The Love Poisoner, Conclusion

richard-testifiesOn May 2, 1953, fragments of love letters written by Joyce Hayden to Richard LaForce, during the previous summer when Joyce and her husband Robert were in Alaska, were read aloud in court. Richard had been telling the truth about the existence of the letters.

Did Joyce’s husband Robert know anything about her affection for his friend? On the witness stand Robert admitted that he was aware that Joyce had developed deep feelings for Richard and that that he had “turned-the-other-cheek”. Although  a more apt phrase in this case might be turn-a-blind-eye. Joyce said that she wrote the letters (26 in all–and most of them at least 20 pages long) in an effort to cheer Richard up and “to keep him from committing suicide.” Joyce vociferously denied Richard’s claim that there was an 80% chance that he was the father of her unborn child. When Richard’s statement to that effect was read in court Joyce responded, “Hearing that read in court from his confession didn’t surprise me–or Robert either. We’d read it before. Richard is like that, always imaging things. He’s making all that up.” But was he? He hadn’t lied about the letters.

Whether or not the jurors would hear the contents of the letters was up to Superior Judge Mildred L. Lillie. One important question that had to be answered about the letters was whether they were actually in Joyce’s handwriting. Had Richard forged or tampered with them? Joyce was sworn in and handed a bundle of letters. She gave them a cursory look and then said that she didn’t think all of them were in her own handwriting. “I’d have to read them all,” she said. “There’s been all kinds of stuff added,” although she finally conceded that “basically” she had authored them. Judge Lillie instructed Joyce to go through the letters and delete whatever was not in her handwriting. Then Judge Lillie allowed the letters to be entered into evidence. Maybe the letters would reveal the truth about Joyce and Richard’s relationship.

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On June 3, 1952, Joyce wrote to Richard telling him that she had received two letters that had been delayed by a storm. She said the had gone off by herself to read them. “Anyway, I got to sit down–all by myself–in the “Garden” (we know nothing will grow before we leave) and read them–which made me very happy.” She continued: “The only time I can really be alone is when it’s nice so I can go outside and at nite after everyone leaves and Robert is asleep. And then I am not only alone but lonely. Richard, don’t worry about if I’ll be interested at least a little bit–I am interested very much in everything you write and do, so make it a problem to write me, just write exactly like you have been and tell me anything or everything you think, do or feel and I’ll be very happy. OK?”

court-sceneJoyce asked Richard to take the time to sit down and write her a long letter. She wanted to know how he would have planned his life if he had been able to do anything he wanted from grammar school on.”

many-faces-of-joyce-picOn June 6, Joyce wrote: “What I said about all the hours we spent–I didn’t mean wasted. I just was thinking how nice a few of those hours would seem now and it seems like there is so much to be said that could have but really I guess it’s like you say, there are better ways of saying things than words. That’s what is lacking because we can use all the ‘words’ we want now — and nothing else! But I do remember, too, surely you expected me to. And it makes me very happy, but I can’t keep from thinking–then what!”

In one of her letters Joyce talked about marriage: “You ask if I would have accepted to marry you–yes, I would and it seems, Richard, that our dreams are very similar.” Joyce signed most of her letters “All My Love.”

curious-eyesBut was Joyce really in love with Richard? She described her loneliness to him in numerous letters. She may have been seeking the attention she felt her husband wasn’t giving her. No matter how sophisticated the situation may have seemed, it is important to remember that each of the principal players was only 19-years-old. The extreme emotional highs and lows of teenagers is well documented and there is no reason to believe Robert, Joyce or Richard was immune.

Joyce’s denial of ever loving Richard must have stung him. A Los Angeles Times reporter observed the defendant lower his head when he heard the love of his life testify that once she and Robert arrived home from Alaska her feelings for Richard changed: “He hung around too much and he was very moody. I was a little tired of him,” she said.

During the middle of the trial a note from Joyce to Richard written prior to the 1952 Alaska trip surfaced, and it shed some light on the relationship. Joyce and Robert had been married for only a year when Richard confessed his love for Joyce in a letter. Joyce confessed that she loved both Robert and Richard, but she felt that she was better suited to Robert. She said: “Richard, you and I–I feel are really genuine friends and I feel will always be, even now, but it it’s horrible to ruin a beautiful friendship.”  She encouraged him to find someone who would make him happy.

serious-momentWhat would the jury of eight women and four men make of the case? Was Richard’s testimony that he and Joyce had been intimate credible?  And what about the inference that it was Joyce, and not Richard, who had tried to poison Robert?

The jury failed to reach a verdict after the first four hours of deliberation. They returned to the jury room where they finally decided Richard’s fate.

Richard LaForce was acquitted of attempted murder, but found guilty of mingling poison with beverages with intent to harm Robert Hayden.

When she heard the news, Joyce said: “We are going to try to forget we ever knew Richard.”

EPILOGUE: Whenever possible I try to find out what happened to the people involved in a criminal case–and this one is no exception. Joyce and Robert’s teenage marriage survived for nearly twenty years before they divorced in 1970. Joyce may have remarried, but I don’t know if Robert did. I’ve been unable to find evidence that Richard LaForce ever married. Interestingly, it appears that for years Richard lived less than 100 miles from his former love. Was that coincidence, or by design? Richard died in 1992 and, as you can see,  his headstone offers no clues to his marital status or family life.

laforce-headstone

The Love Poisoner, Part 2

Joyce found Richard peering into her refrigerator and he seemed startled when she spoke to him. She couldn’t tell what, if anything, he was doing, but she wasn’t particularly alarmed. Richard visited Joyce and Robert so often that it wasn’t surprising to find him searching the fridge for a snack.

The refrigerator incident took on a more ominous aspect when Joyce and Robert began to notice a “funny taste” in the water and milk they kept in the refrigerator. Then they recalled how ill Robert had become after he and Joyce had paid a visit to Richard at the Caltech campus. They didn’t want to think the worst of Richard, but it was getting harder to believe the best.

joyce_robert_picJoyce and Robert went to the L.A. County Sheriff’s substation and told the deputies of their suspicions. They even brought a bottle of milk with them that they were afraid may have been tainted. Sure enough, an examination of the contents of the milk bottle proved that it had been tampered with. On February 6, 1953, Sergeant Bert Wood and Detective A.S. Martin sent the Haydens out for the evening and then waited in the dark outside the Hayden home to see if Richard LaForce would turn up. He did.

The door to Joyce and Robert’s home was routinely left unlocked (hey, it was Downey in 1953 and people did that in those days). The two cops watched Richard let himself in and then waited for him to come out. Sergeant. Wood and Detective Martin stopped Richard as he exited the Hayden home and found two half-pint bottles of arsenic trioxide in his possession–enough poison, said one investigator, “to kill off a whole town.”

Richard quickly admitted that he had put some of the arsenic into a water bottle in the fridge. When asked if he was trying to kill both Joyce and Robert, Richard said no–he knew that Robert was the only one to drink from that bottle. He also confessed to poisoning Robert’s soft drink at Caltech and said that he had tried at least five times over several weeks to bump off Robert. On one occasion he had poured cyanide into the water bottle. Why had he been tried to poison his friend? He said: “I have always wanted Joyce for my wife and I felt that if my plan to poison Bob was successful, I would have a chance with her.” He continued: “I’ve never been out with any other girl–she’s the only one I loved.” Richard said he had chosen poison to kill Robert “Because of its convenience.” He was able to acquire the poisons at school. He admitted that “It could have been done in a more perfect way, but I got to the point where I had to do something.”richard-indicted-headline-pic3

What made Richard think that he had a chance with Joyce at all? According to Richard he had visited Joyce many times in her home during times when Robert was away. He told investigators that he and Joyce had taken long car rides and walks. During their time together Richard said he and Joyce “talked a lot about love and marriage.”

On February 10, 1953, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury indicted Richard on two counts of poisoning with intent to kill.  Each count carried a possible sentence of from 10 years to life in prison. Joyce and Robert told reporters that they bore their former friend no ill will for his  attempts to poison Robert. They felt sorry for him.

richard-indicted-headline-pic2Richard was examined by psychiatrists Dr. Frederick J. Hacker and Dr. John A. Mitchell. The doctors said they found indications of “a beginning thinking disorder in the direction schizophrenia.” According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness “schizophrenia can occur at any age, the average age of onset tends to be in the late teens to the early 20s for men.” Was Richard schizophrenic? The doctors didn’t offer a firm diagnosis and, despite their concerns, they declared that Richard was sane at the time of the poisonings and was sane enough to stand trial. Interestingly, Dr. Hacker said that Richard told him he “wanted to take suspicion of poisoning attempts from Joyce.” Was Richard falling on his sword to protect his lady love, or was his statement a calculated move to shift blame to Joyce? Was there any truth to the statement?

By the time his trial began in late April 1953, Richard had claimed that he and Joyce had been conducting a love affair.  In fact, he figured that her unborn child had an 80% chance of being his and not Robert’s. How Robert arrived at the 80% calculation isn’t clear but that hardly mattered. His possible paternity of Joyce’s child was a bombshell.  In, 1953 when DNA tests were decades in the future, a blood test could rule a person in or out but that was it.

Joyce vehemently denied that she was romantically involved with Richard. But rumors began to surface that Richard had kept over a dozen love letters written to him by Joyce while she and Robert were in Alaska.  If the love letters actually existed they could turn the whole case inside-out.

NEXT TIME:  The love poisoner case takes a few more twists and turns before coming to an end.

The Love Poisoner, Part 1

Current thinking about the teenage brain is that it’s a work in progress. Intellectually teens can be a match for adults, but emotionally it is a much different story. A teenager’s moods are the emotional equivalent of a world class chanteuse’s five octave range. Teenagers are mercurial, capricious, fickle and unstable — potentially deadly traits when mixed with a love triangle involving nineteen-year-olds.juviebrain

Downey residents Richard LaForce, Joyce Salvage, and Robert Hayden had been friends since middle school. During the war years, while they were growing up, the aircraft industry established deep roots in the town and had an enormous impact on the area. The postwar years saw the three friends enter high school and the town’s close ties to the aircraft industry likely resulted in the establishment of an aviation club at Downey High School–Joyce and Robert were both members. Surrounded by engineers and aircraft workers may have inspired Richard’s keen interest in science. With his high IQ (estimated to be in the neighborhood of 150) he hoped to pursue physics in college.

salvage_hayden_laforce_crop

Robert Hayden (4th from the left, top row), Richard LaForce (far right, top row), Joyce Salvage (5th from the left, middle row).

Physics wasn’t the only thing Richard hoped to pursue into adulthood. He had loved Joyce since they were sixth graders and he hoped that one day they would marry. Was Richard surprised when on May 12, 1951, at age 17, Joyce and Robert married? If he was shocked or hurt he kept his feelings to himself. At least the marriage didn’t end his friendship with the couple. Richard was a frequent guest in the Hayden’s home at 8558 Firestone Boulevard and he was still able to spend a lot of time with Joyce.

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Aviation Club, Downey High School [1950]

The day after Joyce and Robert’s first wedding anniversary, and the day before they were scheduled to depart for a couple of months in Alaska visiting Robert’s older brother George and his sister-in-law, Charlotte, Richard took Joyce to a movie ostensibly at Robert’s request. Joyce and Richard were out together until 4 o’clock in the morning. Suspicious behavior for a married woman, but not so odd for a teenage girl. However the evening was complicated by Richard’s admission in a note, just days before, that he loved her. He didn’t plan to act on his declaration of love, he doubted that Joyce reciprocated his feelings, but during their evening out he got the impression that Joyce loved him too. There wasn’t enough time to talk about the possible change in their relationship before Joyce and Robert left for Alaska.

Richard and Joyce corresponded regularly, some would say obsessively, during her absence. Robert was well aware of the exchange of letters between the friends but seemed unconcerned about them. When Joyce and Robert returned in late 1952 the three friends had quickly reestablished their former routine of spending at least two or three evenings together every week. Because the trio knew each other so well, both Joyce and Robert noticed that Richard appeared to be distracted and he seemed to be depressed, but since he hadn’t confided the reasons for his melancholy in either of them they could only stand by and wait.

A week after Christmas, 1952, Richard invited Joyce and Robert to the Caltech campus, where he was a physics major, for a visit. While there he suggested that they stop for Cokes at a nearby refreshment stand. Robert couldn’t finish his drink. He became violently ill and vomited. He recovered quickly and was able to resume his ministerial studies at Whittier College. He and Joyce thought no more about the incident.

In late January, during one of his visits, Joyce found Richard at the refrigerator. He seemed unnerved when she asked him what he was doing. Why?

NEXT TIME: The teenage triangle turns poisonous.