Philo has a killer redwood that seems to reach out to swat errant drivers like a giant flyswatter. Every community in Mendocino County seems to have a danger spot or two.
Near Point Arena at Alder Creek, where the San Andreas Fault heads inland from the Pacific, I almost died, and a man named McDermott did die.
On a Sunday afternoon in 2009, I suddenly awoke in that very spooky spot and found myself bailing off the roadway in my truck at about 45 mph. I was driving back to Point Arena from Fort Bragg with a 100-pound bale of hay in the bed of the truck under the topper where my three Dachshunds always rode. I was watching the road over my shoulder. My dogs are brave little relentless hounds, stuck to my soul like glue. We've saved each other a few times over the last decade.
My first thought? “Keep the greasy side down!” If I turned the wheel I'd roll, killing the dogs with the hay bale.
Second thought? “This is going to be tricky!”
Determined against the hopeless odds to keep the truck flat through this bad wreck, I flexed to fly with a leap of faith larger than I knew I had. I gripped the wheel and repeated, “Greasy side down!” I did not turn the wheels as they drove us straight as a die off the cliff. I could not flip and kill the dogs. “Greasy side down!” I screamed. And like magic we unexpectedly lifted, instead of falling, for quite a surprising distance.
Tractoring through the thick treetops, the glass cracked and smashed over and over again as each limb whomped the windshield. My view was obscured by the pounding, but it distracted me from chickening out of letting go by trying to manipulate in some helpless way the outcome of this freefall.
I drove through the tops of 30 foot willows in the ditch off a 40 foot bank on Highway One “where Lance Stornetta keeps those couple of horses down in the pasture.”
Two Latinos in a green truck saw the accident and came into the ditch to help me and my dogs out of the truck. They made the sign of the cross as their eyes popped when they saw us already out and trying to “shake it off” as we assessed the situation. Everyone uninjured. “Milagro,” like a prayer, the Latinos whispered, helping us up the incline from the steep ditch.
The witnesses phoned the CHP and the local officer nobody else liked arrived: Officer Babcock.
Point Arena, never wanting to use a given surname when describing an individual, has renamed most of the population. As one example, Long Beach Pete has evolved through a lifetime as: Zuma Beach Pete (in his Baywatch days!), Lifeguard Pete, Hot Dog Pete (remember him in Casper?), and now in his retirement years he's Solar Pete and Pete and Sun Solar. And so it was inevitable that Officer Babcock became Officer “Bad Cop” to all locals making his acquaintance.
Bad Cop was always polite and respectful to me. He chuckled to himself like I'd cheated death, and my little dogs too. He kept shaking his head in amazement as he paced off the steps measuring my airborne maneuver. He continued asking me the same question over and over again. I answered the same answer over and over again about having gone to the DMV, then the feed store for hay, and finally walking the dogs at the previous switchback. Then I remembered that I'd stopped at Mendocino Candy to buy two carmelled apples. “The first was mealy, and I threw it out, eating the second apple, which was okay.” I looked at him and said, “Do you think it could have been the sugar?”
After realizing I was neither drunk nor… Well, I was not drunk. Bombshell Babcock informed me, “You'd better go get that checked. As a CHP officer, I know that the stats on someone just driving off a cliff and not knowing why it happened usually means that the driver either has a brain or heart condition of which they are unaware.”
Food for thought leaving me speechless, I looked over at the dead raven that had been in the willows when it was unexpectedly hit by me in my hurtling truck. It lay in Lance Stornetta's horse pasture not far from where we stood awaiting the tow truck.
The San Andreas fault line is one windy canyon where it jags inland at Alder Creek. The dogs were freezing at the end of their leads, lurching for the dead raven, the wreck having apparently unfazed them.
I wasn't the first person to go over the side here.
Mr. McDermott's last ice cream run had ended at this same spot.
It's best known to the old locals as the place where Carol McDermott, the Black Widow, may have slit her husband's throat the night she drugged him and sent him into Point Arena for ice cream for their daughter's slumber party. She slipped her old man a mickey and hoped he'd drift off, just like that. She implored him to go now, before falling asleep for the night. Get the ice cream, or else.
It must have been before 10pm, closing time for the Point Arena Liquor Store when, drowsy, him having been drugged, drove off the cliff as I did years later when I drove off Highway One and into the San Andreas, eventually crashing down into the underbrush and plowing on through it, finally stopping unseen and narc'd out but not dead.
Mrs. McDermott arrived soon after to check on her success and, finding her man still breathing and the authorities not yet arrived, Mr. McDermott's throat somehow got slit inside the car without virtue of his head having gone through any windshield or window. No broken glass evident. How then the slashed throat and blood? Windows up, glass cracked but unbroken?
In Point Arena they say only the Black Widow knows.
How do I know this? The honorary mayor of Point Arena told me, and she even took a forensics class once, her curiosity piqued as a result of Mr. McDermott's weird death. She asked me not to tell who the only witness was because a rather chilling detail emerged when she came to retrieve me from my very own Toyota truck lodged unseen in that very same underbrush where Mr. McDermott had died. My truck though, with hardly a scratch on it aside from the cracked-up windshield and missing roof racks, an automatic, was still running, still trying to drive forward under a roaring throttle when I finally reached up and turned off the key. (Note to self: maybe better to wreck in a standard shift, at least they pop out of gear.)
Alarmed, as we loaded the dogs, she told me about Mr. McDermott's death and informed me that it happened right where I wrecked my truck. Spooked, she gloomed, “He died there.”
The next day the same friend drove me out to the site of my accident. We stood on the bank of Highway One looking down. The flattened tree tops, the dead raven. And there, lying among the buzzcut willowtops, was my set of kayak carriers which had previously been safely and securely attached to my truck. Now I know why the CHP laughed. The kayak carriers lay there in the same configuration as when they were sitting on my truck, the same odd distance apart, but without the truck.
The witnesses driving north on Highway One informed the CHP that each carrier simultaneously released under the driving force of the truck when it hit the ground. Each bar became hooked in the tree, which held my truck horizontally as it swayed over and down just long enough to gently help the tires, still under power, reach the bottom of the ditch. Indeed we did land greasy side down, into the 30 foot void beyond the tree line as though deposited by a rotating Lazy Susan. Letting go of the truck, each bar with saddles, flung upward by the force of the tangled limbs in the roof racks, must have looked like a strange juggling act, high into the air, only to land 20 feet up onto the freshly mown willows. They sat there where my friend walked out onto the flattened treetops and retrieved each rack.
Buena fortuna, “greasy side down!”
Years earlier at the same location Mr. McDermott was just as lucky to survive his wreck only to bleed to death from a strange wound to his throat received without virtue of any broken glass at the scene of his accident.
During their daughter's slumber party, Mrs. McDermott left their home and returned where one of the girls from the slumber party witnessed a crimson Mrs. McDermott in her bathroom washing off her husband's blood. The young partier opened a bathroom door to use the facility sometime after midnight where she found Carol McDermott bright red in blood splatter. But no Mr. McDermott and no ice cream. The startled teen gasped as Mrs. McDermott spat at the young girl never to tell anyone what she'd seen under threat of death, and death to her family too if she did say something.
Point Arena's a small town. It got out.
Carol McDermott, who may or may not have murdered her husband but it sure seems like she did, went from that to plotting the Stornetta Murder For Hire on behalf of her paramour, Stogie Stornetta, a man many years her age. With Mrs. Stogie out of the way, Stogie and Carol could live happily ever after on Stogie's money, of which there was a lot. The bewitched Stogie had even created a new ranch road over the hill to Carol McDermott's house, which he traveled by tractor quite often.
The night the murder of Stogie's wife was to occur, the plotters not knowing that they'd hired an undercover cop to do the job, investigators went to other homes on the Stornetta ranch informing the occupants of each home to stay inside, not to leave for the rest of the night. The police warned that there could be a murderer on the ranch laying in wait for one of the family members. They wouldn't say which family member so everyone had to stay inside for the rest of the night, out of the way and out of trouble. There must have been a bit of soul-searching going on at the ranch that night. Is it me? Do I have this coming? That sort of deep-down speculation.
“He who shall also go unnamed Stornetta” told me that he was young with a wife and a new baby. He got out his gun, a bottle of whiskey, and sat at the kitchen table the rest of the night protecting his new family, prepared to meet the unknown, scared as shit wondering who and what. He didn't find out until the next morning what had happened.
As the Stornettas hunkered down at the ranch, down at the Point Arena Bowling Alley, Carol McDermott in her pussycat eyeglasses, and Stogie bought drinks at the always busy and popular party place where Carol worked. According to many locals at the bowling alley that night it was a truly memorable party. Stogie never went out that late, so everyone was happy to see him. What was even more unusual, according to the many locals who were there, at exactly midnight, when the dirty deed was to have been done, tight-fisted old Stogie bought a celebratory round for everyone in the bar. That was going to be his alibi. "I was at the Point Arena Bowling Alley when my wife was murdered."
Everyone sobered up real quick when Stogie was led out in handcuffs.
Stogie? Stogie Stornetta? The patriarch himself? Under arrest?
Everyone had a screwed up face on hearing that one.
If you've ever seen the picture of the powers that be in Mendocino County circa 1940s and 50s you would know that every one of them seemed to be either a Stornetta or a friend of a Stornetta: DMV, Fish and Game, Constable, District Attorney and Sheriff — all of them. Someone in local government could have been missing from the picture that day, but the photo looks like all the well-fed, meat-eating fat guys the photographer could get into one frame.
By the time Stogie went to trial there remained enough Stornetta-friendly judges on the bench to indulge their old friend to get old Stogie off the hook.
As the story goes Stogie pleaded to Judge O'Brien something like being stupid in the arms of a beguiling woman, and Carol McDermott, ever after known as the Black Widow, went off to state prison time for orchestrating an attempted hired hit.
He went home to Mrs. Stogie.
The Black Widow was never investigated for the murder of her husband, Mr. McDermott, if that's what it was.
Several years ago I looked up the old she devil on the internet, and one appeared in the age-appropriate 70 something age group. She could still be alive. When she and Stogie plotted the murder-for-hire of Stogie's wife, was the Black Widow motivated by love or money? Was her husband's life insured for much? Did she kill again after Point Arena? I wonder if she could have been a femme fatale serial killer. Everyone in Point Arena who had known her says she simply got out of prison and moved on to somewhere where no one knew her. And if there's anyone in Point Arena who knows where Carol went they've kept it a secret, maybe the only secret in town.
Two years after wrecking my truck but saving my dogs I drove myself into the emergency room at 176 bpm to find out that I had been misdiagnosed 18 years earlier as having asthma. The local doc prescribed a bronchodilator of albuterol! (Yee-Haa!) which only served to quicken instead my chronic fluttering heart. I indeed had had heart failure. That's why I drove off that cliff. Doc Babcock seems to have had better information than my former MD.
Keep your greasy side down!