The Sleeping Doll Excerpt
September 13, 1999
‘Son of Manson’ Found Guilty In Croyton Family Murders
Salinas, California—Daniel Raymond Pell, 35, was convicted today on four counts of first-degree murder and one count of manslaughter by a Monterey County jury after only five hours of deliberations.
“Justice has been done,” lead prosecutor James J. Reynolds told reporters after the verdict was announced. “This is an extremely dangerous man, who committed unspeakable crimes.”
Pell became known as the “Son of Manson” because of the parallels between his life and that of convicted murderer, Charles Manson, who in 1969 was responsible for the ritualistic slayings of the actress Sharon Tate and several other individuals in Southern California. Police found dozens of books and articles about Manson in Pell’s house following his arrest.
The murder convictions were for the May 7 deaths of William Croyton, his wife, and two of their three children in Carmel, Calif., 120 miles south of San Francisco. The manslaughter charge arose from the death of James Newberg, 24, who lived with Pell and accompanied him to the Croyton house the night of the murders. The prosecutor asserted that Newberg initially intended to assist in the murders but was then killed by Pell after he changed his mind.
Croyton, 56, was a wealthy electrical engineer and computer innovator. His Cupertino, Calif., company, in the heart of Silicon Valley, produces state-of-the-art programs that are found in much of the world’s most popular personal computer software.
Because of Pell’s interest in Manson, there was speculation that the killings had ideological overtones, as did the murders for which Manson was convicted, but robbery was the most likely reason for the break-in, Reynolds said. Pell has dozens of prior convictions for shoplifting, burglary and robbery, dating back to his teens.
One child survived the attack, a daughter, Theresa, 9. Pell overlooked the child, because she was in her bed asleep and hidden by her toys. Because of this, she became known as the “Sleeping Doll.”
Like Charles Manson, the criminal he admired, Pell exuded a dark charisma and attracted a group of devoted and fanatical followers, whom he called his “Family”—a term borrowed from the Manson clan—and over whom he exercised absolute control. At the time of the Croyton murders this group included Newberg and three women, all living together in a shabby house in Seaside, north of Monterey, Calif. They are Rebecca Sheffield, 26, Amy Grabe, 20, and Samantha McCoy, 19.
The women were not charged in the deaths of the Croytons or Newberg but were convicted of multiple counts of larceny, trespass, fraud, and receiving stolen property. Grabe was also convicted of hampering an investigation, perjury and destroying evidence. As part of a plea bargain, Sheffield and McCoy were sentenced to three years in prison, Grabe to four and a half.
Pell’s behavior at trial also echoed Charles Manson’s. He would sit motionless at the defense table and stare at jurors and witnesses in apparent attempts to intimidate them. There were reports that he believed he had psychic powers. The defendant was removed once from the courtroom after a witness broke down under his gaze. Another juror was replaced by an alternate because she refused to continue.
The jury begins sentencing deliberations tomorrow. Pell could get the death penalty.
The interrogation began like any other.
Kathryn Dance entered the interview room and found the forty-three-year-old man sitting at a metal table, shackled, looking up at her closely. Subjects always did this, of course, though never with such astonishing eyes. Their color was a blue unlike sky or ocean or famous gems.
“Good morning,” she said, sitting down across from him.
“And to you,” replied Daniel Pell, the man who eight years ago knifed to death four members of a family for reasons he never shared. His voice was soft.
A slight smile on his bearded face, the small, sinewy man sat back, relaxed. His head, covered with long, gray-black hair, was cocked to the side. While most jailhouse interrogations were accompanied by a jingling soundtrack of handcuff chains as subjects tried to prove their innocence with broad, predictable gestures, Daniel Pell sat perfectly still.
To Dance, a specialist in interrogation and kinesics—body language— Pell’s demeanor and posture suggested caution, but also confidence and, curiously, amusement. He wore an orange jumpsuit, stenciled with “Capitola Correctional Facility” on the chest and “Inmate” unnecessarily decorating the back.
At the moment, though, Pell and Dance were not in Capitola, but rather a secure interview room at the county courthouse in Salinas, thirty miles away.
Pell continued his examination. First, Dance’s own eyes—a green complementary to his blue—and framed by square, black-rimmed glasses. He regarded her French-braided, dark-blonde hair, the black jacket and beneath it the thick, unrevealing white blouse. He noted too the empty holster on her hip. He was meticulous and in no hurry. Interviewers and interviewees share mutual curiosity. (She told the students in her interrogation seminars, “They’re studying you as hard as you’re studying them—usually even harder, since they have more to lose.”)
Dance fished in her blue Coach purse for her ID card, not reacting as she saw a tiny stuffed bat that either twelve-year-old Wes or his younger sister Maggie or both conspirators had slipped into the bag that morning as a practical joke. She thought: How’s this for a contrasting life? An hour ago she was having breakfast with her children in the kitchen of their homey Victorian house in idyllic Pacific Grove, two dogs at their feet begging for bacon, and now here she was, sitting across a very different table from a convicted murderer.
Dance found the ID and displayed it. He stared for a long moment, easing forward. “Dance. Interesting name. Wonder where it comes from. And the California Bureau . . . what is that?”
“Bureau of Investigation. Like an FBI for the state. Now, Mr. Pell, you understand that this conversation is being recorded.”
He glanced at the mirror, behind which a video camera was humming away. “You folks think we really believe that’s there so we can fix up our hair?”
Mirrors weren’t placed in interrogation rooms to hide cameras and witnesses—there are far better high-tech ways to do so—but because people lie less frequently when they can see themselves.
Dance gave a faint smile. “And you understand that you can withdraw from this interview anytime you want and that you have a right to have an attorney present?”
“I know more criminal procedure than the entire graduating class of Hastings Law rolled up together. Which is a pretty funny image, when you think about it.”
More articulate than Dance had expected. More clever too.
She wasn’t pleased to be sitting this far away from the subject, with a table separating them. Anything between interrogators and subjects gives them an added layer of defense.
With the prisoner’s violent past, though, security took priority.
The previous week, Daniel Raymond Pell, serving a life sentence for the 1999 murders of William Croyton, his wife and two of their children, approached a fellow prisoner due to be released from Capitola and tried to bribe him to run an errand after he was free. Pell told him about some evidence he’d disposed of down a Salinas well years ago and explained he was worried that these items would implicate him in the unsolved murder of a wealthy farm owner. He’d read recently that Salinas was revamping its water system. This jogged his memory of the items he’d ditched and he grew concerned that the evidence would be discovered. He wanted the prisoner to find and dispose of it.
Pell picked the wrong man to enlist, though. The short-timer spilled to the warden, who called the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office. Investigators wondered if Pell was talking about the murder of farm owner Robert Herron, beaten to death a decade ago. The murder weapon, probably a claw hammer, was never found. The Sheriff’s Office sent a team to search all the wells in that part of town. Sure enough, they found a tattered t-shirt, a claw hammer and an empty wallet, with the initials R.H. stamped on it. Two fingerprints on the hammer were Daniel Pell’s.
The Monterey County prosecutor decided to present the case to the grand jury, and had asked CBI agent Kathryn Dance to interview him, in hopes of a confession.
Dance now asked, “How long did you live in the Monterey area?”
He seemed surprised that she didn’t immediately begin to browbeat. “A few years.”
“Seaside.” A town of about 30,000, north of Monterey on Highway One, populated mostly by young working families and retirees. “You got more for your hard-earned money there,” he explained. “More than in your fancy Carmel.” His eyes zipped to her face.
His grammar and syntax were good, she noted, ignoring his fishing expedition for information about her residence.
He continued, “And now my home is beautiful downtown Capitola.”
Dance continued to ask him about his life in Seaside and in prison. Observing him the whole while: how he behaved when she asked the questions and how he behaved when he answered. She wasn’t doing this to get information—she’d done her homework and knew the answers to everything she asked—but was instead establishing his behavioral baseline.
In spotting lies, interrogators consider three factors: nonverbal behavior (body language, or kinesics), verbal quality (pitch of voice or pauses before answering) and verbal content (what the suspect says). The first two are far more reliable indications of deception, since it’s much easier to control what we say than how we say it and our body’s natural reaction when we do.
The baseline is a catalog of these behaviors exhibited when the subject’s telling the truth. This is the standard the interrogator will compare later to the subject’s behavior when he might have a reason to lie. Any differences between the two suggest deception.
Finally Dance had a good profile of the truthful Daniel Pell and moved to the crux of her mission here, in this modern, sterile courthouse on a foggy morning in June. “I’d like to ask you a few questions about Robert Herron.”
Eyes sweeping hers, now refining their examination: the abalone shell necklace, which her mother had made, at her throat. Then Dance’s short, pink-polished nails. The gray pearl ring on the wedding band finger got two glances.
“Where were you living in January of 1996?”
He pursed his lips. “Beats me. North part of town, I think.”
Interesting. Deceptive subjects often avoid specifics, which can be checked and which you can recite back to them later if they offer a contradictory statement at trial. And it was rare not to remember where you lived. Still, his kinesic responses weren’t suggesting deception.
“How did you meet Robert Herron?”
“You’re assuming I did. But, no, never met him in my life. I swear.”
The last sentence was a deception flag. Once again, though, his body language wasn’t giving off signals that suggested he was lying.
“But you told the prisoner in Capitola that you wanted him to go to the well and find the hammer and wallet.”
“No, that’s what he told the warden.” Pell offered another amused smile. “Why don’t you talk to him about it? You’ve got sharp eyes, Officer Dance. I’ve seen them looking me over, deciding if I’m being straight with you. I’ll bet you could tell in a flash that that boy was lying.”
She gave no reaction, but reflected that it was very rare for a suspect to realize he was being analyzed kinesically.
“But then how did he know about the evidence in the well?”
“Oh, I’ve got that figured out. Somebody stole a hammer of mine, killed Herron with it and then planted it to blame me. They wore gloves. Those rubbers ones everybody wears on CSI.”
Still relaxed. The body language wasn’t any different from his baseline. He was showing only emblems—common gestures that tended to substitute for words, like shrugs and finger pointing. There were no adaptors, which signal tension, or affect displays—signs that he was experiencing emotion.
“But if he wanted to do that,” Dance pointed out, “wouldn’t the killer just call the police then and tell them where the hammer was? Why wait over ten years?”
“Being smart, I’d guess. Better to bide his time. Then spring the trap.”
“But why would the real killer call the prisoner in Capitola? Why not just call the police directly?”
A hesitation. Then a laugh. His blue eyes shone with excitement, which seemed genuine. “Because they’re involved too. The police. Sure . . . The cops realize the Herron case hasn’t been solved and they want to blame somebody. Why not me? They’ve already got me in jail. I’ll bet the cops planted the hammer themselves.”
“Let’s work with this a little. There’re two different things you’re saying. First, somebody stole your hammer before Herron was killed, murdered him with it and now, over ten years later, dimes you out. But your second version is that the police got your hammer after Herron was killed by someone else altogether and planted it in the well to blame you. Those’re contradictory. It’s either one or the other. Which do you think?”
“Hm.” Pell gave an easy smile. “Okay, I’ll go with the second one. The police. It’s a set-up. I’m sure that’s what happened.”
She looked him in the eyes, green on blue. Nodding agreeably. “Let’s consider that. First, where would the police have gotten the hammer?”
He thought. “When they arrested me for that Carmel thing.”
“The Croyton murders in ninety-nine?”
“Right. All the evidence they took from my house in Seaside.”
Dance’s brows furrowed. “I doubt that. Evidence is accounted for too closely. No, I’d go for a more credible scenario: that the hammer was stolen recently. Where else could somebody find a hammer of yours? Do you have any property in the state?”
“Any relatives or friends who could’ve had some tools of yours?”
Which wasn’t an answer to a yes or no question; it was even slipperier than “I don’t recall.” Dance noticed too that Pell put his hands, tipped with long, clean nails, on the table at the word “relatives.” This was a deviation from baseline behavior. It didn’t mean lying, but he was feeling stress. The questions were upsetting him.
“Daniel, you have any relations living in California?”
He hesitated, must have assessed that she was the sort to check out every comment—which she was—and said, “The only one left’s my aunt. Down in Bakersfield.”
“Is her name Pell?”
Another pause. “Yep. . . . That’s good thinking, Officer Dance. I’ll bet the deputies who dropped the ball on the Herron case stole that hammer from her house and planted it. They’re the ones behind this whole thing. Why don’t you talk to them?”
“All right. That explains the hammer. Now let’s think about the wallet. Where could that’ve come from? . . . Here’s a thought. What if it’s not Robert Herron’s wallet at all? What if this rogue cop we’re talking about just bought a wallet, had ‘R.H.’ stamped in the leather then hid that and the hammer in the well? It could’ve been last month. Or even last week. What do you think about that, Daniel?”
Pell lowered his head—she couldn’t see his eyes—and said nothing.
It was unfolding just like she’d planned.
Dance had forced him to pick the more credible of two explanations for his innocence—and proceeded to prove it too wasn’t credible at all. No sane jury would believe that the police fabricated evidence and stole tools from a house hundreds of miles away from the crime scene. Pell was now realizing the mistake he’d made. The trap was about to close on him.
Checkmate . . .
Her heart thumped a bit and she was thinking that the next words out of his mouth might be to suggest his willingness to accept a plea bargain.
She was wrong.
Daniel Pell attacked her.
His eyes snapped open and bore into hers with pure malevolence. He lunged forward as far as he could. Only the chains hooked to the metal chair, grounded with bolts to the tile floor, stopped him from sinking his teeth into her.
She jerked back, gasping.
“You goddamn bitch! You have no idea what it’s like to be set up! You’re part of it too! Oh, yeah, blame Daniel. It’s always my fault! I’m the easy target. And you come in here sounding like a friend, asking me a few questions. Jesus, you’re just like the rest of them!”
Her heart was pounding furiously and she was afraid. But she noted quickly that the restraints were secure and he couldn’t reach her. She turned to the mirror behind which the officer manning the video camera was surely rising to his feet right now to help her. But she shook her head. It was important to see where this was going.
Then suddenly Pell’s fury was replaced with a cold calm. He sat back, caught his breath, and looked her over again. “You’re in your thirties, Officer Dance. You’re somewhat pretty. You seem straight to me, so I guarantee there’s a man in your life. Or has been.” A third glance at the pearl ring.
“If you don’t like my theory, Daniel, let’s come up with another one. About what really happened to Robert Herron.”
As if she hadn’t even spoken. “And you’ve got children, right? Sure, you do. I can see that. Tell me all about them. Tell me about the little ones. Close in age, and not too old, I’ll bet.”
This unnerved her and she involuntarily thought of Maggie and Wes. But she struggled not to react. He doesn’t know I have children, of course. He can’t. But he sure acts as if he’s certain. Was there something about my behavior he noted? Something that suggested to him that I’m a mother?
They’re studying you as hard as you’re studying them. . . .
“Listen to me, Daniel,” she said in a pond-calm voice. “An outburst isn’t going to help anything.”
“I’ve got friends on the outside, you know. They owe me. They’d love to come visit you. Or hang with your husband and children. Yeah, it’s a tough life being a cop. The little ones spend a lot of time alone, don’t they? They’d probably love some friends to play with.”
Dance returned the gaze, never flinching. She asked, “Could you tell me about your relationship with that prisoner in Capitola?”
“Yes, I could. But I won’t.” His emotionless words mocking her, making clear that, for a professional interrogator, she’d phrased her question carelessly. In a soft voice he added, “I think it’s time to go back to my cell.”