In October of 1999 my wife, Marilou, and I had been together 14 years and married for 13.
Marilou was raised in a suburb of Manila, Republic of the Philippines, in a very conservative Catholic household. She earned a nursing degree in one of the better Manila colleges, and was board certified Public Health Nurse at the time she left the Philippines. We met shortly after she immigrated to San Diego and married 20 months later. Being raised in traditional Philippines custom, she had limited experience with dating prior to our courtship.
Due to needs of the navy we were separated several times during our first ten years of marriage. We had purchased our Gautier, Mississippi, house in November 1993 near the end of my 22-year navy career. I spent the next two years as a geographical bachelor living aboard my ship home ported in Hawaii while Marilou tended the home fires in Gautier. I retired, returned to Gautier, and by October 1999 was still learning how to be a civilian.
We had a nice house on a one acre partially wooded lot backing onto a freshwater bayou, at the end of a street cul-de-sac. We were in a peaceful neighborhood in a quiet Mississippi Gulf Coast town. This was exactly what Marilou and I wanted for our post-navy life. We had had some rocky years since I retired as I learned to be a civilian, and attempted to build a career in an area where jobs for my skills were scarce. But I never had any reason to think our marriage was in irreparable trouble.
The house next door to our right also backed onto the bayou. There was a lot of brush along our respective property line following a drainage ditch, which provided privacy between the houses. There was a path through the brush and over the ditch connecting the two properties that made it easy to walk between the back yards, should someone choose to. With the brush and short road frontage, our backyards were completely private from street view and other neighbors.
The owners had had built the next-door house and had been living there since 1974 as one of the first people in our sub-division. In the summer of 1999 the husband developed a serious gambling habit, resulting in running up so much debt they were forced to sell. The house was sold and they started moving out in late October, 1999. By early January the house was vacant.
I saw Robert Garwood for the first time with his wife Cathi in late January of 2000 as the new owners of that house next door. Robert and Cathi inspected the house and property, took some video, and left without talking to any neighbors.
I next met Robert, now a widow, on a Friday afternoon in late April. The house had been vacant for over three months and there was intense neighborhood speculation about the new owners. This particular Friday morning a moving truck appeared at the house along with a large RV and small armada of vehicles. While I was in the backyard performing my normal off-Friday yard chores (my work schedule was alternating Fridays off) Marilou wandered out front to watch the movers.
I came out front in the early afternoon and Marilou introduced me to Robert. She had been apparently talking with him for some time while he supervised movers. Robert and I chatted for a few moments before he rushed off. After he left, Marilou started telling me about him, wide-eyed and in hushed whispers. She told me his wife had just passed away of cancer, unexpected. She also said that Robert was a famous Hollywood movie producer coming here to retire and perhaps make movies in Gautier. She told me Robert claimed to know a lot of big-time producers and actors back in Hollywood.
She was almost breathless and her face was flushed; I had never seen her act like that after meeting someone. I also thought I had heard the name “Robert Garwood” before. But I passed off the thought of name recognition as possibly confusing him with someone I’d briefly known over the years.
I saw Robert again a few days later. This time we had a long conversation while standing out in front of our houses. After a brief mournful monologue about the way his late wife had died, he started talking about himself. I clearly remember various claims he made during this conversation including:
- He was close friends with then-Senator Bob Smith (R-NH). Robert claimed I would one day get to meet him when the Senator came for a visit.
- He was close friends with actor Ralph Macchio and his wife. Robert claimed I would one day get to meet them when they came for a visit.
- He was close personal friends with the movie actor Kirk Douglas and family. Once again, I would one day meet them when they came for a visit.
- He was a leading member of the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Group (even though he didn’t own a motorcycle). He explained I would have the chance to meet them all when they had rallies on his property. I distinctly remember being not excited about major motorcycle rallies being held next door.
- He was a former Vietnam veteran. He made vague claims about being with Special Forces doing vague mysterious things in Vietnam during and long after the war ended. I distinctly remember the knowing, sly look he gave me when he cryptically said “not everybody left Vietnam after the war ended.”
- He had many close friends among Vietnam Veterans groups and the MIA/POW movement. He talked about these groups a though he was a leading figure. He claimed I would have frequent chances to meet other veterans. He explained that as a navy veteran myself, although not a Vietnam combat veteran, I would be most welcomed among his many veteran friends.
I remember being intrigued by his claims, but also thought they sounded way too much like bullshit.
My normal personality is to always give a person the benefit of doubt when first meeting them, and let their subsequent actions be the judge. With Robert, on this first meeting, I was already suspicious of him. But I kept my thoughts to myself. In talking with Marilou that evening, I jokingly told her that with a wealthy Hollywood movie producer as next-door neighbor, our lives were about to change.
I could not possibly have known just how horribly correct I was.