It was after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947. Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne, bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held L.A. residents in its grip for several days, walked south on the west side of Norton in the Los Angeles suburb of Leimert Park.
Weedy patches and vacant lots made up most of their view. Construction of new homes ceased during the war and had not yet resumed. As she and Anne passed by one lot, Betty noticed something pale in the weeds about a foot in from the sidewalk.
At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or maybe a live nude woman who had been drinking and had passed out; the lot was a known lover’s lane. It quickly dawned on her she was in a waking nightmare and the bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin nor a drunk. Bersinger said, “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.”
In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood, said she was the first reporter to arrive at the scene. Decades later, it is difficult to sort out exactly who arrived first. Many people have made the claim, but there is sufficient evidence to conclude it was a reporter from the Herald-Express, Aggie’s paper.
It doesn’t matter whether a person was the first to arrive, or the last, because everyone at the vacant lot on Norton that day saw the same ghastly sight.
Aggie described the scene:
“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.”
The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.
Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, headed the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours, officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning. The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three-year-old transient, Cecil French. Police busted him 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. Was a body concealed there? Police Chemist Ray Pinker determined that the floor mats of French’s car were free of blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder.
The initial Herald-Express coverage referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the victim. Aggie’s werewolf tag identified the case for a few more days until a much better one was discovered, Black Dahlia.
NEXT TIME: With help from the Feds, and a gadget at the Herald, L.A. police identify the victim.
At 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they spent the night.
What did Beth and Red talk about during the couple of hours that it took them to drive back to Los Angeles from San Diego? Red noticed some scratches on Beth’s arms and asked her about them. She spun a tale of an “intensely jealous” boyfriend–an Italian “with black hair who lived in San Diego” and claimed that it was he who scratched her. Beth herself probably made the scratches because of itchy insect bites. Beth lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.
Red and his wife were having problems, so, in the way that only a spouse on the verge of cheating can do, he sold himself on the notion that if he and Harriette were destined to be together, then nothing would happen with Beth.
Following their platonic night in a motel room, Red’s marriage was certified as made in heaven—the fates clearly decreed it. But he had a problem; he’d been out of touch with Harriette for a couple of days. How would he explain his lack of communication to her? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could surely come up with an excuse for being incommunicado for a couple of days.
In my mind’s eye, I see Beth and Red seated across from each other on the bench seat in his Studebaker, each lost in thought. Beth may have been wondering what she’d do once she hit L.A. Maybe she’d go to friends in Hollywood. If she was lucky, someone would have an empty bed for her. Her immediate difficulty was Red. How would she get away from the well-meaning guy for whom she felt little or nothing?
Once they arrived in the city, Beth told Red that she needed to check her luggage at the bus depot. He took her there, and Beth was ready to wave goodbye to him and be on her way—but he wouldn’t leave. He told her he couldn’t possibly leave her in that neighborhood on her own. She insisted she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to come up with a plan. When they returned to his car, she told him she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister. It was another lie. Virginia, the sister she referred to, was in Oakland, hundreds of miles to the north.
Red drove her several blocks back to the Biltmore Hotel. The main lobby was on Olive Street, directly opposite Pershing Square. Beth thanked Red. He was a gentleman. He’d paid to have taps put on the heels and toes of her pumps, and of course he’d paid for meals and the motel room. She thought he would drive off and leave her, but once again he said that he didn’t feel comfortable just putting her out of the car.
He parked, and the two of them waited in the Biltmore’s exquisite lobby for quite a while. Beth out waited Red. He said he had to go. She told him she would be fine, and that she expected her sister to arrive at any moment.
Red left her in the Biltmore at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go. She gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the hotel and turned right down Olive Street.
Beth may have been headed for the Crown Grill at Eighth and Olive. She’d been there before and perhaps she hoped to bump into someone she knew; after all, she needed a place to stay. Some patrons of the bar later told cops she’d been there that night, although it could not be verified, and no one saw her leave.
Too often we recall the names of killers, but not their victims. Today, on what should be her 83rd birthday, I am highlighting Judy Dull.
Judith Ann “Judy” Van Horn Dull turned nineteen on June 23, 1957. She had a 14-month-old daughter, Susan, and a soon-to-be ex-husband, Robert, who intended to keep custody of their little girl. A decent lawyer costs money, and Judy needed as much cash as she could scrape together for the coming battle.
Judy lived at the El Mirador apartments at the corner of North Sweetzer and Fountain Avenues in West Hollywood.
Most of the young women who inhabited the El Mirador during the summer of 1957 were still in diapers when the building’s most famous resident, actress Jean Harlow, died at age 26 in June 1937.
At least the building had a Hollywood provenance, which may have given the new crop of wannabes hope for the future.
Judy’s need for a quick buck prevented the usual Hollywood rounds to agents or cattle calls to appear as an extra in the latest western. The best and quickest way for an attractive blonde like Judy to make money was as a model. Modeling gigs ran the gamut from legitimate work for catalogs and harmless cheesecake photos to pornography.
Judy’s roommates, eighteen-year-old Betty Ruth Carver and twenty-two-year-old Lynn Lykels, were models, too. All three were in demand and they looked out for each other, trading gigs to keep the money flowing.
On August 1, 1957, Judy took a job that Lynn had to pass on. At 2 pm, when the photographer, a guy named Johnny Glenn, a geeky-looking guy with bat ears and horn-rimmed glasses, showed up to collect Judy for the job, she was reluctant to go with him. He overcame her reluctance by offering her $20/hour for a two-hour shoot. How could she say no?
At Judy’s request, Johnny left his telephone number with one of her roommates.
Johnny and Judy walked out of the El Mirador.
It was the last time anybody saw her alive.
NOTE: Harvey Glatman murdered Judy and two other women, Ruth Mercado and Shirley Bridgeford. There was not enough evidence to try him for Judy’s murder, but he was found guilty of murdering Mercado and Bridgeford. Glatman died in the gas chamber at San Quentin on September 18, 1959.
Frank’s chances for an acquittal are dismal, but then his attorney mounts a defense, blaming Lois for the beating that nearly killed her.
Attorney H.A.J. Wolch drops a bombshell in court when he reads excerpts from a June 29, 1931 letter written by Lois and sent to Frank’s wife, Ione
“You are probably wondering why I should write to you, are you not? I don’t exactly know myself.”
“Honestly ‘Yonnie,’ I didn’t know you cared so much until I read a certain letter. No one could write a letter like that without plenty of reason.
“I’m sure Frank loves me. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment to send him back to you, ‘Yonnie.’ You yourself know how it is to be uncertain, but I’m not anymore.”
“I’m afraid you’ll think that the real reason for my writing this letter is to gloat over him. No, I wouldn’t do that. I just couldn’t I just want you to know how I feel about this thing. I want to tell you how I love Frank.”
“I can’t hate you, not even if I try and I have tried…”
“I hope I have not said anything that can be taken any way but the right way. I don’t want to hurt you and I don’t want Frank to hurt you.”
Wolch questions Lois about her relationship with Frank during the six months prior to the attempt on her life. She professes her love for Frank and admits writing to Ione. She also admits to dating other boys. The subtext of the cross-examination is clear—Lois is easy.
In her testimony, Lois confirms her meeting with Frank on February 18, 1931. She says they discuss “getting a doctor,” but abortion is illegal in 1931 and the danger of permanent disability or death is a consequence the expectant mother faces alone.
Ten days later, Lois said, Frank tells her they have an appointment with a doctor. The doctor could be anyone from a licensed physician to a drunken quack working out of a dirty backroom office.
On March 4, they meet for the last time. Frank attacks her.
Frank takes the stand in his own defense and relates a self-serving account of the crime.
“When she told me she was going to my wife, little baby and my parents, and tell them I was responsible for her condition, well, I just flew off the handle, picked up a stick, hit her three or four times over the head, struck her on the jaw with my fist and left her there.”
The railroad tie he used to batter Lois is hardly “a stick”, and when he says he “left her there” he neglects to say he threw her into an abandoned well and expected her to die.
Wolch kept the kid gloves on during his examination of his client. Frank said he met Lois and Ione at about the same time. Lois lived in Pomona, and Ione in Glendora. He saw each of them about twice a week.
“What was your feeling for both Ione and Lois?
“I cared for Ione very much. I liked Lois, too. In September I made up my mind. I loved Ione…, so we went to Las Vegas and got married. We came home that night to my folks and the next day I took her to Glendora.”
Wolch asks Frank when he next meets with Lois. Frank says, “The following night.”
He describes Lois’ reaction to his marriage.
“Lois was heartbroken and deeply moved over my marriage to Ione. She asked me to get a divorce.”
Frank chuckles, then continues.
“Already she wanted me to get a divorce and marry her. I told her I couldn’t even think of it.”
Frank refuses to consider divorcing Ione; however, he continues to see Lois. They meet frequently from the time of his marriage until December, when they get together only once.
When they resume their affair in January, Lois asks Frank to get her some quinine. Quinine in large doses may induce an abortion, but it is not a sure thing. A pregnant woman who takes quinine risks renal failure. Babies who survive quinine exposure in the womb can be born deaf or suffer other side-effects. Both mother and child can die because of taking quinine.
Frank blew off Lois’ request to get the abortifacient, claiming he does not know what she wants with the over-the-counter drug.
According to Frank, Lois asked for quinine again in early February. This time he asked her why.
“I asked her what she wanted it for and she said she was expecting a baby, ad something had to be done. I said I was sorry and asked her who was responsible, and she didn’t answer. Again, she asked me to divorce Ione and marry her, and again I told her I wouldn’t consider it.”
Frank describes his March 4th meeting with Lois.
“I met her on March 4, about 6:30 p.m. We drove around a bit. I told her I couldn’t get a doctor. Finally, we parked the car on the outskirts of Pomona. She said she was going to blame me. Something had to be done or she would make trouble. I loved my wife very much, and the baby had just come. I had entirely overcome the conflict of the earlier months. I loved Ione, not Lois.”
When testimony concluded in early May, the jury faced conflicting versions of the March 4 attack.
Lois’ version, corroborated by her injuries, is gut-wrenching. The prosecution calls the attack “deliberate and brutal.”
Frank’s defense portrays Lois as a scheming home wrecker—no better than she ought to be.
In the last hours of the trial, Deputy District Attorney Cooper points out parallels between the case against Frank and the incidents in Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy. Cooper reads extracts from the book.
The jury finds Frank guilty of attempted murder and statutory rape.
Before passing sentence, Judge Bowron has a few words for Frank:
“You are fortunate in that you are not here for the purpose of receiving the extreme penalty. The evidence and circumstances show that you planned to do away with Lois Wade because she was about to become a mother.”
Frank gets one to fourteen years in prison.
In a strange twist, probably orchestrated by a quick thinking reporter or a newspaper city editor, Frank, Ione, and Lois meet in jail a few hours before the prison train leaves for San Quentin. A photo shows the threesome holding hands and, supposedly, putting the past behind them.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget, is cited as the first murder mystery based on details of an actual crime. I am skeptical of firsts, but if Poe’s story is not the first, it is an early entry. It appeared in Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion in three installments, November and December 1842 and February 1843.
Behind Poe’s tale of Marie Roget is the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers.
Rogers, a tobacco shop employee, became known as the Beautiful Cigar Girl. She disappears on October 4, 1848, and local papers report her elopement with a naval officer. She returns later, sans husband.
She disappears again on July 25, 1841. Friends see her at the corner of Theatre Alley, where she meets a man. They walk off together toward Barclay Street, ostensibly for an excursion to Hoboken.
Three days later, H.G. Luther and two other men in a sailboat pass by Sybil’s Cave near Castle Point, Hoboken. Floating in the water they see the body of a young woman. They drag it to shore and contact police.
According to the New York Tribune, Rogers is “horribly outraged and murdered”. Questions regarding Rogers’ death remain. It is alleged she ended up in the river following a failed abortion. The scenario is credible, in part, because her boyfriend committed suicide and left a note suggesting his involvement in her death.
I love it when a novel is based on a true crime. One of my favorites is An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser draws inspiration from a murder in the Adirondacks.
In 1905, Chester Gillette takes a job as a manager in an uncle’s skirt factory in Cortland, New York. It is there he meets factory worker, Grace Brown. They begin an affair and she becomes pregnant.
Chester is neither interested in being a husband, nor in being a father. He takes Grace on a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Using the alias, Carl Graham, Chester rents a hotel room, and a rowboat.
Grace believes the hotel is where they will spend their honeymoon following a visit to the local justice of the peace. In anticipation of her new life with Chester, Grace packs all of her belongings in a single suitcase.
Chester’s suitcase is small. He is not beginning a life with Grace.
On July 11, the couple takes a rowboat out into the middle of Big Moose Lake. There is no marriage proposal. No wedding ring. He beats her over the head with his tennis racquet and pushes her overboard to drown.
On July 13, 1906, The Sun reports the tragic drowning of a couple in Big Moose Lake. Grace’s body floats to the surface the next day. The body of her companion, Carl Graham, is missing.
Fearing he is dead, police search for Carl. They soon learn the true identity of Grace’s companion. He is alive, well, and his name is not Carl. Police arrest Chester. He denies responsibility for Grace’s death. He insists she committed suicide. The bad news for Chester is none of the physical evidence supports his version of events.
The jury shows no mercy—they find him guilty and sentence him to death.
On March 30, 1908, they execute Chester in the electric chair at Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York.
March 4, 1932.
Soaked to the skin, bleeding from the head, and covered in bruises, seventeen-year-old Lois Wade stumbles into the road near Mountain Meadows Country Club in Pomona. A Good Samaritan takes her to Pomona Valley Hospital.
The hospital calls the Sheriff’s department, and deputies arrive to take Lois’ statement. She tells them a terrifying story.
She is is walking from downtown Pomona to her parent’s home at 349 East Pasadena Avenue, when a stranger pulls up alongside her and offers her a ride. She accepts, but rather than taking her home, the man stops his car on Walnut Avenue near an abandoned well and beats her.
Lois’ attacker forces her into the well and shoves her down witht a pole when she attempts to climb out. When Lois vanishes from his view, the man gets in his car and drives away.
The motiveless attack makes little sense, and deputies question Lois’ account. The next day, she revises her story.
Her attacker is not a stranger as she originally claims; he is her nineteen-year-old married lover, Frank Newland.
Deputies Killion and Lynch arrest Frank at his home at 918 South San Antonio Street, Pomona. They book him on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder. Frank denies the attack.
As Lois lay in serious condition in the hospital, the D.A. revises charges against him to include statutory rape. Because of the severity of Lois’ wounds and her inability to appear in court, Judge White resumes Frank’s hearing at Lois’ hospital bedside.
Within a month of the attempt on Lois’ life, Frank goes to trial. Local newspapers pick up on the similarities between Frank and Lois and the characters in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.
Future Los Angeles mayor, Fletcher Bowron, sits on the bench. Public interest in the trial is high and draws an enormous crowd—the largest since the 1929 rape trial of theater mogul Alexander Pantages.
The trial begins on April 28; Lois takes the stand, and the courtroom hangs on her every word.
Lois is low-key and demure as she testifies to her ordeal.
“By prearrangement we met on a corner in Pomona. We went in his roadster to the Mountain Meadows Country Club, where he drove off the road and stopped the car. We sat in the car for a half-hour; yes, we kissed and loved. He then suggested that we walk over to an old windmill and abandoned well nearby.”
“We looked in the well and then suddenly he turned around and struck me over the head with a club. I fell to the ground. He struck me eight or ten times more and kicked me several times.”
Frank grabs Lois by the feet and drags her, struggling and screaming ten feet to the well. No match for Frank, he overpowers her and throws her in the well.
Lois lands in twenty-five-feet of water. She bobs to the top, and fights for her life. Frank uses a railroad tie to shove Lois under water. A photo of Deputy W.L. Killon, puts the size of the weapon into perspective.
Convinced Lois is dead, Frank gets into his car and drives away.
Lois claws herself up the wall of the well. She crawls over the edge, tumbles onto the ground, then rises and lurches into the street to summon help. A man stops his car to render aid. Amazingly, Lois’ Good Samaritan is a doctor.
Dr. Roy E. St. Clair testifies to finding Lois in the road.
“I was driving to Pomona on the Mountain Meadows Road about 8:30 p.m. last March 4 when I heard a cry and the lights on my car picked up the figure of Miss Wade standing with her right arm out-stretched. I backed up my machine, and she came to the door and said ‘Take me to a doctor.’”
In Satin Pumps: The Moonlit Murder that Mesmerized the Nation (WildBlue Press, $13.49), screenwriter and author Steve Kosareff offers a unique perspective on one of Southern California’s most riveting domestic murders.
Mid-century is at its zenith in 1959. The era is a pink and turquoise mix of future and past as decades old orange groves and strawberry fields give way to miles of modern tract homes in newly minted suburbs. The rows of cloned houses are an artifact of the explosion of growth in the area following WWII. During the summer, the neighborhoods smell like pool chlorine, backyard barbeques and Coppertone suntan lotion.
The reported suicide of television star George Reeves, known for his role as Superman, by gunshot, on June 16, 1959, obsesses his young admirers. Kids deal with the untimely passing of their superhero by making tasteless jokes to hide their discomfort. The following month, on July 18, the kids’ parents become obsessed with a different gunshot tragedy, the murder of thirty-six-year-old Barbara.
Barbara and her husband, Bernard “Bernie” Finch, live the Southern California dream. He is a successful surgeon, who delivered author Kosareff, and he and Barbara and their son, live in a custom-built home on a hill in the San Gabriel Valley.
Handsome, in a sun-tanned country club way, Bernie is the son of local gentry. He is a spoiled child, an entitled adult and not a fan of sharing. If he and Barbara get a divorce, he can kiss a pot of money goodbye. He will pay alimony and child support. Rather than go through with a messy and costly divorce, Bernie concocts a plan.
Bernie’s desire to be single is motivated by his desire for his latest lover, his secretary, twenty-two-year-old Carole Tregoff. Being with the stunning redhead is all Bernie can think of.
The problem for Bernie is he is a surgeon, not a career criminal. His plan is clumsy, cruel, and dissolves under police scrutiny.
Satin Pumps tracks the byzantine course of the case through three trials. The story has enough sexual tension to cause Grace Metalious’ 1956 novel, Peyton Place, to spontaneously combust. The trial is as mesmerizing as Kosareff’s title declares. Courtroom seats are filled by journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, British spy novelist Eric Ambler, and writers for the Perry Mason television series.
Like Kosareff, I, too, grew up in Southern California, so getting his take on the case, first through his 7-year-old eyes, and later through his adult research, is a treat. I recommend the book. Enjoy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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!”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.