That a terrorist group would choose Huntington Beach not just as a base of operations, but also as ground zero for one of the most cataclysmic attacks in U.S. history, is hard to fathom. Yet as I read the story, it all seemed frighteningly simple and feasible. How could this happen right here?
For more answers, I reached out to novelist Ken Goddard, who wrote the story I just described in brief. Didn't mean to alarm you, but it was the classic 1984 New York Times bestseller "Balefire" that I was reading (for the third time).
Inspired in 1978 while Goddard was the primary crime scene investigator in Huntington Beach, the story in the book actually takes place on the eve of the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles. Goddard got the inspiration from a lecture by his boss, then-Chief Earl Robitaille.
"Chief Robitaille, who has retired but I think still lives in Huntington Beach, didn't think the HBPD was taking his warning about terrorism in regards to the Olympics seriously, and he was a real expert," he said. "So this concerned him. I was in charge of the force's Scientific Investigation Bureau — I was the chief criminalist then — and what he said caught my ear. And it really scared me. And that's what made me start thinking about writing a story. His presentations to us inspired me, because of how scary they were."
After learning more about terrorism, Goddard had a sense of what a terrorist might need in the way of resources, but couldn't fathom how one individual could penetrate our security and win. Robitaille challenged him by taking away his badge and credentials, and suggesting he hit the street for some research.
What Goddard observed did more than change his mind. It made him write the novel.
Soon after starting the book, Goddard moved with his wife and daughter to Virginia (he'd lived here since 1979, on Adams Avenue). Then, coincidentally, the book was released at the same time the Olympics were about to start.
That "numbed" him.
"I'd just written a blueprint on how to destroy Huntington Beach!" he said.
Worried that he'd created a primer, or how-to book for terrorists to take down his buddies on the force, Robitaille quick reassured him that Goddard had actually done everyone a service, cops and public alike, by illustrating how easy it would be for a terrorist strike to happen. Robitaille told him that the education the book provided far outweighed any negative. He viewed it as a wake-up call.
Today Goddard, 66, lives in Ashland, Ore., and is the lab director of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. Working with eight special agents; he focuses on animals rather than humans. It's his job to help identify animal evidence the agents seize, looking for violations of wildlife laws or import/export of wildlife products.
For example, he explained to me that there is a huge market for bear gall bladders. They fetch one thousand dollars per gram in Korea because it is believed that if you eat them, you take on the power of the bear. However, pig gall bladders seem identical to bear gall bladders, and so a black market has been created. He also tracks the skins of animals that might comprise an illegally made handbag — tough, he says, because all DNA is wiped out during the tanning process.
The day we spoke, Goddard was sore from scuba diving. To re-certify as a Wildlife Service diver, he had to make 12 new dives. He did so off the Channel Islands, where he described a brutal day of kelp entanglements and getting slammed into the boat after having his mask yanked of by the stubborn surf. But the work is important to him.
See, Goddard wants to continue as part of an international team of marine biologists trying to apply land-based CSI techniques to damaged coral reefs.
"My experience can really help determine what is happening," he said. "There is downgrading caused by dumping, plus there is the stunning of tropical fish with cyanide or bleach to catch them. I bring the CSI knowledge to the team. I have transferred my police experience to wildlife work."
Goddard joked that, back in the 1970s, he thought the concept of CSI work might make a good TV show, and we all know what has happened since. Interestingly, Goddard was an adviser for the popular show: the wildlife evidence expert. Though he admits much of what is produced is gloried for a television audience ("those roles that they portray don't really exist in real life" he chuckled), he does enjoy how high-profile his work eventually became.
He is still writing novels, and believe it or not, "Balefire" will soon be coming to the big screen. The UK production company AV Pictures plans to start shooting in Australia next year. If they succeed in re-creating Huntington Beach circa 1984 as depicted in the book, we are all in for a treat, and I can only imagine the kind of premiere we might have here in town.
In the meantime, I can't help but think that Goddard's life itself seems like ripe material for a cinematic treatment. His passion for wildlife and for getting to the physical truth of the matter is beyond impressive. And I cannot recommend "Balefire" enough.
For more information, visit http://www.kengoddardbooks.com.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County" from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.