Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
Previously on California City, I mean, do do you really think that anybody could just snap and kill their wife? You have 60 seconds remaining. There's no one in this story who is as proud or as disgraced as Ken Dony can help thousands of people get their money back in California city and then 18 years later, Ken murdered his wife. It's hard to hold both of these versions of him in my head, but both are true. And that's the reason I want to tell you about Ken's crime, because he's the most extreme example of something I've noticed about almost everyone I talked to for this story.
Heroes can be villains, victims can be perpetrators, no one is all bad or all good. I'm Emily Guerin and you're listening to California City episode for a quick warning about this episode.
It does contain graphic descriptions of violence. I've been putting off asking Ken Doni about the murder. Instead, I'd asked him all about the fraudulent way that Nat Mendelsohn sold land in California city.
I'd asked him about the student program and the two plots, the salesman's lies and misrepresentations, the federal trade commissions punishment. I'd had more than a dozen calls with him.
You had a prepaid from Can Frameline Can for Emilienne family out there and Prevalently and Lamela phone calls.
But by the 21st minute of our seventh phone call, I couldn't avoid it any longer.
I, I need to explain to the listeners the reason that you're in prison. And so I wanted to know what you would like to say about that.
Well, first of all, you were starting to fade away a little bit, so I don't know if you changed. You're on a cell phone, right?
He spent the next minute trying to hear me better, although he could have been deflecting. OK, so can you hear me now?
Yeah, I hear you. But very interesting question. Again, I was advised by some lawyers not to even do this at all, this podcast interview at all, just for the simple reason that high profile anything is is never a good thing for a prisoner.
Can worries about his safety in prison? This one time another inmate bashed his face in with a mop handle and he'd only been locked up for a year when someone slit his throat and he needed emergency surgery. He believes he was attacked because he's a former federal prosecutor.
I'd like to say really at this moment, Mike, I'd just like to say no comment. Can never did tell me exactly what happened, but I read all four of his parole hearing transcripts plus a bunch of newspaper articles, which is how I know everything I'm about to tell you. The summer of nineteen ninety five, when Ken was forty nine years old, his wife Nina told him she wanted a divorce. They both worked at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley.
He'd taken a job at the law school and she worked in fundraising. But Nina was unfulfilled. She had a Ph.D. She wanted to be an academic. She told Ken she wanted to move out of state to get a teaching job.
And Ken thought she wanted to take the children with her.
They couldn't handle stopped eating. He stopped sleeping.
He refused to move out of the house. He tried to talk her out of it.
It wasn't working. What happened just after 2:00 a.m. on the morning of October 27th is really gruesome. Nina's mother believes Nina was asleep in the study when Ken walked in and stabbed her 29 times with a chef's knife. Their son, Phil, told the police he heard his mom screaming, I don't want to die, said he heard his dad scream back. You should have thought of that before.
For years, Ken said he didn't remember the details, but at his first parole hearing in 2008, he told the commissioners he and Nina were arguing when she came at him with the knife.
He said he grabbed the blade and then blacked out. Ken pled guilty to second degree murder. He said he didn't want to put his kids through a trial. A judge sentenced him to six years to life in prison. He's been locked up for 24. There's a story can often told me about something the judge said during his sentencing, and I think it says a lot about Ken, Judge said what happened to Mr. Dorne can happen to anybody, quote unquote.
He went on to and there's a cautionary tale here.
What did he mean by that? What happened to Mr. Dony can happen to anyone. In other words, he's seen it happen before, maybe not to the exact same way, but in other words, none of us I mean, that could be the title of a memoir. For me, it could happen to anyone. Could happen to anybody. Meaning for you. What's it the tragedy that occurred? The reason I'm in prison. But is it something that happened to you?
Because those were his words and no one. I understand. I understand that. I guess my I guess the way my initial reaction to that is, yes, we're framing it as well, framing it as it could happen to anyone or it happened. It sort of takes the agency out of it like a thing that that happened.
Not a thing that I know you did. I know. And I didn't say that the judge did. So he must have had his reasons, the rhetoric that you just use with regard to agency, with regard to concepts of free will or the lack thereof and so on, that's what you're talking about, right? Yeah, I mean, I guess free, less free will and more just responsibility. Well, I plead guilty. I took responsibility.
This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded. Can't really take more responsibility than putting yourself in prison to can the federal prosecutor pleading guilty is the ultimate form of accepting responsibility.
It is showing remorse. Actions speak louder than words, Ken said at his third parole hearing. It's ineffable. And maybe that would be true if Ken didn't also imply with his words that Nina was partially to blame. I possibly could have won a manslaughter and been out in 11 years. I knew that. And nevertheless, and you obviously don't know any of the circumstances of the prelude and so on and so forth, but what happened? But you don't know the whole story, but the bottom line is this.
Despite my having other choices available to me, I felt too much sorrow and remorse. I've taken another life.
I read through all four of the transcripts of Ken's parole hearings, and I see it again and again, Ken referring to the murder as the tragedy that occurred or what happened or a failure, a failure like stepping on the gas instead of a break and killing a pedestrian.
It could happen to anyone. The parole commissioners picked up on this and they used that as justification for keeping Ken locked up. We fail at things all the time, sir, one commissioner said. But the taking of a human life rises to a much higher degree than failure.
And it's noteworthy you chose that word in ordinarily we don't nit pick words when it comes to our hearings, but it's noteworthy that we're not speaking to an unintelligent man suggesting you don't choose your words lightly. I felt like if Ken wouldn't say what he did, I had to and I've actually been thinking a lot about what the judge said. I mean, do do you really think that anybody could just snap and kill their wife?
You have 60 seconds remaining. That's what a judge who had been a family law judge before he became a criminal lawyer says. So I'm not going to disagree with him. Can get three, 15 minute phone calls each time we talk. We had time for one more, so we hung up. I didn't think you would call back, given what I just asked him. But then 50 seconds later, this is global talent.
You have a prepaid card phone and an inmate at this California health care facility in California to accept this call or dial five. Now, thank you for using global Kilink.
Hello there. Hello. I'm here. Yeah. So to finish my thought it in no way, Emily and I figure you might be misjudging what I'm telling you versus how I'm feeling.
OK. Ken worried. I didn't understand how he felt about the tragedy that occurred. He said he wasn't the kind of person who showed emotion, especially in public.
And I'm not on a radio interview in a room full of other inmates and guards prancing around and noise. You can't possibly believe in my ability to emote in this interview with you is not somehow. By the circumstances in which we're talking, so they'll take what I'm saying in any way, Emily, as minimizing what I consider to be my offense, the first three times Can was up for parole.
They denied him. But on May 8th, 2019, something changed. That's after a break. Money messes with everything, especially these days, this is uncomfortable, tells those stories like how the economic downturn affects romances and friendships and how getting laid off or having to lay people off can change the way you see yourself.
This is uncomfortable as a weekly show for Marketplace about life and how money messes with it.
The show was funny, a little tense and just a little uncomfortable, like talking about money is in the first place. Subscribe to this is uncomfortable wherever you get your podcasts. I'm John Horn, host of the podcast Hollywood, the sequel. How would the industry's brightest minds fix what's broken in Hollywood this time? Homeland producer Lesley Linko clatter on making sets pandemic proof. Think about one piece of equipment and how many hands touch that piece of equipment during the day, whether it's a flag or a dolly.
You know, we're a petri dish on a film set. Listen to Hollywood, the sequel on Apple podcast, or wherever you get your podcast. Ken's parole hearings have a certain rhythm. First, the commissioners have everyone in the room introduce themselves, front row lawyers, back row friends and family. Ken's son, Phil Pnina, sister Abby. Then the commissioners go over paperwork, Ken's behavior in prison, his anger management and victim's awareness classes. The psychologists assessment that, Ken, is it low risk of reoffending?
If he gets out, then they start rehashing Ken's marriage and the events leading up to the murder. But in Ken's fourth parole hearing, the way he talked about the crime, I don't know. It just felt different.
Whereas before he might mention that Nina wasn't taking her medication or how he'd been in a near catatonic state on the night of the murder or how he lost 30 pounds this time he didn't offer any excuses. He said, quote, I murdered Nina. I did it and I'm forever ashamed and there's nothing I can do to remedy that. I was in a rage about her not loving me anymore and wanting to leave. I was controlling. I was manipulative, angry.
This time, he said he was the one who grabbed the knife out of a box while they were arguing he'd been packing up the kitchen, preparing to move out. I was really surprised.
I mean, it was such a reversal from the tragedy that occurred. And at the end of the three hour and 40 minute hearing, the parole commissioners decided to grant him parole.
I lose my forearm on the table and robbed for a couple of minutes while the commissioner continued his decision.
I talked to Can two days after his parole hearing, I'm on cloud nine and seven seven. I'm happy. I'm grateful, I'm relieved. And I have nothing but hope, which, you know, prior to the hearing I didn't have.
But Ken wasn't out yet. In California, the governor can deny the parole of anyone in prison on a life sentence.
So for three months from May until August, the twenty nineteen can waited anxiously to see if Governor Gavin Newsom was going to let him out.
In July, I went to visit him in prison officially. My visit was to fact check unofficially, it was because I was curious what it can look like, what his voice sound different. Would he be more open with me in person? As I drove up Highway 99 through the Central Valley, I thought about all the hours we'd spent on the phone.
How are you fair to Midland? How's that? Fair enough. How's your how's your morning so far? Oh, it's just been a thrill a minute.
Wish you were here, as we say, on the shores of Tahiti, his favorite brand of prison coffee, CUFI, KDC. It's a freeze-dried, instant coffee, his sexist compliments.
And I hope you take this the wrong way. Good girl. So he's saying good, good lady or good woman or whatever.
Good job works, too. Good job. There you go. Thank you. His own thoughts on death and God.
You know the prayer. Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. But if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Have you ever heard that prayer? Yeah. OK, well, as a kid and later, I always thought that was a little morbid about the if I die before I wake business, I mean, I'm not the only one to think of. It's been said many times by many different people.
Yeah. So I decided to compose a counterpart for that prayer as a as a as a possible replacement for kids especially. And it goes like this. Loving God with your sweet my please stay with me throughout the night. Help me sleep and dream away till I wake up with you to pray. And then and that is entitled Dream Away.
At eight a.m. on a Sunday morning in July, I arrived, I was wearing the outfit that I'd selected based on the prison guards recommendations, no red, orange, blue or green to avoid being confused for an inmate or a guard, no underwire bra, no electronics. So I couldn't record no cup of coffee for Ken to save him from Kefi. 10 pieces of paper, only nine one dollar bills in a Ziploc bag. Inside the visitor's waiting room was filled with women, small children and hard plastic chairs.
I checked in at the desk where a guard catalogued my accessories. One hairband, two earrings and a watch. I lifted my shirt and the cuffs of my pants and walked through a metal detector. I stepped through a series of doors that closed behind me. Before another one opened. I followed a long sidewalk to another building and a guard buzzed me into the visiting room. An old man with olive skin, bushy eyebrows and crazy Beethoven hair was waving at me from a table.
Ken. He was smaller than I imagined and his voice was softer than it was on the phone. I offered to buy coffee, so we walked over to the vending machine, which was behind a thick red line that only I could cross. When Ken stepped on it, a guard barked at him to move back. We sat down with Styrofoam cups and a pack of powdered doughnuts. A prison guard handed me a freshly sharpened pencil and I pulled out my 10 sheets of paper with facts about Ken that needed checking without the time restrictions of the prison phone calls.
Ken went into professor mode, lecturing me on the fine details of his life.
It was it was exhausting. And after three hours, I was completely drained.
At the end, Ken asked for a photo. He flagged down the inmate who carried around a point and shoot camera and I handed over the tokens had purchased at the front desk. We stood with our shoulders nearly touching in front of a large abstract painting. And Ken told the guy over and over, count to three before you press the shutter, as if he had never held a camera before. The photo seemed like a perfect time to say goodbye. I folded my 10 sheets of paper, I returned my pencil and I told Ken I had a six hour drive ahead of me.
But Ken didn't get the hint. He asked about public radio. He asked if I'd ever considered becoming a lawyer. I was a sponge and he was a strong pair of hands wringing every last drop out of me. In early August of twenty nineteen, Ken got word parole denied in a letter explaining why Governor Newsom said he was still troubled by Ken's lack of insight into his crime until he can explain why he violently murdered his wife. He remains a danger to society.
Ken is appealing the decision. Because Ken has been locked up since 1995, he had no idea what was happening in California City, Ken had no idea that salesman at Silver Saddle were selling a modern day version of Nat Mendelson's dream. He had no idea that state investigators believe more than 2000 people have spent nearly 60 million dollars on that dream in the past eight years alone.
He didn't know that the guy in charge of it all, the president of Silver Saddle, was someone he'd met years ago during his negotiations with Great Western cities. Train. Where's your. No one in California city is all bad or all good. California City is written and reported by me, Emily Guerin, R-1 champion Knicks James Kim and Mike Kessler edited and produced this episode, mixing by Valentino Rivera Original Music by Andrew Eappen. Andrew also set Ken's prayer to music.
California City is a production of slyest studios. L.A. is where I was born and raised. For years, it's where I've documented life in this city, not the pop culture headlines, but the stories of people and communities that hardly get recognized.
The Cowboys. Good morning.
I brought L.A. wherever I travel to around the world as a journalist, and now I'm back home.
And I said, look, look, those cowboys, there are black cowboys.
I taught them how to do everything he knows. Can you imagine, like, being exercised from your home when you're a baby and then all of a sudden you just get released into the world?
Kobe, Kobe, Kobe, Kobe, Kobe made people feel as confident as he was like, how do you dress? He's like, you know, like a casual gangster. No.
I'm Walter Thompson. Hernando's. The show is about trying to understand what it means for me to call L.A. my home from Alere Studios. This is California Love. Listen, wherever you get your podcasts.