Happy Birthday to Aggie Underwood and Deranged L.A. Crimes

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Aggie at a crime scene in the 1940s.

Aggie Underwood was born on December 17, 1902 and Deranged L.A. Crimes was born on December 17, 2016, so there’s a lot to celebrate today. We have so many candles on our birthday cake it will take a gale force wind to blow them all out.

It was Aggie’s career as a Los Angeles journalist that inspired me to begin this blog.  She began her career as a temporary switchboard operator at the Daily Record in late 1926.. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she described the Record’s newsroom as a “weird wonderland” and promptly fell in love with the newspaper business. It didn’t take her long to realize that she wanted to be a reporter and she pursued her goal with passion and commitment.

During a time when most female journalists were assigned to report on women’s club activities and other social events, Aggie covered most, if not all, of the most important crime stories of the day. She attended Thelma Todd’s autopsy in December 1935 and was the only Los Angeles reporter to score a byline in the Black Dahlia case in January 1947.

Like Aggie, I’ve become obsessed with the villains and victims in Los Angeles. The stories touch me as often as they frighten and repulse me. I want to understand why people do the things they do, and sometimes I feel like I get close. I don’t expect to ever completely answer that question–but the quest is a rewarding one.

Whether you are new to the blog or have been following Deranged L.A. Crimes for a while, I want to thank you sincerely for your readership.

There will be many more stories in 2017 and a few appearances too. I will keep you posted.

Joan

The .25 Caliber Taxi-Dancer

BROWNHANSENFNL_RESIZEOn January 15, 1947 the body of twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short was discovered in a Leimert Park vacant lot.  There were scant clues in the case and LAPD homicide detectives Finis Brown and Harry Hansen were hoping for a break.

Ten days later some of Short’s belongings were found in a trash dump at 1819 E. 25th Street. Among the items found were a black patent leather purse, one black shoe, and a brown leather address book which contained more than 75 names. The “little brown book” book had the name Mark M. Hansen (no relation to Harry) stamped on the cover.

Hansen, an attorney and night club owner, was a self-made man. He was a Danish immigrant, who had arrived in the U.S. in 1910 and who, by the 1930 census, was a theater proprietor. By the late 1940s he was part-owner of the Florentine Gardens, a popular Hollywood night spot, and had business interests in several movie theaters.  Detectives grilled Hansen about his relationship with Beth Short, particularly how she came to have the leather address book. Hansen’s explanation was that Beth Short must have taken it from his desk sometime during November 1946. Beth had access to his desk because she was one of several young women who had rented rooms in Hansen’s home at 6024 Carlos Avenue (located behind the Florentine Gardens).

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Photo courtesy of LAPL

Among the women who had lived at the Carlos Avenue address was Ann Toth, a bit player in the movies. Toth was an acquaintance of Short’s and like everyone else who had known the dead girl she had been questioned by the police. There wasn’t much Toth could tell investigators about Beth who, like so many other young women in post-war L.A., had no fixed address.

Anna Toth

Photo of Ann Toth from http://www.theblackdahliainhollywood.com/

Detectives dug deep into Hansen’s story and determined that he was telling the truth about the last time he’s seen Beth. No one, particularly a successful businessman, was looking for the kind of publicity that attends a horrific murder like Beth’s. Hansen must have breathed a sigh of relief when he was cleared of any involvement in the crime.

For the next couple of years the club owner, described by the L.A. Times as a “man-about-town”, continued to run the Florentine Gardens and bed chorus girls. He was a married man but he and his wife, Ida, had been estranged for about two decades.

For most of 1948 and into 1949, Hansen had been routinely pestered for a job by a blonde dime-a-dance cutie from Oakland, Lola Titus. Lola’s real name was Beverly Alice Bennett, and she had been working as a stripper and taxi dancer in Oakland when she got the notion to hop on a bus for L.A. to hook-up with Mark Hansen. Lola’s sudden decision to leave Northern California was precipitated by an argument she’d had with her mother. Her mom strenuously objected to her daughter’s lifestyle. Lola would later tell investigators: “I made up my mind that he (Hansen) was either going to love me, marry me or take care of me or I was going to kill him.”

Lola had another reason for traveling to L.A.–she believed that Hansen was behind rumors that she had killed the Black Dahlia. The rumors were all in Lola’s head because her name had never been mentioned in connection with the case.

Lola boarded a bus from San Francisco to Hollywood on Thursday, July 14, 1949. She’d packed the essentials: nude photos of herself and the .25 automatic she’d purchased several months before in an Oakland pawnshop. On Friday morning she turned up on Hansen’s doorstep with the gun in her pocket and her nude photos tucked under her arm. She knocked on the door of the bungalow and while she waited she debated whether to shoot him as soon as he opened the door or to wait until she got inside. She opted to wait.

Once Hansen had invited her in,  Lola showed him the nude photos of herself. Hansen decided to compare the photos to the real girl, and he “auditioned” the blonde dancer in the back bedroom.  Following the audition Hansen went into the bathroom and began to shave with his electric razor. Lola figured it was as good a time as any to shoot him. She went into the front room where she’d left her coat, pulled the gun out of the pocket and went to the bathroom where she shot him once. The wound was a through and through. The bullet missed Hansen’s heart by 7/10 of an inch and lodged in the bathroom wall. Lola then pulled on her clothes and left.LOLA HEADLINE

Although he was severely wounded Hansen managed to get to the telephone. He phoned a business associate who called for a doctor. As he was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance Hansen said that before Lola pulled the trigger she had called him a “goddam cop lover”.

NEXT TIME: Lola calls the cops.

Justice Denied, Part 3

Jury selection in the trial of 41-year-old Santa Monica physician Dr. George Dazey for the 1935 slaying his actress-wife Doris began in early February 1940. Guilty or innocent, George Dazey did one thing right–he hired Jerry Geisler to defend him in court.

“Get Me Geisler” (pronounced Geese-lar) was a cry that went up routinely in Hollywood circles. Over the course of his half-century of practicing law Geisler defended Errol Flynn, Robert Mitchum, Charlie Chaplin, Lili St. Cyr and many, many  others.

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Jerry Geisler w/Robert Mitchum

Geisler’s practice wasn’t limited to Hollywood luminaries; he also defended Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel as well as the odious Dr. George Hodel (for incest). Hodel is well-known for having been a suspect in the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia.

During the voir dire Deputy District Attorney Hugh McIssac questioned potential jurors on their attitude toward circumstantial evidence and capital punishment. The case against George was entirely circumstantial–which isn’t to say weak; after all, most cases are won on circumstantial evidence. Jerry Geisler’s questions to the possible jurors were very different; he wanted to know:

“If it is brought out here that the deceased might have ended her own life, would you be willing to take that into consideration in the matter of reasonable doubt as applied to this defendant?”

The final jury was composed of three women and nine men. The proceedings hit a snag when on the day after empanelment one of the jurors became too ill to attend the trial. The alternate jurors had not yet been sworn in which led to a legal dispute over when a trial actually begins. Is it when the jury is sworn; when the first witness is called; or when the first witness opens testimony? Opposing counsel agreed to stipulate that the sick juror, Mr. Gieschen, should be discharged and that selection of a jury should continue on the basis of an incomplete panel.

Unconcerned by the minor legal hiccup, Dr. Dazey spent his time working on a crossword puzzle.dazey crossword

George Dazey’s trial opened with a very unusual situation.  George Merritt, a major witness in the case, admitted to being a personal friend of both the defendant and Deputy District Attorney McIssac.  When Merritt took the stand he testified that Dr. Dazey had called him to the death scene shortly after he claimed to have discovered his wife dead on the garage floor.  But his testimony didn’t go as the prosecution had believed it would–Merritt was suddenly unable to recall the doctor making damaging, self-incriminating, statements.

The Deputy D.A. was not pleased:

“Didn’t you tell me at a lunch we had together within recent months that Dr. Dazey kept repeating, ‘Why did I do it?  Why did I do it?'”

Merritt said he wasn’t certain.

Peeved with his recalcitrant witness McIssac continued:

“Didn’t you tell me that although Dr. Dazey appeared hysterical and incoherent that  you and your friends decided that he was putting on an act?”

Merritt said no.

McIssac told the court that he was taken by surprise. He had every reason to believe that Merritt would testify at the trial the same way in which he’d testified to the grand jury several weeks earlier. At the grand jury hearing he was asked if Dr. Dazey had blurted out, “Why did I do it?” and Merritt had responded: “It might have sound like that.”

Part of the problem faced by the prosecution was that Doris’ death had occurred four years earlier and witnesses are notoriously unreliable even moments after a crime has occurred.

Jerry Giesler made sure to mention that even the police officers who had originally been called out to the scene had to refer to reports they had made at the time of the incident.

After the first day or two of testimony I’d have called the contest between the prosecution and defense a draw. Geisler had made a point about the dim memories of the witnesses, but the prosecution scored a point in refuting the notion that Doris had been suicidal with the testimony of Joe E. Burns, a Frigidaire repairman.

Burns had been called to the Dazey’s home on the day prior to Doris’ death to repair their fridge. He had to return the next day to make further adjustments and he testified that on both occasions Doris seemed to be in a good frame of mind and perfectly lucid when they spoke. That testimony would make it more difficult for Geisler to sell the defense theory that Doris was unstable and suicidal.

Winifred Hart

Winifred Hart during the silent era.

The most flamboyant of the witnesses to testify was a former neighbor the Dazey’s, Mrs. Wiinifred Westover Hart, the ex-wife of silent film cowboy superstar, William S. Hart.

Winifred was an actress during the silent era, which is how she met her ex-husband. Her first screen appearance was a small role in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film, Intolerance, but her movie career was over by 1930.

The ex-Mrs. Hart arrived at the murder trial wearing dark glasses and holding a magazine up to shield her face. Her first comment upon taking the witness stand was that she was nervous.

On the night of October 3, 1935 Mrs. Hart said she heard screams coming from the direction of the Dazey home. Deputy District Attorney McIssac asked her:

“Did you tell anyone about hearing these screams after you learned of Mrs. Dazey’s death the next day?”

Mrs. Hart said:

“Oh, I told everybody, I was so upset!”

McIssac asked her if she had received any threats and she answered that she had, but she didn’t recognize the voice over the telephone. There was no way to corroborate her testimony about the threatening calls and on top of that it was difficult for the jury to take her seriously because she was so theatrical. According to the L.A. Times the former silent film actress had a flair for the histrionic.

When it was Jerry Geisler’s turn to question Mrs. Hart he opened with:

“Now don’t get nervous at me.”

Mrs. Hart went on to testify that in the late afternoon of October 3, 1935 she and her mother, Mrs. Sophie Westover, had been listening to the radio when they heard screaming and crying. Hart testified:

“It sounded like a boy being teased—boys used to play in a vacant lot next to us–and after a while I got up and shut the window and turned up the radio.”

Hart knew what time they heard the ruckus because she and her mom were listening to a scheduled program featuring Rudy Vallee.

Winifred Hart c. 1940s

Winifred Hart c. 1940s

Another witness, Douglas O’Neal, 17, lived near the Dazey’s home and he testified that had seen Dr. Dazey’s car parked by the Dazey residence hours before the doctor said he’d arrived home to find his wife dead.

Jerry Geisler established that the boy couldn’t be certain it was Dr. Dazey’s car because he hadn’t seen the license plate numbers and the car was a popular make and model.

Mildred Guard, sister of the dead woman, testified that she’d visited her sister many times while she was married to Dr. Dazey. She recalled one occasion, a short time prior to the birth of the couple’s child, when there was some rather disturbing breakfast table conversation:

“George [Dr. Dazey] was talking and he said, ‘If the baby looks like_____’ and here he mentioned the name of a certain man–I’ll kill both Doris and the baby.”

Prosecutor McIassac asked Mildred how Doris had replied. Mildred said that her sister had admonished George, asking him not to talk like that.mildred guard.jpg

The mystery man was referred to in court only by his first name, which was Carl. During questioning by Jerry Gisler, Mildred testified that she knew that her sister had been going out with Carl up to the time she began dating Dr. Dazey. When asked if Doris had quit seeing Carl after starting a relationship with George, Mildred admitted that she had no idea.

Geisler said:

“Well, you know the baby didn’t look anything like Carl?”

To which Mildred replied that the baby didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Carl. Mildred’s testimony concluded with her description of an incident that had occurred on a night when she was staying at the Dazey home.  She said she heard Doris scream then call out her name:

“I went to her room and she was partly sitting up in bed and had a frightened look on her face.  The doctor was standing about three feet from the bed, fully dressed and apparently sober.  He looked very mean.  His hands were clenched, his face was purple and he was grating his teeth.  She had a look of terror on her face.”

Dr. Dazey allegedly told Mildred he was “only fooling” and asked her to leave the room.  Doris never explained the incident to Mildred.

As George Dazey’s trial entered its second week the prosecutors offered their version of Doris’ death–they contended that the doctor had incapacitated his wife in some way then carried her body into their garage and placed her head near the car’s exhaust pipe. In fact Doris’ face was so near to the exhaust pipes that she received burns which the prosecution declared would have been highly improbably if she had committed suicide as had been suggested by George’s defense team.

spectators dazey trial

Unidentified women queued up to watch the trial of Dr. George Dazey.

Everyone who came to the courtroom on February 13, 1940 was there to hear the testimony of Dr. Dazey’s former nurse, and occasional “social companion”, Miss Frances Hansbury.  Frances had testified at the grand jury hearing that George had confessed to her that he had murdered Doris.

If the jury believed Frances it could be all over for George Dazey–he might dance into eternity at the end of a hangman’s noose.

NEXT TIME:  The trial and verdict.

The Butcher

 

Georgette Bauerdorf

Georgette Bauerdorf

There were numerous unsolved slayings of women in 1940s Los Angeles, and among the dead were: Ora Murray, Laura Trelstad, Jeanne French, Georgette Bauerdorf, and of course Elizabeth Short. The murders were enough to frighten and enrage the public, who then demanded that local politicians address their concerns. The 1949 L.A. County Grand Jury was tasked with investigating what many perceived to have been a failure on the part of law enforcement to crack the cases. The Grand Jury dropped the ball on investigating the cops handling of the murders to focus instead on corruption in police vice units, but I’m not sure that it matters.

I don’t believe the murder cases went unsolved due to sloppy police work. What I think is that with the flood of transients (i.e. military personnel, war workers, etc.) into the city after the U.S. entered WWII in December 1941, it became increasingly hard for detectives to solve a homicide case.  If the victim and killer were strangers to one another, which in the war and post-war environment was likely, it would add another layer of difficulty to solving a murder with few, if any, clues.dahlia_herald_3_the black dahlia

By poking around in old newspapers I’ve discovered that there was a large number of dishonorably or medically discharged veterans wandering the streets of L.A. during the 1940s. Some of them had suffered profound trauma during their service, what we’ve come to know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Others of them, like Otto Stephen Wilson, were screwed up for reasons that had nothing to do with a battlefield.  Wilson had served in the Navy for eleven years before being discharged in November 1941, one month before the U.S. went to war.

The reason for Wilson’s discharge from the Navy was the he suffered from sexual psychosis. If you’re wondering why it took them over a decade to diagnose him, it wasn’t until his wife complained to San Diego naval authorities about his “unnatural impulses” that the he came to the attention of his superiors and they gave him the boot. We’ll get to his impulses later.

Otto Stephen Wilson

Otto Stephen Wilson

Following his discharge from the Navy, Wilson had been living in and around L.A. working menial jobs as kitchen help in various cafes. He had a police record in the city beginning with his arrest on March 25, 1943 on suspicion of criminal attack when a young woman, Celeste Trueger, told cops he had grabbed her by the throat on a hotel stairway. His guilty plea on a battery charge earned him 90 days in jail, 30 of which were suspended.

On March 14, 1944, he was arrested on suspicion of burglary and handed over to county authorities to begin a nine month sentence. Wilson was released on good behavior about a month before he slaughtered two women in downtown hotels.

NEXT TIME: The story of Otto Stephen Wilson’s murder spree continues.

Louise Springer Murder: Conclusion

springer_coronerThe biggest manhunt since the murder of Elizabeth Short continued as cops tried to find the killer of hairstylist Louise Springer.

LAPD conjectured that either Louise Springer had been immediately stunned with a blunt instrument as she sat in her car at a Crenshaw Blvd. parking lot, or she had known the person who murdered her. The two possible theories were supported by the fact that Louise had apparently offered no resistance, nor had she cried out — and, tellingly, her brand new manicure was still pristine.

There were bruises on Louise’s right temple and the top of her head which, in the opinion of Dr. Frederick D. Newbarr, the autopsy surgeon, were hard enough to render her unconscious.

Mrs. Jewell Lorange, left, and Miss Germaine Le Gault presented possible clue to slaying of Mrs. Louise Springer in reporting "three men in black car."

Mrs. Jewell Lorange, left, and Miss Germaine Le Gault presented possible clue to slaying of Mrs. Louise Springer in reporting “three men in black car.”

Of the scant leads uncovered by detectives, an interesting piece of information emerged. Miss Germaine Le Gault and Mrs. Jewell Lorange, who lived directly across from where the death car was found, said that they saw three men “in a big, black car” spend two evenings prior to the murder parked less than 50 feet away from where Springer’s strangled body was found. Unfortunately, the lead never panned out.

More than a week had passed when suddenly the Springer case began to heat up with the arrest of two suspects: Leon Russell, car washer at a service station near the parking lot, and Claud Cox, a jobless Navy vet who had been arrested on a morals complaint made by a young Hollywood woman named Marion Brown. Brown, 18, told cops that Claud Cox, whom she said she knew slightly, took her to his room at 1611 N. Orange Drive and tried to molest her. Cox told cops that he got “a little friendly” but he flatly denied trying to harm the girl.

springer_marion brown2

Marion Brown, 18, said Roscoe Cox, released in Springer murder, tried to attack her.

As cops tracked down leads, Louise Springer’s husband and her 21 month old son mourned the wife and mother as she was laid to rest in a San Jose cemetery.

At least the crime lab was finally able to state conclusively that Louise Springer had not been slugged before she was garroted in her husband’s car. What had initially appeared to be bruises on Mrs. Springer’s head were actually post-mortem tissue changes — the result of the dead woman’s body resting face down for three days in the backseat of the car before being discovered. The evidence suggested that Springer had been murdered in the car, at the parking lot, as she listened to the radio.

Another suspect was arrested and cleared by LAPD homicide detectives.  The man was thirty-eight year old Guy Smith who was busted by L.A. Sheriff’s department deputies on a tip from a relative. Nobody can do you dirt like family. In any case, Smith had an alibi for the time of Louise’s murder; however, the law was investigating him in connection with other unsolved crimes, notably morals offenses.

As the case grew colder the cops began to cast around for a new motive in Louise’s murder. Maybe kidnapping and sexual assault weren’t the real motives; maybe someone had a grudge against her, or they were jealous of the attractive brunette.

springer_coxOne of the early suspects in Springer’s murder, Claude Cox, was arrested in September 1949, but the arrest had nothing to do with Louise Springer’s death. According to Mrs. Geneva Cowen, 35, she was walking along Hollywood Blvd. when she heard someone come up behind her. She turned and the man, Claude Cox, rushed up and hit her, hard. Cox said: “I’m going to kill you.” Cowen took a chance and started to run. Cox grabbed for her, but only succeeded in pulling her coat off.

Eventually the leads dried up and the Louise Springer murder, aka, the Green Twig Murder case, went cold.

Laurence and Louise Springer had been in L.A. for only six months before she was murdered, so the widower returned to Northern California to try to put some of his pain behind him.

The single major success in the case came when Dr. Mildred Mathias, UCLA botanist, was finally able to identify the twig that had been so cruelly inserted into Louise Springer’s vagina as belonging to a bottle tree. Dr. Mathias said that the twig had apparently been stripped from a larger branch sometime in the year prior to the crime.

Louise Springer’s murder remains unsolved.

The Murder of Louise Springer: Part 1

louise_portraitJune 16, 1949, the decomposing body of thirty-five year old Louise Springer, a beauty shop operator, was found huddled in the rear seat of her husband’s convertible automobile parked at 125 W. 38th Street. Springer had been garroted.

A length of clothesline was knotted around Springer’s neck, with two knots under her
left ear. Her face was swollen and nearly black. Her brown skirt and yellow suede
jacket had been twisted around her body, with her skirt tangled around her hips.

springer_houseA stick 14 inches in length and 1/2 inch thick had been violently driven into her vagina .

Laurence Springer had reported his wife missing about sixty hours before her body was discovered. Louise, a hairstylist, had been working until shortly before 9:00 p.m. on the night she disappeared. Laurence had arrived to pick her up from work and take her to their beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills.

He’d parked in a lot on Crenshaw across the street from the shopping center in which Louise worked. The couple walked to their 1948 convertible and Louise, who had spent hours on her feet, pulled off her shoes and put on a pair of slippers that she kept in the car. They were just about to head for home when Louise exclaimed: “Oh, I’ve forgotten my glasses.” Laurence told her to relax and listen to her favorite radio show while he went to retrieve her specs.

Laurence got Louise’s glasses, then stopped to buy a magazine and chat with a friend. He wasn’t gone for more than 10 or 15 minutes, but when he returned both Louise and the car were gone.springer_car

Laurence knew that something was wrong, she wouldn’t have driven off and left him. He looked around for a few minutes but he couldn’t find his wife. He called the cops at about 10:00 pm and a few moments later a prowl car met him at the parking lot. The officers looked around but they didn’t find anything either. Laurence accompanied the police to the University Division Station where he filed a missing persons report. He then went home to be with his 21 month old son.

The Springer’s housekeeper and nanny, forty-nine year old divorcee Elizabeth Thompson, nearly collapsed when she received the news of her employer’s disappearance. Thompson told police that the Springers were happily married and that as far as she knew they had no enemies. She said that the couple had sold the beauty shops they owned in Northern California, then moved south to L.A. They hadn’t been in town for very long before Louise was slain. spring_child

Thompson injected a note of mystery into the investigation when she said that she had received an obscene phone call from an unknown woman about three months prior to Louise’s disappearance. The caller asked several times for Thompson to identify herself, which she refused to do — then the caller made a lewd proposal and Thompson hung up on her. Cops didn’t believe that the phone call had anything to do with Louise’s disappearance, but during the initial stages of the investigation they couldn’t rule anything out.

springer_headlineOne of the most disturbing aspects of the case was that the parking lot from which Louise Springer had been abducted was only about a block away from the lot where the body of Elizabeth Short had been discovered in January 1947!

Women were terrified by the thought that the Black Dahlia’s killer was once again hunting the streets of L.A. for victims. An enormous manhunt, the largest since Short’s murder, was soon underway.

Witnesses in the neighborhood where Louise’s body had been found came forward to say that they had seen a man in the murder car and watched him as he seemed to adjust something on the backseat – which is where Louise’s body had been found covered with a tarp. A man was seen exiting the car, and some people thought that he may have been wearing a military uniform.

springer_cluesPolice forensics investigators were having a difficult time trying to determine if Louise had been slugged before she was strangled, or if she’d been sexually assaulted. A relatively new test called the acid phosphatase test was used to try to determine if semen was present, but the test was inconclusive due to decomposition.

The main piece of physical evidence, the twig that was violently inserted into Louise’s vagina, was becoming a huge problem for investigators — it couldn’t be identified. Bonnie Templeton, curator of the botany department at the County Museum, had been called in to lend her expetise in identifying the twig. She said that it could have come from “four of five” species of trees or shrub.

It was beginning to look as if the LAPD was going to have another unsolved homicide of a woman on the books.

NEXT TIME: The investigation into the murder of Louis Springer continues.