There are these hills on the land that juts out into the Southeast quarter of the San Pablo Bay just below where the Carquinez Strait bleeds itself into this vast crystalline body of water. On most days the sunlight is bright and sharp and slightly oppressive and tall dry grass lays over the mounds waving in a slight breeze like sheets of golden cream. You have to drive Highway 4 to navigate your way through this 800 square mile peninsula. It’s a strange road that it feels utterly remote and lonely, thoroughly detached from the major metropolitan area that lies just twenty miles due southwest. It is almost as if, once you take the exit off the perpetually gridlocked highway 80, you have passed through some kind of portal back in time. You are suddenly alone and it is very quiet. I have travelled this road at night a handful of times, once while my kids slept a sugary and contented sleep on the way home from the only functional drive-in theatre in the Bay Area. At that late hour, the solitude is even more unnerving. Your car feels like flimsy protection against the darkness on either side. If someone else were driving, you might be tempted to ask “where are you taking me?”
The hills at that hour are more of a feeling than a sight; formless obsidian humps that hover against the blue-black fabric of the sky. On moonless nights you would expect to see stars, but there are none. And when you look more closely at the sky you realize it is not black but a dim gray, a semi-translucent glow the color of illuminated dishwater. If you were to lift out of you car and float above these hills you would see that this uncanny light comes from the clusters of oil refinery containers that have sprung up like fungi on the other side of the hills, projecting their quiet industrial glow into the atmosphere.
On the very tip of this land there is a small town, a crusty working class village scattered along the hillside, hemmed in by the San Pablo Bay to the north and the 80 freeway to the south, the Chevron San Francisco Refinery to the west and the Bio Rad Laboratory to the East. It is called Rodeo (ro-DAY-o). It is a remote town; the kind of place you’d go to if you were trying to be remain undetected. It’s not a town you would pass through. You either go there or miss it all together. And it’s a hard place to understand when you first arrive. I confess to not understanding it too well myself, despite having spent nearly a year traveling to it and thinking about it. There is something quiet and impenetrable about this town. On a weekday, in the afternoon, the streets are empty save for an occasional person walking alone down the middle of a road. There is no new architecture, no tall buildings. It has looked the same for more than half a century.
And at the end of this town, where the roads meet the bay, there is a little vista point called Lone Tree. It is a quiet place where tall waves of grass undulate, collapsed piers and abandoned tug boats are covered with graffiti and everything seems to wobble and heave in time with the bay. Piles of deserted items are strewn about, long forgotten dolls heads and errant shoes, strollers and scarves, deflated basketballs and clothing rendered permanently damp from the never-ending mist that rolls in off the water. There are train tracks here. Union Pacific. They are still active and relatively well maintained. At midday, the sun beats mercilessly on them, and if you sit still long enough you can hear the dinging of a distant buoy, the screaming of gulls and perhaps a far off whistle from the refinery.
Locals call it “The Marina” and it’s the kind of place that holds special meaning for a lot of people. Couples come here to make out or break up and friends hold important talks filled with long pauses spent gazing out into the bay. It’s a place of spacious industrial decay, where sea grass grows over concrete and nature begins to take over for what humans could not sustain. Everyone who grew up in Rodeo probably has a story that begins or ends here.
Here is just one of them: On February 14, 1984, on these tracks, the body of a barely conscious 12 year old girl was found, lying across the stones and wooden planks of the ties, blunt force trauma evident on her head. Her name was Beri Olson. They called her “Dodi” She grew up in the town, and her family was known. She had been walking with her older brother to the store at about 9pm, killing time before meeting up with friends to go to a Valentine’s Day party. And then, for reasons that will forever be lost to the vagaries of history and the passage of time, he turned on her, hit her with a heavy object and left her alone in the night while he went home and told his mother that three black men in a car had tried to abduct them.
When Ami Cooper first told me about Dodi we were in a cafe on a dreary day in late December. It was raining for the first time in months. I remember the sound of cars splashing on wet asphalt. It was the first time it had rained in months.
Ami is 42 years old now. She is tall and thin with large and impossibly black eyes, high cheekbones, and a quiet, unflinching stare. Her arms, hands and chest are covered with bright tattoos of flowers and mandalas, faces, skulls, letters and shadows. A small constellation of inked blue hearts snakes up her cheekbones. She has a mellifluous voice that she employs only sparingly and usually after long pauses. She is, despite the intensity of her ink, a very gentle person. She was just a child growing up in Rodeo when Dodi Olson was murdered. But still, it shadows her. You could say she’s become obsessed with it.
This is why she told me about it. She wanted me to help her find out what actually happened.
“The funny thing is, I really only have one memory of Dodi,” she told me. “She was two years older than me. I remember seeing her on the playground.” Ami had been sitting in a sandbox when she found herself stopping to watch the older girl. Dodi was already something of a dark legend as Ami remembers it. She was quiet and distant, and rumors swirled around her. Some people said she was from a criminal family. Some kids said her father was in jail. Some kids said she was a “lesbian”, having just learned what that word means. When Ami tells me about it, she paints the picture as vividly as if it were happening before us.
Dodi is by herself, playing alone with one of those red rubber balls. It bounces off the asphalt making that unmistakable playground sound that echoes off of the hills and high about the screams of the children. The oil refinery is in the distance, exactly one hill over from the school, sending the occasional plume of thick cotton-y smoke into the blue-grey sky. Ami watches the older girl play. To her, Dodi is magnetic. She sees in the girl a quiet toughness, a tattered regality that is already present even though she is only 9 years old at the time. Her blonde hair is in a frayed boyish cut, greasy and unkempt. She wears old denim pants, threadbare at the knees, and a red and white baseball shirt with a glitter decal on the front. Her sneakers are cheap and worn, one is untied. There is a smear of dirt across her face and maybe some washed-in stains on the white part of her shirt. The ball she is playing with breaks loose, and bounds over to where Ami is sitting. Dodi comes to retrieve it. The two girls make eye contact. No words are spoken. Dodi returns to her game. It is the only time the two children will look directly at one another before one of them is dead. For reasons that Ami doesn’t fully understand, that moment has lived inside of her for over 30 years.
“I would have dreams about her,” Ami told me in the cafe. “At certain points in my adult life I would find that I was unable to stop thinking about this random kid who got killed in my home town. Even though it was like 35 years ago.”
In November of 2015, over 30 years after Dodi’s murder, Ami posted about it on a Facebook page called “You Know You Grew Up In Rodeo When”
“I’ve been haunted by the story of the young girl who was killed by her brother,” she wrote “Does anyone know what happened?”
The responses came quickly. “Leave it in the past,” one person told her. “The family has moved on and so should you,” But there were others who felt differently. “Speak the truth,” another said “she deserves that much.”
This troubled Ami. She had been hoping to find someone to share this memory with. Instead she was being told to drop it. She’s not a confrontational person by nature. But she prides herself on knowing right from wrong.
That same night she dreamt of Dodi again.
“It’s weird. In the dream she’s not really alive or dead. Just standing at the foot of my bed, staring at me. I think she’s asking me for help.”
Rodeo is a town that feels like it has more in memory than it does in present. The first place I ate there was a cafe called Flippy’s, established in 1986. Nothing inside makes you think that anything has changed since its opening. Dusty posters of long retired 49’ers and Giants players are mounted on the wall along with memorabilia from a town’s history of little league teams, children decked out in matching jerseys and hats pulled over long unruly hair. All of them are long grown up and gone. When I sat down at a booth, I reflexively ran my finger one of the dusty baseballs mounted to the wall. “No one has touched those in years,” the waitress said from across the room.
If you travel further up from Flippy’s on the main drag you pass the shuttered Windmill Club, situated on a corner with flaking goldenrod paint, it’s titular propellers mounted above the door, trimmed in neon that hasn’t been lit for nearly a decade. It was destroyed by a suspicious fire in 2009 and according to residents, it was a rough and tumble spot in its final days. Further down you pass what used to be the PNC mortgage, but is now a storefront church, according to a tattered nylon sign held up by distressed ropes. Further still on this wide, empty road lies the Iglesia La Luz Del Mundo, with its two story facade of gold and cream that looks like how heaven would be depicted in a low-budget film. It is one of the most prominent structures in town; and before it was a church, it was the Rio Theatre, a grand old movie house and later concert venue that saw premieres of Gone With The Wind and shows by Jerry Garcia and Alice Kooper before it shuttered for good in 1980.
Continue just two more blocks down this way, past a few car repair lots, junkyards and storage facilities and you’ll come to the end of the land, where the road curves and the wide blue expanse of the San Pablo Bay stretches into the sky. On a clear day you can look across the water and make out the defunct Mare Island Naval Shipyard (the oldest on the West Coast) and the nature preserve that expands all the way up into the wealthy tourist destinations of Sonoma and points north on the other side of the Bay. And to your left just outside your peripheral vision the oil refinery seems omnipresent; pulsing and thrumming as it watches over the Bayo Vista Housing Projects.
I wish you could hear Denise Allen talk about her life with Dodi, and at Bayo Vista. The 48 year old mother of four has this sharp, grizzled street cadence that is energetic and direct, a voice roughened at the edges by years of hard living. She speaks fast, like someone used to thinking quick on her feet, and she always sounds a little like she’s talking herself out of a life or death situation. But there is such love there, underneath, such tenderness. She remembers Dodi as a sweet kid, a tiny and vulnerable child in a dark and unforgiving world. Her voice threatens to burst into a wail when she speaks of the child. But she never lets it.
Denise remembers herself as a tomboy who ran unsupervised around the Bayo Vista projects. She reminisces about climbing trees and fences. Running in the fields, playing in the creeks. She remembers smoking cigarettes behind the store and rolling joints at The Marina. She remembers growing up at those beaches. Back then, she told me, they had the illusion that kids were a lot safer.
“I guess they just weren’t safe from their own families.” she added with a bitter little laugh.
Denise talked to me for an hour parked in a car outside of her Richmond home. She told me stories about life in the projects. About seeing a man held at gunpoint in her living room while she breastfed her baby. About her struggles with meth . About redemption and what it means to survive in a world where you watch children die.\
Denise was about 14 when she was introduced to Dodi’s family. She had a crush on her older brother Eric. The parents never seemed to be around and the basement of their house was a bunch of kids hanging around unsupervised, getting into whatever.
Where Ami remembers Dodi as flinty and tough, Denise, who was a few years older remembers her as a toe-headed little child. Sweet and cherubic. Full of love and willing to hug anyone. Sensitive and vulnerable to a world that could be cruel.
The night of Dodi’s murder was Valentine’s day 1984. Denise, and two best friends Becky and Retha were supposed to go pick up Dodi at her house that night and chaperone the child to a Valentine’s day party taking place somewhere in the projects. They arrived at the Olson household around 9pm only to find the lights off and the home empty. After waiting around for a little while the older girls wandered off into the night in search of boys and drugs. It was after midnight when they heard that Dodi, “sweet little Dodi, man” had been hit with a brick and abandoned by the tracks.
At the hospital the whole community was assembled. Word spread from Dodi’s brother Doren that the assailants drove a blue Mustang. Everyone knew that there was only one person who drove a blue Mustang and it was Danny Ray Williams. Danny Ray had just been released from prison and lived on the same Cul De Sac in Bayo Vista as Becky Nagelmaker and not too far from Denise. Kidnapping and killing a little girl seemed maybe a touch intense for Danny Ray and his brother Pops, but it wasn’t entirely inconceivable to most people that he could be guilty. He was definitely a bad dude, and who knows what happened to him when he was locked up?
The projects were a family. A big, criminal, dysfunctional family. Everyone knew when there was an internal beef and everyone knew that Danny Ray was going to be targeted for what he did to Dodi. There was a big to-do. Danny Ray was now public enemy number one. Some men were going to assemble and go looking for him. There weren’t significant racial tensions at Bayo Vista at the time, according to Denise. The Older Black Gentleman, as she calls them, kept kids like her safe and tried to make sure chaos of the adults didn’t reign down on the children.
But nonetheless, there was a racial undertone to the supporters of Dodi who wanted to hold Danny Ray and Pops, who were black, accountable for this crime against her innocence.
Denise and I are sharing a cigarette she’s borrowed from her daughter in a car I’ve borrowed from a friend. We are talking about god and redemption. About how the closer your life is to hell, the more blessed you feel. She tells me how her entire life has been a near death experience. Knives in the living room. Blood on the kitchen table. How a guy she grew up having a crush on turned into a monster and beat up a woman in Denise’s living room. How she ran into Dodi’s oldest sister once as an adult, but didn’t bring up the murder because they were both copping at a tweaker house and it didn’t seem the appropriate time.
Denis managed to keep her kids safe and herself alive. She finally found a loving, trusting, good hearted man with a good job, but he died of natural causes. She doesn’t know why God took him away from her, but she knows that’s just how it is. And she keeps her faith because she knows she that she should have been dead a long time ago and many times over. And that Dodi should not have been.
One moment when reflecting, Denise is quiet for one of the longest moments in our talk. We watch a stray dog cross the street and she exhales smoke impatiently from her nose.
“I wish we would have built a fortress around that girl.”
Ami and I found out that there was an attorney for Dodi’s family listed in one of the Santa Cruz Sentinel stories. We contacted him to see what he could remember from the case. But the answer was nothing. He told me that he had never heard of Dodi or Doren Olson. His memory was jogged, however, when I sent him a copy of a newspaper article outlining the crime and listing him as the family’s attorney.
“I do have some recollection of the incident.” he told me over email. “But I was never Doren's attorney. I represented his father and step-mother in some civil matters in Santa Cruz and I only got involved with trying to raise some charitable funds for the daughter's burial when Doren's initial story was believed to be true. Once the true facts came to light and criminal charges were instituted I only agreed to help the parents return some minor contributions.”
We also went to Contra Costa County Courthouse to request the case files for Doren Olsen from the court archives. The only record there was a driving under the influence and reckless endangerment from 1997 to which he pled guilty. That was enough for us to get his date of birth which we took to the District Attorney’s office. But here is where we found a dead end. The Contra Costa County District Attorney found no record of any criminal charge against Doren Denray Olson, even after multiple searches. All we had was three newspaper articles and a bunch of memories. Outside of that, it is as if the the events with Dodi never happened.
We were also told that if we contacted the Sheriff’s office, we may be able to get files from the investigation. But this, too proved pointless. Multiple calls to the Contra Costa Sheriff went unanswered, as did a Freedom Of Information Act Request for the files from the initial investigation.
But his date of birth allowed us to learn something else about him. He had died in 2006. He was 38 years old.
Ami says she started having nightmares started when she was three or four. Before she ever heard of Dodi Olson. She says that she awoke to feel a dark presence in her room. She could not see what it was but it was clear she was not alone. She was afraid to move. She pulled the covers over her head and drifted back into sleep. In the morning it was gone. As this feeling visited her more, the presence made itself more clearly known. Soon it was an old man that she saw, slight and still with deep-set wrinkles and skin the color of desert sand. Like Dodi, he had deep black eyes that shone on her like street lamps against the night sky. Sometimes he would look at her. Other times he would sit on the edge of her bed. Once Ami went into her parents room, because she was afraid, but he was in there, too, sitting in the house that was silent except for the far off train horn.
Ami stopped telling people about these dreams after a while. She decided that they were something she would have to carry alone. But they made her feel different. She grew up with a large extended family around her, including a gaggle of cousins her own age. She played with them, baseball in the back yard, trips to the store for candy and bike rides to her grandmother’s house after school. But as she grew, she was known as the sensitive one. “Ami,” they used to say of her, “is just…serious, that’s all.”
The night that Dodi died, she learned about it by overhearing her parents talking about it in hushed tones. It was a shame they said. So young. That poor family. Later that night they went for a ride in the car, and Ami remembers looking out out the window at the evening sky at the lights from the refinery as that feeling that darkness settled in on her again. But this time, she says, it came to her and never left.
The older she got, the more she wanted to get out of Rodeo. She started playing music, spending hours alone in her room with a guitar. She discovered weed and alcohol. In high school she found out about an organic farming commune outside of Austin, Texas and begged her parents to let her go. Her family had been in Rodeo for three or four generations on both sides and The Coopers were reluctant to send their only child so far off. But they knew that Ami had strong things going on inside of her, that she carried something with her that would not let her go and they were afraid that if they told her no, she would just run away.
She left her family’s town at 16 years old and hated it. She found the urban farming co-op scene small-minded and judgmental and in Austin she felt even more lonely than at home. She returned to Rodeo at 17, defeated. And worse off, for it was then that the anxiety and agoraphobia began. She had trouble leaving the house, and would stay in her room days at a time. She grew nervous in wide open spaces, and the nightmares were more intense. The world seemed to be closing in on her. Her parents were gentle and supportive, but she left again at 18, this time to work as a firefighter in the Oregon forests. After that she drifted along the west coast, got involved in the punk scene, developed addictions and compulsions, drank heavily, became a mother, got married and divorced, fought depression and alcoholism, struggled as a songwriter, struggled to make ends meet.
When she sat across from me in a cafe, at 42 year old and told me the story of Dodi’s murder, her arms, hands, and chest were covered in tattoos of flowers and spirits, stars and mandalas, she had been sober for three years, raising three children, working as a hairdresser and volunteer running an organic garden in the elementary school in her neighborhood. She had friends, and animals, and a small home that she worked to keep immaculate and loving. She had put her life in working order again. But the problem was that Dodi had returned. The dreams were back. The child would appear to her at night. At the foot of her bed. Neither dead nor alive. But looking at Ami with dark unblinking eyes.
On one of our trips to Rodeo, Ami took me to the site where Hillcrest Elementary once stood. It was another overcast day, mid morning. The streets were empty. We saw maybe five cars driving the entire hour we were in town. All that remained on the school site was an asphalt lot where weeds spring forth from the cracks to overtake the land. The yellow paint that once marked the foursquare court was chipped but still visible. Everything else, the school itself, was gone. We stood at the chain link fence while Ami searched quietly for the exact spot where she had shared the moment with Dodi that would not let her go. Then oil refinery continued to pump in the distance on the next hill, taking up most of the view. It seems that no matter which direction you look in Rodeo, you are somehow face to face with the refinery.
On August 22nd 1994 the tower on a processing unit at the refinery, then owned by Unocal, sprung a leak, releasing a complex stew of toxic materials into the town below it. According to court documents, managers made the decision to continue operations rather than facing a halt in production. According to a San Francisco Chronicle story at the time, depositions show that one employee even considered sabotaging the plant. The leak continued unaddressed for a total 16 days before the plant shut down operation. Residents reported awakening to find black sludge on the plants, car windshields, and even garden vegetables which representatives of Unocal assured them could be washed off and safely consumed. Over 6,000 residents of Rodeo and nearby Crockett fell ill. In 1996 a state panel awarded Hillcrest Elementary $6.2 million dollars to relocate from the tainted spot. In 1997 Unocal settled an $80 million class action suit.
Ami’s father, a dashing former baseball player (he once played for a minor league Yankees affiliate) was a supervisor at the plant at the time. “He didn’t believe it at first,” Ami said, holding on to the chainlink fence and scanning the overgrown asphalt. “He just wouldn’t believe that they would knowingly poison all the kids in this town like that.” She laughed. “It was like yeah Dad. They would. ”
After the school moved, Unocal bought the land on which is stood. They still own it. Signs on the fences warn visitors to keep off of the abandoned land on pain of prosecution. The last time I went there alone, two men in white disposable coveralls were poking a long metal stick into a hole in the earth and taking notes
The second person who was supposed to pick up Dodi that night was Becky Nagelmaker. She didn’t have as much to say as her childhood best friend Denise Allen. But she did have the same voice that sounded like burlap worn thin by the years. It too sounded of cigarettes and drugs and a maybe more than a few near death experiences woven into its cracks.
She grew up in Bayo Vista and was about 15 at the time of Dodi’s death She was close with the Olsons, especially Dodi, and her brother Doren who murdered her.
But she has not been back in decades. “I had to get away from there…” she told me over the phone from her home in Indiana.
She is on the whole more guarded than Denise and with less to say. Dodi’s death unsettled her, but it didn’t surprise her. She hinted in our talk that she had her own demons growing up. It’s a rough world for a lot of people, she told me. I did not ask her what she meant by that.
She also remembers that Danny Ray and Pops were accused of the crime to begin with and that local sentiment toward them turned violent quickly. She and her boyfriend at the time were also brought in for questioning because they lived on the same Cul de Sac as Danny Ray and Pops. The police were searching for anything to make sense of the murder.
Becky also shared a rumor that she remembers as prevalent in Bayo Vista at the time: Doren Olson was thought to be pimping out his little sister. I heard some variation on this from everyone I talked to. Sometimes it was her father, a woodworker and outdoorsman named Ohl Olson based near Santa Cruz who was making money from Dodi. In another version I heard, it was her father doing the pimping and then her brother who was being groomed in the family business. The twelve year old girl was going to resist by telling her mother about what was happening.
As she grew, Becky’s life in Bayo Vista spiraled down the same chaotic path as Deise Allen’s . Youthful recklessness gave way to crystal meth. She remembers being in her early 20’s and playing lookout at the project entrance in exchange for drugs. She talks of her time there as though it was a bad dream. Half lucid, half clouded by years and regret. She too saw the violence, the bloodshed. “Outsiders just didn’t come into Bayo Vista,” she told me. “You’d get a bottle through you back window.”
And yet, after all this time she was eager to talk to me about Dodi, she spent an hour on the phone with me from Indiana. She called and messaged me twice to see when the story would be published.
“No one has given that child the respect she was due. And it’s a shame.”
Several weeks after we ran into the dead end at the District Attorney’s office, a third person reached out to us, someone who claimed intimate knowledge of the case. Like the others she was barely out of her girlhood when Dodi was murdered. The child’s death has remained on her heart. At the time she was a little older than the others; in her twenties, and living in Bayo Vista, involved in an underworld, carrying a pistol and watching her back.
This was many years ago. She has since formed herself into a regular citizen. She works a blue collar labor job, keeps a home and a marriage, posts glamour shot pictures of grandchildren in bowties. She agreed to talk on the phone. Listening to her I was struck by the same broken gravelly voice, the same cautious listening, the same reluctance to say too much that marked Denise and Becky. But in her there was more fatigue, a grief more heavily set. We saw pictures of her when she was young. A bright and stunning beauty with overwrought eighties hair and crystal eyes that seemed to peer through the years. She had aged. She did not want to be named. Even though the events of that night were over 30 years ago, she knew better than to be marked a snitch.
The story goes that Dodi was spending summers and weekends with her father Ohl Olson in Soquel. Olson, by all appearances a mild-mannered wood worker, was allegedly connected to the Aryan Brotherhood through friendships and perhaps business relationships. He also made money another way: by pimping out his 12 year old daughter in nearby Santa Cruz. Dodi’s older sister, the same one that Denise Allen ran into at the meth house, had already refused to visit her father. Dodi was quickly coming to the same point. Moreover she was on the verge of telling her mother about what her father and older brothers were involved in. Wanting to protect his father, and himself, the 15 year old Doren attacked Dodi with a rock and left her on the train tracks.
Later that night or in the early morning, The older Ohl, and some of his local friends came to the house of a Bayo Vista resident named Earlonda Wyatt looking for Danny Ray, whom Doren had said was the culprit in Dodi’s attack. (Wyatt declined to appear in our story) The problem was that Danny Ray had just been released from prison that very day and was enjoying a welcome home party at Earlonda’s. Many people could vouch that he had been there the whole night. Nonetheless, he and his brother “Pops” were taken into custody.
Pinning it crime on him was said to be the brainchild of a local criminal named Les Jones. Jones was a hated and feared presence in Rodeo, a town bully, known for beating people up, robbing them at gunpoint, even carjacking residents and driving around town in their stolen vehicles until he got bored. Like Dodi’s dad, Jones was rumored to have had ties to the Aryan Brotherhood.
Another person told us that Les even kidnapped, at gunpoint, one of the guests at Danny Ray’s party in an attempt to coerce him change his story for police. This person managed, however to get away, and himself called for backup from his own family and friends, which included several prominent members of the Hell’s Angels.
Tensions in the projects remained high for some time. The Hell’s Angels reportedly escorted one potential witness's mother to and from work to keep her from being attacked by Les Jones and his associates in retaliation for providing an alibi for Danny Ray. This continued for several weeks.
Meanwhile Doren’s abduction story began to unravel under police scrutiny, and ultimately Les Jones was arrested for kidnapping and intimidating a witness, but the charges were dropped because the same person he kidnapped refused to cooperate with police. It simply wasn’t the project way. With Danny Ray’s alibi airtight, Doren eventually pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. Several years later, we are told, Les Jones himself was murdered while he slept, by way of an ice-pick through his left eye.
“That whole situation divided the town for a long time.,” one anonymous resident said. “It messed up a lot of people’s lives.”
These tales are, of course, difficult to verify. The saga surrounding Dodi’s murder doesn’t come from the working class Rodeo that Ami knew, but springs from a rowdy and erratic underworld where documentation is scarce, and stories are kept close, shared carefully until they migrate, almost imperceptibly, into legend. This has been the history of this land ever since Ygnacio Martinez received the 18,000 acre land grant from the Spanish government in 1823. The resulting ranch is the birthplace of most of the cities in what is now Contra Costa County including Pinole, Martinez, Crockett, Olema, and Port Costa, all of which is land through which head of cattle roamed freely. But Rodeo held was a special place. It is so named because it was the site of Martinez’s annual cattle roundup and count, a multi-day festival that drew all manner of cowboys, traveling salesman, dealers, conmen to the area and cemented its reputation for skullduggery. After his death, Martinez’s children divided up his land and the portion containing Rodeo was sold to John and Patrick Tormey, two Irish brothers who had travelled out west to make their fortunes. The town became Patrick’s personal project and soon he sold a part of it to the Union Corporation to build stockyards, lumberyards, and a slaughterhouse, using the proceeds to pay for a proper town to be designed and laid out. Ultimately, those yards became refineries and Rodeo became an oil factory town.
But before that the land was part of the vast hills where the Bay Miwok people lived, and on certain afternoons you can imagine what all this was like before the roads and factories and ranches, before the schools, and grocery stores, and cars and white children riding their bikes down the hill. The shape of it remains untouched, despite everything that has been built on top of it. And in those sunlit, light breeze moments, where the only stirring is the whistling of far off birds and the stirring of dry grasses, you know that it is not just Dodi, but it is millions upon millions of people who have been killed and forgotten here. And, like Dodi, you wonder where their souls are.
Every land is haunted in its own way. And in The West where hills seem to go on forever overlooking the sparkling bays and on certain days the blue is so bright and vast that you feel you could fly, the haunting comes from how much space the spirits of the dead have to move about, how much sky there is to receive the whispers of the earth.
The world Dodi lived in didn’t allow her to survive, to be safe. There was no amount of protection the people around her, peers friends family, were able to afford her in order to keep her alive and safe. From a very young age, she was woefully and frightfully on her own.
Everyone I talked to aches for her. But each of them has, in some sense, forgotten about her. Abandoned her. They have been drawn into forgetting for reason of their own. Drugs and recovery. Violence, parenting, death, or suffering. Or simply the need to navigate the endlessly disordered hassle of making ends meet, of finding meaning, of finding safety or a purpose of one’s own.
The Sheriff's department never returned our phone calls, or answered our requests for records of the investigation. The courthouse was unable to track down the records associated with her death. The family’s attorney claims to barely remember the case at all.
There may be, as Becky Nagelmaker suggested, one someone who knows exactly what happened to Dodi Olson, someone who carries that story with themselves and themselves alone. But so far, they remain out of our reach.
The dire paradox of Dodi’s death is that it horrifying, but not remarkable. We have, in our social order, made significant allowances for the suffering and death of children. Hours before Ami Cooper first told me about Dodi’s story, it was announced that there would be no indictment in the shooting of twelve-year old Tamir Rice. Rice was playing unsupervised in a Cleveland park with a toy gun, when an officer opened fire on him killing him instantly. That same dreary winter day where Ami and I sat in a cafe listening to cars splash in the rarefied California puddles outside was almost three years to the day after Adam Lanza opened fire in an elementary school in Massachusetts, killing 21 first grade children. The guns he used belonged to his mother, an avid weapons enthusiast who often took her son to shooting ranges. By the time Ami and I talked, there had been dozens more mass shootings in the United States, each one, in its own way, more ghastly than the next.
And yet we had become somehow accustomed to them. They did not disrupt our days, or upend our normalities. They did not result in a massive re-thinking of gun laws, or mental health care in our nation. What has happened in these instances is not remarkable, but it is horrifying. And perhaps one measure of a society’s well-being is the extent to which its horrors are unexceptional.
But what if the death of a child, even a single child, held us tightly and would never let us go the way Dodi’s death wouldn’t let Ami go. Maybe like her, we’d be consigned to live haunted lives where visions appear to us at night and the empty sky and the rustling of leaves outside our door brings us a terror from which we hide for years. Or we’d wander the land for a decade trying to find a place where we just feel comfortable enough to sit. No one wants that. That is why we move on. Because we have to.
But the more time I spent with Ami, the more I began to think that she didn’t suffer because she carried Dodi’s story. She suffered because she carried it alone.
The last time she and I talked about it, she said: “I told my mother we were working on this story and she was like ‘why are you still obsessed with that?’ and all I could think was ‘why are you not?’”
A week later, Ami texted me that she had again dreamt of Dodi. All of our conversations had jarred the images loose in her head. “You were there too.” she told me. “We were at a convention center picking up boxes of food to deliver to people. She was on her bike trying to figure out how to carry boxes.”
It was the first time in her dreams that Dodi was alive, balancing on a bicycle, vigilant and stirring, bustling in the world that we shared.