48 | Flashback

Flashback: A scene that precedes the time of the present story. Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Ground zero 1: the point directly above, below, or at which a nuclear explosion occurs 2: the center or origin of rapid, intense, or violent activity or change 3: the very beginning: SQUARE ONE. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

Childhood of D. – Sisters very close in age 16 months – sisters shared bedroom – D babysitting & female cousin staying at house – Duane had sex with cousin in bed with sisters & made them watch. ACSO Investigator Bruce Isaacson’s notes of 9/12/05 interview of Cherrie Otto

I’m sorry I ever started it. Cherrie Otto, 2011

During the cold case, Duane’s sister Cherrie sent me a message through DA Tomsic that she wanted to meet for lunch. We couldn’t discuss our testimony. But at the deli Cherrie was just as I’d remembered: pint-sized and delightfully improper, with a booming laugh and a whiskey voice. I’ll tell you everything when it’s over, she said.

In 2011, I tracked Cherrie down through her ex-husband Hank. After Betty was killed, Hank helped the neighbors clean the garage. He vividly recalled the blood. It was a mess, he said, we were cleaning till late that night. He told me Cherrie was in assisted living at The Verandas west of Denver with congestive heart failure. She’s a lifelong smoker, he said, but she’ll remember.

I called The Verandas. When Cherrie came to the phone there was a new hesitancy in her voice. Her first words were, Duane’s still alive, isn’t he? The next day I went to The Verandas.

Cherrie was frail but seemed her old self. Interviewing witnesses as a lawyer had taught me a hard lesson about taking notes: get the exact words. With Jean Brickell, I’d filled an entire legal pad. I hadn’t wanted to break the flow by asking Jean if I could record, but Cherrie readily agreed to being taped. We began with Atwood, Kansas where she and Duane grew up.

The ugliest frickin’ town you ever saw, Cherrie said, a snotty little burg in a valley one corner Swedish, one corner German, one corner Irish and one corner Bohunk. She and her siblings worked in Frye Auto & Electric, their dad’s shop. Duane repaired radiators, Shirley built carburetors and little Cherrie swept the floor. Shirley and I were Irish twins, she said with a wink. It was more like a year and a half apart, but we shared a bed.

Duane was named Herbert after his father (a/k/a Inky), but neither of them went by that name. Inky was a gentle man and avid science fiction reader. He was hospitalized for depression at Mount Airy, the same psych facility where Betty later received shock treatments.

Duane and his mother Lolita were inseparable, two of a kind. Duane was ashamed that his father wasn’t perfect, and Lolita was intolerant of Inky’s problems. Duane never talked about Betty’s issues as much as he talked about admiring her perfection, Cherrie said; I guess it was a flaw in her perfection. Duane was so ashamed of Betty’s illness that he never told his children she was hospitalized or why.

Cherrie and Hank had been part of Duane’s and Betty’s upwardly mobile social set. That ended when Duane made Betty tell Cherrie they would no longer see them except on holidays. Hank was an engineer like Duane, but they just weren’t on his level. Cherrie disliked Duane for other reasons too. He didn’t understand why their Shirley was so upset when her eldest son died. She had seven more, didn’t she?

Cherrie had no problem talking about Atwood, her parents or Duane as an adult. But when I asked what he was like as a boy, she was vague or changed the subject. In small towns boys and girls grew up apart, she said. Girls had dolls, and boys got their first BB guns at age five and went hunting. Did Duane have girlfriends? I asked. Oh my, yes—he liked cute little blondes….

There had to be a ground zero.

When I shared my frustration with the cold case cops, they seemed amused. She didn’t tell you about the time Duane had sex with a cousin and made her watch? Brandt said. Duane was in junior high, which meant Cherrie was nine or ten. DA Tomsic and the cops think the cousin was disabled and Duane may also have assaulted Cherrie or made her participate. Irish twins, she’d said with a wink. We shared a bed.

In 2006, when Cherrie was on the stand in the cold case, Duane’s lawyer told her she’d been surreptitiously taped when she met with Jean and Dick Brickell at Piccolo’s. Cherrie was a proud woman, and she felt betrayed. How stupid I was to reopen her wound by pulling out a recorder! But Cherrie was a trouper. Under cross-examination, she never faltered.

Do you speak differently if you know it’s on tape?

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