It’s Aggie Underwood’s Birthday Month!

Yesterday was the 117th anniversary of Aggie Underwood’s birth.  In her honor the Central Library downtown is hosting a party on Saturday, December 21, 2019 at 2 pm.

I will speak about Aggie and her many accomplishments from her time as a switchboard operator at the Record to her groundbreaking promotion to city editor at the Evening Herald and Express.  And yes, there will be cake. 

Aggie inspired me to create this blog and her Wikipedia page on December 12, 2012.  Aggie loved the newspaper business as much as I love writing for the blog and connecting with all of you.

Aggie hoists a brew.

Deranged L.A. Crime readers are an impressive group. They include current and former law enforcement professionals, crime geeks (like me), and the victims of violent crime.  I have even been contacted by a serial rapist (a despicable scumbag).

Each December I reflect on the year that is ending and make plans for Deranged L.A. Crimes. In 2020, the blog’s reach will extend to encompass all of Southern California, which includes the following counties: Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Kern, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Imperial.

I look forward to new stories, personalities and challenges.

Please join me as we enter the Roaring Twenties.  This time, no Prohibition.

Four women line up along a wall and chug bottles of liquor in the 1920s.
Image by © Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis

Death of a Latin Lover, Conclusion

From the moment they entered the case, LAPD kept mum about the weapon used to batter Ramon Novarro to death.  However, at trial the prosecution revealed the sad fact that Ramon was beaten with a cane, a memento from one of his films.  It couldn’t have been more personal, nor more poignant.

Deputy District Attorney James Ideman said he intended to show that Paul and Thomas Ferguson tortured Ramon to death while trying to find out where he hid his money. Ideman described how the 69-year-old former film heartthrob was beaten and then taken into a shower and revived so he could be questioned further.

The seven man, five woman jury listened to Ideman’s description of Ramon’s violent end at the hands of the young hustlers who accepted his hospitality, and then left him on his bed with his hands tied behind him, to drown in his own blood.

Photograph caption dated July 28, 1969 reads, “Paul Robert Ferguson confers with attorneys at opening of murder trial. Richard Walton, left, and Dorothy Montoya represented accused at beginning of jury selection.” [Photo & caption courtesy LAPL]

Forever in need of money, Paul telephoned Ramon on the day of the murder and introduced himself as a relative of Ramon’s acquaintance, Larry (Paul’s brother-in-law).  Paul arranged to see Ramon that evening. He arrived with his brother Thomas and following dinner and drinks they demanded money.  Ramon was wealthy, but never kept large sums at home, in fact, that night he had $45 in his wallet.

The prosecution’s case hinged on three points: (1) fingerprints, (2) the fact that it was impossible for Ramon to have written the name “Larry” with his hands tied and (3) Thomas’ telephone call to his girlfriend in Chicago from Ramon’s house.

As far as anyone could tell, the brothers intended to blame each other for Ramon’s murder.  The main points in their strategy were: (1) blame the other brother and (2) mental illness.

Lawyer Cletus Hanifin, right, with murder suspects Tom (left) and Paul Ferguson. Photograph dated September 25, 1969. [Photo & caption courtesy LAPL]

Victor Nichols, a real estate investor and friend of Paul’s, testified that Paul and Thomas came to his Hollywood apartment after midnight on October 31.  They weren’t trick-or-treating, they were in trouble. According to Victor, Paul said: “Vic, I’d like to see you . . . we are in some trouble. Tom hit Ramon . . . Ramon is dead.”

Victor gave Paul a cup of coffee to sober him up as Tom slept on the sofa.  Victor’s guests made him nervous. He didn’t want to be involved in a murder.  After Paul finished his coffee, Victor suggested he awaken Tom and leave.  When Victor asked, “How could you do such a thing?”  Thomas replied: “I hit him several times very hard and he is dead.”

Victor gave them $8 for cab fare and sent them on their way.

Paul took the stand and gave his version of the night of the murder.  He said he went into Ramon’s bedroom and found him lying on the floor. He was covered in blood and his hands were tied behind him.  “I touched him on the shoulder.  He felt starchy . . . tight, like paper . . . “, said Paul.

From his chair at the defense table, Thomas starred daggers at his brother and shook his head as if he couldn’t believe the lies coming out of Paul’s mouth.

Paul claimed he wanted to phone the police, but Thomas vetoed the plan and suggested they stage a robbery. His attorney asked Paul why he would go along with Thomas’ plan, he answered, “Stupidness.”

Paul’s attorney asserted his client had no reason to kill Ramon because he thought the actor was a “nice guy”, and because Ramon said he might become a “superstar”.  Paul said, “He (Novarro) said I could be a young Burt Lancaster or another Clint Eastwood.”

By the time Ramon met the  Fergusons, Paul already had a minor career in the seedier side of show business.  He was a nude model, and may have appeared in porno films.  Ramon knew nothing about Paul’s career, but perhaps he saw a reflection of himself in the good looking younger man.

Paul Ferguson

The trial continued with the brothers blaming each other for the murder. Paul insisted he slept during the crime because he downed a fifth of vodka, some beer and tequila. Until Thomas awakened him and said, “This guy is dead” he was oblivious to Ramon’s screams and cries for help.  How did Paul take the news of Ramon’s death? He said he was “just plain sad.”  Thomas’ attorney asked Paul, “Why were you sad if you didn’t do it?”

Ramon in the tub.

“I was just sad because Ramon was dead . . . I had just had two weeks of bad luck and now I was thrown into this thing . . . I wanted to know why everything was happening,” Paul responded.

What was the bad luck plaguing Paul? His job sucked and his wife left him.  Small problems compared to a man’s life. Paul admitted under oath that he considered suicide rather than face trial, but he rejected the idea.  Asked why, Paul said, “I want to live.”

Neither Paul nor Thomas would admit to the murder, each blamed the other. There was some evidence to suggest Thomas was pressured by Paul and his mother to take the blame and he gave it a half-hearted try. As a juvenile he could not be sentenced to death.

On Wednesday, September 17, 1969, Paul and Thomas Ferguson faced the jury.  If the plan was to save Paul from the gas chamber, it worked. Paul and Thomas received life sentences for first degree murder.

Prison agreed with Paul. Maybe it provided the structured environment he lacked on the outside. He was on the prison’s radio station and found his voice through creative writing.  In 1975, he won a P.E.N. award for a short story, “Dream No Dreams.”

Thomas’ incarceration did not go well.  He was constantly in trouble and spent much of his time in solitary for attempted escapes and other infractions of prison rules.  It is easy to get drugs in prison, and Thomas got strung out on coke and glue.

Paul and Thomas never saw or spoke to each other again after they were released in 1976.

Parole wasn’t the start of a new life for either brother. Thomas was busted for rape in 1987. He spent four years in prison.  When he did not register as a sex offender he was busted again. On March 6, 2005, Thomas went to a Motel 6 and cut his throat. He didn’t leave a note.

By 2012, Paul was once again in prison. This time it was for rape. Unless he wins an appeal, he can look forward to 60 years in a Missouri prison.

 

Film Noir Friday: The Big Combo [1955]

big combo posterThe lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Visit our snack bar for a fizzy beverage and a big bag of popcorn. Tonight’s feature is THE BIG COMBO, starring Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Richard Donlevy, and Jean Wallace.

TCM says:

The Big Combo is a rather unique entry for its genre due to its frank sexuality, extreme sadism and John Alton’s stunning black and white cinematography that places the story in a world of shadows, spotlights and claustrophobic lighting schemes.

At the center of the story is Lt. Diamond (Cornel Wilde), a cynical cop who has become obsessed with arresting Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), the head of a powerful crime syndicate who has cleverly eluded the authorities for years. Diamond’s motivation, however, is clearly driven by his attraction to Brown’s blonde mistress, Susan (Jean Wallace, the wife of Cornel Wilde), a former socialite and once promising pianist whose relationship with Brown is a mixture of sexual dependency and masochism. Aiding Brown in his operation is Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), a defeated rival who now serves as his second-in-command, and a pair of hit men, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), who are inseparable, bound together by their blood lust.

 

Death of a Latin Lover, Part 2

Over 40 years had passed since Ramon’s star burned brightly in Hollywood’s firmament but during the 1950s and 1960s he was still working, mostly in character roles on TV.  His was a high-profile case and LAPD wanted it solved.  The department assigned two additional two-man teams of homicide investigators to work on the case.

While LAPD tugged on threads, they made results of Ramon’s autopsy public.  Someone bound Ramon with an electrical cord so there was no way for him to extricate himself and seek help. Ramon died as the result of “suffocation because of massive bleeding because of the fracture of the nose and laceration of the lips and mouth.”  He choked on his own blood.

In their coverage, newspapers omitted the vile message written in bold capital letters in brown eyebrow pencil on the bedroom mirror: US GIRLS ARE BETTER THAN FAGITS (sic faggots) .  Another clue,  made public, was the name LARRY written in ink on the bed sheet next to Ramon’s body. The ligatures around his wrists and ankles made it impossible for Ramon to write the name himself.  Was it a red herring planted by the killer?

Although it may have been an open secret in certain circles, Ramon kept his homosexuality under wraps for his entire career. There were dozens of good reasons for keeping his private life private – chief among them, state sodomy laws made gay relationships illegal.  It wasn’t until the 1970s that the laws were overturned.

It may have been the fear of exposure that led Ramon to numb himself with alcohol for decades. During the 1940s he was arrested for driving under the influence. Police found dozens of empty liquor bottles in the trash outside his home, which meant he forever grappled with his demons.

Ramon leaves jail after paying a fine for drunk driving. [Los Angeles Times, October 30, 1941]

Why the word “fagits” on his mirror?  Was the killer lashing out and that was the only insult he could think of to hurl at the dead man, or was he privy to Ramon’s secret life? At least that aspect of his life wasn’t splashed all over the front pages of the local newspapers. The reporters used the common subtext of the time, describing Ramon as a “lifelong bachelor.”  It wasn’t the same as blatantly outing him, but rather a nod and a wink to those who could read between the lines.

On November 3rd, mourners from all walks of life visited the Cunningham and O’Connor Mortuary, 850 W. Washington Blvd.  to pay their respects to the man who epitomized the glamor of a bygone age.

Just a few days following Ramon’s interment at the Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, police arrested two brothers for the brutal murder. Paul Robert Ferguson. 22, a housepainter and Thomas Scott Ferguson, 17, a recent run away from  the Midwest.

Paul Ferguson

The police possessed evidence implicating Paul and Thomas within a short time of the murder, but they kept quiet about it until they could make an arrest.  Lieutenant Jerry Lauritzen played it cagey when asked about the evidence, but it was thought fingerprints helped identify the suspects. Cops staked out an apartment in Gardena where the brothers were seen, but they never turned up.  Police caught up with them at a location in Bell Gardens and arrested them there.

Thomas Ferguson

Apart from clothing Paul and Thomas stole to replace the bloody garments they wore at the time of the murder; nothing was missing from Ramon’s house.  If nothing was taken, then what reason did they have to batter Ramon to death?

NEXT TIME:  The Ferguson brothers talk.

Film Noir Friday-Saturday Matinee: Pushover [1954]

PUSHOVER_1954

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Today’s feature is PUSHOVER [1954], starring Fred MacMurray, Phil Carey, and Kim Novak.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

A carefully planned bank heist by hoodlum Harry Wheeler and his partner leaves a policeman dead and $200,000 stolen. After the police investigation, headed by Lt. Carl Ekstrom, identifies Wheeler as the culprit, Eckstrom assigns detective Paul Sheridan to befriend Wheeler’s girl friend, Lona McLane, who has moved into an apartment in town. Paul stages a meeting with Lona and a powerful attraction develops between the two. Paul takes Lona to his apartment for the night, then spends the next several days with her.

 

 

BONUS CARTOON: HOLLYWOOD STEPS OUT [1941]

Film Noir Friday: Cry Danger [1951]

cry danger 1951

 Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is CRY DANGER starring Dick Powell and Rhonda Fleming.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

As he steps out of Los Angeles’ Union Station, ex-convict Rocky Mulloy, fresh from serving five years of a life sentence for robbery and murder, is greeted by Lt. Gus Cobb, the detective responsible for his incarceration. With Gus is Delong, the decorated, disabled Marine who provided Rocky with the alibi that finally freed him. The cynical Gus invites Rocky and Delong for a drink, and at the bar, Delong explains that, because he shipped out the day after the holdup, he was unaware that Rocky, with whom he and some other Marines had been drinking the night before, was in trouble.

 

Film Noir Friday: Footsteps in the Night [1957]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crime theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is FOOTSTEPS IN THE NIGHT [1957] starring Bill Elliott, Don Haggerty, Eleanore Tanin, and Douglas Dick.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Los Angeles police detectives Lt. Andy Doyle and Sgt. Mike Duncan are assigned to investigate the murder of Fred Horner, who has been strangled at the Sunset Villa Motel in West Hollywood. Horner’s body was found in the unit occupied by his neighbor, Henry Johnson, who is now missing. Dick Harris, the motel’s owner and manager, is convinced that Henry committed the murder as he had heard the two men arguing. Henry, a gambling addict, explains to his fiancée, Mary Raiken, that during a card game, he went into the kitchen to make some drinks and asked Horner to go to his unit for ice. When Henry emerged from the kitchen, he found Horner dead on the floor, panicked and ran away.

 

Film Noir Friday–Sunday Matinee: Naked Alibi [1954]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crime theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. This afternoon’s feature stars film noir greats Sterling Hayden and Gloria Grahame.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Questioned as a murder suspect, solid (but drunk) citizen Al Willis attacks his police questioners, is beaten, and swears vengeance against them. Next night, Lieut. Parks is murdered; Willis is the only suspect in the eyes of tough Chief Conroy, who pursues him doggedly despite lack of evidence. The obsessed Conroy is dismissed from the force, but continues to harass Willis, who flees to a sleazy town on the Mexican border. Of course, Conroy follows. But which is crazy, Conroy or Willis?

 

Phantom Sniper

August 29, 1951 — 10:30 p.m. 
Scrivner’s Chili Dog Stand
East Olympic and South Atlantic
East Los Angeles

Nina Bice, a 25-year-old divorced mother of three toddlers, was drinking coffee with her fiancee, William Hannah at the Scrivner Chili Dog Stand when William heard a loud crack.  He assumed it was kids playing with leftover fireworks from the 4th of July, or a car backfiring.  He turned toward Nina and found her slumped over, a bullet behind her right ear.  She was dead.

Over the next eight months a mysterious shooter, dubbed the Phantom Gunman by newspapers, shot and wounded four women and a girl in a crime spree that terrified locals.

Evan Charles Thomas. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

On April 16, 1952, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies arrested twenty-nine-year-old railroad switchman. He told detectives, “I’m glad it’s over, it’s been bothering me.”

He claimed he didn’t intend to kill Nina. Like a wild west sharpshooter he tried to shoot the coffee cup out of her hands, but he missed. Evan’s pregnant wife Hester went into hiding and filed for divorce. Her father told reporters, “We’re trying to be calm about this. While we’re ashamed, we’re trying to hold our heads high.“ A reported asked if Hester planned to stick by her husband, to which her father replied, “Stick by him? Do you think any reasonable person would?”

With a perverse sense of pride, Evan lead investigators on a tour of his assaults. He told them that after he purchased the .22 rifle he prowled in his car searching for attractive women. He was a coward, inept in social situations, and probably sexually impotent. To gratify his urges, he hid in the shadows and acted out with violence and he found it gave him an erotic charge.  Evan masturbated at the scenes of his crimes.  He described for investigators how, following an attack, he would circle around in his car and find a vantage point from where he could watch all that his actions had wrought while he pleasured himself.

Lois May Kreutzer [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC].

He led sheriffs to the Pico Rivera phone booth where, on August 27,  he shot Lois May Kreutzer, 21, in the back while she was called a doctor for her sick child. She was unaware of the cause of her pain and the seriousness of the wound. She believed a bee stung her, and she walked home.

Thomas took deputies to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Walter in Norwalk, where he shot through the front window on August 28, the night before he shot Nina.

The bizarre tour took detectives to Downey, where on October 16, Patricia Ellen Bryant, 10, suffered a gunshot to her arm (breaking the bone) as she waited for the school bus.  Patricia was reading a book in front of her house when the attack occurred. Her dad was furious and threatened to punch Evan if he ever got close enough.

Deputies accompanied Evan to Pico Rivera where, on November 23, he shot Irma Megrdle in her left thigh while she was gardening in her front yard.

In the city of Garvey, Evan took deputies to the spot where he hid himself when he shot Audrey Murdock in the right side while she was ironing. Even though she was in agony, Audrey left the house to seek help.  She was in the hospital for ten days and left with the bullet still her. The doctors could not safely remove the slug.

Evan visited the chili dog stand and took detectives to his hiding place in the nearby alley from where he took the fatal shot. As per his routine, he then drove around the block, staked out a prime vantage point, watched the excitement, and  masturbated.

Joan Frances Hilles points to the window where the bullet entered. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

The final stop on Evan’s tour of terror was to the home of his near neighbor Joan Frances Hilles’ home in Los Nietos.  Evan recently spent the evening with Joan socializing, drinking beer, and watching TV.  Five minutes after he left her, a bullet shattered the living room window and whizzed past Joan’s head.

Evan Charles Thomas demonstrates for Sheriff’s investigators from where he took the shot at Joan Hilles. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

The Hilles’ considered Evan a hick.  On the night of the attempt on her life, Joan let him hang out with her because he brought the beer. Soon after firing the shot, Evan called the Hilles’ home to ask if Joan was okay. His called begged the question, how did he find out about the incident so fast?

Unable to control his curiosity, he did one of the dumbest things a perpetrator can do, he visited the scene and pestered investigators with questions. Detectives suspect the person who attempts to insert him or herself into an investigation. Charles was interested to the point of being obnoxious, and it was his intense interest that lead to his arrest. As soon as investigators turned their attention to Thomas, and he confessed to Nina’s murder and confirmed his identity as the Phantom Sniper.

Evan Charles Thomas in court with his attorney, John Oliver. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

During Evan’s trial, County Jail physician Dr. Marcus Crahan offered his professional opinion of Charles. He described him as a low-grade moron who was  fired from one job because he couldn’t use a cash register.  The Post Office let Evan go after he crashed his mail truck in 1948. Crahan told the court that Evan was a subnormal every man–a guy who watched wrestling on TV, drank too much when he fought with his wife, lusted after other women but was too shy to do anything about it, and argued with his in-laws.  Crahan’s description fit thousands of men in the early 1950s; however, the crucial difference between Evan and other men was he focused his frustrations in an anti-social direction.

Psychiatrist Dr. Edwin Ewart McNeil examined Evan and declared him sane. The primary reason for his diagnosis made sense.  Charles told him his overwhelming emotion before, during, and after the shootings was abject terror.

Evan Charles Thomas following his conviction for murder. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

The jury found Evan guilty of Nina Bice’s murder and sentenced him to die in the gas chamber.  The district attorney set aside six charges of attempted murder. Prosecutors were hedging their bets. In the unlikely event Evan slipped through a legal loophole on Nina’s murder, he had multiple charges waiting to be filed.

Death penalty cases are automatically entitled to an appeal. Evan’s appeal revealed a jury made up of other subnormals. The defense attorneys based the appeal on the jurors’ inability to grasp the concept of lying in wait. The jurors actually believed a killer had to be prone on the ground when he fired.   The court denied the appeal.

The original Phantom Gunman was on death row, but a copycat popped up in July 1952 when several women were shot and wounded in the San Gabriel.

Evan Charles Thomas on his way to San Quentin to be executed for murder. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

January 29, 1954.  The State of California executed Evan Charles Thomas in the gas chamber at San Quentin for Nina Bice’s murder. His mother, in Akron, Ohio, told the press she blamed the Air Force for her son’s problems. She said, “They teach them how to use a gun, and when they get out and get into trouble, they do nothing to help.”

In a dreadful postscript, in September 1955, Nina Bice’s ex-husband Emory Bice, the father of her three children, was crossing a street in East Los Angeles when he was hit by a hit-and-run driver and killed. He left a young widow, Kathleen, to care for his three kids with Nina, and their two children together.

NOTE:  Thanks to Robert Harrison, a Deranged L.A. Crimes reader, who reminded me about this story.

Unhappy Holidays

The holidays are a time for family, and Sarah Marquez and her two-year-old son, Eric,  were looking forward to Christmas 1953 with more enthusiasm than ever.  Eric was too young to recall his parents ever living together, they separated when he was an infant, but if all went well on December 18th, the family would be reunited.

December 18th came—Sarah gathered up Eric and they left her parents home at 208 West 97th Street to join her husband Reginald at his apartment at 15732 ½ Paramount Boulevard. Sarah and Reginald filled their arms with tree ornaments, toy trains and other gifts designed to make Eric giddy with delight.

The get-together went well at first, then Reginald began drinking. Beer cans and liquor bottles piled up on the floor and Reginald’s mood turned ugly. Sarah tried to salvage the day, but it was impossible to reason with her husband. Unable to take Reginald’s bad temper any longer, Sarah drew Eric to her and demanded Reginald take them back to her parents’ home.

When they arrived at her door Reginald forced his way in and grabbed a knife from the kitchen. He waved the knife around and made threats terrifying enough to send her running for the bathroom.  She locked the door and waited for him to go.

Reginald refused to leave.  Instead he calmed and persuaded Sarah to come out so they could patch things up.  The attempt at reconciliation lasted only until Reginald saw a photograph of Sarah with another man, a mutual friend of theirs. The photo was taken during the period of their separation, but Reginald was not mollified. He became abusive and tore the photo into shreds.  He grabbed another knife and chased her around the house threatening to kill her. Sarah ran for the bedroom and slammed the door shut behind her.  In a blind rage, Reginald beat his fists against the door and then broke the knife against it.  He managed to force the door open and they took their struggle to the living room sofa.

In desperation Sarah grabbed at the cushions.  She fumbled around and found the .32 caliber automatic pistol Reginald gave her when he returned from the war. She fired six shots. Two of the slugs smashed into Reginald’s stomach and killed him. The other four rounds ricocheted around the room, fortunately none of them struck Eric who cowered in his crib.

Police from the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Division took Sarah to jail.

Eric’s maternal grandparents took Eric. The little boy had a lot of questions his grandparents didn’t want to answer, so they let him open his presents a few days early.

NOTE:  The Los Angeles Times did not report any further on the case. It is likely that Reginald’s death was considered self-defense.