A New Year’s Eve Tragedy

Jay William Campbell’s day job was milkman, but he loved to fly. On December 31, 1951, he and his 7-year-old daughter, Judy, drove from their Van Nuys home to the San Fernando Airport. As a special New Year’s Eve treat, Jay planned to take Judy for a plane ride. They’d been up together before and she thoroughly enjoyed it.

Judy was the image of her mother, Mary. Mary wasn’t along for the plane ride though—Jay had not mentioned it to her. When he left with Judy all he said was “Be ready at 4:30, I’ll take you and Judy out for dinner.”

Mary was encouraged by Jay’s attitude—things were looking up for 1952. It was a relief to see him interested in a family outing. They recently came through a rough patch in their marriage; in fact, a few weeks earlier she was ready to go to Reno for a divorce.

Mary didn’t want to end their marriage She loved Jay and wanted to work things out. In recent days they seemed to be putting their problems behind them. Maybe they could get back the love they had when they were first married.

They started out like many young couples did in the 1940s. Jay was already registered for the draft when they married in June 1942. The U.S. entered the war in December 1941, and it was only a matter of time before Jay would be in the service. Rather than be drafted into the army, Jay enlisted in the navy.

It isn’t clear when Jay’s emotional problems began, but they were severe enough by 1943 for the navy to discharge him as a psycho-neurotic.  

Mary described Jay’s state of mind. “He was up in the clouds one day and down in the dumps the next. He was always in an emotional turmoil.”

Theirs should have been the perfect post-war family, but Jay couldn’t resolve his problems. He was, according to Mary, “…a worrier by nature.” But Jay’s worrying took a troubling turn.  He was paranoid and jealous. He was convinced Mary was cheating on him with a family friend named Chet.

Mary denied the affair and tried to soothe Jay’s fears. In mid-December she wrote him a note and packed it with his lunch. The note read:

Jay Dearest–I gave you a reason to doubt my love for you and now I have to do something to chase away the doubt.  I couldn’t live without you at my side where you belong.   I’ll always want to be yours and please dear be as you are and don’t change.  I really love you.

Your Mary.

At 4:30 Mary heard a small plane over house. Jay hadn’t mentioned taking Judy for a plane ride, but he had mentioned dinner at 4:30. He could be buzzing the house, he’d done it before.

Mary stepped outside but didn’t recognize the aircraft; even so she had a premonition. As she watched the small plane appeared to stop for a second in sky; then it spiraled downward. The plane ripped into several 4800-volt power lines. The neighborhood was plunged into darkness. The only light came from the burning plane which smashed into the playground of Judy’s elementary school across the street.

Mary’s premonition came true. Fireman had to cut the twisted metal away from Jay and Judy’s bodies before they could pull them out. They died on impact. Among Jay’s personal effects was a color photo of Mary and Judy. The photo was a Christmas gift.

What happened?  Why did the plane go down? Jay was a competent pilot; he’d had a commercial license for 3 years. Was there a mechanical failure? The answer was in a note found in the glove compartment of Jay’s car.

The note was addressed to Mary and it read:

It seems that the price one has to pay for happiness isn’t so easy to pay.  I have lost everything so that you may start anew.  You have lost me and every part of me today, including Judy.  Can you ever tell yourself that Chet was worth it all?  Please pay Mort Kamm about $600 for his airplane. Keep telling yourself that everyone gets over everything.  It may help you, but I doubt it. I have always loved you even if you haven’t loved me.  Don’t ever live a lie again.

Your Jay and Judy.

The deaths were officially listed as suicide and murder.

Funeral rites were conducted in Wee Kirk o’ the Heather at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale on January 5, 1952. Judy was buried with the doll she received as a Christmas present from her mom and dad.

Mid-Week Noir: Black Angel [1946]

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

Today’s feature is BLACK ANGEL starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre and Broderick Crawford.

TCM SAYS:

Has-been alcoholic songwriter Martin Blair goes to Los Angeles exclusive Wilshire House apartments to visit his estranged wife, popular singer Marvis Marlowe, but is refused entrance by the doorman per Marvis’ instructions. Martin sends up a gift of a small heart brooch and, while waiting outside the building, overhears a man receiving permission to see Marvis. Despondent, Martin goes to a bar to get drunk, then, as he often does, his friend Joe takes him home to his apartment and locks him in for the night. After midnight that same night, musician Kirk Bennett goes to see Marvis and, finding her apartment door unlocked and hearing her recording of “Heartbreak” playing, goes inside to wait.

WEBINAR–Dead Woman Walking: Louise Peete

Louise Peete had a sketchy past. Acquitted of murder in Texas, she sought a fresh start in Los Angeles. In 1920, Louise met wealthy middle-aged mining executive Jacob Denton. Jacob was a widower, having lost both his wife and child in the recent influenza epidemic. Louise quickly sized him up as a man she could charm.

She wooed him non-stop for several weeks but he refused to marry her. Louise concealed her annoyance and ordered Jacob’s caretaker to dump a ton of earth into the basement of the home because, she said, she planned to raise mushrooms. One of Jacob’s favorite foods.

Jacob disappeared on May 30, 1920.

Louise concocted an outrageous story for people who came by to call. She said Jacob argued violently with a “Spanish-looking woman” who chopped off his arm with a sword! Who was gullible enough to buy her explanation? Evidently, everyone. If pressed, Louise said Jacob survived the horrific amputation, but he was so embarrassed by his missing limb that he’d gone into hiding. If pressed further, Louise said that not only had Jacob lost an arm, he’d also lost a leg! She allayed everyone’s concerns by telling them he’d come out of hiding once he had learned to use his artificial limbs.

Jacob was missing for a few months before his attorney became suspicious. He phoned the cops and asked them to search the house. After digging for about an hour in the basement they uncovered Jacob’s body. All four limbs were intact, but he had a bullet in his head.

Investigators had questions for Louise, but couldn’t locate her. They finally found her and she returned to L.A. to face justice.

On February 8, 1921, a jury sentenced Louise to life in prison for Jacob’s murder.

Louise filed motions for a new trial to no avail. She spent 18 years in prison. Did Louise leave prison a changed woman?

Hell no.

Join me as I delve into the mysterious life and vicious crimes of Louise Peete.

The Cold Turkey Pinch

What’s a cold turkey pinch? In the 1930s,  it was cop speak for an officer who made an arrest with no effort—no gathering evidence, no investigation, nada. Read on.

cold turkey pinch

Thanksgiving Day on “The Nickel” (Fifth Street) in 1937 was grim. Thanks to Old Man Depression, misery was on the menu. The street lacked all the warmth, joy, and delicious aromas present in other neighborhoods in the city.

LAPD Detective Lieutenants Bailey and Olson pulled the holiday shift. They sat in the Chicago Café at 209 Fifth and watched as drunks shuffled past oblivious to those who saw them as easy prey.

The detectives sipped their coffees and kept their eyes peeled for predators. Drunk rollers were the vultures who robbed Skid Row inebriates of their few possessions.

A man, down on his luck, seated himself beside Bailey and said: “you wouldn’t mind staking a thirsty guy to a nickel beer would you.”  After looking the stranger up and down, Bailey bought the man a brew.

Chicago Café at 209 Fifth Street c. 1937 [Photo is from Schultheis collection courtesy LAPL]

The man sat quietly nursing his beer, then he turned to Bailey and pointed at a man in a booth who had passed out.  “Watch me”—then he walked over to the unconscious boozer and rummaged through his pockets.

When he returned to his seat he grinned at Bailey and Olson and said: “See what I got?” and held up a dollar bill. “Now I guess it’s my treat.”

“Yes, brother, I sure guess it’s your treat all right,” said Bailey as he pulled out his badge and arrested 35-year-old Jack Orchard, their would-be benefactor, for robbery.

May your Thanksgiving be much happier than Jack ‘s (although he got a free beer!) 

Have a great Holiday and stay safe. 

Norris Stensland:The Human Bloodhound

Norris Stensland poses with his homicide car

Norris Stensland was a member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department from the early 1920s until his retirement in 1951. During those three decades, he worked on many of the most sensational crimes in county history.

Single-handed he captured a fugitive cop-killer, for which he received a diamond studded badge. He was in shoot-outs, interviewed killers, grieving parents, and delinquent children.

When he wasn’t catching crooks, Norris was a keen inventor with an interest in forensic science. His most spectacular invention was a camera gun. It must be seen to be believed.

Was Norris Stensland a law enforcement Renaissance man? I believe he was.

The bespectacled lawman’s unassuming appearance lulled many felons into a false sense of security, but he didn’t earn the nicknames The Human Bloodhound, Sherlock and Little Satan for nothing.

Join me as I uncover facts about the life and career of this legendary Los Angeles lawman.

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.

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, 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?

Serial Killers 101, Introduction

I am in the process of developing a series of online courses exploring various true crime topics.

This Friday evening, May 22, 2020 at 7:00 pm PDT, I am offering a brief introduction to the course, Serial Killers 101.

This is free — all you need to do is to register.

Here is your invitation to join me:

You are invited to a Zoom meeting.
When: May 22, 2020 07:00 PM Pacific Time (US and Canada)

Register in advance for this meeting by copying and pasting the link below into your browser.

https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZIodOmvqTkuH9YJs3QjtaboA3AnswBgMCdE

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

See you on Friday!