Murder in Rancho Santa Fe
By Kevin Brass
THE HOUSE IS FOR SALE NOW, priced to move at $985,000. “It’s been recently remodeled,” a real estate agent assures me. It sits on 1.7 acres, tucked into a Rancho Santa Fe hillside, a chip shot from the golf course where Bing Crosby first hosted his annual clambake.
At the top of the driveway, past the stone walls of the entrance, a white gate opens to the back and a cluster of three bedrooms with large windows. This is where the Spiro children were found.
Eleven-year-old Dina, 14-year-old Adam and 16-year-old Sara were tucked into their beds, gunshot wounds to their heads. Apparently the murderer was careful not to wake them before firing the fatal shots. Dina was neatly wrapped in her blanket, only her head and one arm poking out. Down the hall, at the other end of the house, is the master bedroom, where their mother, Gail Spiro, was murdered in a similar execution style.
No one heard the shots. Neighboring homes are barely visible from the house, masked by pine trees and well-tailored hedges. The bodies were not discovered for three days—not until neighbors came looking for Sara, who had missed a riding lesson.
That was three years ago.
The grisly discovery prompted the most expensive and comprehensive murder investigation in the history of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. At times, the case has been a media carnival, rumored to involve Ollie North, the Shah of Iran, Lebanese terrorists, the CIA, Colombian drug lords, the Japanese mafia and gun-running. But after three years of chasing leads, the case remained officially open and unsolved.
Over the years, the house has become a magnet for curiosity seekers, says the exasperated real estate agent. Neighbors complain about people stopping and gawking. The English couple who bought the estate several years before with dreams of someday retiring in sunny Rancho Santa Fe—and rented the house to the Spiro family—now want nothing more than to sell it.
When people call about the listing, the real estate agent feels she has to tell them first about the horrific events of November 1992. Then, she says, “A lot of people don’t want anything to do with the house.”
The first time I saw this house—my first of many trips to Avenida Maravillas—was the morning after the bodies were discovered. It was my first week as a reporter for KUSI-TV, and I was assigned to wait for the bodies of the Spiro family to be wheeled out by the medical examiner—the requisite picture when TV news covers a homicide.
By 10 a.m., TV crews from Los Angeles had arrived, lured by the news of mysterious murders in the wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe. In the bright morning sun, the crews huddled at the bottom of the driveway—kibitzing, renewing friendships, gossiping—while the detectives and medical examiners went about their work.
Late in the morning, four or five young girls dressed in plaid skirts and white shirts, perhaps classmates of the young victims, tentatively made their way up the street, intimidated by all the people, holding hands for strength. Spotting them, several reporters nudged their photographers. A few started toward the girls, followed by a few more, setting off a stampede. The terrified girls ran back down the street, a deputy following to comfort them.
IT COULD HAVE HAPPENED anywhere, the locals like to say. But it happened here in Rancho Santa Fe, a world of eucalyptus trees and mansions rarely touched by such sordid and bloody affairs.
This world of exclusivity and luxury was invaded by Ian Spiro, father and husband, wheeler-dealer, a man who told friends he smuggled gold and negotiated with terrorists. But in his last days he couldn’t even pay his electric bill. Three days after the discovery of his murdered family, Spiro was found slumped over the wheel of his Ford Explorer in an isolated part of the Anza-Borrego Desert, dead from cyanide poisoning.
“We just want to get a fresh look from someone with the ability to spend 100 percent of their time on the case,” says Commander Myron Klippert, the man in charge of the new effort. “We need to come to some sort of resolution on this.”
By mid-September, there were rumblings within the department that the sheriff was finally ready to make a declarative statement about the case, to bring some sense of closure to the Spiro saga. But that doesn’t mean the story will go away.
In three years, those involved in the case—even investigators—have not been able to shake a lingering sliver of doubt, a doubt formed as much by personal emotion as by the convoluted trail of Ian Spiro’s life. It is the doubt of rational minds finding it difficult to accept that a father could kill his children. Even detectives who believe that Ian Spiro killed his family can’t fully explain what would cause a man to take such a wild leap over the edge of sanity.
“It disturbed me then, and I still think about that,” says Sheriff’s Commander James Marmack, one of the first detectives on the scene. “I constantly think: Why, why would someone do this?”
Gail Spiro’s family buried Ian next to Gail and the kids in England. They have never wavered in their insistence that detectives have settled on the wrong man—that the Ian they knew never could have turned into a murderous, suicidal monster.
They have relentlessly stoked the fires of the case, taking their story from U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s office to the British House of Commons, pushing theories that the Spiros were victims of Middle East assassins or rogue members of the intelligence community. They have called or written every imaginable politician and bureaucrat, including President Clinton and Lawrence Walsh, the special counsel who probed the Iran-Contra affair.
Colonel Oliver North, who directed the Iran-Contra affair from his White House basement office, mentions in his notebooks that Ian Spiro was suggested as a go-between in Lebanon.
According to a variety of reports, Spiro also helped Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite meet with Shiite terrorists. Spiro’s business activities reportedly included several deals in Iran and Lebanon. Greg Quarton, Gail’s half-brother, a businessman living in Vancouver, Canada, says Ian was a victim of the CIA or Mossad (Israeli intelligence). He’s not sure which, but says, “One thing for sure is that the assassination was sanctioned by the intelligence community.” He vows never to drop the case as long as Ian is suspected of murder.
The case has become something of a crusade for Quarton—and almost a full-time job. He has spent $40,000 following leads, interviewing “spooks” and former associates of his brother-in-law. He says he sleeps with a gun under his pillow.
Ken Quarton, Greg’s twin, breaks down when I ask him about the tragedy. It’s been three years, but the family was close, he says; they visited each other often. Gail Spiro’s mother spent a few months each year with Gail, Ian and the kids. “This has devastated our family,” he says through tears. “I don’t go a day without thinking about it.”
THE INCONSISTENCIES, the speculation about Ian Spiro’s deeds and companions, began almost the moment the bodies were discovered.
The first officers at the scene found the house locked; firefighters were forced to break down a door. But the neighbor who first called the police says the door to Ian Spiro’s office, an add-on to the garage, was open. He says nothing in the office seemed out of place—except there was a 6-foot string of faxes hanging from the fax machine. All carried frantic, searching messages: “Please call me back...” “No one is answering the phone...” “Where are you...?” The office was packed with papers and phone records, chronicling a vast array of business dealings.
Initially, detectives were reluctant to designate the missing Ian Spiro a suspect. “I don’t know that he’s not a victim,” homicide Lieutenant John Tenwolde told a reporter. However, by the time his body was found three days later, detectives were ready to issue a warrant for his arrest.
Perhaps most incriminating was an ominous meeting Spiro had with the family maid on Monday, November 2. The Latina maid, who speaks little English, says she had shown up for work to find a disheveled Ian Spiro blocking her way. He wouldn’t let her in the house and drove her home. At the time they took that ride, Gail and the children were already dead.
Investigators learned little from Rancho Santa Fe residents. The Spiros had moved to the United States from France in 1991, renting first in Del Mar and then in Fairbanks Ranch before renting the house on Avenida Maravillas for $5,000 a month.
Many locals who knew the Spiros describe them as a likable, social couple. He was “maddeningly secretive,” a man prone to big stories and “creative” business schemes. She loved tennis and bridge. They were members of the Lomas Santa Fe Country Club. Closer examination turned up little more neighborly insight.
Ian, 46, didn’t smoke or drink, except for an occasional glass of wine. He was known to retire early in the evening. He regularly picked up his children at school and attended all their extracurricular events. He was British and charming and eccentric, and people liked him.
Many chuckled at his outlandish stories. Still, they liked him. Gail had been a popular young English girl, captain of her school hockey team, who grew up to be a nurse. She and Ian met in Beirut, where she worked in a hospital and he conducted his various business schemes.
In hindsight, some call Ian an enigma. Others refer to his “dark side.” Almost with pride, he told one friend he didn’t support his daughters from a first marriage because their mother had run off with one of his partners.
In the final months, Spiro had talked of leaving Rancho Santa Fe, perhaps moving his family to Vancouver to live near Greg Quarton’s family, or to New York, near his uncle, Joseph Riina. But one day he mysteriously told Greg he “was not permitted to leave” and never talked of moving again.
Ken Quarton visited the Spiros in California in May, six months before the murders. “They loved California,” Ken says. “They loved the area. Gail had never been happier.”
IN RANCHO SANTA FE, curiosity about Spiro and the tragedy ebbed quickly. The Spiros were, after all, outsiders. Since they rented, they were not members of the elite Covenant. The Spiros were members of the Lomas Santa Fe Country Club, not the Rancho Santa Fe Country Club, the acknowledged social center of older Rancho.
“The media were much more interested in the continuing story than anyone who lived here,” says Walt Ekard, manager of the Rancho Santa Fe Association, which oversees the Covenant. “It was no longer cocktail-party conversation two weeks after it happened.”
Long after interest waned among locals, though, reporters were familiar figures outside exclusive shops and restaurants, asking about “the mood” of the community, seeking any tidbit about the family that few in Rancho had ever seen. Ekard was barraged with calls from reporters. One called from the airport asking when his limousine would pick him up, apparently confusing Rancho Santa Fe with a country-club resort.
Within a few days of the discovery of the bodies, dealing with media inquiries about the case all but became Commander Marmack’s full-time job. He was receiving 30 calls a day.
“The Spiro case didn’t go away,” says Marmack, who headed the homicide unit. “It kept going and going.”
Detectives wouldn’t discuss evidence, and they sealed all pertinent public-record documents, forcing reporters to undertake fishing expeditions. One print reporter called Marmack and said a psychic knew where the murder weapon could be found —did he care to comment?
Marmack and Tenwolde, who headed the investigative unit, were even offered movie deals. One producer was only slightly fazed when Marmack pointed out that it would be inappropriate and unethical for a working cop to take money from a movie company on an open investigation. “Well, how about taking the money when you retire?” the producer suggested.
The media blitz was spiced by British journalists, who were widely quoted and used as sources by other reporters. London journalist Con Coughlin, who had written a book on Middle East intrigue, flew to San Diego and made the rounds of TV news shows. Coughlin portrayed Spiro as a con artist but also linked him to all sorts of events in the spy world.
In a fairly typical example of British tabloid journalism, Coughlin authored a front-page story stating without equivocation—and without any attribution—that the Avenida Maravillas address was a “CIA safe house.” The international wires dutifully picked up the story, and the San Diego Union ran a prominent story with quotes from the owners of the house, denying their rental was a CIA front.
KUSI-TV did more than its share of Spiro mythmaking, providing one of the lowlights in coverage. When Ian Spiro’s body was found, a KUSI reporter in the field mentioned during an off-camera conversation an unconfirmed (and incorrect) rumor that the head was missing from the body. The anchor repeated the rumor on the air. Word spread. To the family of the victims, it became a symbol of the media coverage.
As one of the reporters, much of my time was spent following false leads. One would-be tipster repeatedly called the station to inform me that spy satellites were the key to the Spiro case. A far more reliable source told me Spiro’s Explorer had been clocked in at the border coming back from Mexico between the time of his family’s death and his own. I spent days tracking the tip with no luck. I finally filed with U.S. Customs for disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Weeks later, Customs officially responded: Spiro’s Explorer never appeared on its logs.
WHEN I TIRED OF CHASING RUMORS, I focused on Spiro’s finances, which appeared to be the key—and the weak link, relatives say—in the sheriff’s probable-cause case against Ian Spiro.
In homicide investigations, detectives always start with motive. In this case, motive is the most puzzling question. It is hard to argue with dozens who saw Ian as a loving father and husband. He went everywhere with his kids.
But it is true that Spiro was having severe financial problems, perhaps worse than he had ever faced. He was three months behind in his rent. He was overdue on almost all his bills. He was supporting a family in Rancho Santa Fe, including riding lessons, private schools and a country club, yet he owned almost nothing. Besides the leased Explorer, he leased a BMW 325i for himself at $500 a month, while his wife drove a leased Cherokee.
A credit check at the time of Spiro’s death revealed nothing more than a Visa card with a $1,000 line of credit and a few department-store cards. He used a letter from a London accounting firm to introduce himself. It claimed Spiro earned “in excess of sterling 225,000” (about $340,000) by “trading internationally in the commodity market, primarily between South America and the Middle East.” Despite a “general softening in the market,” Spiro was expected to earn about $225,000 in 1991-92, the letter says.
About six months before the murders, Spiro called his accountant in England and offered his services as a go-between. He struck the accountant as “a man looking for ways to survive.”
Spiro’s main local enterprise was a company producing 900-prefix phone numbers for dating, legal advice and other areas of interest for late-night TV viewers. He was trying to put together a new company to market 900 numbers, but late in 1992 he told another company’s account executive he couldn’t get the funding.
In Ian’s office, investigators found mounds of papers and phone records detailing a mind-boggling multitude of business dealings. Even his brothers-in-law tell conflicting stories. Ken says Ian was involved in selling “helicopter parts to South America” and “hospital supplies in Iran.” Greg says Ian was earning $225,000 a year selling “helicopter parts to Iran.”
In 1989, Channel Islands–based ANZ Grindlays Bank loaned Gail Spiro 300,000 pounds (about $450,000), first to buy a United Kingdom property and then to renovate a house in France. The bank also loaned Ian more than $3 million to buy and resell antique Porsche sports cars. The deal went bad. Ian told Greg that the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, had stolen several of the cars
In January 1992, Grindlays formally told Spiro that it wanted its money—with interest, now around $4 million—back. In April, Spiro took out a $1.5 million life-insurance policy on himself.
By the end of his life, Spiro was buying hundreds of lottery tickets a week. Investigators found a Ouija board among his possessions; some speculate he used it to pick the numbers. According to public records, he owed $100,000 to his uncle, $100,000 to family friend Joe Zerboni, $26,000 to Ken Quarton and $16,000 to the company that moved the family from France, in addition to a half-dozen smaller creditors who put in claims against the estate.
There was little to claim. The Spiros had few possessions—mainly jewelry, watches and rugs. Faced with the mountain of unpaid debt, no one filed for the estate. It was auctioned by the county, netting $64,000. There is the $1.5 million insurance policy—with Spiro’s children from his first marriage as surviving next-of-kin beneficiaries—but it would be void if Spiro’s death should be declared a suicide.
Relatives laugh at the thought of money problems pushing Ian over the edge. He was always earning and losing fortunes, they say. “He thought of money as a commodity, like air,” Ken says.
The answers, they say, lie in the Middle East. They can’t offer any physical evidence but say their gut instincts and their own inquiries point to the intelligence community, most likely stemming from Ian’s role in Iran-Contra.
Ex-hostage Peter Jacobsen confirmed to the media that Spiro was indeed involved in the release of hostages in the Middle East. But investigators say Spiro “was no James Bond,” simply a low-level go-between—an image Greg says is ludicrous or at least naive.
“Let’s put it this way,” Greg says. “The hostage crisis in Beirut wasn’t working with the first connection. Ian’s connection made it work.”
But the scope of the investigation by the Sheriff’s Department has gone far beyond the Middle East. With the help of the FBI, investigators have been interviewing scores of Spiro’s business contacts, seeking real evidence to back various theories. Detectives also looked into his connection with a Chicago convict, jailed on drug charges, who is involved in the so-called Inslaw scandal. According to court documents filed shortly after the murders, Spiro was holding computer equipment essential for the inmate to prove a Justice Department conspiracy to steal sophisticated computer software.
As with most things involving Ian Spiro, there is just enough truth in each report to tweak the interest of investigators. Each time they ask, “Is it possible? Is it plausible this might have something to do with the murders?” Usually, in some way they’re just as plausible as a caring father killing his children.
In general, investigators are troubled as much by the evidence they don’t find as the evidence they do. A few weeks after the murders, three rain-soaked suitcases, packed with Spiro’s papers and an audiotape apparently made by Ian just days before his death, were found in a remote part of the desert near where Ian died. But they still didn’t have the so-called smoking gun—nor a note or any other clear sign that Ian Spiro went bonkers and slaughtered his family.
“Any logical person could say, ‘This should be here, why isn’t it?” says Jim Roache, who was sheriff during the first two years of the investigation. Roache believes the case will never be fully closed. When Ian Spiro left the house that November morning, leaving his family dead in their beds, he took too many answers with him. “Some things only the good Lord and Ian Spiro know for sure,” Roache says.
AS I SIFT THROUGH NOTES of interviews, some dating back three years, I am continually drawn to information about Ian Spiro’s last days. Recent talks with family and friends only reaffirm that whatever was in Spiro’s past, whatever kind of man he was before, there is little doubt something was terribly wrong in the last few weeks of his life. Those who saw and talked to Ian Spiro—even those who defend him—say he was “distraught” and “tense.”
Two weeks before the murders, he called Ken Quarton from his car phone, leaving a message on Ken’s answering machine. Agitated, he talked of threatening phone calls. He made a similar call to his uncle. At about the same time, Spiro asked a jeweler, a friend, for cyanide. He said he needed it to clean gold; the friend was skeptical and didn’t give it to him. Undeterred, a few days later Spiro bought cyanide from a downtown jeweler.
Spiro also was looking for a gun. “He asked me a couple of times; I just forgot about it,” says attorney James Street, who often socialized with the Spiro family. Two weeks before the murders, Spiro asked again. He said he had been getting threatening phone calls since he had approached a movie company with his story about events in the Middle East. Spiro said he was afraid for his family. This time Street gave him a gun, a .357 magnum that was “noisy as hell.”
“He seemed to be sincere,” Street says. “If it gave him some solace, it was a small thing to do. I spoke to him once after that, and he said he had heard footsteps around the house.” Spiro complained of not sleeping, saying phone calls were keeping him up. “He seemed to be under a great deal of pressure. Ian said something had come out of his past to haunt him.”
The last weekend of the Spiros’ lives was outwardly uneventful. They were planning a Thanksgiving dinner for friends. Sara went to a dance at school on Friday night. Ian made Gail breakfast in bed Saturday morning, and the couple played bridge with friends Saturday night.
On Sunday, the day of the murders, the Spiro family went to the stables to watch Sara ride. Ian seemed distracted, one witness recalls. He was unusually harsh with the kids, hustling them into the car. Normally meticulous in his appearance, he had grown a beard. That afternoon, Gail went shopping with friends; Ian stayed home.
Ken Quarton says, “Not a single person who knew Ian believes he killed his family.” That’s not true. Some of his closest friends, those who saw him in the last days of his life, believe it.
“It was all there for us to see, but none of us saw it,” says one. The sad truth is that some people do murder their children, she says. “It’s not unusual. It just happened to be in Rancho Santa Fe.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the guy ran amok,” says Street, who gave him the gun. (Detectives still refuse to say whether they believe Street’s gun was the murder weapon; nor will they discuss the size of the deadly bullets. “We don’t think it’s important for the public to know the caliber of the weapon,” Tenwolde says.)
Greg Quarton recently flew to San Diego to pick up the remnants of the Spiro family’s possessions, locked away since the county took over the house in 1993. There wasn’t much—family Bibles, pictures, kids’ yearbooks, “the stuff not slogged off at the bargain-basement sale,” he says bitterly.
Greg vows to pester, investigate and shake the cage until officials acknowledge that Ian Spiro is a victim, not a murderer. He’s writing a book with D. Wade Booth, a reporter for the Blade-Citizen, which has reported some of the more sensational allegations about Spiro’s compatriots. Greg asks me if I know any movie producers. “It’s the only way to raise capital to have an independent investigation,” he says.
Greg says he’s hopeful that the new team of detectives is sincere about the new approach, the new attitude toward the case. But he doesn’t sound hopeful. “I guess I’m waiting for the big break. The one guy who can’t bear it any longer and needs to talk,” he says. “I hope I don’t have to wait for a deathbed confession.”