The Desert Bunker Murders

Date Published 10.18.11
If you ever read the court transcripts of the preliminary hearing of what is commonly known as "the desert bunker murders," as I recently did, you'll be struck by one refrain:  how many people feared Collin McGlaughlin in the years, and especially days, leading up to the events of Jan. 5, 2008.

His small private high school feared him, back in 2005.  They had police come and take him away for making terrorist threats.  The prosecutor in that case described him as "an accident waiting to happen."

His two friends, David Smith and Cameron Thomson, feared him.  He was psychotic, they said.  Crazy.  Scary.

His father feared him.  He locked up his guns because Collin's erratic behavior frightened him, and then he took his son to the doctor for psychiatric medication.

The kid caused unease.  A slingshot stretched taut with bad intention.

From Collin's MySpace blog:

i feel that if a person really needs it they should be able to walk down the street with a .357 killing people at random

He was short, overweight, with a doughy impassive face made blanker by his dead-eyed stare.  He was an 18-year-old in combat boots whose life was shit and whose output was all rage.

And no one did anything.

It's as if he was a ticking time bomb that everyone decided was background noise they could live with; the court transcripts tell a story of fear, but also of concession, passivity, and pivoting away --- from that which scared them, from responsibility.

Collin McGlaughlin, from his MySpace

Collin McGlaughlin was the director of a movie no one wanted to make, but they drifted listlessly into their roles anyway --- the father who let his psychologically disturbed son borrow his guns, the sidekick who only mumbled "that's dumb" when presented with Collin's violent plan.

His ability to cause fear was the only ability Collin had, and on a cold, rainy January night four years ago he stumbled upon the perfect setting to make true on his violent potential: an abandoned military bunker in the desert, a maze of graffiti-scrawled concrete littered with beer cans and spent shotgun shells where bored teenagers came to party.

I read the transcripts only as a refresher, because I was there at the preliminary hearing.  I remember the moment Collin, previously blank, broke into a smile.  The smile didn't happen when he saw his parents, but occurred instead when the the autopsy photos were passed among the attorneys, and a glimpse of the bloodied victims sent a shudder through the courtroom.

I didn't fear him.  But I was awfully glad he was in iron shackles and a uniformed guard with a gun was standing next to him.

The Bunker

This part of southern California, northeast of the San Gabriel Mountains, is known as the High Desert.  Barstow, Palmdale, Victorville.  For most people the area is a windy stretch of desert scrub brush on the way to Las Vegas.

Edwards Air Force Base is nearby, and off the highway, deep into the desert, old military installations still stand, neglected and decaying.  The military chose the area for its wide, empty expanse and sparse population, qualities that aren't ideal for teenagers searching for a place to connect.  Over the years High Desert teens began gathering at the abandoned mines and bunkers out in the desert; the sites, spooky and remote, offer a kind of outlaw freedom, a place to smash beer bottles and light fires without consequence.

Q Can you describe what the lighting was like, when you went into the Bunker at that time?

A It's completely underground.  It's completely dark.  Once you walk literally cannot see your hand in front of your face, it is so dark. 

Detective Robert Alexander of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department got the call at 4:17 p.m.  There was a suspicious death, or deaths, out at the Bunker, a former Air Force radio relay station.

In the courtroom Alexander described the route to the Bunker, turning off Highway 58 onto a semi-paved road, then onto dirt, parking and walking a quarter mile through rock and sand until he came to the nearly 30-foot-mound of earth and concrete.

A gold Jeep was parked near the Bunker.  There was an aluminum lawn chair collapsed outside the driver's door.  Below the back bumper was a pair of black gym shoes.  Alexander observed toe dig impressions on either side of the Jeep.

Alexander and his team made their way into the Bunker with flashlights.  He described narrow corridors, walls blackened with soot and covered with graffiti, the ground littered with glass, gravel and dirt. They could smell smoke from fires that had been lit inside.

Turning left into the main corridor, they came upon two bodies lying on the ground.  The male was face up, with his legs folded beneath him.  He'd been shot in the back and through the right eye.  The female was slumped forward, with a blue sleeping bag wrapped around her.  She'd been shot in the temple, right buttock and back.  There was a shoe track on her back, on top of where she'd been shot.

Q And did David tell you what Collin did at that point?

A Yeah.  He said that Collin kicked her and said, Are you still alive?

The victims, Bodhisattva "Bodhi" Sherzer-Potter, 16, and Christopher "Cody" Thompson, 18, met in film school at the Lewis Center for Educational Research, a prestigious charter school in Apple Valley.  Bodhi was pretty, curious, artistically inclined.  She wrote poetry.  Along with her single Mom, a school psychologist, she baked bread every Sunday morning for her neighbors.  Cody was quiet, played guitar, was sweet to his girlfriend.  The couple had been dating for about a year.

Cody and Bodhi

The couple had come to the Bunker to celebrate a friend's birthday, and decided to remain there and spend the night together in Cody's Jeep. They were last seen around 3 a.m.  When they hadn't appeared by the next afternoon, worried friends returned to the Bunker and discovered their bodies inside.

The victims' friends told investigators about a trio of unfamiliar young men who showed up in a Honda Odyssey van and asked if they could join the party.  The strangers brought a bottle of raspberry Bacardi that was passed around.  They didn't make a strong impression, maybe a little cagey, a little vacant, though someone recalled that one guy who identified himself as "Mac" said that while in school he'd been arrested for making threats to kill a "nigger."

For two weeks nothing moved on the case.  Then a tip came in --- a guy in Victorville said his friend, David, had stopped by his house with two friends the night of the murders.  They said they were going camping and shooting in the desert, but the tipster didn't want to join because David's friend, Collin, was "psycho."  They left.  David called later and asked for directions to the Bunker, which he remember from a previous gathering.

Around 4 a.m. the tipster's phone rang.  It was David.  Some "bad shit went down," David told him.  "Don't tell anybody we were here."

David Smith, 19, and his friends Collin McGlaughlin, 18, and Cameron Thomson, 16, were from "down the hill," on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains, from the towns of Covina and West Covina.  Smith had been a high school track star, but he lost his athletic scholarship to UC-Riverside after a conflict with the coach.  He couldn't afford to pay for college anymore and was drifting, crashing at Cameron's house.

Collin had been kicked out of several schools, and had spent some time in a mental hospital.  He was the topic of many conversations among the people in his life.  "What's he going to do?" they wondered.  It was all cringing anticipation, no prevention.  Collin spoke frequently of his desire to kill someone.  In December his father finally took him to a doctor for an evaluation and medication.

Three weeks later, on Jan.4, Collin asked his Dad if he could borrow his shotgun and Rutger Mini-14 rifle.  His father said yes. 

Collin placed the guns in a tan duffel bag, threw the bag in the back of Cameron's mother's van, and the three friends headed north, toward the desert.

Detectives wired the tipster, and arranged for him to meet with David and Cameron. The plan to go camping had been vague, they said.  No one brought gear.  In some versions of the telling Collin was hot to rob someone; in others he was just out to kill.  What's consistent is Collin's off-kilter presence, the menacing instability that couldn't be tamped down.  David and Cameron experienced a great deal of apprehension, they said.  But they never acted on it.  The Bacardi gone, the party breaking up, Collin got quiet, and then blurted out the plan:  they would wait until most everyone was gone and there was only one car left.  It was cold and windy, and occasionally raining.  Eventually only Cody's Jeep remained outside the Bunker.

Collin McGlaughlin and David Smith

Collin commanded Cameron, the youngest and likely the meekest, to stay in the van and act as a lookout.  He grabbed the shotgun, handed David the Mini-14, and they walked over to the Jeep.  They banged on the windows, walking Bodhi and Cody.  Collin marched the sleepy couple, half-dressed and barefoot, into the Bunkner.  He ordered them to their knees.

David says at this point he put his gun down and began walking away.  Collin called out for light, and David held the flashlight behind him as he walked, providing an ebbing, uneven light.  In doing so he was both separate but crucial to what came next.

The first of five shots rang out.

It was a hell of an adrenalin rush.

-Collin McGlaughlin, secretly recorded in his jail cell

It should be noted that prosecutors don't believe the autopsy reports jibe exactly with David Smith's version of events, and he may have fired at least one of the shots.

With the tipster's secret recordings investigators had more to go on, and they zeroed in on Cameron and David.  To varying degrees the two cooperated with police; their stories sometimes changed, and they were overheard on the recordings discussing how to cover up the crime, but they were malleable.

What's striking is how unflappable Collin was when police came for him.  He interrupted Detective Alexander as he was trying to read him his rights.

"I know what the Miranda laws are," he said.  "I would like an attorney.  I would like one as soon as humanly possible."

Collin McGlaughlin, David Smith, and Cameron Thomson were each charged with murder, attempted robbery and kidnapping.  At the preliminary hearing Cameron sat apart from David and Collin.  He stared straight ahead and never turned his head, though his face, pale and pained, twitched frequently.

Last March Cameron pleaded guilty to 2 counts of voluntary manslaughter. As part of of a plea bargain he'll testify against Collin and David.

Collin's parents attended the preliminary hearing.  They huddled together, his mother in a fleece jacket, his father in a windbreaker, and spoke to no one else.  During breaks they walked over to the waiting room windows and looked fascinated by the hedges.

At one point during witness testimony I saw Collin's mother go limp and pivot into her husband's body, pressing her face into his jacket.  She's devastated, I thought.  Only later, when Collin's father shifted his stance and I caught another angle did I realize no, she's not devastated.  She's asleep.

At first I was drawn to this story because I'd heard that David and Collin's fathers were involved in law enforcement, and that contradiction interested me.  There was also the fact of the good, happy kids intersecting with the lost boys in the dark, vast desert.

Later I came to see the story as less about the act of violence at its center, and more about inaction, the vacuum of responsibility that cushioned Collin as he grew more scary and violent.

Inside the bunker

After the preliminary hearing, prosecutors announced they were going to seek the death penalty against Collin, and life in prison for David.  David pleaded not guilty, and Collin pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Later Collin's lawyers argued that he wasn't competent to stand trial.  On Monday , Oct. 3 a competency trial began.  The jury heard jail recordings of Collin talking about "going with the psych defense" and asking "how crazy do I have to get?"

The jury deliberated for a few hours before ruling him competent to stand trial.

Collin shared with the courtroom one final gesture before he was taken away, a message that implies a certain awareness that doesn't correspond with an insanity defense, but in its blunt fury seems true to who he was, and is: he flipped them the finger.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.