My Boyfriend, the Murderer

He was was soft-spoken, wrote poetry and played a bamboo flute. And then he killed our friend's mother.

Photograph by Shutterstock

His name was Daniel. He was part poet, part musician, and a Herman Hesse devotee. It's hard to believe that such a soft-spoken person could also commit a gruesome murder. It's the kind of thing that's on almost every episode of "Dateline."

It was 1969, when Vietnam was in full swing. As I'm sure you remember, drugs and sex were rampant, and the boundaries were loose. I gladly participated in all of it.

I met Daniel the night of my senior prom. My own date was a science nerd who was more than happy to have any girl to escort. After the dance, a bunch of us went to Leo Carrillo Beach in Malibu to spend the night. Daniel was among us.

I was attracted to him instantly because he was the anthesis of the guys I'd been dating. Daniel was lithe, soft-spoken, wrote poetry and played a bamboo flute. The six of us had been up most of the night, but once sunrise winked over the horizon, I saw Daniel meditating by the shoreline. In the morning sunlight, his thick crop of wavy black hair shimmered like a halo. His swarthy looks were punctuated by a demure smile.

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So, I dismissed my boring date, who was still asleep, and plopped down on the sand beside Daniel. He began quoting from "Siddhartha" and I was immediately hooked.

I was also a poet back then and we both did readings at the local library. We listened to folk music and hung out, and I didn't think too much of it when one night he confided that he had once pulled a knife on an old girlfriend. I thought if I could give him a safe harbor and some understanding, he'd be fine. I was the girl who was going to fix him.

My mother was less than thrilled when I continued to see him, but her hands were already full, managing various other family problems. My dad had been bipolar, and I'm sure the memories of that difficult challenge were foremost on her mind. Perhaps she thought I'd outgrow him or get distracted by some other guys in school. But it was Daniel that I wanted.

I remember getting high with him one night, and inadvertently smoking angel dust. While I was in the bathroom, I looked at the wall heater. It looked like Medusa's snakes were crawling through it, towards me. I'd never taken a hallucinogenic before, so when I started to freak out, all I could do was crawl inside Daniel's arms and wait until I came down.

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I continued to see Daniel occasionally after I went away to college but the distance between us resulted in what often happens—the thrill was gone. The last time I heard from him, he invited me to visit when I came home on spring break, but I never took him up on it. A few weeks later, my dorm phone rang. It was one of my high school friends.

"Did you hear Daniel's been arrested?" she asked.

WHAT?" I couldn't believe it.

"Yeah, he killed Joe's mother."

I was in complete shock. Apparently, he was high on something while ransacking our friend's house for drugs. He then must've panicked and killed our friend's mom with a fireplace poker. Gruesome images flooded my imagination. It could've been me, it could've been me, I kept repeating to myself, trying to process the full extent of the horror.

Be that as it may, a few months later, several of us went to visit him in at Atascadero State Hospital, an all-male, maximum-security facility that houses mentally ill convicts who have been committed to psychiatric facilities by California's courts. Behind the glass window, Daniel seemed calm and collected like I had remembered him, not the crazed murderer depicted in the papers.

Visiting him brought back memories of my father when he was treated for his bipolar disorder at Camarillo Mental Hospital. I remembered hearing disturbing stories about my dad's shock treatments, and seeing Daniel behind that thick glass with a black telephone in his hand made me wonder what sorts of treatment he might have to endure. I never saw him after that and got on with my life.

A few years ago, I heard Daniel's 30-year sentence was completed. He tried to contact me through my mom after his release and although I was curious to see him, the reality of it filled me with dread. Does mental illness ever really go away? Or does it simply linger in the closet like a thief in the dark? I wish I could've been more open-minded, but the memories of that time have haunted me for my entire life.

I eventually found Daniel on the internet and a few details came up. He had changed his name and was now living a peaceful existence in Santa Fe, making indie films and creating meditative music. I hope he's happy and has found a way to rebuild his life.