Murder at New College
“So Montoya, if you’re a lapsed Catholic, why do you wear a gold cross?”
“Same reason you wear a silver St. Christopher’s medal, Brautigan—culture.”
“Culture, hell, I wear it because my mother gave it to me.”
“So, if we got married at Mission Dolores, would you wear a white gown and tiara?”
“If we got married at Mission Dolores, it wouldn’t be to each other.”
Phil Brautigan, the homicide detective assigned to investigate the murder of New College president Thomas Jefferson, grew up down the street from the school on Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission district, raised by his Irish immigrant mother in a faded apartment above the bookstores and coffee shops where many of the school’s students now resided. Since making detective ten years ago, Brautigan had moved to North Beach. His partner, Luisa Montoya, still lived in the Mission.
New College, a hotbed of queers, New-Agers, and armchair Marxists, had managed to survive the Republican defunding of higher education by underpaying its faculty and overcharging its students. It had been known to cancel classes without notice, fire whole departments, and regularly bounce checks to everyone. Cronyism, like everywhere, was rampant. Still without any leads on who might have poisoned President Jefferson’s water cooler, Detective Brautigan figured he had it narrowed down to about a thousand disgruntled former students, faculty, and staff.
“Nice building. I’ve walked by it a million times, but never went inside,” said Montoya.
“When I was a kid, it was a funeral home. The hippies made it into a college,” said Brautigan.
“Well, I guess that’s full circle, huh?”
“How do you mean?”
“There’s a stiff waiting upstairs.”
“You’re a sick person, Montoya. Glad we called off the wedding.”
“Who says it was ever on?”
On the other hand, he speculated, it could easily have been some parent or religious fanatic disgusted by the school’s openly supportive programs for gays and lesbians and other points along the sexual preference spectrum, so flamboyantly displayed in the city’s annual Gay Pride Parade. Lieutenant Montoya, at present, opted for the right-wing, pro-Zionist, anti-Communist angle. The New College Board of Trustees were clueless.
When Brautigan and Montoya examined the body of President Jefferson Friday afternoon, his face was still ruddy from the potassium cyanide he’d ingested that morning. His secretary, who had Fridays off, was in the Financial Aid office trembling. The librarian, whose office was on the other side of the restrooms from the president’s suite, was attempting to help her relax.
“Here, Ronda, take this Valium, it’ll calm you down.”
“Where’d you get the water, Lorena? I’m not drinking from the water coolers.”
“It’s from the tap in the restroom. It’s OK.”
The absence of any security system on the wide-open Valencia Street campus made entry to the premises a piece of cake. In fact, the Mission police station was regularly called to eject disruptive homeless people and drug addicts that often wandered into the school café or restrooms looking for handouts or a place to shoot up. While there was no reason to suspect vagrants in such a crime, Brautigan and Montoya were, nevertheless, aware of the futility of asking if anyone had seen someone suspicious that day. Hell, that was the norm.
Potassium cyanide wasn’t exactly something folks carried around with them, but neither was it a rare substance. Jewelers used it to buff gold. You could order it online.
New College had a Science Institute on its Fell Street campus next to its law school, but the likelihood of the murderer being someone studying to be a nurse or scientist seemed like a long shot to Brautigan. Still, just to cover all angles, he sent Montoya over to talk with the lab professor before classes started on Saturday morning. Meanwhile, he continued interviewing administrative personnel that often worked Saturdays in lieu of Friday in order to be available to students who attended weekend programs.
By Sunday, all Brautigan and Montoya knew that they hadn’t on Friday was that President Jefferson had croaked almost instantly from cardiac arrest, which explained why he was found sitting on his visitors sofa, and thus no reports of hearing him fall or scream from the other offices on the second floor of the building. In fact, had it not been for an appointment with one of the trustees involved in brokering the skyline development rights of the law school on the San Francisco real estate market, the body could easily not have been found until Monday morning, when President Jefferson’s secretary was scheduled to return. Brautigan wondered if this knowledge was something the murderer was aware of, or if it was just a lucky coincidence. At this point, neither he nor Montoya could say for sure that the killer was targeting the school president.
Aside from the usual articles about reproductive rights movie night, queer performance, and study tours to Iran, the New College website revealed little in terms of solid leads, other than one story run a while back about President Jefferson’s trip to Guatemala to meet with former guerilla leaders and priests involved in fighting that country’s military dictatorship in the 1980s and 1990s. Harmless on the surface, figured Brautigan, but as Montoya argued, there were lasting hostilities among both the aristocrats, evangelicals, and peasant Mayans—many of whom lived in the Mission district—from the decades of atrocities, and the public display of support for the indigenous side by New College was bound to offend someone.
“Hey, Montoya, you ever notice any class conflict between right-wing and left-wing Mayans here?”
“There aren’t any right-wing Mayans, Brautigan. The right-wing in Guatemala is Spanish.”
“So how do they get along here?”
“Most immigrants are poor. The handful of aristocrats here don’t mix with the peasants. They keep their contempt to themselves. My family is from Puebla, north of Mexico City, but we aren’t culturally Indians, even though we have some Mixtec blood.”
Miguel Martinez, head of operations at New College, had opened up early on the Friday Jefferson was killed, and remembered seeing the president arrive around nine while he was talking to the café supervisor across the street about upgrading the wiring for her espresso cart. The only people in the building before President Jefferson arrived were the librarian, Lorena Phillips, and the tech support assistant, Ronaldo Guzman. Neither of them had seen anyone else.
The water bottling and delivery company, likewise, provided no leads. Same with President Jefferson’s two teenage sons up in Petaluma. All they said was that he’d been a lot happier lately now that he had a girlfriend. Evidently his divorce a year ago had been tough on all three of them. His ex-wife was living in Santa Cruz, and had a rock solid alibi from her professor and cohort in the UC grad school History of Consciousness program all day Friday. Juanita Jefferson had spent Thursday down in Monterey doing research at the international relations language school, and stayed the night with friends there.
Louella Bernstein, who ran the coffee cart and snack bar at the school, said President Jefferson usually came over for a morning coffee break around ten thirty, but hadn’t come over on Friday. Of course, he was beyond the need for caffeine by then.
Louella was also in charge of ordering the bottled water jugs for the two buildings, but that fact didn’t seem to lead anywhere. The jugs were sealed until maintenance personnel trucked them around and hefted them onto the cooler stands. After that, you’d have a tough time putting anything in it without making a noticeable mess.
As it turned out, the trace of potassium cyanide in the disposable water cooler cup found next to the body was a false lead. The water in the cooler was clean. Which raised the possibility of suicide, but nothing else pointed in that direction. Jefferson’s notes, computer, and files had nothing unusual in them. There was no bottle in the room, no container of any sort.
The casement window in the reference room around the corner and up a flight from the Librarian’s office was open when Lieutenant Montoya looked over the premises on Friday, and appeared not to have been closed over the weekend when she returned Monday to speak with the work/study students who helped out in the library and often locked up in the evening, long after the librarian had gone home for the day. The students admitted that sometimes they forgot to close it before leaving, but that the only way onto the roof from the alley would be with a ladder or by hopping from an adjacent roof onto the school’s. None of which, of course, was a major obstacle, and for what it was worth, a possibility that someone had come in on Thursday between ten p.m. and eight a.m. and put poison into a Dixie cup that was later topped off with water and consumed by President Jefferson. Not a likely scenario, to say the least.
What it did point out, though, was that security was pretty lax, which was confirmed by the students who remarked about the computers in the lab next door being stolen in broad daylight by someone who simply walked out the back door with them into the alley one day. Looking for security clues seemed a waste of time.
As first generation San Francisco Irish, Detective Brautigan was already aware of the school’s Irish Studies program, and the Irish Language Immersion Weekend at the United Irish Cultural Center on 45th at Sloat. He even attended a couple of the poetry readings at the Civic Center public library during the Crossroads Festival. Brautigan really enjoyed the Celtic Appalachian Celebration, and once he saw Van Morrison.
Looking at the online news and events for the previous month, he noticed New College, and President Jefferson personally, were listed as sponsors of a talk at the Irish Cultural Center by two members of Sinn Fein, one of whom had hidden out in the city as a fugitive for the past ten years. When questioned, though, neither of them acknowledged any personal relationship with the president. They figured he was just one of the millions of Irish-Americans that feel an affinity for the liberation struggle in the north of Ireland, and occasionally donate funds at events where they speak.
As part of the divorce settlement, Jefferson’s ex-wife was still receiving a monthly support payment from his salary, which logically speaking seemed to rule her out as a suspect. His girlfriend, who ran the theater recently acquired by the college on 16th, had no idea who could possibly have wanted to kill him. Having recently finished graduate school back east, though, Elaine Richardson admittedly knew little about Jefferson’s past acquaintances or activities. Brautigan couldn’t help wondering how some of the older ultra-feminist professors at the school felt about the president dating someone half his age, but it was Montoya who brought it up.
“I wonder if she and Jefferson became an item before or after the divorce?”
“Regardless of when they met,” Brautigan remarked, “who might not have been too happy about it? Might have been downright hostile over it.”
Lieutenant Montoya met the two Jefferson boys at Petaluma High School during their lunch break Monday afternoon. They said as far as they knew, Elaine had not met their father until just recently. She only came to the house once, when she and their dad were on their way to a retreat in Mendocino for a weekend last month. They thought she was OK, kind of like a big sister in a way.
The Dean of Students at Radcliffe, where Elaine had studied until just before Christmas, said that she knew zip about Ms. Richardson’s personal life, and that she last resided at a boarding house near the campus that had a regular turnover of students. She gave Montoya the address and phone number, but was otherwise no help. When Montoya phoned the boarding house, she got a recorded message.
Meanwhile, Brautigan drove down to Santa Cruz where he met Juanita Jefferson in the campus coffee shop across from the library. She was already most of the way through a double latte when he approached and said, “You’re Juanita, I recognize you from the photo your son has.”
“Yes, sorry I didn’t wait, but I’ve been up worrying about the boys all night. I suppose their grandmother is taking good care of them, but I’d like to be with them. She and I don’t get along, though, and it seemed best to let them come see me when they have a chance to drive down here on their own.”
“I can imagine how tense things are with the in-laws, what with a divorce and murder, teenagers and a new girl friend to deal with. Have you met Miss Richardson?”
“You don’t waste any time, do you detective? I heard about his sweet young thing from the boys, but we’ve never met. I don’t expect that to change. I wasn’t planning on going to the funeral.”
“I see,” said Brautigan, “no false remorse, no regrets?”
“Let’s just say my regrets are mine. Anything else I can help you with?”
“Yeah, I see from the settlement that your ex-husband got the house and you get a monthly stipend for ten years. That seem fair to you?”
“Fair enough, I mean I don’t think I could have done better with the boys nearly grown and the house a wreck. A thousand a month keeps me off the street while I complete my advanced degree. After that, we’ll see what happens.”
“What happens now that there’s no stipend, seeing how there’s no salary to pay it from? How will you manage?”
“I have a little saved up, and I’ll have to talk with my attorney to figure out the rest. I guess my former in-laws will probably sell the house and move the boys in with them while they finish high school. Maybe that’ll give me enough to land on my feet. Who knows.”
“You’ll let me know of any developments, then?”
“Sure, detective, we’ll be regular pen pals.”
When Montoya’s phone rang, she spilled her coffee reaching for it, and said, “Shit!” as she lifted the receiver.
“Yeah, sorry, I spilled my coffee as you were calling. Who’s this?”
“This is Roberta LaFarge, the manager of the Tory Terrace apartments where Elaine Richardson used to live. I got your message when I returned from shopping just now. Has something happened to Elaine?”
“No, but her boy friend in San Francisco was apparently murdered, and we’re checking out everyone close to him for leads. Do you know if Miss Richardson had a boy friend while she lived in your building?”
“I wouldn’t know, but maybe one of the other girls would. I could ask around if you’d like.”
“That’d be great Miss LaFarge. You can call me collect.”
Brautigan wasn’t particularly enamored with the lovely ex-Mrs. Jefferson, but he didn’t think she was the type to commit murder in order to collect early on her divorce settlement. Still, the drive down the coast was a chance for him to unwind and sort out some of the oddities of this case. The victim had no apparent enemies, a beautiful young girl friend, a low pressure job with a big salary, and two great kids. It didn’t make sense.
Ronda McClure, President Jefferson’s executive secretary, was doing a lot better with the Valium and three days rest. When Brautigan found her at her apartment on Russian Hill, she looked like she’d been enjoying herself. At age sixty, that might not mean much. Maybe she’d just polished off a glass of sherry.
“You’re looking better than you were Friday. Manage to get some rest Ms. McClure?”
“Yes, detective, these Valium pills Lorena gave me helped a lot. Have you found out anything?”
“Nope, that’s why I’m here,” replied Brautigan, “to see if you might have thought of something. Anything, anything unusual.”
“Well, it’s funny you should mention it, but when I came down after your call on Friday, I thought it was strange that the office was so dark. President Jefferson always opened the blinds first thing, so he could look out at the students walking back and forth from the café to the main building. Sort of like he was a captain of a ship on the bridge, and the crew was below on deck. He always felt like a father to them, the young people attending New College. They were going to change the world like he and his friends had done in the sixties.”
“I take it you weren’t one of them yourself? I mean, not an activist?”
“No, I was opposed to the war and all, but I wasn’t a hippie or revolutionary like Angela Davis. You know she taught at our school once for a short while?”
“No, I hadn’t heard that. Was that while you were there?”
“No, I’ve only been at New College for three years. Ms. Davis was there back in the seventies, after she got acquitted for providing guns to some of the Black Panthers doing time at San Quentin that were later involved in a shootout with the Marin County Sheriff’s Department over in San Rafael. Pretty weird, huh?”
“Yeah, I vaguely remember that. It was before I was a cop. Anything else besides the blinds that seemed out of place to you?”
“No, that was all. I didn’t think of it until just now when you asked.”
“Well, if you think of anything else, give me a call. By the way, you and Jefferson get along OK? I gotta ask, you know.”
“Sure, I understand detective. We didn’t have any problems between us. I mostly kept track of his appointments and typed his letters. He never hassled me.”
Lorena Phillips, the main campus librarian, made no bones about her displeasure with President Jefferson. When Lieutenant Montoya questioned her about him, she called him arrogant, said he was a little too full of himself, used to, “parade around the hallways like our delusional national president.”
“You didn’t care for him, I take it,” said Montoya.
“Oh, he had his good qualities, too, but I think he was losing his grip on reality. Like he was some big shot university president, instead of a dinky little college running on empty. He had a big ego.”
“He ever do anything unfair toward you?”
“Nothing to speak of. Just his attitude, but I can live with that. There are a lot of big egos around here. Probably like there are on a lot of campuses.”
“What do you think of his girl friend, Ms. Richardson?”
“I don’t give her a lot of thought. She’s young, inexperienced, but polite enough. I rarely encounter her; the theater maintains its own archives separately from the library. She only stopped by to go to lunch now and then.”
Elaine Richardson’s former roommate from Radcliffe, Joni DellaRosa said that Elaine’s boyfriend there, John Monroe, had been upset when she took the job in San Francisco. He even flew out there once last year to attempt to persuade her to return to the east coast where he was employed as an IT specialist at Harvard. Ms. DellaRosa hadn’t seen him since then. She only spoke with Elaine once by phone after he’d returned unsuccessful. Elaine seemed happy about the change.
When Montoya inquired about Mr. Monroe’s whereabouts on Friday, Harvard personnel said he was at work all week.
Brautigan and Montoya decided to pay a visit to the twenty or so jewelers in the Mission District to see if any of them polished their own jewelry, if they used potassium cyanide, and if they recognized a photo of President Jefferson. As it turned out, only half of them buffed their own merchandise, and only three used potassium cyanide. None of them recognized the photo.
Ms. Richardson wore a gold necklace, but she’d had it since childhood. President Jefferson had no jewelry on at all. His ex-wife said he only wore a wedding ring, and had no metallurgical hobbies. His son’s and mother confirmed this.
Louise Bollinger, the librarian’s new assistant, was an octogenarian former history professor who’d been involuntarily retired but out of mercy retained as half-time administrative assistant to Lorena Phillips. When Lorena asked her if she’d heard about Jefferson’s death when she arrived for work on Tuesday, she said she saw it on TV, and figured it must have something to do with the law school students who were on strike against the 30% tuition hike imposed over the holidays. Lorena, who always took Louise’s theories with a grain of salt, nevertheless asked why someone would murder over a tuition rate increase.
“Because they’ve staked their future on passing the bar, and if they can’t finish law school, they might blame the president,” replied Ms. Bollinger.
“But it still seems a little far-fetched to commit murder,” argued Ms. Phillips.
“People have killed for less,” insisted Louise.
“I think you’ve been reading too much Miss Marple since you retired,” said Lorena.
“I mean, since starting work here in the library,” she corrected herself, remembering how sensitive Professor Bollinger was to the prospect of being put out to pasture as it were.
“What do you think about the poison. Isn’t that what they use in all those English murder mysteries you read?”
“Sometimes, but it’s more famous as the death of choice by spies and dictators at the end of the line. Several Nazis used it when the Allies were at the gates of Berlin. It’s not hard to make; I could whip it up in no time in the lab. We used to make all kinds of poisons in grad school.”
Lorena recalled that Louise had a master’s degree in chemistry, and used to conduct undergrad remedial science for adults completing their BAs who lacked sufficient science credits.
When Lieutenant Montoya walked in, they were still discussing Himmler and Hitler and other scoundrels who’d taken the quick way out rather than face trial.
“So that’s what librarians talk about when they’re not shushing students, huh?”
“We were just talking about some of the historical uses of potassium cyanide by notorious monsters. Louise was telling me about students making poisons in science class back in the old days.”
“I see. A popular past time in academia is it?”
“Only for young women with wild imaginations,” answered Ms. Bollinger with a chuckle.
“When I checked with the science institute director, he said those chemicals are in every science lab in the country, but that they don’t intentionally combine such substances except in highly-controlled studies, and that he had not allowed his students to do so.”
“Thank God for that,” Ms. Phillips remarked.
“What can we do for you today, Lieutenant?”
“Some of your students mentioned they forget to close the back window, and I wondered if you noticed if it was open Friday morning when you opened up?”
“I can’t remember if it was or not. Did you find something?”
“No, just checking loose ends is all.”
When Lorena Phillips ascended the escalator at the 16th & Mission BART station Tuesday morning, she thought she recognized Sabrina, one of her former work/study students from four years ago, across the street headed toward Valencia. She called out, ”Sabrina, is that you?”
The young lady turned and smiled as she recognized Lorena, and came jogging across to see her.
“When did you get back from Australia. What have you been doing?”
“Well, we toured with the circus for six months after I left New College when they cancelled our fall semester, and then I went to Florida for awhile, and I got back here a couple months ago, but haven’t found work. I injured my shoulder, so trapeze work is out. I’m hoping to pick up those four credits I need to graduate, and then maybe I can do some dance instruction or something. I’m checking with City College about it tomorrow.”
“It’s so great to see you. We had such a good time while you were working in the library.”
“Yeah, I might have gone to grad school there if they hadn’t pulled the rug out from under us just before we could graduate. I’m still kinda pissed about that.”
“It was a rotten deal, all right. But now you’re back. Was Australia fun?”
“It was OK. Kinda hot. Real dusty. I’ll stop by and talk sometime. Right now I gotta meet somebody.”
Lorena continued on up the street toward the school, and remembered she had forgotten to tell Sabrina she had a photo of the library staff with her in it that she might want a copy of. “Oh well,” she thought, “I’ll tell her when she stops by.”
When she passed Mariachi’s Mexican restaurant, Lorena saw Rita Hallsworth inside having lunch, and went in to say hello. Rita had also been one of her work/study students a few years back, and was in the photo she promised herself to find for Sabrina. Rita was presently working as a K-12 counselor in Oakland, but also worked at the New College family counseling clinic from time to time.
“Hi Rita,” Lorena said, “Guess who I just saw on 16th? Sabrina. What a surprise, huh?”
“Oh, cool. I wish I’d seen her. She was a nice person. What’s she doing now?”
“Looking for work, like a lot of former students are these days. Said she had a good time in Australia, though.”
“What’s up with you Lorena?”
“Well, not much except the murder investigation.”
“Murder? Who got murdered?”
“Thomas Jefferson. He was found poisoned in his office Friday morning.”
“Oh my God, Lorena. Who would do something like that?”
“I don’t know. The police don’t seem to have any leads, either. Louise Bollinger says it reminds her of Miss Marple mysteries. It sounds like a revenge killing to me.”
When Rita went into the clinic reception area, Ronda McClure was sitting by the window, and turned around to greet her.
“Hi Rita, I was wondering if I could talk with you for a minute before you open? I’ve been so upset over Thomas’ death I haven’t been able to sleep without taking pills. I thought maybe you could recommend something.”
“Sure, Ronda, come on in. I don’t have any clients until two-thirty.”
“Thanks. I only knew Thomas for a year, but we were close work companions. He was a real gentleman. I couldn’t believe it when Lorena called me on my cell phone that morning. I had to take Valium to keep from having a nervous breakdown.”
“That’s not unusual with unexpected trauma like that. Are you still taking them?”
“A couple times a day, and then sleeping pills before bedtime. Is that dangerous?”
“Not as long as you don’t combine it with alcohol. But talk with your physician. I can’t prescribe meds or advise you professionally other than to suggest you discuss how you feel with a friend or counselor.”
“Well, it’s like I don’t know how to feel, which is kind of strange. I cried uncontrollably at first, but since Friday, I’ve been sort of stunned, like in a trance.”
“It’s a big shock. It’ll take a while to come to terms with it. Is the school planning any staff support group activity?”
“Not that I know of. But maybe they’re waiting to see what the police turn up.”
“Well, I’ll speak with the Dean and some others to see what we might do. I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks Rita. I feel better talking with you.”
When Ronda left the clinic, she saw Elaine Richardson passing the Luna Café down the street, and turned to walk the other direction, even though she was going to the bus stop where Elaine was now waiting for the light. She just couldn’t bring herself to talk about the murder anymore that afternoon. And she didn’t particularly like Elaine, even though she was nice enough to her. Maybe it was the age difference that made it difficult to hold a conversation together. She turned down 18th without looking back.
At the funeral on Wednesday, Elaine sat with President Jefferson’s parents, while Juanita Jefferson sat across the aisle with her two sons. Ronda, Lorena, and Louise—along with friends, staff and faculty, filled the pews behind. Brautigan and Montoya watched from the back.
Nothing unusual happened, no feud or nervous breakdown, no recriminations as is wont to happen in divorced families sometimes. Ronda was a little tipsy, but well-behaved under the circumstances. Outside, after the ceremony, Detective Brautigan approached Ms. McClure to ask how she was holding up, and if she had thought of anything since their talk on Monday.
“Much better, thank you detective, but I still don’t understand how anybody could have wanted Thomas dead. He was always helping people.”
“Maybe it wasn’t somebody in their right mind,” he answered. “It’s a pretty crazy world, you know.”
Lieutenant Montoya, meanwhile, was busy extending her condolences to the family and girl friend. When they started to get in their cars, she called Elaine Richardson aside to ask her a couple questions.
“When was it you last saw Thomas alive?”
“Thursday night, after work we went to The Phoenix for a beer. We had a couple sandwiches and left about eight. I had a report to work on, so I went back to the office when he went home.”
“Did you talk on the phone between then and Friday morning?”
“No. That was the last time we spoke.The next thing I knew was when Ronda phoned to tell me he was dead.”
“Ronda phoned you? Not Lorena?”
“Yeah, Ronda. She was pretty worked up, almost hysterical. She said Lorena had just phoned her to come down to the school, where you and Detective Brautigan were busy examining the body and asking what anyone might have seen. She must have been on her way already, because she was on her cell phone, and it wasn’t coming in real clear.”
Montoya managed to catch Lorena before she hopped a bus, and asked her if she remembered calling Elaine on Friday when Detective Brautigan asked her to phone the administrative staff not present to let them know. Lorena said, “Yeah, I talked with her, but she said Ronda had just let her know before I called.”
“Was Ronda on a cell phone when you reached her?”
“Well yeah, that’s the number I have for her and Elaine and most of the staff I deal with. I don’t talk with them in the evenings, so I don’t keep their home phone numbers in my rolodex. Is something wrong?”
“No, just double checking all the details. Sometimes we find a lead that way. Not this time, I guess. Thanks for your help.”
When Brautigan found Montoya on the sidewalk, he suggested they compare notes over coffee at Kelly’s down the block. He needed some fresh air after the stuffy funeral parlor, and Kelly’s had outside tables where they could talk without being overheard.
Thursday evening, at the New College emergency meeting of the board of trustees, it was decided to offer a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of President Jefferson’s murderer. The $10,000 reward was announced on the KPFA program Flashpoints, broadcast live from the New College performing arts center Friday evening. By the time Detective Brautigan and Lieutenant Montoya learned of it on Saturday afternoon, the school switchboard had received thirty messages of dubious repute. One even suggested it was an act of God for supporting the homosexual lifestyle.
“The New College of California Board of Trustees are offering a ten thousand dollar reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who murdered New College president Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a visionary; he and Pedro Gabriel headed the Council of Elders--the true fiduciaries of the College’s soul in its mission for a just, sacred and sustainable world. His quest to create a meaningful cultural reality as the centerpiece of the movement, that depends on a radical transformation of social relationships to enable people to confirm one another, to recognize one another in a new way, to see one another in a new way that implies attentiveness to the—for lack of a better word--spiritual environment, inspired all of us to commit to this reality so that people can feel the capacity to act from the heart, rather than just out of a battle for power or an attempt to redistribute material resources or expand legal rights. Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in creating experiences of being together, that feel better, more empowering, and more real than the alienated communities on which people are currently dependent for their social identities. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was a pioneer in the politics of meaning.”
Worse than the off-the-wall phone calls, were the marginally sane people popping in off the street into the school lobby with fanciful stories to offer in exchange for claiming the prize. By Monday it had become such a problem that the college found it necessary to rent a security guard to post at the entrance to keep these treasure-seekers from bothering the administrative staff.
Meanwhile, Brautigan and Montoya now had to comb through the messages in addition to working on their theory that the murder might have been an inside job.
Monday afternoon, when Lieutenant Montoya picked up the cell phone records for New College staff for the week of the murder, she wasn’t sure what, exactly, she was looking for. After an hour and a half, it looked like another dead end, until she recalled the remark Elaine Richardson made about Ronda McClure’s fuzzy phone call the morning of the murder.
The phone records listed the numbers and persons phoned, duration and location of calls by city, but to get the precise location of cell phones while a call was connected, Montoya had to get the phone companies’ internal tech support specialists to track back through archived GPS positioning data—information that might and might not be retained in the cell phones themselves—in order to find out where Ronda was when she received Lorena Phillips’ call, and where she was when she phoned Elaine Richardson with the news of President Jefferson’s death.
Tuesday morning, Lieutenant Montoya and Detective Brautigan arrived at Ronda McClure’s apartment on Russian Hill just as she was getting out of the shower. They had a warrant.
When Montoya informed Ms. McClure that they already knew she was on the premises of New College when she received the call from the librarian Lorena Phillips, Ronda broke down and spilled her guts, literally and figuratively. She claimed she had gone to confront Thomas over his affair with “that child” Elaine Richardson, and threaten to kill herself with the potassium cyanide she’d stolen from the science lab, but after pouring it into a cup of water when she saw him arrive in the parking lot, She’d gone quickly into the restroom next door to throw up, and when she came back out, President Jefferson was downing a couple aspirins with the cup she’d set down on his desk.
When Thomas collapsed onto the sofa, Ronda had run down the back stairs and hidden in the old elevator shaft that now served as a janitorial supply closet. Less than an hour later, her cell phone rang.