This week I learned that years later, people will care about right.
This story was published in the Austin, Texas' American-Statesman newspaper on Friday, March 31, 2006. I think it is important that we remember Mike Cahill and his dream. I think it is important that we realize the importance of friendship and caring for another person. It is an Austin thing - and I am constantly reminded that outsiders do not understand. It is what makes Austin unique.
The deal is there is a Guild D40 six-string guitar sitting in someone's living room, bedroom, or closet. It's serial number, 132227, is imprinted on the back of the head stock. Perhaps the person who has the guitar also has a collection of cameras, Elvis Costello's second album, "This Year's Model". We need to find this guitar and the person who is responsible for taking the life of a friend and fellow Austinite. Let's start looking!
A Calendar Book, a Guitar and a Very Cold Case
Haunting memories linger with 'Book of Days' photographers who faced a burglary spree and a murder in 1979
By Denise Gamino, Austin American-Statesman Staff
Friday, March 31, 2006
Michael Cahill chased his musical dream down the street, around his apartment and through the backyard.
It was the last thing he ever did.
Album insert in Mike Cahill's unfinished work put together by friends. He was killed April 13, 1979, when he came home and startled a burglar stealing his guitar.
The secrets of a 1979 Austin murder may be bound in a photo calendar book, and perhaps in a still-missing guitar
Seconds later, he was shot to death in his driveway, a single bullet through the middle of his forehead.
Cahill was running after his beloved guitar. It disappeared into the darkness in the hands of the very odd burglar whom Cahill startled, and then raced after.
Mike Cahill died in Austin on April 13, 1979.
He was 28.
His murder is still unsolved.
His guitar is still missing.
And his family and friends still mourn a young troubadour whose poetic recordings are preserved on an obscure album pressed posthumously by friends as a memorial.
Cahill's murder case has been cold now for 27 years, almost as many years as he lived.
It is an old Austin murder forgotten by most. Perhaps it seemed nothing more than an unfortunate, random killing of a University of Texas dropout in love with making music back when Austin overflowed with career-free hippie types marching to their own casual rhythms.
But those touched by the inexplicable killing in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood of South Austin think of it differently.
To them, it will always be the haunting "Book of Days" murder.
The name carries a touch of mystery, a befitting aura for a case filled with more quirky twists and dead ends and high-profile people than a Clue game board. The murder left its unwelcome mark on Austin's creative class of musicians and photographers, some of whom were victims of curious burglaries suspiciously similar to the one at Cahill's place.
The burglar, it seems, had a photo fetish. And very particular musical tastes.
Even seasoned law officers use words like "weird" and "kind of odd" when they remember the murder of Michael Cahill.
Among those caught up in the perplexing case are people who either were in 1979, or who later became: Travis County judge, Travis County sheriff, acting Austin police chief, a Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist, a Leonard Cohen backing singer and a platoon of gifted photographers influenced by legendary New Deal documentary photographer and UT professor Russell Lee.
All the photographers contributed to the 1978 "Book of Days," a desk calendar filled with artistic black-and-white pictures by Austin photographers. The calendar was published most years from 1977 to 1995, and was designed to "create some photographic commotion," the first call-for-entries flier said.
Nothing new has happened with Cahill's murder case in recent years. It's one of 130 enigmatic crimes in the cold case homicide files of the Austin Police Department. Officers are busy working other cases with more promising leads.
But one of the photographers still troubled by the "Book of Days" murder recently met, at a social gathering, a homicide detective who had never heard of the case. Their conversation reminded police that those who knew Michael Cahill still long for answers about the killing and the string of baffling burglaries.
So police dusted off four fat, accordion-style files filled with the musty-smelling documents of Case No. 79-0031359. They are, after more than a quarter of a century, giving it another review.
If anything, the story has grown more interesting with age.
From the beginning, nothing made sense.
In the spring of 1979, a burglar — or several burglars, no one knows for sure — seemed to handpick the homes of Austin photographers.
And once inside, the thief took his time. He turned on lights. He opened cupboards. He examined kitchen blenders and checked closets.
He liked music, too. Most remarkably, the thief thumbed through record collections. Sometimes, he snubbed every album but one. From one place, he lifted Randy Newman's "Sail Away." From another, he chose only Elvis Costello's second album, "This Year's Model."
This thief knew the photography world, too. He looked for cameras and photo equipment and even books about photography and coffee-table books of photo collections. But he was picky. He preferred high-quality, classic Leica cameras to the more mainstream Nikons.
Stealing the single Costello album was like leaving a calling card. On the album cover an intense Elvis Costello is shooting a photo with a Hasselblad, a camera often used for portrait photography.
The photo burglar is believed to be the same person who left Cahill's apartment with the treasured guitar, police say. Similar weekend burglaries had occurred in the month before Cahill's killing.
Cahill, who attended UT from 1969-72 but never graduated, was not a photographer. He was a cook at Gordo's, a billiards parlor on Sixth Street. All his money went into his music. He'd turned the room off his kitchen into a makeshift recording studio, shoving mattresses against the walls for better acoustics and setting a borrowed Nakamichi reel-to-reel recorder on a footlocker. He recorded songs and made demo tapes in pursuit of a music career.
But his world intersected the photography world. He had photographer friends, including Ave Bonar, who lived in the South Austin duplex apartment above him.
Her apartment might have been the prime target on the night of Cahill's murder — Friday the 13th. Bonar is perhaps best known for her black-and-white postcard photos of quirky people and funny moments, including many of Ann Richards campaigning for governor and having her big hair done.
Bonar was out of town with her camera equipment the weekend of Cahill's killing. But the thief forced open her back door, rummaged through her place and stacked a pile of belongings from her and Cahill's apartment on Cahill's front porch. Bonar's Randy Newman album was cached along with some magazines, a half dozen of Bonar's books of photo collections, a Jimi Hendrix book and a drinking glass full of coins that had been stuffed in a sock.
The burglar, it seems, intended to come back for the items after he lifted the guitar.
But Cahill and two friends drove up to the duplex at 905 Christopher St., just off Bouldin Avenue, at about 10:30 p.m. The burglar, a white man about 5 feet 9 inches tall with curly, brown hair, was walking away, almost casually, with the guitar in its case. A near-full moon illuminated his stroll.
"Hey," Cahill yelled from the back seat of his friend's car, according to police. Then he jumped from the car and ran for his guitar.
Cahill had paid $565 for the Guild D40 six-string guitar at Willie's String Shop on the Drag. It was the same acoustic model used by Richie Havens to open the 1969 Woodstock music festival with the powerful anthem "Freedom." Cahill, who rode a bike and didn't have a car, had saved and saved for the guitar. He'd owned it for three years. Its serial number, 132227, was imprinted on the back of the head stock.
That guitar "took the place of all the things he didn't have," said Cahill's older sister, Barbara Klasel, who lives in Houston. "It was his happy, his sad, his wealth and his poverty."
Cahill was a hopeless romantic, writing wistful love songs straight from his heart. His music friends believe he could have had a singer-songwriter career if he'd been a better self-promoter.
"He had a lot of heart and very smart lyrics without being clever or preachy. And a voice like a Texas James Taylor," said close friend Julie Christensen, who went on to sing with Leonard Cohen and other big names in Southern California.
Michael Hearne, now a popular singer-songwriter in Taos, N.M., spent many hours picking informally and playing gigs with Cahill. He still can instantly break out in a Cahill song:
"Surprised, I guess.
I never guessed the truth until you told me.
Your memory will be enough to hold me
Cahill performed at Spellman's Lounge and Soap Creek Saloon, popular live music venues no longer here. He was in a prolific writing period, penning up to a song a day in his Big Chief tablets.
He needed that guitar.
When Cahill went after the burglar, his two friends stayed with the car momentarily. The driver, Watt Casey Jr., was a photographer, who, coincidentally, had a photo published in the 1978 "Book of Days." Casey's fiancée, Colette Schroeder, was also in the front seat. (Cahill was to be a groomsman in their May wedding.)
"I jumped out just moments later," Casey said. "I think (Colette) got out, too. Mike was 15 or 20 feet ahead of me."
When shots rang out, "I just dove into the dirt," Casey said. "I told Colette, 'Duck down! Get down!' "
Casey got back in the Volvo, threw it into reverse and backed down the street. He told police he heard Cahill yell at him and then he heard two rapid gunshots, followed by a third shot moments later. He saw the burglar running down the street toward Bouldin Avenue, and then pulled his car into Cahill's driveway, where his friend lay dying, he told police.
Casey called police and "we just waited there holding Mike. We held him until the ambulance came."
At the same time, on the street behind Cahill's duplex, then-Travis County Judge Mike Renfro heard the gunshots. He was working upstairs in his house at 907 Columbus St.
"I remember the dogs started barking like crazy," Renfro said. ''It was real loud and out of character for them to carry on."
Renfro and his wife heard someone run past their house and into their large backyard. But the person couldn't get over their back fence and ran back toward the street after Renfro's two dogs started to crash against a chain-link fence that penned them in. Renfro ran outside but didn't see anyone.
Several other neighbors also told police they heard someone running through their yard but saw no one. Somehow, the burglar slipped away.
''That really was a wild event," said Renfro, who is now director of customer protection for the Public Utility Commission of Texas. "Thankfully the person fled down the street and I did not have a confrontation."
Police are mystified why the burglar never dropped Cahill's guitar, especially after the shooting started. So is Ray Henning of Heart of Texas Music, who has been selling guitars in Austin for more than 30 years. A Guild guitar, which in 1979 weighed twice as much as a Martin guitar, was not worth killing for, he says.
"If it was a Martin, sure," he said. "They might kill over a Martin. Maybe a Gibson. But not a Guild."
Police never found a bullet or shell casing. Or more precisely, a bullet or casing tied to Cahill's murder. When they started searching the grass and tree trunks, some lead was found. Then more, and more and more. So much was found it became obvious something was amiss.
The supervising investigator was Doyne Bailey, a police homicide sergeant who a year later was elected Travis County sheriff. It turned out, Bailey said, that the house next door to Cahill's had been the home of an Austin police officer who made thousands of homemade bullets for officers to use in target practice. The lead was not from the killer's gun, but from the police officer's backyard hobby.
Cahill's sister, who was living in Memphis with her husband and five children, will never forget her father calling to tell her about the murder. "My dad could hardly talk for crying," she said. "My parents and I did not eat for two days.
"What we lost in a young Michael is not only what he was, but what he might have been. That's a double whammy. He has been dead 27 years; I'm sitting here bawling."
Friends remember finding a new, unfinished song in Cahill's tablet. It was about a thief coming through his bedroom window — just another chilling oddity.
Cahill was buried in Houston on Tuesday, April 17, 1979, four days after his death. He was born on Thanksgiving and he died on Good Friday.
Three days later, the burglar struck again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Five times. Four photographers and one photo hobbyist were burglarized on Friday, April 20, one week after the murder. Four of them had photos in the 1978 "Book of Days."
"What strikes me as odd about this case is that this murder occurred in the middle of a series of burglaries," says Austin police Sgt. John Neff, head of the homicide cold case unit.
"Presumably, the murderer and the burglar are the same people. That he would continue to burglarize other places after he committed such a serious offense as murder kind of boggles the mind."
Photographer Rick Patrick was in Big Bend when the burglar broke into his house near West Sixth Street and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1).
"It was clear he had a shopping list because the resemblance between the items he wanted to steal from Ave (Bonar) and what he stole from me was beyond coincidence," Patrick said. "It was uncanny because of the specificity."
The thief picked through Patrick's albums, including many stored in paper sleeves because their covers had been damaged by water. He lifted Randy Newman's "Sail Away" album and a Time/Life series on photography, both of which had been taken from Bonar and stacked on Cahill's porch.
Patrick also lost other albums, stereo equipment, a television, a blender, two Leica cameras and four Leica lenses. The thief shunned the Nikons in the house. The stolen camera equipment was worth almost $3,000.
"He only took the collectors' cameras," Patrick said. "A knowledgeable photographer would have stolen the cameras he took, but a thief would have taken everything."
Photographer Randy Ehrlich's cottage, on West 13th Street near West Lynn Street about a mile from Patrick's house, also was broken into that night. And, in an eerie replay of Cahill's encounter, Ehrlich and his wife drove up at 10:20 p.m. while the burglary was in progress. The lights were on and Ehrlich saw a curly-haired white man through the bay window.
He was "going through my albums," he said. "I slammed the (car) door and ran to the front door. (He) tore out the back . . . right through the same window" in the kitchen that had been pried open.
Ehrlich, like Cahill, chased the burglar.
"Now, that scares me," he said. "I never thought about the fact I could have been killed."
They ran through the backyard and behind a neighbor's house before the thief disappeared through a thicket of bamboo. A neighbor told police she saw a white or Hispanic man with kinky, collar-length hair. He was wearing orange Playtex gloves and had a tan satchel slung over his shoulder.
Later, Ehrlich found his cameras, camera case and the HBO box from his television in the grass behind his house.
A Passed-Over Nikon
Berkeley Breathed wasn't home when the burglar hit his duplex near the UT law school that same night. Breathed, who was about to graduate from UT with a degree in photography, also had a photo in the 1978 "Book of Days." He was writing "Academia Waltz" for the Daily Texan at UT and later would earn fame in the cartoon world.
Breathed had a beat-up Nikon that the thief passed over. Nothing was taken.
But the duplex behind Breathed's was also hit. One of the residents, photo hobbyist Judith Birdsong, came home while the burglar apparently was still in the house.
"I was working at Steak and Ale restaurant, and I was a bartender," she said. "I guess it was a slow night, and they let me off early. I pulled into the driveway and I walked up to the back door of the house, and the back door was wide open and the light was on. I thought, well, that's a little creepy. I walked into the apartment and all of my stereo equipment was stacked up next to the open door — the speakers, the amps, the turntable.
"I always just assumed he heard my car and that it frightened him away,'' said Birdsong, now a photographer and lecturer in UT's school of architecture.
The thief went through her closets and took a Leica camera bag, an Olympus camera, a Konica camera and other photo equipment. He also took the lone Elvis Costello album from a small storage cabinet. ''I would have had them filed alphabetically and Costello would not have been first," she said. "I thought it was so weird because he could just as easily have picked the thing up and walked out with the whole thing. Why take one record?"
Alarm Thwarts Theft
At midnight that same night, a burglar alarm was triggered at Marlon Taylor's commercial photography studio at 225 Congress Ave. The thief fled.
The Book of Days Revelation
A few days later, Ave Bonar and Randy Ehrlich were shooting the breeze, as usual, in the darkroom at Ehrlich's Custom Photo Lab. They discussed the murder and burglaries and started putting pieces of the puzzle together.
"There in the dark, a flash of light crossed our brains simultaneously — all of the photographers we'd been talking about had been in the 'Book of Days,' " Bonar said. "It was like a huge revelation because the police could never have figured that out."
Then they checked the Austin telephone directory. Sure enough, the victims were listed in the phone book. A photography-oriented thief, using the phone book and the "Book of Days," could compile a list of places to hit.
Bonar contacted police, who were grateful for the tip and formed a task force to try to solve the murder and burglaries. Police had a composite picture of the burglar that apparently was not released publicly.
For two weekends, police staked out the homes of 1978 "Book of Days" photographers who were listed in the phone book but who had not been burglarized. Austin American-Statesman staff photographer Larry Kolvoord, then a UT photographer, remembers two undercover police officers with long hair coming to his house with shotguns and ammo belts across their chests. Kolvoord and his wife went out for the evening and the two officers sat in their dark house waiting for the burglar.
But it was as if the thief knew he was being watched. The thefts stopped. Perhaps, some think, the thief was a photographer who heard it through the grapevine.
"He was one of us," Bonar said.
Police never found enough evidence to make a case.
'Not adding up'
Watt Casey wishes he'd used his car to stop the guitar thief when he was first spotted. "In hindsight, I wish I'd run over him, pinned him against the fence.
"We never dreamed anything like this was going to happen or we would have kept driving," he said. "l literally thought we were going to go tackle the guy and ask him why was he going to steal the guitar."
And Doyne Bailey remains disturbed about this and some other unsolved cases.
"The older I get, the more I fret about them," he said. "Did we do everything we could have reasonably done?"
With this case, "the more you learned, the weirder it got. I remember then thinking, 'This is just not adding up at all.' We started finding out all these things and would get real excited for a few months, but it turned out to be like everything else, it was just a dead end. It didn't lead us anywhere."
To this day, Ave Bonar sometimes has post-traumatic memories on April 13. Michael Hearne in Taos thinks of Mike Cahill every time he sneezes because Cahill loved to sneeze. In California, singer Julie Christensen thinks of Cahill every time she cracks an egg because Cahill tried to teach her to crack an egg one-handed. And recently, someone at the Austin Record Convention was asking around for a copy of "Cahill: Unfinished," a lovely album put together in 1980 by Cahill's friends, who each chipped in about $100.
Maybe Cahill could have made it big as a songwriter. Or maybe not.
His voice on the album keeps his spirit alive.
On side two, he sings "Caught in the Middle."
"Caught in the middle, I was turning to run.
Little is left to describe.
All of my defenses,
Well, they did me no good.
I was left holding the gun."
The song ends with a plaintive last line: "Oh what a lonely good-bye."
Who's Playing it Now?
Somebody somewhere may be playing Cahill's guitar right now. It's serial number 132227, is imprinted on the back of the head stock. But it's hard to imagine a new owner could cherish it as much as Mike Cahill did when he made music in Austin in 1979.