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James Ellroy and Steven Parent: A Tale of Two El Montes

January 2, 2022

Every bookworm should at one point undertake a literary pilgrimage. As a James Ellroy scholar I have retraced his steps in Los Angeles and El Monte, among other places. While visiting Arroyo High School in El Monte (where Jean Ellroy’s corpse was discovered) I got chatting to a member of the school staff. She informed me that in addition to all of the Ellroy readers who visited the school, they also received a lot of visits from people who studied the Manson Family murders. In her words, ‘the first victim of the Manson Family went to this school.’

His name was Steven Parent.

An El Monte Upbringing

Jean Ellroy
Jean Ellroy

The early lives of James Ellroy and Steven Parent have many parallels, intersections and strange coincidences. Ellroy was born Lee Earle Ellroy on March 4, 1948, at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. As a child he moved to El Monte with his mother, Jean Ellroy in early 1958. Ellroy’s parents had been through an acrimonious divorce. Jean thought El Monte represented a clean break. Around twenty miles east of LA, it was far enough away from the City of Angels for Jean to live without the fear of constant harassment from her ex-husband Armand. Armand did not own a car and only got to see his son at weekends. Known as ‘Friendly El Monte’, the city was renowned for its low crime rate. Jean and Ellroy lived at 756 Maple Avenue. Jean enrolled Ellroy at Anne LeGore Elementary School. Life seemed to be looking up for Jean. She liked El Monte and the freedom it afforded her. Her son hated it. He wanted to live with his father in LA.

On June 22, 1958, the body of Jean Ellroy was discovered on a road adjacent to a playing field at Arroyo High School. She had been strangled to death. The previous night she had been on a date with a man at a restaurant called Stan’s Drive-In, and was seen with the same man and an unidentified blonde woman at the Desert Inn bar.

The murder of Jean Ellroy would go unsolved. Her ten-year-old son’s reaction to the murder was somewhat indifferent at the time, probably due to shock and the fact that he hated El Monte so much that he was secretly relieved he could now live in LA with his father. However, his life would slowly fall apart from that point on, and the ghosts of El Monte would haunt him for decades.

The Short, Eventful Life of Steven Parent

Steven Parent

Steven Earl Parent was born to Wilfred and Juanita Parent in Los Angeles on February 12, 1951. At some point in 1958, the family moved to 11214 E. Bryant Road, El Monte. Whether their move happened before or after Jean’s murder is a moot point. The murder of Jean Ellroy would have been discussed in the Parent household: murders were not common in El Monte, and Jean’s slaying had been front page news on the LA Times. Naturally, Parent’s parents would want to shield their eldest son Steven, as well as his siblings Janet, Greg and Dale from the disturbing details. One suspects though that the children would have found out about the murder soon enough. Jean had lived less than half a mile away.

Distance from the Parent Household to Jean Ellroy’s House

Steven began attending Arroyo High School in 1965. The following year he started getting into trouble. He was arrested for petty theft and, according to Lori Johnston, there is some evidence to suggest Steven committed several ‘burglaries at area schools’. His crimes were at least in some way spawned by his burning talent. Steven was stealing radios as he was quickly becoming an electronics whizz. He spent two years in juvenile detention where he ‘reportedly tested at near-genius level for electronics.’ Steven graduated from Arroyo High School in June 1969. Two months later he was murdered. Everything in Steven’s life seemed to be heading in the right direction. His run-ins with the law were behind him. He was planning to attend Citrus Azusa College. He was holding down two jobs to save up for the tuition fees, one of which was tied to his love of electronics. Steven worked as a salesman at Jonas Miller Studio in Beverly Hills. He was dating a girl. With life looking so good, what drove Steven to visit 10050 Cielo Drive on August 8, 1969? As Lori Johnston explains, it all happened through a seemingly innocent twist of fate:

In late July, Steven picked up a hitchhiker named William Garretson. This seemingly innocuous act would set the wheels in motion to alter the course of his life. Garretson, an Ohio native, was the summer caretaker for the property located at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. The home, owned by Rudi Altobelli, a manager and producer, was being rented out to director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate. Altobelli normally resided in the guesthouse but had hired Garretson on during the months he was in Europe. After dropping Garretson off at the property, the caretaker told Steven to feel free to drop by anytime he should be in the area.

Steven did drop by, on that fateful night in August with the intention of selling Garretson a clock radio. While he was leaving the property, Steven was accosted by Manson Family members Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian. Watson slashed Steven with a bayonet before shooting him three times. The killers then proceeded to enter the property and murder Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski. Steven Parent has long been regarded as the first victim of the slaughter that happened that evening, although there is some evidence to suggest he may have been the last. In this scenario, Steven arrived at the property shortly after the murders occurred. Stumbling across the multiple murders, he panicked and ran to his car, being killed by Watson as he was trying to leave. However, Linda Kasabian, who served as a witness for the prosecution, testified that she saw Watson murder Steven Parent, and then enter the house with Atkins and Krenwinkel who then proceeded to kill the inhabitants. In any event, Steven was the least known of the five victims that night, which included a movie star (Tate), celebrity hairstylist (Sebring) and heiress (Folger). When the police were first briefing the press about the killings the following day, he was the only victim they had yet to identify.

An article by Morena Duwe argues that the LAPD came close to bungling the homicide investigation. A breakthrough occurred when ‘two Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office homicide detectives, Sergeants Paul Whiteley and Charles Guenther, told Sergeant Jess Buckles, an LAPD detective assigned to the Tate homicides, that they had discovered the body of 34-year-old music teacher Gary Hinman, who had been stabbed in his Malibu home. What was remarkable about this case was that the words “POLITICAL PIGGY” were written in his blood on the living room wall.’ This provided a solid connection between the murders as Susan Atkins had written pig on the front door at Cielo Drive with Tate’s blood.

Crosscurrents

Lee Earle Ellroy Mug Shot

By the late sixties, Lee Earle Ellroy was in the midst of his own burglary spree, targeting Hancock Park houses belonging to the families of young women he knew socially. Ellroy found burglary to be relatively easy at first. He would telephone the house in advance. If no one answered the call, he was reasonably confident the property was empty and he would look for access through a cat flap or an unlocked window. It was the public’s reaction to the Manson Family murders which persuaded Ellroy to stop committing burglaries: ‘I started to see more and more alarm tape on windows, people were getting dogs, there were stickers for the Bel Air Patrol and Hollywood Patrol, private companies that patrolled the swankier areas’.

Ellroy stopped burglarising houses but his life remained turbulent over the next few years as he endured such horrors as drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness and jail-time. Like Steven Parent, Ellroy also did time in Juvenile Detention. His description of Georgia Street Juvenile Facility is far more graphic and terrifying than any of his later experiences in jail: ‘Darkness jump-started my imagination. I put myself through a string of jail horrors and cried myself to sleep.’ Fortunately for Ellroy, the father of a friend was a cop and he managed to wangle Ellroy six months’ probation as an ’emancipated juvenile’. Ellroy joined AA in 1977 and began to turn his life around, embracing sobriety and beginning what would become a spectacular writing career. Ellroy became renowned for incorporating the key events in LA’s criminal history, such as the Black Dahlia murder and the Bloody Christmas police brutality scandal, into his novels. Of the Manson Family, he has written relatively little, although Manson and his acolytes do appear in Ellroy’s novel Killer on the Road (also published as Silent Terror).

Killer on the Road is one of Ellroy’s least well-known novels, despite being one of his most autobiographical works of fiction. The story follows the first-person reminiscences of serial killer Martin Plunkett. Ellroy borrowed heavily from his own life-story to flesh out Plunkett’s back-story. Plunkett has an alcoholic mother and languid, uncaring father, heavily modelled on Ellroy’s parents. Early in his criminal career he is somewhat enamoured by the reputation of the Manson Family, meeting two of Manson’s female followers – Flower and Season.

Later though, Plunkett is serving time at the LA County Jail where he meets Manson. He is so disgusted by Manson’s shambolic appearance and incoherent ramblings that he verbally humiliates him in full view of prison staff.

In a rather unsavoury novel in which Plunkett murders dozens of people, his haranguing of Manson, forever destroying his mystique, is probably the most morally courageous act Plunkett commits. Ellroy and Manson both served time in LA County Jail, although they never met. Ellroy did meet Charlie Guenther and describes him as ‘the man who really broke the Charles Manson case’. Ellroy met Guenther when he launched his own private investigation into his mother’s murder, which lasted from September 1994 to December 1995, and which he documented in his memoir My Dark Places. Ellroy teamed up with retired LASD detective Bill Stoner to assist him in the investigation. Stoner and Guenther had been partners on the Cotton Club murder case. Ellroy interviewed Guenther over a tip he received in 1970 from Shirley Miller. Shirley claimed her husband, Will Lenard Miller, had murdered Jean after dating her when they worked together at Airtek Dynamics. Miller was apparently enraged when Jean rejected a medical claim he had submitted. Guenther interviewed Miller at Orange County Jail. Miller agreed to take a polygraph test about the murder and passed it. Guenther informed Ellroy that Miller had not been a plausible suspect.

Generations

When Jean Ellroy was murdered in 1958, the homicide investigation was handled by the LA Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau, known today as ‘the Bulldogs’. In his 1995 GQ article ‘The Tooth of Crime’, Ellroy noted how the Bulldogs now ‘investigate about 500 snuffs a year’. He adds ‘There were 14 Bulldogs in 1958. There are 140 today’. A quarter of century on from when that article was published, LA finds itself in the grip of another crimewave.

The murders of Jean Ellroy and Steven Parent occurred a little over ten years apart, and both in their way symbolised the end of their respective decades. In the 50s, LA had gone through an economic boom and the middle-classes were rapidly expanding. In the 60s, riots broke out in US cities and the younger generation was clamouring for progressive change. The murders of Jean and Parent both served as brutal reminders of how tragedy can strike at the heart of the American ideal. El Monte was never quite the same ideal suburb after Jean’s murder, and the bizarre beliefs of the Manson Family brought a lot of the prevailing hippy and new age beliefs into disrepute. Steven Parent and James Ellroy had several things in common, aside from sharing the middle name Earl(e). They were both highly talented teens who ran into trouble with the law. Ellroy was lucky to survive his vices and the traumas that were inflicted on him. Perhaps his extraordinary writing career is his acknowledgement of this, as he is both making up for lost time and grateful that he is still alive. Today, in his mid-seventies, Ellroy shows no sign of slowing down.

Steven Parent was not so lucky, and his brutal murder robbed him of what would have been, given his drive and determination, an extremely bright future. At least the Parent family received justice. Two of the killers from that night are still in prison today. The murderer of Jean Ellroy was never found, alive or dead, but perhaps one day El Monte’s oldest mystery will finally be solved.

Sixty-four years after Jean’s murder, the Ellroy family is still waiting for justice.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel permalink
    January 2, 2022 6:36 pm

    Interesting article as always. I spent a week in LA in 2018 and although it wasn’t specifically designed to be an Ellroy tour I did end up seeing quite a bit from the Ellroy universe. I stayed in the heart of Hollywood right next to Grauman’s and across the street from the Roosevelt Hotel. Down the street was the Egyptian while one night at dinner at Musso and Franks there was actually an Ellroy lookalike sitting across from us that had me excited for a few minutes. I also had a chance to drive through Hancock Park and see Ellroy’s former home at the Ravenwood. Even had a very interesting “After Dark” tour at Paramount Studios that focused on the dark side of Hollywood, including a visit to Hollywood Forever Cemetery that included the graves of Bugsy Siegel and Harry Cohn. If anything, it gave me a much greater understanding of the geography of LA and how it relates to Ellroy’s novels.

    • January 2, 2022 7:04 pm

      Thank you Daniel! That sounds like a fantastic trip. I loved LA but, unlike New York say, I benefitted from having well-planned itinerary before I visited. The lack of public transportation means it doesn’t lend itself well to pedestrians or anyone who just wants to take off and wander. Geography is Destiny as Ellroy might say.

      • Dan permalink
        January 2, 2022 10:55 pm

        Yes, in my case it was a combination of Uber rides and the fact that tour buses were headquartered in the same complex as the hotel.

        Any update on the big announcement you mentioned awhile back (I think it was on the Ellroy Boys podcast) that you were hoping to be able to reveal early in the new year?

      • January 3, 2022 9:18 am

        I’m glad you’re taking an interest in this book as it will be of great interest to anyone who is even remotely a fan of Ellroy, and to many people who aren’t I hope. It’s a little early yet, but I hope to announce by February or March.

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