Felonious Flappers: Bad Girls of the 1920s & 1930s

What is it about Los Angeles that brings out the evil in a woman? Crime writer Raymond Chandler speculated that a local weather phenomenon could cause a woman to contemplate murder: 

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” 

Join me on Tuesday, November 24, 2020 at 7pm PST for a webinar that will introduce you to some of the baddest dames in L.A. history.

The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, Crime Reporter

Aggie interviews a tearful dame.

“There is no killer type.  Slayers range all ages, all sexes. . . Homicide is expected from the hoodlum, the gun moll, the gulled lover.  It isn’t from the teenager, the . . . sweet old lady, the fragile housewife, the respectable gent who is the proverbial pillar of society.

They kill with pistol, rifle, or shotgun; with the blade . . . with poison; with ax, hatchet or hammer; with cord or necktie; with fake accidents; with blunt instruments or with phony drownings.

Killers do not run true to form.  What they have in common is killing.”

The quote is from my favorite Los Angeles crime reporter Aggie Underwood, from her 1949 autobiography, NEWSPAPERWOMAN, and she knew what she was talking about.

During her career as a reporter, Aggie covered nearly every major crime story in the city. Law enforcement respected her and occasionally sought her opinion regarding a suspect. They even credited her with solving a few crimes.  

Cops and journalists have a lot in common. Both professions rely on intuition guided by experience and intelligence. They see the worst that humanity has to offer, but no matter what they witness, they strive to maintain their objectivity. 

Inspired by Aggie, I began this blog in 2012 and wrote her Wikipedia page. In 2016, I curated an exhibit at the Central Library on Aggie’s career and wrote the companion book.

Join me on November 17, 2020 at 7pm PST for the webinar and you will meet one of the most fascinating women in Los Angeles’ history.

Film Noir Friday: The Stranger [1946]

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 THE STRANGER starring Orson Welles (who also directed), Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young.

TCM says:

In post-war Germany, Wilson, an American delegate to the Allied War Crimes Commission, demands that Nazi prisoner of war Meinike be allowed to escape so that he may lead the Commission to his former boss, Franz Kindler, the most dangerous and elusive Nazi of all. Watched carefully by Wilson, the freed Meinike travels to Latin America and there contacts a former Nazi cohort about the whereabouts of Kindler. After some resistance, Meinike learns that Kindler, an avowed clock enthusiast, is living under the name Professor Charles Rankin in a small Vermont town called Harper. 

Dear Mr. Gable, Conclusion

In her effort to prove that Clark Gable fathered her daughter, Gwendolyn, Violet mounted a vigorous media campaign. If you believed her story, he was the man who seduced and abandoned her 14 years earlier in a sleepy English village.

There was limited support for Violet’s fantastical tale. In fact, other than her immediate family (and even they weren’t enthusiastic), Violet’s only supporter was H. Newton, a Birmingham, England factory inspector.

In an interview with the London Daily Express, Newton confirmed that a man calling himself Frank Billings, who bore a striking resemblance to Gable, ran a poultry farm at Billericay “around 1918-1919”. The dates supplied by Newton were a few years earlier than Violet’s alleged affair.

Newton studied a photo of Gable and said,

“That either is Frank Billings or his double, even to the trick of folding one hand over the other.  Yes, he has the same brow, nose, temples and twisted, cynical half-smile.”

Adding another layer of absurdity to the unfolding story was a penny postcard mailed from Tacoma, Washington. It read,

“Dear Sir—The lady is right—Frank Billings is the father of her child, but I am the man. Also am a perfect double for C.G.” 

The perfect double from Tacoma did not come forward.

CLARK GABLE WITH HIS STUNT DOUBLE

Several of Gable’s friends, acquaintances, and a former wife received subpoenas to appear in court. Among those supoenaed was Jimmy Fidler, a radio personality and journalist. Violet wrote to Fidler offering to sell him “for a price” the story of her affair with Clark Gable, the man she knew as Frank Billings.

Violet shared with Fidler her version of how Gable got his screen name. She wrote:

“In Billericay, Essex, England where I was wooed and won by a man known as Frank Billings, but who I now believe to be Clark Gable, this man told me of his love. I later learned, through pictures and a story in a film fan magazine, that he had changed his name to Clark Gable.  It is my belief that he got his name in this way—our grocer, in Billericay was named Clark and he owned an estate he called The Gables.  Hence Clark Gables.”

Yes, Violet frequently referred to the actor as Gables and was apparently unaware of his birthname, William Clark Gable.

The letters to Fidler weren’t the only ones Violet wrote. She attempted to correspond with Mae West, but West’s publicist, Terrell De Lapp, intercepted the missive during a routine vetting of Miss West’s incoming mail.

MAE WEST IN ‘EVERY DAY’S A HOLIDAY”–1937

The letter received at Paramount Studio in January 1936 read:

“Dear Mae West—How would you like to be fairy godmother to Clark Gable’s child.  Nothing could be more lovely than for you, Miss West, to be fairy godmother to my Gwendolyn, and put Clark Gable to shame.”

Despite Violet’s attempts to garner support from Fidler and West, and who knows how many others, Gable had no difficulty refuting her claims. He produced witnesses from the Pacific Northwest to prove that during the time he was allegedly impregnating his accuser, he was selling neckties and working as a lumberjack in Oregon. 

Gable’s first wife, Josephine Dillon, was steadfast in her defense of her former spouse.

JOSEPHINE DILLON–CLARK GABLE’S FIRST WIFE c. 1919

“Clark and I were married in December 1924. But I knew him the year before in Portland, Oregon when he attended my dramatic classes.  To my knowledge, he has never been in England. It is sure he was not there in 1923 or 1924 when we were married, and, therefore, could not be the father of a 13-year-old girl born there at that time.”

Violet’s accusation was ludicrous, but on the plus side the trial afforded hundreds of women an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the man who would become The King of Hollywood. Secretaries and stenographers in the Federal Building held an impromptu reception for him. He autographed mementoes and chatted with them. They were in heaven.

In the hallway prior to testifying, Gable chain smoked and appeared a little nervous. He told reporters:

“It’s my first court appearance. I don’t know what to expect.”

In court, Gable testified that he did not recognize the woman in court.

For her part, Violet remarked sotto voce to her attorney:

“That’s him.  I’d know him anywhere.”

Courtroom spectators, keen to see Gable face his alleged progeny, were disappointed when he wasn’t required to appear during her testimony.

Judge Cosgrave wasn’t well-pleased that Gwendolyn was subpoenaed to appear.

“I regret that this witness has to be called at all, and I insist that her examination be limited only to extremely necessary points bearing on the charges in the indictment.”

Gwendolyn had nothing substantive to a add to her mother’s scheme—the girl was Violet’s pawn.

The jury began deliberations at 3:40 pm on April 23, 1937 and returned with their verdict at 5:20 pm.  They found Violet guilty of fraudulent usage of the mails.

As Gwendolyn attempted to console her distraught mother, reporters reached Gable by telephone. He said:

“Of necessity, the woman’s charges were false, in view of the fact that I have never been in England and had never seen her until the trial began.  It is unfortunate, of course, the she must come to grief in this manner, particularly because of her children.”

U.S. Attorney Powell, who prosecuted Violet, was not as understanding as Gable.

“This woman should be made an example, that men of Clark Gable’s type cannot be crucified in such a manner.”

Powell went on to describe Clark’s ascent to stardom:

“Clark Gable has pulled himself up by the bootstraps, out of an obscure background. He worked as a lumberjack, longshoreman, struggling actor, to achieve the ambition which drove him on to a $250,000-a-year salary.”

Attorney Morris Lavine, who would handle Violet’s appeals, defended her.

“She was simply calling to her sweetheart.  She was sincere,” he said.

It is doubtful that Morris Lavine believed a word Violet said, but he was an attorney known to go the extra mile for a client. Violet was lucky to have him as her appeals attorney. (Lavine’s life and career in Los Angeles is a topic I’ll cover in future posts. He was a fascinating man and the self-described “defender of the damned.”)

The appeal Lavine filed on Violet’s behalf was nothing short of brilliant. He contended that her letter did not fall within the statute concerning mail fraud.

The court agreed with Lavine and ruled in Violet’s favor in October 1937. They characterized Violet’s plan as “a scheme to coerce or extort and is a species of blackmail.”

If local authorities had filed on Violet for blackmail or extortion she would have done more time.

In February 1938, following the success of her appeal, Violet faced deportation. An action was filed on the grounds that she had overstayed her visa and that she committed a crime involving moral turpitude. Lavine told reporters that Violet would stay with a sister in Vancouver.

Gwendolyn did not accompany her mother to Canada. She was placed in a private school by a local religious organization and was required to remain there until June.

Was Violet a greedy blackmailer or a delusional dreamer? We’ll never know for sure.

Clark Gable received thousands of fan letters over the course of his decades long career. Violet’s letter was an unwelcome anomaly. The adoring letter written to him by Judy Garland in the movie Broadway Melody of 1938 was probably a more accurate depiction of the kinds of letters he received.

As Judy writes she sings, You Made Me Love You.” She performed the song earlier, in 1936, at Gable’s birthday party. It is one reason she got the part in the film which helped launch her career.

Dear Mr. Gable

From 1931 to 1932, Clark Gable went from relatively unknown to a superstar. Bags crammed full of fan letters from adoring women, and the occasional man, arrived at MGM. One male fan described Gable in a letter to Picture Play magazine:

Tall, dark, and steely eyed, he walks among men, yet strangely apart from his fellows. One minute a nobody, and then–a giant of the screen! Just one more actor looking for his coffee and cake and then–a star of stars!

Seeing him in films like “Dance, Fools, Dance,” “The Finger Points,” and “A Free Soul,” women compared Gable to earlier heart-throb, Rudolph Valentino.

Movies provided a welcome escape for Depression-weary audiences. Among the throngs of movie-goers was Violet Wells Norton.  She sat in a darkened theater in Canada, her eyes glued to the screen. Everyone else in the audience saw Clark Gable. Violet didn’t see Gable, she saw Frank Billings, the father of her daughter Gwendolyn.

Frank Billings?

Violet met Frank Billings in 1923 in Billericay, Essex, England.  Billings was her neighbor and one night he overheard Violet and the man she called her husband arguing. Offering a shoulder to cry on, and a warm bed to lie in, Frank Billings fathered a daughter Violet named Gwendolyn.

Frank had no interest in fatherhood, and even less in a woman he considered damaged goods. He abandoned her and left for his home in the U.S.  Violet did not see Frank again until years later when he appeared before her on a movie screen.

In 1925 Violet married Herbert James Norton and moved with him to Winnipeg, Canada. They separated on November 23, 1934.

For two years Violet wrote to Gable. She never received a reply. Gable was aware of the letters and ignored them as the ravings of a crank.

Violet traveled to Hollywood in October 1936 to confront Gable with his teenaged daughter Gwendolyn and convince him to set up a trust fund for her education. Or, failing that, purchase one or all of the four scripts she penned: Gipsy Nell’s Revenge, Love in a Cottage, Love at First Sight and The Spirit Mother.

Gable turned Violet’s letters over to police. He said he was never in England, never met Violet, and was not a papa.

Federal authorities indicted Violet for mail fraud. The letter on which the Feds based the mail fraud charge came from 451 Cumberland Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, mailed on March 9, 1936, addressed to Clark Gable, MGM, Beverly Hills, and signed Violet N.

Following her indictment, Violet addressed the press.

“Don’t misconstruct (sic) me!” she said.

She explained that she merely asked “Gables”, as she called him, to support her daughter or buy her scripts. Violet asserted her requests were reasonable. From her jail cell, she said, “He looks like the Frank Billings I knew in 1923. I’d like to see him in person.”

Gable dismissed Violet’s accusations as “silly and fantastic.”

Were they?

NEXT TIME: Violet Norton, delusional, or. . . ?

Film Noir Friday: Nightfall

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 NIGHTFALL starring Aldo Ray, Brian Keith and Anne Bancroft.

TCM says:

As James Vanning furtively roams the street of Los Angeles, a man stops him and asks for a light. Afterward, Jim wanders into a bar and meets Marie Gardner when she asks him to lend her five dollars because she misplaced her wallet. After she shows him her driver’s license and promises to send the money to him the next morning, he hands her a five dollar bill and invites her to dinner. Meanwhile, the man in the street, an insurance investigator named Ben Fraser who has been trailing Jim for three months in hopes of retrieving $350,000 Jim allegedly stole from a bank, returns home and confides to his wife Laura that he thinks Jim may be innocent.

One Hundred Forty Dollars a Day, Conclusion

Imagine being 31-years-old and looking at life in prison. Craig Coley didn’t have to imagine it.

There are few decent options for a man in prison, but dozens of opportunities for him to further screw up his life.  Craig faced a choice. He could involve himself in gangs, drugs and violence, or he could preserve his humanity.

Craig chose the latter.

He maintained his innocence from the moment of his arrest, and he never wavered.  But protestations of innocence are not evidence.  The guilty often shout the loudest about how they have been betrayed by the legal system.  

Craig adjusted to prison, as well as anyone can, but a part of him never gave up hope. Another lifer at Folsom taught him how to make jewelry. He placed his items in the gift shop and sent the proceeds to his mom to hire investigators.

Folsom Prison

As Craig faced his tenth year in prison, a Simi Valley detective, Michael Bender, came across Craig’s case file. After reading it over he said, “. . . a real investigation hadn’t occurred.”

Mike Bender

Soon after reading the file, Mike went to visit Craig in prison.  He talked to Craig, and at the end of it he believed in Craig’s innocence.  He said, “In dealing with a lot of bad guys over the years, there are mannerisms and body language you come to know. He [Craig] didn’t have that.”

Craig had gained a tough advocate who understood the system.  Mike didn’t just appear tough. In 1985 he earned the title of Toughest Cop Alive. He competed against cops from the world over.

The competition is based on athletic prowess. When he won the world competition Mike was 450 points ahead of his nearest competitor. Mike earned the title several times.

To have even the slightest chance of winning Craig’s release, Mike needed every bit of physical and mental strength he possessed. He didn’t know it but he had entered a marathon.

Back at Simi Valley PD, Mike talked to his supervising lieutenant, the same man who was in charge of the original murder investigation. He was not interested in having the Coley case second guessed and possibly overturned.

Unwilling to give up, Mike took Craig’s case to the city manager, city attorney, a local congressman, the attorney general of the State of California, the ACLU and the FBI.

In 1991, Mike was ordered to stop pushing the case or face termination. Mike quit the police department and left Simi Valley. He took with him 16 boxes of files that Craig’s mother had amassed.

Every Saturday Mike and Craig talked on the phone. Mike visited the prison when he could. His daughter or Craig’s mother would often accompany him (Craig’s father passed away in 1989).

Rather than dwell on what seemed impossible, Craig put his energy into running a support program for incarcerated veterans. He was a mentor and a model prisoner.

Craig became a practicing Christian in 2005. He said it helped him “cut out all the nonsense.” He earned degrees in theology, Biblical studies and Biblical counseling.

Mike and his family moved to Northern California in 1991. They stayed there until 2003, when they relocated to Carlsbad near San Diego.

During all those years, Mike never stopped trying to get Craig’s case re-examined.

A turning point in the case came in September 2015 when then Gov. Brown agreed to conduct an investigation. In 2016, Mike met with David Livingstone, the new Simi Valley Police Chief, who began his own investigation with the Ventura County District Attorney’s office.

On November 11, 2017—the 39th anniversary of the crime—investigators went back to the apartment building where the crime occurred. They went to the apartment where the neighbor said she saw Coley’s truck and looked out the window at 5:30 a.m.—as she said she did. The investigators determined that the lighting conditions made it difficult to see any details on vehicles below and that it was impossible to see inside any vehicle.

In many cases where someone is wrongly accused it is DNA evidence that is the key that unlocks the cell door. It was no different for Craig.  DNA evidence which was supposed to have been destroyed, was discovered in storage at the original testing lab. The sperm, blood and skin cells on Rhonda’s sheets and clothing belonged to another man.

No DNA evidence was found to connect Craig to Donnie’s murder, either.

Craig Coley in High School c. 1964 ate 16

On November 22, 2017, Governor Brown granted Coley a pardon based on innocence. The pardon said, “Mr. Coley had no criminal history before being arrested for these crimes and he has been a model inmate for nearly four decades. In prison, he has avoided gangs and violence. Instead, he has dedicated himself to religion. The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary.”

Craig was released later that day, in time to spend Thanksgiving dinner with Mike and his family.  About his release, Craig said, “You dream about it, you hope for it, but when it happens, it’s a shock. To experience it was something I never thought would feel as good. It was joy, just pure joy. I got all tingly in my stomach and then I was bawling like a baby for a while.”

On November 29, an attorney for Coley asked that Coley’s conviction be vacated. That motion was granted and the judge issued a finding of actual innocence.

In February 2018, Gov. Brown approved a $1.95 million payment. That is $140 for each day he was wrongfully behind bars.

In June 2018, Coley filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from the city of Simi and Ventura County. In February 2019, Simi Valley settled with Coley for $21 million.

That Craig fought to win his release is no surprise; but why did Mike spend 28 years of his life fighting for Craig’s freedom?  Mike summed it up, “I always believed in truth, integrity and honor. “I’m glad this story has a happy ending. If I was on my deathbed knowing he was still in prison, I would have had a hard time with that.”

EPILOGUE

Following Craig Coley’s release from prison there was a new suspect in the murders of Rhonda and Donnie Wicht – Joseph James DeAngelo – the Golden State Killer. 

This headline dated June 16, 2020

DNA cleared Craig of the murders, and it also cleared DeAngelo. 

Joseph James DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer

Unless the killer is dead or incarcerated, Rhonda and Donnie’s killer is still out there.

One Hundred Forty Dollars a Day, Part 2

Craig Coley, who managed a Carl’s restaurant in Van Nuys, was taken into custody within hours of the murders.  He was the logical suspect. Rhonda ended their two-year relationship and Craig was said to have taken it hard. Did his broken-heart morph into a murderous rage? Could he have raped and murdered the woman he said he loved and then strangled to death the boy he treated like a son?

His friends and family didn’t believe the Vietnam vet was capable of such brutality. He’d never been in trouble with the law – in fact, his father was retired from the Los Angeles Police Department.  Craig grew up with respect for the law, and his subsequent military career set those early values in concrete.

Craig Coley and his parents

No matter what accusations the detectives made during their interrogation, they could not shift Craig – he was adamant that he was innocent. The law disagreed.

Craig was bound over for trial. The crime was Simi’s first double homicide, and Deputy D.A. William Maxwell announced that he would seek the death penalty.

The trial began on February 9, 1979.

The most compelling evidence against Craig were the statements of two of Rhonda’s neighbors. The man downstairs from Rhonda, Glen Watkins, a bus driver, told investigators that he heard noises in her apartment at 4:30 a.m.  He later amended his statement and said that he heard the noises at 5:30 a.m.  A woman who lived in the building reported seeing Craig’s truck drive away from the scene.

Compounding the case against Craig were a bloody towel and t-shirt detectives found in his apartment. He also had minor cuts and abrasions on his body. Criminalists found semen on Rhonda’s sheets, but this was several years before the discovery of DNA, so there was no way to rule Craig out as the donor.

The defense challenged the prosecution’s case at every turn.  They summoned their own experts and called many of Craig’s family members and friends to testify to his character. They even put Craig on the stand – a risky move – but the defense team believed in their client.

The defense called the Simi Valley Police Department incompetent for not pursuing other suspects in the case: Jim Ireton, a friend of Rhonda’s; Robert Bower, a cousin, and Watkins, a bus driver, who lived in the apartment below Rhonda’s. Why, the defense demanded, weren’t other suspects subjected to the same intense questioning Craig had endured?

The trial lasted four weeks.  The defense planted enough reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds to cause a mistrial. The final tally was 10 to 2 in favor of conviction.

The district attorney vowed to refile.

The second trial revealed a surprising advocate for Craig, the Simi Valley Mirror. Not everyone in Simi was thrilled by the Mirror’s support. A city council member said, “It’s embarrassing and upsetting to me and many people, but the local papers seem to have lost some of their cool in this case.  As a result, plenty of people are upset.”

The Mirror’s publisher, James A. Whitehead, published an editorial with the headline, “Coley Truly Appears to be Wrong Man.”  In the editorial, Whitehead compared Craig’s trial to the infamous trial of Sam Sheppard in Cleveland two decades earlier.  Sam Sheppard, a surgeon, was convicted of killing his wife in their home in 1954.

Whitehead said, “The Mirror is firmly convinced that Glen Watkins (the bus driver) should be arrested as he is definitely a suspect of committing murder in the first degree.” 

Watkins testified for the prosecution, and the Mirror went after him; “Frustration prevailed as Glen Watkins left the Superior Court Room after he practically confessed to killing Rhonda and Donnie Wicht in their Buyers Street apartment last November 11, 1978.

The Simi Enterprise interpreted Watkins’ testimony in a different way: “During cross-examination, (Public Defender Don) Griffin asked Watkins if he committed the crimes and Watkins denied any involvement.” 

Hardly surprising that he would the murders if he was guilty. But then the same thing could be said of Craig Coley.

In the end it is only the opinion of the jury that matters, and they found Craig guilty of the murders. Whitehead said he was in “total shock” over the verdict.

A photo of Craig Coley being arrested by Rick Freeman of the Simi Valley Police Department in 1978 ,

Prosecutor Maxwell didn’t get the death penalty he sought. Craig was sentenced to life in prison without parole.  

 Craig’s conviction should have ended the case. But it didn’t.

NEXT TIME:  Justice delayed?