It’s hard to reconcile the father I know with the vibrant young man he describes in his stories of adventure and cunning. I was born when he was in his late thirties, and by the time I was equipped to start making lasting memories of him, he was solidly middle-aged and comfortable in a deep rut. He sat behind home plate at my Little League games, reading a book, only taking a break when I came up to bat. We spent weekends going to the computer swap meet, hoping to find the newest hard drive, which stored megabytes, not gigs. Though he had once dreamed of traveling the world as an international banker, he ended up working for the IRS, which eventually translated into a career preparing tax returns in the private sector. When I played my Nintendo 64, he would have to leave the room because the animation made him motion-sick; his tolerance for gaming had ended with the slow-moving pixels of Atari. We would go to amusement parks, but he would wait at the exit gates while I went on the rides.
So when my father suggested we go to Hawaii for a week-long surfing trip to do some father-son bonding, I was more than a little surprised. He had told me countless stories of his former surfing exploits—summers spent bumming around the California coast, riding the surge of some Pacific storm—but the man sitting across the breakfast table at our beachside hotel, resting a glass of fruit punch atop his potbelly, did not resonate with that legend. He was in his early fifties by then—ancient to my thirteen-year-old eyes. He stared across the ocean, taking sips of punch while deeply breathing in the sea air, and I suspected this adventure would also end with him sitting on the sideline, waiting for me to finish.
My father had been surfing for almost a year when Randy, the former president of his college dormitory, showed up one day, looking for someone to go catch some waves. They didn’t know each other too well; they were acquaintances more than friends. My father remembered Randy wandering the dorm halls with a twinkle in his eye, always ready to help freshmen get into some sort of mischief. They had once played bridge together, staying up all night declaring trumps and making bids, and moving the table out onto the soccer field to keep playing after the sun came up.
Having nothing better to do that day, my father decided to go surfing with Randy. They loaded their surfboards into the car and headed to Huntington Beach.
MARINE DRUNK TROUBLE
May 14, 1983, shortly after 1 AM
What seems to be the problem, officer?
What’s that? Haha, well, I stopped a while back to take a piss, must’ve forgotten to hoist it back up, you know how it goes.
I swear, I haven’t had anything to drink tonight.
I was just pouring that one out for my friend over there. He’s had a few too many, I think.
Z, Y, X, W, T, U, V, S, Q, R, L, M, N, O, P, K, J, H, I, F, G, E, D, C, B, A.
My father’s face slowly burns under the sun as he maneuvers his shortboard through crashing waves. He’s part of the Beach Boys generation, one of thousands of young men who took to the sport in the ’50s and ’60s. Shoulder-length hair dangles over his neck, mingling with the tide as it attempts to pull him out to sea. His muscular arms tear at the water, urging the board forward, inching into position. Timing is everything. The swell rises, propelling my father toward the shore. He pops up and begins carving up the face of the wave. Randy watches, waiting for his next ride.
MARINE DRUNK TROUBLE
May 14, 1983
The driver is placed under arrest. A routine DUI stop. One of the officers approaches the vehicle to speak with the passenger. Looking in the window, the officer sees that the passenger is slumped over, partially covered by a jacket, his genitals exposed. Empty beer bottles surround the passenger’s feet. The officer knocks on the window. No response.
January 4, 1975
“John William Leras, 17, of Long Beach, found … floating in the surf at Sunset Beach. A wooden surveyor’s stick had been stuffed into a body cavity. He was seen the day before, boarding a bus en route to a roller skating rink carrying new skates. … Cause of death was suffocation” (Los Angeles Times).
HAWTH OFF HEAD
April 22, 1973
“John Doe. … Victim’s torso was found at Alameda Street and Henry Ford Avenue in Wilmington. His right leg was found on the Terminal Island Freeway at Anaheim Street in Wilmington. His arms were found on the Terminal Island Freeway in Long Beach. His head was found at 7th Street and Redondo Avenue in Long Beach. His left leg was found behind Broom Hilda’s [a bar in Sunset Beach]. Cause of death was strangulation and the victim had been emasculated.” (Los Angeles Times).
After a couple of hours of surfing, Randy offers to show my father the apartment in Huntington Beach where he had lived the year before meeting my father in the college dormitory. The two men know very little about each other, and Randy’s proposal to allow my father into his history presents an opportunity to deepen the relationship.
Yet when Randy tells my father about the apartment and his time living in Huntington Beach, he leaves this story out: one night, during the summer of 1966, Randy had approached a man near the Huntington Beach pier and offered to have sex with him. It turned out that the potential mate was a vice officer. Randy received a warning, and the officer told him not to get caught doing it again.
The two college classmates walk across the street, and Randy leads my father into an abandoned building, part of which has been gutted by fire.
After my father finishes his fruit punch, we rent longboards and head out to Waikiki Beach. To get to the waves, we have to paddle out what feels like half a mile. I have been training for weeks in the swimming pool, strengthening my upper body, and I cruise across the surface, pulling myself up the swells and diving beneath the breakers. Reaching the calm outside the break of the waves, I turn back to look for my father. He isn’t far from shore. His face is red, pressed against the deck of the board, mouth open, fighting for extra oxygen. Strands of his combover float lifelessly in the water, and his arms flail against the tide. The man and the myth are not the same.
MARINE DRUNK TROUBLE
May 14, 1983, approximately 1:17 AM
The officer knocks on the window, but the passenger does not respond. Opening the door, the officer tries to wake the passenger. Still no response. The officer notices that the man’s neck is ringed with red marks. Paramedics arrive and pronounce the man dead. Cause of death: strangulation.
Later in the day, the sheriff’s office procures a search warrant for the vehicle. The officers discover that the passenger seat is covered in blood. The dead passenger does not have any puncture wounds. Under the floor mat, police find forty-seven Polaroids of young men, each appearing to be unconscious or dead. In the trunk, they find a yellow piece of paper taken from a legal pad. On the paper is a handwritten list of sixty-one coded entries, beginning with STABLE and ending with WHAT YOU GOT.
October 5, 1971
“Wayne Joseph Dukette, 30, of Long Beach; his body was found … at the bottom of a ravine next to Ortega Highway in south Orange County. Prosecutors estimate the time of his death as two weeks earlier. Cause of death could not be determined, but pathologists say he suffered from acute alcohol intoxication.
He was last seen at the Stables Bar in Sunset Beach, where he was a bartender. His car was found in the Stables lot.” (Los Angeles Times).
Randy and my father walk through the abandoned apartment. There’s nothing left, not a soul around. My father is confused. He must feel something—if not fear, then at least dread, an evolutionary response to an unfamiliar setting. That knot in your stomach that tells you to be on guard.
Randy hasn’t said a word since they entered the building, and there doesn’t seem to be anything left from his time living there, assuming this apartment is, in fact, the one he once occupied. But memory is a funny thing, not always subject to reason. It’s easy to look into your past and find meaning where none previously existed, to attribute significance to the trivial. Revision and creation. More than anything, we want to be more than we are. When we delve into our minds, we are the authority. What’s to keep us from blurring the lines a bit? In the end, we are the stories we tell.
The pair wanders deeper into the complex, through charred doorways, picking their way over fallen plaster. Randy walks over to a pile of broken boards and nudges them with the toe of his shoe as if searching for something. He seems lost in thought, calculating. My father stands in the doorway, unsure of what to do. After a few minutes, Randy turns to my father and silently stares at him for a moment before shaking his head—the math isn’t right. He walks out of the building. They pack up the car, and Randy drops my father off at the dorm. My father will never see Randy again.
MARINE DRUNK TROUBLE
November 29, 1989, shortly after 9 AM
On the morning he is to receive the judge’s sentence, Randy Steven Kraft, now known as The Scorecard Killer, is wearing a long-sleeved blue-checked dress shirt and faded blue jeans. The jurors have already recommended that the judge sentence him to death.
On May 12, 1989, Randy was convicted of sixteen counts of murder. The list found in the trunk of his car had been linked to forty-five homicides, including six in Oregon and two in Michigan; all told, Randy was suspected of killing more than one hundred men. Prosecutors chose to pursue only the cases with the strongest evidence.
During the sentencing phase of the trial, attorneys presented the jury with competing images of Randy. Defense attorneys provided Kraft family portraits, which showed a vibrant young man, seemingly normal, incapable of atrocity. Prosecutors displayed crime scene photos, including those of Michael Cluck, a seventeen-year-old whose skull was struck an estimated thirty-one times with a blunt object and who was enshrined on Randy’s list as PORTLAND BLOOD. During the proceedings, Randy scribbled on a legal pad, presumably taking notes in preparation for an appeal.
The trial, which originally began on September 26, 1988, has taken thirteen months and has cost more than $10 million to conduct. Now, at last, after summarizing the evidence against the defendant and stating the relevant legal code, the judge confirms the jury’s sentence and sentences Randy to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison. Given an opportunity to speak, Randy says, “I would like to say that I have not murdered anyone, and I believe that a full review of the record will show that. That’s all.” After a short outburst in the courtroom, when a family member of one of the victims tells Randy to burn in hell, the defendant slowly exits the courtroom without uttering another word.
Serial killers occupy a strange place in our collective consciousness. There’s a man selling a knit cap online that he bought in the San Quentin State Prison gift shop. It was made by one of the inmates and has a tag with the prisoner’s identification number, which the seller claims to be Randy’s. The asking price is $125.
The Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty hosts the official Randy Kraft website, where Randy posts lists of the CDs he owns and copies of court documents. He’s also started writing a novel based on his youth. His high profile would make it easy to insert yourself into his narrative.
It takes my father twenty minutes to reach the area outside the surf and another twenty to recover from the effort. I have difficulty imagining this man ever having been on a surfboard before. He is unsteady; simply sitting on top of the board seems to be an accomplishment. The past could be a convenient fiction: tall tales to impress your son, to show him that you weren’t always so old, to keep him by your side, hoping for a story more exciting than the last. It could start with a chance acquaintance, a name you recognize from the yearbook. Through numerous retellings at the behest of an eager child, the arc of the story becomes more precise and complex, and the original narrative grows remote. Over time, who really knows the difference?
A set of waves rolls in. I start paddling, digging deep to get in position. The first wave passes by—I’m too far out. I keep paddling, hoping to grab the next one, but again I miss. The third and final wave of the set is coming, and I lean into my board, pulling at the water with all my strength, moving my arms as fast as they can go. The sea rises beneath my board, and I paddle, paddle, paddle until I feel the wave take me. I jump up for the ride and look over my shoulder to make sure the way is clear for a turn. My path is blocked by my father, standing atop his board, resplendent in the Hawaiian sun, having recaptured some elemental truth that, up till now, had been lost to time.