When River’s Edge hit theaters in 1987, director Tim Hunter’s film stirred up controversy with critics and film goers alike. The story of a group of friends who remained quiet after one of their own shows them the body of a girl he murdered was ripe for sweeping commentary on a new generation, the hardening of our collective heart–and hell–the fall of Western civilization as we know it. Will these kids, addled on pot, arcade games and heavy metal, usher in a wave of amoral nihilism? Is there anything upstanding folks can do about it?
The reaction around River’s Edge could easily be chalked up to hyperbolic blustering were it not for the fact that the core of the film’s story is based on an actual case from 1981 when a 16-year-old male, Anthony Jacques Broussard, raped and murdered 14-year-old Marcy Conrad, and then boasting about his crime to friends who took two days to report the crime to police.
Here’s a summary of the murder and fallout that we could cobble together from reliable sources:
In early November, 1981 Anthony Broussard raped and strangled Marcy Conrad at his home in Milpitas, California. The boy was large for his age, and though he’s frequently described as having a gentle demeanor in news reports, Broussard was reportedly troubled ever since finding his mother dead in the shower after coming home from elementary school. Conrad reportedly ran with a bad crowd, a group at school who called themselves The Stoners, and she frequently ran away from home. Conrad’s mother had reported that the girl had run-away the day before her death.
After the murder, Broussard loaded Conrad’s body in his pick-up truck and made his way into the hills surrounding town, dumping her remains in the bottom of a ravine. After hiding the body, Broussard told several classmates about his crime–many of whom did not believe him, and to verify his act, Broussard guided groups of kids to the body as proof.
As word of the body spread, at least thirteen kids filed out into the hills to see Broussard’s grizzly work. Witnesses included Conrad’s former boyfriend, who brought his 8-year-old brother in tow.
Reactions varied. Some poked at the body with sticks like curious children, others thought it was a mannequin, a bad joke. They goaded each other into touching the body. They removed patches from her half-removed jeans, and one–16-year-old Kirk Rasmussen–covered her body in plastic bags and leaves to give Broussard “a head start” on the police.
Most simply went about their day and pretended that nothing was wrong.
As witnesses to the scene piled up, the crime still went unreported. Some were haunted by what they saw, unable to shake images of Marcy’s body throughout the day, while others stood by Broussard, protecting a peer who had “gone wacko.” Others said they didn’t go to the police simply because they didn’t want to get themselves into trouble. Regardless of their half-baked reasons, Conrad’s murder went unreported for two days.
On the second day, two of the witnesses went to the authorities–one to the high school principal, the other to the police. Several of those who remained quiet vilified those who reported the crime, deriding them as snitches with no moral center. Even after Broussard’s arrest, several of the teens still refused to cooperate with police, lying about their knowledge of the body
When the story finally broke, and Broussard went into police custody, Milptas became the center of a media firestorm with reporters from across the country swarming into town to get a scoop on Broussard’s crime, and on the decayed moral fiber of those who stayed quiet. A 1981 article from the Sarasota Herald Tribune records many of the teens’ reactions, most of them echoing the same chilly reserve. Even homicide detectives put on the case were shaken by the teens’ apparent apathy, claiming that the kids “must have ice water in their veins.”
Much of the information above was culled from one of these reporters, Glenn Bunting, who, in his pseudo-review of River’s Edge, recounted getting to know many of the teenagers at local hangout spots during the immediate fallout of the murder. There’s actually a rather lengthy, detail-laden piece we dug up from an obscure corner of the internet that claims to be from one of Broussard’s classmates who saw Conrad’s body–the account is utterly un-verifiable, and could very well be some odd piece of true crime fan-fiction, but it’s worth at least a browse.
Broussard eventually pled guilty to murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life. He is currently in protective custody at Folsom State Prison. Rasmussen, the boy who covered Conrad’s body, spent three years in a juvenile detention center for helping Broussard’s elude police. He claims he did it out of intimidation and as a way to cover her naked body.
River’s Edge is far from a true crime story–screenwriter Neal Jimenez reportedly only took the broad circumstances of the murder as inspiration for his story, but many of the details from the real crime found their way in Jimenez’s script. All of the characters are largely invented, especially Feck (Dennis Hopper), a local hermit hiding from a similar crime he committed in his youth. But the film captures the sliminess of the circumstances around Conrad’s murder, and the conflicting attitudes that can arise when confused anti-authoritarian rhetoric and childhood loyalties get put to the test.