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.
Louise had never denied burying Mrs. Margaret Logan’s body in a shallow grave at the deceased woman’s Pacific Palisades home, but she told several colorful stories about how Logan ended up dead in the first place.
As in her first murder trial for the slaying of Jacob Denton over twenty years earlier, Peete claimed to be broke and was assigned a public defender, Ellery Cuff. Cuff had an uphill battle, the evidence against Peete was compelling.
For the most part Louise sat quietly as the prosecution drew deadly parallels between the 1920 murder of Jacob Denton and the 1944 murder of Margaret Logan; however, she disrupted the trial during testimony by police chemist Ray Pinker. From the witness stand Pinker testified to a conversation between Louise and LAPD homicide captain Thad Brown. (In 1947 Thad Brown’s brother, Finis, would be one of the lead detectives in the Black Dahlia case.)
Pinker said that prior to the discovery of Mrs. Logan’s body in a shallow grave in the backyard of her home, Brown had faced Peete and said: “Louise, have you blow your top again and done what you did before?” To which she replied: “Well, my friends told me that I would blow my top again. I want to talk to Gene Biscailuz (L.A. County Sheriff).” Louise spun around in her chair at the defense table and shouted “That is not all of the conversation.” Her attorney quieted her.
Pinker testified to how he had found the mound covering Mrs. Logan’s body. He said that he had observed a slight rise in the ground which was framed by flower pots. The cops didn’t have to dig very deep before uncovering Margaret Logan’s remains. When Louise was asked to face the grave she turned away and hid her face with her handbag.
All of Pinker’s testimony was extremely damaging to Peete’s case. In particular he said he tested a gun found Mrs. Peete’s berdroom, and when he tested the bullets they were consistent with the .32 caliber round found lodged beneath the plaster in the living room of the Logan home.
The prosecution’s case was going to be difficult to refute. It must have been a tough call for the defense when they decided to allow Louise to take the stand. Louise could be volatile and unpredictable.
Louise testified that Mrs. Logan had phoned her to ask if she’d keep house for her while she was working at Douglas Aircraft Company. Louise went on to say that when she arrived at the Logan home she found Margaret badly bruised, allegedly the result of Mr. Logan kicking her in the face.
Mr. Logan would be unable to refute any of Louise’s allegations because he had died, just days before, in the psychiatric hospital where he was undergoing treatment. Logan had been committed to the hospital by Louise, masquerading as his sister!
Logan’s death was a boon for Louise and she took full advantage of it by blaming him for his wife’s death. Louise was asked to recreate her story which had Arthur Logan shooting and battering his wife, but she appeared to be squeamish. When she was shown the murder gun and asked by the judge to pick it up to demonstrate how Arthur Logan had used it to kill his wife, Louise said: “I will not take that gun up in my hand.”
Louise’s attorney tried valiantly to contradict the evidence against his client. Would the jury believe him and acquit her?
In his summation District Attorney Fred N. Howser addressed the jury:
“Mrs. Peete has violated the laws of man and the laws of God. She killed a woman because she coveted her property. Any verdict short of first degree murder would be an affront to the Legislature. If this crime doesn’t justify the death penalty, then acquit her.”
The jury of 11 women and 1 man found Louise Peete guilty of the first degree murder of Margaret Logan. With that verdict came a death sentence.
Judge Harold B. Landreth pronounced the sentence:
“It is the judgement and sentence of this court for the crime of murder in the first degree of which you, the said Louise Peete, have been convicted by the verdict of the jury, carrying with it the extreme penalty of the law, that you, the said Louise Peete, be delivered by the Sheriff to the superintendent of the California Instution for Women at Tehachapi. There you will be held pending the decision of this case on appeal, whereupon said Louise Peete be delivered to the warden of the State Prison at San Quentin to be by him executed and put to death by the administration of lethal gas in the manner provided by the laws of the State of California.”
It was reported that Louise took her sentence “like a trouper”.
On June 7, 1945, Louise Peete began her journey from the L.A. County Jail to the women’s prison at Tehachapi to wait out the appeals process.
Louise lost the appeals which may have commuted her death penalty sentence to life in prison. On April 9, 1947 an eleventh hour bid to save her life was made to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court denied the appeal.
Louise would die.
A crush of reporters spent time with Louise on her last night; among them was, of course, Aggie Underwood.
Aggie had interviewed Louise numerous times over the years, and she managed to get at least two exclusives. In her autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, Aggie devoted a few pages to her interactions with Louise, which I’ll share:
“With other L.A. reporters, I interviewed her there for the last time before she was taken to San Quentin to be executed April 11, 1947.”
“Like other reporters, I suppose I was striving for the one-in-a-million chance: that she would slip, or confess either or both murders, Denton’s in 1920 and Mrs. Logan’s on or about May 29, 1944.’
Louise would not slip; but Aggie gave it her best try. Interestingly, Aggie said that she never addressed Louise as anything but Mrs. Peete. Why? Here is her reasoning:
“I called her Mrs. Peete. A direct attack would not have worked with her; it would have been stupid to try it. She knew the homicide mill and its cogs. She had bucked the best reporters, detectives, and prosecutors as far back as 1920, when, as a comely matron believed to be in her thirties, she had been tagged the ‘enigma woman’ by the Herald.”
“So I observed what she regarded as her dignity. Though I was poised always for an opening, I didn’t swing the conversations to anything so nasty as homicide.”
And in a move that would have occurred only to a woman, Aggie spent one of her days off finding a special eyebrow pencil for Louise:
“…with which she browned her hair, strand by strand. I didn’t go back to jail and hand it to her in person. Discreetly I sent it by messenger, avoiding the inelegance of participating in a utilitarian device to thwart nature which had done her a dirty trick in graying her. Royalty doesn’t carry money in its pockets.”
About Louise, Aggie said: “She wasn’t an artless little gun moll.” No, she wasn’t.
Lofie Louise Preslar Peete was executed in the gas chamber on April 11, 1947– it took about 10 minutes for her to die. She was the second woman to die in California’s gas chamber; two others would follow her.
Louise Peete spent approximately 18 years in prison before her release in 1939. Did she kick up her heels in joy when walked out of Tehachapi? Not at all She was angry and bitter and let the world know it by handing out a written statement to the reporters who had come out to Tehachapi to cover her release. Her statement read:
“Twenty-one years ago I pleaded not guilty to murder. I still plead not guilty. After having served 18 1/2 years in bondage for a crime I did not commit, I would appreciate the opportunity to reestablish myself without further publicity. I appreciate the parole and shall not violate the faith placed in me.”
Among Louise’s boosters were Miss Monohan, superintendent of Tehachapi Women’s Prison, and Mrs. Emily Latham, Louise’s probation officer. Neither of them doubted Louise’s sincerity. As could have been expected, Louise had put on a very convincing act in a performance that lasted for eighteen years!
Not everyone was a member of the Louise Peete cheering section. In fact the Los Angeles Times printed an opinion on the case:
Louise left prison behind her and faded into obscurity; that is until December 1944 when she was once again in the headlines for another murder!
The body of a woman, believed to be Mrs. Margaret Logan, 60, of 713 Hampden Place, Pacific Palisades, was found in a shallow backyard grave. Logan had employed Louise as a nurse/companion
It was “deja vu all over again”.
Louise assumed her familiar role as the outraged innocent, but there was a mountain of evidence against her. Ray Pinker, head of the police crime lab, examined the physical evidence. In this case the most damning piece of evidence was a nickel-plated .32 caliber revolver, rusty and covered with congealed blood. The weapon was found in a dresser drawer in the the dead woman’s home. The revolver was engraved with the initials E.B.L. and had once belonged to Emily B. Latham — Louise’s parole officer! Latham had employed Louise as a nurse and companion. Unfortunately, Latham wasn’t available to be questioned — she was dead. The cops were understandably concerned. Louise’s employers had a way of expiring under suspicious circumstances. However, it was later determined that Latham had died of natural causes.
Further examination and tests concluded that Margaret Logan’s death had been caused by a gunshot and a brutal beating. Evidently while she was incapacitated Margaret had been hammered to death with the butt of a gun.
Could 63 year old Louise have been capable of the crime and the cover-up on her own? She certainly could have shot and bludgeoned Logan by herself, but dragging the corpse out to the backyard and digging even a shallow grave may have been physically taxing. It’s possible that Louise may have had an assistant.
Just a few months before Logan’s murder Louise had married again. She had been living and working under the name of Lou Anne Lee, and because her husband was from out of state he knew nothing of her notorious past.
Louise’s husband was Lee Borden Judson, and unfortunately for her he was a man with a conscience. Judson found himself charged with “possessing guilty knowledge as a principal” in Logan’s slaying and the Coroner’s Jury recommended that both he and Louise be held for trial. Louise took the 5th at the Coroner’s Inquest, and then desperately attempted to mitigate Judson’s statements which were incriminating to say the least.
Judson described how, on the day of the murder, Louise had left their Glendale home to visit the Logans. She told him that she might be late getting home. About 9:45 that night Louise phoned to say she was going to stay overnight with the Logans. Judson wasn’t happy about the arrangement because Louise had told him that Mr. Logan was mentally unbalanced and sometimes became violent.
According to Judson, the next day when he arrived at the Logan’s he was met outside by Louise. She was dressed in an old pair of slacks and appeared distraught, as if she’d been crying. When he asked her what was wrong Louise spun one of her more imaginative tales; and that’s saying something. Judson stated that Louise had told him that: “Mr. Logan had jumped on Mrs. Logan and had bit her on the neck and cheek…and that Mr. Logan had bitten off the end of Mrs. Logan’s nose.” Judson then asked Louise if she had saved the part of the nose that was bitten off, but she told him that she hadn’t.
Judson testified that he entered the Logan’s residence to find a very large spot of blood on the living room rug, and he found Mr. Logan pacing around the house like Lady MacBeth saying: “I’ve got some blood on my hands–where did I get it?”
Louise took charge of the situation and tried to calm Mr. Logan by telling him that his wife was fine, that she was “away on some real estate deal”.
On the day following the discovery of the blood on the carpet, Judson said that he and Louise took Logan to the psychopathic parole office of the County Lunacy Commission and had the man committed.
What Judson didn’t know was that Louise had masqueraded as Logan’s sister in order to have him committed. Louise was undoubtedly relieved when, during her trial, Mr. Logan died in the psychiatric hospital.
Judson probably had no idea that the blood spot on the carpet had anything to do with a murder. Louise told him, and anyone else who asked, that Mrs. Logan was in a sanitarium undergoing plastic surgery to repair the facial injuries she’d suffered in the asserted insane attack by Mr. Logan!
The story was a variation of the the tale Louise had told about Jacob Denton two decades earlier. You’ll recall she told people that he was away being fitted for, and learning to use, prosthetic limbs as the result of an attack he’d suffered at the hands of a sword wielding Spanish speaking woman.
Judson was becoming a major liability for Louise. He testified that he’d seen her sign a check for $2500 on Mrs. Logan’s behalf. The reason Louise gave Judson for signing the check was that Mrs. Logan’s right arm was paralyzed! Even though, as her husband, he wasn’t able to testify against her, everything he said in his own defense brought her closer to the gas chamber.
In a bizarre side note, while Louise was cooling her heels in the County Jail her cellmate Mrs. Constance Renner (no relation to me that I’m aware of) attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sedatives she’d been given to calm her nerves. Louise heard Renner’s labored breathing and struck a match to see what was going on. She saw foam on Renner’s lips and alerted the matron, thus saving the woman’s life. The cell was later searched because five of the sedative tablets were unaccounted for. You’ll never guess where they were found — Louise had stashed them in her hair! She said she hidden them so that she could give them to the jail chief later, but it’s obvious that she was keeping them just in case she needed an exit strategy.
Things were going from bad to worse for Louise. The State of California contended that her marriage to Judson wasn’t legal.; then they dropped the charges against him and cut him loose. Judson was greeted by his son and daughter following his release and he should have been on his way to happier times but instead, less than twenty-four hours after he was freed, Lee Judson went over to the Broadway-Spring Arcade Building and hurled himself down a stairwell to his death. Whether Judson’s guilty knowledge of Louise’s actions included him actually assisting her in the burial of Margaret Logan’s remains we’ll never know. He was a decent man and it likely that the shame of sharing a life, if only for a few months, with a killer was too much for him to bear.
Louise took the news with a great deal of weeping and drama, but declined to attend Judson’s funeral saying “I prefer to remember him as he was”.
Louise was once again facing a murder charge on her own.
When I wrote part two of Louise Peete’s story I thought for sure I’d be able to wrap it up in part three — I was wrong. Louise’s criminal career demands at least one more post after this one! So, let’s get started with part three of her tale.
Louise Peete was sent to San Quentin in 1921 to begin serving a life sentence for the murder of Jacob C. Denton. According to prison authorities Louise was a model prisoner, and model prisoners don’t make news.
However, in August 1924 Peete made news in spite of herself when her ex-husband, Richard, committed suicide. Apparently Richard had preferred death to poverty and illness. He traveled to Tucson, Arizona where he purchased a small bore rifle, he then put a bullet in his brain. He died instantly. Louise had no comment.
In July 1926 Louise made news again when she came forward with yet another version of Jacob Denton’s murder. Louise had outdone herself, the new version was a doozy! Louise claimed that William Desmond Taylor was killed by Denton’s slayers!
Louise obviously had one hell of an imagination.
Deputy D.A. Davis, head of the homicide bureau, said:
“It is ridiculous and just another product of an imagination working overtime in an effort to escape just punishment. There never has been a shred of evidence connecting the two crimes.”
William Desmond Taylor
Municipal Judge Turney, who had been a Deputy D.A. and part of the team that prosecuted Peete, weighed in:
“William Desmond Taylor was never mentioned in the case. So far as we knew he never knew Jacob Denton, and Mrs. Peete never mentioned him in any of the twenty or more conflicting statements and inconsistent stories she has issued. She was convicted on overwhelming evidence.”
Louise had never let reason or truth stand in her way before, and she wasn’t about to start. When asked why she had kept the names of the real murderers concealed, she said it was because emissaries of the killers had threatened the kidnapping or murder of her little daughter Betty.
She went on to say:
“William Desmond Taylor knew Jacob Denton intimately. He was a frequent visitor at the Denton home. After Denton was murdered and I was sent to prison for life, Taylor knew I was taking the medicine for others. Why? Because they would kill Betty if I talked. Taylor knew the truth, too. He stood it as long as he could. Then, when he could no longer bear the burden of seeing me in prison for a crime that I did not commit, he threatened to tell everything. He paid for that threat with his life.”
Proof of the maxim that there is “a sucker born every minute” was made manifest when a number of club women and other sympathizers, convinced of Louise’s innocence, began a campaign to have her released from prison!
Louise’s attempts to win parole were unsuccessful until 1939 when she was granted her freedom. There was a problem though — Louise needed a job and, not surprisingly, there weren’t any offers forthcoming.
The soon-to-be ex-con wanted to work as a housekeeper but given the fate of her last employer, Jacob Denton, no one was willing to give her a chance. Really though, can you blame them?
Finally a good Samaritan named Margaret Logan offered Louise employment as a housekeeper and companion. Of course upon her release Louise couldn’t resist talking to the press. She said:
“I still insist I am innocent. I don’t believe it was Jake Denton’s body at all that was found buried in the cellar of his home. If it was his, I don’t know how it got there or who was responsible. I believe some day Denton will let the world know he is still alive.”
Louise kept a low profile from her release in 1939 until December 1944 when the body of her benefactor, Margaret Logan, was discovered buried in the back yard of her Pacific Palisades home.
Had the sword wielding Spanish looking woman reappeared? Perhaps the slayers of William Desmond Taylor were trying to mess with Louise by tangling her up in another murder. Or maybe, just maybe, harmless looking Louise Peete was a multiple murderer and a sociopath.
NEXT TIME: Louise’s second murder trial in twenty-five years.