The Wonderland Murders: Michael Connelly discusses his true crime podcast

The Wonderland Murders - Courtesy of Audible
The Wonderland Murders - Courtesy of Audible /

The Wonderland Murders & The Secret History of Hollywood is a fascinating new documentary from bestselling author Michael Connelly (Bosch/Lincoln Lawyer) now available to listen to on Audible. This new podcast delves into the infamous wonderland murders in 1981, revealing discoveries into the cold case on its 40th anniversary.

We were able to chat with Michael Connelly about his work on the Wonderland Murders podcast and how the case has evolved into a fascinating and sordid tale that was never solved. In 1981, four people were murdered inside the house of a small-time drug gang, and while the aftermath has grown over the years, no true culprit was ever named.

Chatting with Michael Connelly about The Wonderland Murders podcast

What made you decide to focus on the wonderland murders?

Michael Connelly: I think because it sort of dropped in my lap. I’ve had a long association with a now-retired homicide detective named Rick Jackson, who has been helping me with my books for years, and he’s had this on-and-off relationship with Scott Thorson, who he first met when he arrested him for a robbery in 1988.

For 32 years, Scott stayed in touch with him. Scott was not necessarily a witness in court but has been a source about crimes he knew of in Hollywood. He called rick last year after he was released from prison into a kind of intermediate program for convicts going back to society or parole.

He called Rick to check on him, and I happened to be having a conversation with Rick, and he brought up this guy who’s had an interesting life, a strange guy, like a hard guy to read, and he said there might be something there for a podcast. There are still many unanswered questions about the wonderland case, so I said let me see if he’ll talk to me.

And I talked to him a few times then finally decided, well before I made a decision, I then talked to the lead detectives on the case to see if they were willing to talk with me about the case. Once I had, they were the tentpoles. Once I had them, I decided to go forward with the case.

I know you did talk about on the podcast that Scott was hard to read, like you just said. How did you navigate that relationship?

Michael: I did a lot of checking what he told me with other people and records I could obtain. I did a lot of research on him, seeing his story through the years, through the decade to see if it had changed or been embellished or that kind of thing.

I had a lot of conversations, literally within hundreds of hours. A lot was, he would say something, and I’d be like, how do i support that? How do I prove that?

For example, this might have been common knowledge 30 years ago. He said he was a successful evangelist after this drug business and murder, and he’d been on the television shows like Pat Robinson and all of those. So just trying to confirm that and get tapes from that period, which was basically 30-32 years ago. Rick Jackson is also a producer on the podcast and he has a lot of skills as an investigator to help fact check a lot of this.

The wonderland murders occurred around the same time and place as the Manson murders, Night Stalker, and all of those big cases. Why do you think the wonderland murders never became quite as notorious even though they were actually bloodier than others?

Michael: I think you get into a sociological answer. It’s hard to call the victims of the wonderland murders innocents at least two of them, two men were criminals themselves, one of the women who was killed was about to go on trial for drug possession, which I know isn’t a big deal, but she was in the justice system.

One woman had just come down from upstate California to visit a boyfriend who wasn’t even in the house when she was murdered. She was truly an innocent person, but I think that gets lost. In general, this is viewed as bad guy vs. bad guy.

So, when you think about that as a listener of the podcast or a viewer of the crime over 40 years, what really catches people and makes things bigger, I guess to get to your question, is the idea that that can happen to anybody. Most people can look at the wonderland murders and think, well, I’m not a drug dealer, I’m not suspected of crimes, so this would never happen to me.

But you can’t apply that to the Night Stalker or the Manson murders thing because there was a randomness to those terrorizing crimes.

Do you think that’s along the same lines of what attracts people to true crime and crime thrillers, in general, is that fear that this is something that could happen?

Michael: I think there are so many things that attract people in general and that’s got to be one of them. I don’t think it’s the major one. I think there is a psychological thing that most of these stories, whether they’re nonfiction or not, the ones that bubble to the surface and become popular are stories where you take a disordered world and restore order.

It’s chaos, and then order is restored. A murder, murder spree, a serial killer–that is chaos, and it’s reassuring to watch stories where these bad people are caught, and that cuts across fiction and nonfiction. It’s a deep thing, I don’t think people go into books like this, podcasts, or documentaries thinking this is what they’re getting, but I think that’s part of it.

Why did you choose to do this in a podcast form versus writing a book?

Michael: I think because I have a pretty good book business in the fiction world and I have been drawn in recent years, this is the third podcast I’ve done, and they’re all about true crime. I have been drawn to it.

I was a crime reporter throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, and then I left it behind. It’s just in recent years, I’ve come back to wanting to tell a true story. I think that the voices of the detectives I’ve talked to are very important, and I liked the idea of telling an oral story.

And the podcast thing is sort of new, I know they’ve been around a while but sort of a newer form of journalism, nonfiction, that really appealed to me. A lot of what I do comes out of my own lifestyle, and I listen to podcasts; I listen to books on audio; this is what im personally doing, so I wanted to tell a story this way.

You obviously did a lot of research on this before and during this podcast. What were some of the most shocking or surprising things you learned?

Michael: Well, as I say in the podcast, it’s a pretty well-tread story, but I kept coming up with stuff that had not been reported before. The first voice you hear in the first episode is the first officer who responded to the first call and never talked to anyone about it. He never gave an interview, and he was never called to testify in the trial. He never told his story.

So, 40 years later, I have this man telling the story about that eerie response to a call where he had to essentially outmaneuver dogs in the backyard and get into that house, and we all know what happened there; it’s still an awful thing and scary thing. But we know what happened, and this is a person who went in there not knowing what he was going to find. I think he tells the story in an eerie way, not knowing what he was going to see or find.

Then largely from Rick and sources I have, we got a lot of the records, and you know we got transcripts of interviews and so forth of stuff that’s going to come out in the final episode, which doesn’t come out until Thursday.

There is stuff in that that is brand new about suspects that have never been identified and so forth. I basically got a call from the detectives to look at this case 40 years later, and I didn’t expect that. I thought I would be telling a story that was complete and over, and I’d have to find ways of contemporizing because it happened 40 years ago.

It’s interesting because I don’t know if you’ve followed along with I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and that case, but it’s crazy that podcasts and the true-crime community, in general, have led to convictions even so long after the case has happened.

Michael: I think because of two things, interest in it and science are really helpful. It’s interesting to know that cases aren’t finished. Rick Jackson works cold cases in another county now that he’s retired from L.A. He got bored and volunteered to help in another county and solved some cases from the ’70s. With the aid of science and incomparable spirit in a detective, you can still get a lot done, and a lot of mysteries can be revealed.

Ahead of the final episode, what’s something you think will surprise fans when they listen?

Michael: I think they’ll be surprised to learn the case is not over as detectives say. There are things that can be done. I don’t know if anyone in the LAPD is listening to the podcast, but maybe they’ll read the case.

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You can stream the entire Wonderland Murders podcast on Audible.