Ghost in the Machine
My Girlfriend's Roommate Filled My iPod with His Music—Then He Murdered His Ex-Girlfriend and Himself
It was a Sunday evening. My girlfriend had invited me over. Her roommate, Jonathan Rowan, was making dinner.
The Seattle P-I would later describe 41-year-old Rowan as an elusive, suicidal alcoholic with "three aliases and two passports under different names." The Seattle Times quoted his ex-girlfriend calling him "a psycho." I remember him in the kitchen of that shared house in Ballard, telling me to wash greens, chop veggies, and toast bread. When I burned the bread, he scolded me, theatrically declaring it "ruined."
I liked Rowan then—what I knew of him. He was loud, funny, and had a cool accent. He gave me shit for drinking Miller High Life tallboys, called people "cunts," and said "fucking 'ell" like a Brit. He constantly pirated stuff, and had given me a flash drive loaded with Photoshop and DVDs of the BBC's The Office. But the guy clearly had issues. He said he was wanted in England, and he had drug and alcohol problems. He was slightly manic. It seemed like he wanted to become friends in fast-forward.
He'd disappeared the Monday before that impromptu dinner party, leaving behind his keys and wallet, along with two sealed envelopes. One was for a friend in L.A. The other was for his ex-girlfriend Rebecca. I'd only met her three or four times. She smiled a lot, but I don't think it was because she felt like it. The notes said he'd gone to the Aurora Bridge to kill himself. When he returned home that afternoon, he brushed aside questions, saying he was fine and that the whole thing had gotten "blown out of proportion." Days later, he'd adopted an old Lab. I saw the dog as a sign of new respect for life.
Rowan made fun of me that Sunday night while we cooked, pointing out that my iPod was practically empty. So during dinner he started dumping music onto my iPod. He was in a great mood, making jokes and constantly jumping up to get more salad or wine.
He was standing in the kitchen when I left the next morning. I thanked him for the food. I remember him waving, and I remember saying, "See you soon."
That evening my girlfriend called around 8:30 p.m. She wanted me to come over. She didn't want to talk on the phone. My gut told me it had to do with Rowan. I thought about how happy he'd been that last night, and how suicidal people often cheer up just before they snap. I assumed he'd killed himself.
When I walked into the house, the living room was bare. My girlfriend was standing next to the kitchen table—the only furniture left. She was calm, but along with all the furniture and cookware, Rowan had taken her laptop, an Apple G4, and a fancy camera.
She filed police reports, and eventually contacted Rowan's ex-girlfriend Rebecca, hoping she knew where to track him down. In their exchanges, my girlfriend learned Rowan was threatening Rebecca, her family, and even her dog. He'd call and say, "Look over your shoulder." Rebecca told my girlfriend she wouldn't be able to rest until "that asshole is behind bars."
Over the next few weeks, my girlfriend and I talked about Rowan less frequently. But whenever I put my iPod on shuffle, all this stuff I didn't recognize kept coming up. "Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky" by Manic Street Preachers was the first one I noticed. Then I remembered Rowan giving me all that music during that dinner, and somehow it made me feel guilty. My girlfriend had gotten all her shit stolen, while I'd gotten all this free music.
April 2 was just another Monday. Sometime in the late morning, probably about the time I was going to get a second cup of tea, a man walked into a building at the University of Washington and shot and killed a woman. Then he shot himself.
I heard about the murder/suicide on the news, but I didn't learn the names of the victim and the killer until the next morning. The picture of the murdered woman on the Seattle Times' webpage looked familiar, but I didn't know that Griego was Rebecca's last name. It wasn't until I saw "Jonathan Rowan" that I knew. I felt sick and cold.
My girlfriend was getting ready for work when I told her. She got off the phone quickly. Stunned, I sat at my desk and read as much online as I could find. Then I picked up my iPod and looked at the music Rowan put on it. All counted, he gave me 39 albums. With the exception of Barry White's Greatest Hits and nine efforts from U2, it's all English pop. There are 14 Oasis albums, including every one of their studio releases, a couple of B-side comps, and different live performances. There are six Manic Street Preachers records, four Verve albums, all three of Richard Ashcroft's solo releases, both Kasabian records, and a collection of early Bowie singles. On shuffle, I don't have to wait long to hear a track Rowan gave me—one comes up every five songs or so.
I have a murderer's music on my iPod and, almost reflexively, I couldn't help but think of him while listening to these songs—they were his songs, songs he gave me. Had he blasted Oasis before going drinking? Jumped up and down to Manic Street Preachers B-sides? Sung along with Bowie in the car? The lyrics to "Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky" go: "Once you roared, now you just grunt lame/Pace around pathetic pound games." It made me think of how Rowan could never get comfortable, how he was constantly moving from one room to the next at the house in Ballard.
Rowan was destructive and vile, but somehow listening to his music made me empathize with him, made me think about how trapped he must have felt, knowing that even getting stopped for jaywalking could send him to prison for years.
And that one lyric, the one about having once roared, keeps coming back to me. It seems to describe him. He was charismatic, entertaining, and charming. He could have been an awesome salesman—the product wouldn't have mattered—and he was great with computers. Did he torture himself with thoughts about what he could have been? Did he long for the years before he had fucked up his life, when he was free and the world was open to him?
Then I realized I was thinking more about Rowan than I was about Rebecca, the woman he'd slain. Listening to his music put me inside Rowan's head; it made me consider things through his eyes. I wanted to throw up.
Looking back, there were so many warning signs. Legal problems. Drugs. Booze. Suicide threats. What made me think of this guy as fun dinner company? Even after he stole from his roommates and disappeared, why didn't it occur to me that he might be dangerous? Because he taught me how to make perfect asparagus? Because before he went to the store, he always asked if I needed anything? Because he could make me laugh and was nice to his fucking dog?
I can still barely comprehend what happened. I can't listen to my iPod anymore without thinking about it. I just don't have room in my head for stuff like this.