Friday, October 17, 2008

The Crazy Life and Mysterious Death
of Rikki Madrigal

Everybody seemed to know the woman from Silver Lake with the flaming red hair.

But no one knows what really happened the night her house burned down.

Scott Ewalt

By Brian Bentley

When Rikki Madrigal walked into a room, she made an instant and unforgettable impression. Six feet tall, with flaming red hair and a fondness for colorful homemade dresses and striped leggings, her appearance suggested a living, breathing Raggedy Ann doll. Not much escaped her large, coal-black eyes. Luminescent, soulful and haunting, they darted back and forth with boundless manic energy.

Rikki loved to smoke and drink, boozing to reach oblivion like a reckless 25 year-old. But by the time of her 40th birthday party, which she celebrated in true Rat Pack style, with a gathering of friends at Musso and Frank in Hollywood, Rikki was a middle-aged woman who desperately needed a time-out. She had always swung wildly from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other; it just seemed part of the natural up-and-down rhythms of her life – to fall in and out of trouble. “That’s just Rikki,” her friends would say with a smile.

In the early hours of July 4, 2006, the party finally did come to an end. Everyone’s friend, that crazy girl Rikki from Silver Lake, was dead, lost to a house fire that made the six o’clock news.

It was 3:46 a.m. when a neighbor called 911 to report that the tiny Silver Lake house at 4014 Effie Street was on fire. The fire department arrived on the scene several minutes later and found Rikki’s distraught boyfriend, Nathan Nociar, vainly trying to extinguish the blaze with a garden hose pointed through her bedroom window. The flames were put down in a couple of minutes, but it was too late for Rikki. She died from a type of suffocation directly related to smoke inhalation. The TV news reported the discovery of “a woman’s badly burned and charred body” and speculated whether the fireworks Nathan had been lighting in the street earlier that evening were the cause.

Rikki’s house on Effie Street
Rikki’s house on Effie Street

Word of Rikki’s death traveled fast. Later in the day, as those who knew her gathered at barbeques, celebrating the holiday was the last thing on anyone’s mind. On a beautiful afternoon when she should have been doing the usual – chatting away, happily consuming food and drink, buzzing on the energy of the fireworks in the air, Rikki was lying instead in the county morgue. The irony was cold and cruel. Outside, her friends partied in the sun. Inside, she lay in a refrigerated crypt where unembalmed bodies awaiting autopsies are preserved in temperatures not to exceed 40 degrees.

The possibilities ricocheted inside the community. Was the fire caused by smoking in bed? A cigarette tossed carelessly aside in a drunken daze? Could it have been an act of recklessness, maybe a firecracker thrown in the wrong place? Or was it murder?

A botched burglary was immediately dismissed as a motive. The house was locked securely and nothing was found missing. Earlier that night, the police had come to the home to settle a raucous domestic disturbance between Rikki and Nathan. He was taken in for questioning and released several hours later. A dog was brought by to sniff for the accelerants used in arson fires and found nothing.

To veteran investigators, the fire was similar to dozens of cases seen every year. Careless smoking mixed with alcohol and the kind of clutter that filled Rikki’s tiny living room often lead to lethal consequences. But unlike most deadly house fires, the cause of this one has yet to be determined. The L.A.F.D. knows exactly where it started. They just can’t rule exactly on how it began and more importantly, who started it. Because of these questions, the case remains an open arson investigation.

In the weeks following Rikki’s death, the city baked as heat records were set for the month of July in Los Angeles. Gradually, her friends returned to pick up the pieces. Many of her blackened belongings were left out in her cramped front yard – clothes, books, photos and memorabilia – the discarded accumulation of her existence, free to be perused or permanently borrowed by anyone passing by. Unburned boxes of sparklers were scattered about. Everything on display was soaked with the sharp stink of burnt wood. Rikki’s two cats, Cornelius and Jazz, both survived the fire. A considerate neighbor left a bowl of food on the front porch for them. The neighbor circled the bowl with a ring of ant poison to keep it protected. For days after, one of the cats sat across the street staring at the house, whimpering in a low moan.

The early ‘90s were a time of transition as the neighborhoods just east of Vermont Avenue began filling up with 20 and 30-somethings who found homes inside a tight-knit community of artists and dedicated bohemians. The township was perfectly named Silver Lake, conjuring up images of a shimmering, sunny summer getaway. For the first half of the decade, it was.

Silver Lake had fostered an alternative living environment for many years – a diverse mix of Latino families, gangbangers, aging bohemians, gays and punks. It had always been a haven for oddballs, offering cheap rents for those priced out of places like Venice and Melrose. Up and down Sunset Boulevard, a crazy quilt of record stores, thrift shops and art galleries sprung up. In 1996, Exene Cervenka, singer for punk legends X, opened You've Got Bad Taste, a kitschy music memorabilia store. It became a community hub with regular live music. Nearby was Spaceland, a nightclub with cheap drinks, a first-rate stage and a stunningly ahead-of-its-time booking policy. There were poetry slams and performance art at the Onyx Cafe and lowbrow art openings a few blocks away at La Luz de Jesus – the gallery housed within The Soap Plant, another pop emporium. Silver Lake was a buzzing hive of creative and economic prosperity.

But what really strengthened the bonds were the enormous house parties. Groups of people had rented large homes that became punk-rock fraternities. With catchy made-up names like the Rockplex and the Punk House, these hostels hosted giant summer barbeques and holiday parties with bands. Hundreds gathered to freak on the fact that it was possible to bring that many people together anywhere on such a regular basis.

As a natural evolution of the big house parties came a smaller and more intimate experiment called the Wednesday Night Barbeques. The once-a-week barbeque circuit rotated to different houses, slowly growing from barely a dozen people to hundreds at the bigger events. It was here that people like Rikki Madrigal found a new home amidst an ever-expanding circle of friends and fellow scenesters. In some ways, the Wednesday Night Barbeques were a postponement of adulthood and a universal desire to keep the spirit of high school alive. There was the gossip, the squabbles, the curious pairing off of unlikely partners, the inevitable clucking of tongues the morning after. For these reasons and more, the Qs attracted fierce loyalty and repeat attendance.

In 2000, Good Morning America sent a TV crew to tape a giant party where Wednesday Night Barbeque regulars gathered in a large house to witness the final episode of Survivor. ABC then switched to live feeds of other happening places where people were watching the show. At the time, it seemed like just a silly footnote to the local scene’s 15 minutes of fame. But if you’d known it then, you could have circled the date as the moment that Silver Lake, as an artistic concept, began to erode.

Rikki in better times
Rikki in better times

Claudia “Rikki” Raquel Madrigal was born on December 5, 1965, in La Mesa, California. In 1973, Rikki’s parents, Claudette and Mike, relocated the family – Rikki and her younger brother Michael – to nearby Santee, a drab, blue-collar town of tract houses that lies ten miles to the northeast of San Diego. Santee is surrounded on three sides by mountains. Sealed off from the cool sea breezes, the air hangs heavy in stillness. It was here that Rikki grew up in a claustrophobic and conservative culture made tolerable only by her tight circle of misfit friends – all fiercely avant garde and completely out of step with their surroundings.

Rikki and her brother were close. As a youngster, Michael was diagnosed with autism and did not utter a word until the age of five. His father says his son is also an alcoholic, and in conversation, Mike slurs words heavily. But the blurs in his speech sound more like a guy waking up from a bad concussion, like someone with organic neurological impairment. Whatever the nature of his difficulties, his condition gave his big sister a lasting desire to protect him.

Santana High School was stratified by a caste system that found Rikki in constant conflict. She was a punk with vivid hair colors, stuck inside a campus that was largely dominated by stoners – bong-wielding, metal music guys with long hair, AC DC t-shirts and a rigid code of macho conformity. From an early age, she developed a toughness to fend off the glares and used sarcasm, as well as her fists, for protection. Rikki developed a tendency to push back harder than she was shoved, a philosophy that always upped the ante in any beef she had. She did not suffer fools easily and would let them know it right to their face. “Rikki’s brain was hard-wired to her tongue and it was always a problem,” says a high school pal.

In 2001, a 16 year-old boy at Santana High, went on a shooting rampage, killing two of his classmates and wounding 13 others. He told the cops he was “trying to prove a point” so the campus bullies who were tormenting him would know he was a tough guy. When Rikki’s dad is reminded of this incident, he sighs heavily. “Moving to Santee was a mistake,” Mike Madrigal admits. “Those were her formative years and there were a lot of drugs. It was not a pleasant place to live. She didn’t fit in.”

Art and music were her salvation. “If she had only $2 in her pocket, she would spend it at an art exhibit in San Diego,” says Scott Ewalt, an illustrator who was close friends with Rikki in her high school days. It was before the Internet made information so accessible and disposable. Rikki and her friends were incredibly sophisticated in cultural aesthetics. They would grab the tiniest bits of information and gather to discuss and analyze them in great detail. Ewalt says that Rikki suffered from a deep sense of alienation, of being ignored. “These kids were basically raising each other because they had been so displaced from their families,” he says.

Rikki was never too hip for the room and was outwardly non-dogmatic in ways that set her apart from the rigid aesthetic of the punk rock crowd in San Diego. She was fearlessly ambitious in a culture where ambition and achievement were frowned upon. Pretending not to care by condemning society was a cop-out that Rikki had no time for. She vowed to leave Santee at the first opportunity. Her mission was to “grab life by the balls” and succeed on her own terms. “She wasn’t suicidal when I knew her,” insists Ewalt. “Rikki had her head screwed on straight.”

Her mother, Claudette, was a devout Catholic and she tried to expose her children to refined art and culture. Music was an integral part of family life. Rikki’s dad was a part-time singer who loved the opera and Claudette tried to interest their daughter in classical symphonies. Instead, Rikki became involved in audience-participation theater, reenacting the part of a scantily clad maid at midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“It all started when she went to see that film,” Claudette recalls. “She was 14. If I had known how disgusting that movie was, I never would have allowed it.” Rikki chafed at her mother’s intolerance and longed for the freedom to assert her independence. Her mom objected to her frequent hair color changes, her offbeat tastes in music and clothes and her strange new friends. While other girls could rely on their parents’ support to help them navigate life, in the Madrigal household, it was often the other way around. Rikki was a glorified maid, staying home a lot to care for her mother, who was frequently bed-ridden with what would be diagnosed years later as Irritable Bowl Syndrome. “I missed so much of her growing up,” Claudette says sadly. “She told me, ‘My friends’ moms take them out for lunch and go shopping. They do things together.’ ”

“They had a classic mother-daughter battle for control,” is how Rikki’s father describes the core issues between Rikki and Claudette. Her Mom’s judgmental thinking and overbearing willpower clashed with Rikki’s, and neither would defer to the other. “She got tired of always being criticized and told what to do,” Mike says.

While her parents went to great lengths to play down and rationalize the conflicts in the Madrigal household, Rikki often told new acquaintances that she had no parents. Her dad stayed out of the conflicts by distancing himself and her superficial relationship with him was only slightly more cordial than her interaction with her mother, mainly because he was rarely around. “Rikki came from one of those 1950’s families where the attitude is you don’t talk about problems,” says Ewalt.

Rikki believed that music and the lifestyle that came with it promised her a world where she would truly belong. Staying rooted in a backwards town like Santee had become a frightening concept. Her parents’ relationship was fracturing down the middle, dividing the family into sides.

She ran away from home for Los Angeles several times in her teens. It happened the first time in 1980, when she was 15. Mike figured his daughter had to be somewhere in Hollywood, so he went up there to bring her back. The only landmark he knew was Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd. “I just went to that spot,” Mike says. “I drove around the corner from the theater and there she was, sitting on a bus bench. It was kind of unbelievable.” His daughter was reluctant to get in the car for the long ride home, but eventually agreed.

When her parents divorced three years later, Rikki was free to go. In 1985, at 19 years of age, she finally left her thankless life in Santee and moved to Los Angeles for good.

For Rikki, Hollywood was the perfect spot to start a new life. The flipside of suburban American repression, it was an anything-goes refuge of choice for thousands of outcast kids who wanted a place they could call their own. She lived on the streets for awhile, sleeping on the floor of a recording studio.

She soon found a part-time job as a taxi dancer at the Club Paradise downtown. The decor was 60’s cocktail lounge with velour couches and red-painted walls. The girls were supposed to be 21, so it is unclear whether Rikki used a fake I.D. All the hostesses punched a time clock, wore slinky retro dresses and slow danced for pay with customers who tended to be lonely regular Joes from the neighborhood, sprinkled with a few over-dressed high rollers. She was taller than most of the other girls and was an instant hit with the Asian businessmen. There were certain entrepreneurial aspects to the work that appealed to Rikki, who always found unique ways to pay the bills. Though the club was essentially a dump, she maintained her own high standards of conduct. One night when a customer got too fresh, she laid him out with a right cross to the jaw.

Scott Ewalt

Club Paradise in downtown L.A.

Rikki sometimes made ends meet as a punk rock extra. Getting acting gigs was easy in the mid 80’s. She was one of many kids who worked for Janet Cunningham, a savvy casting director who rented a loft space named C.A.S.H., next door to the Zero Club – a notorious after-hours art gallery and speakeasy with a $5 cover and all the keg beer you could drink. Janet hosted art shows and oddball theater performances. She knew a lot of unusual characters, and parlayed her Rolodex into a lucrative extras casting business that provided local color and authenticity for TV, films and rock videos. Whether it was punk rockers, bikers, human oddities, street people or lunatics – Janet was the go-to girl for finding background players with a certain look. The same outrageous appearance that rendered someone unemployable was an asset when working for Janet.

A typical punk rock extra shoot would happen in downtown L.A. near Al’s Bar. Legit punks and semi-famous musicians were thrown into group scenes with outsiders – as one extra called them – “Melrose Avenue poseurs in $500 outfits.” The conditions were sweatshop oppressive. Actors dressed as skinhead “aliens” in Hefty garbage bags would be kept cooped up for hours in cramped, hot warehouses. The punks would deliberately wreck scenes by misbehaving on camera. The ironic thing is the frustrated producers got exactly what they thought they wanted, but really didn’t – anarchy on the set.

Rikki’s favorite part as a background extra was in Fast Forward, a corny and dated 1985 film about a troupe of dancers from Ohio who leave for New York to compete in a big-time competition. Unfortunately, like all of Rikki’s brief brushes with acting glory, her scenes were cut from the final edit and never made it to the screen.

Most of Rikki’s life involved a certain degree of theatrics and it all started with her look. She carried herself in a way that was decidedly out of the mainstream, long before living outside of the mainstream became so hip. Her fervent and meticulous sense of bohemian style could be traced back to the trailblazing, first-generation of ‘70s punks and ‘60s Mods. If sex, drugs and rock and roll are the unholy trinity of guilty pleasures, Rikki found a way to squeeze thrift-store fashion into that list.

“By the early ‘80s, she was dressing twenty years ahead of her time,” says her high school friend, Sherry Durrell. “Nowadays people take those looks for granted.” When Rikki wasn’t decked out in a baby doll dress, a style popularized by Courtney Love, she favored vintage clothes. If she couldn’t find an outfit she wanted, she’d sew it herself. One of her favorite creations was an elaborate Marie Antoinette gown. The early awareness of her own personal style and her commitment to authenticity made her stand out from a sea of wannabes all trying to look like someone else.

In 1986, after a year in town, Rikki settled into her first real apartment, a tiny place on Citrus Avenue, located off Hollywood Boulevard. She eventually became best friends with Jane Bainter who lived in a big house with musician Perry Farrell. His band, Jane’s Addiction, is named after her. Rikki’s apartment was just a few blocks away from Club Lingerie, a small venue with a vibrant street scene by the front door that sometimes upstaged what was going on inside. With her bright red hair and incandescent personality, Rikki made an instant impression and she developed tight friendships with dozens of prominent musicians. Local bands and out-of-town groups that came through Los Angeles on tour, looking for a crash pad, turned her apartment into a one-stop salon of sorts for members of Gun Club, Nick Cave’s Birthday Party, Bauhaus and 45 Grave.

Rikki was friendly, open, fearless and aggressive. She was generous with her drug stash and always willing to play the hostess, always wanting to have people over to her place. But Rikki was also an intuitive insider, someone who even the most jaded and street-wise punk could trust. She couldn’t play a note of music, yet she profoundly understood the trials and tribulations of struggling musicians, wielding her knack for becoming an instant confidant.

Getting elegantly wasted and dressing right were priorities Rikki shared with those in her inner circle and whenever she and pals like singer Dinah Cancer descended on the local Denny’s coffee shop, it was a full-on punk rock fashion show. “I would go out every summer to visit her and it was amazing,” says Scott Ewalt. “They were usually high as kites and just looking fabulous – 22 year-olds on top of the world.”

Drugs were everywhere in Hollywood, yet even the hardest-partying kids were a little intimidated by Rikki’s defiant openness. “I was at the Zero in Hollywood in 1987,” an acquaintance recalls. “We were there for a wedding after-party and when it was over, a few of us went back to her house. In front of everyone, she started shooting heroin. I had seen a lot in my time, but it still made me very uncomfortable. I walked into a corner of the kitchen, trying to get as far away as possible. I stared at the wall thinking ‘Great, now what?”

As a testament to Rikki’s predilection to take alternate routes through life, she loved to climb buildings to get into rock shows for free. Once in 1987, in downtown L.A., she scaled the towering wall of the Variety Arts Center in a vintage dress, slipping through a second-story window to the shock of others without so much as a run in her stocking. Another time, at a dance club, she clambered like a monkey up a thirty-foot scaffolding to reach the DJ in his tiny booth high above the floor. Blown away by her dedication, he quickly agreed to her demands to eject whatever crap music had been playing on the turntable.

Rikki was committed to getting high. But she was just as committed to creating a career in the music business. By 1989, her knack for aggressive networking and following up with the people she met in clubs had taken her from a fantasy of managing rock bands to her first real industry job – as a secretary in the royalties department inside the landmark Capitol Records building. When Rikki was successful in straightening out a tangled mess in a matter involving international licensing, she was promoted and given her own office, complete with secretary.

She had the kind of energy and charisma that attracted people. Rikki learned everything on the fly and was smart enough to figure things out with very little formal training. When EMI bought Capitol Records in 1992, she was flown by the company to New York City to interview for a major position. The job as a royalties analyst required solid accounting skills. She would be in charge of making sure the label and the artists got paid every time their copyrighted songs were used in commercials, TV shows, samples and anywhere else.

Rikki had done her homework to learn the basic principles of accounting, most of it spent in long hours at the library and by watching and learning from other people. Despite a candidate pool of over 200 interviewing for the job, management was duly impressed by her hard work and people skills. When news came that the job was hers, the celebration lasted for three days.

After a string of largely disposable boyfriends, Rikki had finally found a true soul mate in Nathan Nociar, a guy she met at a punk show in 1990. She told people it was love at first sight. Nathan and Rikki shared matching chemistry, lust and an insatiable desire for the same music. She stood 6 feet and Nathan was four inches taller. They made an imposing couple. Says a friend, “From the first moment she laid eyes on him, she thought he was absolutely gorgeous – so funny and goofy and cute. He had this grunge/lounge style she adored. They loved to dress up and go out.”

Rikki and Nathan at the Peppermill in Las Vegas
Rikki and Nathan at the Peppermill in Las Vegas

Nathan worked as a tech in CD duplication at Doctor Dream Records, an Orange County independent label owned by media-giant Polygram. His relationship with Rikki was fraught with complexity and contradiction. They each seemed capable of inflicting intense misery on the other, all the while nurturing a deep loyalty, staying together despite his often blatant infidelity and her compulsive need to kiss other men in public, right in front of him. Rikki was a regular kissing bandit and in that regard, Nathan displayed a swinger’s bemused patience.

Carlos “Cake” Nunez, a former writer for legendary punk music fanzine, Flipside, remembers how fast it could happen. “One time I was at her house and she just jumped me and knocked me to the floor and started kissing me like mad. I was completely embarrassed and then Nathan walked into the room. He was like, ‘Hey Cake, that’s my girlfriend you’re making out with.’ He was smiling and completely cool about it.” Despite her fondness for smooching boys, did Rikki and Nathan have an open relationship? “Not in her mind,” another friend insisted.

Some praised Nathan as frequently being the voice of reason whenever Rikki flew into a rage. She was prone to hauling off and hitting him, real spousal battery stuff, and when she went into a suicidal funk, he would do his best to bring her out of it. When they were drunk, both were capable of almost deranged behavior. There was a notorious story of how a drunken Nathan refused to leave a party until a friend offered to drive him home. Babbling incoherently in the back seat, he opened the door to jump out of the moving car. When his buddy behind the wheel tried to calm him down, Nathan started kicking at the back windows and beating on him with his fists. Just how would Nathan and Rikki’s volatile personalities interact if they both got in violent moods at the same time? “It wasn’t pleasant,” one of her girlfriends says. “She told me once, ‘When Nathan and I fight, it’s not typical. I mean, we really fight.”

In the fall of 1992, with Rikki’s EMI job waiting, she and Nathan moved to New York City. Even with all the rough spots in their relationship, the couple planned to get married as soon as he could find employment.

New York and the new gig presented challenges that would have intimidated even the most well-adjusted, seasoned music industry vet. Rikki worked hard to fit into the mega-corporation mindset. The pressure was on to prove that the relocation expenses had been in the best interests of the company. She was up to the challenge, but after a couple of months, the lifestyle she had brought from Los Angeles began to get in the way. There was little problem in handling the responsibilities from 9 to 5. But the after-hours – 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. – were a disaster. To unwind every night, Rikki drank and drugged herself senseless.

She had major difficulties connecting with anyone at work and hated the cold weather. When the holidays arrived, there were no party invitations and no social networks like the ones in L.A. Nathan couldn’t find a job, so the homesick couple was left alone with a lot of time on their hands. Old habits resurfaced and gained momentum. Soon they were both using heroin again and this time, the slip became a slide into full-blown addiction. It was a cliché, but Rikki had gone to New York and become a junkie. Her great new job and new life didn’t last six months.

By early 1993, Rikki had been let go by EMI. Her heroin use had a firm grasp around everything she was trying to put together. Back in Los Angeles, she and Nathan had no place to live, so they reluctantly moved into his mother’s apartment in Garden Grove. Rikki found some comfort by hanging out again with close buddy, Kevin Wood, her beloved ex-boyfriend who she had lived with in the late 80s. Kevin was an extremely talented but struggling musician with a horrific drug problem that only seemed to be getting worse. The renewal of their friendship was to be short-lived.

On March 17, 1993, Kevin was found dead in a trashy Hollywood motel room. His new girlfriend, Marla Smith, discovered his body and identified it to the coroner. Empty heroin balloons lay on the dresser. Rikki was devastated. By that summer, she and Nathan were completely strung out, spending a lot more time on the street.

No one could quite pinpoint when things really got out of hand, but what had been minor busts in the past for small-change offenses like shoplifting, gradually became bolder and more brazen crimes – purse-snatching in broad daylight. She and Nathan were broke and sick from drug addiction. “They would rent a car with fake I.D. and then grab purses from rich women in Beverly Hills,” says Jane Bainter. “Nathan would be in the car and Rikki would steal the purse, run down the street and jump into the car and they would take off. They would usually immediately feel bad about it and want to return the purses. I have no idea how many times this happened.”

It is a fallacy to assume that Rikki’s bold new criminal turn could be rationalized as just another case where drugs got the better of someone. She was getting a physical and psychological rush from jacking people on the street. Sure it was boredom and alienation and a degree of manic desperation, but it was also a disturbing sense of entitlement. Answerable to no one, Rikki felt like she could get away with pretty much anything.

But around 1 a.m., on the night of November 14, 1993, Rikki and Nathan chose the wrong place to continue their minor crime spree. The couple was arrested by the LAPD for multiple 211s – robberies they committed in the vicinity of MacArthur Park, a place in Los Angeles that was famous in the ‘50s for its family fun and paddleboat rentals. But in the years that followed, the area had gradually declined and now drugs and the hazardous process of scoring them had become the chosen recreation for many after dark. It is not clear exactly who they were robbing that night, but there were so many cops patrolling the park that the sight of a six-foot tall women with bright red hair running down the street with a stolen purse was sure to draw a response.

After they were picked up by the police, Nathan and Rikki were handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car. Leaving them alone was the first mistake the cops made. Their second mistake was neglecting to remove the keys from the ignition. Rikki’s wrists were so skinny from her smack habit, she managed to slip off the handcuffs. At that point, Nathan told Rikki to make a run for it. But she couldn’t just let them take away her boyfriend. It was easier for her to steal a police car than leave a loved one behind. She wriggled over the seat, started the ‘83 Ford LTD and hauled ass out of there.

Less than a half-mile away, at the intersection of Alvarado and 9th Street, Rikki’s ride to freedom came to a violent halt when she plowed into a Toyota pickup. Raul De La Torre, the driver of the truck, was hospitalized with injuries. He sued both her and the city. The negligence lawsuit was eventually settled and she wasn’t charged for stealing the police car. Though it was never officially acknowledged, the prevailing theory held that the Los Angeles district attorney was too embarrassed to prosecute.

The three felony counts for robbery were another matter. Rikki and Nathan pleaded not guilty to charges of purse snatching and then struck plea bargains. Sentenced to a year in County Jail, they each spent about six months behind bars. Rikki’s friend, Karen Coplen, says Nathan became something of a celebrity in jail after fellow inmates saw the TV reports of the stolen cop car incident. Tall, with shoulder length hair, he was nicknamed “Eddie Vedder” by fellow inmates. While other hipsters might have been beaten up, Nathan was told, “Wow, dude, your girlfriend really stood up for you.” Rikki’s jail time was more problematic and she was frequently placed in solitary confinement. “They wanted to make an example of her because she made them look so bad,” Karen says. “To the cops, Rikki was an urban legend.”

From left, Steve Stokes, Rikki, Jane Bainter and Kevin Wood in 1992

After she got out of jail, Rikki began to put her life back together and stayed clear of heroin for the time being. By late 1994, she had landed another job in music licensing, this time at World Domination Records, a boutique label owned by members of the band Gang of Four. She was doing very well financially. “Rikki was earning more money than most of the people she knew,” says Jane Bainter. “She traveled a lot on an expense account, usually to check out her favorite festivals like CMJ in New York and South by Southwest in Austin. She loved her work and it gave her the money to travel and do what she loved even more, which was to see live music.”

Rikki moved around a lot. “I call it the ‘just’ syndrome,” says writer and musician, Gwynne (Nipper Seaturtle) Kahn. “Rikki had always just moved, just got a new job, just made some kind of huge transition in her life.” Rikki finally settled into the small, rented house on Effie Street in 1998. Since she had never graduated high school, she eventually got her GED and then enrolled in a business school to further study accounting. Rikki couldn’t afford the tuition and got a student loan. When she failed to pay it off, the collectors never stopped calling and it became a stressful, long-standing debt.

In 2000, she got a lucrative royalties gig at Sony Music, hobnobbing with corporate attorneys by day, club-hopping all night. Always loyal and protective of her friends, she branched out to become a one-woman headhunter, inclined to help anyone get their foot in the door with recommendations and referrals for jobs. This hands-on approach and follow-through stood out in an indifferent world where a simple e-mail reply can be cause for rejoicing.

Stephanie Baltierra, who co-founded Blessing of the Cars, the annual event celebrating Kustom Kar Kulture, recruited Rikki as a volunteer for Eric Garcetti’s 2001 campaign for the Los Angeles City Council. Rikki began canvassing the neighborhoods, going door to door to extol Garcetti’s virtues. Impossible to turn down, she made a startling impression with her dyed crimson hair and frenetic enthusiasm. Eventually the campaign thought better of it and decided it would be safer to stick Rikki on a phone bank. “I think they were worried about their image,” Stephanie says.

Her last job was working for Universal Music Group, where she remained through good times and bad – no mean feat in a crippled industry where job security is an oxymoron. If only the rest of her life could have employed the same single-minded discipline she brought to her career.

Melle Steagall met Rikki in the early 90’s when Rikki was working at World Domination and Melle was a drummer in a band signed to the label. In the spring of 2006, she bumped into Melle in a hallway at Universal Music and he was stunned to learn that they both worked in the same building. Rikki had grown increasingly miserable under her present boss and felt that some of her musically disinterested co-workers “might as well have been selling vacuum cleaners.” When she told all this to Melle he thought for a moment and then asked her to come and work for him in his department at Uni.

It was a natural fit. Everyone in Melle’s accounting department loved Rikki. “Music wasn’t her job. It was her religion,” he recalls fondly. “She was a bright girl, all business, smart and cutting edge. She stood out, not just because of her red hair, but because of her wit. You could share things with her. She ‘got’ it.”

A knack for delivering comprehensive research was one of the assets Rikki brought to the job. “She could track down any of our artists and all the monies owed to them everywhere,” says co-worker, Kellyn de la Torre. “Nobody knew how she could find all that information, but she did it.”

Rikki and Melle shared the same philosophies and loved the same bands. He understood she wasn’t in it just for the money. She drove an ‘87 Toyota Celica with 220,000 miles on it. Her work uniform of Converse high tops, blue jeans and impossibly cool and vintage rock t-shirts gave her an unmistakable look of authenticity, even for someone employed at a record label. She seemed like a woman who really had been out in a club until 2 a.m. the night before, more typical of someone in A&R at an indie label and not one of the corporate bean counters responsible for tracking money and wielding a spreadsheet.

She turned Melle onto her favorite hair dye, Manic Panic Vampire Red, a jar of which still sits in his office. One day she shared her secret for quick, cheap coloring jobs, a must for struggling musicians. “We’d get packets of Red Cherry Kool Aid,” he recalls. “It had to be the sugarless kind to work right. It looked awesome in your hair for a couple of days and people always loved the fruity smell.”

Celso Chavez, who used to play in the acclaimed Silver Lake band, Possum Dixon, also worked with Rikki at Uni and was inspired by the passion she put into music. “If she saw something honest about a band, she wanted to nurture it. Her positivity was infectious. She commanded attention in the workplace because she was always out for the truth.”

Though Rikki and many of her girlfriends had tough and confrontational exteriors, on the inside she was a bruised romantic. She just wanted to be loved for who she was by a punk rock knight in shining armor. But she couldn’t shed her attraction to men with problems – the kind you could save and the kind that might save you back.

“Nathan and Rikki were the sweetest people you could find when they were sober,” says Gwynne Kahn, “But she always had some difficulty or drama – lost jobs, hard times, and an intoxicant-fueled relationship that was as volatile as Sid and Nancy.”

The couple loved to get hammered together. It was high school in perpetuity, a refusal to recognize the limits of the human body and the inevitable ticking of the clock. Punk rockers who drink and drug well into middle age suffer an absurdly high mortality rate. Rikki and Nathan played drinking games where each goaded the other to keep up, shot for shot, until both passed out. The party would never be over as long as she was still standing.

It was difficult to sustain healthy thoughts in the hamster wheel of Rikki’s chaotic life. The concept of rehab was something she tried to avoid. Her past experiences had convinced her it was moronic and dumb. “AA is just a cult,” she said. “I can do better myself.” Rikki had quit doing heroin, but her drinking, fueled by midlife angst, had increased, so her fluctuating weight was an issue. She told others she was worried that if she became fat, Nathan would lose interest. The booze did affect her appearance, but she worked hard to keep it under control. When Rikki turned 40, it was with no small amount of pride that she could once again fit into the dress she wore to her high school prom.

“When you’re pushing 40 and the rest of the world is moving on, you cling to those people who’ve stuck by you,” says Jim Miller, Nathan’s former roommate. “Rikki told me once how worried she was about growing old. She didn’t think she could maintain her lifestyle much longer.”

Rikki and Nathan didn’t just bond over drugs, booze and their love of bands like Guided by Voices and the Velvet Underground. The couple was deeply dependent on each other economically. Rikki told a friend she would have to move out of her house if Nathan could not continue to share the rent. Nathan was also supportive, moldable and easy to keep in line in a way that Rikki absolutely needed. He gave her the response action she craved whenever it was time to up the ante in a dispute. But this was in neither of their best interests.

Dorit Guerrero is a frequent host at the Wednesday barbeques and she and Rikki grew close in later years. “It was tragic,” she says. “Here were these two decent people who fell in love and were completely wrong for each other.” Like a lot of folks, Dorit was not privy to intimate details about the couple’s relationship. Rikki tended to talk about Nathan only when problems reached epic proportions.

By 2003, Rikki and Nathan were on the outs, so she turned to Jeff Wrieden, an old boyfriend from San Diego she was had known since high school and still loved dearly. Jeff had epilepsy and had survived a monstrous drug habit. He was loyal to Rikki and she knew she could trust him. “Jeff was her true soul mate,” a friend insists. “She was going to look for that same kind of quiet, tall, dark-haired boy for the rest of her life.”

Rikki and Jeff started dating and she told people they were going to get married. Just before Thanksgiving on November 23, 2003, he had a seizure, fell down a flight of stairs and died from a blow to the head. When Jeff’s body was brought to the funeral home, Rikki applied makeup to his face so he would look his best. This was the second major man in her life she had lost and there was an inevitable sense of fatality in the air. One by one, many of the kids who had made up Rikki’s wayward punk crew from San Diego were gone. “Mom,” she would say, “all my friends are dead.”

Scott Ewalt

Rikki and Jeff Wrieden in a sea cave at Solana Beach, summer 1984

A few months later, at about 3 a.m, the phone rang next to Karen Coplen's bed. There was no need to check caller ID – only one person ever called at that hour. She picked up the receiver. "Hello, Rikki," she said. On the other end of the line, Rikki was distraught, caught up in another late-night crisis. "I want to die," she said, in a crackly slur. Karen knew the drill. Always the dutiful and patient friend, she did her best to calm her down and just listen.

Dorit also got late-night phone calls from Rikki threatening suicide. The calls were frequent and repetitive with a numbing cumulative effect. It was often difficult for Dorit to tell if Rikki was exaggerating or dead serious. Sometimes Rikki talked about how she would literally beat Nathan up. If Nathan physically abused her in return, it was never mentioned. “She didn’t just threaten suicide,” Dorit maintains. “She threatened to commit homicide too.”

Early one morning in 2004, Rikki called Janet Housden – a confidant who used to play drums in the original line-up for punk legends Redd Kross – to tell her she was horribly depressed about her relationship with Nathan. She said he didn’t love her anymore and maybe he had met someone else on the Internet. Again she talked of killing herself. Janet made her promise not to do anything crazy. Thirty minutes later, Rikki called back, nearly incoherent. “I took some pills,” she said.

Janet immediately called 911. Paramedics went to Rikki’s house, took her to the hospital and pumped her stomach. This was the real thing, a suicide attempt, and had Janet not woken up to answer the phone, it may have been too late for any kind of intervention. She was shaken by the event, but relieved that she had been there to help. Rikki, however, felt like confidentiality between friends had somehow been violated. Several days later, she left an angry message on Janet’s answering machine. “Thanks a lot!” she yelled, clearly in a rage. After that incident, Janet turned her phone off when she went to bed.

The lonely ghosts Rikki carried with her were always calling for company. In the summer of 2005, she held her usual pre-party before the Sunset Junction, the Silver Lake Street Fair. Rikki’s house was packed with people when she had a knee-wobbling overdose on mushrooms and hard liquor. She left with friends to walk the two blocks to Sunset Boulevard, but things worsened as the day progressed. “I was standing next to her, waiting for The New York Dolls to come on,” says a friend. “I have never seen anyone so completely out of it, just gone. I felt like I was looking at death. She kept falling over. If she hadn’t been surrounded by other bodies, she would have landed face first on the concrete.” The party ended early and people left shaking their heads.

Rikki’s flair for confrontations led to many visits at home from the police. Over the years, the Silver Lake beat cops became all-too familiar with her address. Domestic disturbance calls were common and everyone knew the routine. Since they lived together, Nathan was told to spend the night elsewhere. Often with no “elsewhere” to go, he would sleep in his car, right in front of the house.

Her final week of life was happy. Rikki came to a Wednesday Barbeque and announced to all that she couldn’t wait to celebrate the Fourth of July. Her best friend, Jane, took her to see The Devil Wears Prada and they made plans to catch the live taping of Sonic Youth on the Jimmy Kimmel Show.

“She and I had become estranged, and for some unknown reason that I am still grateful for, we hooked up again the week she died,” Jane says. “We got these free screening passes and went to the movies, goofing around and acting very silly, just like old times.”

But a few days later, on the morning of the Fourth, disaster struck. The chronology of events, as described by arson investigator Jim Thornton, began about 10 p.m., when Nathan started lighting fireworks in the street in front of the tiny house, roughly 30 or 40 feet from Rikki’s front door. A true aficionado, Nathan had assembled an impressive arsenal of bottle rockets. Around 11 or 11:30 p.m., her landlord, who lived next door, told them to knock it off because the neighbors were complaining. The couple went back inside the house and began to argue. According to Rikki’s police statement, she and Nathan were standing in the kitchen when she pushed him and he responded by throwing a drink of water in her face.

Their argument intensified as beers were tossed back and forth. Rikki became enraged and called the police. The tape of that 911 call begins with the sound of someone whooping and screaming, “Whoo Hoo,” the sarcastic party cheer that either means we are having a great time, or the exact opposite. The disembodied, howling voice is genderless. Is it Nathan mocking Rikki’s phone call to the cops? Or is it Rikki screaming for help? On the other end of the line, the operator repeats several times, “Hello, this is the Los Angeles Police Department. Hello…? Do you need police or paramedics?” Finally, Rikki’s voice is plainly heard shrieking hysterically, but the words are unintelligible. The tone in her speech can be interpreted as either the sound of someone pushing another person away or reacting to a sudden, overwhelming calamity. Maybe it’s two drunken people fighting to speak into the same phone.

The contrast between the 911 operator and the caller(s) is striking. There are savage bursts of emotion on one end of the line set against the mechanical monotone of a seasoned response professional. The call is so muddied it sounds like experimental noise music. It could be an outtake of The Beatles recording of “Revolution #9.” Finally the voices stop and there is a long eerie minute or so where Euro-type chorale music wafts from the stereo. The cops are tracing the line. Amidst scattered reports of “shots fired in the air,” and other police radio chatter typical of the night before The Fourth of July, the location is finally confirmed. “That’s 4014 Effie Street, 10-4.”

When they arrived after midnight, they cops found Rikki standing in the street a half block east of the house wearing only a towel. “My boyfriend tried to kill me,” she said. Nathan was handcuffed and the cops began sorting things out. Rikki was uncooperative and upset and Nathan told them she tended to go ballistic whenever she got drunk.

With little choice after the domestic disturbance call, the police took Nathan to the Northeast station where he was checked for warrants. Cleared, he was given two options: a night in jail, or find a motel. Nathan opted for a nearby Comfort Inn, but when the cops drove him to the motel he had no money to check in. So he headed over to a neighborhood mini-mart for a cup of coffee. A short time later, according to his statement to police, he walked back to the house to sleep in his car and noticed smoke coming from the bedroom window.

At this point, Nathan told investigators he used his house key to unlock the large metal security door and entered the house. He walked through the living room but when he reached the bedroom door, he couldn’t open it more than a few inches because something was blocking it. He didn’t see Rikki anywhere so he ran outside and grabbed a garden hose. The water from the hose damaged his cell phone, he said, and it was impossible to make an outgoing call to 911. When a neighbor finally called to report the fire, it took less than three minutes for the units to respond.

In about 90 seconds, the firefighters knocked down the flames and entered the smoldering structure. They had heard Rikki crying: “Help me, help me.” But by the time they got to her, she was dead. Even though she was lying on the floor near the bedroom door, it was wide open. Empty Skyy vodka bottles littered the kitchen and overstuffed ashtrays spilled out of every room.

The Living Room
Margaret Wynn

Rikki’s living room. The cause of the fire remains “Undetermined”

The cause of Rikki’s death was not smoking in bed as has been widely speculated by friends. Arson investigators are positive the fire started in a stack of papers on top of a milk crate of records, just inside the front door, a contradiction of Nathan’s statement that he witnessed the flames coming from the back bedroom. Talking to Jim Thornton, one gets the impression of a seasoned pro frustrated with the answers he’s getting and unable to let Rikki simply rest in peace. Nathan made a statement to police the night of the incident, but on the advice of his attorney has subsequently refused to talk to anyone.

“In my mind, he is not off the hook,” Thornton says. “There are a number of inconsistencies in his statement. He’s indicated that when he went in, there was no fire in the living room; it was all in the bedroom, which we know is not accurate. He says he couldn’t get the bedroom door open – but when the firemen found her, the bedroom door was open. He’s not offering any help to explain those things. There are a lot of questions I have that aren’t answered and the only people who can answer them … one of them is dead and the other isn’t talking.”

For friends of Nathan’s who remain fiercely loyal, the idea that Rikki’s death was anything more than an accident is impossible to fathom. “No way is Nathan responsible, you could never get me to believe that,” says his friend, Nick Scott. “He was so careful with his cigarettes around that place; he’d snuff them out in cups or in a bottle of beer.” Dorit agrees, adhering to the popular rationalization that Rikki just fell asleep with a lit cigarette in a house filled with fireworks, and that what happened was sadly inevitable, given those circumstances. When told about the investigation, she says, “If the cops thought Nathan was guilty, he’d be in jail now, right?”

Witnesses and neighbors confirm the L.A.F.D. version that the fire originated in the front of the house, which would have made it impossible for Nathan to reach the back bedroom. As for Rikki, she had no exits from her point of view. Barred windows surrounded the house. There was a side door by the kitchen, but the only way to get to it from her bedroom was to wade through the inferno in the living room.

The question begs to be asked. Why would her boyfriend lie to arson cops about his actions on the night Rikki died in their home? Certainly after the domestic disturbance earlier in the evening, he would come under suspicion. But maybe the answer lies in something as simple as panic coupled with massive ego. Nathan couldn’t save Rikki, so he wanted at best to play the hero, to make it look as if he did everything he could. If this is true, it is the only explanation tolerable to those in Rikki’s circle who harbor grave doubts about his lack of cooperation with the authorities. More than one has said the lies could be a cover up for an act of anger, or retribution, or idiotic passion so reckless it could be construed as negligent homicide.

Toxicology tests on Rikki took nearly two months to complete. Her blood-alcohol level was .28%, three and a half times the level considered to be legally drunk. The carbon monoxide level in her lungs was 11%, typical for that of a smoker. This finding rules out smoke inhalation as the cause of death. Thornton says she died from spasms of the larynx, the result of the sudden sucking in of hot air, gases and toxic smoke. He believes that when the fire woke Rikki, she likely rose out of bed and stood up – right into a layer of thick, blazingly hot smoke that had descended from the ceiling. A couple of quick breaths and the larynx starts to spasm, choking off all air to the lungs. Though Rikki sustained first and second degree burns to parts of her upper body, she suffocated quickly.

The fire was so intense, it melted everything attached to the walls, including the smoke alarms the landlord claimed were installed. Fireworks were not the cause, even though, in surrealistic fashion, they could be heard going off as the house burned. An overturned candle has also been ruled out as the source. The most likely scenario is that a cigarette or some other spark landed by the front door and slowly burned. The two hour block of time – between the cops leaving with Nathan and him returning to the house – is critical to determining the cause of the blaze.

A trip to the LAFD’s Arson/Counterterrorism section is like pulling back a curtain of time to Los Angeles in days gone by. The moment you enter the building, you can feel its history. Photos of fallen firefighters line the institutional blue hallways. Investigator Thornton’s office looks like a high school math teacher’s, with piles of papers everywhere, waiting to be sorted and graded. When he researches answers to questions on the case, it’s not from a fancy new laptop computer but from a trusty old 3-ring binder.

The investigator has many doubts, some fueled by his expertise in interpreting human nature. “It’s extremely rare that fire victims don’t return to claim their belongings,” he says. “Even the poorest people will rummage through their personal effects, trying to salvage something. After the fire, Mr. Nociar just left everything there and never came back.”

Thornton’s department took the unusual move of filing a request with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to recreate the fatal scene by staging a “test fire.” This was no small order. At a cost of around a million dollars, the ATF was to build a full-scale replica of Rikki’s approximately 750-square-foot house – an exact reproduction, right down to the furniture and the throw pillows. They planned to set it on fire and Thornton believed the results of the test fire would indicate how the blaze spread and whether it was accidental.

Arson Investigator Jim Thornton
Arson investigator Jim Thorton
“We'll follow the leads wherever they take us.”

In July 2007, after Thornton had waited nearly a year for approval, the ATF opted to call off the test fire. Based on the evidence, they decided the test results and the money spent would yield the same conclusions – that Rikki died in a house fire of undetermined origins. This has changed nothing in Thornton’s mind. “Maybe this story will jog someone’s memory and cause them to come forward with new information,” he says.

The perception among family and friends that Rikki died from smoking in bed is due, in no small part, to a Fire Department spokesman who guided the next of kin through the house shortly after the fire and offered them only preliminary findings that run contrary to the official conclusions.

“A man, I believe his name was Brian Humphrey, showed us her mattress with a hole that was a foot and a half wide where her head would have been. He told us she had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette,” Claudette says.

Jim Thornton gets a little hot under the collar when this information is relayed to him. “It was improper for him to comment on the investigation to the family,” he says. “There were a number of holes in the mattress, which is not unusual for a fire of this sort. But there’s absolutely no physical evidence whatsoever that the fire originated in the bedroom.” (Since the publication of this story, Brian Humphrey has stated that he did not speak to the family at the scene.)

Rikki’s dad, Mike Madrigal, is a former firefighter. Two years after his daughter died at the hands of a menace he dedicated his life to saving others from, he has yet to make a follow-up call to the L.A. Fire Department for more information on the blaze. One of the components of grief is the practicality of getting past it, in not knowing more than you need to. “In the end, does it really matter?” he asks wearily.

The “Queen of the Indie Rock Scene” holds court
Bart Cheever

The “Queen of the Indie Rock Scene” holds court

Nathan was unavailable for comment and his attorney confirmed that his client would not talk about the story. The arson investigation remains open. Nathan did however, close out his My Space page about six months after the fire and he has not been seen at any social function by anyone that I spoke to since Rikki died.

It can be said with little degree of hesitancy, that Rikki did not have a lot of luck with men. She had three boyfriends of real note. Two died in her lifetime and the third is a person of interest in the arson investigation surrounding her death. And while that shadow hangs over her memory, it should be noted, that in life – through will and sheer force of personality – it was usually Rikki who overshadowed everyone she came in contact with.

Stricken with an orphan’s sense of abandonment, Rikki tested her friends like a child tests their parents. The only thing more powerful than her self-destructive behavior was her ambition and the preternatural resiliency to get up every morning and go to work. Music was meaning and validity. In that messianic calling there was purity and purpose, the counterpoint to the false behavior of the people she believed had let her down. Rikki was a tortured symbiosis of two dueling personas, and that debilitating struggle never worked itself out. She couldn’t make up her mind, so karma and consequence made it for her. At 40 years of age, she had literally fallen asleep, night after night, with lit cigarette in hand, her body and brain disabled by booze. The fact that maybe Rikki had help, that maybe she was pushed to her death, is a secret she took with her down that long corridor to the final show.

Rikki’s death came to represent to many a sense that reality had come crashing down on an entire generation of aging hipsters who never grew up. It is more than a little sad what happened to people like Rikki, the pioneers of an L.A. punk ethos that wound up gentrified, distilled and invaded by outsiders searching for the next big thing. So many of the artists and musicians who made it possible for Joe Iowa to throw on a porkpie hat and pay too much for a crummy house in Silver Lake are gone now. For either financial or psychological or chemical reasons they could not keep it together. The younger kids and the business pros who flocked to the area in later years were shrewd enough to adopt the mannerisms and affectations, but not the demons that gave the community its life, its struggles and its soul.

On Saturday July 8, 2006, a few days after the fire, an informal wake was held for Rikki at Mr. T’s nightclub in Highland Park, one of her favorite bars. Soon thereafter, mourners gathered at a chapel to share thoughts and reminiscences about their departed friend. Universal Music Group, Rikki’s last employer, picked up all the costs for her memorial service. Over a hundred people crowded inside the chapel and more were left standing out in the hall. Her family was shocked by the large turnout. “You would have thought a celebrity died,” Claudette recounts in amazement. “Somebody said that Rikki was like this comet streaking across the sky. Well, she was our comet.”

One of Rikki’s wishes was to be buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the grand monument to generations of legendary and infamous cultural icons. Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Bugsy Siegel are buried there. It seemed a particularly fitting choice, but much to the disappointment of several of her friends, her mom vetoed the idea, taking Rikki’s cremated ashes back to Santee with her. Rikki had left there long ago to live in the freedom she desperately needed. Now, 20 years later, she was reclaimed, returning in an urn to the place she had escaped from.

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