Lois Pantages’s Wild Ride, Conclusion

Photograph caption dated September 3, 1929 reads, "Photo shows Mrs. Karuko Rokumoto, the crash victim's widow, and her three children bereft by the tragedy. At left, William Rokumoto, in foreground Grace, left, and Mary Rokumoto. Mother and son are prosecution witnesses."  (Photo courtesy LAPL0

Photograph caption dated September 3, 1929 reads, “Photo shows Mrs. Karuko Rokumoto, the crash victim’s widow, and her three children bereft by the tragedy. At left, William Rokumoto, in foreground Grace, left, and Mary Rokumoto. Mother and son are prosecution witnesses.” (Photo courtesy LAPL0

By mid-July 1929 Lois Pantages was out on bail pending her trial for the murder of a gardener, Joe Rokumoto, while she was driving under the influence of alcohol.  In an effort to get his wife out of trouble Alexander allegedly hired an old friend, William “Paddy” McGee, to bribe a cop who was on the scene of the accident and could testify to the fact that Lois was shit-faced and smelled like a distillery. The cop, William S. Dutton, testified at the Coroner’s inquest that he and his fellow officers had one hell of time getting Lois out of her car and into an ambulance. Not because she was seriously hurt, but because she was combative. She kept saying she wanted to go home. When Officer Dutton visited her in the Dickey and Cass Hospital later she said: “Ge out of here.  I don’t want to see any policemen, I want to see my husband.”  Even though they’d known each other for decades Alexander referred to Paddy as “that McGee person” in an obvious effort to distance himself from both the messenger and the message. It was Paddy’s word against Alexander’s so guess who went to jail. If you guessed Paddy, you’re right.

Within two weeks of the bribery kerfuffle another witness came forward with a story–not of attempted bribery but of intimidation. Harry J. Lederbrink, a building contractor who lived at 2610 South Ridgely Drive, was asked by Deputy District Attorneys Costello and Jones if he would testify against Lois Pantages he said: “I will unless something happens; I’ve been threatened in this case already.” Lederbrink had received two threatening telephone calls, one telling him that he’d better not testify and the second telling him to get out of town. Deputy D.A. Costello intended to trace the caller, but that would be easier said than done.

Harry Lederbrink [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Harry Lederbrink [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Lederbrink’s testimony was a blow to Lois’s case. At the Coroner’s inquest he testified that he first saw Lois driving erratically in her Stutz near Beverly Boulevard and St. Andrews Place. At the intersection of Western and Beverly he tried to talk to her because he was convinced that she was in no condition to drive. When he leaned into the car to have a word Lederbrink smelled whiskey. Lois wouldn’t listen to Lederbrink when he suggested that she park her car and call a taxi.  She went on to cause the accident that ended the life of Joe Rokumoto.

On August 5, 1929 Lois appeared in Superior Court Judge Aggeler’s court and waived time for plea and entered a plea of not guilty. She demanded an early trial date. The judge obliged and set the date of Lois’s trial for September 2 in Department Twenty-four; Judge Hardy’s court.

On the evening of August 9 the media focus shifted from Lois’s impending murder trial to Alexander who suddenly had serious legal problems of his own. He had been booked at LAPD’s Central Station on suspicion of statutory rape. The alleged victim, 16 year old Eunice Pringle of 417 Acacia Street, Garden Grove, alleged that the 54 year old theater magnate had invited her into his private office, ostensibly to discuss her vaudeville act, but had attacked her instead. She said that she lost consciousness and when she awakened a few minutes later her clothes were in disarray.  Screaming, Eunice fled the office.  Alexander told investigators the attack never happened and that it was a “frame-up”.

Buron Fitts, who was fast becoming the Pantages’s family nemesis, acted quickly to indict Alexander. No fewer than eleven witnesses lined up to testify against him. He entered a not guilty plea and his trial was set to begin on September 23, just a couple of weeks following Lois’s. Both Lois and Alexander were free on bail.  Dinner conversations at the Pantages’s manse must have been interesting.

Lois was very involved in the selection of the jurors who would determine her fate. Did she wince when one of the prospective jurors said that while he’d served on several murder trial juries on the east coast, he’d never sat on a jury in a homicide trial. Another potential juror, H.C. Hagey, told the court that he thought that “gasoline and whiskey would not mix” and was excused for cause. Welcome, Lois, to a jury of your peers.

Jury in the Lois Pantages case. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Jury in the Lois Pantages case. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

One of the first things the jury did was take a field trip to the crash site. It was a circus. The judge, jurors, all of the attorneys accompanied by group of reporters and photographers assembled at the intersection of Serrano Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. The jurors took in the scene and then everyone was taken to view the wrecked cars–Lois’s massive Stutz and Joe’s small Ford sedan. It was a sobering show.

The defense attorneys tried to push the blame for Joe’s death onto the shoulders of the doctors who tried to repair his hip. The defense claimed that the surgery killed Joe, not Lois’s driving. The defense went further than blaming Joe’s death on the anesthetic, they said the accident was actually all Joe’s fault because he was attempting a left turn from Serrano onto Sunset without giving a hand signal.  Poor Lois rammed his car because she couldn’t avoid it.

Courtroom photo of Rev. Robert P. "Bob" Shuler (left) and Rev. Gustav A. Briegleb answering charges of contempt of court as result of their utterances regarding Mrs. Lois Pantages' trial and the jury in the case. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Courtroom photo of Rev. Robert P. “Bob” Shuler (left) and Rev. Gustav A. Briegleb answering charges of contempt of court as result of their utterances regarding Mrs. Lois Pantages’ trial and the jury in the case. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Lois’s trial brought a couple of L.A.’s most outspoken religious leaders into the limelight. One of them, Reverend Robert “Fighting Bob” Shuler, of Trinity Methodist Church, asserted on his radio program that the jury would be “hung” and not only that, he knew the identity of the male juror who would be responsible. Subpenaed along with his crusading colleague, Reverend Gustav Briegleb, Shuler was brought before Judge Hardy to answer for his statements.

Under oath Reverend Shuler admitted that he had based his radio statements on hearsay and anonymous letters.  Rather than cop to telling a lie or being irresponsible, Shuler instead chose to characterize his remarks as “prophecy”. The two pastors were charged with contempt of court and tried. Both were found guilty and ordered to pay fines. Shuler and Briegleb were not accustomed to being silenced and tried to play the free speech card, and when that didn’t work they tried to start a movement to recall Judge Hardy. The recall failed and the three judges adjudicating the case, Hardy, Gould, and Tappaan, denounced Fighting Bob’s radio “tirades” and accused him of attempting to incite a mob.

Three weeks into the trial the jurors boarded a bus bound for the Los Angeles County Fair at Pomona. It was Judge Hardy’s idea.  He wanted the jurors to stay healthy and in good spirits and, since he desperately needed a day away from the courtroom too, he accompanied them.

Relaxed and refreshed following their day at the fair, Judge Hardy and the jurors entered the courtroom ready to resume their respective civic duties. A few days later impassioned closing statements by the defense and the prosecuting attorney signaled the end of the trial. It was time for the jury of five women and seven men to deliberate.

Photograph caption dated September 10, 1929 reads, "The clock ticks on, and the wheels of justice move on inexorably, slowly grinding out the fate of Mrs. Pantages. This courtroom scene shows the clock which ticks away the hours and will have ticked away before the case is done. It shows opposing attorneys who wage legal battles, witnesses ready to take the stand, and spectators. At left is Mrs. Pantages, waiting and looking at the clock." [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Photograph caption dated September 10, 1929 reads, “The clock ticks on, and the wheels of justice move on inexorably, slowly grinding out the fate of Mrs. Pantages. This courtroom scene shows the clock which ticks away the hours and will have ticked away before the case is done. It shows opposing attorneys who wage legal battles, witnesses ready to take the stand, and spectators. At left is Mrs. Pantages, waiting and looking at the clock.” [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

It took the jury seven hours and forty-five minutes to find Lois Pantages guilty of manslaughter in Joe Rokumoto’s death. Upon hearing the sentence Lois first sat immobile, lips quivering. She finally broke into sobs, as did all of the female jurors–though whether the jurors were crying for Joe or Lois wasn’t clear. If they felt it was a bad business all the way around they were right.  Lois, who was standing to hear the verdict read, began to slump towards the floor. Deputy Sheriff Hazel M. Brown rushed to her side and gently assisted the woman back into her chair. Lois’s family and counsel took her into the judge’s chambers and her doctor worked over her for nearly 30 minutes. She finally recovered just enough to be carried by her sons to a car and driven home. Having been found guilty Lois faced a sentence of from one to ten years. In 1929 female felons were still being incarcerated at San Quentin. For any woman, especially one accustomed to the finer things, it was a dreary and terrifying prospect.

Lois’s attorneys wanted probation for their client, not prison, and to that end they delivered a mass of documents supporting their request. The materials would be reviewed by probation officers and they would then make a recommendation to Judge Hardy.  Lois had some heavy hitters on her side and many well-known and wealthy philanthropists were deposed. Carmen Pantages worked tirelessly on her mother’s behalf.

While Lois awaited sentencing William “Paddy” McGee was appeared before Judge Fricke on the bribery charge. Fricke, who was also hearing Alexander’s statutory rape case, listened to Paddy’s denials for about two hours.  He then found him guilty and sentenced him to from one to fourteen years in prison. Courtroom observers described Paddy as “stunned” by the verdict and the sentence, but other than filing an appeal there was nothing he could do.

On November 8, 1929 Lois Pantages appeared before Judge Hardy for sentencing.  The judge granted her request for probation and gave five reasons for doing so:

1.  The preponderance of evidence adduced during the trial indicated that Mrs. Pantages had not been drinking before the accident.

2. Mrs. Pantages and her attorneys had agreed on a sum of money to be paid in compensating persons injured in the accident.

3.  Mrs. Pantages had led a Christian loife and devoted much of her time and money to welfare work and had never before been charged with a felony.

4.  Her health is such that a sentence to prison virtually would be a sentence to death, despite the fact that she was convicted only of manslaughter.

5.  Consideration of all the evidence and legal phases of the case indicated that she is entitled to probation and the fact that she has wealth and position should not discriminate against her.

The term of Lois’s probation was set at 10 years and, even though according to Judge Hardy there was a preponderance of evidence that she had not been drinking, one of the conditions of her release was that she refrain from the use of alcohol and must never drive an automobile.

Judge Hardy then ordered Lois to pay $78,500 (equivalent to $1.1 million in today’s dollars) to the persons injured in the accident within five days as a full settlement of their claims.

It is interesting to note that Lois’s injuries went from a broken nose and a few minor contusions as reported immediately following the crash to: “…a congested condition in one lung, heart disease and general nervousness…” when it came time for sentencing.

District Attorney Buron Fitts was not pleased with the outcome. He said: “It is the policy of my office neither to oppose nor approve probation for any defendant. That is a question for the court to decide.  However, I would like to inquire if the court would have reached the same decision had the defendant in this case been Joe Rokumoto instead of Mrs. Pantages.”

I wonder the same thing.

lois diesLois was mentioned in the newspapers off and on over the next several years, mainly in connection with her thoroughbred racehorses and her frequent visits to Santa Anita. On July 18, 1941 at approximately  5:30 p.m. after a day of bowling on Catalina Island, Lois Pantages went for a swim off of her yacht, La Pan, anchored in Avalon Bay. She was climbing back aboard the ship when she suffered a fatal heart attack.

“People don’t always get what they deserve in this world.”
Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book

NOTE: If you’re wondering how Alexander Pantages fared in his statutory rape trial, that will be the topic of future Deranged posts.

Lois Pantages’s Wild Ride, Part 2

pantages_crash_laplJoe Rokumoto was at the wheel of his small Ford sedan on June 16, 1929. He was on Serrano Street, attempting to cross Sunset Boulevard.  He either didn’t see the Stutz coupe bearing down on him or saw it and was unable to evade it. The much larger auto completely demolished Joe’s car and caused injuries to everyone in it. Those injured in the crash included: Joe, 44; his wife, Karuko, 35; daughters Grace, 8, and Mary, 13. Also in the car with the Rokumoto family was Kiku Kawaguchi, 31, and her two kids, Hachiyoko, 7, and George, 9.  The three adults were taken to Sylvan Lodge Hospital. The children who, despite the severity of the accident, received mostly minor lacerations and were sent home with friends.

Lois Pantages, who had been observed driving recklessly for several blocks before finally plowing into Joe’s car, was treated for a broken nose, lacerated upper lip and a slight concussion and sent home.  She wasn’t home for long when the police knocked on her door and arrested her for driving while intoxicated. She was booked and then released on her own recognizance.

The damage to Joe’s car was complete. Lois’s Stutz sustained front end damage but was otherwise repairable. While Joe’s car was a total loss at least everyone had survived the accident. But that would changed when, a couple of days later, Joe died during the surgery to repair his broken hip. An inquest was held and Coroner’s jury concluded that his death was a direct result of the accident, despite the possible contributing causes of a tubercular abscess of the pleura and tuberculosis of the lower spinal vertebrae. In their verdict the jury said: “…the Stutz was driven on the left-hand side of the highway, and we find the accident was due to reckless driving on the part of the driver of said Stutz automobile.”

The jury didn’t offer any recommendation for further action by the authorities; but it didn’t matter because the D.A. had already taken steps to submit the case to the grand jury for an indictment.  Detective Lieutenant J.R. Stephens interviewed the survivors in Joe’s car, but he had not been able to get near Lois Pantages who was, allegedly, too ill to be questioned.  The initial report indicated that Lois had sustained only minor injuries in the crash, but her condition was upgraded to serious as the charge of second degree murder loomed large before her. The court was informed that she was hospitalized and unavailable for questioning. She had supposedly undergone surgery, although it wasn’t made clear exactly why she would need an operation for a split lip and a broken nose. If you’re thinking it was her attorney’s ploy to keep her away from the cops then we’re on the same page.

District Attorney Buron Fitts said: “I have gone into the matter of Mrs. Pantages since my return this morning from the district attorneys’ convention and I am convinced that the facts justify a prosecution on the charge of murder in the second degree.”

Lois’s preliminary hearing was delayed because her doctor hadn’t cleared her for release from the hospital. The D.A. wasn’t especially concerned, he had his officers continue to question witnesses. He’d also put a stop to scheduled repairs on the Stutz. Joe’s Ford sedan was beyond fixing, it was a crumpled mass of metal. Both vehicles would be held by the police until the case was concluded.

pantagesa_fixerOn July 7 newspapers broke the story that a former police officer had been arrested for attempting to bribe one of the witnesses against Lois.  William R. (Paddy) McGee of 1015 East 78th Street was a former special deputy sheriff and a bail bondsman. Paddy claimed to have been friends with Alexander Pantages for 35 years, and maybe he had been, but once his name appeared in connection with attempted bribery he was persona non grata as far as the Pantages were concerned. Alexander said: “My attention was called to the paper this afternoon wherein a man named McGee claims he was investigating the case for me.  McGee was never employed by me or authorized to have anything to do with the case.”

The assertion was that Paddy had approached William H. Dutton, an officer at LAPD’s Hollywood Division, in an attempt to influence his testimony. Dutton was one of the arresting officers in the case and his testimony was going to be important for the prosecution. Paddy allegedly told Officer Dutton that “There will be plenty on the line” — meaning, of course, that the officer could earn big bucks by changing his testimony.

Paddy denied making any overture to Officer Dutton. The former lawman, and brother-in-law of Tom Finn, ex-Sheriff of San Francisco, stated: “I heard they were looking for me at the District Attorney’s office and went down there voluntarily to see what they wanted. There is no truth in the statement that I tried to bribe anyone.”  The D.A. disagreed and Paddy was remanded into custody.

lois_wheelchairShortly after noon on July 17, Lois Pantages, surrounded by her family, was wheeled into Judge Holland’s court for her preliminary hearing. Her attorney spoke for her and pleaded not guilty to driving while intoxicated and murder. She was released on $50,000 bail–that’s equivalent to nearly $700,000 in current dollars.  Alexander Pantages was wealthy enough to make bail for his wife, and could afford the best attorneys. With the wealth and power of the Pantages fortune behind her would Lois escape justice?

NEXT TIME: The wheels of justice grind slowly on, and another member of the Pantages family ends up in the slammer.

Lois Pantages’s Wild Ride, Part 1

alexander

Alexander Pantages

In 1876,  Pericles Pantages left his home on a small Greek Island and shipped out as a cabin boy on a schooner–he was 9. By age 12 the boy had contracted malaria and was put ashore in Panama where he stayed for two years. Panama wasn’t exactly the best place for a boy who already had malaria, and he was told by a doctor that if he didn’t leave the isthmus he would die there. He shipped out as soon as he could and landed in Puget Sound.

He bounced around for a time nurturing a variety of get-rich-quick schemes before he finally wised up and realized he’d be better off taking money from those who had already made it.  What better means of relieving people of their money than the entertainment business? Pericles, possibly as a declaration to the world of his will to make good, took the name of his hero Alexander the Great.  The young man was every bit as fierce in business as his chosen namesake was on the field of battle. He stumbled and fell a few times, but by the end of WWI he had put together one of the most successful theater circuits in the U.S.

lois_alexander

Lois & Alexander Pantages

Alexander met and married Lois Mendenhall, a pianist, in Seattle in the early 1900s. The couple had two sons: Rodney Alexander (b. 1905) and Lloyd Alexander (b. 1907). They added a daughter, Carmen Elrene (b.1910) and then they adopted another girl, Marjorie Nelson (b. 1908).

He may not have been able to read or write, but Alexander could speak several languages and he was particularly adept at figures. It was his innate business sense that enabled him to beat the odds. Alexander’s was an inspiring rags-to-riches tale and he and Lois lived in luxury.

By the late 1920s Alexander was worth the equivalent of approximately $30 million in current dollars. That kind of money can change a person’s living circumstances. But what about a person’s character?  Do the other family members become spoiled and out of touch?  In Lois’s case it seems very likely.

On  the evening of June 17, 1929  Lois  careened around Hollywood in her large Stutz with a reckless abandon that would have shocked even Mr. Toad.  Used car salesman William Taylor was near Oxford Street and Santa Monica Boulevard when he noticed a woman at the wheel of a Stuz driving erratically. The car swerved and it appeared to Taylor that the driver was not in control of the vehicle. He held his breath as it side-swiped another car and continued down the street at a high rate of speed.  Hoping to stop the woman before someone came to harm, he followed her in his car as fast as he deemed safe. Although he kept her in sight he couldn’t match her pace.

the-wind-in-the-willows-cover-detail

Harry Lederbrink, first saw the Stutz at St. Andrews Place and Beverly Boulevard, and he noticed that it was being driven in a “very careless” manner. He pulled up behind the car and when it didn’t move forward as the traffic signal turned green he got out and went to see if the driver was in distress. He saw the woman with her head down and she had a “glassy stare”  He drew closer and “got a whiff” of whiskey. He also noticed the registration certificate–it was made out in the name of Lois Pantages.  He told the woman that she should pull her car to the curb and call a taxicab, but once she’d snapped out of her trance she became verbally abusive and roared off trailing dust and expletives.

As C.F. Holmes, his wife, and another couple were driving down Western Avenue the Stutz passed him on the wrong side of the road and clipped his fenders. The big car didn’t slow down or stop, so Holmes followed it and watched in disbelief as the westbound car swerved into the eastbound lane of Sunset Boulevard. The driver made no hand signal and gave no indication of what she was intending to do. Then, as several people watched, the car crashed into a small slow moving sedan jam-packed with people. The sickening sound of metal-on-metal was accompanied by screams.

NEXT TIME:  The aftermath of the crash.