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Part 50: More Letters, A Librarian Remembers Riley

It's Sunday, November 1st, 2020. It's Daylight Savings Time, even though no one I know understands why we still do this.

The presidential election is only two days away, but it's unlikely we'll know the results anytime soon. Who knows, though. Everything is unpredictable. The United States set a pandemic record with 90,456 new COVID-19 cases reported on a single day. Washington State recorded its highest jump in daily cases since mid-July; Virus total 107,501 cases with 2,366 deaths. As the weather gets colder, the virus may spike higher.

Last night was Halloween. It's normally like Mardi Gras in my area, all the kids and their parents parade down the avenue in wacky costumes, and the businesses give out massive amounts of candy. It was a beautiful day yesterday. The sun actually came out, which rarely happens in our rainy town on Halloween. It was good to see a few scattered kids in costumes (I saw some through my window). We stayed in, watching Dave Chapelle on David Letterman, and a wacky documentary about Walter Mercado (a Puerto Rican astrologer, he would’ve fit right in with that apartment in Hollywood)…Mercado gave me my costume fix, he was fabulous. I regret not dressing up and wandering around, but a malaise had set in, channelling my inner "shut-in" lady. Still, I know how lucky we are to have a place to shut-in.

A self portrait. Jan Svetlik. Oil on canvas.

Damn. I scanned this slide wrong. You can see the signature is backwards. I'll fix it soon. My mother did this self-portrait sometime in the 1980s in Porterville, California.

To refresh, by 1984, my father had abruptly left the small town of Porterville, not telling anyone where he went. Even us. He said he was taking a short trip to Los Angeles, but in reality, he'd packed up all his stuff and moved to an undisclosed location. He did this in the night; most of his stuff was already in a work studio he rented in downtown Porterville. Having kept everything he was planning to take with him in his work studio, it was easy to slip away without us noticing that he was packing up his "Encyclopedia" and other important things he wouldn't have taken on a short trip.

I had no idea what kind of trouble my father was in, but my mother seemed to know about some of it. What she didn't know is that he would take off without warning, without even so much as a note, leaving her with bills and problems. At the time, it seemed he'd vanished forever. We didn't hear from him for several months, and even then, he didn't tell us where he was calling from.

Later, when Riley realized that my mother was not going to forgive him and had moved on, and that Lisa also was done dealing with his shit, he wrote a long letter just to me, and after that, told me where he was. I felt as though I was the lucky chosen one, I could "handle" him. Riley was only an hour away in Fresno, California. From there he moved to Ventura.

These letters, below, were written in the winter of 1986. The letters were mixed in with Riley's stuff in the boxes I retrieved last year. I have no idea how they got there. Did the investor end up giving the letters to Riley? Did Riley take them somehow and hide them away? Why on earth would Riley save these? They certainly don't cast him in a good light. I've redacted details that might betray the person involved...I'll call him "Mr. Investor."

I wrote my letter, below, when I was 22 and away at college. I was living with my then boyfriend, an aspiring musician and actor. We were both outraged when my mother called to say that this man, this investor, kept coming around her house, asking about Riley, trying to find out where he was, talking about all the money he was owed, and staying way too long. She felt harassed and cornered by this man, and there was something creepy about the way he would come by, unannounced, asking questions, and lingering around her small house. She complained for a long time before I wrote to him. We'll call him Mr. Investor for this blog to hide his identity.

Back when I wrote this note to Mr. Investor, I conjured up my inner Perry Mason. The tone is overly dramatic, it sounds as though I am challenging Mr. Investor to a duel. Then I sign off, "sincerely", which is amusing. Reading it after all these years is revealing. I knew full well where my father was in 1986. He'd even come up to my college to see me in a play. We were closer than ever during this time. I was indeed full of shit back when I penned this letter, calling my father "Mr. Shepard" and "Richard Shepard" as If I ever called him that, as if he was just some old guy I used to know.

If I could go back in time and talk to my 21 year-old self, I'd say, "hey, Dumbass, stay out of this. Focus on your own life." It's funny--- my mother doesn't remember much of this except that Mr. Investor gave her the creeps, and used to come around asking about Riley. Back to the fact that our brains don't fully develop until we're at least 25 years-old, as I’ve mentioned before. I cling to that theory, it makes a lot of sense when I look back on how I viewed things, and read over this letter I penned, but I'm still struggling to make sense of all of this.

Back in 1986, my then live-in boyfriend read my first draft of this letter, and he added a few tweaks, and off it went into the mail. We thought we were doing a good thing. A righteous thing. Yes, I did spell Mr. Investor's name wrong, but then he wrote me back spelling "atheist" wrong, which is also pretty funny.

The strangest turn of events was when Mr. Investor ended up completely changing his tune, only three or four years later. When my father returned to Porterville in 1990 or 91, they somehow mended fences. My sister said they were friends again right away, as if nothing had happened. Perhaps that's how these letters ended up with my father's personal journal and letters. As you read these, keep in mind that Mr. Investor was probably in his sixties.

Here's my letter, challenging him to a duel:

Here's his letter back to me:

Notice how Mr. Investor seems to wonder if my father wrote the letter to him. "Did you or Riley Shepard write the letter to me?" That's how much confusion and chaos Riley created, and I was as caught up in it as anyone else. Besides spelling atheist wrong, I also find it amusing that Mr. Investor seems to think being an atheist adds to Riley's other crimes.

I had forgotten about my exchange with Mr. Investor until I saw it again in my father's box of letters. Back when I first received his letter, I had showed it to my friends, at least one was from Porterville, and we laughed it off, although some of it stayed with me. It caused me some anxiety and worry. Did he call the police? Now, I'm more interested in what the police were looking into regarding the "investors", and if there was a case, or was this all bluster? It's hard to convict the types of activities Riley was involved in, and I doubt he got that much money from people. It's not like he was Madoff or anything. Plus, this guy was threatening to call the police on me... for writing him a mean letter...which is a little over the top.

Until now I hadn't thought about how I'd lied, I actually forgot all about how I pretended not to know where my father was. I don't even think I would've considered it lying, I just wanted this guy to quit pestering my mother. I think I honestly thought that Mr. Investor was somehow not worthy of compassion, and I didn't believe that Riley had done anything to deserve these threats. I felt hostility towards Mr. Investor. In my young mind, he was a bougie, small-minded religious freak from the suburbs and there was no way my father was guilty of doing anything that bad. Mr. Investor was everything wrong and bad in this world, he probably bought art on cruise ships, had wall-to-wall beige carpeting, was concerned about his tax bracket and who was in Forbes Magazine, he was a reader of the Wall Street Journal, watered his grass during droughts, cut down trees on his property so he wouldn't have to rake leaves, and used Round-up in his yard. The way I saw it, he wasn't to be trusted, and I didn't respect him or anyone like him. We were artists, he was just a no-talent businessman. At the time, I thought I'd never see him again.

On Friday, I spoke to my mother and sister. They have no memory of Mr. Investor bringing groceries. My sister says Mr. Investor absolutely did not bring her groceries, and that in fact, during this time, she was on a strict diet trying to figure out what foods she was reacting to.

My mother has no memory of being at a police station, with or without Mr. Investor. I left town at age 20 in 1985, so the idea that I was there to receive groceries is false. My college was paid for by Pell and Cal grants, and I worked all kinds of jobs in Porterville by the time I was 16; a McDonald's, the K-mart, plus baby sitting, and I worked at a copy center at the Junior College. I knew I had to work if I wanted money, and his "investment" money went to Riley's pockets, and stayed there for a quick minute.

Perhaps Mr. Investor was also full of shit, and as crazy as anyone else in this story.

Mr. Investor's letter is especially interesting to me, because it gives us a glimpse of how angry people were with Riley. He was to be "tarred and feathered" as Kevin Coffey said on "Hidden Brain." But why would Riley return to "the scene of the crime"? Why go back to Porterville? Perhaps some of the people that were after him for money had died, and he knew that he was off the hook.


In early March of 2016, I had an email exchange with a librarian named Linda, who was in Fresno when Riley donated his encyclopedia. I told her that I'd met someone who still hoped the encyclopedia of folk music could somehow be published. (This was before Internet Archives scanned and published a copy I gave them)

Here's what Linda said:

Yes Stacya, of course I remember working with your dad on his project. I was the local history librarian at Fresno from April 1983 through Oct 1986. Riley was a larger than life personality and told wonderful fun stories about his life on the road. He Is one of perhaps three or four special Fresno Library patrons that I still remember after 30 years. He was very serious about his folk song compendium. He did a lot of work on his project right at our Library and used the Interlibrary Loan service to track down very early versions of songs. It was so long ago but I remember that He entrusted the Reference Dept of the Library with a copy of his files so that it would be available for other serious researchers. He told me that publisher(s) were interested in his work at the time, but for some reason unclear to me at the time (and even more obscure with time) he was reluctant to let them look at it. I don't know what else to tell you after 30 years. I remember him fondly and wish you well in your effort to see his project to fruition.

In a later email, she said the project wasn't bound or catalogued, so she's not sure what became of it.

Let's see what other treasures I can dig out of these boxes...

Next up: Researcher Marilyn McGuire finds Riley's draft card. Also, give researchers credit. Often times filmmakers, writers, and storytellers don't, and I call bullshit.


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