One night nearly two decades after Hennessey, I plotted to corner Hilton at a Christmas party. He was deep in his cups and settled onto the sofa by the tree, when I sat beside him with a couple of glasses and a bottle of exceptional Oregon Pinot Noir. Hilton is wary of cops, even me, but he knew who I was and could appreciate my wine. He is a man who likes to spin yarns, especially to women.
I said, “Tell me something about Paul I don’t know.”
He tasted wine, smiled, nodded, and rubbed his graying stubble of a beard, considering his story. He said, “Did you know he hired me at The Open Door?”
I shook my head, a detail I’d missed, and Hilton went on. “He was nineteen, been in town a week. I was interviewing for whitey, three of ‘em sitting around a table like I had applied for a cabinet position, all in suits, Mitchell in plaid pants with that stupid fake afro and widest tie I’ve ever seen. They was looking at each other like ain’t no way this nigger fronting my restaurant but talking like, ‘Well, Mr. Beaudre, tell us about your experience in sauté.’ I didn’t have much hope.”
In the year of the murder, 1979, Hilton was thirty-five, six-four about two-ten with a shaved head, many tattoos, a short scraggly beard and a gold tooth right up front. In the middle of his interview, this kid walks into the banquet room and slouches in a chair behind the others, the only guy in the room in a chef’s coat and kitchen shoe, brown eyes serious and sad. He listened for a while then whispered to Mitchell, ‘Hey, can I see his application?’ He looked it over and said, “When you were aboard ship, you cooked for the officers?”
Hilton nodded. “That was my job for two years.”
“And what did you take away from your Navy experience?”
Hilton said, “I can cook anything for anybody anywhere in the world.”
Paul stared him down for a second and said to the others, “That’s the guy,” and to Hilton, “Weekend night sauté. You and me. You up for it?”
Paul was the only one smiling. He was their boy, an up and coming company hotshot, groomed for management the minute he turned twenty-one. In the new Scottsdale restaurant, he had proposed design modifications in the kitchen and menu that allowed a shift from four cooks to three. He had pitched his ideas, sold them, drew the scheme for architects, and a star was born. So, management nodded at his shenanigans, and Paul shook Hilton’s hand. “Come on, I’ll show you around.”
Hilton said, “He had that look in his eyes – like he knew he’d won and felt pretty damn good about it. The thing about Paul, he’s always the most determined man in the room. A couple of days later, he got my cousin Ernie hired the same way, just jumped in on the interview, ‘She’s a great waitress, we should hire her.’ He’d seen her at my house twice, hardly knew her. And Ernestine, ain’t no mischief on her radar she don’t know all about. She tracks him down, says, ‘Thanks for the job; why’d you do it?’
“And he say, ‘My dad joined the Marines cause if you’re heading into trouble, you want to be surrounded by the best people you can find.’
“Ernie called, ‘Bullshit.’ Paul leaned in close, ‘Kinda bullshit, but kinda not. Mitchell’s okay, but I don’t trust the rest of management. Gotta have folks to watch my back.’”
The Open Door was slick: chrome and black leather with dark ceilings and spotlights hanging low over each white clothed table. The service staff, dressed in black, moved like shadows through the dim light. “Our customers are stars,” management would say, “and employees the supporting cast.” They were out of LA, Hollywood money, stores scattered in upscale beach towns, Santa Barbara, Malibu, Newport, Del Mar, with water views and a vigorous bar scene. They had two out of state properties, one recently opened in Scottsdale and the newest in Portland. Paul Tomaso had served stints them all. The firm had used him as a troubleshooter because he was tough and smarter than he looked. He kept his mouth shut, understood how things worked and could figure out why when they didn’t. At The Door, as everyone called it, he was grillman on weekend nights - the man - because the menu featured dry-aged beefsteaks and 21 different cuts of fresh fish, most of them grilled.
Paul had started in the Hollywood flagship store with Mitchell as GM. He had gotten in some sort of trouble of which there is no record. Hilton said a fight. So, the company got him out of town to train the opening team in Scottsdale and then to Portland, where during construction, they put him up at Motel Six. As far as Hilton could tell, Paul’s life consisted of working, reading and wandering the city alone, so one day, the older man invited him to play basketball, and when that went well, to dinner. The two men, different in so many ways, liked each other.
Next stop for Paul was supposed to be the new Aspen restaurant, except that as training ended, he decided to stay in Portland. Paul told me he liked the river through the middle of town and all the bridges, but Hilton knew the real reason. On the first day of training, he fell topsy-turvy in love with a woman who called herself Djuna Novak (pronounced by her with a breath of a “D”), the long-time girlfriend of a bartender named Johnny Urbino.
“He had it bad,” Hilton said. “She started coming on to him big time at the first staff meeting. No place he could go in that restaurant, she wouldn’t find him.” Djuna was a petite thing with dark curly hair, striking gray eyes and a politician’s smile. I interviewed her several times over the course of the investigation and didn’t like her a bit. She was neat and well groomed, but she broadcast something unclean with her pale skin, her decadent mouth painted bright red, her hungry eyes. The women I like best have a will, a drive, a strong inner fiber. Not Djuna.
Hilton went on. “She was wild, lots of pain in those eyes, that strained smile. She was older, too, and Paul wanted someone to take him places he’d never been.” He stopped then, waiting on my reaction, but I gave him nothing. I already knew intimate tales of Paul and would not have been embarrassed by anything Hilton was likely to tell. Contrary to reputation, I always knew Hilton to be a gentleman.
In the course of our investigation, a cocktail waitress named Lisa Peel put it this way: Djuna “…caught Paul in that vulnerable position of simultaneously wanting to pursue her and hold himself back.” She and her man, Johnny, styled themselves ‘swingers’ and were well-known at bars and parties where that sort of night sport was practiced.
Hilton again, “Paul wanted a girlfriend, wanted to be in love, but he was kinda stupid expecting it to be Djuna. I tried to tell him but he was all fired up, wasn’t really listening. She thought she had him wrapped around her little finger, but then Raina snagged him, and oh baby.” Hilton shook his head. “Bad blood between those two.
“Portland was still kind of a small town, then. Most of us had been working restaurants for years and knew each other from the late night bars and clubs. I knew Johnny, Djuna, Raina, all them people, at least a little. Yvonne was someone Ernie knew. They hired a lot of old pros at The Door.
“Now Raina. People see pretty and get the wrong idea. She grew up in honky-tonks, and she was smart and tough and the girl could talk. She was the kind, if she didn’t like you, it was just way easier to leave her alone. I guess you’ve heard she looked a lot like you – not so skinny or so many freckles. But her and me got along fine. She’d tip you in person, come sit with you, buy you a drink if she’d sold a lot of appetizers. Most of those pretty ones don’t want to be drinking with no stinky cooks.”
Raina was first to sink a hook. She was twenty-four, strawberry blond and blue-eyed. Paul knew nothing about her, but she had something he desperately needed, a room. She had rented a ramshackle house on Corbett Hill and filled it with restaurant people, a party house commonly called ‘Hell Hole’. As a trainer, the company had been paying for Paul’s room at Motel 6, but when he decided to stay in Portland, in a fit of corporate pique, they gave him forty-eight hours to find a place or he’d have to pay his hotel bill on a cook’s wages. So, she had a vacancy and Paul filled it. By one account, on his first night there, she’d got him drunk and seduced him. True or not, she lived a life filled with men and alcohol. Of course there was more to her: books, her basement room was lined with them and Paul loved to read; an “A” in nearly every class she had taken in college; a glowing letter of recommendation from one professor; and a recently completed real estate course. She was also known to drink at work and to carry in her purse a bottle of prescription diet pills, speed, commonly called Black Beauties.
Paul hadn’t done drugs much, drank a little, smoked a little pot. I asked Hilton, “Why would he go for a girl like that?”
“Probably needed to get laid. Djuna got that boy so hot, always comin’ on then pulling away. My guess, it was the pulling away bothered him most.”*
For the month or so he lived at Hell Hole, Paul spent most nights after work with Raina in her basement room, but on nights she worked late, she liked to drink and would explain, “You get off work at ten, but I get off at two-thirty, and I want to do something. I don’t want to go home and sleep.” So, he would wait as the night expired, trying to read, pacing, filled with jealousy and longing. One Friday night he waited in vain. Still awake at eight in the morning, he saw her dropped off by a construction worker with whom she’d been flirting in the bar. She was still so drunk she had to navigate downstairs one careful step at a time. Saturday night, it happened again. Hilton explained, “That was it for Paul. He’s big on loyalty. If you’re his friend, he’ll stand by you come hell or high water, but cross him and he’s done with you.”
Djuna Novak, another smart girl with bad habits, snagged him a week later, a drippy Sunday afternoon in early spring. Paul often ate in the restaurant on his days off because employees received a fifty percent discount on food. Better yet, because he was the grillman, often “a mistake” would be made on a dish he enjoyed that “somebody really ought to eat.” When Paul arrived, Djuna and Yvonne were perched at the bar, having a free drink (for which they would tip lavishly – the karma of tipping) before a yet to be defined night on the town. It was, after all, their Saturday night. The women sat with Paul while he ate a steak sandwich, then the three of them left. Things must have gone well because Djuna called him early Tuesday morning. “Hey, I found a place for you to live. It’s near my house, very cool, and a great deal if you take it before it goes on the market.”
Hilton told the following story. Djuna and Yvonne picked up Paul in Yvonne’s decrepit grey Oldsmobile, “The Battlewagon”, and drove him across town to a four-story brick building in Northwest Portland. The apartment was old and funky but had wonderful views: Mount Hood, downtown, and three Willamette River bridges. It had two rooms with Murphy beds, a kitchen and a bath, but the rent was three times what he had been paying. Desperate to be out of Raina’s, he wrote a check that emptied his bank account. Then he, Djuna and Yvonne went back to Raina’s and, shoes off, moved his few possessions while Raina slept off her previous night’s debauch in the basement. The women thought it a great ruse, but it was not an episode that made him proud. Glad to have escaped without a scene, he dreaded Tuesday, when all the principals would be working.
* * *