SEPTEMBER 11, 2021
THIRTY YEARS AGO, on August 2, 1991, Rosie Ortega and Mandi Scott were raped and murdered at the hands of a Marine in a California desert town. Ten years later, their story was told in Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, a work of literary nonfiction by author and journalist Deanne Stillman. The 20th anniversary of this book’s publication offers new social lenses through which we might now view a gruesome crime that came out of the very specific culture of the town of Twentynine Palms, a culture which in turn meant the crime was not as specific as it would seem.
Twentynine Palms is located in the high desert of Southern California, just under 200 miles east of Los Angeles. It is known to outsiders as the main entrance into Joshua Tree National Park and the home of the largest United States Marine Corps base. The dichotomy of those two entities — the undeniably spiritual desert landscape dotted with prehistoric trees and the massive military outpost housing weapons and training soldiers in combat — is the precise intersection that allowed for the violation and mutilation of Ortega and Scott. In her opus, which took her 10 years to complete, Stillman is adamant in explaining that the confluence of the working class and the military in a setting removed from the urban populace can bring explosive collisions. It is a community that Stillman recently described to me over the phone as “cloistered,” both in its remote, sometimes inhospitable, location, and in the residents’ mutual experience of being misunderstood by the outside world.
Stillman draws a parallel between forgotten lands, the ones cars zip past or planes fly over on the way to Las Vegas, and the people who inhabit them. There is certainly a tradition of lawlessness of the desert, images of a “Wild West” which are also illustrated in Stillman’s book Desert Reckoning. It is a lawlessness that originates from some sense that this is where those who are lost or outcast can find refuge.
This tradition finds its way into the history and present of Twentynine Palms. A quick Google search of “Twentynine Palms” “murder” yields such an overwhelming number of results that were not related to Ortega and Scott, many having to do with events in just the past few years, providing further evidence of something uncanny in the nature of this place. But even where the desert is ominous, in Stillman’s work it is also romantic. In her afterword, she writes of a kinship with the desert that began early in life through literary fantasy: “I sat enchanted when my father recited ‘Eldorado,’ the Edgar Allan Poe poem that began with the magical couplet, ‘Gayly bedight/A gallant knight,’ and tells of a mythical figure who traveled the sands, searching for a land of gold.” To Stillman, the desert is, above all, duality. In her passages, one feels the desolation of the place but also the warmth that comes from familiarity in a tight-knit community. She told me: “Some of the people who make their homes there are lost, but [in the desert] they’re also found.”
As one might imagine, the community was split about Stillman poking around in Twentynine Palms. Stillman explained to me the challenges of a military town: “Institutions are involved, which don’t like bad news leaking outside the institutions. Look at what the Catholic Church did over the years. Bad news is covered up.” But strangely, that was not actually the issue for the people in the town, because, according to Stillman, “The story in Twentynine Palms didn’t involve a military cover-up.” The issue, then, came from a protectiveness, a resentment about opening the community up for scrutiny and judgment from outsiders, the elites with a penchant for overlooking and superiority — someone like me who might seek to comment on toxic masculinity in the armed forces and among certain working-class enclaves.
Stillman’s book calls attention to things like a Gulf War marching cadence that had Marines chanting: “Wish all the ladies were holes in the road / If I was a dump truck I’d fill ’em with my load.” Of this cadence, Stillman admits, “It is reflective of a culture that casts women aside.” Still, when I suggested that the amount of damage and trauma linked to the military in her book reads as a kind of indictment of the Corps, Stillman was clear in her disagreement with that idea. That was complicated, she told me. “I couldn’t have written this book without help from Marines. … Marines cracked this case.” But the exposure of certain military personnel in the telling of the story meant that scrutiny by the military and its supporters was inescapable for Stillman, as the year of her book’s publication was also the year of the 9/11 attacks. Stillman remembers that anything seen as being remotely critical of the military was frowned upon in the aftermath of 9/11 and again when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, meaning that her book was subject to several relaunches and largely relied on a kind of underground status.
In thinking about the repetition of history and experiencing Ortega and Scott’s decades-old story in our current context, I wondered about the evolution of how society has treated violence against women. In Twentynine Palms, Stillman describes how commonplace such violence was in a particular world and in families within that world. And it continues. “There is a nationwide epidemic of sexual violence,” Stillman said in our recent conversation. “In terms of what goes on in military towns, in a way that’s an amplified version of what’s going on everywhere else.” Even if a military town serves as a kind of heightened microcosm of human conflict, the town of Twentynine Palms is defined by the lives of the working class, as is Stillman’s book. Stillman presents an examination of class and its relationship to generational trauma by placing the focus on Mandi’s mother, Debie, the source with whom Stillman spent the most time, as well as on Rosie Ortega’s family. Debie McMaster’s ancestors crossed the West with the Donner Party, and Rosie grew up poor in the Philippine province of Batangas. Both stories reiterate histories of abuse and trauma dating back generations and continuing to the double murder in August 1991. Unlike so many stories about murdered women, it is not a story anchored in any way by the perpetrator of those murders. Stillman’s book does the opposite — it bears witness to who the girls were. The events of the murders themselves take little space relative to descriptions of people in the town and their relationships to each other.
It is as though Stillman tapped into the post-2016 zeitgeist demanding we “Believe women” before there was any pressure to do so. Stillman has recounted in interviews and in her author’s note a scene in which she is sitting in a bar and overhearing the town gossip about two girls who were “sliced up by a marine.” She told me: “When I asked who they were, somebody said, ‘Oh, that’s just some trash in town.’” That was the line that drew her in, she explains, perhaps due to her own childhood of going from an affluent upbringing to living on “the wrong side of the ZIP code.” It became her charge, then, to bring light to the obscured figures of these girls who were brutally wronged. “This was one of the reasons I ran into so many obstacles selling this book and then writing it,” Stillman continued. “Just like people in that bar were saying, ‘Who cares about that trash in town,’ I was hearing the same thing from editors: ‘Who cares about these girls?’ This is how much things have changed since then.”
The literary gatekeepers have more recently (or since the voice of the people came to power via Twitter) shown their efforts to heed calls to shift the elitism and insularity of publishing away from upper-crust white men. Further, the #MeToo movement, the bravery of all those women who spoke up about Harvey Weinstein or Larry Nassar or Bill Cosby, and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee have, in recent years, blazed trails for survivors to have louder voices. Books like Anuradha Bhagwati’s Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience expose a culture of sexual harassment against female Marines. Last year’s murder of US Army soldier Vanessa Guillen inspired a massive call to justice from the public. Where people didn’t and still don’t want to hear women’s stories, we’ve been demanding that they do.
Making sense of the issue of race is a slightly more daunting undertaking in Stillman’s story. Because the figure of Valentine Underwood, a Black man and the accused perpetrator found guilty of Rosie and Mandi’s killing, is almost ancillary in the book’s narrative, the impact of race in this case is somewhat unknowable. “This was kind of business as usual — a star on the Marine basketball team was given a pass because of his athletic status,” said Stillman. It is eerily reflective of another case going on at the time of Underwood’s trial. “To me, the Underwood case was the down-and-dirty version of O. J. because it involved working-class people,” Stillman told me. Both cases involved the bloody murder of women allegedly at the hands of revered Black athletes. Underwood had been let off the hook by the Corps for a prior rape because of his remarkable basketball talent. O. J. was a beloved professional football player who exhibited a preference for white spaces even as his white wife called the cops on him for domestic abuse numerous times. Both cases illustrate the collective need to suspend disbelief in order to hold up an ideal. That suspension of disbelief also serves to circumvent the reality of the exploitation of Black bodies in sports by white power holders. These dynamics have since come to the fore in a more mainstream way than during the trials of both men. Now, institutions that hold up racism and abuse, like the legal system, the NFL, the military, and the aforementioned Catholic Church, are being held more accountable than in years past.
Our fascination with murder and true crime seems to have blown up of late, evidenced, or perhaps spurred on by, a plethora of ultra-popular docuseries and podcasts (this was even parodied in an SNL sketch earlier this year). But before Michelle McNamara devoted her life to tracking down the Golden State Killer, before the advent of internet sleuths, Deanne Stillman was a character in a murder story. She was known in the town as she spent time getting to know it. Her notes were subpoenaed by the defense, which set off another legal battle with larger implications about journalistic integrity. The renewed interest in women’s stories coupled with our voyeurism regarding violence is the broader context within which, just before the Twentynine Palms hit its 20th anniversary, the story was optioned for screen by Anthony Mastromauro, founder and president of independent production company Identity Films. The world of the Southern California high desert has collided with that other Southern California world that’s so hungry to acquire stories and turn them into streamable content. Does this mean that even as we set out to give voice to survivors, we will still seek out stories of suffering? If Stillman’s mission was to memorialize rather than sensationalize, now the pressure will be on us and on Hollywood to do the same.