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.

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: Bunco Squad [1950]

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 BUNCO SQUAD starring Robert Sterling, Joan Dixon, Ricardo, Cortez, and Dante.

IMDB says:

Told in semi-documentary style, this film deals with a little-known section of the Los Angeles Police Department which is assigned solely to checking on the activities of fortune tellers, swamis, palmists, and other occult societies.

The primary story has L.A. police detectives Steve Johnson and ‘Mack’ McManus tracking down a wave of suicides they think have been influenced by a swindler-murderer Anthony Wells. The latter runs a pretentious house staffed with occultists across the board, and is trying to embezzle from Jessica Royle, a wealthy widow whose son was killed in action in World War II. Johnson uses his fiancée/actress, Grace Bradshaw, as an undercover operative to get inside information.

MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT –A CONVERSATION ABOUT HISTORIC LOS ANGELES CRIME

MY INTERVIEW WITH DAVE SCHRADER ON MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT

On March 10th, B.C. (before Covid) I was interviewed by Dave Schrader for his wonderful radio show, MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT. We talked for 3 hours about historic Los Angeles crime.

When I first agreed to do the interview I wondered how we would fill the time. By the 2 1/2 hour mark I knew we’d never be able to cover everything. The time flew. Dave is a terrific host and I recommend that you check out his show. I hope to make a return visit sometime during the summer.

Dave’s area of expertise is the paranormal, but he also has an interest in crime. Here’s a little more about Dave:

Dave Schrader has been one of the leading voices of the paranormal since 2006 when he launched his wildly popular talk show, Darkness on the Edge of Town on Twin Cities News Talk – Minneapolis’s top-rated AM talk station.

The show grew to become one of the station’s most successful shows and most-downloaded podcasts, expanding Schrader’s reach globally. Seeing an opportunity, Schrader moved his show to Chris Jericho’s network of shows on PodcastOne, where he further expanded his worldwide audience.

You can find Dave on MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT.

It’s Aggie Underwood’s Birthday Month!

Yesterday was the 117th anniversary of Aggie Underwood’s birth.  In her honor the Central Library downtown is hosting a party on Saturday, December 21, 2019 at 2 pm.

I will speak about Aggie and her many accomplishments from her time as a switchboard operator at the Record to her groundbreaking promotion to city editor at the Evening Herald and Express.  And yes, there will be cake. 

Aggie inspired me to create this blog and her Wikipedia page on December 12, 2012.  Aggie loved the newspaper business as much as I love writing for the blog and connecting with all of you.

Aggie hoists a brew.

Deranged L.A. Crime readers are an impressive group. They include current and former law enforcement professionals, crime geeks (like me), and the victims of violent crime.  I have even been contacted by a serial rapist (a despicable scumbag).

Each December I reflect on the year that is ending and make plans for Deranged L.A. Crimes. In 2020, the blog’s reach will extend to encompass all of Southern California, which includes the following counties: Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Kern, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Imperial.

I look forward to new stories, personalities and challenges.

Please join me as we enter the Roaring Twenties.  This time, no Prohibition.

Four women line up along a wall and chug bottles of liquor in the 1920s.
Image by © Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis

Death of a Latin Lover, Conclusion

From the moment they entered the case, LAPD kept mum about the weapon used to batter Ramon Novarro to death.  However, at trial the prosecution revealed the sad fact that Ramon was beaten with a cane, a memento from one of his films.  It couldn’t have been more personal, nor more poignant.

Deputy District Attorney James Ideman said he intended to show that Paul and Thomas Ferguson tortured Ramon to death while trying to find out where he hid his money. Ideman described how the 69-year-old former film heartthrob was beaten and then taken into a shower and revived so he could be questioned further.

The seven man, five woman jury listened to Ideman’s description of Ramon’s violent end at the hands of the young hustlers who accepted his hospitality, and then left him on his bed with his hands tied behind him, to drown in his own blood.

Photograph caption dated July 28, 1969 reads, “Paul Robert Ferguson confers with attorneys at opening of murder trial. Richard Walton, left, and Dorothy Montoya represented accused at beginning of jury selection.” [Photo & caption courtesy LAPL]

Forever in need of money, Paul telephoned Ramon on the day of the murder and introduced himself as a relative of Ramon’s acquaintance, Larry (Paul’s brother-in-law).  Paul arranged to see Ramon that evening. He arrived with his brother Thomas and following dinner and drinks they demanded money.  Ramon was wealthy, but never kept large sums at home, in fact, that night he had $45 in his wallet.

The prosecution’s case hinged on three points: (1) fingerprints, (2) the fact that it was impossible for Ramon to have written the name “Larry” with his hands tied and (3) Thomas’ telephone call to his girlfriend in Chicago from Ramon’s house.

As far as anyone could tell, the brothers intended to blame each other for Ramon’s murder.  The main points in their strategy were: (1) blame the other brother and (2) mental illness.

Lawyer Cletus Hanifin, right, with murder suspects Tom (left) and Paul Ferguson. Photograph dated September 25, 1969. [Photo & caption courtesy LAPL]

Victor Nichols, a real estate investor and friend of Paul’s, testified that Paul and Thomas came to his Hollywood apartment after midnight on October 31.  They weren’t trick-or-treating, they were in trouble. According to Victor, Paul said: “Vic, I’d like to see you . . . we are in some trouble. Tom hit Ramon . . . Ramon is dead.”

Victor gave Paul a cup of coffee to sober him up as Tom slept on the sofa.  Victor’s guests made him nervous. He didn’t want to be involved in a murder.  After Paul finished his coffee, Victor suggested he awaken Tom and leave.  When Victor asked, “How could you do such a thing?”  Thomas replied: “I hit him several times very hard and he is dead.”

Victor gave them $8 for cab fare and sent them on their way.

Paul took the stand and gave his version of the night of the murder.  He said he went into Ramon’s bedroom and found him lying on the floor. He was covered in blood and his hands were tied behind him.  “I touched him on the shoulder.  He felt starchy . . . tight, like paper . . . “, said Paul.

From his chair at the defense table, Thomas starred daggers at his brother and shook his head as if he couldn’t believe the lies coming out of Paul’s mouth.

Paul claimed he wanted to phone the police, but Thomas vetoed the plan and suggested they stage a robbery. His attorney asked Paul why he would go along with Thomas’ plan, he answered, “Stupidness.”

Paul’s attorney asserted his client had no reason to kill Ramon because he thought the actor was a “nice guy”, and because Ramon said he might become a “superstar”.  Paul said, “He (Novarro) said I could be a young Burt Lancaster or another Clint Eastwood.”

By the time Ramon met the  Fergusons, Paul already had a minor career in the seedier side of show business.  He was a nude model, and may have appeared in porno films.  Ramon knew nothing about Paul’s career, but perhaps he saw a reflection of himself in the good looking younger man.

Paul Ferguson

The trial continued with the brothers blaming each other for the murder. Paul insisted he slept during the crime because he downed a fifth of vodka, some beer and tequila. Until Thomas awakened him and said, “This guy is dead” he was oblivious to Ramon’s screams and cries for help.  How did Paul take the news of Ramon’s death? He said he was “just plain sad.”  Thomas’ attorney asked Paul, “Why were you sad if you didn’t do it?”

Ramon in the tub.

“I was just sad because Ramon was dead . . . I had just had two weeks of bad luck and now I was thrown into this thing . . . I wanted to know why everything was happening,” Paul responded.

What was the bad luck plaguing Paul? His job sucked and his wife left him.  Small problems compared to a man’s life. Paul admitted under oath that he considered suicide rather than face trial, but he rejected the idea.  Asked why, Paul said, “I want to live.”

Neither Paul nor Thomas would admit to the murder, each blamed the other. There was some evidence to suggest Thomas was pressured by Paul and his mother to take the blame and he gave it a half-hearted try. As a juvenile he could not be sentenced to death.

On Wednesday, September 17, 1969, Paul and Thomas Ferguson faced the jury.  If the plan was to save Paul from the gas chamber, it worked. Paul and Thomas received life sentences for first degree murder.

Prison agreed with Paul. Maybe it provided the structured environment he lacked on the outside. He was on the prison’s radio station and found his voice through creative writing.  In 1975, he won a P.E.N. award for a short story, “Dream No Dreams.”

Thomas’ incarceration did not go well.  He was constantly in trouble and spent much of his time in solitary for attempted escapes and other infractions of prison rules.  It is easy to get drugs in prison, and Thomas got strung out on coke and glue.

Paul and Thomas never saw or spoke to each other again after they were released in 1976.

Parole wasn’t the start of a new life for either brother. Thomas was busted for rape in 1987. He spent four years in prison.  When he did not register as a sex offender he was busted again. On March 6, 2005, Thomas went to a Motel 6 and cut his throat. He didn’t leave a note.

By 2012, Paul was once again in prison. This time it was for rape. Unless he wins an appeal, he can look forward to 60 years in a Missouri prison.

 

Film Noir Friday: The Big Combo [1955]

big combo posterThe lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Visit our snack bar for a fizzy beverage and a big bag of popcorn. Tonight’s feature is THE BIG COMBO, starring Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Richard Donlevy, and Jean Wallace.

TCM says:

The Big Combo is a rather unique entry for its genre due to its frank sexuality, extreme sadism and John Alton’s stunning black and white cinematography that places the story in a world of shadows, spotlights and claustrophobic lighting schemes.

At the center of the story is Lt. Diamond (Cornel Wilde), a cynical cop who has become obsessed with arresting Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), the head of a powerful crime syndicate who has cleverly eluded the authorities for years. Diamond’s motivation, however, is clearly driven by his attraction to Brown’s blonde mistress, Susan (Jean Wallace, the wife of Cornel Wilde), a former socialite and once promising pianist whose relationship with Brown is a mixture of sexual dependency and masochism. Aiding Brown in his operation is Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), a defeated rival who now serves as his second-in-command, and a pair of hit men, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), who are inseparable, bound together by their blood lust.

 

Death of a Latin Lover, Part 2

Over 40 years had passed since Ramon’s star burned brightly in Hollywood’s firmament but during the 1950s and 1960s he was still working, mostly in character roles on TV.  His was a high-profile case and LAPD wanted it solved.  The department assigned two additional two-man teams of homicide investigators to work on the case.

While LAPD tugged on threads, they made results of Ramon’s autopsy public.  Someone bound Ramon with an electrical cord so there was no way for him to extricate himself and seek help. Ramon died as the result of “suffocation because of massive bleeding because of the fracture of the nose and laceration of the lips and mouth.”  He choked on his own blood.

In their coverage, newspapers omitted the vile message written in bold capital letters in brown eyebrow pencil on the bedroom mirror: US GIRLS ARE BETTER THAN FAGITS (sic faggots) .  Another clue,  made public, was the name LARRY written in ink on the bed sheet next to Ramon’s body. The ligatures around his wrists and ankles made it impossible for Ramon to write the name himself.  Was it a red herring planted by the killer?

Although it may have been an open secret in certain circles, Ramon kept his homosexuality under wraps for his entire career. There were dozens of good reasons for keeping his private life private – chief among them, state sodomy laws made gay relationships illegal.  It wasn’t until the 1970s that the laws were overturned.

It may have been the fear of exposure that led Ramon to numb himself with alcohol for decades. During the 1940s he was arrested for driving under the influence. Police found dozens of empty liquor bottles in the trash outside his home, which meant he forever grappled with his demons.

Ramon leaves jail after paying a fine for drunk driving. [Los Angeles Times, October 30, 1941]

Why the word “fagits” on his mirror?  Was the killer lashing out and that was the only insult he could think of to hurl at the dead man, or was he privy to Ramon’s secret life? At least that aspect of his life wasn’t splashed all over the front pages of the local newspapers. The reporters used the common subtext of the time, describing Ramon as a “lifelong bachelor.”  It wasn’t the same as blatantly outing him, but rather a nod and a wink to those who could read between the lines.

On November 3rd, mourners from all walks of life visited the Cunningham and O’Connor Mortuary, 850 W. Washington Blvd.  to pay their respects to the man who epitomized the glamor of a bygone age.

Just a few days following Ramon’s interment at the Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, police arrested two brothers for the brutal murder. Paul Robert Ferguson. 22, a housepainter and Thomas Scott Ferguson, 17, a recent run away from  the Midwest.

Paul Ferguson

The police possessed evidence implicating Paul and Thomas within a short time of the murder, but they kept quiet about it until they could make an arrest.  Lieutenant Jerry Lauritzen played it cagey when asked about the evidence, but it was thought fingerprints helped identify the suspects. Cops staked out an apartment in Gardena where the brothers were seen, but they never turned up.  Police caught up with them at a location in Bell Gardens and arrested them there.

Thomas Ferguson

Apart from clothing Paul and Thomas stole to replace the bloody garments they wore at the time of the murder; nothing was missing from Ramon’s house.  If nothing was taken, then what reason did they have to batter Ramon to death?

NEXT TIME:  The Ferguson brothers talk.