December 2014

Reopening the Case…And Myself
by Bill Collins


I have a story that won’t let me rest….

The other day, a friend was telling me how strange it was that her new boyfriend seemed to be so right and good for her, after she’d gone so long lacking that type of connection.

“Maybe you’re finally ready to have that kind of relationship,” I told her.

“And maybe you’re finally ready to tell the story of you and your sister,” she replied.

Last Hallowe’en I found myself driving through a rainy morning to an appointment that had been 37 years in coming. I was on my way to meet a homicide detective who was attached to the cold case unit of the Santa Clara County’s district attorney’s office. The detective was working my sister Jeanette’s murder case. She was killed during the commission of a brutal rape in 1977. The crime was never solved.

I spent most of the following years coping with that tragedy mostly by mastering avoidance, trying to forget it had ever happened.

About two years back, I made a conscious decision to change course, and began looking actively into the traumatic events that took place so long ago. Once I decided, I was driven to know.

As I went ahead with my own personal investigation, I started putting words to paper, documenting the experience. I requested jail records, trial transcripts, police and coroner’s reports. I located and interviewed Jeanette’s friends from nearly four decades ago. I enlisted the help of an old buddy who’d become a CSI guy for Oakland PD.

“I’ve been having trouble sleeping. The only thing that seems to let me rest is binge-writing pages born of tears and snot...digging back into those most painful of memories....”

This was not a smooth process. I moved forward in fits and starts, each step hampered by near-crippling procrastination. Drinking seemed to help.

As stray facts came together to paint the bigger picture, I came to learn that truth was indeed stranger than fiction. Some days it seemed as though I was looking out at the world from inside the pages of a crime novel.

A year ago I moved back to the Bay Area from the East Coast where I’d spent the last 20 years. Not to be closer to the scene of the crime, specifically, though that was the result. Strangely enough—for the first year I was back in the environs of my teen years and my sis’s death—I developed severe writer’s block, but still the story wouldn’t leave me alone. One excerpt from my narrative, "Jailhouse Mail," was published in the first Dammit anthology.

I discussed it with my friends, fellow writers and mentors. I learned that sharing my sister’s story allowed my female friends to open up about similar traumatic experiences they’d endured. I began to learn about the sheer scope and size of what I came to think of as The Great Hidden Epidemic of violence against women. It dawned on me that my sister’s story might have power—not only to help shed a much-needed light on The Great Hidden Epidemic, but possibly even to help heal secret wounds.

Two months ago, out of the blue, I learned that my sister’s murder case had been reopened. I sought out and located the detective who was working her cold case, and we made an appointment to meet on October 31. Our meeting, on that grey morning, was inconclusive, raising more questions than it answered. It appears the plot continues to unfold.

Since that time, I’ve been able to focus on little else. I’ve been having trouble sleeping. The only thing that seems to let me rest is binge-writing pages born of tears and snot...digging back into those most painful of memories, like lancing a long-neglected boil to allow my own healing to begin. Maybe when the whole story has been told I can rest more easily—and, hopefully, so can the troubled spirit of my dear sister, who I still sense near me from time to time.

Until this tale achieves some closure, there’s an M.C. Escher lithograph that seems to best symbolize my life right now: the two hands simultaneously drawing each other. I’m the author, writing the memoir I inhabit as a character in my own story.

Bill's story “Jailhouse Mail” appears in Dammit, I Learned a Lot from That Son-of-a-Gun. Click here to learn more about Bill.

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