Policewoman of the Year, Conclusion

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

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

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

Yes sir, Florence’s star was shining brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Policewoman of the Year

attacker killed

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

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

00011769_77th street station. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

77th Street Station, LAPD

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

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

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

Policewoman_lures_rape_suspect_1952

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

[Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnny Dugan, local L.A. television celebrity.

Johnny Dugan, local L.A. television celebrity.

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

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

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

NEXT TIME: Policewoman of the Year takes a fall.