The Terror of Colorado Boulevard: Hate, Homicide, and a Holiday Tradition

By Bonnie JohnsonDecember 28, 2014

The Terror of Colorado Boulevard: Hate, Homicide, and a Holiday Tradition

A LITTLE OLD LADY from Pasadena was found dead, stuffed in the trunk of her own car. Ten years later the case remains unsolved; the primary suspect died more than a year ago. Both victim and suspect were involved in the Rose Parade. The case caught my eye, and opened a trap door onto what few people may know: the warped evolution of the procession itself, the history of discrimination, and that officials have been suspected of grand theft and even murder. This is the secret history of the Rose Parade.

When it began in 1890, the Rose Parade was an advertisement for Pasadena. Today — while LA County isn’t hurting for publicity, and desperately tries to abate traffic — Pasadena is an advertisement for the Rose Parade. The festival has grown into a Leviathan consuming 65,000 hours, equivalent to over seven around-the-clock years, of volunteer labor each time around. The Tournament Association in charge has almost 1,000 members, and would have more but that it’s selective with applications. Volunteers must meet requirements that begin with white suits and annual donations, and end with civic connection and other such hazy measures of “reputation.” They belong to 32 committees; half the committee chairs are elected to the Board of Directors; the Board elects an Executive Committee, the members of which become officers. But at 64, members age out of the Association. Richard Allan Munnecke served as director of the Music Committee until 1999, which would have been his last chance to secure an executive position. He didn’t, and retired in 2004. That year, former Music Committee member Donna Kelly was murdered. Munnecke became a suspect.

Munnecke, a San Marino native, had met his wife Gail while attending the University of Oregon in Eugene. After graduation they moved to Coos Bay, and he taught high school, where his students supposedly included ill-fated track star Steve Prefontaine. In 1970 they moved back to the San Gabriel Valley, where Gail taught and Allan ran a now-defunct air-conditioning business. He was active in their church, in the Red Cross, the Rotary Club and the Navy League — all prime credentials for a member of the Association.

Donna Kelly was a star Buick saleswoman with a soon-to-be-married daughter living nearby. After volunteering in different areas of the Tournament, Kelly landed on the powerful Music Committee. Munnecke lived in Alhambra, Kelly in unincorporated North San Gabriel — which is how the case fell to the increasingly troubled LA County Sheriff’s Department.

In 2001, after the end of Munnecke’s tenure, his wife got hit by a car and ended up in a wheelchair. In the period after, Kelly let on to friends that she and Munnecke were having an affair (which he later “adamantly denied” while admitting “romantic intentions”). At the time of her death, the gregarious Kelly had become noticeably depressed. Detectives determined that someone entered her apartment, suffocated Kelly, and then hid her body in her trunk, in the parking lot. A week or two later her daughter Diane reported her missing and began to seek help; at Kelly’s home there was no evidence of break-in or robbery. Another week later, Diane was driving the car in Eaton Canyon when she became nauseated by the smell, and subsequently found her mother’s remains. They weren’t too badly decomposed for forensics to find another person’s pubic hair on her corpse. Diane and her fiancé were quickly cleared.

Homicide detectives Beth Smith and Richard Lopez kept after the case. After receiving a grant to use for further DNA testing in 2010, they took Munnecke’s cheek swab and found that the hairs on Kelly’s body matched. It’s unclear why the case sat for another two years, but the officers finally arrested Munnecke in 2012. For a single day, he remained at the infamous Twin Towers jail on million-dollar bail, and the case was local news.

Then a surprising thing happened. The sheriff and the DA had a public dispute in which the DA refused to prosecute, citing insufficient evidence. Immediately every civic booster in Pasadena showed up in the press expressing their relief, and their indignation at the careless cops bringing bad publicity upon the parade. Kelly’s family looked on in bewilderment as Munnecke returned home and resumed his life until dying during heart surgery several months later.

Another few weeks and it was New Year’s again. My alma mater won the 100th Rose Bowl while I stayed off the road, like everyone west of the river, and expressed routine annoyance at the commotion. The case stayed in the back of my mind though, and this year I became curious. I called the LASD’s homicide investigation unit at its posted number to inquire about the progress on an ongoing investigation, but Kenny there wouldn’t comment on whether they still had suspects, or if the same detectives had stayed on the case. In fact, he wouldn’t even look it up. But the file appears to remain open.

Rose Parade officials drive special white cars, now donated by Honda as the parade’s sponsor since 2011. A writer I know once told me that “murder is like a white Honda: once you pay attention, it’s everywhere.” I wasn’t impressed with the analogy, but the image of pearly Japanese sedans with their “T of R” plates, tinted windows, and locked trunks, wending their way through the tony suburbs, holds some interest for me now.

The original idea of flower-laden chariots was to show off SoCal’s winter growing climate, but in fact, four out of five festival roses are now imported from South America. In its early days the parade showcased the succession of horse-drawn carriages, followed by polo matches and a tug of war, and later, ostrich races and bronco busting demonstrations. The festivities once centered on the Caltech lot, but upon the death of transplanted tycoon William Wrigley, who donated Tournament House to the ToR, the main action moved there, on Orange Grove Boulevard. After Christmas, the street out front becomes a barricaded formation area; from its start there the cavalcade turns down old Route 66, and passes under the freeway.

Today, the parade’s lengthy roster of sponsors features corporations, TV shows, military units, charities, public officials, and local attractions. For the past 30 years or so a few companies have built almost all of the floats: last year three businesses made 38 of the 46, though volunteers perform final decoration. One fabricator prides itself on producing the flashiest spectacles, another on its year-round social media activity, a third, Fiesta Parade Floats, on winning the most awards and thus the most news coverage, “so our clients get more out of their investment.” Each float costs about a quarter of a million dollars.

The event may also be California’s closest thing to a debutante ball, though a slightly more populist version in that it’s crossed with a beauty pageant. Over 1,000 local women between 16 and 21 audition in September; from those a queen and six princesses are chosen. Videos from the process show fidgety girls in matronly dresses and heels too high for their comfort, numbers pinned to their chests. Next come standardizing treatments, with haircuts and makeup, then a coronation ceremony at a nearby Protestant church. Soon the court begins over 100 promotional appearances, for which the ladies miss a good bit of school — but brains aren’t a criterion for the role; selection only requires a GPA of 2.0, or a “C” average. It is a requirement though to be “good-natured,” and post-selection the girls attend etiquette classes to impress upon them exactly what that means. Increasing numbers of boys try to enter, and we have yet to see any official response.

The queen and princesses in their gowns and presentation most resemble a bride and her bridesmaids. At points in the past, there have also been the equivalent of flower girls, or pages, and even a king. The original Mildreds and Muriels appeared in thick robes. Later, during World War II, the court’s theme became patriotic. A photo from 1951 shows the women on a typical day, wearing matching suits, hats, heels, and handbags, each in a different pastel hue; ’60s photos show versions of the same outfit, sometimes with gloves. In a recent picture they each had Louis Vuitton luggage. One feature of each girl’s 30-piece event wardrobe is an authentic jeweled crown.

Marching bands from far and wide try out in the fall for a spot in the parade, and those judged the most worthy among them form a high school Honor Band. A snare drummer and nine trumpeters win the privilege of escorting the queen, heralding her float with fanfares. The Tournament has more recently spawned an additional three-part Bandfest on the last two days of each year, requiring its own paid tickets. Besides the Honor Band, generally just one or two groups are local: the other fifteen or so come from distant states and countries.

Among other parade contingents are the equestrian teams, including female-only groups like the Giddy Up Gals, the All American Cowgirl Chicks, the tantalizingly named Painted Ladies Rodeo Performers, and the Victorian Roses Ladies Riding Society. But perhaps most famous was stuntman Montie Montana of the silver saddle, a parade icon from the ’30s until he died, in 1998. Then there’s the glorious, ceremonial job of Grand Marshal, filled over the years not only by Hollywood favorites like John Wayne and Shirley Temple, but also the later-disgraced Paula Deen and before that Richard Nixon — in fact, Nixon held the post twice.

From the time of its inception, the parade had a deal with God: as long as the Association wouldn’t hold the proceedings on a Sunday, there wouldn’t be rain. If January 1 fell on the Lord’s Day, the event would move to January 2. But in 2006, the rain came anyway. It was no passing SoCal drizzle either — it poured all day in high winds and cold. The proceedings were miserable, sparsely attended and spottily covered, and viewers didn’t watch at home. Normally the week of the Tournament, hundreds of thousands of people descend upon the town, while millions more watch the event on TV in the US and abroad.

In spite of those numbers, tourism is not a major industry in Pasadena, ranking far behind economic mainstays like banking, software, and healthcare. And while known for its jet propulsion lab, art school, and parrots, the idyllic little city has dealt with crime and corruption before, including gang wars and police scandals. Of course it will never hold a candle to Los Angeles in those respects, but an insular, outlying community with its incestuous hierarchies and gaps in jurisdiction has its own governance challenges.

Like many status-based institutions, the Association spent much of the ’90s facing assaults on its all-white, old boys’ club nature. They began in 1991, when the Tournament Association’s Executive Committee announced it had chosen a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus as Grand Marshal for the next parade. Progressive elements in the community responded quickly and vocally, opposing the celebration of the man who began the conquest of Native America. To quell dissent, the Association eventually appointed an additional Grand Marshal, an indigenous politician, to share the role. Before the event, the city posted an ordinance that made it a crime to disrupt a parade.

In 1992, LA County’s appointed Commission for Women asked why no women sat on the Court committee to choose the parade’s queen and princesses. The Association didn’t answer, but the Commission quickly became “Peeved Feminists” (that dreaded and irrational throng) in LA Times shorthand. In truth, the Association had only begun accepting women and minorities into its ranks at all in the 1980s. Noting their absence from the decision-making Executive Committee, in April 1993 a Pasadena City Council member accused the Association of “shameful bigotry.” Within weeks, the City Council hired a former California Supreme Court justice to conduct an investigation of the Association’s relationship with the city government — one result being that council members who were also Association members couldn’t join future negotiations between the two.

That summer, the Association responded that they’d create a new committee to ensure equality in recruitment and contracting — on which five of the 14 members would be women or minorities. Black leaders responded in remarks at City Hall, where they accused Tournament officials of speaking with a “forked tongue.” Jesse Jackson held forth in a Pasadena church and compared the arrangement to “Birmingham in ’63,” threatening to organize a counter-parade. In October the new protest coalition rallied on Wrigley’s steps and vowed to “bring the Tournament to its knees” by calling on float sponsors to boycott and by obstructing the parade, risking arrest if necessary. Demonstrators began by blocking traffic on Orange Grove during the coronation of the queen, where they met threats and slurs from Association members and their supporters.

Shortly thereafter, the City of LA announced it was prepared to pull its float from what its own City Council called a “country club” operation, ending a century of participation, and adding, “we don’t wish to support such enterprises.” Days later, the Association named five new people to its existing 14-member Executive Committee, bringing it to a total of four minority and two female members. The new appointees dealt with stares, snubs, and 40 member resignations in response. In 1996 Pasadena finalized a new 25-year contract with the Association, but the emphasis was on funding rather than diversity.

Individual Rose Parade officials have been in hot water before. In 1999, CFO Richard Quattropane fell under suspicion of embezzling a large chunk of change from the Association over the preceding two years. The following year he entered a plea deal for repayment, but after he failed to make good by that fall, the matter vanished from any mention in even the hyper-local press. Some mused that friends in the city’s government may have spared Quattropane; it couldn’t have hurt that his brother was a popular priest.

When a woman is killed, it’s almost always by a man with whom she’s intimate. According to FBI statistics, murders of wives and girlfriends are matched in numbers only by murders for gangs and drugs, respectively. Maybe Allan Munnecke had a rival for Donna Kelly’s affections, and the rival was the murderer. But even if Munnecke wasn’t the killer, the revelation that his pubic hairs turned up on someone other than his wife — a cadaver no less — must have affected his status some, at least at church. I can’t help but wonder what life has been like for his widow; her Facebook updates don’t show much.

Fewer and fewer traces remain of Kelly’s truncated life. Her daughter married, her co-workers retired, and her building changed hands. The new owner and occupant likely know nothing of the grisly crime staged there, as it recedes further into the past. But like Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas, haunted and compelled by the trumpet symbol, I’ve begun to see the Association’s insignia all over LA’s east side. Most often it appears to me in passing lots of junked cars, many from 30 or 40 years back, when Kelly would have been my age.

Meanwhile, LASD’s power structure is crumbling under federal criminal indictments for unrelated charges. Kelly’s case seems unlikely to resurface anytime soon, if ever. But killers, thieves, or Stepford queens, conquistadors or racist Deens, the parade will look out for its own. After the foreign-made pace car, between two corporate floats, the Honor Band plays on.


Bonnie Johnson studied Modern Thought and Politics at Stanford and the LSE. She recently completed a memoir of her time as a labor and community organizer. She lives in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Bonnie Johnson is at work on An Atlas of Utopia, an essay collection about intentional communities.


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