30 years ago today, what came to be known as the Wonderland Murders became the Porn Industry’s first big scandal. And neither the AIDS Healthcare Foundation nor AIM nor Donny Long had anything to do with it.
On the afternoon of July 1, 1981, John Holmes arrived at the cheap Ventura Blvd. motel that he shared with his girlfriend, Dawn Schiller, and passed out, exhausted. Schiller says he screamed in his sleep. On the television, Schiller watched police removing bodies from a home in the hills not two miles up Laurel Canyon Blvd.
Holmes would be at the center of what the LAPD and the national media would call the Wonderland Murders.
By 1981, Holmes had been addicted to cocaine for several years and, though he was still one of the world’s most recognizable porn stars, then as now that didn’t equal a stable income if his “coke dick” and erratic behavior on set caused production delays. Instead, he was feeding his and Schiller’s addictions by being an errand runner for the “Wonderland Gang,” a loose affiliation of rough thieves and drug dealers based out of a house on Wonderland Avenue in the Hollywood Hills.
On June 29, Holmes had orchestrated the gang’s robbery of nightclub owner Eddie Nash (A Nash-like character is played with terrifying skittishness by Alfred Molina in the movie “Boogie Nights”). Nash, no shrinking violet, responded by using Holmes to let Nash operatives into the gang’s house two days later.
There are few people alive who really know what happened next.
We know that Holmes was in the Wonderland house when the grisly murders were committed. We are told by Schiller that, on the morning of July 1, a visibly shaken Holmes returned to the Glendale home of his estranged wife, Sharon, wearing bloody clothes. We know that the police found Holmes’ handprints on the bed where one of the murders took place.
What we don’t know is if Holmes committed any of the murders or just facilitated them.
Jill Nelson and Jennifer Sugar put together an excellent oral history called “John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches”. After combing through the police reports and interviews with people who knew Holmes, Sugar believes Holmes didn’t kill anyone.
“I think that Ed Nash found out that John set up the robbery at Nash’s on June 29th,” Sugar told me, “and so he forced John to lead the killers to the Wonderland house—or else. John chose to lead the killers to the house and to let them in or leave the door unlocked, like he had done at Nash’s. My gut feeling is that the killers forced John to watch the murders. I will always wonder why John wasn’t also killed, but Nash seemed to have liked John and for whatever reason, he didn’t want to kill John, but still wanted to make sure that he fully understood, ‘Don’t fuck with Ed Nash.’”
Oddly, the only known survivor of the events surrounding the Nash robbery and Wonderland murders is Eddie Nash himself. Imprisoned for cocaine possession following the murders, and then for racketeering-related crimes later on, Nash has been a free man living in Los Angeles since 2003.
Following the murders, Holmes had seven years left to live. He cooperated, and didn’t cooperate, with the LAPD. He fled with Schiller to Florida and was later apprehended by the police after Schiller tipped them off. He spent some time in jail. He stayed clean for extended periods and remarried Laurie Holmes, who still remembers him fondly.
“People like to demonize John but he was an angel,” she told me.
Schiller, who once cared for the ailing Sharon Holmes in Oregon, takes a different view.
“Redemption is a lot of work, but people have done it,” she told me. “I’m not sure [John] was capable of it, though.”
Holmes died of AIDS in 1988.
Some required reading:
- John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches (review, interview with authors, purchase link)
- The Road through Wonderland: Surviving John Holmes (review, interview with author, purchase link)
- Porn Valley Two-Headed Donkey Tour: The Wonderland Murders (create your own Wonderland)
- Johnny Wadd’s Meatier “Flesh”: An Interview with Bob Chinn