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.

 

 

 

Candlelight Killer, Conclusion

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 12, 1970 an unidentified woman telephoned the Huntington Beach Police to report a drunk man lying beside the road. The man, sprawled in the muddy ditch, was twenty-five-year-old Thomas Astorina, but he wasn’t drunk, he was dead. Someone shot Thomas in the stomach with a .22 caliber pistol.
Police speculated that Thomas, arrested in February for possession of stolen property and reckless driving, may have crossed someone and paid with his life.

The killer, or killers, denied the twenty-five-year-old father of two, separated from his wife, a chance to make things right. Why did Thomas die?

Before his death, Thomas lived at 350 Avocado Street in Costa Mesa with three roommates, one of whom, Randall G. Allen, police booked on suspicion of murder. The other two roommates, Robert Connolly and Robert Liberty, remained at large.

Detectives knew of Robert’s trial for Marcella’s murder. His violent past and his release six months earlier from a state run mental institution made Robert a compelling suspect in Thomas’ death.

Robert flew under law enforcement’s radar from March until June when he embarked on a crime spree.

On Saturday, June 6, Robert and a female companion paid an unannounced visit to his mother’s home in Westminster. There, Robert pulled out a .22 caliber pistol and forced his mother to hand over $45. He claimed she owed him the money. Police did Robert’s mother a kindness when they declined to identify her for the newspapers.  Having Robert for a son was a big enough cross to bear in private.

Following the armed robbery of his mother, Robert and the unnamed woman hitchhiked south. A teenage boy picked them up and drove them to the apartment of Robert Irion in old town San Diego. Irion and Robert met in a state run mental facility. It was the same way Marcella Landis, Robert’s first victim, met him.

Rather than turn him loose, Robert and his companion forced the teenager into Irion’s apartment where he watched in horror as Robert and the woman shot and strangled the man.

The couple left the teenager tied up and stole Irion’s Peugeot. The kid escaped his bonds and called police. When police arrived, they found Irions on his bed surrounded by lit candles.

A note scrawled in pencil on a closet door near the body read: “The Candlelight Killer Strikes Again.”

Detectives feared Robert would pay another visit to Orange County, and they began a search of his usual hangouts. He wasn’t in any of his favorite haunts—he was on his way to Colorado.

On the way to Colorado, Robert and his companion, identified as twenty-four-year-old Kendell Bierly of New York City, picked up a 17-year-old boy, Glenn Allen Fawcett, from Midland, Texas. In Colorado Springs, the three of them rented a motel room where, according to Assistant Police Chief Carl Petry, “They harassed everyone quite a bit.”

Around midnight on Tuesday, June 9, the three entered the motel office and tied up the owner, his wife and their small child, and then stole $100 from the cash register. They then searched the adjoining house for more valuables. While they were busy ransacking the house, the manager broke free and ran to another motel and called police.

Robert discovered the manager gone and in retaliation he took the man’s wife, Edna Brenek, hostage. The four left the motel in Brenek’s car.

Detective Bernard Carter and Sergeant Neal Stratton arrived at the motel moments later. Stratton stayed at the motel while Carter took off to search for Brenek’s car. He spotted the vehicle and gave chase.

The chase continued along Interstate 25 south of Colorado Springs and reached speeds of 100  mph. During the chase Robert held Mrs. Brenek up in the rear window of the car and pointed a gun at her temple. He motioned for Carter to stay back.

Carter said, “I felt if he was going to shoot the woman, he would shoot her regardless of whether I was there. Somebody was shooting at me from the back window, but the bullets all went wild—didn’t even hit my car. When I pulled up pretty close behind them, I fired three shots into their car.”

Nine miles and five minutes after the chase began, Robert threw his weapon out of the window and the car pulled to the curb. They arrested Robert, Kendell, and Glenn without further incident.

Charged in Colorado Springs with armed robbery, kidnapping, and assault on a police officer, they set Robert’s bail at $200k and $100k each for the other two.

Huntington Beach and San Diego authorities began extradition proceedings on murder charges against Robert and Kendell.

Robert used his time in the Colorado Springs jail to make a new friend, James E. Jackson Jr., accused of the fatal beating of a local pawnbroker. The two men dug through a cinder block wall at the jail, and they made it halfway through before steel rods stalled their progress.  Someone discovered them and the intended jail break failed.

What do you do when your jailbreak fails? You get married. Robert and Kendall exchanged vows in a double-ring civil ceremony in the El Paso County Courthouse at Colorado Springs. District Judge John Gallagher officiated. A deputy public defender acted as Robert’s best man, and a female inmate was Kendell’s matron of honor. The groom wore no shoes and dressed in dark green pants and a green button-down shirt with its tail hanging out. The bride recited her vows wearing a medium length red-and-white striped dress, with brown shoes.

Robert and Kendell described the day as the “happiest” of their lives. They paid no special attention to the “until death us do part” pledge. Following the ceremony a sheriff’s deputy placed handcuffs on each and led them to separate jail cells where they continued to fight extradition to California.

California won its extradition fight with Robert, and on September 18 he left Colorado for San Diego to stand trial for murder. Kendall joined her husband in San Diego Superior Court where the newlyweds pleaded innocent to the charges against them.

Robert Connolly, the other suspect Thomas Astorina’s slaying, turned up in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The FBI arrested him in Milwaukee on December 10 on a charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

The case against the Candlelight Killer and his accomplices was coming together.

Robert shared a cell block with two other murder suspects—New Yorker, Timothy Earl Dudley, and Carl Raymond Riggs of Romulus, Michigan. Timothy stood accused of strangling a young man with a bootlace, and they charged Carl with murdering an off-duty San Diego police officer outside a bar.

At 7 a.m. on January 20, 1971, jailers did a routine check of the three killers. They returned at 10:50 in response to an alarm bell. They found Robert dead, face down on his bunk with a blanket pulled up to his head. There were scratches on the knuckles of his left hand, an abrasion on his left elbow and discoloration on the sides of his neck.

Carl admitted to the murder. He said he executed Robert because he believed he was a police informant. Some would say it was a fitting end for the Candlelight killer.

Candlelight Killer, Part 1

8382 Westminster Boulevard
Westminster, CA
Saturday, June 4, 1966

Westminster police received a call late Saturday night, June 4, 1966 from a man who identified himself as Robert W. Liberty, nineteen. He told them his girlfriend, thirty-one-year-old Marcella Landis, was dead in the apartment they shared.

A black and white rolled out to the building on busy Westminster Boulevard. The apartment complex was typical for the time.  The buildings were rectangular with minimal ornamentation.

When police arrived, they found Marcella dead on the couch. Lit candles surrounded her and Robert sat on the floor near her body strumming his guitar and humming.

Robert’s behavior was bizarre, and the circumstances of Marcella’s death suggested homicide—she had a single stocking knotted around her neck. The police arrested the teenager on suspicion of murder.

During questioning, Robert said he and Marcella met as patients in the County Hospital psych ward after they admitted both following unsuccessful suicide attempts.

Three court-appointed psychiatrists examined Robert.  Two of them declared him insane. Two out of three convinced Judge Robert Gardner to send Robert to Atascadero for 90 days or until he could assist in his own defense.

They deemed Robert well enough for trial in mid-March 1967.  He pleaded innocent by reason of insanity to Marcella’s murder.

Weird details of Marcella’s murder came out during Robert’s trial. Robert strangled her with one of her own stockings. After he killed her Robert played mortician. He applied eye makeup, arranged her body on the couch, placed a Bible on her chest, and surrounded her with lit candles. Then, in the company of her pets, the onetime glue sniffer conducted a funeral sevice. When he finished, he phoned the police.

Judge Byron McMillan had no qualms finding Robert innocent—the young man was insane at the time of the crime. Robert went to Vacaville State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

* * *

During his confinement, they transferred Robert from Vacaville to Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, and it was from there he walked away.

The facility was unaware that Robert, considered a dangerous mental patient, was missing. Sheriff’s deputies claimed to have no record of Robert’s status, and a hospital supervisor said he knew nothing about the case.

While Robert was walk-about, he contacted his attorney who convinced him to surrender. The district attorney’s office recommended Robert be held at the Orange County medical center in Santa Ana where Superior Judge William Speirs ordered Robert to submit to new psychiatric tests.

In a shocking turn of events, they released Robert in September 1969 after six court-appointed psychiatrists concurred he was sane. The shrinks offered a caveat, Robert would be harmful if he used drugs or alcohol.

Deputy District Attorney A. A. Wells argued Robert should remain in custody on the strength of the caveat. Judge Gardner disagreed and noted mere speculation was not enough to hold Robert released him.

NEXT TIME:  What will Robert do with his freedom?

The Trick or Treat Murder

We expect goblins, ghosts, and ghouls to roam the streets on All Hallows Eve; what we don‘t expect is murder.

October 31, 1957 was a school night, kids scored their Butterfinger bars and homemade caramel apples and were home in bed by a decent hour.  Thirty-five-year-old Peter Fabiano, his wife Betty, and teenage stepdaughter, Judy Solomon, had just retired for the night. Peter’s stepson, Richard Solomon, had left earlier to return to his Navy base in San Diego. The family wasn’t expecting any callers when the doorbell rang shortly after 11 p.m.

Peter got out of bed and went to the door. Betty heard him say “Yes?” Then he said, “Isn’t it a little late for this?”   She heard, but didn’t recognize, two other adult voices, “One sounded masculine and another like a man impersonating a woman.” Then Betty hear a noise that “sounded like a pop.”  The noise brought her and Judy out of bed in a hurry. They ran to the front door where they found Peter lying on his back just inside the front door.

Judy ran two doors down to Bud Alper’s home.  Judy knew Bud was a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, assigned to the Valley Division. She banged on the door until Bud answered. Bud contacted Valley Division and several officers arrived within minutes to the scene of the shooting.

They transported Peter to Sun Valley Receiving Hospital where he succumbed to massive bleeding from the gunshot wound.

A fifteen-year-old boy witnessed a car leave the neighborhood at a high rate of speed around the time of the shooting. He had no other information for police.

Detectives found no spent shells, nor did they find evidence that the shooting was part of an attempted robbery.  Betty told them she and Peter married in 1955. Together they ran two successful beauty shops and as far as she knew he had no enemies.

Peter’s murder resembled a gangland hit, so the police dug into his background. Peter had a minor record for bookmaking in 1948–nothing that connected him to L.A.’s underworld.

Detectives interviewed friends and relatives of the deceased, but they offered nothing in the way of suspects.  A week later a confidential tip led detectives to a bizarre murder plot.

Goldyne Pizer, a 43-year-old widow, admitted to the slaying when arrested at her Hollywood home.  Goldyne told LAPD Detective Sergeants Charles Stewart and Pat Kelly, “It’s a relief to get it off my mind.”  She said a friend of hers, 40-year-old Joan Rabel, a former employee at one of Fabiano’s beauty shops, talked her into committing the crime.

Friends for four years, Goldyne and Joan planned the murder for three months. “All we talked about was Peter Fabiano.”  Joan described the victim as, “… a vile, evil man—one who destroyed all the people about him.  I developed a deep hatred for him.”

On September 21, Goldyne purchased a .38 special from a gun shop in Pasadena.  She told the man behind the counter she needed the weapon for “home protection.”  A few days later Joan drove Goldyne back to the shop where they picked up the gun with two bullets in it.  Joan paid for the gun, but Goldyne kept it until Halloween night when Joan picked her up in a borrowed car.

“Joan came over to my house with some clothing—blue jeans, khaki jackets, hats, eye masks, makeup and red gloves.  We dressed up, got in the car and drove to Fabiano’s home arriving there about 9 p.m.”

The women waited until the lights went out.  Goldyne said, “I rang once and when nothing happened rang again.” She brought the gun up with both hands and fired.

“I ran to the car and Joan drove to Mrs. Barrett’s home,” Goldyne said. [Joan borrowed Margaret Barrett’s car to commit the murder.]  “We left the car on the street, separated and walked to our homes. Joan said, ‘Forget you ever saw me’.”

The County Grand Jury returned indictments against Goldyne and Joan for Peter’s murder.  Goldyne wept as she told the Grand Jury of the weird killing. She explained Joan incited her to commit the murder of a man she didn’t know by picturing the victim as a “symbol of evil.”

Joan declined to testify.

Rather than face trial, on March 11, 1958, Goldyne and Joan pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and sentenced to 5 years to life in prison.

What about a motive?  Why did Joan want Peter to die? Simple.  Peter stood in the way of Joan’s plan to get much, much closer to Betty.  Before his death, Peter asked Betty to end her friendship with Joan, which she did.

The newspapers alluded to the motive. Reports described Joan as jealous of the Fabiano’s relationship—1957 readers did not need to have it spelled out for them. They understood the subtext.  Homosexuality was illegal in California—which may be why Joan accepted a plea deal.

A doctor who examined Goldyne characterized her as a passive person who became “a handy tool, or putty, in the hands of Mrs. Rabel.” The same doctor described Joan as “schizoid.”

I don’t know when Goldyne and Joan left prison–but I hope they spent a long time behind bars.

It appears Betty never remarried. She died in 1999.

The Murder Complex, Conclusion

Thomas’ trial opened at 10 a.m. on August 17, 1925, in Judge Hahn’s court.  His attorneys, Cooper, Collins & Shreve, had a fight on their hands.  The District Attorney stated that he would settle for nothing less than the death penalty.

The gist of Thomas’ defense was that he had been insane at the time he murdered Grace. There was considerable evidence to the contrary.

Thomas had shown friends portions of letters which he declared had been written by Grace while she was missing. Thomas was adamant that the letters proved she was alive and well and that she had deserted him. The letters were exposed as frauds. Thomas had compelled Grace to write them, perhaps under the influence of alcohol or physical coercion. He had also obtained blank forms he might need and had her sign them.

The prosecution produced a surprise witness, George T. Guggenheim, a dealer in dental supplies.  George had known Thomas for years. A few weeks following Grace’s disappearance, the doctor visited the dental supply office with a request.

“He had an envelope in his hand and asked me to mail it to New York to somebody that would mail it back to him.” George testified.

Thomas told George: “Somebody has been tampering with my mails and I’d like to have this letter sent to me from New York to play a joke on that feller.”

George didn’t mind helping a friend and a good client, so he mailed the letter Thomas had given him to his brother in New York.

The letters weren’t the only spurious documents in the case. Dorothy Leopold Mahan (she had married about a week before the trial started) said that she had signed a blank document, not knowing what it was. The document was shown to be a power of attorney, giving Thomas control over Grace’s money and property.

Attempting to make her a possible suspect, the defense sought to cast a sinister light on Dorothy’s relationship with Thomas.  Under oath, she was asked if she had ever spent the night in Thomas’ home, to which she replied: “Yes – I did.  Three times.  My mother was with me on each occasion.”

Being chaperoned by one’s mother is hardly conducive to an affair, and further questioning revealed that Dorothy had never had an intimate relationship with Thomas, nor did she want one.  Her attitude toward her employer effectively removed any possible motive she might have had to murder Grace.

It seemed that each day more damning evidence against Thomas was exposed.

 The prosecution planned to move the trial to the Beverly Glen cabin for a day to give the jury an opportunity to view the cistern that “served as Mrs. Young’s burial crypt.”

How was Thomas going to handle being confronted, in front of the jury, with the actual site of the murder and his wife’s tomb?

Following a grueling day in court on August 26th, Thomas was returned to his cell in Tank 9. He told his cellmates that his day in court had been filled with “tough breaks.”

The inmates in Tank 9, including Thomas, played their nightly game of Pinochle. Before returning to his cot, Thomas said: “I’m going to take a long ride tomorrow, boys.”  They laughed because they believed he referred to the coming trip to the scene of the crime in Beverly Glen.  Thomas told them not to be alarmed if they heard strange noises in his cell.  “I’ve been having a bad attack of indigestion.  I woke up last night and found myself choking and making bubbling noises.  If you hear anything like that don’t be alarmed.” 

The other prisoners had heard strange noises from Thomas’ cell before. He often shuffled around late at night muttering, and it seemed as if he was talking to someone.

At 6 a.m. on the morning of August 27th, Assistant Jailer Palmer called to Thomas to get up.

“All right,” Thomas replied.

O.F. Mahler, one of the occupants of Tank 9, awoke at 7 a.m. when a trustee delivered three breakfast trays. Mahler distributed them; one for himself, one to H. Foster, and one was for Thomas.

Thomas Young

Mahler entered Thomas’ cell but the doctor failed to stir. He wasn’t in his usual sleeping position.  His feet were on the pillow and his head was at the foot of the cot.  The single blanket was pulled tightly around his head and only one hand was visible.

Mahler gently shook Thomas. There was no response.  He shook him again. The body moved in an unnatural way.  Mahler jerked the blanket from Thomas’ head.

Thomas was dead.

His eyes were distended from his blue, swollen face.  A garrote of radio wire, tightened with a small stick, was wrapped around his neck.

The murder complex had claimed its final victim.

 

 

 

The Murder Complex, Part 4

THE LADY VANISHES

Thomas told anyone who asked him that the last time he saw Grace was on February 21, 1925.  They had stopped at a roadhouse, the Plantation Grill, for drinks and dancing. National Prohibition may have been the law, but it was simple enough to find a cocktail if you wanted one.

Entrance to speakeasy.

Thomas saw a group of people enter the café and recognized a woman named Nina. He had known her for several years. He spent some time chatting with her. Thomas said that Grace became unreasonably jealous and they started to argue.  Rather than make a public scene, they left the roadhouse and continued their argument in the car until they reached Western and Eighth Streets where they made up. Instead of calling it a night, they went to the Biltmore Hotel where there was an orchestra and dancing.

When they arrived at the Biltmore, Grace excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. Thomas waited, but she never returned.

Thomas reported Grace missing, and he also hired a private investigator. He maintained that Grace had left for Paris or New York to seek a divorce. According to Thomas, she carried with her $126,000 in Liberty bonds.  Thomas said Grace would return when she was ready. Then he went on with his life as if nothing had happened.

Biltmore Hotel

A couple of days after Grace disappeared, Thomas asked Patrick to accompany him to the Beverly Glen cabin because he said he needed to pour a concrete floor in the cistern which he claimed was leaking. Patrick welcomed any activity that would distract him from worrying about his mother.  He mixed and poured the cement while Thomas smoothed it out.

Over the next few weeks Thomas arranged parties and other social events for Patrick to “keep his mind off things.”  Among the guests at the soirees was Thomas’ attractive young office assistant, Dorothy Leopold.

When Grace’s father Frank first got word that she was missing, he felt in his gut that something horrible had happened to her. He wanted to force a confrontation with Thomas, so he filed a legal request to become Patrick’s guardian. If the guardianship request was meant to fluster Thomas, it failed.  Thomas said that it was up to Patrick to choose a guardian.

Patrick didn’t want his grandfather to be his guardian, so he named an attorney he knew to take charge of his legal affairs until Grace returned. As a further slap in the face to his mother’s family, Patrick stated his preference was to live with his stepfather.

Weeks went by with no sign of Grace. Then suddenly, Patrick began receiving letters from her with New York postmarks. In the letters, she said that her family was keeping her from Thomas and that they knew where she was. Patrick was conflicted. He loved his mother’s family but Thomas had been very good to him.  He had even bought him a new Chrysler.

By June, Grace’s family, joined by her friends from the Ebell Club and trust company officers from the bank, appealed to District Attorney Asa Keyes to launch a sweeping investigation.

Original Ebell Club located on Figueroa. By C.C. Pierce & Co. – http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll65/id/3021, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30848484

THE INVESTIGATION

On June 12th, an investigation into Grace’s mysterious disappearance, spearheaded by the D.A., kicked into high gear. Los Angeles Police Department officers interviewed residents of Beverly Glen.  Among those interviewed were Donald Mead and Kenneth Selby. The boys related to police what they had witnessed that February night. If it had been Thomas creeping around in the cabin in total darkness, it may have been construed as odd, but it didn’t mean he was guilty of anything.

Adjacent to the Young cabin was a well which supplied water to several surrounding cabins. The water was drawn using a gasoline pump and was piped to the surrounding cabins.  Residents told police it had been an open well until February, when Dr. Young had sealed it with a concrete floor.  They thought that it was strange that although the water had always been clean and pure, after the floor was installed the water began to emit a putrid stench.   One of the residents said:  “The water never began to smell until a few months ago.  No, we cannot use it, not even for shower baths or for dishwashing.  It is slightly discolored and when drawn, a yellowish, smelling sediment settles in it.  We have no idea what caused this sudden change in the water.”

There were so many questions about the Beverly Glen cabin that police felt it was time to conduct a search there. The cabin held several intriguing clues; a one-ounce bottle of Novocain secreted near the fireplace, and bloodstains in a bedroom.

Prior to the search, Thomas made a cryptic statement: “I hold the key to this situation and I have burned my bridges behind me.”

While many still had doubts about what had happened to Grace, District Attorney Asa Keyes was not among them: “I am as certain as I am sitting here that Mrs. Young is dead – that she has been murdered.  By whom she was slain we do not know. That we are trying to determine.”

Following their search of the cabin, authorities decided to break up the concrete in the cistern. They made a gruesome discovery.

NEXT TIME: Grace is found.

The Murder Complex, Part 1

GRACE HUNT

Ohio native Grace Hunt was 17 when she married 41-year-old Charles Price Grogan in Los Angeles on April 5, 1902. It was an advantageous marriage for both.  Charles was so successful in the olive business that the press had christened him the “Olive King,” and with beautiful Grace at his side, he had a queen worthy of his stature. A few days prior to their fifth wedding anniversary they welcomed a son, whom they named Charles Patrick Grogan.

Grace and Charles were married for over a decade before they separated. The difference in their ages may have sunk the marriage, or it may have been due to any number of other private problems. Whatever their reasons, the couple was separated by the late 1910s and divorced by the 1920 census – at least that was how Charles declared his marital status.  Grace, for the same census, gave her marital status as widow.  Why the discrepancy? Simple; divorce stigmatized women.

Grace was luckier than many women because California, at least in its laws, was more tolerant of divorce than other states. The State’s first divorce law in 1851 recognized impotence, adultery, extreme cruelty, desertion or neglect, habitual intemperance, fraud, and conviction of a felony as legitimate grounds for divorce.

Despite the law’s progressive attitude, divorce could ruin a woman socially, which is why many women found it easier to claim widowhood than risk suffering the loss of status if their divorce became public knowledge. It seems strange to us now in these days of no-fault divorce and “conscious uncoupling” (a phrase coined by celebrity Gwenyth Paltrow to describe her separation from her musician husband, Chris Martin), but divorce was not a simple matter when Grace and Charles ended their marriage.

The couple’s family and intimate friends would likely have known the truth, and the rest of local society may have acknowledged Grace’s widowhood with a nod and a wink and allowed her to continue her fiction unchallenged.

As it happened, Grace’s claim to widowhood would edge closer to the truth when Charles died of apoplexy (internal bleeding – perhaps due to a stroke) on July 8, 1921.

The Olive King was a wealthy man who loved his only son. He bequeathed Patrick his entire fortune, estimated to be between $1 and $2 million dollars. Grace was responsible for administering Patrick’s monthly allowance, the princely sum of $800 per month, until he turned 25.  Grace and Charles had come to an agreement upon their divorce. Grace surrendered her rights of inheritance if Charles would pay her approximately $3000 per year.  Additionally, the couple agreed that Charles would create a trust fund, not to exceed $50,000, for her maintenance. To put things into perspective, $50,000 in 1921 is equivalent to nearly three quarter of a million dollars today. And Patrick’s monthly allowance is currently equivalent to about $12,000.  A fortune like the one Charles left Patrick and Grace can attract the best people in society – it can also be a magnet for the worst of humanity.

In her 30s, Grace was beautiful, wealthy and socially prominent. She would make a wonderful wife for the right man. Tragically, the wrong man courted and won her.

NEXT TIME: The Murder Complex continues.

The Murder Complex, Prologue

Thursday, February 19, 1925

Night had fallen by the time Donald Mead and Kenneth Selby started home following a school baseball game. The twelve-year-old boys walked in companionable silence. After dark, the silence in Beverly Glen was broken only by the sounds of nature; a coyote’s howl, or the powerful beating of an owl’s wings.  But this night the boys heard the rumble of a car engine. That was unusual, as there wasn’t much traffic in the Glen.  It was a quiet, semi-rural enclave about twenty miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles; the place where many well-to-do local residents owned get-away cabins. On an impulse, the boys dove into a stand of bushes near a small bridge moments before the car’s headlights would have illuminated them. They intended to spy on whomever had the audacity to intrude on their domain.

(ca. 1925) – View showing a car on an unpaved Sunset Boulevard between Carolwood and Delfern Drives in Beverly Hills, with three palm trees in the background. This is in the general location of Beverly Glen.

Keeping still, the boys watched a lone driver back a sedan up to the front steps of a cabin and turn off his headlights. The boys knew that the cabin belonged to Dr. Thomas Young, a Los Angeles dentist, but it was too dark to positively identify the driver who appeared to be male. Maybe it was the doctor — maybe not. No matter, the boys were enjoying their spy game.  From their vantage point they watched the man drag a large, heavy box draped in a dark colored cloth, from the car. Donald and Kenneth whispered to each other that the box must be awfully heavy, because the man was hunched over and appeared to be having difficulty lifting it. Perhaps the boys were speculating about the box’s contents as they watched. Did it contain a king’s ransom of gold and silver?  Or did the box contain the corpse of a desperado?

The man wrestled the box onto the landing and dragged it inside the cabin. The boys thought it odd that he never turned on the cabin lights. When he reappeared on the veranda, he furtively scanned the area. Evidently satisfied that he was alone, he returned to his car and retrieved a gunny sack.  It was large and filled with something the boys couldn’t identify. The sack must not have been as heavy as the box because the man was able to sling it over his shoulder.  He disappeared into the cabin again.  A few minutes later he returned empty-handed.  Then he got into his car and drove away.

 The boys were barely able to contain their curiosity. Who was the man …and why was he being so secretive? They waited a few minutes before leaving their hiding place and then they walked over to the cabin. In the dirt near the cellar door was a sack marked “Lime.” They also found some “funny smelling stuff” that made them “sick at smelling it.”

After poking around the cabin for a few more minutes and finding nothing, Donald and Kenneth headed home.  They wouldn’t give the strange man another thought until they were questioned by police six months later.

NEXT TIME: The Murder Complex continues.

Film Noir Friday — Sunday Matinee: Manhandled [1949]

Welcome to Film Noir Friday — Sunday Matinee! 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 MANHANDLED starring Dorothy Lamour, Dan Duryea and Sterling Hayden.  Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Unemployed writer Alton Bennet tells psychiatrist Dr. Redman about his nightmares, in which he dreams that he murders his wealthy wife Ruth with a heavy perfume bottle. Redman’s secretary, Merl Kramer, takes notes as Bennet denies coveting his wife’s jewels, which are worth $100,000. After Bennet is refused an advance from his publishers, he becomes jealous of Ruth’s close relationship with handsome young architect Guy Bayard, who is designing their new beach house.