the story of casey cohen and the woman he loved
This is always a difficult day for me. On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2000, Casey Cohen left this earth. Casey was a highly respected private investigator often said to have been the foremost authority on the death penalty phase and the first PI to make it his expertise in the early 1980s. The BBC Everyman series did a documentary about him. (At the end is a Los Angeles Times article about him)
He worked on some of the most notorious murder cases, such as those of Christian Brando, Marlon Brando’s son, and Jeremy Stromeyer, the boy who took the little girl into the bathroom in a Reno, Nevada casino and killed her. Leslie Abramson, best known for defending the Menendez brothers, was a good friend and he often worked for her. The Stromeyer case was his last case, with Abramson. He told me he did it because I had given him a reason to live a little bit longer. (At the end of this piece there are articles related to these cases)
I was introduced to Casey sometime in 1996 by Sister Janet Harris, who was then Catholic Chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall, Los Angeles. At that time I was president of InsideOUT Writers, ( Sparks in the Darkness – Los Angeles Times (latimes.com) ) a creative writing program for incarcerated youth I had co-founded with Janet. Like Casey, she was someone I also loved and trusted but unlike him, she proved to have a twisted heart and mind beneath her humble, caring exterior.
Still, I will forever be grateful she introduced me to Casey. Everything else was worth it. He became my dearest friend and my mentor. We fell in love, yes, I can say it. We did.
Tragically, the day we met, I found out he was dying of cancer. From that first moment, our connection was intense. It was as if we had always known one another. And yet, we still had to make up for so much lost time. We did our best to push away the tragedy hanging over our heads. He told me the stories of his life and I wrote them down. He was married, a fascinating story in itself. He cared very much for his wife and her two children. We never had a physical relationship.
Shortly before his death he sent me copies of a series of mysterious letters written to California Death Row inmate Maureen “Mikki” McDermott. He made me promise to visit her and write about the letters. In fact, he even asked me to draw a picture for her, inspired by one of the letters, which I did, and he sent it to her. I’ve copied it here, along with an excerpt from one of the fantastical letters.
Casey believed Mikki was innocent for the horrible murder she’d been convicted of orchestrating. Somehow he felt responsible for letting her down. Couldn’t he have done a better job, presented the evidence he gathered for her lawyer in a more convincing manner? Almost ten years after Casey’s death I was finally able to fulfill my promise and I visited Mikki twice. I cannot say I was as convinced as he was of her innocence. Truth can be so complicated.
Of one thing I am sure. Casey searched for truth more than any person I have ever known and really wanted to know it. Because most people talk about wanting truth but they really want lies or at the most, half-truths. Casey was passionately against the death penalty. He was an honorable man and a man of his word. Rare traits.
I was on a plane returning from Senegal when he died. I didn’t attend the funeral. I had never been to his home. Many times we’d talked about how things might have been if we’d met earlier in life and how badly our timing had been off. We tried to make jokes out of everything. But there was one time, in the parking near “attorney to the stars” office, Charlie English, where he took me in his arms and said, “If only we’d met years ago we would have children.” Tears were in our eyes, but we wiped them quickly.
Through the letters to Mikki, we stayed connected long after Casey’s death, as if his spirit was still here, leading me onto the the next step in solving the puzzle. Those steps took me many places, from visiting Mikki on death row to exploring the streets of Istanbul. It all culminated in a book. I’ve put the first chapter here.
LETTERS FROM PURGATORY
I will walk a thousand leagues in falsehood, that one step of the journey may be true. ~Junyad
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they going, where are they going
The flash of hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles,
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
It was another bloody night in Los Angeles. On April 29, 1985, Michael Eldridge, age 37, was stabbed 44 times in the Van Nuys home he co-owned with Maureen “Miki” McDermott. Eldridge’s penis was cut off post-mortem and was not found at the crime scene. Jimmy Luna, a former orderly at County-USC Medical Center was arrested three months later for the murder. Luna implicated McDermott, a nurse that he knew from the hospital, as the mastermind, claiming that it was her idea to cut off the penis because she believed the police would be less likely to investigate a murder that appeared to be homosexually motivated. McDermott was arrested not long after Luna. The police determined that the real motive for the crime was the $100,000 life insurance policy that McDermott and Eldridge had purchased in each other’s names. According to Luna, McDermott had promised him half of it.
Prosecutor Katherine Mader had formerly defended Angelo Buono, one of the Hillside Stranglers. In that case, she had fawned over Buono and treated him like a misguided little boy, a tactic used to humanize him for the jury. Now, the opposite strategy was applied, McDermott being likened to “a Nazi working in the crematorium by day and listening to Mozart by night,” a “mutation of a human being,” a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a “traitor,” a person who “stalked people like animals,” and someone who had “resigned from the human race.”
Defense attorney Ingber did not assemble much of a defense and the jury found the prosecution’s case to be far more credible. On April 3, 1990 after three days of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty for McDermott and she was sentenced to death. In exchange for his testimony, Luna received life in prison.
During the habeas appeal McDermott’s new attorney, Verna Wefald, argued that there was no evidence directly linking her defendant to the crime other than the words of a psychopathic killer who got immunity from the death penalty for testifying against her. It was also argued that Ingber had been incompetent and that Mader had committed misconduct by describing McDermott in ways that dehumanized her. Justice Kennard rejected the arguments, in particular pointing out that the analogies were appropriate since it is possible for a person to show “a refined sensitivity in some activities while demonstrating barbaric cruelty in others.”
On August 13, 2002, the Supreme Court rejected the habeas appeal. McDermott became the first woman to have her death sentence upheld since the death penalty was re-instituted in California in 1976.
For Mader, the trial of Maureen McDermott was a great victory in an already impressive career. She went on to become a Superior Court Judge. Luna languishes in prison while McDermott still awaits her death. By all accounts, justice has been served. Those who deserved punishment received it and those who deserved rewards moved on to greater things.
For Casey Cohen, the private investigator who worked with Verna Wefald on Miki’s appeal, the case was one that haunted him until his death in 2000. He, more than anyone I ever met, had a passion for truth, searched for it so obsessively that he it became the driving force of his life.
Truth, he would tell me, was as illusive and impossible to find as a fairytale ending.