Black Dahlia: Aggie Gets Off The Bench

Prior to being benched by her city editor, Aggie had made headway in her coverage of Elizabeth Short’s murder. She interviewed Robert “Red” Manley, the first suspect in the case, and concluded he was innocent. Her interview earned her a by-line. As far as I know she was the only Los Angeles reporter to get a by-line in the case.

dahlia_herald_14_aggie_bylineSeveral people have taken credit for uncovering the Black Dahlia moniker; Aggie among them. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie said that she came across Elizabeth’s nickname when she was checking in with Ray Giese, a LAPD homicide detective-lieutenant. According to Aggie, Giese said: “This is something you might like, Agness. I’ve found out they called her the ‘Black Dahlia’ around that drug store where she hung out down in Long Beach.”

Like it? Aggie loved it. Los Angeles, in particular the Hearst newspapers, seemed to have a penchant for naming homicide cases after flowers. Over the years orchids, roses, and gardenias would feature in many grim headlines.

Aggie longed to be back in the field chasing leads and sniffing out suspects, but she was officially off the case for the second time.  About her newsroom embroidery project Aggie said: “Although I got damn tired of it, I kept my needle going until the quitting hour.  Early the next morning the assistant city editor announced that the city editor had made an overnight assignment for me to go back to homicide and continue on the ‘Black Dahlia’ case.”

Once again Aggie was pulled off the case, but this time she learned that her new assignment was the city desk.  She said she was: “Completely unwarned. I was the most surprised person in Los Angeles.” She had just become one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily!

Aggie at a crime scene (not the Dahlia) c. 1940s.

Aggie at a crime scene (not the Dahlia) c. 1940s.

Why had Aggie been removed from the Black Dahlia case in the first place? People are drawn to conspiracies, no matter how unlikely, and there are those who believe there was a cover-up and Aggie was getting too close to a solution to Short’s murder.  Theorists have suggested someone with enough juice got Aggie promoted to keep her out of the way. That doesn’t make sense to me, as city editor she directed the activities of all the reporters working the case, and she wasn’t the sort of person who would take a pay-off. Nevertheless, the timing of Aggie’s promotion remains an intriguing part Dahlia lore.

With Aggie back in the thick of things, the Herald continued to follow every lead. Sadly, the victim of a homicide is often re-victimized by the press and the public. Murder victims lose their right to privacy; all of their secrets are revealed, and in an effort to fill column space while multiple leads were being tracked, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Elizabeth’s acquaintances, and even mystery writers, to speculate on the case, which they did with creative abandon.

The psychiatrist whose expert opinion was sought by the Herald was Dr. Paul De River, LAPD’s very own shrink. He wrote a series of articles for the paper in which he attempted to analyze the mind of the killer. De River wrote that the killer was a sadist and suggested that: “during the killing episode, he had an opportunity to pump up affect from two sources — from his own sense of power and in overcoming the resistance of another. He was the master and the victim was the slave”.

Dr. De River

Dr. De River

In one of his most chilling statements, De River hinted at necrophilia—he said: “It must also be remembered that sadists of this type have a super-abundance of curiosity and are liable to spend much time with their victims after the spark of life has flickered and died”.

People who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Elizabeth (who frequently called herself Betty, Bette or Beth) were interviewed by reporters and they weighed in on everything from her hopes and dreams to her love life. Beth was, by turns, described as “a man-crazy delinquent”, and a girl with “childlike charm and beauty”. The interviews yielded nothing of value in the hunt for Beth’s killer.

The cops weren’t having any better luck.

NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia case goes cold.

Black Dahlia: Suspect #1, Robert “Red” Manley

In his 1991 autobiography, “Reporters”: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman, Will Fowler recalled one of his colleagues, Baker Conrad, noticed a telegram among Elizabeth Short’s effects. The Examiner’s editor, Jim Richardson, dispatched Fowler to the address on the telegram, 8010 Mountain View Avenue in South Gate.

When Fowler arrived at the bungalow court he was greeted by, “A strikingly beautiful red-haired young woman.” Fowler did not claim to be a cop, but he let the woman, Harriet Manley, believe he was law enforcement.

Robert "Red" Manley with his wife Harriette. [LAPL Photo]

Robert “Red” Manley with his wife Harriette. [LAPL Photo]

During her conversation with Fowler, Harriet said Red phoned her from San Francisco after seeing his name in the newspapers in connection with Elizabeth Short’s murder. Red tried to reassure Harriet that he’d had nothing to do with the slaying and told her that he “loved her more than any man ever loved his wife.”

January 19th, 10:00 p.m.–LAPD sergeants, J.W. Wass and Sam Flowers, staked out the home of Red’s employer in Eagle Rock where the wanted man was expected to arrive. When Red pulled up in his sedan the officers approached him with their guns drawn. An Examiner photographer was there to capture the arrest. Red looks like a deer in the headlights as Sgt. Flowers handcuffs him.

Robert "Red" Manley busted in Eagle Rock. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Robert “Red” Manley busted in Eagle Rock — handcuffed by LAPD Sgt Sam Flowers. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Aggie Underwood interviewed Red early in the morning of January 20th at LAPD’s Hollenbeck station. She recalled the interview in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman:

“You look as if you’ve been on a drunk,” I said in sizing up the suspect. I was ready to talk sympathetically about hangovers. That approach won’t work always, but Red looked like a guy reporters might meet at a bar and find a congenial drinking companion, possible criminal or not.

“This is worse than any I’ve ever been on,” he replied. Perry Fowler, the photographer assigned to the case with me, caught the cue we had used repeatedly in softening subjects and stepped forward with a cigarette, which Manley took gratefully.

“Look, fella,” I continued as he inhaled. “You’re in one hell of a spot. You’re in a jam and it’s no secret. If you’re as innocent as you say you are, tell the whole story; and if you haven’t anything to hide, people can’t help knowing you’re telling the truth. That way, you’ll get it over with all at once and it won’t be kicking around to cause you more trouble.”

Red didn’t need any further encouragement to unburden himself to Aggie. He told her how he’d initially picked Elizabeth up on a San Diego street corner. How they had spent an “erotically uneventful” night in a motel and how he had eventually dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9th.

Red finished his tale with: “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”

Robert Manley in high school c. 1940. Photo from Ancestry.

Robert Manley in high school c. 1940. Photo from Ancestry.

Aggie believed Red was innocent, and shared her gut feelings with the police. Red was forthcoming in his interview and Aggie knew right away he wasn’t a killer. Red was just a frightened man with goofy ideas about love tests.

If there was one thing Aggie detested, it was a sob sister. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a sob sister is a female journalist who writes overly sentimental copy. That sort of journalism was never Aggie’s thing. She said: “A sob sister could have wept with and over Manley, interpolating, editorial gushes to prove what a big bleeding heart beat in her breast. To hell with that. I’d rather have a fistful—an armload—of good solid facts.”

Aggie at her desk c. 1949. Photo courtesy LAPL. [Yes, that it a baseball bat on her desk. Aggie had a way of dealing with overzealous Hollywood agents.

Aggie at her desk c. 1949. Photo courtesy LAPL.  Yes, that’s a baseball bat on her desk. Aggie had her own a way of dealing with over zealous Hollywood press agents.  Concealed in her desk drawer is a starter pistol which she used to gain the attention of dozing reporters. She’d fire it at the ceiling and shout, “Don’t let this paper die today.”  Aggie had a flair!

It was the armload of facts that made Aggie’s interview with Red Manley so compelling. In fact her city editor, who normally cautioned her to keep her copy short, let the entire interview run without a ton of photos.

Why, then, in the midst of covering of the murder was Aggie unceremoniously yanked off the story? Without any warning or explanation Aggie found herself benched. The city editor pulled her off the story and let her cool her heels in the newsroom without a thing to do.

Aggie spent a couple of miserable days at her desk bored out of her mind. Then she got pissed-off enough to fight back. She didn’t get huffy or raise her voice. She brought in an embroidery project. Other newsroom denizens snickered. Another newswomen, Caroline Walker, said: “What do you think of that? Here’s the best reporter on the Herald, on the biggest day of one of the best stories in years—sitting in the office doing fancy work!”

The next day Aggie was reassigned to the story—only to be pulled off a second time. What the hell was going on?

NEXT TIME: Does Aggie get off the bench?

The Black Dahlia: Jane Doe is Identified

Jane Doe’s body was removed from the vacant lot on Norton and taken to the Hall of Justice where she was fingerprinted and autopsied. Artist Howard Burke sketched an idealized version of the young woman—the reality of her condition was too awful for them to print in the Examiner; although they did print a photo of her body in situ. The only way they could print a picture of the crime scene was by manipulating the photo to remove the mutilations to her face and adding a blanket to cover her.

00010486_dahlia bodyCaptain Jack Donohoe, head of LAPD’s homicide department, was understandably in a rush to identify the woman. Her killer had the advantage of several hours, but to give him, or her, more time to escape could be disastrous. It should have been a simple thing to get Jane Doe’s prints to the FBI in D.C., but the weather back east was conspiring against the detectives.

1947-blog480_snow storm 1947

Blizzard of 1947. Associated Press photo via Baruch College, CUNY.

Normally fingerprints prints were flown to the FBI but a blizzard grounded aircraft in the East.  If cops waited for the weather to clear, identification could take as much as a week.  Seven days is an eternity in a homicide investigation.

In the 1940s the press and police had a symbiotic relationship which served them both well. Without access to planes the LAPD’s investigation was at a standstill.  But, luckily, they could rely on William Randolph Hearst’s resources. The Examiner had a Soundphoto machine which could be the solution to the conundrum.  It might be possible to transmit the fingerprints to the FBI via the precursor to the facsimile machine. Of course the newspaper expected a quid pro quo—an exclusive. With the clock ticking, Capt. Donohoe reluctantly agreed.

Photo courtesy ladailymirror.com

Photo courtesy ladailymirror.com

Sending fingerprints over the Soundphoto machine had never been tried before, but it was worth the effort.  To everyone’s amazement and relief the prints, after a couple of minor glitches, were successfully transmitted to the FBI.  It didn’t take the bureau long to identify the dead woman as Elizabeth Short. The last address the agency had for her in California was in Santa Barbara.  Santa Barbara police  arrested the Massachusetts native in 1943 for underage drinking. She was sent home to her mother Phoebe.

Now that the dead girl had a name the Examiner’s city editor, Jim Richardson, assigned re-write man Wayne Sutton to break the news to her mother Phoebe.  Sutton was not thrilled when Richardson instructed him to lie to Phoebe. Richardson wanted her to believe that her daughter won a beauty contest. It was only after Sutton had pumped her for information on her daughter that he was allowed to deliver the news of her tragic death.

After a few minutes of chatting with Phoebe, who was proud and happy to discuss her beautiful daughter with the newspaperman from Los Angeles, Richardson gave Sutton the high sign. It was time to tell her the truth. Sutton put his hand over the mouthpiece, looked at Richardson and said: “You lousy son-of-a-bitch.”

Phoebe Short. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Phoebe Short. Photo courtesy LAPL.

It may have been shock that kept Phoebe on the line after hearing the worst news of her life. Sutton learned from Phoebe that Elizabeth recently stayed in San Diego and she gave him the address. Sutton told Phoebe that the Examiner would pay her fare to Los Angeles. The paper needed to keep Phoebe close so they could explore leads and milk her for further information on her murdered child.

Examiner reporters were dispatched up and down the coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego to glean whatever they could from interviews with police and anyone else who may have come into contact with Elizabeth.

While reporters were out searching for information, the Examiner received an anonymous tip that Elizabeth had kept memory books filled with photos and letters. The books were allegedly in a trunk that was lost in transit from the east.  Reporters from the Examiner went to the Greyhound station in downtown Los Angeles. There wasn’t a trunk, but there was a suitcase and some bags.

Robert "Red" Manley. Photo likely taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy LAPL.

Robert “Red” Manley. Photo likely taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy LAPL.

A small suitcase turned out to be a treasure trove of photos and letters which offered some insight into Elizabeth’s life. There were letters from soldiers, and letters that Elizabeth had written and never sent. There were photos of her on a beach, and with various men in uniform. Might one of them be her killer?

Examiner reporters in the field received copies of some of the photos which they then showed to clerks at hotels and motels in the hope of finding anywhere the dead woman had been, and with whom.

The reporters discovered that the last man to have been seen with Elizabeth was married salesman, Robert “Red” Manley.  Red and Elizabeth stayed the night in a motel on their way from San Diego to Los Angeles. Red’s name was printed in the Examiner as a person of interest in the slaying.

Red may be a valuable witness–or he may be a killer.

NEXT TIME:   A suspect is arrested.

January 15, 1947: A Werewolf on the Loose

dahlia_herald_1_doyouknow

It was after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947 — Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three year old daughter Anne were bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held L.A. residents in its grip for several days. Mother and daughter were headed south on the west side of Norton when Mrs. Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds about a foot in from the sidewalk.

Betty Bersinger

Betty Bersinger

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or drunk woman, passed out near the sidewalk. Had she been thrown out of a car by a boyfriend? That particular area was known as a lover’s lane. Once Betty got a closer look, she realized she was in a waking nightmare.  The bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk. Bersinger said “I was terribly shocked and scared to death, I grabbed Anne and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”

Over the years several reportera claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One them was reporter Will Fowler. Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner were near Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an announcement on the shortwave radio: “A 390 W, 415 down in an empty lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets…Please investigate…Code Two … (Code Two meant “Drunk Woman,” and a 415 designated “Indecent exposure.”) Fowler couldn’t believe his ears: “…a naked drunk dame passed out in a vacant lot. Right here in the neighborhood too…Let’s see what it’s all about.”

Paegel drove as Fowler watched for the woman. “There she is. It’s a body all right…” Fowler got out of the car and walked up to the body as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk of the car. Fowler called out: “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”

That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. But was it true?

There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first. In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first reporter on the scene. After all these years  does it really matter who was firstAGGIE_DAHLIA SCENE_1_15_1947_frat_resize

Aggie at the Dahlia body dump site. January 15, 1947.

All those who saw the murdered girl that day were shocked and horrified. Aggie described what she observed in her 1949 autobiography.

“It [the body] had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face, which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”

The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.

Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.

Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.

Two LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, took charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.

dahlia_herald_1_werewolfThe most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three year old transient, Cecil French. He was busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.

Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car.

In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying due to the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case for a few more days until a much better one was discovered–the Black Dahlia.

NEXT TIME: The bisected body of the young woman found in Leimert Park is identified.

REFERENCES:

Fowler, Will (1991). “Reporters” Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman.

Gilmore, John (2001). Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.

Harnisch, Larry. “A Slaying Cloaked in Mystery and Myths“. Los Angeles Times. January 6, 1997.

Underwood, Agness (1949). Newspaperwoman.

Wagner, Rob Leicester (2000). The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962.

A Thanksgiving Eve Date with the Gas Chamber – Repost

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!  I’m sure it will be better than Allen Ditson’s–unless you’re seated next to your least favorite relative at the dinner table.

The following is a repost from 2015.

PART 1

November 20,1962. Thanksgiving was two days away, but 41-year-old Allen Ditson wasn’t looking forward to it. He wouldn’t spend the day gnawing on a turkey drumstick or fighting with a cousin to claim the last slice of pumpkin pie. In fact Allen wouldn’t have the classic holiday dinner at all, unless he requested it for his last meal. If Governor Brown didn’t commute his death sentence, like he had done for Allen’s pal Carlos Cisneros, he would be executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber on Thanksgiving Eve.

*  *  *

DITSON_HEADLINE1In 1959 Allen owned a small jewelry and watch repair shop at 7715 Hollywood Way in the San Fernando Valley. The former Kansas farm boy was the father of two, a WWII veteran and former pilot who had spent five years in uniform before being honorably discharged. When he was mustered out of the service he took courses in watch and jewelry repair then opened his own business. He worked long hours and he continued to take classes related to his trade. The time he spent away from home was hard on his marriage; so hard in fact that he and his wife separated. Even though they no longer lived together he saw his children “at least twice a week” and contributed to their support. His mother-in-law said “he’s been good to all of us.”

On the surface Allen’s life appeared completely normal, but it wasn’t. The seemingly average businessman had a secret, he was the mastermind of a gang of violent armed robbers. Under his direction the gang of about 15 men had netted an estimated $150,000 (equivalent to approximately $1.2 in current dollars) between January and October of 1959.

Like most gang leaders Allen had a lieutenant, his name was Carlos Gonzales Cisneros. According to court records Carlos lost his mother to tuberculosis and spent most of his infancy and childhood in foundling homes. He left school in 1950 when he was 17. He married, had four kids and worked at Lockheed as a sheet metal worker. He was 24-years-old and working the swing shift as a sheet metal worker at Lockheed when he met Allen. Allen was already running a gang and he slowly brought Carlos in. He began by telling the young man that “it would be nice to see him driving a Cadillac.” Eventually Carolos owned two Cadillacs.

Allen used skills he’d learned in the military to operate the gang. He was adamant that each member carry out his “assignment” with precision. If things went sideways and a gang member was busted he was to keep his mouth shut. Allen would see to it that he was provided with an attorney. Allen also made it clear that the penalty for being a “squealer” or a blackmailer was death.

During September and October 1959 a series of robberies were committed by Allen and Carlos and several gang members: Robert Ward, Keith Slaten, and Eugene and Norman Bridgeford.. During a robbery in October Robert “Bob” Ward failed his assignment. He was supposed to securely bind the store owners. He tied the man tightly, but the woman was able to free herself. Once freed the man grabbed his rifle and began shooting at the fleeing robbers. As they ran Eugene pitched the stolen cash box into some shrubs in an alley. Later that night Eugene and Carlos returned to retrieve the cash box and were busted on the spot. About a week later they made bail. During a meeting with Allen, Carlos and Eugene were informed that Bob was demanding money in exchange for keeping quiet about the gang.

On November 6, 1959, Allen told Eugene that he had “decided that tonight would be the best night to get rid of Bob Ward” because he was “through being blackmailed by a no-good-son-of-a-bitch like him.” Allen had already paid Bob $100 but had no intention of giving him one dime more. Allen came up with a plan to “…get rid of him.” Allen stayed at the store and let Carlos and Eugene implement his plan to take care of Bob.

Carlos and Eugene drove to a liquor store to pick up a couple of pints of booze. They knew that Bob was a heavy drinker and thought that he would be “more amiable” with a few shots of booze in him. Then they went to the house Bob shared with fellow gang member Keith Slaten. Carlos parked the Cadillac on the street in front of the house. Keith had seen them pull up and went out to greet them.  Keith and Bob thought they were going to pull another robbery. The men piled into Keith’s Ford. Keith was behind the wheel, Bob was in the passenger seat, and Eugene and Carlos sat in the back. They spent about 45 minutes drinking. Carlos picked up a hammer from the floor of Keith’s car and brought it down on the back of Bob’s head. Bob fell against Keith and screamed: “Keith, help me. They are trying to kill me.” Keith had his own life to worry about and gave Bob a shove so he’d be an easier target for Carlos–then he ran into the house. Carlos called him back and said, “just take it easy and it’ll be all right.”

In the interim Bob had managed to get out of the car and was leaning against a tree when Carlos found him and beat him down to the ground. Carlos backed his car into the driveway and after delivering a few more blows to Bob’s head put him in the trunk of the car. Carlos and Eugene drove off and Keith followed them in the Ford. Carlos had driven about half a mile before Bob regained consciousness and started pleading from his confinement in the trunk to be released. He said he thought his eye had come out of its socket. Carlos told him to be quiet and then turned up the car radio so he wouldn’t be able to hear Bob call his name.

Now thoroughly rattled Carlos misjudged a turn, struck the curb with the front wheel of the car and blew a tire. He spotted a pay phone, gave Eugene some change and told him to call Allen and ask him to bring a spare tire and a heavy duty jack (after all it was a Cadillac with a man in the trunk). About an hour later Allen arrived with a friend of his, Leonard York. They changed the tire and then Carlos, with Bob still in the trunk, took off for the jewelry store. Eugene and Leonard rode with Allen back to the store. When they arrived they could hear unintelligible noises coming from the trunk of the Cadillac. Allen said they’d have to get rid of Bob before the neighbors heard him and called the cops. Eugene took Leonard home and then begged off the rest of the evening saying he was sick.

Allen took a .38 revolver from the store and he and Carlos drove Bob out to the Newhall Pass. Allen opened the trunk and ordered Bob to get out. Unaided, the seriously injured man got out and stood on his feet. He asked for a cigarette. Allen shot him in the chest. He fell, got up, and ran toward Carlos. As they rolled over an embankment Allen shot Bob in the back paralyzing him. Allen walked down the incline to see if Bob was finally dead. He wasn’t. He said, “Give me another one.” Allen knelt down beside him, pressed the .38 to his head and killed him.

squiggle

PART 2

After shooting Bob Ward to death with a .38, Allen Ditson had to figure out what to do with the body. At least Carlos Cisneros was there to help him. Carlos began to dig a grave with his bare hands until Allen brought him a butcher knife from the car. Once the grave was ready Allen said that they would have to dismember Bob to prevent identification if someone should discover his remains. Using the butcher knife they removed Bob’s head and each arm at the elbow. They buried the remains and then tossed the head and arms into the truck of the car and drove back Allen’s store.

While Allen and Carlos were coping with the dead body, Keith Slaten turned up at the house of his friend Martha Hughes. He told her that he’d been in a fight and wanted to clean up his car. He was covered with blood and shaking like a leaf and Martha told him she didn’t believe he’d been in a fight.  He blurted out: “Well, God damn. All right, so we killed him.” Allen couldn’t keep his mouth shut either. The day after Bob’s murder he told Eugene Bridgeford everything that had happened after he pleaded illness and left.

What happened to Bob’s head and arms? Allen and Carlos took them to the home of Christine Longbrake a few days after the murder. Christine was an acquaintance of Allen’s and a couple of weeks before the crime she’d been in Allen’s shop and he’d told her that “there was someone they had to get rid of” because the man was trying to blackmail him.  Allen asked to use her garage as a place to get rid of the guy but she thought he was kidding. When Allen and Carlos turned up with two boxes Christine knew she couldn’t refuse any request they made. She stayed upstairs while the boxes were taken to the cellar. Allen knocked Bob’s teeth out with a hammer then placed what was left of him in the hole and then poured in a bottle of acid.  When the men came back upstairs Christine smiled nervously and said: “Is it somebody I know?” They smiled back and Allen said that she wouldn’t know him. Then he and Carlos drove out to Hansen Dam and tossed Bob’s teeth and dental plate into a gravel pit.DITSON_PIC

Christine hadn’t seen the last of Allen and Carlos. Not more than a few days after they’d buried the boxes in her cellar Carlos stopped by and told her everything. He even told her what was in the boxes underneath her house. Her nerves weren’t soothed when he told her that he could never kill a woman. In fact she was so unnerved that she told Allen she was going to move “…because I couldn’t stand living in this house …” Allen told her that if it bothered her so much he’d pay her rent if she’d just hang on a bit longer.

A bit longer turned out to be several months. In June 1960 Allen asked George Longbrake, Christine’s brother-in-law, if he would dig up the two arms and head under the house. George agreed and Allen bought him some aluminum foil so he could wrap up the bits of Bob that remained. Then, since it seemed the entire Longbrake family was involved anyway, Allen asked Wynston Longbrake, Christine’s husband, if he’d “help bury something.” Allen, Carlos, and Wynston drove from L.A. on Highway 99 to a place about 14 miles from Castaic Junction. He turned off the highway for about 100 yards. Carlos waited in the car while the other two carried the macabre foil wrapped packages out of sight, then dug a post-hole and buried them.

DITSON_CARLOSBecause Allen and Carlos were incapable of keeping quiet about what they’d done it was only a matter of time before the law caught up with them. The remaining gang members began to fear Allen more than they did the cops. On June 17, 1960 Keith Slaten went to the police and a few days later Eugene Bridgeford did the same. The statements were enough for the police to get a warrant to examine Carlos’ Cadillac–they found traces of human blood in the trunk. One day later the police conducted a similar examination of Keith’s Ford and found human blood on the upholstery. On June 28, “sometime after 1:00 p.m.” Allen and Carlos were taken into custody.

Allen maintained his innocence, but Carlos appeared to be genuinely remorseful and he wanted to talk. In his 1959 book, The Compulsion to Confess, Theodore Reik said “There is … an impulse growing more and more intense suddenly to cry out his secret in the street before all people, or in milder cases, to confide it at least to one person, to free himself from the terrible burden. The work of confession is thus that emotional process in which the social and psychological significance of the crime becomes preconscious and in which all powers that resist the compulsion to confess are conquered.”DITSON_HEADLINE1

Allen’s protestations of innocence didn’t sway the jury of five men and seven women.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Carlos was also found guilty in Bob’s murder and sentenced to death. In early November 1962, with their executions imminent, Governor Brown presided over a clemency hearing. Carlos’ remorse saved him. His sentence was commuted to life.

Allen never admitted his guilt to the police, but he did confess to nearly everyone else he knew. On November 21, 1962, without requesting a special holiday meal, Allen kept his Thanksgiving Eve date with the gas chamber.

In the Line of Duty, Conclusion

adams-and-john-lawOn October 24, 1946, Tony Adams limped into Judge Leroy Dawson’s courtroom and was formally charged with the murder of California Highway Patrolman Steve Sodel. He was also indicted for grand theft of the Chevy sedan which belonged to Jeanne Trude. Adams was manacled to Lieutenant John Law of the sheriff’s department, presumably to prevent him from making another escape attempt. Adams’ attorney, William E. Turner, waived reading of the complaint and Judge Dawson set a hearing date.

Adams, an occasional artist’s model, had at least one person in his corner. Beverly Lounsbury, 23, ex-cashier at a Sunset Strip night club that was one of Adams’ regular night spots. Lounsbury visited Adams in the County Jail on the morning of his arraignment. She said that Adams had broken a date with her for the night before Sodel’s murder. Lounsbury told Lieutenant Law, “I feel sorry for him and wanted to tell him so. He told me you fellows didn’t believe him when he said he threw the gun away but he swore he was telling the truth.”adams-cuffed

A jury of nine women and three men was selected to determine Adams’ fate. Attorney William Turner must have worked hard to get nine women on the jury. There was no doubt that Adams was a handsome guy, referred to in the newspapers at the Playboy Killer. Perhaps, if he was lucky, the women jurors could be swayed by the defendant’s good looks. Adams was going to need all the luck he could get. He had drawn Judge Charles W. Fricke.  The judge was a former prosecutor with a reputation for being a tough on lawbreakers. For their part, the prosecutors John Barnes and Fred Henderson didn’t care what Adams looked like, they made it clear that they intended to seek the gas chamber for the alleged cop killer.jeanne-louise-smith

Beverly Lounsbury found a seat in spectator section of Fricke’s courtroom. She told reporters “I’m not sure myself that Tony is guilty of the crime they charge him with. He needs a friend and I’m going to stick by him.”

One of the prosecution witnesses was a former girlfriend of Adams’, Jeanne Louise Smith. The car hop testified that she and Adams had dated briefly while she was separated from her husband. On the evening of September 14, Adams had shown up at her workplace to show her something. “He called me to the rear of the drive-in stand and showed me this gun. I asked him what he was doing with it, but he didn’t answer. He merely stood there, holding the gun in one hand and jingling a bunch of cartridges in his other hand.” Unfamiliar with guns, Smith was shown several different types of firearms but she was unable to say whether Adams had shown her a revolver or another type of gun.

Frances Sodel, the slain officer’s widow, took the stand and, wiping away tears, she identified a photo of her husband and articles of clothing which were discovered in the shallow grave with Steve Sodel’s bullet riddled body.

Frederic D. Newbarr had performed the autopsy on Sodel and he testified that the officer had been shot in the chest five times.

Jack Singleton identified Adams as the man who had stopped him and asked for help in extricating his car from sand alongside the road. Singleton said he had a feeling that the car was hot, so when he saw Officer Sodel he flagged him down and reported his suspicions. Sodel took off after the black sedan.

In his testimony service station operator John Rose said “I heard sounds of automobiles traveling at a high rate of speed and then a black Chevrolet zoomed east on Jefferson closely followed by a California Highway Patrol car. Neither car made the boulevard stop and I think they were going about 65 or 70 miles an hour. I knew the Highway patrol car was Sodel’s because I had seen it many times before.” Rose said he watched both cars disappear from view, then he went back to work.

Jeanne Trude and Elyse Pearl Brown

Jeanne Trude and Elyse Pearl Brown

Jeanne Trude told the court how Adams had introduced himself to her and a girlfriend, movie extra, Elyse Pearl Brown, at the Jococo Club. She said Adams accompanied them to Dave’s Blue Room on the Sunset Strip where, “Miss Brown and myself ordered dinner at Dave’s but Tony just asked for a cup of coffee. He said he was suffering from malaria. Then he excused himself and left. I didn’t see him again, but when I went to get my car I discovered it was gone. I saw it again two weeks later and instead of being gray it was painted black–and not very well, at that.”

The hat-check girl/former cashier and reputed girl friend of the defendant testified that he had visited her a couple of days prior to the slaying. He had a gun, a handful of cartridges and an electric razor he claimed he had won in a poker game the previous night. Adams wanted her to hold the gun for him but she refused. He then told her to “keep quiet about the whole thing.”

One of Adams’ neighbors, Gordon Briggs, testified that he had seen him wearing a paint stained work shirt late in the afternoon of September 17. When Briggs asked about the stains Adams told him,  “I’ve been helping a friend fix some pipes.”

Adams’ explanation for the paint was refuted by Police Chemist Ray Pinker. Pinker said he took samples of paint from the stolen car and matched them to the paint on Adams’ work shirt. They were identical. Pinker had also examined the undercarriage of the stolen car for evidence and had found weeds similar to those found near Sodel’s shallow grave.

Adams’ defense opened their case with two alibi witnesses. The first was Armand Martinez who worked at a cafe at 219 N. Vermont Avenue. He told jurors that Adams couldn’t have committed the murder because he was in the cafe lunching with a beautiful blonde at the time of the crime.

Next on the witness stand was Alvin Faith, a bartender. At 3 p.m. on the day of Sodel’s disappearance he said that Adams was in his bar. “Adams had a nosebleed. So I got him some ice and told him to go back to the restroom.”

Fletcher Herndon, an employee of the Studio Club at 3668 Beverly Boulevard, said that Adams was a frequent customer and had been in at about 11 p.m. on September 17 and asked whether a woman named Selznick had been in looking for him. Selznick?! At the mention of the name name Adams grimaced at Herndon and began to shake his head vigorously back and forth. Herndon didn’t get the message fast enough. He said it was his understanding that the woman was married to a “movie man”. Is it possible that Irene Mayer Selznick, wife of producer David O. Selznick, was seeing pretty boy Tony Adams? In Hollywood, anything is possible.

Adams’ attorneys decided to put their client on the stand to testify in his own defense. Under direct examination by William Turner, Adams denied being Sodel’s killer. Once Turner had finished Prosecutor John Barnes grilled Adams in a blistering cross-examination.roosevelt_sodel

The only thing Adams would admit to was that he had accompanied Jeanne Trude from the Jococo Club to Dave’s Blue Room. He claimed that he left the table when he realized he didn’t have funds sufficient to pay for dinner. Rather than face the embarrassment, he left.  In the parking lot Adams claimed he met a “Mr. Cudahy”–a guy he knew from one of the bars in town–and they’d driven downtown looking for women to pick up.

According to Adams, the mysterious Mr. Cudahy told him he as leaving for New York the next evening and offered Adams a ride. They arranged to meet the next day. Adams said they drove to Las Vegas, but he discovered Cudahy was carrying a box filled with guns. Adams said he “ditched” Cudahy and went on to New York by bus. He told the court “The first time I knew I was wanted for any crime was when I heard it over the radio on a murder program. When my name was mentioned you could have knocked me through the floor.”

Adams claimed the statements he’d made to New York City detectives, in which he had copped to stealing Jean Trude’s car and getting rid of two guns the day following Sodel’s murder, had been made under duress. Adams said he was questioned continuously by a group of at least 6 detectives. One of them, he said, kept slamming a blackjack on the table and  telling Adams that he was a candidate for Harts Field  (a local pauper’s cemetery in).

In closing arguments the prosecutors wove together all of the circumstantial evidence that linked the defendant to the murder. They made a compelling case.

The Defense Attorneys John Irwin and William Turner weren’t left with much. All they could do was maintain that the State had failed to prove its case. They said that there was no definite link between Adams and the murder of Steve Sodel.

The jurors would have to weigh the evidence and testimony and make up their own minds.

The jury deliberated for four hours before notifying Judge Fricke that they had reached a verdict. Frances Sodel said beside another CHP widow, Mrs. Loren Roosevelt as they waited for the verdict to be read. Adams, dressed in a brown pin-striped suit, sat at the defense table with his head in his hands. Jury foreman Edward A. Mohr handed the decision to the court clerk, who then handed it to Judge Fricke. Adams was found guilty of the murder of Steve Sodel. But rather than the gas chamber the jury recommended life without parole.

Why hadn’t the jury handed Adams, a cold-blooded cop killer, a ticket to California’s gas chamber? Evidently the verdict was a compromise, reached when one of the female jurors declared that she would, “sit in the jury room for six months if if necessary” rather than condemn Adams to death.adams-pic

After hearing the verdict, Adams posed for news photographers and said, “I am satisfied with the jury’s verdict. My attorneys, Richard Erwin and William Turner, have given me a fair shake. I’m very lucky.”

Certainly luckier than Steve Sodel and his family.

Epilogue —  According to records, Tony Adams arrived at San Quentin on February 1, 1947.  Adams’ prison register indicates that he was married with one child. His marital status never came up at trial, although his numerous girlfriends and other female acquaintance did. It is entirely possible that he abandoned his wife and child, likely in New York. One wonders if his wife and child ever knew where he went or what happened to him. Adams didn’t spent much time at San Quentin before being transferred to Folsom Prison on April 17, 1947.  As far as I know he remained there until he was paroled. I haven’t been able to discover the date of his parole, but I sincerely hope his looks were long gone by the time he was released. He had a reputation for using women by trading on his looks.  Several women to whom he owed money came forward to talk to sheriff’s department detectives. I prefer to believe that by the time he left prison he had nothing left to trade. Albert Anthony Adams died in Huntington Beach, California on August 15, 2000.

A bronze memorial plaque honoring Steve Sodel was set in cement at the base of a tree at the Sheriff’s Honor Farm (known as Wayside) in Castaic by Sheriff’s Department American Legion Star Post 309.

Note: Many thanks to my friend, Mike Fratantoni,  for sharing this story with me.

In the Line of Duty, Part 2

sodel_blimpEquipped with binoculars, the observers aboard a Navy blimp piloted by Lt. A. J. Slack skimmed the treetops of Palos Verdes, Playa del Rey, Hollywood Hills and Topanga Canyon searching for any sign of missing CHP Patrolman Steve Sodel.  The terrain yielded nothing.

Detectives attempted to piece together a plausible scenario for Sodel’s disappearance from the scant clues available.  They believed that the officer had the misfortune to meet up with one or more so-called “cop-haters” who then forced him at gunpoint into the Chevy sedan.   Tire impressions found at the scene showed that the sedan had backed up and then “dug out” past the parked CHP prowl car.

sodel_headline2Late on the fourth day of the search a bloodstained sedan, riddled with bullet holes, was found abandoned near Las Vegas, Nevada.  A private plane owned by a member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Aero Bureau flew members of the CHP and the Sheriff’s department to the scene.

The search of LA’s environs was a bust, but the car in Las Vegas was a treasure trove of useful information.   The car was sitting in a Las Vegas police impound yard when LA detectives and criminalists arrived to examine every inch of it.  The car was stolen, just as they had thought.  There was a bullet hole in the trunk and something that may have been blood was discovered on the front fender.  Tests were needed to determine whether the stains were human and not animal blood.  The vehicle was dusted for prints inside and out.  Paperwork, routinely carried by highway patrolmen, was also found in the car.sodel-death-car

The evidence was flown back to LA and they got a hit on the fingerprints—they belonged to Albert A. (Tony) Adams, a house painter in his mid to late 20s.  They also traced the owner of the stolen car.  It belonged to Jeanne Trude, 10540 Cushdon Avenue, West Los Angeles, and was stolen from the parking lot of a Sunset Strip nightclub early on the morning of Sodel’s disappearance.  Trude said that she and her friend, Elyse Browne, met a man named Tony Adams at a local night club.  When he suggested that they drive to another, they agreed. Once they arrived at the second night spot, Adams excused himself from the table saying he would return in a few minutes.  He never did.  When Trude and her friend went out to get her car, it was gone.

An all-points bulletin went out for Adams.

A search of Adams’s home led by Sheriff’s Detective Captain Gordon Bowers turned up a photo which he showed to Jack Singleton.  Singleton recognized the man as they guy he had helped with his car on September 17th.   What didn’t turn up in the search was the .32 caliber revolver which acquaintances of Adams’s said he often flashed at bars and night spots. adams_pic

Five days after Sodel’s disappearance, a 35 man posse on horseback convened at dawn to conduct a search for the missing man.  Under District Inspector Walter P. Greer of the Highway Patrol the posse was divided into three groups and set out to search the hills near Loyola University for Sodel but, once again, they failed to find him.

On that same day three young boys—Robert Freyling, 9, Robert Irvine, 8, and his younger brother Blair Irvine, 5—were playing near a new subdivision in Baldwin Hills when they found Steve Sodel’s body.  It was partly covered with dirt. His service revolver and handcuffs were missing but his identification papers and uniform were intact.

The autopsy revealed that Sodel’s skull had been fractured—three .32 caliber slugs were lodged in his chest and two other bullets had passed through his body.   At least now there was physical evidence to support the original theory of the crime—that Steve Sodel had been kidnapped and murdered.

Steve Sodel’s brother officers assisted his widow with funeral arrangements.  The rites were scheduled for 2 p.m., Wednesday, September 25, 1946 in Patriotic Hall, with interment in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale.  Star Post No. 309, of which Sodel was Junior Past Commander, officiated.

As Steve Sodel’s family grieved, law enforcement continued their search for Tony Adams.

 NEXT TIME:  A killer is captured.

In the Line of Duty, Part 1

About 2 p.m. on Tuesday, September 17, 1946, Jack Singleton, an employee of Central Airport, was driving down Sepulveda Boulevard near Lincoln Avenue when a man flagged him down. The man’s car was stuck in the sand, so Singleton pulled over to offer aid. Singleton noticed that the Chevy sedan had a fresh coat of paint. Singleton hooked a rope over the bumper to free the car. As Singleton was securing the rope he saw something that struck him as odd– the license plate had been partially painted over. Together Singleton and the stranded man were able to pull the car out of the sand. As Singleton drove back onto Lincoln he saw a Highway Patrol car approaching from the opposite direction. Singleton signaled to the officer.  They pulled next to each other and talked for a few moments. Singleton told the officer he thought that the car that he’d just helped pull out of the sand was stolen. The cop agreed the painted license plate sounded fishy and sped off in pursuit of the suspicious car

sodel-picSeconds later John A. Rose, the operator of a service station at 328 Lincoln Boulevard, saw a black Chevy blow through a stop sign at Lincoln and Sepulveda. Rose’s best guess was that the driver was going roughly 65 to70 mph–and right behind him was a Highway Patrol car. Rose recognized the car as the one always driven by officer Steve Sodel. Rose knew it was Sodel’s car because it was kind of beat up–more so than some of the others he’d seen around. The pursued and pursuer disappeared down the highway and Rose went back to work.

George Osborne, an aeronautical engineer, was headed to his W. Imperial Highway home when he noticed that a 1941/1942 dark colored Chevrolet was parked alongside the road. Right behind it was a Highway Patrol car. Like most of us, he was likely relieved that it was some other poor clown getting a ticket.

Sixteen minutes after Osborne saw the Chevy and CHP car at the side of the road, Sodel’s black and white radio car was found abandoned on Jefferson. sodel-jeepThe next day over 100 CHP officers combed Venice and Playa del Rey for Sodel, but they didn’t find a trace of him.  Even a blimp took to the air in an attempt to find the missing man. Dozens of tips were phoned in, but none of them panned out.

sodel-family-waitsSteve Sodel was not only a dedicated lawman, he was the former Commander of the American Legion’s Star Post No. 309. In an effort to get a lead in the case the post offered “a substantial reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person or persons responsible for his disappearance.”

While the massive search continued the 48-year-old missing patrolman’s wife, daughter, and son-in-law anxiously waited at home.

NEXT TIME: The search for Steve Sodel concludes.

The Trash Bag Killer, Part 2

KEARNEY_HILL_PICSIn late June 1977, Sheriff’s officers announced that they were seeking Patrick W. Kearney, 38, and David D. Hill, 34, formerly of Redondo Beach, as suspects in the sex murders of 8 young men. Investigators said that they had found evidence near the body of John Otis LaMay that lead them to issue warrants for the two men–but they wouldn’t reveal what it was they had found.

EVIDENCE NEAR BODYThe victims tentatively linked to the wanted men ranged in age from 12 to 24–none were as young as 5-year-old Ronnie Dean Smith, who had been dead for nearly 3 years. Maybe the detectives were mistaken in their earlier hunch that the boy’s slaying was connected to the others.

Newspapers printed photos of the wanted men and, because it was a different time, frequently referred to them as “admitted homosexuals”. Along with photos and physical descriptions of the fugitives some details of the crimes were revealed. All eight victims had been nude when discovered, all had been shot and four of them were stuffed into heavy trash bags. As far as detectives could determine, the victims had been picked up in El Segundo or downtown Los Angeles and then dumped in several different counties.

Within a day or two of the warrants being issued for their arrest, Kearney and Hill walked into the Riverside County Sheriff’s headquarters, pointed to their pictures on a wanted poster, and surrendered. They were booked on suspicion of two murders; but Los Angeles County Sheriff’s investigators said that “there may be as many as 30 to 35 more bodies”, but they qualified the statement: “none of this has been confirmed.”KEARNEY_HILL_SURRENDER

Immediately following the July 4th holiday, Kearney and Hill were arraigned for the “trash bag” killings and bail was set at $500,000 each.

Detectives from five Southern California counties reviewed their John and Jane Doe cases to see if there were other possible victims that matched the “trash bag” M.O., and they found several that appeared similar.

HILL INNOCENT SAYS MOMDavid Hill’s mother, Edna, was interviewed in her hometown of Lubbock, Texas: “My David would do anything like that. I know the Lord’s going to help. He’ll take care of him.”

Hill had had a had a rough childhood. He was one of 9 kids and his father, J.W. Hill Sr., hanged himself in late 1948, leaving his family to struggle. Hill seemed always to be at loose ends. He never finished high school and was rarely employed. Finally, as many rootless young men do, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He completed his basic training at Ft. Ord, California and never went back to Lubbock to live. He occasionally visited his family and reconnected with his  high school sweetheart, whom he married. He met Kearney in 1962 and his wife divorced him in 1966.

Nobody was surprised that Hill’s mother defended her son, but what came as a complete surprise was that Kearney did the same. Soon after surrendering Kearney began to talk. He revealed the location of a victim he had buried between two garages at the rear of a triplex he and Hill had shared in 1968. Lt. Ed Douglas of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department said that Kearney knew the victim only as “George”. The skeleton was unearthed and there was a hole in the skull, likely caused by a gunshot.HILL RELEASED HEADLINE

On July 14, nine days after they had surrendered themselves to the Riverside Sheriff’s Department, charges against Hill were dropped. To spare him from having to gun a gauntlet of reporters and photographers Hill was secretly taken from the jail. He may have gotten a “get out of jail free” card, but his attorney wisely counseled him to keep mum because there was a chance he could be recharged.

The Riverside County Grand Jury indicted Kearney for murder. He lead detectives to George’s grave in Culver City–would he lead them to other victims?  What about Ronnie Smith? His murder didn’t fit the M.O.–was he a victim of the Trash Bag Killer?  His family still needed answers.

NEXT TIME:  At last–more answers than questions.

The Trash Bag Killer, Part 1

On August 24, 1974 five-year-old Ronald Dean Smith failed to appear for dinner. Ronnie had been playing with a friend at a local park. The friend was accounted for, but nobody knew where Ronnie was. It wasn’t like him to miss dinner and it was odd that nobody knew where he was.  His grandmother, Mrs. Shirley O’Conner, was babysitting her grandson while his mother was out of town. When she couldn’t find him she called the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lennox Substation.

Sheriff’s deputies talked to Ronnie’s friend. He told them that he and Ronnie had gotten into a “…sand fight” and he’d gone home to clean up leaving his friend, in tears, in the sandbox.

Teams of Sheriff’s detectives searched the eight-square-mile park and went door-to-door interviewing people but, according to Lt. Ray Gott, “No clues–nothing. The boy has just disappeared.”

joann_picSeven days after his disappearance his mother, 22-year-old Joann O’Connor (she and Ronnie’s father were divorced) talked to the press in the squad room of the Sheriff’s station.

She made a gut-wrenching plea to the unknown person(s) who had her son.

“The reason we wanted you all to come here is to tell whoever had Ronnie how much we want him back. We definitely do feel in our hearts that he’s alive and OK and that he’s safe. I just want to tell whoever he’s with now that he’s very important to me, that he’s…”

Joann stopped for a moment, took a breath and composed herself as best she could, then she continued:

“…he’s all I’ve got. And that I love him so very much. I know that whoever took Ronnie took him because they wanted a little boy to love, and I know you took him because he’s so beautiful and that you won’t hurt him…”

On Sunday, October 13, 1974 a group of kids were collecting old beer cans along Ortega Highway near El Cariso Village in Riverside County, when they discovered a body. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department was notified.  They immediately checked the missing persons reports and found a description of Ronnie. The body they had was too badly decomposed to be identified by its features, but the clothing matched that of the missing boy. An autopsy confirmed everyone’s worst fears.

As hard as they tried, Sheriff’s investigators failed to turn up any suspects.

In late April, 1977, nearly three years following Ronnie’s death, the remains of 17-year-old El Segundo High School senior, John Otis LaMay, were discovered wrapped in plastic bags in an 80-gallon can in Temescal Canyon. He’d been missing for about a month.

El Segundo Police Detective Roger Kahl noted that there were similarities between LaMay’s death and the deaths of numerous other victims, all young men, whose nude bodies had been found near highways in four Southern California counties since April 1975. However, he said that LaMay was the only one who had been dismembered.

Despite the anomaly, Sheriff’s offices in Riverside, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties, along with the LAPD, were sharing information in the belief that the murders were connected.

NEXT TIME: The body count climbs. Two suspects are identified.