The Wonderland Murders are one of the most infamous cases in Los Angeles history, and Michael Connelly and Rick Jackson are giving true crime fans unprecedented access in their new Audible podcast The Wonderland Murders & The Secret History of Hollywood.
In 1981, Laurel Canyon was the site of brutal slayings that would have ripple effects for decades to come. Rick spent 34 years working for the Los Angeles Police Department, with almost three decades of that in homicide; he has a lengthy relationship with award-winning author Connelly that includes consulting on Amazon’s hit series Bosch.
Now as Connelly plunged into this infamous case, Rick joined him as an executive producer—and joined me to speak about what this podcast has to offer that others don’t and why it’s worth going back to this case 40 years later.
Brittany Frederick: You’ve worked with Michael Connelly on numerous projects. How did you become part of The Wonderland Murders specifically?
Rick Jackson: I’ve worked with Michael on his books as a consultant for probably 17 years, was involved in the Bosch TV show for the first couple of years as a technical advisor, and we’ve established a friendship as well [through] other projects that we’ve been involved in. This one in particular, I came up with the idea, and I knew Mike was always interested in the Wonderland case.
I obviously had contact with Tom Lange and Bob Souza, people I worked with who were the original detectives on the Wonderland case. And I’ve also dealt with Scott Thorsen for 33 years, which is a story in and of itself. That was an independent case that I investigated as a murder in Hollywood in 1987, and eventually his name got pulled into it and I ended up arresting him—not for the murder, but for an unrelated robbery that was connected, because they were saying some of the same people were involved as suspects in the murder and in the robbery.
That wasn’t the end of Scott Thorsen for me; it’s been an off and on continuum for 30-something years. So I knew I had access to him, and he could tell some amazing stories, and was obviously a prominent figure in the eventual reason the case got filed against Eddie Nash and Gregory Diles in 1988, some seven years after the murders occurred.
BF: What motivated you to want to revisit the case? Is there a particular story you wanted to tell or a specific resonance the case has for you?
RJ: Even though I worked homicide with LAPD for 28 years, I’m still fascinated by the cases [and] historic crimes as well. I’m kind of a historian of crime in L.A. I spent a lot of time working with James Ellroy, who is a crime historian, if you will, and I learned many new things from him as well. So I’ve just always had a fascination with certain cases.
I actually was the first detective at the scene on the Wonderland case. I had no involvement in the case at all; I was a detective trainee in Hollywood and no one was around that night, when we first heard about the multiple bodies found in the house. I knew enough as a trainee detective to at least go up there and try to control the crime scene until the assigned investigating officers were going to get there. It was just before a holiday weekend, I worked nights and I knew Robbery Homicide Division, which eventually handled the case, would not be up there for a while. So I went up there just to try to control things and limit the amount of people that were in and out of the house before the detectives got there.
So I had not only an interest in crime, but in this particular case from that first day. And I knew Mike Connelly was interested in the case, and I just came up with this idea that this would be an interesting story to tell. It’s been told a lot of different ways, and believe me, it’s not told in this way ever before this. We pulled a lot of people from the cobwebs 40 years later and had them tell some amazing stories, so it’s been fascinating to do it.
BF: The Wonderland Murders exploded into this huge case that included drugs, the mafia, a corrupt federal agent, and all kinds of almost unbelievable things. What kinds of discussions did you have as far as how to even find people and wrangle all this information?
RJ: There’s a way to leave a message in this website for retired LAPD personnel, and so I put something in there, because a lot of people had their fingers even peripherally in the Eddie Nash stuff that was going on outside of the murder—his drug empire, if you will, and then also in the second tier level of people that were involved, whether it was a witness, whether it was a first officer at the scene. I put a little feeler out in this site and ended up getting probably 30 or 40 calls from people that had all kinds of experiences in dealing with Eddie Nash, or his clubs, or the narcotics world.
Heidi Fleiss, even though she’s not an officer, gets pulled into this because she had dealings with Eddie Nash. So that shows you that the breadth of the people we’re talking to. Heidi Fleiss I happened to deal with because I handled her best friend’s murder in 1989, I believe it was, and this was before she was known as the Heidi Fleiss we know of today. Her best friend was murdered and I was the investigating officer on that case. I reached out to her, and she granted an interview to Michael Connelly for the podcast as well.
A person that I worked with and knew, I had no idea he was the first officer to the scene. He reached out to me, so we interviewed him and it’s a pretty dramatic telling of the story. He’d never told this story before…his arrival at the scene, not knowing what to expect, what he saw, what he heard, and it’s pretty riveting stuff. People came out of the woodwork to contact us, and I’m sure a lot of it had to do with seeing Michael Connelly’s name was part of this production. Law enforcement officers love Connelly’s work, as do defense attorneys and prosecutors. They just know he gets it right. I’m sure that drew people out more, knowing that he was involved in the project, and that it would be done and told in an inappropriate way.
BF: Most true crime seems to want that visual element to sort of shock the audience with the graphic nature of the cases. What was it like for you to do The Wonderland Murders as a podcast, and not have that part of the presentation?
RJ: I grew up listening to Dodger games and listening to Vin Scully. That, in retrospect, was probably the best thing for me rather than seeing every game on television, because you lived in your mind with what you were hearing, and you could visualize it. It’s fascinating in that way. For instance, the first officer at the scene, a gentleman named Norm Lee, him telling that is actually more intriguing to me then if you had a body cam on him walking through [the crime scene].
Some other dramatic stories were told by a man that’s now a judge; he’s been a judge for 36 years in Los Angeles, but before that he was a highly experienced and highly regarded prosecutor with the District Attorney’s office, and he handled the first murder trial on this case, the trial of John Holmes. Some of the stories about the trial and other things that were happening outside of the courtroom, like people that would come into his office and try to make contact with him that were involved with Nash, were pretty interesting to hear. He’s got a great voice and he tells it dramatically—not because he’s trying to, it’s just what’s in the information and the way he tells it.
This stuff fascinated me as a crime historian, and I know Mike was just as fascinated…I think it’s a great way to tell a story.
BF: Is there anything that you’re hoping true crime fans walk away with after they’ve heard The Wonderland Murders? A misconception you want to correct or just something you want to leave them to think on?
RJ: I had nothing to do directly with the investigation of the case. But I had a big effect on it in the sense that I had initiated an arrest of Scott Thorsen for some felonies, that caused him to want to try to deal with those felonies, so he didn’t go to jail or maybe spent less time. Him coming forward really flipped the case, even though I didn’t know he had the information. It’s funny how I found out; I was on a plane going to Las Vegas on another murderer investigation, and I read the L.A. Times that day, and it talked about this new witness had come forward. They confirmed that it was Scott Thorsen, he was waiting in jail on some other charges [and] had given the information that put them over the top to charge Nash and Diles with murder. That’s an interesting story, and it just blew me away because they did all this behind my back, which was fine because they were dealing with multiple murders.
I think the listener will walk away with an appreciation of how involved these cases get [and] how things can go sideways on them. Like in the jury trial involving Nash and Diles, how it can go from one almost conviction to something completely opposite within a few months. They’ll get a better understanding of behind the scenes things that are going on—the facts that lead detectives to do certain things, how the justice system can not work sometimes when you have the right people. It’s not a question of if you had the right or wrong person; it’s just how things worked.
Connelly does a brilliant job of giving the reader a time and place. This was Laurel Canyon, leaving the 1970s and music and free love, the days of the Eagles and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, into one of the more horrendous crimes in the history of Los Angeles Police Department. This was particularly vicious, and such a personal attack—all done right up close and personal, not with a gun, but with blunt force trauma instruments that took the lives away of four people, and really five in a way because I’m not sure how fully [the surviving victim] ever totally recovered from it, both physically and psychologically.
It’s a fascinating tale. I use the word tale because it’s a story, but it’s true life, so it takes it to a much higher level that most people don’t have to experience in their days…And you’re hearing it from people that experienced it, were there, and most of these people you have not heard from in detail the way you’re going to hear it in this podcast.
The Wonderland Murders & The Secret History of Hollywood is available now exclusively on Audible. Stay tuned next week for more about this explosive true crime series.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.