On April 2, 1940, Paul Cote was in his home on the 8700 block of Hollywood Blvd when a young man knocked on the front door. The young man was frantic. He pointed to a spot across the street where a body lay crumpled on the pavement. “Call an ambulance! A young woman’s been hurt.” Then the young man disappeared. Cole dialed the operator to summon emergency services and the police. The woman was taken to Hollywood Receiving Hospital where Dr. G.E. Christian pronounced her dead. She had perished from a skull fracture, broken neck and other injuries. The dead woman was identified as Pearl Wessel.
Close on the heels of the first man’s visit to Cote’s home another young man, twenty year-old Alfred Dobriener of 1625 Sunset Plaza Drive, came to Cote’s door. He said that he’d been hiking in the hills above Franklin Avenue when he noticed an old car parked in an open space at the end of that street. From his vantage point, Alfred saw a man in the front seat and a man and a blond woman struggling in the back seat.
Alfred said, “The woman’s head kept bobbing in and out of the car as if she were being struck in the face. Soon the man (from the backseat) shoved her from the car and she fell on the ground. The man, who was tall and dark, got out of the front seat and picked her up. While she was still struggling, he dragged her to the edge of the bluff and shoved her over. She did not scream. The men got in the car and left.”
Alfred thought quickly and took down the license plate number of the car–and that is when he ran over to Cote’s house to get help. The police kept the name of the car’s registered owner to themselves until they could locate him and bring him in for questioning.
A third witness came forward. He said that he had seen a woman running down Franklin prior to Pearl’s fall. Was it Pearl?
Detective Lieutenant S.R. Lopez of the the LAPD said that Pearl had either gone to the end of the bus line and hiked up Franklin to take in the view alone, or she had ridden up in the car with the two men to the top of the hill. By virtue of its seclusion and spectacular views the spot was a local lover’s lane. But why would Pearl have gone there with two men?”
By the next day police had pieced together a little more of Pearl’s life. She lived at 694 S. Hobart Blvd. where she roomed with Mrs. P.A. Boyle. Mrs. Boyle provided detectives with some personal information about Pearl. She said, “Miss Wessel had an income from some property near St. Louis, Missouri and sometimes she took special secretarial jobs (in Los Angeles). She has been happy visiting Southern California.”
Pearl had been dividing her time between Los Angeles and St. Louis since 1928. Sh had gone to St. Louis to celebrate the New Year and then returned to Los Angeles shortly afterward and resumed her work as a stenographer.
On April 4th, police had two men in custody for questioning in Pearl’s death; Lesley Al Williams and Alberni Roggers. Lesley, a self-proclaimed “mixologist” was the registered owner of the car and he was arrested at his home at 815 W. Sixth Street and booked on suspicion of murder.
Lesley’s wife Daisy, from whom he appeared to be estranged, spoke to police from her home at 727 S. Olive Street. She told the police that Lesley was chummy with another bartender named Alberni Roggers. The police busted him at his home at 833 W. Ninth Street.
Lesley and Alberni both denied having any connection with Pearl. At the death scene Police Chemist Ray Pinker found scuff marks consistent with the witnesses statements that Pearl had been dragged from the parked car before going over the cliff. Tire marks discovered at the scene matched the tires on Lesley’s car.
Ray Pinker, Police Chemist c. 1935 Photo courtesy LAPL
The evidence against the two men, particularly Lesley, was damning. Still, it was possible that police had arrested the wrong men. What if the witness had transposed or mistaken a number on the license plate of the car?
NEXT TIME: Another suspect is identified as the investigation into Pearl’s murder continues.
Three alienists, Drs. Benjamin Blank, Victor Parkin and Paul Bowers, were called on to determine Gray McNeer’s sanity. The doctors testified at a sanity hearing on October 29, 1934. They said that they had examined Gray and found him to be sane. The jury concurred. Gray’s trial for Betty’s murder would resume despite his loud and incoherent courtroom outbursts.
The day following Gray’s sanity hearing, S.S. Hahn announced that his client would take the stand in his own defense. Putting Gray on the stand was a risky move. If he was incapable of controlling himself at the defense table, how would he fare on the witness stand? On more than one occasion the trial had to be adjourned because Gray became hysterical. How would Gray, still swathed in bandages and wheelchair bound, comport himself under cross examination?
Gray was scheduled to take the stand on November 2nd but he was too ill to appear in court. The trial was delayed for a few days until it was decided that if Gray couldn’t come to court, the court would come to him. The trial resumed at Gray’s bedside in the County Jail Hospital.
Gray testified that on the night of the Betty’s death he met her at the apartment of a mutual friend, Lucille Herner, and then they drove to an isolated spot in Glendale where they argued. It was in the midst of their argument, Gray said, that Betty pulled out a gun. He said he felt a heavy blow to his head and then didn’t remember a thing until he regain consciousness in the Glendale Police Station. It was there that he was informed that his Betty’s body had been found in the car next to him.
The remainder of the trial was conducted in the hospital with Dr. Benjamin Blank in constant attendance to monitor Gray’s condition. The case went to the jury late on November 7th. At 10 p.m., after hours of deliberation, the jury was sequestered for the night.
On the evening of November 8th the jury returned with their verdict. They found Gray guilty of second degree murder. Gray began to babble incoherently, but settled down after a reprimand from the judge. Gray’s mother, Lola, said she had no plan to appeal the verdict. S.S. Hahn said, “Mrs. McNeer is convinced that her son’s condition is such that the probably will not live to serve his sentence.” The doctors disagreed. They believed Gray would recover from the bullet wound.
Gray was taken to Folsom Prison to begin serving his sentence of from 5 years to life. Gray’s mother said there was no plan to file an appeal. But plans change.
The bullet in his head was removed by San Quentin physicians, so Gray was in much better shape for his second trial than he had been for the first go ‘round.
In Judge Vicker’s court, Gray’s second trial began with testimony from police chemist Ray Pinker. Pinker testified that powder burns on Betty’s arms indicated that she was directly in front of the gun at the time the fatal shot was fired into her head. The powder burns were not consistent with a suicide.
Gray took the stand on November 21st. He reiterated the story he had told at his first trial. Gray said that he and Betty had taken an automobile ride and attempted reconciliation. When she refused to return to him Gray said he suggested divorce. According to Gray, Betty became angry, pulled out a gun and shot him in the head. He said even though he was gravely wounded he struggled with Betty for possession of the weapon. He lost the struggle and,that’s when Betty turned the gun on herself.
The trial was going along smoothly until Deputy District Attorney Wildey asked Gray to repeat a conversation he’d had with Betty right before the shooting. Gray snapped: “I will not repeat it. It’s all cut and dried. Go ahead and shoot what you have. I refuse to testify further in this case!” Gray then grabbed his crutch and hobbled away from the witness stand, ignoring the judge’s order to answer the question. That was it for Gray. He didn’t take the stand again.
The case went to the jury of six men and six women who, just as the jury in the first trial, had to be sequestered.
When the jury returned, Gray was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He’d rolled the dice on a second trial and come up snake eyes. His second sentence was harsher than the first.
In 1958, after 24 years in prison, Gray appealed again on the grounds of double jeopardy. The plea was rejected. Shortly afterwards he sought legal relief via habeas corpus. He wasn’t represented by S.S. Hahn because Hahn had died mysteriously in the swimming pool at his son’s cabin in Castaic. The two public defenders representing Gray were successful and he was ordered returned to Los Angeles for re-sentencing for the crime of second degree murder. I haven’t been able to find out what happened at the re-sentencing hearing.
Gray Everett McNeer died in Sacramento on July 27, 1964.
NOTE: I’m going to try to find out what happened to Gray. If any of you find anything please let me know!
UPDATE 5/29/2017: Many thanks to a reader, Katie, for letting me know that Gray McNeer committed suicide in Folsom prison in 1964. With her information I found the following paragraph from the Long Beach Independent dated July 28, 1964:
U.S. Army Corporal Joseph Dumais [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
On February 8, 1947 the Herald announced that the Black Dahlia case had been solved. They had found the killer!
The Herald story began:
“Army Corporal Joseph Dumais, 29, of Fort Dix, N.J., is definitely the murdered of “The Black Dahlia”, army authorities at Fort Dix announced today.’
Dumais, a combat veteran, had returned from leave wearing blood stained trousers with his pockets crammed full of clippings about Short’s murder. According to the Herald, Dumais made a 50 page confession in which he claimed to have had a mental blackout after dating Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles five days before her body was found.
The good looking corporal seemed like the real deal. He told the cops that “When I get drunk I get pretty rough with women.” Unfortunately, when police checked his story against known facts the solider’s confession didn’t hold up. Dumais was sent to a psychiatrist.
Two days after Dumais’ false confession the Herald put out an Extra with the headline: “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body”.
The victim of the “Werewolf Killer” was forty-five year old Jeanne French. Her nude body had been discovered at about 8 a.m. on February 10, 1947 near Grand View Avenue and Indianapolis Street in West L.A.
Cops at the scene of Jeanne French’s murder. [Photo courtesy LAPL]
Jeanne Thomas French had lived an incredibly fascinating life. She had been an aviatrix, a pioneer airline hostess, a movie bit player and an Army Nurse. And at one time she had been the wife of a Texas oilman. The way she died was monstrous.
A construction worker H.C. Shelby was walking to work around 8 o’clock that morning along Grand View Blvd. when he saw a small pile of woman’s clothing in weeds a few feet from the sidewalk. Curious, Shelby walked over and lifted up a fur trimmed coat and discovered French’s nude body.
French had been savagely beaten, and her body was covered with bruises. She had suffered some blows to her head, probably administered by a metal blunt instrument — maybe a socket wrench. As bad as they were, the blows to her head had not been fatal. Jeanne died from hemorrhage and shock due to fractured ribs and multiple injuries caused by stomping — she had heel prints on her chest. It took a long time for French to die. The coroner said that she slowly bled to death.
Mercifully, Jeanne was unconscious after the first blows to her head so she never saw her killer take the deep red lipstick from her purse, and she didn’t feel the pressure of his improvised pen as he wrote on her torso: “Fuck You, B.D.” (later thought to be be “P.D.”–but was it?) and “Tex”.
French had last been seen in the Pan American Bar at 11155 West Washington Place. She was seated at the first stool nearest the entrance and the bartender later told cops that a smallish man with a dark complexion was seated next to her. The bartender assumed they were a couple because he saw them leave together at closing time.
Jeanne’s estranged husband, Frank, was booked on suspicion of murder. The night before she died Jeanne had gone to the apartment where Frank was living and they’d quarreled. Frank said that his wife had started the fight, then hit him with her purse and left. He said that was the last time he saw her. He told the cops she’d been drinking.
David Wrather, Jeanne’s twenty-five year old son from a previous marriage was also brought in for questioning. As he was leaving the police station he saw his step-father for the first time since he’d learned of his mother’s death. David confronted Frank and said: “Well, I’ve told them the truth. If you’re guilty, there’s a God in heaven who will take care of you.” Frank didn’t hesitate, he looked at David and said: “I swear to God I didn’t kill her.”Frank was cleared when his landlady testified that he’d been in his apartment at the time of the murder, and when his shoe prints didn’t match those found at the scene of the crime.
Cops followed the few leads they had. French’s cut-down 1929 Ford roadster was found in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant, The Piccadilly at Washington Pl. and Sepulveda Blvd. Witnesses said that the car had been there since 3:15 the morning of the murder, and a night watchman said it was left there by a man. The police were never able to find out where Jeanne had been between 3:15 a.m. and the time of her death which was estimated at 6 a.m.
Scores of sex degenerates were rousted, but each was eliminated as a suspect. Officers also checked out local Chinese restaurants after the autopsy revealed that French had eaten Chinese food shortly before her death.
French’s slaying, known as the “Red Lipstick Murder” case, went cold.
Three years later, following a Grand Jury investigation into the numerous unsolved murders of women in L.A., investigators from the D.A.’s office were assigned to look into the case.
Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan worked the French case for almost eight months, but they were never able to close it. They came up with one hot suspect, a painter who had painted the French’s house about four months prior to her death. He even dated her several times. The suspicious thing about the painter was that the day after Jeanne’s murder he had burned several pairs of his shoes. Also he wore almost the same size shoes as the ones that had left marks on French’s body.
Jemison and Morgan thoroughly investigated the painter, but he was eventually cleared.
There were so many unsolved murders of women in the 1940s that in 1949 a Grand Jury investigation was launched into the failure of the police to solve the cases.
There haven’t been any leads in Jeanne French’s case in decades; however, there is always a detective assigned to Elizabeth Short’s murder case. A couple of years ago it was a female detective and, surprisingly, she received several calls a month. To this day there are people who want to confess to Elizabeth Short’s murder. The detective was able to eliminate each one of the possible suspects with a simple question: “What year were you born?
It was after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947 — Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three year old daughter Anne were bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held L.A. residents in its grip for several days. Mother and daughter were headed south on the west side of Norton when Mrs. Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds about a foot in from the sidewalk.
At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or maybe even a live nude woman who had been drinking and had passed out; that particular area was known as a lover’s lane. But it quickly dawned on her that she was in a waking nightmare and that the bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk. Bersinger said “I was terribly shocked and scared to death, I grabbed Anne and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”
Over the years several reporters have claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One of the people who made that claim was reporter Will Fowler. Fowler said that he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner were approaching Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard a voice on their shortwave radio: “A 390 W, 415 down in an empty lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets…Please investigate…Code Two … (Code Two meant “Drunk Woman,” and a 415 designated “Indecent exposure.”) Fowler couldn’t believe his ears: “…a naked drunk dame passed out in a vacant lot. Right here in the neighborhood too…Let’s see what it’s all about.”
Paegel drove as Fowler watched for the woman. “There she is. It’s a body all right…” Fowler got out of the car and walked up to the body as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk of the car. Fowler called out: “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”
That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. But was it true?
In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first reporter on the scene. There is some information to suggest that actually a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first. After all these years it is impossible to state with certainty who turned up first–and does it really matter?
Aggie at the Dahlia body dump site. January 15, 1947.
Here is Aggie’s description of what she saw that day on South Norton.
“It [the body] had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face, which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”
The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.
Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.
Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, were in charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.
The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three year old transient, Cecil French. He’d been busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.
Cops were further alarmed when they discovered that French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, determined that the floor mats of French’s car were free of blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder.
In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying due to the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown young woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case for a few more days until a much better one was discovered — The Black Dahlia.
NEXT TIME: The bisected body of the young woman found in Leimert Park is identified.
Fowler, Will (1991). “Reporters” Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman.
Gilmore, John (2001). Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.
Reporter Aggie Underwood devoted a chapter in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman to covering the stars – and one of the stars she covered was Thelma Todd. Thelma, nicknamed the Ice Cream Blonde, was an enormously popular actress appearing in over 120 films between 1926 and 1935.
Thelma was born on July 29, 1906, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was a good student and wanted to become a schoolteacher. She completed high school and went on to college, but she was a pretty girl and her mother insisted that she enter a few beauty contests. She won the title of “Miss Massachusetts” in 1925, and competed in the “Miss America” pageant. She didn’t win, but she did come to the attention of Hollywood talent scouts.
Among the stars with whom Thelma appeared during her career were Gary Cooper, William Powell, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s there were several successful male comedy teams but studio head Hal Roach never gave up on the idea of pairing two women. Between 1931 and 1933 Thelma and Zasu Pitts appeared in over a dozen films, primarily two-reelers. When it came time for contract renegotiation Zasu and Thelma found out that Hal Roach had made certain that their individual contracts expired six months apart. He figured that the stars had less leverage separately than they would as a team. He’d pulled the same trick on Laurel and Hardy. Zasu’s bid for more money and a stake in the team’s films was a non-starter with Roach. She was given a take it or leave it option. She left.
Thelma’s new partner was wisecracking Patsy Kelly and they churned out a series of successful shorts for Hal Roach until 1935.
Thelma’s pleasant voice had made the transition from silent to sound films an easy one. She had name recognition and with financial backing from her lover, film director Roland West, she opened the Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Thelma and Roland lived in separate rooms above the café. They had known each other for about 5 years. Thelma had appeared in West’s 1931 film Corsair, and that is when they became romantically involved.
West’s estranged wife, Jewel Carmen, lived in a home about 300 feet above the café on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was an odd domestic arrangement to be sure.
On Saturday, December 14, 1935 Thelma’s personal maid of four years, May Whitehead, helped to dress the actress in a blue and silver sequin gown for a party. At about 8 p.m. Thelma and her mother Alice were preparing to leave the Café together. Thelma was headed to a party at the Trocodero hosted by Ida Lupino and her father Stanley.
As they were about to get into the limo driven by Ernie Peters (one of Thelma’s regular drivers) Roland approached Thelma and told her to be home by 2 a.m. Not one to be given orders, Thelma said she’d be home at 2:05.
When he was questioned later, West characterized his exchange with Thelma as more of a joke than a serious demand on his part; but he had locked Thelma out at least once before when she had failed to arrive home “on time”. On that earlier occasion Thelma had knocked hard enough to break a window and Roland let her in.
According to party goers Thelma arrived at the Trocodero in good spirits and she seemed to be looking forward to the holidays. She downed a few cocktails and she was intoxicated, but none of her friends thought that she was drunk. Thelma’s ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco, was at the Trocodero with a date, but he was not a guest at the Lupino’s party.
Very late in the evening Thelma joined Sid Grauman’s table for about 30 minutes before asking him if he’d call Roland and let him know that she was on her way home. Thelma’s chauffeur said that the actress was unusually quiet on the ride home, and when they arrived she declined his offer to walk her to the door of her apartment. He said she’d never done that before.
It’s at this point that the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death begins.
On Monday, December 16, 1935, May Whitehead, had driven her own car to the garage, as she did every morning, to get Thelma’s chocolate brown, twelve cylinder Lincoln phaeton and bring it down the hill to the café for Thelma’s use.
May said that the doors to the garage were closed, but unlocked. She entered the garage and saw the driver’s side door to Thelma’s car was wide open. Then she saw Thelma slumped over in the seat.
At first May thought Thelma was asleep, but once she realized that her employer was dead she went to the Café and notified the business manager and asked him to telephone Roland West.
From the moment that the story of Thelma Todd’s untimely death broke, the local newspapers covered it as if there was something sinister about it. The Daily Record’s headline proclaimed: “THELMA TODD FOUND DEAD, INVESTIGATING POSSIBLE MURDER”. The Herald’s cover story suggested that Todd’s death was worthy of Edgar Allan Poe:
“…if her death was accidental it was as strange an accident as was ever conceived by the brain of Poe.”
Alice Todd leaves Thelma’s inquest.
The circumstances surrounding Thelma’s death were somewhat mysterious, and when her mother Alice Todd received the news she shrieked “my daughter has been murdered”.
It was up to the cops and criminalists to determine if Thelma’s death had been a suicide, accident, or murder.
An investigation of the death scene found that the light inside the garage was not switched on and that there was some blood on Thelma’s face and there were also droplets of blood inside the car and on the running board.
The Coroner said Thelma may have been dead for about twelve hours before she was discovered. But a few witnesses came forward to swear that they’d seen, or spoken to, Thelma on Sunday afternoon at a time when, according to the Coroner, she would have already been dead.
The most compelling of the witnesses who had claimed to have seen or spoken with Thelma on Sunday was Mrs. Martha Ford.
She and her husband the actor Wallace Ford were hosting a party that day to which Todd had been invited. She said that she received a telephone call and that she’d at first thought the caller was a woman named Velma, who she was expecting at the party; but then the caller identified herself as Thelma, and used the nickname, Hot Toddy. Martha said that Toddy asked her if she could show up in the evening clothes she’d worn the night before to a party — Martha told her that was fine. “Toddy” also said she was bringing a surprise guest and said “You just wait until I walk in. You’ll fall dead!” Mrs. Ford was absolutely convinced that she had spoken with Thelma and not an impostor.
There was an enormous outpouring of grief over Thelma Todd’s death. And hundreds of mourners from all walks of life visited Pierce Mortuary where Thelma’s body was on view from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on December 19, 1935.
Patsy Kelly was said to have been so upset that she was under a doctor’s care.
And Zasu Pitts was devastated. She had been out Christmas shopping with Thelma a few days before her death.
The sightings of Thelma on Sunday led to a multitude of theories, ranging from plausible to crackpot.
Among the theories that have gained popularity over the years, even though it is unsubstantiated, is that New York mobster Lucky Luciano was pressuring Thelma to host gambling at the Café but when Thelma said no, he had her killed.
I don’t believe the Luciano story; however, Thelma may have been approached by some local thugs about gambling because in the LA Times on December 25, 1935 her attorney, A. Ronald Button said:
“… a group of gamblers wanted to open a gambling place in her cafe. She told me at that time that she was opposed to gambling and would have nothing to do with it. But whether the gamblers ever made a deal. I do not know.”
Another theory is that Thelma was murdered by her ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco. He had a history of violence against women; but again, there is no evidence that he had anything to do with her death.
I have my own theory, of course. How could I not? Here’s what I believe happened.
On Saturday night as she was leaving for the Trocodero, Roland West had told Thelma to be home at 2 am. He wasn’t joking with her as he’d said. Asserting herself, she told him she’d be home at 2:05 – but it was about 2:45 or 3 am when she asked Sid Grauman to phone West and let him know that she was on her way.
Her chauffeur, Ernie, said they arrived at the café at about 3:30 a.m and she had declined his offer to walk her up to her apartment. I believe that she declined because she anticipated an ugly scene with Roland about her late arrival home. She had a key in her evening bag, but the door to the apartment had been bolted from the inside. Roland had locked her out again. She was tired and she’d been drinking, her blood alcohol level was later found to be .13, enough for her to be intoxicated but not sloppy drunk. She decided that she didn’t have the energy to engage in an argument with Roland – it must have been about 4 am.
It was a cold night at the beach so Thelma trudged the rest of the way up the stairs to the garage.
She opened the garage doors and switched on the light. She got into her car and turned on the motor in an effort to keep warm. She fell asleep and was dead of carbon monoxide poisoning within minutes. She fell over and banged her head against the steering wheel of the car which caused a small amount of blood to be found on her body and at the scene. The blood was later tested and it contained carbon monoxide, so her injury occurred inside the garage.
According to tests made by criminalist Ray Pinker, it would have taken about two minutes for there to have been enough carbon monoxide in the garage to kill her. He had even tested the car to see how long it would run before the engine died – the shortest time it idled was 2 minutes 40 seconds, the longest was 46 minutes 40 seconds.
What about the light switch and the open car door? I think that when Roland didn’t hear anything from Thelma he decided to look for her. He walked to the garage to see if she’d taken her car. He went inside and saw Thelma slumped over in the front seat, just the way May Whitehead would find her on Monday morning. The car’s motor was no longer running. He swung open the driver’s side door to awaken her and realized that she was dead. He was too stunned to do anything but get the hell out of the garage. He left the driver’s side door open, switched off the garage light, closed the doors, and went back to his apartment.
Chester Morris starred in several Boston Blackie films
West was never held accountable, there was no proof of wrongdoing on his part, but I believe that he felt responsible for Thelma’s death. He never told a soul about the truth of that night; unless you believe the rumor that he made a death bed confession to his friend, actor Chester Morris.
What about Martha Ford’s alleged telephone conversation with Thelma? Was it actually Thelma on the phone? Maybe Ford was mistaken about the time. It is one of the many loose ends in the mystery surrounding Thelma Todd’s death.
Aggie was finishing her first year as a reporter for Hearst when Thelma Todd died. According to her memoir, by the end of the autopsy only she and the coroner remained in the room; her colleagues had turned green and bolted for the door.
The last words in this tale belong to Aggie—she too was perplexed by some of the mysteries surrounding Thelma’s death. She wrote in her memoir:
“In crucial phases of the case, official versions as told reporters varied from subsequent statements. It was known where and what Miss Todd had eaten on Saturday night. Stomach contents found in the autopsy did not appear to bear out reports on the meal. There were other discrepancies, including interpretations of the condition of the body and its position in the automobile.”
And for you conspiracy buffs, Aggie talked about a detective she knew who was working to clarify some of the disputed information. She said:
“…he was deeper in the mystery, receiving threatening calls…which carried a secret and unlisted number. He was warned to ‘lay off if you know what is good for you.’
“In his investigation the detective stopped and searched an automobile of a powerful motion picture figure. In the car, surprisingly, was a witness who had reported that Miss Todd had been seen on Sunday. Near the witness was a packed suitcase. The investigator told me the owner of the car attempted to have him ousted from the police department.”
Aggie would not reveal the name of the detective. In summation she wrote:
“There’s a disquieting feeling in working some of these cinema-land death cases, whether natural or mysterious. One senses intangible pressures, as in the Thelma Todd story: After the inquest testimony, in which one sensational theory was that the blonde star, who died of carbon monoxide gas, was the victim of a killer, the case eventually was dropped as one of accidental, though mysterious, death.”
Over the decades Thelma’s death has been the subject of books, movies, and TV shows; and it has been attributed to everything from suicide, to a criminal conspiracy.
I think it is best if Aggie and I leave you to make up your own mind about what really happened to Thelma Todd.
Betty Grant and her two young children watched as husband and father, John Henry Grant, was led away by the cops to be questioned in an alleged bomb plot.
If Grant hadn’t, at the very last minute, tussled with the baggage handler and snatched the bag with an incendiary device in it it would have been loaded on to the same plane that his wife and two children were taking from LAX to San Diego!
After examining the gasoline soaked bag, police technician Ray Pinker declared the home made explosive device to be a “clever job”. Pinker continued:
“There’s a clock inside connected to batteries and a high-resistance bridge. At 2:30 p.m. the clock would have started the mechanism, shooting juice through the bridge to a can of matches.”
“These would flame and ignite an inner tube filled with high-octane gasoline crammed in the bag–and in the closed quarters of the cargo compartment.”
“Thus, if the time bomb had gone aloft in the twin-engine transport, a flaming explosion would have torn the after end of the ship as it was approaching San Diego with 16 persons aboard.”
That a man could plot the cold-blooded murder of his wife and children is horrifying, but for a man to be willing to take the lives of thirteen strangers at the same time defies understanding — the other passengers and the three person crew would have been collateral damage.
If you’re wondering if Grant was contemplating mass murder for a multi-million dollar insurance pay-out, he wasn’t — the idiot had purchased a total of $25,000 ($242,267.63 in current USD) in life insurance on his family in one of the airport life insurance vending machines! If you’re of a certain age you may recall the insurance vending machines — they were ubiquitous in airports all across the country. Grant later said he needed money to get himself out of debt. He claimed to owe over $9,000 — but his wife said she thought the amount was closer to $400.
But of course Grant wasn’t plotting murder for money alone — cherchez la femme (look for the woman). There was a woman waiting for Grant — a pretty, red-haired airline stewardess named Betty Suomela. Betty had been dating John for three years — she met him shortly after arriving in L.A. from New York. He told her that he was separated from his wife and that he had no children. Suomela admitted to detectives that she was in love with John and that she had believed he was appearing in court for a final settlement of a divorce action — she had no clue that he was actually planting a time bomb designed
to destroy his entire family.
While cooling his heels in a Venice jail cell, the 31 year old aviation engineer was asked about his feelings for his mistress. Without hesitation he said that he’d been stringing her along and that he had told her “a pack of romantic lies’. He said:
“I lied to her so many times I can’t even remember my stories. I told her I was separated…I told her I was getting a divorce…I told her I loved her…”
Maybe the enormity of what he’d planned dawned on Grant for a moment because officers found a crudely fashioned noose of mattress strips hidden in his cell, even though he’d only been left alone for less than 30 minutes.
Suomela wasn’t the only “other woman” in Grant’s life. Three years earlier he had been convicted in New York for a paternity case involving a baby girl born to 22 year old divorcee, Helen Hansen, an American Airlines employee. He was ordered to pay $10 a week toward the little girl’s support, but he quit making payments after a year and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was traced to L.A. but authorities refused to extradite him to New York on the grounds that he hadn’t been charged with a crime.
Grant’s problems had gone way beyond being a deadbeat dad to his out of wedlock daughter — he was looking at a possible sentence of 20 years on each of 16 counts of attempted murder. At first Grant said he didn’t want a lawyer, that he wanted to plead guilty and be done with everything. Ultimately John Grant was charged with six counts of attempted murder, and a Health and Safety Code violation for taking explosives aboard a public conveyance.
Not surprisingly, Grant decided not to hurl himself under the judicial bus after all and he entered a plea of innocent and innocent by reason of insanity at his arraignment. Bail for Grant was set at $50,000 — but nobody stepped up to pay it. After being examined by several psychiatrists, and found to be sane, Grant changed his plea to not guilty, and an attorney was appointed to handle his case.
While Grant was awaiting trial his wife, Betty, filed for and was granted a divorce from her homicidally inclined husband. She was also awarded full custody of their two children — in fact John would not be permitted to ever set eyes on his son or daughter again and Betty was given the right to return to her maiden name.
During Grant’s trial, Deputy District Attorney Mervyn Aggeler described the bomb plot as “Satanic…”. The jury agreed. It took the jury of ten women and two men in Santa Monica Superior Court only twenty-five minutes to convict John Henry Grant on six counts of attempted murder. Grant showed no trace of emotion as the verdict was read. Superior Judge Oriando V. Rhodes sentenced Grant to from one to twenty years in prison.
Grant was mentioned briefly in a 1956 article on airplane bombers and he was still in prison at that time.
Louise had never denied burying Mrs. Margaret Logan’s body in a shallow grave at the deceased woman’s Pacific Palisades home, but she told several colorful stories about how Logan ended up dead in the first place.
As in her first murder trial for the slaying of Jacob Denton over twenty years earlier, Peete claimed to be broke and was assigned a public defender, Ellery Cuff. Cuff had an uphill battle, the evidence against Peete was compelling.
For the most part Louise sat quietly as the prosecution drew deadly parallels between the 1920 murder of Jacob Denton and the 1944 murder of Margaret Logan; however, she disrupted the trial during testimony by police chemist Ray Pinker. From the witness stand Pinker testified to a conversation between Louise and LAPD homicide captain Thad Brown. (In 1947 Thad Brown’s brother, Finis, would be one of the lead detectives in the Black Dahlia case.)
Pinker said that prior to the discovery of Mrs. Logan’s body in a shallow grave in the backyard of her home, Brown had faced Peete and said: “Louise, have you blow your top again and done what you did before?” To which she replied: “Well, my friends told me that I would blow my top again. I want to talk to Gene Biscailuz (L.A. County Sheriff).” Louise spun around in her chair at the defense table and shouted “That is not all of the conversation.” Her attorney quieted her.
Pinker testified to how he had found the mound covering Mrs. Logan’s body. He said that he had observed a slight rise in the ground which was framed by flower pots. The cops didn’t have to dig very deep before uncovering Margaret Logan’s remains. When Louise was asked to face the grave she turned away and hid her face with her handbag.
All of Pinker’s testimony was extremely damaging to Peete’s case. In particular he said he tested a gun found Mrs. Peete’s berdroom, and when he tested the bullets they were consistent with the .32 caliber round found lodged beneath the plaster in the living room of the Logan home.
The prosecution’s case was going to be difficult to refute. It must have been a tough call for the defense when they decided to allow Louise to take the stand. Louise could be volatile and unpredictable.
Louise testified that Mrs. Logan had phoned her to ask if she’d keep house for her while she was working at Douglas Aircraft Company. Louise went on to say that when she arrived at the Logan home she found Margaret badly bruised, allegedly the result of Mr. Logan kicking her in the face.
Mr. Logan would be unable to refute any of Louise’s allegations because he had died, just days before, in the psychiatric hospital where he was undergoing treatment. Logan had been committed to the hospital by Louise, masquerading as his sister!
Logan’s death was a boon for Louise and she took full advantage of it by blaming him for his wife’s death. Louise was asked to recreate her story which had Arthur Logan shooting and battering his wife, but she appeared to be squeamish. When she was shown the murder gun and asked by the judge to pick it up to demonstrate how Arthur Logan had used it to kill his wife, Louise said: “I will not take that gun up in my hand.”
Louise’s attorney tried valiantly to contradict the evidence against his client. Would the jury believe him and acquit her?
In his summation District Attorney Fred N. Howser addressed the jury:
“Mrs. Peete has violated the laws of man and the laws of God. She killed a woman because she coveted her property. Any verdict short of first degree murder would be an affront to the Legislature. If this crime doesn’t justify the death penalty, then acquit her.”
The jury of 11 women and 1 man found Louise Peete guilty of the first degree murder of Margaret Logan. With that verdict came a death sentence.
Judge Harold B. Landreth pronounced the sentence:
“It is the judgement and sentence of this court for the crime of murder in the first degree of which you, the said Louise Peete, have been convicted by the verdict of the jury, carrying with it the extreme penalty of the law, that you, the said Louise Peete, be delivered by the Sheriff to the superintendent of the California Instution for Women at Tehachapi. There you will be held pending the decision of this case on appeal, whereupon said Louise Peete be delivered to the warden of the State Prison at San Quentin to be by him executed and put to death by the administration of lethal gas in the manner provided by the laws of the State of California.”
It was reported that Louise took her sentence “like a trouper”.
On June 7, 1945, Louise Peete began her journey from the L.A. County Jail to the women’s prison at Tehachapi to wait out the appeals process.
Louise lost the appeals which may have commuted her death penalty sentence to life in prison. On April 9, 1947 an eleventh hour bid to save her life was made to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court denied the appeal.
Louise would die.
A crush of reporters spent time with Louise on her last night; among them was, of course, Aggie Underwood.
Aggie had interviewed Louise numerous times over the years, and she managed to get at least two exclusives. In her autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, Aggie devoted a few pages to her interactions with Louise, which I’ll share:
“With other L.A. reporters, I interviewed her there for the last time before she was taken to San Quentin to be executed April 11, 1947.”
“Like other reporters, I suppose I was striving for the one-in-a-million chance: that she would slip, or confess either or both murders, Denton’s in 1920 and Mrs. Logan’s on or about May 29, 1944.’
Louise would not slip; but Aggie gave it her best try. Interestingly, Aggie said that she never addressed Louise as anything but Mrs. Peete. Why? Here is her reasoning:
“I called her Mrs. Peete. A direct attack would not have worked with her; it would have been stupid to try it. She knew the homicide mill and its cogs. She had bucked the best reporters, detectives, and prosecutors as far back as 1920, when, as a comely matron believed to be in her thirties, she had been tagged the ‘enigma woman’ by the Herald.”
“So I observed what she regarded as her dignity. Though I was poised always for an opening, I didn’t swing the conversations to anything so nasty as homicide.”
And in a move that would have occurred only to a woman, Aggie spent one of her days off finding a special eyebrow pencil for Louise:
“…with which she browned her hair, strand by strand. I didn’t go back to jail and hand it to her in person. Discreetly I sent it by messenger, avoiding the inelegance of participating in a utilitarian device to thwart nature which had done her a dirty trick in graying her. Royalty doesn’t carry money in its pockets.”
About Louise, Aggie said: “She wasn’t an artless little gun moll.” No, she wasn’t.
Lofie Louise Preslar Peete was executed in the gas chamber on April 11, 1947– it took about 10 minutes for her to die. She was the second woman to die in California’s gas chamber; two others would follow her.