Every time the gun debate stirs in the United States, I’m taken back to the day I stood over the body of a young boy with his face blown to mush.
It wasn’t in Newtown, or Columbine, or Aurora, or any scene of spectacular carnage. It was just an everyday American tragedy where a firearm in the home becomes a weapon of family destruction.
I was a young reporter on my first newspaper job, at the Livermore Herald and News in northern California.
It was a Wednesday evening, November 13, 1968. I was the only one on the city desk when a call on the police radio announced: “187 at 353 North I Street.”
I jumped in my Mustang and sped to the address, one of those West Coast apartment complexes that looks like a cheap motel.
On the street, there was an unoccupied cop car with its lights flashing.
I spotted a door wide open to a second-story apartment – and walked in.
The place smelled like stale vomit. I did not yet recognize the stench of death.
The entryway opened up to a living room. I was drawn to the sound of a television, a game show.
Two pillows were on the floor in front of the TV console.
A young boy, wearing pajamas, was lying on his stomach, face down on one of the pillows.
The hair on the back of his head was matted with blood.
I heard voices and followed the sound farther into the apartment.
I passed the small kitchen. Breakfast for four – untouched bowls of cereal, a quart of milk – was on the table.
Entering a back bedroom, I saw three cops standing over a man’s body.
“What the hell are you doing here,” shouted the chief of police, John Michelis.
“The door was open,” I said, looking beyond them to a walk-in closet, where two more bodies – a woman and little girl – were slumped in a corner.
“Well, get the hell out,” barked the chief.
I went outside and scribbled in my notebook, every detail I could remember.
I noted the uneaten breakfast as a sign of when the murders had been committed. I drew a diagram of the apartment and where the bodies lay.
I should have been repulsed by what I’d seen. But I was excited.
In a small town, this was a big story.
The dead were: Paul Cranfill, 27, his wife, Lynn, 25, and their two children – five-year-old Bobby and two-year-old Cathy.
The cops told me Cranfill’s brother Carl had come home at about 4 p.m., walked into the dark apartment – none of the lights was on and the drapes were drawn – and taken a two-hour nap on the living room couch, within a few feet of little Bobby’s body.
He called police after he tried to pick up the boy — and his face had stuck to the pillow.
The cops said it looked like a triple-murder-suicide. All had been shot in the head.
When I asked the chief if the breakfast dishes suggested the time of the shooting, he confirmed it probably occurred that morning.
The other reporter on the city desk got some good quotes from the owner of the small apartment complex – “they were a real happy family” and “excellent tenants” – and from Cranfill’s employer at an electronics factory, who called him “a good worker.”
We also learned that police had found a newspaper clipping on gun control. A neighbor who took target practice with Cranfill said he was “a good marksman.”
A search of the Herald morgue unearthed a clip from the previous summer, when Lynn Cranfill had been featured as “Homemaker of the Week.” She had described her husband as “a kind person.”
The front-page story — VALLEY FAMILY OF FOUR SLAIN — was accompanied by the photo from the homemaker article, of Lynn Cranfill with Cathy and Bobby sitting beside her.
Over the next several days, we tried to figure out what was in the killer’s head before he put a nine-millimeter slug in it.
We learned Cranfill was a gun nut. Besides the murder weapon, a P.38 automatic, he also owned a .357 Magnum, a .22-calibre pistol and a .30-calibre carbine.
He was also nuts. A doctor told us Cranfill had a “paranoid-schizoid personality,” that he had been taking the anti-psychotic drug thorazine, and that his family had been advised to put him in a mental hospital. His wife refused.
He was deep in debt, though he had money for an arsenal.
People spoke freely to reporters in those days. Cops and other officials didn’t cower behind privacy concerns or other dodges.
Chief Michelis tried to punish me for invading his crime scene. He summoned me to his office for a scolding and showed me his photo collection of gunshot victims.
The goriest were of men who ate their shotguns. The worst were the kids.
It pained me that grownups with guns found it so easy to kill children.
A longer more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.