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.
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.
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
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.
Here 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.
Reporter Aggie Underwood devoted a chapter in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman to covering the stars – and one of the stars she covered was Thelma Todd. Thelma, nicknamed the Ice Cream Blonde, was an enormously popular actress appearing in over 120 films between 1926 and 1935.
Thelma was born on July 29, 1906, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was a good student and wanted to become a schoolteacher. She completed high school and went on to college, but she was a pretty girl and her mother insisted that she enter a few beauty contests. She won the title of “Miss Massachusetts” in 1925, and competed in the “Miss America” pageant. She didn’t win, but she did come to the attention of Hollywood talent scouts.
Among the stars with whom Thelma appeared during her career were Gary Cooper, William Powell, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s there were several successful male comedy teams but studio head Hal Roach never gave up on the idea of pairing two women. Between 1931 and 1933 Thelma and Zasu Pitts appeared in over a dozen films, primarily two-reelers. When it came time for contract renegotiation Zasu and Thelma found out that Hal Roach had made certain that their individual contracts expired six months apart. He figured that the stars had less leverage separately than they would as a team. He’d pulled the same trick on Laurel and Hardy. Zasu’s bid for more money and a stake in the team’s films was a non-starter with Roach. She was given a take it or leave it option. She left.
Thelma’s new partner was wisecracking Patsy Kelly and they churned out a series of successful shorts for Hal Roach until 1935.
Thelma’s pleasant voice had made the transition from silent to sound films an easy one. She had name recognition and with financial backing from her lover, film director Roland West, she opened the Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Thelma and Roland lived in separate rooms above the café. They had known each other for about 5 years. Thelma had appeared in West’s 1931 film Corsair, and that is when they became romantically involved.
West’s estranged wife, Jewel Carmen, lived in a home about 300 feet above the café on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was an odd domestic arrangement to be sure.
On Saturday, December 14, 1935 Thelma’s personal maid of four years, May Whitehead, helped to dress the actress in a blue and silver sequin gown for a party. At about 8 p.m. Thelma and her mother Alice were preparing to leave the Café together. Thelma was headed to a party at the Trocodero hosted by Ida Lupino and her father Stanley.
As they were about to get into the limo driven by Ernie Peters (one of Thelma’s regular drivers) Roland approached Thelma and told her to be home by 2 a.m. Not one to be given orders, Thelma said she’d be home at 2:05.
When he was questioned later, West characterized his exchange with Thelma as more of a joke than a serious demand on his part; but he had locked Thelma out at least once before when she had failed to arrive home “on time”. On that earlier occasion Thelma had knocked hard enough to break a window and Roland let her in.
According to party goers Thelma arrived at the Trocodero in good spirits and she seemed to be looking forward to the holidays. She downed a few cocktails and she was intoxicated, but none of her friends thought that she was drunk. Thelma’s ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco, was at the Trocodero with a date, but he was not a guest at the Lupino’s party.
Very late in the evening Thelma joined Sid Grauman’s table for about 30 minutes before asking him if he’d call Roland and let him know that she was on her way home. Thelma’s chauffeur said that the actress was unusually quiet on the ride home, and when they arrived she declined his offer to walk her to the door of her apartment. He said she’d never done that before.
It’s at this point that the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death begins.
On Monday, December 16, 1935, May Whitehead, had driven her own car to the garage, as she did every morning, to get Thelma’s chocolate brown, twelve cylinder Lincoln phaeton and bring it down the hill to the café for Thelma’s use.
May said that the doors to the garage were closed, but unlocked. She entered the garage and saw the driver’s side door to Thelma’s car was wide open. Then she saw Thelma slumped over in the seat.
At first May thought Thelma was asleep, but once she realized that her employer was dead she went to the Café and notified the business manager and asked him to telephone Roland West.
From the moment that the story of Thelma Todd’s untimely death broke, the local newspapers covered it as if there was something sinister about it. The Daily Record’s headline proclaimed: “THELMA TODD FOUND DEAD, INVESTIGATING POSSIBLE MURDER”. The Herald’s cover story suggested that Todd’s death was worthy of Edgar Allan Poe:
“…if her death was accidental it was as strange an accident as was ever conceived by the brain of Poe.”
Alice Todd leaves Thelma’s inquest.
The circumstances surrounding Thelma’s death were somewhat mysterious, and when her mother Alice Todd received the news she shrieked “my daughter has been murdered”.
It was up to the cops and criminalists to determine if Thelma’s death had been a suicide, accident, or murder.
An investigation of the death scene found that the light inside the garage was not switched on and that there was some blood on Thelma’s face and there were also droplets of blood inside the car and on the running board.
The Coroner said Thelma may have been dead for about twelve hours before she was discovered. But a few witnesses came forward to swear that they’d seen, or spoken to, Thelma on Sunday afternoon at a time when, according to the Coroner, she would have already been dead.
The most compelling of the witnesses who had claimed to have seen or spoken with Thelma on Sunday was Mrs. Martha Ford.
She and her husband the actor Wallace Ford were hosting a party that day to which Todd had been invited. She said that she received a telephone call and that she’d at first thought the caller was a woman named Velma, who she was expecting at the party; but then the caller identified herself as Thelma, and used the nickname, Hot Toddy. Martha said that Toddy asked her if she could show up in the evening clothes she’d worn the night before to a party — Martha told her that was fine. “Toddy” also said she was bringing a surprise guest and said “You just wait until I walk in. You’ll fall dead!” Mrs. Ford was absolutely convinced that she had spoken with Thelma and not an impostor.
There was an enormous outpouring of grief over Thelma Todd’s death. And hundreds of mourners from all walks of life visited Pierce Mortuary where Thelma’s body was on view from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on December 19, 1935.
Patsy Kelly was said to have been so upset that she was under a doctor’s care.
And Zasu Pitts was devastated. She had been out Christmas shopping with Thelma a few days before her death.
The sightings of Thelma on Sunday led to a multitude of theories, ranging from plausible to crackpot.
Among the theories that have gained popularity over the years, even though it is unsubstantiated, is that New York mobster Lucky Luciano was pressuring Thelma to host gambling at the Café but when Thelma said no, he had her killed.
I don’t believe the Luciano story; however, Thelma may have been approached by some local thugs about gambling because in the LA Times on December 25, 1935 her attorney, A. Ronald Button said:
“… a group of gamblers wanted to open a gambling place in her cafe. She told me at that time that she was opposed to gambling and would have nothing to do with it. But whether the gamblers ever made a deal. I do not know.”
Another theory is that Thelma was murdered by her ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco. He had a history of violence against women; but again, there is no evidence that he had anything to do with her death.
I have my own theory, of course. How could I not? Here’s what I believe happened.
On Saturday night as she was leaving for the Trocodero, Roland West had told Thelma to be home at 2 am. He wasn’t joking with her as he’d said. Asserting herself, she told him she’d be home at 2:05 – but it was about 2:45 or 3 am when she asked Sid Grauman to phone West and let him know that she was on her way.
Her chauffeur, Ernie, said they arrived at the café at about 3:30 a.m and she had declined his offer to walk her up to her apartment. I believe that she declined because she anticipated an ugly scene with Roland about her late arrival home. She had a key in her evening bag, but the door to the apartment had been bolted from the inside. Roland had locked her out again. She was tired and she’d been drinking, her blood alcohol level was later found to be .13, enough for her to be intoxicated but not sloppy drunk. She decided that she didn’t have the energy to engage in an argument with Roland – it must have been about 4 am.
It was a cold night at the beach so Thelma trudged the rest of the way up the stairs to the garage.
She opened the garage doors and switched on the light. She got into her car and turned on the motor in an effort to keep warm. She fell asleep and was dead of carbon monoxide poisoning within minutes. She fell over and banged her head against the steering wheel of the car which caused a small amount of blood to be found on her body and at the scene. The blood was later tested and it contained carbon monoxide, so her injury occurred inside the garage.
According to tests made by criminalist Ray Pinker, it would have taken about two minutes for there to have been enough carbon monoxide in the garage to kill her. He had even tested the car to see how long it would run before the engine died – the shortest time it idled was 2 minutes 40 seconds, the longest was 46 minutes 40 seconds.
What about the light switch and the open car door? I think that when Roland didn’t hear anything from Thelma he decided to look for her. He walked to the garage to see if she’d taken her car. He went inside and saw Thelma slumped over in the front seat, just the way May Whitehead would find her on Monday morning. The car’s motor was no longer running. He swung open the driver’s side door to awaken her and realized that she was dead. He was too stunned to do anything but get the hell out of the garage. He left the driver’s side door open, switched off the garage light, closed the doors, and went back to his apartment.
Chester Morris starred in several Boston Blackie films
West was never held accountable, there was no proof of wrongdoing on his part, but I believe that he felt responsible for Thelma’s death. He never told a soul about the truth of that night; unless you believe the rumor that he made a death bed confession to his friend, actor Chester Morris.
What about Martha Ford’s alleged telephone conversation with Thelma? Was it actually Thelma on the phone? Maybe Ford was mistaken about the time. It is one of the many loose ends in the mystery surrounding Thelma Todd’s death.
Aggie was finishing her first year as a reporter for Hearst when Thelma Todd died. According to her memoir, by the end of the autopsy only she and the coroner remained in the room; her colleagues had turned green and bolted for the door.
The last words in this tale belong to Aggie—she too was perplexed by some of the mysteries surrounding Thelma’s death. She wrote in her memoir:
“In crucial phases of the case, official versions as told reporters varied from subsequent statements. It was known where and what Miss Todd had eaten on Saturday night. Stomach contents found in the autopsy did not appear to bear out reports on the meal. There were other discrepancies, including interpretations of the condition of the body and its position in the automobile.”
And for you conspiracy buffs, Aggie talked about a detective she knew who was working to clarify some of the disputed information. She said:
“…he was deeper in the mystery, receiving threatening calls…which carried a secret and unlisted number. He was warned to ‘lay off if you know what is good for you.’
“In his investigation the detective stopped and searched an automobile of a powerful motion picture figure. In the car, surprisingly, was a witness who had reported that Miss Todd had been seen on Sunday. Near the witness was a packed suitcase. The investigator told me the owner of the car attempted to have him ousted from the police department.”
Aggie would not reveal the name of the detective. In summation she wrote:
“There’s a disquieting feeling in working some of these cinema-land death cases, whether natural or mysterious. One senses intangible pressures, as in the Thelma Todd story: After the inquest testimony, in which one sensational theory was that the blonde star, who died of carbon monoxide gas, was the victim of a killer, the case eventually was dropped as one of accidental, though mysterious, death.”
Over the decades Thelma’s death has been the subject of books, movies, and TV shows; and it has been attributed to everything from suicide, to a criminal conspiracy.
I think it is best if Aggie and I leave you to make up your own mind about what really happened to Thelma Todd.
Jay William Campbell enlisted in the Navy in October 1942, but he wasn’t cut out for military service. He spent about 4 months in a Navy hospital before he was diagnosed as a psychoneurotic and discharged in 1943.
Jay’s wife Mary felt partly responsible for his mental problems. She had lost their first child in an accident while Jay was in the Navy and she said that it had a “very bad effect on him.”
Mary and Judy
The couple moved on with their lives and in 1946 they were blessed with another child, a little girl they named Judy. Jay had found work as a milkman and by the end of 1951, the family was living in Van Nuys at 14205 Burton Street. Their home was across from Judy’s elementary school where she was in the second grade.
Theirs should have been the perfect post-war family, but Jay couldn’t resolve his emotional problems. He was, according to Mary, “…a worrier by nature.” But Jay’s worrying had taken a troubling turn–he was becoming paranoid and jealous. He was convinced that Mary was cheating on him with a family friend named Chet, and his suspicions were causing a rift in their marriage. Mary and Chet were friends, but she vehemently denied that they was anything untoward between them.
In mid-December Mary wrote Jay a note and packed it with his lunch. The note read:
“Jay Dearest–I gave you a reason to doubt my love for you and now I have to do something to chase away the doubt. I couldn’t live without you at my side where you belong. I’ll always want to be yours and please dear be as you are and don’t change. I really love you.
By New Year’s Eve Mary had reason to hope that Jay had overcome his jealousy. He had the day off and he wanted to spend the afternoon with his little girl. He told Mary: “Be ready at 4:30. I’ll take you and Judy to dinner.”
At 4:30 Mary heard a small plane buzzing the house. Jay was a pilot–maybe he’d taken Judy out for a plane ride–he’d done it before. She stepped outside but didn’t recognize the aircraft; even so she had a premonition that it was Jay and Judy. As she watched the small plane appeared to stop for a second in sky; then it spiraled downward ripping into several 4800 volt power lines. The neighborhood was plunged into darkness. The only light came from the burning plane.which had smashed into the school playground across the street.
Photo courtesy of USC Digital Collection.
Mary’s premonition had come horrifyingly true–the victims were Jay and Judy. Fireman had to cut the twisted metal away from their bodies before they could pull them out. They had died on impact. A color photo of Mary and Judy was found among Jay’s personal effects. The photo had been a Christmas gift.
What had happened? Jay was a competent pilot, he’d had a commercial license for 3 years. Had there been a mechanical failure?
Jay had rented the plane from Mort Kamm, manager of the San Fernando Airport, and it was Kamm who found a note in the glove compartment of Jay’s car. The note was addressed to Mary and it read:
“It seems that the price one has to pay for happiness isn’t so easy to pay. I have lost everything so that you may start anew. You have lost me and every part of me today, including Judy. Can you ever tell yourself that Chet was worth it all? Please pay Mort Kamm about $600 for his airplane. Keep telling yourself that everyone gets over everything. It may help you, but I doubt it. I have always loved you even if you haven’t loved me. Don’t ever live a lie again.
Your Jay and Judy.”
The deaths were officially listed as suicide and murder.
Photo courtesy of USC Digital Collection.
Funeral rites were conducted in Wee Kirk o’ the Heather on January 5, 1952. Jay and Judy were buried in the same grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Judy was accompanied into the afterlife by the doll she had received as a Christmas present.
The Great Depression began with the stock market crash on “Black Tuesday”, October 29, 1929. The U.S. stock market collapsed with losses for the month totaling $16 billion–an astronomical sum in any age or by anyone’s measure.
By 1932 the nation’s unemployment rate was 23.6% and nearly half of all the banks that had been in business in 1929 had closed their doors. Able-bodied young men and women were having a tough time finding employment, but getting a job was especially difficult for sixty-three year old Antone Christ. He was at a time in his life when he should have been retired, not pounding the pavement looking for work.
Christ, formerly of Miami, Florida, had once been a wealthy businessman but he had lost $100,000 [equivalent to $1.5 million in today’s currency] in a bank failure. To add to his stress, the rapid mathematical calculator (in book form) that he had been attempting to market was evidently a tough sell. I’m guessing that the calculator was a sort of speed math that, once learned, would enable a person to solve fairly difficult calculations mentally–no paper, pencil, or abacus needed. Perhaps Christ’s calculator failed because the average Joe had nothing positive to enumerate. No earnings, no savings–just money going out the door.
Antone and his wife had only been married for a couple of years, and had moved to Los Angeles in 1931, presumably, as had so many others, to get a fresh start. Christ’s inability to get a job, and his constant brooding over the fortune he had lost, had made him a desperate man.
A little after 10 a.m. on February 15, 1932, August J. Martz, was in his office on the second floor of the building at 758 West Seventh Street when the door opened suddenly and a man stepped in. The man was Antone Christ and he was holding a gun.
“I thought it was a joke. He forced me to get up. Then I had to take from his pocket what appeared to be a bomb. He forced me to put it in my pocket, but wires extended from it and were attached to what appeared like a detonating contrivance he kept in his pocket. He had a sling around his neck, through which he put his hand that held the gun he kept trained upon me. In this fashion we descended the stairs and walked east on Seventh Street for nearly three blocks until we came to the Bank of America. All the time we were walking he kept cautioning me not to try any funny business; not even so much as a glance sideways. I don’t know how he knew I had an account at the Bank of America. I had never seen the man before. He told me to draw out every cent I had in the bank.”
Christ and Martz entered the bank and walked toward a teller’s window. Two bank guards, G.J. Fitzpatrick and George Constantineu, watched the pair enter and wondered what the hell was going on. Christ may have been momentarily distracted by the activity in the bank– and Martz saw an opportunity for escape. He said:
“I saw Fitzpatrick and I made up my mind to take a chance on the bomb and jump.”
When Martz made his dash the wires that connected him to Christ pulled loose. One, two, three…no explosion. On the chance that the contraption might still detonate, Martz ran to divest himself of the black cylinder he had carried in his pocket. He was relieved to discovered the cylinder was stuffed nothing but paper wadding.
Fitzpatrick and Constantineau cautiously approached Christ who had produced a nickel-plated .38 caliber pistol from his pocket and began to wave it above his head.
“Stand back; don’t touch me.”
Fitzpatrick demanded that Atone give up his weapon, but instead Antone took a step backward. He continuing to slowly move back, still holding the gun. Finally he bumped up against a counter and was forced to stop. As dozens of bank employees watched, Antone lifted the gun up to his head and fired.
Still breathing, Christ was rushed to the Georgia Street Receiving Hospital where he died on the operating table.
Detective Lieutenant Luke searched the dead man’s clothing and found 25 cents and an envelope. On the envelope was a single sentence written in pencil:
When I began this blog in mid-December 2012 I had no expectations regarding how many people I might reach. Truthfully I was just compelled to do something I love, which to share twisted tales from L.A.’s deeply disturbed past.
The month of August was a personal best for the blog with over 26,000 visitors, most of whom had visited before! In the months since the blog began it has logged over 124,000 visitors — not just random hits. I know how busy everyone is, and I’m touched that so many of you find time for Deranged L.A. Crimes.
I take this endeavor seriously and I make every effort to keep the stories interesting and the facts straight. I want you to know that I will always respond respectfully to your comments, even on those occasions when we may agree to disagree.
Again, my heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you for your support.
Carl G. Hopper, the human fly, was sentenced in May 1943 to fifteen years to life for his crimes. But surely nobody could have expected the human fly to be content to sit in Folsom Prison while some of the best years of his life, um, flew by.
Hopper wangled an early parole so that he could join the Army — but if Folsom couldn’t hold him how could the Army expect to? By late October 1944 he’d escaped from the guardhouse at Camp Roberts.
On October 27, 1944 at 7:50 p.m.Hopper was observed in a car listed as stolen, he was approached by a radio patrolman and a military policeman at Third Street near Lucas Avenue. He got out of the car and walked toward the officers. He drew a gun and made his escape when the M.P.’s gun jammed as he tried to fire at the fleeing man.
An hour later Hopper held up John D. Bowman of Downey in front of 1212 Shatto Street. Bowman told cops that the bandit was “too drunk to know how to drive”, so he forced Bowman to start his (Bowman’s) car for him and then he sped away.
Next he turned up in Beverly Hills where he accosted Freddie Schwartz and Maude Beggs as they arrived at 514 N. Hillcrest Street for a party. Schwartz complied with Hopper’s demand for money, but he only had a $5 bill which Hopper hurled back at him in disgust complaining that it was not enough.
At 10:35 pm. Hopper held-up Sherman Oaks residents Mr. and Mrs. Julian N. Cole and Mr. and Mrs. Walter Deutsch on Valley Vista Blvd. He took $25 from Cole and $2 from Deutsch.
Only minutes later he held-up Dorothy Snyder in the 600 block of S. June Street, but he refused to take her money when he discovered she had only $7 in her purse. The fly was a gentleman.
Hopper’s one man crime wave continued.
A about half a block away from where he’d encountered Dorothy Snyder he held up Dr. Rudolph Mueller, getting away with $65.
Shortly after robbing Dr. Mueller, Hopper was observed driving at a high rate by two officers, S.W. Stevenson and K.M. Aitken, who pursued him until he crashed into a palm tree on Second Avenue near Santa Barbara Street. The fly fled on foot between two houses.
About ten minutes following the car crash Hopper committed another hold-up — this time he robbed C.B. Kaufman of his sedan and $55 near 43rd Street and Western Avenue.
Then the fly disappeared, at least for a few days.
At the Mexican border near Tijuana, Hopper was busted when he was thwarted in an attempt to shoot a U.S. Customs Service inspector who had halted him for routine questioning. The inspector, Richard McCowan, wasn’t entirely satisfied with Hopper’s answers to his questions and ordered him to wait. Hopper responded by pulling out a .38 caliber revolver and jamming it into McCowan’s abdomen. The fly had apparently seen too many western movies because he tried to discharge the weapon by fanning it, like he was Quick Draw McGraw, but failed to pull the hammer back far enough — he was taken into custody.
Hopper admitted his identity and boasted of how he’d led police in Los Angeles on a merry chase. Of course he denied committing any of the crimes laid at his feet, he said:
“they are just trying to pin something on me.”
Hardly. When he was busted he had a gasoline ration book and a driver’s license made out to C.B. Kaufman, the man who had been robbed of $55 and his sedan.
During the couple of days he was conducting his one man crime wave, Hopper had committed six robberies, netting him $147, and he had stolen three automobiles, one of which was a police car!
Carl was returned to the Los Angeles County Jail where he was booked on suspicion of the various crimes committed during his escape from Camp Roberts. His bail was set at $10,000.
Folsom Prison gate.
Hopper was tried, convicted and then sentenced to life in Folsom Prison. Not surprisingly, the fly was considered to be a habitual criminal.
On December 12, 1946, only three years after his escape from the Hall of Justice Jail in Los Angeles, Carl Hopper attempted to break out of Folsom. He slugged a guard, ran to the top cell block, broke a skylight and made his way to temporary freedom over the roof, and down the ladder of an unmanned guard tower. Then he took a 12 foot leap from a wall. Unfortunately for Hopper he got no further than the prison yard when he discovered the American River, swollen by recent rains, was far too dangerous to cross.
When guards found Hopper he said that he was “cold, wet and hungry”. He was returned to his cell.
The ordinary housefly lives from 15 to 30 days. The human fly never reached old age. On June 23, 1949, six years after his daring escape from the Hall of Justice Jail in Los Angeles, twenty-nine year old Carl Hopper, the human fly, hanged himself with a bed sheet tied to a piece of plumbing in his solitary cell in Folsom Prison.
Ilene and Owen Nolan struggled to get on with their lives in the wake of Stella’s disappearance. They moved to the San Diego area, but I imagine that every time the story of a missing or abused child made the news their hearts broke a little more.
Sherriff’s deputies and LAPD investigators continued to pull in every deviant who even looked cross-eyed at a child. They busted other child molesters, but they couldn’t seem to get a break in Stella’s case which grew colder with every passing day.
In December 1955, Sheriff’s deputies interrogated Robert Louis Kracker, 20, on suspicion of kidnapping a 3-year-old Baldwin Park girl, Cynthia Hardacre. Kracker had been visiting a cousin in the Hardacre neighborhood when Cynthia, apparently mistaking Robert for her father, dashed toward his automobile calling, “Wait, Daddy.” Kracker told the police
that: “When I saw her, something just came over me.”
Kracker was on parole and had a record, including sex offenses, going back to age 14! In 1949 he spent three months in Juvie and was subsequently committed to the State Hospital at Camarillo. In July of 1950, he was arrested in L.A. on suspicion of a sex offense, and in November, 1951 he was arrested on suspicion of burglary.
Robert was guilty of the attack on Cynthia, but he was not responsible for Stella’s abduction.
In August of 1961 the L.A. Times reported on five children who had mysteriously vanished in recent years; Stella’s name was among them.
On March 6, 1970 a 51-year-old Sylmar construction worker, Mack Ray Edwards, appeared at the LAPD’s Foothill Division station. He handed them a loaded handgun and then said the had kidnapped three Sylmar girls earlier that day.
Edwards, a native of Arkansas, was booked on suspicion of murder in the 1969 death of a 13-year-old Pacoima boy — one of the six cases he voluntarily discussed with detectives.
Edwards and an unnamed 15-year-old companion told the police that they’d entered the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Cohen at 5 a.m., after the couple had left for work. The two stole a coin collection and other items from the house and then took the three Cohen children, Valerie (12); Cindy (13); and Jan (14) by car to Bouquet Canyon in Angeles National Forest north of Newhall.
Two of the girls escaped and the third was abandoned by Edwards and his accomplice — they told her they’d send a sheriff’s car to pick her up.
It was during his confession to police that he admitted to kidnapping, raping, and then murdering 8-year-old Stella Darlene Nolan in 1953. The girl was allegedly his first murder victim.
In mid-March 1970, the skeletal remains of Stella Darlene Nolan were unearthed by a highway crew who worked from directions given to them by her killer.
In addition to the slaying of Stella, Edwards admitted to murdering Gary Rocha, 16, in 1968, and Donald Allen Todd, 13, in 1960. He also admitted to three other murders of children but he wasn’t charged with them because their bodies couldn’t be found. Edwards was a heavy machine operator and often worked freeway construction sites, it simply wasn’t possible for the law to go around digging up Southern California freeways in an effort to unearth the other remains.
In Van Nuys Superior Court, Edwards entered a plea of guilty in three of the six slayings to which he had confessed. Sgt. George H. Rock was called to testify about Edwards’ voluntary admission that he was a child killer. All of the murders were horrible, but Stella’s was the worst. Edwards had taken her from Auction City in Norwalk to his Azusa home where he molested and then attempted to strangle her. After he thought Stella was dead, he threw her body over bridge. The following day he returned to the scene to bury his victim and found the little girl still alive. She had managed to drag herself about 100 feet. She was sitting up, dazed, when Edwards took out his pocketknife and stabbed her to death.
Edwards attempted to sell his surrender and confession as a guilty conscience. He said:
“I have a guilt complex. I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep and it was beginning to affect my work. You know I’m a heavy equipment operator. That long grader I’m using now costs a lot of money — $200,000. I might wreck it. Or turn it over and hurt someone.”
That doesn’t sound like a guilty conscience to me — it sounds exactly like the kind of profoundly stupid, self-serving statement a sociopath would make. There was no expression of remorse for his victims, his primary concern appears to have been the deleterious affect the brutal child killings were having on his work.
Edwards claimed to want a death sentence. Maybe he did — he attempted suicide twice during his trial. On March 30, 1970 he slashed a 14-inch cut across his stomach with a razor blade and on May 7, 1970 he took an overdose of tranquilizers The third time was the charm — he successfully hanged himself with a length of TV cord in his cell on California’s Death Row.
Edwards had always claimed six victims, never more; however, he is suspected in the murders of over 20 children between 1953 and 1970.
In 2006, a letter written by Edwards to his wife while he was on death row implicated him the 1957 disappearance of 8-year-old Tommy Bowman in the Arroyo Seco.
In 2011, the Santa Barbara Police Department took four teams of cadaver dogs to an area near a Goleta freeway overpass that was under renovation, looking for the remains of Ramona Price, a 7-year-old girl who disappeared in August 1961 — Mack Ray Edwards worked in the area during that time. Ramona wasn’t found, but the search for other victims of Edwards continues.
A little over 40 years following Mack Ray Edwards’ suicide I stumbled across Stella Darlene Nolan’s photograph in a Los Angeles Police Daily Bulletin as I was archiving documents from 1953. Something about Stella pulled me in and when I couldn’t find a cancellation for her missing notice in a subsequent Bulletin I followed up, and that’s when I discovered her entire story.
I shared everything I’d uncovered with the L.A. Police Museum’s Executive Director and he telephoned a detective he knows at Foothill Division. She told him she couldn’t discuss details of the case with him because she was assigned to the cold case! She’s seeking to solve many more murders and disappearances for which Edwards may have been responsible. The detective asked if we would send her a copy of the Daily Bulletin featuring Stella because she didn’t have one — it was an incredible feeling to be able to provide a small piece of information in an on-going investigation — my first cold case!
The Daily Bulletins aren’t merely artifacts to be cataloged and filed away; the impact of crime on victims and their families reaches across time. History lives.
Was the jury of twelve women wrong when they acquitted Ramon Gonzales of Diane Sparks’ murder? After all, the murder weapon belonged to him and he seemed to be a little too friendly with the dead woman. Ramon may have been too attentive to Diane, and maybe they’d even shared a kiss, but he didn’t appear to have a motive. The judge thought that the case against Ramon was weak, and the jury obviously agreed; but were they all mistaken?
Thirty-one year old Diane Sparks disappeared from her home on January 29, 1946. A female neighbor saw Diane drive away unaccompanied.
Later on the day she disappeared Diane phoned her next door neighbor, Ramon Gonzales, and told him that her car had run out of gas on Victory Blvd. near Hollywood Way. He went to her rescue. Ramon would tell a couple of different versions of the story: 1) he put gas in Diane’s car and the two of them drove over the service station at Lockheed Air Terminal and later out San Fernando road where they watched airplanes; 2) he put gas in Diane’s car but left her when she said she was going to go meet her husband George.
On March 10, 1946 two young girls and a small terrier discovered the decomposing remains of a woman buried in a shallow brush covered grave in an untended olive grove, frequently used as a lover’s lane. It appeared that the woman had been shot in the head. Her right arm and left hand were missing (they were never found). The dead woman was identified as Diane Sparks when her husband, George, recognized an oddly shaped toenail on her right foot.
George and his father-in-law decided to investigate Diane’s murder on their own and were largely responsible for calling the attention of the police to Ramon Gonzales.
George stated that he’d once seen Ramon kiss Diane, and it was also reported that his neighbor had used “Spanish terms of endearment” when speaking to her.
Ramon owned a sawed-off rifle which he claimed had been stolen out of his truck a few weeks before Diane went missing. The weapon was later found on a roadside near the place where Diane had been buried. Ballistics tests proved that the gun was the murder weapon.
Ramon was tried and acquitted for Diane’s murder.
George Sparks. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
Diane and George were having marital difficulties. George admitted to the police that he and his wife were considering a separation. Their problems may have been due, in part, to the difference in their ages — George was ten years older than his wife. Diane appeared to be flirtatious, was she trying to make her husband jealous?
According to George she had kissed their neighbor, Ramon Gonzales, and Ramon stated that he’d heard her say that she was in love with an Army flyer (who was investigated but cleared in the murder). Ramon claimed to have overheard Diane tell George that she was going to leave him and find someone who would really care for her. Did she already have someone lined up, or was she toying with George?
According to Colleen Pullen, a nineteen year old war widow, she and George had a date in June, just months after Diane’s body had been found. I would have thought George would have waited a little longer to begin dating again! Colleen testified that George flew out to Texas to visit his brother rather than take another lie detector test. George had been tested once, but the results were not printed in the newspaper. George made a point of saying that he’d been very emotional and drinking heavily since Diane’s body had been found. Was he anticipating an inconclusive resolution, or did he have reason to believe that he’d fail the lie detector examination outright?
I was searching for photos of the the principals in the Sparks case when I came across a picture of Bessie Hensley and her daughter, Barbara. Barbara was one of the little girls who found Diane’s body.
Barbara & Bessie Hensley. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
The photo’s caption reads:
“Principal witnesses in the Gonzales murder trial which opened today in Superior Court are shown here. Lower left is Mrs. Bessie Hensley with her daughter, Barbara, who found Mrs. Sparks’ body in a shallow grave in the hills above Roscoe. Mrs. Hensley has told police she saw what she believes was the killing as she hiked through Lanark Canyon the afternoon Mrs. Sparks disappeared”.
I couldn’t find anything in the L.A. Times indicating that Bessie Hensley had been called as a witness during the trial. I have to wonder why.
Bessie Hensley. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
“Threatened by someone who told her to “shut up and not talk to the police,” Mrs. Bessie Hensley reports the incident to Regis Goldbach, Valley policeman. Mrs. Hensley received the warning after telling police she witnessed the murder of Mrs. Diane Sparks”.
And if Bessie really was threatened, who was behind it? Bessie Hensley is the wild card in this tale. She claimed to have witnessed the crime, but yet it appears that she was never called to the stand by either the defense or the prosecution.
Following his acquittal, Ramon Gonzales went home to his family, and he seems to have behaved himself. George Sparks stuck around for a short time following the trial, but then he quit the LAPD, where he’d served fourteen years as a motorcycle officer, and moved to Texas to live near his brother. On February 9, 1953 George Sparks committed suicide (I don’t know by what means). Members of his family said that he’d been heartbroken since Diane’s murder. Was it grief or guilt that caused George to take his own life?
WHO DO YOU THINK KILLED DIANE SPARKS?
Ramon Gonzales was acquitted for Diane’s murder and there were no further arrests for the crime. The case remains unsolved.
Researching and writing true crime is something that I love doing, but it can be frustrating at times. For instance, I always have to accept how the story ends, and that can be particularly difficult in the case of an unsolved homicide. Very often I feel like I have a solution to a crime, but I can only speculate.
Now I’d like to invite you to do a bit of speculating and armchair detective work. Who do YOU think murdered Diane Sparks? Please share!
Ramon Gonzales was arraigned for the murder of Diane Sparks in April 1946.
One of the interesting bits of information about the victim that Gonzales shared at the arraignment was that he had heard her expressing her love for Lt. Ade Garvin, an Army flyer, at a party in the Sparks’ home only a few weeks before she vanished. Garvin was thoroughly investigated and cleared in Diane’s death.
There had definitely been trouble in the Sparks’ marriage. Gonzales stated that at another drinking party at the victim’s home the night before she vanished, he’d heard Diane complain to George:
“You love the new house (which George was building in his spare time) more than you do me. I’m going to leave tomorrow and get someone who will really care for me. I don’t want to ever see you, Ramon, or Connie (Ramon’s wife) again.”
And speaking of Ramon’s wife, Connie — she was taking the “for better or worse” portion of her marriage vows very seriously:
“My Ramon couldn’t have done this thing. He loves me and our children too much.”
Ramon went to trial in July 1946. He testified about the day of Diane’s disappearance:
“I took four or five gallons of gasoline and found her by her car on Hollywood Way near Victory Blvd. After putting the fuel in the tank I drove (Diane’s car) to a nearby gas station.”
Gonzales said that Diane dropped him off at his car and told him that she was going to meet George. Ramon testified that he never saw her again.
What about the murder weapon that Ramon said had been stolen from his truck weeks prior to Diane’s killing? According to him, he queried some of his fellow workmen at a construction site about the gun as soon as he noticed it was gone, but claimed that he didn’t see it again until detectives confronted him with it.
Ramon’s attorney, William G. Kenney, had an explanation for the murder that exonerated his client — he said that George had done it. Of course George emphatically denied the accusation.
George did have other uncomfortable moments in the courtroom, particularly when the defense called Mrs. Colleen Pullen, 19, a war widow, to the stand. Colleen testified how George had allegedly avoided a lie detector test.
Colleen said that she had a date with George in June and she accompanied him to the Lockheed Air Terminal — which, truthfully, doesn’t sound like a dream date to me. Colleen must have had few expectations. At any rate, she claimed to have overheard a telephone conversation between George and one of his brothers in Texas:
“He said he was sick and tired of things and was leaving, although he had an appointment with Leonarde Keeler to take another test the following morning.”
Colleen stayed at the airport with George all night until he caught a plane for Texas in the morning.
Interestingly, Edward R. Brand, the judge in the case, commented:
“I believe the evidence to be very weak and even if the jury would convict the defendant I don’t believe the State Supreme Court would sustain the conviction.”
The all woman jury evidently agreed with Judge Brand because it took them only seven hours to acquit Gonzales.
“Mrs. Ramon Gonzales, wife of the North Hollywood contractor accused of the murder of Diane Sparks, and the couple’s three small daughters. Left to right, they are: Raquel, 7; Mrs. Connie Gonzales, holding the baby of the family, Marie, who is 13 months old today, and Connie, 3, affectionately called “Cookie” by her daddy. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
It was Sunday, March 10, 1946, and Barbara Hensley (11), Mary Young (8) and a small terrier named Bozo, had walked to a spot near their homes for a picnic. The two girls had spread out a blanket and some food when they were startled by Bozo. He wasn’t very far from them, and the little terrier was furiously digging and barking.
It’s impossible to see Bozo the terrier in this photo, but no better shot is available.
Barbara and Mary decided to see what all the fuss was about. They walked over to Bozo expecting to see a gopher or a squirrel, or anything but a woman’s leg protruding from a shallow brush covered grave. The girls took one look at what Bozo had unearthed and they started screaming and running as fast as they could for home.
Their parents phoned LAPD’s Van Nuys Division and investigators rushed out to the scene, which was at the end of a lover’s lane in an untended olive orchard a half mile off Glen Oaks Blvd.
What the cops found was the badly decomposed body of a woman with evidence of a gun shot wound to the head. They also discovered several .38-caliber cartridge cases nearby.
The dead woman was soon identified as Mrs. Diane Sparks (31). Sparks, a cop’s wife, had been missing since January 29th. It was Diana’s husband, George (41), an LAPD motor officer, who ID’d her by recognizing an oddly shaped toenail on the big toe of her right foot. The body was missing its right arm and left hand.
While in her early 20s, Diane had been a Hollywood hopeful. She had appeared as an extra in “MURDER AT THE VANITIES”, “THE CAT’S PAW”, and “THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA”. Her film career never took off, and by 1940 she’d quit the endless round of “cattle calls” and disappointments.
[Is Diane one of the cute brunettes, or maybe the screaming blonde, seated on a cactus in the clip from “MURDER AT THE VANITIES”? I’m not sure.]
On the day of her disappearance, Diane was seen at her home, 10822 Chandler Blvd., by one of her neighbors, Mrs. Edyth Bailey, who saw her drive off in her car.
Diane’s husband, George, and her father, E.B. Maxmeyer, decided to do a little detecting on their own. They went through Diane’s credit card receipts and found she had purchased gasoline on the day she disappeared. They queried the gas station attendant who described a man George recognized as his neighbor, Ramon Gonzales.
Gonzales (31) confessed to investigators that he’d seen Diane on the afternoon of her death, but that he didn’t kill her. He said she’d phoned him for help when her car ran out of gas on Victory Blvd. Ramon said:
“I drove down in my truck and poured some gasoline in her tank. We drove to a gas station for more gas, and she suggested we drive on and watch the planes take off from Lockheed Air Terminal. We drove out San Fernando Road, then she drove me back to my truck and I went home.”
Cops were skeptical about Ramon’s version of the day’s events and arrested him as a suspect.
Of course the investigators were no less suspicious of George. When a wife goes missing and then turns up dead with bullets in her chest and skull, and a couple of missing body parts, they look hard at the husband — and they don’t much care if he’s a cop or not.
George voluntarily submitted to a lie detector test, administered by Ray Pinker. During six hours of questioning George admitted that he had been drinking and emotionally upset since the discovery of his wife’s body. He also admitted that things weren’t too rosy between he and the Mrs. and that they had been discussing a possible separation before her disappearance.
Suggestions of a rocky marriage always makes investigators prick up their ears. They didn’t take George into custody, but they released a statement saying that they would question him further on other matters pertaining to Diane’s murder.
George underwent another round of questioning — nearly 24 continuous hours, before the police were satisfied that he had nothing to do with Diane’s death. Ballistics tests of his service revolver were made and it could not have fired the bullet found lodged in Diane’s skull.
The Coroner’s Inquest determined Diane’s death: “…to be a homicide committed by some person or persons and at some place unknown.” The inquest also revealed that Diane had been shot twice — one in the right chest and once in the back of the head.
Investigators went public with a statement that the gun used to kill her was a .32-caliber, not a .38 — but they were lying. The hold-back evidence in the case was that the weapon was actually a .32-caliber rifle and unfortunately for Ramon Gonzales, he’d owned a gun just like it.
Gonzales reluctantly admitted that he had a .32-caliber sawed-off, but he told cops that it had been stolen out of his car three months prior to Diane’s slaying.
Ramon was looking guiltier by the minute. A fellow named M.O. O’Lear called the police and told them that he’d found a sawed-off .32-caliber rifle along the road between Mrs. Sparks’ make-shift grave and Glen Oaks Blvd. The weapon had the initials “R.G.” carved into the stock.
Further tests concluded that the bullets that had killed Diane Sparks were fired from the gun owned by Ramon Gonzales. When he was confronted with the evidence Ramon didn’t deny ownership of the weapon, but steadfastly maintained his innocence:
“I didn’t kill her. Why should I? She and her husband were my friends.”
The cops were unmoved by his protestations and busted him on the spot.
Ramon’s statements to the police were filled with contradictions and omissions — he had neglected to mention to investigators that he’d owned a weapon, and he told several different versions of the incident in which he took gasoline to Diane’s stalled car on the day of her disappearance.
The law was also suspicious of what was referred to as Ramon’s “unusual” interest in Diane, and the fact that he’d often use Spanish endearments when he was speaking with her. The D.A. felt that there was enough to charge him with the murder.