Rehearsal for Murder

helen louise brunoBy early January 1953 Mrs. Helen Louise Bruno, an attractive 28 year-old waitress, was finished with her marriage to Philip. She filed for divorce and a restraining order.

Helen was fearful of Philip, and with good reason. She told her attorney, James Natoli, of a weird trip she had taken with her soon-to-be-ex the day after Christmas 1952.

The couple had gone out for dinner and afterwards they had taken a drive in a convertible coupe that Philip had rented in Los Angeles.

In the rear seat of the car Helen Louise noticed a brand new pick and shovel — but she didn’t think anything of it at the time. (Really? A pick and shovel in a RENTED car??? )

She told Natoli that she fell asleep during the drive and when she awakened she found that they were on the highway between Tijuana and Ensenada.

She demanded that Philip stop the car and head back to L.A., but Bruno produced a knife and told her that he was going to kill her.

Louise began to plead for her life, and as she did the significance of the pick and shovel finally dawned on her. Somehow she managed to talk Philip into putting the knife away and driving back to Los Angeles.

After hearing Louise’s harrowing story Natoli phoned the Wilshire Police Station. Officers told him that there was nothing they could do unless Bruno actually did something to harm his wife.

Louise figured she’d gotten lucky and that Philip had snapped to his senses; but all she really got was a reprieve.

Philip Bruno wasn’t an actor, he was a machinist, but he understood the importance of rehearsal, and that’s exactly what the impromptu drive to Baja had been — a dress rehearsal for murder.

rehearsal headline

On Saturday, January 17, 1953 Philip Bruno startled Hollywood police when he walked into the station and confessed to killing his wife. He said he had been brooding about the
crime all day. Then he made a statement.

Bruno told the cops that he and Helen Louise had argued in his car near Rosarita Beach at about midnight on January 17th. They fought over the terms of their divorce. Philip said that he didn’t object to the divorce per se but was opposed to the financial demands she had made.bruno held

At the height of their argument Philip snapped open his switch blade knife and stabbed her five times over the heart and once on the cheek. He threw the knife away, but couldn’t recall where.

Phillip crammed Helen Louise’s body into the rental car and abandoned it in the lot of the Commercial Hotel in Tijuana.

Philip said:

“After I wiped the blood off my hands I walked to the street and called a cab.”

He said he rode in the cab to the border, walked over to the U.S. side, and then took another cab to his home at 5640 Santa Monica Blvd.

Bruno arrived home at about 7 a.m. then spent the day brooding over the murder. At 10:30 p.m. he walked into the police station to surrender himself.

Philip Bruno had not only murdered his wife, but he had managed to create an international incident.

The U.S. didn’t want Bruno, and it appeared that Mexico didn’t want him either. Mexican authorities believed that he killed Helen Louise in California and driven her dead body across the border. Los Angeles County authorities said they were just holding Bruno for Mexico.

Bruno wouldn’t budge, he insisted that he’d killed Helen Louise in Baja — as an ex-con he knew that, unlike California, Mexico didn’t have the death penalty.

Two LAPD homicide detectives, Det. Lt. Jack McCreadle and Det. Sgt. Gil Encinas were dispatched to Tijuana to work with Mexican authorities to establish jurisdiction.

Baja California ultimately agreed to try Bruno for murder. Bruno would be returned to Baja from Los Angeles under a Mexico-United States extradition treaty that hadn’t been invoked since 1899.

bruno extradition

The treaty, proclaimed in April 1899, called for the two countries to mutually agree to deliver up any person connected or charged with crimes, including murder:

“Upon being informed by telegraph or otherwise that a warrant or other deposition in support of the charge has been issued…either government will hold the suspect for such time as may be practical, not exceeding 40 days.”

The legal wrangling and diplomatic machinations took months, but on May 6, 1953 Philip Bruno, described in the newspapers as the tattooed (he had 16) machinist, was turned over to Mexican authorities to be tried for murder.

bruno freedOn December 16, 1954, in Tijuana, Judge Mercedes Martinez Velila found the evidence insufficient to prove that Mrs. Helen Louise Bruno, 28, had been slain in Mexico and acquitted Philip Bruno of her murder!

Despite his confession and the ugliness of the crime, Philip Bruno walked away free and clear.

Film Noir Friday: Pickup on South Street [1953]

pickupsouthlc7

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 PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET starring Richard Widmark and Jean Peters.

Wikipedia says: Richard Widmark plays Skip McCoy, an insolent pickpocket who steals the wallet of Candy (Jean Peters). Unbeknownst to Skip or Candy, the wallet contains a microfilm of top-secret government information. Candy was delivering an envelope as a final favor to her ex-boyfriend, Joey. But Candy didn’t know the envelope’s content, nor did she know that Joey was a Communist spy.

 

http://youtu.be/Tihh6Q5XdNY

Stella Darlene Nolan: Conclusion

new hunt

Ilene and Owen Nolan struggled to get on with their lives in the wake of Stella’s disappearance. They moved to the San Diego area, but I imagine that every time the story of a missing or abused child made the news their hearts broke a little more.

Sherriff’s deputies and LAPD investigators continued to pull in every deviant who even looked cross-eyed at a child. They busted other child molesters, but they couldn’t seem to get a break in Stella’s case which grew colder with every passing day.

In December 1955, Sheriff’s deputies interrogated Robert Louis Kracker, 20, on suspicion of kidnapping a 3-year-old Baldwin Park girl, Cynthia Hardacre. Kracker had been visiting a cousin in the Hardacre neighborhood when Cynthia, apparently mistaking Robert for her father, dashed toward his automobile calling, “Wait, Daddy.”  Kracker told the police
that: “When I saw her, something just came over me.”

Kracker was on parole and had a record, including sex offenses, going back to age 14!  In 1949 he spent three months in Juvie and was subsequently committed to the State Hospital at Camarillo.  In July of 1950, he was arrested in L.A. on suspicion of a sex offense, and in November, 1951 he was arrested on suspicion of burglary.

Robert was guilty of the attack on Cynthia, but he was not responsible for Stella’s abduction.

In August of 1961 the L.A. Times reported on five children who had mysteriously vanished in recent years; Stella’s name was among them.

camissingkids

On March 6, 1970 a 51-year-old Sylmar construction worker, Mack Ray Edwards, appeared at the LAPD’s Foothill Division station. He handed them a loaded handgun and then said the had kidnapped three Sylmar girls earlier that day.

quiet guyEdwards, a native of Arkansas, was booked on suspicion of murder in the 1969 death of a 13-year-old Pacoima boy — one of the six cases he voluntarily discussed with detectives.

220px-Mack_ray_edwardsEdwards and an unnamed 15-year-old companion told the police that they’d entered the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Cohen at 5 a.m., after the couple had left for work.  The two stole a coin collection and other items from the house and then took the three Cohen children, Valerie (12); Cindy (13); and Jan (14) by car to Bouquet Canyon in Angeles National Forest north of Newhall.

Two of the girls escaped and the third was abandoned by Edwards and his accomplice — they told her they’d send a sheriff’s car to pick her up.

It was during his confession to police that he admitted to kidnapping, raping, and then murdering 8-year-old Stella Darlene Nolan in 1953.  The girl was allegedly his first murder victim.

In mid-March 1970, the skeletal remains of Stella Darlene Nolan were unearthed by a highway crew who worked from directions given to them by her killer.

In addition to the slaying of Stella, Edwards admitted to murdering Gary Rocha, 16, in 1968, and Donald Allen Todd, 13, in 1960. He also admitted to three other murders of children but he wasn’t charged with them because their bodies couldn’t be found. Edwards was a heavy machine operator and often worked freeway construction sites, it simply wasn’t possible for the law to go around digging up Southern California freeways in an effort to unearth the other remains.

In Van Nuys Superior Court, Edwards entered a plea of guilty in three of the six slayings to which he had confessed. Sgt. George H. Rock was called to testify about Edwards’ voluntary admission that he was a child killer. All of the murders were horrible, but Stella’s was the worst.  Edwards had taken her from Auction City in Norwalk to his Azusa home where he molested and then attempted to strangle her. After he thought Stella was dead, he threw her body over bridge.  The following day he returned to the scene to bury his victim and found the little girl still alive. She had managed to drag herself about 100 feet. She was sitting up, dazed, when Edwards took out his pocketknife and stabbed her to death.

Edwards attempted to sell his surrender and confession as a guilty conscience.  He said:

“I have a guilt complex. I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep and it was beginning to affect my work.  You know I’m a heavy equipment operator. That long grader I’m using now costs a lot of money — $200,000.  I might wreck it.  Or turn it over and hurt someone.”

That doesn’t sound like a guilty conscience to me — it sounds exactly like the kind of profoundly stupid, self-serving statement a sociopath would make.  There was no expression of remorse for his victims, his primary concern appears to have been the deleterious affect the brutal child killings were having on his work.

deathEdwards claimed to want a death sentence. Maybe he did — he attempted suicide twice during his trial. On March 30, 1970 he slashed a 14-inch cut across his stomach with a razor blade and on May 7, 1970 he took an overdose of tranquilizers   The third time was the charm — he successfully hanged himself with a length of TV cord in his cell on California’s Death Row.

Edwards had always claimed six victims, never more; however, he is suspected in the murders of over 20 children between 1953 and 1970.

In 2006, a letter written by Edwards to his wife while he was on death row implicated him the 1957 disappearance of 8-year-old Tommy Bowman in the Arroyo Seco.

Ramona Price

Ramona Price

In 2011, the Santa Barbara Police Department took four teams of cadaver dogs to an area near a Goleta freeway overpass that was under renovation, looking for the remains of Ramona Price, a 7-year-old girl who disappeared in August 1961 — Mack Ray Edwards worked in the area during that time.  Ramona wasn’t found, but the search for other victims of Edwards continues.

EPILOGUE

A little over 40 years following Mack Ray Edwards’ suicide I stumbled across Stella Darlene Nolan’s photograph in a Los Angeles Police Daily Bulletin as I was archiving documents from 1953. Something about Stella pulled me in and when I couldn’t find a cancellation for her missing notice in a subsequent Bulletin I followed up, and that’s when I discovered her entire story.

stella

I shared everything I’d uncovered with the L.A. Police Museum’s Executive Director and he telephoned a detective he knows at Foothill Division. She told him she couldn’t discuss details of the case with him because she was assigned to the cold case!  She’s seeking to solve many more murders and disappearances for which Edwards may have been responsible. The detective asked if we would send her a copy of the Daily Bulletin featuring Stella because she didn’t have one — it was an incredible feeling to be able to provide a small piece of information in an on-going investigation — my first cold case!

The Daily Bulletins aren’t merely artifacts to be cataloged and filed away; the impact of crime on victims and their families reaches across time. History lives.

Stella Darlene Nolan, Part 1

lapm

For the past 3 1/2 years I’ve been a volunteer archivist at the Los Angeles Police Museum. I find the work fascinating and rewarding, in fact given my passion for old paper (I have a vast collection of vintage cosmetics ephemera) and historic L.A. crime, it is the ideal place for me.

vargas_jergens_8_final

When I first met with the Executive Director of the LAPM, I wasn’t sure what projects they had or what they would want me to do. I told him about my personal collection and he said “I may have a project for you.” He sure did! He showed me the museum’s collection of Daily Bulletins and I was immediately hooked.

Many of the Daily Bulletins had been bound into volumes, while others were loose pages. The majority of the Bulletins, even those in bindings, were in fragile condition. They were printed on inexpensive paper and were handed out to each officer at the beginning of a shift; they were never meant to survive beyond a day or two and we wanted them to last forever.

Our first priority was to determine the best practice for preserving the Bulletins — they’re a valuable resource and we couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.

We we arranged a consultation with experts at the Getty and they recommended that we unbind the volumes and place the individual pages into archival sleeves.

I was particularly worried about the unbinding process. I’d never done anything like it before. With proper instruction and the right tools I have been able to unbind many years worth of Daily Bulletins. The future of the Bulletins is secure, and we’ll eventually have a searchable database which will allow us to further our own research as well as to share knowledge with historians, sociologists, criminologists and policy makers.

The Bulletins began in March of 1907 under Chief Edward Kerr, and provide a daily snapshot of the LAPD as well as of the City of Los Angeles over a period of 50 years.

In his 1913 holiday greeting, Chief C.E. Sebastian referred to the Daily Bulletin as the ‘Paper Policeman’, which suits them perfectly. The Bulletins didn’t just convey information about wanted criminals or stolen property; they contained notices of funerals, commendations, and policy and procedure updates.

The Bulletins sometimes had a sense of humor. In this Bulletin from April 1, 1907 there’s a LOOK OUTS notice:

“A real bear is lost, strayed or stolen from the Shrine Sircus (sic) at Fiesta Park. Look out for him and if found notify Leo Youngworth, U.S. Marshal and Chief Bear Tamer.”

I checked the historic LA Times and there was a circus in town that week, but I found no report of a runaway bear.

00077896aqueduct dedication

Dedication of the L.A. Aqueduct — November 5, 1913. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The November 3, 1913 Daily Bulletin listed the all of the officers who would form the Aqueduct Detail for the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

stellaIt was arguably the most significant event in the history of L.A., and the Bulletin shows that LAPD was present.

I’ve seen thousands of incredible Daily Bulletins, but the one that means the most to me personally is from June 1953, and that’s because I was peripherally involved in the cold case 56 years later.

But let me begin at the beginning — June 20, 1953. Ilene Nolan had reported the disappearance, and possible abduction, of her eight year old daughter, Stella Darlene. There was something about the little girl that caught my eye.

Usually a missing child will turn up in a day or two and the notice will be canceled in a subsequent Bulletin. I couldn’t find a cancellation for Stella, so I decided to dig deeper; and I couldn’t believe what I found.

tragedyStella had disappeared from Auction City (in the Norwalk area) where her mother was employed as a clerk at a refreshment stand. Stella was a well behaved child and checked in every hour with her mom, so when she failed to turn up between 8 and 9 pm Mrs. Nolan knew that something was wrong.

anxiousA few days following Stella’s disappearance the little girl had still not returned home. Her parents, who lived in a trailer park at 16108 South Atlantic in Compton, were frantic with worry. Even Stella’s dog, Pal, was inconsolable. By day, the little dog wandered around the trailer whimpering, and at night he would howl and bay.

In desperation, Stella’s mom and dad revealed that they were not her birth parents and that even though they’d had custody of her since birth they had never legally adopted her!

Ilene told cops how she and her husband, Owen, had acquired custody of Stella. During the mid-1940s Ilene had worked with Marjorie Woods and Betty Jean Stalcup at the Pony Cafe in San Diego. Ilene had expressed her desire to have a child and so Betty Jean, who was pregnant, agreed to give her baby to Nolan a few days after the baby’s birth. Six days after the child was born Betty Jean tuned her over to Ilene.stella birth mom

The Nolans said they had often thought of adopting Stella Darlene and in 1950 they had even gone so far as to consult a San Diego lawyer. The attorney, however, had advised the couple to save possible sorrow and heartbreak by doing nothing!

The cops quickly located Betty Jean, Stella’s birthmother. She’d moved to Texas, married, and had a three year old girl. She was swiftly cleared of any involvement in Stella’s disappearance.

The newspapers reported that except for occasional fits of silent weeping, Ilene Nolan had maintained her composure. But she lost it when her cousin, Mrs. Kay Talley of San Diego, arrived at the trailer. Ilene collapsed and sobbed convulsively. Then she told of having a vision in which she saw Stella Darlene dead.

She said:

“I sat quiet for a few minutes trying to rest. I was thinking very hard about anything that might help us. Then across my eyes came a vision of Darlene’s little legs sticking out of a hole somewhere. She had red shoes on her feet. They were leather ones with big, thick crepe rubber soles.”

By early July, barely a month after she’d disappeared, Stella’s twenty year old married cousin, William R. Nolan, an unemployed hospital orderly, was jailed on a technical booking in Long Beach as a key suspect in the case. Nolan emphatically denied any connection with Stella Darlene’s disappearance. William was grilled for hours by detectives. The L.A. Sheriff’s Department dispatched several criminal laboratory technicians to check for possible blood stains in William’s bungalow court apartment and in the trunk of his 1949 convertible. The techs didn’t turn up a single clue. He told conflicting stories regarding his whereabouts on the night that Stella disappeared, but he was cleared.

cousin held

At least one crank caller phoned the Nolans to tell them that their little girl was alive, but nothing came of the call. The police were frustrated by the lack of movement in the case.

lie detectorIn mid-October 1953, a fourteen year old boy was brought in for questioning — Norwalk Dep. Dist Atty. Adolph Alexander and Inspector Garner Brown stated that the boy held the key to the girl’s fate. While the fourteen year old was being questioned two of his acquaintances, William R. Hardy, twenty-two, and an unnamed seventeen year old, were facing lie detector tests in Pasadena.

The boys were proved to be liars, and one of them even made a false confession, however they were not killers.

During the remainder of 1953 various “hot” suspects were interrogated but none of them panned out.

On June 20, 1955, the second anniversary of her disappearance, the L.A. Times ran a follow-up story about Stella but it didn’t result in any further leads. The Sheriff’s detectives reluctantly stated that they believed Stella had been kidnapped and killed by a sexual psychopath.

Mrs. Nolan told reporters:

“We’ll never give up hope until we’re both dead.”

NEXT TIME: What happened to Stella Darlene Nolan?

Murder of a Cop’s Wife: Can You Solve the Case?

diane_00082390

Diane Sparks. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

DID THE JURY GET IT WRONG?

ramon_00082391

Ramon Gonzales. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

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?

CASE SYNOPSIS

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.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

George Sparks. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

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?

WILD CARD

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.

girl found body_00082387

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]

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.

AFTERMATH

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?diana sparks

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!

Final Thoughts on Barbara Graham

Mabel Monohan

Mabel Monohan

Until I began researching the Mabel Monohan case again for this series of posts, I was       convinced that Barbara Graham was guilty of beating the widow; but I’ve changed my mind.

This is how I think it went down.

perkins_graham_00030044

Jack Santo, Emmett Perkins, Barbara Graham [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Perkins, a married guy, was clearly smitten with Graham. When Barbara left her husband Henry and her son Tommy she went to Emmett Perkins for a place to stay. Perkins wasn’t much to look at, and nobody ever claimed that he had a sparkling wit or a winning personality. He must have done a mental dance of joy when he found the attractive younger woman on his doorstep. In the courtroom photos he’s always seated next to her, and his expression and body language speaks volumes. If Graham had egged him on that night at Monohan’s, he would have beaten the poor woman mercilessly, and that’s exactly what I believe happened.

Baxter Shorter’s statement put the gun that beat Mabel Monohan in Perkin’s hands, which makes a lot more sense to me than John True’s assertion that it was Barbara who did the beating. The beating likely began as a way to get Mabel to give up the location of the safe that the gang believed to be in the house.

Barbara was there that night only to gain entry into the house, which would have fit the context of the time and the likely dynamic among the gang members.  No matter how twisted, she was playing a woman’s role. However with the adrenaline rush that must have accompanied her success at getting the men into the house, I can easily visualize her screaming encouragement at Perkins — but standing back and letting him deliver the blows.

Perkins may have been responsible for the beating, but I think that Barbara placed the pillowcase over Mabel’s head because she wanted to shut the woman up, and because she couldn’t stand to look at the blood. Head wounds bleed copiously. I was puzzled about which member of the gang pulled the pieces of cloth tight enough to asphyxiate Mabel, until I realized that it was probably Barbara.

Perkins and Santo were killers, they’d already murdered people in Northern California, so I don’t think they’d have hesitated to kill Monohan outright — pulling a pillowcase over her head doesn’t strike me as something either of them would have done. That leaves Shorter, True, or Graham. Shorter phoned for an ambulance for Mabel after they left the house, so I don’t make him for the killer. True was there to learn about safe cracking from Shorter, he would have stuck with him. I think that Emmett inflicted the beating, with Barbara at his side. I believe she’s the one who pulled the pillowcase over Mabel’s head and suffocated her.

That makes Graham not guilty of the beating but responsible for Monohan’s death, the cause of which was determined to have been asphyxiation.

Barbara Graham's hands. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Barbara Graham’s hands. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Should Barbara Graham have been executed?

There’s so much about her case that would be handled differently now. It’s not clear that the false alibi idea initiated with Barbara. It appears that it was presented to her by Donna Prow and that she grabbed at it believing it to be a lifeline.  If the idea wasn’t hers, then I would call the false alibi scheme entrapment. It weighed heavily against her with the jury who saw it as proof of her guilt, not of her desperation as she had said.

It is my opinion that it was the combination of the false alibi and Graham’s jailhouse romance with Donna Prow that put her in the gas chamber.

hide faces_00030004

Busted!   [Photo courtesy LAPL]

The circumstantial evidence was, in my view, compelling enough to convict Perkins, Santo  and Graham of Mabel Monohan’s slaying; however, if there had never been a false alibi or if Barbara’s relationship with Donna hadn’t come to light, I think they would all have been sentenced to life.

I’m indulging in speculation, and without solid proof that’s all it can be. I know that there are people who will disagree with my conclusions; and there are those who believe Barbara Graham to have been completely innocent in the Monohan case. I respectfully disagree.

NEXT TIME: The story of the last Dead Woman Walking in California — Elizabeth Ann ‘Ma’ Duncan.

Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 5

surrounded cameras attorney_00030065

Barbara Graham surrounded by the press after receiving a death sentence. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The press surrounded Barbara Graham following the reading of the guilty verdict — she maintained her innocence saying that:

“I am innocent of this crime, I swear to God I am innocent. I hope my baby drops dead if I did it.

She hugged her 20 month year old son Tommy as he clutched a stuffed toy. Graham sobbed: “Tommy, Tommy, oh, my baby”.tommy toy

Graham was originally supposed to go to Death Row at San Quentin to await her execution, but budget cuts made it impossible to provide enough female officers to guard her. She ended up being transferred to the women’s prison in Corona.

Baxter Shorter’s mother, Cora, offered financial aid to Barbara’s three children if she would tell what had happened to Baxter. Barbara’s reply: “The man in the moon should know more about him than I do.”

Baxter Shorter has never been found. He was declared legally dead in 1960.

shorter_00030026

Baxter Shorter [Photo courtesy LAPL]

On June 2, 1955 Barbara Graham was removed from Corona and transferred to San Quentin for execution — her time was set for 10:00 a.m. Santo and Perkins were scheduled for a couple of hours later. It was going to be ladies first.

The car with Barbara handcuffed in the backseat arrived at San Quentin in the wee hours of the morning. She was taken to the cell from which she’d take her last walk.

Her last few hours were a choreographed dance of despair.

last ride

Barbara’s last ride. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Graham was in a holding cell praying with Father McAlister when he said to her, “It’s time”. As McAlister and Graham were heading out of the holding tank the phone rang for Warden Teets, it was Governor Knight. The execution had been delayed.

Barbara collapsed and almost had to be carried back to the cot in the holding cell.

About 20 minutes later the phone rang again, it was the Governor for Warden Teets. He told him to go ahead with the execution.

Barbara was brought to her feet and escorted to the entrance of the gas chamber. The phone rang a third time and she was drawn back from the brink. She said: “I can’t take this. Why didn’t they let me go at ten. I was ready to go at ten.”

This time the condemned woman was taken to a small office adjacent to the gas chamber.

Twenty minutes more passed. Barbara was sobbing: “Why do they torture me like this?’ The reason for the back and forth was that her attorney was desperately attempting to save her life, and the last minute legal wrangling made for a hellish couple of hours.

gas chamber_00029978

San Quentin’s gas chamber. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The phone rang for a fourth and final time. Barbara couldn’t bear to look at the witnesses surrounding the gas chamber and she begged for a blindfold. One of the matrons had a sleep mask.

Barbara Graham was the only person ever to ask for a blindfold for the gas chamber.

Barbara’s last words were: “Good people are always so sure they’re right.”

Joe Feretti, one of the the men in charge of her execution, strapped Barbara into the gas chamber and gave her some advice. He told her to take a deep breath and it would go easier and quicker for her. Barbara responded: “How the hell would you know?”

About ten minutes later Barbara Graham was pronounced dead.

A couple of hours later Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins went to their deaths in the same gas chamber with very little fuss and no drama. It was reported that the two men chatted amiably as they were strapped in to their respective chairs, and when they were ready to go Perkins allegedly said to the assembled cops: “Now don’t you boys do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Barbara’s  trial had been standing room only, but her funeral was sparsely attended. Henry Graham drove up to Northern California for the funeral, but he left their son Tommy at home.

Barbara Graham is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery

NEXT: Some final thoughts the case.

Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 4

State Demands Death [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

State Demands Death [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The charges against John True were dismissed so that he could testify against Graham, Perkins and Santo. In order to keep True safe he was moved to a secret hideaway and guarded 24/7.

If convicted on the murder conspiracy charge the remaining three defendants could be given the death penalty. A jury would first have to determine the degree of murder. Then, if they agreed it was first degree and declined to make a recommendation, the death penalty would be mandatory.

ambulance_00010930

Barbara Graham in an ambulance. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The indictment for murder apparently hit Barbara Graham pretty hard. She collapsed in her jail cell and banged her head on the floor. She seemed to have fallen with enough force to rob her of her ability to speak. The doctors had their doubts though because her hospital record stated that she either “could not or would not talk”.

The doctors’ suspicions may have been well founded. Later, while she on her way to court, Barbara tumbled down some stairs.  She’d been overheard saying: “When I really get into my act I’m going to make Sarah Bernhard look like a chump.”

Barbara’s injuries weren’t serious and she was soon well enough to become involved in a minor altercation with another prisoner.  The woman, Mary Kendall Curtis (serving a year for contributing to the delinquency of her own daughter) taunted Barbara about the likelihood of the gas chamber in her future. Barbara belted her. Curtis said that Graham had “a wallop like Joe Louis”.  Graham didn’t deny smacking her cellmate, she said she’d been offended by Curtis’ irreverent and profane remarks. Curtis was transferred to another cell.

The trial began with John True’s testimony. His story was somewhat different than the statement Baxter Shorter had given the cops prior to his kidnapping and disappearance. Shorter had said that it was Emmett Perkins who had beaten Mabel Monohan with a gun butt — True testified that it was Barbara. True’s testimony would result in the Herald dubbing her “Bloody Babs”.

“Mrs. Graham was striking Mrs. Monahan in the face with a gun.  She was standing up and Mrs. Graham had her by the shoulder or hair with her left hand and was striking her with the gun in her right hand.”

Later, people looking for a reason to believe that Graham was innocent of murder seized on his testimony, apparently she was believed by some to be left-handed — even though on a handwriting sample card she stated she was right-handed.

hand writing sample_00010949

Handwriting sample for Barbara Graham. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Barbara had  made one friend while she was in jail — twenty year old Donna Prow. Prow, mother of two, was doing a year in the County Jail for manslaughter. She’d been involved in a head-on collision in which a woman was killed and three other people seriously injured. Prow willingly became involved in a plan to snare Barbara into making a fatal decision.prow pic headline

The plan was simple; Barbara would be given the opportunity to buy herself an alibi for the night of Monohan’s murder. Donna, with whom Barbara was having a sexual relationship, told her she knew a guy, a ‘fixer’ who, for $25,000, would testify that he and Graham were together on the night of the crime.  Barbara supplied a code phrase, which was a paraphrase from The Rubaiyat, by Omar Khayyam: “I came like the water.  I go like the wind.”  When one of her visitors spoke the code phrase, she’d know he was the fixer.

Barbara met the fixer, and together they worked out an alibi for her. She wouldn’t see the man again until he walked into the courtroom, not as a witness in her defense, but rather to testify against her. The fixer turned out to be Sam Sirianni, a cop; and he’d recorded their jailhouse conversation.

Much of the recorded conversation was inaudible, which was a plus for the defense. Unfortunately for Graham there was one portion of the tape that was crystal clear — it was the part where Sirianni asked her if she had been with Perkins, Santo, True, and Shorter on the night of the crime and she answered: “I was with them”.

Barbara glares at Sam Sirianni.

Barbara glares at Sam Sirianni. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Just as damning was her response to Sirianni when he pressed her about Baxter Shorter, and if he’d come forward to testify at the trial. Barbara said there was nothing to worry about, Shorter wouldn’t turn up. Sirianni asked again about Shorter’s whereabouts and Graham said “use your imagination”.

Barbara had more bad news coming. Her husband, Henry Graham, was a witness for the prosecution. He testified that he and Barbara had argued violently and that he was staying with his mother on March 9th, that he couldn’t have been at home arguing with Barbara as she had finally claimed.

henry_mug_00030031

Henry Graham mugshot. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Things went from bad to worse for Barbara when some of the notes that she had written to Donna Prow were read in open court. The notes were filled with terms of endearment and were sexually suggestive — the notes undoubtedly shocked many of the jurors.

It was during the reading of the notes and the exposure of the attempt to buy a false alibi that Barbara lost her composure and cried out: “Have you ever been desperate?  Do you know what it is?”

Barbara’s husband Henry switched his story and said he’d been with her the night of the murder — but it was too little, too late.

Harriet Henson [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Harriet Henson [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Barbara was the only defendant to take the stand. Perkins and Santo had planned to testify and Santo’s common-law wife, Harriet Henson, was going to provide them with a false alibi. Harriet was no genius and her statements to the cops  implicated her, along with Santo and Perkins, in the 1951 slaying of Ed Hanson a Nevada City miner during an attempted gold robbery.

Santo and Perkins were also implicated in the vicious murder of Guard Young and three small children in Chester, CA in 1952. They’d later be tried and sentenced to death for those crimes too. There was no way that Perkins and Santo were going to avoid the gas chamber.

The three defendants are found guilty of the charges against them in the Monohan case. The jury made no recommendation for life sentences.  They were  doomed.

The jury: three women and nine men.  [Photo courtesy LAPL]

The jury: three women and nine men. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Following the verdict Barbara Graham snapped: “As long as they found me guilty of something I didn’t do, I’d rather take the gas chamber than life imprisonment.”

NEXT TIME: The executions and some final thoughts.

Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 3

shorter_davis_picOn March 26, 1953, five men were arrested and held for questioning in the slaying of Mabel Monohan. The men were: Solly Davis (a one-time Mickey Cohen lieutenant); William Upshaw and John Wilds (both Mickey Cohen associates); Joe Allen; and Baxter Shorter.

All five men were career crminals — Upshaw had been frequently arrested on gambling charges, Davis had been incarcerated in two Federal pens, Leavenworth and Atlanta, and in the New York State Prison, Sing Sing. Baxter Shorter had a record that dated back to 1927.

The men were acquainted with Mabel Monohan through her former son-in-law, Las Vegas gambler Tutor Scherer. It was the lure of $100k of Scherer’s cash, allegedly hidden in a safe in Monohan’s home, that had brought a gang to her doorstep resulting in her brutal murder.

The cops had to kick the bad guys loose, they didn’t have enough to hold them; but the arrest was enough to convince Baxter Shorter that his best chance for staying clear of the gas chamber at San Quentin was to turn State’s evidence before any of the other members of the gang were busted and could beat him to it. There’s usually only one get out of jail free card available in a capital case, and Baxter grabbed it.

Baxter told the cops he’d gone along on the Monohan job as a look-out. Of course that was a lie, he was there to crack the safe supposedly hidden in the house. Shorter further stated that he’d seen Perkins slug Mrs. Monohan on the head with the butt of a gun. He also said that he’d been horrified to witness the murder. That may have been the truest statement he made. He was undoubtedly terrified to have become involved in a death penalty case.

Shorter probably would have walked on the Monohan murder, and lived to commit other crimes, if details of his statement hadn’t been leaked by someone close to the investigation. Once his duplicity became public Baxter Shorter’s days were numbered.

Only a few weeks after the Monohan slaying Baxter Shorter was kidnapped at gun point from his Bunker Hill apartment at 121 North Flower Street. Shorter’s wife, Olivia, identified the two kidnappers as Emmett Perkins and Jack Santos.

The building from where Baxter Shorter was kidnapped.

The building from where Baxter Shorter was kidnapped.

Shorter’s kidnapping left the Burbank cops with a huge problem. He was an eyewitness to the Monohan murder and had been willing to testify in court to save his own sorry ass. If he had really been kidnapped the chances of him being found alive were slim to none.

The car believed to have been used in the kidnapping was found abandoned near an apartment at 5124 Imperial Blvd; and that’s where Emmett Perkins, Jack Santo, and Barbara Graham were busted.

The sedan was owned by one of Jack Santos’ girlfriends, Brenda Pearney of Grass Valley, California. It had recently been repainted and the mat in the rear trunk compartment was missing. Police Chemist Ray Pinker turned up some small pieces of wood and a little yellow flower in the car that he took to the Los Angeles County Museum for identification.

yellow flowerThe wood was ribbon wood, found only in Southern California and usually in the San Jacinto Mountains at an elevation of between 2500 and 3000 feet. The flower had no common name, but was identified as metzelia affnis and it too could be found at elevations of between 2500 and 3000 feet.

If Baxter Shorter’s remains were buried off a lonely mountain road at an elevation of 3000 feet then he was likely as close to heaven as he would ever get.

Emmett Perkins was arraigned on charges of kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon in Shorter’s kidnapping. Barbara Graham was charged with seven counts of forgery. She’d gone on a shopping spree in March and April and had passed $266 worth of rubber checks. Santo was released on the kidnapping beef and walked out of court into the waiting arms of Burbank cops who cuffed him and took him in for questioning on the Monohan slaying. They had to release him for lack of evidence, but he wasn’t free for long. He was soon rearrested and charged with forging a fictitious telegram to Baxter Shorter’s mother. The telegram read:

“Sorry to have been away. See Olive (Olivia) and tell her not to make the mistake ’cause I have to return one of these days. All my love. Baxter”

Circumstantial evidence was beginning to mount.

To add to the drama a new witness in the Monohan case came forward. The witness was an ex-con named William Upshaw. He’d voluntarily surrendered to police when he heard that he was wanted in connection with Shorter’s kidnapping.

Upshaw  was cleared of any involvement in the Shorter kidnapping, and he was the first witness called to testify before the grand jury in the slaying of Mabel Monohan. Cops were understandably edgy because of Shorter’s abrupt disappearance, and they weren’t about to lose another witness. Upshaw was heavily guarded around the clock. He testified that he’d been with the gang: Graham, Perkins, Santo,True and Shorter when they’d cased the Monohan home on the night before the crime. He knew all about the plan and had opted out. He decided that he wanted nothing to do with robbing Las Vegas bigwig Tutor Scherer. He remembered what had happened to Tony Trombino and Tony Brancato back in 1951.

The Two Tonys

The Two Tonys

Trombino and Brancato, known as the Two Tonys, were murdered in a car after cheating Las Vegas gambler Sam Lazes out of $3000 by posing as collectors for a local syndicate gambler. Upsahw had no desire to mess with Vegas and end up like the Two Tonys.indictments headline

On June 3, 1953 Perkins, Santo, True and Graham were indicted by the county grand jury on charges of conspiracy to commit burglary, robbery and murder in the death of Mrs. Mabel Monohan.

The cops and the D.A. lucked out when John True decided to turn State’s Evidence in exchange for his freedom. Apparently the indictment in a capital murder case scared John True straight — or as straight as he could be. Taking no chances with this witness, cops guarded John day and night against possible retaliation.

NEXT TIME: The trial and aftermath.

 

Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 2

Purple Pony MurdersMabel Monohan had been spending a quiet evening reading a mystery novel, The Purple Pony Murders, when she was interrupted by a knock at her front door. Monohan was security conscious, but the young woman on her doorstep looked harmless enough and she said she needed help. Mabel overcame her fears and opened the door. Barbara followed Mabel into the house — and after her came John True, Jack Santo, and Emmett Perkins.

After a cursory search of the house, Jack Santo went out to get their safe cracker, Baxter Shorter to tell him that they couldn’t find a safe. When Shorter got into the house he saw Mabel on the floor of a hallway, she was bleeding profusely and moaning through a gag over her mouth. According to John True’s statement, Graham was holding a nickel-plated revolver. She allegedly handed it to Perkins and said “Knock her out!”

Emmett Perkins

Emmett Perkins [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Shorter supposedly grabbed Perkins and threw him to the floor and yelled at him: “What the hell are you doing? This isn’t the way it was supposed to be! This is no good!” When Shorter glanced down at Mabel she appeared to him to be choking on the gag. Shorter was a safe cracker, sure, but he wanted no part of cold-blooded murder. He managed to get John True to cut the gag off Mabel’s mouth, but she looked to be in bad shape.

True would tell the story a little differently later on — casting himself as the lone do-gooder. He’d also have more to say about Graham’s involvement in beating Monohan.

It was chaos in the house as the gang ransacked it, searching for a safe that didn’t exist. Furniture was torn apart, closets emptied, nobody really cared what happened to Monohan — the gang had other worries. It was beginning to dawn on the group that the caper was a fiasco; but they were so busy mourning the loss of their cash windfall that they couldn’t spare a moment for the woman who lay dying on the floor.

Baxter Shorter

Baxter Shorter [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

While his companions were getting ready to leave the scene of the bungled crime, Shorter rummaged through a drawer and found a utility bill with the address of the house on it. He was going to make an anonymous call to get help for the woman.

Let’s be clear about Baxter Shorter, he was a thug and an ex-con and he didn’t care about Mabel Monohan except what her death might mean for him. It was pragmatism and not a burning desire to do the right thing which compelled him. Shorter didn’t want to be in the middle of a murder rap. He could do time if he had to, but killing the old lady could mean the gas chamber.

Once it sunk in that they’d botched the whole plan, the gang split up into the two cars in which they’d arrived. True, Perkins and Graham rode in one car, Shorter and Santo in the other.

Baxter told Jack that he intended to try to get help for the woman back at the house. Jack said: “I don’t give a damn what you do. That woman stopped breathing before we left.”

Baxter dropped Jack off at the meeting place, and he was warned in no uncertain terms to keep his mouth shut or there would be dire consequences.

Shorter went to the nearest gas station and found a telephone booth. He dialed “O”, got an  operator and told her that a woman needed an ambulance at 1718 Parkside Drive. Before he could be asked any uncomfortable questions, he hung up the phone and sped off.

Photo credit: http://www.johngilmore.com/Books/preview_graham.html

The operator tried to dispatch an ambulance to the address she’d been given, but it didn’t exist — not in Los Angeles anyway. Shorter had been so shaken up that he’d forgotten to mention that the house was in Burbank.

Mabel Monohan’s body wasn’t found for two days. Her gardener, Mitchell Truesdale, had come to do some work and to collect his paycheck. When he went to the front door he noticed that it was ajar, and that was highly unusual. He gave the door a nudge and started in, he could see that the normally neat house had been turned upside down, and the smell of death was pervasive. He found Mabel’s body, and he saw blood spatter on the walls and floors. Monohan’s Labrador retriever, Ziggy, was whining at the back door.

Truesdale ran to a neighbor’s house and called the cops.

An inquest was held and the verdict was that Monohan’s death was a homicide caused by person or persons unknown.

Mabel’s daughter Iris had only recently returned to New York after spending some time with her mother. She offered a $5000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer(s).

The investigation into the slaying of the Burbank widow began.

NEXT TIME: A witness is kidnapped and the killers are busted.