David Kulczyk (pronounced "coal-check") travels from his home in Sacramento to Laguna Beach Saturday to talk about and sign copies of his new book Death in California: The Bizarre, Freakish, and Just Curious Ways People Die in the Golden State ($15.95 from Linden Publishing). Latitude 33 Bookshop is a fitting locale for the author's appearance, considering his book's final chapter involves a Mission Viejo couple mowed down at a ritzy resort mere blocks away.
Michigan-based Kulczyk had been a factory worker, sous chef, musician, warehouseman, fish butcher, process server, barista and bike messenger before, at the age of 40, he went to college. Now he's historian, freelance newspaper writer and award-winning author of short fiction. His specialty: death. Specifically, serial killers, murder victims and the strange ways people manage to find themselves dead in sunny California.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that Kulczyk pitched me stories when I was editing a Sacramento paper a couple years ago, and I bought many of them. My favorite involved Kulczyk re-visiting homes where murders committed by serial killers had occurred. Some residents had no idea they were living in what had been the scene of a crime (or crimes) several decades before.
"This book's aim is to encompass shocking murders and accidents that at the time shook the very soul of Californians, but eventually and gratefully faded from memory," Kulczyk wrote me in an email. "California has always been a destination for people with dreams of fame and fortune. Anything is possible in California, and when anything is possible, death always lurks nearby. Death in California is a historic manuscript detailing the more arcane ways people have died in the Golden State."
The final of the 31 vignettes is titled, "Talkin' 'Bout My Generation: Laguna Beach, April 22, 2007." Joni Park was obsessed with status, felt her modest home in a master-planned community was beneath her and routinely barked like a queen at wait staff and store clerks. She and her retired Postal Service worker husband, Kevin Park, opened a small investment firm that hedged their investments against an expected inheritance from Kevin's father, who owned property in California and Hawaii.
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However, after dad died, Kevin and his co-executor of the will brother discovered their father had no fortune to split. Joni flipped, accusing her brother-in-law, sister-in-law, nephews and nieces of swindling her and Kevin. She reported them to police. And then, on the evening of April 21, 2009, she checked into the Montage Laguna Beach, paying for her room in cash, and called together her family for a meeting. You'll have to read the book or go hear Kulczyk speak to find out what happened next, but to say Joni's dreams went unfulfilled is an understatement.
Death in California includes another chapter about a weird local death, this titled, "The Snake Woman: Cypress, Orange County, July 20, 1948." It's about Grace Olive Wiley, a pioneer in the field of herpetology, whose snakes appeared in the films The Jungle Book, Trade Wind and Cobra Woman. Wiley was always on set when her animals were used, and she even appeared onscreen as a snake charmer in the 1940 film, Moon Over Burma, starring Dorothy Lamour.
A freelance journalist was interviewing Wiley and snapping photos of her in Cypress on July 20, 1948, when she met her end after posing with a newly arrived Indian cobra. That's probably giving too much away, but Kulczyk includes a head-scratching coda that makes it worth your while to read the whole chapter.
Latitude 33 Bookshop is at 311 Ocean Avenue in Laguna Beach, and Kulczyk is scheduled to show up with his dark stories at 5 p.m. Saturday.