Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Letter from California-August 23, 2004

I have a vivid memory of a fourth of July festival on Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina sometime in the late 70s, where among other attractions, you could pay $1, as I recall, to swing a sledgehammer at a rusted-out junker car. At that time, a dollar went a long way for me, so I refrained. I couldn’t help but thinking though that if I had unlimited means, I would have taken at least one whack at the old wreck. Maybe 2 or 3.
I’ll leave you to decide which is funnier: my dreaming of a time when I would have enough wealth to spend my Independence Day breaking the tail lights on a ’65 Dodge Dart or the idea that a car-smash was an Air Force-sanctioned feature of the party celebrating our nation’s birth. Perhaps tough-guy shenanigans like this would make sense in the Marines or even the Army, but we’re talking about the Air Force here. In this branch, most people push pencils instead of pumping iron. Airmen generally don’t drop and give anyone 20 unless they’re offering to pay for the next case of beer but can’t get off the floor to go buy it themselves.
Either way, we’re left to contemplate one hard-to-deny fact: people like to damage cars. It’s even become the traditional Super Bowl victory celebration to torch or tip over a car and there’s a message in that: winners have plenty of cars so why not have a little fun with a couple of them?
Without an NFL team in town, Angelenos need to come up with other justifications for this mayhem, but unfortunately, none of them is quite as festive as a July 4th celebration or a Super Bowl triumph. In fact, two of Southern California’s most notorious car vandals both find their way into court and the local news this week in two very different ways, and yet their stories have strange, similar points of overlap.
To recap for those joining us late, Billy Cottrell is accused of torching and vandalizing 133 SUVs at Southern California dealerships last year at this time. Billy is a graduate student at CalTech, one of the most selective and prestigious schools for science and engineering in the world, and so he’s probably got some Lex Luthor-style evil genius potential that we need to keep an eye on. Kerri Dunn…excuse me, Professor Kerri Dunn of the prestigious Pomona Colleges, came to campus as a guest professor and harangued the student body in lectures and rallies about how racist and hateful they all were. As proof, she smashed the windows of her own car, ripped out the tape deck and wrote anti-black and anti-Jewish racist slogans (Dunn is as white as Colonel Sanders, by the way) on her 1990 Honda. When word got out of the “crime,” the students and faculty rallied to her defense, canceling classes for a day and repudiating racism and vowing to defend and support her. A week later, the cops investigating her insurance claim turned up evidence and eyewitnesses that demonstrated the hate crime was entirely self-inflicted. Before the Mystery Machine even made it to town, the police were dragging Professor Dunn away while she muttered, “…and I would have gotten away with it to if it hadn’t been for you meddling eyewitnesses!” Evil she may be, but, genius, certainly not. The court brought back a guilty verdict on Dunn this week for charges related to her brilliant caper.
This week, the police in another part of Los Angeles also announced that they have DNA evidence connecting Cottrell to the Hummer-burning spree of last year. This has caused a shift in his legal strategy. It had been the Gary Coleman defense, consisting of saying “What you talkin’ bout, prosecutor?” and denying everything. Now, the story goes, Cottrell is a high-functioning autistic who was led down the path of SUV destruction by those with stronger minds. Stronger minds? Did a race of super-beings come down in their ships and decide to pick on all the people with 150 IQ or higher? And if they did, why are they so concerned about protecting the earth? Maybe they want to make sure it’s all spiffy and pine-fresh when they launch their planetary takeover in 50 years. Somehow I don’t think that theory is going to survive the harsh light of day in court, so things don’t look promising for Cottrell.
Still, his case has a comforting simplicity about it: overly intelligent nutjob makes dangerous and futile gesture in a fit of childish idealism but ends up ruining his life. At least we get his point. Enjoy the federal Pen, Billy.
Professor Dunn’s story, on the other hand, has an ickiness to it that should give every decent person the heebie jeebies. First, a little good news: “hate crimes” like the one Dunn staged must be almost completely extinct. If hate-peddlers like her actually have to go to the trouble of faking them in order to get people to believe they exist, things must be improving a lot.
The bad news though is the awful power of an accusation like this. Blacks and Jews at the Pomona Colleges must have looked askance at their fellow students for those days following the phony-baloney incident, seething with needless suspicion. So what if this dose of poison into the community turns out to have come from a person who self-righteously preached about the immorality of others? Looking back on the sympathy they poured out to Professor Dunn, the students must feel a resentment and confusion about the whole issue, where before all this, they were, apparently, getting along just fine. Thanks, Professor; you’re really reaching the young people.
Sadly, the police couldn’t charge Dunn with anything worse than filing a fraudulent insurance claim, so she maxes out at 3 and a half years in the joint, whereas Cottrell faces decades. Sure, he burned more cars. In fact, he burned about 40 Super Bowls worth and he’s going to pay for that, which is good and right. Dunn, on the other hand, will probably be freely driving her dented Honda again by the start of next school year, with good behavior.
But I have a feeling that classes won’t be cancelled in her honor at Pomona this time around.


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