I Am Not a Member of a Satanic Cult

I am not a member of a satanic cult and I did not kill Laci Peterson.

I'm not actually accused of killing Laci Peterson and dumping her pregnant body in the San Francisco Bay, but close enough. Scott Peterson, her husband, is charged with the murder. But his defense team has floated the theory that a satanic cult may have murdered his wife. The "evidence" for this theory is the paintings of a group of artists collectively known as SNIFF, with which I have been associated for four years.

For five years, SNIFF has worked in relative anonymity on the Albany Bulb, the tip of a wild and beautiful spit of overgrown landfill that juts out from the east shore of the bay, just north of Berkeley. SNIFF artists began by painting on hunks of broken concrete that protrude along the shoreline. When they ran out of concrete, they began a series of paintings on plywood scavenged from the abandoned campsites of a prior generation of homeless squatters. Propped up on crude easels constructed of wood that washed up on the beach, the line of paintings now extends a considerable way along the waterfront -- a gallery of outsider art without guards, curators or admission fees.

According to Scott Peterson's lawyers, the paintings of SNIFF depict "ritualistic killings and occult practices." That's ridiculous. Severed heads, yes. Ritual killings no. There's a painting intended as a warning to vandals who have savaged some of our art, that depicts an executioner chopping off their heads with an ax. There's a painting of a decapitated saint adrift in a row boat with a naked woman. His head with a halo lies at his feet. In a painting of a boxing gym, some of the boxers have had their heads literally knocked off.

The Modesto Bee reporter who broke the story informs readers that, "Many of the paintings portray sexual activity, and several show pregnant women."

That's true. They also show mermaids and volcanoes, carnivals, dancing bears in a circus, a hot tub, a horse race, a rodeo, a man and a woman playing scrabble, a Chinese couple with a net full of red fish, an octopus and a woman in carnal embrace, an exotic garden in which a guy with his back to the viewer is peeing, strange doings in a motel, a cathedral, a donkey cart with an old man traveling through a mountain pass, skyscrapers under construction, an upside-down Trans-America building, a muralized limousine with carousing passengers, a theater with an audience running amuck, the Big Bad Wolf in a convertible with a flame job, carnivorous flowers, a strange last supper without a Christ in which a monkey consoles a despondent guest and a white angel stares vacantly into space, a Halloween party, a pizza parlor, a tattooed lady, and, on the interior of an enormous concrete valve housing, a lascivious heaven and a teeming hell.

When I first stumbled upon SNIFF's remarkable paintings at the tip of the old landfill site, I had no idea who did them. I would come back, week after week, and there would always be new work, but it was months before the mystery was solved when I came upon four men, walking up the road, pulling a shopping cart loaded with their paints.

As I got to know them, they turned out to be as nice a bunch of guys as you could hope to meet. David runs a metal shop. The two Scotts and Bruce work in construction. They and their families have hung out together for years. Their Saturday mornings out on the Bulb are usually social events. Kelli, Bruce's wife, is a regular, always accompanied by Lola, her diminutive Chihuahua. David often carries out one of his daughters in a red wagon lined with a quilt. Scott's 3-year-old son will come out to play in the dirt with his Builder Bob toys. The SNIFFies banter and roughhouse, throw balls for the dogs, argue and paint. Somehow they manage to blend their quite disparate styles, improvising the design without preliminary sketches.

I helped them build an arch from large Styrofoam blocks that had washed up on the shore during a winter storm. I've been sculpting the remaining Styrofoam into monumental figures. I flanked the arch with 15-foot-tall statues of a man and a woman. None of my work has made it into the Scott Peterson file. But I'm definitely a candidate for co-conspirator.

I am sure that Scott Peterson's lawyers don't believe that SNIFF is a satanic cult or has anything to do with Laci Peterson's murder. If they did they would have sent investigators to meet us, or at least give us a phone call. Their job is to sow doubt in the jury pool. We're just collateral damage.

One of the great things about the artwork at the Bulb is the anonymity. But now our extended family has become the center of a tsunami of media attention. People magazine came out to the Bulb and photographed Scott and Bruce standing in front of the painting of the executioner. Bruce was on Fox News with Greta Van Susteren and MSNBC. "Experts" on the Larry King show speculate on whether he'll be indicted. A woman at CNN asked if I'm willing to be on the Wolf Blitzer show.

When the media calls, things tend to fall apart. One of the artists worries that his daughters will come home asking “Daddy, are you really a member of a cult?” Some of us duck for cover. Bruce and I argue about who’s going to have his moment on national television.

Why would I even want to be on the Wolf Blitzer show? To be sure I want to fight the defamation, to set the record straight. But much as I would like to think better of myself, I have to admit there is also the desire to be seen, to exist in the minds of multitudes -- me and the contestants on the Jerry Springer show. Our reality is not quite real. We think it's enough, but when the media beckons we run into the headlights.

Soon it will be over. We will continue going out to the landfall. The fennel is turning brown. The blackberries are ripening. The sun fades SNIFF's paintings. They paint new ones. Thumbing their nose at the scandal mongers they fill them with playful little devils. Vandals destroy my sculptures. We prop them up again. Time passes. If it has not already, the tabloid media will quickly lose interest in us. The media is fickle. It has the attention span of a spoiled child.

But the taint of its intrusion lasts, like the smell of skunk. I wonder at its power to swoop down and contaminate my world, while revealing nothing of its truth. An entirely fictional character, "The Terminator" is running for governor of California. The media's faux reality is triumphant, more real than real. We paint, we sculpt -- a rear guard action. Soon we will be abandoned again. Old news. I can't wait.

Osha Neumann is a Berkeley-based lawyer and artist.


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