Murder in Wonderland
The fallen king of porn, the nightclub don of Hollywood, and a massacre in Laurel Canyon: Real Crime visits one of la’s bloodiest murder houses
There is a house in the Hollywood Hills that holds a dark secret: it was once the scene of a brutal mass murder. Hollywood has always had a dark heart. For all of its glamour and glitz there are the crimes, dealings and murders that spill blood over the diamond- glittering exterior: from the golden age’s crimes – Thomas H. Ince dying on board William Randolph Hearst’s yacht and the shooting of William Desmond Taylor – and then, in 1969, the Manson murders, which claimed the lives of six people, including Sharon
Tate’s unborn child. Los Angeles had thought it had seen it all, that there was no more blood to spare and that its most horrific murders would be determined by a cult leader and his deranged followers. Only it wasn’t: the event that would result in what the LAPD would refer to as the most horrific crime scene they had ever encountered would occur some 12 years later.
In the early hours of 1 July 1981, four people were murdered at 8763 Wonderland Avenue, Los Angeles. A fifth person survived. It has since become known as one of the most gruesome unsolved murders in Hollywood history. Despite arrests and much- publicised court appearances, lawyers were deft: to this day, no individual has been imprisoned for the brutal crime.
Immortalised as the ‘ Wonderland murders’, or sometimes ‘ Laurel Canyon murders’, the heinous crime continues to fascinate for a variety of reasons: the individuals involved, the motives, as well as the worlds the perpetrators and victims inhabited. For a time all fingers pointed to the porn actor John Holmes, whose hand print was found at the murder scene. But was Holmes really capable of orchestrating a mass slaying like this?
Holmes is only a small part of the story. This was a case with a history, with leads, with famous faces and duplicities, drugs and money. Police had their suspicions and motives were evident, but within the world of those involved, there was no such thing as an innocent party.
The Wonderland Gang
During the late 1970s and early 1980s the house on Wonderland Avenue was home to a group known as the ‘ Wonderland Gang’. Situated in the Hollywood Hills, or the canyon area of the Santa Monica mountains, its location was not exactly what you would consider the bad part of town. Jerry Brown, the then- governor of California, lived a few streets away. Yet it was a notoriously noisy narcotics haven with all- hours comings and goings- on. The house was a place of residence, of business, and a front for dealers and buyers.
There were five key members of the gang: ‘ leader’ Ronald Lee ‘ Ron’ Launius, William Raymond ‘ Billy’ Deverell and his girlfriend Joy Audrey Gold Miller, David Clay Lind and Tracy Raymond McCourt. Only Billy and Joy lived at the house – Joy held the lease. Together with their associates Susan A. Murphy Launius ( Ron’s wife) and Barbara Lee ‘ Butterfly’ Easton Richardson ( Lind’s girlfriend), they dealt cocaine and made the occasional heroin deal.
To supplement some of the gang’s burgeoning addictions, they branched out into armed robberies, usually targeting
Police had their suspicions and motives were evident, but within the world of those involved, there
was no such thing as an innocent party
fellow dealers or raiding houses. But it was never enough – they needed to aim higher. Why steal from those on a similar financial footing when they could take from the richest nightclub owner in Los Angeles?
Eddie Nash was a self- styled king of Hollywood. Born in Palestine to a family of hoteliers, he emigrated to Los Angeles in the 1950s. By the 1960s he had opened up a hotdog stand on Hollywood Boulevard, and by the 1970s he owned several restaurants and nightclubs. He allegedly held 36 liquor licenses in Hollywood — it was virtually impossible to have a night out on the town without supplementing Nash’s bank account. Being such a prominently wealthy figure would always attract attention, especially the unsavoury and unwarranted variety.
A chain reaction of violence began on the night of 29
June 1981, when members of the Wonderland Gang robbed Nash’s Studio City home to the value of $ 1 million. Both
Nash and his bodyguard, Gregory DeWitt Diles, were present during the robbery. DeWitt Diles was shot and injured, while narcotics, money, weapons and jewellery were taken from the property. Instant assumptions were made that the gang had had some assistance. Someone who knew Nash more than likely had a hand in organising the deed. John Holmes came to mind, and he fell under a cloud of suspicion a few days later when DeWitt Diles spotted Holmes walking around Hollywood wearing some of Nash’s stolen jewellery.
But it was something more specific than the stolen jewellery that implicated Holmes in the robbery: on the morning of the crime, Holmes had visited Nash’s home a rumoured three times, allegedly leaving a sliding door open on the last occasion. What had led the erstwhile ‘ king of porn’ to resort to petty robbery?
The Porn Star
The legacy and reputation of John Holmes is notorious: the well- endowed adult movie star had made his name in an industry that he later came to despise. He believed that his body was his meal ticket, moving to Los Angeles with his then- wife Sharon in the mid 1970s to seek his fame and fortune. For a time his assets served him well – he was the A- list celebrity of the porn industry. Yet as his star power rose, so did his problems, his needs and his thirst. Once a teetotaller, he started dabbling in illegal substances, which proved to be the nail in his professional coffin. He couldn’t ‘ perform’ under the influence, and his waning career led to his increasing use of drugs.
By Christmas 1979 he was regularly snorting lines of cocaine, and by 1980 had resorted to stealing in order to support his drug habit. He was isolating everyone around him, turning increasingly violent, especially to his young girlfriend Dawn, who he essentially groomed and then pimped out for drug money. Soon the only people who would tolerate his actions were the dealers, for whom he acted as delivery boy, receiving payment in the form of $ 1,000 cocaine marbles instead of cash.
He was down- and- out. It required drastic action. In great debt to both Nash – who had bailed him out on numerous occasions – and the gang who he owed money to, Holmes ‘ presented’ Dawn to Nash as a gift on Christmas Day 1980, under the impression that it would help alleviate his debt. It only made things worse, and after Dawn returned home with less cocaine than he had expected, Holmes beat her savagely. She was 19 years old. Four days later, on her 20th birthday, Holmes sent her back to Nash. When Dawn finally managed to run from Holmes, he repeatedly attempted to lure her back with false promises. He insisted on a plan: a final deal that would make them rich and turn their world around for the better and be a fresh start. He planned to rob Nash’s property.
Holmes was not present during the robbery – it is alleged that the Wonderland Gang stormed Nash’s house after he had left and before he had arrived back at the house in Laurel Canyon. Whether he was present at the time or not, he was firmly implicated in the crime. His participation had not gone unnoticed by Nash.
On seeing Holmes after the robbery, DeWitt Diles dragged him to Nash’s home and beat a confession out of him. Nash and Holmes had, until now, been civil to one another. Despite once referring to Holmes as his “brother”, Holmes knew
Nash had a dark side – he also once referred to him as “the most evil man I have ever known.”
Murder in Wonderland
It’s assumed that Nash ordered the Wonderland murders as payback for the robbery, with some assistance from Holmes ( who was now even further in Nash’s debt). Ron Launius, Billy Deverell and two other accomplices, David Lind and Tracy McCourt, had committed the armed robbery at
Nash’s home. Now it was their turn. On 1 July 1981 several men entered the Wonderland property armed with heavy instruments, which would cause extreme trauma to their unsuspecting victims.
Despite neighbours hearing commotion in the early hours of the morning, the police were not called to the property until 12 hours later: removal men at a nearby property had heard moaning coming from the house and alerted the authorities, who found Susan Launius brutally beaten on the floor. The house was incredibly loud at the best of times, and the incessant noise did not rouse any greater suspicion from the neighbours. Screams fell on death ears, buffered to a large extent by the blaring television sets that were still on when the police arrived. The house was ransacked, there was blood everywhere, and the bodies of Barbara Richardson, Ron Launius, Joy Miller and Billy Deverell were scattered around the property. Susan Launius, the fifth person present in the house at the time of the slayings, was found on the floor, still alive, with blunt trauma to the head.
The gang had originally planned to move on after robbing Nash’s home, but only Tracy McCourt followed through with the plan. Despite receiving a less- than- expected cut of the takings, he left town shortly afterwards. He would later testify that the entire group had planned to leave town and, given that Nash lived less than three kilometres away and had an unsavoury reputation, could not understand why the others had remained.
Another Wonderland Gang member, David Clay Lind, also anticipated Nash’s brutality: he had spent the night of the murders away from the house with a male prostitute. McCourt spent the night in his own home. Lind died of a heroin overdose in 1995, and McCourt died in 2006.
below- left Eddie Nash was arrested in 1982 after a 7am raid on his home. Almost one kilogram of cocaine was found in the propertybelow- Right John Holmes appears in court, 22 December 1981, for his part in the Wonderland murders. In 1982 he was acquitted of all murder charges but was punished for contempt of court
In the afterma th of the rob bery on Nash, Holmes w as dr agged to Nash’ s home by his bodyguard and had the identities of the robbers bea ten out of him