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If you live in Southern California, odds are better than even that you’ve heard about Twentynine Palms. Deanne Stillman’s 2001 book examines the barbaric rape and murder of 15-year-old Mandi Scott and 20-year-old Rosalie Ortega in August 1991 by a Gulf War veteran. The murderer was stationed at the nearby Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, which occupies over 931 square miles just outside Twentynine Palms in southern San Bernardino County, California. Subtitled A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, the book took Stillman 10 years to write. It’s now considered a classic, its renown resting less on the crime’s lurid details and more on what it exposes about the community, and how violence could erupt there so suddenly.
The details of the crime are horrific. Ortega and Scott were raped then stabbed 33 times each with an 11-inch kitchen knife. The Marine convicted of their murders — a 30-year-old basketball hotshot with two prior sexual assault charges that mysteriously failed to block his recruitment into the Corps — is currently serving two life sentences in prison.
Stillman began covering the story after being gobsmacked by some “bar gossip” in late 1991 or early ’92, and ultimately became both a reporter of the terrible events and a bit player in them. The killer’s lawyers, claiming due process while scrambling to exonerate their client, unsuccessfully subpoenaed Stillman’s notes, which she refused to surrender; thanks to the First Amendment and California’s shield laws, she won her case two months later.
After her book’s publication, an orchestrated campaign of letters to the editor of the Desert Trail newspaper decried its sordid depiction of what certain local residents didn’t want to see about their town: PTSD-dazed veterans, drug dealers, gangs, sober hippies, wife-beating soldiers, teenage moms, and what Stillman calls “a legacy of poverty and violence that goes back for decades.” But others in town responded more positively. When Stillman returned to Twentynine Palms several years later for a talk about her book Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango, she was greeted by an appreciative audience that included a friend of Mandi Scott’s who wanted to shake Stillman’s hand.
Twentynine Palms was reissued in 2008 with a foreword by T. Jefferson Parker and a preface by Charles Bowden, plus an author’s note addressing the 2007 rape and murder of pregnant Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach by Marine Corporal Cesar Laurean. (The crime occurred in North Carolina, not the California desert, but Stillman calls it a “sad echo” of her Twentynine Palms story, “another episode in which the USMC left two bodies on the field — a violation of its longstanding, glorious, unspoken code.”) Late last year, Anthony Mastromauro, the producer of Robert Redford’s 2018 charmer The Old Man and the Gun, took out an option on the book. Stillman hopes to see it brought to life with music on the stage too; for years she’s been writing a play based on Twentynine Palms, and songwriter/guitarist Tony Gilkyson has composed several songs for the project. At the same time, Stillman has published other work, including Mustang: The Saga of a Wild Horse in the American West and Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill.
I recently spoke with Stillman to revisit Twentynine Palms on its 20th anniversary and discuss the American dream, outcasts, personal rights, and the nation’s “dirty little secret”: class.
Twentynine Palms rewrites the California dream as nightmare, would you agree?
I’m talking about the American condition — the promise and failure of the American Dream, as it plays out in California, which is where most people used to go, until the pandemic or economic circumstances prevented them from reaching the edge of the coast. Critics have described this book as the In Cold Blood of this era. The people I’m writing about are stranded and they’re outcasts, but … to me, Rosie and Mandi and their friends are patriots, they’re heroes. They lived in a military town; some of them still do or their kids do now. They take care of Marines, they party with Marines, they cook for Marines, they babysit for the children of Marines, they send them off when they go to war, they greet them when they come home, they sleep with them, they dance with them. They’re an important part of the military community.
Then Mandi and Rosie got killed and were left in Rosie’s bungalow, as it were, as collateral damage. So all of the kids in my story are unsung American heroes. Some of these families, the women have married Marines and soldiers. I’m talking about people who are essential workers in ongoing American life. These are people who are working in bars and bowling alleys and innkeepers at fashionable hotels that are often used by the Hollywood community. But I’m talking about the people who are cleaning the rooms.
Several individuals want to “get out” but distrust traditional structures that might help them achieve that, which resonates in our political moment.
When you think of [Mandi Scott’s mother] Debie offering the $1,000 scholarship, the Mandi Scott scholarship fund to help an average girl get out of town, I was so struck by that. It was one of the most beautiful and at the same time heartbreaking things I’d ever heard. She was taking up a collection in the bar. I write about people coming by and donating matchbook collections and food stamps and small change and whatever they had in order to raise this money to help an average girl get out of town. When you think about it, that’s all it would take. To win it, somebody had to write an essay about what they would do with the money. … The community I’m talking about, there aren’t these familiar structures like a lot of us have, that they could turn to for sustenance and comfort. They have each other. Honestly, the fierce attachments that I saw among Mandi and her friends, the group Debie called the Lunch Box Gang, I’ve almost never seen anything like that elsewhere.
The scene isn’t exactly what people may think at the beginning. I wrote the book because I overheard people gossiping in a bar about two girls “sliced up” by a Marine; I asked who they were and somebody said, “Oh, some trash in town.” I knew from then on I had to tell the story. These kids are written off. And it’s just not right.
No, it’s not. The intense worship of personal rights resonates too, the connection to the Second and Fourth Amendments. That’s ingrained in our national character, but here people take that to extremes.
This very American obsession with personal rights is something that runs through this book and most of my work. One thing that plays out in this book and my others is, our obsession with personal rights in some cases synchs up with personal pathology. In a lot of ways, America is frozen at 12 years old. That thing we learned in third grade, you know, “It’s a free country and I can do what I want,” that’s who a lot of people are. At this point, post-Trump, it’s out of control.
But he tapped into something that already existed: a reflexive distrust of authority and supposed elites, in communities that are traditionally poor. That’s still relevant.
I’m glad you zeroed in on that. Again, it goes to the American condition. One thing a lot of people reading it now zero in on is the sexual violence in town. I wrote this way before the #MeToo movement, although this is a #ThemToo story. In this case, here’s a Marine with a history of sex crimes before joining the corps, while in the corps; it’s ignored, really. Then he kills Mandi and Rosie. This sort of thing just wasn’t being talked about at all to the degree it is now. I have the dirty Gulf War marching cadences as a backdrop to these cultural wars that are going on in this military town, specifically involving girls and women. Don’t forget, the crime I wrote about happened on Dollar Drink Night, which is Marine payday. I don’t know if that’s still going on to the degree that it was when I was working on my book. I heard that that policy has been curtailed somewhat.
Racism is a matter-of-fact element in numerous scenes. Was race a sensitive topic with people when you were researching the book?
Not really. This is a tough-talking crowd; they say epithets for each other all the time. Whether you’re Samoan, Latino, Filipino, black or white, it’s a routine form of conversation, so it’s not front and center as an issue. Race and skin color are dealt with in a joking way across the board, by everybody. And the camaraderie I’m seeing in the military and military communities across the races is like nothing I’ve seen in so-called liberal communities. What I see more often everywhere is class differences. That plays out everywhere. I’m not saying race isn’t a factor; obviously, it’s something we’re all reckoning with at the moment. But, as I say in my book, class is America’s dirty little secret. It’s not so secret anymore. To me, it’s the overriding factor in this story and others I’ve written. Class and desire. I don’t want to boil it down to a census report, but again, it’s about the American promise and its failure and how that affects all these characters.
In the scene where detectives interview the Marine who murdered Mandi and Rosie, you describe a “modern American melting pot”: “not the kind that liberals envision, with representatives of ethnic diversity living happily ever after in harmonious and picturesque neighborhoods, but the way it really was — a gringo, a Latino, and a black guy all hanging out together because there was trouble at the low end of the classes.”
I remember being struck by that.
Have you stayed in touch with Debie or anyone else?
I have. She’s living in the Midwest. And I’m in touch with a few of the other figures who are now grown up and have their own families and so on. B.T., the Marine [who worked at the arcade], is a very good friend, and I speak with him from time to time.
There seemed to be a lack of aspiration among many of the kids. Only Mandi’s sister appeared to be planning specific steps to take her further down the road.
She had more of a father who figured in a different way in her life. I’ve long said that a subtext for this book could be, “Where’s Dad?” One thing that it really shows you is what happens to families that don’t have a father figure — speaking very generally. In some cases, the fathers were off at war, were deployed and so on. But absentee dads are a problem.
Knowing you’re not loved by someone who’s supposed to love you more than anyone else leaves a permanent scar.
Yeah, you see it across the board here. Again, I go back to the girls taking care of each other. They were de facto parents for each other. Some of them were teenagers having babies. So you just see the cycle playing out again and again and again, this legacy being passed on. But when people can break it by way of, say, a $1,000 scholarship, it’s pretty amazing.
Is the Mandi tree planted after the murders still in front of the school?
It was there for a long time, but I couldn’t find it when I looked a couple years ago. There was an art installation in Wonder Valley for a long time called the Mandi tree; an artist from Belgium made it.
As a California writer, what thread do you believe connects your books?
The desert and wide open space, and people who have no voice. Places that people dismiss. There are elements of myth and the sacred that play out here as well. Those are aspects of all of my work, really. … We live in the middle of this great disconnect from the land [and] that leads to all sorts of violence.
Apparently some people who were kids at the time have said the book inspired them to be writers. Do you think they were inspired by the idea of actually writing, or the promise of being heard?
Both, I think. I love that you’re asking. Something I teach in my classes, and what I see time and again in all I do, is that most people feel no one listens to them. And they’re right. I feel like that sometimes. I think anybody can identify with that. But when you take the time to really listen, people will start to reveal themselves. That’s what I find humbling.
Bliss Bowen is a freelance writer, editor, and singer-songwriter.
Deanne Stillman Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer. Her books of literary nonfiction are place-based stories of war and peace in the modern and historical West. Her latest book is Blood Brothers. It’s about the strange friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, and also features Annie Oakley.