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Jan/Feb 2020 Fiction

Le Freak

by Ken O'Steen

Borrowed image


In the aftermath of being witness to a gruesome killing, my anger failed me. What I did to preserve my wits, odd as it sounds, was immerse myself in the seventh decade of the previous century.

The first step was turning away from the news, and especially political news. This was drastic, since attention to the flow of current events had been essential to me since my teens. But everybody got away with everything, and no longer would I submit to hearing about it.

My newfound sensitivity had to do with the undecided fate of Marjorie Bolling and Robert Jewel, the couple who owned the pit bulls who had uniformly elicited fear long before they slaughtered Amanda in the hall of our apartment building. They'd snarled at most of the neighbors, eyed us with what seemed like ravenous appetite, or at least menace. Their owners appeared to relish it. Whether they especially enjoyed frightening Clara and Amanda, the women who lived in the apartment next to me, because the women were a romantic couple was difficult to know, since the owners and their dogs were awful to everyone.

Marjorie Bolling was short and slightly stout, her long, limp hair a mix of yellow and brown. She owned a sallow, sagging face and a generally saturnine disposition, though it rapidly escalated to defiance in confrontations. Jewel was a tall, thick, imposing man with graying blonde hair and a bristly mustache. His demeanor without exception was gruff, imperious, and occasionally smirking.

People retain a surprising variety of attitudes when it comes to dogs: some adore them, others regard them as barking bags of nuisance, some fear them, and some lend them a status even higher than the average human's, perhaps deserved. But after the attack on Amanda, there was a reflexive defense of dogs all across Los Angeles, along with dismay the murdering dogs were put to sleep. Harassed pedestrians, harried joggers, the outright fearful, and the inconvenienced were pitted against exuberant dog lovers, anti-euthanasia agitators, and owners of every breed of hound. I'd grown up with dogs and liked them, but that was beside the point.

I was fretful Bolling and Jewel might escape consequences. During one of my sessions with police, who had interviewed several of us who lived in the building more than once, the officer asked, "Did you ever consider trying to make friends with the dogs? Petting them for instance?"

"I preferred to keep my limbs attached to my body," I said, which she didn't appreciate. Her question seemed to take little account of the fact that only a matter of days before I'd witnessed the death of a human being.

My immersion in the 1970s as a means of tuning out the present, and diverting myself from the images in my head of what I'd seen, was inadvertent rather than considered. My longtime profession was rendering, the final step in the computerized process of creating digitized effects in film and television. Involuntary sabbaticals between jobs were standard in the entertainment business, and I happened to be in the midst of one. And thus, I waded into the 70s through the movies, and later music. Blessedly, one could enter an altogether different decade through the portals of Netflix and Amazon. All the President's Men, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Last Tango in Paris, Mean Streets, Annie Hall, and Chinatown were where I took residence.

Surrounding myself with this peculiar decade through reading and 70s television, the old Dick Cavett shows being especially instructive, I decided there was much to recommend it as an alternative to the present day. By its midpoint the nation had rid itself of the curse of Richard Nixon, and though he hadn't necessarily got his just desserts, he'd been sent off with a stamp of shame that would define him forever in history. A great cloud was lifted from the people's psyche, and a sense of relief pervaded the land. The wondrous era of the anti-climax arrived. Sexual adventurousness flourished. Stigmas collapsed, inhibitions fell, old taboos and prejudices were less formidable.

Still the world of the present was allowed to penetrate when it came to news of the investigation. Surprising revelations began to pop. The dogs' married couple owners Marjorie Bolling and Richard Jewel were lawyers as it turned out. They'd been keeping the pit bulls for a convict client by the name of Richard Fogleman, incarcerated at Pelican Bay. Along with his cellmate he ran the prison gang Aryan Brotherhood, and weirdly, after Amanda's death, Bolling and Jewel legally adopted him. The convicts also ran a business breeding and training dogs for guarding meth labs from their prison cell. A search of the cell discovered a letter Robert Jewel had written to Fogleman in which he bragged about the pit bulls causing a "mousy little blonde," a reference to Amanda, "to almost have a coronary."

Marjorie Bolling was the one holding the dogs on their leashes the day they lurched out of control and ravaged Amanda in front of her apartment door and mine. She told a newspaper reporter in an interview that she had instructed Amanda to "lie still" while she was being assaulted, adding, "The woman would still be alive if she had."

She suggested to another reporter that Amanda might have been wearing "pheromone-bearing perfume" that could have "triggered" the dogs. And in another blame-the-lesbian undertone, she raised the possibility Amanda was using steroids, which had possibly "aroused" the dogs.

Marjorie even appeared on television and was asked by an interviewer, "Do you think you bear any responsibility at all for this attack?"

"Responsibility? No, not at all."

The interviewer responded, "Why not? You owned the dogs. You knew they had been reported multiple times to authorities for being threatening. You couldn't stop the dogs from attacking Amanda Sipple."

"I wouldn't say it was an attack. Ms. Sipple had ample opportunity to move into her apartment. She could have just slammed the door shut. I would have."

Minutes after my ingestion of this sickening interview, the music of Chic was rolling out of my headphones. Disco I discovered was an alluring narcotic. An informed review of 70s music might elevate The Clash and Little Feat and Marvin Gaye and Patti Smith as the highlights of the era, but it was disco that oiled the decade's bacchanalia. The smooth honey of Donna Summer and The Tramps and the Bee Gees was irresistible, but it was Chic who were the sine quo non of 70s disco experience. "Dance, Dance, Dance" and "Good Times" filled my ears in my apartment, and out my car windows blared "Le Freak."

The day the District Attorney's Office called and asked me to testify in front of a grand jury, I was enormously heartened. During my appearance I described all I had witnessed in great detail, unpleasant as it was to do. Several days later the grand jury handed down indictments. Marjorie Bolling and Robert Jewel both were charged with involuntary manslaughter, and Bolling with second-degree murder. I was expected to testify at the coming trial, the only person who had witnessed the attack at close range.

One thing I couldn't do was relate much about the person at the center of the case, Amanda Sipple. She and Clara had lived in the apartment only several months. I did know from chatting with Amanda that she was a Women's Lacrosse coach at Loyola Marymount. I knew she was originally from Long Island, though I didn't know until I read it in the paper that she was raised mostly by her grandparents.

She wasn't "mousy," as Jewel had so stupidly described her, but gentle and quietly intelligent. During our brief and inadvertent conversations outside our apartment doors or at the mailboxes, we talked about the things neighbors normally do, which in LA meant parking, rain, and movies. Living in apartments had taught me to treasure the finest of neighbors when fortunate enough to have them, and Amanda and Clara were the finest of neighbors.

A few days before the trial was set to begin, I was perusing in one of my favorite thrift stores and couldn't help but notice that clothing from my newly adopted decade still was readily available. Not surprising, since no one wanted to wear it except as costumes. But I bought a few of the items anyhow, the clothes not nearly so anachronistic after weeks of vicariously inhabiting the period. Having broken up months before with my girlfriend of several years, Dahlia, the night I ventured out to the neighborhood watering hole in a shirt with collars the size of airplane wings, there was no one home to block the door and prevent me from fashion self harm. Perhaps those who knew me identified the shirt as a symptom of recent trauma, but I couldn't know.

I only attended the trial on the day I testified. Otherwise I followed it in the news same as anybody with an interest in it. The room in the courthouse had the feel not so much of an august chamber meting out justice, but as the main hall of a Moose Lodge or Masonic Temple. I was not especially awed or even especially sober-minded when I took my place.

The defense lawyer who cross-examined me was a middle-aged man lacking in physical distinction, gray and corporate, in no way at all robust. It was a demeanor that belied the pointedness of his questioning. He would ask me a question, take his glasses off, and then glare at me skeptically from behind the podium as I gave my answer.

"Did you know that one of the dogs, Bane, had been ill?" he asked.

"No. They appeared healthy."

"Do you own a dog?"

"No."

"I see."

He appeared suspicious of my grand jury testimony that one of the dogs had lunged at me in the elevator, saved from harm only by Jewel yanking back the dog with the leash.

"By lunge, are you implying the dog charged you?"

"I don't know. He lunged. He was on a leash."

"That would be my point. The dog was on a leash, so he couldn't actually charge you. Mr. Jewel always had the dog under control."

"I don't know about charge, but the dog moved in my direction aggressively, so I described it to the grand jury as lunging. It certainly seemed like he was going to bite me, but he was pulled back in the nick of time."

"It seemed like he was going to bite you because of an opinion you had formed about the dogs already, and the breed of dogs. Though Bane was on a leash, and fully under control, and for all you knew simply wanted to show affection, or allow you to pet him."

"I'm not an expert on dog expressions, but this one didn't look friendly."

"That's right, you aren't a dog expert. And neither are you a dog owner. Did the dogs ever appear to you to be friendly?"

""Not really. I saw one of them nip at a neighbor's buttocks in front of the building once. I also saw the dogs snarling at people at the mailboxes more than once. It seemed reasonable to regard them as unfriendly."

"So the dogs were never friendly. They were without exception unfriendly."

"I'm just telling you how they looked to me."

"I believe we understand," he said.

At one point he asked, "What was your relationship with Ms. Bolling and Mr. Jewel prior to the attack on Ms. Sipple?"

"There was no relationship."

"Did you ever speak to them, or try to engage with them in conversation?"

"No. The big, scary dogs didn't make them very approachable."

"Did you say anything to Mr. Jewel the day you say one of the dogs lunged at you in the elevator? Did you speak with either Mr. Jewel or Ms. Bolling on other occasions when you say the dogs acted in a way you regarded as aggressive?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"There didn't seem to be a point."

"No? You obviously had an opinion about how you thought the dogs were behaving. You never took the trouble to express it?"

"Like I said, I didn't see the point. Both Mr. Jewel and Ms. Bolling seemed to enjoy the dogs terrifying people. They seemed to like the bullying. I got the feeling they thought it was making a statement of some kind."

"What kind of statement?"

"A cultural or political statement, a disdain for the types of people living in the building and the people in Los Angles generally. "

"What type? Liberal?"

"Basically."

"So even though you regarded the dogs' behavior as problematic, you didn't bother to speak with Mr. Jewel or Ms. Bolling because you believed they had different politics."

"Because the whole point seemed to be the power they had over you when the giant dogs were with them. If you complained about it, that would only prove you were the snowflake they thought you were, making it all the more enjoyable for them."

"So again, your response to the dogs had to do with how you perceived the owners' politics."

"My response to them reflected how I believed they perceived my politics."

"And what were their politics?"

"I didn't know anything about their politics."

"But you know about them now. Or you think you do, correct?"

"I've read what everybody else has read about the prisoner they were helping out who runs the Aryan Brotherhood."

"So your opinions of Mr. Jewel and Ms. Bolling are based on what you've read in the press."

"I assume it's reasonable to infer something from their friendship with white supremacists raising fighting dogs for meth labs."

"Were you aware that Ms. Bolling is Jewish?"

"I think I read it."

There had been much in the press about how Marjorie responded when the attack was underway, how hard she may or may not have attempted to stop it. At one point, near the end, she'd gone into her apartment with one of the dogs and stayed there for several minutes, while the other dog bounced around the hall in a frenzy still.

"You were intermittently observing through the peephole in your door, is that correct?"

"Except when I left to call 9-1-1. There were several times I couldn't keep looking at what was happening because it was so distressing, and I paced inside of my living room before I went back."

"You didn't feel this was serious enough to observe continuously?"

"I said it was too distressing. Theoretically, as a future witness, it would have been better I guess to keep watching every second of Amanda getting torn to pieces. But I reacted how I reacted in the moment."

I knew he wanted to get the point across that if Marjorie hadn't responded as some believed she ought to have, it was because the situation may not have looked as serious as it actually was. He also thought it worth seeing if I would save myself from the possibility of being perceived a coward by capitulating to his point.

No heroic impulses?"

"No."

"How about Good Samaritan impulses?" he asked.

"The 9-1-1 operator advised me to stay inside until the police arrived. She said it was too dangerous attempting to intervene, which was obvious to me. I think it would have been obvious to you too if you had faced the same dilemma."

"Did you believe Amanda's life was in danger?"

"Yes."

"So your intervention could have saved her life?"

"I looked around my living room in a panic for something to use against the dogs. But nothing looked like it would be of any use. Like I said, I was freaked out, not thinking with a great deal of deliberation."

"But you did see Marjorie Bolling in the hallway trying to intervene, is that correct?"

"I saw her in the hallway at certain points, but other times I didn't see her."

"But she was at least attempting to save Amanda?"

"She was yelling at the dogs, but I don't know about attempting to save Amanda. They were her dogs. If she couldn't get them under control, who could?"

"So you don't know if your intervention might have saved Amanda or not, because you didn't try."

"Okay."

When the prosecutors questioned me, I knew from the preparations what they wanted from me: basically a detailed account of what I'd seen. I dreaded it much more than any verbal badminton with a defense attorney.

"The defense counsel seemed to suggest you ought to have interjected yourself into the middle of an extremely dangerous situation. Did you know that the two dogs' combined weighed was 233 pounds?"

"No, but they were big."

"How much do you weigh yourself?"

"175."

"Were you aware that when animal control officers arrived, they had great difficulty subduing the dogs?"

"I knew the dogs were still out there making a lot of noise."

"Did you know that three tranquilizer darts used by animal control on one of the dogs had no effect at all?"

"No. But they were really worked up."

"If you want my opinion, you exercised the best possible judgment and good common sense not trying to intervene unarmed in a violent dog attack."

"Thank you."

"Can you tell us what first alerted you that something was happening in the hall?"

"Commotion, noise, and then screaming. I was on my computer."

"What did you hear more specifically that caused you to finally go to the door?"

"A woman yelling for help. I thought someone was being raped or assaulted. I heard dogs barking, but I didn't know they were doing the attacking until I got to the door."

"What did you see?"

"I saw a woman lying on the floor and the dogs tearing at her like something you see on National Geographic when animals are killing a prey."

"Did you know the woman on the floor was Amanda Sipple?"

"Not immediately."

"What did you do then?"

"I got my phone from where I left it at the computer and called 9-1-1."

"What did you see when you went back to the peephole?"

"Just..." Here I had to pause and make certain I was under control. "The woman on the floor was completely covered in blood. There was blood all over the floor, blood on the walls, and bloody handprints. The woman's clothes were almost completely ripped off. The dogs were still biting her and tearing at her."

"What did you do then?"

"I left the peephole and walked in circles in my living room. I didn't know what to do. I thought I heard Amanda saying, 'Please stop, please stop,' like a person begging for mercy."

"Did you know that Amanda was bitten by the dogs 77 times?"

"No," I said somberly.

"What happened next?"

"It went completely silent."

"What did you see?"

"The dogs standing over Amanda, and clothes and blood and groceries all over the hall."

"Did you know that Amanda's neck was attacked so fiercely, she was nearly decapitated?"

"No," I answered faintly.

In the days following my testimony, and for the rest of the trial, I remained at home. I watched Robert Altman's 3 Women and the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which wasn't the best choice given its ending. I watched An Unmarried Woman, New York, New York, Dog Day Afternoon, American Graffiti, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There were times I sat on the terrace drinking vodka, listening to Supertramp and Parliament Funkadelic.

When the verdicts were announced, Jewel and Bolling were both found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and Bolling of second-degree murder.

As for my dalliance with a former decade, never was I under the impression the second half of the 1970s, even for all its anti-climatic release, was days of heaven by any means. Even if it did feel as though less had been lost then—good faith still hanging around, and the darkness not so terribly daunting.

It took a couple of weeks before I slowly began to follow contemporaneous events again. A nominee to the Supreme Court was credibly accused of rape, then successfully confirmed to the court. A mass shooting in Las Vegas killed 58, and another in Parkland Florida killed twelve. Immigrant children seeking asylum at the border were being separated from their parents and kept in cages. Good Times.

 

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