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'My family is dead and in the ground, but their spirit is not'

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Posted: Friday, September 14, 2007 10:00 pm

Marilee Cross was a teenager when Walter Cronkite delivered the news on a television in her southern Oregon home:

Nine people, including several children, had been fatally shot in Victor, Calif.

Four of her relatives were dead.

They had been bound with rope, gagged with neckties. Each was then shot at least twice.

The Parkin family was gone. So was the Earl family. Another young man happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and he too died.

The next day, police would arrest two men named Doug Gretzler and Willie Steelman, who were ultimately linked to at least 17 murders. Their motive in Victor: To rob grocery store owner Wally Parkin of a few thousand dollars.

Almost as an afterthought, they killed all the witnesses.

Marilee Cross, then 15, couldn't have known that the horrific crime would stay with her for life. After more tragedy struck her family, she set out on a quest to find something good in such horror, even going so far as to correspond with one of the killers on death row.

Cross still seeks answers, perhaps for a book or screenplay. Her black BMW loaded with luggage, Cross has traveled between Idaho, where she has lived in recent years, to Arizona, where Gretzler was executed for killing a young couple.

On a recent trip to Victor, she stopped by her relatives' former home in Victor. It stands a quarter mile down the road from where they were killed.

Standing in front of their well-kept home one warm summer afternoon, she gazed at the house. The sun blazed down on her mostly black clothing. A hint of green eye shadow highlighted the eyes that seemed to be looking into the past, remembering visits to her relatives' home.

"The house looks the way they would have wanted it to be," she said in a quiet, steady voice.

Remembering a crime

Richard and Wanda Earl hadn't lived in Victor for long when the calendar turned to Nov. 6, 1973. Their 15-year-old son, Rickey, was the same age as Cross. Their daughter, Debra, was 18 and had celebrated her engagement a week earlier.

It had rained heavily that week. But that Tuesday the rain eased up when Wally and Joanne Parkin left for a bowling date. Debra Earl, their nearest neighbor, came to baby-sit the two Parkin children, 11-year-old Lisa and 9-year-old Robert.

Meanwhile, Steelman, 28, a Lodi native, and Gretzler, a 22-year-old New Yorker, had gone on a killing spree in Arizona and California, robbing strangers and then killing the victims to eliminate witnesses.

By the time the killers reached Victor, the death count was up to eight. They needed cash.

Steelman knew Wally Parkin kept money at his local market to cash farmers' checks, so they decided to rob him.

When the robbery got more complicated, they killed all the witnesses, using 25 bullets to do so. The death count was up to 17, one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history.

Among those dead was Cross' uncle, her father's only brother. They had grown up, along with six sisters, in Indiana until Cross' dad moved to California, settling in Concord. Richard Earl followed. About a year before the murders, Earl, an accountant, moved to the Lodi area.

In the meantime, Cross' family moved to Oregon, so she no longer played with her cousins as often. But not long before that fatal November night, the families got together in the Earls' new home in Victor. Cross remembers her cousins placing handprints in cement, which still remain in the backyard.

The scene of the crime

The Earl family was half a mile from home when they were murdered.

Investigators arrived in droves. They left untouched two Jack-o-lanterns, apparently carved for Halloween a week earlier and placed outside the front door. They walked past a pool table with balls scattered across it, as if a game had just been started.

Investigators sent teletypes across the country, looking for any leads.

In Tucson, Ariz., a detective happened to read the bulletin that contained the word "Lodi." Arizona officials were looking for a Lodi man named Willie Steelman in connection with the execution-style shootings of a couple.

To this day, retired San Joaquin County Sheriff's Capt. David Levesey, who was first on the scene of the Victor killings, wonders what would have happened if that Arizona detective hadn't read the teletype.

Dave Levesey, a retired San Joaquin County Sheriff's captain, talks about the night of Nov. 7, 1973. Levesey was one of the first on the scene when nine people were murdered in Victor. (Whitney Ramirez/News-Sentinel)

Within 24 hours, Sacramento police caught up to Gretzler and Steelman. Newspapers carried photos of a wide-eyed Steelman lying on the ground, turning his head to look at the officers handcuffing him. A cigarette hung from his mouth.

The story took precedence over news of Nixon's Watergate scandal and nationwide gas shortages - the price of gas would soon reach a record 50 cents a gallon.

Getting the news

In southern Oregon, Cross and her mother first heard the news on TV. Cross remembers her mother taking her out of high school to head south for the funerals. She remembers when the Parkin and Earl families were buried in Cherokee Memorial Park. The funerals took the whole day, she recalled.

Gretzler and Steelman were jailed, and their court proceedings became circuses, due to publicity and threats from fellow inmates because two children had been killed.

California residents had voted to reinstate the death penalty, but that wouldn't become law until the first of the year, two months after the Victor killings.

Gretzler and Steelman pleaded guilty in San Joaquin County and were sentenced to life without parole, then extradited to Arizona, which had the death penalty. There they were convicted and sentenced to death for robbing and killing a couple. Then the appeals process started.

In the meantime, family members tried to move on.

Three years after the killings, Cross married. The next year she had the first of six children, a son who is now a 30-year-old military chaplain in Afghanistan.

Another tragedy struck Cross in the summer of 1983, when another son underwent a hernia operation as an infant. He died on the operating table.

Cross was heartbroken and knew the doctors had made a mistake. She wanted to talk to them but was barred from doing so due to possible litigation. So she sued, settled and then tried again to talk to the doctors.

They did talk, and she said it helped her understand what happened and also tell the doctors just how much it hurt her.

It was hardest confronting the last of the three doctors, because he'd been her own pediatrician. But they finally spoke, both crying, for hours.

As she left his office, Cross recalled, he said, "Marilee, thanks for coming down. Now I can go on living."

He died the next day in an accident, she said in a soft voice.

"That was the eye opener for me. One day it was going to be too late," Cross said.

Seeking answers

Cross had never learned a lot about the Victor killings. She knew the men had pleaded guilty and had gone on to another state.

But her own tragedy involving the death of her infant son made her think about the killers, wondering if they really knew just how much devastation they had caused. Steelman had died in 1996 of cirrhosis of the liver, but Gretzler was still on death row.

"This all started because of my son's death and the positive outcome of the dialogue with the doctors," Cross said. "Because that dialogue with the doctors went so well and was a positive experience for me, I thought maybe I should see if this man would be accountable, too.

"I just wanted to see if he was the kind of person who had any kind of integrity, who could be accountable for what he had done. I knew he had a wife and children and, by the time I contacted him, grandchildren."

So Cross wrote to him, saying she'd like to talk him, but only if he would get truthful. He wrote back and spoke candidly about his crimes.

She is saving parts of her story for the book she wants to write, and just recently returned to Arizona to gather more information at the prison where Gretzler was executed - moving in 115-degree heat.

Over the years, others have talked of writing a book about the murders but nothing has been published. But for Cross, it's more personal than just a crime story.

"Too much has happened to me in this journey that is too twisted and bizarre and ironic to not tell the story," she said.

Three years ago, Cross' 25-year-old son set sail from Long Beach, bound for Mexico, and was never seen again. He didn't have a lot of experience, according to the Coast Guard, which launched a fruitless search for him.

Cross found no support group for such a thing, and it delayed her original mission. But she's pushing forward once again. Her mission is to tell her story and try to make changes.

"Victims don't have a right and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing," she said.

If victims' family members want to talk to the killers, Cross said, it should be easier. She believes that some killers do come to understand the magnitude of what they did, especially when their own family members die while they are in prison and can't say goodbye.

And if the families don't want to talk or forgive, that's "totally understandable and reasonable," too, she said.

Some victims' family members were hesitant to speak publicly about the case, because they didn't want to be involved in a story about someone who corresponded with Gretzler. Cross is quick to point out that she never opposed Gretzler's death and feels that justice was served through his execution.

As for her continuing quest, which involves digging up details on a decades-old crime, it's something that changed her life and continues to follow her.

"A lot of people question me. I question me too, why I do what I do. Sometimes I wish I had a normal job," she said.

Over the years, she's studied criminal justice and said she's worked as an adjunct teacher at the community college level. She's also tried to work in prisons and help with support groups.

Levesey, the retired sheriff's deputy who was first to arrive at the Victor crime scene, has taught for the past two decades at two area police academies.

Every semester he tells his students about the Victor killings. When they start out as new police officers, it won't all be high-speed pursuits and arresting bad guys. Sometimes they'll see unspeakable horrors and devastated families.

Cross was glad to hear that future police officers are hopefully learning something from the tragedy. But some people contacted for this story questioned the purpose of bringing it up again after so many years. Cross has encountered the same skepticism on her journey, and she resents it.

"Yes, my family is dead and in the ground but their spirit is not. Their spirit is still in that community; they would be there in that community today," she said.

Perhaps that ever-elusive closure is why Cross continues her mission and keeps trying to find something good in something so horrible.

After all, decades have passed but she still remembers the day Walter Cronkite's newscast hit home.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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  • posted at 6:11 am on Mon, Sep 17, 2007.


    Debbie was part of my circle of friends in high school. That night, several of us were going to visit her and Mark because we knew she was babysitting at the Parkins'. For whatever reasons, we changed our minds but always wondered what would have happened if we too had been at that house. The next morning, Mark's friends found them. The pain and sorrow of that day touched so many lives.

  • posted at 5:56 am on Mon, Sep 17, 2007.


    I remember how upset my parents were when this happened. So sad.

  • posted at 5:44 am on Mon, Sep 17, 2007.


    Interesting to read about the other family. Wally Parkin and I were very good friends in the late 40's and early 50's. I remember several of us from the neighborhood sleeping in the Parkin garage in a clubhouse we made quite often during the summer. I was very saddened when I read about Wally and all the others who were murdered in the 70's.

  • posted at 7:48 pm on Sun, Sep 16, 2007.


    I hope she doesn't sue Levesey for telling her story. Good job promoting someones furture book LNS. Isn't that what this artical is really about?

  • posted at 2:20 pm on Sun, Sep 16, 2007.


    It was a crisp fall morning and I was putting my shoes on for 6th grade at Alpine School. I was 11 and lived right down the street from the Parkins and about 3/4 a mile from the Earls. Bobby and I were good friends; I attended school with him and his sister Lisa. My mother looked out the window of our home on Orchard Rd and wondered why there were so many Sheriff cars rolling down the street. Needless to say my family's world changed on Nov 7th, 1973. 34 years and it seems like yesterday...

  • posted at 2:20 pm on Sun, Sep 16, 2007.


    I'd forgotton about the weather that day but the story brought it all back.

  • posted at 4:05 am on Sun, Sep 16, 2007.


    Marilee keep pushing for victim's rights. It is sad that the victim has less than the criminal

  • posted at 8:53 pm on Sat, Sep 15, 2007.


    I hope you can try to find peace through love from your supporters and friends. The trash that did this have been replaced with more trash.

  • posted at 2:59 pm on Sat, Sep 15, 2007.


    Dont let the detractors, and tha naysayers divert you from your path. Continue to push on, and you will find what you are looking for.

  • posted at 10:14 am on Sat, Sep 15, 2007.


    Wow...to hear those names after all these years...I remember going by the house right after it happened...still haunts me and I didnt even know them..I hope you find some Peace Marilee.

  • posted at 8:16 am on Sat, Sep 15, 2007.


    Marilee, thatnk-you for continuing to tell this story! Even for those of us who weren't born yet when this happened, everyone in our community needs to remember this and know about it. We need to know why "Parkin Memorial" Park exists at Victor School.

  • posted at 4:00 am on Sat, Sep 15, 2007.


    Marilee may peace be with you. That was a dark day for and the residents of Lodi. May Steelman and Gretzler rot in hell.



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