The Santa Monica Cesspool Slayings, Part 2

BARRETT BREAKS DOWN_resize

Facing a bucketful of bones (left to right): Chief of Police F.W. Ferguson of Santa Monica; Benton L. Barrett; Assistant Chief of Police Sidney Holt, Santa Monica; Capt. J.D. Hunter of D.A.’s office, and Lt. Clarence Webb, Santa Monica police.

In custody for the murders of his wife Irene and his stepson Raymond, Benton Barrett told the cops that only way he could banish the mental picture of the crime was to stare at a photo of his wife — the small likeness of her he kept in his watch case.

“She comes to me in the night and I get out her picture to drive away the apparition. I do not dream, it is only when I am awake that I can see her. If I can keep this picture it will help me.”

For hours during his interrogation Barrett insisted to the cops that he could not explain how the remains of his wife and stepson got into the cesspool. Then, suddenly, his memory improved:

“Yes, I remember now how it all happened. I was frightened. I passed that pile of charred bones and they seemed to watch me, seemed to cry out against me.”

When he’d finished confessing Barrett looked at the investigators who were grouped around him at a table and he said:

“Well, boys, anything else I can enlighten your minds on?”

Barrett’s defense attorney, Lewis D. Collings, and Capt. H.L. Zimmer, an investigator, didn’t believe the man’s confession for one minute. According to Collings and Zimmer there were several people, principally his wife Irene, who had schemed to pray on Barrett’s weakened mind for the sole purpose of profit. Allegedly the conspirators expected Benton either to be sent to the gallows or to end his own life.barrett death scene

Collings offered facts to support his belief in Benton’s innocence. Collings said that Barrett had been senile for months and was about to have a guardian appointed — which would have conveniently gotten him out of the way; Barrett confessed to the murder but was so weak-minded that he changed his story each time the detectives suggested another possibility; and the fire in which Barrett said he’d burned the bodies wasn’t long enough to contain his wife’s body.

Barrett’s attorney went on to say that the bones found in the outhouse had not been there on the Saturday following the fire, yet in his confession Benton had stated he’d put the bones in cesspool on Friday! Additionally, the bones in the outhouse were bleached by the sun; the marrow remained intact and had not been not melted away as it should have been if subjected to heat, and the bones were also free of flesh.

A case as bizarre and highly publicized as Barrett’s attracts every nutcase for miles. Among the assorted wackos was a dowser using one of Irene’s gloves and one of Raymond’s shirts wrapped around his dowsing wand — he was seeking their remains and not the perfect place to drill for water. The man went to the barn where the murders were believed to have occurred, then he went out to Topanga Canyon and somehow convinced a detective to dig an acre of land to expose the bodies of Irene and Richard — nothing was found.

In a letter to the editor Mr. W.D. Turner of Long Beach offered an analysis of the case. He believed that the murders were committed, but that Barrett had help in disposing of the bodies. He went on at length to describe how bones can reveal to whom they belonged in life.

An astrologer who lived near Barrett’s home said that all Scorpios like Barrett:

“…will think no more of committing a murder than a tiger does.” He is the kind to send poisoned candy in the mail.”

barrett victims aliveDisturbing reports that Irene had been planning to disappear and take some of Benton’s money with her began to surface. Two days prior to her disappearance Irene had purchased new clothes for herself and her son — she’d also bought a suitcase.  Barrett’s attorney announced that there would be a $1000 reward for information leading to the whereabouts of Irene and Raymond. Witnesses came forward and stated that they’d seen the supposed murder victims in San Diego, but investigators couldn’t locate the mother and son if, in fact, they were still alive.

Barrett’s original attorneys withdrew from the case claiming that they were not being provided with a sufficient number of investigators and experts to mount a vigorous defense. In all seven attorneys would join, then depart, the defense team. By April 1917 only one attorney remained, Ona W. Morton.

During jury selection Barrett chanted hymns and kept a meticulous account of the number of glasses of water he consumed — 70 in one day.

As jury selection continued a small girl, about two years old, entered the courtroom alone and struggled with the gate to the trial area. As the gate swung open the tot fell on her face and Benton jumped up and reached out for her. The bailiff, Martin Aguirre, grabbed the man and and chastened him:

“Get back there! Remember you are a prisoner in this court, accused of burning your wife and stepson. Never leave your seat like that again.”

Barrett burst into tears.

Barrett’s trial drew a SRO crowd every day. Defense attorney Morton argued that there was no evidence that Irene Barrett or her son Raymond Wright were dead, let alone murdered, and the jury must acquit his client.

Would the jury agree with Morton?

NEXT TIME: The conclusion of the Santa Monica Cesspool Murders

The Santa Monica Cesspool Slayings

barrett confesses

Benton L. Barrett (65) hadn’t known Irene (45) for very long before he married her in San Diego in 1914. Irene had been keen on a brief courtship and Benton happily demurred — after all, he was in love. Irene didn’t want to rush to the altar because she was crazy in love with Benton — far from it. She was working a badger game on him. Benton had signed over a one-half interest in his 5 acre property, plus $25,000 ($584,000 in current dollars), to Irene before they ever strolled down the aisle!

Irene wasn’t the only person with a vested interest in Benton’s money and property. While still a newlywed Irene claimed that Benton’s cousin, Charles (an attorney), had it in for her and was spreading rumors about her extra-marital affairs. Unfortunately for Irene, they weren’t rumors. Charles had hired a private investigator to shadow Irene and the PI uncovered evidence of Irene’s infidelity.

Benton remained unconvinced of his wife’s duplicity until he was introduced to Mr. George Forbes. George produced 31 letters, all of them racy (and some of them obscene) written by his randy correspondent Irene – who frequently signed herself as “Your Loving Wife…”

Was Benton’s jealousy enough to drive him to commit murder?

On October 18th Irene and her 17 year old son Raymond Wright suddenly vanished.

Two days after Irene and Raymond had disappeared Benton went to his attorney and confessed to the murders. He told a grisly tale:

“I now feel my wife and stepson plotted to kill me. Last Wednesday morning my wife and I quarreled bitterly over a bundle of 31 letters she wrote to George Forbes. I had read the letters and I was insanely jealous. Jealousy robs a man of life and the desire to live. I was insane and she was angry, angry at being found out.”

“After breakfast the boy picked up his cap and started out the front door. My wife followed him and they talked for a long time in the hall. I did not hear what they were saying but I know now they were plotting to kill me. I went out to the yard, started a rubbish fire and she followed. I went into the stable and she came there with a knife. The boy followed her. I killed them both and took their bodies to the fire, where I tried to burn them up. At 3:30 o’clock I stopped feeding the flames. There was a pile of embers that looked like a grave. I pulled at this pile with a branch of a peach tree and exposed the bodies. They glowed redly in the embers and I covered them over.”

Benton told the lawyer that he had obsessively tended the fire, then on Friday night he removed the skulls and long bones and threw them in the cesspool. Just like Lady Macbeth he compulsively washed his hands, but of course they wouldn’t come clean.

seeking clues

Benton claimed self-defense and said that he had been driven to murder due to the various legal battles going on in the family. He said after he’d burned the bodies he had lapsed into a three day daze.

Cops went to the property and found a small amount of burned bones and teeth in a backyard funeral pyre. Then they began to eyeball the cesspool under the outhouse — maybe  it held a clue to the alleged murders.

Cops inventoried the cesspool and found:

  • 14 vertebrae
  • Portions of tibia, fibula, pelvic, femur and toe bones
  • 1 buckle from the side of a boy’s trousers
  • A shoulder socket bone
  • Portions of a skull, mostly female
  • A cheek bone
  • Orbital cavity of an eye
  • Seven blue sweater buttons (ID’d as from Irene’s sweater)
  • Three brown buttons from a boy’s coat
  • Several 22 caliber bullets

Hundreds of people circled the property and watched as police pulled several bloodied weapons from a barn. But Benton’s confession had developed some major holes. Many believed that the 65 year old man wasn’t capable of doing all of the heavy lifting involved in the killings without help – and there wasn’t a hint of an accomplice. Besides, there weren’t enough bones found to have made two complete adult skeletons.  It was also troubling was that Benton seemed to be highly suggestible and changed his story based on what police would show him and tell him. Then there were the supposed sightings of Irene and Raymond which had begun within hours of their alleged murders!

barrett_murderer

Unfortunately for Benton, neither his mental state, nor the sightings of his “victims”, would be enough to keep him from being tried for a double homicide.

NEXT TIME:  The tale of the Santa Monica Cesspool Slayings continues.