I Was a Suspect in My Dad’s Murder. Spoiler: Joseph DeAngelo Did It
The most shameful thing about the murder of my dad and stepmom, Lyman and Charlene Smith, was being a suspect. I can’t believe it happened. I still can’t believe the police thought I could do something so awful. My mom was my alibi that night, and she failed to remember I was home. When I walked in that night, she was in the bean bag chair watching Soap. She didn’t know I had gone into my room and jumped on the phone with my friend Kathy.
Mom had one job, and she blew it. Yes, I forgave her.
What happened next was completely my dad’s fault.
Not because he had been murdered, but because he taught me how to be a jackass.
The room was small but looked a lot like the rooms I had seen on television. Three walls and what I could only assume was a two-way mirror on the fourth wall. Behind the glass, I imagined there were law enforcement folks and my mom. I didn’t know my mom was there, but I figured she’d make her way in to watch.
In the middle of the room was a table and two chairs. One chair was facing the wall, the other was tucked under the table. On the table was a lie detector. It looked just like the kind you might see on Charlie’s Angels or the Rockford Files. I could see the little drum that fed the paper and the needle that would move back and forth. The machine was off as we got settled.
I had just turned 18.
I had a birthday on February 5 and had only been an adult for a little over a month. I knew I should be taking this seriously, but I couldn’t. The very idea that I was responsible for taking my dad and stepmom’s life was crazy. They had been found a few days earlier, bludgeoned to death.
I had always been a voracious reader, grabbing adult books from my dad’s nightstand when he was done. I had grabbed The Godfather, and the wedding party scene pretty much taught me about hot sex. Probably not the best primer. The point is, I had read a lot, and crime was one of my favorite genres. I’d learned the police always looked at family members as suspects, but this was beyond nuts.
I tried to understand how it went in their minds: somehow, I drove my Honda Express moped to my dad’s house. Grabbed a log off the woodpile. Went into his house while they were asleep and bludgeoned them to death. Then I left, went home, climbed into bed, and waited for their bodies to be discovered. On Sunday, when we found out they were dead, I was able to react with surprise and make all the right moves until the lie detector test on Tuesday.
I suppose in some upside-down world, I should have been flattered. Or, more honestly, terrified.
Instead, I did what I knew: I used my jackass powers to protect myself.
I was seated in the chair that faced the wall. To my right was the table with the polygraph machine. The tester — a man who probably had a much better title than “tester” — told me he was going to hook me up to the machine and that it would be easy. All I had to do was answer honestly with yes or no answers. Cool.
He gently put the two straps around my chest that would read my respirations. The theory was people who are lying will breathe more heavily. The straps were snug and sat above and below my bustline.
The next step was the blood pressure cuff. If I had a rise in my pressure, it was supposedly another signal that I wasn’t truthful. It wasn’t too tight, and I can barely remember it being on.
The velcro wrappers around the fingers on my right hand were designed to measure my galvanic skin response: aka sweat. The theory was if I was sweating, I must be lying. This was measuring small changes; not giant flop sweat that I was sure was the outcome for people sitting in this chair who were guilty.
I was calm. I wasn’t taking any of this seriously. I’m reasonably sure that comes from the privilege of being completely innocent and my insane curiosity about what was going to happen next.
The examiner handed me a piece of paper and a pen.
“I’d like you to write a number between 1 and 9 on the sheet of paper, please,” he said. I wrote the number three.
“Good?” I asked.
“Perfect,” he said. He took the sheet of paper and taped it to the wall in front of me. “Okay,” he continued, “let’s get started.”
He turned on the machine, and it made a humming noise. He asked me to breathe normally while, I’m guessing, he calibrated and tested the device. I stared at the number on the wall. I wasn’t sure how my “three” was relevant, but I sat quietly while the man prepared.
I looked around the room one more time, and my eyes landed on the mirror. I figured my mom would be standing in the least optimal place because the investigators would want to watch me. I winked at the far-right corner. Later my mom would ask me how I knew she was standing right there. I told her that it was the only logical place. She shook her head. I was always driving her nuts.
The examiner moved and regained my attention. I wasn’t looking forward.
“Okay, Jennifer,” he started, “Let’s see if this is working. We are going to do a test.”
What happened next wasn’t a plan. It really wasn’t. It was me being a jackass — a smarty pants. I’ve always been one. I was the kid who never took no for an answer. Thanks to my dad, I could argue anything. I saw through adults, and that had been a problem my whole life. I knew when they were full of crap or when someone was lying. Someone told me once I am an old soul. That might explain it. Whatever “it” was, “it” kicked in.
I did something I honestly did not plan to do. I lied.
Oh, yes, I did. I wanted to see if I could beat the machine.
“Here’s what I’d like you to do,” he said. “When I ask you a question, I want you to simply answer yes or no. You can’t shake your head or say anything else. It must be a yes or no answer. Do you understand?” This was a game. I knew how to answer.
“Yes,” I said. Nailed it.
“Did I ask you to write a number on a sheet of paper?” he began.
“Did you write a five?” he asked. Okay, I thought, he’s trying to trick me.
“No,” I answered. And then, in my head, I said to myself. I wrote an eight.
“Did you write seven?”
“No,” it’s an eight, I thought.
“Did you write three?”
“Let me repeat that,” he said, “did you write a three?” I could feel him staring at me.
“No,” I repeated, and again said to myself, it’s an eight. I looked over at the examiner, I was so excited.
“Did I beat the machine!?” I asked with probably way too much enthusiasm. He didn’t confirm or deny, but he was not happy with me. I looked at the paper, moving across the drum of the lie detector. I had watched enough episodes of Streets of San Francisco to know there was no movement indicating a lie. I flashed one more smile at my mom. She must be so proud (um, yeah, she wasn’t).
“Fine,” the examiner said, “let’s get going.”
What happened next isn’t all that clear in my memory. I remember lots of questions about both my dad and Charlene. He asked if my last time at their house was on Thursday — the week before the murder. He wondered if I had been at their home the weekend of their murder. And then he asked the big questions.
“Did you kill Lyman?”
“Did you kill Charlene?”
“No.” I didn’t mess around with the real questions. I answered honestly and directly.
This went public. Everyone knew. In a small town, there’s nowhere to hide.
I’m quite sure I spent thousands of dollars on therapy to get over this. No, it wasn’t just this, but being a suspect — despite how ludicrous it seems now — was awful. Therapy can be a real pain in the butt as you go through crap from the past that, frankly, you want to leave in the past. But I knew if I wanted to be a good parent one day, I had to get myself together.
I always felt so much shame that folks thought I could do something so heinous. It wasn’t until my therapist re-framed it that I finally got it.
“Jen,” she said, “What if you thought about it like this? Could it be your dad mistreated you so significantly it would have made sense?”
Whoa. I recognized what she did there. She flipped the narrative. In her take, I was the victim, not the aggressor. Me a victim? Not my usual jam. But taking it in and thinking about it did make a difference.
On the inside, I was crushed that someone — anyone — would think I was capable of murder.
My god. Two people were dead. It was a messy, complex crime scene. It was an act of savagery. At this point, they hadn’t even told us Charlene was raped. I was convinced they thought I was a horrible person who was capable of this kind of thing.
It was so inconsistent with who I was, my friends and I started making jokes about it. Now, as an adult, I understand the importance and value of dark humor. I understand irony and how being absolutely twisted is a reasonable way to deal with the unreasonable. As that eighteen-year-old, it was the only way I could cope.
For a short while, after the murder, I wore a log necklace. It was a little tiny stick that I attached, like a charm, to a chain. I know. What the hell? My best friend, Kristin, thought it was hilarious. Or at least let me think she did. I wore it around town and on campus.
I know now, it was my way of embracing the shame. It was a way for people to laugh with me instead of whatever they might have otherwise been thinking. This is also known as “the best defense is a good offense” strategy. Or, a really lame conversation starter.
I was no longer a student at Buena High School. I had graduated mid-year and had enrolled at Ventura Community College. I don’t know I ever went back there. Somewhere I have a report card from that semester. I can’t remember if I finished those classes. Chances are, the teachers knew who I was and just gave me a pass.
Despite graduating early, my old high school was a sanctuary.
I had been class president for two years, which meant I was in leadership. This was quite possibly one of the best things that ever happened to me. Our advisor, Bob Cousar, was extraordinary. He believed in young people, and he taught us how to govern. We had regular cabinet meetings using Robert’s Rules of Order, and we made important decisions about what happened at the school. It was amazing.
As a member of leadership, I practically lived at the school. I was always working on projects or events, and they let us have run of the place. Most of the teachers knew who I was. For sure, the administrators did. The Dean of Girls, Lois Shaffer, hated me. I’m not sure why exactly, but I bet it’s because I knew she was a fake. She didn’t care about the students the way the other teachers and staff did. She was a bitter, unhappy person.
My savior was Mr. Cousar, who let me come back to Buena — even though I had graduated — and just hang out that spring. I think, unlike so many adults, he knew I was still a kid. A good kid. It was incredibly kind and probably saved me from getting in a bunch of trouble or losing my mind. I found things to do and was able to spend time with my friends.
I also wore my log necklace to campus, and it caught the attention of one adult: Lois Shaffer. (I can already hear you saying, “Jen, you’re such a dumb ass” and I concur). When Lois saw the necklace, she called investigators. They showed up at campus and asked to see me. I met with them in the Student Center and showed them the necklace. They took it. It was put into evidence.
To this day, that stupid log necklace is sitting in a box somewhere in the evidence room’s bowels, thanks to Lois Shaffer. Lois also blocked me from being Girl of the Quarter and Buena Hall of Fame. It was an honor I had earned, and I’m still bitter; I didn’t get those awards because of that hateful woman.
But back to the polygraph test. You’ll be happy to know I passed.
When the polygraph test was over, and I passed with flying colors, I was relieved. Intellectually I knew taking the test was a bad thing. I had read stories of people who’d been convicted on bogus lie detector information. What I did know back then was how to manage the message.
In an article in the Ventura Star Free Press, I was asked about being a suspect. The reporter, Greg Zoroya, quotes me as saying the whole thing was “So Dragnet.” I quickly learned a sound byte doesn’t do reality justice.
And as you might imagine, I still haven’t lived that down.
I will be reading my Victim Impact Statement at the sentencing of Joseph DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer, and the man who killed my dad and Charlene on Thursday, August 20, in the afternoon. The live streaming link and details are here.
Don’t feel like reading? I also tell the story! Here you go.