August 18, 2001
It was late, maybe half past midnight, and when Nini turned her car onto her friend Jana’s street, both of them noticed that all the lights were off at Jana’s house.
“Where’s Bruce?” Nini wondered aloud, and Jana said she had no idea.
Nini pulled her car alongside the curb to let Jana out. They’d had a great time at the Eric Clapton concert at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, but both of them had an early day ahead. Nini, perhaps a bit more cynical than her friend, or maybe wiser in the unhappy ways of the real world, suggested that Jana take care when she got inside her house: Who knew what may be lurking in the dark on the other side of the threshold?
“When you get inside,” Nini said, “flash the lights on and off, and open and close the door a few times, so I know everything’s okay.”
Jana said she would do that, and she got out of Nini’s car, clutching the tee-shirt she’d bought at the concert. Nini watched as Jana opened the front door with her key and went in. Nini waited, then saw the lights flash on and off four times. She guessed that everything must be all right, so she put her car in gear and headed home.
That was the last time anyone—except Jana’s presumed killer—ever saw her. It was early in the morning of August 18, 2001.
After that, it was as if Jana Carpenter Koklich, a 41-year-old multimillionaire real estate tycoon, and the wife of 42-year-old real estate maven Bruce David Koklich, simply vanished. And while the nation wondered that same summer about the fate of Chandra Levy, or the next spring about Utah’s Elizabeth Smart, or the winter after that about Laci Peterson, or the winter of the next year about North Dakota’s Dru Sjodin, or the spring after that about Salt Lake City’s Lori Hacking, all of them were eventually found, either living or dead. But Jana Carpenter Koklich is still out there, somewhere, lost to the world.
Her husband, Bruce David Koklich, however, is serving 15 years to life for her murder—even though no trace of Jana Carpenter Koklich’s body has ever been found.
Going missing: the idea that someone can simply vanish without a trace, leaving loved ones behind to grapple with an agonized confusion that has no end, no resolution, no answer, no explanation—this is today’s unspoken nightmare, the modern equivalent of voracious wolves in the forest for the people of the Middle Ages, or involuntary possession by evil spirits in still earlier times. As an unquantifiable danger beyond human control, it is the very absence of information, the utter lack of something solid to grip, anything in the way of some glimmer, any idea of what happened, that makes the unexpected disappearance an undefined universe of the worst of all fears. Over the abyss of silence, the darkest imagination reigns supreme.
For all the weeks or months that Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, Dru Sjodin or Lori Hacking were missing, one thing was as clear as it was unmentioned by the major news outlets across the country: as vanished women, though each was the subject of hours upon hours of national publicity, they were hardly alone. They were, in fact, the example, not the definition of the problem: for every missing person who became the subject of Larry King’s nightly gabfest, hundreds, probably thousands, of other young women never got the de rigueur fifteen minutes (or sometimes much more) of fame, or really, tragedy, as it was encapsulated by an appearance of the grieving relatives on national television.
There were simply too many of them, of the missing; and unless one was very lucky, or had influential friends—enough to get airtime on one of the national networks—too few really cared. These infamous disappearances—Levy, Peterson, Smart, Sjodin and Hacking—became symbols of what some would call an epidemic of violence against women throughout America, even if they represented only the tiniest fragment of the true dimensions of the problem.
No one knows how many people are reported missing every year in the United States, but it must be in the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands. A great many of these missing people are women, significantly over half. The vast majority soon turn up, however—revealed to be only temporarily missing as a result of some misunderstanding, or less frequently, voluntarily absent because of some difficulty with family or money or other such immediately pressing trouble.
Every police department in the country has a protocol for dealing with missing people: if the vanished person is a competent adult, and if there is no reason to suspect foul play, generally nothing is done. After all, there is no law against someone leaving the places and people he or she might know, simply because things have gotten out of hand. Over and over, police agencies have taken missing persons reports from frantic friends and relatives, only to discover that the person reported has simply taken a break from routine, or at worst, has relocated to another part of the country, to start over. The advent of inexpensive systems of long-distance transportation, interstate highways, jet aircraft—a hallmark of the industrial and post-industrial ages—has made the unexpected disappearance a phenomenon of the developed world, and a relatively recent one at that.
There are, however, some types of missing persons reports that do get police action, and quickly. Small children almost always prompt police action, as do elderly people who might reasonably be seen to be at risk. And there are those whose disappearances cry out, almost from the start, that something untoward has happened, like those of Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Dru Sjodin and Lori Hacking.
Such was also the case with Jana Carpenter Koklich, who went inside her house early on the morning of August 18, 2001, and was never seen again. But there were a number of aspects of Jana’s disappearance that made her case even more peculiar than those of the networks’ Famous Five. While those cases got most of the public attention, indeed hours of exposure on the American village that cable television has created, it was only because of the peculiar circumstances surrounding the timing of Jana Carpenter Koklich’s disappearance that her name never became a household word even larger than the others. Because, only a little over three weeks after Jana vanished, terrorists struck New York and Washington, D.C., with airplanes laden with fuel and people, and from that point forward, the news reporters had many other things to talk about than one missing woman.
But Jana’s disappearance, when compared to those of the far more publicized disappearances, was even more unusual.
For one thing, Jana Carpenter Koklich was the daughter of Paul B. Carpenter, formerly one of the state of California’s most controversial political figures, and also a man who once pulled off a stunning vanishing act of his own.
And for another, there was all the money at stake in Jana’s disappearance—around $6 million in hard assets, and maybe millions more, in potential future income. That someone might have a nefarious interest in seeing Jana Carpenter Koklich disappear, permanently, seemed obvious. It was the unrelated destruction of three American landmarks that shoved Jana’s disappearance off the screen, and off the front pages; otherwise, she might have been more of a household name than any of the others.
But whether known or obscure, Jana’s untimely disappearance still meant there were three big questions:
First, if she was dead, who killed her?
Second, was Jana Carpenter Koklich really and truly dead?
And third, if she wasn’t dead, what the hell was going on?
But to get a grip on these questions requires a brief side trip into the often sordid world of California politics, and how it directly affected the life of Jana Carpenter Koklich, missing person. It’s only when one understands the conditions that made Jana’s vanishing unique that one can begin to understand the final, tragic mystery that makes her case one of the saddest, by far, of all of those which over the past few years have captivated the public eye.
So let’s turn back the clock a bit, and take a look at the milieu that lay behind Jana’s mysterious disappearance.
Carlton Smith wrote the New York Times bestselling The Search for the Green River Killer. An award-winning journalist for The Los Angeles Times and The Seattle Times during the 1970s and 1980s, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting in 1988. His books include Mind Games, Cold Blooded, The Prom Night Murders, Cold as Ice and In the Arms of Evil. There are more than two million copies of his books in print.