Tuesday, August 29, 2017

No Names Changed to Protect the Innocent

We’ve all seen TV programs like Law and Order or the various entries in the CSI franchise.
In each episode’s first few moments, before the commercial break (when hucksters try to interest us in fast cars or clean floors or sweet-scented underarms), a heinous crime is committed. The victim—often a lovely young woman who’s gone somewhere she shouldn’t—is set upon by a mysterious someone. She is brutally attacked, but the key details are withheld from us. Uh oh!

After the car or the floor or the armpits are suitably promoted, we’re back with serious-faced cops and crime lab folks, all of them trying to figure out whodunit. There are strong potential leads that come to nothing, because alert professionals are checking out DNA samples as well as suspicious-sounding alibis. Just before the program’s end, the real killer—someone whom we’ve previously dismissed as harmless--is unmasked, with much fanfare. Case closed.

Such shows are as old as television, dating back to Dragnet in the Fifties and Sixties. (I’ve discovered that the original “Just the facts, Ma’am” show started on radio in 1949. Dragnet’s creator and star, Jack Webb, moved it to TV in 1951. It stuck around for eight years, then was revived in 1967 with Webb—in his familiar Sgt. Friday role—now handling cases that involved such updated topics as race riots and LSD. Dragnet and its four-note opening theme (dum da DUM dum) eventually became so widely known that the show was parodied twenty years later on an educational math program for kids, Math Net (1987-92), featuring Sgt. Monday and her sidekick George Frankly solving crimes with the aid of their trusty calculators. But I digress.

On Dragnet, Jack Webb and company wrapped up their sleuthing in 30 minutes. More recent police procedurals tend to last an hour. I think we all enjoy such shows both because they’re cleverly plotted and because we like their take on the world we live in. Yes, on these programs bad things happen to good people. But, in the end, the bad guy (or gal) is caught, and brought to justice. That’s the American way.

I wish it were always so in real life. This weekend’s Los Angeles Times had on its front page an item that shook me to my core. It included a photo of a pretty young brunette named Wendy Halison. I never knew her well, but we were high school classmates. She was honored in a class poll as having the best figure among graduating seniors. In 1968 I was horrified to read that her body had been found in the trunk of her car, not far from where she’d just purchased a hairdryer on sale at a local drug store. She’d been raped and strangled.   

The early news accounts cast suspicion on a former boyfriend. I stopped paying attention after that, not really aware that Wendy’s file remained open. Both her parents went to their deaths never knowing who’d killed their daughter.  Some thirty years later, with the rise of DNA testing, the four original suspects were officially ruled out. The killer’s identity remained a mystery until 2016, when some dedicated cold-case investigators conclusively linked Wendy’s death to a drifter who died in prison, after being linked to the strangulation of several attractive, dark-eyed young women in the Midwest. 

After 48 years, Wendy’s surviving sister now has some answers. But it’s too late for another pretty young woman who died in Burbank in 1969. Though the circumstances of her death strongly resembled Wendy’s, her file has long since been lost. No DNA evidence survives.

Wendy Halison, may you rest in peace. 

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