The L.A. River Torso Slaying, Conclusion

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

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

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

One of the letters read:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buron Fitts

Sheriff Traeger commended his deputies as well:

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

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

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

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

A Death on Mulholland Drive, Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Redell:

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

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

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

Redell said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Mauger said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In three postscripts Beitzel added:

“Tell the boys hello for me.

“Has Northcott** moved yet?

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

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

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

The “It” Girl and the Secretary

clara bowBy 1930 Clara Bow had been appearing films for eight years, and she’d lit up the screen in every one of them. In 1924 Bow was selected to be a WAMPAS Baby Star.


The Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (WAMPAS), honored thirteen (fourteen in 1932) young women each year whom they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom. Clara had appeared in about 40 films by the time she made “WINGS” and “IT” in 1927. Both films were financial and critical successes, and Clara was praised as “a joy to behold”. However, she would forever be identified as the “It Girl”.

clara itWhat is “it”? In his 1904 short story “Mrs. Bathurst”, Rudyard Kipling introduced the concept:

“It isn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just “It”. Some women will stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down the street.”

In February 1927, Cosmopolitan magazine published a two-part serial story in which Elinor Glyn described “It” as:

“That quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With “it” you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. “it” can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.”

rod la rocqueThere was no question that Clara Bow possessed “It” in spades. The public adored her, and with good reason. Bow had sex appeal infused with enough sweetness and innocence to make her approachable, not saccharin.

Clara was making truckloads of money, and her contemporaries were doing just as well. But many of them were like kids in a candy store, they had no clue about what do with their money except to spend it. Fellow star, Rod La Rocque, became incorporated and his fortune was under the management of a board of directors.

Until about 1928, Clara’s money had been managed by Bogart Rogers. In 1930 her money and her personal affairs were in the hands of her secretary, Daisy De Voe. daisy

On November 10, 1930 local newspapers reported on a story that was eventually going to shine a light on both Clara’s money and Daisy’s management skills. Clara and Daisy had parted ways, and it wasn’t an amicable split.

Both Clara and Daisy denied the stories of the break in their professional relationship. De Voe said:

“As far as I know I am still her secretary. Miss Bow has not served notice on me. I guess I’ll have to find out all about it.”

Clara refused to comment.

A few days later the story got even more interesting when it was revealed that Daisy  had indeed been fired by Clara, and then she had helped herself to some of her former employer’s valuables including: diamond jewelry, a sapphire ring, and all of Bow’s insurance papers. In addition, Daisy had also taken a $20,000 cashier’s check, and a mass of personal papers, including canceled checks, paid and unpaid bills, and personal correspondence.

Despite the fact that De Voe had taken thousands of dollars worth of Clara’s belongings, the cheeky amanuensis was gearing up to file a suit against Bow for several thousand dollars that she alleged she was owed for back pay and expenses.

De Voe and Bow had disagreed on what to do with the cashier’s check; but why did De Voe take jewelry and papers belonging to her employer?

“Clara was going to use this in a business deal I had advised her against going into so that is the reason I kept it from her. She knows as well as everybody else that I could never have cashed it. I intended giving it back the same as everything I had that belonged to her. They (the D.A. and cops) treated me terribly and I think it absolutely unjust the way the treated me and kept me at the hotel. I believe, as does my attorney, we have justifiable cause of action against them.”

clara rex court

Clara Bow and Rex Bell

De Voe intimated that Clara’s latest boyfriend (actor Rex Bell) was responsible for her firing.  It is possible that Bell instigated the firing, but once Clara had discovered her belongings were missing she had no other choice.

Daisy’s attorney, Nathan O. Freedman, announced that he was going to file a civil suit on her behalf against Buron Fitts (he D.A.) and Blayney Matthews (a chief investigator for the D.A.’s office).  According to De Voe the two had held her incommunicado for several days while they cleaned out her safe deposit box. Fitts didn’t think De Voe had much of a case since the majority of the items found in the safe deposit box had belonged to Clara Bow.

Fitts told reporters:

“This matter came into this office in the nature of a formal request for a criminal complaint against Miss Daisy De Voe for the embezzlement of money and property belonging to Miss Clara Bow. The matter was regularly referred to Mr. Blayney Matthews, chief of the bureau of investigation. After several days of investigation, Mr. Matthews reported back that Miss De Voe had made a thirty page confession of the theft of some $35,000 of Miss Bow’s money, a great deal of which was found in her possession.”

“It is the policy of this office that before issuing a complaint against a private citizen to first thoroughly investigate the case in order to prevent a mistake or miscarriage of justice. This investigation was completed today, and this office has no other alternative under the law but to place the matter before the county grand jury.”

Daisy was quick to deny having made a confession, and she boasted that she had nothing to fear from the grand jury; but she had spoken too soon.

The grand jury indicted Daisy De Voe on thirty-seven counts of grand theft!

NEXT TIME: The De Voe case continues.