Adult nonfiction winner: ‘Spared’

After a seven-year hiatus, the Kenai Peninsula Writers Contest returns for its 23rd year. Coordinated by the Homer Council on the Arts, the contest was open to literary artists of all ages on the Kenai Peninsula. The judges were Kim Fine, De Patch, Lyn Mazlow, Melissa Cloud, Shellie Worsfold, Debi Poore, Mae Remme, Linda Martin, Ann Dixon, Justin Herrman, Nancy Lord, Mercedes Harness, Wendy Erd, Rich Chiappone and Tom Kizzia.

Winners received prizes by sponsors Tom Bodett & Co., Homer Bookstore, River City Books and the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. Winners represented communities throughout the borough, including Anchor Point, Homer, Ninilchik, Nikiski, Kasilof, Kenai, Soldotna and Tyonek.

The winning stories, including second- and third-place entries, are online at the Homer Council on the Arts website at

Of this story, judges Chiappone and Kizzia wrote, “The author uses the tools of fiction to tell a smart nonfiction memoir. She paints memorable scenes with specific details, she is efficient about what she leaves out, she establishes conflict and stakes early, and she escalates the tension. … This is a moving story of a young girl trying to figure out how to become a grown woman, with evocative details and vividly-drawn scenes from her difficult childhood. It is written with honest neutrality, never falling into the traps of self-pity or self-aggrandizement. A fine personal essay.”

This story includes a description of an attempted sexual assault and adult language and may not be suitable for younger readers.

It was the 2nd week of September in 1986 in Lake Elsinore, California. It was a very small lake town just outside of Riverside. I had recently been expelled from Temecula Middle School after they found out that I was not allowed to attend any school in the district. I was originally expelled from Lake Elsinore Middle School for selling cross tops and having a small knife that I frequently carried in my purse. Until I could transfer out of state to my dad’s house in Hawaii I was not allowed to attend any school in our district. I had failed the 8th grade and was doomed to repeat it, just not in their district.

I had a lot of time on my hands for the next few weeks while all my friends were in school and I was waiting for my dad to book my flight to go live with him for a while. I hadn’t lived with him since I was 7 when he left us abruptly one day. I didn’t know him well enough to say I was afraid to move there, but I knew he liked to use the belt and switch on my brothers growing up. He had also thrown my older sister around as a teenager. I will just say I was NOT looking forward to it. Most people would love to live in Hawaii. To me it was my future hell.

I decided to go ahead and sneak onto the high school campus for the day. I was excited to see Mike; it had been almost a week. I got extra dressed up and I was going to see my friends at lunch time in the smoking area of the high school in Lake Elsinore. If I could sneak on to campus, that is. My mom was at work, so I could go anywhere and do anything without anyone knowing or frankly caring. That day I only cared about getting to the high school to hang out with my friend and of course Mike.

I had determined that lunch time at the high school was the place to get Mike’s attention. Since I was sneaking onto the high school campus, I had to take the public transportation to get there. Our local bus was called the “Let’s Bus.” It only went around the lake every hour and a half. I finally got out the door and made my way up our long desolate dirt road near the lake, to the main road, East Lakeshore Drive. I lit a cigarette and urgently looked down the street for the bus. I was standing on the street corner where East Lakeshore Drive crossed our street, Lucerne Drive. We had been living at the end of Lucerne Drive for at least six months, frankly a record for my family. Our street corner is where the bus stop was.

It was about 10:30 a.m. It was a nice sunny day and I was dressed to impress. I felt sexy and mature. My lace mini skirt, black fishnet nylons, tiny black tank top and my bleach white hair standing up in the ultimate ’80s fashion. My makeup was heavy and dark, just how I liked it.

As I waited, I was trying to think of all the things I would say to Mike when I finally saw him. I was very upset that I wasn’t going to see him for a long time once I moved to Hawaii. So that day I wanted to make an impression that would stick in his head and make him love me like I loved him. Somehow in that one-hour lunch period I would do it, I would make him notice me as more than a friend.

Several minutes passed. My ciggy was almost smoked and still no bus. I figured I had missed the bus and was so pissed off at myself. As I started to pace back and forth trying to think if I could walk there and maybe see him after school. Maybe if I walked there — at least he could see me all dressed up. I stood there smoking another cigarette not knowing what to do. As I was pondering what I thought of as my only option, a late model tan sedan pulled over with a man in his late 30s. He was wearing a Western shirt and a bolo tie. He had wavy dirty blonde hair, a mustache and glasses, and he was a bit overweight. To me he seemed like he was my mom’s age or could have easily been one of her friends.

He pulled over and rolled down his passenger window, smiled at me and said, “Do you need a ride?” I had hitch-hiked before many times with my girlfriends. But this time I was alone and I was not asking for a ride, so I hesitated and then replied “No thanks, but I think that I just missed my bus.” Looking him up and down he seemed quite innocent. He had a smile on his face when he then asked me “Where are you headed?” I said I was heading to the high school. He replied “Oh, OK, well I am heading that way if you want a ride.” I reluctantly accepted. It is only less than 5 miles to the high school from my house; What could happen in 5 miles? I asked myself.

He seemed friendly enough. We chatted a bit back and forth about where I was headed and why. I explained that I needed to get to the high school to meet up with some friends. Out of nowhere he said, “How would you like to make a quick 20 bucks?” I was confused, followed by grossed out, then scared. I put my hand on the passenger door handle thinking to myself, will I really have to jump out of this car and ruin my outfit and my knees? Even though he was smiling, my body knew this was not a request from him, but a demand. I immediately went into fight or flight mode. I started to gauge how much room was between him and I, and I wondered if he could reach me across the large front seat if he tried. My mind was racing. My verbal response to him was simply, “No.” To which he replied with a bit of a smirk on his face. He said; “Oh, OK, how old are you anyway?” I suddenly felt like a child again and replied, “I am only 14.” He then said “Oh ya I probably shouldn’t be asking you for that.” Never fully asking for what we both knew he wanted.

I was a virgin and I had barely even kissed a boy. I suddenly realized how my outfit made me look and suddenly it made me feel the same way, like a slut. I put my hand firmly on the handle of the door and I was ready to jump and roll when he continued. “How about a hand job?” he asked. I again said “No” more directly this time. Then I said, “You can let me out right here, this is close enough.” I was a bit stunned when he replied “OK” and pulled over. It was broad daylight. By then it was close to 11 a.m. There was no one in sight either direction on the road. I was at least a half mile away from the high school still, but I didn’t care. I just knew I wanted out of that car. He gave me the creeps.

As soon as the car stopped I exited his vehicle and didn’t look back. I went behind his car and crossed the street immediately. I ran behind a house and proceeded to walk quickly, zig-zagging through the neighborhood behind the school. The high school campus felt like my safety zone and I needed to make it there so this creep couldn’t get a hold of me. I made it to the school for the last 15 minutes of the lunch period. Basically; the smoking period.

I got to the smoking area where 40 plus students, some old enough to smoke, some not, gathered behind a chain link fence and puffed our little lungs away. Mike seemed to notice me a little but nothing like I had anticipated. I was pretty disappointed and sad. I didn’t mention my encounter with the older man and I certainly never wanted to attract any unwanted attention like that ever again. I hid out in the front of the campus on the grass after lunch until school ended and rode the public transportation home with my friends and of course Mike.

Most of my teenage years I was not a happy kid and I filled that unhappiness with drugs. Lots of them. I knew that when I moved to Honolulu, Hawaii with my father and my step mom, they were not going to be putting up with my crap. They were going to have me on a tight leash. As I was well aware my dad was not afraid to whip your ass with a belt or a switch; sometimes your choice; sometimes not. So the rules were definitely enforced.

The only trouble I really got into while I was living in Hawaii was when I stole a teensy tiny piece of pot I found on a neighbor’s dresser that I was house sitting for. My dad asked me what the going rate for a joint was when he came home the following day. I said I don’t know; I guess a dollar. Then he explained the reason for the question. Later that evening after dinner, he had me come over and lay on his lap and he whipped me with a belt. Then he made me apologize and pay the man $1. I did go pay him his dollar, but I also made sure I wore short shorts so he could see the welts on my ass and lower thigh as I walked away back to my Hawaiian prison. When I returned my dad decided to call my mom back in California and tell her to have a belt by the bed for when I get home. It just so happened to be her birthday.

The 6 months 1 day and 15 minutes living with my father and step mom were the most disciplined, drug free, and strictest days of my teenage years. I hated most of it. However I did meet some very diverse group of friends. Mostly Hawaiian, Filipino and Japanese people. I was the haole, and I was interesting to them. They certainly had many different things that I was not used to in their customs such as these wonderful fried wonton type things at the Filipino market that we passed on the way to school. And the soup bowls they would slurp down at McDonalds while I ate a Big Mac.

My first week of school I was picked on by the local kids. One went so far as to throw sewing needles at me while we were in class. Eventually I found a group of friends. We went to school dances and movies. It was weird to me; none of them did drugs or partied. Heck they didn’t even know what most drugs were. I had some clarity; if even for only a while. I did miss my mom and my friends a lot! My dad wouldn’t let me call long distance so I would steal change and save up to call my mom from the pay phone down the street. One time I even called a friend from the elevator phone in the high rise apartments we lived in. I was like the child version of McGyver. I figured out how to tap on the phone fast enough to make a pulse that would make the number I wanted. It was no easy task. It required pin-point accuracy and also a lot of luck. Someone once got on the elevator with me while I was attempting a call. That must’ve been a strange sight. I was frantically tapping the phone trying to remember how many taps like a Morse code. He entered, looked down at me and I dropped the phone mid dial and ran out of the elevator.

After I finished the 8th grade for the second time around, I returned to the same house on Lucerne Boulevard in Lake Elsinore. Not much had changed. Life wasn’t any easier from there. I had my ups and downs through adulthood. I had two failed relationships and children at a very young age. I raised two beautiful children, mostly as a single parent. Considering I didn’t have much guidance on raising kids or how to be a parent I think I did pretty well raising mine. Neither of them do drugs and I am very proud of them both for being great loving people. I eventually find love and a companion in my husband and we married in 2005. He also had two children from a previous marriage. So together we made it work.

In 2009 I was in Las Vegas taking care of our Dad who was suffering with stage 4 cancer, his third type of cancer in two years. He had been having a hard time; so I came down from Sacramento to help him for a while. I was up late on Facebook, trolling. This was when Facebook was fairly new. I was scrolling through old friends and wondered what ever happened to Mike, that guy I had such a crush on. Down the rabbit hole I went. Searching for any connections to him or his cousin “Big Ed.”

My best friend Sheila and I were told back in 1987 by Big Ed, who was also Mike’s roommate, that Mike had moved to another state with his mom because he had witnessed the murder of his mom’s boyfriend. Mike’s uncle, Big Ed’s dad, we were told was actually the person who had shot him. My best friend Sheila and I had stayed at their house many times and I could not believe that Big Ed’s dad had shot someone. He was such a quiet man, never seemed short tempered or scary in any way. Sheila and I saw the bullet holes in the couch and wall the following day after it happened, so we knew it was true, or so we thought.

After asking around on Facebook; someone told me that it was actually MIKE that had murdered his mom’s boyfriend. I was shocked. So then I googled “Murders in Lake Elsinore in the 1980s” to try to find a newspaper article or something. I was surprised to find that there was a serial killer in Lake Elsinore while I was growing up.

After scrolling through a few online articles about this serial killer, I was stopped in my tracks with a single photo. It was him. The man that had picked me up some 23 years ago on that street corner where I had missed the bus. His name was William Suff. I had a name with the face that I had so strongly embedded in my memory. The more I read the story the more I freaked out. When I scrolled down and saw the older photo of him, I KNEW that he was the man I had gotten in the car with so many years ago.

The article read how he was captured for the slayings of at least 12 women in the area and possibly as many as 28. I scrolled down reading the story. The more I read the story the more I felt like, “holy crap,” I was spared. I was all alone up late in Vegas and frankly I was freaking the hell out. I called my husband and told him the story. He couldn’t believe it. He had heard about some of my childhood but this story topped any previous tales of my youth.

Six years later I researched more about his crimes and eventually worked out a timeline of his suspected murders. I was picked up by him in late September, just after the new school year had started. His first known victim was found just under a month later. I believe that I would’ve been his first victim; besides of course his infant daughter DiJanet. He was convicted of killing her when she was only 2 months old. She was beaten so badly that she had a broken ankle, several broken ribs and a ruptured liver and spleen. The murder of the innocent little baby was in Texas some 10 years prior to picking me up that day. He was sentenced to 70 years in prison for the unthinkable murder of his infant daughter but only served 10 years before being released on parole. He then quickly transferred back to California where he had grown up and lived most of his life. He was only required to write in once a year to his parole officer to “check in.”

Over the next several weeks I added to the timeline and figured out that I was in his car approximately three months prior to his first brutal murder in California of Michelle Yvette Gutierrez on Oct. 30, 1986. She was just 23 years old and a known prostitute. The murder happened in Lake Elsinore just a few miles from my home at the time.

After several other brutal murders in four separate counties the police started to pay attention. Ironically around 1991 he married a girl named Cheryl from my high school. She was one year younger than me and had a child with him who was taken away due to being shaken or injured enough to be placed in foster care. When they married, she was only 18 and he was 41. Their nuptials took place in Las Vegas, Nevada.

He also lived less than 5 miles from where he picked me up. I now know that at that time he had just been hired in Riverside County as a supply clerk. Ironically he delivered furniture to the very Riverside Police task force that was investigating him. His reign of terror went on from 1986 up until he was finally captured on Jan. 9, 1992 by a police officer who recognized his vehicle and description. He is currently serving his sentence of death on San Quentin’s Death Row.

I wrote to him about three years ago after moving to Alaska. I was curious to see if he remembered me and to ask why he let me go that day. He has yet to write me back. All of the research I have done has made me think, not all of his victims were prostitutes. At least I wasn’t. However I may have looked like one that day. Is that why he let me go, because I was not a prostitute? Sometimes I wonder: If he had offered me drugs, would I have been spared?

Articles about the crimes and victims 1991:


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