Fifty years ago today, I walked into the scene of a family massacre in northern California.
Before the cops ordered me out, I’d looked down on the bodies of two little kids, their mom and killer dad, with his pistol at his side.
I was a few days shy of my 22nd birthday, only a couple of months into my first job as a reporter, with the Herald & News in Livermore, about an hour’s drive east of San Francisco.
I’d been covering mostly typical small-town tripe – meetings and petty crime – struggling with my unreliable two-finger typing and atrocious spelling, trying to learn AP style from a more experienced fellow reporter, Ron Iscoff.
I was chronically frustrated, periodically bored, and unsure I was even cut out for the news biz.
But, as I recount in this excerpt from my memoir, all that changed over a couple of days:
My education as a journalist seemed stalled until November 13, 1968. It was a week after Richard Nixon was elected president – I cast my first ever ballot for Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers, who was the candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party.
On a Wednesday evening the next week, I was the only reporter in the office when a call on the police radio announced: “One-eighty-seven at 353 North I Street.”
I had learned the California police codes. I knew 187 was a homicide. I jumped in my Mustang and sped to North I Street. There was an empty cop car with lights flashing. I spotted a door wide open to a second-story apartment.
I walked in. The first thing I noticed was the place smelled like stale vomit. The second thing was that the television was on and, lying in front of it, on his stomach, was a young boy. He was wearing pajamas. He wasn’t moving.
I walked closer. The hair on the back of the boy’s head was matted with dried 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 one of them, the chief of police, John Michelis.
“The door was open,” I said, straining to look beyond them, into a closet, where two more bodies – a woman and little girl – were slumped in a corner.
“Well, get the hell out,” ordered the chief.
I stood outside and scribbled in my notebook, every detail I could remember. I noted the uneaten breakfast as evidence of when the murders might have 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.
Iscoff showed up. We decided – he decided – that I would stay at the scene and talk to the cops and neighbors, and he’d go back to the office and work the phones.
We had the name of the family and a strong hint from the cops that Paul Cranfill, 27, had shot his wife, Lynne, 25, and their two children – five-year-old Bobby and two-year-old Cathy – before turning his pistol on himself.
We collaborated on a pretty good story that night – me writing and Iscoff rewriting – including most of those Ws: who, what, when, where. The next day we would try to figure out why.
We filled the front-page with an impressive amount of information gathered over only a few hours. The cops had told me that Cranfill’s brother, Carl, had come home at about 4 p.m., walked into the dark apartment – the lights were off and the drapes were drawn – and taken a two-hour nap on the living room couch, within a few feet of his nephew’s body.
He called the police when he saw the boy, apparently hoping he could be resuscitated – a word that sent me to the dictionary, since I was the world’s worst speller.
My uninvited walk through the crime scene gave us a good description of where the bodies were found. The cops told me it looked like a triple-murder-suicide and that all had been shot in the head. When I asked the chief if the breakfast dishes suggested the time of the crime, he confirmed it probably occurred that morning.
We 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 an article from the previous summer, when Lynne Cranfill had been featured as “Homemaker of the Week.” She had described her husband as “a kind person.” All this went into the story.
On the front page, the paper reprinted a photo that had accompanied the homemaker article, of Lynne Cranfill in the apartment with little Cathy and Bobby sitting beside her.
When the paper was put to bed that night, Iscoff and I had a celebratory drink and plotted the next day’s follow-ups.
For several more days, we shared a byline, alphabetically, me on top, and tried to get at what was in the killer’s head before he put a nine-millimeter slug in it.
We found out that Cranfill was a gun nut, that besides the murder weapon – a P38 semi-automatic – he also owned a .357 Magnum, a .22-caliber pistol and a .30-caliber carbine. He was also apparently nuts. A doctor told us Cranfill had a “paranoid-schizoid personality,” that he had been taking Thorazine, an antipsychotic tranquilizer, and that his family had been advised to put him in a mental hospital. His wife refused.
We learned that Cranfill was “up to his neck” in debt. “He must have owed well over $6,000” and had been planning to file for personal bankruptcy, a relative told us.
Iscoff and I had a good run with the story. The Cranfill tragedy wasn’t exactly the crime of the century but, for me, the rush was extraordinary, everything I’d hoped for when I stumbled into the newspaper racket. When it was over, I went back to covering meetings and checking the police blotter.
Chief Michelis, to punish me for invading his crime scene, called me into his office, sat me down for a good scolding, and showed me his photo collection of gunshot victims, mainly of men who had blown away their faces with shotguns. As Hemingway had, I thought.
Instead of puking my guts out, as Michelis had presumably expected, I asked questions about the story behind each picture.
* * *
What I now find repulsive is that Paul Cranfill shares a gravestone with the wife and kids he slaughtered.
The gravesite, at Memory Gardens Cemetery in Livermore, is about a mile and a half from the apartment where Lynne, Cathy and Bobby were shot dead.