Return to Wonderland

With his old pal Eddie Nash to be arraigned Monday in a 19-year-old murder case, the restless ghost of legendary porn star John Holmes once again stalks L.A.

Topics: Pornography,

Return to Wonderland

Up in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon, in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, it’s yuppie heaven. At least that’s what they’ve tried to make it. The twisting, narrow streets are filled with freshly washed BMWs, Mercedes and SUVs. This is where second-string producers, PR hacks and other Hollywood cogs keep their chintzy bourgeois cocoons. Everyone seems smug, happy to be alive. Like their pets — those ubiquitous golden retrievers with pelts so shiny, teeth so white that they hardly notice the collars around their necks.

The quaint little split-level home at 8763 Wonderland Ave. in Laurel Canyon seems perfect for the 40-something couple who inhabit it. They’re pulling out of their carport in a black minivan when I approach them. They stop for a moment.

No, they don’t want to discuss the murders, the man says. That was a long time ago, and it has nothing to do with them. Yes, they get approached about it all the time, but other than that, they have nothing to say. The window goes back up, and they begin their descent from Wonderland.

There’s something “Twin Peaks” creepy about Laurel Canyon in general, and this goes doubly for the little white house on Wonderland Avenue. The fresh paint and the remodeled ironwork on the balcony belie the fact that on July 1, 1981, this was the site of a quadruple homicide so bloody that it drew comparisons to the Manson Family killings, part of which occurred in nearby Benedict Canyon at the home of the late Sharon Tate and director Roman Polanski.

Back in ’81, the coroner had to scrape the bodies of Ronald Launius, William DeVerell, Barbara Richardson and Joy Audrey Miller off the floor, the walls, the furniture. Someone had bludgeoned each resident of this notorious drug den repeatedly with a steel pipe.

The authorities dubbed the case the “Four on the Floor Murders,” but most folks just called it the “Wonderland Murders.” The massacre took place just down the street from what was then the home of Jerry Brown, who was California’s governor at the time. And 8763 Wonderland Ave. itself is said to have been inhabited at one time by Paul Revere and the Raiders.

To this day, the Wonderland case remains unresolved. It’s better to say “unresolved” than “unsolved,” because the cops and the press have a pretty good idea of who did it, and they’re just as certain that the late porn star John Holmes was somehow involved.

Holmes, who died in 1988 from AIDS-related complications, is mentioned as a co-conspirator in a 16-count federal indictment alleging that his old buddy Eddie Nash led a racketeering enterprise for a quarter century and participated in the Wonderland murders. Four others are mentioned as participants in the conspiracy. The indictment, which also alleges bribery, narcotics trafficking and money laundering on the part of Nash and his associates, was made public on May 19 when Nash, 71, was arrested at his townhouse in Tarzana, Calif.

It’s not the first time Nash — a Palestinian-born former nightclub owner also known as Adel Gharib Nasrallah — has been charged with orchestrating the Wonderland killings, and it’s certainly not his first brush with the law. Nash did a couple of years in the state pen for possession of narcotics right after Wonderland. The cops raided his home and found over $1 million in cocaine. His lawyer at the time argued it was for his personal consumption. The theory is that Nash had the Wonderland gang killed because they, with the help of John Holmes, had robbed Nash and his bodyguard, Gregory DeWitt Niles, a 300-pound martial-arts specialist, of a small fortune in heroin, cocaine, jewels and cash. Wonderland was payback for the home invasion and robbery, claimed prosecutors. Hence the brutality of the executions.

When California tried Nash for Wonderland in 1990, he lucked out, or so it seemed, with a hung jury of 11-1. Prosecutors tried Nash again in 1991, and he slipped through their fingers with a full acquittal. Now the feds are having a go at Nash, charging the ailing septuagenarian, who suffers from emphysema, with running a criminal enterprise of which the gruesome Wonderland slayings were just a part. The feds also claim, among other things, that Nash bribed the lone holdout on his 1990 jury.

But Nash may beat the rap again, this time with a little help from the grim reaper. The frail, shrunken alleged hoodlum tested positive for tuberculosis when he was taken to federal court for a bail hearing May 22. The hearing was called off so Nash could undergo further tests in the San Bernardino County Jail to determine if the initial skin test was accurate. On Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s office announced that Nash would be arraigned at 9 a.m. Monday in federal court. Clearly, Nash, who has suffered from TB in the past, is no longer considered to be contagious. Still, Nash’s sketchy health has left both his defense and the U.S. Attorney’s office wondering whether he can survive a trial.

“He’s in bad shape,” says Nash’s lawyer, Bradley Brunon. “He’s got emphysema and has had part of his lung removed. They’ve got him in horrible, almost medieval conditions. Could it kill him? I’m not a doctor, I don’t know. But it’s not going to do him any good.” Thom Mrozek, the flack for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, agreed that Nash’s health is an issue.

“That may have an impact on the prosecution,” says Mrozek. “There is a possibility that he will be too sick to go to trial. So, theoretically, it could affect us.”

Why rehash these charges 19 years after the Wonderland Murders, with Nash infirm? Mrozek’s answer is vague, but the fact that authorities have never been able to successfully pin Wonderland on Nash seems to lie at the bottom of it. They’ve been all over him like dogs on a meat truck since the ’80s. Most recently, in 1995, the feds hauled Nash away in his jammies for possessing crystal meth, but they had to let him go when it turned out the contraband in question was actually a mothball.

“A grand jury conducted an investigation and determined there was probable cause that Eddie Nash was involved in serious federal crimes,” said Mrozek, defensively. “The indictment describes Nash’s involvement in an ongoing criminal enterprise. Those murders were just part of it.”

Those murders. Seems there’s no escape from Wonderland but death. Of the five unindicted co-conspirators listed by the U.S. attorney’s office, two have already taken the last exit. Nash’s bodyguard Diles died in 1995. Holmes went seven years earlier. The other three have been convicted of tax evasion, wire fraud and the like and are “looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card,” according to Brunon. The feds better hurry. It’ll be tough to get a conviction if Nash is taking a dirt nap.

Whatever the outcome of the current proceedings, Nash has already earned a certain immortality. Those unfamiliar with his name and his alleged links to the Los Angeles underworld will doubtless recall Alfred Molina’s brilliant characterization of him in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997, polyester-bound tour de force “Boogie Nights.”

In his audio commentary on the New Line DVD release of his film, Anderson admits that Molina’s Rahad Jackson is as much Eddie Nash as Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler is John Holmes. Anderson cites as a major influence reporter Mike Sager’s article in the June 15, 1989, Rolling Stone, “The Devil and John Holmes.”

“There was this great Rolling Stone article, and I remember the description of this guy Eddie Nash in Speedos and the sheen of sweat on his body,” says Anderson on the DVD. “But a lot of details I’d forgotten. So I was kind of making it up as I go along, getting Dirk into a similar situation that I’d read about with John Holmes.”

In the scene, Dirk and friends are witness to Rahad’s freebase-inspired ravings as he dances before them like some demented olive-skinned leprechaun to the tune of Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl” and Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian.”

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The jovial Rahad, dressed in a silver bathrobe, slippers and the de rigeur Speedo, entertains his guests between freebase hits by singing along with his “Awesome Mix Tape” and playing Russian roulette while a young Asian boy sets off firecrackers in the background. The occasion is a drug deal gone bad, and though the events differ from Wonderland, Anderson’s mise-en-schne is so frighteningly iconic that Nash and Molina’s Rahad may forever be confused in popular memory.

“I like how the story sort of naturally progresses,” says Anderson. “That much cocaine and that much porno is going to lead to a scene like this.”

What were Holmes and Nash to each other? What did the porn legend with the 13-and-a-half-inch penis, the man who had starred in over 2,500 adult films and had sex with thousands of women (even if his own count of 14,000 is unlikely) need from the nightclub owner?

“There was an interest on Holmes’ part toward Nash for the drug culture, and an interest from Nash toward Holmes for the adult-entertainment, fast-lane lifestyle,” explains Bill Margold, a porn industry insider who knew both men. “Nash was about as mysterious as the King, and I think that mutual mystery attracted them to each other.”

By the late ’70s, according to Holmes’ “autobiography” “Porn King,” which his widow Laurie Holmes supposedly cobbled together from notes and tapes, Holmes had a $1,500-a-day coke habit. During the filming of the porn-industry panegyric to him titled “Exhausted,” Holmes says he was barely present: “In the middle of a scene, I would disappear for long stretches, but my co-workers knew where to find me: in the bathroom doing freebase. I became the butt of jokes, which traveled around like wildfire. ‘To get Holmes to work,’ they said, ‘you have to leave a trail of freebase from the bathroom to the bedroom.’”

Holmes, who had been a titanic presence in the porn industry virtually since its inception, found himself blackballed by producers and directors because of his unreliability. To make money, he became a thief — breaking into cars, stealing luggage from the baggage claim at LAX, whatever it took to feed his habit.

That’s about the time he hooked up with the Wonderland Gang, a motley assortment of dopers and criminals. He began running drugs for them — at some point becoming the liaison between Wonderland, where Holmes was living, and his friend Nash.

Holmes, the story goes, set up Nash to be robbed, and took part of the loot. But soon Nash caught up with him, supposedly threatening both Holmes and his family with retaliation. That’s why many believe Holmes either took part in the Wonderland murders or was forced to watch.

When prosecutors tried to nail Holmes for Wonderland in 1982, his lawyers argued that he was just another victim and that the real killers weren’t on trial. The jury agreed and acquitted Holmes, but the stench of Wonderland stuck to the porn giant like bad aftershave. He went on to appear in several more porn flicks, even after discovering he was HIV-positive. But the age of giants was over. Holmes was just a sideshow freak to be exhibited for shits and giggles. As Anderson points out in his “Boogie Nights” commentary, “The ’80s were the downfall of everyone.” That was certainly true of the man they called “Johnny Wadd.”

“Did Holmes participate in the Wonderland murders?” asks Cass Paley, the director-producer of the documentary “Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes,” named best documentary feature at Austin’s South by Southwest film festival last year. “My personal take on it was that he had to for his own survival. Otherwise, why let him live? They were out there bashing heads. Why wouldn’t they just have bashed his head and left him there?”

Paley says he’s in negotiations for the theatrical release of his exhaustive, engrossing film bio of Holmes, and that he had been in phone contact with Nash before his recent arrest in the hopes of doing a smaller documentary on the alleged drug kingpin.

“Whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy, he’s got an incredible story,” Paley says of Nash. “If he’d agree to be interviewed, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

With Nash and Wonderland back in the news, interest is running high in Holmes and his involvement with the killings. On June 18, E! television plans to air the two-hour-long special “John Holmes and the Wonderland Murders: The E! True Hollywood Story.” And if Nash ever makes it to trial, perhaps the extent of Holmes’ participation in the mass murder will finally be clarified.

“The King was not — from what I gathered during the time that I knew him — a particularly violent man,” says Margold in Holmes’ defense. “He was the King, and his transgressions off-screen have nothing to do with the legend he laid, literally, at the feet of a nation which gobbled him up in glee.”

Fellow porn legend and former magazine publisher Gloria Leonard takes a dimmer view of Holmes. She witnessed Holmes’ addiction firsthand and thinks Holmes may have been involved in the burglary of her own home just prior to the “shit hitting the fan” at Wonderland. Leonard believes that, under the influence of drugs, Holmes could have aided in the Wonderland killings.

“He was just a guy with a big dick who was in the right place at the right time,” Leonard remarks. “He was, in my opinion, an inveterate liar, or at least a colossal bullshit artist.” That said, Leonard’s willing to give the devil his due.

“Let’s face it, with the exception of Ron Jeremy, no other name registers that kind of recognition,” she says. “You say ‘John Holmes’ to people who’ve never even seen an adult film, and they know who he is. We jokingly refer to him as the King, because he was. He reigned supreme for many years in this industry.”

One wonders if everything had to end so badly in the bloody abattoir of 8763 Wonderland Ave. Is there anything at all to be learned from this sordid tale of porn, drugs, theft and murder? Or is this just another lurid Hollywood story sans moral?

“It’s basically the [story of] a young man with a dream who gets that dream, and it spirals out of control,” Anderson concludes in an interview for Paley’s “Wadd” documentary. “I don’t think there’s anything in John Holmes’ story that strays from the clichi. It happens over and over again. It doesn’t just happen in porno. It happens anytime anybody gets any kind of success. It’s a very slippery thing to deal with — especially if you throw drugs into the mix, and if you’ve got a 13-inch dick and that’s all anybody cares about.”

Indeed, there’s something of a Dostoyevskian dilemma in Holmes’ tabloid narrative leading to his downfall and to the killings at Wonderland Avenue — the one that posits that unhappiness results from a multiplicity of options. John Holmes had it all — success, a big dick and all the chicks he could ball. And he still blew it.

Given everything, and the appetite to consume it, we could all end up in the same gilded gutter. It’s a moral as old as the human race: Beware what you wish for, especially if it’s 13-and-a-half inches long.

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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