By Edna Gundersen
Times staff writer
Bobby Fuller, 23, barely had a toehold in the fickle rock ‘n’ roll business when he died under a cloud of controversy July 18, 1966. Some thought he was destined to be America’s next superstar recording artist. Bobby’s death shattered the lives of many people close to him. With hesitation, they agreed to share their memories of Bobby with The Times. Among those interviewed were Bobby’s mother, Loraine Fuller, who agreed to talk after avoiding the press for 16 years. She explained, “It hurts to remember the past, but I feel I owe it to Bobby.”
This second installment in a three-part series delves into Fuller’s death. Tuesday’s traces the resurrection of his music.
Bobby Fuller spent the last week of his life enjoying good times with old friends, scenes reminiscent of his carefree summers in El Paso.
Those who saw him during those final days said Bobby was cheerful and relaxed, bubbling with excitement about the Corvette he planned to buy Monday, the day he would be found dead in his Oldsmobile. Two or three days before his death, Bobby clowned with a number of his El Paso cronies visiting Los Angeles. They passed the hours driving through Hollywood, stopping occasionally so Bobby could take photographs of his friends.
“He was in a good mood, a great mood,” Robin Vinikoff, an El Paso guitarist who was with Bobby that afternoon, said.
There had been some tension in the air about the impending split of the Bobby Fuller Four – Bobby planned to hire new backup musicians – but nobody was dwelling on it. Bobby had decided after a disastrous gig in San Francisco that he wanted to go solo on the Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe nightclub circuits. (Ironically, when newcomer Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry” single was released two month after Bobby’s death, radio listeners swamped switchboards demanding to know if the hit was the swan song of the Bobby Fuller Four.)
The move would mean abandoning not only his friends, drummer Dalton Powell and guitarist Jim Reese, but also his younger brother and bass player, Randy Fuller. Though Bobby and Randy had fought bitterly the past few months, they remained close, as did the entire band and road crew. Talks of dissolving the group made them all uneasy but not hateful.
On Sunday, July 17, 1966, Bobby stood outside his aparment at 1776 Sycamore st. in Hollywood as Rick Stone, the road manager and one of Bobby’s oldest friends, began to pull out of the parking lot in the band’s green van. Bobby rushed over to him. He leaned through the window and told Rick, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Everything’s confused right now. But don’t worry. You’ve got a job with me if you want it.”
That afternoon, Rick, Jim and Dalton drove through the San Fernando Valley, stopping only to watch a model airplane exhibition, Randy spent the day with Boyd Elder, an artist and former El Pasoan.
Sunday night, Rick was in Bobby’s apartment, No. 317, drinking beer and watching television. Loraine Fuller, Bobby’s mother, also was there. She had arrived from Washington a few days earlier to spend some time with her sons. Bobby left the room to call his girlfriend. Nancy Norton, a TWA stewardess in New York City. He had been urging her to transfer to Los Angeles. He then called a friend named Melanie, who reportedly worked in a nearby bar. Three El Paso girls dropped in and chatted and drank beer with Bobby for a couple hours.
Shortly after midnight, Rick fell asleep in front of the television set. Loraine went to bed at about 1 a.m. after briefly talking to Bobby, who seemed in good spirits.
“He was wide awake,” she said. “He always stayed up playing his guitar and listening to records. I told him good night. That was the last time I saw him alive. Later I heard him leave the apartment. It didn’t disturb me. I don’t know why he went out, but I think he probably went to get something to eat. He often did that.”
Rick also heard Bobby leaving.
“I heard a noise,” he said. “I got up. I was really hot and thirsty. It was about 2:30 in the morning. I went to the kitchen to get a drink, and I noticed that the front door was open. But I didn’t think much of it, because we were all night owls. We rarely got to bed before dawn. Anyway, I heard the door shut. I knew it was Bobby, because Randy was at Boyd Elder’s place. That’s the thing that makes me feel so guilty. Maybe I could have stopped him.”
Apparently, the last person who admitted seeing Bobby alive was another friend, Lloyd Esinger, the apartment building manager. He could not be found for comment, but according to the autopsy report, Bobby shared a few beers with Lloyd in his apartment downstairs at about 3 a.m. Esinger stated in the report that Bobby “was in good spirit.”
On the morning of July 18, 1966, Loraine awoke in the grip of anxiety. Bobby hadn’t returned home yet. The family car, an Oldsmobile, was gone. Rick, who also noticed the car was missing, went to the studio at 8:30 a.m. to meet the band for a scheduled recording session. Later, a rumor surfaced that during the week preceding Bobby’s death the gloomy singer had insisted on playing “Another Sad and Lonely Night” over and over. But Rick said the story was an invention of romantic fans hungry for drama. The band, in fact, had completed a week’s vacation without a single rehearsal or recording session.
Bobby was not at the studio Monday morning. The band ate fast-food hamburgers at noon and continued waiting. Bob Keane, who had singed the Bobby Fuller Four to his record company, Del-Fi, stopped by early in the afternoon and kiddingly asked where the “prima donna” was. At 2:30, the musicians gave up and headed home. Jim dropped Rick off at a body shop to pick up his Volkswagen.
Dalton and Jim were in their apartment a few blocks away when Ty Grimes and Mike Ciccarelli, El Paso musicians and friends of Bobby, arrived at the Sycamore Street apartment just before 5 p.m. Ty and Mike pulled into the parking lot. Bobby’s car was not there, but they decided to ring the bell anyway.
“A car pulled in behind us, but I didn’t pay attention to it at the time,” Tye remembers. “We had seen Bobby a day or two earlier, and he told us to come over. When we drove up, I’m positive his car was not there. We went up the stairs and rang the doorbell a couple of times. There was no answer.”
While Ty and Mike ascended the stairs, Loraine went down the back steps to get the mail. She immediately recognized the Texas plates on Mike’s car and then noticed Bobby’s car. She ran down the steps to the car and opened the driver’s door. The smell of gasoline was overpowering.
“He was lying on the front seat,” Loraine said. “The keys were in the ignition, and his hand was on the keys, as if he had tried to start the car. I thought he was asleep. I called his name. When I looked closer, I could see he wasn’t sleeping. He was dead.”
Loraine turned ashen and fled up the staircase to call the police. She ran past Ty and Mike, who were returning to their car.
“She was hysterical,” Ty said “We knew right away something was very wrong. I saw Bobby’s car. The door was wide open, and I saw Bobby lying on the seat. Mike and I went over to see him. Bobby was obviously dead. I noticed dried blood on the front of his shirt. It was a pretty traumatic experience. We both went into shock. We stood there a moment and then just drove home. Later, we heard on the news that he had killed himself.”
Loraine called the police and sent Lloyd Esinger downstairs to Bobby’s car. Just after several police cars pulled into the lot, Rick arrived.
“As I was driving toward the apartment. I had the worst feeling an unpleasant gut feeling,” Rick said. “When I drove up cops were all over the place, I walked up to the car. Bobby was clearly dead. He was holding a hose connected to a can of gas on the floorboard. His hair was real oily looking, and usually it was very clean and neat. It was covered with gas. It looked like gas had been poured over him. The cops kept pushing me back, They were treating me like I was a spectator.”
Randy Fuller was in Boyd Elder’s art studio when he received a phone call.
“I said hello and my mother said, ‘Bobby’s dead’ and hung up,” Randy recalled. “I was stunned. I hurried home and somebody in the crowd grabbed me and said, ‘Your road manager’s been murdered.’ I had strange mixed feelings. I was sorry to hear Ricky Stone had been killed. It was bad news, but I was relieve it wasn’t my brother. As I was walking upstairs, I saw Ricky walk out of the apartment. He looked at me and I knew. He said, ‘It’s Bobby.’ I don’t remember much after that. I was in a fog. I watched them take Bobby’s body away.”
Bobby Fuller’s funeral was Wednesday, July 20, 1966, at Church of the Hills in Los Angeles. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills. “Who’s who of Hollywood was there,” Rick said.
Initially, no cause of death was official announced, but obituaries the next day in the Los Angeles Herald examiner and Los Angels Time implied suicide by quoting Loraine as describing Bobby as “despondent” during recent weeks. According to newspaper accounts, police found no anatomical basis for death and no external injuries. California police records, sealed by law, were unavailable to The Times.
The autopsy report only further muddied the waters of the report, mode of death was determines as “accident,” not suicide or homicide, but in subsequent sections, question marks were scrawled next to boxes indicating “accident” and “suicide.”
An autopsy was performed July 18, 1966, but the final report was not submitted until Oct. 17. Cause of death was listed as asphyxia due to inhalation of gasoline. Bobby evidently died from inhaling fumes, not ingesting gasoline, as was believed widely. The report, while not detailing the contents of the stomach, noted they were “not remarkable.” The Los Angeles coroner did not estimate how long Bobby had been dead. The body was decomposed partially, but the summer heat and skin burns caused by the volatile fumes could have caused rapid decomposition, El Paso county coroner Juan Contin said after examining the report.
On July 19th the day after Bobby’s death, a number of blood tests were conducted that concluded the musician had not taken barbiturates, Librium, Valium, strychnine or other drugs. Nor was alcohol detected. The scant blood samples, were exhausted before further tests could be run. Unquestionably, the gas played the major role in killing Bobby. The medical examiner noted. “On opening the body, the organs and incised tissue smell strongly of gasoline.”
Bobby Fuller was pronounced dead at 5:15 p.m. July 18, 1966. Five minutes later, a controversy over the cause of his death began to broil. Police, presumably convinced the death was a suicide, failed to impound the car or dust for fingerprints, an oversight that enraged Bobby’s friends.
Two theories prevailed then and persist today regarding Bobby’s death. Police seemed satisfied with the suicide explanation. Even Randy concedes the possibility.
“I don’t know if it was suicide,” Randy said. “Because he’s my brother, I’d love to say that it wasn’t. But I don’t know.”
Bobby’s friends and family surmise foul play was involved, not only because of suspicious details of the death scene, but also because Bobby did not seem on the verge of taking his life during his last days.
“He was not depressed,” his mother said emphatically. “I never saw him actually depressed. He’d get down in the dumps occasionally, but he never let it get to him.”
While Bobby had numerous professional problems at the time, he was not emotionally unstable. Dalton said, adding, “Bobby wasn’t capable of suicide. He may have been upset about things. It was a complicated matter. He was unhappy with his manager, but not to the point of doing himself in.”
What factors point to murder? Most of the evidence is circumstantial, though some strong physical discrepancies do exist. The autopsy report, for instance, notes that the car doors were shut but not locked and that the keys were not in the ignition. Both Rick and Loraine, however, said they clearly remember seeing the keys in the ignition.
Also, the report made no mention of unusual finding among Bobby’s personal effects. Yet three witnesses, Ty, Rick and Randy, said they recall seeing dried blood on the chest of Bobby’s crumpled pullover golf shirt. And whereas the report notes no external injuries, Rick and Loraine said they noticed abrasions.
“There were scrapes on his elbow and face,” Rick said. “The slippers he was wearing were badly torn up at the toes, as if he had been waling through gravel. And his little finger looked like it was broken.”
Exposure to volatile fumes may cause sloughing of skin, coroner Contin explained, and perhaps those gas-burned skin patches were misinterpreted by onlookers as injuries.
But stranger mysteries remain. The autopsy report shows Bobby’s bladder was markedly distended, which might suggest he was unconscious a long time before dying How, then, was he transported from wherever the death occurred back to his apartment parking lot? Robin Vinikoff, who with two or three friends stopped by Bobby’s place at about 3 p.m., said he remembered seeing the Oldsmobile in the lot. However, Loraine and Rick said the car definitely was not in the lot early Monday. And Ty is certain the car was gone when he and Mike arrived at bout 5 p.m. Their stories suggest Bobby’s car was driven or pushed onto the lot sometime between the moment Ty arrived and the time Loraine discovered the body, a narrow gap. Officials never disputed, but never attempted to explain, this possible chain of events.
“Initially, Mike and I were under suspicion,” Ty said. “We were the first on the scene, so we were questioned. When the investigators realized we weren’t involved, they turned to us for help. We retraced and timed our steps. It took us about three minutes to get from the lot to Bobby’s apartment and back to our car.”
This bizarre twist clearly creates a dilemma. If Bobby was murdered, why would the killer risk detection by returning the body to the parking lot? If Bobby committed suicide, who drove him home? Presumably stymied, the police dropped the case, leaving Bobby’s survivors to their wild hunches and fears. Some speculated that Bobby was being tailed by the mob, for a myriad of reasons ranging from payola to drugs to his affection for a prostitute romantically linked with a ruthless gagster.
In a recent L.A. Weekly, a reporter cryptically proposed that Bobby’s death may have been “the result of his indiscretions with the girlfriend of a very jealous, rather well-connected gentleman, who also happened to be a business associate of Fuller’s.”
Though Bobby’s mother initially told the press her son had been unhappy, she is sure he did not die by his own design.
“Certainly, foul play had a role,” Bobby’s mother said. “Someone had beaten him. He did not kill himself. As far as I know, he never got into any kind of heavy drugs. He would have told me, or Randy would have told me. The motive’s not clear. Maybe it was some sort of revenge. There are a lot of mean people in this world. We never found out anything.”
Two private investigators, Tom Pugh of the Stein Agency in Los Angeles and John A. Webster of Berkeley, were hired to study Bobby’s death. Neither could be reached for comment. One investigator abruptly quit the case, Rick said. The other quietly left town, saying he had been threatened.
“I think Bobby may have been murdered out of vengeance for something he was innocent of,” Rick said. “Maybe someone was going to set him on fire and chickened out. Or maybe they only meant to rough him up but the scare went too far. Maybe what started as a threat ended in a murder.”
On learning of Bobby’s death, the band members felt not only grief and rage, but fear. Was one of them next? The night after Bobby’s death, Randy and Rick were standing outside Jim Reese’s apartment a few blocks from Sycamore Street. At about 8 p.m. they watched three men get out of a car parked across the street.
“They were tough-looking types,” Rick said. “They crossed the street and headed for the parking garage under Jim’s apartment. Randy knew something fishy was going on, so we ran to Jim’s place.
“These three guys just burst into Jim’s apartment, where Dalton and my sister (Sandy Stone) were. One of the guys had a g=big stick and the other was carrying a Coke bottle. They asked for Jim, and when they realized he wasn’t home, they left. We never could figure it out, Jim swore he didn’t know who they were. It made usa lla little more nervous.”
Months after Bobby’s death, Rod Crosby, formerly with El Paso’s Intruders and a longtime Bobby fuller admirer, consulted psychic Peter Hurkos in hopes of learning more about the singer’s death. Hurkos studied photographs of Bobby but was unable to conclude whether Bobby had been killed deliberately.
“Hurkos said Bobby was scared, very scared,” Rod said. “He mentioned the possibility of murder. The whole meeting was unnerving. Hurkos was visibly shaken.”
Rod’s theory suggests Bobby’s own innocence contributed to his end.
“Bobby Fuller was vulnerable by virtue of his honestly and naiveté,” Rod said. “If he had been a streetwise, bitter person, maybe he would have survived. He lived on a high plane of idealism and fantasy. He was swept into the maelstrom of rock decadence and was a victim of a ruthless business. Back then, the music business was extremely corrupt, and you either played along or suffered the consequences. Bobby was not prepared psychologically for that kind of perversion.”
Bobby died almost 16 years ago. Prospects of unearthing new evidence of the circumstances of his death are bleak. Yet the memory has not faded, and for some the tragedy continues to instill terror.
“If it was foul play,” Randy mused, “then the guy who did it is still running loose. I’m afraid to talk too much about it. I don’t want him to come for me next. If I knew who it was and where he was, and if I could get to him first, it would be different. I just don’t want to take chances.”