The 27 Club

Robert Johnson, first member of The 27 Club

You don’t want to belong to The 27 Club. It’s very exclusive and its members are all dead. They all died at the age of 27, usually from unnatural causes, most from drug or alcohol abuse.

The club is much larger than the members mentioned in this article. However, these are arguably its most famous associates. Each was a master of his or her art, and each achieved a good measure of fame while alive. After death, fame became legend.

It’s something to think about if you’re not yet 27 and searching for those 15 minutes of fame. If you made it past 27, take a deep breath and be thankful.

Our short list is in date order, beginning in 1938, and just looks at musical artists.

Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938, a master of the blues guitar. He was poisoned. Johnson is generally considered the first member of The 27 Club.

Nat Jaffe, one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, died on August 5, 1945, from complications of high blood pressure. His was one of the few “natural deaths” in The 27 Club.

Jesse Belvin was an R&B vocalist, songwriter and pianist. He died on February 6, 1960, in an auto accident.

Rudy Lewis, vocalist for The Drifters, died on May 20, 1964, from a drug overdose.

Brian Jones, a founder of the Rolling Stones and guitarist, died from drowning on July 3, 1969. He had been pushed out of the band the previous month.

Alan Wilson was the lead singer and songwriter for Canned Heat. He died on September 3, 1970, of an overdose.

English: Jimi Hendrix at the amusement park Gr...

Jimi Hendrix, possibly the greatest guitarist in history, died on September 18, 1970. He succumbed to a combination of too much wine and sleeping pills.

Janis Joplin, one of the greatest blues singers of all time, died of heroin poisoning on October 4, 1970.

Jim Morrison was the lead singer and songwriter for The Doors. He died on July 3, 1971, from a heart attack, probably brought on by a lifetime of alcohol and drug use.

Pigpen McKernan, one of the founders of the Grateful Dead, died of complications from alcohol poisoning on March 8, 1973.

Dave Alexander was the bass player for The Stooges. He died on February 10, 1975, from complications after a lifetime of alcohol abuse.

Pete Ham played keyboards and guitar for Badfinger. He hung himself on April 24, 1975.

Chris Bell was the founder of Big Star and its chief songwriter. He died in an automobile crash on December 27, 1978.

D. Boon was a leader in the punk rock movement, singer, and guitarist for the Minutemen. He died in a car crash on December 22, 1985.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a cohort of Andy Warhol and the founder of Gray. He died of a heroin overdose on August 12, 1988.

Kurt Cobain (front) and Krist Novoselic (left)...

Kurt Cobain, singer and songwriter for Nirvana, died by an apparent suicide on April 5, 1994.

Kristen Pfaff was one of the few female bass players to achieve individual fame. She played with Hole and died from an overdose on June 16, 1994.

Richey Edwards, a founder of the Manic Street Preachers and songwriter, died on February 1, 1995. It was thought to be a suicide.

Bryan Ottoson was guitarist for American Head Charge. He died from an overdose on April 19, 2005.

Amy Winehouse, singer and songwriter, died on July 23, 2011, from alcohol poisoning.


Character Development, Italian Style

AmarcordGreat character development isn’t the sole domain of novel writers. It also belongs to screenwriters and movie directors. I experienced the pinnacle of character development on the big screen, not in a novel, back in 1973. It rocked my world as a budding writer and defined the basis for my own way of developing characters.

The movie is Amarcord, conceived, written and directed by the legendary Federico Fellini. For me, this movie, its script, and its visual presentation epitomized the art of character development. I have yet to find anything on the screen or in a novel that compares.

The movie itself is simple in scope. It is a somewhat biographical account of Fellini’s youth in a small Italian town during the 1930s. This is a time when Fascism was the rage in Italy, a number of years before the outbreak of World War II. However, Amarcord is far from the “coming of age” theme that is so prevalent these days. Rather, Fellini takes us through an intricate array of characters, each more unique and captivating than the previous. It is the cast of characters that tell his story.

This scene presents most of the cast at a wedding ceremony near the end of Fellini’s story. Below it are members of the central family in the movie.

Amarcord Wedding SceneAmarcordThe entire movie is laced with smart, fascinating characters and tight, captivating dialogue. The detail of character development is what grabs and keeps our attention. No character is left undefined. No character is unimportant, even if that character makes only a cameo appearance in the movie. Each has dimension.

Early in the movie we are introduced to Fellini’s young friends gathered for the annual school photo.

Amarcord School Photo SceneFellini wanted to offer us a taste of his time in this town and he did it by relying solely on the characters he created. The town could be anywhere in Italy, or elsewhere. The plot is common enough. But, the characters take us through his memories with impact and lots of humor. This movie moves quickly and is a complete hoot, seasoned with just enough dramatic moments to keep us guessing.

One of Fellini’s narrators is this captivating gentleman. Below is an hilarious love scene between one of the key characters and a visiting dignitary.

AmarcordAmarcordThis movie, more than anything else, taught me how to create characters for my later writing. The attention to detail, the care and love he showed to each character, make it an unforgettable mosaic of beautifully handcrafted persona development.

The women in Fellini’s small town followed by the owner of the cigarette shop.

AmarcordAmarcordIf you get the chance, I couldn’t think of a better way to learn about character development than Fellini’s Amarcord. To this day, it remains my favorite movie for the captivating and unforgettable characters it offers. I have never tired of experiencing Fellini’s younger years through these unique individuals. Amarcord will remain a masterpiece for writers and screenwriters, for anyone who thrives on the human side of weaving a story.

Writers Workshop: Media Dancing

Reality Television

At some point in your writing career, you may find yourself dealing with the media in one way or another. Until it happens, you may long for that day. After it occurs, and especially if it occurs frequently, you may come to a very different conclusion about these encounters. Nonetheless, being a writer and dealing with the media are sometimes ham-and-cheese inevitabilities.

When it comes to publicity, to that Shanghai-la land of “free advertising,” the media can be your friend. The dark side of the relationship is that you are a product to the media presentation, a kind-of adornment designed to make their titillations more interesting to their viewers. This seems to be especially true when it comes to television, which thrives on short news cycles and sensationalism.

Now, I have a rather jaded attitude about working with the media, a phobia that goes back decades and always made my literary agent cringe. This is a result of too many years of working with the media, combined with an inbred dislike of being put on center stage. I have always preferred the background when it comes to working with the media. However, that is my weakness, not yours. You should give the media a fair try when they come knocking. It can greatly help your exposure and sales.

So, here’s how I rate various media outlets. It’s a personal view, so be sure to give it no more than a moment’s thought.

Television: You will generally be relegated to a “talking head” or “expert” role for most productions. From time to time, you may be involved in a reality-based TV series or a longer, more serious newsy piece on a particular subject. In any event, you will still be the adornment, the decoration to provide some kind of legitimacy or “draw” to the production. It’s good for exposure and sales. However, don’t be surprised if you find yourself represented in a very different way than you first presented yourself. Most of the recorded material can be found on the cutting room floor. The impact of this kind of media is usually short-lived, so don’t expect a long-term bang for your time. However, there are exceptions. I was recently told by one of my readers that a reality series in which I first participated nearly ten years ago is still being aired. Obviously, this is good for the writer. TV exposure has its place.

Radio: The best are hour-long presentations that are live and in which you are the sole participant. Now, I’m not thinking of those late-night, “my mother married an alien” kind of productions. I’m thinking more of mainstream radio. I’ve always liked these, the live interaction, especially when callers are allowed to come into the program. Radio is no longer a powerhouse media stream but it still has value. You can’t beat NPR or a local station that gets involved with local issues and local authors.

Film: Wow! This is a mixed bag of tunas and sharks. I’ve been involved with film production from several sides and both ends, front and back. I’m a big fan of independent films, especially documentaries. I have also worked as a consultant for the Hollywood scene. I have always wanted to stay in the background with this form of the media. I enjoy the art, the production, and the creative process that goes into making the finished product. However, I do not like the egos that typically surround this kind of work. Also, the bigger the project, the bigger the egos that seem to surface from nearly everywhere. In other words, I have a pretty bad attitude about major film productions and the folks that surround the process. I do not recommend my attitude. In fact, I ask that you keep an open mind about this whole subject. If given the chance, give it a try, but always remember that these kinds of productions are not designed to highlight you or your work. Even if the production is based on your own creation, it will be changed to suit the needs of the production and directorial ends of the business. If you become part of this branch of the media, whether in front or back of the production, you must realize that you will forced into many compromises that you might not like. However, that’s the price for playing the game. Love it or hate it, this kind of media has lots of punch. It can be both a friend and an enemy at the same time, and you may never figure out which is which.

Print: Newspapers, magazines, blogs, whatever the form it takes, this has always been my favorite form of media. I suppose it makes sense since I’m a writer. I enjoy dealing with most of this end of the media, and it’s something familiar. However, be aware that you are still an adornment with the print media. Like the other media forms, you cannot have control. From my point of view, the upside is that print media has a slightly longer half-life than television or even film productions. This is a bonus if you are able to present yourself effectively. Print media also has a habit of knocking on your door more than once. If they figure out that you have something interesting to say (print) on a particular subject, they will come back again and again. This kind of repeat exposure is always good for your writing career.

So, the bottom line. Do you really need the media in any of its incarnations? Strictly speaking, no. You can live a meaningful life without ever dealing with the media. However, it has its role for any writer. Good media can boost your sales and get your words to a larger audience. This is obviously a good thing. Just keep in mind that you will never appear in any form of media as you know yourself. You will meet the media on its own terms, always.

The El Mozote Massacre

The work of Clyde Snow and others who labor with problems of individual identification in cases of mass disasters reflects the humanistic side of their profession—the need to account for all human beings, especially those who have been the victims of atrocities. — Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, Ph.D. Professor of Ecology, Anthropology, Asian Studies, Cornell University. (From a private letter to the author.)The site of the old, burned down church in El ...

In his book, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War, author Mark Danner wrote that the events at El Mozote in the early 1980s may well have represented the largest massacre in modern Latin American history. In fact, this tiny, impoverished village, which is located in a mountainous region of northeastern El Salvador, proved to be a killing ground of unspeakable horror and a focal point of international controversy that involved the outright denial of historical truth by high-ranking representatives of two governments, including our own. It was only when the science of forensic anthropology was brought to bear at the El Mozote site, more than a decade after the massacre, that the world would learn of the horrific crimes that had claimed the lives of all but one villager. Unfortunately, for Americans, we would also learn that the atrocities that occurred in this Salvadoran village were a direct result of our nation’s unflagging support of a foreign government that set few limits on the use of force against its own people.

El Salvador is a country of less than 6 million people, whose population lives primarily in rural areas. This is a very poor nation, with as many as 3 million inhabitants living in extreme poverty. Most of the citizens of El Salvador eke out a marginal subsistence on the land and live in isolated communities where comforts are few but family and religious bonds are crucial and unquestioned.

In 1981, El Salvador was at the height of a civil war that was ravaging the countryside, costing thousands of innocent lives and resulting in a complex network of foreign entanglements and intrigue that epitomized the political and philosophical divisions inherent in the Cold War. At the time of the civil war, Cuba and Nicaragua supported the guerrillas fighting in El Salvador, who were organized as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and committed to overthrowing the regime then in power in their country. For its part, the Salvadoran government was equally committed to putting down the revolution, using whatever force they thought necessary to do so. The ruling government was strongly supported by American funds, weapons, and specialized military training that focused on counterinsurgency combat techniques. Caught in the middle of this brutal conflict were the Salvadoran people—most of them poor, peaceful, and deeply religious peasants—who struggled with both the civil war and the inherently difficult living conditions common to the vast rural areas of their country.

In all, more than 75,000 people would be killed in the twelve-year civil war before peace was finally restored to El Salvador. Sadly, many peasants and refugees in this conflict became the victims of a series of brutal massacres that were carried out by the Salvadoran military. However, of the many atrocities that took place during the course of the conflict, none was worse than what occurred in the small village of El Mozote in 1981.

On December 10, 1981, units of the Atlacatl Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion (BIRI), the Third Infantry Brigade, and the San Francisco Gotera Command Training Centre descended on the village of El Mozote in an anti-guerrilla action that had been code named “Operacion Rescate.” The goal of this operation, which had begun a few days earlier on December 6, 1981, was to eliminate guerilla presence in the northern Morazan area of the country and, in particular, in the hills near El Mozote, where a guerrilla training camp was thought to be located. The Salvadoran troops had been engaged in minor skirmishes with guerrillas in the area near El Mozote for several days preceding their occupation of the village. Much of the combat had involved American-trained and equipped soldiers, who comprised the heart of the infamous Atlacatl Battalion.

The Atlacatl Battalion had an unhappy history that may have led to its reputation as an especially brutal element of the Salvadoran military. Nine months before the commencement of Operacion Rescate, a company of the Battalion had taken part in another anti-guerrilla operation near El Mozote. During that encounter, the Atlacatl Battalion had suffered heavy causalities and was forced to retreat in disgrace from the area. After this incident, the Battalion became the brunt of jokes from other military units, acquiring the hated moniker of the “Rapid Retreat Infantry Battalion.” When the Atlacatl Battalion once again found itself positioned near El Mozote, its members were committed to not repeating their mistakes of the past.

El Mozote was a typical rural village, comprised of about twenty small homes that surrounded a modest central square. Facing the square was the village church, which was the primary gathering point for villagers and the pride of El Mozote’s inhabitants. Behind the church, a small building had been erected, which was known to the villagers as the “convent house.” This structure was used by the Catholic priest to change into his vestments before celebrating mass for the residents of El Mozote and the surrounding area.

When they arrived in the village, the Salvadoran soldiers discovered that the population of El Mozote had swelled with a large number of peasants from the nearby area. These refugees had fled their own villages and homes to avoid the ongoing clashes between the military forces and the guerrillas, seeking the relative safety they thought would be provided by a respected businessman who lived in El Mozote. The occupying soldiers immediately assumed that the villagers and refugees were guerilla sympathizers and decided to deal with them in the harshest possible way. In reality, few of the peasants that the soldiers encountered that day were involved in the ongoing conflict. Most of them were women and children.

Soon after their arrival in El Mozote, government troops ordered the residents to leave their homes and gather together in the village square. There, the frightened peasants were divided into groups of men, women and children, and placed under guard in various structures, including the church and the convent house. Throughout that night, the villagers were held without food or water and kept under an armed watch.

The following morning, December 11, members of the Atlacatl Battalion reassembled the villagers in the square in front of the church. At midday, the male villagers were systemically interrogated, tortured, and then executed by the soldiers. When all the men in the village had been massacred, the troops began murdering the women and children by herding them into the convent house and shooting them to death. When they were convinced that the entire population of El Mozote had been slain, the troops set fire to the buildings in which the bodies lay. However, one woman managed to survive the ordeal and later tell her story of that horrific day.

After the massacre, the government troops spent the night in El Mozote without bothering to bury the bodies of any of their victims. The following morning, they moved to the village of Los Toriles, which was approximately two kilometers away. There, they continued with the massacre. However, a few residents of Los Toriles were able to flee the area after the soldiers arrived and later confirmed the atrocities that they had witnessed.

In the village of El Mozote, only one individual was known to have escaped the massacre of December 11, 1981—Rufina Amaya, who had witnessed the murder of her blind husband while hiding in some bushes at the edge of the village. Tragically, while still out of sight of the soldiers, she also heard the screams of her four children as they, too, were systemically murdered.

When she was later located and interviewed by investigators, Amaya explained her remarkable tale of survival in an exceptionally moving and straightforward way that both affirmed her strong faith and expressed her deep pain:

God saved me because He needed someone to tell the story of what happened. I wish He hadn’t, though, because it is very painful to have to think of it all the time. There are so many things that I remember, and I tell them, but I just cannot stand to be there [in El Mozote].

The actual number of victims who were massacred at El Mozote has never been precisely determined. However, highly conservative estimates initially put the number at two hundred. Some estimates ran as high as 1,000 victims slaughtered that day. In fact, most investigators believe the number to certainly exceed five hundred.

The villages of El Mozote and Los Toriles were not the only locations of atrocities carried out by Salvadoran troops around that time in the Morazan area. In fact, the Atlacatl Battalion and other government troops ravaged several surrounding villages. According to the United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Mozote, the following massacres of civilians also took place at approximately the same time in nearby locations:

  • More than 20 civilians were murdered in the La Joya area on December 11, 1981.
  • Approximately 30 civilians were murdered in the village of La Rancheria on December 12, 1981, by units of the Atlacatl Battalion.
  • An unknown number of civilians from the village of Jocote Amarillo were executed on December 13, 1981.

On January 27, 1982, the American public and the world became aware of the El Mozote tragedy when articles written by Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto appeared simultaneously in the New York Times and the Washington Post. In those articles, the investigative journalists confirmed that they had visited the site of the massacre earlier that month and had personally seen the remains of the victims and the ruins that had once been El Mozote. When these articles first appeared in the press, Reagan administration officials involved in overseeing Central American policy publicly ridiculed them and brushed aside any possibility of a massacre. In fact, they claimed that El Salvador had made a good deal of progress in the area of human rights. However, as the world would soon learn, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Despite an immediate outcry by a variety of human rights organizations in the United States and other countries, the Salvadoran government immediately and unequivocally denied that any atrocities had taken place. The United States government continued to publicly support the Salvadoran government position and no official investigation into the incident was undertaken. However, human rights activists, working in secret, located the few remaining eyewitnesses to the massacres. Their testimony left little question that the alleged atrocities had actually taken place. Still, in the face of strong denials by both the U.S. and El Salvador governments, more than eyewitness testimony was needed to confirm what had occurred. Somehow, hard scientific evidence of the tragedy that had befallen El Mozote would have to be gathered.

In 1989, the legal office of the El Salvadoran Catholic Church, Tutela Legal, began an investigation into the massacres at El Mozote and the surrounding villages, based largely on the scarce eyewitness testimony of survivors and the work of a few investigative journalists. It was not long before the findings of Tutela Legal were made public. They indicated that at least 767 persons had been killed in the area around El Mozote in 1981. Still, even the report released by Tutela Legal was publicly derided since it contained no hard evidence to refute the Salvadoran government’s revised position that only insurgents had been targeted by their military actions.

In an effort to produce further hard evidence of the massacres, the leaders of Tutela Legal contacted the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and asked them to provide scientific assistance in their investigation by conducting an exhumation of key areas in and around the village of El Mozote. This action, they believed, would finally provide irrefutable proof of the atrocities that were now known to have been committed but continued to be so vehemently denied by government authorities.

In 1992, the warring parties in El Salvador’s civil uprising executed a peace accord, formally bringing an end to the twelve-year conflict that had ripped the country apart. As part of the treaty, both sides agreed to let the United Nations oversee an investigation into serious acts of human rights violations that had occurred over the previous decade. This was the opportunity that was needed by organizations like Tutela Legal to move ahead in gathering solid evidence of war crimes.

For much of 1992, the EAAF and several internationally renowned forensic anthropologists and scientists struggled to obtain legal permission from the Salvadoran government to begin their investigation in earnest. Finally, near the end of that year, all permissions were in place and the fieldwork was scheduled to begin.

An exhumation of the remains of the victims at El Mozote took place from November 13-17, 1992, by a combined effort with Salvadoran and international forensic scientists. It was decided that particular attention would be given to the area near the village church and the convent house, where Rufina Amaya had claimed to witness the murder of her entire family.

The El Mozote team of scientists included: Clyde C. Snow, Ph.D., forensic anthropologist; Robert H. Kirschner, M.D., forensic pathologist; Douglas D. Scott, Ph.D., archeologist and ballistics expert, and John J. Fitzpatrick, M.D., trauma radiologist. This team operated as consultants to the United Nations Truth Commission in El Salvador and in conjunction with the EAAF, who had intimate knowledge of fieldwork in Central and South America.

Eight years earlier, in 1984, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense, or EAAF) had been founded under the guidance of Clyde Snow to investigate the fate of individuals who had disappeared during the many years of a repressive military regime in that country. Since its inception, the EAAF had handled cases in Chile, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Brazil, and a number of other Central and South American countries. It was comprised of an experienced and highly professional group of scientists, who were familiar with the special challenges of forensic anthropology fieldwork in rural Central American venues. The organization’s efforts at El Mozote proved to be crucial to the successful exhumation of remains and evidence collection, as well as the eventual confirmation of the atrocities that had claimed the lives of so many villagers.

The Science at El Mozote

The principle site exhumed by the El Mozote forensic team was the convent house—the ruin of a small, single-room building that was adjacent to the remains of the village church. This structure measured 4.36 by 6.94 meters and had been destroyed by fire after the inhabitants of the village were executed. It was at this site that at least 143 human skeletons were unearthed.Because of the time that had elapsed since the massacre, the lack of burial of any of the victims, and the actions of predatory animals in the area, many of the remains were scattered and partially destroyed. In addition, because the structure had been set ablaze, the remains were also subject to damage by fire and the crushing weight of the structure as it collapsed on the bodies inside. The El Mozote site was exhumed by members of the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (EAAF) and the remains were subsequently analyzed by members of Clyde C. Snow’s interdisciplinary team, acting as consultants to the United Nations Truth Commission.

The exhumation team carried out the field investigation, prepared extensive sketches, photographs, and videotapes of their work, which were later provided to Snow’s analysis team using the facilities at the Institute of Legal Medicine at Santa Tecla. Both Snow’s team and the EAAF subsequently released separate reports on their findings. Snow’s report was included in the United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Mozote (1992), which proved to be the definitive account of what had transpired in that village in 1981.

The El Mozote team issued their report of findings on December 10, 1992, which not only authenticated the story that had been told by Rufina Amaya but vilified the government of El Salvador. The conclusions reached by the scientists clearly demonstrated that a horrific act of mass murder had occurred at El Mozote and had been subsequently covered up for more than a decade.

While in El Salvador, the El Mozote team analyzed hundreds of skeletal remains, ballistic evidence, a variety of clothing, coins, and other artifacts that had been exhumed in and around the area of the village church and the convent house. After collecting the evidence at the village, the group undertook its analysis at a special laboratory that had been established at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Santa Tecla. There, the scientists were assisted by various members of the Institute staff, a local dental expert, and the Comision de Investgacion, which provided additional ballistics testing support.

The El Mozote team was able to confirm overwhelming evidence of the massacre that had been denied on virtually all fronts, including by the United States government, for so many years. In their final report, Snow’s group offered precise and compelling evidence for their troubling conclusions:

  • At least 143 skeletal remains were discovered, including 136 adolescents and children, and 7 adults. The team was able to determine that the average age of the slain children was approximately six years. Despite the confirmed number of victims, the scientists believed that a greater number of deaths had occurred at El Mozote. However, they were unable to positively confirm additional victims due to the chaotic nature of the burial site, the activity of predatory animals in the area, and the number of years that had passed since the executions.
  • The skeletons unearthed at El Mozote demonstrated unmistakable evidence of severe trauma caused by high velocity gunshot wounds, crushing wounds, and fire or heat damage to the remains.
  • The team determined that the victims had all died at approximately the same time, followed by a deliberate burning of the structure in which the villagers perished. It is possible that some of the victims were burned alive since not all the remains showed evidence of death by gunshot wounds or other identifiable trauma. From the evidence at the scene, including coins and other personal belongings, the team determined that the victims had definitely been slain no later than 1981.
  • Although the vast majority of the victims were children, one of them was a pregnant woman.
  • At least nine of the victims were shot inside the convent house while they were lying in a horizontal position.
  • Nearly 250 cartridge cases and more than 260 bullet fragments were discovered at the El Mozote site. The majority of these cartridge cases (184) showed discernible headstamps that indicated the ammunition had been manufactured for the United States government at a Lake City, Missouri, location. Beyond this, 34 of the casings were preserved well enough for the team to further identify certain characteristics related to the weapons that had been used in the executions. According to the El Mozote ballistics team report, all but one of the bullets had been fired from M-16 rifles that were manufactured in the United States. Twenty-four individual weapons were identified, based on an analysis of the casings, implying at least twenty-four individual shooters who participated in the massacre.
  • According to the unearthed ballistics evidence, the team determined that the shooters fired at their victims while they were huddled together in the convent house. The shooters had positioned themselves near the doorway and at the area of a window to the right of the doorway, while their targets were gathered together in the middle of the room. In other words, the children and adults were surrounded and fired upon by the shooters, who had blocked any possible escape from the structure.
  • There was no evidence discovered that would support the long-held government assertion that these victims were actively involved in armed conflict or caught in the crossfire of warring parties. Rather, the evidence clearly supported the conclusion that the victims were intentionally murdered while unarmed and apparently uninvolved in any ongoing conflict.

Even at the time of their field investigation, the forensics team was convinced that many more victims had been claimed at El Mozote than could be accounted for by their findings, and several EAFF scientists carried on with the work at the site. By late 1993, the EAAF team publicly announced that they had been able to identify more than 500 people who had been killed in and around the village in December 1981. However, it is widely accepted that the true extent of the massacre will never be known.

Unfortunately, there are few final answers to the El Mozote tragedy, and much will likely never be known about the atrocious acts that destroyed the village and its inhabitants in 1981. The Salvadoran government has persistently claimed that it is unable to identify any of the participants in the massacre at El Mozote, publicly maintaining that there are no government records still in existence from the time period in question.

Today, in the village of El Mozote, a Wall of Lamentations has been erected in honor of those who died so needlessly. The monument depicts a man and woman holding the hands of two small children. On the monument, a plaque reads: “They have not died, they are with us, with you, and with all mankind.” For El Salvadorans, no other explanation is needed to describe the horror that befell this small village.

The humanitarian work undertaken by the forensic scientists who excavated and analyzed the El Mozote massacre site confirmed the truth of what had happened in this tiny village so many years ago—and it did so beyond any doubt. The efforts of these scientists not only led to an important revision of false history that had been propagated by government authorities for far too long, it also brought honor upon themselves and to the victims who perished in such a merciless, cruel way. Hopefully, the truth of the horrible history that the EAAF and Clyde Snow’s team brought to light will lead us all to a heightened awareness of the atrocities that are so often committed by a government against its own people. In so doing, perhaps this knowledge can help prevent future occurrences of these kinds of horrific crimes.

For the Stage: Last Night of Vera Renzci


For the Master Actor’s Workshop, Denver, CO.

The Last Night of Vera Renzci


Michael D. Kelleher


Approximate time period: 1921.

Location: Eastern Europe.

Plot synopsis: From the life of Vera Renczi, a female serial killer who poisoned a number of husbands and lovers, then entombed them in Zinc coffins in her basement.

Solo performance time: Approximately 5 minutes.

Demonstration: Range and versatility in a time period other than contemporary for a female of middle age.

Props: Glass of wine, wooden rocking chair, stage bare.

Enter stage left with glass in hand. Momentary pause. Scan ahead toward stage right. Sit down slowly in the chair. Sigh. Somber.]

Good evening, love. Good evening to each of you . . .

Sips from the glass, raises it in a toast.]

If I could only remember you more clearly . . . your face . . . your faces. Something more than these nine Zinc coffins, precious as they are. Something more warm and strong, the way you were before you came here. I am sorry, but I cannot recall your face . . . your faces.

Too many years have gone by since I held you and made love with you.

I am sorry . . .

[Scans ahead slowly, briefly examining each of the coffins.]

I cannot now regret what I’ve done to you over these many years. It was, after all, a way of showing you my love, my deepest, more pure, most true love. It was my gift to you. And, yes, it was a way of keeping you close to me, down here . . . forever, until this time came.

I am so sorry, love, that it all must end so soon.

[Pauses momentarily, dreamily, as if remembering.]

Was it painful, love? I’ve been told that it was not, and I pray that this was true. I’ve been told that it was like gently falling away, like slipping dreamily into the open arms of your only love.

Was it as they said? A certain numbness, a kind of sleepy tingling that started in your toes and fingers, and slithered pleasantly and easily along your skin like a warm, persistent summer breeze.

Was it like that, love? I’ve been told that this is true, and now I will know. I loved you too much to give you pain after pleasure. I cared for each of you too much for that.


I pray that what they told me of your last days, those precious hours, was true . . . true for each of you . . . and now true for me.

[Sips from glass.]

The doctors were so kind and understanding. Do you recall? They took their time to explain to me that you felt little pain, hardly any fear . . . none of you.

Just a falling away . . .

[Smiles proudly.]

They remarked about my love and my devotion to you. Do you recall? They whispered to each other . . . How I would stay by your side, nurse you as best as I could . . . even keep you clean when they, themselves, would recoil from the stench.

I did that for you, love, for each of you in your proper turn, when the time was right, when I knew that I had you for myself . . . forever . . .

When the time came that you wanted to be mine . . . forever.

[Voice fades.]

I was there, at your bed, love. There every day, each evening. There when you awoke in the night, coughing and with spasms so violent that I could not hold down your writhing arms. There, in those final moments, my hand in yours, my face close to yours, my breath on your cheek and yours on mine.

Finally, when you left me, when it was that time, I brought you down here, to our secret place, to love you in our special way, each of you, without intrusion or questions.

It was my greatest gift—my devotion to you.

[Voice stronger now.]

Now, love, there is something I must say to you . . . to each of you. It is about the dark time that we knew would someday come, and I am so very, very sorry . . .

[Raises glass toward ceiling, voice very strong.]

Up there, they are talking and chattering, and meeting in their pitiful hovels, in their dark corners, over their empty beds. The evil bitches . . . the ones who claimed you first, who said they loved you but gave you nothing of themselves! Those who would call themselves “wives.” Now, they are talking. Their cruelty is unfathomable! They have called me whore . . . the whore of Leeds, and a cruel murderess.

They have said that it is I who never loved you!

They are liars! Whores!

[Voice softer.]

I loved each of you . . . loved you without limit, without compromise . . .

Without chattering in hovels and dark corners.

I loved you . . .

[Sips from the glass, stands, steps forward. Gently moves a hand across a coffin. Pauses momentarily, voice soft.]

It is worse, love. Much worse.

They have brought the Constable here, into our holy bedroom. He waits even now, at the top of the stairs. Can you hear him breathing and shuffling his feet, so anxious to have me?

They have told him what they believe to be true, what they want to be true—that I have killed you, not loved you. They want us to be forever apart. They want you back in their cold sheets, or in their cold, barren, childless ground.

But you are still mine . . . each of you.

[Thrusts an arm angrily upward.]

The bitches and whores are up there, not down here!

They know nothing of love!

They’ve mistaken your bed for your heart, my love . . . for each of you. They do not know how willingly you gave your love, nor how happily I took it from them!

[Voice very soft, tearful.]

Now . . . They have ended it for us.

Ended it for all of us . . .

[Returns to chair and sips from the glass. Moment.]

I am so sorry, love . . . so sorry to leave you here, in this frigid place, with no one left to care for you. This is not what I had hoped for us.

[Glances up momentarily, voice much stronger now.]

But I have something of a surprise for them!

Whores! Bitches! Men in dress blues with thick, curled mustaches and frozen hearts!

I have something just for them . . .

They will not rip us away from the place that we have shared for so long! They never loved you as I did, and they cannot hope to discover in death what they never valued in life.

They are the whores and bitches, not I! They only played at love, without commitment, without giving themselves to you . . . each of you. They could never know the wondrous, passionate love that only death can bring!

[Final sip from glass.]

I am so sorry, love.

I cannot go with the Constable tonight. I cannot face that cruelty, so far away from you, in a place where we cannot meet each evening as we do. I cannot abide the bitches and whores from whom you fled to my side!

I am not theirs, and neither are you . . . each of you!

[Voice soft.]

So, love, I am joining you now, tonight, to take you away from these whores and bitches, and heartless men; to take you away from this dank basement, to take you to a warmer place where we can begin again . . . and alone.

Each of you . . .

[Head falls to chest, glass falls to floor. Close.]