Joe Galarza and Jeff Westerberg were best friends. Sixteen years old, they hung out together all the time, getting high and cruising the streets of sleepy Fillmore, California. And then one day, the boys who were so close they were called Jeff and Joe, as though they were one, decided to "just do it," to "get it over with." JOE MORGENSTERN reports on a teenage suicide pact that left one survivor and many questions.
Survivor Joe Galarza, now nineteen and killing time in his hometown of Fillmore, California.
Joe Galarza, sixteen years old and driving carefully toward extinction, kept his battered old Pontiac to the right. The road leading up to the cliff was dark, and he didn't want to have an accident on the way to killing himself and his best friend, Jeff. But the steering was getting heavy. He and Jeff had just put air in the right front tire at Oscar's gas station in town; now it was leaking again. Joe hoped that the tire would hold out for a few minutes more.
His heart pounded in his chest, but he tried to ignore it. Stay cool, he told himself. Stay loose. He glanced sideways at his friend in the passenger seat. Jeff Westerberg, also sixteen, stared straight ahead. They got to Dead Man's Curve, with the cliff on the left, and Joe kept driving. As they passed the cliff, he saw a car and a little pickup truck parked at the turnout, and he noted with brief satisfaction that they'd left enough room at the fence for him to get through.
Joe continued up the hill for a few hundred yards, then made a U-turn, which took some doing with a soft tire on a narrow road. Staring straight ahead, just like Jeff, he put the car in gear and gave it the gas. The Pontiac responded quickly, supercharged by the downhill slope. By the time they reached the curve, they were going fifty miles an hour.
“I guess this is it, Westerberg,” Joe said to Jeff. "Take it easy."
He swerved to the right, punched the gas one last time, and gripped the steering wheel like a race-car driver, arms straight out in front of him. The car hit a dip on the shoulder, scraped its bottom on the asphalt berm, tilted its headlights toward the sky, left a wake of sparks behind the rear bumper, tore through the fence, and went over the cliff. During the flight through the cool night air, Joe clung to the steering wheel and listened to the eerie silence. Then the car crashed, wheels up, on the huge glacial boulders of Sespe Creek, 350 feet below.
Joseph Ray Galarza was born in 1964, in Santa Paula, California, and grew up in nearby Fillmore, a pretty town of 10,000 in a valley of citrus and avocado groves about sixty miles northwest of Los Angeles. His mother, Madeline Galarza, was an attractive woman with a gift for conversation and a passion for reading everything from matchbook covers to romantic novels. She was easygoing, some would say to a fault, and had an image of herself floating through life rather than struggling to change it. Gilbert Galarza, Joe's father, was a man of few words but abundant anger who worked as a civilian machinist at Point Mugu Naval Air Station, about an hour's drive from Fillmore. A heavy drinker, he was a perfectionist who could launch into a tirade over a wrinkle in the tablecloth.
As a toddler, Joe enjoyed being fussed over by his older brothers, Darren and Derek, whose nickname was Bubba. But his parents argued constantly, so he retreated into dreamy solitude. In 1973, when Joe was in fourth grade, they separated and his father moved out of the house. Within a short time, the docile little dreamer was talking-back to his teacher and picking fights. In sixth grade he became a loan shark. Classmates would borrow a quarter, fifty cents, or a dollar. If they didn't pay him back the next day, their debt doubled.
Joe made friends with Jeff in sixth grade. He needed a buddy badly, and Jeff, a towhead with a sunny disposition and an intense eagerness to please, looked up to him as a real operator.
In seventh grade, at the age of twelve, Joe started drinking and doing drugs. He smoked pot before school, and at lunchtime he usually went home to an empty house -his mother was working in town as a bank teller- to mix himself a drink and smoke some more pot. After school he smoked again. Money for drugs was no great problem, since his mother always gave him a generous allowance and he'd put away most of his loan-sharking profits.
Day after day, Joe stumbled into bed at 6:30 or so in the evening, so stoned that he could barely speak, and day after day, his mother, who knew nothing about drugs, seemed not to notice. Joe was glad she didn't. He loved her deeply, and he knew it would break her heart if she found out how he was betraying her.
In the latter part of 1976, Madeline Galarza met a gunsmith named Gerald Eubanks and obtained a divorce from Joe's father. In May 1977, she married Eubanks, one month before Joe turned thirteen. Eight months later, the mother that Joe adored left the house, just as his father had done, and joined her new husband in Redlands, California, 120 miles southeast of Fillmore. Joe's life had come unglued in the space of those eight months, and it got patched together precariously when his father returned to the family bungalow.
It was warfare from day one. As far as Gilbert Galarza was concerned, his three sons, and particularly Joe, had been indulged by their mother so long that they were unmanageable. From Joe's point of view, his father burned him down at every opportunity: for the way he cut the lawn, or didn't; for the way he looked, dressed, and talked.
Joe hated his life at home, and the worse it became the more he turned to Jeff. At Jeff's house, Joe found a real family. The Westerbergs accepted him, fed him, took him to Fillmore High away games to watch Jeff's older brother, Danny, play football, even took him on fishing and hunting trips in the backcountry near Fillmore.
Roger and Sandi Westerberg, who had known Joe's parents from their own days at Fillmore High, saw Joe as a lost soul at first. He seemed remote, even withdrawn, but they were touched by his shy smile and his fragile physique. Sandi was an exuberant woman with blond hair who looked back on her own youth with fondness and no regrets. "I didn't believe in Cinderella," she would say, "but I did believe in Fred Astaire."
Roger was more serious, a handsome man with piercing blue eyes who had
been a cowboy, a horseshoer, and a government trapper, all in Southern California, where he'd been born and raised. It wasn't easy for him to open up to people, not even to his family, but friends knew him as a gentleman, and as an outdoorsman who took his hunting and fishing seriously too.
In the early years of their marriage, the Westerbergs lived on a ranch outside of town, where Roger ran a large herd of cattle in exchange for a rent-free house. In his spare time, he sold cars in Fillmore. It was a hard life for the parents, but a wonderful one for the kids. Jeff and his brother, Danny, were each other's best friends. They raised pigs, chickens, sheep, and pet rabbits, and Jeff loved to fish in a creek that ran through the property. At calving time, he and Danny would be down in the squeeze chute with their dad, pulling the calves out with pullers and all of them getting bloody together. But a recession and a declining beef market made the ranch unprofitable for its owner, and Roger and Sandi had to move their family to a rented house in town.
To help pay the bills, Sandi got a job as a dispatcher for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department in Thousand Oaks, while Roger sold cars full-time. But their life seemed to go wrong almost as soon as they left the ranch. Roger found himself spending twelve or thirteen hours a day on the job, in what he called his personal twilight zone. Night after night he came home with three or four drinks under his belt, barely able to talk, let alone listen, to his family. Soon he got involved in an affair. Roger and Sandi separated, then reconciled after a while, but they continued to live on the brink of separation.
Danny seemed to weather this period fairly well, while Jeff took increasing refuge in Joe. The two friends hung out together. They got high together. Jeff's behavior at home began to resemble Joe's; he, too, was becoming withdrawn. Roger and Sandi grew concerned. So did Danny, who had never liked Joe. "The guy's a little flake," he told his father. "I've seen him smoking dope. You've got to cut him and Jeff apart."
But Jeff needed Joe. Now he, too, found himself with a father who loved his sons but couldn't show it, who seemed angry when he was drunk and disapproving when he was sober. Now he, too, felt adrift, and the two boys, skinny little kids in their early, most tentative teens, became such close friends that people in Fillmore referred to them by what sounded like a single name: JeffandJoe.
They had some good times together, and some funny times too, playing pranks and getting into the kind of trouble that many young kids do. For the most part, however, they were preoccupied with their troubles: their fights with their fathers, their shared conviction that Fillmore was a prison where nothing would ever change for the better. Fillmore was, in fact, isolated, a small town that time had passed by in favor of fast-growing suburbs like Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks. But many young people in the area loved it for its pristine woods, streams, and lakes. For Jeff and Joe, the main isolation was spiritual. In their growing unhappiness, the two boys were turning into tarnished mirrors, each one leading the other to suspect that unhappiness was the only thing life had to offer.
The first time they considered suicide, they fantasized that they would go up to Pole Creek, where Jeff liked to fish, swallow some sleeping pills, and simply lie down on the grass to die. They never got to the details of how they would get the pills or how many they would take. It was only a passing thought, a matter of "Yeah, yeah, someday..."
Toward the end of 1979, when Joe was fifteen, he got a chance to leave Fillmore and move down to the desert in Redlands. His mother and stepfather were buying a skeet range there, and they wanted Joe and his brothers to come work on it. Joe decided he'd get a completely fresh start in Redlands. He'd get his head screwed on right in school, work hard on the skeet range, make a whole lot of money, buy a little motorcycle, and cruise around to his heart's content.
When he arrived in Redlands in January 1980, Joe discovered to his dismay that there was barely enough money for food, let alone new motorcycles. His mother and her new husband had bought a failing business and were struggling to revive it.
Somehow Joe managed to hold his own in school, but work on the skeet range seemed like endless punishment. He hated the heat, hated the noise, and hated the insults of customers who behaved as if the world were coming to an end when he pulled a trap at the wrong moment. The worst thing, though, was feeling like a stranger in his own mother's house. He understood little of her financial problems and cared less about her loyalty to her new husband. Joe simply felt betrayed. Six months after his arrival, he beat a desperate retreat to his father's house in Fillmore.
0ne day in June 1980, Sandi Westerberg opened her front door in Fillmore to find Joe standing there. He was thinner than ever, and looked stricken. Her heart went out to him, but when she learned he was back to stay, she was dismayed. The Westerbergs had not had a lot of problems with Jeff while Joe was away. He'd gotten involved in Future Farmers of America, he'd raised a pig of his own, and his grades had improved significantly.
The cliff at Dead Man’s Curve.
In the summer of 1980, Jeff and Joe both turned sixteen. Joe's birthday came first, and he was the first to get his driver's license. As soon as he did, his mother bought him a car, a well-worn 1969 Pontiac Le Mans. One night, as Roger Westerberg was coming home, he saw Joe's car pull into the driveway. Jeff got out, and Joe drove away. Jeff staggered a few feet toward the house, stopped, and threw up.
"Hey, buddy," Roger said, intercepting him. "This old dog don't hunt, not around here. What's going on?"
"I'm fine, Dad. I might have drunk one or two beers too many."
Roger bawled his son out and told him never to let it happen again. Jeff promised it wouldn't. "Don't tell Mom, though. Just get me in the house."
A couple of weeks later, Erik Estrada, one of the stars of the TV series CHiPs, had a show on about PCP, or angel dust. Sandi had seen it during a sheriff's department briefing and wanted her boys to see it, too. After the show was over, with Jeff and Danny sprawled side by side on the rug in front of the TV, Sandi said, "O.K., let's talk. You ever tried it?"
"Yeah," Jeff said softly, looking up at her. "The other night I came home
and got sick out front. Daddy thought I was drunk, but I wasn't. It was angel dust."
Sandi was dumbstruck. Unlike Madeline Galarza, she dealt with drugs every day of her working life. She knew all the warning signs of drug use by heart, yet she had managed to disconnect cause and effect when her own son came home with a white tongue, tiny pupils, or red eyes, or when she kept finding bottles of Visine in his pockets.
One night Sandi heard Jeff come in at three A.M. She found him in the bathroom, either stoned or drunk, or both. They talked there until five A.M., mother sitting on the bathtub and son sitting on the clothes hamper.
"Please tell me why you're doing this," Sandi implored. "Please try to make me understand. Is it something I'm doing? Please let me help you. I've got everything in the world to help you with. I've got the narcs at work. They can show you stuff you won't believe. Just don't keep doing this to yourself."
"I'm sorry, Mom," Jeff said. He seemed as pained by what he'd done as Sandi was. 'I promise 'I won't do it anymore."
Soon he was coming home drunk or stoned three nights a week. In desperation, Roger and Sandi tried to ground him. But after everyone had gone to bed Jeff would get up, get dressed, climb out the window of his ground-floor bedroom, and be gone.
Day after day, in heat that often reached 105 degrees, Joe did the same things he'd done in the past. He watched TV, went to parties, got drunk, got high, shot pool, cruised around town with Jeff, occasionally drove to the beach near Ventura. Sometimes he picked up girls and had sex with them. That was no big deal, though: he was too stoned to make it a big deal. On Saturday nights, he and Jeff cruised Ventura. On Sundays, they crashed until early afternoon.
The only change in his life came when his father's girlfriend, Charlene, moved into the house with her son, Mike, who was Joe's age. His father and Charlene, who had been a bartender, among other things, promised Joe that they'd be one big happy family, and Joe believed it at first, because he and Mike liked each other fine. But it didn't turn out that way. Charlene thought Joe was lazy and spoiled, and held up her own son as a model of someone who had worked all his life. She found Joe a job as a busboy at a restaurant on Highway 126. He felt good about his first night's work, almost proud. But it scared him to think he'd have no more time left for partying, so he called in the next day to say he wouldn't be working there anymore.
His relationship with his father went from bad to worse. He knew he was no good; he didn't need his father to tell him so. One day he went out and got a crowbar, and when his father started complaining about him again he brought it out and said quietly, "You done?"
Gilbert Galarza subsided immediately. Joe told himself he had never intended to touch his father. He'd used the crowbar only as a psychological weapon, something to show he was up to here with all the anger and the insults. But Joe felt the rising tide of his own anger and found the same was true of his friend Jeff. One afternoon, he and Jeff got drunk together at Jeff's house. Suddenly Jeff started punching his fist against the wall. Joe watched, surprised, then burst into tears. His tears terrified him, but he couldn't stop. "I don't understand why I'm crying, man!" he said.
"Don't you remember in Mr. Dempsey's class, in ninth grade?” Jeff asked. "He told us sometimes when people get drunk they get violent. They probably cry when they're like that, too."
Jeff grew more violent than before. He kept punching his fist against the wall, harder and harder, until he started making holes.
"What are you doing that for, man?" Joe shouted.
"I can't help it!" Jeff shouted back.
It got crazy for a while, with Joe crying like a baby and Jeff punching out the wall.
Joe saw no future for himself. While other kids his age talked about having goals or choosing careers, the best he'd ever been able to come up with was wanting to see Canada. Jeff's ambitions were vague, too. He wanted to be a truck driver, which amounted to the same thing: just a way to get out of Fillmore. In that summer of 1980, though, Joe came to conclude that he would never get out, never see Canada, never find work, never see a new day any different from the last.
He and Jeff discussed suicide again, and the best way of going about it. Pills remained a possibility, but a new option was available, since Joe now had his car: driving off the cliff at Dead Man's Curve, a couple of miles north of town on Goodenough Road. The boys were still discussing this in hypothetical terms -not tomorrow, next week, or even next month- but they agreed that the cliff would be practical, and probably painless.
When school started again in the fall, Joe sat in classes that made little sense to him. He wasn't the only one in this predicament. According to one teacher at Fillmore High, as many as 80 percent of the students in a given classroom were stoned. They didn't make much noise, but they had so much trouble remembering things that their teachers had given up on class discussion.
Joe fought with his father more ferociously than ever. One day Gilbert Galarza said he had to go to Florida on a weeklong trip for the navy and announced that he was taking Joe's car keys away because he'd gotten several notices that Joe was skipping school. Taking his car keys away meant nothing, though. Joe had had a duplicate set made. As soon as his father left, he backed his old Pontiac out of the driveway and went to pick up Jeff. By the time Gilbert Galarza got back from Florida at the end of the week, Joe was so burned out that he couldn't even argue with him anymore. The two talked a bit. Joe helped do some dishes and on Sunday hung around the house because Jeff was going fishing with his parents and his brother.
Jeff’s parents, Sandi and Roger Westerberg, picking up the pieces in Fillmore.
Roger and Sandi knew that Jeff was slipping away from them. This fishing trip on the Kern River was a desperate attempt to bring their son back into the fold. Jeff's fishing was a joke in the family, not because he was so bad at it, but because he was so good, or so lucky. He was pulling them in again on this radiant fall Sunday, November 16, 1980, trout mostly, and laughing as he waved them in the air so the others could see. They had a picnic lunch, and then cooked the fish over a campfire for dinner. On the way back home that night, everyone in the station wagon sang songs together.
The next morning Roger Westerberg drove to his office at the car dealership. Before Sandi left the house for the sheriff's station in Thousand Oaks, she did what she had always loved to do for her two sons -first ran a tub of hot water, then left a single cup of hot chocolate alongside it as a prize for whichever one got there first. She took some teasing about this routine from the young sheriff's deputies she worked with. "Sandra," they would tell her, "they're never going to leave home.” And Sandi would reply, with wicked glee: "That's the idea, guys!"
Instead of going to school that Monday morning, Jeff and Joe hung out together, drinking, talking, and driving. At 2:30, they picked up some kids they knew: Mark Purvis, Aileen White, and Dena Reed. They cruised around for fifteen minutes or so, talking. An hour later, they swung by school and gave two buddies, Holly Troxier and Kelly Lovelace, a ride home. They needed more beer, but Joe had only a dollar, and Jeff, as usual, was broke. The dollar bought a quart of Schlitz malt liquor. Joe stopped at his house and picked up a bottle of Lancers rosé to go with the beer. Toward the end of the afternoon, they saw Jeff's mother driving home from work. Joe honked his horn; Jeff and Sandi waved to each other.
Getting drunk didn't change anything for the better or worse. But it did lead them back to the subject of Dead Man's Curve. Maybe this was the day for doing what they'd talked about. At 6:30, Jeff and Joe picked up a girl named Heidi Thompson near Fillmore High. As they drove around town, Jeff blurted out to Heidi that they were going to fly through the air off a cliff. He also told her they would come back alive. Joe was so surprised at this part that he laughed, so Heidi didn't take the remark seriously. Soon she remembered she was supposed to meet a friend, so she asked Joe to take her back to the high school as fast as possible. Joe floored the accelerator and watched the speedometer needle swing steadily toward the right. It came to rest on the peg, 110 miles per hour. At a sharp turn at Telegraph Road, he slowed to ninety, but he lost control, hit a fence, and careered off the road into a ditch.
The Le Mans was badly banged up and the right front tire was almost flat, but no one was hurt seriously, although Jeff banged his head on the windshield. A man passing by in a truck with a tow chain pulled the car out of the ditch. Joe started the engine, and they were off and running again, even though the soft tire made the car lopsided, like a three-legged mutt.
They dropped Heidi off to meet her friend, then pulled up to the curb in front of the town library, where five kids they knew were standing around talking on the lawn. When Joe was questioned about the damage to the car, he simply said he'd missed a turn and hit a fence. Everyone hung out for a while, standing on the lawn, talking quietly. Then all seven of them climbed into a van that Kelly Lovelace had borrowed from his parents and went for a derby around town.
Jeff and Joe sat in the back, saying nothing, while Kelly swerved left and right, trying to shake everyone up. "You can't scare me," the others chanted. "You can't scare me." Joe wasn't scared. He was insulated, like a wire with current running through it. He wasn't touching anything around him -not the seat he was sitting on, not Jeff, sitting next to him- and nothing was touching him.
Back at the library, Joe stood with the others on the lawn again, sensing the current running through him. Suddenly he turned to Jeff and said, "Let's go kill ourselves."
"Yeah,” Jeff replied. "Let's go."
The others laughed. They knew the feeling. They were bored, too. But no, both friends said, they were serious. They were going to drive up Goodenough Road to Dead Man's Curve and commit suicide. "We're going to fly off the cliff," ' Joe told the others as he and Jeff got into his car.
"Bullshit," Kelly replied. He tried to get in with them.
Jeff's door was locked, but his window was open. Kelly, a big boy with a bluff, earnest face, reached in and wrestled with Jeff, trying to push him into the backseat so he could climb in next to Joe.
Joe told him to stop. "We don't want to be responsible for your death,” he said.
"Well, fuck you guys," Kelly said, and went back to sit in his van, angry but still unconvinced that they were serious.
Jeff and Joe got out of Joe's car once more. They shook hands all around, solemnly and ceremoniously. Even then, no one took them seriously. "I'll bring flowers to your graves," Holly Troxier said, laughing.
Joe took off his cap, a white baseball cap with black lettering, which his father had gotten for him in Florida. The cap said: "Drugs Are for People Who Can't Cope with Reality." He handed it to one of the girls and told her, "You'll never see me again. Keep it for memories.” Jeff thanked another boy for having been his friend. Joe told the group, "You don't believe us that we're going to do it, but we're going to do it. You can read about it in the paper tomorrow."
The right front tire was almost completely flat, but Joe thought they could make it up to Dead Man's Curve if they stopped at a gas station for air. They got into the car once again.
At that moment, Roger Westerberg drove by on his way home from work and stopped to talk. Joe glanced at him, but turned away. Jeff walked over to his father's car.
"Hi, Dad," he said.
Roger told him to jump in. His mother was making venison burritos, which Jeff loved, and dinner was almost ready.
"Joe's going to bring me home in about twenty minutes," Jeff said.
"No, come home with me right now."
"Joe needs to talk to me, though."
"Well, you've got twenty minutes, and then I want to see you at the house, or I'll be back here to get you."
"O.K.,” Jeff assured his father. "Just let me talk this thing over with him and I'll be right home."
Roger drove off. Jeff got back into Joe's car, and they drove off, too.
The phone rang as Roger, Sandi, and Danny were starting dinner. Roger picked it up. The caller was Paul Haase, captain of the local search-and-rescue team that Roger belonged to.
"There's two kids went over the bank up the Sespe Creek in a car," Haase said. "Can you go on a rescue?"
"Sure," Roger replied. "Let me just grab my stuff and I'll be right there."
After seeing Roger off, Sandi went back into the house and did what she always did in such emergencies: switched on a police scanner to keep track of what was going on.
Roger drove toward the fire station where the rescue truck was garaged. As he stopped at an intersection on the main highway, two Fillmore police officers in a cruiser came toward him, then stopped. Shining a light in his face, they asked where he was going.
The cops, Bob Prince and Larry Dubay, were Roger's friends. He thought they just wanted to shoot the breeze. "There's a rescue going on," he said with some impatience. “A couple of kids went over the bank up the Sespe. I've got to go help."
"Hold it,” one of the cops said. "It's your son been involved in the accident. Him and Joe Galarza."
"What did you say to me?"
"It's your son, Roger. Why don't you go back to the house and let's talk about it."
"What do you mean, 'Let's talk about it'? I've got to get going." Roger told himself that Jeff was injured but still alive. "I've got to get up there and help them.” He drove off to the scene of the crash.
Sandi and Danny learned the truth before Roger did. While they were listening to the scanner at home, two other Fillmore cops came to the door.
“Sandi,” one of them said, "if it had been Jeffrey and Joe, who else would have been in the car with them?"
About that time, Sandi heard Ed Wyand, one of the sheriff's deputies she worked with, talking to headquarters over his radio. "Can we remove the body off the rocks?” she heard him say on the scanner, and Sandi knew. Danny wanted to drive up to Sespe Creek immediately, but Sandi, feeling a blind and utter terror, screamed at him, "No. don't go! I need you!"
Up at Sespe Creek, everyone Roger encountered tried to stop him. Don't go any farther, they said. We want to talk to you, they said.
Paul Haase and Roger's brother, Vic, who was also on the search-and-rescue team, tried to hold him back. Roger broke away, denying the evidence of his eyes, his ears, and his heart.
As he approached the hideous wreckage of the car, a stretcher came by with a young boy on it. He had an oxygen mask on his face, and his foot was turned out at a ninety-degree angle, even though his leg had a big splint on it.
“Which one's that?” Roger asked, knowing.
"This one's Galarza," said a man named John Foley, who was at the head of the stretcher. "We've got to go, Roger. His leg's tore clear in two."
"Where's Jeffrey?” Roger asked, knowing.
Neither John Foley nor the man at the foot of the stretcher could find the words to tell him.
At that moment, another of Roger's friends, Fred Hooper, came up from behind, took hold of him, and said, "You don't want to go up there. Don't go up there. Just stop for a minute, and let me talk to you.” When Roger spun around, Hooper burst into tears and almost collapsed.
Roger knew what he had known from the moment he met the cops at the stop sign. Yet he continued to tell himself that Jeff was alive. He went back home, not having seen his son or shed a single tear. The house was full of sheriff's deputies and local cops, a California Highway Patrol officer, and the town coroner. They were writing reports and asking what year Jeffrey had been born, and through it all Roger clung to the belief that this was a nightmare from which he would awaken at any moment. When his brother, Vic, came back to the house, Roger met him at the gate and asked, "Is he all right?"
Vic looked him straight in the eye and said, "Roger, he's dead."
When Joe regained consciousness, all he could see was the sky. He stared at the stars for a moment, then began to wonder where he was.
“Westerberg !” he called.
Jeff didn't respond.
“Westerberg!” His voice sounded wrong. “Westerberg!"
Wherever Jeff was, he wasn't answering.
“Aw, fuck," Joe moaned to himself, and began to weep uncontrollably. Soon he passed out again.
When he came to, paramedics were standing over him. He was freezing and asked for blankets. Finally someone gave him one. "What happened to my friend?” he asked. "What happened to Jeff?"
When one of the paramedics put his finger on his lip, Joe knew that Jeff was dead.
At the hospital, Joe discovered his brother Bubba standing at the foot of his bed. Bubba looked so scared that it frightened Joe. "Why? Why? Why?" Bubba said. Joe didn't know how to answer. He noticed that Bubba was staring at his legs. Joe lifted his head and saw that his right foot and ankle were completely mangled. This made him laugh, because the foot and ankle belonged to someone else. "It's O.K.," he told Bubba. When a doctor came in and said they would have to take the foot off, Joe laughed again, and again said it was O.K.
His father arrived. He, also, seemed too shocked to say very much. A California Highway Patrol officer read Joe his Miranda rights, then asked if he'd been drinking. "Yeah," Joe told him. "About a quart of beer.” An hour or so after that, with his father standing by, Joe listened to the cop tell him he was under arrest on suspicion of felony drunken driving and felony manslaughter.
0n Thursday, November 20, 1980, Jeff was buried with his fishing pole, a GMC hat that he liked to wear when he wasn't wearing a floppy camouflage hat, and a teddy bear from his baby days. In a town of 10,000, more than 600 persons signed the guest register, and scores of others filled the streets outside the small mortuary. Standing at Jeff's grave in Bardsdale Cemetery, one could see all the way across the valley to the cliff where he had died. The grave was marked by a simple stone, with a small oval photograph of him, smiling, inlaid in the marble. The inscription read:
LOVED SON AND BROTHER
JEFFREY SCOTT ALLEN WESTERBERG
JULY 7, 1964-NOVEMBER 17, 1980
On Saturday, Sandi, who had always been a great one for organizing trips and parties, organized two carloads of people to go to Ventura and give blood for Joe. As far as she and Roger knew, her son's best friend had survived a pure accident by pure chance. That same day, however, the Westerbergs were visited by a police lieutenant, George Conahey, and two homicide detectives from Sandi's office, along with two sergeants from the Fillmore Police Department.
"I don't know how to say this to you," Conahey began, "but it may not have been an accident. It may have been a suicide."
He spoke of rumors of a suicide pact that had spread through town, and how the rumors had been corroborated by at least a half-dozen witnesses. "Apparently they'd been riding around all day telling people they were going to do it,” Conahey said.
As soon as the cops left, Sandi canceled the mission of mercy to give blood in Ventura. Two months later, on January 22, 1981, Joe Galarza was charged with aiding a suicide, and with murder in the first degree.
To many of the people in Fillmore who considered the incident a cause for civic mourning and self-scrutiny, the idea of trying Joe for murdering his best friend seemed outlandish. To a prosecutor, however, the indictment had its own logic. The Ventura County district attorney, Michael Bradbury, was an aggressive law-and-order man, and he had a potentially strong case. With Joe's repeated announcements of his plan to drive off the cliff, the crucial element of premeditation was undeniably present.
Another factor in the first-degree-murder charge was a decision, made by the judge, to try Joe as a minor, in juvenile court, even though at sixteen he could have been tried as an adult. Attorneys and judges who work in juvenile court often see it as an instrument of benevolence, rather than of punishment, and see themselves as dispensers of therapy.
Roger and Sandi wanted Joe convicted, too, but not so he could get therapy. When they were forced to consider the possibility that their son had tried to take his own life, they rejected it unequivocally. Witnesses swore to Jeff's willingness, even eagerness, to go with Joe, but the Westerbergs insisted that Jeff must have thought Joe was joking, or boasting, when he threatened to drive off the cliff, and then fell victim to Joe's determination to make good on the boast. They also claimed that other witnesses had seen Jeff trying to save himself at the last moment, just as the car was going over the cliff, by climbing into the backseat.
Joe may have been Jeff's best friend, but now Sandi and Roger considered him a murderer. In a letter to the presiding judge, Roger expressed his belief that Joe should receive the harshest penalty the state could inflict -meaning death in the gas chamber.
Joe's trial began on February 24, 1981, in Ventura County Superior Court, and he hobbled into the courtroom the first day on a temporary prosthesis. It was a non-jury proceeding, presided over by a judge named Steven J. Stone. The assistant district attorney who was prosecuting the case, William Maxwell, portrayed Joe as the "active agent" of Jeff's death because he was the one driving the car. The defense attorney, Bernard Meyerson, whom Joe's parents had found through the Lawyer Referral Service, insisted the crash was accidental. Joe may have talked about driving over the cliff, Meyerson admitted, but it was only a boast, and his foot accidentally hit the gas instead of the brake as the car approached the cliff's edge.
Joe never testified in his own defense. Instead, he watched his buddies take the witness stand, and listened to them struggle with the prosecutor's questions. To some adults in the courtroom, the testimony had a drugged quality, with the sort of slight but perceptible lag between questions and answers that one encounters on long-distance telephone calls routed by satellite. To Joe, however, the young witnesses were simply laid back, like every kid he knew.
Maxwell asked Holly Troxler if he recalled what Joe had said about the cliff when they were all riding around in Kelly's van that night.
"No," Holly replied. "Didn't say nothing."
Joe could tell that Holly didn't want to answer the questions, but Maxwell forced him to talk about what had happened on the library lawn. Had there been any conversation there, he asked, about what would happen to Jeff and Joe if they drove off the cliff?
"We didn't believe they would do it, or anything."
"No. I mean, did anyone say they would be hurt or they would be killed or they would, be injured, anything like that?"
"They said they were going to kill theirselves.”
None of the witnesses corroborated the Westerbergs' claim that Jeff was seen trying to climb into the backseat. As far as either boy's motives were concerned, the closest anyone came to talking about them was a boy named Jim Peery. He told Maxwell about visiting Joe in the hospital just after the crash and then later when he was recovering.
"Well, when you were talking to him about how it happened," Maxwell asked, "did he tell you that he had done it intentionally?"
"Sort of like get it over with, you know."
"Was that what he said?"
"To get what over with?"
"Just do it," Jim replied. "They just did it. There was no reason."
Joe’s trial was unique in the annals of American jurisprudence. No court in the United States, or in Great Britain, for that matter, had ever tried a case in which the survivor of a genuine suicide pact was accused of murder. This meant, however, that both attorneys lacked clear-cut precedents. Joe heard his case compared to a bizarre California murder trial, People v. Matlock, in which the defendant strangled a friend who had asked to be killed. He heard the prosecutor say that he, Joe, was the same sort of active agent in Jeff's death. Then he heard the judge say there was no difference, in his opinion, between what Joe had done and shooting his best friend.
The means of homicide, Judge Stone announced at the end of the trial, "was solely in the hands of Joe, not in Jeff. Joe was the driver of the car. Joe was the only one who could have prevented this incident from occurring. There is no question that Jeff encouraged Joe, but Joe was no less an active participant than had he pulled the trigger of a gun."
To avoid dealing with such moral absolutes as guilt or innocence, juvenile courts in California euphemize. An indictment is called a petition, which is either sustained or not sustained. In Joe's case, the petition charged him with violating Penal Code Section 187, or murder in the first degree, and it was sustained.
Sentencing took place on July 15, 1981, almost five months after the trial began. Judge Stone remanded Joe for an unspecified period of time to the California Youth Authority, which could keep him imprisoned, if it saw fit, until he reached his twenty-third birthday.
During his first five months in Youth Authority custody, Joe was shipped around to four different facilities. Eventually he landed in Camarillo State Hospital, a mental hospital with an experimental program for young people who were suicidal. At Camarillo, Joe got down to schoolwork and regular counseling sessions. But the therapy confused him. One day he was having a friendly wrestling match with a male nurse he liked named Ed Williams. With his permanent prosthesis in place, Joe was barely disabled anymore, and the two of them were going at it in Ed's office when Ed said, “I can see the anger coming up in your eyes. What are you thinking?"
“I don't know," Joe replied, nonplussed. “I was just thinking about getting you in a position where I could hurt you." The whole subject baffled him. What Ed called anger, Joe had always called energy.
Although he stayed out of trouble and tried to do well in the program, Joe's periodic meetings with the parole board were a disaster. A board member would ask, "How do you feel about having murdered your best friend?” Then Joe would say, “I didn't murder anybody," and the board would turn down his request for parole, on the ground that he needed more psychotherapy to help him understand the reality of what he'd done.
Joe's therapeutic encounters were not entirely without value. For the first time in his life, people wanted to know something about him and were willing to listen. Yet the greatest benefits of his incarceration had little to do with therapy. Being locked up at night and being forced to go to school during the day gave Joe a life that finally had some shape to it. The daily routine protected him, like a storm cellar in the tornado belt. He was a prisoner, but he thrived in his captivity.
He made friends. The enforced closeness produced a camaraderie he had never known outside his friendship with Jeff. He read Watership Down, the first book he had ever read cover to cover. After eleven months at Camarillo, Joe was moved to a nearby Youth Authority facility, the Ventura School, and there he dug into college-level courses with a mind that was finally clear of drugs and booze. For a term paper in philosophy, he thought about writing on whether beauty was in the eye of the beholder or resided in exterior objects. Was there one thing in the world, he asked himself, that everyone would agree was beautiful? A sunset, maybe, or a snowcapped mountain? He didn't think so. You could always find some guy who'd think cutting the head off a lizard was beautiful. This confused him so much that he dropped the whole idea. Instead, he did a paper on the philosophy of ethics, and whether lying was always wrong. He played with ideas like a kid with a new slot-car set: Kantian theory, egoism, societal belief, relativism. He didn't find an answer to the question, but until then he had not known that such a question could even be asked.
Most important of all, Joe's incarceration led to a new relationship with his father. After the crash at Dead Man's Curve, Gilbert Galarza had rallied to Joe's cause, not just with expressions of love, which Joe had never heard from him before, but by borrowing heavily to finance his son's legal defense. After Joe's conviction, his father visited him frequently, even when Joe was locked up in Stockton, a ten-hour drive from Fillmore. Behind bars, Joe felt closer to his dad than he had ever felt on the outside.
Joe's lawyer, Bernard Meyerson, a deliberate, ruminative man in his mid-sixties, was fascinated by his client's case. After the conviction he pursued an appeal. In October 1982, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeal in Los Angeles turned him down. Meyerson petitioned for a rehearing. The petition was denied. But the attorney wasn't ready to admit defeat. He had come to the California bar late in life, by way of real-estate work and a law practice in Maryland. For the first time in his career he saw a chance to do something he had never done before, and might never be able to do again: argue a case before the state supreme court.
In his petition to the high court, Meyerson noted a crucial difference between Joe's case and the one that had weighed so heavily against him in his trial, People v. Matlock. In Matlock, he observed, "the defendant strangled the victim. Only the victim was to die. The defendant never contemplated also killing himself."
Though the point seemed obvious in hindsight, no one had made it at Joe's trial. In February 1983, the supreme court agreed to hear the case. Six months later, in August, it delivered a unanimous opinion. Calling the case "unusual, inexplicable, and tragic," the court ruled that Joe could not be held guilty of murder, since he had exposed himself to the same risk of death as his victim, and reversed the murder conviction.
Joe was set free on September 21, 1983, two and a half years after his conviction. Freedom was a mixed blessing for him at this point. He'd been a sixteen-year-old high-school junior when they took him away. Now he was a nineteen-year-old with prison rhythms imprinted on his voice, but no diploma, no money, no car, no skills, and few friends.
He went back to Fillmore and moved into the family bungalow. His father and Charlene were married now and had found another house in town, so Joe and his brother Bubba had the place to themselves.
People said hello to him on the street, but he'd never felt close to them before, and they seemed like strangers to him now. The best friend he'd ever known was dead. Joe knew the Westerbergs still considered him a murderer, and he was convinced that Danny had plans to take him by surprise one day and work him over. For his first few months back in town, Joe carried a chain with him for protection. Nothing happened to bear out his fears, but he still felt afraid, and wondered if he hadn't been happier in jail.
His father urged him to kick back for a while, and not to rush things. His mother gave him another car, but Joe had nowhere to go. He started drinking again and got back into drugs. In his first six months out of prison, he had two accidents, the second of which totaled his car. More isolated than ever, he drifted around town with other kids who had nowhere to go. No one asked why he and Jeff had driven off the cliff at Dead Man's Curve, and that was just as well, because Joe had no answers. As he told Jim Peery once, they just did it, for no particular reason, to get it over with.