6. Dirty Scene

Huck called my mom in a panic. “Discombobulated,” was how she described him. He was sorry to break the news to her, he said. He had tried to call my dad and me, but we weren’t answering our phones. He didn’t want to be the one to tell her Dana had been seriously injured in a yoga accident. She had fallen somehow. He found her, lifted her head, and saw blood. Dana struggled with him, and suddenly went limp. The paramedics had taken her away. He was overwhelmed. What should he do?

My mom told him to go to the hospital.

Huck said he would drop Enzo at a neighbor’s house and take a shower first.

Maybe an hour later, he called me. He still hadn’t arrived at the hospital. He told me he had found Dana face-down in a pool of blood in the “yoga room.” Huck said he lifted Dana by her hips, turned her over, and she hit him. She told him to leave her alone because she needed to finish her yoga routine. “She’s strong like that,” he said. “You know how strong she is.”

In his varying stories, Huck implied Dana was violent toward him. She was combative, or struggling, or hitting him. In their analysis of 911 homicide calls, Adams and Harpster noted that guilty callers often insulted or blamed the victim. For example, one guilty caller said, “My girlfriend shot herself. The crazy bitch shot herself in the head.”

In retrospect, Huck’s claims of Dana’s “combativeness” strike me as similar. At the time, however, I didn’t know what to make of Huck’s story. I guessed maybe they’d had a fight and Dana ended up with a bloody nose.

The idea of a “yoga accident” was immediately absurd to me. Sometime in 2012 or 2013, the book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards by William J. Broad had gotten enough publicity that I had read an article about it. The most serious risks cited by Broad were neck trauma related to doing headstands, and “yoga strokes” in which blood supply to the brain is interrupted, possibly resulting in brain damage. Dana and I talked about this because I knew she could do headstands. She assured me that, over the years, she had gained the flexibility, strength, and awareness to do the pose safely.

After Dana’s death, I scoured Broad’s book for information about “yoga falls.” The most serious example I could find was this: “…a male patient fainted while doing yoga in a warm room, falling and hitting his head hard enough to produce a bruise.”

My dad had a bad feeling about Huck’s descriptions of Dana’s alleged accident. Dad was making plans to catch the first available flight from Denver to L.A. He was 86 years old at the time, and in fine condition to travel. Still, I told him I would go instead. He insisted on going, too. That evening, my parents and I landed at LAX. I texted Huck to tell him we had arrived. He replied that Dana had tubes sticking out of her head, and I should prepare my mom. Only then did it dawn on me that something horrible might have happened.

Huck was waiting for us outside the main entrance of St. Mary Medical Center. He seemed giddy. He said Dana was in an induced coma for her protection, so she could heal. We followed Huck into the hospital. He said one of his friends had shown him how to get into the ICU using a door other than the visitor entrance. He demonstrated this for us.

We walked into Dana’s hospital room and saw that she hadn’t just bumped her head or sustained a concussion. Her brain had been destroyed. She was supine on the bed, surrounded by machines. One machine monitored her intracranial pressure. Another machine inflated her lungs. Tubes protruded from her head and mouth. The moment mom saw Dana, she knew she was gone. Shocked and silent, my parents stood and stared at their dead child.

A nurse named Brandon was in the room. I said something like, “So, she’s in an induced coma?”

Brandon looked surprised. “No,” he said. “It’s much worse than that.” Dana had sustained irreversible brain damage, he explained. There was no chance her condition would improve. However, an official declaration of brain death would require several more tests and doctors’ signatures. A cerebral perfusion scan was scheduled for the morning.

Huck argued with Brandon: “No, she’s in a coma, knocked out on painkillers.”

Brandon firmly said, “No, she’s not.” Huck bickered with him. Huck wasn’t in grief or denial. He was trying to gaslight Brandon. I didn’t pause to wonder why. I turned my attention to my sister.

Dana was on her deathbed. In the context of this shattering reality, Huck’s behavior was unimportant. My parents and I knew he was acting strangely; in our experience, he often acted strangely. We didn’t ponder it. Our concern was focused on Dana.

After a while, Huck drove my parents to a hotel to get rooms for us. I stayed with Dana. Her skin was hot to the touch. Her left eyelid was bruised and swollen, as if she’d been punched. I called Stephen, our brother, and told him to catch a flight because it was bad.

Huck brought my parents back to the hospital. We all agreed to meet first thing in the morning to be on hand for Dana’s cerebral perfusion test. My brother would be arriving at 7 a.m. Huck offered to pick him up at the airport and bring him to the hospital.

Early the next morning, I contacted Huck to make sure he was awake. He replied that he couldn’t go to the airport because he had too many things to do. I picked up Stephen at LAX. He and I met our parents at the hospital. Huck didn’t show up. Where was he?

The situation felt intensely real yet oddly dreamlike. I attributed this surreal quality to the fact that we were in shock. We couldn’t think critically or analytically. Only later did I understand that the whole scene of Dana’s death was what Adams and Harpster might call a “dirty scene.” It was bizarre because it was inherently illogical, implausible, and inconsistent with physical facts.

After Dana’s death, one of her friends told me he had talked with a paramedic who had been on scene at Dana’s house. Reportedly, this paramedic described the scene as weird, but it was hard to say exactly why or how it was weird. There was nothing obviously wrong, but it felt wrong.

According to a police report, officer Stephan Ritchie spoke to paramedics Jeff Thralls and Keith Dixon on the phone. Ritchie wrote:

“Thralls said the victim was lying supine in kind of the middle of the floor of a large exercise room. She was at least three feet away from any furniture. There was no yoga mat on the floor of this room. As the victim was being treated, Thralls noticed some blood on the floor below her head. …Once the victim was removed from the home on a gurney and taken into the Rescue, they noticed the victim’s pupils were unequal.”

Officer Ritchie’s report (pdf)

Surveillance videos show a fire engine arriving at Dana’s house at timestamp 9:21 a.m., followed by an ambulance at 9:29 a.m. Paramedics wheel Dana through the front gate at 9:40 a.m. We can see that she is strapped to a gurney and appears to be unconscious. Her eyes are closed. She does not move.

Paramedics load her into the ambulance at 9:41 a.m. To me, it’s odd that 20 minutes went by and Dana was in the ambulance before any of the half-dozen first responders on scene looked into Dana’s eyes and noticed her pupils were unequal. A fixed, dilated pupil, sometimes called a blown pupil, can be a grave sign of severe brain swelling. I would think that, with an unresponsive patient showing signs of head injury, a medic would lift the patient’s eyelids and shine a light in her eyes to check pupil constriction.

Ritchie’s report continued:

“Dixon said the husband told them he was in another room of the house and his wife was doing yoga in the exercise room located at the southeast corner of the home. He heard what sounded like a ‘thump’ and went in to check on his wife. He found her lying on the floor of the exercise room but she wasn’t able to answer any of his questions. …The floor of this room is a dark stained concrete. Dixon said this room has some furniture and ‘Hawaiian art objects’ but the victim was basically lying in the middle of the room away from any of these items. Dixon said the victim wasn’t able to speak with them but did respond to his questions by squeezing his hand. Dixon found a large hematoma on the back of the victim’s head (base of skull but in the hair). This hematoma was bleeding and there were drops of blood on the concrete floor below her head. He didn’t see blood anywhere else in the room. Due to the victim’s vital signs, they realized she needed to be transported to a trauma center. The husband requested his wife be taken to St. Mary Medical Center.”

Officer Ritchie’s report (pdf)

I question whether Dana was able to consciously squeeze anyone’s hand. We now know Dana was well into the throes of brain death at the time; any movement or contraction of her muscles would have been involuntary, presumably.

Mostly, I wonder why paramedics didn’t notice the severity of Dana’s injuries. According to the autopsy report (pdf), Dana’s occipital scalp was split by an irregular laceration measuring one-and-three-quarter inches long. Her occipital bone, the thickest bone in the skull, was broken, with a fracture measuring four-and-onehalf inches long. Dana’s brain injuries included acute subdural hematoma, subarachnoid hemorrhage (thick and severe), brain contusions, intracerebral hemorrhage, intraventricular hemorrhage, and transtentorial herniation.

Police photographed the back of Dana’s head in the hospital on March 4, 2014. At that time, more than 24 hours after it was inflicted, the deep wound in her scalp continued to ooze blood, despite the presence of nine or more surgical staples.

LBPD photo of the laceration

Clearly, this was not a minor injury that somehow worsened in the hospital, leading to a freak death. This was a massive, mortal wound. Why didn’t paramedics notice?

Why, for instance, did they misidentify the deep laceration in Dana’s scalp as a superficial hematoma? Typically, a torrent of blood would be flowing from a scalp laceration such as Dana’s. Her hair would have been soaked and matted. Later, one of Dana’s surgeons told police: “Wherever this incident happened, there will be a lot of blood from the laceration on the back of her head.”

I’m guessing paramedics were confused by the incongruity of the information presented to them. The lack of blood at the scene combined with Dana’s unresponsive state, the placement of her body in the middle of the room with no yoga mat near her, and Huck’s story of a yoga fall, all stymied paramedics’ ability to read the scene accurately. Something seemed wrong, but it was hard to say exactly what or why. It was a “dirty scene.”

At 9:41 a.m. on March 3rd, surveillance video from Camera 5 shows Huck raising his cell phone and taking a photo of Dana as she is being wheeled to the ambulance. One of the fire crewmen notices Huck snapping the picture and does a double take.

Huck takes a photo

Minutes later, Huck chats on the sidewalk with first responders. While Dana waits in the ambulance, Huck appears to be asking for driving directions. Two of the first responders supportively pat Huck’s shoulders.

The ambulance drives away. The fire engine, too, is about to leave. Huck walks through the front gate and into the yoga room. Suddenly, he walks out and shouts at the fire crew. They re-enter the house. Turns out, they had forgotten their EKG machine in the yoga room. Their interaction with Huck is chummy and jocular. One crewman pauses on the sidewalk and chats a bit longer with Huck while the others return to the fire engine. The fire engine drives off camera at 9:45 a.m.

How often do fire crews forget to pack up and take their equipment? To me, this mistake suggests that they weren’t thinking procedurally. Because of their chumminess, I wonder whether any of them were friends or acquaintances of Huck or Marian prior to the call that morning.

After the first responders drove away, Huck made phone calls and paced around the house. Enzo remained on the sofa the whole time. The dog didn’t leave the sofa even while first responders were there. Earlier, he had followed Huck around eagerly. After the 911 call, however, the dog was subdued, with ears flat and head down most of the time, as if cowering.

At 9:52 a.m., surveillance video from Camera 7 shows something remarkable. As he talks on the phone, Huck pantomimes a “yoga fall.” He demonstrates a stance like warrior pose with his legs spread, left foot in front of his right, left knee bent. He takes two steps forward. He stands on his toes and thrusts his head backward. He turns to face the camera. He bends his left arm at the elbow and throws his left hand backward as if imitating the motion of a forceful backward flop. We see him mouth the words, “hit her head.”

Huck acts out a yoga fall

This is remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, as Huck acts it out, the motion looks biomechanically improbable. Second, his pantomime story contradicts the story he told to the 911 dispatcher less than an hour earlier when he claimed Dana was injured while doing a headstand. This clip of surveillance video plus the 911 recording show that Huck was telling different stories at different times, as if testing to see which tale was most convincing.

A 9:55 a.m., Camera 7 shows Huck at the dining table doing a little sleight of hand. He reaches out with his right hand as if grabbing something off camera. He slides a credit card into his left palm. He turns his back to the camera. He turns again to the table and puts his left hand down. It’s empty now. The credit card is gone. He upturns his left palm and, with his right hand, fills it with what appears to be cash or checks. He places the stack of cash on the table and puts Dana’s cell phone on top of the stack.

Huck’s sleight of hand

What’s the point of this disappearing credit-card trick? Perhaps this was the credit card used in Dana’s name to buy a purse online from Levenger.com. Immediately after this “trick,” Huck walks down the hallway and returns to the table with a leather-bound, zippered book that I’m pretty sure is his checkbook and wallet.

At 9:58 a.m., Huck again walks down the hallway. He returns to the dining area at 10:05 a.m. His hair looks wet. He has changed his clothes. He is wearing camouflage trousers with a long-sleeved shirt. He packs a bag for himself. He does not appear to pack any items for Dana, such as a book, toothbrush, or her iPad, which has a bright-green case. Instead, he packs other electronic devices and his jacket.

At 10:13 a.m., we see Huck take Dana’s purse from the kitchen hutch, remove her wallet from it, and put it in his bag. At 10:15 a.m., he walks out of the house, leaving the front door wide open. The dog seems perplexed by this.

On Camera 2, we see Huck get into Dana’s brand-new, white Toyota Prius, which is parked in the driveway. He sits in the car for five minutes. At 10:21 a.m., Huck drives away from the house. We don’t know what time Huck arrived at the hospital. Admission blood samples were drawn from Dana sometime around 9:35 a.m. real time.

According to a police report, officer Stephan Ritchie spoke with ER charge nurse K. Jones who said she had not treated Dana but had seen her when she was admitted to the hospital. The nurse told Ritchie that she didn’t recall seeing any visible injuries to Dana’s face or body. Ritchie wrote:

“Given the decedent’s inability to talk and her unequal pupils, the ER staff initially thought the decedent suffered a stroke. The doctor ordered a CT scan and the results showed the decedent had a basal skull fracture to the left occipital area, a large occipital hematoma and a large frontal hematoma.”

Officer Ritchie’s report (pdf)

The word “hematoma” in this case refers to brain injuries rather than to Dana’s scalp wound. ER staff also talked with Huck, who claimed Dana had fallen while doing yoga. Ritchie wrote:

“…ER staff discussed the statement given to them by the husband and what the CT scan results showed and believed it was an ‘odd injury for the story’.”

Officer Ritchie’s report (pdf)

Later, a nurse and a doctor told me privately that Huck’s affect seemed “off” to them that morning. For example, he talked about getting Dana’s will and trust papers together even though hospital staff didn’t yet know the extent of her injuries.

The thing that sharpened my suspicion was when Huck missed Dana’s cerebral perfusion test on the morning of the 4th. He showed up at the hospital around mid-day saying he had been doing household chores and boarding the dog at a kennel. He had brought along papers regarding Dana’s long-term disability insurance to show my dad.

The night before, my dad had asked Huck if Dana had a living will, and whether there were life-insurance policies benefitting Huck in the event of Dana’s death. Huck acted as if he didn’t know what my dad was talking about. He said the disability policy was the only paperwork he could find.

At some point, Huck had commandeered Dana’s e-mail account and sent a message blast to her friends and acquaintances. He told them that she was in an induced coma. Visitors started arriving at the hospital on the 4th. It was nice to see people who cared about Dana, and it was awful to tell them that she was, in fact, brain-dead.

As I stood near Dana’s bed, Huck remarked that the situation reminded him of the time she fell in Hawaii. “Remember? She fell and hit her head doing yoga. You were there.”

It took me a minute to understand what he was talking about. In May 2009, I was housesitting near Hilo, Hawaii. Dana and Huck came to visit for a week. One morning we went swimming at place we called Pahoa Hot Pond. Its official name is Ahalanui County Beach Park. It is now permanently closed because it was overrun by lava from a Kilauea volcano eruption in 2018.

In 2009, the park featured a natural thermal pond surrounded by lava rocks. Dana climbed a ladder out of the water and walked a few steps toward her towel. She slipped on the wet rocks. To me it looked as if she was falling in slow motion. She adjusted her posture and landed safely on her butt. She never came close to hitting her head. We joked that Madam Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, had given Dana an “ass tattoo” as a souvenir from the island.

To me, this incident was a perfect demonstration of her fitness and yoga reflexes. It was the exact opposite of how Huck was trying to characterize it.

Later, on March 10, 2014, I explained this to Detective Johnson. Ultimately, Johnson chose to believe Huck’s version, and to believe that this alleged “yoga fall” had happened recently rather than five years prior to Dana’s death.

Late in the afternoon on March 4, 2014, we got some answers about the nature of Dana’s injuries. A nurse practitioner and a social worker led us into a private room. The nurse walked us through images of Dana’s skull and brain. There was no sign of a stroke or a previous head injury, she explained. The scans showed Dana had been hit with a heavy blow that fractured her skull. There were two points located an inch or so apart where the impact of the blow appeared to be greatest. Also, doctors had surgically repaired a deep laceration in Dana’s scalp. This cut was in the shape of an upside-down letter L.

The social worker asked if we could think of any way in which the injury might have happened. Huck said Dana must’ve hit her head on the edge of the cabinet in the yoga room. I openly scoffed at this. The surface Huck was describing was approximately three feet off the ground, and Dana was five feet, seven inches tall. Even if her head had hit the edge, it could not have caused the injury described by the nurse.

Huck said maybe Dana had hit her head twice. He acted out a scenario in which Dana struck the back of her head on the cabinet, became disoriented, and slammed her head into the cabinet again, or perhaps threw herself to the floor. It was ludicrous. Huck and I started to argue about it. My brother shushed me because my parents were distraught. My getting into a fight with Huck would compound everyone’s misery.

More than a year would go by before I learned that a hospital social worker had called the Long Beach Police Department that afternoon. A recording of her call was included in the notebook. She told the dispatcher:

“…All the doctors are saying that the nature of the injuries suggests that it may have been foul play. …They’re saying, like, that it sounds like she’s doing yoga, and she fell and hit her head, it wouldn’t have fractured it that severely.”

Social worker calls the police

Doctors thought Dana had been assaulted, she said. She remarked that medical personnel were talking about their suspicions, but no one wanted to call police. She said:

“And then everyone says it, but nobody wants to call you, so I was like, well, I’m going to call.”

Bless her. I’m glad she did. I wonder why no one else would. Why would doctors and nurses hesitate to report a suspected assault and homicide?

According to a police report, officer Christian F. Moody telephoned Dr. Mauricio Heilbron, Jr., a surgeon who had treated Dana in the emergency room. Moody wrote:

“Dr. Heilbron said Dana Jones arrived at the hospital yesterday morning with a serious head injury. Dr. Heilbron said Dana Jones had a laceration to the back of her head and a blown pupil. Dr. Heilbron said Dana Jones underwent a CT scan which revealed she had bleeding on the front and back of her brain and a skull fracture on the back of her head approximately three inches in length. …I asked Dr. Heilbron if he believed a person could receive injuries like Dana Jones from falling while doing yoga. Dr. Heilbron said, ‘It could be just a freak accident but in my opinion it looks suspicious. Something could have hit the back of her head causing a lot of trauma. Wherever this incident happened, there will be a lot of blood from the laceration on the back of her head. I have seen trivial injuries turn bad though.’”

Officer Moody’s report (pdf)

To me, this is a clear statement that Dana’s injuries were serious upon arrival and, in the surgeon’s opinion, were suspicious. However, this same statement was interpreted differently by Detective Johnson and Bryan McMahon. Separately, they told me the doctor’s statement confirmed that Dana’s injuries were trivial but later turned bad, due to a freak accident.

If this is typical of how police distort the statements of medical professionals, I can understand why a doctor might think twice about calling the cops. Then again, California law requires hospital personnel to report cases of suspected assault to local police immediately by phone and to follow up with a written report no more than two days later. Why, in Dana’s case, did hospital personnel hesitate to comply?

The most charitable explanation I can come up with is that everyone except Huck was in a bewildered state of cognitive dissonance. The whole scene was a dirty scene designed to gaslight and flummox everyone involved. First, the 911 dispatcher couldn’t get any coherent information out of Huck. Second, the paramedics were misled by Huck and couldn’t grasp that Dana had sustained a serious head injury. Third, emergency room personnel didn’t know what to make of Dana’s visibly uninjured state until they did a CT scan followed by emergency surgery, only to discover that she was beyond saving. Everyone had been baffled by Huck, by design.

Regardless of real or perceived equivocation in statements made by medical personnel about Dana’s injuries, Moody wrote in his report:

“Believing the circumstances surrounding Dana Jones’ injuries may be suspicious, I prepared a search warrant for the residence of 7053 Stearns Street, which was signed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Meyer. I gave the signed search warrant to Detective T. Johnson, who searched 7053 Stearns Street with Detective R. Zottneck.”

Officer Moody’s report (pdf)

Police had probable cause to believe that a felony had been committed. Officers were dispatched to investigate a possible assault with a deadly weapon. In the words of the search warrant, detectives were commanded to search for “any evidence related to the possible crime of murder.” There’s no ambiguity in the warrant about the nature and purpose of the case. It was a suspected homicide.

With the involvement of homicide detectives and a judge, one might assume that facts would be gathered, alibis would be questioned, claims would be tested, and confusion would be resolved. Sadly, no. Instead, the gaslighting and lies were amplified, augmented, and endorsed under color of law.

Read Chapter 7: Under Color of Law