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Murder at the Pink Tarantula 

Carmel Sanger's death -- a walk-in shooting at a SOMA hair salon called the Pink Tarantula -- was professionally brutal. Her life was a wondrous combination of the drag queens and musicians and druggies and gays and bikers and lesbians and tattooists and

Wednesday, Jun 18 1997
If Carmel Sanger had been able to attend her own memorial on that chilly night in March, she would have thought the event unnecessary, even ridiculous. One after another, vehicles parked at the Walden House rehab center off Buena Vista Park, jettisoning bodies into the nocturnal wind-blast of the Upper Haight, creating the continuous stream of extraordinary humanity that filed into the room.

In the front row sat Carmel's mother and two of her sisters, flown in from Australia. There was her dog, Pancake, and her best friend, Carla. Susan Schindler, owner of the Brain Wash cafe/laundromat, came forth and spoke about how nice it had been to see another businesswoman move into the South of Market neighborhood. Connie Champagne stood up and sang, a cappella, the theme from Valley of the Dolls. That was as close to middle class as this memorial would get.

There were bikers from the Hell's Angels and the Survivors, gays and lesbians, queens and trannies, tattooists and hairdressers, mechanics and musicians, junkies and freaks, the heads of hair Carmel had cut for 17 years, 200 of them coming and going throughout the night. This was the demographic of San Francisco that the rest of the country found most vile, and these were her friends.

If Carmel Sanger had been in attendance, she wouldn't have hesitated to tell the mourners: OK, you're sad -- we get that. What's your point? The longer the memorial wore on, though, the more the reddened, moist faces sobbed. She wasn't supposed to go, not yet, not now. She was one of the ones who had made it, who had survived the drugged-out fuck-ups of the '80s, who had climbed out of the gutter and built a successful business. She had had rich bitches from Blackhawk pulling up in Mercedes, glam queens strutting in for hair extensions, customers who flew in from L.A. and Paris. There had been the review in Allure magazine. She had finally gotten her divorce. Things had seemed to be going OK.

Things stopped being OK the previous Wednesday, when someone walked into Carmel's Pink Tarantula hair salon, pulled out a pistol, and shot her twice, bullets hitting her in the eye and lung. She crumpled to the floor and died in front of her employees and customers. The slaying shocked the city with its cold brutality, but those close to her said she was half-expecting something like it to happen. If she had known the reason she was targeted and gunned down, however, she was one of the very few. Police still haven't made any arrests.

Carmel's ex-husband, Robert Sanger, doesn't match witness descriptions of the killer, and police don't consider him a prime suspect in the murder. Even so, many of Carmel's friends believed -- still believe -- he was tied up in it, somehow. His presence in the front row at the memorial, off to himself, made others there uneasy, to say the least. As people spoke of Carmel, his head rested in his hands, his eyes staring at one invisible spot on the carpet. After a long pause, he stood, and the room suddenly fell still. Unfair as it might be, some would later make a comparison to O.J. Simpson attending the funeral of his murdered wife, Nicole.

Robert turned his big tattooed frame to face the audience, eyes blinking through glasses with amber lenses. He had met Carmel at this very Walden House building back in the early 1980s. He knew her as well as anybody, but on this night of remembrance, he didn't have much to say. He cleared his throat, mumbled. All ears strained; it was difficult to make out his words. His shaved head lifted slightly, and he murmured that Carmel had been the first person "to let me be me." And then he sat down.

March 5, a busy Wednesday afternoon at the Pink Tarantula hair salon. A dark blue car glided down Langton, stopped, and waited. Carmel came downstairs into the salon. A blond-haired man entered, asked a few questions, and examined some of the hair care products, as if he were planning to make a purchase. He left without buying anything.

It was in 1963, in the middle-class suburbs of West Sydney, Australia, that the tiny Catholic hands of Carmel Strelein first curled around a pair of scissors with the intent to cut hair. Hair was fascinating to the 3-year-old. Her toy troll dolls had the best hair, wild thatches of neon pinks and greens that shot straight up from their skulls, much cooler than her sister's Barbies.

By then, Dad was already out of the picture, leaving Pat, the mother, trying her best to raise the feisty Strelein brood by herself. Mom envisioned them all growing up as good little members of the Pope's Army. But there would be early deserters in the ranks. By 1973 there was no need to set a place at the table for Carmel. She was already gone.

Begun as a British penal colony, Sydney might be thought of now as a small Los Angeles, a bustling sprawl of freeways and high-rises where millions toil in the urban mines. The hipster playground here is Central Sydney, where the streets are full of nightclubs, boutiques, and bums. A scrappy 13-year-old named Carmel Strelein had left her mother and siblings and found the playground; she survived there by hustling.

The hustling came in many forms. A boyfriend who did advertising voice-overs got her a similar gig. Soon, her young voice was heard on Australian television, shilling for an ambulance service. She made and sold jewelry and sang in punk bands, but her true talent -- her eye for the outlandish edge of fashion -- was already emerging. On her own body. Her head was totally shaved; outrageous mascara and eyeliner swoops launched out from her eyes and whooshed back across the temples, twin ocular flames that met at the back of her skull. She modeled for the hip '70s Australian designer Zandra Rhodes. British photographer Norman Parkinson came to town, in the midst of putting together a book on punk fashion called Beautiful Women. Although his finished product focused on the street-rat scene of London, two shots were included from Australia. Both were of Carmel.

All this before she was old enough to drive.
The land Down Under didn't offer much in the way of outre entertainment in the mid-'70s -- the Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John, and a group of pint-sloppy boys in little shorts who would call themselves AC/DC were the dominant influences -- but there was a weird new scene growing in Sydney's three gay clubs, a drag performance group years ahead of Ru Paul or the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert crowd. Fronted by the transsexual Jacqueline Hyde, a square-jawed queen named Doris Fish, and a 6-foot-6 Lebanese apparition with size-15 shoes who called herself Miss Abood, Sylvia & the Synthetics took the traditional drag concept of realistic female imitation and gave it a savage, openly gay twist. No more of that old-school, Shirley Bassey, lip-sync bullshit. They wore 1940s dresses with open backs to show their asses. They pelted audiences with garfish. They got naked; they had sex. The stage was left littered not with boa feathers, but with stinky fish guts, piss, and blood. The moment Carmel saw Sylvia & the Synthetics, she thought, "Now that is fashion!" She followed them around the city. As did the vice squad.

"She was totally bizarre at that point," remembers Miss Abood. "She used to knit sweaters with extra arms, and put extra arms in them .... We were destined to be friends."

The Synthetics soon incorporated Carmel into their lives, and she accompanied them on their rounds. Whether it was getting into drag, getting out of drag, performing in drag, or shopping for drag, the teen-age Carmel was getting a swift education in the drag aesthetic -- how to exaggerate wigs and makeup, how to accessorize to stop traffic, how to deliver the perfectly timed bitchy putdown.

One memorable night, Carmel brought the Synthetics into her world.
She had been invited to do a hair show for a beauty conference held in conjunction with a display of expensive furs; some were said to be worth as much as $50,000. Carmel was scheduled to conduct a hairstyling demonstration at a swanky Sydney hotel, in front of 1,500 of the stuffiest and most conservative hairstylists in Australia.

Her choice of models was not conservative.
The crowd gasped as the Synthetics strutted out in their multicolored drag ensembles. "Carmel wearing a garbage bag, and dying my hair green, and dry-fucking my leg ... we totally wrecked the place," recalls Miss Abood dryly. "They were freaking out because the furs were so expensive. I think we destroyed a couple of them."

As an act, the Synthetics lasted only a few years, before getting shut down by the police. Doris Fish high-tailed it to San Francisco. Abood and Hyde also temporarily fled the country, leaving Carmel in Sydney. Not feeling well one day, she went to the doctor and discovered she was seven months pregnant; her boyfriend was the father. A mother? She wasn't even 21. She put the baby up for adoption. It was time to get the hell out of there. After the Synthetics, what was left in Australia? She drove to the Sydney airport with Miss Abood, who was back for a visit. The two well-coiffed travelers turned and waved goodbye to Carmel's sisters and her mother, and boarded the fat jet for San Francisco.

Shortly after the blond man left the Pink Tarantula, a Hispanic male entered the salon, wearing a blue bandanna on his head, a black leather jacket, and leather chaps. His eyebrows were shaved. Witnesses described him as jumpy, impatient. He approached the counter, and even though she was standing right in front of him, he asked, "Can I make an appointment with Carmel?"

In the late 1970s, Doris Fish flourished in the Bay Area underground performance scene. She did shows with the raunchy avant-garde band the Tubes; admission was free if you showed up nude. She helped publish a fashion mag called Where It's At, and wrote a memorable column for the San Francisco Sentinel. Fish seemed on a mission, dashing about town doing events, obsessed with taking drag to the next level and leaving the tired Finocchio's crowd in the dust. One day, Fish opened the door of her apartment and was greeted by a tattooed, 20-year-old Carmel Strelein. Carmel was whisked inside, and immediately complimented on her wild shoes, each of which resembled a bright yellow-and-black jester hat with a French heel.

Carmel became a charter member of a household on Market at Sanchez that would be known as Slut Central and would revolutionize the way San Francisco thought about drag queens. Fish and her showgirl roommates -- Tippi, Miss X, and their friend Timmy Spence -- would do their drag shows, often at the Hotel Utah. Carmel didn't perform onstage, but was present behind the scenes, contributing ideas for hair and loaning out her clothing and thigh-high boots. She went on wig-shopping expeditions with her housemates. She set up a sewing machine in the living room, and taught everyone to crochet, with varying degrees of success. On slow afternoons, she'd observe the queens lounging on sofas, watching Tennessee Williams movies, and trying on gloves. This wasn't the gender-fuck drag-with-beards that was fashionable at the time. Slut Central's strange, feminine, hybrid sort of drag was something brand-new, courtesy of Doris Fish, whom the Australian press had called "a travesty of womanhood."

"It was more the act of putting on makeup," says Miss X, now married and living in Portland. "People used to say, 'What is it about you that's different than the other drag queens?' And we'd say, 'They want to look like women. We want to look like drag queens.' We weren't trying to look like women. That was why it was so funny."

"Drag queens were the first people who influenced me," Carmel would tell a reporter years later. "Living with them, I learned how to dress like a real woman."

Carmel liked San Francisco's underground better than Sydney's; she went to punk shows, and kept cutting hair, working from salons or out of her house. To drum up more business, she'd approach friends on the street, stare at their heads, and ask with mock concern, "Who did your hair?" She frequently woke up early at Slut Central, and sat for hours in front of a mirror, re-creating her look. How was anyone going to take her seriously as a hairdresser if she herself didn't have the most cutting-edge, fuckingest do? The Pebbles/Flintstones tuft thing was suddenly and horribly uncool -- this week it had to be a massive rooster-comb spiked mohawk. She married one of her housemates to get a green card, so she could stay in the country. And then she and Timmy Spence formed a band and scared Sacramento.

Pillar of Salt was a post-punk synth trio that got some radio play in the early '80s with the song "Surfin' in the Sewer," written by Carmel and Spence. The band lasted for all of two public performances. In one of those extravaganzas, the group opened for the Psychedelic Furs in Sacramento. Carmel hobbled onstage in a tight-tight dress with stuffed monkeys stitched onto it. Her ears were pierced multiple times; she laced together the holes. There was, of course, the mohawk. The crowd was aghast -- nobody looked like this in Northern California. Even the Furs were taken aback. Pillar of Salt went to stay with friends in the suburbs, leading to one of those encounters that is remembered now as pure Carmel.

It is a sweltering, 100-degree, windless day in the Central Valley. A little boy asks a freaky-looking girl and her pals if they want to come swimming at his house, down the street. The adults borrow some swimsuits, and pad down the scalding sidewalk. Spence dives in the pool. The kids splash around. The mothers of the children lounge on deck chairs. It's an idyllic, banal scene straight out of Redbook magazine -- until the sliding glass doors to the house open, and there stands Carmel, in exaggerated mohawk, tattoos, and a swimsuit several sizes too large, her breasts fully exposed. Silence washes over the back yard; a mother frantically waves the kids to come out of the pool.

Spence recalls Carmel seizing the moment, making the rounds of the women at poolside, offering them solid, if unsolicited advice:

"What the fuck are you doing in Sacramento?" she demands. "You're 28, divorced three times, your husband beats you. What the fuck are you doing?"

The women are stunned. Like so many who would come in contact with Carmel, though, they actually find themselves listening to a half-naked crazy tattooed girl with rooster-comb hair, while she questions their very existences.

There would be other adventures, many of them road trips during which Carmel continued her quest to collect American kitsch. But she soon realized she had enough kitsch in her home -- perhaps too much. She might as well capitalize on what she already had. She opened a small collectibles store on Folsom at Ninth Street and called it I Wanna Live, in homage to the Susan Hayward movie. The name would prove to be the ultimate irony.

To her friends, Carmel had always seemed naturally wired; as far as they knew, she had never been into drugs much. But in the 1980s, everyone seemed to have reasons for slipping into the constant party. Bad crowds circulated everywhere. "She's becoming a major fuck-up," friends whispered behind her back. It's probably heroin, said some. Others thought it was speed. She began working the streets of the Mission as a prostitute. People talked about the night she found herself alone on the floor of her shop, thrashing about in convulsions.

On Jan. 6, 1983, a complaint was filed in Municipal Court against Carmel Chandler and Larry B. Dawson, claiming unlawful import and sale of methamphetamine within the state of California. A search of Carmel's home on Jackson Street yielded white and brown powders, and a syringe. She pled guilty in Superior Court to charges of dealing, and got three years probation, with one year to be spent at Walden House.

She was lucky.
As Carmel walked up the steps of the rehab facility in the Upper Haight, she mentally reviewed her situation: Nice job. You haven't been in America three years, and you're already an addict and a convicted felon. You're as low as you can get.

When Carmel reached for her appointment book, the man with the bandanna pulled out a 9mm, semiautomatic pistol and fired twice, point blank. The first shot hit her in the left eye, the second tore into her lung. She fell to the floor of the Tarantula and landed on her back, a puddle of red growing on the concrete. She would be pronounced dead in less than an hour. The man ran outside, turned, and fired once more through the window -- a technique hit men often use to ensure they're not being followed. The bullet ricocheted, striking a circus clown in the wall mural right between its eyes.

Penny Small left her apartment on the crest of Lombard Street and headed for Walden House. It was the Christmas season of 1983, and she was due to visit a wayward grandson, who was cooling his heels in rehab. Penny, a tough-minded, intelligent woman whose husband ducked out early and left her to raise the children by working as a barmaid, was in her 60s. She had made some shrewd real estate investments over the years, playing landlord to the Cole Valley hippies during the heyday, and now could afford a good living-room view of the bay.

She walked into Walden House and was struck by the sight of a confident, skinny woman strutting down a hallway, blond hair spiked up high. The woman was wearing one red and one green leg warmer, and people treated her as if she were the head of the senior class. "What a positive attitude," thought Penny. "That is what a place like this needs."

Soon thereafter, Penny injured her back and was laid up in bed. She rang up Walden House, looking for some temporary help. It came in the form of the skinny girl with the spiked hair. Carmel worked all day for her, and came back the next day, and the next, driven as much by curiosity as a sense of caretaking. Who was this older woman with the swanky pad? How did she get to be so independent?

Carmel would prepare meals, clean the house, run errands. Her energy seemed boundless. One day, Carmel told Penny about her experiences in the drug scene. The code words, the behaviors, the tweakers, the junkies, and the whores. Penny listened. Carmel told her about her sister's drug problems, and how her brother had been hired as a "mule" to fly a planeload of drugs to Fiji, but had been caught and thrown in jail. Penny nodded. In turn, she told Carmel about her life as a single mother, about mortgages and refinancing, and the nature of independent business loans. Carmel nodded. And then they talked about jewelry, and they laughed.

Carmel met someone else during her stay at Wal-den House. Robert Sanger was several years older than she. Quiet, stoic, he had also been through the drug scene. He was tall and big-chested, with a shaved head and a tattoo of a worm wearing a top hat and smoking a joint. But Carmel noticed he seemed to have the financial part of life figured out. He owned a two-story Victorian at the top of Castro Street. He drove some cherry motorcycles and cars. He was raising children on his own. He was actually very pleasant.

They were married in 1985 at the Henry Ohloff House rehab mansion on the corner of Fell and Steiner in the Western Addition. Carmel wore an extravagant black and red wedding gown, hair done up wild with a tule extension interspersed with feathers. Carmel's circle of friends was widening; in addition to the drag queens, now there were 12-steppers and bikers. In from Sydney, Mom sat shyly by herself at the wedding, beautifully dressed and groomed, a good Catholic mother. Her little Carmel was turning out all right, after all.

Life after marriage took on a different rhythm. The wild nights at Slut Central would continue without Carmel, as the group began work on the gender-swapping sci-fi musical film Vegas in Space. The queens were amazed at Carmel's newfound focus. She still had half her head shaved, and wore loud-colored bell-bottoms and carried weird purses, but she was changing, growing more materialistic. She started driving a motorcycle, roaring off on expeditions to flea markets, where she rummaged through big-eyed Keane paintings, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth-inspired figurines, and metal children's toys. She avoided the drug crowd entirely. And she looked at the city's hair salons with a fresh eye. Lessons learned from independent businesspeople like Robert and Penny were starting to sink in.

In 1986, a storefront space became available on Post Street, a few blocks from Union Square. The place needed a name. Carmel sat on her bed, thinking. It had to be something psychedelic, something associated with hair. Tarantulas are hairy. And the color pink, it's fluffy and fun. Pink Tarantula -- they'd either love it or hate it. And if they were intimidated by it, fuck 'em, they could go to Supercuts. It was now May. She wanted to open in two months. Robert helped her finance the salon by selling his '57 Corvette.

In the months leading up to the opening of the Pink Tarantula, Carmel was working at the Pacific Heights Haircutting Salon, located on Fillmore at California. The salon was known less for its fabulous cuts than its ersatz, Old West, rough-hewn wood paneling, which led people in the hair biz to call it "The Barn." And there was even better gossip.

Right in the middle of white-bread Pacific Heights, in this seemingly conservative, button-down salon, there was heroin, big time. Deals went out the door constantly; the owners were walking in, drooling on themselves. Everybody knew. It would have been laughable, were it not so pathetic.

In the midst of this smack scene stood the clean-and-sober Carmel, furiously working shifts, saving her money. She thought she had left this crap behind, and here she was, trapped among the users, counting the days when she could get the hell out. One afternoon she was introduced to a free-lance hairdresser named Patrick Miller.

Patrick looked at the tattooed woman's shoulder-length hair, bleached a dark turquoise-green. Carmel looked at Patrick's blue-black, 12-inch-tall flattop, which looked like the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. She curtsied and said, "Great do."

They chatted about her new shop. Patrick said he was driving around the city on his motorcycle, cutting hair, and could use a gig. Carmel told him to check back. One day he asked her for a formal tryout. Carmel asked to see Patrick's left profile. He turned his aircraft-carrier head.

"Right profile," she said. He turned the other direction.
"Honey ... you'll do."
"That was the interview," remembers Patrick. "We clicked."

After firing the final shot through the Tarantula's window, the man with shaved eyebrows hopped in the passenger side of a late-'80s dark blue Buick Skylark. The driver was a woman with shoulder-length bleached blond hair. The car screeched off. Two blocks away on Minna Street, a gun was whipped out the window.

The Pink Tarantula opened on Post Street to great chaos. Almost immediately, it was packed with objects from Carmel's extensive kitsch collection. But the walls looked bare, especially with the high ceilings. Carmel remembered an artist she had bumped into, by the name of Greg Kulz. He had previously painted a jacket design for her, and then later duplicated the pattern as a tattoo on her back. Kulz was doing tattoos out of his home when she called. His personal life was a shambles, he was broke. Carmel asked him to paint a mural for the new salon. He hadn't done much mural work. She offered thousands.

Carmel wanted an ocean motif, but left specifics up to Kulz. He worked after hours and on weekends, covering everything with sheets of plastic, attacking the walls with a spray gun. As the months passed, an astonishing underwater ocean design appeared -- an enormous whale, a coral reef, a sea turtle, spiky puff fish darting about, all done in rich blues and greens.

First-time customers were transported into sensory overload. In addition to the ocean mural, there was another wall, filled with a school of hokey 1950s ceramic fish, positioned as if they were swimming in formation. An eclectic mix of Diamanda Galas, Herb Alpert, and '50s rockabilly blared from the stereo. Tarantula employees and customers were pierced and tattooed. Carmel offered jobs to cokeheads and ex-junkies, with the warning that if they fucked up, they were history. San Francisco's freaks now had their own hair salon.

"This industry thrives on artificial, pretentious bullshit," says Patrick, who worked at Carmel's salon for 10 years. "If you're a real person, you realize it's just phony. It's like the fashion scene. A lot of hairdressers buy into that. That's what made Tarantula so unique. You didn't have to do a performance. You could be yourself and do a good job. Other salons are like, 'We have to have movement.' We weren't into it. Fuck all that shit. Do a good job, the work will speak for itself."

The Post Street location offered proximity to two groups of clients who would become mainstays of the salon. Trannies and glam queens from the Tenderloin sat in chairs alongside snooty socialites from Nob Hill, all staring at the bizarre decor. This would be the only place in the city where one could get hair extensions, with the added bonus of ceramic fish and Johnny Cash songs.

Although the Tarantula was written up in magazines and its reputation spread through word of mouth, it never fit the conventional mold of a high-fashion salon. No hors d'oeuvres or glasses of chardonnay. Instead of valet parking, there were metered bike spaces out front, usually filled with the hairdressers' Harleys. One of the shop's favorite sayings was "The client is always wrong." People arriving one Halloween found the owner cutting and rinsing hair while wearing a Reno-white-trash, powder-blue leisure suit with padded stomach and butt, and one choice detail -- a blacked-out tooth. Hair-product salespeople spouting the virtues of some revolutionary new placenta conditioner would be cut off in midpitch. "Skip the bullshit!" Carmel would snap. "What's your point? Whose placenta is it?"

As his wife's salon grew and made more money, Robert continued to work as a banquet waiter and maitre d' at the St. Francis Hotel. After hours he hung with the Hell's Angels. His street name was "Skull," and his Harley was decorated with skull images. He was a "prospect" for the Angels, but never a full member. He may not have had time. He was managing all the Pink Tarantula's finances.

On March 5, Wednesday evening commuters heard radio reports of a shooting at a hairdressing salon South of Market. Police and paramedics packed the narrow street, choppers circling overhead. TV crews roamed the gathering crowd in front of the Tarantula. KPIX-TV's Joe Oliver stuck a mike into the face of Timmy Spence, and asked him if he had any thoughts on Carmel's pleasant and gregarious nature. Spence immediately thought, "Carmel? Are you kidding?" and burst out laughing. The footage never aired.

In 1991 a piece of real estate became available South of Market on Langton, one of those small two-block alley streets with a revolving set of odors, from piquant bum piss to leaking transmissions and burnt crack pipes. The neighborhood was tough on retail businesses because of the limited walk-by traffic, but the space at 71 Langton was zoned for live/work, an increasing rarity in local real estate. Carmel and Robert negotiated the deal, and lived in an Airstream trailer parked on the street until the remodeling was complete.

The second version of the Pink Tarantula featured a downstairs retail/kitchen space, a large upstairs living area, and a garage for the bikes. Carmel called in Greg Kulz, who whipped up another vividly colored mural, this one in a circus motif: clowns, midgets, acrobats, and a lion tamer, accentuated by an old-fashioned barber's pole. The same school of ceramic fish darted across one wall, serenaded by Tom Jones and Cher. Carmel hung a sign out front, a pink heart and a pair of scissors and the word "couture." Where their trailer was once parked now sat Mercedes Benzes and BMWs, the drivers slipping into the Tarantula to purchase six weeks of hipster credentials.

Another bonus of the new location: Langton was much closer to West Coast Beauty Supply, the store on Sixth Street from which nearly every salon in the city restocks its shelves. Curious about Carmel's new digs, West Coast owner Petra Ludwig went down to the Pink Tarantula for a haircut. She had known Carmel for 15 years, and was familiar with most of the salons in town; still, she was struck by the Tarantula's decor, which seemed freaky even for San Francisco.

"A sharp cookie," Petra says now. "Very unlike what she looked like. A lot of hairdressers will try to talk you into things that they like, but it's not what you want. She really put you at ease. Always liked to kid around."

As Carmel's business grew, so did her private life. She was a finalist on the white-trash TV-20 Dance Party program hosted by Jim Gabbert, where saddle shoes and bowling shirts from Daly City jived to oldies records. She shot pistols at the firing range. At least once a year she stayed at the garish Madonna Inn, a severely overdecorated honeymoon hotel, and brought back tacky monogrammed souvenirs for her staff. She and Robert hopped on their Harleys for rides with the clean-and-sober gang known as the Survivors.

Carmel reunited with her old Slut Central friends for the 1991 world premiere of the film Vegas in Space at the Castro Theater, a fabulous evening of wigs and gowns that represented the pinnacle of San Francisco in full plumage. Although not credited in the film, her taste was represented in the on-screen costumes and hair designs of Doris Fish. The Tarantula was bustling all afternoon, everyone getting their coiffs for the big show.

Sadly, it was a posthumous gala. Fish and Tippi had passed away from AIDS before the film could be finished. To immortalize them, Carmel had Tattoo City's Ed Hardy do portraits of the original Sluts -- Fish, Tippi, and Miss X -- on one of her legs. It would complement a similar image on her arm: her father and brother, rendered from family photos.

Being an extroverted style maven for so many years undoubtedly made it difficult for Carmel to own up to the boring or ordinary aspects of her life. Few people ever knew that she had given a child up for adoption in Australia, and that she was compiling a scrapbook about herself, to be given to him the day he turned 21. Carmel rarely mentioned that she donated funds to finish a tree-planting program along Langton. She always kept the sidewalk in front of her shop clean, and made it a point to stop and chat with whatever neighbor she encountered, her five dogs jerking on the leash. They called her the "Queen of Langton."

After the murder, friends immediately started creating a shrine in front of the Pink Tarantula, lighting votive candles, posting up photos and poems, arranging fresh flowers. The blood hadn't yet been hosed off the sidewalk. An outpouring of grief continued to build. Homicide inspectors remarked to friends they'd never seen anything like it in 30 years. For weeks after, people stood outside the salon and hugged each other, examining the shrine in silence. A Carmel Louise Sanger Website was launched.

The Queen of Langton was growing increasingly distant from her king. In the past, vacations meant the two of them traveling to tattoo and hot rod conventions; they were the sober couple from San Francisco who posed for tattoo magazines. Now they spent less and less time together. Rarely was there any display of public affection. She had always left the financial nuances of the salon to him, but now she expressed dissatisfaction with that arrangement. One day at the Tarantula, Robert kissed Carmel goodbye on the cheek as he was leaving. A friend mentioned to Carmel it seemed uncharacteristic. She explained they were going to therapy, and added, "It isn't working."

It didn't work. People described the divorce as unpleasant, acrimonious. As part of the settlement, she got the Langton property; he retained a building on 24th Street and four of the five dogs. Carmel began to be in better moods. She joked more easily. She wore less jewelry, and collected less kitsch, as if that were somehow part of her past. She started seeing a couple of guys, and went on road trips with her clean-and-sober gang of biker girlfriends, the Black Leather Beavers.

"The thought, much less the spectacle, of these half a dozen striking women riding up on these big Harley Choppers and parking," a friend says, "I don't care who you are, but the world stops. They were really into the theater and drama of it all."

More than one California campground was baffled by the sight of girls dancing around the fire in boxer shorts, to a boombox blasting songs from The Jungle Book. They rode to a convention of Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas. Sometimes, they just sat around Carmel's place, watching She-Devils on Wheels, smoking cheap cigars like the chick bikers in the video.

In the evenings, after the shop closed, people driving down Langton might see the lights on in the salon, and glimpse Carmel, alone, in her pajamas, ironing and combing her hair. Everybody needs some downtime.

The dark blue car was traced to an apartment on Pine Street, and to two suspects: a thug on probation named Marcos Ranjel, 30, and a 25-year-old art-school junkie named Amber Tyler. Inside the apartment, police found a pair of black leather pants, a leather jacket, and an undisclosed amount of U.S. currency. Police administered a polygraph test to Ranjel. Witnesses were shown photos of him, but he was not arrested.

SOMA remains abuzz with speculation: Why Carmel? Was it a mob-related hit, part of a protection racket for the neighborhood? Was her ex-husband, Robert, involved? If so, how would he benefit? He wasn't getting the salon, because the divorce papers stated clearly that she was the sole owner. (Attempts to contact him at a recent address were unsuccessful.) And police aren't talking, because the case is still active.

Three months after Carmel's death, people who knew her still call each other almost every day, trying to keep each other up and going. Even so, some of Carmel's ex-addict friends have begun using again. The building at 71 Langton is in the process of being sold. A book about her is in the works here in San Francisco. Back in Sydney, where the story has been all over newspapers and TV, the immediate family remains stunned. Danny Archer, aka Miss Abood, is busy compiling the archives of Carmel and the Synthetics as part of an exhibit for the Australian National Library.

When Carmel's mother arrived from Sydney to claim her daughter's body, she and Penny Small met SFPD Homicide Officer Joseph Toomey in front of the Pink Tarantula. Pat Strelein had visited San Francisco before, but this may have been her first inkling that her daughter had achieved any financial success. The bullet hole was still in the building's front window. Before unlocking the door, Toomey explained that things might appear disturbed because his men had searched the salon. He opened the door, and the two ladies stepped gingerly into the murder scene. The place looked as though it had been ransacked by burglars. Toomey motioned them over to one wall. They followed him through the debris, and he pointed to a framed document. It was Carmel Strelein's Catholic confirmation certificate.

Marco Ranjel and Amber Tyler are believed to be in Mexico. Their mug shots were shown on a recent edition of America's Most Wanted.

About The Author

Jack Boulware


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