About This Book

I am presenting excerpts here from my nonfiction book about the murder of Asha Veil, born Joanna Dragunowicz, and Anina, her unborn daughter, on September 9, 2006, in Santa Cruz County, California. My book is meant to honor her courage and illuminate the need to create a safer world for everyone.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

First Chapters

If you knew Asha Veil and could potentially find this upsetting, or are sensitive to such things, you might want to scroll down through the italicized section, as it describes the crime scene, though not graphically.

It is a sad testament of our times that many of us inhabit a world of fear and distrust. In that sense, Asha may have been of a passing world that at least, in our idealized imaginings, seemed safer. It is particularly disheartening to think that the very aspect of Asha's virtue, her innocent openness, exuding happiness and joy, may have attracted one to such a brutal act. It's the familiar tragic theme of despoiled innocence and virtue where in some twisted way one twisted individual tries to overpower another in a vain attempt to possess their soul, in this case two souls, Asha's unborn baby girl, through unconscionable murder.

Michael Tierra, Ben Lomond, California

Chapter One: Candle

On September 9, 2006, the gibbous moon showed its dry white face well after eight-thirty pm. As always, it shone equally over every landscape and in all directions, including the town particular to this story, Ben Lomond, California. Some of its light never penetrates the deep canyons and thick redwood forests surrounding this part of Santa Cruz County; there, roads snake upwards through steep hills, vanishing into dead ends, and homes cling for dear life on half-eroded cliffsides.

A single street runs through the central part of town; small businesses, housed in renovated clapboard buildings, line each side: a seamstress advertising custom slipcovers, an art gallery, a dental office, a small library, an auditorium called Park Hall where a local theater company puts on plays and musicals, a dog grooming parlor, and a hairdresser. The Ben Lomond Market dominates the street, a large and well stocked rural store with a bright green awning and posters on the sliding glass doors, advertising weekly specials. That September, pumpkins, acorn squash, and gourds began to fill the storefront displays a bit earlier than usual, crowding out the last of summer’s bounty as autumn edged in.

When I remember that night, I always consider how the moon must have shone with a particular coldness on a road in Ben Lomond called Love Creek, named for an actual creek which cuts straight through the site of ancient landslides. A more recent landslide in 1982 took out houses during a wild, flooding storm; several bodies, including those of two small children, still remain under those tons of dirt and rubble; a wooden sign advises people not to dump garbage there. Next to the sign, someone has built a large toy box, painted bright red and filled with faded stuffed animals in memory of the two children. Each Christmas, a local Girl Scout troop hangs glass ornaments on a Douglas fir planted not long after the storm.

As the road ascends into the mountains, it changes from pavement to dirt; landslides rise on each side, masses of chalky brown mud dried into thick, overlapping layers. Trees grow off plumb, twisted away by the unstable ground; branches dangle overhead, the very definition of the word “widowmaker.” The road gradually dwindles to a narrow ribbon of dusty beige sand and the creek becomes increasingly shadowed, revealing no trace of itself except for the sound of rushing water.

For many hours, light would have shone not at all into a shallow ravine just at the place where Love Creek rises again from the canyon and becomes, in the dark, a flowing blackness more sensed than seen, braiding and unbraiding over smooth stones. Eventually, the moon must have cast a miserly silver on what rested just above the creek, suspended between two fallen trees: the body of a young woman, six and a half months pregnant. She lay facedown, her left leg extended behind her, right leg pressed against her full belly, arms prostrate as if in prayer.

And, hours earlier, as the rising moon slipped above a break in the ridgeline, it surely must have watched with flat skull eyes the dented white-and-blue Ford pickup raising clouds of sand and dust as it raced away down Love Creek Road, the passenger side empty except for a crumpled tarp, the driver at the wheel smiling or not, but certainly satisfied, released from the weight of that terrible burden.

To record an event like this one, past and increasingly distant, is like picking up one of those fallen leaves which has survived a long winter pressed to the ground. They’re a rare find, the once-living matter browned and mummified, then worn away, leaving a net in the shape of a leaf, a skeleton of itself. Turn it one way, and it becomes a spiderweb; turn it again, and it transforms into a map with no direction, the guy lines splayed. Turn it to the side, and it shows nothing but a brittle edge. So it is with this story and all its attendancies. 

If you could spool the thread of time slightly backwards from the moon, the creek, and that road of dust and sand, you would enter into the way September blooms in the San Lorenzo Valley, an area at the northern edge of Santa Cruz County. The summer light, full of clarity, begins to take on a golden aspect: a Rembrandt light, some say. Days become overlaid with a delicate veneer of cold; nights promise colder weather to come. Skin feels like parchment in the dry air and hair crackles with static; the whole body can raise a spark from touched metal. Foxtails blanch to white; their seed heads break and scatter. If an animal picks one up in its fur, the foxtail can augur into flesh, traveling deep: some seeds don't let go. Creeks, starved for water, turn shallow and mountain lions slip down from rocky hillsides, following the deer, so silent they truly earn their nickname: ghost cats. Everything enters that scorched cycle: overnight, an emerald summer grows pale.

When the light's transformation begins, I fall forever back into that time, September, the month of changes, when Asha Veil, a cashier for the Ben Lomond Market and visibly pregnant, clocked out after her shift, put on her backpack, and vanished into the gathering dark, almost without a trace.

I knew Asha as much as any regular shopper in the market might have. I stood in her checkout line often and we made small talk, usually about the weather or local news. One morning, I walked into the market, steeped in a low mood; Asha smiled warmly and greeted me as she arranged produce in the outdoor display. Her kindness helped to cheer me up and I wasn't as sad during my errand. People said that she had this same effect on them, a small grace-note in their day.

One bright September morning, I sat at my kitchen table, drinking coffee and writing a grocery list, a usual task for the beginning of a week. Kat, my daughter, walked into the kitchen and thrust a folded sheet of paper into my hand. I opened it to see Asha, with her wide, pleasant smile in a friendly face, obviously in her market uniform, the white collar, maroon sweatshirt neckband and green apron strings just visible above the picture's margin. Heavy black text beneath the picture described her as 28 years old, noticeably pregnant, five foot seven, 140 pounds, green eyes, red shoulder-length hair, pierced nostril, decorative tattoo around her left bicep. The flyer further stated that Asha, a reliable employee, had missed work and several appointments.

  "But I just saw her the other day!" I said.
 “Mama, I’m worried,” Kat said, “She's almost seven months along.”

Asha carried "to the back," as my grandmother used to say, and her market uniform, which included that loose apron, concealed her shape. I did not know she was pregnant until the very last time I shopped at the market, the week before she went missing. I'd been rolling my cart along a bit aimlessly, exchanging greetings with other customers and with Mike, the store manager, whistling as he pushed a gray dust mop near the bakery counter, where he often handed out free cookies to children. Betsy, the woman who stocked the nutrition aisle, asked if she could help me find anything; I said no and thanked her.

I wandered around until I reached the hardware section. There were new items stocked on a top shelf: packs of votive lights, Sterno lanterns, candles in glass containers like the ones in a Catholic church. Most were white, one had a jaundiced green tint—I couldn't see that cheering up the house at all during a power failure, which often lasted up to five days in the mountains—and one, with a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, had a too-short wick. I finally chose a watermelon-pink candle at the end of the row. I liked to plan ahead before the onset of winter storms.

When I lined up at Asha's register, I saw two small girls in front of me with bright packs of gum in their hands, the kind I knew would tenaciously resist every effort to get out of their hair. The girls had dimes and nickels in a red Hello Kitty purse, but when Asha rang up the total, they were short by twenty-five cents. I saw Asha reach into her pocket and add a quarter to the cash drawer.

My purchases moved along the conveyor belt, including the candle, which I'd put on its side. Asha greeted me and I noticed a definite, firmly-poking-out tummy beneath her market apron. I decided to ask the question which had hovered in the back of my mind for weeks: "Are you pregnant?"

Her face looked warmly radiant as she answered in the affirmative and patted the top of her belly. Asha had an Eastern European accent and I'd found out some time ago that she was from Poland.

"When is your baby due?" I asked, and she said, "December." She told me she was carrying a girl.

We exchanged animated mother-talk about infants; I told her that my youngest son had been born on Christmas Day several years before. As we spoke, Asha carefully wrapped up the pink candle in a sheet of butcher paper.

"Don't want to get that broken," she said, and I thanked her.

"Enjoy your baby girl! I can't wait to see a picture of her," I smiled.  Asha handed me my receipt; I picked up the grocery bag and walked out into the sunny afternoon.

I would unwrap and light that candle only once, at a twilight vigil service for Asha and her unborn daughter.

Candle, Part Two

Of course, it’s not entirely true about the candle. I did try to use it at the vigil, but the flame kept going out and I finally held it unlit. The watermelon-pink wax felt greasy, as if made of fat and not paraffin. Sometime during the next week, I stored the candle on a kitchen shelf, close to a window; summer heat melted the oily wax and sunlight bleached it to an ugly grayish mauve.

Recently, I picked the candle up from the shelf, polished its dusty glass container, and placed it in a shallow pan of water to melt the wax down again. As it liquefied, I took a fork and retrieved the wick; then I dropped candle dye and beeswax granules into the container and stirred; the wax took on the “ashes of roses” hue: pink with just a hint of gray. I replaced the wick and put the candle aside to harden.

Next, I made a color print of Asha, a favorite which illustrates one of the most striking things about her: no picture seems to show exactly the same person. I’ve seen about a dozen photos now: Asha jumping on the bed in a hotel room, remote control in hand, wild hair flying upwards; Asha wide-eyed, smiling into the camera, hair in a pixie cut; Asha on her wedding day, hair longer, small braids pinned back on each side of her head; Asha in khaki coveralls and a matching cap, standing in front of an autumn tree in full leaf-flame. It’s as if certain features are highlighted in each one: smooth, straight hair, brows in such a perfect arch that I wonder if she had them professionally done, a tender, smiling mouth. I chose my favorite portrait for the candle: Asha looks directly at the camera, intensity simmering in her expression, auburn hair tucked behind her ears. She looks as if there is a question she might want to ask, one that hangs in the air, forever unspoken.

I glued the picture onto one side of the glass container and, on the other side, an image of the Virgin of Czestochowa, the Black Madonna with her double-scarred cheek and spangled midnight veil, her child cradled in her left arm, both heads surrounded by a nimbus of weathered gold. People risked their lives in occupied Poland to venerate her icon, slipping through fields under cover of darkness. It is said that Saint Luke painted it on a tabletop which belonged to the Holy Family, that the slashed cheek, from a sword strike by Hussites, proved impossible to fix. Mary gazes out of the picture, expressionless except for the sorrow in her small dark eyes.

I surrounded each portrait with a glitter frame: magenta for Asha, emerald green for the Virgin of Czestochowa. When I lit the candle wick, after a time the pictures seemed to float, hovering over the reservoir of liquid wax. I flanked this candle with two znicze, Polish funerary lanterns cast from amethyst glass. On All Saints Day, there is a tradition of placing these, in every color and shape, on thousands of graves; they burn throughout the night so that cemeteries all over Poland become a river of light, a path for souls to navigate.

This is how I invoke Asha, call to her across time and loss, as I did in the days after she disappeared: Where are you? What has happened? Where on earth have you gone?

Candle, Part Three

 To conjure a lost person is to weave them as if from twine and silk, razor wire and shattered glass, working patiently as a garden spider. It is to metaphorically shape all these into the form of the absent one. Sometimes you can only create a silhouette; sometimes an outline. When a person goes missing, you work with whatever is at hand to keep their place in the world open.

Fear tangled itself around the community and held it in a stranglehold after the news of Asha's disappearance became public; it was the main topic of conversation with everyone I knew. Concerned people immediately began to take time, day and night, to search the areas surrounding Asha's workplace, her home, forest areas, and back roads, looking for any sign of her.  Law enforcement did the same, casting a wider net over the county, questioning people who knew her and checking places she was known to frequent. Not a single clue emerged.

“Maybe she went off somewhere, to a hospital because something started to go wrong with her pregnancy,” I said to my partner, Fred, as we rinsed dishes at the sink and stacked them in the dishwasher, one of the many tasks we did together every day. The work of running a household seemed endless, even though only two of my four children still lived with us. Fred was not the biological father of my children, but had long ago accepted a parental role.

"Or maybe she headed over to San Jose or San Francisco for some other reason and went into labor there,” said Fred. He leaned over the dishwasher and straightened every dish, bowl, cup, and piece of silverware into perfectly aligned rows, a habit which always irked me, as if it were a comment on my haphazard housekeeping skills. I’d learned to hold my tongue, remembering the old maxim: “Heed these words of wisdom, to keep things in the loving cup: when you are wrong, admit it, and when you are right, shut up."

“She would have called someone,” I said, “Or the people at the hospital would have.” 

“Seems like it, though maybe she’s too ill to talk and didn’t have identification on her, or lost it somehow."  Even the most far-fetched speculations had begun to seem plausible.

Fred closed the dishwasher and put on his jacket before he went out to stack brush and fallen branches in the front yard. Later, he planned to go to the dump, a remote canyon on Newell Creek Road, which stood in sight of the county reservoir. Before he closed the front door, he said he’d keep an eye out for Asha and take some extra time to look for her.

I sat back down at the kitchen table, powered up my laptop, and opened the website of the local paper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The lead article had the same picture of Asha as the one on the Missing Person flyer. It described her as someone who conscientiously called well in advance if she needed to be absent from work. Among the several appointments she missed included one for signing her lease on a much-wanted apartment in Capitola, a seaside town several miles away. The fact of her advanced pregnancy frightened me: had she gone for a walk in the woods around Ben Lomond, perhaps? The cool forest paths could be inviting on dry, hot September days and I had taken such walks myself in late pregnancy when I carried Matt, my last child; the midwife said walking strengthened the pelvic and back muscles and helped the baby ease into the proper position. I brushed away the thought of Asha lost somewhere in the woods, hurt or sick, or—God forbid—in labor or having newly given birth by herself to a premature baby. She is fine, I told myself; people were searching for her. Soon she would be found and, no matter the reason why she’d disappeared, things would be put right again for her.

 It was September 12, 2006. Asha Veil had been gone three days.

That night, I sat on the back deck of the house and breathed for her. The deck faces a property of great natural beauty: a small meadow covered with redwood sorrel, bunch grass, and wild strawberry plants, bordered by a tall and ragged forest. The trees conceal a shallow canyon with a creek running through it. Despite the dry autumn weather, I could still hear the sound of the creek just beyond the trees, a slow, melodic trickle.

The night's chill penetrated my sweater, and I thought of Asha, perhaps out there, afraid and alone. A horrible thought swarmed into my mind: She has been taken for the baby. There were women who went insane like that, lying to family and friends, gaining weight, buying baby clothes, outfitting a nursery, all the while secretly stalking the perfect pregnant woman, like a cougar creeping up on its prey. I banished that fear with a mantra I said to myself over and over as I listened into the deepening night, hoping with all my heart to hear Asha's voice somewhere in the dark: She is alive. She is safe. Wherever she is, she's safe.

Chapter Two: Car

Brookside Drive branches off two main roads in Ben Lomond: Glen Arbor Drive and Love Creek. If you drive up Glen Arbor--a pleasant, winding road flanked with houses and tall, old trees--you'll reach a stucco building painted a soft, weathered peach, with a blue sign, illuminated at night: Valley Churches United Missions. This place provides basic necessities to low-income families of the San Lorenzo Valley. I myeslf resorted to their help many times after my husband and I split up, leaving me with no child support for our four children. Over the course of several years, I stood in line for food bags, used clothing, Christmas presents from strangers, vouchers for gasoline, and ten-dollar gift certificates to the local Safeway. 

They'd been a lifesaver for me and deeply appreciated, despite that some of the workers at the front desk felt free to express their opinion of the people sitting quietly in the waiting area.  Once, a small group of four people, including me, arrived at Valley Churches thirty minutes before closing time.  A beak-nosed receptionist in a crooked knit cape of green and white yarn, with a peaked hood that did not quite fit, slammed down her pencil and bellowed, "You people don't have jobs, so you should get up out of your beds and come here before closing time!" When she was on shift, she never failed to make us aware of our place. 

If you take the road next to Valley Churches at night, you often travel in pitch-dark; the few streetlights are sometimes inoperable. Then it is easy to feel disoriented: broad canopies of bigleaf maples, green and benevolent in the daytime, hover overhead like black umbrellas. You become worried that you've lost your way and are headed up into the mountains with their perilous one-lane roads, but you will soon feel reassured when you see the green sign for Brookside, illuminated by your car's headlights. An extremely sharp right turn takes you onto the street.

Signs for some of Brookside's roads bear the names of poets: Whittier, Emerson, Tennyson. A street with not such a fanciful name, Estates Drive, runs up a low incline. A rail fence fronting a ranch-style home stands directly across from the incline. Behind the fence, oleanders--pink, white, and magenta--raise poisonous blossoms among equally poisonous green leaves. A length of dirt makes a dry border.

Neighbors must have soon noticed the chocolate-brown BMW, circa 1978, on that narrow strip of dirt, an unusual place to park, the border not really wide enough for a car. People walking their dogs or just taking a stroll passed it, as well as drivers on their way to work and school. Perhaps someone peered into the smudged windows; people often dumped their cars on side roads, or took considerable time to move them in case of a breakdown. The interior revealed nothing particular about where it came from, or who parked it there.

After a few days, angry or worried about the unfamiliar vehicle parked for so long in front of the fence, someone would have finally tried the balky door and found it unlocked. They would have unlatched the glovebox, pulled out a registration card, saw the owner's name, then dashed for a landline or pulled a cellphone from their pocket, perhaps dropping the phone in haste and stooping to pick it up again, because the car with neatly folded baby clothes in the trunk, some in a cheerful Winnie-the-Pooh print, was Asha Veil's abandoned car.