Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 3

shorter_davis_picOn March 26, 1953, five men were arrested and held for questioning in the slaying of Mabel Monohan. The men were: Solly Davis (a one-time Mickey Cohen lieutenant); William Upshaw and John Wilds (both Mickey Cohen associates); Joe Allen; and Baxter Shorter.

All five men were career crminals — Upshaw had been frequently arrested on gambling charges, Davis had been incarcerated in two Federal pens, Leavenworth and Atlanta, and in the New York State Prison, Sing Sing. Baxter Shorter had a record that dated back to 1927.

The men were acquainted with Mabel Monohan through her former son-in-law, Las Vegas gambler Tutor Scherer. It was the lure of $100k of Scherer’s cash, allegedly hidden in a safe in Monohan’s home, that had brought a gang to her doorstep resulting in her brutal murder.

The cops had to kick the bad guys loose, they didn’t have enough to hold them; but the arrest was enough to convince Baxter Shorter that his best chance for staying clear of the gas chamber at San Quentin was to turn State’s evidence before any of the other members of the gang were busted and could beat him to it. There’s usually only one get out of jail free card available in a capital case, and Baxter grabbed it.

Baxter told the cops he’d gone along on the Monohan job as a look-out. Of course that was a lie, he was there to crack the safe supposedly hidden in the house. Shorter further stated that he’d seen Perkins slug Mrs. Monohan on the head with the butt of a gun. He also said that he’d been horrified to witness the murder. That may have been the truest statement he made. He was undoubtedly terrified to have become involved in a death penalty case.

Shorter probably would have walked on the Monohan murder, and lived to commit other crimes, if details of his statement hadn’t been leaked by someone close to the investigation. Once his duplicity became public Baxter Shorter’s days were numbered.

Only a few weeks after the Monohan slaying Baxter Shorter was kidnapped at gun point from his Bunker Hill apartment at 121 North Flower Street. Shorter’s wife, Olivia, identified the two kidnappers as Emmett Perkins and Jack Santos.

The building from where Baxter Shorter was kidnapped.

The building from where Baxter Shorter was kidnapped.

Shorter’s kidnapping left the Burbank cops with a huge problem. He was an eyewitness to the Monohan murder and had been willing to testify in court to save his own sorry ass. If he had really been kidnapped the chances of him being found alive were slim to none.

The car believed to have been used in the kidnapping was found abandoned near an apartment at 5124 Imperial Blvd; and that’s where Emmett Perkins, Jack Santo, and Barbara Graham were busted.

The sedan was owned by one of Jack Santos’ girlfriends, Brenda Pearney of Grass Valley, California. It had recently been repainted and the mat in the rear trunk compartment was missing. Police Chemist Ray Pinker turned up some small pieces of wood and a little yellow flower in the car that he took to the Los Angeles County Museum for identification.

yellow flowerThe wood was ribbon wood, found only in Southern California and usually in the San Jacinto Mountains at an elevation of between 2500 and 3000 feet. The flower had no common name, but was identified as metzelia affnis and it too could be found at elevations of between 2500 and 3000 feet.

If Baxter Shorter’s remains were buried off a lonely mountain road at an elevation of 3000 feet then he was likely as close to heaven as he would ever get.

Emmett Perkins was arraigned on charges of kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon in Shorter’s kidnapping. Barbara Graham was charged with seven counts of forgery. She’d gone on a shopping spree in March and April and had passed $266 worth of rubber checks. Santo was released on the kidnapping beef and walked out of court into the waiting arms of Burbank cops who cuffed him and took him in for questioning on the Monohan slaying. They had to release him for lack of evidence, but he wasn’t free for long. He was soon rearrested and charged with forging a fictitious telegram to Baxter Shorter’s mother. The telegram read:

“Sorry to have been away. See Olive (Olivia) and tell her not to make the mistake ’cause I have to return one of these days. All my love. Baxter”

Circumstantial evidence was beginning to mount.

To add to the drama a new witness in the Monohan case came forward. The witness was an ex-con named William Upshaw. He’d voluntarily surrendered to police when he heard that he was wanted in connection with Shorter’s kidnapping.

Upshaw  was cleared of any involvement in the Shorter kidnapping, and he was the first witness called to testify before the grand jury in the slaying of Mabel Monohan. Cops were understandably edgy because of Shorter’s abrupt disappearance, and they weren’t about to lose another witness. Upshaw was heavily guarded around the clock. He testified that he’d been with the gang: Graham, Perkins, Santo,True and Shorter when they’d cased the Monohan home on the night before the crime. He knew all about the plan and had opted out. He decided that he wanted nothing to do with robbing Las Vegas bigwig Tutor Scherer. He remembered what had happened to Tony Trombino and Tony Brancato back in 1951.

The Two Tonys

The Two Tonys

Trombino and Brancato, known as the Two Tonys, were murdered in a car after cheating Las Vegas gambler Sam Lazes out of $3000 by posing as collectors for a local syndicate gambler. Upsahw had no desire to mess with Vegas and end up like the Two Tonys.indictments headline

On June 3, 1953 Perkins, Santo, True and Graham were indicted by the county grand jury on charges of conspiracy to commit burglary, robbery and murder in the death of Mrs. Mabel Monohan.

The cops and the D.A. lucked out when John True decided to turn State’s Evidence in exchange for his freedom. Apparently the indictment in a capital murder case scared John True straight — or as straight as he could be. Taking no chances with this witness, cops guarded John day and night against possible retaliation.

NEXT TIME: The trial and aftermath.


Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 1


Mabel Monohan

If Mabel Monohan’s former son-in-law Tutor Scherer hadn’t been a Las Vegas gambler, the sixty-four year old widow would never have been murdered.

Mabel Monohan’s daughter, Iris, had been married to Scherer and when they divorced she got to keep their house in Burbank. When Iris remarried and moved to New York, she gave the the place to Mabel. The house was, and still is, in a quiet residential neighborhood in Burbank, and it was ideal for Mabel and her pet Labrador retriever, Ziggy.

Mabel and Tutor had stayed friends, despite the fact that he and her daughter were no longer a couple. Their friendship was enough to cause speculation among L.A. and Vegas cons. The story that circulated was that Scherer trusted his former mother-in-law so much that she routinely kept $100 grand of his money hidden in a safe at home, just in case he needed it.

Monohan's house looks very much the same as it did in March 1953.

Monohan’s house looks very much the same as it did in March 1953.

Jailhouse gossip is a dangerous thing, especially if you’re greedy enough and dumb enough to believe it. Ex-cons Emmett Perkins and Jack Santos were just that gullible, and they were looking for an easy score. What could be easier than robbing a widow in sleepy Burbank?

Mabel and a friend of hers, Mrs. Merle Leslie, had been out together on the evening of March 8, 1953.  On that same night in a San Fernando Valley drive-in restaurant, Jack Santo, Emmett Perkins, John True, Baxter Shorter and Barbara Graham were having a quiet dinner meeting. The four thugs and the attractive redhead were planning to invade Monohan’s home the following night.


Baxter Shorter, safe cracker.

Baxter Shorter, the gang’s safe cracker, wasn’t keen on having a dame along for the job. But Emmett Perkins explained to him that old lady Monohan was a little paranoid about security and she spooked easily — they needed a woman to gain entrance to the house.

With their plan in place the conspirators arranged to meet the following night at a Burbank eatery, the Smoke House Restaurant — less than two miles from their final destination.  They’d eat, wait until it was well after dark, then take two cars to the Monohan home.

Initially, everything went according to plan. The gang met for dinner then, when they felt it was dark enough, they drove over to Monohan’s home. The anticipation was high — $100,000 was one hell of a lot of cash for four ex-cons and a junkie prostitute.

Barbara cleaned up well, and she was going to be the gang’s ticket to the big money. She went up to Mabel’s front door and rang the bell. As predicted, Mabel didn’t immediately open up. A few tense moments ticked by as the porch light came on and the murmur of a muted conversation drifted over to the men who were waiting in the dark.

Barbara had to have been very convincing to persuade Mabel to open her door to a stranger; but she sold the old lady on the story of a broken down car, and how grateful she’d be if she could just use a telephone to call for help. Mabel was reluctant but the young woman was alone, and the widow knew first-hand how scary it could be for a woman on her own at night.

Finally, the men in the cars watched as Mabel opened her door to Barbara.

All hell was about to break loose.

NEXT TIME: Mabel Monohan’s murder.