Welcome! The Deranged L.A. Crimes theater was closed for a special event on Friday night (the proprietor needed a night off). Let’s enjoy a rare Sunday Matinee–grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Today’s feature is THE CHASE (1946) starring Robert Cummings, Michele Morgan and Steve Cochran.
Enjoy the film!
Returning a lost wallet gains unemployed veteran Chuck Scott a job as chauffeur to Eddie Roman, a gangster whose enemies have a way of meeting violent ends. The job proves nerve-wracking, and soon Chuck finds himself pledged to help Eddie’s lovely, fearful, prisoner-wife Lorna to escape. The result leaves Chuck caught like a rat in a trap, vainly seeking a way out through dark streets. But the real chase begins when the strange plot virtually starts all over again…
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. Tonight’s feature is BLACK ANGEL (based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich) starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre and Broderick Crawford.
A falsely convicted man’s wife, Catherine (June Vincent), and an alcoholic composer and pianist, Martin (Dan Duryea), team up in an attempt to clear her husband of the murder of a blonde singer, who is Martin’s wife. Their investigation leads them to face-to-face confrontations with a determined policeman (Broderick Crawford) and a shifty nightclub owner (Peter Lorre), who Catherine and Martin suspect may be the real killer.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers stars Barbara Stanwyck,Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott and featuring Kirk Douglas in his film debut. The movie is based on the short story “Love Lies Bleeding” by playwright John Patrick – using the pseudonym Jack Patrick – and was produced by Hal B. Wallis. The film was directed by Lewis Milestone from a screenplay written by Robert Rossen and Robert Riskin, who was not credited.
In 1928, young Martha Ivers is returned by the police to Iverstown, Pennsylvania after running away for the fourth time to escape the tyranny of her aunt. When her aunt insults her dead father, then attacks her pet cat with a cane, the child kills her aunt with the cane. Martha’s friend, Sam Masterson, with whom she was trying to run away, flees the scene and joins the circus. Mr. O’Neill, Martha’s greedy tutor, and his weak-minded son Walter, support Martha’s story that the murderer was a strange intruder. In 1946, Sam inadvertently returns to Iverstown when he wrecks his car.
By the late 1940s mobsters from the East Coast were finally gaining a bit of a toe hold in L.A. They had been attempting to move-in and take over the city for years — but L.A. had a much different paradigm than New York or Chicago.
In L.A. corruption was a trickle-down affair with dishonest city government officials at the top of the heap in charge of vice, gambling, and (during Prohibition) liquor. A shadowy and mutually beneficial collective between the people in office and local bad guys was known as The Combination. With collusion among City Hall politicians, some members of local law enforcement (both LAPD and LASD), and vice and gambling lords like Charlie “The Gray Fox” Crawford and Tony “The Hat” Cornero, there was plenty of illegal loot to go around — not that that stopped anyone from trying to grab a bigger slice of the profane pie for himself.
I’ve lived in Southern California nearly all of my life, but I was born in Chicago, which I believe accounts in large measure for my fascination with crime. As a little kid I had an honorary uncle, a close friend of the family, not a blood relation — let’s call him Tommy. Whatever Uncle Tommy did for a living in Chicago was mysterious, at least to me. His real line of work became clear when he and his family departed for Las Vegas where he was made pit boss at the Stardust. Interestingly, the Stardust was conceived and built the previously mentioned Tony “The Hat” Cornero. The criminal world, especially back in the day, was a small one.
In future posts I’ll introduce you to many more of the bad actors in the so-called Combination, and some of the mobsters who relocated to L.A. from places like New York, Chicago and Cleveland, but today I want to focus on one guy, a small-time hood with big ambitions, Benny “The Meatball” (aka “Little Meatball”) Gamson.
The Meatball was a Chicago transplant. It was there that he’d known Mickey Cohen who, in the 1940s, was beginning to rise in the L.A. rackets. When Benny came out to L.A. he expected his old pal Mickey to welcome him with open arms and introduce him to a couple of the city’s biggest players: Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Jack Dragna.
Mickey was attempting to be a pal when he tried to explain to Benny that things didn’t work the same way in L.A. as they had in Chicago, but The Meatball didn’t like what he heard. In fact he pitched a fit and beat the crap out of one of Cohen’s longtime Boyle Heights buddies. Then Benny did something completely unforgivable, he went in to business with one of Cohen’s rivals, Paul “Pauley” Gibbons.
Gibbons may, or may not, have been a serious rival of Mickey’s but he was certainly a gambler on a life-long losing streak. He was also a guy who didn’t pay his debts, and things never end well for welshers.
Whether it was for crossing Cohen, or reneging on a debt, Gibbons paid with his life. On May 2, 1946 at 2:30 a.m. the forty-five year old ex-con with an extensive arrest record, was shot and killed in an ambush.
Gibbons had parked his pricey sedan across from his apartment on N. Gale Drive. He had no idea that a gunman was waiting in the shadows. Witnesses said that as Pauley walked toward his apartment, a car came screeching out of the alley. Five shots rang out, Gibbons staggered and fell. The killer leaped from the car and as Gibbons begged for mercy he was lifted into a kneeling position and finished off with two more shots
Among the local thugs questioned in the slaying was Mickey Cohen, referred to in the newspapers as a “sporting figure”. Mickey denied knowing anything about the murder.
Benny was booked in Beverly Hills Jail on suspicion of Pauley’s murder, but he wriggled out of the net. The cops characterized the killing as a professional hit and Inspector Norris Stensland of the Sheriff’s office said:
“The job was too well done to have been thought up by any of our small-fry racketeers.”
If ever there was a small-fry it was the 5′ 1″ crook, Benny Gamson. Beverly Hills held him for two days and then kicked him loose.
A couple of weeks later two radio car officers, E.M. Kudlac and J.D. Wolfe, noticed The Meatball as he was driving on Beverly Blvd. between Ogden Drive and Genesee St.
The officers noticed that sprayed along the driver’s side of Benny’s car were five bullet holes — and another had punctured the rear window.
Old school wise guy that he was, Meatball knew nuthin’ about nuthin’. He told the cops a variety of different stories. My favorite of them was that he’d noticed the holes in his car two weeks earlier and had reported them to his insurance company as the attack of “vandals who tried to ruin my car.”
The Meatball should have seen the handwriting on the wall, but he wasn’t exactly a deep thinker.
In October 1946 Gamson, who was described as: “the pudgy 39 year old strong arm of many aliases”, and an associate, George Levinson, were shot and killed by unknown assailants.
Witnesses said that Gamson had stumbled from an apartment house on Beverly Blvd with blood streaming from five through and through bullet holes. He died on the sidewalk, screaming for help.
George Levinson dropped near the door of the apartment house with a slug through the back of his head.
A big, black sedan was observed fleeing the scene.
Mickey Cohen and his bullet proof car.
The police couldn’t get anyone to cooperate and nobody came forward with information on the murders.
Gamson’s wife clammed up — she knew better than to comment on the slayings.
Levinson’s wife also kept quiet. When asked by investigators if she would discuss the case, she replied:
Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is BEHIND GREEN LIGHTS starring Carole Landis, William Gargan, and Richard Crane
Turner Classic Movies says:
One night at 10:30 in a typical, cosmopolitan city, Janet Bradley goes to the apartment of Walter Bard, a private investigator who specializes in blackmail. Bard holds letters that would be damaging to someone close to Janet, and when he laughs at her admission that she could not raise enough money to get them back, she steals his gun and takes the evidence by force. As she leaves, she throws the revolver into Bard’s car. Up the street, meanwhile, cynical reporter Ames introduces cub reporter Johnny Williams to the policemen at the station house. Ames tells Johnny that Lt. Sam Carson is a good, fair officer, then introduces him to the other reporters. While the men talk, they see Bard’s car roll up in front of the station house, and his dead body is found inside. Ames smells a big story, as Bard was also involved in politics, and wonders if his murder was an attempt to discredit the current, corrupt city administration.
Was the jury of twelve women wrong when they acquitted Ramon Gonzales of Diane Sparks’ murder? After all, the murder weapon belonged to him and he seemed to be a little too friendly with the dead woman. Ramon may have been too attentive to Diane, and maybe they’d even shared a kiss, but he didn’t appear to have a motive. The judge thought that the case against Ramon was weak, and the jury obviously agreed; but were they all mistaken?
Thirty-one year old Diane Sparks disappeared from her home on January 29, 1946. A female neighbor saw Diane drive away unaccompanied.
Later on the day she disappeared Diane phoned her next door neighbor, Ramon Gonzales, and told him that her car had run out of gas on Victory Blvd. near Hollywood Way. He went to her rescue. Ramon would tell a couple of different versions of the story: 1) he put gas in Diane’s car and the two of them drove over the service station at Lockheed Air Terminal and later out San Fernando road where they watched airplanes; 2) he put gas in Diane’s car but left her when she said she was going to go meet her husband George.
On March 10, 1946 two young girls and a small terrier discovered the decomposing remains of a woman buried in a shallow brush covered grave in an untended olive grove, frequently used as a lover’s lane. It appeared that the woman had been shot in the head. Her right arm and left hand were missing (they were never found). The dead woman was identified as Diane Sparks when her husband, George, recognized an oddly shaped toenail on her right foot.
George and his father-in-law decided to investigate Diane’s murder on their own and were largely responsible for calling the attention of the police to Ramon Gonzales.
George stated that he’d once seen Ramon kiss Diane, and it was also reported that his neighbor had used “Spanish terms of endearment” when speaking to her.
Ramon owned a sawed-off rifle which he claimed had been stolen out of his truck a few weeks before Diane went missing. The weapon was later found on a roadside near the place where Diane had been buried. Ballistics tests proved that the gun was the murder weapon.
Ramon was tried and acquitted for Diane’s murder.
George Sparks. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
Diane and George were having marital difficulties. George admitted to the police that he and his wife were considering a separation. Their problems may have been due, in part, to the difference in their ages — George was ten years older than his wife. Diane appeared to be flirtatious, was she trying to make her husband jealous?
According to George she had kissed their neighbor, Ramon Gonzales, and Ramon stated that he’d heard her say that she was in love with an Army flyer (who was investigated but cleared in the murder). Ramon claimed to have overheard Diane tell George that she was going to leave him and find someone who would really care for her. Did she already have someone lined up, or was she toying with George?
According to Colleen Pullen, a nineteen year old war widow, she and George had a date in June, just months after Diane’s body had been found. I would have thought George would have waited a little longer to begin dating again! Colleen testified that George flew out to Texas to visit his brother rather than take another lie detector test. George had been tested once, but the results were not printed in the newspaper. George made a point of saying that he’d been very emotional and drinking heavily since Diane’s body had been found. Was he anticipating an inconclusive resolution, or did he have reason to believe that he’d fail the lie detector examination outright?
I was searching for photos of the the principals in the Sparks case when I came across a picture of Bessie Hensley and her daughter, Barbara. Barbara was one of the little girls who found Diane’s body.
Barbara & Bessie Hensley. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
The photo’s caption reads:
“Principal witnesses in the Gonzales murder trial which opened today in Superior Court are shown here. Lower left is Mrs. Bessie Hensley with her daughter, Barbara, who found Mrs. Sparks’ body in a shallow grave in the hills above Roscoe. Mrs. Hensley has told police she saw what she believes was the killing as she hiked through Lanark Canyon the afternoon Mrs. Sparks disappeared”.
I couldn’t find anything in the L.A. Times indicating that Bessie Hensley had been called as a witness during the trial. I have to wonder why.
Bessie Hensley. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
“Threatened by someone who told her to “shut up and not talk to the police,” Mrs. Bessie Hensley reports the incident to Regis Goldbach, Valley policeman. Mrs. Hensley received the warning after telling police she witnessed the murder of Mrs. Diane Sparks”.
And if Bessie really was threatened, who was behind it? Bessie Hensley is the wild card in this tale. She claimed to have witnessed the crime, but yet it appears that she was never called to the stand by either the defense or the prosecution.
Following his acquittal, Ramon Gonzales went home to his family, and he seems to have behaved himself. George Sparks stuck around for a short time following the trial, but then he quit the LAPD, where he’d served fourteen years as a motorcycle officer, and moved to Texas to live near his brother. On February 9, 1953 George Sparks committed suicide (I don’t know by what means). Members of his family said that he’d been heartbroken since Diane’s murder. Was it grief or guilt that caused George to take his own life?
WHO DO YOU THINK KILLED DIANE SPARKS?
Ramon Gonzales was acquitted for Diane’s murder and there were no further arrests for the crime. The case remains unsolved.
Researching and writing true crime is something that I love doing, but it can be frustrating at times. For instance, I always have to accept how the story ends, and that can be particularly difficult in the case of an unsolved homicide. Very often I feel like I have a solution to a crime, but I can only speculate.
Now I’d like to invite you to do a bit of speculating and armchair detective work. Who do YOU think murdered Diane Sparks? Please share!
Ramon Gonzales was arraigned for the murder of Diane Sparks in April 1946.
One of the interesting bits of information about the victim that Gonzales shared at the arraignment was that he had heard her expressing her love for Lt. Ade Garvin, an Army flyer, at a party in the Sparks’ home only a few weeks before she vanished. Garvin was thoroughly investigated and cleared in Diane’s death.
There had definitely been trouble in the Sparks’ marriage. Gonzales stated that at another drinking party at the victim’s home the night before she vanished, he’d heard Diane complain to George:
“You love the new house (which George was building in his spare time) more than you do me. I’m going to leave tomorrow and get someone who will really care for me. I don’t want to ever see you, Ramon, or Connie (Ramon’s wife) again.”
And speaking of Ramon’s wife, Connie — she was taking the “for better or worse” portion of her marriage vows very seriously:
“My Ramon couldn’t have done this thing. He loves me and our children too much.”
Ramon went to trial in July 1946. He testified about the day of Diane’s disappearance:
“I took four or five gallons of gasoline and found her by her car on Hollywood Way near Victory Blvd. After putting the fuel in the tank I drove (Diane’s car) to a nearby gas station.”
Gonzales said that Diane dropped him off at his car and told him that she was going to meet George. Ramon testified that he never saw her again.
What about the murder weapon that Ramon said had been stolen from his truck weeks prior to Diane’s killing? According to him, he queried some of his fellow workmen at a construction site about the gun as soon as he noticed it was gone, but claimed that he didn’t see it again until detectives confronted him with it.
Ramon’s attorney, William G. Kenney, had an explanation for the murder that exonerated his client — he said that George had done it. Of course George emphatically denied the accusation.
George did have other uncomfortable moments in the courtroom, particularly when the defense called Mrs. Colleen Pullen, 19, a war widow, to the stand. Colleen testified how George had allegedly avoided a lie detector test.
Colleen said that she had a date with George in June and she accompanied him to the Lockheed Air Terminal — which, truthfully, doesn’t sound like a dream date to me. Colleen must have had few expectations. At any rate, she claimed to have overheard a telephone conversation between George and one of his brothers in Texas:
“He said he was sick and tired of things and was leaving, although he had an appointment with Leonarde Keeler to take another test the following morning.”
Colleen stayed at the airport with George all night until he caught a plane for Texas in the morning.
Interestingly, Edward R. Brand, the judge in the case, commented:
“I believe the evidence to be very weak and even if the jury would convict the defendant I don’t believe the State Supreme Court would sustain the conviction.”
The all woman jury evidently agreed with Judge Brand because it took them only seven hours to acquit Gonzales.
“Mrs. Ramon Gonzales, wife of the North Hollywood contractor accused of the murder of Diane Sparks, and the couple’s three small daughters. Left to right, they are: Raquel, 7; Mrs. Connie Gonzales, holding the baby of the family, Marie, who is 13 months old today, and Connie, 3, affectionately called “Cookie” by her daddy. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
It was Sunday, March 10, 1946, and Barbara Hensley (11), Mary Young (8) and a small terrier named Bozo, had walked to a spot near their homes for a picnic. The two girls had spread out a blanket and some food when they were startled by Bozo. He wasn’t very far from them, and the little terrier was furiously digging and barking.
It’s impossible to see Bozo the terrier in this photo, but no better shot is available.
Barbara and Mary decided to see what all the fuss was about. They walked over to Bozo expecting to see a gopher or a squirrel, or anything but a woman’s leg protruding from a shallow brush covered grave. The girls took one look at what Bozo had unearthed and they started screaming and running as fast as they could for home.
Their parents phoned LAPD’s Van Nuys Division and investigators rushed out to the scene, which was at the end of a lover’s lane in an untended olive orchard a half mile off Glen Oaks Blvd.
What the cops found was the badly decomposed body of a woman with evidence of a gun shot wound to the head. They also discovered several .38-caliber cartridge cases nearby.
The dead woman was soon identified as Mrs. Diane Sparks (31). Sparks, a cop’s wife, had been missing since January 29th. It was Diana’s husband, George (41), an LAPD motor officer, who ID’d her by recognizing an oddly shaped toenail on the big toe of her right foot. The body was missing its right arm and left hand.
While in her early 20s, Diane had been a Hollywood hopeful. She had appeared as an extra in “MURDER AT THE VANITIES”, “THE CAT’S PAW”, and “THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA”. Her film career never took off, and by 1940 she’d quit the endless round of “cattle calls” and disappointments.
[Is Diane one of the cute brunettes, or maybe the screaming blonde, seated on a cactus in the clip from “MURDER AT THE VANITIES”? I’m not sure.]
On the day of her disappearance, Diane was seen at her home, 10822 Chandler Blvd., by one of her neighbors, Mrs. Edyth Bailey, who saw her drive off in her car.
Diane’s husband, George, and her father, E.B. Maxmeyer, decided to do a little detecting on their own. They went through Diane’s credit card receipts and found she had purchased gasoline on the day she disappeared. They queried the gas station attendant who described a man George recognized as his neighbor, Ramon Gonzales.
Gonzales (31) confessed to investigators that he’d seen Diane on the afternoon of her death, but that he didn’t kill her. He said she’d phoned him for help when her car ran out of gas on Victory Blvd. Ramon said:
“I drove down in my truck and poured some gasoline in her tank. We drove to a gas station for more gas, and she suggested we drive on and watch the planes take off from Lockheed Air Terminal. We drove out San Fernando Road, then she drove me back to my truck and I went home.”
Cops were skeptical about Ramon’s version of the day’s events and arrested him as a suspect.
Of course the investigators were no less suspicious of George. When a wife goes missing and then turns up dead with bullets in her chest and skull, and a couple of missing body parts, they look hard at the husband — and they don’t much care if he’s a cop or not.
George voluntarily submitted to a lie detector test, administered by Ray Pinker. During six hours of questioning George admitted that he had been drinking and emotionally upset since the discovery of his wife’s body. He also admitted that things weren’t too rosy between he and the Mrs. and that they had been discussing a possible separation before her disappearance.
Suggestions of a rocky marriage always makes investigators prick up their ears. They didn’t take George into custody, but they released a statement saying that they would question him further on other matters pertaining to Diane’s murder.
George underwent another round of questioning — nearly 24 continuous hours, before the police were satisfied that he had nothing to do with Diane’s death. Ballistics tests of his service revolver were made and it could not have fired the bullet found lodged in Diane’s skull.
The Coroner’s Inquest determined Diane’s death: “…to be a homicide committed by some person or persons and at some place unknown.” The inquest also revealed that Diane had been shot twice — one in the right chest and once in the back of the head.
Investigators went public with a statement that the gun used to kill her was a .32-caliber, not a .38 — but they were lying. The hold-back evidence in the case was that the weapon was actually a .32-caliber rifle and unfortunately for Ramon Gonzales, he’d owned a gun just like it.
Gonzales reluctantly admitted that he had a .32-caliber sawed-off, but he told cops that it had been stolen out of his car three months prior to Diane’s slaying.
Ramon was looking guiltier by the minute. A fellow named M.O. O’Lear called the police and told them that he’d found a sawed-off .32-caliber rifle along the road between Mrs. Sparks’ make-shift grave and Glen Oaks Blvd. The weapon had the initials “R.G.” carved into the stock.
Further tests concluded that the bullets that had killed Diane Sparks were fired from the gun owned by Ramon Gonzales. When he was confronted with the evidence Ramon didn’t deny ownership of the weapon, but steadfastly maintained his innocence:
“I didn’t kill her. Why should I? She and her husband were my friends.”
The cops were unmoved by his protestations and busted him on the spot.
Ramon’s statements to the police were filled with contradictions and omissions — he had neglected to mention to investigators that he’d owned a weapon, and he told several different versions of the incident in which he took gasoline to Diane’s stalled car on the day of her disappearance.
The law was also suspicious of what was referred to as Ramon’s “unusual” interest in Diane, and the fact that he’d often use Spanish endearments when he was speaking with her. The D.A. felt that there was enough to charge him with the murder.