The Love Poisoner, Part 2

Joyce found Richard peering into her refrigerator and he seemed startled when she spoke to him. She couldn’t tell what, if anything, he was doing, but she wasn’t particularly alarmed. Richard visited Joyce and Robert so often that it wasn’t surprising to find him searching the fridge for a snack.

The refrigerator incident took on a more ominous aspect when Joyce and Robert began to notice a “funny taste” in the water and milk they kept in the refrigerator. Then they recalled how ill Robert had become after he and Joyce had paid a visit to Richard at the Caltech campus. They didn’t want to think the worst of Richard, but it was getting harder to believe the best.

joyce_robert_picJoyce and Robert went to the L.A. County Sheriff’s substation and told the deputies of their suspicions. They even brought a bottle of milk with them that they were afraid may have been tainted. Sure enough, an examination of the contents of the milk bottle proved that it had been tampered with. On February 6, 1953, Sergeant Bert Wood and Detective A.S. Martin sent the Haydens out for the evening and then waited in the dark outside the Hayden home to see if Richard LaForce would turn up. He did.

The door to Joyce and Robert’s home was routinely left unlocked (hey, it was Downey in 1953 and people did that in those days). The two cops watched Richard let himself in and then waited for him to come out. Sergeant. Wood and Detective Martin stopped Richard as he exited the Hayden home and found two half-pint bottles of arsenic trioxide in his possession–enough poison, said one investigator, “to kill off a whole town.”

Richard quickly admitted that he had put some of the arsenic into a water bottle in the fridge. When asked if he was trying to kill both Joyce and Robert, Richard said no–he knew that Robert was the only one to drink from that bottle. He also confessed to poisoning Robert’s soft drink at Caltech and said that he had tried at least five times over several weeks to bump off Robert. On one occasion he had poured cyanide into the water bottle. Why had he been tried to poison his friend? He said: “I have always wanted Joyce for my wife and I felt that if my plan to poison Bob was successful, I would have a chance with her.” He continued: “I’ve never been out with any other girl–she’s the only one I loved.” Richard said he had chosen poison to kill Robert “Because of its convenience.” He was able to acquire the poisons at school. He admitted that “It could have been done in a more perfect way, but I got to the point where I had to do something.”richard-indicted-headline-pic3

What made Richard think that he had a chance with Joyce at all? According to Richard he had visited Joyce many times in her home during times when Robert was away. He told investigators that he and Joyce had taken long car rides and walks. During their time together Richard said he and Joyce “talked a lot about love and marriage.”

On February 10, 1953, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury indicted Richard on two counts of poisoning with intent to kill.  Each count carried a possible sentence of from 10 years to life in prison. Joyce and Robert told reporters that they bore their former friend no ill will for his  attempts to poison Robert. They felt sorry for him.

richard-indicted-headline-pic2Richard was examined by psychiatrists Dr. Frederick J. Hacker and Dr. John A. Mitchell. The doctors said they found indications of “a beginning thinking disorder in the direction schizophrenia.” According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness “schizophrenia can occur at any age, the average age of onset tends to be in the late teens to the early 20s for men.” Was Richard schizophrenic? The doctors didn’t offer a firm diagnosis and, despite their concerns, they declared that Richard was sane at the time of the poisonings and was sane enough to stand trial. Interestingly, Dr. Hacker said that Richard told him he “wanted to take suspicion of poisoning attempts from Joyce.” Was Richard falling on his sword to protect his lady love, or was his statement a calculated move to shift blame to Joyce? Was there any truth to the statement?

By the time his trial began in late April 1953, Richard had claimed that he and Joyce had been conducting a love affair.  In fact, he figured that her unborn child had an 80% chance of being his and not Robert’s. How Robert arrived at the 80% calculation isn’t clear but that hardly mattered. His possible paternity of Joyce’s child was a bombshell.  In, 1953 when DNA tests were decades in the future, a blood test could rule a person in or out but that was it.

Joyce vehemently denied that she was romantically involved with Richard. But rumors began to surface that Richard had kept over a dozen love letters written to him by Joyce while she and Robert were in Alaska.  If the love letters actually existed they could turn the whole case inside-out.

NEXT TIME:  The love poisoner case takes a few more twists and turns before coming to an end.

The Love Poisoner, Part 1

Current thinking about the teenage brain is that it’s a work in progress. Intellectually teens can be a match for adults, but emotionally it is a much different story. A teenager’s moods are the emotional equivalent of a world class chanteuse’s five octave range. Teenagers are mercurial, capricious, fickle and unstable — potentially deadly traits when mixed with a love triangle involving nineteen-year-olds.juviebrain

Downey residents Richard LaForce, Joyce Salvage, and Robert Hayden had been friends since middle school. During the war years, while they were growing up, the aircraft industry established deep roots in the town and had an enormous impact on the area. The postwar years saw the three friends enter high school and the town’s close ties to the aircraft industry likely resulted in the establishment of an aviation club at Downey High School–Joyce and Robert were both members. Surrounded by engineers and aircraft workers may have inspired Richard’s keen interest in science. With his high IQ (estimated to be in the neighborhood of 150) he hoped to pursue physics in college.

salvage_hayden_laforce_crop

Robert Hayden (4th from the left, top row), Richard LaForce (far right, top row), Joyce Salvage (5th from the left, middle row).

Physics wasn’t the only thing Richard hoped to pursue into adulthood. He had loved Joyce since they were sixth graders and he hoped that one day they would marry. Was Richard surprised when on May 12, 1951, at age 17, Joyce and Robert married? If he was shocked or hurt he kept his feelings to himself. At least the marriage didn’t end his friendship with the couple. Richard was a frequent guest in the Hayden’s home at 8558 Firestone Boulevard and he was still able to spend a lot of time with Joyce.

joyce-salvage-1950-aviation-club_crop

Aviation Club, Downey High School [1950]

The day after Joyce and Robert’s first wedding anniversary, and the day before they were scheduled to depart for a couple of months in Alaska visiting Robert’s older brother George and his sister-in-law, Charlotte, Richard took Joyce to a movie ostensibly at Robert’s request. Joyce and Richard were out together until 4 o’clock in the morning. Suspicious behavior for a married woman, but not so odd for a teenage girl. However the evening was complicated by Richard’s admission in a note, just days before, that he loved her. He didn’t plan to act on his declaration of love, he doubted that Joyce reciprocated his feelings, but during their evening out he got the impression that Joyce loved him too. There wasn’t enough time to talk about the possible change in their relationship before Joyce and Robert left for Alaska.

Richard and Joyce corresponded regularly, some would say obsessively, during her absence. Robert was well aware of the exchange of letters between the friends but seemed unconcerned about them. When Joyce and Robert returned in late 1952 the three friends had quickly reestablished their former routine of spending at least two or three evenings together every week. Because the trio knew each other so well, both Joyce and Robert noticed that Richard appeared to be distracted and he seemed to be depressed, but since he hadn’t confided the reasons for his melancholy in either of them they could only stand by and wait.

A week after Christmas, 1952, Richard invited Joyce and Robert to the Caltech campus, where he was a physics major, for a visit. While there he suggested that they stop for Cokes at a nearby refreshment stand. Robert couldn’t finish his drink. He became violently ill and vomited. He recovered quickly and was able to resume his ministerial studies at Whittier College. He and Joyce thought no more about the incident.

In late January, during one of his visits, Joyce found Richard at the refrigerator. He seemed unnerved when she asked him what he was doing. Why?

NEXT TIME: The teenage triangle turns poisonous.

Film Noir Friday: Deadline U.S.A. [1952]

deadline-usa

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 DEADLINE U.S.A. starring Humphrey Bogart, Ethel Barrymore and Kim Hunter. Enjoy the film!

TCM says:

On the day that reputed gangster Tomas Rienzi testifies before a New York state Senate committee that he has no criminal ties, the staff of The Day , a newspaper that has been following the Rienzi case closely, learns that the paper is to be sold. The Day ‘s late founder, John Garrison, was close friends with the paper’s managing editor, Ed Hutcheson, and Ed is disappointed that Garrison’s widow Margaret has capitulated to her greedy daughters’ demand to sell. Ed continues laying out that evening’s edition, however, and refuses to print titillating photographs of an unidentified woman who was found drowned wearing only a mink coat. Ed does allow reporter George Burrows to continue investigating Rienzi, even though the committee dropped the charges against him due to lack of evidence. Ed then meets with Margaret, her daughters–Katherine Garrison Geary and Alice Garrison Courtney–and their lawyers, who inform him that rival newspaper publisher Lawrence White is buying The Day . Ed is infuriated, as he deplores White’s lack of integrity, and tells Margaret that she should prevent the sale because White is buying The Day merely to kill it.

Film Noir Friday: The Green Glove [1952]

Green_Glove

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 THE GREEN GLOVE starring Glenn Ford, Geraldine Brooks, Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

In the village of St. Elizar in the south of France, Father Goron hears the church bells ring for the first time since the church’s prized artifact, the green Gauntlet of St. Elizar, was stolen years earlier during World War II. As the villagers race to the church, the priest discovers a dead man in the bell tower. Years earlier, just after the Allied invasion of France in 1944, American paratrooper Lt. Michael Blake flees into an abandoned Parisian building and discovers German art dealer Count Paul Rona. When Michael tries to arrest the German, Rona bargains for his life with the information that the German Army will attack at dawn, and with a bejeweled green glove which he places in Michael’s backpack.

A Jealous Man

Jay William Campbell enlisted in the Navy in October 1942, but he wasn’t cut out for military service. He spent about 4 months in a Navy hospital before he was diagnosed as a psychoneurotic and discharged in 1943.

Jay’s wife Mary felt partly responsible for his mental problems. She had lost their first child in an accident while Jay was in the Navy and she said that it had a “very bad effect on him.”

mary judy

Mary and Judy

The couple moved on with their lives and in 1946 they were blessed with another child, a little girl they named Judy. Jay had found work as a milkman and by the end of 1951, the family was living in Van Nuys at 14205 Burton Street. Their home was across from Judy’s elementary school where she was in the second grade.

Theirs should have been the perfect post-war family, but Jay couldn’t resolve his emotional problems. He was, according to Mary, “…a worrier by nature.”  But Jay’s worrying had taken a troubling turn–he was becoming paranoid and jealous. He was convinced that Mary was cheating on him with a family friend named Chet, and his suspicions were causing a rift in their marriage. Mary and Chet were friends, but she vehemently denied that they was anything untoward between them.

In mid-December Mary wrote Jay a note and packed it with his lunch. The note read:

“Jay Dearest–I gave you a reason to doubt my love for you and now I have to do something to chase away the doubt.  I couldn’t live without you at my side where you belong.   I’ll always want to be yours and please dear be as you are and don’t change.  I really love you.
Your Mary.”

By New Year’s Eve Mary had reason to hope that Jay had overcome his jealousy. He had the day off and he wanted to spend the afternoon with his little girl. He told Mary: “Be ready at 4:30. I’ll take you and Judy to dinner.”

At 4:30 Mary heard a small plane buzzing the house. Jay was a pilot–maybe he’d taken Judy out for a plane ride–he’d done it before.  She stepped outside but didn’t recognize the aircraft; even so she had a premonition that it was Jay and Judy. As she watched the small plane appeared to stop for a second in sky; then it spiraled downward ripping into several 4800 volt power lines. The neighborhood was plunged into darkness. The only light came from the burning plane.which had smashed into the school playground across the street.

Plane_crash_kills_two_1951-1

Photo courtesy of USC Digital Collection.

Mary’s premonition had come horrifyingly true–the victims were Jay and Judy. Fireman had to cut the twisted metal away from their bodies before they could pull them out. They had died on impact. A color photo of Mary and Judy was found among Jay’s personal effects. The photo had been a Christmas gift.

What had happened? Jay was a competent pilot, he’d had a commercial license for 3 years. Had there been a mechanical failure?

Jay had rented the plane from Mort Kamm, manager of the San Fernando Airport, and it was Kamm who found a note in the glove compartment of Jay’s car.  The note was addressed to Mary and it read:

“It seems that the price one has to pay for happiness isn’t so easy to pay.  I have lost everything so that you may start anew.  You have lost me and every part of me today, including Judy.  Can you ever tell yourself that Chet was worth it all?  Please pay Mort Kamm about $600 for his airplane. Keep telling yourself that everyone gets over everything.  It may help you, but I doubt it. I have always loved you even if you haven’t loved me.  Don’t ever live a lie again.

Your Jay and Judy.”

The deaths were officially listed as suicide and murder.

Airplane_suicide_and_murder_1952_wife

Photo courtesy of USC Digital Collection.

Funeral rites were conducted in Wee Kirk o’ the Heather on January 5, 1952.  Jay and Judy were buried in the same grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.  Judy was accompanied  into the afterlife by the doll she had received as a Christmas present.

cat and doll

Film Noir Friday: The Turning Point [1952]

 turning point 1952

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 THE TURNING POINT [1952] starring William Holden, Edmond O’Brien, Alexis Smith. Remember, it’s not suitable for children.

Enjoy the film!

TCM says:

Special prosecutor John Conroy hopes to combat organized crime in his city, and appoints his cop father Matt as chief investigator. John doesn’t understand why Matt is reluctant, but cynical reporter Jerry McKibbon thinks he knows: he’s seen Matt with mob lieutenant Harrigan. Jerry’s friendship for John is tested by the question of what to do about Matt, and by his attraction to John’s girl Amanda. Meanwhile, the threatened racketeers adopt increasingly violent means of defense.

http://youtu.be/XOXF8HK3Hkc

The Purple Haze Slaying

Purple Haze was in my brain,
lately things don’t seem the same,
actin’ funny but I don’t know why…
–Jimi Hendrix

RearWindowIn the 1954 Hitchcock masterpiece, “Rear Window“, L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, a professional photographer, is wheelchair bound while he recuperates from an accident. His rear window looks out onto a small courtyard and he can see into the apartments of several of his neighbors.

One evening  he hears a woman scream “Don’t!” and then a glass breaks. He watches as Lars Thorvald, a traveling jewelry salesman with a bedridden wife, makes repeated late night trips carrying his sample case. What is he carrying, and where did Thorvald’s wife go? Jeff begins to suspect Thorvald of a grisly murder.

On March 6, 1952, two years before “Rear Window” hit theaters, Jordan Jones, a Sacramento based insurance salesman, was staying in a downtown Los Angeles hotel located at 230 West 7th Street.  Like Jeff Jeffries he was staring out of his window watching the guests in another wing of the hotel. But as just as Jeffries would discover in Rear Window, peeping isn’t always merely a spectator sport.

Most of the guests had the good sense to draw their shades against prying eyes, but suddenly Jones noticed a couple putting on an X-rated show–far racier than anything he’d find in a Main Street burlesque house. Their shades were up and the lights in their room were ablaze. He watched, riveted, as the couple hungrily pulled off their clothing and began to have sex. Jones continued to watch the impromptu show–it sure as hell beat whatever was on the radio that night.  But then their lovemaking turned ugly.

The man put his belt around the nude woman’s neck and started choking her and it didn’t appear to be a part of their sex play. Jones immediately reported the incident to the hotel desk, but he kept his front row seat and watched as a bellboy appeared at the door of the couple’s room. The man removed the belt from the woman’s neck, and the bellboy presumably returned to his duties.

Klink enjoys a post confession burger.

Klink enjoys a post confession burger.

Moments after the bellboy departed Jones watched in horror as the man turned to the woman and resumed choking her, then he dragged her nude body around the room by the belt that was still tight around her neck.  When she crumpled to the floor the strangler began going through the woman’s handbag and clothing.

This time Jones phoned the hotel manager who, with three bellboys, crashed into the couple’s room where they found the killer standing dazedly over the woman’s nude body. A Fire Department inhalator squad tried to revive the victim and Dr. Alfred Schaffel from Georgia Street Receiving Hospital administered adrenalin injections, but it was too late. The woman was pronounced dead at the scene.

haze headline

LAPD homicide Lt. Bob Reid said that the woman’s papers identified her as forty-eight year old Mae Ellen Mathis from Dragerton, Utah. She had been employed as a registered nurse at Queen of Angels Hospital for a short time, living in the nurses’ residence there.

The strangler gave his name as William Klink, a 27 year old refrigerator repairman, but he refused to give a home address. Klink said he had met Mae in a bar on Hill Street and that she agreed to accompany him to the hotel where they registered as husband and wife.

Murder_case_1952_2

LAPD Sgt. Jack Gotch (L), William Klink (C), D.A. Ernest Roll (R)

Andrew Faiss (47) the bellboy who had showed them to the room only two hours earlier said that they had carried no luggage.

Officer L.M. Vaughn shows Klink the murder weapon.

Officer L.M. Vaughn shows Klink the murder weapon.

KIlink, who was on parole out of Ohio for a forgery conviction in 1947, told a different story to detectives and District Attorney Roll than Jones had.

According to Klink he’d been drinking for hours before he had hooked up with Mae.  After he and Mae had made love he said that he had feigned sleep and then watched as his companion got up, put on her clothes, and began going through his pants pockets.

Klink offered no rational explanation for why he’d put his belt around her neck and strangled her to death.

“I was in a kind of purple haze,” he said.

A few months following Mae’s slaying Klink was found guilty of second degree murder. Superior Judge John J. Ford sentenced him to five years to life in the California Institution for Men at Chino.

haze headline2

Policewoman of the Year, Conclusion

Florence Coberly testifies at inquest. [Photo courtesy USC Digital Archive]

Florence Coberly testifies at inquest. [Photo courtesy USC Digital Archive]

In 1952 LAPD Policewoman Florence Coberly appeared to be a woman with a bright future in law enforcement. She had been instrumental in taking down career criminal and ex-con, Joe Parra. Parra had a history of sexual assault and he was shot and killed during an undercover assignment in which Florence had acted as a decoy. She had stayed tough during the inquest following Parra’s shooting when his brother Ysmael began shouting and then attempted to lunge at photographers. She had appeared on television and had been honored at various awards banquets all over town.

Yes sir, Florence’s star was shining brightly.

divorce_1955But (you knew that was coming, didn’t you) Florence’s personal life began to unwrap slightly when after only three years of marriage she divorced her husband Frank in 1955. We’ve heard countless times over the years how tough it is to be a cop’s wife, but I imagine being the husband of a cop is not much easier–the unpredictable hours and the danger could be enough to send any spouse out the door forever. But then we don’t really know what caused the Coberly’s marriage to dissolve. The divorce notice appeared in the June 29, 1955 edition of the L.A. Times, but it was legal information only and gave no hint of the personal issues which may have caused the Coberly’s to break up. Even if her marriage hadn’t made until “death us do part” at least Florence had her job.

Florence with her back to the camera, befriends a lost girl c 1954 [Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

Florence with her back to the camera, befriends a lost girl c 1954 [Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

There is no further record of her in the Times for several years following the fatal shooting of serial rapist Joe Parra in 1952, so we’ll have to presume that her career in law enforcement was on track. Then nearly six years after the Parra case, on July 2, 1958, the Times ran a piece under the headline: “Policewoman’s Mother Convicted in Shoplifting”; it was buried in the back pages of the “B” section and it told an interesting tale.

Mrs. Gertrude Klearman, the fifty-three year old mother of a policewoman, had been found guilty of shoplifting by a jury of eleven women and one man. The jury had spent only one hour and seven minutes in deliberation. As embarrassing as it would have been to have your mom convicted of shoplifting, it would have been so much worse if you were a cop–and orders of magnitude more humiliating if you were a cop busted WITH your mother for stuffing $2.22 worth of groceries into a handbag and walking out without making the necessary stop at the check-out stand.flo_mom

According to Police Officer George Sellinger, an off-duty cop supplementing his income by working as a store detective, the pair of women, one of whom you have undoubtedly guessed was Florence Coberly, had been accused of stealing two packages of knockwurst, a can of coffee, a package of wieners and an avocado.

Florence had remarried and not surprisingly she had married another cop, Sgt. Dave Stanton. But despite a change in her surname there was no mistake that the woman accused of shoplifting was none other than the former Florence Coberly, Policewoman of the Year.

Florence seated next to her husband, Sgt. Dave Stanton. [Photo courtesy USC Digital Archive]

Florence seated next to her husband, Sgt. Dave Stanton. [Photo courtesy USC Digital Archive]

Gertrude was found guilty, but Florence had been freed of the shoplifting charge during trial on a technicality involving unreasonable search and seizure.

At the misdemeanor trial her attorney, Frank Rothman, vigorously questioned Sellinger on the stand and finally got him to admit that he had not actually seen Florence stuff the food items into her purse. He had pressured her to submit to a search outside the grocery store based on the scant evidence of having seen her holding some packages in her hand. As far as Rothman and the law were concerned Sellinger’s reason for the search was seriously flawed and a legal no-no.

LAPD in the late 1950s was still understandably touchy about any hint of scandal or misbehavior by its officers. During the decades prior to William H. Parker’s ascension to Chief, the institution had watched as many of its members were accused (some even convicted) of all manner of graft and corruption.

While a package of knockwurst hardly rises to the standard of bad behavior that had plagued LAPD earlier, just being arrested was enough to get Florence suspended from duty pending a Police Board of Rights hearing.

It couldn’t have been easy for Florence to sit on the sidelines and await the decision that would have such an enormous impact on her future. Law enforcement wasn’t just a 9-5 job for her, it was a career and one for which she had displayed an aptitude.

While Florence waited on tenterhooks for the Board of Rights hearing, her mother was sentenced to either forty days in jail or a $200 fine (she paid the fine).

Florence’s hearing began on July 22, 1958 before a board composed of Thad Brown, chief of detectives, and Capts. John Smyre and Chester Welch. Officer Sellinger repeated the testimony he had given at the trial and despite the fact that the shoplifting charges against Florence had been dismissed in a court of law, the board found her guilty of the same charge and ordered her dismissed from LAPD.

This photo may have been misidentified in the USC Digital Archive. I believe it to be the Police Board hearing.

This photo may have been misidentified in the USC Digital Archive as Florence’s misdemeanor trial. I believe it to be the Police Board hearing.

It was an ignominious end to a career that had shown such early promise, and I can’t help but wonder if there was more to Florence’s dismissal from the police force than the shoplifting charge.

In February 1959, Florence filed suit in superior court seeking to be reinstated. Her complaint was directed against Chief Parker and the Board of Rights Commission. Florence stated that she had been dismissed from the LAPD on a charge that she had, with her mother, shoplifted groceries from a San Fernando Valley market. Florence denied her guilt and contended that the only evidence in the case may have been applicable to her mother alone.

flo_firedIt took several months, but in July 1959 Superior Court Judge Ellsworth Meyer sided with the LAPD and refused to compel Chief Parker to reinstate Florence.

I haven’t discovered any further mentions of Florence in the newspaper. I’m curious to know how her life played out and what became of her in later years. As it is with so many of the tales covered here in Deranged L.A. Crimes there is no satisfactory conclusion. Of course I can always hope that a member of her family will see the story and contact me.  It has happened before.

Meanwhile, I salute Florence for her no-holds-barred, kick-ass entry into policing in 1952; and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one last time that fantastic bandolier that dangled so daintily from her belt–as I said before lady cops knew how to accessorize.

NOTE: Many thanks to my friend and frequent partner in historic crime, Mike Fratantoni. He knows the BEST stories.

 

Policewoman of the Year

attacker killed

I confess, the litany of sweetheart slayings that I have been researching for the Valentine’s Day holiday started getting me down. I was casting a jaundiced eye at my blameless husband wondering if I’d feel a hammer come down on my head and feeling generally off-kilter. So, what better antidote for the blahs than some good old mayhem. I believe this case will lift me out of the doldrums.

***********************************************

Cops at LAPD’s 77th Street station were fed up with the wave of assaults on women in their district; there had been nearly 40 in the few months between April 2nd and late July 1952. The scumbag responsible for the attacks had been targeting lone women as they left street cars late at night.

00011769_77th street station. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

77th Street Station, LAPD

If they were going to nab the guy the cops figured they would need to bait and set a trap that he couldn’t resist. They couldn’t have found more attractive bait than policewoman Florence Coberly.

Coberly, in her mid-twenties and recently married, had been on the job for fewer than six months when she was tapped for the assignment. Florence and another policewoman, Marie Little, were assigned to act as decoys (cop euphemism for perv bait) while patrol officers and detectives cast a net that extended from Broadway to San Pedro Street and from Manchester Avenue to 67th Street. Officers would be deployed on foot and in squad cars while the two policewomen attempted to lure the reptile out from under his rock.

The massive stake-out began on the evening of July 31st. Coberly, who had dressed in a pencil skirt with a kick-pleat in the front, a short-sleeved white blouse and some sweet little pumps was undeniably an appealing target for a degenerate. She was walking along swinging her white handbag in time with her gait when a man leaped from a dark doorway in front of 8209 South San Pedro Street and snatched the bag from her hand. Florence did exactly as she’d been instructed to do, she reached into her pocket and got out her police whistle, then she put it to her lips and blew as hard as she could. The whistle blast was a signal to Detectives concealed nearby that she was in trouble.

Policewoman_lures_rape_suspect_1952

Policewoman Florence Coberly flanked by two LAPD detectives. [Photo courtesy of USC digital archive]

The man who had grabbed her demanded to know what in the the hell she thought she was doing–and without waiting for her answer he slugged her on the jaw; Coberly went down and the man continued to beat her. Coberly said later that she wasn’t worried because she knew that someone would be coming to her aid.

Coberly’s trust was rewarded when two detectives, Frank Marz and Walter Clago heard the whistle and screeched up in a squad car just in time to see Florence’s attacker fleeing the scene. The guy wasn’t moving very fast because Florence had managed to reach her weapon and got off a shot which struck the man in one of his lungs. Note the nifty little bandoleer dangling from her skirt with six bullets in it–policewomen knew how to accessorize!

Policewoman Coberly accessorizes for an evening of luring rape suspects. [Photo courtesy USC Digital Archive]

Policewoman Coberly accessorizes for an evening of luring rape suspects. [Photo courtesy USC Digital Archive]

Detective Clago helped Florence to her feet while Detective Marz set off in pursuit of the would-be molester yelling at him to “Stop in the name of the law!”. The man surely heard the cop’s admonition, but he continued to evade capture. He wasn’t moving very fast–it’s tough to sprint with a punctured lung. Marz fired his service revolver five times at the suspect and missed each time.

Contents of a policewoman's handbag c. 1952 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Contents of a policewoman’s handbag c. 1952 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Detective Marz saw the man head toward a car parked on 82nd Street. It was dark but a man was barely visible in the driver’s seat behind the wheel. The man didn’t wait for his passenger, as soon as he saw Parra staggering toward the sedan and heard the crack of gunfire he sped off into the night.

Detective Marz watched as the suspect whirled and dashed, or rather tried to dash, behind a house at 253 East 82nd Street. With a single round left in his revolver Marz fired and the man collapsed to the ground.

[Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

[Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

The dead man was ID’d as Joe L. Parra who had been residing at 8465 South San Pedro Street. Parra was an ex-con who had recently been paroled out of San Quentin where he had done time for multiple counts of robbery, burglary and morals violations. Parra’s arrest record was extensive, he had been busted on at least 40 occasions. His most recent arrest had been for robbery just one month prior to his death, but he’d been kicked loose for insufficient evidence.

second man capturedAbout an hour after Joe had expired in the dirt near a couple of discarded metal signs cops located the wheel man, the person who had left Joe in the lurch on 82nd Street. It turned out that the getaway driver was seventeen year old Henry P. Parra, Joe’s nephew. Henry ‘fessed up pretty quickly and admitted that he had gone with his uncle several times on late night purse snatching raids. I wonder if the kid knew what else Uncle Joe had been up to on their midnight forays. I think it’s pathetic that Uncle Joe had to be driven from crime to crime by his young nephew, what a low life. The dumb-ass could have taken a street car and left the kid out of his crime spree.

Florence shows off her injuries to colleagues. [Photo courtesy USC Digital Archive]

Florence shows off her injuries to colleagues. [Photo courtesy USC Digital Archive]

Policewoman Florence Coberly was feted for her role in putting an end to Parra’s reign of terror in LAPD’s 77th Street Divison. The newspapers credited Marz with firing the fatal round but I have it on good authority that the autopsy revealed that Florence had delivered the kill shot. Evidently Joe would have died from the wound she inflicted to his lung even if Detective Marz hadn’t finally managed to hit him. But let’s not quibble–Parra needed to be stopped and it was a cop’s bullet that did the trick.

Not only did Florence pose for several newspaper photos (she appears to have been a natural in front of the camera), she was a guest on a local TV show hosted by Johnny Dugan.

Johnny Dugan, local L.A. television celebrity.

Johnny Dugan, local L.A. television celebrity.

In February 1953, Florence was named “Policewoman of the Year” by the Exchange Club, sponsors of that month’s Crime Prevention Week. Florence continued to bask in the limelight and, in June 1954, she was an honored guest at the installation and dinner-dance held by the Los Angeles Policewomen’s Association. Also on the guest list were Sgts. Joe Friday and Frank Smith (Jack Webb and Ben Alexander) of the Dragnet series. The two fictional LAPD cops would share the spotlight with Chief of Police William H. Parker and his wife.

Florence may have been anticipating more star-studded evenings in her future as an L.A. cop. Who knows, with such as auspicious beginning maybe she would end up with an enviable spot in the LAPD hierarchy. With just over 100 women on the force, there wasn’t much female competition in the ranks in those days.

But wait a minute, you know that this is Deranged L.A. Crimes and nobody’s good luck lasts forever. Right?

NEXT TIME: Policewoman of the Year takes a fall.

Thanksgiving Dinner and a Revolver

The holidays are not a joy for everyone. Family gatherings and booze can be a volatile, and sometimes deadly, mix. Petty grievances which have festered for months occasionally erupt into violence; but whether it is a long-standing feud, a dispute over who is in charge of the remote, or an argument over who can claim the last slice of pumpkin pie, holiday homicides are often the result of too many cocktails and too much togetherness.

In the case of the Thorpes the catalyst for violence wasn’t a piece of pie or a drumstick, it was the visit by a former spouse that caused a fatal argument.

thorpe_arraignedOn November 27, 1952, Thanksgiving evening, Seal Beach cops received a telephone call from forty-one year old Frances Conant Thorpe. She said that she and her husband, fifty-two year old Garden Grove businessman Herman T. Thorpe, had spent the day drinking and arguing and she had shot him as they wrestled for possession of a revolver. According to Frances the argument started after her ex-husband, Al McNutt, had dropped by to extend Thanksgiving greetings to the newlywed couple — the Thorpes had been married just eight months.

When questioned by investigators Frances offered serveral different versions of the shooting. She told Officer William Dowdy of the Seal Beach Police Department that Herman had committed suicide, she told Deputy Coroner Walter Fox that she shot Herman twice during a scuffle. Finally she told District Attorney Investigator M.D. Williams that Herman had tried to shoot her and she fell, striking her head on a box, and when she revived several hours later Herman was dead on the bedroom floor.

thorpe_arraignedHerman’s autopsy revealed nothing to suggest that the bullet wounds to his chest and left forearm were self-inflicted. Investigators determined that the position of the weapon found under Herman’s body and the trajectory of the fatal round made it virtually impossible for his death to have been a suicide.There wasn’t a speck of gunshot residue on the dead man’s hands, nor were there any powder burns on his chest or arm. However there were traces of gun powder on Frances’ bathrobe and on her left hand.

Frances was held to answer for the slaying.

thorpe_convictedThe jury deliberated for six hours and twenty-eight minutes before finding Frances Thorpe guilty of manslaughter.

The Los Angeles Times did not report on Frances’ sentencing hearing.

NOTE:  On this Thanksgiving I ask you to remember, you only have to cope with that particularly annoying relative once a year so leave the gun at home.  Best wishes for a safe holiday!