Policewoman of the Year, Conclusion

Florence Coberly testifies at the Parra inquest. (Photo courtesy USC Digital Archive)

In 1952, LAPD Policewoman Florence Coberly had a bright future in law enforcement. She helped take down a career sex criminal, Joe Parra, in a treacherous sting operation.

Florence stayed tough during the inquest following Parra’s shooting—even when his brother Ysmael shouted and lunged at photographers. She appeared on television and received honors at awards banquets all over town.

After three years of marriage, she divorced her husband Frank in 1955. We’ve heard countless times how tough it is to be a cop’s wife, but I imagine being the husband of a cop is not any easier. The unpredictable hours and the danger can be enough to send any spouse out the door forever.

We don’t really know what caused the Coberly’s marriage to dissolve. The divorce notice appeared in the June 29, 1955 edition of the L.A. Times, but it was legal information only and gave no hint of the personal issues which may have caused the couple to break up.

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

With no further mention of Florence in the Times for several years, we can assume that her career was on track. Then, nearly six years after the Parra incident, on July 2, 1958, the Times ran a piece buried in the back pages of the “B” section under the headline: Policewoman’s Mother Convicted of Shoplifting.

A jury of eleven women and one man found Mrs. Gertrude Klearman, Florence’s fifty-three-year-old mother, guilty of shoplifting. It is embarrassing to have your mom convicted of shoplifting, and it is worse if you are in law enforcement. But it is orders of magnitude more humiliating if you are a police officer busted WITH your mother for shoplifting.

According to George Sellinger, an off-duty police officer working as a store detective to supplement his income, Florence and her mother stole two packages of knockwurst, a can of coffee, a package of wieners and an avocado–$2.22 worth of merchandise. The accusation could destroy Florence’s career.   

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

At her misdemeanor trial Florence’s attorney, Frank Rothman, vigorously questioned Sellinger and got him to admit that he had not actually seen Florence stuff the food items into her purse. He pressured her to submit to a search outside the grocery store based on the scant evidence seeing her with packages in her hand. Rothman made the case for illegal search and Florence got off on the technicality.

LAPD in the late 1950s was touchy about any hint of scandal or misbehavior by its officers. During the decades prior to William H. Parker’s ascension to Chief, the institution watched as some of their number went to prison for graft and corruption.

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

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

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

Florence’s hearing began on July 22, 1958, before a board composed of Thad Brown, chief of detectives, and Capts. John Smyre and Chester Welch. Even though a civilian court of law exonerated Florence, the board found her guilty and ordered her dismissed from LAPD.

Florence at the police board hearing. (Photo courtesy USC digital archive)

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

In February 1959, Florence sued in superior court, seeking to be reinstated. She directed her complaint against Chief Parker and the Board of Rights Commission.

Florence denied her guilt in the shoplifting charge. She contended that the evidence applied only to her mother.  

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

I salute Florence for her no-holds-barred, kick-ass entry into policing in 1952; and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one last time that fantastic bandolier that dangled from her belt. I maintain my position that women police officers know how to accessorize.

If you want to know more about Florence, a reader kindly sent me a link to this LAPD press release.

MANY THANKS to my friend and frequent partner in historic crime, Mike Fratantoni. He knows the BEST stories.

NOTE: This is an update and revision of a previous post.

Policewoman of the Year–Part 1

March is nearly half gone and I’ve yet to commemorate Women’s History Month. Let me remedy that now with a post about Florence Coberly—a complicated and fascinating woman.

LAPD 77th Street Station

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

To nab the guy, they set a trap with bait he could not resist, policewoman Florence Coberly.

Florence, in her mid-twenties and recently married, was new to the job. What she lacked in street experience, she made up for in her confident manner and academy training.

Policewoman Florence Coberly

Florence and another policewoman, Marie Little, acted as decoys while patrol officers and detectives cast a net that extended from Broadway to San Pedro Street, and from Manchester Avenue to 67th Street. They deployed officers on foot and in squad cars while the two policewomen attempted to lure the reptile out from under his rock.

The massive stake-out began on the evening of July 31st. Florence, dressed in a pencil skirt with a kick-pleat in the front, a short-sleeved white blouse and a pair of sweet little pumps, was an undeniably appealing target. She walked along the dark street swinging her white handbag in time with her gait like she hadn’t a care in the world.

As she walked along the sidewalk, a man accosted her and asked her to have a drink with him. He kept following her saying, “Would you like to have a little fun?” Florence brushed him off, “No, not tonight, Junior.”

The man disappeared and Florence kept walking. As she passed the darkened doorway of 8209 South San Pedro, the same man emerged and grabbed her. Stunned, Florence took one step backward. He grabbed her again, pulled her into the doorway and shoved a gun into her chest. He held her close with one arm. He said, “Don’t make no noise—I want to kiss you.” She told him he could.  She would do anything to keep him from finding the gun beneath her jacket in a holster at her waist.

Pretending to loosen her skirt, she reached for her police whistle. She put it to her lips and blew as hard as she could. The whistle blast signaled detectives concealed nearby that she was in trouble.

Her assailant demanded to know, “What the hell do you think you are doing?” Before she could answer, he slugged her on the jaw. Florence went down as the man continued to beat her.

Colleagues examine Florence’s injuries.

Two detectives, Frank Marz and Walter Clago, heard the whistle and screeched up in a squad car. They arrived in time to see the suspect flee the scene. Meanwhile, Florence pulled out her revolver and fired. One of her rounds pierced the assailant’s left lung.

Note the nifty little bandoleer dangling from Florence’s skirt. Policewomen knew how to accessorize! [Photo courtesy USC Digital Archive]

Detective Clago assisted Florence to her feet as Detective Marz set off in pursuit of the would-be molester yelling at him to “Stop in the name of the law!”. The admonition fell on deaf ears. Marz fired his service revolver five times at the suspect and missed each time.

Detective Marz saw the suspect head toward a car parked on 82nd Street. It was dark, yet Marz could make out the shadow of a man in the driver’s seat behind the wheel. The man didn’t wait for his passenger. With the crack of gunfire, the car sped off into the night.

Still photo from the film noir, THE BIG COMBO, 1955.

Detective Marz watched as the suspect lurched behind a house at 253 East 82nd Street. With a single round left in his revolver, Marz fired and the suspect collapsed.

Identified as Joe L. Parra, of 8465 South San Pedro Street, the dead man, recently paroled from San Quentin, did time for multiple counts of robbery, burglary and sex crimes. His arrest record was extensive. His most recent arrest was on a robbery charge the month before his death, but they had to kick him loose for insufficient evidence.

A bullet ends Joe Parra’s criminal career. [Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

About an hour after Joe died in the debris-filled dirt near a couple of discarded metal signs, police located the wheelman, the person who abandoned Parra on 82nd Street. The getaway driver was seventeen-year-old Henry P. Parra, the dead man’s nephew.

Henry ‘fessed up pretty quickly and admitted that he went with his uncle several times on late night purse snatching raids. I doubt that the kid knew what else uncle Joe was up to on their midnight forays.

Florence received accolades for her role in ending Parra’s reign of terror. The newspapers credited Marz with firing the fatal round; but I have it on good authority that Florence delivered the kill shot.

Johnny Dugan, local L.A. television celebrity.

The camera loved Florence and she appeared in newspapers all over the county. A local TV show host, Johnny Dugan, had her as a guest on his show.

In February 1953, the Exchange Club named Florence “Policewoman of the Year”. She basked in the limelight.

In June 1954, the Los Angeles Policewoman’s Association honored her at a dinner-dance. The guest list included Sergeants Joe Friday and Frank Smith (Jack Webb and Ben Alexander) of the Dragnet series. The two fictional policemen shared the spotlight with LAPD’s Chief of Police William H. Parker and his wife.

DRAGNET — Pictured: (l-r) Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, Ben Alexander as Officer Frank Smith — Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

Florence had every reason to expect more star-studded evenings in her future. Who knows, with such an auspicious beginning she could end up with an enviable spot in the LAPD hierarchy. With just over 100 women on the force, there wasn’t much female competition in the ranks in those days.

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

NEXT TIME: Policewoman of the Year stumbles.

NOTE: This post is a revised version of a 2014 post.

Premature Burial

The following tale is especially terrifying for me. Maybe it was my childhood reading of the Edgar Allan Poe story, The Premature Burial, that has given me an absolute terror of being buried alive. Maybe I had a previous life in Victorian England where their fears of being buried alive reached hysterical levels.

Assuming I predecease him, I’ve instructed my husband to allow me ripen before disposing of my body. Seriously. I know that of the fates likely to befall me, premature burial is way down on the list. This is one of those fears that resists common sense.

I know I’m not alone because clever Victorians devised various methods to avoid premature burial, like the safety coffin. No. I am not making this up.

Some coffins, like the one below, allowed the incarcerated victim to wave a flag, ring a bell, and to speak through a tube that reached to the surface to let passersby know someone alive was inside. In fact, such a coffin may be the origin of the saying, “saved by the bell.”

Enough about my personal fears—and forgive my digression. Let’s get to the story of Marie Billings who faced my biggest terror and lived to talk about it.

Late in the afternoon of May 9, 1928, Marie Billings answered a knock on her front door. A man stood waiting for her. He was tall, about 6’ 4”, and wore a dark suit with a grey pinstripe. He said he was a real estate salesman and interested in purchasing the home she shared with her husband, Howard, a local manufacturer.

Marie and Howard didn’t plan to sell their home at 5911 Allston Street in Montebello. Even so, she figured that there was no harm in listening to the salesman’s pitch. The two began a conversation and he followed her in to the house.

Without warning he slugged her over the head with a club he must have had concealed. Marie struggled in vain. Her attacker ripped her clothing and bound her with an electrical cord. Rendered helpless, she felt a silk stocking wind around her throat as the man choked her into unconsciousness. The stocking was removed from her neck and used to gag her. She was wrapped in a blanket and carried to his car, a Ford coupe.  

1928 Ford coupe

He drove her about eight miles to Turnbull Canyon in Whittier. Marie lay unmoving in the dirt. The man bent down and felt her pulse. She was still alive, so he beat her with an iron bar to finish her off.

Satisfied that she was dead, he covered her with dirt, brush, and leaves. He drove away.

Map of route from Marie’s home to Turnbull Canyon

Marie awoke and realized she was in a grave. HER grave. She resisted the urge to scream. Unable to breathe, she fought her way to the surface. She had just enough strength to free herself.

Badly beaten, Marie crawled two hundred yards to a nearby road. In her arms she carried the bloody blanket in which she was wrapped by her kidnapper. Her restraints trailed behind her.

She reached the road and flagged down a car driven by by W. J. Collins, a taxi driver. Collins drove her to the Murphy Memorial Hospital in Whittier.

Murphy Memorial Hospital

Medical staff phoned the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Under the direction of Captain William Bright, an investigation into Marie’s assault and attempted murder began.

Marie recovered enough to be interviewed by detectives. She gave a chilling account of her battering at the hands of a man she said seemed familiar. He was the same real estate agent who visited her home a year earlier.

Claude Peters of the homicide squad interviewed Mrs. Robert D. Ellis, who lived within a block of the Billings home.  Based on Marie’s description of her attacker, Mrs. Ellis thought she recalled seeing him. She said, “I saw a man leaving the Billings house two or three days before the attack. He was carrying a large package and got into a Ford coupe and drove away.”

Based on the scant evidence they possessed, the sheriff’s department introduced an interesting theory of the crime that included a second suspect. They suggested that two accomplices battled to the death over Marie’s $500 diamond ring.

Alternatively, a second man may have witnessed the crime and attempted a rescue, which ended in his own death and burial.

Howard, Marie’s husband, began his own investigation. He visited the makeshift grave and found a piece of torn clothing with a powder-burned bullet hole. He delivered the potential evidence to Captain Bright.

In a search of the Billings home, deputies found a length of pipe with one clear fingerprint on it. They hoped that it would lead them to a suspect—it did not. Tantalizing bits of evidence that led nowhere.

The case went cold. Detectives never found a second grave, and the identify of Marie’s attacker stayed a mystery.  

This is one of those cases that will remain an itch I can’t scratch. I can only imagine how much it bothered the investigators who worked it at the time.

The man who attacked Marie was a sadistic monster. Did he commit other crimes? We will never know.

Harvey Glatman: The Glamour Girl Slayer

Judy Dull

Harvey Glatman was hard-wired for deviance.

His parents once found him with a string tied around his penis, the loose end of which he had placed in a drawer, he was leaning backwards so that the string pulled taught. He was four years old.

Their son’s behavior alarmed his parents, but his indulgent mother, Ophelia, believed he would grow out of his peculiar habits. His father Albert hoped that discipline would straighten the boy out. His parents faced bitter disappointment. Nothing and no one would prevent Harvey from pursuing his pleasures.

Puberty is a confusing time, perhaps more so for a young man whose fantasies and desires don’t include holding hands at the local malt shop, or pinning a corsage on a prom dress. Not that he could have done those things even if his desires had been more typical — Harvey was painfully shy around girls and he was further handicapped by looks that earned him the nicknames “Weasel” and “Chipmunk”.

If Harvey was going to have a sex life, he was going to have to build it on nocturnal home break-ins, stolen lingerie and a length of rope.

Join me for an in-depth examination of Harvey Glatman’s life and crimes.

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The Attic Love Slave: Dolly and Otto’s Bizarre Affair — Redux

Due to an audio glitch on February 9th, this webinar has been rescheduled to February 16, 2021 at 7 pm.

Please join me for one of the wackiest, and most deranged, love stories in L.A.’s history.

There is always some madness in love.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

On the evening of August 22, 1922, at about 10:30 pm, Fred Oesterreich and his wife Walburga, nicknamed Dolly, returned to their home at 858 North La Fayette Place after visiting friends in the Wilshire district.

The couple engaged in a bitter argument as they crossed the threshold of their home; however, it was not unusual for the heavy-drinking apron manufacturer and his wife to shout at each other. After over 25 years of marriage each was armed with a vast stockpile of grievances to hurl with deadly accuracy at the other.

Their evenings customarily ended when the combatants retired to their separate quarters to lick their wounds; but this night ended like no other before it. Moments after arriving home, Dolly found herself locked in her upstairs bedroom closet screaming for help. Fred lay dead in a pool of his own blood on the floor downstairs near the front door.

Publicly, the police attributed Fred’s murder to burglars. Privately, they were skeptical of Dolly’s account. With detectives unable to substantiate their suspicions with hard evidence—Fred’s case went cold.

In 1930, Fred’s killer came forward and revealed a bizarre tale of sex, murder, and attics.

Join me on Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 7 p.m. Pacific time for a webinar about the strangest love affair in L.A.’s history.

If you can’t watch the live presentation, it will be recorded and available on demand via BigMarker.

Film Noir Friday on Saturday Night! Adventure in Manhattan [1936]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

Tonight’s feature is ADVENTURE IN MANHATTAN starring Joel McCrae and Jean Arthur.

TCM says:

To cover the theft of the Koor-Hal ruby, newspaper editor Phil Bane calls in ace crime reporter George Melville. George arrogantly predicts to his fellow reporters the next crime to occur and is proven correct, as always. When an accident takes place outside the pool hall where the reporters congregate, George follows a suspicious woman, Claire Peyton, whom he sees begging one moment, then exiting a store in fancy dress only minutes later. George forces her to have dinner with him, and during the meal, she explains that she left a cruel husband for another man and then left him. That evening, she explains, she is to be allowed to see her daughter for the first time in years, but upon arrival, at her ex-husband’s house she discovers only a coffin.

The Black Dahlia: January 15, 1947

Bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held Los Angeles residents in its grip for several days, Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne walked south on the west side of Norton in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles suburb. Midway down the block Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds fifty feet north of a fire hydrant and about a foot in from the sidewalk.

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or a live nude woman who had passed out. 

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Betty Bersinger recreates her phone call to police.

It took a moment before Bersinger realized she was in a waking nightmare.  The bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk.

Bersinger later recalled, “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 person who made that claim was Will Fowler.

Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner approached Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an intriguing call on their shortwave radio.  It was a police call and Fowler couldn’t believe his ears. A naked woman, possibly drunk, was found in a vacant lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets.  Fowler turned to Pagel and said, “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 hopped out of the car and approached the woman as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk. Fowler called out, “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”

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Will Fowler crouches down near Jane Doe’s body.

That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. He said he closed the dead girl’s eyes. But was his story true?

There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first on the scene; and in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first.

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Aggie Underwood on Norton Avenue, January 15, 1947

After 74-years does it really matter?  All those who saw the murdered girl that day saw the same horrifying sight and it left an indelible impression.  Aggie described what she observed:

“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.”

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Air brushed newspaper photo of Jane Doe

The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.

Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, took charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is finis-brown_harry-hansen_dahlia.jpg

The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three-year-old transient, Cecil French. He was busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.

Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car. He was dropped from the list of hot suspects.

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Ray Pinker

In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case until a much better one was discovered—the Black Dahlia.

Unsolved Homicides & Mysterious Disappearances of Women in Los Angeles During the 1940s

This month is the seventy-fourth anniversary of the murder of Elizabeth Short–the Black Dahlia.

I will write about the case in the blog again this year, as I have every year since 2013. In addition to writing about the case, I am offering a webinar (see below) on four unsolved homicides (including Elizabeth Short) of women in Los Angeles during the 1940s.

Elizabeth Short’s funeral

The unsolved murders are tragic; but at least family members and other loved ones had a body to mourn and to lay to rest.

Disappearances haunt the living. Did the person leave by choice, or were they taken against their will? As the years pass, the unanswered questions echo in lonely rooms. Broken hearts never quite mend.

In 1949, two very different women vanished in Los Angeles.

MIMI BOOMHOWER

On August 19, 1949, forty-eight-year-old socialite, Mimi Boomhower, known as the ‘Merry Widow’, disappeared from her Bel-Air home. When police arrived for a welfare check, the lights were on and a salad was left out on the dining table. One of Mimi’s dresses was laid out on her bed. Her car was still in the garage and there was no sign of a robbery.

Jean Spangler, a twenty-six-year-old dancer, model, and actress, left her home at 5pm on October 7, 1949. She was supposed to meet her ex-husband to discuss child support payments and then she was expected to be at a night shoot for a film. Jean didn’t arrive at either of her appointments.

JEAN SPANGLER

At 7pm on Tuesday, January 12, 2021, we’ll discuss the homicides, disappearances, and why Los Angeles was such a dangerous place for women in the 1940s.