Love Her to Death

The True Story of a Millionaire Businessman, His Gorgeous Wife, and the Divorce That Ended in Murder

John Glatt

St. Martin's True Crime

CHAPTER ONE

The Prince of Reno

 
Darren Roy Mack was born in January 1961, the eldest son of Dennis and Joan Mack. As the scion of one of Reno’s oldest and most successful businesses, Darren was proud of his family and its role in the city’s colorful history.
Present-day Reno’s origins date back to the 1850s, when gold and silver were discovered around Virginia City, Nevada, with the legendary Comstock Load fueling an unparalleled mining bonanza.
In 1859, an enterprising local resident named Charles Fuller constructed a log bridge over the Truckee River, linking Virginia City to the California Trail. He soon made a fortune, charging prospectors a toll as well as providing accommodation for overnight stays.
Two years later, Fuller sold his toll bridge to Myron C. Lake, who expanded the hotel, adding a restaurant and livery stable. He renamed it “Lake’s Crossing” and, using his toll profits, bought up the nearby land until it became the largest town in the newly consolidated Washoe County.
In 1868, Lake hit the jackpot when the Central Pacific Railroad reached Lake’s Crossing, five years after it had started laying tracks in Sacramento. Then, in a brilliant business stroke, Lake deeded some land to railroad construction superintendent Charles Crocker in exchange for a promise to build a depot at Lake’s Crossing. And from now on all trains to and from California passed through his crossing.
On May 13, 1868, Crocker proudly named the new town Reno, after Major General Jesse Reno, a Union officer who was killed in the Civil War.
For the next fifty years, Reno flourished as a business center. But at the dawn of the twentieth century, when the gold and silver mines finally dried up, the always resourceful Renoites turned their sights to new ways of making a buck.
In 1906, Reno’s financial future was assured when William Corey, the president of the United States Steel Corporation, arrived in town to pursue a scandalous divorce. For under the lax Nevada State divorce laws a person only had to prove state residency for six months, to be eligible for seven grounds for divorce. Most other states only allowed adultery as the single ground for divorce, and the required residence period was far longer.
In the wake of the highly publicized Corey divorce, Reno gained notoriety as “the divorce capital of the world.”
In 1926, the famous “Reno Arch” was erected on Virginia Street, right across from where Darren Mack’s Palace Jewelry and Loan pawnbrokers would stand half a century later. The stunning downtown neon gateway astride Virginia Street had been built for the 1927 Transcontinental Highways Exposition. But it proved so popular that the decision was made to keep it permanently, with the then Reno mayor E. E. Roberts offering a prize of $100 for the best promotional slogan for the arch.
The winner was “Reno, the Biggest Little City in the World,” which became world famous and is still in use today.
In 1931, the State of Nevada made it even easier to get a divorce, shortening the residency requirement to a mere six weeks. And after the state legislature legalized casino gambling, Reno became the original sin city, more than a quarter of a century before Las Vegas was on the radar.
The new laws instantly created a thriving industry, with hundreds of hotels, boardinghouses and other amusements catering for the thousands of people coming to get divorced every year. There were also dozens of divorce ranches, where handsome cowboy gigolos flocked to try and ensnare rich, older soon-to-be divorcées who decamped to Reno for the six weeks it took to dissolve a marriage.
Movie stars like Mary Pickford and rich heiresses like Barbara Hutton started coming to Reno for the “quickie divorce.” And in 1939, writer Clare Boothe Luce immortalized her own experiences in Reno in her hit movie The Women, starring Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Norma Shearer.
By the late 1950s, Reno’s divorce industry was waning as other states loosened divorce laws. But the casinos soon took up the slack, and gambling then became the town’s life blood.
Dennis and Joan Mack first arrived in Reno on their honeymoon in 1957, falling in love with the place. And they could not have picked a better time to start a pawn business, as all the casinos springing up all over town meant more and more desperate people needing their services.
*   *   *
Dennis Alan Makovsky was born in Alameda County, California, on July 29, 1935, but the family soon Americanized its name to Mack. Dennis grew up in Oakland, California, and after leaving school he became a salesman for Rogers Jewelers.
Soon after he turned twenty, Dennis met a pretty young Mormon girl named Joan Rae Goodsell, who was a couple of years younger. Joan’s father, Royal, was one of eight children, growing up in a tiny Mormon town in Idaho.
“My mom’s side of the family was Catholic,” said Joan. ”They came over from Portugal to Hawaii and then to the United States.”
The Goodsells were a close-knit, hardworking family. Royal was a highly skilled gunsmith and his brother Clarence was a sign painter, hand painting all the Reno casino signs in the fifties, when the town first took off as a gambling mecca.
“They were always very industrious people,” said Joan, “Never asked for anything from anybody else.”
In 1957, Dennis Mack married Joan at her father’s house overlooking the Truckee River. They honeymooned in Reno and decided to settle down there and start a pawnbroking business. They rented a store, using their wedding presents as merchandise to sell.
In January 1958, the Macks opened Palace Jewelry and Loan on Commercial Row, Reno, backed by Joan’s father, Royal Goodsell. Located in the thriving downtown casino area, between Harolds Club and the Palace, the new store was in the same three-story building as a wedding chapel, offering half-hour package deals.
And from the beginning Dennis Mack’s skills as a salesman and knowledge of fine jewelry would prove a winning combination.
“He was a great salesperson,” said his nephew Corey Schmidt, who would later run Palace Jewelry and Loan. “He knew his jewelry. He knew how to deal with people.”
When they started, Dennis did all the pricing, while Joan kept the books. They lived in a trailer on the edge of Reno, saving every penny to plough back into the business.
And on January 31, 1961, Joan Mack gave birth to a boy, who they named Darren Roy.
“He was a very sickly child,” remembered his mother. “I spent a lot of time with him during the years he was growing up.”
With his father being Jewish and his mother half-Catholic and half-Mormon, Darren was baptized as well as circumcised and later at thirteen would be bar mitzvahed.
“We were a mixed marriage,” said Joan, “[but] we never forced religion on the children.”
Eighteen months after Darren was born, a second son named Landon arrived to complete the family.
“We grew up very meager,” Landon remembered. “[We] lived in a trailer with the family until they bought their first home. I remember we used to eat whatever we caught or shot.”
Both Mack boys went to The Holy Child, a local Catholic parochial school, before going to the Roy Gomm Elementary and St. Thomas schools. And little Darren seemed to have a photographic memory and craved knowledge.
“He had some qualities that were extremely interesting,” said his mother. “He wanted to learn. He wanted to read before even going to school.”
As toddlers, Darren and Landon spent a lot time at Palace Jewelry and Loan, where they were fussed over by the employees. During vacations they would help out in the store, where they were always given the latest toys to play with.
Their parents’ hard work soon paid off, and they moved into a nice house in a good area of Reno. Dennis Mack was an excellent businessman and knew how to connect with people.
“Everybody loved him,” said Joan Mack. “Dennis would sit there and talk to the people as they came into the store, listened to their problems. He had a way about him.”
Dennis also expanded into real estate and other successful ventures all over Nevada and California, making him a millionaire by the end of the decade. Many of his best business deals were done on a handshake, with bankers, who considered him a personal friend.
“The family has always done that,” said Landon Mack. ”People would go out and loan money on a handshake, because no matter what … they knew they would get paid.”
In 1968, seven-year-old Darren Mack joined the thriving family business.
“It was in my blood,” he later told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “I worked here every summer. I would walk from St. Thomas School to work here every day after school.”
Over the next few years, Darren learned the pawnbroking business, knowing that one day it would all be his. He started from the bottom, cleaning toilets, sweeping the floors, and learning to polish jewelry. And he soon showed a natural flair for the business.
Tall and handsome, Darren was very popular at school, but often had a difficult relationship with his younger brother, who was always in his shadow.
“We tormented each other,” recalled Landon. “It was just like brothers.”
*  *   *
In 1969, Palace Jewelry and Loan expanded, moving into its present location on North Virginia Street’s Casino Row. Occupying an entire block and standing in the shadows of the Reno Arch, the spacious new store was an immediate success.
“We went from ten to thirty employees in two weeks,” recalled Joan Mack. “It was pretty wonderful.”
That same year, eight-year-old Darren started a lifelong friendship with a young girl named Stephanie Finch. They would go to Reno High School, later becoming romantically involved one summer.
“Our families were members of the same synagogue,” said Stephanie, “and we grew up in religious school from the time we were eight.”
At the age of twelve, Darren had his first sexual experience with another girl. Years later he would tell psychologist Dr. Joseph Plaud that he had felt “scared and excited” when he first discovered masturbation.
In 1974, Darren was bar mizvahed and a year later he went to the Daniel C. Swope Middle School, where he started to get in shape, adding pounds to his once scrawny frame.
Every Thanksgiving and Christmas the extended Mack family would get together at a cabin they had built at Donner Lake on the Truckee River in North Lake Tahoe. They went hunting, sailing, and snow skiing, and during these family trips Darren and his third cousin Corey Schmidt became inseparable.
“I was closer to Darren than my own two brothers,” explained Corey, who was four years younger. “All of us children were always together as much as possible. We were blessed to have so many family gatherings.”
It was at the cabin that Darren first learned to hunt with a rifle, later becoming a first-rate marksman.
“We were both hunters,” said his brother, Landon. “The whole family was.”
In 1977, Darren began attending Reno High School, throwing himself into all sporting activities. But he especially loved baseball, dreaming of one day turning professional.
“Darren was a great athlete,” said Stephanie Finch, “and excelled in any sport he put his mind to.”
In his junior year, he was selected to play baseball for Reno High, serving as backup third baseman. He helped his school team win the Nevada State Championship playoffs, and was named co-MVP of the match.
“Darren was a jock,” said journalist Amanda Robb, who attended Reno High in the early 1980s, “and the culture of the school gave him a lot of status. He definitely had the coin of the realm.”
Soon after starting at Reno High School, Darren lost his virginity to a fourteen-year-old girl.
“I was happy, excited, and euphoric,” he later told Dr. Plaud.
Corey Schmidt said his handsome cousin had his pick of girls at Reno High School.
“He was a stud,” said Schmidt. “Darren always had a girlfriend. He was out dating and doing things.”
The rich teenager also had his own set of friends, who cruised around Reno in expensive sports cars.
“Darren was the leader of a posse of boys who would get into trouble and do bad-boy things,” said Robb.
But Joan Mack says her son could always talk his way out of trouble.
“Darren got in a few fights in high school,” said his mother. “He was a very good negotiator, and he usually [walked] away and the other person became his good buddy.”
*   *   *
Shortly before his graduation, Darren Mack attended his first Erhard Seminars Training (est) meeting and was smitten with the controversial self-motivational group. Founded in 1971 by Werner Erhard, a onetime Encyclopedia Britannica sales training manager, est was a radical program that offered people self-enlightenment over two weekends in an intense sixty-hour communications course.
The first est course was held in a San Francisco hotel in 1971, and over the next couple of years training programs spread like wildfire all over the United States and later Europe.
After taking his first course, Mack became a firm convert of this group, viewed by many as a dangerous cult. Over the next few years he would work his way up through the organization.

 
Copyright © 2012 by John Glatt