short-circuiting their critical thinking. He’s a master at it. In my opinion, he’s good enough to befuddle homicide detectives, at least temporarily.
It depresses me now to look at photos of Dana and Mack’s house that were taken by the Long Beach Police. To me, the photos show a house that became dominated by Mack, little by little. As years passed, the house came to reflect Mack’s taste for dark and sometimes ghoulish décor. He eventually walled off the front of the house so people couldn’t see in from the street. He installed surveillance cameras inside and out.
I might have seen these things as signs of his escalating paranoia and deviousness. Instead, I assumed it was just Mack being his typical, inexplicable self. Back then, I wondered when my sister would admit that Mack was an emotionally manipulative burden on her, and file for divorce.
It wasn’t always this way. For a time, their house had been a light, bright home full of wonderful possibilities. At moments, it seemed as if their marriage had a chance of being happy, mostly because Dana was determined to be happy no matter what.
The September 2006 issue of This Old House magazine featured a before-and-after article about Mack and Dana’s home remodeling project. Over the years, several of Dana’s kitchen designs had been featured in national magazines. She was thrilled to have her own home recognized in this way.
The article, which was written by Jill Connors, took note of the home’s “concrete floors, engineered stone counters, and contemporary bamboo base cabinets.” According to the article: “[Mack] did much of the work, from gutting the room to the studs to running the electrical to staining the floors, which helped them stay within their $40,000 budget. Says Dana of the four-month kitchen redo, ‘We needed to change everything about the space functionally and aesthetically—and we did.’”
In fact, the “four-month kitchen redo” took years—because Mack did much of the work himself. It was a source of frustration for Dana that Mack seemed to drag his feet on the kitchen project. Nonetheless, eventually, the house did look fresh, well-finished, and modern in an unpretentious way.
The dining chairs were a good example of this style. They were just plastic patio chairs—box resin outdoor dining armchairs by Compamia, to be exact—in bright orange. They were an inexpensive, practical way to add bold color to the dining area. At her table, my sister hosted Thanksgiving dinner several times—even during the years when her kitchen languished in partially-renovated limbo. As my family members will attest, the orange chairs weren’t particularly comfortable. But they were different, and modern-looking. They just seemed to fit the house.
Back then, if you were to see the house from the sidewalk, it looked cheerful and well-kept, with a front lawn and windows that looked out on a well-traveled street. Behind the house was El Dorado Park Golf Course, with trees and airy acres of grass, giving the house a feeling of spaciousness. Their lot was just one tenth of an acre in size, and the house was just 1,322 square feet. It wasn’t a country-club house on a country-club golf course. It wasn’t a mansion on an estate, as in the Columbo episode. If Dana’s home had been posh, I wonder whether the police would have been more curious about her death.
On March 4, 2014, the police put an evidence marker near a pair of Mack’s shoes, which were on the floor next to one of the bright-orange plastic chairs. The police photographed the shoes. They apparently failed to notice the blood on the chair. I like to think that Lieutenant Columbo would have seen the blood, but he never showed up at my sister’s house.
In a way, the failure to see the blood on the chair is emblematic of my sister’s death. When crucial facts are right in front of our eyes, how can we fail to see them? This is a philosophical question as well as a professional challenge for investigators. What prevents a person from seeing what’s clearly visible? In the instance of blood on the chair, a camera “saw” it, and recorded it, and yet the police didn’t see it even when they looked at the photograph. Why not? Eventually, they could see it when it was pointed out to them. Why couldn’t they see it earlier?
The simple answer is that seeing has more to do with our minds than our eyes. We “see” what we think we see; we see what we expect to see. Some people call this phenomenon “confirmation bias.” It’s one of many cognitive biases, or ways of thinking that distort our perceptions.
If the police were laboring under distorted perceptions, I can sympathize. My perceptions, too, were distorted. For example, in discussing Dana’s death with my parents, brother, and me, a private investigator asked if we had ever noticed unusual bruises on my sister. It suddenly occurred to us that bruises on my sister were not unusual at all. In fact, she often remarked that she bruised easily. She bumped into things, she told us, or she played boisterously with her beloved dog. As a result, she often had bruises on her arms and legs. Not until that moment, speaking with the investigator after Dana’s death, did it occur to me that perhaps Mack might have been responsible for Dana’s bruises. Why hadn’t I “seen” this earlier?
Another cognitive bias is called “framing,” which involves a narrowing of focus and attention—like a picture frame, highlighting a specific image or idea. My sister had framed her bruises as accidental. I had accepted this framing without giving it another thought, disregarding alternative possibilities that were outside the frame.
I believe that skillful, deliberate framing is the reason why the police accepted the idea that my sister’s death was a yoga accident. I believe that Mack built a conceptual structure that effectively shut down critical analysis of the facts in my sister’s case. The police didn’t see the blood on the chair because they didn’t expect to see it there. Rather, they were looking for blood in the yoga room, where they expected to find it, but didn’t.
At a meeting in our lawyer’s downtown Los Angeles office in late 2015, my brother watched a clip of the surveillance video from Dana’s house. He saw immediately that Mack was behaving suspiciously. A former Long Beach homicide detective assured us that, no, there was nothing suspicious on the video.
We left our lawyer’s office that day with electronic copies of approximately 15 hours of surveillance recordings from my sister’s house. The detective also provided us with 188 photographs taken by the police, and a notebook of police reports about my sister’s case. He was confident, clearly, that the case was closed forever, and there was nothing more to see.
But we see things. As in the episode of Columbo, details in the video demolish Mack’s alibi, in my opinion, and provide a consistent narrative of his guilt.