"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
On that bright Monday morning in February, a morning shimmering with promise in the Southern California way, James Patrick Riley left his home in Newport Beach, drove to the Irvine Spectrum office complex, turned in to his parking spot and got out of his car. Riley, 58, was an Orange County businessman like a hundred others: He’d done real estate deals, brokered securities and sold nutritional supplements, and had a Rolodex full of wealthy Hollywood investors.
But Biofem Inc., the company he ran with a gynecologist named Larry C. Ford, was a scheme with heft, an enterprise that might really make a difference in the world. Larry was a brilliant scientist, Riley told friends, a little odd, perhaps, with his sneakers-cum-business suits and the stories he told of his CIA links. But the project was serious. They were on the cusp of something that could prevent millions of people from dying of AIDS, especially in Africa. And they were going to get rich in the process.
He felt the bullet like a haymaker to the chin. When he looked down there was blood everywhere and out of the corner of his eye he saw a man in black running away. He staggered into the pastel-colored courtyard and hollered for 911. Crumpled among the familiar exteriors of his life — the sandstone facades and palm trees — he groped for his cellphone and called Ford on the second floor. Who else would he call but Ford? Ford came running, and he was kneeling down pressing a tourniquet to Riley’s face when the cops showed up. Ford was that way — always there to help.
It was only later that Riley understood — after Ford had shot himself with one of his many guns; after the city of Irvine put up 100 of Ford’s suburban neighbors and their kids in the Hyatt for four days while the cops dug up Ford’s backyard, removing automatic rifles from the concrete bunker beneath the jacaranda bushes, and tubes of cholera and typhoid fever germs from under the buffalo steaks in his deep freeze; after they rounded up a bunch of Ford’s associates who seemed to have crawled out of a Ross MacDonald novel; after the FBI, CIA and ATF were brought in and Ford’s connection to South Africa’s Dr. Death was exposed. Only then did a gloomy realization settle upon Riley.
His partner, Ford, had sent a hitman to kill him, or so it seemed.
And that was kind of the least of it. “I mean, not to minimize his injury,” says Victor Ray, one of two lead detectives on the case for the Irvine police, “but Pat Riley getting shot exposed a whole lot of more serious things. More than I ever wanted to know, really. I was happy to be a local flatfoot before this case came along. It’s turned out to be the most bizarre friggin’ thing I ever heard in my life.”
This bizarre friggin’ case, which an Orange County grand jury is starting to unravel, isn’t just about a squabble between business partners. Ghoulish apartheid-era germ warfare experiments in South Africa are part of the story, and stashes of explosives and deadly germs and illegal firearms. Weighing the evidence available so far, it’s not clear whether Ford was a player in an evil international plot or just a brainy fruitcake dabbling in danger. But this much is clear: In the person of Larry Ford, someone’s big dreams found a refuge in Irvine, down where the megalopolis meets the desert and where, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, the hot Santa Ana winds send housewives reaching for kitchen knives while they eye the backs of their husbands’ necks.
Ford isn’t the first of his type. In the past few years, the biotech gold rush has churned up some strange characters, several of them medical men like Ford. At the University of California at Irvine Medical Center, with which Ford himself was affiliated for a while, a doctor sold donor organs for profit, a researcher put a radioactive substance on a colleague’s chair and Ricardo Asch, the fertility doctor, was losing so much money on his racehorse that he intermingled his patients’ embryos to improve his success rates.
Ford himself doesn’t seem to have cared about money. He was apparently motivated by some twisted ideology and some genuine altruism, a nostalgia for apartheid, perhaps (he had ties to the old South African military), along with a dream of stopping AIDS with the product he’d designed, a vaginal suppository, or microbicide, that kills germs spread by sex. But in the land of the fast buck, in an era in which doctors become biotech millionaires overnight, greedy characters glom onto the Larry Fords of the world — the big-thinking science guys, the could-be-geniuses — like a cloud of sweet poison. And sometimes they get a lot more than they bargained for.
The police insist that Riley’s shooting was a sideshow to the main events in the conspiracy. According to what Riley told police, he and Ford stood to make a lot of money from a new product, separate from the microbicide, which, citing commercial reasons, neither Riley nor other company officials will discuss. Money alone may have been enough reason for Ford, or one of his seamy pals, to take Riley out. Luckily for Riley, it was a botched job.
The bullet ripped through Riley’s lip and gashed a cheekbone, causing flesh wounds light enough for him to be back at work within a few weeks. The bullet ricocheted into the window of a bank, and as the people inside turned their heads they saw a guy in a face mask run through the courtyard to the back parking lot. Then he just stood there — 15, maybe 20 seconds — until a van pulled up with its sliding back door open and the hitman dove into it. A fast-thinking bank manager got the license-plate number.
The van belonged to Ford’s tax accountant, a Peruvian-born Altadena, Calif., businessman by the name of Dino D’Saachs. A witness told police he heard D’Saachs talking to a private eye named Glen Morales about “taking somebody out,” but Morales, a big dude with a blown-out back, didn’t meet the description of the shooter, who is still at large, according to Ray. D’Saachs was taken into custody right away, though. Ford was also a suspect — phone logs and other evidence linked him to D’Saachs the day of the crime — but he wouldn’t talk.
On March 2, three days after the shooting, Ford killed himself. The suicide note claimed he was innocent of the attempted murder, but added that there was information hidden in the house of interest to the police. Only, when the note got to the part about where that information was hidden, it was illegible — “doctor’s handwriting,” police said. Or maybe it was just part of Ford’s last joke, which was to leave a tangle of clues to an existence that’s still largely a mystery.
To be sure, a few of the more bizarre statements that police gathered about Ford, and subsequently used to get search warrants, simply haven’t been confirmed. For starters, there was the bit about the “white chimpanzees.” According to an affidavit by an Irvine police office, later unsealed by a judge, Ford and Valerie Kessler, his assistant and lover, drugged and had sadomasochistic sex with young women they referred to as the “white chimpanzees.” Then there was the report from a “reliable informant” that Ford “had a long history of treating female patients who ended up suffering multiple long-term illnesses ranging from cancer to abdominal infections,” and allegations of “longstanding unauthorized medical experiments on unwitting patients by infecting them with unknown germs.”
Those particular stories haven’t panned out, according to Ray and Dr. Mark Horton of the Orange County Health Department. It interviewed several women who complained about treatment from Ford but found no evidence of evil intent. The cops also say they have no evidence to confirm or deny Ford’s comments to friends that he had worked for the CIA; or the story that he once parachuted into Southern Africa during the apartheid era to take blood samples from dead guerrilla fighters in order to help the U.S. government determine which biological warfare agents the Soviets were vaccinating their allies against.
While the facts remain murky, it’s evident that Ford lived a double life. He was one of those clean-cut Mormon guys with a dark side, a Dr. Jekyll with a Hyde inside. If his dark side had been tucked discreetly away in his personal life, or if his research had been a little more obscure, it might not have meant much. But Ford’s company was and still is working on a product that could save millions of women’s lives. As the search for ways to stop the AIDS epidemic intensifies, the product and others like it are receiving increasing attention from the U.S. government.
At the same time, Ford was collecting nasty weapons, and had reportedly taught some nasty things about biowarfare to some nasty South Africans, in apparent violation of U.S. laws forbidding such contacts during the apartheid era. Whether such ties continued more recently, whether they were part of some larger conspiracy, rogue or government-linked, is one of the intriguing areas that the grand jury is said to be looking into.
Ford was 49 years old when he died. He lived behind wrought-iron gates in a $500,000 house in a Disney-esque neighborhood in Irvine, near an artificial lake with a bridge over it. Ford was a churchgoing Mormon who didn’t smoke or use drugs. To people who considered him their friend, Ford’s only visible vices were the consumption of diet sodas and the inappropriate footwear. Everything else about him was hunky-dory wholesome. At precisely 6 p.m. most Saturdays, his Honda left the driveway with his wife and three children packed into it for the weekly family outing. Diane Ford, his widow, is said to be pleasant and competent. The kids, all college students now, are smart and conscientious.
As for Ford, a lot of people thought he was a genius. He had degrees in biochemistry and medicine, and a knack for discovery. Colleagues speak of an antibiotic derived from tears and a natural cure for baldness. In 1997 at Biofem, which had been founded two years earlier, he patented a microbicide called Inner Confidence. It contained a germ-killing detergent combined with natural lactobacilli, sealed in time-release capsules, which were supposed to restore a healthy biochemical balance to the vagina after sex. Although Inner Confidence may never reach the market — Ford’s replacement at Biofem, Michael Hamrell, says he’s confident it will within a few years — people who are knowledgeable about microbicides say it was a product with some potential.
Ford was also extremely nice, an affable, moon-faced fellow with brown eyes and hair and an easy smile. He gave physicals to the church Boy Scout troop before they went camping. He was an attentive guy who once heard a neighbor crash off a ladder and rushed over to give first aid. He was an intelligent man with many opinions. “He didn’t sugar-coat anything; he was always frank,” recalls Bruce Haglund, who lived across the street. “He was against gun control, for one,” Haglund adds with a sour laugh. “That was an area where we disagreed.”
Indeed, Ford was an avid gun collector, “a gun nut,” says Dr. Thomas Lebherz, who instructed Ford at UCLA and published several papers with him. “[But] that’s allowed in this country.”
In 1978 someone tried to kill Ford. He was shot in the chest while walking across a parking lot outside his office at UCLA. The bullet hit his Dictaphone and he escaped unhurt. Ford downplayed the incident and never gave the police anything to go on. He never even told his family until a few weeks before the Riley shooting, Ford’s widow told police. This suggests that the earlier shooting and the later one were related. But no one is saying just how.
Ford didn’t conceal his feelings about race, either, though they might not have seemed so out of place in his part of Orange County. In conversations with neighbor Haglund, Ford said he believed South Africa was going to hell in a handbasket, that whites there were more productive than blacks, that people who hadn’t tolerated apartheid were far too tolerant of necklacing and carjacking and other “injustices being committed by blacks,” Haglund says. “But don’t try to pigeonhole Larry on South Africa,” he adds. “He was far too complex for the story you’re going to write.”
Ford’s activities in Africa were complex indeed. He made no secret of his friendship with Niel Knobel, then surgeon general of the South African Defense Force, the military force of the apartheid government. Knobel says he met Ford at a conference in San Diego in the late 1980s. They shared an interest in AIDS — they both knew it was going to devastate Africa. “Our whole policy of protecting members of the defense force against HIV [educating them to use condoms] came from my relationship with Larry,” Knobel said in an interview by phone from Johannesburg. In his study, Knobel has a framed photograph of Ford with a lion he shot on a safari. Knobel wrote to Ford’s children after his friend’s death, pledging loyalty to the scientist’s memory. “We both worked toward a cure for AIDS that would be available to the vast population of Africa,” Knobel says. “There was no political agenda.”
But that doesn’t seem entirely true.
Impatient with the FDA, Ford, with Knobel’s help, established protocols to test his product in South Africa. Knobel doesn’t know if those trials were ever carried out. But Ford was up to other business in South Africa. He provided the defense force with advice about defending against germ attacks, Knobel says, and through Knobel he also met Wouter Basson, who was in charge of South Africa’s secret chemical/biological warfare program.
In 1987, Ford instructed scientists working with a defense-force front company on how to turn teabags, doilies and porno magazines into “weapons” that could be used against African National Congress members, according to scientists quoted recently in the Sunday Independent, a South African newspaper. Microbiologist Mike Odendaal told the Independent that “Ford spent an entire day showing us how to contaminate ordinary items and turn them into biological weapons.” The scientists found much of Ford’s advice confusing — some called him a fraud — and it’s unclear whether any of it was employed. But one of the germs whose use he instructed them in, a species of clostridium bacteria, turned up in jars in Ford’s office refrigerator when police searched the building after Ford’s death.
If Ford’s science was of the mad variety, he was but a lab assistant compared to Basson, described in South African tabloids as “Dr. Death” or “the South African Mengele.”
A cardiologist by training, Basson has been on trial since 1997 on a litany of charges arising from gruesome apartheid-era operations. Witnesses have testified that he oversaw the mass production of hallucinatory drugs, tested poisons and HIV-contaminated blood on political prisoners, plotted to poison Nelson Mandela in prison and tried to develop a substance that would sicken only black people.
One question raised during Basson’s trial is the present whereabouts of tons of drugs and smaller quantities of deadly toxins whose production Basson oversaw before his retirement from the military in 1993. Could it be, some have asked, that Basson called upon former associates to stash some of these items overseas?
Intriguingly, Ian Shein, a Los Angeles gun shop manager who says he has known Ford for 20 years, was quoted by police as saying that Ford “asked lots of people to store his biological/chemical components.” When Ray was asked the significance of the deadly germs Ford owned, Ray pointed to the articles in South Africa’s Sunday Independent. “They’re pretty good, but they only have about 1 percent of the story,” he said.
The key to some of the South African questions may lie in a particularly colorful Ford associate, a 71-year-old general surgeon and businessman named Jerry D. Nilsson.
Nilsson, who has been involved in controversial gold mining, hospital management and other ventures, shared an office with Ford in the late 1980s. They traveled to Africa together, shared ties to the Mormon church and co-wrote papers on vaginal infections. In 1988, Nilsson organized a group of doctors, apparently including Ford, to buy a defunct Los Angeles hospital and turn it into a state-of-the-art infectious disease research center. The Lake View Terrace institute, Nilsson was quoted as telling the Los Angeles Times, would be “one cog in a complex, far-reaching project” with related facilities in Africa, Germany, Italy and Britain. The scheme flopped when research groups denied Nilsson’s claims that they were backing the venture.
In February, as the California Medical Board was preparing to rescind his medical license because of sexual improprieties with patients, Nilsson tried to buy into Biofem, but was rebuffed by Riley, according to police affidavits. Then later, the day after Ford shot himself, Nilsson went to Diane Ford’s house and asked to buy out Larry’s share. He said he wanted to cure AIDS in Africa. Police from that point considered him a suspect in a conspiracy to kill Riley.
For several nights they staked out the Anaheim bungalow where Nilsson was living with his younger girlfriend and her kids. Nilsson stayed inside by day. By night he crept out of the house and, with the help of an assistant, carried containers out to a camper van, which another assistant eventually drove off to a garage east of Riverside. On March 31, a SWAT team lured the old surgeon into the street, wrestled him down and clapped him in handcuffs.
Then they raided a series of houses and storage lockers around Southern California where Nilsson’s former girlfriends claimed he had stashed chemicals and germs with Ford. The results of those searches haven’t been revealed in detail. Nilsson has been released and a friend says he’s planning to sue the Irvine police.
For now, the mysteries of Ford’s life remain. Most of his colleagues and friends say they are shocked, shocked to hear he was up to anything untoward. Most of the people who might have another understanding of his character have been silenced by the grand jury. Police say he was guilty as sin, but won’t say of what, exactly.
“Let’s just say that the evidence strongly suggests that Dr. Ford was deeply involved in a conspiracy,” Ray says. “He would be in custody today were he alive.”
Whatever it was, from the looks of it, Ford feared for his life when he decided to die. When police searched his house they found three handguns and two blowguns with darts in the master bedroom. In Kessler’s Newport Beach apartment, where Ford presumably passed some time as well, they found three rifles.
Ray brought the news of Ford’s death to Kessler before it hit the airwaves, and she reacted as one would expect — with sobs. But later, when Ray told her that Ford’s death had been a suicide, Kessler suddenly lightened up.
“Her demeanor became that of relief and apparent happiness,” Ray wrote in an affidavit. “She began to laugh and became immediately at ease.”
It was almost as though in taking his life, Ford had beaten someone to the job. Or maybe Kessler was being loyal to an understanding about Ford — that he wanted his deepest secrets to die with him. If that’s the case, so far Ford’s final wish has been met.
Arthur Allen writes on health, science and other issues for Salon. He lives in Washington.More Arthur Allen.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)