"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)
Matt Baker was the first to pay his condolences when the news came that the body of Jared Whaley, one of his best friends, had finally been found in the desert outside of Las Vegas, on March 2, 2004. The 17-year-old Whaley had been stripped naked, shot twice, and some of his teeth had been cut out. He had been missing for four months when ATVers, out on a weekend jaunt, discovered his body. The grave was shallow, and after a week of drenching rain, the feet and skull, wrapped in green plastic trash bags, poked up out of the earth.
Now on this balmy March day, Matt strode into the Las Vegas Valley home of Patricia Knight, Jared’s mom. Matt and Jared had been a funny pair, Jared with his chipmunk’s smile and exquisitely worked-out physique, and Matt with his skinny, almost concave frame and a face that was all character — sharp nose, wide hazel eyes, and smooth black hair combed to a V at his nape. Matt slowly stepped into the living room, with deep shag carpeting, cascading ceiling plants, and needlepoint pillows with sayings like “A Woman’s Work Is Never Done,” and held Knight’s hand. He had brought his mom, who told Knight, “I want whoever did this to fry.”
Knight, a bottle-blond Avon lady, as emotional as a person can be, was bawling and screaming, nearly hyperventilating. Matt listened patiently, interrupting her only to ask what Jared’s body looked like when it was found; he drank in the details wordlessly, then bowed his head. He borrowed Incubus and Papa Roach CDs from Jared’s room to make a mix for the funeral. But a few days later at the service, he showed up without it. He stood near the church door as mourners streamed in, giving Jared’s grandmother a close hug. “Grandma, you know that Jared always loved you best,” Matt said. Knight figured the boy thrived on drama.
Today, Matt Baker sits in a Nevada prison, convicted of murdering Jared Whaley, shooting him in the chest and head with a shotgun. He will spend at least 35 years in prison, a sentence longer than the ones received by his four teenage friends, also involved in the killing. Matt avoided a trial, and the death penalty, by pleading guilty to first-degree murder. During the legal proceedings, which dragged on through 2006, as the others involved in the murder, including two brothers, argued over their role in the killing, Matt never explained why he killed Jared.
The agonizing mystery of his crime may explain why it has received little media attention, other than a few sensationalistic stories noting the gruesome nature of the killing, and the fact that Matt seemed to have designed the murder after scenes in the movie “Casino.” About a year after the murder, I traveled to Las Vegas, met some of Matt’s and Jared’s classmates, interviewed Matt in jail, and later exchanged letters with him. He was always wary of revealing much about himself or the murder. Or maybe he was just incapable of doing so. To this day, prosecutors remain stunned by the murder. One of them, requesting anonymity, said that the case sickened him more than anything in his recent memory. “Take O.J.,” he said. “A guy shoots his wife, you know why. Here, all you have is a bunch of actions and no reason.”
In my letters to Matt in prison, I asked him about Jared and the murder. He never answered directly but did begin to show a reflective side. “You asked me what my happiest and saddest memory was of being a kid,” Matt wrote me not long ago, in a light pencil with fine penmanship. “My happiest memory I can’t really say, there is no specific moment of time that stands out of the others. I have had happy times and memories, but no one special event. For my saddest though, I would say it was when I was arrested. I was 18 when they arrested me, and for me it marked the end of my childhood.”
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Matt and Jared met at Silverado High in Las Vegas Valley. The valley is miles and miles of new housing developments extending, tentacle-like, from the city’s neon center into the scrubby desert. It’s a new world out there, created primarily by Vegas’ booming ’90s, when the number of visitors topped 37 million, pumping $8 billion into the local economy — anyone who needed a job could find one in Vegas, and a lot of people struggling elsewhere in the country did just that. In the same way that Vegas has always functioned more as a mirage than an actual place, with only a marginal population of drifters and ex-cons looking to get lost in the cracks, the valley is its own mirage — row upon row of three-bedroom homes with very green lawns and very black tar on the driveways rising out of the desert. Today, Vegas is the fastest growing city in the U.S., and the valley is its most rapidly expanding section.
Matt moved to the valley from Pomona, Calif., with his mom (he told friends that his dad had died before he was born). She worked as a clerk at a jewelry store on the Strip, living paycheck to paycheck and not always quick to pay bills. “By the time I was arrested,” Matt wrote me, “I had lived in eleven different places I can recall, but I lived at my grandmother’s twice so that means I moved twelve times. Six places in California, and five in Las Vegas. I had a good relationship with my mom, but not a very open one; she is not someone I could ever feel comfortable confiding in.”
Matt lived in a valley development called Carousel Park, so new that most streets aren’t even on the map. With bare stucco houses fronted by tiny lawns, it is more sterile and safe than some of the other low-to-middle-income developments, but still not the kind of place where kids play in the street. Neither he nor Jared had a car so they rode a school bus to Silverado High. They ended up walking home much of the time. As the population of the valley has exploded, more and more high schools were built, and the area is now served by 13 schools. Silverado High School is the biggest with 2,600 kids. To be cool you had to be tough. Preps are nonexistent — it’s all Manic Panic’d hair, studded belts, black “West Coast Choppers” sweat shirts.
Jared was an unruly kid, but he’d never been involved in anything really dangerous. When he went missing, his mother figured he’d run off for a while, pissed at her rules — maybe to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he’d been the previous summer, or to visit a friend in the military in Japan. He wasn’t a bully as a kid, but he was difficult for a few years, at least as long as he’d been in Vegas. His grandmother had retired in Vegas, and Knight moved the family there from California after her second divorce. She loved the place. “Shopping 24-7, gambling 24-7. Who wouldn’t want to live here?” she said.
Hyper but controlled by Ritalin from age 6 until 15, Jared as an adolescent was an honors student and competing gymnast who dreamed of being a Marine. But when he hit puberty his grades went down to C’s, curfews were ignored, and he’d take pleasure in breaking even the littlest rules, like taking his shoes off in the house, which drove his mom crazy. They had the kind of fights neighbors could hear. “Too much alike, I guess,” she said now. Cars were a crux issue: Jared was obsessed with NASCAR, talked all the time about owning a ’72 Chevelle SS, yet here he was, without wheels at 17. His mom said he couldn’t have one till he grew the hell up.
Jared and Matt quickly befriended some other guys from Carousel Park, all shy, awkward 17-year-olds a few merit badges short of Eagle Scout who had recently begun to mature. Up until a year before, they had never drank or gone to parties, but weight lifting in garages and the school gym had made these guys start to swagger. There was Shane Myers, a wrestler and guitar player whose nickname was Shna the Viking because he was so big; Gerald Wilks, a guy who looked like the Incredible Hulk and rarely spoke; and Shane’s brother Cody Myers, whom they called Play Dough, because he always just went along with what everyone else was saying. When Matt said that he had a neighbor who dealt pot and could get them some to sell, some of the guys were allegedly enthusiastic, and Matt reportedly started bringing it to school, selling dime bags to the kids.
As at any school, the power and protection of this newfound clique meant that they could claim a stake in the school’s cool hangout, and at Silverado that was the school courtyard. School starts at 7 and is out by 1:15, so first lunch is at 10, but no one cool eats in the lunchroom; actually, no one cool eats, just waits until after school to eat at Taco Bell across the street. What you want to do is stand in the school’s concrete, barracks-like courtyard, worthy of the most inhospitable prison, with your crew. “Matt and Jared and those guys were the gangsters,” said Abby Freyenhagen, a friend, who looked like Hillary Duff and was clad in a Lamb of God sweat shirt. “That was their clique. They were wannabe gangsters — wanksters.”
Kids of tough, resilient single moms, with nonexistent dads, Matt and Jared were selfish to a fault, and became more so the more they hung out. They weren’t much for responsibility — neither one had ever had a job, nor much of a plan of what to do after high school, and now they talked about dropping out of high school too. A lot of what made their relationship work was that Matt was incredibly shy, and he was just in awe of Jared’s nerve, his ability to say whatever he wanted without caring what anyone thought.
“Jared would come over whenever he wanted, just walk right into my house,” said Nicole White, a friend of Matt’s. “He had such a mouth on him. One time he said, ‘Don’t you think your shorts are too short? Your ass is hanging out,’ right in front of my boyfriend. Matt just stood there laughing.”
Matt could think the mean, cutting stuff that Jared said, but he could never say it. He wasn’t big enough or tough enough. Once they discovered the “drinking hill,” in the spring of 2003, it seemed like they never stopped hanging out. A mountain of desert sand in a yet-to-be-developed expanse of desert near Carousel Park, the drinking hill was the place to be after school and late into the night, especially when they had someone to drive them to Vons or Albertsons to buy beer. Not buy, exactly — they reveled in their mastery of shoplifting. Matt always directed the troops: One guy would act sketchy near the cameras as a decoy, one would wait in the car to make a fast getaway, and one guy would load up a cart with big jugs of Captain Morgan and cases of Miller’s Genuine Draft and walk out the door, nonchalant as can be.
In a lot of ways, the drinking hill was a kind of Strip for teens, a place of no rules, where you could drag race cars, maybe with someone “surfing” on the top while blazing across the desert. Everybody wanted to be the toughest guy, but no one was a match for Jared. He could never chill out, never sit still — he was by far the strongest of them all, taking steroids and working out three hours a day, until he stuck a pencil between his pecs and held it there. He loved setting things on fire, systematically burning to ash every scrubby bush, plus a mattress they had lugged down there. He was always pulling some ridiculous stunt. One time after Jared took Wilks home from the drinking hill to his house in a gated community, he stole Wilks’ neighbor’s mailbox, just lifted it straight out of the ground. A security guard saw him and started chasing the car. Jared got out of the car and told him he was going to kick his ass if he didn’t back off. The guard didn’t like his chances.
There’s the Vegas of dreams and the Vegas of reality, and more and more Matt wished he didn’t live in the reality. He’d always had a fascination with mobster movies, particularly ones about Vegas, but soon every time you went over to his house he wanted to watch “Casino,” “Ocean’s Eleven” or one of the “Godfathers.’” He might not have had money or women the way mobsters did in those movies, but he could run this group of friends like those guys. Jared might have looked like the crew’s leader, but Matt convinced himself that he was actually the don.
At the beginning of the school year, Matt was rejected by a sophomore he’d had a long-standing crush on, and it was about then he started on about killing. He was ready to fight anyone, anytime, he said. He IM’d a lot at night with a friend down the street, Steven Stringfield, when Stringfield’s ex-girlfriend was getting beat up by her new boyfriend. Matt was ready to pounce, IM’ing Stringfield: WHO DO I GET TO KILL???
Matt decided that in his world, there were going to be more drugs sold than just a little pot. There was going to be meth, and guns, and all sorts of heavy-duty shit he hadn’t thought of yet. As Matt’s conception of himself as a Vegas-style gangster unfurled in his mind, he watched “Casino” over and over. The Martin Scorsese film was a story of how the mob ran Vegas in the 1970s, how things worked back when Vegas was still part of the Wild West, and how, when they had a problem, the wise guys would turn to men like Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro, as played by Joe Pesci in the movie. Spilotro had buried at least five guys in the desert before he ended up dead in an Iowa cornfield, a made man murdered by those he thought were paisans.
Matt had been a bit of a goth in junior high school and had a lot of black clothes, but now he wore black every day, dressing in an undertaker’s uniform of clean, neat black shirts and slacks. He was quiet but arrogant, too good for this school, bragging that his shoes cost $250, pouring hot coffee into a glass of ice water to make an iced coffee at Denny’s. He said he wanted to change his name to “Vincent Scorsese,” or at least get a fake ID that said as much.
He didn’t take the role lightly. His soldiers could screw around, play video games, act stupid, but not him. He had to be like Pacino in “The Godfather,” always on guard, always keeping an eye out for the traitor among them, the one who would fold under questioning. He never stopped assessing and the conclusion he came to every time was Jared. Jared was the traitor. Jared was the rat. He had almost convinced himself that it had nothing to do with an envy of Jared’s superior prowess — to him, it was nothing personal, just business.
Matt learned from those movies that the wuss will always roll over to save himself from doing a dime in San Quentin: Fredo in “Godfather 2.” Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” Frank in “Scarface.” Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs.” Practically every character but Tony in “The Sopranos.” Jared was weak. He was a big guy, talked a good game, but when it came to the heavy-duty no-blink shit Matt was into, Jared was just a big, scared wuss. Matt was allegedly nervous about involving Jared in the current pot-dealing operations. “Matt didn’t want Jared to get caught selling marijuana and he didn’t want to go to jail for it, because he knew that Jared would probably point the finger at him if he got caught,” said Gerald Wilks.
One day at the drinking hill, Matt pulled Shane Myers over to the side. Shane and Matt were becoming closer — they were always at Matt’s house to watch movies. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was a recent favorite. Shane liked to think of himself and Matt like that: two gonzo guys getting fucked up and messing with the establishment as much as possible. Matt showed him three bottles of Visine he had in a bag. Someone told him that waitresses add two bottles of Visine to lousy tippers’ meals because you get the runs, but three Visines can do much more — even kill a person, Matt said. They decided to try it on Jared. They put Visine in a beer and handed it to him. Jared did stay home from school the next day because he felt queasy.
Matt became obsessed with Jared. Soon all he could think about was how he could kill him. He read up on the Internet about the easiest ways to murder a person. He ran water through a bunch of chewing tobacco to make a deadly poison, but when he put that in Jared’s beer, that didn’t work either. Matt began to wonder if Jared was unkillable like Michael Myers in “Halloween,” and little by little, he felt himself losing his nerve.
It was just talk, after all. Anything to do with a real, honest-to-God murder would probably have stayed that way if another Shane — Shane Johnson — hadn’t moved to town. A late bloomer himself, with an easy, joking manner and a taste for being the most outrageous person in the room, even though he had apologetic eyes, Johnson had resettled in Las Vegas from California with his family at the beginning of the school year. The year before, he had transformed from clean-cut junior ROTC member when he followed his older brother into membership in a KKK spinoff, the International Klans of America. “It was fun,” he would tell me. “We went to lots of barbecues, told jokes, ate good food. I had a bad home life, and it gave me a new family.”
There were no skinheads at Silverado, though, and Johnson had to fit in somewhere. Shane Myers was the first friend he made, in weight-lifting class. Myers was impressed — Shane Johnson was the toughest kid he’d ever met, at least other than Jared. Johnson did cut some figure. He showed up at school with a bruise around his eye that he told a friend he got at home, and he wouldn’t go anywhere without a 300-volt taser gun. He’d bought it at the mall with plans to retaliate against an ex-friend in California. For now, he just used the taser to terrorize anyone in his path — though he’d taser himself too, just for the adrenaline rush, or wake up Cody Myers with it. Johnson was always talking about how he needed a fight. He had to draw blood from a black guy to earn his red IKA laces.
In Johnson, Matt sensed the real deal — a genuine tough hombre who could whack a guy without blinking and would not fold under questioning, the kind of guy Baker wanted to be. One day at Matt’s house, Matt showed Johnson a bowl of nicotine. He said he’d dropped some on a spider, and it had died. “It’s a spider,” said Johnson skeptically. “You can squish a spider.”
Matt decided to show him his cards. He was going to kill Jared. Did he want in? “Sure,” said Johnson.
Anytime Matt brought up killing Jared, Johnson would egg him on, asking what was taking so long. They hadn’t even talked about how they were going to do it when Johnson went on a riff at lunch, apropos of nothing, about how they should all make a “Christmas card” together. They would dig a hole in the desert and Myers and Jared would throw Johnson, stripped down to his boxers, into it. He’d pour ketchup over his body, and Matt could loom over him with a smoking gun, dressed like Robert De Niro. They’d sign the card, “Welcome to Las Vegas.”
One night at the drinking hill, once Jared had already gone home, Matt told everyone it was time to dig a hole — he didn’t specify that it was for Jared. Gerald Wilks drove Matt, Cody and the two Shanes out to the 50-mile marker on the road to Hoover Dam. “Got a lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes,” was the line running through Matt’s mind on the ride out there. “Except you got to do it right. I mean, you’ve got to have the hole already dug before you show up with a package in the trunk.” They were lines from “Casino.” Digging the hole took five hours, and Johnson had to do most of the work, but the grave got dug — 3 feet deep and 4 feet wide, a square in the middle of nothing. “Man, this thing’s a double wide,” exclaimed Johnson, climbing out of the grave and throwing down his shovel. “Dude, a whole quad would fit in here!”
It was almost dark when they finished digging the hole and darker still in the hole. Afterward, they stood and stared into it and it was then that Matt felt it: the dread. The sun started to come up, streaking the horizon with red and gold. They packed up their gear, making plans to go to McDonald’s, throwing a Butthole Surfers CD into the car stereo. Johnson liked to drink until he puked, and he opened a Miller’s Genuine Draft. At the last minute Cody got upset. “Do you think that’s a car coming toward us?” he asked, pointing at the horizon. He freaked out about that a little bit — getting caught.
That’s exactly why they were out here doing the digging tonight, Matt thought to himself. “See, if you don’t have the hole dug, you’re talking about a half-hour or 45 minutes of digging. And who knows who’s going to be coming along in that time? Before you know it, you’ve got to dig a few more holes.”
Once the plan was in motion, neither Matt nor the two Shanes wanted to be the one who said they were too scared to do it. Even Johnson wanted to back out many times the week before, but he didn’t have the guts to say so. He stood there silently at the drinking hill on the afternoon of Oct. 11, when Matt told Jared that they were going off-roading in the desert later on; they’d pick him up at his house at midnight. It was supposed to just be the two Shanes and Matt, but at the last minute Cody said if they didn’t let him come he was going to tell his mom they were taking the Jeep without her permission.
They threw some pebbles against Jared’s window to wake him up — he’d had 18 beers at the drinking hill that afternoon. The mood was a lot different than it was on the ditch-digging night. No one spoke unless they had to, and Jared even asked why everyone was being so lame.
In the desert, they stopped near where they thought the hole was and passed around a bottle of tequila. Jared was taking a drink when Johnson tasered him near his heart — he heard you could get a heart murmur that way.
“What the fuck’d you do that for?” Jared asked, lunging at him. They fell to the floor, wrestling for a while. Then Jared started making a fire.
“Well, it didn’t work,” Johnson said to Matt. “Let’s not do it.”
“No,” hissed Matt. “It’ll get done somehow.”
Johnson grabbed two beers and knelt by Jared. “This beer is warm,” Jared complained.
“Think of it like hot chocolate,” said Johnson. “On a cold night, you drink hot chocolate; so tonight, drink a warm beer.”
Suddenly Shane Johnson lifted up the tire iron behind Jared, hitting him in the head with a swift, firm swipe — anyone else would’ve been knocked unconscious. “Why did you do that?” Jared asked, scrambling on the ground.
“Because you broke my butterfly knife,” said Myers.
Jared went to the Jeep and daubed his bleeding head with paper towels. Something was wrong here. “I know what you guys are doing,” he said, giving them a numb stare. “I know what you guys are going to do, and if you take me home right now you won’t get in any trouble.”
Everyone froze, unsure of what to do next. Jared glared from the car. The only way out was to fight. He chased Johnson around the car, toward the back bumper, where Matt stood with a 20-gauge shotgun. Matt shot Jared in the chest. Jared screamed, but he still didn’t fall down. Matt shot him in the head. It was over.
“You done fucked up,” said Myers, standing over Jared’s twitching form. “You done fucked up real good.”
Cody sat in the back seat of the Jeep crying, shrieking, holding his head between his legs. Johnson thought someone said to get in the car, so he got in, but no one had. “Where is the fucking hole?” screamed Matt. No one had ever heard him raise his voice that way. He stayed with the body as they zigzagged over the desert in the Cherokee, but they couldn’t find it. “Big desert, little hole,” said Johnson.
Matt told everyone to start digging while he cut off Jared’s clothes with a knife. “Guess he didn’t have a reason to brag after all,” he reportedly smirked when he got Jared’s underwear off. Matt cut Jared’s teeth out with a knife and buried them in a separate, smaller hole, so that Jared couldn’t be identified by his dental records.
When they had him buried as well as they could, they set his clothes on fire, the plume of smoke visible as they barreled across the desert toward the road. Johnson went over to Matt’s house and puked. Matt watched “Casino” and smoked cigarettes. Then they went to school.
At school, they played it smart. They didn’t talk about the killing, not to kids they knew and not to each other. Matt only told one friend, Steven Stringfield, who helped him clean his bloody clothes. Out of school, however, Matt hounded everyone about what they would say to the cops if they were ever questioned, even calling from his uncle’s house in Inland Empire, in Southern California, where his mom sent him for a few months after he wrecked her car. When he returned, he had a Glock 17, .22 magnum and an ounce of meth. He said he had connections with the Devil’s Disciples motorcycle gang and told Johnson he better watch out: If he opened his mouth, the Devil’s Disciples were going to come up behind him one day on four motorcycles with sawed-off shotguns and blow out all the wheels of his pickup truck. “He said they’d make me go to the side of the road and take care of me there,” Johnson said.
Matt talked about selling the meth but didn’t. Instead, he started doing it all the time, shut up in his room for days at a time with aluminum foil on the windows. Soon he was talking about how it might be easier to take care of some loose ends instead of waiting for the cops like a sitting duck. He wanted to kill Jared’s mom, and Jared’s grandmother, maybe Nicole White too. He told Johnson to take care of Jared’s friend Matt Bada, to shoot him at his front door from a nearby rooftop. That way if they got caught, both deaths might look drug-related. When Johnson demurred, Matt looked into setting off the propane line on Bada’s porch.
When Jared’s body was found, Matt kicked into high gear, calling everyone to make sure that no one squealed and doing extensive Google searches for pages with the phrase “evidence needed to convict for murder.” But he never thought he had to worry about Stringfield — the guy wasn’t even at the scene of the crime.
But Stringfield was first on the list of friends that Jared’s mom had given to the cops. In the police questioning room, the cops applied the pressure. “How about I throw him in the cage and loosen his ass up?” one asked, about Stringfield. “Why are you trying to butt fuck me with no grease?” asked the other. “I’ll put him in with his fucking [friends as] cellmates for the next 25 years,” they told him. That made Stringfield literally jump out of his chair in fear. He then spilled it all, even confessed to being a lookout when he was nothing of the sort.
Gerald Wilks told the cops what he knew, too, and one day later they all went down. Cody and Shane Myers were arrested at the school bus stop. Shane Johnson was at home, watching live television coverage of their arrest, when the cops broke down his door. Matt cowered in his room while his house was surrounded by a SWAT team. His first call was to the sophomore who had rebuffed his advances so long ago — he wanted to tell her he didn’t do it.
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Jail was a lot closer to Matt Baker’s dream world than he’d ever been. He was locked in the Clark County Detention Center, a concrete windowless building smack in the middle of old Vegas, a block from Freemont Street, aka Glitter Gulch. It was the home of two-cent slots, “the most liberal ’21′ in the world,” and $7.95 celebrity brunches with “Magnum PI’s” Larry Manetti. Next door was the Lady Luck casino.
When I arrived to interview them, Johnson, Wilks, the Myers brothers and Matt were awaiting trial in separate cellblocks. One by one they came out to talk to me. Shane Myers was the first to approach me. He said he was having a hard time in jail. After his racist leanings were reported in a local paper, the black guys in his cellblock ganged up on him and he’d just been moved to a new one. “I wish I could be at home, playing Halo with a bottle of whiskey,” he said, squinting from behind thick glasses. “It took 16 hours but I beat it one time. I dream about home all the time, things being the way they were before, my family all together. Then I wake up and realize where I am, and I’m like, fuck.” As for Jared, Myers said he had nothing to do with his death. “I didn’t know Matt was capable of that,” he said with an awed expression. “It was a shock.”
In contrast, Johnson was in a shockingly good mood. He was particularly excited to talk because he hadn’t been around anyone for a long time. The jail had no facilities for minors, so Johnson was kept in solitary for nine months, until he turned 18. “Wasn’t no one to talk to in there but the toilet, but the toilet kept talking shit,” he said, laughing. Johnson said he renounced his white-supremacist stuff pretty quick on the inside. “It was childish, immature,” he said. He expressed remorse about Jared’s murder, though he said he truly didn’t know why any of them did it. “It was a fart in the cosmos,” he said, and laughed bitterly.
Matt was the last to appear. He looked thin and his mouth had a grim set to it. He had an uncut, light-growth beard that made him look something like a survivalist, and his voice has taken on a heavy drawl so menacing it almost sounded Southern. He drummed his fingers on the table. “It’s nothing like you see in the movies in here,” he said. “It sucks. It’s boring. There’s a lot of homeless people. They strip-search you. They don’t let you smoke. I always saw that shot in movies: guard walking by, phone off the hook, hand coming out of the bars with a cigarette. Nope.”
Matt was sullen until his friends were mentioned, and then he perked up. He wanted to know how they were all doing. He was particularly interested in how they looked. Did they look big? Were they still working out? (In truth, they all looked out of shape, pallid and sad, their faces set in just one expression, like old men.) I asked him about Jared and why he did it. He didn’t say anything, just stroked his beard. “Jared really liked NASCAR,” he finally said. “He was an all right guy.”
This winter, after Cody Myers had agreed to testify against his brother Shane, the case was finally settled. At the sentencing hearing, Jared’s parents asked the judge to show no mercy. “They gave no leniency to Jared,” said his stepdad, Rocky Knight, in the courthouse. “They hit him. They had to shoot him twice to put him down. He kept getting back up. He wanted to live, he wanted to live, and you guys took that away from him.”
Johnson pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and will spend at least 20 years in prison. Cody Myers, who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, will serve about five years in jail, far less than his brother Shane, who will be imprisoned for about 25 years for first-degree murder and kidnapping. Wilks pleaded to conspiracy to commit murder and Stringfield to destroying evidence — they will be imprisoned for six months. Matt’s 35-year sentence for murder with a deadly weapon and kidnapping does not allow for probation.
Last year, Matt was transferred from the detention center to High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, Nev. In a letter to me, he said he’d been putting the time to good use. He doesn’t watch TV but has been reading a lot of books — Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and Richard K. Morgan’s “Altered Carbon” and “Broken Angels.” He said he was looking for a copy of “Hocus Pocus” by Kurt Vonnegut in the library. “I will read anything as long as its not a western or romance,” he wrote. “I also stay away from most of the crime/thriller/mysteries. They are all alike.”
Vanessa Grigoriadis a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and New York magazine.More Vanessa Grigoriadis.
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)