‘Kill Me Last’ – Why The Ucar Family Had to Die and Punish God in Orange County’s Most Mysterious Murder/Suicide
Ucar Family 2008 Murder-Suicides
Ucar Family May 2008 Murder-Suicide San Clemente, Calif.
‘KILL ME LAST’ – WHY THE UCAR FAMILY HAD TO DIE AND PUNISH GOD IN ORANGE COUNTY’S MOST MYSTERIOUS MURDER/SUICIDE
Dedicated to the memory of a lovely but tragic family
* * *
Kill Me Last … that peculiar title appeared on a 1996 un-produced Hollywood screenplay written by Dr. Manas Ucar, a highly respected and successful Turkish Armenian immigrant, accident reconstruction engineer and my next-door neighbor for 16 years in San Clemente on the southern edge of Orange County.
Manas eventually did manage to get killed, ten years ago in May 2008, except the paterfamilias of one of OC’s most notorious, ill-fated households only died second to last.
Perishing along with him inside their elegant suburban San Clemente hillside house were his gracious but murderous wife Margrit Ucar, his distinctive adult twin daughters Margo and Grace Ucar, and Manas’ collateral damage mother-in-law Fransuhi Kesisoglu.
Now a decade later, I’m taking a much deeper look into a murder-suicide case labeled by the police as inexplicable and mysterious with no obvious motives to explain it. The Ucars were a quiet people for whom a sensational newsy death seemed wholly out of character ... yet they certainly knew that the story would go global due to their international connections. No suicide notes, according to the police, so if they meant to leave a message behind for us to find it had to be somewhere in the sheer wasting of it all.
Or maybe they decided to hurry along the inevitable: inside every body there's a skeleton dying to get out, and then one day it just does.
The Ucars had no discernible problems with the “4 Ms” – money, marriage, mental and medical, according to Det. Dan Salcido of the OC Sheriff’s Dept., the lead investigator on the case. He has not changed his professional conclusions about what happened to the Ucars in the decade since the bodies were discovered.
“I have no idea as to why it happened and I’m not even going to throw out a guess about it,” Det. Salcido told me. In fact, one of my neighbors even told me that a police officer once asked him if HE had done it.
Still, I want to know what drastic misfortune left five corpses to rot for weeks unbeknownst to me just a few hundred feet from my front door. I need to understand why they left us the way they left us.
I did get a clue about why it all might have happened from a neighbor who told me that a very upset Manas Ucar had told him on the last day the two men ever spoke that the Ucars intended to “punish God” because Margo and Grace had been rejected by the School of Medicine at Seventh-day Adventist Loma Linda University in San Bernardino County, the preferred religio-med school of choice for the deeply Christian Ucars, Margrit in particular.
Though Manas often spoke proudly of the twins’ plans for medical school, it was in Margrit’s heart that such a future for Margo and Grace burned hottest.
Including residency and fellowship, it requires at least seven years from the first day of medical school before a newly minted physician can practice medicine in the United States. Beyond Loma Linda, the Ucars had no Plan B for the twins’ med school prospects. As a result of having their next decade of highly anticipated life together thus unexpectedly short-circuited, the humiliated and angry Ucars responded to a perceived divine betrayal with a fatal strategy of reverse retribution against the conniving almighty in which in some devastating way they intended to literally “Punish God!”
Religion played a major role in the lives of the Ucars. They were religious but not conspicuously so, going to St. Mary Armenian Church in Costa Mesa only on major holidays, fellow congregants said later. Though Margrit was a vocal Friend of Jesus and the twins always wore Christian crosses around their necks, their religiosity tended toward the private.
Despite the “God-punishing” statement resulting from the Loma Linda med school rebuff, Det. Salcido told me he didn’t think the Loma Linda setback ultimately pushed the Ucars over the edge, though he couldn’t provide a better possible motive.
Not knowing the exact cause of the calamity doesn’t minimize the obvious feelings of persecution and paranoia, fear and a dread sense of impending doom that finally engulfed the Ucars. On the other hand, sometimes bad things just happen.
After looking long and hard at the Ucar disaster, I’ve come to believe that it resulted from a confluence of numerous factors, most importantly immigrant Margrit Ucar’s inability to adjust to life in America even after decades of living here. It was a life that despite all its external trappings of success was apparently extremely unsatisfying to Margrit, so much so that her dissatisfaction and frustration turned her into an obsessive, dominating control freak and left her so deeply unhappy and depressed that she built a delusional, claustrophobic and ultimately unsustainable false “reality” for herself and her matriarchal family, an existence which eventually morphed into the nightmare that killed them all.
Margrit Ucar, an immigrant doctor from a land where female physicians are honored and esteemed, was ineligible to practice medicine in the U.S. Thus shorn of her hard-earned prestige and status, maybe even her dignity, she pivoted away from her own painful personal and professional exclusions to live vicariously through her daughters, who WOULD become eminent doctors in America.
But then, just like their long-suffering mother, the twins also got rejected.
Now twice denied, mother and daughters, enough was enough. Her misery, her family, her drugs, her guns, her determination and, finally, her decision. It would be over when Margrit Ucar said it was over … and so it was.
The final time my wife Tara and I saw the entire Ucar family together was at a neighbor's Christmas party. I can still see them standing there. It was all holiday greetings, pleasantries and polite conversation (parents only). They seemed to be enjoying themselves but these weren't folks to work a room. Manas and Margrit beamed and the now grown young women stood silently by their side, smiling politely. The twins appeared to be in some sort of costume, wearing berets. I was happy to see them because I hadn't been sure that they still existed.
They gave me a smile and a polite "hello." I smiled back and said "hello." Three people, three words. Sixteen years as next door neighbors and apparently three words were just enough.
But nothing else that night, and I never picked up from them or their parents any sense of the mystifying, undiagnosed affliction that made the Ucars a hidden people, a broken people and would soon kill them.
The Ucar tragedy was a case of homicide and murder-suicide, but also described familicide (a multiple-victim homicide in which a killer's spouse and children are slain), mariticide (killing one's husband), filicide/prolicide (parents killing their children), parricide/parenticide (killing of one's mother or father) and matricide (killing one's mother).
My relationship with the Ucars … beginning to end … went from adjacent resident to next-door neighbor to close-by acquaintance to casual friend to, finally, baffled bystander left wondering ... what happened?
“The greatest thrill is not to kill but to let live,” writes James Oliver Curwood in The Grizzly King. I suppose, though I have no place for the thought that they did it for the thrill of it.
Whatever drove them, the Ucars took their truth with them to their graves, located at El Toro Memorial Park in Lake Forest, Plot: Lot 48 Section EG Block 15.
Crisis on Campanilla
Most Americans recall that in 2008 the nation was descending into an economic abyss. The stock market dropped 46 percent. Unemployment shot up above 10 percent. Home foreclosures hit record figures. And total household wealth declined by more than $19 trillion.
But for the residents along the street of Campanilla in San Clemente’s small, gated community of Sea Pointe Estates overlooking the Pacific Ocean just off the 5 freeway where it intersects with PCH at the town’s north end, the top story that year involved murder and mayhem in the neighborhood.
On the unforgettable afternoon of Sunday, May 25, 2008, Orange County Sheriff Dept. deputies, paramedics, crime-scene investigators, county coroners and other emergency crews and their vehicles swarmed our Sea Pointe neighborhood. Grim-faced authorities who descended on our residential side street poured into 31 Campanilla, home of the Ucar family. News crews camped outside the front gate, the phone rang incessantly with media calls, and helicopters swooped noisily overhead while feeding the clamoring TV stations with aerial video that we watched in real-time.
A small crowd of neighbors gathered outside on the sidewalk, where one of our friends who had gone into the house told us the bad news: no survivors … the entire Ucar family – Manas, 58; Margrit, 48, her mother Fransuhi Kesisoglu, 72; and twin daughters Margo and Grace, 21 – were dead inside.
Finding the Bodies
For three weeks beginning early in May, neighbors around the Ucar home had guessed at reasons why no one had recently seen any of the family and why their late-model Porsche and two Toyotas had oddly remained parked in the 31 Campanilla driveway. Manas usually told one of us when they were going out of town, but that time he hadn’t said anything to anyone … just left everyone to wonder what was going on with the Ucars.
Eventually, deputies twice visited the home in the prior two weeks, prompted by calls from concerned neighbors and worried relatives. But the place was locked up tight, they couldn’t see anything through the windows and they got no response when they knocked on the doors. Officers had come to our house next door seeking information, but we couldn’t tell them anything. Sea Pointe is a MYOB community and it had been a long time since I had spoken with Manas. In fact, I talked with Margrit only a couple times across 16 years, and I had never talked to the daughters or their grandmother. Deputies found nothing suspicious during either visit. Everyone assumed the family must have gone on vacation.
That Sunday, though, the brothers of both Margrit and Manas … Armen Kesisoglu and Dr. Kalust Ucar … finally came down from L.A. and met at the house to investigate. They broke a window to gain access and force entry, only to discover the calamity within.
A sheriff’s deputy who came over to our driveway to question my wife and me shared some details. Five dead bodies had been found in the downstairs master bedroom and adjoining closet. The brothers had positively identified Manas, Margrit, Fransuhi Kesisoglu, Margo and Grace. The deputy confirmed the gunshot deaths of Manas and Margrit, found lying next to each other in the master bedroom closet. Two handguns lay near the bodies, but only one had been fired. The daughters and grandmother were found in the bedroom, Kesisoglu sitting in a chair and the twins lying in bed next to water glasses and prescription pill bottles on an end table.
Authorities had entered a house clean, uncluttered, tranquil as a funeral parlor but rank with the sickening sweet smell of decomposition. The twins and grandma had simply lain down and died in the bedroom, and their father had done the same in the walk-in closet.
And there they lay silently for weeks amid the microbes and dust mites and fungus spores and silverfish and daddy longlegs and myriad other creatures who sheltered in the house with the late family, though mostly out of sight.
For reasons known only to her, Margrit had chosen fire power to amplify the effects of the drugs on her husband. She put a slug in his chest and then one in her mouth.
It almost seems as if Margrit might have used her gun because she felt that she couldn't trust that Manas had indeed fatally overdosed, couldn't risk the possibility that he might wake up, get up, even recover, then live on without Margrit ... which would be an even greater disaster than the one she had personally orchestrated in the family bedroom in May 2008. Or maybe Margrit was just being her usual thorough self. Same result, either way.
That overlong spring afternoon, while investigators in hazmat breathing gear came and went from the building, we the public stood by gawking behind striped yellow/black police tape that isolated the crime scene and kept the curious at a distance. I saw one of the brothers sitting outside on a planter wall next to the driveway, his head buried in his hands.
“Why would they kill my mom, too?” Det. Salcido told me Margrit’s brother had said.
Late in the day I wandered out to see what was going on, but the cops politely told me to go back inside. The crews waited until nightfall to remove the bodies under cover of darkness … five body bags strapped to gurneys were rolled one-by-one out of the house and into coroner’s vans for transport to the morgue. Despite the cover of nightfall, someone had filmed the extraction, which we then witnessed on the evening news.
Only later on would come the crime scene cleanup technicians, forensic decontaminators, bioremediation professionals and other specialists in removing dried blood and numerous residual pathogens related to death and decay from the house.
And More Trouble Besides on Campanilla
The Ucars tragedy wasn’t the only shocking news on Campanilla in May 2008, when mean mortality relentlessly stalked the bend in our quiet little suburban street. Manas, Margrit, Margo, Grace and Fransuhi were just part of the carnage.
Miguel Viejobueno, who built the Ucar house and lived just two doors up at 37 Campanilla, also died that month, as did his estranged wife Lynn. Sadly, their 18-year-old son Christian had died in an automobile accident in Texas a few days after Christmas 2007.
And then there was other, non-fatal but still significant news roiling the neighborhood that month. It centered around 32 Campanilla, a 4-bedroom, 3,900 sq. ft. house perched above and directly across the street from the Ucars and the Viejobuenos houses. On Monday, March 3, 2008, Edward R. Showalter, 56, the owner of 32 Campanilla, was being sentenced to 12-1/2 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $15 million in restitution for defrauding investors who were told their funds would be used to buy, fix up and resell distressed properties. Showalter had pleaded guilty, but then asked to change the plea, contending he had found evidence to exonerate himself. The judge denied the motion and ordered him into custody.
Along with the Ucar home at 31 Campanilla, the 32 Campanilla residence and another house Showalter had owned down the street remained abandoned and dilapidated for years, melancholy reminders of a mournful Spring 2008 until the houses were eventually sold and refurbished.
Vicodin & Magnum .357
In November 2008, the Sheriff’s Department told the media that on May 3 someone driving a vehicle containing a transponder and registered to the Ucars had used the back gate to enter Sea Pointe Estates. Then, sometime in early May, the exact date unknown, Margo, Grace, Fransuhi Kesisoglu and Manas committed suicide by overdosing on Vicodin, sleeping pills and antidepressants. Though Manas was unconscious from the drug overdose, cause of death was a gunshot wound. Only Margrit, who also died of a gunshot wound, had no drugs in her system.
Two handguns ... a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum and a S&W .38 Special … were found next to the bodies. Both were registered in Margrit’s name. Only the .357 had been fired. With their twin daughters and her mother dying or already dead close by in the master bedroom, Margrit put a fatal bullet into Manas’ chest as he lay unconscious and dying on the closet floor. Then she lay down next to her husband, bit on the .357 barrel and pulled the trigger a second time.
According to Smith & Wesson marketing literature, the .38 Special and .357 Magnum are both rimmed, centerfire cartridges commonly used in revolvers to provide shooters with a "quality selection of self-defense, target and hunting loads." Since 1935, states the gun manufacturer, "the .357 has been regarded as one of the finest self-defense handgun rounds available, delivering fearsomely effective stopping power. It is still regarded as THE most effective conventional combat handgun cartridge."
Well, since Manas already lay unconscious on the floor, "self-defense," "combat" and "fearsomely effective stopping power" were probably not uppermost in the mind of his soon-to-be widow. But "hunting load," now that might have been among the priority weapon criteria for Margrit as she pulled the trigger.
According to the CDC, two-thirds of U.S. gun deaths aren’t high-profile homicides, but suicides like Margrit’s self-destruction. Most happen quietly … and at an astounding rate of one every 25 minutes in the U.S. Suicide accounts for more than two-thirds of the 32,000 firearms deaths the United States averages every year. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans aged 15 to 34, and more than 50 percent of cases involve guns. A big reason for the prevalence of firearms in suicides is the deadliness of guns themselves.
Much speculation suggested the Ucar parents were in the closet to muffle the pistol crack and hide the muzzle flash. A neighbor living just up the street from the Ucar place told me that her daughter in an upstairs bedroom thought she’d heard a scream and gunfire in the nearby vicinity around that time, though she couldn’t be sure and, anyway, hadn’t gone looking for answers.
As for the drugs, according to the coroner's reports they included Vicodin, a narcotic pain reliever, plus a sedative, an antihistamine and an antidepressant. Police couldn’t confirm in whose name the Vicodin prescription was written. All the other pills were common over-the-counter medicines.
Vicodin is one of the most frequently abused drugs in America. A highly addictive opioid painkiller typically prescribed for mild to moderately severe pain, Vicodin is a central nervous system depressant. This narcotic works by blocking the pain receptors in the brain, which is supposed lead to pain relief and feelings of relaxation, results that cause this drug to be so addictive.
Vicodin combines hydrocodone, a synthetic opioid, and acetaminophen, a non-steroidal pain reliever. A Vicodin pill contains just 5 mg of hydrocodone – and a whopping 500 mg of acetaminophen. While it takes about 18 times the normal dose of Vicodin to overdose from hydrocodone, it only takes one or two extra pills to overdose on the acetaminophen in Vicodin. It's possible to overdose on the hydrocodone within Vicodin, but it would take so much Vicodin that you'd already be suffering from a severe acetaminophen overdose. It takes about 90 mg of hydrocodone to overdose, which is the equivalent of 18 Vicodin tablets, according to an Apr 13, 2012 story in
The misuse and abuse of Vicodin by recreational drug users accounts for a large portion of the increase in drug poisoning deaths.
The drugs and guns were apparently part of meticulous plans. The family had done a thorough spring cleaning and put full trash and recycling cans on the curb for one last time.
Ten Years After – Pursuing the Mystery
Even though, ten years later, Det. Salcido tells me that to this day he has no idea what provoked the Ucar killings … I DO have some ideas about what happened, ideas that I think might help shed some light on the still-shocking savagery and bloodshed involved.
When the sheriff’s deputy who interviewed us in our driveway on May 25, 2008, asked what I might know about the desiccated corpses lying so nearby, I had nothing to offer him. And my own total and absolute cluelessness regarding my close proximity to one of the great tragedies of my life stunned me … and it still confounds me. How could I have completely missed such an impending catastrophe? Though I was asked by the media many times for comment, I never spoke on the record about this experience for the reason stated. But now a full decade on I think the Ucars … once living flesh, blood and bone but now just a scary story … deserve better than what they got.
I read online that Margrit was borh in Turkey on May 25, 1959. If so, they found her body on her 49th birthday. She is buried in El Toro Memorial Park in Lake Forest, in the plot designated Lot 48 Section EG Block 15. That can't be her only legacy.
Charm Hiding Harm
The Ucars in person came across as nice, quiet people, always well dressed and professional looking, who generally kept to themselves. He was a handsome genial man with a ready smile and engaging manner. She was dark haired and petite and when I saw her she always seemed happy.
In the years since I have supposed a lot of things about them, in particular that they chose immediate doom over inevitable aging, sickness, sorrow and grief. But that conclusion presupposes rational thinking, and it’s hard to believe reasonableness played a significant part in the Ucars’ thought processes at the time.
Despite outward appearances of financial prosperity, domestic tranquility, religious piety (they were devout Armenian Christians, though not regular church goers) and a deep familial bond, the Ucars were in reality an extremely isolated, exclusive, insular, clannish, fatally flawed group of mutual strangers obsessed with an illusory and even delusional dream for an impossible fantasy future in which ALL OF THEM would ALWAYS remain together. When the living world couldn’t cooperate with their stunted, imaginary chimera of blissful union, they chose death as the only alternative to being separated in life.
Unconstrained by official protocol, I am more than willing to guess what happened: Margrit was an ultimate smother mother who lived by proxy through her children and dominated them their entire lives. She couldn’t be a doctor in the U.S. so her daughters HAD to become American doctors. But they were good Christians, too, and the only suitable medical school for them was Loma Linda University School of Medicine, which focuses on training doctors that “have a commitment to Christian service,” according to the university website.
Shooter Margrit called the shots … the guns, the Porsche and two Toyotas were all registered in her name. And she had the power, which is why I see her as the driving engine of destruction. The future was foretold, the die was cast, and it looks like affable, pliable Manas simply went along to get along.
As for Margrit’s mother, poor Fransuhi was most likely an unintentional victim who couldn’t get out of her daughter’s ruinous way. The genocide finally caught up with and overtook her. Her husband Ohannes, who had also lived with the Ucars at 31 Campanilla, had died in 2004, otherwise he would have probably been found lying deceased right next to the rest of the family.
The brothers, the only other SoCal family members, lived in L.A. but apparently didn’t visit or communicate overly often with their siblings in San Clemente.
My wife and I came to then-quiet San Clemente on the southern edge of the L.A. megasprawl in 1989, and the Ucar family followed in 1992.
A gated community, Sea Pointe Estates consists of a few hundred custom homes occupying a few hundred acres of green space in the foothills at the northern end of town. Sea Pointe is an enclave of professionals – doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, professors, business professionals, Internet specialists, etc. – many of them immigrants from around the world ... on our street alone we have natives of Sweden, Australia, Greece, Pakistan and more. The cosmopolitan Ucars … who had previously lived in Istanbul, Turkey, and Syracuse, New York, fit in comfortably on Campanilla (‘little altar bells”), a residential side street on a steep sloping ridge that takes a right-angle turn at the top of the hill. At night the dogleg is suffused in the warm golden glow of a sodium vapor street lamp. It was at this inflection point where all the May 2008 drama unfolded.
The Ucar family first arrived in our world in the form of a bulldozer grading the empty lot next door for a new home.
The contractor introduced himself as Michel Viejobueno, a rugged looking, dark-haired businessman and homebuilder who spoke English with an accent I couldn't place but that later turned out to be Argentinian.
"Call me Miguel," he told me, explaining how the name went down easier than Michel with his Mexican construction crews. He told me a bit about himself. Not content to just build homes, Miguel had side interests that included racing thoroughbreds, he said.
Miguel described what was coming on the site: a two-story, 3,150 sq. ft, single family residence with marble floors, Mexican interior tile, terracotta roofing tile and stucco walls. A “nice family” had already bought the property and was ready to move in upon completion.
The crews finished the new house in just a few months, and the final color amazed me: if Miguel was going for a gray-green raw artichoke look, he nailed it. The building towered up the slope above our house by a good 20-25 feet. From the street below, the two houses next to each other look like they’re snuggling up. Tight fits on those lots, but still private, which I suppose is why I never heard the gun shots.
The Ucar clan moved into the house in 1992. Manas, Margrit and twin daughters Margo and Grace, along with family members who included Margrit's parents and brother. It was Margrit who handled the purchase, one of the developers told me. Margrit seemed to run family business in general.
From the moment I first met her soulmate Manas I could tell right away that he was a charmer. I was pulling bills and ads from the mailbox when I first met him a few days after the family moved in. He'd seen me from his driveway and came over to introduced himself.
He briefly shared some of the family story that I would hear more and more about in the years to come. The family were Armenian Christians from Turkey, he told me, his dark eyes twinkling as he spoke English in a soft, engaging, accented voice. He was an engineer who testified at trials about accident reconstruction. His wife Margrit, who had been a doctor in the old country, now ran the household and cared for the family.
Manas had an easy, friendly demeanor and a laughing, smiling face framed by a halo of white hair. Under a high forehead and black brows, the outer corners of his eyes crinkled in amusement as we spoke, his dark pupils holding a steady gaze. Of medium height and average build, he was polite, well-spoken and carried himself with an air of calm authority, self-confidence and good humor. He had a cool, soothing personality and a sharp mind. And we were the same age.
Over the years we had many such mailbox encounters. He loved talking about films, politics, business, history, current events, you name it, the topic didn’t matter. He told me that the name “Manas” comes from a legendary Turkish hero and means “Intelligence,” which accurately defined Manas Ucar, who was always up for engaging, intelligent conversation.
Whenever Manas talked about his beloved family I’d think now this is a happy man. Only much later would I learn how that easy manner of his at last vanished and his pleasant smile twisted into an agitated frown, a dark, desperate and fatal scowl.
But that came much later. When we first met, Manas said that had earned his master's and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering at Syracuse University in New York, where he later served on the faculty. He currently worked from his home office as a traffic accident reconstruction expert who made his living testifying in court cases.
A doctor of engineering with a doctor of medicine for a spouse … the Ucars were proudly accomplished professionals from a tradition that develops accomplished professionals.
Manas was born in 1949 in a small town in central Turkey named Zara (located 400 miles west of Karakale, hometown of the Kardashian clan). Many Armenian Christians from Zara, the Ucars among them, moved to Turkey’s capital Istanbul in search of personal and professional opportunities. Manas’ father was a tailor, but Manas studied engineering and earned a degree prior to emigrating to the U.S.
The Ucars fit the profile of Turkey’s immigrant professional class perfectly.
According to Sebnem Koser-Akcapar, an adjunct professorial lecturer at American University in Wash., D.C. who writes on Turkish immigration, as of the late 1940s, but especially in the 1960s and 1970s, Turkish immigration to the United States changed its nature from one of unskilled to skilled migration; a wave of Turkish professionals such as doctors, engineers, academicians, and graduate students came to the United States.
The general profile of Turkish men and women immigrating to the United States depicted someone young, college-educated with a good knowledge of English, and with a career in medicine, engineering, or another profession in science or the arts.
But if you’re an Armenian Christian from Turkey, your story has a dark side, as well.
History—Surviving Genocide in Turkey
The ultimate fate of the Ucar family in the U.S. cannot be understood without considering it in the context of the family’s roots in their Turkish homeland … and the genocide of Armenian Christians that occurred there in the early 20th century.
Both Fransuhi Kesisoglu and her husband Ohannes lived at 32 Campanilla with their daughter Margrit, Manas and the twins. The grandparents were born in Turkey in the '30s to parents who had come of age … and somehow survived … during a terrorizing mass murder of their people.
In 1915 during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, leaders of the Turkish government set in motion a plan to expel and massacre Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. There were about two million Armenians in the empire at the time of the massacre. By the early 1920s, when the rapes, tortures, massacres and deportations finally ended, some 1.5 million of Turkey’s Armenians were dead, with many more forcibly removed from the country. Today, most historians call this event a genocide, though the government of Turkey officially refuses to also do so.
The Armenian Christian genocide was a precursor to Hitler's Holocaust with slaughter, starvation, extermination, liquidation and elimination, concentration camps, rape, sex slavery, bone piles, mass graves, “killing squads” and “butcher battalions” to carry out, as one officer put it, “the liquidation of the Christian elements.”
I know the ultra-bloody Armenian Christian genocide was of great importance to the Ucars because Manas and I discussed it.
No doubt Ohannes and Fransuhi remained permanently scarred by their experiences as children of genocide survivors growing up in a country still hostile to their religion, to their culture, even to them. In the U.S., the two of them lived with their grand-daughters long enough to pass on to Margo and Grace stories about their heritage, particularly the murderous genocide.
In the twins’ teen years, they began dressing in black and wearing Armenian Christian crosses in what I suspect might have been a generational echo … and statement of remembrance … regarding what had once befallen their ancestors.
Emigrating to the U.S.
Not content to remain in Turkey after earning his engineering degree, Manas moved from Istanbul to the U.S. in 1970 to pursue graduate studies at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
Soon after completing his studies, which culminated in a doctoral dissertation in mechanical engineering, Manas took a job teaching in the school’s engineering department. He remained on the Syracuse University faculty for a number of years before leaving the university to became a consulting engineer. The Web site law.com listed Manas Ucar as an expert on accident reconstruction, specializing in fires, explosions and seat belt use.
In 1982, Manas published a paper on “the hygroscopic properties of sodium sulfide for heat-of-adsorption solar thermal energy storage. Titled “Heat-of-Adsorption Solar Thermal Energy Storage.”
Not a typo. Adsorption with a "d" is the process in which atoms, ions or molecules from a substance (e.g., gas, liquid or dissolved solid) adhere to a surface of an adsorbent substance. Absorption with a "b" is the process in which a fluid is dissolved by a liquid or a solid absorbent substance.
Ucar's paper began with an Abstract: “The storage of solar thermal energy has been a subject of extensive study for many years. Various storage concepts have been extensively investigated. However, little research has been done on energy storage in the heat-of- adsorption of chemical compounds. Zeolite is, perhaps, the only substance that has been studied for its heat-of- adsorption properties.”
In the early 1980s, Margrit left Turkey to join Manas in the U.S. even though she knew that she would have to forsake her medical career to be with her husband. Once here, she made no secret of her unhappiness with the fact that she couldn't practice medicine in the United States because she lacked the proper credentials due to the prohibitive process of gaining them.
In 1986, Margo and Grace were born.
In 1992, the Ucars moved to Orange County with Margrit’s parents Ohannes and Fransuhi Kesisoglu. Margrit had been raised in Turkey by Fransuhi. A story in the L.A. Times the month of their deaths reported that Margrit told friends Kesisoglu was actually an older sister who raised her from a very young age, a claim denied by family members.
Upon arrival in OC, the family bought the just completed hilltop estate in San Clemente, where they would be near Margrit's and Manas' brothers in Southern California, and settled into their new lives.
Though we lived next door to the Ucars for 16 years, our encounters with them were few and far between.
One time a package for the Ucars was mistakenly left at our door. When I went over to give it to them, no one answered the doorbell though I suspected the twins were home. So I just left the package on the front porch. The next time I saw Manas and asked him about the package, he thanked me and told me that they had quit using the front door because a snake had once gotten in through the door when it was left open. From then on, they used the garage door to go in and out of the house.
Our only social get together came one balmy summer evening the first year the Ucars lived next door. They invited us over for a nice, intimate social gathering among new friends. We sat in chairs on a deck overlooking San Clemente and the Pacific, eating, drinking and conversing.
Manas told us about his years as a professor in Syracuse and how he fell into lucrative work as an accident investigator by answering a call to the college requesting an engineering expert to testify at a trial. The experience had worked out so well that Manas had found a new career.
Once again, but with more detail this time, we heard about Margrit’s experiences as a doctor back in Turkey.
The growth of prestigious professions like lawyers and doctors accelerated there beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. In the field of medicine, Turkey compares favorably with Western countries in its number of female doctors. Under conditions of rapid expansion, especially in the absence of entrenched gender-linked stereotypes, the elite status of these professions is maintained even to this day by the admission of upper and middle-class women like Margrit.
Extended family networks can be relied upon to relieve time-constrained professional women. And because of large class inequalities in Turkey, upper class women can employ lower class women for household help.
Another distinct advantage for female Turkish doctors and lawyers is that they can be self-employed and so don’t need to integrate into larger male-dominated institutions. As a result, both of these professions allow women to have potentially large female clientele.
When Margrit emigrated from Turkey to join her husband, she left all that privilege and prestige behind. Though she never stopped being pleasant, it wasn’t hard to detect a subtle sting of lost relevance, of frustration just beneath the surface.
I once came across the word "manque," and looked it up. It means a person who has failed to live up to a specific expectation or ambition. Since her suicide, I've often wondered if Margrit had thought of herself in that way ... as a self-disappointed manque.
I told the Ucars about an Aegean cruise we’d taken that had stopped in the incredible city of Istanbul. Manas’ eyes lit up in delight at the mention of his country’s great capital city where he had spent so much time. But at one spot in the conversation his soft voice got even lower and softer than usual, his brow wrinkled and he looked off into the distance now and again as we talked about the Turkish genocide of Armenian Christians, which had terribly impacted their families.
That small neighborly get-together turned out to be the one and only time we ever socialized with the Ucars.
In the years that followed I only caught occasional glimpses of the twins with their parents in a car backing out of their driveway and heading down Campanilla on their way to middle school, to high school, to college, to who knows where.
Manas the Wise
In our interactions as neighbors, Manas Ucar proved to be bright and outgoing, an affable patriarch in a matriarchal brood, a gentle man who loved to chitchat about nearly any subject that interested his keen mind.
Manas told me that his name is hugely popular in Turkey and even throughout Central Asia. In a long classic poem called "The Epic of Manas," a legendary warrior hero of that name united regional clans against tribal enemies and led them to triumph in battle. He even defeated the Afghans. This (most likely fictional) hero was known for his strength, generosity ... and mischievous nature, Manas told me, a twinkle in his eye.
"Remember, in Sanskrit, Manas means 'intelligence,' as it should,” he’d remind me with a chuckle.
Manas was my one and only contact with the Ucar family, and that was mostly because in those days I was always out in the yard where he’d see me working on our front lawn, kneeling there locked in a relentless battle with our pernicious Korean grass. This mat-forming perennial starts out velvety and green but eventually turns invasive, choking itself out in random dead spots and proving as difficult to remove as a Korean Kim ... intractable, implacable, persistent, tenacious, inexorable, obdurate, ruthless, ferocious, unstoppable, inhuman, etc., etc. ... you name it. In other words, looks nice at first but a bad choice for a lawn. Now, a nice Kentucky bluegrass …
One time I’d put out on the curb a dozen plastic bags of the dry stuff for pickup by the trash haulers. I came home from work that night to find it all on fire, with one of the Viejobueno sons and his girlfriend stomping out the flames. Neither had any idea how the fire started. Even teenage Christian Viejobueno, who rolled up unexpectedly in his pickup while we were standing there looking at the smoldering embers, said he was at a loss for an explanation. Maybe someone tossed a lit cigarette into the pile ... no one knew.
Anyway, though, if it hadn’t been for that stubborn Korean grass, I probably never would have talked much at all with Manas, learned so much from him.
Manas Goes to Hollywood
Once Manas told me that he had begun writing Hollywood screenplays and that Robin Williams was interested in one of his scripts. "I'm a writer ... who knew?" he said with a laugh.
During that phase in the late ‘90s, Manas began sporting a new look. In place of his usual open collar cotton shirts, casual slacks and comfortable dress shoes he had clad himself in upscale streetwear — charcoal crushed velvet sweatpants, a dark luxe fleece sports jacket. On his feet he wore Nike sneakers and around his neck (though I could be mis-remembering this detail) dangled a large gold medallion hanging on a sturdy gold link chain. The most startling change in his appearance was his naturally white hair now dyed jet black.
Under his arm he carried a folder filled with papers. I’d see him happily trundling the clan out to the car and off they'd head to L.A. for meetings. The lights stayed on late into the night in his office directly above our garage as he polished his drafts.
Now and then when I’d stand in my driveway hitting a bowl and star-gazing, I’d look up at Manas’ office window and wonder how his Hollywood experience was going. A big horned owl liked to perch on their rooftop chimney and hoot at the night, commanding the heights over the green space below, on the lookout for the mice and squirrels. I thought of the owl as a proper symbol for wise Manas, and when the bird would ask “Hoo hoo?” I’d exhale and whisper back, “Manas (of course) ...”
But eventually my good neighbor’s hair took on a black-white panda appearance as it grew out and he returned to wearing his regular “sensible” clothes. When I asked him how the movie business was going, I thought I saw a bit of a wince, then he just shook his head and gave me his familiar shrug-smile: "Hollywood, you know ..." he said with a rueful laugh. No, I didn't know, but I suspected things hadn't gone so well for him in glamourville.
After Manas died I researched his copyrighted screenplays, and here’s what I found. Some of the titles:
1) Kill Me Last - 1996 Feb. 9, July 8
Kill me last : an original screenplay / by Manas Ucar. Includes song lyrics
Other Titles: Deadly Cross, Metashell
2) Master Play – 1996: an original screenplay. May 14, 1996
3) Light of the Morning Sun - 1996, July 8, Oct. 3
Other Titles: Napoleon, Waiting for God, United Nations.
4) The Adventures of Dr. Inspector Dimmier – Viva Casablanca! – July 7, 1997: an original screenplay by Manas Ucar.
5) Viva Casablanca! The Adventures of Dr. Michael Mirage – Nov. 26, 1997/2000
Viva Casablanca! : the adventures of Dr. Michael Mirage: an original screenplay by Manas Ucar. Other Titles: Heart of Allah, Heart of God.
6) Kurtsal Ask (Sacred Love) – 2001
I contacted the U.S. Copyright Office, which is a part of the Library of Congress in Wash., D.C., to see if I could read any of Manas' screenplays. They told me that hard copies of all Manas Ucar's manuscripts are on file there and available for analysis, but that I'd need to be a member of the immediate family to gain access to the material. One final copyrighted work appears on the Ucar list, a collaboration among Manas and his daughters.
7) Eternal Riviera – March 2008: 151 pg. book of original songs and poetry by Manas, Margo and Grace Ucar, authors
Riviera Beach is a public beach in San Clemente, but I can’t imagine the Ucars ever going to the beach. Since they published the book right before they died, I assume dad and daughter collaborators were mixing metaphors … referencing a sort of SoCal beachy state of mind or paradise that lasts forever.
To find a list of Manas' copyrighted screenplays online, visit https://cocatalog.loc.gov and search for Ucar, Manas by Name. The list will pop up.
I first met petite, dark-haired Margrit Ucar, in her early 30s and 10 years her husband’s junior, when they moved in next door and Manas introduced us. I now have to work to recall the particulars of Margrit’s appearance, mannerisms, voice, etc. Old photos help. For a year I kept a picture of all four Ucars (never could find any pics of the nearly forgotten Fransuhi) on my computer desktop screen where they stared out at me every time I logged on and off, reminding me of something important, though I could never be sure just what.
I do remember that upon first meeting Margrit I was immediately impressed by her … a smiling face with sparkling eyes, rosy cheeks, stylish elegance and appeal, friendliness and intelligence. I never saw a frown or bad temper or any other signs of unhappiness from her. Always fashionably dressed in fine clothes, she exuded quiet confidence and an air of authority, maybe even more so than did her husband.
But obviously in retrospect, Margrit had a well-hidden private inner world, though I never looked past the gleam of her smile to really see her. I certainly never detected any anger or boredom or dangerous moods that might have hinted at animal savagery within. If there had been traces of quiet madness or despair of humanity lurking in her seemingly cheerful face, I certainly missed them.
I didn't notice any sign of worry or a sadness-becoming-madness-then-badness hiding under that big smile, that concealing facade of tranquility.
Was she an undiagnosed maladaptive narcissist, frightened and anxiety-ridden? No psychologists I talked to about the case were willing to try analyzing people they'd never met. And apparently, no one else ever sought to explore possible mental disorders among the Ucars, particularly Margrit, who set family priorities.
In retrospect, Margrit Ucar was unreadable
But she had been outwardly troubled, as some people around her knew. After her death I read in the L.A. Times that Margrit had told friends about her difficulties getting an expected inheritance from the estate of a murdered uncle, who had been the head of an Armenian orthodox church. Hrant Dink, 53, was a Turkish-Armenian editor, journalist and columnist who had been assassinated in 2007. Margrit blamed the Turkish government for the holdup. Whatever the overall meaning of this incident, it does provide evidence that Margrti Ucar was no stranger to murder.
Her friends said that Margrit was a devout Christian who often talked about Jesus and prayed a lot.
I think Margrit tended to look into your face, not your eyes. She displayed the surface warm-greeting smile a polished professional uses for passing strangers, perfect for a customer at her store. In her pictures that I found online, the corners of her mouth are always turned up with no hint of malice, but how far away was she from a wide, manic grin? And did that dazzling, ever-present smile disappear in the dark?
My wife and I only had one other extended direct conversation with Margrit. In 1992 upon her arrival in Orange County, she operated a luxury retail jewelry shop named “Margaux Grace” after the twins at the Irvine Company’s high-end Fashion Island center in Newport Beach.
We were walking around the mall one Saturday when we happened upon the store located on the top floor of the circular-shaped Atrium, a three-story indoor shopping and dining mall. The store window displayed a large picture of the smiling twins so colorful and striking that they looked like professional models.
Inside, we found Margrit seated by herself at the counter doing paperwork, well-dressed, lovely and smiling as ever. With no customers in sight, we took the time for a nice chat. I don't remember much about our conversation ... we told her that seeing her there was quite a surprise (even though the jewelry business is a national mania in Turkey). She seemed cheerfully hopeful for the endeavor and we wished her the best of luck.
Located as it was in one of the nation’s pre-eminent luxury shopping centers, that retail establishment seemed like a glittering self-shrine to Margrit and her daughters. Margrit seemed to reign in that store like a queen on her throne, actually glowing under bright lights and highly polished, steam cleaned mirrors reflecting fine jewelry made of precious metals ... gold, silver, platinum ... and gemstone sapphires, rubies, emeralds, pearls and diamonds, diamonds and more diamonds …custom diamond engagement rings and wedding bands, diamond pendants, diamond earrings, diamond necklaces and diamond bracelets and more, more, more.
I know new sells, but cutthroat competition with high overhead and razor-thin margins can kill a retail business. I remember thinking how Fashion Island overhead can be lethal. Margrit had started at the TOP and when the sales couldn’t keep up with the rent, she had nowhere to go but down and out.
Sometime later when I walked by the store, another tenant occupied the space. When I next saw Manas I asked him what had happened to their retail jewelry venture. He just shrugged his shoulders and said they'd closed the store.
"You know," he told me with the shake of his head and an expression of disappoitnment, "everything they say about brothers-in-law is true."
Another promising opportunity fizzled away. Margrit had sacrificed her own career for her husband's by emigrating to America to be with him, and once here her stab at entrepreneurial independence had ended in failure.
More and more, Margrit's daughters became her very life. Having lost her own sense of purpose, her past now gone for good, she had shelved any further personal ambitions and thrown herself into the role of mother, doting on the twins, completely investing herself in their futures, visiting them at school and sharing their lives more like a close sibling than a parent.
After graduating from San Clemente High School in 2004, Margo and Grace enrolled at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla, where they studied human biology. Predictably, both parents shared a rented apartment with the twins each school year. Margrit told friends she wanted to tutor the girls as they finished college and prepared for medical school. The twins' would not or could not escape the devoted but dominating parents who inexorably defined their future.
When her daughters had finally finished school but medical school was no longer an option ... Margrit had finally lost all control, and so had no choice but to set in motion her murderous plans.
But Margo and Grace weren't stupid and maybe they saw what was coming and had their own plans, most importantly getting the hell away from Margrit, even if it meant having to die doing it.
Margo and Grace – the Twins
I've heard a common Margo/Grace narrative of innocent-but-willing-lambs-led-to-slaughter, human detritus in a scattered diaspora enraptured by the alluring fatalism ... what ever will be will be ... of genocide survival.
But maybe they actually did resist their demise:
Though severely repressed over a lifetime, the Ucar twins were not insane. When their parents came to them with the "Everybody dies..." plan, both young women screamed in horror and each clutched at her sacred protective talisman -- the 18k gold Armenian Cross Pendants hanging from their necks.
Grace's fingertips squeezed her cross's right wing, which symbolizes grace. But the wings of Margo's cross (remission of sins, kingdom of heaven, demolition of hell) gave cold comfort. Margo had no safe and consoling buffer against the people who had just pronounced a death sentence upon her. Group-mind torpor battled with survival instinct gut reaction. Margo, who studied bacillus anthracis, knew a toxic pathogen when she clearly saw one sitting across from her in the form of her mother, her namesake no less.
The shaken twins told their parents they'd pray on the idea. Later, when alone together in their special sister space, Margo and Grace hatched a plan to escape from Mad Mother Margrit and thus save their very lives. The idea: they would politely wait for mom and pop to knock themselves out and then the girls and grandma could make their getaway.
What! No, no, no ... but these were not street savvy 'burb kids who can sense even subtle dangers and get to the nearest open door or window. Not the Ucar twins, though, who didn't have the adrenaline memory in their historically compliant makeup ... or bloodstreams ... to put together something daring that might actually have worked against the hyper-observant and ever-watchful Margrit, who would have most certainly looked quite darkly upon even the slightest variation from the script by her children, her hostages.
Anyway, whatever the twins' possible flight plans, Margrit never gave them their chance. In addition to her inestimable powers of persuasion and her beyond domineering personality, Margrit also packed lethal heat which, unbeknownst to her intimate family members, she fully intended to use.
Even though they obeyed when she told them to swallow their lethal doses, at least those lovely young ladies Margo and Grace Ucar didn't go down without a fight. Or that's how I'd like to think of it maybe happening ... in this scenario about shadows, anyway and for what it's worth. I didn't really know either of them.
In an analysis of the Trump phenomenon, psychologist David B. Feldman asked in Psychology Today, “Will we all just get used to Trump?” Wrote Feldman: “One of the oldest and most predictable phenomena observed by psychologists is 'habituation,' the tendency of almost all organisms — from amoebas to human beings — to cease to respond to a stimulus after it has been repeated over and over.”
Like most daughters, the twins probably came to tune out their mother's seemingly mundane meanderings and so missed the dark and deadly undertones. As a result, neither one saw nor heard the fashionably clad malignant psychosis approaching until too late when it actually arrived, right in front of their disbelieving eyes and not talking nice at all, holding pills and pistols and telling them to take their pick.
Faithful sisters to the end, they escaped together forever and died holding hands.
Margrit Jr. and 'Pleasing' Grace
The name Margo is a diminutive of Margrit (so she was Margrit Jr.), and the Latin root of the name Grace means “pleasing.” I knew the house they lived in, but I knew Margo and Grace Ucar not at all.
Manas dearly loved his auburn-haired daughters, those bundles of joy born to him in 1986 when he was already 37. Even as elementary school kids he still called them "the babies," those delightful, adorable children who would one day be the death of him.
They were beautiful young, colorfully dressed angels in that huge photo that hung in the window of their mother's fantasy Fashion Island jewelry store that bore their names.
But somewhere along the line as they grew up, life had taken a darker turn for the twins.
Margo and Grace were inseparable their entire lives. Through middle school, high school and college they took the same classes and dressed identically in outfits more like uniforms or costumes than everyday clothing. They generally favored dark dress pants and dark-colored, long-sleeved turtlenecks. Around their necks they wore 18 karat gold Armenian cross pendants.
They were "good girls" who didn't drink, hook up with guys, do drugs, smoke or party. Outcasts on the inside, Margo and Grace Ucar were considered by many of their peers to be strange misfits. Though born in the U.S., they seemed familiar yet foreign, more immigrant than even their immigrant parents.
Black can be used to hide feelings, to separate oneself from the world. The Ucar twins were confined to being eternally infantilized girls by a smothering mother and doting father, brainwashed and groomed for careers they may not have desired, endlessly prompted to become doctors by parents uninterested in independence or self-empowerment for their offspring.
So, in the flower of their youth, their mother's despair and their father's acquiescence in surrendering to that despair finally overtook them.
Monozygotic twins (maternal/identical) split from one egg and one sperm after fertilization. Twin psychodynamics and twin sibling relationships are complicated.
Twin pecking order is normal and natural, although some cases are more severe than others. It is often advised that twins be separated at school into separate classrooms, to allow each student to flourish and maintain individuality.
But separation … even the slightest … was never an option for the Ucar twins.
The challenge with twins is that you have a dominant and submissive twin, according to Marie Doyle and Renée M. Grinnell, PsychCentral.com.
“If you keep them together in same classroom, the dominant twin will continue to speak for the other sibling and make decisions.”
Their roles within the twin sibling relationship make them a strong unit but weak individuals.
Margo and Grace Ucar may have been identical twins who looked and dressed alike, but they were not clones.
Toxic vs. Beneficial
The Ucar twins seemed to diverge somewhat from their unshakeable shared path in the spring of 2007 when they were microbiology students of Rachel Larsen at UCSD, authoring term papers for their course, BIMM120 Bacteriology.
Their choice of topic was illustrative: they looked at the same thing from opposite angles.
Grace looked at the pernicious Bacillus anthracis, the pathogen behind the deadly disease anthrax. B. anthracis is an important organism for studying genome sequencing because its toxin is used as a weapon in biological warfare and bioterrorism.
Margo countered with a look at the benign and beneficial Bacillus subtilis, a nonvirulent bacterial species often used as a reliable simulant in the development and testing of countermeasures for biodefense against its close relative (twin sister?), the toxic B. anthracis (Grace's subject).
The benign and beneficial B. subtilis, unlike its deadly twin B. anthracis, is a model organism for laboratory studies and so is used on an industrial scale by biotechnology companies in secreted enzyme production. For example, it can be used as a fungicide and is approved for use as an animal feed ingredient.
Spores of the nonvirulent Bacillus subtilis are often used as simulants in the development and testing of countermeasures for biodefense against B. anthracis.
Toxic B. anthracis vs. benign B. subtilis, close as the organisms are, did manage to demonstrate that Grace and Margo Ucar were capable on independence, however seemingly slight, from one another.
Grace went with the deadly pathogen, Margo with the beneficial "bacterial champion." The significance and importance of the distinction died with them.
As their personalities grew and developed, the differences between Margo and Grace were seldom apparent to outsiders. It’s natural as part of the animal kingdom that there be dominance and submissiveness in twins. So it was inevitable that only one of the Ucar daughters would emerge at the top of the twin pecking order.
Unfortunately for either Grace or Margo (who knows which), she was at the bottom of the pecking order, underneath her dominant twin and unable to protest the final, fatal decision made by their mother Margrit and acceded to by their father Manas.
No ‘Goody Goodies’
On May 29, 2008, just four days after the bodies were found at 31 Campanilla, a friend of Margo and Grace named Danielle Johnson posted this message about them online:
“I have been very disheartened by the ways in which newspapers, nationally and internationally, have been portraying Margaux, Grace, and the Ucar family. I went to school with both girls from kindergarten through high school and shared many classes with them throughout the years. The twins were very close, very bright, and very sweet. In our childhood, I think the girls were labeled by many as ‘goody goodies,’ but because I fell into that category as well, I was able to spend a good deal of time with them assisting our teachers during our lunch breaks or playing handball on the playground. I remember that Margrit would often be at school to help teachers, or to take her daughters to lunch. Their grandmother was always accompanying Margrit, with a silk scarf tied around her head and a smile on her face. The girls were always very gifted academically, and I remember them sharing with me that they wanted to become playwrights in the 6th grade. They were already working on a script. As we grew older, they continued to excel in their studies, and very early on in high school they decided that they wanted to be doctors. It was also during high school that the girls got into high fashion, and I remember them always wearing their designer jeans and tops, and pulling their high-end wheeled backpacks. At 17 or 18 years of age, the girls were always dressed in black because of its popularity in the fashion world. Dressed in the same outfits, Margaux and Grace also sported fashions that were very mature for our age. I remember when I was a little girl thinking that their mother, Margrit, was always very well-dressed, and I think the girls probably began doing the same because of her. I never had the impression that the girls were overly private or strange. If anything, I think that immature children thought that their relationship as twins was so different that they were automatically labeled as dorky. It to me always seemed that the mother would eat lunch with them not because she was over-protective, but because other children had a hard time accepting the twins. Because I feel that I was better friends with them than most other children growing up, I can truthfully and sincerely say that the girls were more than willing to befriend me, whether by chatting or playing games. To say that their relationship seemed strange is ridiculous because they were identical twins after all, and I'm sure they had a bond that nobody can really understand. I even remember asking them when we were children whether they ever thought about exchanging places with one another to take an exam, but they always just laughed and said they wouldn't really do it. My heart breaks to think that my friends appear to have been tragically murdered. The media focus on the Ucars' private life or the fact that they were dressed in black taken out of context could be twisted to mean any number of things. I think the fact that they were an immigrant Turkish family would have made life in America difficult enough, and so it is understandable that they may have appeared more private. It seems as though the general public is demonizing the family as a foreign cult, when anyone who really knew the girls or the family would be very surprised that such loving and devoted people could be the central actors in such a gruesome story.”
Excellent testimony as to the relative "normality" of Margo and Grace Ucar from someone who grew up with them and knew them well. Ultimately, though, they did die horribly, and apparently ... if their mother wasn't holding her gun on them as they swallowed their lethal dosages of poison ... not putting up much of a fight to save their own lives.
But before they died, Margo and Grace did get to ignite at least one recorded spark of writing creativity, however brief. They did this with their collaboration on Eternal Riviera -- 151 pg. book of original songs and poetry co-written with Manas and published in March 2008.
Perhaps Eternal Riviera is the closest Manas, Margo and Grace ever got to escaping from Margrit, or at least her madness. In those pages, dad and daughters poured out their hearts in poetry and song, no doubt telling a rich and beautiful story about life and family.
But why was Margrit's name absent from the author credits? Did she contribute material to the project but decline a byline? Did she simply not participate in the project for external reasons? Did she refuse to participate for reasons of her own?
Or did Manas, Margo and Grace NOT WANT Margrit involved in Eternal Riviera, which became as it turned out the capstone of the family saga? Like all other matters concerning the Ucars, absence of fact leads to unproven speculation because even that's better than no answers at all. Whatever the reasons for any uncertainties concerning the Ucars, just a few weeks after the book was published they were all dead.
Maybe a reader could find some answers within Eternal Riviera by the Ucars. I asked the one family friend who would talk to me what he could tell me about Manas' screenplays and the book he wrote with Margo and Grace, but the friend said he was unaware of the writings. If the family is interested, they can visit Wash. D.C. and the Library of Congress, where they're welcome to read what the Ucars left behind. Non-family members are excluded, I was told by a helpful bureaucrat on the phone.
Return of the Hoot Owl
Gates and guards and locks and deadbolts and crosses and curses could not protect the Ucars from themselves. In the end, they surrendered to the control of an opaque group mind and became lost souls in a lost world where death somehow came to beat life.
Now I'm just remembering not the Ucars themselves but merely the last time I remembered them ... enough unclear grief to still pull out a tear or two with nowhere to go.
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever; Ae fareweel, and then forever ..." -- Robert Burns
Hard on the floor in his luxury home, unconscious and dying, oozing protoplasm, lay the brilliant Dr./Prof. Manas Ucar. But, in retrospect, might that brilliance have been a mere sheen of cleverness? Might Manas have actually been a hollow, easily manipulated man whose core self “I” lost his objective “Me” in a swirling sea of “We” and “She” … in other words, did the women Manas dearly loved simply overwhelm him so that he just could not do what every man needs to do ... protect his family?
We’ll never know for sure. The Ucars left a mystery with abundant suspicions but few clues.
Fortunately, the Ucar family does not haunt. The house sold a few years ago and a young family now lives there. Little ones play in the yard. The horned owl has returned to the chimney and is again a hoot at night, though now when he asks "Hoo, hoo?" I have no answer.
Yeh, a bittersweet world known to hurt but, hey, ain’t life grand?
Note to Reader
Anyone reading this who thinks he or she has something of value to contribute to the story of the late Ucar family, send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org. If it fits, I'll add it.
Groupthink Psychological Dynamics
The Ucars seem to have shared some of the psychological dynamics found in more notorious group suicides like that of the infamous Heaven's Gate cult members in San Diego: irrational groupthink, intense cohesiveness, extreme isolation, arbitrary decision deadline, etc.
Groupthink groups work in secret. They isolate themselves from outsiders and refuse to modify their beliefs to bring them into line with society’s beliefs. They avoid leaks by maintaining strict confidentiality and working only with people who are members of their group.
Biased leadership involves a leader who exerts too much authority over the group members, can increase conformity pressures and railroad decisions. In groups plagued by groupthink, the leader determines the agenda for each meeting, sets limits on discussion, and can even decide who will be heard.
Then add in the element of immigration. I’ve read that immigrants might have higher rates of psychopathology and suicidal behavior than host populations due to exposure to the stress of the migrating process.
In the case of the Ucar group, their thought processes seem to have been distorted by a determined, biased leader who was also an insecure immigrant. The resulting illogic and insanity stunted their reality. No outsider could penetrate the group to alter the narrative, which enabled the parents to steadfastly refuse to let the girls grow up and transition into independent adulthood.
I'm hazarding a guess that the Ucar family pecking order had Margrit as the group leader and top decision maker, with the dominant twin as her main ally. Based on the evidence (murder-suicide), Manas and the submissive twin had only secondary influence on decision making..
There’s a lot of inability of parents (and unwillingness on the part of children) to let one-time little ones grow up. Parents who don't let their kids assume greater responsibility, self-reliance and self-possession as they get older end up stunting their children’s maturity ... and possibly much worse.
In the gestalt of the suicidal mind, reasons for living get subsumed by impulses for dying. Add in the fact that handguns, Vicodin and violence go together like rockets and red glare, then overpowering lethality can overwhelm an imminent suicidal person’s meager resistance.
Emotional contagion is the phenomenon of having one person's emotions and related behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people.
So there the Ucars were, huddling together behind those locked doors and closed windows, feeding off each other's paranoia, fear and destructive passions.
Deadly Deadlines -- Parallels with Heaven's Gate
"Decisional stress" is a key factor in promoting self-destructive groupthink, which becomes more likely when a group is disturbed by some physical, mental or emotional strain or tension, particularly by arbitrary time pressures and artificial, self-imposed deadlines.
A good example of how this works is the case of Heaven's Gate, an American UFO religious millenarian cult that was based in San Diego. On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who had participated in a mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was an extraterrestrial spacecraft following Comet Hale–Bopp.
Discovered in July 1995, Hale–Bopp shone in the night sky for 18 months, making it perhaps the most widely observed comet of the 20th century, and as a result amply ripe for random interpretations and assignments of perceived significance both cosmic and personal.
Heaven's Gate members believed that planet Earth was about to be "recycled" ("wiped clean, renewed, refurbished, and rejuvenated"), and the only chance to survive was to leave Earth immediately. The Heaven’s Gate group experienced decisional stress because the arrival of Hale-Bopp with its imaginary trailing rescue spacecraft also coincided with the Christian holy days, a confluence of factors that forced them to come to a decision regarding their assumed mode of transportation to the craft.
On March 19–20, 1997, the group's leader taped himself speaking of mass suicide and asserted "it was the only way to evacuate this Earth." After claiming that a spacecraft was trailing Comet Hale–Bopp, the leader persuaded 38 followers to commit suicide so that their SOULS, shorn of untransportable corporeal bodies, could board the supposed craft.
The triggering event causing decisional stress for the Ucar family was much less dramatic but no less devastating. The Ucar's moment of decisional stress arrived on March 13, 2008, when Margo and Grace received separate letters from the Loma Linda Univ. School of Medicine stating that "We are sorry to inform you that we have not found it possible to accept you into our freshman class of 2008."
OC Sheriff's Dept. Det. Dan Salcido, lead investigator in the Ucar case, said that the twins simply did not have high enough grades to gain entrance into the school.
In a strictly controlled, high-intensity group like the Ucar family, the news from Loma Linda was a bombshell. Their entire imagined future had been derailed. As a result of the shock, they apparently decided that some commensurate and appropriate in-kind response to the collapse of their world was required of them to restore equilibrium in what was left of their lives.
During episodes of intense groupthink, members deprived of alternative inputs often adopt extreme ideas that are completely inconsistent with reality, and yet they resist opposition to their absurd, even insane ideas and proceed ahead with them, blindly rationalizing their decisions and their choices, negating the downsides and over-estimating the supposed upsides.
Heaven's Gate members were escaping a doomed planet through a method that required them to leave behind their physical bodies
The Ucars had lost their reason to remain together as a unit, but they nonetheless still intended to stay together forever in the only way they knew possible.
It's hard to think of death as a consolation, but delusional psychosis apparently has its own norms and forms of disordered order, logical chaos.
Anger with God
I’ve tried parsing out Manas’ “Punishing God” statement. How would one go about “punishing God?” According to Christian doctrine and dogma, the Christian God DOES the punishing, not the other way around. But the Ucars were angry at God, not because the twins didn’t get into med school, but because they didn’t get into the only CHRISTIAN med school. And since in their religion God is a Christian and the school is also Christian, then God must be responsible for this terrible outcome of access denied. And the only way to communicate their displeasure with God was to “punish” God by sending some of their pain and loss back at God. And the only possible way to do that was to take away their Divine Father’s children … themselves.
But murder is proscribed in the Ten Commandments and suicide is often considered a ticket to Christian hell because it rejects salvation. The Christian arguments both for and against suicide are complex, lengthy and often contradictory.
The path that the Ucars took from rejection by a medical school to murder-suicide is tangled and perplexing, but I think it exists.
Anger with God is as old as time, since that's how long people have experienced difficult circumstances in their lives and been frustrated about not getting their way. In Judaism and Christianity, this anger goes all the way back to Adam and Eve and the first human family.
Being angry or disappointed with God is a commonplace phenomenon in the world of true religious believers. People tend to become angry with God when they anthropomorphize God with human form and personality attributes and so see God as personally responsible for negative events in human lives. Or when those harmed interpret God's intentions as being cruel. “How could a God of love allow this to happen, or even MAKE it happen?" So, they lay blame at God's feet.
Not surprisingly, the angry feelings tend to match up with a person’s general level of mental distress — more distress links among the religious to more anger at God. Mentally healthy people understand that life isn't always fair and so tend to treat many problems as fate, the development of events determined by a supernatural power and so beyond a person's control, and thus their anger at God is a passing anger.
But mentally unhealthy people caught up in God anger can succumb to an overwhelming fear that a once-caring God has inalterably abandoned them in their time of need, and so they surrender to inescapable anguish, sorrow and despair.
Which sounds like what the God-angry Ucar family did.
Since both the twins and their mother were considered to be devout Christians, and Manas himself wrote extensively about God in his screenplays, it is possible that being rejected by Loma Linda triggered in them a religious, theologically grounded murder-suicide event.
Margrit had practiced medicine in Turkey but was frustrated that she couldn't get credentials to practice in the U.S. She failed at substitute career goals and so redirected her energies and put years into preparing the twins to become doctors in the U.S., something beyond her own ability to achieve. But not just any medical school would do for the devout Ucars … it HAD to be Loma Linda’s. In fact, it seems likely that the Ucar twins didn't even apply to any medical schools other than Loma Linda.
Margrit, herself rejected by the U.S. medical establishment, was a faithful Friend of Jesus and the twins wore Armenian Cross pendants every day. Their Christianity was no church-on-Sunday ritual. That family lived religious catastrophe.
The Ucars story was typical of diaspora Armenian Christians, who went from their Turkish home town to Istanbul, from there to Syracuse, N.Y., then to Southern California, where they finally just gave up and stopped running. All their lives had been building to that moment of self-realization and attainment as the next generation became doctors. But that required acceptance into Loma Linda, the only school that could meet their exacting Christian/med school fusion demands.
To get a sense of the appeal of the place to the Ucars, here's a website quote from the university's president Richard Hart:
"At Loma Linda University Health, we deeply value our multi-faith campus, providing a quality study and work environment for individuals from many different countries and religious persuasions. They ... are a vital part of our faith-based culture."
Turkish Armenian Christians aren't hearing warm words like that in Turkey, even today when attacks are still common.
Armenian Apostolic Church
It makes sense to examine the Ucar family's plans to "Punish God" through the lens of their publicly professed faith.
The Ucars attended St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church in Costa Mesa. The church is part of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the spiritual home of Armenians living in the Western United States.
According to the diocesan website, the mission of the Western Diocese is to "lead the Armenian people to God by preaching, teaching and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ in accordance with the doctrines and traditions of the Armenian Church, and through collective worship and the privilege of servitude."
States the site: "Love of God and neighbor, protecting the sanctity of the family, service to the community, respect for life and all of God’s Creation are values that we strive to live with individually and celebrate collectively.
In the aftermath of the events at their San Clemente home in May 2008, it is safe to say that the Ucars officially broke with their church when it came to "protecting the sanctity of the family" and "respect for life."
But there were other things about the Armenian church that would not have sat well with a strong, independent-minded individual like Margrit Ucar. The Armenia Church shares many similarities with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, most notably -- women play a pronounced subordinate role in the Armenian Church, which does not ordain women to the priesthood.
Women DO get to serve as altar girls and lay readers, especially when a parish is so small that not enough boys or men are regularly available to serve. Otherwise, women commonly serve the church in the choir and at the organ, on parish councils, as volunteers for church events, fundraisers, in Sunday schools, as supporters through Women's Guilds, and as staff members in church offices.
When it gets around to "Punishing God," things get a bit murky.
Armenian Christian churches share with other Christian churches a professed belief in a "triune" God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As articulated in their Creed, the Armenian Church believes in One God, the Father Almighty, Jesus Christ, "the only begotten Son of God," and the Holy Spirit, job undefined since the virgin birth of Jesus -- the belief that Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother Mary through the Holy Spirit without the agency of a human father and born while Mary was still a virgin.
St. Mary is known in the Armenian Church as Asdvadzamayr-Asdvadzadzin, the “Mother of God” and the “Bearer of God.”
In the eyes of her devoted worshipers, Mary's life of holiness and purity, and her graceful acceptance of the role to which God called her, as the mother of Jesus Christ, all make Mary one of the pre-eminent exemplars of the Christian faith.
So which God did the Ucars seek to "punish" -- Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Mary?
Margrit is a German variant form of Margaret. In Catholic hagiography, 4th century martyr Saint Margaret was the patron saint of expectant mothers.
Devil in the Details
In their determination to "Punish God," there's no telling how the Ucars figured in Satan, fallen angel and chief evil spirit, the great adversary of humanity -- aka, the devil. But based on the results of their efforts, the androgynous monarch of demons and ruler of hell was definitely present and accounted for at the scene of the Ucar crime.
The Armenian Apostolic Church is an Eastern Christian denomination in communion with the other Oriental Orthodox churches. As such, Armenian Christianity shares much in common with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which ranks Satan, alongside sin and death, among humanity's greatest enemies.
However, Satan cannot DO evill (that's God's job), only inspire it.
Everyculture.com states that, like other peoples of the Near East, Armenians believe in the evil eye, a malevolent look thought capable of inflicting injury or bad luck. As a result, many superstitious Armenians rely on ritual means of diverting the evil eye (e.g., wearing blue clothing, a clove of garlic, etc.). Unfortunately for the Ucar twins, they where clad in their customary black when the bodies were found.
As per usual with the Ucar enigma ... perplexity and puzzlement abound. Without making too much of good and evil and the "God/Devil" angle, the Ucars seem in retrospect to have been way too quick to play the apocalyptic religion card.
After all, an alternative to murder-suicide would have been a year of post-grad work for the twins toward masters' degrees, and THEN they could have reapplied to Loma Linda with better grades the second time around.
Either school was way more complicated than that, or such a play just wasn't in their script.
End of the Dream
Imagine how devastated the Ucars were when their dreams were crushed. And that was indeed the end of the dream, at least for the parents, and then for their daughters, as well. There was really no way out other than to let the girls go ... which Margrit and Manas would not or could not do.
The twins had turned 21 in Sept. 2007 and so were officially independent adults. And they had earned their college degrees in human biology from UCSD in early 2008. For them, school was officially OUT. They were free to go and do anything they wanted to go and do with their lives, a lot of which would probably not have included their ever-hovering parents.
But the twins weren’t headed to Cancun. Apparently neither the girls nor their parents actually had any real plans beyond the idea of attending Loma Linda School of Medicine, where matriculation would have meant many more years in which Margrit and Manas could keep treating Margo and Grace as children, dominating their very narrow lives, monitoring their every move.
The Ucars had been waiting for a moment that the eventually discovered would never come, and the realization proved beyond bearing.
In the 16 years the Ucars lived next door I never saw a boyfriend (odd for two attractive teenagers) nor even a girlfriend visiting the house to see Margo and Grace. Never. Maybe I just wasn't paying close enough attention but when you don't see a next-door neighbor for years at a time, you wonder. The family not only didn't take walks on the local streets, they never even came outside the house.
That place was their tomb long before the brothers found their bodies. And no one could blame God for that.
© 2018 Ned Madden