Death By Misadventure

In 1969, Tucson's Free-Love Generation Didn't Stand A Chance Against The Straight-Shooting Establishment.

My own monument to gratuitous violence is a house on Helen Street near the University of Arizona. It's an unremarkable house, really, built from stucco and brick in the decade following World War I. The neighborhood near the university is filled with these roomy if occasionally down-at-the-heels homes. They were called California bungalows then, but now they're called student housing.

In the spring of 1969, 18-year-old Dennis Murphey and some buddies lived in the house on Helen Street, neither full-time students nor fully employed. They lived outside the mainstream but not too far outside the law. Psychedelic drugs were a part of their lives, making them a harmless and inoffensive--if somewhat whacked-out--bunch.

Denny and his friends often ate at drive-ins, including the popular Johnie's Big Boy. Jean Elaine Palacios, also 18, had just landed a job there as a carhop. Jean, the eldest of eight children, lived with her family in Vandenberg Village, the residential area at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where her father was an aircraft mechanic.

Master Sergeant Francisco Palacios had joined the Air Force in 1950, not long after graduating from high school in Puerto Rico. While on duty in Europe, he met and married a British woman. His children got their first exposure to America's new mores when Sergeant Palacios received orders to ship out stateside. The family moved to Arizona from England in mid-1968.

The owner of Johnie's warned Sergeant Palacios that Dennis Murphey, who started coming around often, would be nothing but trouble for the somewhat innocent Jean. He was right about one thing--she was attracted to Dennis.

Around the beginning of May, she dropped out of high school and moved in with Denny at the Helen Street house. It was your basic hippie crash-pad with a permanent core, including Denny and a flow-through crowd of others who needed a place to stay now and then. With soft drugs and good music, the scene was little different from the one at many other houses around Tucson and the rest of the country. I never knew Murphey, but I must have sat on the hardwood floor of at least a dozen similar homes in town about that time.

THE DOPE SCENE in Tucson was definitely getting more visible. By then, the city had become known throughout the country as a low-key port of entry for contraband from Mexico. Dealers would drive or fly into the Old Pueblo, pick up their load, and be on their way. It was one of the only towns to sell peyote in the open, and one of the last to sell marijuana by the kilo.

As late as 1962, however, Pima County had not yet logged a single drug-related prosecution. Eventually the county attorney's office planted a man in the barrio; his marijuana buys led to Tucson's first drug cases.

"Tucson was a very alive place then," recalls a musician from the era. "All the hipsters knew each other. The danger came from the airmen at Davis-Monthan. They'd beat the crap out of you in a Circle K parking lot if you had long hair. The police would just watch."

Says another: "The place had a cowboy mentality. You could shoot your wife, but don't you dare kill someone's cow."

Still, there had been an active literary and music scene in town--poetic, experimental, just off the scope. Jack Kerouac's description held for many years: Tucson "was one big construction job," he wrote in On the Road, "the people transient, wild, ambitious, busy, gay; washlines, trailers; bustling downtown streets with banners; altogether very Californian." The area offered a bohemian sensibility. A community of artists took root on a spread north of town called Rancho Linda Vista, and musicians played at coffeehouses such as Portafino's, Sanders and the Minus One.

The United Farm Workers grape boycott conferred a wholesome political identity on the town. The songs of internationally celebrated Tucson native Lalo Guererro gave the Mexican-American community emotional and clever lyrics about their barrio, their culture and their identity. In Washington, Udall brothers Morris and Stewart presented a liberal face for Tucson. Activists got their anti-Vietnam War pamphlets at the Peace & Freedom Party storefront on Sixth Street. As the war grew simultaneously implacable and hopeless, adventurous Davis-Monthan airmen in civilian clothes dropped in to chat. KTKT, a local Top-40 AM station, played progressive rock for a few hours late every night. It was a city that, like many others in America, reflected a counterculture growing amid a dominant community of orthodoxy that paid attention only when compelled.

SERGEANT FRANCISCO Palacios, then 46, was compelled. Distraught over his daughter's new life, he had assumed a strong paternal role--he did the grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, ironing and house cleaning as well. He was beside himself when he learned that Jean had written a friend in England that she was smoking marijuana and couldn't wait to try LSD.

Murphey was going to destroy his daughter, Palacios was convinced, and ruin her brain.

Tormented, he asked friends on base what to do. Some offered to go tear Murphey's house apart. Desperate, he applied for a post in Vietnam that would allow him to take his daughter and his seven younger children away from the evil stateside influences.

The Grateful Dead had played on the University of Arizona campus shortly after Jean moved in with Denny, and the couple had almost certainly attended. Jean was starting to fit into the household routine. Then, one Saturday evening in late May, consumed by his daughter's situation, Sergeant Palacios rounded up a few of the family and drove across town to the house on Helen Street. When Jean came to the door, he ordered her to come home. It had been a particularly bad day for the 18-year-old: Earlier she had been arrested for shoplifting at Montgomery Ward. Jean went home with Daddy, leaving Denny in a quandary.

Denny decided to get Jean back that same night and telephoned the Palacios household after the family returned home around 11 p.m. The sergeant got on the line and challenged Dennis to come over right away; Jean grabbed the receiver from her father and yelled, "Don't come over here, Denny!"

He ignored her advice. He didn't have a car, but a fellow at the house offered to drive him to the base. Murphey, driver Gary Inman and a few others piled into Inman's 1960 Ford convertible and headed east to Davis-Monthan. They were greeted by a big sign reading "peace is our profession."

The guard at the main gate must have done a double take when Inman pulled up. Here were half a dozen youths of decidedly nonmilitary bearing in a nine-year-old convertible missing both its top and its hood, its doors tied shut by rope. The sentry called the Palacios home, then gave the boys a visitors' pass and waved them on to Skyline Drive in Vandenberg Village.

Dennis told his friends to wait in the car and went up to the house.

Sergeant Palacios answered the door. He saw a sullen fellow in sunglasses with long hair, a mustache and a beard. "Are you Dennis Murphey?"

Moments earlier, Palacios had put everyone at home--including Jean--in the three back bedrooms. Now, with a semiautomatic .22-caliber pistol tucked under his belt and Jean's boyfriend standing in front of him, he called over to the others in the car, inviting them in, too. They declined.

Palacios and Murphey confronted each other.

"I'm taking Jean with me," Murphey said in a loud voice.

"Over my dead body," Palacios retorted. He pulled out his gun and shot Dennis Murphey four times at point-blank range.

Murphey's last words were, "Oh my God, stop!"

But Palacios did not stop. Instead, he went outside and shot at the car.

Some of the passengers lay flat, a couple jumped over the sides and scattered, and Gary Inman, who had turned 18 a month earlier, started to drive away. Palacios shot him twice from behind, killing him as the convertible crashed into a nearby parked car. The sergeant went back inside his house and found a dead Dennis Murphey lying face up on the floor. He pumped two more rounds into him.

Murphey suffered one shot in the face, two in the neck, and two in what they euphemistically call "the pelvic region." Inman had been hit in the back of the head and the neck. In the fracas, Palacios accidentally shot himself in the left knee.

Military Police rushed to the scene; the sheriff's department came out to investigate, cleaned up the mess, and the bodies of Murphey and Inman were hauled away.

AT THE TIME, Tucson residents could still easily recall the celebrated case of a few years earlier involving Charles Schmid, a popular, creepy thug appealing to young losers and innocents, who with two of the former had brutally slain three of the latter. When the scope of his activities was revealed, it brought on civic embarrassment and introspection.

The Palacios incident, coming just a few years later, provoked even more talk:

"They had it coming."

"Yes, but you can't just go around killing like that."

"I bet his daughter will behave now."

"Pity about the driver."

"But they were smoking marijuana."

"My God, he invited them to his home. It was premeditated."

The press, from the first report, referred to Murphey as a "hippie-type." And the clean-shaven Gary Inman, according to the sheriff's department, drove "a hippie-type vehicle." A clunker? Yes. A poor man's auto? Certainly. But a hippie-type vehicle? No. That would be a Volkswagen van with colorful swirls of peace symbols and flowers painted on the sides and a poorly wrought but recognizable Jimi Hendrix in one corner, Maher Baba in another, and a wavy purple psychedelic "love" scrawled in the middle. Let's get our stereotypes straight here.

Within days, the Pima County Sheriff's Department reported that "a group of hippies are plotting an attempt on Palacios's life and possibly planning to kill a U.S. Air Force military policeman in retaliation." Security was tightened around the base and Palacios himself, then receiving treatment at the base hospital for his self-inflicted wound. Six visitors, "attired in hippie dress and wearing long hair," came to the base hoping to call on the distressed Jean Palacios, but authorities turned them away.

More contentious information came from the sheriff's office: Investigators had found "a very long, sharp knife and a long ax handle shaved to a very sharp point" in Inman's car.

It remained for The Frumious Bandersnatch, a local biweekly, to portray the range of attitudes in Murphey's community and get first-person accounts.

"Sergeant Palacios had reloaded and was just firing at anything that moved," said a university freshman who, with a friend named Gene, had gone along that night for the ride. "I ran with Gene to a house pleading for help. People turned us away from their doors."

Another fellow who went on that trip said, "People ... don't realize how close they came to having half of this town brought down around their ears."

A young woman who lived at the Helen Street house told the Bandersnatch, "Palacios better get what he deserved. No matter where the punishment comes from, I want him to get his due. As for Jean, my best friend, my partner ... she's a good chick." Said another, "I remember Dennis as a brother who loved all of us, and try and find that forgiveness for his murderer."

And finally, this from a housemate: "If Sergeant Palacios gets away with this, we'll bring the whole town down and that's no lie." Murphey's friends were upset that his hair was shaved and cut for the funeral.

The Helen Street crowd and others who felt outraged at the circumstance were too disorganized and inarticulate to raise any issues about justice and prejudice with the public. Palacios, released on crutches from the hospital after six weeks, was jailed briefly on two counts of murder, then released on his own recognizance. After a week of legal maneuvering, he was back in the county jail awaiting a late September trial.

The prosecution had an open-and-shut case. It had witnesses, motive and a smoking gun. Palacios had Jack Redhair, a former prosecutor asked by the county to represent the sergeant. He couldn't claim that Palacios had been out of town, or that someone else had pulled the trigger. Redhair's dilemma was simple: How do you justify both shootings? The only defense was insanity. The Air Force psychiatrist thought the insanity dodge might reduce the verdict from first- to second-degree murder, so Redhair looked elsewhere. The prosecutor's best witnesses were dead or longhairs.

Palacios's 15-year-old daughter, who had stumbled upon the murder scene while returning to the house with a neighbor, would be a witness, but the county attorney's best testimony would come from Jean and from Palacios himself--if he took the stand.

The Palacios case remained Topic A throughout the summer, but in the uncomfortably hot Sonoran Desert most conversation amounted to little more than shaken heads and clucked tongues. In the Air Force, the case became known far and wide. A fellow I met just the other day who was stationed in Puerto Rico at the time told me he and the others there were practically getting day-by-day reports.

Easy Rider came out that July, and a major antiwar push by the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam kept many occupied; we even persuaded a Davis-Monthan airman to speak at a local rally. The Woodstock music festival in mid-August gave alternative lifestyles national exposure. And Sergeant Palacios, fearing a guilty verdict would scotch his accumulated pension, resigned from the Air Force.

WHOM DID YOU support? If you drew a line down the middle of a sheet of paper, one side would have these characteristics: military lifer, patriotic, father, religious, traditional, loyal, straight arrow. The other side of the line? Long hair, unkempt, uncommunicative, smoked dope, dropped acid, dropped out, unconventional lifestyle.

Recently Jack Redhair told me this about the jury: "I got an older, bigoted jury and presented the case so Palacios represented everything good about the world and the deceased represented everything bad. The jury knew little about drugs except they were horrible. I showed that the deceased and their friends were panhandlers, not working, pregnant, and that the car had a rope around it to keep the doors shut. And that they wore beads and mustaches. I tried to get the jury to accept that drugs caused this dysfunctional family." Redhair made sure that the published boast from Murphey's friends about bringing the whole town down got before the jury.

Francisco Palacios's 15-year-old daughter, who gave a full statement to investigators the morning after the murders, took the stand and remembered very little about that night. A lieutenant colonel testified in uniform, praising Palacios for his exceptional character and ability. "You could almost hear 'The Star-Spangled Banner' in the courtroom," Redhair recalled more than three decades later. Two civilian psychiatrists who had examined Palacios took the stand to opine that he was not mentally responsible at the time of the killings.

And Palacios testified on his own behalf about how frantic he had been that his daughter was living with drug addicts. He started sobbing. He said that Murphey had threatened to kill to get Jean back. He recalled only his first shot--the one that hit his own knee. "After that I can't remember how many shots were fired or who had the gun or anything."

Jean took the stand, too, and said that Murphey would pick her up after work and that they'd "just ride around and smoke marijuana." She said she'd taken "about 25 LSD trips" with Murphey.

The trial took place in Pima County's wonderful old two-story courthouse with a Moorish dome atop it, a building that got regular exposure in the mid-1970s during the opening scenes of the weekly television drama Petrocelli. In his closing argument, Pima County Attorney William Schafer acknowledged that Palacios was a good human being and that Murphey was a tough, bad guy. But that didn't change the facts. Defense attorney Redhair offered the mattress defense: "Think of this father when he went to bring his daughter home, seeing hippies with mattresses on their backs walking in and out of the house."

The jury got the case on Thursday afternoon. After selecting a foreman, they took a straw vote: nine for not guilty, three not sure. No one voted to convict.

Judge Norman Fenton had offered a wide range of options, with guilty of murder at one end, not guilty at the other, and not guilty by reason of temporary insanity in the mix. He instructed his jurors not to be swayed "by sympathy, passion, or prejudice." The jury talked about the insanity option a bit, and one woman stated that she would support "whatever it takes to get Sergeant Palacios home by 6 p.m. to have dinner with his family." In two hours the jury came back with its verdict: not guilty by reason of temporary insanity on both counts. Palacios could go home for dinner with his family. The mattress defense had worked.

Losing prosecutor Schafer called it jury nullification--lawyer jargon for a jury decision based on factors outside the law and the evidence. Winning defendant Palacios said, "This reaffirms my faith in American justice."

Palacios's .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol, a crucial exhibit in the trial, was returned to him a few weeks later. Gary Inman's teenage widow sued the former sergeant for killing her husband. They had been married less than one year and had an infant daughter; now she had no one to support her and the baby. Palacios settled out of court, and over time made regular payments totaling approximately $5,000.

I WROTE A short summary of the case for Hard Times, a small East Coast weekly. Among its readers was movie director Elia Kazan, who wrote asking if I'd mind sending him my notes and clippings. I didn't send him my notes, but I did send him a few clippings.

That a man of his stature and talent had expressed interest in my little piece flattered me--even if I also felt discomfort about Kazan's having named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

A few weeks later, the phone rang.

"Hello, Miller? This is Kazan. I'm at the airport. How do I get out to your place?"

I'm a cheap date; worse, it appears, I'll go out with just about anybody.

Kazan came over to my house and we talked about the case, then drove past many of the places in the drama. I still didn't know any of the Helen Street crowd, but I knew a fellow named John who did.

"John what?" Kazan asked. I didn't know John's last name.

"Where does he live?" I didn't know that either. I only knew he spent his afternoons at Himmel Park, by then dubbed Hippie Park. Kazan doubted we could locate someone whose last name and address were unknown. Yet as we pulled up to Himmel Park, there stood John--who, as it happened, did indeed know some of the Helen Street crowd.

Kazan returned to town often, schmoozing with the judge, both attorneys, and Air Force officials. He went to parties, passed joints, and gained the confidence of everyone he met. He ordered a complete set of transcripts from the trial.

I asked him once about his shameful appearance before HUAC.

"I did what I considered the right thing to do," he said, and offered no regrets.

Kazan did his homework--I did some of his homework, too--and the result was The Assassins, a somewhat overwrought but not bad novel based on the Palacios case--and, to a lesser extent, other similar incidents around the country.

While Kazan was researching and the rest of us had gone our separate ways, the Peter Boyle movie Joe came out. Though not expressly based on the Palacios case, Joe had similar elements. It was a busy time for fathers enraged over wayward daughters.

Out at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Vandenberg Village has changed its name to the far more resident-friendly Kachina Village. The "peace is our profession" sign has long since been taken down. And on Helen Street, Murphey's old house still stands. From the outside, it looks like a young couple lives there, and the place has been spruced up rather smartly.

From the book Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink: Offbeat Travels through America's Southwest, © 2000 Tom Miller. Excerpted with permission from National Geographic Society Books. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved. See Cockfights and the Kitchen Sink for a review of Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink.

TOM MILLER MOVED to Tucson in the 1960s; since then he has written about the Southwest and the foibles of its denizens in such books as On the Border and Arizona: The Land and the People. Among his five other books are Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba and The Panama Hat Trail.

"Death by Misadventure" is excerpted from Miller's new collection of essays and reportage, Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink: Offbeat Travels through America's Southwest. Leaving the tourist trail of mock-adobe condos and souvenir Kachina dolls far behind, this wide-ranging chronicler reveals a place where black-velvet paintings are "handcrafted" on Tijuana assembly lines, chats with the residents of dusty desert towns who stage cockfights to pass the time, and travels to a mountaintop fire tower to meet eco-militant novelist Edward Abbey.

Hewing to his creed that there is no substitute for original research, Miller hunts down the origins and variants of the chimichanga, flirts with Sonia Braga on the set of The Milagro Beanfield War, and wanders through a Texas auction where he nearly buys Jack Ruby's kitchen sink.

Miller will be carting Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink (the book, not the artifact) to several signings this week:

· Friday, December 8, at the Arizona Historical Society Museum, 949 E. Second St., 5 to 7 p.m.

· Saturday, December 9, at Reader's Oasis, 3400 E. Speedway Blvd., Suite 114, 3 to 4 p.m.

· Sunday, December 10, at Borders Books & Music, 4235 N. Oracle Road, 5 to 7 p.m.

· Tuesday, December 12, at the Patagonia Public Library, 342 Duquesne Ave., Patagonia, 6:30 to 8 p.m.

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