Well this is embarrassing. Several years ago I wrote a memorial for a girl named Gillian.
Her death was senseless and incomprehensible. I am perhaps still dealing with it.
This is a photo of some poor soul crossing the Little Pico bridge. Or is it?
Maybe I captured some mad force that ranges up and down our northern coast, unanswerable, inexplicable, and unopposable.
And it's coming for us all eventually.
But it came too early for Gillian. And her memory haunts me, wont leave me alone.
What do you want girl?
God rest your soul.
Gillian Goldman (1/4/2000--1/10/2008)
A Story Not Published, a Life Not Lived
Winter sunlight glows inside a red Mitsubishi Montero parked north of San Simeon’s Pico Bridge. Windows are up, doors locked, the air still. Listen and you will hear a whispering… hushed tones like a young girl confiding secrets.
But there’s nobody inside the car. Heat stirs a mylar balloon, rubbing it against the roof. The image on the balloon is from a recent movie, Disney’s High School
Musical 2. The cast smiles, holding hands as they plunge into a background of pool water. Other than the rustle of the balloon, the car is silent.
Outside the car, chaos--an incomprehensible tragedy, nothing happy like the pool pranks of the Disney movie.
Marcia Harrigan, 43, and her 8-year-old daughter Gillian Goldman were dead, their bodies found awash in pounding surf.
Five men in wetsuits and yellow crash helmets struggle with wire gurneys as they converge on a rocky alcove 40 feet below the red SUV. “The conditions were extremely hazardous,” according to Captain Steve Brito of the Cambria Fire and Rescue Unit, “It was pummeling the rescuers into the rocky beach.”
Merle Bassett, photographer on assignment for The Cambrian, captured that terrible moment: one man motions upwards for someone to deploy a rope, another kneels before the basket, its diminutive contents precariously covered by a windblown yellow tarp, Gillian.
Other rescuers are pushing through the surf carrying a heavier basket, Marcia Harrigan—her mother.
I was new to this area and followed the story as it unfolded in The Cambrian and Los Angeles Times, bewildered that such a tragedy could occur on a familiar beach less than a mile from my home. Their deaths were initially determined to be “suspicious in nature” though other scenarios, rogue wave, fall due to high winds, or failed rescue attempt were considered as well.
January 9 2008--Los Angeles Family Court, 4 p.m. Marcia Harrigan and her daughter, Gillian failed to appear in response to a court order remanding custody to Gillian’s father Glen F. Goldman. Both parents had filed restraining orders, Glen fearing violence, Marcia claiming that her daughter had been sexually abused by her father Glen. After extensive interviews and examinations, shared custody was reinstated.
Marcia picked up Gillian at her Hermosa Valley School earlier that day and was not answering calls from the court.
At 5:15 p.m. Marcia entered a local church, while Gillian waited in the car, requesting that the priest baptize her daughter. He told her it wasn’t possible that night and assumed her many disconnected references to “the ocean” indicated a desire to perform the baptism herself.
At 7:45 p.m. Marcia met with Craig Donato, the father of her two older daughters, Doniele and Ariana. She explained she would be too busy “running all around” trying to prevent Glen from taking Gillian and asked Craig to sign a letter giving him complete custody of the younger of his two daughters, Ariana. Craig asked her what she was planning to do and Marcia replied, “It’s best you don’t know.”
Despite the advice of lawyer Jeff Doeringer and her family, Marcia and Gillian left Hermosa Beach at 8:45 p.m.
Around 11:30 p.m. Marcia purchased alcohol, a balloon and other items at Von’s in Goleta, 150 miles north.
Soon after midnight on January 10, Marcia called Gillian’s half-sister Doniele, a student at San Diego State, stating that she was “too tired to go any further.” Then she put Gillian on the phone. Gillian said she was watching TV and eating a banana. They talked several minutes and Gillian said goodbye. Marcia came back on afterward, crying, and said, “I can’t let her go with him again. What happens if he kills her? I don’t know what to do.” Doniele attempted to calm her down and said she would call in the morning.
A call back to her mother at 7:06 a.m. resulted in no answer.
A state park ranger, responded to a 911 call at 10:10 a.m. from a vista point north of San Simeon, mile post 56. He met a German couple with binoculars who had observed two females beyond the breakers in distress, “not putting hands in air… not a bathing moment.” He called dispatch requesting an ambulance and a SAR unit, specialists in rappelling and belaying, for a vertical rescue.
After a team of deputies, rangers and rescue specialists performed every intervention possible at the scene, paramedic Takaoka pronounced Marcia Harrigan and Gillian Goldman’s time of death, 10:31 a.m.
Their bodies were sent by ambulance to Los Osos Valley Mortuary at 12:30 p.m. after a preliminary examination and collection of evidence.
The following day at 8 a.m. counselors waited in the library of Hermosa Valley School while principal Sylvia Gluck entered a third grade classroom to tell students their classmate and mother had passed away. Some children spoke with the counselors or went outdoors with their parents (who had been advised by phone the night before). Others decided to draw pictures for the family. “She had friends all over the school,” said School Superintendent Sharon McClain, “Everybody here is a little broken up.”
On January 26, 2008 autopsy results for Marcia Harrigan, an adult Caucasian female, approximately 5 feet 8 inches with blond hair revealed a blood alcohol content of .03, less than half of the legal limit. No evidence of drugs found.
Gillian’s body showed no obvious signs of drugs or sexual abuse. Physical injuries were consistent with striking blunt force objects common to the rocky area where her body was found.
A blond hair was found entangled in her left hand.
The pattern of injuries, consistent with Marcia’s fingernails, indicated her mother’s hand had been held over her mouth. Other injury patterns on the arms indicated that she had been held under water.
Cause of death was determined to be salt-water drowning--manner of death, homicide.
Also included in the autopsy I requested, was a list of property recovered at the scene. At the base of the cliff were child-sized Ugg boots and car keys buried in the sand. Inside the car a brown sweater covered a purse. Also found was a pink book bag with homework, school supplies, and the balloon from High School Musical 2.
As I considered the list and other evidence, Gillian’s interest in this movie seemed quite understandable. Doniele her older sister, with whom she seems to have been especially close, was active in musicals throughout high school and college. She is a professional singer in a southern California band.
Not so understandable is the way Marcia arranged several items at the scene, how she secured her purse and keys as if she fully intended to return.
Equally difficult to understand is my own involvement in a case that occurred years ago, and how I was connected to an eight-year-old victim I had never met or even seen in a photograph.
And I may never understand why I later felt compelled to spend the night on the beach below that vista point. Perhaps I was hoping that by sleeping at the crime scene I would gain some insight as to how a mother could love a child yet take away that life with her own hands. I left the beach around 2 a.m. after several inexplicable events. I’m not ready to discuss these events any more than the countless sensitive details I encountered during the course of my research--perhaps in a book if I ever decide to write one.
I did recently decide to watch the movie High School Musical 2, every minute of it. It starred Arroyo Grande actor Zac Efron. Though typical of preteen entertainment, overly choreographed and under plotted, it did have some meaningful music.
Gillian would have been 16-years-old this month, old enough to star in her own high school’s musical.
Should you be driving north across the Pico Bridge passing a vista point on the way to the pier, Hearst’s Castle, or an afternoon of music at Ragged Point, you might want to think of Gillian and these lyrics from her favorite movie:
Let’s take it to the beach
Take it there together
Let's celebrate today
'Cause there'll never be another
Let's celebrate today
'Cause there'll never be another