Monte Schulz retells gruesome story from Santa Rosa's past

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When author and teacher Monte Schulz was a boy growing up in Sonoma County, a lurid murder case in Santa Rosa inflamed his imagination.

In 1962, when Schulz was 10, Iva Kroeger and her husband, Ralph, the operators of El Sombrero Motel on Santa Rosa Avenue, were charged with the murders of the motel's true owners, Mildred and Jay Arneson.

The Arnesons' bodies were found buried in the basement of the Kroegers' San Francisco home.

"There are two things I remembered from the case," said Schulz, the son of cartoonist Charles Schulz. "I remember bodies being buried in the basement, and I remember Iva Kroeger banging her shoe on the table during the trial. She interrupted through the entire trial. She never shut up."

Inspired by the story's "residue of creepiness," Schulz, now 61 and living in Santa Barbara, based his newest novel on the case.

Schulz worked on "Naughty" off and on for a decade, he said. For several years, he employed a Santa Rosa private detective to dig deeper into the case. He also consulted with former Press Democrat crime reporter Boniface Saludes, who covered the police investigation and the trial.

The novel is mostly fact-based, with the real names only slightly changed in most references, and includes excerpts from the actual transcript of the Kroegers' trial. It follows the travels, thoughts and feelings of hapless drifter "Joe Krueger," Schulz's version of Ralph Kroeger.

The beginning and end of the book are pure fiction, Schulz said. "I really liked the story I made up for the fictional part."

The book begins with Joe's initial encounter and with "Ida," the Iva Kroeger character, when she rents him a room at her boardinghouse on a stormy night.

From there, the story becomes the stuff of classic "film noir" crime movies, with an easy-going but weak man falling under the influence of a charming but conniving woman.

"Naughty" was published by Fantagraphics Books in Seattle, which also published Schulz's fictional trilogy set in the 1920s — "This Side of Jordan," "The Last Rose of Summer" and "The Big Town" — between 2009 and 2012.

As he has done for his previous books, Schulz will return to the North Bay for bookstore appearances. He will be at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Dec. 9 and at Barnes and Noble in Santa Rosa on Dec. 10.

Schulz, who holds a master's degree in American studies from UC Santa Barbara, owns and operates the annual, weeklong Santa Barbara Writers Conference, which presents speakers, workshops and panel discussions on writing.

Schulz said he didn't attempt to mimic "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" about the murder of a Kansas family. Instead, he took his inspiration from Robert Bloch's "Psycho," the basis of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 movie.

"I like the idea of a Bates Motel atmosphere," said Schulz, referring to the scene of the crime in "Psycho."

Since finishing his book, Schulz has been interviewed for a Discovery Channel series featuring the Kroeger case.

"My interview looked OK," he said, "but their dramatic re-enactment of the crime was silly. I didn't even understand what was going on there, and I know the case."

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or</i>

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