Killing somebody to get something that you want. It’s not an experience we hope to ever fully understand by way of first-hand knowledge. We tell our kids most people are good and that killing is an aberration. Meanwhile, the average child has watched 8,000 murders on television by the time they finish elementary school.
Santa Monica is unaccustomed to murder, and while that’s not something the Chamber of Commerce can readily exploit, the fact of it colors everyone’s perception of our town. That’s why there was a chilly gray cloud over our city for several days back in 2006 when septuagenarians Helen Golay and Olga Rutterschmidt were arrested for allegedly murdering homeless men to collect life insurance payments on policies the women had purchased for the men.
Prosecutors in the case said the women took the homeless men in off the street, gave them a bed and food for two years… and then ran over them with their car to collect money. The women apparently knew about a loophole in California law that prevented insurance companies from challenging policies that had been in place for more than two years. Last week both women were sentenced to life in prison without parole. It would’ve made an awesome Johnny Cash song.
The cloud I mention rolled in because Golay was a Santa Monica resident who owned apartment buildings in Ocean Park. People here knew her and had related to her as their landlady. Barry Cowan, an Olympic High teacher and visual artist, rented in a Golay property. “When I first saw there was some ‘insurance fraud’ story, I didn’t pay much attention. A few days later, there were pictures and my jaw just dropped…” says Cowan. He also recalls a neighbor, a “sweet old guy,” that Cowan believes might have been in line for the Golay/Rutterschmidt turnover. He remembers nothing especially murderous about Golay, except that the last few years she had been rather “testy.”
I hope there’s no sexism in saying the Golay/Rutterschmidt killings were creepy for having been done by women and by two women working as an organized team. It recalled for me the icky discomfort engendered by the pairing of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Not because older women were involved, although that did add flavor, but because ingrained in both the movies and the murders was this gray texture of life as something easily traded for some crumpled dollar bills inside a vortex of mental disorientation. In other words, not “Mamma Mia!”
When someone dies unexpectedly, there is that shock that comes from realizing a life is gone, forever… a life that we mostly thought of as always being there. Hearing about murder provokes a different set of reactions. The realization that someone can take away life itself as they might steal a material object from another person disturbs us in a deeper and more profound way. Although not always.
Simply by using the title of the book the new HBO series Generation Kill is based on, the writers and producers of the show–depicting accounts by an embedded reporter in Iraq–are telling us they won’t be sugar-coating the events we’ll see represented. Executive producer David Simon, in talking to Charlie Rose about the series last week, stated categorically that innocent Iraq civilians are killed by American forces in Iraq during the course of operations there. We know Iraqis are dying from U.S. taxpayer-provided bullets and bombs. And while you can haggle about direct lines of responsibility and “insurgent” versus “terrorist” versus “enemy,” it’s a little difficult to simply set aside a number that falls somewhere between 86 and 93 thousand Iraqi civilians dead since 2003. (Source: The Iraq Body Count project)
What hits home in the Golay/Rutterschmidt murders is the cold-blooded calculation that money, in this case nearly $3 million, trumps human life. But what calculus have we been using in Iraq since 2003? Yes, we were manipulated. But we were manipulated with an argument, albeit false, that blended an appetite for 9/11 revenge with… well, you tell me. Was it some sense that the collateral damage was tolerable, a thought possibly gestated in the same part of the human brain/soul linkage that for others might assert that homeless men won’t be missed?
Even the White House has started talking about bringing troops home: Yes, we’re going to get out. But we can never jettison from our beings the shadow of what we’ve done so far and what we wrought by going in. Golay and Rutterschmidt have what’s left of their lives to ponder the transaction they found so appealing: Killing somebody to get what you want. We’ll be burdened in other ways, but it’s possible that the net weight pressing down on us may be about the same.