With the 30th anniversary of The River’s Edge, Yesterday’s Crimes looks back at the South Bay murder that inspired what Vice calls “1987’s most polarizing teen film.”
Milpitas, Calif., a strip of suburbia sandwiched between the sprawl of San Jose and the butt-end of the Bay, is known mostly for its landfill and the stench that emanates from its marshland at low tide. What little notoriety it had came from The Milpitas Monster (1976), a zero-budget creature feature produced by local high school kids featuring “50 tons of living trash on a rampage.”
Sleepy Milpitas got the kind of national attention it never wanted, however, when 14-year-old Marcy Renee Conrad’s body was found in a ravine near the Calaveras Reservoir on Nov. 5, 1981. But it wasn’t that Conrad had been raped and strangled that got the notice of The New York Times, and, eventually, Hollywood. It was what happened to her afterwards.
Conrad, a 9th grader at Russell Junior High School who filled notebooks with her vivid poetry, skipped her afternoon classes on Nov. 3, 1981. She met up with Anthony Jacques Broussard, a hulking 16-year-old from Milpitas High. Broussard, who went by his middle name, had found his mother dead in the shower when he was a much younger child. His close friends said that he seemed a little strange after that, but he was considered harmless despite his size.
Broussard was anything but harmless on that November afternoon though. He took Conrad back to his house where he raped and strangled her on the couch.
”I was on drugs: LSD,” Broussard later claimed, trying to deflect blame. “Marcy had a tendency to mouth off. She was sitting on my lap. …Basically, what happened, I just grabbed her and she was dead.”
After killing Conrad, Broussard drove her half-naked corpse into the hills and dumped her in that tree-lined ravine. A day later, he was hanging out with some friends in an arcade parking lot.
“I just killed Marcy,” Broussard boasted.
His friends thought he was joking so Broussard took them to see the body. After poking Marcy with sticks to make sure she wasn’t a mannequin, Broussard’s friends didn’t tell the cops or their parents. They were stoner kids, or rockers. They weren’t going to snitch, even though one of them used to date Marcy. Instead, they told more of their friends.
“Jacques is a partner of mine,” one of Broussard’s friends later explained. “He needs help. He’s gone wacko, but I wouldn’t narc on him.”
Shaggy-headed rockers piled into cars and drove up to the hills to see the dead girl. Marcy’s ex-boyfriend even brought along his eight-year-old brother. One girl tore a coveted radio station patch off of Marcy’s jeans. (We can only wonder if the patch bore the logo of KSJO or KOME, the two dominant hard-rock stations of the time.) Another teen covered the body with leaves to help Broussard hide the evidence.
These viewings went on for two days before someone finally spoke up, setting off a media firestorm fueled by what would now be called hot takes.
“I have never seen a group of people act so callous about death in my 15 years of police work,” Sheriff’s Sgt. Gary Meeker told the Washington Post.
The press blamed a pervasive moral decline, weed, heavy metal, the 1960s, and television for the teens’ indifference to the murder of their friend.
One thing that wasn’t blamed was race, even though Broussard was African-American and Conrad was blonde and white. All of Broussard’s friends who kept their mouths shut were also white.
It turns out many of the teenagers stayed mum simply because they were afraid of being blamed for the crime. For others, it just took a while to set in. One teen confessed that sudden visions of Marcy’s corpse haunted him during class.
Broussard was sentenced to life in prison due to the harsh nature of the crime, sparking off the trend in juvenile justice of trying teens as adults. One of Broussard’s friends also got three years for covering up the body.
”This movie never should have been made,” then 19-year-old Terry Dehne, Marcy Conrad’s best friend, told director Tim Hunter after a special screening of the film.
“The last thing The River’s Edge needs is to invent more sleazy characters,” Glenn F. Bunting wrote in The Los Angeles Times, criticizing the addition of an older, sex-doll loving burnout played by Dennis Hopper. Bunting covered the murder for the San Jose Mercury in 1981. The movie also strayed from reality by casting Daniel Roebuck, a white actor, as the killer.
But hostility towards The River’s Edge didn’t extend much beyond Milpitas. Critic Roger Ebert called it “the best analytical film about a crime since The Onion Field and In Cold Blood.” Gary Singh, who covers South Bay neighborhoods for Metro Silicon Valley and wore Slayer shirts back in the day, recently wrote that the film “depicted San Jose better than anything I’d seen.”
“That was my life at that time,” Singh added.
Broussard is currently serving out his sentence in at the state prison in Soledad. He has been denied parole several times.
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