Lois Pantages’s Wild Ride, Part 1

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Alexander Pantages

In 1876,  Pericles Pantages left his home on a small Greek Island and shipped out as a cabin boy on a schooner–he was 9. By age 12 the boy had contracted malaria and was put ashore in Panama where he stayed for two years. Panama wasn’t exactly the best place for a boy who already had malaria, and he was told by a doctor that if he didn’t leave the isthmus he would die there. He shipped out as soon as he could and landed in Puget Sound.

He bounced around for a time nurturing a variety of get-rich-quick schemes before he finally wised up and realized he’d be better off taking money from those who had already made it.  What better means of relieving people of their money than the entertainment business? Pericles, possibly as a declaration to the world of his will to make good, took the name of his hero Alexander the Great.  The young man was every bit as fierce in business as his chosen namesake was on the field of battle. He stumbled and fell a few times, but by the end of WWI he had put together one of the most successful theater circuits in the U.S.

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Lois & Alexander Pantages

Alexander met and married Lois Mendenhall, a pianist, in Seattle in the early 1900s. The couple had two sons: Rodney Alexander (b. 1905) and Lloyd Alexander (b. 1907). They added a daughter, Carmen Elrene (b.1910) and then they adopted another girl, Marjorie Nelson (b. 1908).

He may not have been able to read or write, but Alexander could speak several languages and he was particularly adept at figures. It was his innate business sense that enabled him to beat the odds. Alexander’s was an inspiring rags-to-riches tale and he and Lois lived in luxury.

By the late 1920s Alexander was worth the equivalent of approximately $30 million in current dollars. That kind of money can change a person’s living circumstances. But what about a person’s character?  Do the other family members become spoiled and out of touch?  In Lois’s case it seems very likely.

On  the evening of June 17, 1929  Lois  careened around Hollywood in her large Stutz with a reckless abandon that would have shocked even Mr. Toad.  Used car salesman William Taylor was near Oxford Street and Santa Monica Boulevard when he noticed a woman at the wheel of a Stuz driving erratically. The car swerved and it appeared to Taylor that the driver was not in control of the vehicle. He held his breath as it side-swiped another car and continued down the street at a high rate of speed.  Hoping to stop the woman before someone came to harm, he followed her in his car as fast as he deemed safe. Although he kept her in sight he couldn’t match her pace.

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Harry Lederbrink, first saw the Stutz at St. Andrews Place and Beverly Boulevard, and he noticed that it was being driven in a “very careless” manner. He pulled up behind the car and when it didn’t move forward as the traffic signal turned green he got out and went to see if the driver was in distress. He saw the woman with her head down and she had a “glassy stare”  He drew closer and “got a whiff” of whiskey. He also noticed the registration certificate–it was made out in the name of Lois Pantages.  He told the woman that she should pull her car to the curb and call a taxicab, but once she’d snapped out of her trance she became verbally abusive and roared off trailing dust and expletives.

As C.F. Holmes, his wife, and another couple were driving down Western Avenue the Stutz passed him on the wrong side of the road and clipped his fenders. The big car didn’t slow down or stop, so Holmes followed it and watched in disbelief as the westbound car swerved into the eastbound lane of Sunset Boulevard. The driver made no hand signal and gave no indication of what she was intending to do. Then, as several people watched, the car crashed into a small slow moving sedan jam-packed with people. The sickening sound of metal-on-metal was accompanied by screams.

NEXT TIME:  The aftermath of the crash.

The L.A. River Torso Slaying, Conclusion

westlake accused2Captain William Bright and the homicide squad understood the importance of circumstantial evidence in winning a conviction in a murder case. They met with Assistant District Attorney Jordan and for hours they reviewed everything that they had assembled in the case against Dr. Frank Westlake.

The foundation of the case against the doctor was greed. He had in his possession deeds of trust for several lots, bank books and cash belonging to Laura Sutton. He was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy she had taken out and he had even given some of Laura’s personal belongings away–hardly the actions of a man who thought she’d be home soon.

The evidence implicating  Dr. Westlake in Laura’s murder was circumstantial, but when taken together it offered a compelling argument for murder committed for personal gain–particularly when her clothing, silverware, and other personal effects were discovered by deputies concealed under the floor and in the attic of his home. They found a typewriter hidden under a pile of clothing too. It was the possibly the same typewriter that had been used to write the so-called “birdie letters”. The letters were purportedly sent by Laura to Westlake inquiring about her pet canaries and some of her other belongings.

One of the letters read:

My dear:
What did you do with the furniture and the birdies?  If stored, where?  Is Mr. King still in town, and what shift is he working? Please answer these questions in any of the personal columns.  Will see you soon.

L.B.S.

jury id torsoAn inquest conducted by Coroner Nance was held on June 13, 1929. The primary reason for the proceeding was to get on the record the identification of the torso as Mrs. Sutton’s so that the murder trial could go forward. There was no doubt in any of the investigators or scientists minds that the torso and head belonged to Laura.

The sensational murder trial of Dr. Westlake was scheduled to begin on August 19, 1929; however, Westlake’s legal team was wrapping up another case so the trial was continued until August 26th. The case against the doctor was simple. The State alleged that he had murdered Sutton so he could gain control of her assets, and then he mutilated her corpse to cover up the crime.

Nine women and three men were selected to pass judgement on the 57-year-old retired physician. The 8-year-old boy who had found the torso was a witness, as was the 14-year-old boy who had discovered the head. Due to the condition of the body (still armless and legless) the testimony was necessarily scientific. The jury was schooled in the rudiments of forensic odontology so they could understand the dentist’s testimony.  Further, bones from the torso were entered into evidence so Dr. Wagner, the autopsy surgeon, could explain how it was possible to determine the age of the victim by the ossification of her bones.death locale

The defense advanced a theory that Ben King had committed the murder because he had once worked as a butcher and knew how to dismember a body. But they seemed to feel that their strongest defense was simply to deny that the torso and head were Laura’s and that she was still alive but in hiding. When his attorney, William T. Kendrick, Jr. asked him if he had killed Laura B. Sutton, Westlake replied: “No, I certainly did not.”

Thirty-six hours after beginning their deliberation the jury returned a verdict of guilty and fixed Dr. Westlake’s sentence at life in prison. One of the jurors said that they’d have brought in a guilty verdict on the first ballot if not for one of the women members who declared that she was a psychologist and from her observations deduced that Westlake was probably not the killer. Apparently she regained her senses.

Sheriff Traeger received a letter from District Attorney Buron Fitts praising the skills of the everyone involved in the torso murder investigation:

The conviction of Dr. Frank P. Westlake for the murder of Laura Sutton, in the so-called torso murder case deserves the highest commendation of this office.

It is with deepest satisfaction that I desire to commend Captain Willikam J. Bright of the homicide department and his able deputies, Allen, Gray, Croushorn and Gompert for their diligent and skillful efforts in marshalling the evidence upon which a conviction was obtained.  Their unceasing efforts solving what began to look like a baffling murder, have ultimately been rewarded by a just and conclusive verdict of first-degree murder after a fair and impartial trial.

We are turning over to the family of Mrs. Sutton at the request of Mr. Sutton, the husband, and the brothers and sisters, the body for burial by them, which signifies the satisfaction of the family at the identification of the torso.

Hoping the excellent co-operation between our office and yours will forever continue, I remain sincerely yours,

Buron Fitts

Sheriff Traeger commended his deputies as well:

“…the solution of the torso murder case was a triumph of scientific investigation over old-fashioned methods.”

westlake paroledIn this era of DNA evidence we have a tendency to take for granted the skills required to investigate crime outside of the laboratory. Even with the quantum leaps in scientific techniques an investigation is only as good as the men and women who conduct it.

What happened to Dr. Westlake? He was paroled on July 12, 1944 after serving only fourteen years in San Quentin for the murder of Laura B. Sutton.

NOTE: Many thanks to my friend Mike Fratatoni for bringing this deranged case to my attention.

The L.A. River Torso Slaying, Part 4

teeth drawingCaptain Bright’s faith in his detectives and the crime lab wasn’t misplaced. Six weeks following the discovery of a woman’s torso in the Los Angeles River partial identification of the victim was made through her teeth. The dead woman was tentatively identified as Mrs. Laura B. Sutton. She was 40 years of age and had mysteriously disappeared at the end of March–six days before the torso was found.

teeth chartMrs. Sutton’s brother, E.J. Groff, had seen the drawings of the teeth in the newspaper and immediately contacted his sister’s dentist. While the doctor wouldn’t go so far as to state positively that the teeth were Mrs. Sutton’s, he was willing to say that they closely resembled them–he would need to make a trip to the Coroner’s Office to make a positive match. Unfortunately, his trip to the see the skull would have to be delayed until he could find Sutton’s x-rays, which he had misplaced.

Groff told detectives that prior to her disappearance his sister had been behaving strangely. She seemed agitated and made a number of odd statements. She told him that she had left an unrecorded lot in his custody and then she said: “If anything ever should happen to me, that lot I deeded you is not recorded.”

She made no effort to explain herself further. Then she told him that two Liberty bonds had been stolen from a safety deposit box. Apparently whoever took them had slipped a sharp instrument into the envelope in which they were kept, removed the bonds, then resealed the envelope so carefully that nobody would have noticed if they’d merely glanced inside the box.

Groff provided the name of a man he felt could be responsible for the missing bonds, and for his missing sister. The detectives wouldn’t give out the man’s name until they’d had an opportunity to investigate further.

There were the usual false leads in the investigation; a hair sample taken from the skull and compared with hair found in Mrs. Sutton’s house seemed to indicate that the torso wasn’t hers. But then detectives interviewed Sutton’s hairdresser who told them that the missing woman had been attacked in mid-March, just a week or two before she went missing.  The hairdresser said Sutton had told her she didn’t recognize her attacker, but she could have been concealing his identity for reasons of her own. Perhaps the attack was the result of a failed love affair.hairdresser story

Until they could get confirmation from Sutton’s dentist, Sheriff’s investigators continued to run down clues. They wanted to speak to Eugene Sutton, whom Laura had divorced in 1928. As an ex-spouse, behind in his alimony  payments, Eugene was a person of interest.

While the detectives followed various leads the Coroner’s office reported that a minute examination of the knife marks on the toro where the head and limbs had been severed had produced results.  The body had been dismembered by someone familiar with human anatomy and a surgical knife had probably been the tool used. An examination of the flesh suggested to the coroner than the murderer had a practical knowledge of surgery. The autopsy surgeon, Dr. Wagner, estimated that the killer would have needed about three hours in which to complete the gruesome task.

Dr. Frank William Westlake, retired physician and a former suitor of Mrs. Sutton’s, came forward to make a detailed statement to Captain Bright.  Westlake said that he saw Laura on March 28th when she came to him saying that she planned to travel to Ventura for a few days to see her ex-husband about the unpaid alimony. According to Westlake, Laura had left two pet birds in his care.

Laura’s sister, Mrs. Ida Kleppe, was questioned by Sheriff’s detectives but she couldn’t offer much help. She said that she and her sister had been estranged for several years.

Round-the-clock efforts to either find Laura Sutton, or conclusively identify the torso as hers, consumed both detectives and scientists. Captain Bright got another visit from Dr. Westlake who brought with him several notes signed with the initials L.B.S., which he said were from Sutton.  The notes were a mixed bag. Some of them were in envelopes and others had been stuffed into Westlake’s mailbox. Some had been typed, others handwritten, and each of them made reference to the pet canaries in Westlake’s care.

Frank Gompert with the portable lab. [Photo: Corbis]

Frank Gompert with the portable lab. [Photo: Corbis]

The notes could provide useful information, but first they would have to be examined by handwriting experts to determine their authenticity.

If Laura Sutton had written the notes then why hadn’t she come forward? The woman had been missing for nearly three months. Neither her friends, nor her family, could offer any explanation for such peculiar behavior.

While detectives were following leads and the scientists were examining physical evidence, deputies where searching the river bottom from Vernon to Compton for the still missing limbs. They were  also preparing to rip out the plumbing in Laura’s house to see if there was any physical evidence of a murder and dismemberment lodged in the pipes.

ear solves murderThe scientists had found another interesting avenue of inquiry–the ears of the deceased. According to those who knew her Laura’s ears had been pierced for earrings, but the ears on the head were intact.

The case became further complicated when Laura’s attorney, Willard Andrews, perhaps the last person to see her alive, came forward with a statement that was mind-boggling.  Laura told him she intended to find her ex-husband and her sister, Mrs. Kleppe, and “have it out with them.” Why?  Because her sister and her ex were having an affair–in fact it was the reason for the divorce. No wonder Laura and her sister were estranged. Even worse, her sister and her ex-husband planned to marry. Talk about awkward family gatherings.

From virtually nothing to go on Sheriff’s investigators suddenly had suspects and physical evidence galore, all they had to do was to make sense out of it.

On May 28th an x-ray of the victim’s ears showed that they had been pierced but that they’d healed over so that the holes weren’t visible to the naked eye. The x-ray evidence was a step in the right direction–then the dentist, E.C. Hyde, positively identified the teeth in the skull as Laura Sutton’s.

With the victim ID’d Captain Bright still had to deal with a growing list of potential suspects. Just like in the movies Captain Bright summoned everyone connected to the case to the homicide squad’s office for questioning. The L.A. Times listed the people who had been rounded up:

“Eugene Sutton, divorced husband of Mrs. Sutton; Ben King, sweetheart of and roomer at the home of Mrs. Sutton when she disappeared; Dr. Frank Westlake, asserted sweetheart of Mrs. Sutton, said to have freqauently aided the woman in financial transactions involving real estate; Mrs. Ida Kleppe, sister of Mrs. Sutton who assert to Captain Bright that she and her sister had not been friendly for years, and Emerson De Groff, brother of the missing woman.”

By May 30th Captain Bright and his detectives had finally narrowed their list down to a single suspect. Who?  Wait and see.

NEXT TIME: A suspect is named.

The L.A. River Torso Slaying, Part 3

A muddy river bank is the perfect place for a group of little boys to poke around searching for hidden treasures, and that’s exactly what William Pettibone, Ray Seegar, Floyd Waterstreet and Glen Druer were doing on May 18, 1929.

The boys were about 150 feet from the Florence Avenue Bridge in the city of Bell when they spotted what looked to them like a turtle’s shell, or maybe some peculiar prehistoric fish. One of the boys took a stick and poked it into an end of the bony structure and held it aloft for the others to gape at. It took a few minutes but the boys finally recognized their treasure for what it really was, a human skull.head key to crime

The boy with the head impaled on a stick ran up the roadway with his prize and showed it to a female motorist who was utterly horrified when she realized what the kid had. She managed to keep it together long enough to drive the boy to a public telephone where she called Bell’s Chief of Police.

Chief Smith and Motor Officer Steele met the woman and the group of boys near the river where the skull had been found. The woman who had driven the boy to the telephone booth wanted no part of the notoriety attached to the grim find and she declined to give her name to Chief Smith and then quickly and quietly fled.

One of Smith’s officers notified Captain Bright who, accompanied by Deputies Allen, Brewster and Gompert, drove out to the scene hoping that since the head had been found the limbs might be in the vicinity. While deputies searched the area a crowd of several thousand curious on-lookers turned up, just as they’d done when the torso had washed up on the river bank.hammer death

High profile murder cases draw not only spectators but a fair number of crackpots and people with private agendas, like Morris Singer.  Singer, a grocer at 424 North Fremont Street, was found guilty of criminal libel and outraging public decency. Singer had written a letter to authorities stating that the torso murder had been committed at 2057 Oxford Street, the home of Dr. Gustav Meiss. Singer had recently lost a lawsuit to Dr. Meiss and was seeking revenge by accusing him of the atrocious murder.

The initial autopsy of the torso had not yielded anything which could be used to identify the deceased. But the head, even though it was not very well preserved, still had a number of extant teeth which made identification possible if not assured. Photographs and drawings of the teeth were published in local newspapers and widely distributed to dentists in the hope that one of them would recognize his own work.

dental quest torsoForensic odontology had been used successfully a few times in criminal cases as far back as the Salem Witch Trials. In 1692 Reverend George Burroughs was accused of witchcraft and conspiring with the Devil. Bite marks on the alleged victims were compared to the Reverend’s teeth and as a result he was convicted and hanged.

Ansil Robinson was accused of murdering his mistress in 1870. Investigators found five bite marks on her arm and apparently matched them to the defendant, but the evidence failed to convince a jury and Robinson was acquitted.

Solid detective work is one aspect of successfully resolving a criminal case, and science is another.

Just three days prior to the discovery of a woman’s torso in the L.A. River, the Los Angeles Times had reported on a new innovation in scientific crime detection–a portable laboratory.  Sheriff Traeger announced that a portable laboratory had been constructed and would be used by the homicide squad. All deputies were instructed in crime scene preservation, which was virtually a non-existent practice at that time. Instead of tramping through a scene and contaminating it, deputies were told to guard the scene until the homicide detail could arrive. Among the equipment in the portable lab were a set of plates for the chemical analysis of hair.lasd portable lab

The portable lab was a game changer locally for LASD, but the construction of a complete lab in the basement of the Hall of Justice would set a national precedent. The proposed facility would be “the first of its kind to be installed in a sheriff’s office in the United States.” It would be used exclusively by the Sheriff’s homicide detail and outfitted with equipment for “blood analyses, fingerprint comparisons, hair and skin tests and other scientific work in criminal investigations.”

Captain Bright requested that Frank Gompert, who had formerly been attached to the county chemist’s department, be given the title of “criminal technician” and put in charge of running the new high-tech lab.

It appears that Gompert’s first assignment was the torso murder.

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Photo shows Federal prohibition agents of Southern California, attending school to learn the latest methods of enforcement. View shows the class in session with F.B. Gompert, criminological technician at left, giving blackboard lesson. The pupils learn the sciene of shadowing, the art of raiding, the technique of preparing evidence, courtroom psychology, the mathematics of figuring the amount of liquor in seized containers and the chemistry of liquor analysis. Photo dated: October 7, 1930. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Given that they only had the torso and the partially decomposed skull to examine, the experts needed to accomplish the scientific equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Amazingly, they did just that. They were able to glean a remarkable amount of information from a minimum amount of physical evidence.

The head was first matched to the torso, and was a perfect fit.  Then the cause of death had to be determined.  It was concluded that the woman had died instantly of blunt force trauma, likely a hammer blow. There was a crushed spot on the skull that, when measured, fit best with a carpenter’s hammer. .

Sheriff’s homicide investigators postulated that due to the nature of the fatal injury the woman, whose age had been revised upward to from 40 to 60 years, had been killed in a family squabble. Murder committed in a family could explain why no report had been made for a missing woman fitting the description of the victim.

Captain Bright pulled his detectives off the search for missing girls under the age of 20 and instead he assigned half of the available men to follow-up on missing women over 40. The other half were assigned to assist in locating the dentist responsible for, or familiar with, the dentition in the found skull.

Bright had faith in his detectives and in his crime lab.  He was convinced that an identification of the victim was imminent.

He was right.

NEXT TIME:  The victim of the torso slaying is identified and so are a few possible perpetrators.

A Death on Mulholland Drive, Conclusion

slaying deniedBefore they even had a positive ID on the coyote ravaged body of a woman found on Mulholland Drive police were certain that it was Barbara Mauger, a young waitress who had run away from Philadelphia with her married lover, Russell Beitzel.  There was a wedding ring found on the corpse and numbers inside the ring led police to a pawn shop where they confirmed that a woman calling herself Mrs. Burnholme had signed the ticket; and there was a broken string of beads found near the body that matched a necklace known to have been worn by Barbara on the last day she was seen by her neighbors.

Russell’s denials were having little effect on the cops; he was behaving like a guilty man. He told conflicting stories about Barbara’s whereabouts and he’d given away some of their household items, and had mailed a package of her clothing to a fictitious address in Arizona. Why on Earth would an innocent man do something like that? Beitzel appeared to be on the verge of a move—in fact he seemed to have developed an interest in learning the Spanish and Chinese languages because several books on both were found in his bedroom.

A break in the case came when Rex Welch, the police chemist, tested a hair sample found on some of the Mauger girl’s clothing, the clothing that had been sent to Arizona, and it appeared to be a match for the hair on the body of the young woman in the brush on Mulholland Drive. The chemist was willing to testify that based on the hair analysis the body he had examined was that of Barbara Mauger.beitzel science

The coroner also issued an appeal to all local dentists to check their files from September 1927 to June 24, 1928 for a record of dental work for Mrs. Barbara Burnholme, the name under which Mauger had been living with Beitzel. The body had three teeth which contained temporary fillings and others that had cavities which indicated further dental work was needed.

The evidence against Russell was stacking up, and LAPD detectives continued to probe their chief suspect with questions regarding Barbara’s whereabouts.

Beitzel stuck to his story that he and Barbara had gone out for a Sunday drive and that they’d had a squabble. He said Barbara got out of the car in a huff and refused to ride home with him so he left her and never looked back. What sort of person drives off and leaves a pregnant woman on a lonely stretch of road at dusk?  He could have given her a while to cool off and then returned to fetch her, but he never did; and when the cops questioned him he didn’t seem to be particularly concerned about her welfare.

mauger pixInvestigators located B.T. Redell, the driver of a private rental limousine, who identified Beitzel as the passenger he took to Mulholland Drive on July 1, only one week after the murder; but even when he was confronted with the chauffeur’s story Russell remained a cool customer, he vehemently denied ever meeting Redell and he met every accusation with a denial.

For his part, Redell recalled every minute of the ride out to the hills. He said that Beitzel had hired him shortly after noon on July 1st at the intersection of Fifth and Broadway.

According to Redell:

“He (Beitzel) was nervous when he first got the car and told me that he had a cache of liquor in the hills. He said he wanted to check it over.”

On the face of it, it was a plausible story. Prohibition was still in effect in 1928 so the notion that a man might have a few cases of illegal hooch hidden in a remote spot wasn’t enough to make the limo driver bat an eye.

Beitzel directed Redell to a brush covered spot along Mulholland and told him to pull over; then he exited the car then walked away from the road into some underbrush.

Redell said:

“He came hurrying back in about twenty minutes and was more nervous than ever. He told me to drive away as fast as possible and while we were driving he smoked cigarette after cigarette and kept looking back over his shoulder. He said someone had found his liquor and was after him.”

Following the odd drive out to the alleged booze cache, Beitzel directed Redell back to Fifth and Figueroa where he paid the driver $9, and then walked north.

It didn’t seem to matter how many details Redell recalled about his his interaction with Beitzel, the suspect never blinked.

In the long run it wouldn’t matter whether Russell blinked or not because the D.A. was confident that he had enough to successfully prosecute him for Barbara’s murder. In fact the D.A. briefly considered charging him with the death of Barbara’s unborn child, whose tiny bones had been found near its mother, but decided that the additional charge might result in a legal tangle.

The Grand Jury agreed with the D.A. and after hearing only a few witnesses they handed down an indictment for first degree murder—a charge which carried a possible death penalty.

While in jail awaiting trial Russel wrote to Barbara’s father, Henry Mauger, Russell expressed his belief that  she was still alive:

“Dear Harry:  I don’t know how you feel toward me for what has happened but I know you do not believe I killed Barbara.  I loved Barbara too much—too much to hurt her, anyway.  I still love her and I do not believe she is dead.”

Beitzel’s letter arrived in the post at almost the same moment as the Mauger’s received a telegram from the LAPD requesting that they come out to identify their daughter’s remains.

Upon their arrival in L.A. the Mauger’s were taken to the place where the body presumed to be Barbara’s was found—the couple wisely refused to look at photos of the woman’s   body and of the baby bones found nearby.

Mr. Mauger said:

“Our only hope is that justice will be done.  If Beitzel did this awful crime, then he should be punished.   If the evidence proves that he did not do it, I still will believe that he was indirectly responsible for her death. If justice is done, that is all I can ask.”

Local wildlife is brutally efficient in reducing  the flesh and blood of a human body to bones, and there were so few bits of flesh left clinging to the corpse that the Mauger’s made the identification of their daughter through their knowledge of her dental work and from the general shape and structure of her skull.

Beitzel’s trial began with a fight over whether or not a large photo of the victim’s remains would be displayed in the courtroom—the D.A. won the skirmish and everyone in the courtroom was privy to the revolting photo.

Another black mark against Beitzel was his attorney’s badgering of Barbara’s father over his identification of her remains.  Mr. Mauger was visibly shaken during his testimony saying: “This is a terrible ordeal for me.”

After deliberating for less than one hour the jury of five women and seven men returned to the courtroom to deliver their verdict. They found Russell Beitzel guilty of first degree murder and offered no recommendation for leniency, which meant that the convicted man would hang.

Beitzel was sentenced to die on the gallows on November 30, 1928; however, the condemned man appealed his sentence which resulted in a delay while the California Supreme Court decided whether or not to grant a new trial.  On April 17, 1929 the Supreme Court denied Beitzel’s appeal and he was re-sentenced to hang—his new date with the gallows was August 2, 1929.

In a desperate eleventh hour attempt to save himself from the noose, Russell Beitzel stated that he had obtained new evidence which suggested that Barbara Mauger was alive and had returned to the east coast.  He also contended that the body found in the Hollywood Hills was not that of his former lover. Beitzel’s plea was sufficient to motivate L.A.’s District Attorney, Buron Fitts, to re-examine the case on the slight chance that someone else had murdered Barbara after Russell had left her–or that the body wasn’t hers at all.

According to Beitzel the reason that Barbara was in hiding and would not come forward had to do with pending charges against her for embezzlement for money she had stolen from the Philadelphia department store where she and Russell had been co-workers.  Barbara’s father disputed the claim of embezzlement and, in fact, the department store had only filed charges against Beitzel.

Governor Young reviewed the findings in Beitzel’s case and was convinced that the man was guilty of murder and that his execution should go forward.

Convicted murderer, Russell Beitzel getting a shave in prison as other inmates look on, Los Angeles, Calif., 1928. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Convicted murderer, Russell Beitzel getting a shave in prison as other inmates look on, Los Angeles, Calif., 1928. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Described as cheerful, Russell St. Clair Beitzel spent his last hours on death row listening to his phonograph and studying Spanish and ancient history through the University of California extension courses he had been taking.  The L.A. Times slyly noted that the condemned man would be unable to complete the advanced courses for which he had recently registered.

As he ascended to the gallows Russell smiled at the crowd of approximately 30 people who had come to watch him die. He joked with the hangman and asked him if he wanted to make “a couple of practice drops” before going through with the actual execution–the hangman declined.  A black hood was placed over Beitzel’s head and a rope was tightened around his neck.  The trap was sprung at 10:04 a.m. and he was pronounced dead fourteen minutes later.

Among Beitzel’s bequests was a letter to his former death row cell mate, Antone Negra. The letter said.

“Dear Tony–Love and kisses from the next world.  It won’t be long now.  Had telegram from Polly yesterday.  My smile is still with me and can’t be wiped off. My best wishes for your success.  Good-by Old Pal.”

In three postscripts Beitzel added:

“Tell the boys hello for me.

“Has Northcott** moved yet?

“Nice place here.  Plenty big enough for my handsprings, croquet, fox trotting or spin-the-plate”.

Despite his assertion that his smile couldn’t be wiped off, I’ll bet that when the trap opened up and sucked him into hell his grin was replaced by a tortured grimace.

**Gordon Stewart Northcott was tried and convicted for the torture murders of young boys in the infamous Wineville murder case. The case formed the basis for the 2008 film “The Changeling”.  Northcott was hanged at San Quentin on October 2, 1930.

The Kept Girl — An Interview with Kim Cooper

 keptgirlcover

Kim Cooper and I have been friends for several years, and while she may be familiar to many of you for her tireless efforts on behalf of historic preservation in Los Angeles, she is also the brains behind the seminal Los Angeles crime-a-day blog THE 1947 PROJECT, Esotouric Bus Adventures, and endeavors such as the remarkable Los Angeles Visionaries Association which hosts monthly salons covering topics that will open your eyes and your mind.

Now, with today’s launch of THE KEPT GIRL, Kim may also add novelist to her list of accomplishments.

THE KEPT GIRL is set in Los Angeles during 1929 and it explores a demented cult of angel worshipers as they are investigated by oil company executive (and future novelist) Raymond Chandler, and a straight-arrow LAPD cop, Thomas James. Remarkably, Kim’s novel is based on a true and utterly deranged L.A. story which I know that you will enjoy. Her novel is available today on Amazon and I urge you to pick up a copy.

I also want to encourage you to follow Kim on Facebook and via social media at #keptgirlbt

To track the progress of Kim’s blog tour, on which Deranged L.A. Crimes is the first stop, go HERE.

Now, let’s get to the good stuff–earlier today Kim and I sat down to discuss her novel.

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Joan Renner: Congratulations on your first novel, The Kept Girl! I’m curious, there were so many esoteric religious groups and cults in L.A. during the 1920s — what was it about The Great Eleven that captured  your imagination and compelled you to write about it?

Kim Cooper: Thank you, Joan! I can still remember the moment I discovered the Great Eleven, while researching crimes for Esotouric’s Wild Wild West Side tour, which you co-hosted with me.

I was searching the historic “Los Angeles Times” archives for strange keywords, and because these folks were so deeply strange, an article about the discovery of the long-missing teenage priestess Willa Rhoads popped up immediately. There were so many
intriguing elements in that one story– weird rituals, financial fraud, the Santa Susana hills best known as the hideout of the Manson Family, runaway wives, divine resurrection, etc. — that I had to learn everything about the group. Six years later, here they are in a novel!

(Parenthetically, I hope you’re not offended that I kept the Great Eleven to myself for that crime bus tour and didn’t give you a chance to tell the tale. The truth of the matter is that I fell a bit in love with Willa, and didn’t want to share her. I think you understand the feeling.)

Joan Renner: I understand very well becoming attached to some of the people we run across in our research. I’m half in love with a crazy multiple murderer myself! But speaking of research, in your novel Ray refers to “the myth” of his relationship with Cissy. What inspired you to deviate from the romanticized version of their story that has so often been told?

Kim Cooper: Like many fans of the writer, I have long been charmed by the narrative of Ray’s deep affection for Cissy, despite their large age difference and her inability to fit in with his Hollywood colleagues. But when new research casts a fresh perspective on a familiar story, I’m always eager to see where truth and fiction meet.

A few years back Loren Latker, who maintains the Shamus Town website and who was instrumental in the successful legal plea to finally put Cissy Chandler’s forgotten cremains into her husband’s grave, set himself the task of going methodically through the chronological records of the County of Los Angeles for anything related to Raymond Chandler. These records are not digitally searchable, and no Chandler biographer had previously taken the time. Loren didn’t know what he might find, but like a panner for gold, thought it was worth looking.

Sure enough, he soon found a nugget: records from early 1930, documenting the formal separation of Ray and Cissy in their sixth year of marriage!

Since their marriage was breaking down at the exact time that the Great Eleven cult came into the public eye, if I was going to write truthfully about Raymond Chandler at home, troubles with Cissy had to be part of the story.

Joan Renner: In your novel Raymond Chandler’s relationship with his secretary, Muriel Fischer is a love story, but it is also the tale of a woman who discovers and embraces her independence. Would you mind telling the Deranged L.A. Crimes readers on whom Muriel is based?

Kim Cooper: The character of Muriel is inspired by our mutual friend, much missed, Dorothy Fisher. About twenty years after my book is set, the teenaged Dorothy was selected out of the secretarial pool at Paramount to be Chandler’s right hand girl. She had lovely, tender stories about their working relationship that she shared with us. These stories gave me insights into Chandler’s personality–and Dorothy’s character gave me insights into the kind of woman that Chandler was drawn to.

Joan Renner: All of the characters in your novel are finely drawn and fully realized portraits, and I sensed that you felt some affection even for the most reprehensible of them. I wonder, if you could be any character in The Kept Girl for one day who would you be?

Kim Cooper: Thank you, Joan– I’m glad you think so. Even before I thought about writing this novel, I worked hard seeking to understand the motivations of the various characters, to be better able to quickly describe their odd behaviors on the bus in a way that made sense to our passengers.

This is a very good question. Although I feel more of a personal affinity to other characters, if I could spend the day as one of them, I’d pick the policeman Tom James. My reasoning: he is the one person in the book who can move freely among all levels of society, and he visits all the most interesting locations.

As Tom, I could go from a basement speakeasy to the County Morgue, from police headquarters to Chandler’s oil company offices, from an off-limits downtown rooftop to a stranger’s parlor on Bunker Hill, and be welcomed wherever I went. Of course, first thing I’ll have to do when I get to 1929 Los Angeles is call in sick from my beat at 7th & Broadway. I don’t want to waste my one day as a time traveler helping people cross the street!

Joan Renner: Raymond Chandler and Thomas James seem to me to be a perfect one-two punch — the ideal crime solving duo. Do you have any plans to feature them in a future novel?

Kim Cooper: I’m definitely thinking about it, and looking for another old Los Angeles problem that might be suitable for their particular talents.

Joan Renner:  I’m glad to hear that you’re thinking about writing another novel — The Kept Girl is simply wonderful! I want to thank you, Kim, for spending time with Deranged L.A. Crimes. Do you have any parting thoughts on your novel, or anything else for that matter, that you’d like to share?

Kim Cooper: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Joan. I can’t think of another site where I’d rather launch the February blog tour for “The Kept Girl” than “Deranged L.A. Crimes.” You and I have had so much fun over the past few years, blogging weird history and telling tales on the Esotouric bus, and bringing these forgotten Angelenos back into the spotlight. I hope your readers have enjoyed learning a bit about “The Kept Girl,” and look forward to returning the favor as blog tour host when YOUR book comes out!

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