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.

30 More Years of Crime in L.A.

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

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

dirtyharry

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

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

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

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

ramirez_108a

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

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

Jim Jones of the People's Temple

Jim Jones of the People’s Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan

 

 

 

A Thanksgiving Eve Date with the Gas Chamber, Conclusion

DITSON_WARDAfter 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.

A Thanksgiving Eve Date with the Gas Chamber

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.

NEXT TIME: Which will it be for Allen Ditson? A turkey dinner with more to come, or the gas chamber?

Gladys Witherell is Missing! — Case Wrap-up

witherell_operatorsIt’s time for a postmortem on the Witherell case.

The two men who kidnapped Gladys Witherell, Floyd and Arthur “Jack” Carr, were sentenced to from 10 years to life in prison. Gladys was returned to her family. But what about the reward?

The reward money was divided among the seven telephone operators who played a significant role in the capture of the Carrs: Bessie Shaeffer, Georgia Pond, Lillian Clark, Bessie Sullivan, Alma Bryant, Lillian Moore and Bertha Heere. The operators kept Arthur on the phone while simultaneously conveying the address of the phone booth he was calling from to the police.

On the evening of February 10, 1921 a ceremony to honor the women was held at Grauman’s Theater. A special film about the case was shown (where is it now, I wonder). Detective Sergeants King and Oaks, and Deputy Sheriff Anderson were introduced as the men who captured the kidnappers. They would also receive rewards.

Nick Harris (owner of the private investigation agency bearing his name) represented Gladys at the theater because her physician said that she was still far too nervous and fatigued to appear in public. On her behalf he handed each of the operators a check for approximately $215–equivalent to $2875 in current dollars.

operator_picsGladys’ father-in-law heaped praise on the women: “Had these girls not been on the job, nobody can tell what might have happened to Gladys. They are the most splendid examples of young American womanhood–alert, quick-witted, sympathetic and instantaneously responsive to the call of need.”

I agree.

Nothing to Live For, Conclusion

Alfred Wells wasn’t a sympathetic defendant; and it seemed unlikely that his frequent and profane outbursts in court, aimed specifically at his half-sister Violet Wells the object of his sexual obsession, would earn him points with the jury.

wells sobsHis demeanor completely changed from combative to uncontrollable sobbing when Dr. A.E. Gilbert, county autopsy surgeon, took the stand and began to describe in graphic detail the wounds that killed each of the three victims. Each one of the three had been shot in the back. As Dr. Gilbert testified, Alfred’s head fell forward and he wept. Was he weeping out of sympathy for the dead or the fact that his cowardice in shooting his victims in the back had been revealed in open court?

When Alfred was first arrested he claimed to have no recollection of the murders to which he later confessed. When he was called to testify he repudiated his confession. He explained that he had signed a confession but that, “I gave the Sheriff the kind of thing he wanted–cold turkey, with no holes to craw up in–but it was all phony baloney.” Yet the phony baloney confession fit the facts of the case perfectly.

Alfred’s fallback plan continued to be his convenient amnesia. He said that after Violet vanished he started drinking wine and smoking “loco weed” which left his mind a blank until he found himself in Nevada, a wanted man. Violet was so dumbfounded by Alfred’s testimony she nearly dropped her knitting.

violet knittingOnce the testimony had concluded, Chief Deputy District Attorney John P. Knauf passionately argued for the death penalty. “This is so aggravated a crime–with the defendant callously holding a victim’s young baby in his arm while he shot her in the back–that the death penalty should be inflicted.”

The best Theodore G. Krumm, Alfred’s attorney, could do in rebuttal was to assert that while he believed that his client was guilty of the murders, he also believed that the defendant had no memory of what he had done.

The jury of of five women and seven men deliberated for a mere 30 minutes before finding Alfred Wells guilty on all counts. Upon hearing the verdict he fell back in his chair. But he didn’t stay there. He jumped to his feet and shouted, “I can’t get a fair trial from the doctors here, so I am willing to leave my fate up to the higher court and the doctors at San Quentin.” It was a dumb move among the many that had characterized Wells’ life thus far. His attorney withdrew the insanity plea–thus virtually assuring that his client would perish in the gas chamber.

Alfred’s attempt to make a statement was cut off by Judge Leonard. District Attorney Jerome Kavanaugh, however, was allowed to speak, “It is regrettable this defendant hasn’t three lives we could ask for. If he could be sent into the gas chamber three times it would not atone for these heartless crimes. His worthless carcass is not worth anything compared to the lives of his three innocent victims. When and if the defendant is led into the gas chamber, society will lose nothing.”

When reached for comment on the verdict Violet Wells said that she was relieved that Albert was going to pay for what he’d done.

wells_mug_deadAll appeals on Alfred’s behalf were denied and on December 3, 1942 he was one day away from his execution. When jailers informed him that there was little chance for a reprieve or commutation Alfred said, “It’s all right with me, I haven’t anything to live for.”

Nothing to Live For, Part 3

hunchback huntedAt 7:00 a.m. on May 11, 1941 the largest manhunt in the history of Southern California began. Under the command of San Bernardino Undersheriff, Jim Stocker, over 1000 volunteers were sent out to comb secluded canyons, desert areas and seldom traveled roads for Ray Wells, brother of Alfred Wells. Alfred, the “Hunchback Slayer”, had murdered his sister-in-law Jean and her friend Rose Destree. Jean and Ray’s baby daughter had survived only because of Rose’s courage–the young woman, although mortally wounded–had dragged herself to a nearby road to summon help.

Sheriff Shay of San Bernardino was convinced that Alfred had murdered Ray because he blamed him for helping his half-sister, Violet, escape his unwanted attentions. Alfred’s obsession with her had turned into emotional and sexual abuse and she feared for her life and the lives of their family members. Violet and her parents were hiding out at an unreported location under police guard.

The day after the manhunt had begun E.E. Thompson and O.E. Hawkins of San Bernardino were walking in the Verdemont district when Hawkins asked Thompson: “If you were a killer, where would you hide a body?” Thompson said he would go higher into the hills where the brush was thickest. They went up the hill and walked for about 30 minutes before they encountered the pungent odor of decaying flesh. They found Ray’s body where it had lain baking in the sun for almost four days. He had been shot in the back of the head.

wells search

Thompson and Hawkins first smelled, then saw, the body of Ray Wells. Wells had been shot in the back of the head.

While the fugitive was being hunted, an inquest was scheduled for May 13 in San Bernardino. There were three dead: Jean Wells, 24, David Raymond Wells, 24,  and Rose Destree, 17. All three had been shot several days before in the foothills near Cajon Pass about 12 miles from San Bernardino. On her deathbed, Rose said that she and Jean had been attacked by Alfred.

Beulah Cline who lived next door to Alfred’s tiny bungalow at 659 Kingman Avenue, testified that she had seen Alfred with Jean, Rose and the baby on the day of the murders. She saw the group leave together at about 6 p.m.   Alfred had returned alone a couple of hours later. He had spoken to Beulah saying: “I got to get a coat. I wrapped mine around the baby!” Then he said: “I haven’t got my job done yet, and I don’t want to be disturbed.” At the time Beulah had no idea what Alfred was talking about.

Once the coroner’s jury had heard all of the witnesses they determined that Ray Wells, Jean Wells and Rose Destree had died as the result of a “homicide at the hands of an unknown person.”

While the search for Alfred continued William Stroud, a neighbor of the wanted man, was arrested for selling a firearm to a paroled convict. Alfred had paid for the gun with $1 and a box of groceries. It was also revealed that Alfred was so filled with hate that he had modified the bullets into dum-dums (expanding rounds) believing that by doing so they would be sure to cause death. The little man was no genius. Cutting “X’s” in a bullet to create a dum-dum is difficult. Maybe it is easier when you are filled with rage. Alfred also rubbed the homemade dum-dums in garlic in the belief that even if he didn’t kill his victims out right they would die of poison. Rubbing bullets in garlic is the stuff of legend. Mafia hit men were thought to do it and it sounds scary as hell. The truth is that you’d need more garlic than just a coating and even then it’s highly unlikely that you could deliver a lethal dose that way. Oh well, his pre-rampage ritual probably made him feel empowered.

Alfred was still at large at the end of May, three weeks after the murders. The Los Angeles Times referred to his crimes as a “savage orgy of hate.” It would be difficult to argue with that.

wells_custodyOn June 6 in a hobo jungle in Spokane, Washington, Alfred was busted on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon. He’d been rousted in a routine check of suspicious characters. He tried to deny his identity, claiming to be Alfred H. Blake from Trout Creek, Montana, but given his distinctive appearance his denial was an exercise in futility. He finally copped to being Alfred Wells but he refused to confess to the murders—in fact he said if he had committed the murders then he didn’t recall them. “I don’t remember a thing about any triple killing. I remember leaving my car in Las Vegas and I knew that I would be wanted for car theft and for parole violation. I gave my name as Alfred Blake when picked up by Spokane officers, but I told them later that night I was Alfred Wells and that they would find I was wanted for parole violation They told me I was wanted for three murders. I don’t remember anything about that.”  He would later confess.

wells screamsPrior to his trial, which began on October 21, 1941, Alfred made an escape attempt using a gun he had carved out of soap. Alfred had probably been inspired by the story that John Dillinger had used a gun carved out of soap (or wood) to escape from jail. Alfred also tried to kill himself twice while in custody. Despite his desperate attempts to avoid trial, Alfred made it to court. His attorney, Theodore G. Krumm, entered pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity on behalf of his client. The first witness called was Violet Wells, the object of Alfred’s lust and the alleged motivation for his murderous rampage. According to the Los Angeles Times as Violet began to describe how they “entered their unnatural relationship” Alfred leaped to his feet, raised both fists above his head and screamed, “You dirty __ __ __!” He was subdued by Sheriff’s deputies. They handcuffed him to a belt which was buckled around his waist. A 10 minute recess was called as Alfred continued  screaming. “I’ll make her tell the truth! I’ve got something to say. She said she’d do just what she is doing; that she would do anything or say anything or swear anything to put me in the gas chamber.”

alfred and violetAs Violet resumed her sordid testimony, Judge Leonard halted the proceedings. “If there is anyone in the courtroom under 21, he or she will leave at once. Those who do not leave will have their names turned over to the juvenile authorities for investigation.”

Violet told of Alfred’s threats to harm her, their family members or himself if she didn’t accede to his demands. “He was always turning on the gas, grabbing a butcher knife and threatening to kill himself or some of the rest of us–or some other damn fool thing…” She said that Alfred had forced her to share his bed. “I wouldn’t have crossed him–I knew better. He wouldn’t have hurt me. He’d hurt somebody else…he hated Jean–there wasn’t anything under the sun he didn’t call her–the same things as he called me.”

violet weepsViolet Wells Davis, Alfred’s stepmother, took the stand and testified how the defendant had “always been like a son to me.” She had permitted her daughter to live with Alfred as his housekeeper. When family members realized what was re,ally going on they got Violet out of the house.  That’s when Alfred came completely unhinged.

NEXT TIME: Will the jury of five women and seven men convict Alfred?

Nothing to Live For, Part 2

Alfred Wells shot Rose Destree once under her heart and a second time in the abdomen. As soon as she heard Alfred pull away in the car, Rose began a slow, painful crawl back toward the road. She tried to coax 13 month old Hester Violet away from her mother but the child refused to budge. Every few minutes Rose stopped crawling long enough to catch her breath so that she could scream for help.

It took four hours for anyone to come to Rose’s aid. Lester Bellah, B. Bjorkman and his son Lars, heard the screams and found Rose near death. They discovered Hester Violet in the arms of her deceased mother. Deputy Sheriff Bill Lungstrom was the one to reach down to pick up the baby, but she clung to her mother without making a sound. Lungstrom later said: “I’ll be a long time forgetting that.” Rose was transported to a hospital where she had surgery to remove one of the bullets. As soon as she awakened from anesthesia she told San Bernardino County Undersheriff James W. Stocker that she believed that the dead woman, Albert’s sister-in-law Jean Wells, had not only known Violet’s whereabouts but had actually driven her to Escondido to keep her from Albert.

rose destreeRose’s condition was critical but she continued to provide information to Undersheriff Stocker in the hopes that she could prevent Albert from killing anyone else. She also described her ordeal in excruciating detail to Stocker. She said that after being shot: “I fell to the ground and I lay perfectly still on my side, in spite of the terrible pain. I peeped past my arm and saw Al put the baby in Jean’s arms and start turning back toward me. I shut my eyes instantly and lay as still as I could. He looked us both over a few times, with the gun still in his hands, and then turn away. Then I heard him crashing his way through the brush toward the road.”

hester wellsStocker located Violet in Escondido where she was hiding out with her parents. He urged the family to go to the police station for protection. Other members of Albert’s family were assigned police guards around the clock until Albert was either captured or killed. Norman Wells, one of Albert’s brothers, was found at Sunny Slope Ranch in Rialto where he was an employee. He was holding a shotgun across his knees: “Al better not come around here,” he told the officers. Norman need not have worried, Albert was fixated on finding Violet and he thought his brother Ray, Jean’s husband, knew where she was hiding. Albert showed up at Ray’s house, showed him Jean’s note and, believing she was still alive, Ray left with Albert.

wells-abandon-autoOn the evening of May 9, Special Agents found the 1932 black Ford coupe in a garage in Las Vegas near the Union Pacific route between San Bernardino and Salt Lake City. The agents feared that Ray Wells had met the same fate as his wife.

Tragically, Rose succumbed to her wounds. San Bernardino Sheriff E.L. Shay asked the LAPD to send out a short-wave broadcast with a description of Alfred to all major U.S. cities. The broadcast gave a physical description of Alfred and included additional information: “Fingerprint classification one over one, T over R, six over eight. Has receding forehead, prominent ears. Suspect has .38-caliber Hopkins & Allen NP hammerless revolver, three-inch barrel, Serial R6334.”

The police desperately wanted to find Albert. It was likely that he was guilty of three murders–unless Ray was found alive.  If he had successfully hopped a freight train he could be anywhere.

NEXT TIME: Will Albert Wells be found?