The Sixties Blog
Why I Won't Watch Clint Eastwood Movies

Increasingly I fear homo sapiens translates into intelligent apes. How else can you explain the importance we attach to hair—good hair, bad hair, no hair? Imagining a spiritual significance to hair requires believing humankind was created in an image of a God who shampoos and waxes.

Never failing to conjure this thought is the $300-coiffured noggin of my brother-in-law, Gary Peace. Despite pushing 70, Gary remains a woman chaser, something his net worth has enabled my materialistic sister to cope with as a real housewife of Orange County. I’m convinced that Gary’s sex drive comes less from his use of a testosterone supplements and Viagra than it does from the fantasy that he is making love looking into a mirror.

Needless to say, my brother-in-law and I are not simpatico. But as relatives do, we present simpatico faces to our children, siblings, cousins and other relatives. To this end, Gary likes to indulge in the fiction that we both began our careers as reporters. The problem with this is that Gary was a “personality” for a Sacramento television station while I was a journalist for a daily newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s true, as Gary likes to insinuate, that my newspaper was in a backwater Bay Area berg. But what my job lacked in pay and prestige it made up for in knowing that newspapers are a print medium that appeals to the intellect while TV news is a visual medium that appeals to mindless emotions. Such sniping, however, is fallout from a falling out between Gary and I that began with a big bang.

At the time, I had worked as a reporter about three months and was assigned, as male cub reporters usually were, to the “cops” beat. On a Sunday spring night, Abigale Sweet, the seven-year-old daughter of the town’s Methodist minister, was kidnapped from her bedroom window. The story created a Bay Area media frenzy. A press conference held by our police chief Tuesday morning attracted reporters from every television station in the Bay Area, as well as reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Also present was I, a former soldier, English major, cab driver, printing press operator and current reporter for the Antioch Post-Dispatch.

In the days following the press conference, nothing was new, not even a ransom note.  I spent my time interviewing people even remotely related to the incident until that Friday, when my city editor ordered me to write at least 12 column inches on some development in the investigation. A local cops reporter worth keeping should be able to eke something out of local cops, my editor told me. Adding to the pressure—and something I did not mention to my editor—were my plans to spend the weekend as the best man at the wedding of my younger brother 100 miles away in Sacramento.

That afternoon I pressed+cajoled+begged police lieutenant Marv Thorpe for something to report. Thorpe finally said: “We haven’t much faith this will lead anywhere, but we’re looking to question a man seen walking in the neighborhood that day.” Thorpe said witnesses could only describe the man as being of average build, in his twenties, blondish with a thin mustache, and wearing a blue ski jacket and Oakland A’s baseball cap, “But he’s not a suspect!” Thorpe stressed. “Just someone wanted for questioning.”

I remember my lead: “A man seen walking in the neighborhood the day of the Abigale Sweet kidnapping is wanted by Antioch police for questioning.” I then interwove the man’s description with a rehash of the case to produce a 14-inch story. My city editor was satisfied. As for me, I left for Sacramento having jumped from the frying pan only to wonder whether I would land in the fire. 

As an Antioch newspaper reporter assigned to a big story in Antioch, my duty was to report breaking news the day it broke no matter what day that might be, including Christmas. And never did duty call more than now because, as far as anyone could remember, Antioch had never had a big story. To do my duty, I would need to periodically visit Antioch’s police headquarters throughout the entire weekend. I could, I suppose, have relied on TV to alert me to breaking news, but that would need to be soon enough for me to report my own story by that day's deadline. But no matter. TV could not help me in Sacramento.

This was the early 1980’s when urbanites and suburbanites still relied on the airwaves for television reception. Northern California had two broadcast markets—San Francisco/Oakland and Sacramento/Stockton—whose signals did not overlap. Cable television existed only in rural communities forced to pay for TV because they were outside any broadcast market’s range. The same broadcast range limitations applied more or less to radio stations. The result was that Sacramento TV and radio stations did not report local Bay Area news, and vice versa. Although San Francisco newspapers were available in Sacramento, to read about the Sweet case in any newspaper would mean I had been scooped.

That weekend, I checked the Saturday and Sunday editions of both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner and was relieved each time to find nothing about the Sweet kidnapping. At the wedding reception Sunday afternoon, I related my week to Gary, who not surprisingly knew nothing about the Sweet kidnapping nor appeared very interested once he did. Detectives are civil servants who don’t work on weekends, he assured me.  “No need to sweat it. . . Well, unless, of course, the kidnapper strikes again.”

Returning to Antioch early Monday morning, I nervously tuned into San Francisco’s KNBR once we reached the Coastal Range. Immediately I heard: “Coming up next, a major development in the Sweet kidnapping case!”  My heart sunk. Whatever KNBR was about to report at 7 a.m. had to have occurred yesterday. My career was over. By the time the advertising break ended, my wife and I had decided to move back to Sacramento.

The KNBR newscaster then reported the very story I had submitted to my editor on Friday. I would learn that my newspaper had opted to hold my article for its Sunday front page. Bay Area TV news jumped on my story Sunday afternoon. On Monday, the same story was reported on the front pages of all Bay Area newspapers. The Contra Costa Times even gave it a banner headline.

I was fashioning myself as Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men” until that afternoon when Lieutenant Thorpe greeted me as if I were Karl Kolchak in “The Nightstalker.” “You!” never is a good beginning to a conversation. Thorpe told me the department’s switchboard had been overwhelmed since Sunday with calls from people who had sighted the man wanted for questioning. Calls had come from as far south as Visalia, as far east as Lake Tahoe, and as far north as the Oregon border. Most were from people in “the sticks,” sticks really meaning sticks when spoken by an Antioch resident.

Thank you cable television.

Tuesday and Wednesday, I checked police reports at the police station without daring to talk to Thorpe. But as I was leaving Wednesday, I was told Thorpe wanted to see me.

His fingers thumped his desk. He said: “You’re from Sacramento, aren’t you?” I replied yes. He said: “Ever hear of a TV reporter named Gary Peace?” I lied no. (Lying to a detective in a police station, I recall, is not good for your cardio-vascular health.) Thorpe said: “Last night this Gary Peace reported that a man from Rio Linda tried to abduct a 16-year-old girl from her bedroom window in Granite Bay. Any thoughts—other than the coincidence of the bedroom window?”

I replied that Granite Bay was a posh community east of Sacramento adjacent to Folsom Lake. Rio Linda was north of Sacramento and synonymous with knuckle-dragging losers thanks to a local radio talk show on KFBK. (The show’s host, Rush Limbaugh, would later say that his ratings were tanking when a caller proceeded to trash Rio Linda as a shithole. This led to a spate of calls from Rio Linda bashers that continued day after day causing Limbaugh’s ratings to shoot up.)  

 “How do we know the man was from Rio Linda?” I asked.

Thorpe snorted a laugh. “The girl said she screamed, ‘Where are you taking me?’ and the man said, ‘To Rio Linda!’”

I probably did a doubletake hearing that because I did one now recalling it.

Thorpe said the girl told police that she had gone to sleep early with a cold and was being abducted from her bed just as her parents returned home earlier than expected at 8 p.m.  As her father burst into her dark bedroom, the intruder fled through the window and disappeared into the night. The intruder was too quick for the father to see him clearly, but the girl’s description and the intruder’s modus operandi matched that of the “Bay Area Kidnapper.” Or so Gary Peace told the parents, police and his TV audience after arriving on the scene with a camera crew. No, Thorpe said, Gary did not come by the kidnapper’s description from Bay Area news reports. He came by it from a “confidential source close to the investigation.”

Thorpe leaned forward and said, “Was that confidential source you?”

Clearly Thorpe suspected Gary and I were connected and, as police detectives do, planned to probe me repeatedly until I admitted we were. The answer I gave may have been stupid, but at the time it was definitely true: “Lieutenant, how could I be a confidential source? I print everything I know!” One thing I discovered about police is that they accept stupidity to be honest.

Thorpe said Gary and the girl had met that morning and collaborated with an artist retained by Gary’s TV station to sketch the “Nocal Kidnapper.” The sketch was introduced by Gary in a report on the noon news. Law enforcement was livid, beginning with the fact that the public believed the sketch came from law enforcement. A few minutes ago, a runner delivered a copy of the sketch to Thorpe, who now slid it across his desk to me. Beneath an Oakland A’s cap was a gaunt middle-aged man’s face.

I said: “The good news is, there aren’t many people who look exactly like Boris Karloff.”

Thorpe’s eyes bulged. “Tell that to our switchboard!”

Thank you again cable television.

Two months later, the FBI located Abigale Sweet living in Waynesboro, Tennessee with her widowed maternal grandmother, who had recruited a team of kidnappers from her dozen or so sons. The matriarch would testify that after losing her only begotten daughter to a Methodist, she resolved not to lose her only granddaughter as well. The trial turned into a Baptist vs. Methodist melee that in San Francisco’s federal court caused many a head to be scratched.

Abigale Sweet’s discovery was not reported by any news media in the Sacramento/Stockton market. At the time, Gary Peace was on vacation in San Francisco playing a reporter as an extra in a Clint Eastwood movie. Gary claims he was recruited by a producer who was wowed by his TV presence. Probably Gary appeared in one of the Dirty Harry movies, although I’m not certain which nor ever will be, having made it a rule never to watch Clint Eastwood movies.

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Email Randy Bechtel at rbechtel@rkbechtel.com