Thursday, September 22, 2016

Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife: CriMemoir by Chris Orlet

When I asked Chris Orlet for a guest piece I half-expected a Narrative Music bit - I mean the guy's debut novel is named after murder ballad ferfuxache - but dude's also a journalist with an interest in crime. We've been talking books and films for a couple years now, but when he turned in this piece I couldn't believe it was the first I'd heard about this true story and the book he'd tried to get up for writing about it. Holee crap though, I'm hoping he will some time. So here's a first for HBW, this one is technically a CriMemoir, but I think it qualifies as a Narrative Music piece too as this story already inspired the song Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife by Drive By Truckers.

Read this piece, then jump on his new book In the Pines from New Pulp Press.

Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife: The True Crime Book That Wasn’t
by Chris Orlet

If you’re a guy of a certain age you may have cause to remember the rock band House of Freaks: frontman Bryan Harvey and percussionist Johhny Hott. The two-piece—they didn’t need no stinking bass player—was active in the late 1980s and early 90s. They never quite hit it big, though they were big enough that a twenty-something from Belleville, Illinois (yours truly) caught their video Sun Goes Down on MTV’s 120 Minutes and ran out the next morning and bought the cassette of their 1989 album Tantilla, and played it nonstop till the damn thing broke, which was like two months later.

Soon after that I forgot about House of Freaks. Other, new bands came along. Music tastes changed. Record labels signed, then dropped them. The Freaks put out a few more albums that were greeted with a deafening silence and they retired from the business.

We forgot about them, that is, until we heard the news on New Years Day, 2006. Bryan Harvey and his wife Kathryn and their two young daughters had been brutally murdered in their Richmond, Virginia home. It was a murder that seemed to have been eerily foretold in the Freaks’ own lytics, like the song When the Hammer Came Down. (In fact the cops at first suspected Hott because so many of their lyrics mirrored the actual Harvey family murders.)

The killing turned out to have been part of a seven-day murder spree by two twenty-eight-year-old ex-felons: Ray Joseph Dandridge and his uncle Ricky Javon Gray. All told, Dandridge and Gray murdered seven people before the Philadelphia police caught up with them. Some of the victims were killed during attempted robberies, ostensibly to fund Dandridge and Gray’s expensive drug habits, though one girlfriend was murdered simply because they were “tired of her.”

I’d been looking to try my hand at a true crime story for a while, when I heard about the Harvey family murders. The pieces were all there: the perfect family, a crazy murder spree, a former rock and roll idol, who, like so many other indie artists, had grown disillusioned with the music industry. The story had legs. The more I read and researched the more interesting the story became.

Doubtless the most gut-wrenching scene occurred shortly before the murder. Dandridge and Gray had been driving around Richmond New Years morning looking for a house to rob. Around 10 p.m. they spotted the door ajar at the Harvey residence and walked in. They forced Bryan and Kathryn and their 9-year-old daughter Stella into the basement and bound them with electrical tape. The youngest daughter, Ruby, 4, was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. While the killers ransacked the house, the friend knocked on the door. She was dropping off Ruby and her own daughter for a scheduled play date. The killers allowed Kathryn to go upstairs and answer the door. Kathryn tried to signal the friend by silently making her hand into a gun and pointing at her head. The friend, however, misread the sign as meaning “Things are crazy here.” Ruby ran down the basement stairs and when her friend tried to follow, Kathryn stopped her. Kathryn said she wasn’t feeling well and would have to reschedule the play date. The friend and her daughter left.

That was the last time anyone saw any of the Harveys alive.

So that was the story. There was just one problem: the killers. Dandridge and Gray. They appeared to be soulless, doped-up automatons with no redeeming qualities. Indeed, they seemed scarcely human.

It would be easy to generate sympathy for the victims, but what if the killers were totally without consciences?

Like all wanna-be true crime writers, I had Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as my guidepost. In that book, Capote had shown great sympathy for the murdered Clutter family. But other than the fact that these innocent and prosperous Kansans had been violently murdered, the Clutters weren’t all that interesting. To Capote, it was the killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who were the fascinating characters.

Yet try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to make Dandridge and Gray, if not sympathetic, at least worth reading about.

Yes, Gray and Dandridge had apparently suffered traumatic childhoods. They may have been sexually abused. They had no future or prospects to speak of. They lived on the margins of society, in and out of prison. Existing only to get high, have sex, and watch porn movies. But even in that way they weren’t all that different from countless other petty criminals.

I read blog posts and poems that Dandridge posted online while in prison. I wrote to Gray, now on death row in a Virginia prison, in an attempt to find out who he was and what had driven him to murder nine innocent people. But I never heard back.

I gave it up as a bad job. It was just too much of a stretch to make Dandridge and Gray into people the reader would want to read about, let alone care about. In the end, it would be the story about the perfect white family horribly massacred by White America’s worst nightmare: crazed black drug fiends. Not the kind of story America wants or needs right now.

This I learned: not all murderers deserve an audience. And some stories are better left untold.

Chris Orlet is a freelance writer living St. Louis. His debut novel is In the Pines from New Pulp Press.


Jellon Lamb said...

Tough post for me to read. I became friends/acquaintances with Bryan Harvey through the indie rock community in the 90s. He and Johnny played in Gutterball with my buddy Steve Wynn, post House of Freaks. Stayed at his place a couple times when the band I "road dawged" for played Richmond. Bryan was a great musician and a better dude. I vividly remember, one night, playing him what at the time was an unreleased cassette of brilliant prank phone calls by Earles and Jenson called Just Farr A Laugh (Matador later gave it a deluxe "reissue.") Like Heavy Metal Parking Lot, Just Farr A Laugh's greatness was mainly unknown and gathered a cult following in the form of touring bands rolling through whatever town and playing it for the kids who let us crash on their floors. Bryan fell in love with it, instantly and stayed up all night dubbing the cassette.

News travelled fast after Johnny Hott discovered the Harvey family. I'll never forget waking up really late, that New Years Day, to a text about the murders. I was in my early 30s at the time and had already lost too many friends to dope and disease. Bryan and his family were the first people I knew who died so violently and senselessly. Anger and confusion engulfed me. Who could do such a thing to this beautiful family? It was also terrifying to hear mutual friends say that the police were seriously looking at Hott as a suspect. Anyone who knew him, even a little, knew he was in no way capable of such brutality. When the arrests were made, we all felt a sense of relief but learning more about the details of the murders was and continues to be almost unbearable to comprehend.

I read a lot of true crime stuff. Almost none of it makes it to mass-market paperback status. That sucks for the writer's bank account but it's almost always because that writer chooses to concentrate on the story of the characters rather than focus on the event. Terrance Stamp's history is why we care about his actions, in The Limey.

I know more than I want to about these killings. Gray was a very angry guy in the throws of a PCP binge. Both he and Dandridge, unfortunately, grew up where opportunity was almost impossible to find. More unfortunately, there's a whole generation of kids growing up exactly the same circumstances. They were just two ex-cons on a PCP bender who lost their minds. Kudos to Orlet for realizing it's just not a book. Especially if In Cold Blood is the benchmark. Not that Orlet doesn't have the talent, it's that the source material is a Discovery ID show masked as an .mobi

jedidiah ayres said...


Jellon Lamb said...

Sorry for the rambling. I was most definitely in my cups, last night and was shocked to see the Harvey's story on HBW. Hadn't thought of them in some time. My emotions, coupled with some Pritchard's Double Barrel, obviously made me a little long winded.

jedidiah ayres said...

not at all - I can't imagine what it would be like. next time I'm in Oxford let's talk over our cups in person