On June 22, 1977, the two Yale students stop at Cline Falls State Park in Oregon to camp. That evening they are brutally attacked by a man who runs over their tent where they are sleeping and assaults them with an ax. Despite their injuries, both survive. The friend suffers partial blindness and memory loss. Jentz’ body is permanently scarred.
Fifteen years later Jentz decides to investigate the crime even though the statute of limitations on attempted murder have expired and she would never be able to see her attacker prosecuted. Her investigation leads to a man whom Oregon locals have always suspected was the perpetrator.
She learns that he, too, obsesses about the incident, frequently talking about the crime, and she even observes his polygraph session, in which he is asked about the attack on the two women. She attends his trial (which results in his conviction and sentencing for charges related to a different crime). However, she never speaks with the man.
Although never fully resolved, Jentz states the value of her investigation has been to break out of “the claustrophobic confines of [her] memories.”
In 2006 Jentz wrote a memoir of her experience, Strange Piece of Paradise: A Return to the American West to Investigate My Attempted Murder—And Solve the Mystery of Myself.
Alright, let’s back up to the part about a California student, Margaret Coleman being murdered while hitchhiking that summer. Turns out that’s probably not true, and plays into one of the cultural myths of the era. Before deconstructing that we need to know the story of Margret Coleman.
In the summer of 1970 18-year-olds Margaret Peggy Coleman and Margaret Jones flew from their homes in the Woodland Hills area of California to New York. From there they rode buses through New England to Montreal and began a cross-country vacation in the United States and Canada. Coleman was carrying $175 in cash, Jones $300. They had saved up the money working part-time jobs. They told their parents they would travel by bus.
Coleman was a recent graduate of a private girls school near her home in Canoga Park. She had just completed her junior year at a community college where she was on the dean’s list as “one of Pierce college’s outstanding students”. She was planning to transfer to UCLA to major in social studies. Coleman’s travelling companion, Margaret Jones was a native of Encino. The girls met at Pierce college, and Jones was intending to go on to UC Santa Cruz.
Stopping in Montreal for a few days, the girls visited Man and His World, site of the 1967 world’s fair. Every second day they would call home. Both girls had promised their parents they would travel by bus. In Jones’ last call she told her mother they were preparing to go to Detroit to visit Margaret Coleman’s grandmother. Carrying little more than sleeping rolls, Coleman and Jones were last seen at a traffic circle in St. Hubert, about 10 miles East of Montreal, adjacent to Longueuil. A motorist had given the girls a ride to the traffic circle. According to the motorist, the girls told him they were headed for a campsite near LaPrairie – about 10 miles South of St. Hubert – to meet other California hitchhikers from Quebec.
The girls were found Wednesday morning, July 9th, 1970 605 feet apart from each other by a farmer on Chemin du Grande Linge near highway 36, between l’Acadie and Saint Jean sur Richelieu. Their bedrolls and other belongings were found about six miles further down the road. They had either jumped or been pushed from a speeding car.
Margaret Coleman died of skull fractures. Margaret Jones was seriously injured. and rushed unconscious to Notre Dame hospital in Montreal where she was in deep shock.
Left for dead, Margaret Jones lay in a Montreal hospital with a severe concussion. A week later she developed a serious blood clot, doctors scheduled emergency surgery. When her condition unexpectedly improved the operation was cancelled. Eventually her condition improved. Slowly she began smiling and talking. Margaret sufficiently recovered to the point where Quebec Provincial police believed she could be interviewed. There was just one problem: Margaret Jones couldn’t remember what happened. She knew she was in a hospital, but she didn’t know how she got there. She thought she was still in Laprarie, not Montreal. She did not even recall she had been traveling with Margaret Coleman. She was not informed of her friend’s death.
In the days that followed it was disclosed – because it always is – that police had blundered. A South shore police constable saw something unusual and didn’t investigate. The constable was parked at the side of the road talking with a farmer when he saw a car zig-zagging down the highway, its horn blaring. The constable turned back to the farmer and resumed his conversation. He explained that he never attempted to to intercept the vehicle because it was not speeding and he thought it belonged to a local resident.
Coleman and Jones saw the police cruiser and attempted to signal him. Less than an hour later the girls were found about a mile down the road from the police cruiser. The tragic events could have been averted. When Coleman’s father, John Coleman heard about the incident he said, “the cop should turn in his badge.” Surete du Quebec investigators agreed.
On Wednesday, July 29th, three weeks after the tragic event, Margaret Jones boarded a plane at Dorval airport bound back to California. Wearing an eye patch to correct her double vision problem suffered from the ejection or fall from the moving vehicle, Jones still had not been told of the death of her traveling companion Margaret Peggy Coleman.
Up to this point the story had been predominately covered by the Montreal Gazette. Once Jones returned to California, The Los Angeles Times picked up the story, and they had a very different interpretation of events that took place in Quebec, July 1970.
The Gazette persistently hammered on the notion that Coleman and Jones allegedly were hitchhikers. Their headlines almost exclusively focus on this:
“No Operation For Hitchhiker”
“California Hitchhiker Victim Goes Home”
The Los Angeles Times has a very different approach:
“Coed Letter Weakens Hitchhiking Theory”
The parents of Margaret Coleman reveal to the Times that they received her last letter on July 7th, two days before her death. In the letter, mailed July 5th from Montreal, Margaret assured her parents “we are being real careful… and we pretend we are with our parents.” The Times goes on to say that the parents, “cited the statement to support their belief that their daughter and her companion were not hitchhiking, the theory of Montreal police.”
Now we know what’s going on here. It’s good old fashion victim stigmatization. Blame the victim, and police are relieved of the responsibility of solving the crime, right?
Wrong. And anyway, suppose they were hitchhiking. Suppose they lied to their parents because they didn’t want to overly concern them? What would that even matter? They were hitchhiking so they deserved to die? It is absurd and monstrous that any grieving parent should be forced and compelled to even offer such a defense in the wake of their child’s murder.
The letter went on to say that the two girls were sleeping in crowded camp sites near major highways because, “it’s probably safer that way.”
In an earlier postcard Margaret Coleman wrote:
“Don’t ever worry about us hitchhiking. You know, Mommy, I’d never do that. We have an emergency fund and can take a cab anywhere we have to go.”
In a later Los Angeles Times article, Margaret Jones says she cannot ever recall hitchhiking. Some Quebec men come forward and express that they remember seeing Coleman and Jones at a filling station, and that they turned down a couple of rides.
Montreal Gazette, September 9th 1971 / New facts found in girl’s murder
In the Fall of 1970, Montreal Surete du Quebec police traveled to Los Angeles to meet with Margaret Jones. There, assisted with their identification bureau, Jones developed a composite sketch of her friend Margaret Coleman’s killer.
Quebec police began to focus on personnel from the Canadian Forces Bases (CFB) in St. Hubert, St Jean sur Richelieu and Longue Point. Pictures of some 40 men on file bore some resemblance to the sketch. Police intended to either travel to California again or fly Jones to Montreal to review the photos. Police denied that any arrests were imminent.
From her parent’s home in Encino Margaret Coleman attempted to recall what she remembered about the incident 14 months prior:
“When I’ve thought about it afterwards, I get the feeling it was a military man, and I told the police that. When I see them around Los Angeles, they seem the same sort.”
The man she describes to Quebec police was wearing olive, khaki or brown fatigues and heavy boots.
“He had very short, dark hair and a thin body. The outfit he was wearing, it was heavy cloth – not the sort of thing you’d wear when going out in the evening.”
Once critical of the the way Quebec police were handling the investigation, charging they were “covering up” the case, Mrs. Coleman later changed her mind:
“I think they’re handling the case wonderfully.” Though she was unable to explain why police waited nearly a year before releasing news of the composite sketch of the suspected killer. “The sketch was drawn up around September of last year, “ she said.
And where were the Quebecois media in all this? While The English language Montreal Gazette began to focus on a military suspect, the French papers had a different approach. In March 1971 La Presse discloses that the location where Coleman and Jones were found is less than a mile from the St. Hubert hideout where FLQ members Paul and Jacques Rose had held former Quebec minister of labour, Pierre Laporte in the fall of 1970. Laporte was later found murdered in the trunk of a car at the St. Hubert airport. The event spawned Canada’s October Crisis.
[Post script: On thinking on this, I think this is wrong. Laporte was held in a suburban home in St. Hubert. So I think La Presse meant to say Coleman and Jones were last seen less than a mile from the FLQ hideout, which would have been the St. Hubert traffic circle.]
And this fact may answer Mrs. Coleman’s query about why it took police so long to publicly disclose the composite. The October Crisis was one of the most galvanizing social and political events in Quebec history. After Laporte’s murder all police resources would have been put to use catching the FLQ members, and building a case to bring them to trial. Margaret Coleman would have been forgotten in the wake of such a provincial crisis.
After the small flurry of activity in 1971 the cold case of Margaret Coleman is quickly forgotten. People stop writing about the matter. Margaret Coleman slips from memory.
At her funeral in Canoga Park Margaret Peggy Coleman was described as an avid poetry writer. Margaret was interned in a pale lavendar gown she had made herself. Her last poem was read at the ceremony:
Everytime someone in this world hurts another, my sunflower loses a petal.
Yesterday a little boy was mocked and scorned because his color is dark.
Today women and children are screaming in the jungles across the sea; their cries fall on deaf ears and injustice seems endless.
Tomorrow someone is bound to hurt his brother, it is the nature of man. My flower is suffering because of it.
Soon There will not be any petals on my sunflower. Someday men will realize God is love, love will conquer all and my sunflower will bloom again.
Life isn’t fair. Justice is blind and dysfunctional…