Booze and death for the Fletchers in Borrego Springs

What happened? A pioneer family's tragedy

Ed Fletcher Sr. on summit of Grossmont in 1904. That winter he bought the 200-acre Villa Caro Ranch, a house and property that included the hill they would name Grossmont for his partner William B. Gross.
  • Ed Fletcher Sr. on summit of Grossmont in 1904. That winter he bought the 200-acre Villa Caro Ranch, a house and property that included the hill they would name Grossmont for his partner William B. Gross.

On the eve of the annual dove hunt in Borrego Springs, it was 98 degrees, and a full moon was rising over Coyote Mountain and Rabbit Peak. The town was still half empty because it was August 31. Wildflowers were months away.

Mary and Ed Fletcher Sr., 50th wedding anniversary. Ed got Mary to shore and called it “Another one of the experiences of life where everything comes out all right.”

Mary and Ed Fletcher Sr., 50th wedding anniversary. Ed got Mary to shore and called it “Another one of the experiences of life where everything comes out all right.”

In the desert behind the Borrego Air Ranch, Eric Fletcher and his wife walked toward a watering hole for doves. It was more a puddle than a pond, and his father kept it filled in the summer and spread grain for the birds. Eric and his wife reached the hole just before the official time of sunset, 7:14. Doves on the ground made that curious peeping sound, fluttered, and rose. So many doves were flying that Eric looked down at his watch to note the best time for hunting the next day: 7:15.

Ed Fletcher Sr.'s first house at Eagle's Nest. The Harper children had camped at Eagle’s Nest with the Fletcher children.

Ed Fletcher Sr.'s first house at Eagle's Nest. The Harper children had camped at Eagle’s Nest with the Fletcher children.

From the pond, Eric could see that a car was now parked at his father’s house. This meant that his father and two friends were back home from the meeting of the dove-hunting club, and the house would be unlocked. They should head back.

In the desert behind the Borrego Air Ranch, Eric Fletcher and his wife walked toward a watering hole for doves.

In the desert behind the Borrego Air Ranch, Eric Fletcher and his wife walked toward a watering hole for doves.

Other than the heat, there was no reason to hurry. Eric had been bringing his wife home for holidays and the occasional dove season for nine years, and this time his parents were drunk. For the eve of the dove hunt, his mother had invited Eric, his wife, and two other couples for dinner, but his mother had slept through their arrival. She had been in bed all day. The ingredients for Mexican food were sitting in the refrigerator, cold.

Ed Sr. at 18. In 1889, Ed received a letter from his father in Florida. His father threatened to put him out to work as an apprentice, so Ed wrote to his brother-in-law Jarvis in San Diego.

Ed Sr. at 18. In 1889, Ed received a letter from his father in Florida. His father threatened to put him out to work as an apprentice, so Ed wrote to his brother-in-law Jarvis in San Diego.

There was nothing to do but walk back to the house. Eric and his wife walked 10 yards, 20 yards, 30. The sky was still pink in the west. They were halfway home when, in all that silence, in a place where a lizard could be heard from ten yards away, they heard the explosion of a fired gun. A woman screamed inside his father’s house. The gun was racked and fired again. Eric told his wife to run and hide while he went up to the house alone.

The San Diego Union-Tribune, September 3, 1993

The San Diego Union-Tribune, September 3, 1993

Eric would testify in court that he ran to the glass wall that surrounds the pool. Through the glass wall and the family room window, he could see his father holding a shotgun. He couldn’t see the kitchen floor. “I’m going to get that son of a bitch,” his father said.

Mary and Ed Sr., wedding day. They were married on April 8,1896, in Ayer, Massachusetts, when Mary was 20 and Ed was 23.

Mary and Ed Sr., wedding day. They were married on April 8,1896, in Ayer, Massachusetts, when Mary was 20 and Ed was 23.

Eric started to walk in circles around the house, trying not to be seen, trying to figure out who was shooting. He knew that his father was drunk. He knew that Walter and Carrlene Harper were in the house. The Harpers, besides coming down for dinner, had planned to stay the night, so they might be hiding in the back. Eric tapped on the window of the room where the Harpers were staying. No one answered. He walked around the house again. A light was on in the master bedroom.

Harry Taylor, Ed Jr., Charlie, Lawrence, and Ed Sr, skating on Cuyamaca Lake, 1916

Harry Taylor, Ed Jr., Charlie, Lawrence, and Ed Sr, skating on Cuyamaca Lake, 1916

From beneath his parents’ bedroom window, he could hear his mother say, “Oh, my God, honey. You shot the kids.”

But he hadn’t shot the kids, had he? Eric was outside, and so was his wife. He’d told her to run and hide in the airplane hangar south of Stinson Road. No other “kids” were home, unless it was his brother Kent, who had come by earlier to ask for money. Eric ran around the garage and opened the front door. From the hallway, he could hear his parents talking. They were still in the master bedroom, so maybe he could walk into the kitchen, see what had happened, and not get shot.

In 1951, the second year of the Korean War, Ed III was photographed beside an AT-6 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

In 1951, the second year of the Korean War, Ed III was photographed beside an AT-6 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

He opened another door and stepped in. He saw what appeared to be legs on the kitchen floor. He took two more steps and saw that it was Walter and Carrlene Harper. They lay face up on his mother’s kitchen floor. Their eyes were open. There was blood on the wall.

Soon the sign over the brick arches at Fifth and I said, “Fletcher-Doyle Co. Wholesale Produce,” and the brothers-in-law were shipping 181 carloads of lemons and oranges to the East.

Soon the sign over the brick arches at Fifth and I said, “Fletcher-Doyle Co. Wholesale Produce,” and the brothers-in-law were shipping 181 carloads of lemons and oranges to the East.

This night that would last for years and years was just beginning. The police, the lawyers, the subpoena, the trial in which Eric would have to be the key witness against his father, the TV cameras, the newspaper reporters, all that was yet to come. Outside in the desert, where his wife was crouched down in the bushes, waiting for him, it was beginning to get dark.

Ed Sr. and Mary's memorial stone

Ed Sr. and Mary's memorial stone

i. The Colonel

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls.

(Iago in Othello, III, iii)

The man pacing with the shotgun at the Borrego Air Ranch was Ed Fletcher III. He had always been proud of his name, and with good reason. He wasn’t just a Fletcher, but Ed Fletcher. The whole name had been handed down to his father, and then to him.

Lisa Harper Henderson with her father Walter Harper. Lisa Harper Henderson and Grant Harper, the two adult children of Walter and Carrlene, filed a $20 million wrongful death case against Ed III and Marjorie.

Lisa Harper Henderson with her father Walter Harper. Lisa Harper Henderson and Grant Harper, the two adult children of Walter and Carrlene, filed a $20 million wrongful death case against Ed III and Marjorie.

In reports about his arrest and trial, Ed Fletcher III would be called a scion of the Fletcher dynasty. His grandfather, the first Ed Fletcher, had done everything required of American monarchs: he rose from poverty, he acquired land, he became a millionaire, he held public office, and he fathered ten heirs. He liked to be called the Colonel, a title he’d earned in the state militia. When he dictated his memoirs, the Colonel traced his ancestors back to William the Conqueror’s men and a Flechere who owned the Castle of Chillon. On a trip to Europe, he went to Lake Geneva, visited the castle, bought an etching of it, and hung it on his wall. He found the Fletcher coat of arms and made it the first illustration in his memoir. “Fletcher of Salton,” it reads, “dieu pour nous.” His son, Ed Fletcher Ir., would later find that Fletcher of Salton was not their ancestor, that the Fletchers were descended from Gypsies who manufactured arrows, and that the family motto was not Dieu pour nous, but Nec querere nec apernere honorem (“Neither to seek nor to despise honor”). For nearly a hundred years, the name Ed Fletcher received little else but honor in San Diego.

Carrlene Harper explained that she had finally accepted the invitation because they were the only friends the Fletchers had left.

Carrlene Harper explained that she had finally accepted the invitation because they were the only friends the Fletchers had left.

Colonel Ed Fletcher was born December 31,1872, in Littleton, Massachusetts. On that New Year’s Eve, Ed’s father Charles already had four daughters and a problem with alcohol. Charles Fletcher had been a wealthy, successful man just seven years before Ed was born, but he had cosigned the note on his brother Sherman’s mill, where lumber was processed and where all the neighbors ground their flour until the mill burned down. “It was at this time that fate took a hand in the life of Grandfather Fletcher,” Ed Fletcher Jr. would write, “and he did not have the strength of character to stand up to it.” The mill was not insured. Sherman declared bankruptcy, and Charles had to pay Sherman’s debts. He lost his house and started to drink.

Ed III's house at the Borrego Air Ranch. Eric watched his father pace with the gun, waited for a safe moment to enter the house, and discovered the bodies on the kitchen floor.

Ed III's house at the Borrego Air Ranch. Eric watched his father pace with the gun, waited for a safe moment to enter the house, and discovered the bodies on the kitchen floor.

Charles Fletcher put $500 down on a 118-acre farm inherited by his niece and worked off the property taxes by maintaining roads. Instead of farming, he drank applejack and played poker in the barn with his friends.

Charles’s wife Anna, who looks in her hazy photograph like a Greek statue in a Victorian dress, gave birth to Susie, Bess, Mary, Belle, Edward, and Steve before she died. To Ed and Bessie she gave the precise mold of her face: the cut of her lips, the shape of her nose, the slope of her eyelids. Ed was four when she died, old enough to form two memories: his mother passing candy to him through a hole in the fence and his mother in a coffin. Years and years later, a Sunday school teacher in San Diego would tell him that Unitarians couldn’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Ed would retort that his mother had been a Unitarian, and he was willing to go where she went.

Susie and Bess Fletcher, aged 14 and 12 when their mother died, went to work in a chocolate factory. Ed and Steve went bone hunting in the meadows, gathering the bones of dead cows and selling them to a factory that ground them for fertilizer. In his memoir, Ed would leave out the bone gathering, just as he would leave out his father’s drinking and his own nervous breakdown. For his children and grandchildren he would recall blueberries, huckleberries, frog legs, butter crackers, and the fish he caught with his father.

In 1881, four years after his wife died, Charles Fletcher left his children and went to live in Florida. He put the four children who were too young to marry or live alone into three separate houses. Ed, eight, and his sister Belle, ten, went to a cousin’s farm “to earn our board and clothes.”

“I remember yet,” Ed would say in his memoir, “with almost a shiver, my experience on the William Kimball farm.” He slept in the attic with the rats. The Kimballs woke him at four every morning to milk 11 cows, and he milked the same 11 cows every night After school, his job was to dig holes for the rocks he found in the pasture and bury them so the topsoil could be farmed. While he and his sister Belle worked for the Kimballs, their father sent gifts from Florida: a live alligator, a box of oranges, and a gold watch that Ed would keep in working order for more than 70 years.

Ed’s schoolteacher was a single woman named Jessie Wood, who lived with her parents on the back road to Littleton Depot. Ed told Miss Wood about the Kimball farm and she listened so sympathetically that one night he packed his clothes and walked to her house. He said he would never go back there—back to the Kimballs and the rats. Miss Wood and her parents took him in, but Ed’s sister Belle stayed with the Kimballs.

“My life with the Woods was a happy one,” Ed wrote, “and as long as I live, I shall keep them in memory.” The memories he kept for 70 years, ticking like the gold watch in San Diego, are an elegy to ice. He stuck his tongue to a frozen horse bit He boasted to a girl that he could jump a stone wall in a pair of skates, and when he landed, he broke through the ice on the other side. After making ice cream in a tub of salted ice, he mixed chicken feed with the same salty water and, to his horror, killed 50 chickens that belonged to the family that had taken him in. On winter days, he threw stones down on the ice above perch and pickerel, then caught the stunned fish with his hands. “It was black, clear ice,” he recalled, “which would bend but not break.” On that black and almost endless ice he went sliding from shore to shore.

When Ed was nearly 12, he went to live in Boston with his sister Bessie, who would lead him, in a few years, to San Diego. It was Bessie who worked for a magazine called the Youth’s Companion, whose face was both severe and gentle, whose face was like Ed’s and her mother’s: the straight nose, the curved lips, the flat cheeks. In Boston, he sold newspapers on Saturday and Sunday nights, and Bessie found him work in the shipping department of a wholesale dry goods store. He worked 10 hours a day for $2.50 a week. Until he was 77 years old he would remember the day that Bessie sent him on a holiday trip to Cape Cod. He would remember that the ticket cost her $1 (half a day’s wages) and that the straw hat with the red ribbon — the one that would blow off into the sea—cost her 75 cents. He would remember how he vomited into the wind and soiled the ministers who sat beside him and that when somebody hollered “Whale!” he was too sick to look.

In 1887, Bessie married a man named Jarvis Doyle and moved to San Diego. She and Aunt Susie decided Ed was too young to stay in Boston alone, so they found a family named Taft in Ayer, Massachusetts, who would take care of him and send him to school if he would do chores and work in the garden. So Ed moved again, started attending the Broomfield School, and earned money when he could. He picked wild strawberries, huckleberries, and hickory nuts. He gathered pond lilies at Flannigan’s Pond and sold them to passengers waiting at the depot. One evening on his way through the birch grove that stood between the Tafts’ vegetable garden and the house, he heard a girl asking for help.

“Looking around,” he wrote, “I saw that a girl had climbed a tree to swing the birches. She had not climbed high enough, the limb had bent over, she was caught by her panties and there she hung 10 or 12 feet from the ground, head down, and all I could see was fluffy white and arms and legs. I climbed the birch tree, which, with my added weight, brought the limb down to the ground.” Ed noticed that the lace on her panties was two inches wide, and Mary, who was embarrassed, refused to tell Ed her name. They didn’t meet again until they both attended the same party and Ed, who was in charge of a 19th-century version of Truth or Dare, told Mary to kiss the fellow she loved best. She kissed Ed, and “I started going with her immediately.”

On a summer day when Flannigan’s Pond was blooming with pond lilies, they set out in a boat. Ed carried a muzzleloading shotgun, which he aimed at a kingfisher and fired. Ed and Mary were both standing at the time, and the force of the blast threw them into the water. “When I climbed in the boat,” Ed said, “it was half-filled with water, Mary was gone, and looking over the side I saw her splashing around among the lilies.” He saved her, and they went steady through the fall and winter, skating at night on that black and flexible ice. The next summer, they pushed a boat into the same pond and caught a three-foot freshwater eel that nearly drowned them again. But Ed got Mary to shore and called it “Another one of the experiences of life where everything comes out all right.”

In 1889, Ed received a letter from his father in Florida. His father threatened to put him out to work as an apprentice, so Ed wrote to his brother-in-law Jarvis in San Diego. Jarvis sent $20 to help Ed keep his independence and come to California.

Perhaps because he’d worked for wages since he was old enough to lug cow bones from the pasture, his memories of that defining moment are scattered with sums. Although his son would eventually correct the year that Ed Fletcher arrived in San Diego (not 1888 but 1889), it was the Colonel who recorded the precise amount, to the dime, that he had in his pocket when he stepped off the train ($6.10). He remembered that he deposited five of those dollars in the San Diego Trust & Savings Bank on the very first day of his arrival, September 3, and that it was there he met the man who would give him his first job.

The moment he Stepped off the train and into that bank, Ed Fletcher became the hero of a tale that belongs in the Luck and Pluck series by Horatio Alger. Things would go wrong, but not very wrong, and so many things would go right. He was 6 feet 3 inches, 16 years old, blue-eyed, and handsome.

“I was already a salesman,” Fletcher wrote, “having sold apples, potatoes and farm produce successfully around [Ayer] and in Lowell.”

For the last seven days, he’d looked out train windows at prairies and deserts where no cars had been driven, where there was no idea, yet, of cars. The state of Oklahoma had just barely been opened to non-Indian settlement. The streets of San Diego were still dirt. The population of the town he entered had recently collapsed to 16,000. The Hotel del Coronado had been open for just one year, Wyatt Earp lived on Third Avenue, and Ed’s shoes scuffed wooden sidewalks that smelled like dung.

In the San Diego Trust & Savings Bank, Ed Fletcher met a cashier named M.T. Gilmore, who asked, “Where are you from?”

It turned out that Gilmore was a fellow pioneer from New England. He gave Ed a job cleaning the cellar of his house and mowing the lawn. Three days later, on Saturday, Mr. Gilmore (who would soon be called Uncle Myron, whom Ed would honor by naming a son Stephen Gilmore Fletcher) gave Ed a five-dollar gold piece. By Monday, Ed had a job with a plumbing firm called Johnson and Patterson. But no story can be all pluck and luck. There must be disappointment, especially when the hero, in all his photographs, looks invincible.

“I was an awkward, overgrown boy and broke eighteen lamp chimneys on Tuesday. Friday I put a 2-inch brass water faucet high on the shelf, and not too secure. Mr. Johnson came along and just happened to be beneath when a jar of the rack forced the water faucet to fall and hit him squarely on the head We carried him out unconscious and bleeding. That Saturday night I was fired and sobbed most of the way home.” On Monday, Ed Fletcher walked into the produce firm of Nason and Smith, where Mr. Nason and Mr. Smith were arguing about the price paid for 200 boxes of apples. They looked at Ed and said they weren’t hiring, but Ed thought about all those apples sitting there and went back in. He said he could sell them fast, before they decayed, if they would loan him a horse and wagon.

“I was asked by Mr. Nason to return the next morning by seven o’clock, and sure enough he furnished me with a wagon and a big mare, and 30 boxes of apples.”

He sold 54 boxes the first day, made a profit, and got the job he would keep for eight years, the job that would send him on foot, horseback, wagon, and bicycle across an enormous, naked county that went east to Yuma and north to Perris. Under blue-and-white mackerel skies, during lilac season, in the months when rabbits were having their young, and on summer days when the Santa Ana winds chapped everything, he bought grain, eggs, butter, honey, beeswax, and chicken from the general stores of remote towns like Fallbrook and Hemet and sold them flour, sugar, and canned goods. Accounts were settled once a year, and in 1890, he earned $2.50 a day, twice the daily wage of a laborer (whose day was ten, not eight, hours long). Dinner cost him 25 cents, and a wool suit $13.50.

By the time Ed was 18 he was making a monthly trip to the northern edge of the county. He took the morning train to Riverside, did two hours of business there, then rode the train to San Jacinto, arriving at 4:00 p.m. General stores were open in the evenings, so he could still do business at dusk. The next morning he rode his bicycle to Hemet, Perris, and Temecula, arriving in Fallbrook by nightfall with orders in his pocket. From Fallbrook he rode to Bonsall, Vista, San Marcos, and Escondido.

“There were no bridges across the San Luis Rey River, so unless the river was too high I would first undress and carry my clothes across, then go back and carry my bicycle. The worst problem on my entire trip was to cover the ground from Vista to San Marcos over the worst adobe in California, which in wet weather forced me to carry my bicycle on my back.”

He also rode his bicycle to Ramona and Julian, walking beside the bike and pushing it up Mussey Grade. On his first trip he met Joe Foster, the owner and driver of the six-horse stage, which took passengers from the end of the Cuyamaca Railroad to the mountain towns. The trip from San Diego to Julian, which now takes an hour and a half, took 12 hours in 1890, and Joe Foster, who was carrying three passengers on the day he first met Ed Fletcher, gave Ed and his bicycle a free lift to Ramona, Witch Creek, Santa Ysabel, and Julian. In time, Nason and Smith became Smith, Fletcher & Company.

Back in town, Ed went to church with the man he now called Uncle Myron. At 17, Ed became a member of the First Congregational Church despite what they said about Unitarians going to hell. By the time he was 22 years old, he was captain of the church’s Boys’ Brigade. One of his brigadiers, a 20-year-old solicitor for Smith, Fletcher & Company, was Leon Ferner, “a young friend in whom I was very much interested.” Leon was an occasional smoker, “and in those days anyone who smoked cigarettes,” Fletcher said in his memoir, “was bound for purgatory. I did everything I could to break him of the habit.” On Sunday, September 15, 1895, Leon, Ed, and a Mr. and Mrs. McGegin drove to Ocean Beach. It was a nine-mile, three-hour wagon trip, but the forecast was fair weather. By two o’clock, the three men were swimming out to sea. Ed, who was the tallest, could just barely touch bottom. McGegin and Ed told Leon the undertow was too strong, but Leon seemed not to hear them, and he swam about seven yards farther. A few minutes later, Ed called to him again, and Leon said he could hardly make headway. He was trying to swim back to shore, but he wasn’t getting any closer.

By then, the undertow had dragged all three men 200 yards north toward False Bay, which later became Mission Bay. McGegin and Ed tried to pull Leon closer to the shore in breakers that were ten feet high. Leon clung to the shoulder of Ed’s bathing suit while Ed tried to swim, but the waves rolled them over and over. “Don’t leave me,” Leon said. An enormous wave knocked them underwater and pulled them apart. Leon didn’t surface again.

Ed had swallowed a lot of water, so when he couldn’t find Leon, he swam out beyond the breakers, floated on his back, coughed up water, and rested until he could swim to a sandbar, where three men helped him and McGegin walk out of the water.

“A full account of it was published in the paper the next day, how I had tried to save my friend’s life,” Fletcher wrote, and the San Diego Union of September 16 does say that Ed Fletcher nearly died in the undertow. But despite this proof of his efforts, Ed explained, he was summoned to the First Congregational Church, where all the deacons had assembled. “To my amazement they had me sign my resignation as Captain of the Boys’ Brigade on the grounds that I had set a bad example by going swimming on Sunday.” He was resentful and humiliated at his dismissal for a long time, and Leon Ferner’s body was found in False Bay on November 5, 1895, by a duck hunter.

In the late fall of 1895, evening waists and dresses were sold by Mr. Bowen on Fifth Street, and C.W. Stults, a few doors down, sold Dr. Deimel’s linen-mesh underwear: “porous and pliable.” The San Diego Cracker Bakery was open on Fourth Street. The Fortnightly Club of Coronado met on Friday, November 1, at the home of Miss Agnes Babcock to hear an interesting paper on Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. A good set of teeth cost $7, the same price as an iron bedstead. Fifteen acres of “fine lemon land” on Point Loma was offered at $1000. The San Diego Union observed that an English retriever had captured the hearts of those who walked the grounds of the Hotel del Coronado, and the “highest of all in leavening power” was Royal Baking Powder — “Absolutely Pure.”

After work, Ed wrote letters to Mary. He collected wild ferns and pressed them in a book for her, spelling her name with fronds on the last page. They were married on April 8,1896, in Ayer, Massachusetts, when Mary was 20 and Ed was 23. A friend gave them a copper cowbell engraved with the date, and it was tied to their hack when they drove to the train station. It made, Ed remembered, a tremendous noise.

This time, Ed Fletcher arrived in San Diego with a wife and $526. He and Mary stayed with the Gilmores, who lived on the corner of Fourth and Beech. He borrowed $1500 after a friend guaranteed the loan, and for $15 a month he rented a store near the southwest corner of Fifth and J Street. Mary kept the books, and Ed sold fruit boxes and flour on commission. In 1898, when their first child was a year old, a photographer came to record the first incarnation of the Ed Fletcher Company. The sign on the roof says, “Purity, Strength, Color / Port Costa Mills Flour Has No Equal.” On the dusty street, women in long dresses and men in vests and bowler hats stand like monuments, and not even the horses move their heads.

As the Ed Fletcher Company grew, Ed gathered his family to San Diego. His sister Bess and her husband Jarvis Doyle, who had gone north to San Francisco, came back and joined the business. Another sister took over the bookkeeping so that Ed’s wife could tend the baby. Ed brought Belle, the sister who was still living at the odious Kimball farm, west to San Diego, and on a trip east, Mary Fletcher hauled her father-in-law Charles Fletcher up to Boston and put him on a train to California. Ed built a house for Belle and his father in Lemon Grove. The family history doesn’t say whether Charles Fletcher continued to drink, but it does say that Ed Fletcher insisted that no liquor be served at his wedding reception, an insistence that pleased his wife.

Soon the sign over the brick arches said, “Fletcher-Doyle Co. Wholesale Produce,” and the brothers-in-law were shipping 181 carloads of lemons and oranges to the East. In the photograph of the Fletcher-Doyle company, it was still horses that waited, not trucks. The wheels of the wagons stood perfectly still, as they would stand in the yards of sentimental people 50 years hence. Beneath them, the road was soft dirt and pulverized manure that rose up to cover black clothes.

Fletcher began to compete with John D. Spreckels in the import business, acting as the agent of a San Francisco company that sent shiploads of barley and wheat to Europe and imported Belgian and French cement. “I furnished any amount of cement,” Fletcher said, “to San Bernardino, Riverside, Fresno and Bakersfield, Santa Ana, Orange and Anaheim.” Fletcher also sold pig iron, coke, fruit-wrapping paper, and the Julian apple crop.

As the 19th Century became the 20th, Fletcher made a decision. “I had made considerable money with the growing business,” he wrote, “but never was satisfied. My love of the back country, its possibilities of development, both land and water, had a strong appeal to me.... I determined to make land and water my life work....”

Which, to great success, he did. In 1902, he rode a horse up Hot Springs Mountain (a few miles east of Warner Hot Springs) so he could see the Imperial Valley. He asked the owner of the homestead, which was surrounded by Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, why the land was called Eagle’s Nest. The owner said it was because of an Indian legend in which a month-old baby was lying on a blanket beside an adobe hut. An eagle flew down, grabbed the baby like a rabbit in its talons, and flew toward the tree where, a few weeks later, some members of the tribe found a nest that contained the baby’s bones and blanket.

It was beautiful land, Fletcher thought, and his wife agreed that it was like Massachusetts, a place where they could plant eastern lilac, chestnuts, and a hard maple tree. Fletcher bought Eagle’s Nest from the homesteader for $50 down and $25 a month “until paid for.”

August 1903. Fletcher, now 30 years old, rode his bicycle to Pala. He’d gotten his start in the land business, but he was still selling produce, and Frank Salmons, the Pala grocer, was one of his customers. Frank asked Fletcher to stay the night and hunt quail with him the next day, so they left the Pala mission the next morning in a buggy.

While Frank and Ed rode to the Pauma Ranch, it’s safe to assume that the wheels of the buggy cracked the arms of tumbleweeds, crushed dry coyote dung, sent whiptail lizards dryswimming into the brush. When they climbed down from the buggy, they flushed quail out of the bushes, hundreds and hundreds of quail. “Never will I forget,” Fletcher wrote, “the excitement of the hunt.”

In the winter of 1904, he bought the 200-acre Villa Caro Ranch, a house and property that included the hill they would name Grossmont for his partner William B. Gross. Fletcher suggested to Gross that they subdivide because the land was free of frost and city taxes — perfect land for lemons, oranges, and avocados. The San Diego Union congratulated Fletcher on his possession of the “noted” Villa Caro Ranch, and on a clear day, Ed Fletcher posed for a photograph on the summit of Grossmont while wearing his usual three-piece suit and hat. He put his hands in his pockets and surveyed what would be, in many ways, his kingdom. He and Mary and the children (three of them, all very young) had been living in Lemon Grove, where small garter snakes and pollywogs came out of the kitchen faucet. They had retired to the country so Ed could recover from a nervous breakdown and ulcer trouble. Now they could move to the big house at Villa Caro. They could walk among mulberry trees and peacocks while eating their own tangerines.

He and Mike Dooley, the foreman, started to lay out the roads on Grossmont. While they were tying rags on bushes, something happened that would be told again and again in the legend of Ed Fletcher. Fletcher told the story this way in his memoir: “One afternoon, Dooley was showing me over the path; I was ahead and without seeing, stepped over a rattlesnake; Dooley gave a yell; I looked around; was mad to have done such a thing and tried to kill it with a stone but missed and that made me really mad. As the snake ran into a crack in a rock, I grabbed it by the tail and threw it on the ground and killed it. How Mike Dooley, with tobacco juice dripping from each corner of his mouth, used to love to tell this story!”

The story of the snake turns up again in the words of his son, Ed Jr., who was four years old when his father bought Villa Caro. Ed Jr. wrote to his grandson that he carried pieces of white cloth to tie on bushes according to his father’s directions, and one day, the two of them stirred up a big rattlesnake.

“It started to rattle and I can remember my dad grabbing rocks and throwing them at the snake, but he missed. The snake started to get away by going amongst some rocks and Dad was so mad he missed him that he reached down and grabbed his tail and shook him out of the rocks, snapping the snake at the same time, and actually killed that rattlesnake with his bare hands. Don’t you ever try it.”

Ed Sr. became the president of the Volcan Water Company and began to build Warner’s Dam, which formed Lake Henshaw. The new lake was named for the owner of Warner Ranch, William Henshaw, who put up the money, while Fletcher worked for 25 percent of the net profits on the water project. “I made more money out of this transaction,” Fletcher said, “than any during my lifetime.”

With a partner, he acquired large tracts of land around Lake Cuyamaca. He acquired the lake itself. When it was cold enough, he skated out on the ice with his children, telling them, perhaps, about the black ice in Massachusetts.

With a small down payment, he bought the 2000 acres that would become Fletcher Hills. He built a road to Eagle’s Nest, and his family, which by 1910 included Catherine, Ed Jr., Charles, Lawrence, Willis, and Stephen, began to camp there. In 1913 the first road to the summit of Grossmont was finished, and a La Mesa newspaper dubbed the project “Freaky Fletcher’s Fancy Flight.”

By 1915, all but the last child had been born. Ed Jr. was almost the age of his father when he first came to San Diego. In 1915, the year of the exposition in Balboa Park, the family had its photo taken on the lawn of their Ash Street house, where Stephen, Ferdinand, Mary Louise, and Eugene had been born, where Mary made bread on Saturday mornings, where servants and children moved through the sunlight and darkness of 27 rooms. On hot summer nights the boys took to the sleeping porch, tired from working (which Ed Jr. did from the age of five), tennis, basketball, swimming, and surfing on wooden boards. At the Ash Street house, there was a tennis court and a pen of guinea pigs that smelled like sweet pine and urine. AM of this is gone now, except for the dust it became under the El Cortez Hotel.

You can see, in this picture, why the word “dynasty” became attached to them. This was, after all, the time of the Romanovs, who looked, like this family, too beautiful for death. The camera records that Catherine, who is 18 in the eternal present of the photograph, has a dimple, that baby Eugene has his mother’s eyebrows, that Mary, who was said to use a little buggy whip when order was required, has achieved nine heads of wet combed hair and clean white collars.

Ed, who sits beside her, is now 42 and tanned. In one year, he’ll head the construction of the Lake Hodges Dam. In 1926, he and his oldest son will drive from San Diego to Savannah and break the transcontinental auto record by 11 hours and 56 minutes. In 1928, a year before Black Tuesday, he’ll be worth $3 million. After the crash, the land and improvements in Fletcher Hills will be assessed at $58,760, but the bonds, coupons, and taxes against the property will total nearly $1 million. Ed will raise $56,000 in 48 hours to pay the assessment and avoid bankruptcy. In 1935, he’ll be a state senator. In 1946, there will be three houses in Fletcher Hills. A committee will name Mary the Outstanding California Mother of 1949, and a year later, the San Diego Journal will call the Fletchers the “fabulous first family of the city” and boast “clan records unmarked by divorces or deaths.”

In August of 1969, when Ed Fletcher Sr. has been dead 14 years, his ten children will sell the 10,500 acres still owned by the Ed Fletcher Company and appraised at $15 million. They will all be millionaires, but they will also be other things: a cattle rancher, a lawyer, the president of HomeFed, the owner of an insurance company, an Air Force colonel who led the bombing of Rome in 1944 while wounded. Five of the boys will be ex-champion swimmers, former record holders in the breast stroke and the underwater plunge.

Here on the lawn, Ed Sr.’s lips are pale and dry against tanned cheeks. His hands engulf the hands of Mary Louise, who is three. She stands between his knees in a sailor dress and buttoned boots. She leans into him as into an armchair. All the children and their mother look to the right of the photographer’s lens, but the Colonel looks directly, steadily into it.

ii. Trouble

I intend to take all the time in this world, consider everything, even miracles, yet remain on guard, ever more careful, more watchful, against those who would sin against me, against those who would steal vodka, against those who would do me harm.

(Raymond Carver, “Cheers”)

From the summit of Grossmont, where a carved memorial stone to Ed and Mary Fletcher says, “Our dreams came true,” you can hear the hush of wheels on asphalt. It’s the sound you hear when you put a conch to your ear. The freeways curl and uncurl toward the white-gold surface of the sea. The tiny roofs of cars are the only things moving between malls, churches, schools, and houses, houses, houses.

The monument, which is on private property, is protected by a very old looped wire fence and shaded by the leaves of a navel orange tree. Magnolias, ice plant, grape vines, purple lantana, geraniums, and lizards brush against the stone, which is taller than a two-story house. A staircase was chiseled into the boulder, which makes the steps look like they were gouged out of clay with bare hands. At the top of the steps, rust darkens the stone where it was pierced by poles. The marble plaque lies below, facing the garden. From the summit of the boulder, you can read “Happy Memories” upside down.

Holy ancient the sea looks from the top of that stone. It’s a pale, hazy gold, and it looks vacant, more vacant than the hills and flatlands of San Diego when the photographer put his eye to the glass and made a negative of Colonel Ed Fletcher in his three-piece suit. The land where he stood is now thoroughly “developed,” and although, in the early years, he used the term to mean land for peaches, grapes, sugar beets, walnuts, and gladiolas as well as houses, development means concrete now, and beyond the miles of hard, usable roads the sea looks old and foreign, like it still might produce Jesus or Cortez.

The Mt. Helix cross looks very smooth on the opposite hill, which, like Grossmont, once belonged to Ed Fletcher Sr. He donated the summit of Mt. Helix for the nature theater, financed by a woman named Mary Yawkey White. In a silent black-and-white film of the 1924 groundbreaking ceremony, Ed Fletcher Sr. is the master of ceremonies. He pantomimes and mouths an introduction of Mrs. White to a crowd of women in fur-trimmed coats. A bottle of champagne breaks and foams. No trees shade the summit, and the valleys scanned by the camera are bare.

During the next year, Ed Fletcher Jr. and his crew drilled into rock, formed the concrete steps and benches of the theater, and poured white Medusa cement into the wooden form of a 35-foot cross. On Easter morning, 1925, 8000 people came to see the theater that had been built at the cost of $ 100,000 and dedicated to the “inspiration and use of the people.” The nature theater is shady now, but the views are of suburbia, not nature. The cross that Ed Jr.’s crew poured more than 70 years ago is protected by a thick hedge and a padlocked gate. The stone marker explains that the cross was built with private funds as a memorial to Mary Carpenter Yawkey, that the ground beneath it is owned by the San Diego Historical Society, and that no public funds maintain the cross. Furthermore, “the display of this cross by the San Diego Historical Society is for memorial and historical purposes, and is in no way intended to be an endorsement of preference of any religious belief.” The cross with its disclaimer looks threatened and defensive. The paint is fresh, but the monument is sacred to a smaller group now, one that wants to remember how things used to be.

The cross isn’t a monument to Ed Fletcher Sr., but it’s a good metaphor for what happened to his name. His son built the cross and became its keeper, as he was the keeper of the Colonel’s memory and the family records. For many years, Ed Jr. was paid $200 to keep the nature theater free of vandalism (the memorial plaque was pried off and stolen, replaced and stolen again). Every spring, he took his sons up Mt. Helix to clean for the Easter service. In retirement, he spent years doing the Fletcher genealogy, traveling to the places in Massachusetts that his father described in his memoir. When he was 88, he told a San Diego Union reporter, “They never made [another] one like him. That’s why I never dropped the Junior in my name.”

In the course of his 96 years, Ed Jr. rode the six-horse stage to Julian, set a world record for the underwater plunge, worked on the Lake Hodges Dam, sold real estate, raised cattle, flew his own plane, and saw his oldest son convicted of murder.

Just as the cross keeps its place on Mt. Helix by emphasizing the past, the Fletcher family keeps its honor by emphasizing the past. That requires leaving Ed III out of the picture. Eric Fletcher, the grandson of Ed Jr. and son of Ed III, would agree to be interviewed only if this story omitted all mention of his father and “where he is now.” “We want that to die,” he said. At Eric’s request, other family members declined to be interviewed, and Ed Jr. and his son Lawrence, who had permitted one interview, deferred to Eric and canceled the second. When Ed Jr. died on Christmas day, 1996, his death was front-page news in the Union-Tribune. The photograph caption said that he oversaw the construction of the Mount Helix cross, and the story, to the fury of some family members and friends, noted that his son Edward Fletcher III is serving a life sentence for murder. Why couldn’t the newspaper be silent about that one fact? they wondered. Why couldn’t Ed Jr. be remembered for his father and not his son?

Perhaps it’s because the family is now dogged by the question, What happened? In 1990, three years before the murders of Walter and Carrlene Harper, an interviewer for the San Diego Historical Society asked Ed Jr. if he had been as hard on his boys as his father had been on him.

“I feel I should have been a little tougher on my children than I was, but I didn’t have the heart to be the taskmaster that my dad was,” Ed Jr. said. “I tried to teach them to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

In 1995, two years after the murders, an interviewer for the historical society asked Ferdinand Fletcher, the uncle of Ed III, “In a great family like yours with so many people who are always doing everything nice, what happened to Ed III, who got off on the wrong track and became an alcoholic and loused up the whole business? Were there others who went that way and never got into real trouble, or was he the only one?”

“I am sure there were others,” Ferdinand Fletcher said, “but nothing like that.” Ferdinand said that he and his siblings lived responsibly because they didn’t want to disappoint their parents, who had been so good to them. “None of us,” he said, “wanted to let them down.” Perhaps there was a time when Ed III felt the same, but if the public record of the three generations were to be bound in separate books, Ed Sr.’s book would be as large and quaint as an old dictionary, Ed Jr.’s book would be a thick, annotated scrapbook, and Ed Ill’s would be a long shelf of legal documents. The facts about his childhood fit in a single paragraph. He grew up in Mission Beach and Grossmont, and he worked weekends on his father’s thousand-acre ranch in El Cajon. In the usual manner of brothers, he made his little brother, who hated riding, ride old Clabber-lip the Mexican saddle pony. He went to a private school called the Boyden School, which advertised itself in the 1945 phone book as a boys’ high school that offered Annapolis and West Point preparatory courses. He liked to sneak out of school, which was near the old California Theater on Fourth Avenue, and watch movies. In the tradition of the Fletcher men, he learned to hunt. He learned to fish. His holidays were spent at paradises won: Cuyamaca, Eagle’s Nest, Del Mar. He grew up the grandson of a man who knew Theodore Roosevelt, Warren Harding, and Herbert Hoover, a man who had been a guest in the presidential palace of Mexico, who entertained senators, college presidents, admirals, generals, and millionaires, who had killed a rattlesnake with his bare hands and had swum into the Del Mar surf to haul in a 37-pound shark that had tried to steal his fishing rod. As a boy, Ed III went on one of his grandfather’s many fishing trips off the coast of Mexico. In one photograph, he’s the smallest boy in the group, his face shaded by a baseball cap. The rest of him is obscured by a group that includes an attorney general and a governor.

In 1951, the second year of the Korean War, Ed III was photographed beside an AT-6 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. There beside the propeller, he smiles and squints. He’s the third generation in uniform, part of a chapter in the Colonel’s book called “The War Record of Our Boys.” Another photograph of him in uniform, this one an eight-by-ten of his head and shoulders, would be tinted, framed, and kept on a table by his father’s chair even after he went to prison.

In 1952, Ed III married Marjorie Jean Berlin, the only child of a well-to-do family who lived on old Fletcher territory: Mt. Helix. They were married on her birthday in the spring. Marjorie had graduated the year before from San Diego State, where she was a sorority girl who wrote skits and poems, the secretary of her senior class cabinet, and a member of the debating team. In time, her husband would hit her.

Ed III and Marjorie had three sons. They raised them in Borrego Springs, where they lived at the Borrego Air Ranch, a flat stretch of land developed by his father Ed Jr. in 1946. It’s a small subdivision built around the principle of flight: houses on the edge of an airstrip, one hangar to a house. Ed III, like his father and grandfather, sold real estate. He built his own house. He flew his own plane, shot ducks in Idaho and doves in Borrego, and was considered by members of his family to be a safe, careful, extremely accurate hunter. They said he never drank when he was hunting. Never.

Audrey Hibdon, Marjorie’s housekeeper and friend for more than 15 years, thinks the drinking increased after Ed and Marjorie’s three sons graduated from high school. A neighbor who moved to the air ranch in the 1980s declared under penalty of perjury that he, his wife, and the Fletchers went to dinner one night. Afterward, while in the neighbor’s home, “Edward Fletcher began to beat Marjorie Fletcher.” The neighbor intervened, Ed crashed into a table, and the table broke. The next day, the neighbor said, Ed Fletcher apologized to him.

By the time former county supervisor Paul Fordem moved to the Borrego Air Ranch in the early 1990s, the Fletcher name was associated in Borrego Springs with “the man and woman that drank to excess.” Ed’s own cousin told Fordem, who knew most of the Fletcher family through his 22 years of employment at the Fletcher-owned Home Federal Savings and Loan, “Stay away from Ed. He’s a no-good drunk.” But Fordem never had any trouble with Ed, who dropped by two or three times a week to offer advice when Fordem was building his house. The Fordems and the Fletchers had lunch two or three times at each other’s houses, and Fordem saw none of the abuse that people told him about. They all drank iced tea because the Fordems knew the Fletchers had trouble with alcohol, and Paul Fordem sympathized with that. “It is a disease, in my belief,” he said. Ed insisted that the Fordems take fill dirt from his property for the house pad. Ed refused to take any money for the dirt, and when Marjorie decided to have a dinner party on the eve of the annual dove hunt, she called the Fordems and invited them to come.

On the afternoon of August 31, 1993, Eric Fletcher, whom housekeeper and friend Audrey Hibdon called “the good son,” was on his way to Borrego Springs to attend that dinner and the dove hunt. Eric was 35. His brother Kent was also on his way to the house in Borrego Springs, but he was not invited. According to Hibdon, Kent had been kicked out of the house at 18 and told by his father to “go give somebody else some grief.” In August of 1991, Kent had broken into his parents’ house, pointed a gun at his mother, and robbed them. That fall, Kent pleaded guilty to seven counts of robbery, assault, and false imprisonment and was released on probation.

The name Borrego Air Ranch is spelled out in iron letters over the entrance. The sign is tooth-white and decorated with iron curlicues. The private drive it announces, Fletcher Road, is nothing fancy. The palm trees along one side of the asphalt are stubby and have an untended look. The mobile homes and ranch houses, about 20 in all, look disorderly from a distance because the airplane hangars are large and plain and because in the desert, very little that is man-made looks permanent or natural. The air ranch is a place where the yard work is up to you and where summer heat will kill anything you’re not there to save. So the view along the dirt, and asphalt roads is of decorative cow skulls, greasewood, ocotillo, . pale windsocks, swimming pools behind glass walls, and wide, wide airplane hangars. Sometimes the houses have numbers, sometimes not. You’d have to know where you were going to find somebody here.

Fifteen years before, when the Fletcher boys were still in school, Audrey Hibdon had come to the Fletchers’ house at the air ranch every Wednesday. Hibdon and Marjorie had often gone shopping together and driven to Mt. Helix to take Marjorie’s mother out to lunch. But after the youngest son left home, Ed and Marjorie drank more. Hibdon cleaned less often — twice a month. She had a key to the house because if the Fletchers went out of town, she took care of Ed’s Brittany spaniels, his hunting dogs.

“In the last 18 years,” Audrey Hibdon said, “there’ve been times when I felt...I’ve come home and told my husband, ‘You know, it’s possible I’d be an alcoholic too if I was in love with a man like that, and lived with a man like that.’ ” She saw that Marjorie had bruises and that there were more bruises as time went on. She also saw that Marjorie loved Ed and couldn’t imagine her life without him. When Hibdon had what she called a few loud squabbles with Ed, “real loud arguments,” and quit, Marjorie begged Hibdon to come back. Ed promised to stay out of her way, and Hibdon resumed work.

She had cleaned the Fletcher house on the previous Thursday, so on Tuesday morning, August 31, she was just coming to help Marjorie tidy up and make dinner for the guests. When she arrived at 8:00 a.m., she realized she’d forgotten her key. She had to ring the doorbell, and Ed answered the door. According to her courtroom testimony, he asked her where the heck her key was.

“He was so drunk he could hardly stand,” Hibdon told me, “and he had been into the village that morning at seven o’clock to pick up donuts for the bird breakfast the next morning, and they told me down there that he was so drunk they handed him the box and asked him to come back tomorrow and pay because they were trying to get him out of the business.”

While cleaning, she saw bottles of vodka, Beefeater’s gin, and Cutty Sark. She put them under the wet bar. She believed that the Fletchers had both been up all night drinking, but she cleaned the kitchen and vacuumed. She set the dining room table. Ed was watching television in the bedroom.

While Hibdon worked, Marjorie came into the kitchen and asked her to light a cigarette for her. Marjorie had been drinking, but she could walk. It was not like other days, when Marjorie made chicken-fried steak because it was Hibdon’s favorite, or read aloud from the journals she’d kept since she first met Ed.

“She used to read to me,” Hibdon said, “while I was, oh, scrubbing and polishing the kitchen, or whatever I was doing at the time, and she would read these journals to me, and they were just fantastic. You almost felt like you were there.” But on this morning, Hibdon put her arms around Marjorie’s waist and walked her back to bed. She decided it would be pointless to prepare food for a dinner party.

In the bedroom, in its usual place, was an antique shotgun that had belonged to Marjorie’s mother. Baby pictures of the three boys. In the walk-in closet that belonged to Ed, there was another shotgun. In the room called the office or the den, a room near the front door, more guns were stored in a walk-in closet. It was usually locked tight, but she had seen inside the closet once or twice, seen the rifles, shotguns, and boxes of ammunition. The living room was decorated with Marjorie’s framed family photographs and Ed’s stuffed animal heads — wild boar, deer, mountain sheep.

On her way out the door, Hibdon spoke to Ed, who was standing in the kitchen. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to serve dinner,” she said, “and so I won’t be back.” She suggested they go someplace else for dinner. She doesn’t remember his response.

Besides Eric, his wife, and the Fordems, there were two other dinner guests, Walter and Carrlene Harper. At nine o’clock the same morning, the Harpers met two friends at the Mission Bay Golf Course for their regular biweekly game.

Walter had graduated from La Jolla High School in 1946, had run his own sign company downtown, and then worked as an electrician until he retired. A former lifeguard who still looked seaworthy and benevolent, he rode his bike three times a week to the Mission Beach Plunge to do his regular workout. He’d been married for 39 years and 8 months to Carrlene, a retired medical school administrator with whom he had raised two children, Grant and Lisa. “They were more in love the day they died,” Lisa told San Diego magazine, “than the day they married.” While they golfed, Walter and Carrlene talked about their plans for the afternoon. Marjorie Fletcher had called the week before and invited them to be houseguests, as they had been the year before, and the year before that. Marjorie sounded, Carrlene thought, like she’d been drinking. The Harpers had been planning to spend the night at La Casa del Zorro, a resort near the air ranch, but Marjorie wouldn’t hear of it. “No, there’s no reason for you to do that,” she said. “We want you to stay here. We absolutely insist upon it.”

White balls on the fairway. Carts moving forward, stopping, and moving again. Carrlene explained that she had finally accepted the invitation because they were the only friends the Fletchers had left. The others stayed away because the Fletchers drank too much. The dove hunt was a tradition, they went every year, and they really were old friends (the Harper children had camped at Eagle’s Nest with the Fletcher children). Besides, the Harpers and the Fletchers had a pact: they would see each other only if the Fletchers were sober. If things got difficult, they could always go stay at La Casa del Zorro.

Instead of staying for lunch after the 18th hole, the Harpers went home. “If they were late getting to the Fletchers’,” a friend testified, “Ed would be angry.”

Twenty months earlier, in late December of 1991, a clinical psychologist named Judy and her boyfriend Briar were invited to spend New Year’s Eve at the Fletcher house. Judy had met Marjorie and Ed before, and she didn’t like them. She thought they drank too much and that Ed seemed antagonistic and unstable. She told Briar she didn’t want to go, but he felt sorry for them because they didn’t have any friends. Briar promised to cancel the plans, but when he called Ed to say they couldn’t come, Ed insisted. Briar and Judy agreed to spend the night.

When they arrived between five and six o’clock, the house was dark. There appeared to be no dinner. Only Ed was there to entertain them because Marjorie was “passed out in the bedroom.” Judy was extremely uncomfortable. Briar suggested that it probably wasn’t a good time for a visit, and maybe they should get together another time.

“No, you’re my house-guests,” Ed said. “You’re going to stay.”

Judy would testify that this was not a suggestion but a command. Ed invited Briar to put on his swimsuit and sit in the Jacuzzi, which he did. A little while later, when Ed went to the bedroom to wake up Marjorie, “to try to rouse Marge to join us,” Briar and Judy saw their chance to leave. They got into their truck, locked the doors, and drove away. When Ed came back to the living room, no one was there.

Eric Fletcher and his wife Beatrice had attended the dove hunt together three or four times. Eric hunted, and Beatrice read magazines, talked to the other women, played with the spaniels. They left their two children, who were eight and six at the time, at home not because the Fletchers were alcoholics but because Beatrice didn’t like them to be near guns. Prior to August of 1993, the Fletchers didn’t drink when Eric, Beatrice, and the grandchildren came to visit.

When Eric and Beatrice reached the house, it was late afternoon, and the Harpers had already arrived. Ed and Walter were standing in front of the carport, and by the way Ed said hello, Beatrice could tell he’d been drinking. “He seemed overly, overly kind and sweet and kind of sloppy,” she told the prosecutor, “kind of, ‘oh, I love you so much.’ ”

Beatrice went to the room she would have shared with Eric that night if everyone had just gone to the meeting, had dinner, said good night, and fallen asleep. She was unpacking when Carrlene Harper, happy to have company and to see Beatrice again, came in to say hello. She told Beatrice that Marjorie was passed out in her bedroom, that the food for dinner was sitting in the fridge unprepared, and that Ed was three sheets to the wind.

All this way, and no dinner. Eric and his wife had driven from El Cajon. The Harpers had driven from Pacific Beach. Not just that, but the humiliation to Eric, Beatrice said she knew it was very upsetting to him.

Sometime between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., the family situation, already tense, got worse. Eric’s brother Kent, the one who had robbed his parents in this very house two years earlier, came to the side door and pounded on it, asking for money.

On August 18, Kent had entered Grossmont Hospital “for mental problems possibly related to Methamphetamine use,” according to the county probation report. While there, Kent told the social worker he intended to kill his uncle, Lawrence Fletcher. He threatened a staff member with a claw hammer and was taken by hospital security to the county mental health facility. The next day, he climbed a patio wall and escaped. Because a doctor there considered him dangerous, an arrest warrant was requested on August 20. Three days later, Kent’s probation officer found him at home and ordered him to appear at the probation office that evening for a drug test. The request for a warrant was withdrawn because Kent kept that appointment.

Lawrence Fletcher was Ed Ill’s youngest brother — Kent’s uncle. He testified that he had assisted Kent in 1992 by giving him money and a place to live — a room in his vacant El Cajon warehouse. “It had a nice little room, a bathroom, a shower and all of the facilities,” he said. “So I moved a refrigerator in, hot plate, microwave oven, the necessities of life; gave him a key and told him he could reside there until he got himself back on his feet.” Lawrence also urged Kent to enter drug rehabilitation. When Kent returned from the drug treatment program, another uncle gave him some work, but he needed a car, so Lawrence found a broken-down $400 car and helped Kent fix it up on evenings and Saturdays.

Kent paid for the car whenever he could, but then he started, as Lawrence put it, to go downhill again. On two previous occasions, Kent had threatened Lawrence’s life. One afternoon near the end of August 1993, Kent came into the warehouse. He looked like he hadn’t been working. There was a “glaze” in his eye. Kent and his uncle argued, and then Kent started swinging. “It was all I could do to hold him off,” Lawrence testified, “even though he was in this — what I considered a drug state.”

Lawrence called to an employee, who pulled Kent away. Kent left the warehouse, but he began to call his uncle in the middle of the night. Kent threatened to kill him, so Lawrence made an application for a concealed weapons permit.

At midnight on August 24, Kent rang the doorbell at the Fletcher Hills house of his grandfather, Ed Jr. The housekeeper testified that Kent asked to come in the house and sleep, but she told him that was against his grandfather’s orders. Kent began to shout obscenities at her and then requested a blanket, so she awakened Ed Jr., who was then 93 years old, and the two of them took a blanket to the front door, shoving it through the partially opened door.

“And when we did that,” the housekeeper testified, “Kent stuck his foot in the door so we couldn’t close it and shook his fist at me and his grandfather and said, ‘You’re doomed, old man, and so is your son Larry.’ ”

Lawrence Fletcher requested a restraining order against Kent on August 27 and called his brother Ed III to tell him what had happened. Since staying away from his parents was a condition of Kent’s probation, the restraining order simply expanded the number of family members Kent was prohibited to see.

Three days later, the day before the Harpers and the Fletchers met for the dove hunt in Borrego Springs, Kent Fletcher failed to show up for his next appointment at the probation office, where his August 23 drug test had come back positive for amphetamine and cannabinoid use. On the afternoon of August 31, Kent drove out to the air ranch and knocked on his father’s door.

Neither Eric nor Ed opened it. Through the closed door, Kent asked for money to get back to San Diego, and Ed refused. Kent was angry, Eric testified, but he made no threats. Eric told his wife, who had heard loud voices from the opposite end of the house, that Kent had driven away, but his visit rattled her.

“It sounds kind of silly,” she testified. “I had gotten magazines, and I was going to sit down and lay down on the bed and read. And all of a sudden I just had — I don’t know, I just got nervous that I had the lights on in the house and all the blinds and the windows were wide open. I had kind of envisioned Kent sneaking back after he had been shooed away and was concerned that, since there were no houses down that way, if he were going to go hide his car anywhere, that would be back in that area. So I just had concerns and shut the drapes.” Her concerns, she explained, were based on threats of violence. In the past, Kent had threatened her and her family with bodily harm, and he had threatened to kill Eric.

Either before or after Kent’s visit (Eric testified that he couldn’t remember which it was), Eric and his father had an argument. This time, the subject was the meeting of the dove club. Ed was too drunk to go, Eric said. Eric told his father that he should stay home, that he and Beatrice would go to the meeting with the Harpers. Eric assumed that his father agreed, but when everyone else got ready to go, Ed got ready too. If Ed was going, Eric was staying home. It was too embarrassing to be with his father in public.

Ed Fletcher left for the meeting with the Harpers, and Eric looked around the house. He found a full bottle of gin and a nearly empty half-gallon of vodka beneath the kitchen sink. He poured them out and threw the empty bottles in the trash can by the door, where a police detective would notice them the next day.

“Did you expect to have a confrontation of some type with your father,” the prosecutor asked, “when he found out you had poured out the alcohol?”

“I really didn’t care if I had a little confrontation with my father about pouring out the alcohol or not,” Eric said.

While Beatrice and Eric were talking about packing up and going home, the phone rang. It was Dan Bridge, his father’s old friend and a childhood friend of Walter Harper. Dan Bridge was hosting the meeting of the dove-hunting club. Bridge said that Ed III was there at the meeting, and, yes, he’d been drinking, but he was behaving himself and Eric really should come, since Eric was, after all, the president. Eric and Beatrice locked the door behind them when they left for the meeting, which had already started when they arrived.

It wasn’t a very long meeting, less than an hour, but every action, every word, would reverberate. It was the last time anyone but Ed Fletcher III saw the Harpers alive. It was the last ordinary hour. Everything was already wrong—for Eric, Beatrice, Walter and Carrlene, even for Ed and Marjorie Fletcher — but jokes, admonitions, and plans were still possible. People, including Ed III, made light remarks (“Your son’s better looking than you are,” he told his cousin) that would be repeated under oath in the Vista County Courthouse, Department: B. Sixteen members of the Fletcher family belonged to this club. The six or so who came to the meeting — cousins and uncles — sat in a mobile home they would later be asked to describe for police officers and lawyers because it was the scene that would, to a great extent, determine the guilt and punishment of Ed III.

The predicament of his friends and relatives was at times painfully clear. When asked to affirm that Ed was “jovial” at the meeting, Ed III’s uncle Ferdinand said, “He was quite jovial, and he put his arm around me and sort of hugged me a little bit and — I’ve known him for all of his life.”

The testimony about that hour came down to this: Was Ed III, at the meeting of the dove club, a rational man? Did he stumble, slur, fall down, or weave? Did he understand what was said to him and respond logically? Did he get angry when people tried to curb his drinking? If he could give a lucid report about the club’s dove-feeding operation while his blood alcohol level was approaching .33, could he also premeditate to kill someone? Or was he, despite this lucid report, a man on medication for bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression, who had been drinking so much for so long that he was permanently brain-damaged, was literally “de-mented,” out of his mind? If he recognized every single person at the meeting in Dan Bridge’s mobile home, did he hallucinate an hour later in his own house and see not Walter and Carrlene when he pulled the trigger but his own dangerous son, whom he had armed himself against, and/or the good son, who had poured out his liquor?

Eric testified that his father was not doing anything crazy. He was acting, in Eric’s opinion, intoxicated, but he was sitting down and standing up, milling around and chatting like everyone else.

Eric and his father had a conversation at the makeshift bar, which was set up near the kitchen. Eric called it “the first confrontation.” Ed III was filling up an eight-ounce plastic glass with Popov vodka, which he had joked to someone else was evidence of a “chintzy operation.”

“And I told him that I didn’t think he needed any more,” Eric testified. “And he said, you know, ‘Leave me alone’ or ‘I’ll do what I want’ or whatever. And I told him he was embarrassing me and making an ass out of himself and he — you know,” Eric gestured with an elbow, “get out of my way.”

Beatrice sat with Carrlene in a room beside the living room, where they could see what was going on and still have a separate conversation. Beatrice testified that she tried to ignore Ed’s drinking completely because she knew that Eric was embarrassed by it. “Knowing how [Eric] would feel,” she said, “I just tried to pretend that it didn’t — wasn’t there, wasn’t going on.”

Beatrice told Carrlene about shutting the drapes so that Kent, if he was still at the air ranch, couldn’t see her. It was then that Carrlene made the joke that would become terrible.

Carrlene told Beatrice she had a feeling they would read in the newspapers the next day: “friends found shot at the Fletchers.” She wasn’t thinking of Ed III as a murderer, Beatrice testified. At that moment, they were both afraid of Kent.

Sometime in the same quarter hour, Carrlene gently chided Ed about his glass of vodka. “That’s not water you’re drinking, Ed,” Beatrice heard Carrlene say. “You don’t need to drink that.”

Ed grumbled in response, said, “Oh, to hell with you,” and walked away.

Ed kept drinking, and Eric failed, for the second time, to stop him. He told his wife, “We’re out of here. Let’s go.” The meeting was over, so the Harpers walked out of the house behind them. Eric and Beatrice went one direction, and the Harpers went the other.

Eric and Beatrice reached the air ranch first and realized they had no key to get in the house. It was about five minutes to seven, and the moon had just started to rise. Paul and Pat Fordem were pulling into the driveway for the dinner party that was supposed to start at seven o’clock. They introduced themselves to Eric and Beatrice, who told them that the dinner was canceled because Mrs. Fletcher wasn’t in any condition to host a party, and Ed III, who was on his way home, had been drinking heavily. The sun was still above the horizon, so everyone’s lace (humiliated, apologetic, sympathetic, or polite) was visible. The Fordems drove up Fletcher Road to the mailboxes, retrieved a neighbor’s mail, and went home to make sandwiches. Eric and Beatrice walked to the watering hole to have a look at the birds. Beatrice was relieved to take a walk because she was afraid Kent might be in the house.

The Harpers’ car began to approach the house, but at that moment, Beatrice testified, Eric “wasn’t real excited about being right with his dad.” They waited a few minutes more. Then they started walking home, and when they were 40 yards away, they heard the first shot. Beatrice crouched down on the ground and heard a woman’s voice say, “Oh, my God.”

“Was this a shriek?” the prosecutor asked. “More a yell or a shriek?”

“It was a shriek,” Beatrice said.

Eric testified that he then told Beatrice to run to a hangar on the south side of Stinson Road. She began to run, and when she looked back, she saw Eric crouching and running toward his father’s house. Beatrice hid for 20 minutes while Eric watched his father pace with the gun, waited for a safe moment to enter the house, and discovered the bodies on the kitchen floor.

“Oh my God,” he said to Beatrice when he found her. “My dad shot the Harpers.”

Then they ran again, knocking at two neighboring houses before they decided to try the Fordems. They had just spoken to the Fordems, Beatrice reasoned, so they were sure to be home. The Fordems let them in, and when Paul Fordem heard what had happened, he called 911. “We don’t know exactly all the details,” Fordem told the dispatcher, “but the man’s been drinking heavily and he is armed. And we believe that he has shot at least two people.”

The bodies of Walter and Carrlene Harper would be taken from Borrego Springs to Kearny Mesa in sealed pouches. During the examination, coroner Harry Bonnell would find a shotgun entry wound in the middle of Walter’s upper chest. He would find gunpowder residue around the wound in a pattern called tattooing or stippling. The skin was charred by the flame that came out of the muzzle of the gun. There were four irregular, jagged exit wounds on the left side of his spine.

“When we removed the shirt,” he testified, “two pellets fell out, and we also recovered four pellets from still inside the body, in the back.”

These pellets struck Walter Harper’s sternum, his ribs, and the left side of his spine. The gun was close enough to Walter’s chest to shoot corklike wadding and bits of plastic through the skin. The pellets destroyed part of his trachea and his esophagus. They perforated his aorta, three major blood vessels, and his lung. They fractured his front and back ribs.

The force of the blast itself, Bonnell testified, probably knocked Walter Harper to the floor. “In my opinion, he would be rendered unconscious near immediately. Certainly within 10 to 15 seconds because there would be a total lack of blood supply going to the brain following this injury. And since all' the blood being pumped by his heart is going to his chest and not to the rest of his body, in my opinion he would be dead within three to four minutes.”

The pellets entered Carrlene Harper’s body through the upper portion of her right arm and her right chest, fracturing bone in her fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh ribs, perforating two of the three lobes of her right lung, and fracturing her spine. They cut her aorta in half and perforated the other lung before making seven irregular, jagged exit wounds that covered an area three inches long and three inches wide.

She was conscious, Bonnell estimated, between 15 and 30 seconds longer than her husband, and while she was conscious, she bled into her chest and lungs. She would not have been able to scream “Oh, my God” after the blast because “if she exhaled, the air would be forced out all of the shotgun pellet holes in her lungs into her chest and out into the air around the chest. And similarly, when she — if she inhaled, she would have what is referred to as a sucking chest wound. In other words, when you inhale, you create negative pressure in your chest, and these holes in the chest would cause the air to rush in there and collapse her lungs down. So, in my opinion, she would not be able to vocalize much of anything above maybe a small whisper with this kind of injury to her lungs.”

Deputy Sheriff James McKenna was on call that night when he was informed there had been a shooting at the Fletcher residence. He already knew Ed Fletcher III because he and other deputies had investigated previous complaints at the Borrego Air Ranch, including “random firing from his residence, near and toward adjacent residences; threats of bodily injury to past neighbors; and most recently his arrest for assaulting a Pacific Bell telephone employee with a firearm.” While en route, McKenna summoned the San Diego swat team and deputies from Borrego Springs, Ranchita, and Julian. He told the Borrego Springs fire department, which was already at the entrance of the air ranch, not to approach the Fletcher house.

Eric and Paul Fordem met McKenna at the entrance of the air ranch, and Eric told McKenna that he had seen “both the Harpers, shot, lying on the floor, dead.” McKenna asked how he knew they were dead, not just wounded, and Eric said he knew by their “stares.”

By now, it was around eight o’clock. McKenna told Eric to return to Paul Fordem’s house and wait there with Beatrice. It was the blue-black end of twilight, and white things glowed in the rising moon. From the intersection of Fletcher Road and Borrego Springs Road, where the white iron sign arcs over the desert, McKenna called the Fletcher house on his cellular phone. McKenna wanted to keep Ed occupied while two officers took their positions outside the house. Both Marjorie and Ed answered the phone, and McKenna asked Ed to come outside, but when McKenna and his sergeant reached the west side of the house, the driveway was empty. McKenna called again and said he’d meet Ed outside.

“Maybe I don’t want to do that,” Ed said.

McKenna said they needed to talk about what happened.

“Yeah, I guess we should,” Ed said.

They agreed to meet outside by a parked van. It was now dark, except for moonlight. McKenna moved on foot to the west wall of the carport because “he could peer directly into the kitchen door.” If Ed complied and went to the van, McKenna would have a tactical advantage.

An interior light came on. The door opened, and Ed peeked out. Then he slowly closed the door again.

“Ed!” McKenna shouted.

Ed opened the door again, an exterior floodlight came on, and Ed closed the door.

McKenna shouted, “Ed! It’s McKenna!”

It was then that Ed stepped out of the house. Lit by the floodlight, he was wearing beige pants with a thin dark belt. He was barefoot. He was not wearing a shirt. (A criminologist would later testify that Fletcher’s white shirt was spotted with human blood of the same type as Walter Harper. She also found a bloodstain on the tip of Fletcher’s right shoe.) McKenna wrote in the police report that he could see a lit cigarette in Ed’s left hand. As if remembering his destination at last, Ed walked toward the van, and as he moved, McKenna saw that he was unarmed. Still, McKenna walked “gingerly” toward him, and from ten feet away, “called softly to him, ‘Ed. It’s McKenna.’ ” McKenna continued to walk, saying, “You aren’t packing, are you.”

With that, McKenna took Ed’s right hand. Another deputy approached with handcuffs and took the same arm. When Ed was told to drop the cigarette, he took a last drag and threw it down. He was handcuffed, and after McKenna summoned a caged patrol unit, Ed looked at him and said, “I guess I’m in trouble, huh?”

iii. Consequence

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.From this time forth I never will speak word.

(Iago in Othello, V, ii)

The criminal trial of Edward Fletcher III began more than a year later, on November 22,1994. Members of the Fletcher family did not attend except to testify. They stayed away, Ed III’s brother Lawrence said, out of respect for the Harpers and because they were ashamed.

A civil suit was pending at the same time. In the early part of the year, Lisa Harper Henderson and Grant Harper, the two adult children of Walter and Carrlene, had filed a $20 million wrongful death case against Ed III and Marjorie, charging that the Harpers were “enticed” to the home and that Marjorie had been negligent in failing to warn them about her husband’s violent temper. Ed Fletcher III maintained that he did not remember the shootings. He said that he blacked out after leaving the hunting club and didn’t recall anything between the drive home and his arrest.

According to defense witness Mark Kalish, a psychiatrist, Ed Fletcher III suffered from manic-depression, lithium-induced hypothyroidism, and dementia. Dr. Kalish testified that the illness was probably genetic. He felt that Ed was paranoid and delusional and that he wasn’t smart enough to fake mental illness during written and oral examinations. The high amount of alcohol in Fletcher’s system that night had probably aggravated his tendencies “like pouring alcohol on a raw hand.” Kalish said that Ed tended, while examined in his jail cell, to “perseverate” or obsess about a single, insignificant detail even after the conversation had moved on. It was, Kalish said, like a hiccup in the brain. Two other psychiatrists also found Ed Fletcher III to be clinically demented.

Mark J. Mills, a witness for the prosecution who is both a psychiatrist and a Harvard Law School graduate, testified that Fletcher did not suffer from dementia or, in all likelihood, from manic-depression. He found the timing of the blackout “highly coincidental.” Dr. Mills explained that delirium generally lasts longer than an hour — the period of time when Ed Fletcher III had no memory — and at the meeting of the hunt club, he was clearly not delirious. Dr. Mills further disagreed with Kalish about Fletcher’s capacity to distort the results of his exams. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist,” he testified, “to lie.”

In all, 36 witnesses testified in a trial that lasted 18 days. On December 16,1994, the jury that had promised, in the poetic language of the court, to “well and truly try the cause now pending. . .and a true verdict render,” found Edward Fletcher III guilty on two counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances. When the defense lawyer requested that the degree of offense be lessened to second-degree murder because there was insufficient evidence to prove that Fletcher “premeditated and deliberated a willful killing of the Harpers,” Judge David Moon gave his own conclusions about what happened that night.

Experts in the physical effects of alcohol consumption had persuaded Judge Moon that a person with Ed Fletcher Ill’s tolerance for alcohol could function at a blood-alcohol level so high that most people would be passed out or comatose. He could, therefore, formulate an intent to kill. The intent to kill, the judge reasoned, was manifested by the fact that Ed Fletcher III had ignored the two shotguns in the kitchen that were designed for killing doves and had walked to the bedroom to retrieve a shotgun that could kill geese flying several hundred yards away.

“Premeditation,” Judge Moon said, “may take place in a very short period of time. Here the evidence tends to show that, when Mr. Fletcher walked into his own home, he probably saw ’ the empty liquor bottles that were on top of this trash can at the entrance, and that probably set him off. The object of his anger immediately would have been Eric.” A rational person, Moon reasoned, would have suspected that Eric, not the Harpers, poured out the liquor. Eric had been alone in the house, and the Harpers had not.

Although Moon conceded that no one would ever know exactly what happened in that house, he (and the jury) could infer from the evidence that Ed probably expressed his anger at Eric, and the Harpers responded by announcing their departure. Carrlene Harper picked up the green telephone book that would be found at her feet by the police. “Now, that, I’m sure, set off Mr. Fletcher again.” But now he was angry at the Harpers, not his son. (Ed’s brother Lawrence also felt that the departure of the Harpers could have been a final blow — that something in him already weakened by alcohol and lithium snapped when his two remaining friends decided to go elsewhere.)

In the judge’s reasoning, Ed left the kitchen, where there were already two unloaded, less dangerous weapons, his own and Eric’s. He didn’t choose either of these lesser guns, nor did he go to the dining room, where there was another locked gun case full of weapons. He went down a long hall to his bedroom, retrieved an extremely powerful, loaded gun, pointed it at Walter Harper, and fired. He racked the gun, aimed at Carrlene, and fired again.

The difference between first- and second-degree murder, the judge explained, is whether there was “an opportunity for the slayer to weigh and evaluate the consequences of his action.”

“Let’s take a look at what happened directly after the shooting,” he said. “Mr. Fletcher did not do something along these lines: ‘My God, what have I done?’ or, ‘I can’t believe that I just shot my best friends.’ ” He didn’t kneel on the kitchen floor and try to help them.

Instead, he “stalked around the house.” His son Eric, standing outside the house, heard his father say, “Where is that son of a bitch?” Although Eric thought at the time that his father was talking about Kent, he later felt that his father was looking for him, and the judge agreed that the evidence made this clear. “He was now angry,” the judge said, “still angry at Eric, who just poured out his booze.” The judge concluded that, given the opportunity, Ed Fletcher III probably would have shot his own son.

The motion to reduce the sentence was thus respectfully denied Before the sentencing, Judge Moon turned to Ed Fletcher III and asked, “Mr. Fletcher, this is your case. Do you wish to say anything on your behalf before I pronounce sentence?”

“No,” Fletcher said.

Edward Fletcher III was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of life without parole in the Corcoran State Prison, about 50 miles south of Fresno.

On February 10,1995, the judge in the civil case against the Fletchers ruled that Marjorie was not liable for the deaths of Walter and Carrlene Harper because she could not have foreseen that her husband would shoot them. “The fact that he was unpleasant when drunk or that he had threatened intruders or hunted animals is not sufficient to make homicide foreseeable. Mrs. Fletcher had no duty to warn or protect the Harpers under these circumstances.” Grant Harper and Lisa Harper Henderson appealed the judgment.

On May 23, 1995, their lawyer informed the judge that Grant and Lisa had agreed to settle the case against Edward Fletcher III. “However,” the lawyer wrote, “the Harpers’ appeal of the summary judgment entered in favor of Marjorie Fletcher shall be preserved.”

Marjorie Fletcher was living alone in Borrego Springs, where she received correspondence from lawyers and worried about money. “She was so far in debt that she talked about being a street lady,” Audrey Hibdon said.

Although Hibdon, a native of San Diego with relatives in Fletcher Hills, knew that the Fletcher name meant land and money, she didn’t see that kind of wealth in Ed and Marjorie’s hands. Marjorie’s parents had also been wealthy, but because they didn’t like Ed — “they saw the abuse over the years,” she said—and because Ed and Marjorie “drank up their money,” Marjorie’s mother arranged her estate so that all Marjorie received directly was the rent from her mother’s house on Mt. Helix. “Everything else,” she said, “was put into trust [ for the three grandchildren]. And she would never, ever see it.”

It was Marjorie’s decision to remain in the house where the shootings had occurred. “Right after the murders, her son Eric took her to San Diego, and they put her into a recovery program, and after three days there, she was calling Eric day in and day out, several times a day, and telling him she wanted to come home, because none of us, nobody thought that she should be down here. They had called in a crew and cleaned up the house so that no one in the family, or I, when I went back, would have to see anything bad, but no one thought she needed to be there alone, but that’s where she wanted to be, and finally Eric gave in, and his wife went and picked up Marge and brought her back to the desert, and this is where she stayed. She would drive into town and buy—finally there weren’t any businesses in town that would sell alcohol to her. Because she — it just got really bad.”

During the year before the trial, Hibdon had driven Marjorie to the county jail once a week to visit her husband. “When he finally went to trial and was convicted and transferred,” she said, “then she just didn’t — there was no more desire to do anything. She didn’t even want to leave the house.”

By this time, her husband and Kent were in prison. Her third son, who had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic before the murders, was in a locked board-and-care facility. Eric, “the good son,” lived on the other side of the county. One night at 11 o’clock, Marjorie fell while getting out of her car. She crawled into the house and pulled the phone off the nightstand to call Hibdon, who drove to the house. “I picked her up off of the floor and put her back on the bed — she was in screaming pain, and I said, ‘Marjorie, let me call the doctor!’ ” She said, “No, no, no, no, I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine, but you better come back early in the morning and feed the dogs.”

Hibdon didn’t want to leave, and later regretted it, but she did. The next morning, she went out to feed the dogs and found that Marjorie hadn’t moved. She called the fire department and Marjorie was taken to Brawley Hospital, where she was found to have a broken hip. When she was released, Hibdon went to get her, and Marjorie came home. “She walked with a walker from then on.”

Hibdon helped find homes for the three spaniels. “She would call and beg me to bring her some wine because vodka was making her violently ill. And I’d say, ‘No, Marge, I can’t do that. I just can’t do that. I won’t buy alcohol.’ But Hibdon believes that Marjorie drank more and ate less. As May ended and the hot month of June began, “she would call me every single morning at seven o’clock and she would say, ‘Oh, nobody’s coming, and I haven’t been doing much, and you don’t need to come today,’ and that’s how it was the last ten days of her life. And so she probably didn’t have a bite to eat, and just nothing. She just laid there and died.”

On that June morning, Audrey Hibdon received a call from Marjorie’s cousins, who had come down to take Marjorie out to lunch. Marjorie’s car was there, but no one answered the phone, and no one answered the door.

Hibdon said that she’d talked to Marjorie the day before at seven o’clock in the morning, the usual time. “To this day,” Hibdon said, “after all this time when my phone rings at seven in the morning, the first thing that pops into my head is, ‘Marge is calling.’ ”

“Well, let me tell you where the spare key is,” Hibdon told them, “and you can just go on in and see if she’s all right, or would you rather I came out and did that?”

The cousins said they would much rather have the sheriff do that. An hour later, the sheriff called Audrey Hibdon to say that Marjorie was dead.

When the funeral was held a week later, Hibdon did not attend. “No one in that family,” she said, “ever called me to find out how she was, no one in that family ever called her, no one ever came to see her. When bird season opened a year to the day after the murders, all these men were in the desert for opening bird season, and not one stopped at that house to see how Marjorie was. So for me to go to the funeral... I probably would have made a spectacle of myself because I had no desire to see anyone in that family, or show my respect for anyone in that family, because I didn’t have any, and I don’t to this day. To me, she was a black sheep that they wanted to forget about, and did.”

Present at the funeral were friends from Marjorie’s early days at San Diego State, members of the Fletcher family, and Lisa Harper Henderson.

Two years after her death, the civil case against Marjorie Fletcher was still pending through an appeal. Each year, the UCSD alumni association awards the Carrlene Harper Memorial Scholarship to a fourth-year medical student who has gone above and beyond duty in his or her personal efforts to help others. In a color photograph taken beside a rippled lake, Carrlene Harper shields her eyes from the sun. In a photograph taken at Lisa Harper’s wedding, Walter dances with his daughter. He’s slim and dignified, about to waltz right out of view. He’s wearing a tuxedo and a pink flower. He’s as close to the camera as he was to the gun. It’s impossible to imagine firing it. It’s much easier to imagine the rage falling away, the gun lowered, Ed saying, “No, I must have lost my mind for a minute,” and then telling people, years later, that from that moment on, he never drank again. “Another one of the experiences of life,” as his grandfather would say, “where everything comes out all right.” In a letter to a former neighbor and acquaintance, Ed Fletcher III described his life in prison. “I got the flavor like he was kind of on a trip, and sightseeing, and was trying to paint a picture of his experiences—like, he had a job working on the outside, picking up trash, and that gave him an opportunity to breathe and be outside — and then he went on to say that he had shared a cell with another ‘lifer,’ and they got along fine, and he was soon going to get a CD player with earphones so he wouldn’t bother anybody.” Ed III explained that he was sending letters to all his friends to see who would write back, but he expressed no remorse, the neighbor said, “not one tone.”

Laura McNeal

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