Photograph caption dated September 3, 1929 reads, “Photo shows Mrs. Karuko Rokumoto, the crash victim’s widow, and her three children bereft by the tragedy. At left, William Rokumoto, in foreground Grace, left, and Mary Rokumoto. Mother and son are prosecution witnesses.” (Photo courtesy LAPL0
By mid-July 1929 Lois Pantages was out on bail pending her trial for the murder of a gardener, Joe Rokumoto, while she was driving under the influence of alcohol. In an effort to get his wife out of trouble Alexander allegedly hired an old friend, William “Paddy” McGee, to bribe a cop who was on the scene of the accident and could testify to the fact that Lois was shit-faced and smelled like a distillery. The cop, William S. Dutton, testified at the Coroner’s inquest that he and his fellow officers had one hell of time getting Lois out of her car and into an ambulance. Not because she was seriously hurt, but because she was combative. She kept saying she wanted to go home. When Officer Dutton visited her in the Dickey and Cass Hospital later she said: “Ge out of here. I don’t want to see any policemen, I want to see my husband.” Even though they’d known each other for decades Alexander referred to Paddy as “that McGee person” in an obvious effort to distance himself from both the messenger and the message. It was Paddy’s word against Alexander’s so guess who went to jail. If you guessed Paddy, you’re right.
Within two weeks of the bribery kerfuffle another witness came forward with a story–not of attempted bribery but of intimidation. Harry J. Lederbrink, a building contractor who lived at 2610 South Ridgely Drive, was asked by Deputy District Attorneys Costello and Jones if he would testify against Lois Pantages he said: “I will unless something happens; I’ve been threatened in this case already.” Lederbrink had received two threatening telephone calls, one telling him that he’d better not testify and the second telling him to get out of town. Deputy D.A. Costello intended to trace the caller, but that would be easier said than done.
Harry Lederbrink [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
Lederbrink’s testimony was a blow to Lois’s case. At the Coroner’s inquest he testified that he first saw Lois driving erratically in her Stutz near Beverly Boulevard and St. Andrews Place. At the intersection of Western and Beverly he tried to talk to her because he was convinced that she was in no condition to drive. When he leaned into the car to have a word Lederbrink smelled whiskey. Lois wouldn’t listen to Lederbrink when he suggested that she park her car and call a taxi. She went on to cause the accident that ended the life of Joe Rokumoto.
On August 5, 1929 Lois appeared in Superior Court Judge Aggeler’s court and waived time for plea and entered a plea of not guilty. She demanded an early trial date. The judge obliged and set the date of Lois’s trial for September 2 in Department Twenty-four; Judge Hardy’s court.
On the evening of August 9 the media focus shifted from Lois’s impending murder trial to Alexander who suddenly had serious legal problems of his own. He had been booked at LAPD’s Central Station on suspicion of statutory rape. The alleged victim, 16 year old Eunice Pringle of 417 Acacia Street, Garden Grove, alleged that the 54 year old theater magnate had invited her into his private office, ostensibly to discuss her vaudeville act, but had attacked her instead. She said that she lost consciousness and when she awakened a few minutes later her clothes were in disarray. Screaming, Eunice fled the office. Alexander told investigators the attack never happened and that it was a “frame-up”.
Buron Fitts, who was fast becoming the Pantages’s family nemesis, acted quickly to indict Alexander. No fewer than eleven witnesses lined up to testify against him. He entered a not guilty plea and his trial was set to begin on September 23, just a couple of weeks following Lois’s. Both Lois and Alexander were free on bail. Dinner conversations at the Pantages’s manse must have been interesting.
Lois was very involved in the selection of the jurors who would determine her fate. Did she wince when one of the prospective jurors said that while he’d served on several murder trial juries on the east coast, he’d never sat on a jury in a homicide trial. Another potential juror, H.C. Hagey, told the court that he thought that “gasoline and whiskey would not mix” and was excused for cause. Welcome, Lois, to a jury of your peers.
Jury in the Lois Pantages case. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
One of the first things the jury did was take a field trip to the crash site. It was a circus. The judge, jurors, all of the attorneys accompanied by group of reporters and photographers assembled at the intersection of Serrano Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. The jurors took in the scene and then everyone was taken to view the wrecked cars–Lois’s massive Stutz and Joe’s small Ford sedan. It was a sobering show.
The defense attorneys tried to push the blame for Joe’s death onto the shoulders of the doctors who tried to repair his hip. The defense claimed that the surgery killed Joe, not Lois’s driving. The defense went further than blaming Joe’s death on the anesthetic, they said the accident was actually all Joe’s fault because he was attempting a left turn from Serrano onto Sunset without giving a hand signal. Poor Lois rammed his car because she couldn’t avoid it.
Courtroom photo of Rev. Robert P. “Bob” Shuler (left) and Rev. Gustav A. Briegleb answering charges of contempt of court as result of their utterances regarding Mrs. Lois Pantages’ trial and the jury in the case. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
Lois’s trial brought a couple of L.A.’s most outspoken religious leaders into the limelight. One of them, Reverend Robert “Fighting Bob” Shuler, of Trinity Methodist Church, asserted on his radio program that the jury would be “hung” and not only that, he knew the identity of the male juror who would be responsible. Subpenaed along with his crusading colleague, Reverend Gustav Briegleb, Shuler was brought before Judge Hardy to answer for his statements.
Under oath Reverend Shuler admitted that he had based his radio statements on hearsay and anonymous letters. Rather than cop to telling a lie or being irresponsible, Shuler instead chose to characterize his remarks as “prophecy”. The two pastors were charged with contempt of court and tried. Both were found guilty and ordered to pay fines. Shuler and Briegleb were not accustomed to being silenced and tried to play the free speech card, and when that didn’t work they tried to start a movement to recall Judge Hardy. The recall failed and the three judges adjudicating the case, Hardy, Gould, and Tappaan, denounced Fighting Bob’s radio “tirades” and accused him of attempting to incite a mob.
Three weeks into the trial the jurors boarded a bus bound for the Los Angeles County Fair at Pomona. It was Judge Hardy’s idea. He wanted the jurors to stay healthy and in good spirits and, since he desperately needed a day away from the courtroom too, he accompanied them.
Relaxed and refreshed following their day at the fair, Judge Hardy and the jurors entered the courtroom ready to resume their respective civic duties. A few days later impassioned closing statements by the defense and the prosecuting attorney signaled the end of the trial. It was time for the jury of five women and seven men to deliberate.
Photograph caption dated September 10, 1929 reads, “The clock ticks on, and the wheels of justice move on inexorably, slowly grinding out the fate of Mrs. Pantages. This courtroom scene shows the clock which ticks away the hours and will have ticked away before the case is done. It shows opposing attorneys who wage legal battles, witnesses ready to take the stand, and spectators. At left is Mrs. Pantages, waiting and looking at the clock.” [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
It took the jury seven hours and forty-five minutes to find Lois Pantages guilty of manslaughter in Joe Rokumoto’s death. Upon hearing the sentence Lois first sat immobile, lips quivering. She finally broke into sobs, as did all of the female jurors–though whether the jurors were crying for Joe or Lois wasn’t clear. If they felt it was a bad business all the way around they were right. Lois, who was standing to hear the verdict read, began to slump towards the floor. Deputy Sheriff Hazel M. Brown rushed to her side and gently assisted the woman back into her chair. Lois’s family and counsel took her into the judge’s chambers and her doctor worked over her for nearly 30 minutes. She finally recovered just enough to be carried by her sons to a car and driven home. Having been found guilty Lois faced a sentence of from one to ten years. In 1929 female felons were still being incarcerated at San Quentin. For any woman, especially one accustomed to the finer things, it was a dreary and terrifying prospect.
Lois’s attorneys wanted probation for their client, not prison, and to that end they delivered a mass of documents supporting their request. The materials would be reviewed by probation officers and they would then make a recommendation to Judge Hardy. Lois had some heavy hitters on her side and many well-known and wealthy philanthropists were deposed. Carmen Pantages worked tirelessly on her mother’s behalf.
While Lois awaited sentencing William “Paddy” McGee was appeared before Judge Fricke on the bribery charge. Fricke, who was also hearing Alexander’s statutory rape case, listened to Paddy’s denials for about two hours. He then found him guilty and sentenced him to from one to fourteen years in prison. Courtroom observers described Paddy as “stunned” by the verdict and the sentence, but other than filing an appeal there was nothing he could do.
On November 8, 1929 Lois Pantages appeared before Judge Hardy for sentencing. The judge granted her request for probation and gave five reasons for doing so:
1. The preponderance of evidence adduced during the trial indicated that Mrs. Pantages had not been drinking before the accident.
2. Mrs. Pantages and her attorneys had agreed on a sum of money to be paid in compensating persons injured in the accident.
3. Mrs. Pantages had led a Christian loife and devoted much of her time and money to welfare work and had never before been charged with a felony.
4. Her health is such that a sentence to prison virtually would be a sentence to death, despite the fact that she was convicted only of manslaughter.
5. Consideration of all the evidence and legal phases of the case indicated that she is entitled to probation and the fact that she has wealth and position should not discriminate against her.
The term of Lois’s probation was set at 10 years and, even though according to Judge Hardy there was a preponderance of evidence that she had not been drinking, one of the conditions of her release was that she refrain from the use of alcohol and must never drive an automobile.
Judge Hardy then ordered Lois to pay $78,500 (equivalent to $1.1 million in today’s dollars) to the persons injured in the accident within five days as a full settlement of their claims.
It is interesting to note that Lois’s injuries went from a broken nose and a few minor contusions as reported immediately following the crash to: “…a congested condition in one lung, heart disease and general nervousness…” when it came time for sentencing.
District Attorney Buron Fitts was not pleased with the outcome. He said: “It is the policy of my office neither to oppose nor approve probation for any defendant. That is a question for the court to decide. However, I would like to inquire if the court would have reached the same decision had the defendant in this case been Joe Rokumoto instead of Mrs. Pantages.”
I wonder the same thing.
Lois was mentioned in the newspapers off and on over the next several years, mainly in connection with her thoroughbred racehorses and her frequent visits to Santa Anita. On July 18, 1941 at approximately 5:30 p.m. after a day of bowling on Catalina Island, Lois Pantages went for a swim off of her yacht, La Pan, anchored in Avalon Bay. She was climbing back aboard the ship when she suffered a fatal heart attack.
“People don’t always get what they deserve in this world.”
― Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book
NOTE: If you’re wondering how Alexander Pantages fared in his statutory rape trial, that will be the topic of future Deranged posts.