"So, buddy," the guy sitting next to me at a Phoenix bar asked me one night in mid-1994, "you really think I could have done something like they say I did? You think I murdered the bastard?"
I looked at him and rolled my eyes, as if to say, you sure you want to go down this path? Undaunted, the 65-year-old man swiveled in his chair to face me directly.
"C'mon, buddy," he said, sounding--as always--like one of Jimmy Cagney's wise-guy characters. "What d'ya think?"
I stalled for time by taking a sip--make that a slug--of wine.
"Could have," I finally said.
"Budddddyyyyy!" he said, in mock horror, then broke into laughter. "You know me. I wouldn't hurt anybody. You really think I could have, huh?"
"Oh, shit. If you think so, what the hell is that jury gonna think?"
That said, John Henry Carpenter turned back to his drink--club soda with lime, no ice--and retreated into the light banter and storytelling that marked most of our many conversations.
In profile, Carpenter looked like the Indian on the old buffalo nickel, befitting his three-quarters Native American heritage. His trial for the 1978 murder of Bob Crane--the famed Colonel Robert Hogan of Hogan's Heroes--was but a few weeks away, and Carpenter was out of jail on bond.
That he'd found himself in this dire predicament so many years after Crane's murder was due largely to the whodunit's natural endurance. Even today, more than two decades after someone bludgeoned Crane to death as he slept in his Scottsdale digs after a dinner-show performance, the case remains one of the nation's more memorable murder mysteries.
The state's theory in a nutshell:
Crane and Carpenter were sex addicts before someone coined the phrase. Carpenter was an expert in video technology (in the mid-1960s, he was Sony's first American-based salesman), and he taught Crane how to crank out homemade pornographic tapes of innumerable sexual encounters. Carpenter reaped the benefits by gaining, uh, access to many of the women eager to hang with Crane and his buddies. But Crane had tired of Carpenter--his friend and frequent traveling companion--and told him to take a hike. A ticked-off Carpenter killed Crane.
The best physical evidence was a small amount of blood that police discovered in Carpenter's rental car shortly after the murder. The blood type was the same as Crane's, found in about one of seven people.
However, for too many reasons to rehash here (including police misconduct and a flimsy motive), the prosecution in 1994 never had much of a chance to convince 12 jurors of Carpenter's guilt.
As a journalist, I was lucky to have met Carpenter. I'd like to think of it as what Carl Jung called a "meaningful coincidence."
One of Carpenter's friends was Mark Dawson, son of Richard Dawson of Family Feud and Hogan's Heroes fame. Dawson had grown up around Carpenter, liked the guy and was dabbling with the idea of doing an insider's documentary on Carpenter's murder trial.
Dawson came to Phoenix shortly after Carpenter's stunning June 1992 arrest looking for a reporter to tell the "truth" about an alleged miscarriage of justice. Someone recommended me.
I crave good murder yarns, and this one was a potential doozie--if only "Carpy," as Dawson called him, could be persuaded to talk. To that end, I flew to Los Angeles and introduced myself to Carpenter at the L.A. County Jail.
That meeting occurred several weeks after the Rodney King riots. The dance that ensued between us was typically improvisational, with Carpenter assuming the role of the cordial but wary interviewer. He asked me many more questions than vice versa.
I had a feeling we'd hit it off when he whispered conspiratorially into his phone from the other side of the Plexiglas. He told me that the black prisoner to his left was Damian "Football" Williams, the rioter caught on videotape smashing a brick into the face of a trucker.
"You think I got troubles," Carpenter told me. "They don't have anything on me but some bullshit police theory, 'cause I didn't do it. They got that guy on tape."
Months passed, and our dance continued long-distance.
Authorities shipped Carpenter to Arizona to await trial, and he spent more weeks behind bars before bonding out. It was about nine months after we met that I took out a pad and pencil for the first time and started asking him questions on the record.
In April 1994, I wrote a three-part series on the Crane case. Much of it wasn't pretty to Carpenter, whom I depicted as a libertine--an entertaining libertine, I gave him that--apparently devoid of any moral base. The series concluded that the likelihood of a murder conviction in the Crane case was slim.
Carpenter returned to California as soon as possible after a Maricopa County jury acquitted him. There, financially ruined and considered a pariah by many onetime friends despite the acquittal, Carpenter found part-time work in a stereo repair shop.
We spoke about once a year after that, usually about the latest television special on the Scottsdale murder case that just won't go away.
I'd kid him, "Hey, John, why don't you fly over here for the weekend? I know this cool little town called Scottsdale."
"Don't think so," he'd reply.
Diana Carpenter called me at home late Thursday night to report her husband's death at the age of 70. Earlier that day, she told me, John Carpenter had dropped dead of a heart attack at their home in Torrance, California.
She'd found him on the floor, less than a half-hour after they'd spoken by phone. To be kind, Carpenter had been a lot of things most folks don't look for in spouses. But Diana loved him--they somehow stayed married for 42 years, including a 13-year separation--even though she was well-aware of his dark side.
"He did some really stupid things in his life," Diana told me on the phone, "but I don't think killing Bob Crane was one of them. He was a nice guy, despite what everyone who never got to know him probably thinks."
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I told Diana about the many pleasant conversations I'd had with Carpenter, times when we weren't talking about the case. She said she knew that, and that's why she'd called me.
"He always got a kick out of you because you wouldn't tell him that you thought he was innocent," Diana told me. "Do you still think he could have done it?"
I didn't have a glass of wine to use as a crutch, so I answered directly.
"But they didn't prove it."
Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org