(Burrowing Owl Update Below)
More than 50 people have memorial plaques in the park. All but two are mounted to wooden benches, see the Memorial Benches page. Only two plaques rest on something other than a bench. One is for Helen Rand Parish, the Berkeley scholar and activist. Her plaque is mounted to a stone on the southwest annex of the park; see “A Name on a Stone: Helen Rand Parish” Dec 29 2014. The other non-bench plaque was buried out of sight for many years, but this past week was raised to the light again. You can find it very near the water fountain on the east side of the park. The plaque is mounted to a rectangular concrete slab that now sits a few inches above the ground. See photos above.
The plaque commemorates the two young people who were murdered near the site of the stone in August 1985. They were Mary Gioia and Greg Kniffin. Gioia was 22 and Kniffin, 18. They were fans of the Grateful Dead, in town for a scheduled concert. They lived temporarily in Rainbow Village, a campground in the northeast corner of the park, where the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary now sits. Rainbow Village was approved at the time by the Berkeley City Council as a refuge for homeless people living in their cars. The park was still partly an active dump site at the time. The two were badly beaten, then shot at close range, and their bodies dumped into the North Basin. Another Rainbow Village occupant, Ralph Thomas, was charged and convicted of the murders. See “A Hidden Memorial for Murder Victims,” Nov 10 2018.
Gioia’s mother, Patricia Gioia, wrote a book about her daughter and the crime. She and Mary Gioia’s sister, with the cooperation of the Parks Department, had the plaque made and installed. They also planted a tree, probably a willow, nearby. The tree has not survived. The plaque and its heavy base gradually settled and were overgrown. See “Murders With New Life,” Sep 20 2020.
The case did not close to the satisfaction of all parties involved. Thomas won a new trial on the argument that his attorney at the first trial was negligent, and that he could have been exonerated. Thomas died in prison in 2014 before a new trial was had. A friend of Kniffin’s two years ago sent me an email claiming that Thomas was innocent. More recently, the noted podcasting team of Payne Lindsey (Up and Vanished) and Jake Brennan (Disgraceland) took up the case. They asked for my help in finding the plaque. I was able to scrape the cover off the memorial plaque for them, and they included the case in a series about the suspicious murders of a series of Deadheads. See “Deadheads Gone But Not Forgotten,” Mar 27 2021.
The plaque might have sunk deeper and been forgotten again but for the concern of Walt Vandernald, City of Berkeley Building Maintenance Supervisor, Jacob Several, Landscape Gardening Superintendent, Kevin Kierce, Building Maintenance foreman, and Sam Orth, maintenance staff. Kierce has been turning over and installing all the recent memorial benches in the park, along with much other work. It took a team effort, including a tractor, to lift the 160-lb concrete block. The team then added a decorative stone to ensure that park visitors and mowing machine operators would notice the spot.
Still on the agenda is a historic sign of some kind explaining about Rainbow Village and the two young people who lost their lives here. The park’s history largely remains untold.
Burrowing Owl Update
The Burrowing Owl switched back this morning to Perch A, next to the California Poppy bush, where park visitors cannot see it from the paved perimeter path. The owl may be able to catch a view of the path and its passersby through the bush, but despite patient and tenacious efforts with the telephoto lens I have not been able to detect the owl from the path. To see it, I once again had to set up on the Open Circle Viewpoint. (Visitors can see the owl from the path when the bird is on Perch B near the big Fennel bush.) From my vantage point, the owl at Perch A is 110 yards away and with the naked eye is about the size of a grain of brown rice. The owl seemed calm but alert during the time I observed it. It swiveled its head mostly in a relaxed manner, but occasionally snapped quickly into position and raised its head. Those alerts didn’t last long, however, and the bird settled down to do some preening on its neck and then on its feet.