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Camp Pendleton Marine kills older gay man — what else is new?

Death in Oceanside

Edenfield initially told police he and Smith were headed downtown to drop in at some bars. But he told a military superior that he left the Countryside nightclub with Smith because Smith was drunk and Edenfield feared for the man's safety.
  • Edenfield initially told police he and Smith were headed downtown to drop in at some bars. But he told a military superior that he left the Countryside nightclub with Smith because Smith was drunk and Edenfield feared for the man's safety.
  • Image by David Diaz

Very early one morning in April of 1983, David G. Smith met his death in a downtown Oceanside motel room. It was an ugly, painful, panic-stricken departure from this life. When his body was discovered the following afternoon by the motel manager. Smith’s face was not recognizably human.

One of Vista’s most controversial and conservative judges set an astonishingly low bail for the accused murderer.

One of Vista’s most controversial and conservative judges set an astonishingly low bail for the accused murderer.

Veteran homicide detectives said they had never seen a body so badly beaten. The room was awash in blood, which had splattered onto three walls and the ceiling. In the final, terrifying moments of his life. Smith had struggled to escape his killer, crawling to within feet of the door, where he left bloody handprints near the knob. His skull had been fractured in several places. His jaw was broken. His nose was crushed into his face, and his eyes were disfigured.

During what were to be, unbeknownst to him, the twilight hours of his life. Smith was probably a very happy man. He had spent a large part of his evening sipping longnecks at the Countryside, a popular country-and-western nightclub.

Since 1977 at least ten murders in Oceanside have had what police call “homosexual overtones.”

Since 1977 at least ten murders in Oceanside have had what police call “homosexual overtones.”

The Countryside, located on Douglas Drive in Oceanside’s San Luis Rey River valley, had become one of Smith’s regular weekend hangouts since the city council had ordered, three years earlier, the leveling of more than twenty downtown businesses that catered to a honky-tonk clientele city fathers no longer wanted. A thirty-year romance between Oceanside and the U.S. Marine Corps was on the rocks, and the city had begun choking the life out of the pool halls, beer bars, taverns, tattoo parlors, and pawn shops that remained as monuments to that relationship. The character of downtown Oceanside was being changed with blasting caps and bulldozers. But before the redevelopment, it had been a robust sexual playground where Smith had spent many weekend hours.

David Smith proved adaptable, however. When one redevelopment-area bar, the Longbranch, fled downtown under the municipal gun and migrated east, he migrated, too. About seven miles from downtown and not far from Camp Pendleton’s back gate, the Longbranch reopened under a new name, the Countryside. It was a combination country-and-western bar/all-night diner and quickly became a major watering hole for hundreds of Southerners and cowboys imported into Southern California by the Marine Corps. It had just what Smith was looking for. And it would be one of these objects of his affection — a tall, slender, twenty-year-old Marine from Georgia — who would bring a gruesome end to Smith’s fifty-five years on earth.

By at least one important standard, Oceanside is an ideal place for a sexually active gay man. Sprawled along its northern border sits Camp Pendleton, home to as many as 40,000 U.S. Marines, young men between the ages of eighteen and thirty brought in each year from across the country. It is the Marines who attract gay men, some of whom regularly travel from Los Angeles, Riverside, and Orange counties to seek out what Oceanside offers: thousands of attractive, well-built young men seeking sexual release. Downtown Oceanside has sections of streets and specific mens bars that have developed well-deserved reputations as excellent spots to pick up Marines. In the early hours of the morning, along certain streets, the same cars prowl repeatedly, their lone male drivers eyeing the men walking streetside. Occasionally, a car will pull over to the curb, a few feet away from a loitering Marine, and a brief conversations ensues. Often as not, the Marine hops in the car, which then disappears from the cruising zone.

Stories of the sexual liaisons between older gay men and strapping young Marines abound at Oceanside’s only gay bar, the Capri. Despite the cult-of-manhood myths perpetrated by the military, a number of Marines are themselves gay or bisexual, and others are willing to experiment. A beat cop who once patrolled a stretch of South Pacific Street that is known among area gays as a good place to buy sex remembers seeing the most “suspicious activity” on the weekends before military paydays.

There exists an interesting, complex, but quickly learned mating dance between the older gay men and the young Marines that, when successful, is governed primarily by practicing homosexuality while simultaneously denying it. Do it, but deny it. Though many of your peers are behaving similarly, deny it to them. Though you may have just been sexually active with him, deny it to your partner. And because it is psychologically essential in this culture, deny it to yourself.

If that myth of denial is breached, the consequences can be fatal. Blind, guilt-evoked, homosexual rage can be one of the consequences. The sexual partner becomes, in a guilt-ridden instant, not the affable old guy who took you to his motel or apartment for a good time, but a pervert, a queer, a faggot, a seducer who cleverly had his way with you before you knew what was happening. The sexual encounters may be transmuted by the onslaught of guilt into nightmares of violence.

David Smith’s murder sent shudders through older gay circles in Oceanside. His life was an accurate reflection of theirs. Reading the first sketchy accounts of his death in local newspapers, they sensed almost immediately what had happened to him. They had seen this before. Some still had the scars from narrowly escaping a similar fate.

It was in the bars Smith frequented in Oceanside that people came to know him best. There was little intimacy in the ostensibly straight life he led as a successful San Marcos construction company executive five days a week or in the life he shared with his elderly mother in a quiet Vista cul de sac. In Oceanside bars and motel rooms, people came to know the real Smith. He spent most of his weekends in those bars during the last years of his life. In those bars, he was himself. He met people on terms he could find nowhere else.

They nicknamed him “Singing Dave" because of his habit of singing along with the barroom music. By most accounts, he was an affable, generous man who usually drank too much and tipped too heavily. He enjoyed the rare status in several bars as the only patron with a line of credit; he often ran up hefty tabs buying rounds for the house and setting up some young Marine who had caught his eye. In a day or two, he would return to pay his bill. Friends say he needed credit because he refused to carry much money. He was afraid he might be robbed. But in April of 1983, Smith’s friends had not yet begun to eulogize him. They were occupied with more personal concerns: did they know Smith’s killer? Would one of them be next?

His military superiors describe Dennis Craig Edenfield as a “postcard Marine.” He joined the Marine Corps at the age of eighteen, and in just two years, he had been meritoriously promoted to the rank of corporal. In April of 1983, just back from a tour of duty in Japan, he was assigned a job as a military baker at Camp Pendleton’s First Marine Division. The pride and joy of his working-class parents back home in Jesup, a south Georgia farming community that calls itself the “buckle of the Bible Belt,” Edenfield planned to make a career for himself in the corps. Southern California did not offer him many opportunities to hunt and fish — the customary pastimes of his adolescence. Nor did his high school baseball award as Most Improved Player count for much in his new life. 3000 miles away from home. But as one might expect from his conservative upbringing, he was an obedient and dutiful Marine.

On the evening of April 2, 1983, young Edenfield set out with a Marine buddy for Oceanside. He ended up at the Countryside. It is still not clear how Edenfield, who was just twenty years old. gained admittance to the nightclub, but he did, and it was not long before the attractive young Southerner caught David Smith’s eye. No detailed accounts exist to explain all that transpired between the young Marine and the fifty-five-year-old executive while they remained at the bar. But it is certain that Smith bought Edenfield several beers and that the two left the Countryside together, headed in the direction of downtown in Smith’s late-model, maroon Chevy coupe, which bore a personalized California license plate that read “PRAYER.” Eventually, they checked into room 150 of the Mira Mar Motor Inn. The following afternoon. Smith's corpse was discovered.

Days before any arrest was made, police surmised the likely circumstances of the murder. Later they would say that even though he lived only a short distance away in Vista, Smith often stayed weekends at the Mira Mar Motor Inn. His wallet still held cash and credit cards, so robbery was ruled out as a motive. Except for a pair of socks, he was naked. The fatal bludgeoning was described as a “rage-type beating,” and homicide detectives working on the case told reporters privately that they believed Smith had been murdered by a man who went into a blind fury following a homosexual encounter. The severity of the beating, the fact that he had last been seen alive in the company of a young Marine, and experience with similar cases supported their conclusion, and with this in mind, they began the search for David Smith’s killer.

The search paid off. On a Thursday just four days after the Mira Mar Motor Inn manager had made his grisly afternoon discovery, a suspect was in custody. The detectives had retraced Smith's activities on his last, ill-fated night and had ended up at the Countryside. Smith was a regular; the doorman, bartenders, waitresses, and customers all remembered seeing him. And they remembered his Marine companion. Now the police requested military assistance to locate that Marine. After some initial inquiries. Corporal Dennis Edenfield agreed to meet with homicide detectives at the Oceanside police headquarters. The detectives told Edenfield only that they were investigating an assault, and he was most cooperative. “Is.this in regards to that faggot?” he asked. “Because if it is, I could save you guys a lot of time, because I did it.”

Although Edenfield was immediately booked into the Vista jail on suspicion of murder, he did not stay behind bars for long. At his arraignment the next day, one of Vista’s most controversial and conservative judges set an astonishingly low bail for the accused murderer. Municipal Judge Raymond G. Hall, usually a contentious bane to the defense bar, set bail at a mere $5000; and with the help of friends and family back home in Georgia, Edenfield quickly posted the $500 bond.

It was two months before he faced another judge. On the afternoon of June 8, Municipal Court Judge Michael Burley presided over an evidentiary hearing in the case of the People of the State of California versus Dennis Craig Edenfield. It was his job to determine whether a crime had been committed in the killing of David Smith and, if one had, to decide whether or not Edenfield should stand trial for that crime. Among the pieces of evidence presented during the two-hour hearing were a series of photographs taken by forensic specialists at the murder scene, as well as a single photograph of Smith in happier days. Despite vigorous defense objections that the photographs were highly prejudicial, Judge Burley refused to disqualify them. As he viewed the contested photographs, horror was evident on his face.

Edenfield’s lawyers presented no affirmative defense on his behalf at the hearing. Instead, they said their client had in fact committed no crime; the young Marine had merely protected himself against Smith’s sexual advances. The judge’s face was somber, his voice stern. The force used against David Smith, said the visibly upset Burley, was “far, far in excess of that needed to defend oneself.” Edenfield would have to answer for this crime, and he was bound over to the superior court on a charge of first-degree murder.

It was up to Judge Burley to review the bail status. Why, he wanted to know, had the bail been set so low? At this point. Deputy District Attorney Phillip Walden, supervisor of the D. A.’s office in Vista, made a startling revelation. There were, according to Walden, unnamed public officials who had been involved with the case who believed “this wasn’t really that big a deal because the victim was a homosexual.” Another fact Walden knew but did not tell the judge was that there were prosecutors in his own office who shared that view. In the corridors of the D. A.'s office. prosecutors snickered and referred to the murder as an “ecological killing.” The judge expressed shock at the $5000 bail figure and increased it tenfold.

Dennis Edenfield was once again behind bars. Back in Jesup. where according to one Georgia congressman, “there is no known homosexuality.” the community was rallying behind its embattled native son. Churches held special prayer services on his behalf. Neighbors, former teachers and coaches, and law-enforcement officers began to raise money for his defense. Edenfield's parents, who earned less than $15,000 a year, put up their house as collateral for a bail bond. His father later wrote, “He didn’t do anything any other red-blooded, all-American boy wouldn't have done in a situation such as this.”

But Edenfield, although once again free on bond, apparently could not escape the prison of his memories. While awaiting his October trial, the healthy, athletic Marine developed bleeding stomach ulcers and was admitted to the intensive-care unit of Camp Pendleton’s Naval Regional Medical Center after he began to vomit blood. His attorneys said the potentially life-threatening condition was caused by “trial-related stress”; and the trial was delayed until December. Assigned to prosecute the case was Susan Biery. Corporal Edenfield had retained former Federal Prosecutor William Dougherty of Orange County and his assistant, Dan Mogin.

Courtroom testimony revealed conflicts in the various accounts Edenfield gave different people after the fatal night. He initially told police he and Smith were headed downtown to drop in at some bars, that they had stopped by the motel room for a drink. But he told a military superior that he left the Countryside nightclub with Smith because Smith was drunk and Edenfield feared for the man's safety. Despite those conflicting statements, defense attorneys would later add a new argument: the Marine had instead been lured by Smith to the motel room, on the pretext of meeting women there. Edenfield testified that he attacked Smith after awakening on a motel room bed to find the older man naked and straddling him. But he had told the same military superior, a gunnery sergeant who later testified that "[Edenfield] was just more or less afraid the guy was going to rape him,” that he attacked Smith after walking from the bathroom to find Smith standing naked near the bed.

Defense attorney Dougherty drew clear boundaries for the jury. Edenfield, he said, was “a red-blooded, all-American Marine who is athletic and likes girls.” He was America's son, who had been tricked by a conniving pervert into a motel room for seduction. David Smith was “an aggressive, predatory, closet homosexual who preyed on young Marines,” who had made Edenfield nothing more than a victim of prey defending himself. As for the murder weapon — a table — Dougherty defended its use in the bludgeoning of Smith. “The table was the only thing [Edenfield] could use as a weapon to keep this man off him, this six-foot-three, 214-pound construction worker.” And as for the savagery of the beating, the attorney stated, “We know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. That wasn’t very pretty, either.” Prosecutor Biery fought back. The truth, she said, was that Edenfield had voluntarily engaged in sexual relations with Smith and then “changed his mind.” She quoted his confession to the police: “I hit him. I hit him hard. I hit him with my hands. I hit him with my elbows. I hit him. I hit him hard. I hit him good. There was blood all over the place.” She countered other defense claims with an appeal to the rule of law. “You are not here to take a vote on how many of you like Marines and how many like homosexuals,” she told the jurors. “If you tell this man it was okay to kill Dave Smith because Dave Smith was a homosexual, you might as well sign a death warrant for all other minorities.”

Before the seven men and five women of the jury could begin their deliberations, the prosecution suffered a setback when the presiding judge agreed to a defense motion to limit the choices of a verdict, disallowing that of first-degree murder on the grounds that the evidence did not show premeditation. If Dennis Edenfield were guilty of anything, the judge ruled, it would have to be second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter.

Two days before Corporal Edenfield turned twenty-one and five days before Christmas, the jury returned its verdict: “Not guilty of the crime of murder.” Cries of joy erupted from a small cluster of Edenfield's family and friends huddled near the rear of the courtroom. Prosecutor Biery looked disappointed. The defense attorneys tensed. The defendant hung his head. The court clerk continued reading. “We, the jury in the above entitled cause, find the defendant, Dennis Craig Edenfield, guilty of the crime of voluntary manslaughter... ” The cries of joy from the back of the courtroom turned into quiet sobs: Edenfield faced up to six years in state prison, the maximum term under 1983 California law for a conviction of voluntary manslaughter, “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice” that usually occurs “upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.”

Over prosecution objections, Edenfield remained free on bond over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. On February 10, before a courtroom packed to standing-room-only, he reappeared for sentencing. In arguing for a reduced sentence or even probation, his defense portrayed him as a broken young man, his once-promising life in ruins. He had become a suicidal, self-destructive alcoholic who needed professional care, not a prison sentence. Edenfield's father told the judge his son could not cope with prison. “It would ruin him,” he said. Sheriff Jim Poindexter of Wayne County, Georgia, submitted a letter to the judge. If Edenfield were ordered to prison, why not let Georgia handle it, using the fifty-two-bed Wayne County Jail, located right in the corporal’s hometown of Jesup? “I would take the responsibility of keeping him in my jail to serve his time.”

After prosecution statements, the judge peered over his glasses at Dennis Edenfield. The beating David Smith took, he said, showed a “high degree of cruelty and viciousness.” Edenfield was a Marine trained in the use of force; Smith was a drunk fifty-five-year-old who was “very, very vulnerable.” There was a civilized course the corporal could have taken. “The matter could have ended simply by having the defendant withdraw.” His sentence: four years. Wearing the Marine Corps uniform of which he was so proud, Edenfield was led out of the courtroom; within two months, the Marine Corps began discharge proceedings against him. Although federal law makes it a crime for military officials to disclose the nature of such discharges, defense attorney Dan Mogin hinted at the fate of the “postcard Marine.” “I can tell you this,” he said. “It was not honorable.”

Just two years later, Dennis Edenfield was a free man. He was parolled, and prison officials say he went home to Georgia.

A PATTERN EMERGES

The murder of David Smith was not an aberration in northern San Diego County, especially in Oceanside. Since 1977 at least ten murders have had what police call “homosexual overtones.” Many of them mirror Smith’s murder: the victim was an older gay man, the killer much younger; the killing was particularly brutal; and each defendant hinged his defense on the victim’s homosexuality.

January 10, 1977: The body of forty-five-year-old Jimmie Woodrow of Long Beach was found at Oceanside’s Motel Six. Marine Pfc. Michael Gerard Howell, then twenty-two, said he beat Woodrow to death after awakening to find himself being sexually molested.

March 11, 1979: Oceanside yachtsman and longtime Pacific Bell employee Robert Scarborough was found stabbed to death on board his boat at the Oceanside harbor. Two Marines, Robbie David Cochran and Bobby E. Marling, who had set out earlier in the evening to “roll a queer,” were convicted of his murder. One of the Marines boasted that while the other held Scarborough, he had made “a checkerboard” of him.

May 9, 1983: A month after Smith’s murder, thirty-three-year-old transvestite Dwight Morning was stabbed to death, and his nude body was dragged into the high grass off a residential side street, where it was discovered by a passing transit bus driver. The crime remains unsolved, although police surmise that Morning was murdered by a man he met on a downtown Oceanside street, where he worked as a prostitute.

November 29, 1983: Six months after Smith’s murder, while Corporal Edenfield was preparing for his trial, sixty-six-year-old retired race-car driver James Cook was found strangled to death in his apartment near downtown Oceanside. He had been bludgeoned with one of his racing trophies, then strangled with a necktie. His killer, a Louisiana drifter named Roy Glen Gamer, pleaded self-defense against a homosexual advance by Cook, who was more than twenty years his senior. Gamer was found guilty of first-degree murder, based largely on the fact that he stole Cook’s car after the crime.

June 16, 1984: Fifty-six-year-old Tony Intravia was strangled in his home with an electrical cord. The killer, a drifter named Steven Michael Rushton, claimed self-defense against Intravia’s sexual advances. The presiding judge sentenced him to the maximum sentence for voluntary manslaughter, noting that “certain expectations on the part of Mr. Intravia were reasonable” under the circumstances of their association. They had met in a park.

Since January of last year, Oceanside police have investigated at least four more killings in which the victim’s homosexuality may have played a role.

January 6, 1986: Thirty-two-year-old Steven Land was shot to death in his pickup; two of the truck’s tires had been slashed. Although Land was reputed to be gay, police are not absolutely certain that homosexuality was a factor in the shooting, but they did circulate a composite sketch of a young man seen in Land’s company at 3:25 a.m., an hour before his death. Witnesses also reported seeing him cruising along downtown streets that night. Both the killer and his motive still elude police.

February 23, 1986: Everett Hendrick, a fifty-eight-year-old Oceanside barber, was stabbed sixteen times across his chest, and his throat was slashed from ear to ear. Neighbors reported they may have heard him pleading for his life with his killer, an unemployed thirty-two-year-old named Michael J. Padilioni, who was driving Hendrick’s car when he was arrested. He testified that he had met Hendrick at the beach and agreed to go home with the older man for drinks. Once there, he said, Hendrick made homosexual advances. Padilioni plea-bargained for a second-degree murder conviction and sixteen years in prison.

August 26, 1986: Donald Hall, a twenty-five-year-old transvestite and prostitute, was gunned down on a downtown side street during an argument with a customer. His case does not fit the typical pattern; the district attorney concluded that Hall’s thirty-four-year-old killer, a Carlsbad resident, acted in self-defense and refused to file charges. Hall had had a long history of prostitution arrests.

October 9, 1986: Oceanside police arrested a nineteen-year-old navy deserter and alleged male prostitute named Thomas J. Ambrozy, charging him with the seven-month-old murder of thirty-two-year-old Ronald Becker, a newspaper distributor, whose nude body was found on a massage table in his home with forty-three stab wounds. Ambrozy says he was “tricked into carrying out acts of Satanic treachery.” His case is still pending.

Despite a long and frightening history of violence against gays in Oceanside, they continue to come to the city to seek out young men. Their attitude is often fatalistic. “There have been too many murders,” says an Orange County businessman who drives to Oceanside every Friday to cruise the downtown area. “It’s frightening when I think of them. But I have always liked servicemen. I love their youth. I love their beautiful bodies. We usually find each other, although there are occasional mistakes.” And, he says, homosexual panic should not be blamed on those who experience it, but on a homophobic society/ “It’s our society preaching from the cradle to the grave that it's evil, that it’s a sin, that makes these kids say, after it’s over, ‘What have I done? I’m a queer.' ”

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