THE CHIQUITA CAPER*
Recently I asserted that the Bonita Ecuador fruit label found on the ground four inches from a point below the front gate latch at Nicole's condo had been used by the killers to "restrain the gate latch" so that the gate would appear to be latched when Goldman arrived, though it really was not. (I might mention that it is not terribly vital to my concept of the crime whether the gate was in this condition or not. Gus was on the inside, and could easily enough have opened the gate with the knob if he had wanted to, but it might have represented a small convenience to him to have been able to simply push on the gate, and have it open.)
To this idea, Rockets and John Griffin objected that a fruit label would not be strong enough to restrain a gate latch. Of course, Rockets is not a person to be taken seriously, she shrieks hysterically at anything that gets in the way of her cherished conclusion. But Griffin is another matter; he is one of several people whose opinions (but not conclusions) I take seriously. Now, I expect that Rockets is unacquainted with the concept of making an independent observation for herself, and I understand that Griffin is beset with communications problems that occupy his attention. But, there is no reason that I can not look into this, so I did.
THE LABEL: I went to the supermarket in search of a label to try this out for myself. As I had expected, my middle class market does not offer Bonita Ecuador fruit -- that is probably limited to trendy Westside markets. So, I settled for Chiquita banana labels (also from Ecuador). I am willing to accept that whatever result I find with that will be representative of Bonita Ecuador; I hope my reader will, too.
I hate bananas, but for the sake of science, I undertook to buy a bunch of six. I encountered my first problem right there in the produce section: there are typically only two stickers on a bunch. Since I was buying the bananas for the stickers, this was not a very good deal. I surreptitiously took stickers from other bunches, and put them on the back side of bananas on the bunch I had selected, until I had six labels. (No bunch was left without any stickers.) Now, I suppose that what I did is technically "shoplifting," and I expect that upon reading this Ojokay will rush with breathless excitement to the L.A. District Attorney's office to expose my great crime. Previously he has had to invent wrongdoing to attribute to me, and here is an actual confession. Good luck, Ojokay, but there are a few things I know that I have not told, and when the DA gets wind of them he may decide not to tangle with me over "sticker-nabbing."
THE EXPERIMENT: Now, I do not have a gate secured by a spring latch, as Nicole did, but I have a front door with such a latch, and I imagine it is very similar, so I used that for my experimental latch. I retracted the latch by turning the knob, affixed the sticker over it, and released the knob. The latch easily pushed the sticker out of the way as it deployed. I tried pushing the latch in with the sticker over it, but it would not stay depressed when I took my finger off; it popped up again. I tried different positions of the sticker over the latch, and none worked. I considered that another door with a weaker latch spring might work better: I went to the back door. Same results. In every trial, the latch projected to push the sticker away from the door, and the latch was not restrained.
The actual mechanism for this was not failure of the sticker (in no case did it tear or seriously deform.) It was always a failure of the adhesive to hold onto the door. So, the suspicion of my critics that the label was "too weak" was ill founded, but I also must admit that the label did not "restrain the gate latch" as I had claimed. And, that was really the more important point, I knew.
ALTERNATIVE MECHANISM: Even though my experiment showed that my original concept was incorrect, I knew that the fruit label (unlike the Thai menu) was not at the crime scene by coincidence; it was an artifact of the crime itself. So, I tried other ways to use it to the same purpose.
I tried to paste the label, adhesive side down, across the strike, and slam the door. The latch deployed, pushed the sticker into the strike cavity, and latched. No luck that way. I tried the same tactic, but closed the door gently. No more luck. I tried the same tactic, but held the latch restrained with the knob until the door was closed, and then slowly released the latch. Still the sticker was pushed into the strike cavity, and the latch engaged. Then, I tried a different position for the label. Instead of trying to cover as much of the strike cavity as possible, I used the label to just cover the upper outside (from the perspective of Nicole's latch) corner of the cavity. I closed the door firmly against the stop (the molding that prevents the door from going further), gently released the latch, and let go of the door knob. I could push the door open! I tried again with the sticker in the same position on the strike, and this time felt that the latch seated a little further in the strike. Now, the door was held firmly in place by the partly engaged latch, but it could still be pushed open with a firm nudge. I tried the third time, and had the same successful result.
This now answers a question asked by an e-mail correspondent last week: If the gate was not latched, how was it kept from opening by itself. I now realize that when the fruit sticker is used in the right way, it not only allows the gate to be opened by a (firm) push from the inside, but will keep it closed against anything less. The sticker itself completely controls the gate position while it is closed.
(After the experiment, I removed the label and it was somewhat wrinkled. However, this is after it had been used to restrain the latch in three successive actuations of the latch.)
PHOTOGRAPH: I have taken photographs of the label in the successful position, and I show one of those as "Exhibit 1" nearby. In spite of the poor lighting, the awkward position, and my amateur status as a photographer, this is a rather good portrayal. For those that want to go into the professional killing business (or simply want to reproduce the experiment), it will be useful.
Dick Wagner . Van Nuys, CA (6/08/99) NG_557
*Not to be confused with Jack Webb's "Copper Clapper Caper" classic, in which Clyde, a kleptomaniac, copped the clean copper clappers kept in a closet.