Down the Rabbit Hole of a Notorious Hollywood Crime with Michael Connelly

The best-selling author goes deep into the twisty, Bosch-worthy saga of LA’s infamous Wonderland murders in his new true crime podcast.

Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.

Kat Johnson: Hi, this is Audible Editor Kat Johnson, and I have the pleasure today of speaking with best-selling thriller author Michael Connelly, whose long-running Harry Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer series have both been adapted into must-see screen adaptations. Michael is the cocreator and host of a brand-new documentary podcast, The Wonderland Murders & The Secret History of Hollywood, which is now available exclusively on Audible. Welcome, Michael.

Michael Connelly: Thanks for having me.

KJ: Thank you so much for being here. It's such a privilege to speak with you today. I'm such a big fan of yours. These days we hear a lot about podcasters getting book deals, but a best-selling fiction author, such as yourself, doing a true-crime podcast is still big news. How did this come about?

MC: It's been, I guess, a slow evolution. I was a journalist in the '80s and the early '90s, and I kind of use that as a means to an end. I learned about Los Angeles and the police department, and then I started writing novels. I don't know what to tell you—I just started feeling like I wanted to tell true stories again, and I have access through my novels. I've used many real-life detectives to help me with my books...make them accurate. They're real detectives, they've had real cases and so forth. I've been drawn to telling some of their cases because of A, the characters involved the relentlessness of some detectives that I know. And B, just an interest in the cases like this one. The Wonderland murders occurred in 1981. It was years before I got here, but I lived in the neighborhood where these occurred many years later. There was a, I don't know, some kind of residual feel about it.

"...The whole story has never come out. I think I have access to the people who can give us the whole story."

It was almost like a tourist place where people would come to look at this house. It was a pretty famous, iconic murder in Los Angeles. The people involved in it in terms of the investigators were people I've known pretty well and they trust me and so forth, so it went from there. I thought I could get some information. It's a well-tried case, lots of things have been done about it, even a movie, a Val Kilmer movie, but the whole story has never come out. I think I have access to the people who can give us the whole story.

KJ: That's great. I would love to talk more about the Wonderland murders themselves because this is really a crime story like no other. It's a really dark Hollywood crime saga that I feel like Bosch could be found investigating. So I'd love to know, what did draw you to the story? You said you lived in Laurel Canyon at one time. What were some of the most compelling things about it for you?

MC: The number-one compelling thing is the lack of answers. No one's ever been convicted of the murders. It's clear from the evidence that there were multiple murders, and so it's a classic case where people have gotten away with it and here we are 40 years later. So I guess that will not change.

That drew me into the question of, why? Journalists usually start with a question like that. Why did this case that got so much attention—and from early on seemed obvious about who was the powerful figure behind the murders—why was there no one ever brought to justice? There were some trials and there were not-guilty verdicts, but not even all the people that committed the murders were ever even named, let alone went to trial.

KJ: Wow. No one was ever convicted, right? And this is a quite incredibly brutal murder, four people dead? Four on the floor.

MC: Yeah. It was one of the bloodiest. It's up there with Manson; it's compared to that quite a bit. Three different murder trials, three different acquittals. I call them the dark figure behind it. Eddie Nash, who was this powerful drug lord in Hollywood, ultimately pleaded guilty...to federal charges of conspiracy to commit murder, but the state courts and, for example, the LAPD never could get him, although he was the target for 20-plus years.

KJ: Wow. Now, I actually have watched the Val Kilmer film Wonderland about the case, and I know that the detectives that you worked with also wrote a book on the case, Malice in Wonderland, right? But you're the first one coming in and giving this really new definitive look at the case. Can you share any of the new information people might get from the series?

MC: I think it's about context. There's been, as you say, lots of stuff, but for example, that Val Kilmer movie was filmed and came out before the final resolution of the case with the thing I just mentioned that Eddie Nash eventually pleaded guilty to setting the case up. That came after the movie. So it was an ongoing case, but I think what I bring to it is context. Like, for example, the first police officer, the patrol officer who took the call, he never talked to anybody. He never even testified in a trial, and we have his recollections of it that are pretty fascinating, intense when he tells the story of going into this bloodbath essentially and not knowing what he was getting into.

We talked to the investigators Tom Lange and Bob Souza, who were the leads for at least the first almost decade of the case. What's not known is that they were investigated. Eddie Nash was able to kind of smear them within the department and they were the subject of a yearlong internal investigation about them consorting with organized crime figures and things like that, which was very damaging to the case and that never came out. So there's a lot of stuff, but mostly what I have, I think is access. I've talked to the prosecutors, I've talked to all the investigators, and then the center of all this is a witness. And this is a guy who we call the unreliable narrator because this is Scott Thorson, the guy who has been addicted most of his life, worked with Eddie Nash, lived at Eddie Nash's house shortly after these murders occurred, and was aware of things, but he was on team Nash.

For several years, he never revealed what he knew until he got into a jam on an unrelated case, sort of unrelated case, and then he decided to become a witness. He's very colorful but still a questionable character. I call him the Joe Exotic of this case because he's had an amazingly weird and interesting lifestyle. He became famous because he was Liberace's lover. He's been played by Matt Damon in a movie and he's always in and out of jail and he agreed to talk to us. That's not a big get because he talks to a lot of people over the years. But a lot of what he says is never checked.

I think I have the...people with me, the investigators, and so forth. I'm looking at this like an investigative reporter, so I'm double-checking everything he says, and it's just interesting. He's kind of leading us down a path that is really interesting and gets into the start and history of the crack epidemic that Eddie Nash has his hands in. The ripple effects are bigger than the murder, as big as the murders were. They're the center of a bunch of ripples that went through at least a couple of decades in Los Angeles and Hollywood in particular.

KJ: Right. It's like the Manson case where, once you start digging at that, it just goes so far. You could find yourself sucked in. How deep were you in this rabbit hole? How did you even climb out?

MC: Yeah, it's been pretty immersive talking to Scott a lot. Most of this was done, I mean, not most of it, all that was done during the pandemic. A lot of it is done by Zoom. I got tons and tons of interviews with people, not just Thorson. Investigators. I've talked to multiple narcotics officers from the '70s and '80s in Los Angeles. They're all retired now, but they have pretty amazing stories about this period and Eddie Nash in particular.

To me, it's all fascinating. That's why we attached the title the Secret History of Hollywood, because you see through their stories what was going on in the underworld of Hollywood in those days and how prevalent and damaging the drugs were, especially crack cocaine.

KJ: So your work in fiction, you've worked a lot with law enforcement to get details right on your novels. And this piece, of course, you were working with the original detectives who were working on the case, Tom Lange and Bob Souza, and those guys work for the robbery and homicide division [RHD], which I think also Harry Bosch was one time involved with. What was that like working with them?

MC: It was pretty interesting. It's funny. I got invited to kind of be an emcee at the 50th anniversary of the RHD, which was formed after Robert Kennedy was assassinated in downtown Los Angeles. In 1968 the department realized they had to have an elite squad that could range across the whole city and move quickly for investigations. The following year RHD was born, and then 50 years later in 2019 every big case you ever heard of since the Manson case was their first big case they investigated. So, I got invited to give an introductory speech at their 50th reunion. I was like, "I'm not gonna turn that down, because there's all these legendary detectives there." I got to meet them. Tom Lange was known to me as a reporter way back, but he got pretty famous after the OJ case. I had never met him before, but I met him at this anniversary thing and we talked about the Wonderland case, because at that time he was writing that book and just finished it and he wanted me to read it.

So that was a great connection to get. And then to have him and his partner Bob Souza agree to talk to me is pretty fantastic. I have had a longtime relationship with another RHD, a former retired RHD detective named Rick Jackson, who's been very responsible in helping me with my books and TV shows and so forth as a consultant. He had a big part in this case as well. He was the one who arrested Scott Thorson in what appeared to be an unrelated robbery of a drug dealer, but it turned out it was all connected, and by arresting Thorson he basically brought forward the key witness in the case.

KJ: That's so cool. I love that your connections have brought us to these incredible authentic stories from the law enforcement who were actually there at the time. I want to get a little bit into this sort of storytelling element and creating a podcast because I know you've done podcasts in the past but you're obviously so known for your fiction. What was it like for you working on a narrative that had to be true but also still had to be suspenseful and entertaining? Were there differences? Was it the same? How did that work for you?

MC: It's a little bit different because obviously when you're writing a book or even a script, if you need something, you just manufacture it. Here, I had to deal with facts only, and so it's about the ordering of facts and it's about, how do you roll this story out so that it has intrigue and tension and you can break it into chapters? We're going to do eight chapters with this, and they're not all going to come out at once.

"...I would write about the crimes of the night and so forth and I'd go home, and it's probably a completely false feel, but I would drive home thinking like I was a prince of the city. Like I knew secrets no one knew."

Then we come back similar to a book where you know you want to have a hook at the end of every chapter that will make them read the next chapter next time they're reading. Or here, we want to bring them back to hear how this story keeps going. As you mentioned, there's so many things going on in this case it wasn't like, "What am I gonna hook them with?" There's plenty of hooks. It became a question of, how do you put it all together? That's pretty complicated.

The process is still going on. We have most of it done, but actually things are still happening in the case, so our last episode, that still remains to be seen, because 40 years later things are still happening to people related to this case.

KJ: So this is like real time. I heard the first four episodes, but I'm so curious what happens, but we're still in the middle of it. That's so cool.

And then for the audio element for you, because you've done writing for television, you've done writing for novels, you've done podcasts writing, how is the audio component interesting to you? Do you think about what things are going to sound like and your voice when you're speaking? How do you think about the audio part of it?

MC: I'm very self-conscious about my voice. I don't think it's the greatest voice. So what I think is, what else can we have besides my voice? Obviously I do a lot of interviews, but there's also historical stuff. There's some really good stuff about Scott Thorson in his time with Liberace. We have some introductions of him on the stage with Liberace and things like that. We had to dig those out.

The case, there were trials, so there was a lot of recorded things and looking for those. Scott Thorson is kind of a mystery man. He's the last survivor of this case. Other than the people on the good side, you know, witnesses, victims, suspects, almost everybody has passed away. Scott Thorson, who's led a very kind of dangerous life, somehow has survived. He's been shot, he's been imprisoned, he's been addicted. It’s amazing the guy is still alive. There's also historical stuff about him that we're bringing forward, like when he testified in trials and so forth.

So I'm aware of all that. I also know that music is very big, a big component of a podcast. You kind of need to breathe, so I picked a musician, a very young musician named Eamonn Welliver, who's the son of Titus Welliver, who plays Harry Bosch. Eamonn's kind of grown up visiting the sets of stuff. I knew he's a musician and he contributed some music to that TV show. I thought I'd use him to put in the breath, the breathing, the little breaks here and there that I think are important in a podcast.

That's worked out really well, but it's... That's not just put in willy-nilly... There's a lot of thought that goes into, where do we break here? Where do we just step back and let that sink in? And so when I write these, I start out as a script and I put in direction of, this is where we use this recording, this is where you use that one, but I often put in the words “think music.” And that's where I just want kind of like somber music to break things up and let people, listeners, think about where we're at.

KJ: I love that you used Titus Welliver's son. That's really cool. I'm curious too, your novels are almost always contemporary, or the ones that I've read or listened to are. What was it like for you to go back and revisit the '70s and '80s?

MC: It was like a forming time for me. I've been around long enough that some of my books are almost historical because the first one came out 30 years ago. But this is before that for the most part. It's just a different time. And to tell stories about how these guys would solve cases or work on cases… They had no DNA. DNA is such a basic thing we think of now in contemporary crime stories, and they didn't have that.

The guy who was the first guy up to the house—it’s in Laurel Canyon, it's up in the very wooded Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles—and he talked about how, when you went up there, the radios didn't work back then. There's no cell phones. They're being told there's multiple murders in a house and they're going up there by themselves literally. They can't even call for backup because their radios don’t work.

KJ: Wow.

MC: Just the guy painting that picture was pretty interesting to me. It really says this is not contemporary LA.

KJ: Speaking of LA, because I really want to talk to you about that similar to the Manson case, this is the sort of dark side of Hollywood, which is so compelling, and I loved this quote, this is from your book The Night Fire. "Hollywood was a different place in the dark hours, after the neon and glitter had dimmed. Ballard saw the change every night. It became a place of predators and prey and nothing in between, a place where the haves were comfortably and safely behind their locked doors and the have-nots freely roamed. Ballard always remembered the words of a late-show patrol poet. He called them human tumbleweeds moving with the winds of fate."

I feel like that's so evocative of this story too and your work in general deals a lot with the dark side of Hollywood. Why do you find that so compelling? What are you exploring there?

MC: Boy, that goes all the way back to when I was a nighttime police reporter in Los Angeles here. There was no internet back then. I'm really dating myself. It's kind of like the era of this crime. There's like a secret society and it's really interesting to me. I would do my work and I would write about the crimes of the night and so forth and I'd go home, and it's probably a completely false feel, but I would drive home thinking like I was a prince of the city. Like I knew secrets no one knew. And like I said, that was probably completely false. I was probably this naive guy who didn't know anything, but yeah, I felt that way.

That is what I feel about this podcast. Like we talked about, there’s been, I don't know, dozens of stuff, there’s been documentaries, Val Kilmer, there's been podcasts, there's been blogs, but I feel like I know a lot of secrets of this case now because of the yearlong dive I've taken into it. I think if people jump on this and listen to it, they're going to get a full story and it might even end up with people understanding who got away and why. That's something that I don't think has ever really come out.

KJ: That's fascinating. I just got chills about that. Do you think that part of the reason the case is not solved is because of there were drug addicts involved? Do you think there was like a, “Well, we're never going to get to the bottom of this. We're not going to know what happened and these people, this is just what they do,” or am I extrapolating too much there?

MC: I think a lot of that is valid. One of our… Actually the original prosecutor on the case, who's now a sitting judge in Los Angeles, we talked to him and he said something that was echoed by at least three other investigators I talked about. They all use the same phrase: “when a crime is committed in hell, you're not gonna have any angels as witnesses.” That really colored the case.

But when I was sifting through some of the confidential documents that were put together when they were deciding about how to prosecute this case, there was a real strong feeling, and not even feeling, it was on the page, it was people writing that the violence of this crime cannot be overlooked. You can't just say people put themselves in harm's way because they were drug dealers and they were thieves and things like that. There were women in that house. The two men that were killed were, yeah, they were bad guys. One guy they're pretty sure was a multiple murderer himself, but there were three women in that house. Two of them were killed. One was basically maimed for the rest of her life. They were innocent victims. Their level of culpability for their own words is, like, you can't even argue that.

That was really hammered home in these, what they call the charging documents, where the DA and the investigators get together and say, "What is our purpose here?" Yes, we have to prosecute a case because major crimes have been committed here. But when we stand in front of the public, meaning the jury, what is the emotional through-line here? And that is that this kind of violence has to be prosecuted. It just can't go by just because, A, there are no angels in the story. That's not good enough.

I've been writing 30 years about a guy named Harry Bosch, whose code is everybody counts or nobody counts. If everybody counts, that includes people that were drug dealers and whatever their crimes were in life. Does that mean that they deserve to be beaten to death with pipes while they slept? Not really. So, there is a purpose to this, and hopefully, that comes out in the podcast.

KJ: Absolutely. Do you think that these stories of crime and desperation alongside this Hollywood kind of glitz and glamour, is that the failure of the American dream or why do we find that just so fascinating?

MC: I think you're getting at it, and it's kind of like that part you read about the haves and have-nots. Los Angeles is like a magnet. Most of the people you know here were not born here. I wasn't born here. I don't know if I know very many people other than my daughter who were born here. People come here to find something. LA is like a shining star where people think they can be discovered, or whatever's not working for them back in their home towns.

In my case, South Florida, people come here thinking it will work. It's a very small percentage of people that have that work, and in a great way I'm very lucky. I think I'm in that small percentage. I can't believe what's happened to me since I came here, but I didn't write a novel that got published till I was 35 years old because I had a lot of years...of it not working.

So I said, okay, LA maybe. Maybe that's where I can reinvent myself. I got lucky, but many people don't. It creates this very visual feeling of the haves and the have-nots and that there's a friction between those things and that's in real life, that's one thing. But in the world of fiction, that friction in fiction is really a good starting point. That's why I think you have a lot of writers like me and others that are drawn to write about this place because you can tell almost any kind of story you want to tell if you anchor it in Los Angeles.

KJ: Yeah. And then speaking of having made it or being successful in LA, you are at this amazing point in your career where you are launching this podcast. You're also saying goodbye to the amazing Bosch television show on Amazon, which, when this interview comes out, the last season will be out on Amazon. What is it like saying goodbye to that show? How are you feeling about it?

MC: I guess I'm bittersweet about it, but at the same time I'm very proud of it. We're going to do a spin-off, but just based on the original show. I think I took it as a lucky break that we were told before we even started writing the last season that we're going to wrap it up, and so we could write to an ending. It's funny, we were just talking about endings.

"I've been writing 30 years about a guy named Harry Bosch, whose code is everybody counts or nobody counts. If everybody counts, that includes people that were drug dealers and whatever their crimes were in life."

Seven years, 68 episodes. In the 67th and 68th episodes, we come to a conclusion of that part of Harry Bosch's life, and we'll spin it off and we'll see a different Harry Bosch and some of the other characters. But I think the Bosch show stands at seven seasons: a beginning and end very much like a series of books, very much like the series of books it was based on.

It's really something I cannot have seen coming. Everything is a long shot in the entertainment business, is a long shot to get published, let alone be able to keep writing about the same character. It's a bigger long shot to have long-running success with a television show, and I have that with this show, so I can't whine about how I wish it was still going on. Of course, everyone wants their shows to go on forever. But what we have is a full show. We have seven years to a completion and I love that.

KJ: There's something to going out on top, right? When the show is at its peak.

MC: Our challenge was we raised the bar each season and I think we reached that and then raised it again.

KJ: And I just love what Titus Welliver has done for Bosch is awesome. It's awesome to hear him narrating the books. I love that it has come to life that way.

MC: That's how I go back to my work. I listen to him because I think he's so perfect as Harry Bosch, and one of the things that makes him perfect is his voice. So if I have to go back and check out one of my books to make sure what I'm writing now has all the facts right, I'll go back and listen rather than read, because of him.

KJ: Wow. I love that tidbit. Thank you for telling us that. And you're also working on a show with Netflix, for The Lincoln Lawyer. How's that going?

MC: So far so good. I don't have the same level of involvement as I've had with Bosch, but I've seen it's underway. I've seen four episodes and they're really good. I'm really happy with it. It's another angle in Los Angeles and obviously a different part of the justice system. It has something different to say. If I get lucky again, maybe that will last seven seasons. Who knows?

KJ: I also wanted to ask you about your new novel coming out this fall, The Dark Hour, and this is a Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch book. Renée Ballard—will we be seeing her on-screen anytime soon?

MC: Well, that would be good. I wouldn't say no to that. So we'll see. It's interesting because my characters are all intertwined, but then when you get to Hollywood, you have rights issues. Because Lincoln Lawyer is in Netflix and Bosch is in Amazon, they'll never meet on video, so I have Ballard. I'm hoping that maybe there'll be room to squeeze her into the spin-off or get her own show or something like that. But usually success begets success. This universe seems to be working, so hopefully we'll see her.

KJ: I definitely hope so too. No promises, but I'm excited. I love that character. Listeners, you can find The Wonderland Murders & The Secret History Of Hollywood on Audible right now.

MC: Thanks for having me.

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