'Water For Elephants' Author Has Devoted Her Life To Freeing A Man Serving A Life Sentence

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Jason Kempin/Getty

On May 17, 1983, a group of men robbed Chris’s Horseshoe Bar in Long Beach, California. Some accounts say it was three men that committed the robbery; others say four. What is certain is that during the robbery, one person was stabbed and another shot and killed, $200 was taken from the register, and a single fingerprint was left behind.

At the time, the fingerprint wasn’t enough to identify a suspect. Eleven years later, though, technology had improved enough that investigators were able to identify one of the offenders as Dino Dinardo. At first, Dinardo denied any involvement in the crime. But when police made it clear they had fingerprint evidence against him, he relented and admitted he’d committed the robbery.

During questioning, Dinardo also implicated another man — Charles Murdoch. The two men were each tried in separate trials, but Dinardo was the key witness in Murdoch’s trial, testifying that Murdoch had come to him in 1983 to tell him he wanted to “do a job.” He said Murdoch had been the one carrying the gun, and Murdoch had been the one to shout “Don’t nobody move. This is a stick-up.” Dinardo claimed he had run out the back door and then heard a gunshot, but that he didn’t know anyone had actually been shot until he was arrested for the crime 11 years later.

Dinardo was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment. Murdoch was convicted of first-degree murder with a robbery-murder special circumstance and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. He currently resides in California’s Pleasant Valley State Prison.

A Famous Author Receives A Letter From A Fan

Sara Gruen, author of the mega-hit bestselling novel “Water for Elephants,” was used to getting fan mail, and used to being suspicious of people’s motives. When you write a book that sells 10 million copies and then gets made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, people can get a little weird.

One person wrote Gruen a note about how easy it would be to show up at a book signing and shoot her. Another fan became obsessed with her and eventually died by suicide when Gruen didn’t write back. One woman befriended her on pretext her dog needed help and then later admitted she’d known who Gruen was the whole time and had befriended her for networking purposes. So Gruen had come to be rightly cautious with strangers.

But a letter she received in 2015 from an inmate of California’s Pleasant Valley State Prison caught her attention. The writer wasn’t asking for anything. He’d just read Gruen’s book and loved it. “I just finished devouring your WATER FOR ELEPHANTS,” he wrote in his letter. “Oh man … it was AWESOME!”

The man wanted to know if Gruen had happened to base her character off of his grandmother Lottie, who, like the lead character in “Water for Elephants,” had been an aerialist in a traveling circus in the early 20th century. He said his “long departed grandfolks would have sure been tickled and honored.”

Part of the reason the letter stood out was that Gruen actually had researched a real-life circus performer with the name Lottie. The writer of the letter also noted that he had been wrongfully convicted. He wrote that Alex Kozinski, former chief justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, had “described my (wrongful) conviction as ‘a truly spectacular miscarriage of justice.’”

The letter was from Charles Murdoch.

Digging Through Case Files

According to a riveting in-depth article in Vulture penned by Abbott Kahler, a journalist and long-time friend of Gruen’s, Gruen began to research Charles Murdoch’s case. What she found convinced her of the man’s innocence.

For starters, Gruen learned that Dinardo — the man who left a fingerprint at the scene of the crime and then implicated Murdoch — had originally been sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment. At sentencing, though, the judge made a deal with Dinardo: Testify against Murdoch, a trial in which prosecutors had “a very difficult case,” and he may be inclined to reduce Dinardo’s sentence. Dinardo took the deal. Of the 12 years to which his sentence was reduced, he ended up serving only five.

Not only that, but in Dinardo’s first mention of Murdoch, he’d been led to say the man’s name. Dinardo testified in one hearing that homicide detective Ronald Pavek had told him he was “interested in someone other than you” and suggested that if Dinardo could help them out, he’d be helping himself too. Pavek testified that he “just happened to have photographs with me of Mr. Murdoch,” and showed them to Dinardo. Dinardo couldn’t identify the man in the photo by name, so Pavek flipped it over, showing Dinardo the man’s name. Only then did Dinardo name Charles Murdoch as one of his accomplices.

Dinardo had admitted all of this, and even written a letter to his attorney at the time making it clear that he’d been told that if he pointed the finger at Murdoch, he himself would not be charged with murder. Dinardo didn’t even know Murdoch. He knew his brother, but Dinardo was explicit that he and Murdoch never committed any crime together. The jury in Murdoch’s case never saw or knew of this letter, as it was sealed under attorney-client privilege. But attorney-client privilege isn’t supposed to take precedence over the right of cross-examination.

An Obsession Takes Hold

Gruen became obsessed with proving Murdoch’s innocence. Over the course of the past six years, she has sunk half a million dollars of her own money into legal fees trying to get a court of appeals to hear the additional evidence on Murdoch’s case. She spent months trying to track down Dinardo, creating fake Facebook accounts to try to locate him or any of his family, to no avail.

However, she and her team of lawyers were able to track down Dyanne Spence, a witness to the Chris’s Horseshoe Bar robbery. At trial, Spence testified that she had witnessed Murdoch shoot the gun. They eventually located Spence in the spring of 2017, in a psychiatric hospital. Spence’s daughter said her mother was “paranoid, has delusions, and just isn’t ‘there’ much,” and that she suffers from bipolar psychosis and schizoaffective disorder. Spence’s stepmother said Spence had shown symptoms of these disorders since she was a preteen. Given that Spence had at one point claimed she’d been wearing a “bunny suit” the night of the robbery, and that she’d only picked out Murdoch from a lineup 11 years after the incident, her testimony was appearing more and more unreliable.

Obsession Turns To Sickness

Gruen’s obsession with Murdoch’s case became such that she sunk all her money into it, to the point she refinanced her home and during the holiday season of 2016 bought up tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Hatchimals, reselling them for a profit to fund Murdoch’s legal fees. This enraged the public and drew the attention of multiple media outlets. She received death and rape threats, and people said they were going to boycott her books. As far as her work in progress, Gruen kept asking for deadline extensions. She really wasn’t — and still really isn’t — writing.

Gruen also became entangled in an incident that happened with Murdoch in prison where he was accused of possessing a weapon. The legal team she’d hired helped release him from those charges, but at points she feared another of the inmates involved was out to get her. She noticed she was being followed and believed her phone lines were tapped.

Eventually Gruen became so sick from stress that sometimes her vision would blur or she’d experience vertigo. Her memory would falter to the point she would repeat entire conversations. Christmas morning of 2017, she suffered an episode of transient global amnesia (TGA) which caused her to lose the entire morning — the family breakfast, gift unwrapping — as if it had never happened. Her weight dropped to 95 pounds. Her blood pressure at one point was measured at 58/44.

Gruen’s husband Bob has supported her through all of this — he also believes in Murdoch’s innocence. According to Kahler, the journalist who wrote about Gruen’s experience in Vulture, Gruen, who is still quite ill, has said she sometimes “wishes she’d never heard of Charles Murdoch.” At the same time, Gruen hates the idea of a person being wrongfully imprisoned.

COVID has slowed all legal processes down, and Gruen and Murdoch currently await a final decision from Los Angeles County’s Conviction Review Unit. When the unit heard the case over a Zoom call, they seemed “sympathetic,” according to Sara’s husband. But that was six months ago. Sara Gruen is still sick, and Charles Murdoch is still in prison, possibly for a crime he had nothing to do with. Both of their futures hinge on the decision of the court.

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