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.

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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.

The Wilshire Prowler, Part 2

Karil Graham’s former flame, Leon McFadden, passed a lie detector test and was cleared of her murder.

Investigators were back to square one.

Square one in this case was to conduct a thorough search of police department records for recently paroled “hot prowl” burglars living in the area. Hot prowl burglars are the creepazoids who enter a home while it is occupied. The risk is increased for the perpetrator, and that may be the point of it. Sneaking around in a home while the inhabitants watch TV, listen to the radio or, even more terrifying, as they sleep, is a major rush for some of the more twisted souls who walk the planet.

three-suspectsThe records search turned up the names of three possible suspects; although only one of them, a 37-year-old ex-con named Clifford Russell Pridemore, was arrested. LAPD picked him up near 7th and San Julian Streets downtown–the heart of Skid Row. According to detectives, Pridemore was well-dressed when they busted him–a fact which they found to be very suspicious given he had no visible means of support.

Pridemore had been released from Folsom in July 1954 after serving a term for burglary. His modus operandi as a burglar was eerily similar to the circumstances in Karil’s murder case. And the fact that Pridemore had a history of assaulting women made him a solid suspect.pridemore

Curiously, three nurses who lived a few doors down from Karil had slept through the hot prowl burglary of their apartment on the same morning that Karil died. Their empty handbags were found on the porch outside their door. It seemed likely that the person who killed Karil had creepy-crawled through the nurses’ apartment too. Was that man Clifford Pridemore?

While detectives continued to sift through the few available leads, Karil’s brother-in-law, H.L. Manley, made arrangements to clear out the dead woman’s apartment.  One of Karil’s prized possessions was an original water color painting by Raoul Dufy. The painting was valued at about $1800 (over $16,000 in 2016 dollars). Manley told reporters that the painting, along with Karil’s other belongings, were headed for storage “at least until we can decide what to do with them.”

Karil’s body was released by the Coroner on February 23rd and taken to the Heath Funeral Home in National City for a funeral in San Diego–which is where her mother lived.

Police leaned hard on Pridemore but he never wavered in his assertion that he had nothing to do with Karil’s slaying. LAPD assigned another team of detectives to work with Jack McCreadie and Charles Detrich–Howard Hudson and Harry Hansen. Hansen was one of the principal detectives in the 1947 mutilation murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. (The case was unsolved in 1955 and remains so to this day.)

A possible witness, unnamed by the cops for fear of reprisal by the killer, came forward. The witness had observed a man loitering in the immediate vicinity of Karil’s apartment at least twice. Once on the night she was killed.

sluggingA couple of weeks following Karil Graham’s murder police announced they were investigating the slugging of Emily Jones, 26, a local dance hall hostess. Jones had awakened in her apartment at 474 South Hartford Avenue as a prowler attempted to assault her. He beat her with a bottle and his fists, then he fled through a window. Evidently Jones’ assailant had entered the apartment after removing the screen from an unlocked window.

For reasons that they didn’t make public, LAPD detectives were convinced that Jones’ attacker was not the same perpetrator who had bashed Karil’s head in.

Karil’s inquest was held on March 8, 1955 and it took the jury only 10 minutes to decide that she had been murdered “by unknown person(s).”

However, the killer was not Clifford Pridemore–police were able to clear him.woman-beaten

In May 1955 a woman was brutally beaten near the scene of Karil’s slaying. The victim, Nadia Copmpaneitz, a social science student on a visa from France, was attacked by an intruder who ripped the screen from a window in her apartment at 143 North Reno Street.
Nadia told police that she awakened at 4 am–certain that she was not alone in her room. Suddenly gloved hands tightened around her throat. She was able to roll away from the man. Enraged, the intruder beat her and left her with wounds to her scalp and eye. Nadia was fortunate. She lived.

The leads in Kari’s murder dried up and the case went cold.

NEXT TIME:  A knife attack, another murder, and a suspect in Karil Graham’s murder.

The Wilshire Prowler, Part 1

graham-picKaril Graham, an attractive divorcee in her late 30s, had always wanted to be an artist. She studied fine art in New York, but eventually she realized that she didn’t possess the natural talent to have a successful career. Unwilling to completely give up on her dream, Karil found a great way to be involved in what she loved most–she became the registrar at Art Center School, 5353 West 3rd Street. She spent much of her working day counseling budding artists, and the rest of her time in the company of talented faculty members. Karil had a warm smile that lit up her face. She was so well liked by the students that she was thought of as their “mother confessor”.

On Friday, February 18, 1955, Karil prepared dinner in her poolside apartment at 271 South Carondolet Street for two men she knew from school. One of them, Phil Hays, was a student, and the other man, Jack Potter, was an instructor. The dinner was in celebration of a painting, “Bird of Paradise”–a gift to Karil from Phil. After dinner Phil and Karil went for a swim in the heated pool behind her building, while Jack relaxed on the patio. The two men left after midnight.

graham-friends-picKaril had a midnight snack and then prepared to go to bed. She removed her makeup, slipped into her nightgown and put her hair up in curlers. Then she turned on the electric blanket and got into bed.

About 5 am Anita Loeber, who lived in the apartment above Karil’s, heard what she thought was a muffled scream. She had just moved into the apartment and was still getting accustomed to the unfamiliar sounds and habits of her neighbors. She didn’t hear any other noises and, because her phone hadn’t been installed yet, she couldn’t call the police. Anita went back to sleep.

At 2 pm on Saturday, February 19th, Eleanor Lipson, Karil’s landlady, walked past Karil’s apartment and noticed that the door was open. When Eleanor looked closer she saw a bare leg: “I didn’t think it was Karil because she wouldn’t be lying nude with the door open.” Eleanor didn’t investigate further until 6:30 pm. Whose naked leg did she think it was? And why did she believe it was unnecessary to investigate further until over four hours later? In truth it wouldn’t have altered the outcome. When Eleanor and her husband entered Karil’s small studio apartment and found their tenant dead. Karil’s face was covered with her own nightgown, a blanket, and a bedspread. There was blood spatter on the walls of the ransacked apartment, and Karil’s bed was soaked with blood.

fiance-passes-test_page_1Los Angeles Police Department homicide detectives, Jack McCreadie and Charles Detrich, arrived and tried to make sense of the scene. Karil had sustained at least two devastating wounds to her head, but no weapon was found. During their examination of the crime scene they discovered a bloody fingerprint on the inside of the front doorknob. The knob was removed and sent to the crime lab, along with human hair found under one of Karil’s fingernails.

The detectives thought it was possible that Karil was killed during a burglary. They also considered another scenario, that someone had killed her and then staged the scene to look like a burglary.fiance-passes-test_page_2

The first person of interest in the case was Karil’s former boyfriend, Leon McFadden. Leon was picked up by the LAPD for “routine questioning.” He told police that he hadn’t seen Karil in several months and that he had absolutely nothing to do with her murder. He was so adamant about his innocence that he demanded to be given a lie detector test “to clear me in this thing once and for all.” Police obliged.

Leon, who owned a greeting card shop at 166 1/2 N La Brea Avenue, was grilled for over three hours before detectives declared that his story was “straight” and released him.

If Leon hadn’t murdered the popular art school registrar, then who had?

NEXT TIME: Three suspects and a mystery witness surface in Karil Graham’s murder.

Bloodbath at Bob’s Big Boy, Conclusion

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Photo of crime scene courtesy of LAPL. This Bob’s restaurant has since been demolished.

Tami Rogoway’s failure to identify Franklin Freeman as one of the Bob’s Big Boy shooters the first time around was a boon for his defense attorney, Madelynn Kopple. A rumor circulated that Rogoway’s failure may have been the result of undue pressure applied to her by Kopple.  In any case, Kopple mounted a vigorous defense. But despite the rumors no verifiable evidence was found to prove that she had applied undue pressure on Rogoway and the witness did finally ID Freeman as one of the killers.

Clearly a pit bull in defense of her client, Kopple went so far as to write letters to the Los Angeles police and prosecutors charging that they were aware of Freeman’s innocence and that they were “allowing the actual killer to remain free.” Her action triggered a gag order. Undeterred,  Kopple supplied the name of the man she thought should take Freeman’s place at trial: Thomas Carver, 29. It isn’t clear from the LA Times coverage why Kopple accused Carver. If he had any connection with the other defendants it wasn’t mentioned. Yet, at Kopple’s insistence, Carver was brought in for a lineup at the Sheriff’s Department. The gag order prevented details of the lineup from being reported in detail by the press, but the outcome spoke volumes. Carter was returned to his West LA home and was never charged.

The contretemps over Kopple’s letters was far from over though. Superior Court Judge James M. Ideman dismissed her as Freeman’s attorney for what he considered her over-the-top behavior. However Freeman refused to accept another attorney in Koppel’s place so an appeal was filed and she was reinstated.

None of the defense attorneys were keen to have their clients tried together; so, motions to sever were submitted, and accepted.  The three defendants would be tried individually.

Leslie Abramson

Leslie Abramson

First up was Ricky Sanders. There was a mountain of evidence against him and even legendary defense attorney Leslie Abramson found it an uphill battle. A search of his home turned up a sawed-off shotgun similar to the weapon used in murders–as well as two spent shell cases the same size as those used by the second gunman. Cops also found coins in wrappers of the type used at Bob’s.

At every opportunity the prosecutor,  Harvey Giss, reminded the jurors of the carnage in the restaurant—and the continuing pain felt by the loved ones of the dead in the days and months since.

Cesario Luna never regained consciousness and died of his wounds six months after the attack. Jurors learned that he wasn’t even supposed to be in the restaurant that night. He came in on his day off to fill in for a worker who was a no-show. His son, Ismael, a dishwasher, miraculously escaped injury but whatever relief he felt was marred by the devastating loss of  his father. Michael Malloy, the night manager, lost his right eye. Evelyn Jackson, a waitress who pleaded with the gunmen for her life after the shooting began, was shot in the head and suffered severe brain damage. Dionne Irvin, waitress, had her arm shattered by a shotgun blast. Rogoway, waitress, who initially failed to identify Freeman, was partially paralyzed with 150 shotgun pellets in her body, three of them lodged in her spinal column.

On August 20, 1982 the jury found Sanders guilty of four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with a deadly weapon, five counts of robbery, two counts of attempted robbery and one count of conspiracy to commit robbery.

The jury that found Sanders guilty for his part in the December 14, 1980 massacre sentenced him to die.

With her boyfriend sentenced to death Carletha Stewart decided, on the very day she was to go to trial, to plead guilty and avoid the same fate. She copped to all of the crimes she was charged with: four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with a deadly weapon, six counts of robbery and one count of conspiracy to commit robbery. She admitted to driving the getaway car. Taking everything into consideration she got a good deal, 25 years to life.freeman pic2

The last to stand trial was Franklin Freeman.

In his opening statement at Freeman’s trial in August 1983, Deputy District Attorney Harvey Giss told jurors that they could expect Carletha Stewart to tell them the same story she had told him.  That her cousin had taken part in planning the robbery at Bob’s but backed out when a third conspirator said that he might have to kill everyone in the restaurant.  Giss planned to discredit Stewart and prove that Freeman had gone through with the robbery and murders. Carletha threw him a curve when she refused to testify. Giss wasn’t broken up about her decision since, as far as he was concerned, she was going to perjure herself.  The prosecution’s case went forward without difficulty.

Further, Giss told the jury that he would present  testimony from the manager of a Taco Bell in Santa Monica that was robbed by two gunmen just hours following the slaughter at Bob’s. The manager identified Freeman and quoted his accomplice as saying: “We are going to jail for 30 years for what we just did, so we don’t care about you.” Then the man identified as Freeman said, “Put him in the freezer; put him in the refrigerator and plug him.”

The manager would likely have died if he hadn’t escaped by batting the gun out of the robber’s hand, grabbing it, emptying the shells out of it and then diving through a plate glass window.

The trial lasted four months and the jury deliberated for one week. On December 22, 1983, four days past the third anniversary of the crime, Franklin Freeman Jr. was convicted of four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with a deadly weapon, six counts of robbery, and one count of conspiracy. He was also found guilty of attempting to rob the Santa Monica Taco Bell and guilty of assaulting the manger with a deadly weapon.

Freeman convictedFreeman sat impassively as the verdict was read, and while a young woman screaming “no” and “you liar” attempted to lunge through the short swinging gate that separates spectators from trial participants. Two bailiffs subdued her and she was removed from the courtroom. Whether she was a relative, girlfriend, or just a trial groupie wasn’t revealed.

During the penalty phase the jury was unable to reach a decision about Freeman’s punishment and announced that they were hopelessly deadlocked.

Because of the deadlock the prosecution and defense were compelled to present their evidence to a second jury tasked with determining Freeman’s sentence. Nearly one year following his conviction Freeman was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Freeman showed no emotion when his sentence was pronounced but Madelynn Kopple burst into tears.

freeman sparedWhen asked by reporters why Freeman’s life had been spared, the jury’s forewoman said that they had some doubts regarding the extent of his involvement in the murders and so decided against sending him to the gas chamber.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Ricky Sanders — is still on death row.  On May 26, 2010, he filed an appeal in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit over the denial of his habeas petition in Federal District Court. I don’t know the outcome of his appeal, but it was very likely denied. If and when California resumes executions he is certainly at the top of the list.

Franklin Freeman Jr. —  is in prison serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Carletha Stewart — a petition circulated by a friend of hers a few years ago advocated for her release, but as far as I can tell she is still incarcerated.

Madelynn Koppel — according to  the California Bar Association she continues to practice law.

Leslie Abramson — is best known for her defense of Erik and Lyle Menendez for the 1989 shotgun murder of their parents in Beverly Hills.

Harvey Giss — eventually left the DA’s office and went on to become a superior court judge.  He retired in July 2014.

I don’t know what became of the survivors of the tragedy. I sincerely hope that they were able to find some measure of peace and, those who were physically and emotionally able, went on to lead happy lives.

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.

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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.

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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?

The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City

The First with the Latest! Exhibit Screen Saver“The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City,” explores some of the most deranged L.A. stories that were covered by Agness “Aggie” Underwood, a local reporter who rose through the ranks to become the first woman city editor for a major metropolitan newspaper. Curated by yours truly, Joan Renner (Author/Editrix/Publisher of the Deranged L.A. Crimes website, Board Member of Photo Friends), and featuring photos from the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald Examiner collection.

Join us for light refreshments and brief remarks as we celebrate the reporter who helped the Los Angeles Herald be “The First with the Latest.” An exhibit catalog featuring many never-before-published images from the Herald’s files will be available for purchase.

The reception is on Thursday, August 13, 2015, 6pm-8pm at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. Christina Rice,Senior Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; Stephanie Bluestein, Assistant Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge, and I  will be making remarks at about 7pm.

I hope to see you there!

Buy the companion book from my Recommendations in the sidebar. 

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 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?