The Plot to Kidnap America’s Sweetheart, Part 2

Los Angeles Police investigators had been following three men whom they felt sure were conspiring to kidnap either actress, and “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford, or the grandchildren of oil magnate Edward L. Doheny.

Mary_Pickford_-_Aug_1916_Motion_PictureCaptain Home and Detectives Harry Raymond and George Mayer of the LAPD had learned that at least one of the conspirators had recently purchased a gun. The officers followed C.Z. Stevens, Claude Holcomb and Adrian Woods to the Hayward Hotel  downtown and from an adjoining room they eavesdropped as the plot was discussed. The men had decided to take Mary Pickford, rather than the Doheny grandchildren, in part because they knew that they’d have an easier time grabbing Pickford off the street.

Their plan was ingenious. There was a Shriner convention in town and so the kidnappers were going to don Fezzes, decorate their car with banners and pretend to be fun-loving conventioneers. They would follow Mary when she left the studio and before she reached Pickfair they would force her car into a curb and grab her. They’d be armed, just in case there was any resistance, and Fairbanks would be contacted by letter. The goal was to walk away with $200,000.

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Los Angeles’ Shriner’s Arab Patrol in costume in the midst dance with people looking on, circa 1925 [Photo courtesy Wikipedia]

There was no way that the cops were going to allow three men, at least one of whom would be armed, to get anywhere near Pickford so they had to act fast.  Stevens and Holcomb were arrested outside of the studio and their co-conspirator,  Woods, was busted at his home in Alhambra.

Woods was the youngest of the gang and he confessed to his part in the plan immediately. Holcomb followed suit, with Stevens being the last domino to fall.pauline stevens

Pauline, Stevens wife of just one year, wouldn’t believe that her husband could be party to a kidnap plot, let alone be the “brains” of the operation. She said:

“Oh, it must be wrong; there must be some mistake–he couldn’t have done that!  We were pals, he was the best and most honorable of husbands.”

Pauline told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that she and her husband had met on the battlefields of WWI–he was a lieutenant in the aviation corps and she was a Red Cross nurse.  It’s nearly impossible to conduct a romance during wartime, and Pauline and C.Z. lost touch. After the war Pauline settled in Los Angeles and eventually C.Z. did too. By a happy coincidence he located her in the city and the couple resumed their courtship, and then married.

Other than being occasionally moody and depressed, as were many veterans of the “Great War”, C.Z. was described by Pauline as being a model husband, ambitious and hardworking. Being willing to work doesn’t guarantee success and C.Z. had had some business reversals before he and Pauline reconnected. He had worked in a Mexican oil field for a Texas-based company and by the time he returned Dallas in 1921 he had saved $10,000. He used the money to invest in a gas station but the business tanked and C.Z. lost every dime.

When she was shown photographs of the other alleged conspirators she recognized Holcomb as a man C.Z. had employed as a truck driver a couple of years earlier in yet another failed business venture.

A man down on his luck, as C.Z. was, may have easily become desperate enough to commit a crime.

A special session of the grand jury was convened, and with three confessions in hand the district attorney asked for indictments. Mary Pickford, who was working on a new film, was too busy to attend the courtroom proceedings, but Doug was there. Fairbanks testified to having seen two of the three conspirators loitering outside the gates of the studio.

Detective Harry Raymond c. 1928 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Detective Harry Raymond c. 1928 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Captain Holmes and Detectives Raymond and Mayer each took the stand and identified the men and testified to the plot they had overheard.

The grand jury handed down three indictments–Stevens, Holcomb and Woods were held on $50,000 bond each.

The case was a complicated one because it appeared that corpus delicti had not been established. Corpus delicti is the principle that a crime must have been proven to have occurred before a person can be convicted of committing that crime.  Additionally, the men no overt act had been committed by the men.  Could they really be tried?

Pauline was taking no chances that her husband might be released on a legal technicality.  She hired a well-known local attorney, S.S. Hahn, to represent him.  The three conspirators, if tried and found guilty, could conceivably spend 50 years in prison. That’s hard time by anyone’s  measure.

NEXT TIME: The case against the kidnap plotters continues.

The Plot to Kidnap America’s Sweetheart

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Doheny Chester Place mansion. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

It was spring 1925, and if the Doheny family didn’t have an uneasy feeling that they were being watched they should have. Three men were staking out the oil tycoon’s mansion on Chester Place and stalking his two grandchildren. The shadow men even followed the kids to church.  They were planning a kidnapping and the oil magnate’s family was an obvious target. But three men loitering in a parked in a car near the Doheny manse wouldn’t escape notice for long.

To kill time as they surveilled the Doheny grandchildren the conspirators discussed other possible victims, even bad guys need a Plan B.  Actress Pola Negri was one, and popular child star Jackie Coogan was another, but in the end Mary Pickford was considered to be the best victim. She was rich and she was more easily accessible than the Doheny grandchildren.

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Doug and Mary on Pickfair lawn. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

By 1925 Mary Pickford was five years into her marriage to her second husband Douglas Fairbanks, and she was one of the most beloved actresses on the planet. She was often referred to in newspapers and magazines as “Our Mary” and “America’s Sweetheart”  Pickford and Fairbanks were comfortably ensconced in their 18 acre Beverly Hills estate “Pickfair”. The home was described by Life Magazine as “a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House, and much more fun.”  It wasn’t hyperbole; Pickfair’s guest list was every bit as stellar as that of the White House and guests included near neighbor Charlie Chaplin and some of the crowned heads of Europe.

pickford 1922Mary and Doug were frequently in the news and one item in particular caught the attention of the kidnap conspirators. They had read that the couple had over $2M in Liberty Bonds, and the kidnappers weren’t going to be greedy–they planned to demand only $200,000 [equivalent to $2.67 million in today’s money]. Surely Doug would pay the ransom to bring his wife home.

Director Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh [Photo courtesy of raoulwalsh.com]

What the conspirators hadn’t counted on was that the police would be tipped off to their existence. They thought that they were being cagey, but hanging around outside Edward Doheny’s home was a sure way to get noticed.

Captain Home of the LAPD received information that some suspicious looking men had been seen outside the Chester Place home. The men didn’t appear to have business with the tycoon or any of his neighbors–one of whom was director Raoul Walsh (who was renting Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s home).

The Captain sent two of his best detectives, Harry Raymond and George Mayer, to investigate. Raymond and Mayer spent several boring days and nights on a stake-out, but it paid off. One night they spotted a closed car and ran the license plate–it belonged to a man named C.Z. Stevens an automobile salesman who lived at 4671 Hollywood Blvd.

Stevens was followed by Captain Home and his detectives. The cops saw Stevens meet up with two men they later identified as Claud Arthur Holcomb and Adrian James Woods.  The trio appeared to be casing  the Pickford-Fairbanks studio as well as Edward Doheny’s home and it seemed a sure thing that they were up to no good.

Edward Steichen photo of Pola Negri. Vanity Fair magazine June 1925.

Edward Steichen photo of Pola Negri. Vanity Fair magazine June 1925.

LAPD’s surveillance of the conspirators continued over several weeks. Captain Home told Edward Doheny about the plot and the multimillionaire contacted a couple of his former employees to guard him and his family.  The men were said to be proficient with firearms. Doheny was extremely security conscious–his family had been the target of kidnappers in the past. But the tycoon increased security following the births of his grandchildren.  Fortunately, his grand-kids were being tutored at home so they didn’t have to go out very often; however, the family was careful to keep to their routines so that nothing they did would signal to the would-be kidnappers that the plot had been discovered.

Mary and Doug were also told about the plot and they too cooperated fully with the law. LAPD officers guarded Mary, the grounds of Pickfair and were stationed to keep an eye on the studio.

As far as the law could determine the kidnappers had decided to focus their efforts on Mary, but the gang had vacillated between Pickford and Dohney for a few months so they could still change their minds.  And what if they abandoned both of those potential victims in favor of someone else?

The police were aware of the kidnappers plan but that didn’t mean that the targeted victims were safe, especially after it was discovered that one of the men had recently purchased a gun.

NEXT TIME: The kidnapping plot unravels.