The Love Poisoner, Part 2

Joyce found Richard peering into her refrigerator and he seemed startled when she spoke to him. She couldn’t tell what, if anything, he was doing, but she wasn’t particularly alarmed. Richard visited Joyce and Robert so often that it wasn’t surprising to find him searching the fridge for a snack.

The refrigerator incident took on a more ominous aspect when Joyce and Robert began to notice a “funny taste” in the water and milk they kept in the refrigerator. Then they recalled how ill Robert had become after he and Joyce had paid a visit to Richard at the Caltech campus. They didn’t want to think the worst of Richard, but it was getting harder to believe the best.

joyce_robert_picJoyce and Robert went to the L.A. County Sheriff’s substation and told the deputies of their suspicions. They even brought a bottle of milk with them that they were afraid may have been tainted. Sure enough, an examination of the contents of the milk bottle proved that it had been tampered with. On February 6, 1953, Sergeant Bert Wood and Detective A.S. Martin sent the Haydens out for the evening and then waited in the dark outside the Hayden home to see if Richard LaForce would turn up. He did.

The door to Joyce and Robert’s home was routinely left unlocked (hey, it was Downey in 1953 and people did that in those days). The two cops watched Richard let himself in and then waited for him to come out. Sergeant. Wood and Detective Martin stopped Richard as he exited the Hayden home and found two half-pint bottles of arsenic trioxide in his possession–enough poison, said one investigator, “to kill off a whole town.”

Richard quickly admitted that he had put some of the arsenic into a water bottle in the fridge. When asked if he was trying to kill both Joyce and Robert, Richard said no–he knew that Robert was the only one to drink from that bottle. He also confessed to poisoning Robert’s soft drink at Caltech and said that he had tried at least five times over several weeks to bump off Robert. On one occasion he had poured cyanide into the water bottle. Why had he been tried to poison his friend? He said: “I have always wanted Joyce for my wife and I felt that if my plan to poison Bob was successful, I would have a chance with her.” He continued: “I’ve never been out with any other girl–she’s the only one I loved.” Richard said he had chosen poison to kill Robert “Because of its convenience.” He was able to acquire the poisons at school. He admitted that “It could have been done in a more perfect way, but I got to the point where I had to do something.”richard-indicted-headline-pic3

What made Richard think that he had a chance with Joyce at all? According to Richard he had visited Joyce many times in her home during times when Robert was away. He told investigators that he and Joyce had taken long car rides and walks. During their time together Richard said he and Joyce “talked a lot about love and marriage.”

On February 10, 1953, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury indicted Richard on two counts of poisoning with intent to kill.  Each count carried a possible sentence of from 10 years to life in prison. Joyce and Robert told reporters that they bore their former friend no ill will for his  attempts to poison Robert. They felt sorry for him.

richard-indicted-headline-pic2Richard was examined by psychiatrists Dr. Frederick J. Hacker and Dr. John A. Mitchell. The doctors said they found indications of “a beginning thinking disorder in the direction schizophrenia.” According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness “schizophrenia can occur at any age, the average age of onset tends to be in the late teens to the early 20s for men.” Was Richard schizophrenic? The doctors didn’t offer a firm diagnosis and, despite their concerns, they declared that Richard was sane at the time of the poisonings and was sane enough to stand trial. Interestingly, Dr. Hacker said that Richard told him he “wanted to take suspicion of poisoning attempts from Joyce.” Was Richard falling on his sword to protect his lady love, or was his statement a calculated move to shift blame to Joyce? Was there any truth to the statement?

By the time his trial began in late April 1953, Richard had claimed that he and Joyce had been conducting a love affair.  In fact, he figured that her unborn child had an 80% chance of being his and not Robert’s. How Robert arrived at the 80% calculation isn’t clear but that hardly mattered. His possible paternity of Joyce’s child was a bombshell.  In, 1953 when DNA tests were decades in the future, a blood test could rule a person in or out but that was it.

Joyce vehemently denied that she was romantically involved with Richard. But rumors began to surface that Richard had kept over a dozen love letters written to him by Joyce while she and Robert were in Alaska.  If the love letters actually existed they could turn the whole case inside-out.

NEXT TIME:  The love poisoner case takes a few more twists and turns before coming to an end.