Happy Birthday to Aggie Underwood and Deranged L.A. Crimes

aggie_scene-landon-murder-1946_lasd-photo_crop

Aggie at a crime scene in the 1940s.

Aggie Underwood was born on December 17, 1902 and Deranged L.A. Crimes was born on December 17, 2016, so there’s a lot to celebrate today. We have so many candles on our birthday cake it will take a gale force wind to blow them all out.

It was Aggie’s career as a Los Angeles journalist that inspired me to begin this blog.  She began her career as a temporary switchboard operator at the Daily Record in late 1926.. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she described the Record’s newsroom as a “weird wonderland” and promptly fell in love with the newspaper business. It didn’t take her long to realize that she wanted to be a reporter and she pursued her goal with passion and commitment.

During a time when most female journalists were assigned to report on women’s club activities and other social events, Aggie covered most, if not all, of the most important crime stories of the day. She attended Thelma Todd’s autopsy in December 1935 and was the only Los Angeles reporter to score a byline in the Black Dahlia case in January 1947.

Like Aggie, I’ve become obsessed with the villains and victims in Los Angeles. The stories touch me as often as they frighten and repulse me. I want to understand why people do the things they do, and sometimes I feel like I get close. I don’t expect to ever completely answer that question–but the quest is a rewarding one.

Whether you are new to the blog or have been following Deranged L.A. Crimes for a while, I want to thank you sincerely for your readership.

There will be many more stories in 2017 and a few appearances too. I will keep you posted.

Joan

30 More Years of Crime in L.A.

When I  began this blog in December 2012, I arbitrarily chose to examine crime in Los Angeles during the years from 1900 to 1970.  Now, however, I think it is time to expand the purview to include the decades of 1970, 1980 and 1990 to encompass all of the last century. In terms of crime in the City of Angels, the last three decades of the 20th Century are enormously interesting.

The 1970s have been called one of the most violent decades in U.S. history. Homicide rates climbed at an alarming rate and people felt increasingly vulnerable.

dirtyharry

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

Hollywood contributed to popular culture, and helped fuel the debate on crime and punishment, with a slew of vigilante films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish. The films  showed bad guys being blown away by impressively large weapons.  It was cathartic, but not terribly realistic.

It was during the ’70s that the bogeyman got a new name when FBI Investigator Robert Ressler coined the term “serial killer”.

In 1978 convicted rapist and registered sex offender, Rodney Alcala, appeared on the Dating Game. Why wasn’t he more thoroughly vetted by the show’s producers? I have no idea. Even more astounding than his appearance was the fact that he won! The bachelorette who selected Rodney ultimately declined to go out with him–she found him “creepy”. He’s currently on California’s death row and is believed to have committed as many as 50 murders.

ramirez_108a

Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, flashes a pentagram on his palm.

Some people joined cults where they banded together with like-minded folks for spiritual comfort and to retreat from the scary world-at-large. But there is not always safety in numbers, and evil can assume many guises. In 1978, over 900 members of the People’s Temple died in a mass suicide commanded by their leader, Jim Jones. The group was living in Guyana when they drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The People’s Temple may have been founded in Indiana, but like so many other cults before them they established a presence in L.A.

Jim Jones of the People's Temple

Jim Jones of the People’s Temple

A crack cocaine epidemic swept the country in the early 1980s.  It decimated communities and cost many people their lives. Crack  was inexpensive, easily accessible, and even more addictive than regular cocaine.

The 1980s gave rise to a “satanic panic” which resulted in some of most bizarre prosecutions we’ve seen in this country since the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s. The McMartin Preschool abuse trial was the most costly ($15 million) ever in the U.S. and resulted, rightfully I believe, in no convictions.

Surprisingly, there was a decline in crime during the 1990s, and it has been attributed to a variety of factors including: increased incarceration; increased numbers of police, growth in income; decreased unemployment, decreased alcohol consumption, and even the unleading of gasoline (due to the Clean Air Act). Despite the decline, there was still enough murder and mayhem to make us uneasy.

oj-simpson-murdeHere in L.A. there was the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, the so-called Trial of the Century. If you remove fame, wealth, and race and reduce the crime to its basic elements you end up with nothing more than a tragic domestic homicide–the type of crime which is altogether too common everywhere–yet the case continues to fascinate.

Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam, made news in 1993. At her pandering trial actor Charlie Sheen divulged that he had spent in excess of $53,000 for services rendered by Heidi’s girls.

Please join me as I explore the entirety of 20th Century crime in Los Angeles.

Joan

 

 

 

Shootout at the Selma Hotel, Conclusion

shirt clueAccording to the attorneys for Tom Bay and Ed “Red” Carmichael, the red shirt that James “Yakima Jim” Anson died in was going to clear their clients of murder.  The shirt would supposedly show that there had been a terrific battle prior to the shooting, thus clearing Tom and Red of a cold-blooded slaying. Unfortunately,  the shirt had disappeared.

On August 26, 1925 a telegram originating from Shosone, Idaho cleared up the mystery of the red shirt. It wasn’t lost and the cops hadn’t concealed it, it had accompanied Yakima’s body to Idaho where it was burned.

Tom and Red’s preliminary hearing lasted for several weeks. At the end of it only Tom was held to answer for Yakima’s murder. Justice Russell released Red, apparently believing the man’s story that he’d been out of the room when the fatal shot was fired. Even though Red had left Yakima’s room for a short time he seemed to know that Tom had produced a revolver, faced Yakima, and said: “Now I’ve got you just where I want you.” He said he heard a scuffle and then a shot. He ran back into the room in time to see Tom escape out the hotel window.jury baffled

As a Hollywood cowboy Tom spent much less time on a horse than he did with a cocktail glass in his hand. His wife Pearl testified that whenever he came home drunk, which was often, he would attempt to crawl under a chiffonier that was only six inches from the floor.  On the day that Yakima was shot Tom came home and again tried to hide under the furniture. Pearl intervened, and then she listened as he told her a garbled tale of Yakima’s shooting. Pearl said: “He told me there had been a shooting and that Anson was badly hurt, but I got the impression he had shot himself. Tom didn’t say anything about having shot him and didn’t seem to know who had.”

Tom Bay c. 1931

Tom Bay c. 1931

When Tom took the stand in Judge Kectch’s court he offered his version of Yakima’s death. He readily admitted that he’d been drinking, but he claimed there were several other men in the  hotel room–which didn’t square with Red’s account. Tom said that Yakima had drawn the gun and started waving it around. It was during a struggle for possession of the weapon that it discharged. Yakima staggered back against the wall and slowly slid into a sitting position on the floor. According to Tom, Red came back into the room (he’d been in the bathroom) and told the wounded man to “snap out of it” and “the cops might come because that gun went off.” Rather than wait for the cops, or check to see if Yakima was okay,  Tom crawled through an open window and dropped to the sidewalk–leaving Red to face the music. Red picked up the revolver, realized it was his, and headed for the door. He didn’t even get out of the hotel before the cops took him into custody. Tom was picked up later.

tom freedThroughout the trial Tom maintained that he didn’t know that Yakima had been shot when he fled from the room. For me that stretches the bounds of credibility, but evidently the jury bought the story because following twenty hours of deliberation they acquitted him. Dozens of men in high-heeled boots, holding ten-gallon hats, and grinning swarmed Tom and slapped him on the back in congratulations.

There are several unanswered questions in this case. Who brought Red’s gun to the room, and why? It seems likely that Tom had somehow managed to get his hands on the weapon and, in his inebriated condition, thought he’d scare an apology out of Yakima for making rude comments about Pearl. Did the gun go off accidentally as Tom insisted or was he drunk enough to pull the trigger in anger?tragedy

We’ll never know for sure and all that matters is the jury’s decision. However if you believe, as I do, that Tom was at the least guilty of involuntary manslaughter then you’ll be interested to know how he fared following his acquittal.

In May 1931, Pearl sued Tom for divorce. She said that she had sold her piano and car to pay for his attorneys; however, he was not only ungrateful, he treated her badly. He was physically and emotionally abusive and he cheated on her over and over. Pearl had discovered love letters and overheard Tom talking to another woman on the phone in a tone of voice that went beyond friendly. To buttress her case Pearl produced a handful of letters written by a woman living in Deadwood, South Dakota. They were torrid enough to have courtroom spectators on the edge of their seats. Pearl won her divorce. Tom continued his film career. He appeared, mostly uncredited,  either as a stunt double or as a heavy in popular horse operas into the early 1930s.

Mary Frances Miller

On October 11, 1933, actress Mary Frances Miles received a telephone call from her friend Alta Lessert. Alta said she and her live-in lover, cowboy actor Tom Bay, had been fighting. Alta may have been looking for moral support or a referee–in any case Mary went to help. She arrived at Alta and Tom’s house at 602 North Lincoln Boulevard, Burbank and tried to keep the peace. She thought she had succeeded in getting the combative couple to calm down–she saw them embrace and kiss–but moments later she heard a gunshot.

Alta ran from the living room to the bedroom.  Alta was standing with a gun in her hand  Tom’s back was to her and he had his hands raised above his head. Alta fired another shot and Tom fell to the floor.

Mary ran from the house to phone the police. On her way to get help she passed the bedroom window. She looked in and saw Alta hold the muzzle of the gun against her breast and fired twice. She collapsed on the floor beside the dead cowboy. lessert_mailbox

Tom died at the scene, a bullet through his heart. Alta’s ribs deflected the bullets and she survived to stand trial for his murder. She claimed self-defense. Tom had been violent with her before and the day he died he had been drinking heavily and threatened to kill her. She had grabbed the gun before he could reach it and fired. Several character witnesses testified on Alta’s behalf–most of them were cowboy actors: Buck Bucko, Roy Bucko, Jack Castle, and Jack Padjan. The men said Tom was a known troublemaker.

The jury deadlocked 6 to 6. The D.A. wanted to re-try Alta, but Judge Fricke dismissed the murder charge saying that he didn’t believe a conviction was possible.

Just as Tom had done nine years earlier, Alta walked out of court a free woman.

Shootout at the Selma Hotel-Part 2

Movie cowboy James (Yakima Jim) Anson was shot to death at the Selma Hotel in Hollywood on August 9, 1925; and the shooter was either Tom Bay or Edward (Red) Carmichael. Because each of the suspects was pointing his finger at the other, no one was sure which of the men had actually pulled the trigger.

SELMA SHOOTOUT1On August 11, 1925 the Coroner’s Jury heard testimony from a number of witnesses. Among them was LAPD Detective Lieutenant Clark who stated that following his arrest Bay told him: “I was passing the Selma Yotel and Yakima Jim called me up. I went into his room and found him there with a gun in his lap. I saw two or three fellows there. I asked Yakima, ‘What’s the trouble?’ and Yakima said, ‘You know what’s the trouble.’ I saw he was shot and thought I was being framed on, so I got out.” The scenario was at odds with Carmichael’s version which had he and Bay visiting Yakima’s room together–no one else was there when they arrived. According to Carmichael he had stepped out of the room for a moment leaving Bay and Yakima alone. He was certain he’d heard Yakima say. “Put down the gun.” Carmichael returned to the room when he heard a shot and saw Bay climbing out of the hotel window. Yakima was still alive and there was a gun on the floor. Carmichael recognized it as his own weapon. He didn’t know how it had come to be there so he picked it up and was about to leave the room when police arrived. The cops were conveniently next door at the Hollywood Station.SELMA SHOOTOUT2

E.D. Musselman, another cinema cowpoke and a roomer in Bay’s home, testified that Bay arrived home at 4 p.m. on the day of the shooting and he was completely soused. Musselman said Bay was so drunk he was barely able to talk and muttered something unintelligible about Yakima Jim being hurt.

An intriguing piece of the puzzle was supplied by A.J. Antela, a Hollywood jail trusty, who testified that he found $340 in bills on the ground beneath Anson’s window. The money was important was because Bay complained of losing $440 in denominations matching the found money, so it lent credibility to Carmichael’s version of events. The inquest panel never heard the theory that the shooting was tied to Bay’s failed attempt to borrow money from Yakima; nor did they hear that Yakima had allegedly said some nasty things about Bay’s wife.

bay wife picIn his testimony Detective Lieutenant Clark stated that Yakima Jim revealed that he had been shot by “Tom Bay with Red Carmichael’s gun.” Generally a dying declaration is given a lot of weight, and this one was pretty damned clear, yet the jury couldn’t reach a conclusion. They returned with a open verdict–meaning they couldn’t affix blame to either Bay or Carmichael and settled for accusing “some party or parties unknown.”

A couple of days following the inquest Bay and Carmichael were in front of Judge Russell for arraignment. The Coroner’s jury was unable to name the shooter so it was going to be up to a judge and/or jury to try to figure it out.

The defendants’ attorneys, Phillips and Kendall, excoriated the cops for failing to produce the ragged, bloody shirt worn by Yakima when he was shot to death. The defense contended that the shirt would show that Yakima was shot during a struggle–not murdered in cold blood. Attorney Kendall shouted at the prosecution: “You have brought everything connected with the case into court, but you didn’t bring the shirt. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because it shows evidence of a terrific struggle having taken place before Jim was killed, evidence that will exonerate these defendants of the charge of murder.”

The judge postponed the hearing to give everyone an opportunity to deal with the mystery of the missing shirt. Bay and Carmichael were handcuffed to each other to be returned to lock-up. As they were being led from the courtroom Bay’s sobbing wife rushed to his side begging that cops: “Handcuff me to him and take me to jail.” The officers declined.

Was evidence that might clear Bay and Carmichael being deliberately withheld? The hunt for the red shirt was on.

NEXT TIME: Sorting out the shooter. The red shirt mystery solved.

Shootout at the Selma Hotel

There was a time when Los Angeles was a wild west outpost. Cowboys rode into town and got into trouble. They drank too much, chased women, and often drew a gun without contemplating the consequences. But by 1925 the city was modern and civilized, after a fashion, and the only cowpokes to be seen were likely on their way to a movie studio for a day of dress-up and make believe.

On August 9, 1925 Edward “Red” Carmichael and Thomas Bay, both movie cowboys, called on another film cowpoke, James Anson (aka Yakima Jim), at his hotel room. The Selma Hotel was adjacent to the LAPD’s Hollywood station.

LAPD's Hollywood Station.  [Photo courtesy of LAPL

LAPD’s Hollywood Station. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Anson, Bay, and Carmichael may have been in the movies but they were more than rhinestone cowboys–they had credibility. Yakima Jim was from the Yakima Reservation in Washington, and Red was a range rider from Texas. Bay was a western showman who hailed from Oklahoma.

Famous Players Lasky [Photo found at http://www.hollywoodlegends.net/paramount.html]

Famous Players Lasky [Photo found at http://www.hollywoodlegends.net/paramount.html]

The three men had recently worked together at the Famous Players-Lasky ranch on a picture, The Pony Express, directed by James Cruze. There had been some discord–Bay intended to confront his fellow movie buckaroo about some nasty remarks Yakima had allegedly made about Bay’s wife.

PONY EXPRESSAll three men had been drinking and the confrontation went from verbal to violent in short order. At least one gunshot was were heard and a man was seen jumping from a second-story window at the rear of the hotel. It wasn’t known who had fired the shot nor was the identity of the jumper known until LAPD Detectives arrived at the scene.

Yakima was conscious but in bad shape. One shot had entered his body under his right arm pit, traveled through both lungs and then exited under his left arm. He was immediately transported to the Receiving hospital. When Detectives questioned him he said that Bay had shot him. When asked why Yakima said that the man was “…just trying to be tough, I guess.”

Detectives brought Bay and Carmichael in for questioning. Bay clammed up. Mrs. Bay appeared at the police station and gave a statement in which she said that the disagreement between her husband and Yakima was about money. Yakima had asked Bay to loan him $25. Mrs. Bay nixed the plan, evidently believing that Yakima was a bad risk. Yakima didn’t take the rejection well at all; he supposedly said to Anson: “You wouldn’t let that bitch tell you what do to, would you?” It was not surprising that Mrs. Bay supported her husband’s story–but what was Red’s role in the shooting?

Red claimed not to know the nature of the beef between Yakima and Bay. He said he’d left the hotel room for a moment but the crack of a gunshot brought him back in a hurry. He witnessed Bay jumping out of the window of the room and saw Yakima on the floor bleeding. He said he was very surprised to see his own gun, which he thought was in one of his suitcases, on the floor. Was Red telling the truth? Bay denied shooting Yakima and waggled his j’accuse finger squarely at Red.

SELMA SHOOTOUT1While cops weren’t looking Bay climbed out of a window at the Hollywood Police Station shimmied down a small pipe and fled. Fifty officers were immediately dispatched to find him. He was recaptured in Whitley Heights in the Hollywood foothills. His escape was a dumb move but it wasn’t the worst of his problems–Yakima had died in the Receiving Hospital.

Now it was murder case. But who was the shooter?

NEXT TIME: Sorting out the facts in the Selma Hotel shootout.

Dog Spelled Backwards, Conclusion

clarke_arraigned_pichim in all sorts of schemes, most of which smacked of extortion. The cops thought that the scams were primarily small ones, until they uncovered evidence that John was attempting to merge several cults into a “spiritualist trust”. Among the plans he had for the trust were: Mexican distilleries, deals in bat guano, and investments in copper mines and oil stocks.  He planned to operate the trust out of a home offered for sale by Mrs. Dorothy Parry. John represented himself to Dorothy as the agent for a purchaser who could afford the asking price of $70,000 (equivalent to nearly $10M in 2016 dollars). But rather than putting Dorothy together with a buyer, John bombarded her with letters and poems. Dorothy told investigators: “The man’s persistence was so annoying that I had to move and asked my hotel not to give my forwarding address. But somehow Clarke managed to obtain it and followed me to this address. As the result of his visits I have been afraid to answer the door bell or go to the telephone.”

While continuing to pursue Dorothy, John was able to convince several more women to sign “soul contracts.” Helen Isabelle McGee’s contract read in part: “I agree with John Bertrum Clarke to enter with him into a higher spiritual development for at least two years. I will do everything possible to permit him to restore my full youth…and will be guided by him in both objective and subjective…”

love pirate caseSoul contracts and shady real estate deals were bad enough, but what about the  possibility that John had been involved in the suspicious deaths of two women with whom he had been involved?

The first death was that of John’s former housekeeper. Her body was found in the lake at Westlake Park across the street from the apartment John occupied at the time. Shortly before her death the unnamed woman had deeded a piece of property she owned in Ventura to John. He was questioned but subsequently released.

The second death was that of a 22-year-old girl. She was a student of the occult and at the time of her death she was helping John sell his books. It was rumored that the two had been lovers. She shot herself while in the vestibule of a local church–allegedly she was despondent over ill health. If John had played any part in her death it was never proved.

John flatly denied any knowledge of the drowned girl: “There is nothing to that story,” he said. According to him the story had originated at Patton State Hospital where he had been an inmate in 1920. He told investigators that the basis of the story was a play on his name. John explained that if you eliminated the first and fourth letters of his surname you were left with the word “lake”. Hmm. Really?

The hospital, originally known as Southern California Hospital for Insane and Inebriates, first opened its doors in 1893. Exactly why John had been confined in the hospital isn’t clear. At that time, and for many years after, it was a place where the seriously ill, or the seriously inconvenient, were confined. But he could have been there for any one of a number of issues–the place housed people suffering from mental disorders as well as physical ailments, specifically syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

John’s immediate problem, and the one for which he was in legal trouble up to his eyeballs, was the contributing charge. He came face-to-face with Clara Tautrim and her mother, Caroline, in the anteroom of the District Attorney’s office. They, along with Cecyle Duncan, had given their statements to D.A. Buron Fitts and Deputy D.A. Joos. John didn’t appear to be distressed by the presence of his accusers. In fact when they left he turned to Detective Berenzweig and said: “Give me credit for picking good looking ones.”

Only Clara Irene Berry seemed to be upset. Clara admitted that she’d been a party to luring the Tautrim girl to John’s apartment, but she denied knowledge of John’s real intentions.

D.A. Fitts questioned John, but the accused couldn’t be persuaded to stay on topic. When he was asked how many women he’d had love affairs with he said: “Most of them didn’t keep their dates, but when they didn’t show up I went out and got another. What I wanted to do was get a wife. I didn’t care if I had to marry her sixteen times. I wanted to transfer over to her my patents which will soon be in use by the government and which will bring me in $3000 a day.” John was returned to his jail cell.

Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1924

Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1924

John had several days’ growth of beard and was wearing the same soiled white suit when, on July 22nd, he was arraigned on the contributing charge. Clara Berry was arraigned as his accomplice. When she heard the charges against her she cried out: “No, no!”

While John and Clara were held in the county jail, each on $5000 bond, Chief Deputy District Attorney Buron Fitts held a press conference. He said: “The arrest of John Bertrum Clarke, ex-convict and former inmate of the asylum at Patton, undoubtedly removed a grave menace to the safety of the womanhood of Los Angeles. Under the guise of a minister of the Church of Cosmic Truth, Clarke planned in a systematic manner to prey on the girls and women of the city, evidence in our hands indicates. Neither the grey-haired woman nor the girl in her teens was immune from the menace. His conviction on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor is of the utmost importance to this community, and anyone possessing information regarding the activities of the man should place it in our hands at the earliest possible moment. Detectives Berenzweig, Hoskins and Harris, as well as Captain Plummer and Lieutenant Littell of the vice squad, deserve the highest commendation for their clever and untiring efforts in bringing Clarke before the bar of justice. Men of Clarke’s stamp are as dangerous in every respect as the ‘bad man’ who seeks his victim with a gun. They are certainly not worthy the same respect.”

John’s sanity, or lack thereof, was to be determined by the Lunacy Commission (no, I didn’t make that up). They heard from Clara Tautrim who described her interactions with the so-called love-pirate. She told of his promises to make her a motion picture star, and she also told them about the time he had grabbed her and kissed on on the neck. An overture she didn’t appreciate.

A doctor who had examined John testified: “He has been quiet and cooperative, but talkative. He has an exalted opinion of himself. He said he has discovered an automatic alphabet which enables him to communicate with God. He told me he is one of the greatest spiritualists in the world. He boasted that he had saved 40,000 persons from becoming insane. He says that he has invented an automatic mail sorting machine that has a human mind, and that he wrote President Coolidge about it.”

Another doctor, named Carter, testified: “He (John) was in the Psychopathic Hospital in 1919. Then he was sent to Patton where he stayed one year. His present actions indicate that he did not thoroughly recover at Patton from hi mental illness. He has proven himself a menace to be at large regarding his annoyance of children and a menace to himself.”

“He is a thorough case of dementia praecox,” declared Dr. Allen.

John loudly reiterated his demand for a jury trial. However he was soon bound for the Patton Asylum where, on November 16, 1924, he picked the look on his door and escaped. LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department were keeping an eye on his usual haunts on the chance that he would return to the city. He never turned up.

In early April 1925 District Attorney Asa Keyes learned that John was in Reno; however there was no legal procedure in place to extradite an insane person.  John may not have realized it but the Lunacy Commission had done him a favor.  If he’d he gotten his wish of a jury trial he may have been found guilty and sentenced to prison. It would have been much more difficult to escape from San Quentin than it was from the Patton Hospital.

John was in the wind for months before being discovered in Reno. Several weeks after that he was under arrest in Seattle, Washington. Police Chief Severyns contacted the LAPD and District Attorney Keyes for advice.

The situation was the same as it had been when John had been found in Reno–he couldn’t be extradited. As long as John stayed away from Los Angeles he could continue to operate his crack-pot schemes and cons with impunity; at least until he ran afoul of the law elsewhere.

I’ve found copies of some of John’s writings, but I haven’t been able to track him any further than 1925. I’d love to know what happened to him. If anyone knows please share.

Jealousy and Gin

ruth maloneBy December 1927 twenty-three-year-old Ruth Malone had been in Los Angeles for about 4 months. She’d fled Aberdeen, Washington to escape her husband John, a jealous and violent drunk. She used her mother’s address at 244 North Belmont Avenue, but lived with a girl friend in an apartment at 9th and Flower. She kept the address of the apartment a secret just in case John tried to find her. She worked half a mile from the apartment at a drug store on East Twelfth between Santee Street and Maple Avenue. Ruth had spent the last few months seriously contemplating divorce but she wasn’t in any hurry to confront John.

It was 11 o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, December 7, 1927 and Ruth had started her work day when John turned up. She hadn’t even known he was in town. He was obviously drunk and made a scene. He wanted Ruth to come back to him, but she wasn’t interested in a reconciliation and John stormed out. He returned at noon and began to plead with Ruth.  Again she accused him of being drunk. He copped to it–in fact he said that he’d been drinking for three weeks straight and would stay drunk until Ruth agreed to come back to him. She refused. He pulled a revolver from his pocket. Ruth clocked it and made a dash for the rear of the store. Her escape route was cut off by some partitions–she was trapped. As twenty people watched John began firing and each shot hit its mark. Ruth was hit in the chest, face and hip. Satisfied that he’d killed her, John turned the gun on himself. One bullet entered his chest a few inches above his heart and then he raised the weapon to his head and fired.malone shooting in store

The police were called and when Detectives Lieutenants Hickey, Stevens and Condaffer, of the LAPD’s Central Station Homicide Squad arrived they found Ruth dead and John nearly so. Detective Hickey was shocked when John summoned the strength to say “I’m sorry I killed her, but give me a smoke before I croak, will you?” Hickey later said that even though John believed he was dying his first thought appeared to be of a cigarette. The detectives also found an incoherent note in John’s pocket, the ramblings of a man driven to murder by jealousy and gin.

malone_near deathInvestigators learned that John was 29-years-old and that he had an arrest record. He’d been busted in Oakland on October 10, 1917 on a burglary charge and later in San Francisco for violation of the State Poison Act (a drug charge). John had been in Los Angeles for a few weeks. He was staying at a hotel just a few blocks away from Ruth’s workplace.

As John lay in a bed in General Hospital fighting for his life, a Coroner’s jury charged him with Ruth’s slaying. If he lived he would be tried for her murder. Ruth was buried in Graceland Cemetery following a private funeral at Mead & Mead undertaking parlor.

It was touch and go for a few weeks but John pulled through and by February 1928 he was well enough to stand trial. L.V. Beaulieu, his court-appointed attorney, unsuccessfully attempted to use John’s three week long drinking spree as an excuse for the murder but the judge sustained the prosecution’s objections. Alcohol induced amnesia was a poor defense strategy. The jury quickly returned a guilty verdict with no recommendation for leniency. Under the law Judge Fricke had no alternative but to sentence John to be hanged. He was transported to San Quentin to await execution.malone_hickman2On March 20, 1928 John and several other death row inmates welcomed a newcomer to their ranks, William Edward Hickman. Hickman, who had given himself the nickname “The Fox” had been sentenced to death for the brutal mutilation murder of 12-year-old Marion Parker, a crime he had committed only ten days after John had killed Ruth. The two dead men walking had met in the Los Angeles County Jail while each was awaiting trial. John cornered Hickman on one occasion and blamed him for inciting the public to a renewed interest in capital punishment–resulting in his own date with the hangman.

malone_mug2John’s sentence was automatically appealed but the State Supreme Court upheld the death penalty. Judge Fricke re-sentenced John to hang. Unless something changed he would meet his end on December 7, exactly one year to the day since Ruth’s murder. John had evidently changed his mind about dying since his suicide attempt because he was part of a Thanksgiving escape plot that failed. To prevent him from any further attempts to tunnel out of San Quentin he was moved to the death cell.

As a condemned man, John’s final requests were honored. He was given a record player and listened repeatedly to “I Want to Go Where You Go” until it was time for him to climb the thirteen steps to the scaffold. One year before, just moments after killing Ruth, John’s first thought had been for a cigarette. Nothing had changed in the year since. John was still smoking as guards placed the black cap over his head. As he dropped he quipped: “Well boys, I got a run for this one.” The cigarette was jerked from his lips. Three witnesses, one of them a guard, fainted. John Joseph Malone was pronounced dead 12 minutes later.

Jealously and gin make a lethal cocktail.

Baby Borgia, Conclusion

alsa_4yrsoldRussell Thompson refused to believe that his daughter, 7-year-old Alsa, had poisoned anyone. Dr. Edwin Huntington Williams, a psychiatrist, was inclined to agree with him. The doctor examined Alsa and pronounced her abnormal but “…not exactly insane.” He said: “It might be that in periods of epilepsy she has done strange things but it will take much careful observation to determine what is wrong with her. I have made only a casual examination but will make a more detailed one with Dr. Martin G. Carter, superintendent of the Psychopathic Hospital, and Dr. G.H. Steele, assistant superintendent.”

Dr. Williams wasn’t alone in believing that epilepsy was an inherited mental defect that could result in criminal behavior. It was one of the conditions which some members of the medical community hoped to eradicate through involuntary sterilization and selective breeding. The social movement that endorsed such repugnant beliefs was known as Eugenics and was practiced in the United States for years before it became part of the Nazis plan to breed a race of Aryan Ubermensch (supermen).

Alsa was calm when she told Dr. Williams about the poisonings. She claimed that when she was a 4-year-old she had killed her twin siblings, and she had confessed to poisoning the food of the Platts family who had taken her and her younger sister in during their parents’ separation and divorce. She also confessed to killing Nettie Steele who had been her caretaker the previous year. Dr. Williams wasn’t convinced that Alsa was guilty of anything but an overactive imagination. About her stories he said: “There is no doubt that she believes them. Until we have checked up on heredity and the child’s history we will be unable to understand just what the trouble is.”

alsa_picPsychiatrists declared that Alsa was sane. Buron Fitts, the Chief Deputy District Attorney, didn’t seem to know what make of the girl. He said: “Frankly, I don’t know what to think. It’s the most extraordinary case I ever heard of. I don’t know whether to believe the child or not. Her stories sound improbable, but then there is the way she tells them. I just don’t what to think about it yet.”

Fitts wasn’t the only one confounded by Alsa’s confessions. The Lunacy Commission (no, I didn’t make that up), ruled that the child was mentally sick and bordering on insanity, but that she was not dangerously insane.

Claire finally spoke on her daughter’s behalf: “I do not believe Alsa’s story now. I suppose I have been impressionable, but Mrs. Platts was telling me these things all along and I usually believe the things people tell me.”

Dr. Paul Powers, an associate of members of the Lunacy Commission, spoke to reporters following the hearing. He said: “I think that half what the girl says is true and half false, but that her environment surely has not been the best.”

It was about time that the authorities looked into Alsa’s caretakers. It was Inez Platts who had charged Alsa with attempting to poison her family and no one seemed to have done anything other than take her word for it. During an interrogation Inez admitted that there was at least one night when Alsa was bound hand and foot.

The consensus was that both Alsa and Maxine would be better off away from the Platts’ home. Russell again expressed his belief in Alsa’s innocence: “My child will now be allowed to get the proper care and I am sure it is the best thing in the world for her. I think she is better away from the influences to which she has been subject, including her mother. I have nothing further to say. I will not capitalize in any way on my child.” Russell further denied earlier reports that he and Claire might reconcile. In fact he filed a petition in Juvenile Court asking that his youngest daughter, Maxine, be made a ward of the court until he could be granted full custody.

It was interesting that Russell included Claire as a negative influence in his daughters’ lives. The courts must have agreed with him because he was awarded custody of both Maxine and Alsa. In retrospect it seems obvious that Alsa’s unsettling confessions had been false—the product of twisted suggestions by an adult—but whether it was Claire or Inez it’s impossible to say.

Just because Alsa wasn’t really a Baby Borgia, doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as a killer kid. In May 1929, four years after Alsa made headlines in L.A., six-year-old Carl Newton Mahan was tried in eastern Kentucky for the murder of his friend, 8-year-old Cecil Van Hoose. The two had been out looking for scrap metal to sell. They fought over a piece of scrap and Cecil smacked Carl in the face with it. Carl shot Cecil to death with his father’s shotgun. He was sentenced to 15 years in reform school, but a judge issued a “writ of prohibition” which allowed him to remain free. There are other cases of kids who kill, but Alsa wasn’t one of them.

Alsa and Maxine must have been relieved when they moved to Orange County to live with Russell. As far as I can determine from census and other records once Alsa was away from the Platts’ and the influence of her mother she lived a normal life. She passed away in April 1994 at age 77.

Baby Borgia

borgia1On February 3, 1925 a bizarre story broke in the local news — it was alleged that seven year old Alsa Thompson had attempted to murder a family of four with a mixture of sulphuric acid and ant paste she had added to the evening meal. The intended victims tasted the food, but it was so awful they pushed their plates away.

Could a seven year old actually conceive of such a fiendish plan? Evidently the Platts family, with whom Alsa had been living following her parents’ separation, thought so. It was  also revealed that Alsa had taken the blade from a safety razor and slashed the wrists of her 5-year old sister, Maxine, with with whom she’d been playing.

borgia3Alsa was taken by Policewoman Elizabeth Feeley to the Receiving Hospital where she was questioned by police and surgeons about the poisoning plot. The little girl cheerfully confessed that she had indeed attempted a quadruple homicide and that she’d done it because: “…I am so mean.”

Inez Platts told the police that Alsa had come to live with the family in their home at 1540 1/2 McCadden Place, Hollywood, only two months before the poisoning incident. Alsa’s mother, Claire, worked in a downtown department store and her father, Russell, worked in Santa Ana. Apparently neither could manage custody of Alsa at the time. Inez said that ever since Alsa had arrived family members had fallen seriously ill and were under the care of their family physician. Mr. Platts had lost his voice and a couple of the children had suffered from mysterious pains.

Investigators spoke with anyone who had come in contact with Alsa and discovered that she was extremely gifted — she was already in the eighth grade. Her teachers described her as one of the best students they’d ever had, and added that she had never caused them any trouble in the classroom.

Alienists were baffled by Alsa, the doctors said that they had never before encountered a case of homicidal mania in a person so young, particularly when there was no apparent grudge against the victims.borgia2

Russell Thompson was vocal in defense of his daughter: “Alsa never poisoned any one.” When Russell was informed that Alsa had further confessed that as a 4 year old she had put ground glass into the food of her twin sisters and killed them, he said that the statement was absurd.

“The twins died when they were 2 years and 2 months of age. That was in Canada. We had two doctors and a nurse in constant attendance on them when they were ill, and they said death was due to intestinal troubles. Alsa couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with that.” No one could fault Russell for believing in Alsa’s innocence, but had he been deceived?

In his 1954 novel THE BAD SEED, William March tells the deeply disturbing tale of 8-year-old  Rhoda Penmark whose mother, Christine, begins to suspect her daughter is behind a series of “accidental” deaths. When Christine’s worst fears are confirmed she has to make the difficult decision–what to do about Rhoda.  If you’ve never read the book or seen the 1956 film adaptation you should. Each has a different, but shocking, ending.

Was Russell wrong? Had his beautiful daughter committed murder?

NEXT TIME: Find out if Alsa’s father was right about her, or if she was actually a high functioning sociopath capable of multiple murder, in the the conclusion of Baby Borgia.

NOTE: Many thanks to Alex Cortes. It was a conversation with him about this twisted case that lead to this post.

The Benetti Hit–Conclusion

The gangsters suspected in the shotgun murder of Gaetano Binetti and the serious wounding of his wife barely spent a moment in lock-up before there was a confession. No, none of the gangsters confessed–it was Gaetano’s cousin Marie Binetti.

binetti_photosMarie, a 37-year-old widow with two children, wanted a husband and she had set her sights on Gaetano’s brother, Cinette a Santa Monica farmer. Gaetano may have been a local “godfather” for a collection of families or he may have been the Benetti family patriarch, but either way Marie needed his permission to pursue her heart’s desire. She asked Gaetano’s permission but he denied her. She brooded for a while before deciding to exact revenge. She had taken Gaetano’s shotgun, then she went into the bedroom where he and his wife were sleeping and fired. She hadn’t intended to harm Gaetano’s wife, Conchetta. She thought she could blame the murder on Gaetano’s rivals and tried to buttress her story by spending the night at a neighbor’s house telling the police that she feared that an attempt would be made on her life.benetti_2

The afternoon following the slaying Detective Lieutenants Hickey and Corsini drove out to New Depot Street to bring Marie in for questioning. She excused herself and went into the bathroom. When she didn’t return within a few minutes the detectives became alarmed. They went to look for her and found her sprawled out on the bathroom floor–she had slashed her throat with a straight razor. There was a lot of blood and Marie’s condition was critical. An ambulance was called and took her to the Pasadena Avenue Receiving Hospital. As soon as she arrived she gasped out her confession to Detective Corsini.

While Marie was rushed to the hospital, police scientists compared her fingerprints to those found on the stock of the murder weapon and they were a match.benetti_5

Deputy District Attorneys Thomas and Menzies, accompanied by a stenographer, went to the hospital to record Marie’s death bed confession but was unable to speak. An inquest was held and the jury formally accused Marie of the crime. Immediately after the inquest District Attorney Burton Keyes filed on Marie for murder.

On August 12, 1928, Marie Binetti succumbed to her wounds.