Twenty years after its original publication, Deanne Stillman’s California cult classic, TWENTYNINE PALMS, is more relevant than ever and has just been optioned. A look back at an epic true tale of murder, Marines and the Mojave, plus a Q&A between the author and AFLW cofounder Michele Raphael about the book in our cultural landscape.
Prologue: Prelude to a Kill
The concern here is the Mojave Desert, the dry, baptismal font of national consciousness, mythological birthplace of America. It takes a big, white-hearted desert to fuel the pursuit of happiness, vast stretches of emptiness to suggest that the world can be possessed like an oyster, extreme tableaux of beauty to obliterate all memory of bad news. “Have a nice day!” the Mojave Desert tells the crossing parade—the Donner Party, the seekers of buried treasure, the cowboys, the ranchers, the people who rush for Hollywood gold—“Good luck! Think positive!”
Called the Mojave Desert after the Indians who once lived there, this blank, sunny slate bears a name that has defied the plundering of linguists, the meaning of the original term, hamakhaav, long ago swept away by the Santa Ana winds, that strange atmospheric condition born in the desert which raises the skin on all living creatures and is said to warn of earthquakes. But the mysterious name fits; the unknowable is unnameable, too. The Mojave was here before California, Nevada, and Arizona planted their flags in it, and it will be here tomorrow. Not that it’s keeping track of time—history doesn’t matter out here; it’s space that counts, space that drives the country, space that suggests the possibility of declaring bankruptcy and starting over somewhere else, space that maintains the illusion of hitting the jackpot on some get-rich-quick scheme, space that whispers, make bombs and bring down the government all by yourself. In a weird bakery of the impossible, a vast scape of tortured beauty where all things are equal and do what is necessary to survive, personal demons aren’t demons at all, but just some other creatures who need a drink.
Senseless violence, the world calls it, but the Mojave knows otherwise. The Mojave knows, has always known, that the violence is not senseless, the disturbing acts that unfold on its sandy stage in fact make perfect sense. For that is the very nature of the place, to convey meaning, to show events in living color on a giant screen in bas-relief, to make it seem as if everything is happening for the first time, even if for some, it is the last, or simply the latest in an endless spiral of repetitive, nowhere acts. And this is the nature of the people who come here. They are starting over in the oven of American Zen, refracting into new souls with each infinitesimal turn of the earth, cranking up the Van Halen as the sun becomes the moon, being right here, right now, this is it, but Officer, last chance for new ID.
But the concern is not really with all of the Mojave, just a part of it—one aspect of is character—its very heart. This is the town called Twentynine Palms, which is found at an elevation of four thousand feet at a longitude of 34 degrees 08 minutes 09 seconds North and latitude of 116 degrees 03 minutes 15 seconds West, one hundred and eighty miles east of Los Angeles, a short distance but a long way. Its stage props are the tortured rocks and freak-show plants of its progenitor, but it is a heightened version of the Mojave; from it the Mojave might have been cloned. It sits on top of seven known fault lines and perhaps countless undetected cracks in the earth. The bottomless fissures crisscross and zigzag for hundreds of miles in every direction, creating the most volatile web of geography in the American West, a region geologists call the Eastern California Shear Zone. To the north and east runs the Emerson Fault, epicenter of the 4.5 Emerson Quake in 1975. To the west run the Galway Lake Fault Zone and the Pinto Mountain Fault, site of nonstop temblors ranging from one-pointers, which are imperceptible to all but the most highly attuned desert creatures, to jolting slip-and-fall three- and four-pointers, which make for a noisy response among cactus wrens and mourning doves and send jackrabbits skittering across the sands and collapse the fragile nests of the desert tortoise and snap its freshly laid eggs in two. To the south and east run the Cleghorn Lake Fault and Homestead Valley Fault; these two cracks in the earth met fiercely tens of thousands of years ago, and they have continued to collide with each other so violently and so frequently that they have shaken and thrust upward the Coxscomb Mountains—a peculiar range outside of town that always looks bruised. In 1992 the intersection of the Cleghorn Lake and Homestead Valley faults ruptured in a quake of 7.2 magnitude, epicentered near Twentynine Palms in the town of Landers. As the ground in the Eastern California Shear Zone fell away, the Coxscombs lurched skyward—some say the ancient peaks gained two inches in the blink of a raven’s eye. The Landers Quake echoed across the West, at the beach in Santa Monica where the palm trees swayed in response to the distant ground shivers, in Las Vegas where the casinos blacked out for a moment, hinting that there might be such a thing as time, in Montana where a truck driver drove off a two-lane, and in New Mexico where nervous desert dwellers in white helmets checked and double-checked missile silos that seemed relics of a distant global configuration.
In Twentynine Palms, some residents were so alarmed by the force of the quake that they did not sleep inside—under a roof—for days. Was the Mojave Desert beginning to eject its latest squatters, reclaim itself? Perhaps so—in one way or another, every so often, perhaps when it tires of its own stillness, it likes to scare people away, to writhe in pain and shake uncontrollably in delight, to stir things up, to make people think—otherwise how can its treasures be callipered, appreciated?
And then there are the times when the Mojave Desert gets serious, wants more than fear and awe, demands a blood sacrifice. The personal-rights party has gone too far. Things must happen. Often, a girl is involved. Often, some boys. Generally, a knife. And then there is the military. In this case, the few, the proud… the Marines. The blood must flow, attention must be paid: the desert says, “Don’t tread on me, I’m where the party started and one of these days, I might just shut the whole thing down.”
At the top of a hill, Debie McMaster stopped her beat-up Chevy pickup, rolled down the window, surveyed the land, and burst into tears. She had been on the way to Twentynine Palms for years, generations it seemed, and now she was home. The year was 1984. She and her three kids and Corky, the ten-week-old family pit bull, had been on the road for days, running on empty, a scratchy old tape of George Strait, and a prayer. She was anxious, skinny, down to her last pair of jeans and her only pair of shoes—her trademark red cowboy boots—relieved and scared all at once. The family had been driving slowly south from the Tehachapi Mountains, taking the 5 to the 99, putting distance between yesterday and today, hooking up with the 15 outside of Barstow, then heading west, finally turning south again on a hilly two-lane called Old Woman Road, pointing the compass for what the grapevine said was the land of redemption. After years of abuse of every kind, years of involvement with the Hell’s Angels, at thirty-one, Debie McMaster was finished and starting over in the desert. “Here, Mom, have a cigarette,” said Mandi, Debie’s eight-year-old second daughter. The little girl handed the puppy off to her younger brother Jason so she could reach the glove compartment, fumbled through some papers and matches, and retrieved a half-smoked butt. “Thanks, baby,” Debie said, still weeping. She punched in the lighter and lit up, took a nice, long drag, and sighed the deep, sweet sigh of resignation as once again, she surveyed their future. There was nothing here, the slate was blank: home at last.
The population of Twentynine Palms, including the local Marine base, is twenty thousand. Visitors—a mix of well-to-do Los Angeles grunge, Eurotrash, rock climbers, rock bands, members of the Hollywood ruling class—come here for its extreme beauty, a landscape that looks like the place where life began, a big and bottomless cipher filled with white sand, startling forms of cactus, and frogs that manifest after a desert rain. Visitors often stay at a fashionable inn just outside of town, and know little of the lives of the people who clean the rooms, weed the gardens, wash the dishes. Once, a long time ago, such laborers were referred to as lower class. Nowadays the invocation is no longer made—according to surveys and pollsters and all manner of national mood barometers, everyone is flush, everyone feels pretty good; nowadays the people who inhabit the world of minimum wage and below no longer have a name. But sooner or later, they share the same address; sooner or later they make their way to Twentynine Palms.
Except for certain geologic spectacles, Twentynine Palms is the last stop on Highway 62, which runs west from Interstate 10 (old Route 66, starting at the Pacific Ocean) to the Colorado River on the California-Arizona-Nevada border. Here, you can turn left for Laughlin, Nevada—Las Vegas with jetskis and low-level celebrity shows, or right for Kingman, Arizona—Timothy McVeigh territory, outlying chamber of the vast white heart of the Mojave Desert. The one-way in, one-way out blacktop connects the beery, trashed-out, and beautiful hamlets that mirror L.A. just as Munchkinland foretold of the Emerald City. Out in the desert, the mundane takes on mythological proportions; there’s so much space that everything looks more like itself, and there’s no need to dress anything up. Out here, a 7-Eleven sells life, not just snacks, water, and lottery tickets. Out here, last names don’t matter; old friends know each other by first name only, or desert affiliation (Water District Judy), or habit (“He’s into Jagermeister”; “She likes to rap with the Samoans”; ”He collects cigarette lighters”). Out here, manners are beside the point; the weapon of choice is the knife, purveyor of the direct and immediate message. This is the shadow side of Twentynine Palms, the side that its many visitors do not see; it is a side that lives and flourishes like cowbirds on the castings of the local Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. MCAGCC at Twentynine Palms—“makax” in native parlance—is the biggest Marine base in the world, accounting for half of the town’s population. It occupies a wide-ranging site of 932 square miles north of Highway 62; here is warehoused a vast supply of live artillery, a cache of destructive, man-made energy that matches but can never outdo the seismic vibrations emanating from the fragile sands below.
The approach to Twentynine Palms is a long Mojave parade route of fraternal lodges, cheap motels, and cross streets with names that beckon—North Star and Lupine and Ocotillo—and front yards with pit bulls that tell you to forget about it. Within its range, the radio station fades from Christian advice shows to the raw and basic words of other evangelicals with beards, primarily ZZ Top. Behind the distant calls of songbirds and ravens on endless garbage runs, the music of the Mojave is 1970s all the way—Foreigner, Ozzy, Bad Company—the stuff that sounds best on big, old speakers in desert taverns where people get their mail, cash their paychecks, and suck with great purpose on the last of their generic cigarettes. As the altitude hits about three-thousand feet, there is an ever-so-slight change of atmosphere: the trail markers on Highway 62 speak no longer of gluttony (SCAMPI, SCAMPI, SCAMPI—what else but Vegas over the horizon, ever trolling for suckers), but of sin and redemption—24-HOUR BAIL/CALL DAY OR NITE and then, the edge of Twentynine Palms, a sign announcing, VIRGIN MARY SPEAKS TO AMERICA/DIAL 1-800-882-Mary.
On beery afternoons in taverns, it’s not unusual for a patron or two to claim lineage to Wild Bill Hickok or the Clanton brothers or Jesse James. The stories have the ring of truth, for the tellers are generally not boasting but full of shame, tweaked by a blood legacy of hard-core killers, as if they are related to ghosts, as if they—the flesh and muscle and bone of American mythology—know the real meaning of things. Yes, here live and here have died and here will continue to come the progeny of gunslingers and outlaws and boozers and brawlers who built this country, who once raged across the land, whose blood has quenched and quenched again the desert sands. Their history haunts them, stalks them, makes them edgy even as it makes America get up in the morning and whistle a happy, hollow tune. They are drawn to this elevation, this town of Twentynine Palms, where their eyes can fix on nothing but space, space and believe-it-or-not plants, and they can calm themselves, and try to start all over again.
Excerpted from Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave (Angel City Press) with permission from the author
Q&A Between Deanne Stillman and Michele Raphael
Michele Raphael: It’s the 20th anniversary of Twentynine Palms this year. Some critics consider it a California cult classic. What drew you to pursue this investigative journey and what were some risks you encountered? What made it worth it for you?
Deanne Stillman: I have a lifelong love of the desert, and it began even before I visited one in person. As I wrote in the piece that AFLW published, “Ohio Girl,” it started with the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “Eldorado,” which my father read to me when I was a little girl. It conjured a terrain of wide open space and cactus and mesas and red rocks, and I started living inside it. It was an escape and a place of wonder; northeastern Ohio where I was born and grew up wasn’t right for me, I realized very early on, and I knew that one day I would be heading West. It wasn’t just the poem; my mother was an accomplished equestrian who taught me how to ride, and after my parents got divorced she became one of the first women in the country to ride professionally on the racetrack as an “exercise boy.” Being around horses fueled my wanderlust and when it was time to go to college, I got out of Dodge-and ultimately headed to Dodge.
By that I mean the Mojave and the deserts of the Southwest-different in character but of course all enchanting and offering treasure which is not buried at all. At some point the Joshua tree became a personal totem, and it was after hiking in Joshua Tree National Park one day that I headed into a bar for a drink and heard locals talking about two girls who had been “sliced up by a Marine.” I asked who they were and the reply was “just some trash in town.” That description really disturbed me. It was ugly on its face, but I knew something about the kids in Twentynine Palms where the murders happened and that description was just not the story. But what was it? I had to find out, and from then on, and for the next 10 years, I wandered the sands, talking with all manner of desert folk, and came to learn about the lives of Mandi Scott and Rosalie Ortega-and their diverse circle of friends. In fact their circle, comprised of whites, Latinas, Samoans, Filipinas, Blacks, was at that time-just after the Gulf War in the early 90s-the kind of social arrangement that liberals urge but rarely happened in their own enclaves.
Over time, I learned that Mandi and Rosie were both carrying a legacy of poverty and violence that went back for decades, in one case to the Donner Party and the other to a shack in the Philippines. Their families shared what a lot of American families share-a desire to start over in California. So this is one of the things that I explore in my book, which is to say, the promise and failure of this dream, and how the desert has shaped and driven it. Also, notice that I name the girls here. That too was one of my reasons for writing Twentynine Palms. I wanted to give them names. Early on in the story, I realized that having been killed by a Marine after the Gulf War, Mandi and Rosie were collateral damage; they had sent Marines off to war, taken care of their kids while they were away, welcomed them home, partied with them and ultimately were killed by one. But they were much more than collateral damage; they were patriots who died in service to their country.
Working on this book was both a joy and a difficult thing to do. During the course of my journey, I met some of the most amazing people-war veterans, active service members, bikers, bartenders, Crips, Bloods, people who can only live in the desert for a range of reasons. Yes, some of these people were dangerous, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that most people feel that no one listens to them-and they’re right. I like to listen and I like to have conversations. Plus I like classic rock and heavy metal, which is what’s on the jukebox in most desert bars. So hanging out was OK by me.
But I did encounter a range of obstacles. The killer’s lawyer subpoenaed my notes during his trial. This resulted in a two-month long court battle, with Los Angeles Magazine, where I was a contributing editor and first wrote about this, leaning on me to turn over my notes. I refused, and called the head of Cap Cities Media, which owned the magazine at the time, threatening to “alert the media” if they did not hire a lawyer for me. Really, it was kind of an empty threat; I always wanted to use the phrase “alert the media,” and it actually worked. They did hire a lawyer, and I won my First Amendment case. Although actually I did alert the media; I contacted the Los Angeles Times media reporter, Bill Boyarsky, who wrote about the case.
Plus, there was the fact that this story was so fraught. At times, I was so overwhelmed emotionally that I had to step away, sometimes for months at a time. Once I thought about stepping away entirely, but the desert literally came and got me while I was at the Rose Cafe in Venice one day after a Dodger game. A car screeched to a halt right in front me, an old muscle car blasting heavy metal, and a woman flew out of the passenger door, screaming “My babies. My babies.” I went to her aid as the guy in the car took off and found out the rest of the story. Here’s my account.
I’ll also note that in some quarters of Twentynine Palms, there was resistance to my work. In a town that depends on the USMC and tourism for a living, some did not want me to tell this story. That was understandable though not easy to be on the receiving end of it. There was a concern that what I was writing would be bad for business. Actually the opposite happened, as readers have told me over the years. After reading my book, they decided to visit the desert for the first time because they were drawn by my descriptions of it. When I visited Twentynine Palms years later to give a talk about my book, Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango, a celebration of the park with photos by Galen Hunt, I had some trepidation about the event. The late L.A. Times reporter Scott Timberg covered this event and wrote about what was going on in town at that time in this piece.
There really was magic afoot in my journey into this story. I think of how my manuscript was swept away onthe day before I was turning it in during a freak thunderstorm at rush hour on Wilshire Boulevard, and page by page women emerged amid the rain and stopped traffic, fetching the pages out of the storm and returning my entire manuscript. I still have one of the pages with a tire tread on it. One of the women was homeless, with a grocery cart, wheeling it up and down the street, grabbing the pages as they were blowing down toward the sea. I’m not making this up. I was overcome afterwards, and called my agent in tears. “Deanne, I think you’re done now,” she said, referring to the number of times I had said I couldn’t finish writing. Here’s my account of this.
MR: That’s an incredibly dramatic and vivid scene. ‘Nevertheless, she persisted.’ Speaking of which, are there lessons in your book in light of #MeToo, #TimesUp and increased cultural awareness?
DS: Among other things, this book is really about America’s dirty little secret-class. As I wrote at the time, while then-President George Bush Sr. was talking about the need for charity and “a thousand points of light,” the people I was writing about were actually living this idea-or trying to, not on purpose; that’s just what they did. I wrote this book long before Heartland and Hillbilly Elegy had come out, and I should mention that it was not easy to sell it. “Who cares about these girls?” was a question I often heard from publishers-not unlike what locals themselves were saying about them. There was a lot of resistance in the publishing world to talking about American castaways, in a weird terrain, no less. This was not the Berkshires. And I was not writing fiction. It’s easier for editors to accept these stories if they appear in a novel. There is no scene more provincial than the New York publishing world, although that is now changing. In fairness, I should also note that the first edition of this book was published by William Morrow, acquired by Rachel Klayman, who later became Barack Obama’s editor, and still is.
This book is also a #ThemToo story, in a big way. The Marine who killed Mandi and Rosie had raped the daughter of a sergeant major six weeks before killing them. He had a history of sexual assault before joining the Corps and a few years ago, my book helped cops make a 20-year-old cold rape case against him, involving a brutal attack that crossed two states and left a young woman nearly bleeding to death at the side of the road. She recovered and due to enhanced DNA technology, the case against this guy was finally able to be prosecuted years later. Over the years since my book has come out, I heard from other women who say he raped them, and learned about the murders after reading my book. The reason that his crimes were overlooked while he was in the Corps was that he was a star on the base basketball team. He was actually busted after a game at Camp Pendleton. Strangely, while Underwood’s trial was underway in Victorville, so was O.J.’s in L.A. His trial was the flipside-a Mojave version of what was going on in Brentwood. I should note that the O.J. case reverberated against the killer in this case. “If the shoe fits, you must convict,” became a joke in the jury room, the jurors’ version of “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” in the O.J. trial. Underwood’s shoe print had been found in the blood at the crime scene-one of the things that linked him to the crime..
I can tell you that the woman Underwood raped before he killed Mandi and Rosie blamed herself for not doing more to keep him off the streets. But she tried; because of his status as an athlete, it wasn’t possible. This is what we’ve seen time and time again in all of the sexual assault cases now coming to the fore. I would say that the country is undergoing a huge shift across the board, regarding pretty much everything, including the issues I explore in my book.
I also want to point out that it was a Marine who helped crack the case against Underwood, and that I could not have written my book without Marines. One in particular was a kind of a guide for me through the nooks and crannies of Marine life, and I learned a lot from him about who joins the Corps and why and there’s much more going on here than a lot of people think. All of this is in my book.
MR: Your book was optioned recently by Anthony Mastromauro who produced The Old Man & the Gun with Robert Redford. What are your hopes for this project?
DS: It’s truly an incredible story with great characters for female leads, the kind of movie that was not being made when my book came out. It’s about mothers and daughters and where’s Dad and who goes to war and why (Mandi and Rosie both came from families with members who served in Vietnam and the Gulf War) and the fierce alliances that form among those who are eking out a living on the other side of the tracks. After Mandi was killed, her mother, Debie McMaster, then a local bartender, raised $1000 to help an average girl get out of town. This was the “Mandi Scott Scholarship Fund.” People donated food stamps, matchbook collections, nickels and dimes, and the scholarship was based on who wrote the best essay about what they would do with the funds. It was announced at a bar party where a band called Velvet Hammer cranked classic rock covers all night long and the family pit bull, decked out in leather and shades, looked on. One of Mandi’s friends won the award, and the next day, she hit the road, vowing to return someday and open a center for teenage girls.
MR: What are you working on now?
DS: I’m writing Ghost Cats: The Last Mountain Lions of Los Angeles for UC Press. This continues my desert beat, even though it takes place in L.A. I say that because it’s about why we must take care of the other (and like many who live in the desert, the desert itself is misunderstood and cast aside), embrace wilderness, what’s wild, and our failure to do so leads to violence and was a factor in the lives and deaths of Mandi Scott and Rosalie Ortega.
Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer and playwright. Her books have received raves from The Atlantic to Newsweek to The Economist and beyond, and won major awards such as the Spur, Los Angeles Times “Best Book of the Year” (twice) and the California Book Award silver medal. Hunter S. Thompson called Twentynine Palms “a strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” Additionally, her book, Mustang, is credited for launching the conversation about wild horses that is ongoing today, and is now available as an audiobook featuring Frances Fisher, Anjelica Huston, Wendie Malick, John Densmore and Richard Portnow. Her essays have appeared in The Independent, lithub, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Tin House, LA Review of Books and elsewhere, and her work is widely anthologized. Additionally, she’s a member of the core faculty at the UCR-Palm Desert MFA Low Residency Creative Writing Program and a member of the advisory board for Angels Flight • literary west. Her latest plays include “Reflections in a D’Back’s Eye” and “Billy the Kid and Lee Harvey Oswald Praise Citizenship in the American Dreamtime,” both produced at Highways in Santa Monica and directed by Darrell Larson.
Photo of Deanne Stillman by Cat Gwynn