“We don’t blame the police,” my brother Stephen said. He interrupted me because I was criticizing detectives for their indifference about our sister’s suspicious death. Stephen saw no use in my insulting Bryan, the detective who was listening to our meeting on speakerphone.
“No, we don’t blame the police,” I agreed grudgingly. Police had botched the investigation, I believed, but they weren’t responsible for Dana’s death.
We were in a glass tower conference room at Fifth and Flower in downtown Los Angeles with a panoramic view toward Pasadena. It was late afternoon on August 24, 2015. Dana had been dead for a year and a half. She had been murdered by her husband Huck, we believed, in March 2014. So far, Huck had gotten away with it.
We had asked the Long Beach police to explain why they believed Dana’s death was a catastrophic “yoga accident” in which a blunt-force blow had cracked her skull, rendering her almost immediately brain-dead. Women murdered by their husbands or boyfriends are commonplace. Yoga fatalities from head trauma are so rare they’re nonexistent. What were detectives thinking?
The lead detective was a glib, perspiring man named Todd Johnson. He pointed to Huck’s statements, many of them demonstrable lies, as “proof” of Huck’s innocence in the matter. For instance, Huck claimed that one year prior to Dana’s death, during a visit to Hawaii, Dana had fallen while doing yoga and hit her head. She had consulted a doctor who said Dana was fine. Johnson accepted this as true, even though Dana had not visited Hawaii in years. If she had sought medical care, there would have been a record, such as a payment or an insurance claim.
Detective Johnson didn’t ask Huck to provide evidence of this purported medical visit. Rather, Johnson took Huck’s word for it that an alleged, nonfatal “yoga fall” was a logical prelude to a deadly yoga accident.
My parents, brother, and I couldn’t understand why Johnson declined to fact-check Huck. Our Denver-based lawyers advised us to hire an attorney in Los Angeles to find out why Dana’s case had been closed, and to persuade police to reopen the investigation. In February 2015, we hired Carmen Trutanich, a robust personality accustomed to seeing his name in the news. His nickname was Nuch, rhymes with smooch. He had once been elected Los Angeles City Attorney. We wanted someone who could speak to powerful people on our behalf, and Nuch knew everyone.
In Nuch’s conference room at our August 2015 meeting, Nuch sat at one end of a long table with his paralegal Stacey Sautter and a private investigator named Randy Candias. My brother and I sat at the other end, across the table from Curt Livesay. Curt seemed more like a polite professor emeritus than a hard-boiled prosecutor. He had once been chief deputy district attorney in Los Angeles. He was the one who decided to seek the death penalty in the infamous cases of serial killers Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez and William Bonin, known as the “Freeway Killer.”
On the table between Curt and me was the speakerphone that carried Bryan’s voice. Bryan McMahon was a semi-retired homicide detective in Long Beach who, back in the day, had trained Detective Johnson.
I met Bryan in person only once, at a marathon meeting in another of Nuch’s impressive conference rooms, in March 2015. My first impression was that he resembled Dana’s husband Huck. He had a similar, graying Van Dyke mustache and beard.
Bryan said he had analyzed more than 15 hours of video recordings related to the case. He billed us for the mere six hours he’d spent on the task. Maybe he was doing us a favor, billing us for less time than the job logically would take. Still, it told me that something about Bryan didn’t add up.
Despite the presence of 12 surveillance cameras in Dana’s house, none were in the yoga room, and none were in the hallway leading to the yoga room. In fact, most of the house was camera-free. Even so, Bryan asserted that the surveillance system gave a clear picture of what had happened to Dana.
Bryan expressed certainties that, to me, were ridiculous. For instance, the lower back of Dana’s scalp was split by a laceration that was almost two inches long. Strangely, the wound wasn’t bleeding when paramedics arrived. How did police explain the lack of blood at the scene?
Bryan was confident that the concrete floor under Dana’s head applied pressure and prevented bleeding. To me, this made no sense because of the curve of her skull. Wouldn’t it be like a cracked sphere full of liquid, leaking? A flat floor couldn’t apply compression evenly across the entire breadth of a curved, two-inch rupture, could it? Bryan was certain that it could and did.
Bryan implied that, regardless of what I knew about Dana and Huck, it was just my opinion, mere hearsay at best, and therefore of no value. His opinions and those of Detective Johnson were facts because they were arrived at objectively. I couldn’t possibly be objective, so I couldn’t analyze facts. I had to take Bryan’s word for it that he knew better than me.
For the record, in telling Dana’s story, I’m expressing my own opinions and impressions informed by my own experiences and observations, plus hearsay regarding the opinions and observations of others, as well as provable facts. I’m including verbatim quotes from police reports and other documents. I’m not claiming objectivity. I doubt genuine objectivity is achievable by anyone ever.
That said, I had a gut feeling Bryan was trying to misdirect or thwart the investigation somehow. At the time, I couldn’t fathom why he would. Bryan was revered by people in Long Beach as a god of murder investigation. He had been named “Investigator of the Year” by the California Homicide Investigators Association. When I asked Stacey if she felt something “off” about Bryan, she vouched for his integrity.
Was my gut feeling simply wrong, or did Bryan have a conflict of interest? He spoke as if he had been involved with Dana’s case prior to being hired by Nuch on our behalf. According to public records, Long Beach police paid Bryan $19,038 for investigative work in 2014, the year of Dana’s death. Was Bryan’s professional loyalty with us as his client, or with the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD)? Was he seeking answers about Dana’s case, or was he protecting his one-time trainee Detective Johnson? It didn’t occur to me that Bryan might be covering up a welter of lapses and lies in the LBPD.
If Nuch recognized a conflict of interest regarding Bryan, he never mentioned it to me. It didn’t occur to me that Nuch, too, might be conflicted due to his long-standing loyalties to police and powers-that-be. I thought we were all on the same side, all wanting clarity about the facts, all wanting wrongs to be put right. By August 2015, more than six months had passed since my in-person meeting with Bryan. In the interim, my dad had paid Nuch and his associates close to $100,000 in retainers and hourly fees. My dad was willing to pay whatever price to kick over rocks in pursuit of justice for Dana.
Rocks were kicked, and Nuch’s team shrugged their shoulders. Yes, many facts in Dana’s case indicated that, more likely than not, she was murdered. But Bryan was sure it was just a terrible yoga accident. Therefore, nothing could be done. Our only option was to keep the team on retainer until somehow, something changed.
It seemed to my brother Stephen that our desire for justice was being exploited. For example, my dad was billed more than $20,000 by Nuch’s office for the drafting of a wrongful death complaint against Huck. We were never allowed to see the draft, and Nuch never filed the complaint in court. What was the point of the expense?
To us, Dana’s death was a criminal matter that should be dealt with by a law enforcement agency. “If they don’t see it was murder, they’ll never see,” Stephen said to me. It was obvious to us that Detective Johnson had made up his mind very early in the case. He didn’t welcome new information. What was the point, then, of employing lawyers and investigators to hunt for fresh clues? The investigation was an unsustainable expenditure of dad’s finite resources, and it was going nowhere. Therefore, Stephen and I traveled to L.A. in August 2015 to fire Nuch.
Firing Nuch was difficult because he continued to offer fresh hope. For instance, he said he could obtain audio recordings made by the medical examiner during Dana’s autopsy. Stephen and I perked up, hopeful about finding new clues. Bryan immediately countered, saying medical examiners don’t make audio recordings. Asking the coroner’s office for help was no use.
This was how meetings went. Nuch suggested new avenues of investigation; Bryan quickly blocked them. Was Nuch fighting to get answers, or not? We weren’t sure.
Also, there was the notebook. Detective Johnson had given Bryan pages and pages of police reports, plus 188 digital photos taken by police, and 15 hours of surveillance video recordings seized from Dana and Huck’s house. Nuch’s office made copies, put the digital evidence on compact disc, and packaged it all in a three-ring binder. I’d guess a dozen copies of the notebook were floating around.
In March 2015, I was given the notebook at my in-person meeting with Bryan. After hours of answering his questions about Dana, I was asked to leave the meeting so Bryan could confer with other investigators, namely Stacey, Randy, retired Long Beach Police Officer Valerie (Rose) Romero, and retired Los Angeles Police Officer Tyler Izen. Bryan said I could take the notebook, share it with my family, and get back to him with questions.
I sat down with the notebook on the first bench I saw, in the courtyard in front of Nuch’s building. As I read police reports, I searched for something to help me see why they exonerated Huck. I couldn’t find it. Instead, the reports made it clear to me that Huck had killed Dana and lied about it. Why were police so gullible?
I planned to make copies for my parents and Stephen. First, I made a quick trip across the street to my hotel room at The Standard. My phone buzzed with a call from Stacey. She asked me to return the notebook as soon as possible.
I walked back to Nuch’s office. The conference room was empty except for Stacey and me. She looked weary, as if she’d been in a fierce argument. “There’s been a development,” she said. It would be bad for me if the notebook were found in my possession, she said. I couldn’t guess how it could be bad for me, or who might be examining my possessions. I gave her the notebook.
I soon regretted parting with it. Bryan insisted the surveillance video from my sister’s house cleared Huck of all suspicion. I had seen only the brief, silent clip that Bryan had shown me.
In the clip, Dana’s dog Enzo sat on a sofa down the hall from the “yoga room.” At a specific moment, the dog appeared to startle because of a sound that seemingly came from the direction of the yoga room. Enzo remained on the sofa, looking perplexed. Next, Huck entered the scene, coming from the direction of the yoga room. Huck faced the camera and acted as if he was brushing his teeth. He walked off camera toward the yoga room. Minutes later, Huck called 911.
According to Bryan, this clip proved that Dana had fallen and hit her head while doing yoga, making a sound that startled the dog. Plus, Huck had called 911 before Dana was dead. To Bryan, this proved Huck’s innocence.
To me, it proved that Huck had fooled Bryan. If I’d kept the notebook and the video it contained, I might have been able to show Bryan how and why he had been misled. I assumed that, after firing Nuch, I’d never have a chance.
Perhaps Nuch’s team had done all they could for us, in good faith, and knew there was no reason to continue the investigation. I figured I had nothing to lose by arguing with Bryan, and with all of them. I recounted my reasons for believing Dana was murdered. Why couldn’t they see? Why didn’t they care?
Bryan, on speakerphone, was audibly exasperated with me. He said I needed to accept the hard truth that Dana had died in a freak yoga accident.
Bryan brought up a completely different case, one that, like Dana’s, had been ruled an accident by the L.A. County Coroner’s Office. After the meeting, I obtained a copy of the autopsy report from that case because media stories about it sounded implausible.
According to the medical examiner, R&B singer Charmayne Maxwell, at her multimillion-dollar house above Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, had been stabbed once in the left side of her neck, and once in her upper chest. Each stab wound was more than two inches deep, penetrating in a downward direction. Her left jugular vein had been completely cut. Her live-in boyfriend said he found her supine in a pool of blood and tried to give her CPR for 10 to 20 minutes before paramedics arrived. She bled to death due to sharp force injury. The report noted that there was blood on the soles of her feet, somehow.
Despite the stab wounds and other injuries on the woman’s body, such as bruises and chipped front teeth, Los Angeles Police Homicide Detective David Vinton said there were no signs of foul play. The medical examiner concluded that Maxwell had died accidentally. Media reports embellished this conclusion, claiming she had fallen on the stem of a broken wine glass.
These things happen, Bryan asserted. Why, then, was it so hard for me to believe Dana had died from yoga? The video clip proved it.
Stephen had never seen the video. Nuch projected it onto a screen. We watched the clip Bryan had shown me months earlier, plus a few minutes more.
“He’s acting so suspiciously,” Stephen said. “Look.”
Stephen was right. Huck’s behavior was odd. Paramedics wheeled Dana out of the house on a gurney. Huck stood at the front gate, held up his phone, and took a photo of her as she was being put into the ambulance. After she was taken away, he paced histrionically in front of surveillance cameras as he made several phone calls. One of the calls he made was to my mother. Huck told my mom that Dana had injured herself severely while doing yoga.
Paramedics told police they didn’t know what was wrong with Dana at the scene. Had she fainted or suffered a stroke? They didn’t know. Why would Huck presume to know what was wrong before emergency-room doctors even had a chance to evaluate her?
After the ambulance left, video shows that Huck remained at the house for another 39 minutes. He showered, changed his clothes, and packed a bag for himself before he drove away.
Stephen and I looked at each other. I recalled the time when he’d said if police couldn’t see it was murder, they’d never see. I don’t remember if Stephen said it, or if I did: “We’re done. This investigation must end.”
No one seemed surprised.
Curt asked if we planned to pursue a lawsuit.
“No, everything’s finished.”
Curt said: “Take the notebook.”
Bless him. I took it.
It would be another year and a half until we succeeded in firing Nuch, however. As I studied the notebook, a story emerged about Dana’s death, a story I’m trying to tell you. The notebook contained evidence of lies, inconsistencies, and foul play. For instance, police photos showed evidence of blood on a dining room chair, and dark, blood-like stains on the concrete floor of the master bath. I pointed these things out to Nuch. He communicated them to Bryan and to law enforcement. Still, no one seemed to care.
These things happen. People are murdered, and murderers go unpunished. Sometimes, people are punished for murders they didn’t commit. Justice is denied. Injustice is inflicted. The so-called Justice System seems incapable of offering a remedy. What difference does Dana’s story make?
It’s too late for justice for her, and for those of us who persist in calling attention to her case. Nonetheless, her story is worth telling, and worth hearing for its mix of screamingly obvious and perplexingly unusual circumstances.