My Youthful Friendship with Death

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I’ve never been rattled by human death.  I’d probably be a better grief counselor for those who have lost pets, since that has always affected me far more deeply. Even the event of losing my most brilliant engineer – which I’ve written about at some length – didn’t really shake me for a few days.

But I bring up death as a segue to sharing a tale I’ve been meaning to share for many years. It is about the death of a friend when I was 18 years old, and his name was Kurt McFall.

As a thirteen-year old, I moved out with my family to the little town of Moraga, a suburb of San Francisco which was described as a “bedroom community” (which was a polite way of saying a solidly upper-middle class town; not as well-to-do or high-strung as Palo Alto, but close). About fifteen miles northeast was a city called Concord, which was larger, more lower-middle class, and pretty much a place most Moraga kids would have no reason to visit.

I was a fairly bright young kid, and as personal computers were just becoming popular, I was seen as somewhat of a thought leader. At fifteen years old, I was writing articles and software reviews for national magazines, and I wrote my first (of many) books about computers at sixteen. I was too young to blow my cash on fast women, but I did have a penchant for fast cars, and I bought myself a beautiful red Porsche. (Now, in my autumn years, I content myself with a six-figure golf cart).

As quiet and prosperous a community as Moraga (and its adjacent town, Orinda) were, it certainly was not spared the death of its youth. There’s the famed case of Kirsten Costas, who was hacked to death by a fellow 15-year old the year of my graduation, and I distinctly remember getting a phone call during my junior year from a friend to tell me about a classmate who had just hung himself in a closet. (She couldn’t really accept the fact that he had deliberately killed himself, insisting that he hung himself with a rope to see what it felt like; well, I guess he found out).

And this brings me to Kurt. I was introduced to him by a mutual friend who knew him from a group called the Society for Creative Anachronism. I’ve never been in the group, so I have no basis for speaking about it directly. I can say, however, where it fit in the teenage anthropology of the time. If you were somewhat nerdy, like me, you were into science, computers, and getting good grades. Amp the nerdiness up a few notches, and you were the kind to hang out all night playing Dungeons and Dragons. Crank that dial to 11, though, and you were part of the SCA. It was pretty much full of dorks, the morbidly obese, and other folks who really preferred to pretend to live in the middle ages versus, say, the present. Let me put it this way: when Tim Knight seems cool compared to a particular group of people, the group in question has got serious problems.

Kurt was my age, and he instantly struck me as the most clean-cut kid I’d ever seen in my life. He was slender, had blonde curly hair and an easy smile. It didn’t take long to figure out he really felt out-of-place in Concord. He dressed in the kind of prep way that my peers strived for, and he really preferred hanging around our little suburb as opposed to the townhouse he shared with his divorced dad.

He was also into computers, which was still pretty unusual in 1984. He was smart, well-spoken, and wanted to get involved in anything I was doing that had to do with technology. At the time, I was trying to figure out the “next big thing” (since I had been too young to be in on the beginning of the whole home computer thing), and my eyes were set on personal robots. So, along with a friend with the surname LaBatt, the three of us formed KLM Publishing.

Throughout our senior year in high school, our friendship thrived, although he went to different school than I did. We talked a lot, both on the phone and in person, and our conversations usually gravitated toward the dominant interest of boys that age, which is what we had done, planned to do, or hoped to do with various girls of interest. The mindset of a seventeen-year old male is usually pretty easy to fathom.

However, Kurt started to change in subtle ways. He was getting more and more into SCA, and discussions of his sexual adventures were getting weirder and weirder. He was really into the accoutrements of SCA, including his sword and suit of armor, and we had a falling-out with respect to our little publishing venture, so he left that. We drifted apart as friends, which was pretty easy to do, considering he lived in another town and went to another school, and Kurt disappeared from my life around the same time I graduated.

That September, I heard through the grapevine that Kurt was dead. It obviously struck me as weird news that the young kid you see pictured above was now a corpse, but I didn’t know any of the details. The television show Unsolved Mysteries actually did a full show on Kurt’s death, so here’s what they had to say about it:

On September 8, 1984, Kurt McFall, a 17-year old high school student, drove from his home in Concord, California, across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. He told his father he was staying with a friend and would be home Sunday evening. Kurt never returned.

On Monday, two birdwatchers spotted a half naked body on a remote beach below the cliffs of San Francisco Bay. Kurt McFall was dead. Kurt’s father, Tom McFall, says he knew at once his son’s death was no accident:

“Kurt told a friend of his that he was involved in some kind of Satanic cult and that he wanted out, but he thought that they might try to kill him. He really feared for his life. It was a murder. It needs to be investigated. There’s no doubt in my mind that Kurt could’ve handled himself in that cliff area because he was an experienced mountain climber and he was a diver. So he would not have drowned in the water or fallen down the hill.”

In Kurt’s room, Tom discovered a knife made from a deer’s hoof, a necklace of stone and feathers, and drawings depicting witchcraft themes and violent fantasies. These seemed to prove that Kurt was leading a double life. The year before he died, Kurt had joined a group that enjoyed reliving medieval customs. They dressed in costumes and practiced sword fighting in the parking lot of an Oakland subway station.

Around the same time, Kurt also joined another organization that initiated him into a pagan religion. This new group frightened one of Kurt’s old high school friends. He later contacted Tom McFall and then began to fear for his own safety. He spoke on the condition that his identity not be revealed:

“Gradually, over a period of perhaps six months, his attitude towards other people changed drastically. He kind of moved from just studying with an interest in medieval religion, to actually adopting that religion as his.”

So the “friend” he stayed with lived in San Francisco, and supposedly at 3 in the morning Kurt woke up and notified this guy that he couldn’t sleep and was going to head out to the beach. Let me just mention to those of you who think of California beaches as wonderful, warm expanses of water in which to frolic, similar to Florida’s, you are misinformed. The entire west coast of the United States is lapped by waters that are cold as a witch’s teat, and even on the hottest August day, nobody sensible would actually go try to swim in the melted ice out there, so it certainly wouldn’t be an appealing prospect at three in the freaking morning. But I digress. The story goes on:

The following evening, Kurt’s car was found abandoned on a golf course overlooking the ocean. There were a number of puzzling clues. Kurt’s driver’s license was on the floor. His car keys were on the seat. A $20 bill was in the glove compartment. The prized suit of armor which Kurt had made for sword fighting was missing from the trunk. There were also beer bottles scattered in, and around, the car. Tom McFall thinks the clues were staged:

“The car has to be a phony scene that was set up, because Kurt did not drink beer. That’s also inconsistent with the autopsy report that shows that there was no sign of alcohol or drugs in the body when it was recovered. So that looked very suspicious.”

At 10:15 the following morning, National Park Service lifeguards recovered Kurt’s body. It was lying in a cove less than two miles from Carrillo’s apartment, just below the cliffs at the golf course where Kurt’s car was found. Brian Cameron was one of the lifeguards:

“When we came upon the body, we noticed it was in fairly good condition, fairly pale, usually a sign of being in the water for an extended period of time. No obvious external trauma. He looked pretty clean, other than a few small abrasions on the body, but nothing obvious.”

Kurt had no shoes, socks or shirt. His back and shoulders were covered with cuts and abrasions. The belt he wore was missing its buckle. Chief Petty Officer Ron Wilton with the U.S. Coast Guard:

“With the facts that we have in this case, it’s really anybody’s guess as to where he actually entered the water, where he came from. My guess would be — and that’s all it is, is an educated guess — that he simply fell off the cliff. And that’s what it appears to me.”

The coroner determined that Kurt died from multiple traumatic injuries and severe blood loss, but no one knows what caused those injuries. Perhaps Kurt died after stumbling over the edge. Or, perhaps he was pushed. The coroner ruled, “cause of death, unknown,” a determination unacceptable to Tom McFall.

Mr. McFall called me that September to ask me if I knew anything. I told him everything I knew, which wasn’t much, and I went into all the detail I could remember about how how he changed and the kind of weird sex he had gotten into. (Let’s just say that for a 18 year old to be talking about this stuff to a Dad whose son had just died was very uncomfortable, and I can’t imagine what the poor man must have been going through).

When I was thinking about Kurt years later, I looked at some message boards. One particular post stood out for me, and the way they described Kurt “before” and “after” lined up precisely with my own memories:

I was a good friend of Kurt’s. I believe he died in 1984 but it could have been 1983. I do know it was in September just a couple of days after the start of the school year. Still to this day, I shake when I tell this story.

He was a very clean cut person, even known as a nerd. I hadn’t seen him all summer and the first day of school a friend of mine had seen him and he was dressed differently and had longer hair. It was just so unlike him. So the second day I spent all day trying to find him and never did. Then an announcement came over the speaker that he had been found dead. It hit me pretty hard but that is not the weird part.

The next summer vacation I was babysitting for a SF cop’s kids and his wife’s mother lived in a trailer park in Clayton. Anyway, she was telling me about this weird lady who lived there who only came out at night, was always dressed in black and who stole meat out of people’s freezers that were on their porches. She would also leave these really strange letters on people’s porches. One day she let me read the letters that they had been collecting and in one of them it described a satanic killing of a young boy by the name of Kurt McFall.

I took this information to a teacher that we had both had and she contacted his parents. The cop that I was babysitting for was involved in the raid on the lady’s trailer which inside was really gross (blood writing on the walls and faeces on the floor). The last I had heard, she had given the name of some man in the LA area who was the leader but I dont know if anything ever came of it.

In the letter she went into detail about them torturing him and then pushing him over the cliff. I know it had to be true because she had no way of knowing any of the information that she knew. I also know that over that summer he had gotten into jousting which was a new thing.

No one will ever know for sure what happened at Land’s End, pictured below. The Kurt I remember was, when our friendship started, one of the most innocent and sweet kids I had ever met. It seems almost impossible to believe it happened nearly thirty years ago, since it seems almost like yesterday.