Film Noir Friday–Sunday Matinee: Naked Alibi [1954]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crime theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. This afternoon’s feature stars film noir greats Sterling Hayden and Gloria Grahame.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Questioned as a murder suspect, solid (but drunk) citizen Al Willis attacks his police questioners, is beaten, and swears vengeance against them. Next night, Lieut. Parks is murdered; Willis is the only suspect in the eyes of tough Chief Conroy, who pursues him doggedly despite lack of evidence. The obsessed Conroy is dismissed from the force, but continues to harass Willis, who flees to a sleazy town on the Mexican border. Of course, Conroy follows. But which is crazy, Conroy or Willis?

 

Phantom Sniper

August 29, 1951 — 10:30 p.m. 
Scrivner’s Chili Dog Stand
East Olympic and South Atlantic
East Los Angeles

Nina Bice, a 25-year-old divorced mother of three toddlers, was drinking coffee with her fiancee, William Hannah at the Scrivner Chili Dog Stand when William heard a loud crack.  He assumed it was kids playing with leftover fireworks from the 4th of July, or a car backfiring.  He turned toward Nina and found her slumped over, a bullet behind her right ear.  She was dead.

Over the next eight months a mysterious shooter, dubbed the Phantom Gunman by newspapers, shot and wounded four women and a girl in a crime spree that terrified locals.

Evan Charles Thomas. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

On April 16, 1952, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies arrested twenty-nine-year-old railroad switchman. He told detectives, “I’m glad it’s over, it’s been bothering me.”

He claimed he didn’t intend to kill Nina. Like a wild west sharpshooter he tried to shoot the coffee cup out of her hands, but he missed. Evan’s pregnant wife Hester went into hiding and filed for divorce. Her father told reporters, “We’re trying to be calm about this. While we’re ashamed, we’re trying to hold our heads high.“ A reported asked if Hester planned to stick by her husband, to which her father replied, “Stick by him? Do you think any reasonable person would?”

With a perverse sense of pride, Evan lead investigators on a tour of his assaults. He told them that after he purchased the .22 rifle he prowled in his car searching for attractive women. He was a coward, inept in social situations, and probably sexually impotent. To gratify his urges, he hid in the shadows and acted out with violence and he found it gave him an erotic charge.  Evan masturbated at the scenes of his crimes.  He described for investigators how, following an attack, he would circle around in his car and find a vantage point from where he could watch all that his actions had wrought while he pleasured himself.

Lois May Kreutzer [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC].

He led sheriffs to the Pico Rivera phone booth where, on August 27,  he shot Lois May Kreutzer, 21, in the back while she was called a doctor for her sick child. She was unaware of the cause of her pain and the seriousness of the wound. She believed a bee stung her, and she walked home.

Thomas took deputies to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Walter in Norwalk, where he shot through the front window on August 28, the night before he shot Nina.

The bizarre tour took detectives to Downey, where on October 16, Patricia Ellen Bryant, 10, suffered a gunshot to her arm (breaking the bone) as she waited for the school bus.  Patricia was reading a book in front of her house when the attack occurred. Her dad was furious and threatened to punch Evan if he ever got close enough.

Deputies accompanied Evan to Pico Rivera where, on November 23, he shot Irma Megrdle in her left thigh while she was gardening in her front yard.

In the city of Garvey, Evan took deputies to the spot where he hid himself when he shot Audrey Murdock in the right side while she was ironing. Even though she was in agony, Audrey left the house to seek help.  She was in the hospital for ten days and left with the bullet still her. The doctors could not safely remove the slug.

Evan visited the chili dog stand and took detectives to his hiding place in the nearby alley from where he took the fatal shot. As per his routine, he then drove around the block, staked out a prime vantage point, watched the excitement, and  masturbated.

Joan Frances Hilles points to the window where the bullet entered. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

The final stop on Evan’s tour of terror was to the home of his near neighbor Joan Frances Hilles’ home in Los Nietos.  Evan recently spent the evening with Joan socializing, drinking beer, and watching TV.  Five minutes after he left her, a bullet shattered the living room window and whizzed past Joan’s head.

Evan Charles Thomas demonstrates for Sheriff’s investigators from where he took the shot at Joan Hilles. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

The Hilles’ considered Evan a hick.  On the night of the attempt on her life, Joan let him hang out with her because he brought the beer. Soon after firing the shot, Evan called the Hilles’ home to ask if Joan was okay. His called begged the question, how did he find out about the incident so fast?

Unable to control his curiosity, he did one of the dumbest things a perpetrator can do, he visited the scene and pestered investigators with questions. Detectives suspect the person who attempts to insert him or herself into an investigation. Charles was interested to the point of being obnoxious, and it was his intense interest that lead to his arrest. As soon as investigators turned their attention to Thomas, and he confessed to Nina’s murder and confirmed his identity as the Phantom Sniper.

Evan Charles Thomas in court with his attorney, John Oliver. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

During Evan’s trial, County Jail physician Dr. Marcus Crahan offered his professional opinion of Charles. He described him as a low-grade moron who was  fired from one job because he couldn’t use a cash register.  The Post Office let Evan go after he crashed his mail truck in 1948. Crahan told the court that Evan was a subnormal every man–a guy who watched wrestling on TV, drank too much when he fought with his wife, lusted after other women but was too shy to do anything about it, and argued with his in-laws.  Crahan’s description fit thousands of men in the early 1950s; however, the crucial difference between Evan and other men was he focused his frustrations in an anti-social direction.

Psychiatrist Dr. Edwin Ewart McNeil examined Evan and declared him sane. The primary reason for his diagnosis made sense.  Charles told him his overwhelming emotion before, during, and after the shootings was abject terror.

Evan Charles Thomas following his conviction for murder. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

The jury found Evan guilty of Nina Bice’s murder and sentenced him to die in the gas chamber.  The district attorney set aside six charges of attempted murder. Prosecutors were hedging their bets. In the unlikely event Evan slipped through a legal loophole on Nina’s murder, he had multiple charges waiting to be filed.

Death penalty cases are automatically entitled to an appeal. Evan’s appeal revealed a jury made up of other subnormals. The defense attorneys based the appeal on the jurors’ inability to grasp the concept of lying in wait. The jurors actually believed a killer had to be prone on the ground when he fired.   The court denied the appeal.

The original Phantom Gunman was on death row, but a copycat popped up in July 1952 when several women were shot and wounded in the San Gabriel.

Evan Charles Thomas on his way to San Quentin to be executed for murder. [Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, 1920-1961, USC]

January 29, 1954.  The State of California executed Evan Charles Thomas in the gas chamber at San Quentin for Nina Bice’s murder. His mother, in Akron, Ohio, told the press she blamed the Air Force for her son’s problems. She said, “They teach them how to use a gun, and when they get out and get into trouble, they do nothing to help.”

In a dreadful postscript, in September 1955, Nina Bice’s ex-husband Emory Bice, the father of her three children, was crossing a street in East Los Angeles when he was hit by a hit-and-run driver and killed. He left a young widow, Kathleen, to care for his three kids with Nina, and their two children together.

NOTE:  Thanks to Robert Harrison, a Deranged L.A. Crimes reader, who reminded me about this story.

Film Noir Friday: Christmas Holiday [1944]

 

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crime theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. The holidays have a dark side, and to prove it tonight’s feature is CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

After receiving his commission on Christmas Eve, Lt. Charles Mason learns that Mona, his longtime girl friend, has married another man. When his plane from North Carolina to San Francisco is forced by bad weather to land in New Orleans, the heartbroken Charles meets alcoholic reporter Simon Fenimore, who takes him to a brothel run by Valerie De Merode. There Charles is introduced to hostess/singer Jackie Lamont, and agrees to take her to a midnight mass. After the church services, the two go to a diner, where Jackie tells Charles that her real name is Abigail and that she is the wife of convicted murderer Robert Manette. At the diner, and the next morning in his hotel room, Abigail tells Charles the story of her relationship with Robert.

 

Unhappy Holidays

The holidays are a time for family, and Sarah Marquez and her two-year-old son, Eric,  were looking forward to Christmas 1953 with more enthusiasm than ever.  Eric was too young to recall his parents ever living together, they separated when he was an infant, but if all went well on December 18th, the family would be reunited.

December 18th came—Sarah gathered up Eric and they left her parents home at 208 West 97th Street to join her husband Reginald at his apartment at 15732 ½ Paramount Boulevard. Sarah and Reginald filled their arms with tree ornaments, toy trains and other gifts designed to make Eric giddy with delight.

The get-together went well at first, then Reginald began drinking. Beer cans and liquor bottles piled up on the floor and Reginald’s mood turned ugly. Sarah tried to salvage the day, but it was impossible to reason with her husband. Unable to take Reginald’s bad temper any longer, Sarah drew Eric to her and demanded Reginald take them back to her parents’ home.

When they arrived at her door Reginald forced his way in and grabbed a knife from the kitchen. He waved the knife around and made threats terrifying enough to send her running for the bathroom.  She locked the door and waited for him to go.

Reginald refused to leave.  Instead he calmed and persuaded Sarah to come out so they could patch things up.  The attempt at reconciliation lasted only until Reginald saw a photograph of Sarah with another man, a mutual friend of theirs. The photo was taken during the period of their separation, but Reginald was not mollified. He became abusive and tore the photo into shreds.  He grabbed another knife and chased her around the house threatening to kill her. Sarah ran for the bedroom and slammed the door shut behind her.  In a blind rage, Reginald beat his fists against the door and then broke the knife against it.  He managed to force the door open and they took their struggle to the living room sofa.

In desperation Sarah grabbed at the cushions.  She fumbled around and found the .32 caliber automatic pistol Reginald gave her when he returned from the war. She fired six shots. Two of the slugs smashed into Reginald’s stomach and killed him. The other four rounds ricocheted around the room, fortunately none of them struck Eric who cowered in his crib.

Police from the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Division took Sarah to jail.

Eric’s maternal grandparents took Eric. The little boy had a lot of questions his grandparents didn’t want to answer, so they let him open his presents a few days early.

NOTE:  The Los Angeles Times did not report any further on the case. It is likely that Reginald’s death was considered self-defense.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday to Aggie Underwood & Deranged L.A. Crimes

Aggie hoists a brew c. 1920s.

Aggie hoists a brew c. 1920s. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Aggie Underwood was born on December 17, 1902 and Deranged L.A. Crimes was born on December 17, 2012, so there’s a lot to celebrate today. We have so many candles on our birthday cake it will take a gale force wind to blow them all out.

It was Aggie’s career as a Los Angeles journalist that inspired me to begin this blog; and my admiration for Aggie and her accomplishments has grown in the years since I first became aware of her.

Aggie at a crime scene in 1946.

Aggie at a crime scene in 1946.

Aggie’s newspaper career began on a whim.  In late 1926, she was tired of wearing her sister’s hand-me-down silk stockings and desperately want a pair of her own. When she asked her husband Harry for the money, he demurred.  He said he was sorry, they simply couldn’t afford them. Aggie got huffy and said she’d buy them herself. It was an empty threat–until a close friend called out of the blue the day following the argument and asked Aggie if she would be interested in a temporary job at the Daily Record. Aggie never intended to work outside her home, but this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie described her first impression of the Record’s newsroom as a “weird wonderland”. She was initially intimidated by the men in shirtsleeves shouting, cursing and banging away on typewriters, but it didn’t take long before intimidation became admiration. She fell in love with the newspaper business. At the end of her first year at her “temporary” job she realized that she wanted to be a reporter. From that moment on Aggie pursued her goal with passion and commitment.

Aggie at her desk after becoming City Editor at the Evening Herald & Express.

Aggie at her desk after becoming City Editor at the Evening Herald & Express. Note the baseball bat — she used it to shoo away pesky Hollywood press agents. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

During a time when most female journalists were assigned to report on women’s club activities and fashion trends, Aggie covered the most important crime stories of the day. She attended actress Thelma Todd’s autopsy in December 1935 and was the only Los Angeles reporter to score a byline in the Black Dahlia case in January 1947. Aggie’s career may have started on a whim, but it lasted over 40 years.

Look closely and you can see Aggie's byline.

Look closely and you can see Aggie’s byline under “Night In a Motel”.  [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Over the past six years I’ve corresponded with many of you and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of you in person. Your support and encouragement mean a lot to me, and whether you are new to the blog or have been following Deranged L.A. Crimes from the beginning I want to thank you sincerely for your readership.

There will be many more stories in 2019, and a few appearances too. Look for me in shows on the Investigation Discovery Network (I’ve been interviewed for Deadly Women, Deadly Affairs, Evil Twins, Evil Kin and several others.) I recently filmed an episode of Ice Cold Blood for the Oxygen Network, and I did a short sport for the podcast Hollywood & Crime, which will air in January.  I may have a couple of local lectures scheduled too.  You can also find me several times a year on Esotouric’s Bus Adventures crime bus. I’ll be co-hosting the Black Dahlia tour on January 5, 2019 and other tours throughout the year.

For several months I have been working on a book of true crime tales titled, Ways to Be Wicked, Volume 1, Los Angeles Crimes 1919-1949.  I’ll keep you posted on the publishing date (best guess now is late January 2019).

Whether it is on television, in the blog or some other medium I’m looking forward to telling more crime tales in 2019.

Happy Holidays and stay safe!

Joan