Happy Birthday to Aggie Underwood, and Deranged L.A. Crimes!

This is a big month for the Deranged L.A. Crimes blog. On December 17, 2012, the 110th anniversary of the birth of the woman whose career and life inspires me, Agness “Aggie” Underwood, I started writing this blog. I also authored her Wikipedia page, which was long overdue.

Aggie Underwood. Photo by Perry Fowler

By the time I began, Aggie had been gone for twenty-eight years. I regret not knowing about her in time to meet her in person. But, through her work, and speaking with her relatives over the years, I feel like I know her. I have enormous respect for Aggie. She had nothing handed to her, yet she established herself in a male-dominated profession where she earned the respect of her peers without compromising her values. She also earned the respect of law enforcement. Cops who worked with her trusted her judgement and sought her opinion. It isn’t surprising. She shared with them the same qualities that make a successful detective.

This month, I will focus on Aggie. I want everyone to get to know and appreciate her. She was a remarkable woman.

Agness “Aggie” Underwood never intended to become a reporter. All she wanted was a pair of silk stockings. She’d been wearing her younger sister’s hand-me-downs, but she longed for a new pair of her own. When her husband, Harry, told her they couldn’t afford them, she threatened to get a job and buy them herself. It was an empty threat. She did not know how to find employment. She hadn’t worked outside her home for several years. A serendipitous call from her close friend Evelyn, the day after the stockings kerfuffle, changed the course of her life. Evelyn told her about a temporary opening for a switchboard operator where she worked, at the Los Angeles Record. The job was meant to last only through the 1926-27 holiday season, so Aggie jumped at the chance.

Aggie & Harry [Photo courtesy CSUN Special Collections]

Aggie arrived at the Record utterly unfamiliar with the newspaper business, but she swiftly adapted and it became clear to everyone that, even without training, she was sharp and eager to learn. The temporary switchboard job turned into a permanent position.

In December 1927, the kidnapping and cruel mutilation murder of twelve-year-old schoolgirl Marion Parker horrified the city. Aggie was at the Record when they received word the perpetrator, William Edward Hickman, who had nicknamed himself “The Fox,” was in custody in Oregon. The breaking story created a firestorm of activity in the newsroom. Aggie had seen nothing like it. She knew then she didn’t want to be a bystander. She wanted to be a reporter.

When the Record was sold in January 1935, Aggie accepted an offer from William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper, the Evening Herald and Express, propelling her into the big leagues. Working for Hearst differed entirely from working for the Record. Hearst expected his reporters to work at breakneck speed. After all, they had to live up to the paper’s motto, “The First with the latest.”

From January 1935, until January 1947, Aggie covered everything from fires and floods to murder and mayhem, frequently with photographer Perry Fowler by her side. She considered herself to be a general assignment reporter, but developed a reputation and a knack for covering crimes.

Sometimes she helped to solve them.

In December 1939, Aggie was called to the scene of what appeared to be a tragic accident on the Angeles Crest Highway. Laurel Crawford said he had taken his family on a scenic drive, but lost control of the family sedan on a sharp curve. The car plunged over 1000 feet down an embankment, killing his wife, three children, and a boarder in their home. He said he had survived by jumping from the car at the last moment.

When asked by Sheriff’s investigators for her opinion, Aggie said she had observed Laurel’s clothing and his demeanor, and neither lent credibility to his account. She concluded Laurel was “guilty as hell.” Her hunch was right. Upon investigation, police discovered Laurel had engineered the accident to collect over $30,000 in life insurance.

Hollywood was Aggie’s beat, too. When stars misbehaved or perished under mysterious or tragic circumstances, Aggie was there to record everything for Herald readers. On December 16, 1935, popular actress and café owner Thelma Todd died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of her Pacific Palisades ho9me. Thelma’s autopsy was Aggie’s first, and her fellow reporters put her to the test. It backfired on them. Before the coroner could finish his grim work, her colleagues had turned green and fled the room. Aggie remained upright.

Though Aggie never considered herself a feminist, she paved the way for female journalists. In January 1947, they yanked her off the notorious Black Dahlia murder case and made her editor of the City Desk, making her one of the first woman to hold this post for a major metropolitan newspaper. Known to keep a bat and startup pistol handy at her desk, just in case, she was beloved by her staff and served as City Editor for the Herald (later Herald Examiner) until retiring in 1968.

Aggie at a crime scene c. 1946

When she passed away in 1984, the Herald-Examiner eulogized her. “She was undeterred by the grisliest of crime scenes and had a knack for getting details that eluded other reporters. As editor, she knew the names and telephone numbers of numerous celebrities, in addition to all the bars her reporters frequented. She cultivated the day’s best sources, ranging from gangsters and prostitutes to movie stars and government officials.”

They were right. Aggie dined with judges, cops, and even gangster Mickey Cohen. I hope you will enjoy reading about Aggie, as much as I will enjoy telling her stories.

Joan

Aggie and the City of Forgotten Women, Part 2

Aggie Underwood interviews an unknown woman (possibly at Lincoln Heights Jail)

This is the second of a series on California’s unique women’s prison, which has bestirred national interest among sociologists and penologists. An International News Service staff correspondent was able to obtain the first comprehensive “inside story” of the institution where Clara Phillips and other noted women offenders are now confined.

Tehachapi, Cal., May 1, 1935 — Eight months in the “death house!”

Eight months in which to sit in one tiny room, forbidden to talk to anyone except matrons–Eight months in which to remember–what?

Possibly the sound of six shots, ringing out in the still of night–six shots which ended the life of Eric B. Madison, movie studio cashier.

Eight months in which to hear over and over again, the voice of a judge saying “You are sentenced to hang by the neck until dead”.

That is the fate of Nellie B. Madison, comely widow, who is the only woman in California now under sentence to die on the gallows.

Nellie Madison [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Just eight months ago last March 12, Nellie Madison entered Tehachapi prison and was placed in the “death cell.”

This “cell” is merely a room in the prison hospital. Architects who designed the state institution for woman at Tehachapi omitted “death cell.” That’s another way this prison is different.

So, in this room on the second floor of the administration building, Nellie Madison sits day after day. She seems a quite different person from the Nellie Madison who amazed Los Angeles court attaches during her trial with her cool, calm demeanor.

Her nattily tailored clothes are, of course, discarded for the regulation prison costume–blue denim dresses with a white pinstripe.

Her jet-black hair, now greying, has grown from the trim modern bob until it almost reaches her shoulders.

“In Los Angeles, I was thoroughly benumbed by all that had happened,” she said after the first glad welcome of seeing someone whom she had seen in the outside world.

“I couldn’t realize just what had happened to me, but now that I have been here–let’s see is it only eight months or is it ten years–well, I’ve begun to get all the confidence in the world that the State Supreme court will reverse my conviction.”

This was Mrs. Madison’s only interview since she has entered the state institution.

“It seems to me that one’s conscience would be the greatest punishment in the world,” she said.

“My conscience doesn’t bother me one bit, but I do feel the disgrace that I have brought on myself and my family. One’s past good name and character seem to mean nothing when a person gets into trouble, but it apparently doesn’t mean a thing.”

Mrs. Madison’s recreation consists of short walks on the grounds each day–in company with a matron and the letters she receives from friends.”


Aggie became interested in Nellie’s case when she covered it for the Herald. As she learned more about the abuse Nellie suffered at the hands of her husband, Eric, the less she believed Nellie deserved to hang. Through her coverage of the case, and her advocacy, Aggie and others were successful in getting Nellie’s sentence commuted to life; which made her eligible for parole. On March 27, 1943, nine years and three days after the murder, the state released Nellie.

In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie said this about the case.

“While one’s work as a reporter may serve justice and work for or against a defendant, one shies from taking bows for presumed triumphs. Even in commendation, one does not want to feel one’s fairness impugned. I was embarrassed, therefore, when Nellie Madison embraced me gratefully at Tehachapi when I informed her that her sentence to be hanged had been commuted to life imprisonment by Governor Frank F. Merriam.”

“‘You did it! You did it!’ she wept. ‘I owe it all to you!’”

NEXT TIME: In the third article, Aggie tells of interviews with other inmates at Tehachapi.

The Barricaded Blonde

If you have hair, you have endured an inevitable bad hair day. But have you ever had a haircut so awful it drove you to violence?

Newlyweds Barbara and William Mihich struggled to adapt to married life. After getting married in Las Vegas in March 1956, they had already split up once by August. They argued about money, and they also argued about how often Barbara’s hair was in curlers. William became so incensed by Barbara’s beauty routine he cut her hair. Whether by consent or by force, Barbara ended up with a ragged looking pixie. William, a plumbing contractor, not a hair stylist, took too much off the top, the back, and the sides. Barbara was not pleased.

Barbara in custody

After the hack job on her tresses, Barbara met friends at a local bar for a few drinks and to cool off. She arrived home in the pre-dawn hours, even more pissed off than when she left. Still keyed up, she put a record on the player and turned up the volume. William objected to the music, and to the fact she had stayed out so late. The hostilities resumed.

Their argument spilled out to the front yard, where they raged at each other until Barbara bolted for the front door. Before William could catch up, Barbara locked him out. She grabbed a gun and shot through a window. The round ripped into a neighbor’s house and they called police. Other neighbors hid behind trees and cars to avoid being struck by a wayward bullet.

The first officer to arrive outside the Mihich home ducked for cover when four bullets struck his patrol car. He called for back-up. Reinforcements pulled up. Lights flashing and sirens blaring. They cautiously approached, and placed searchlights around the house to prepare for a siege.

Police lobbed cannisters of tear gas through the home’s broken windows. Screaming, rubbing her eyes, and choking, Barbara stumbled out of the smoke. They placed her under arrest and transported her to the Lincoln Heights Jail, where they booked her on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon.

Barbara goes to court. While she may not have loved the haircut, I think it looks cute.

William came to Barbara’s defense. “She wasn’t shooting at me. She was just shooting away her temper.” Maybe, but she wrecked the interior of their home, scared the shit out of the neighbors, and got herself into a major jam.

Barbara told police William beat her. “I just got mad at the world. I wasn’t shooting at anybody in particular.” No target required. Any of the over fifty rounds she fired at random from a shotgun, two 22-caliber rifles, and a 22-caliber pistol were potentially fatal.

Detectives asked her what caused her rampage. She said William told her he’d trim her hair because he was tired of seeing it in curlers. Describing the chop, she got mad all over again. “He trimmed it all right, and how! He went hog wild and gave me a butch haircut.”

William described the incident to reporters. “We were just having a little argument on the front lawn when she ran off in a huff. She dashed into the house and slammed the door. The next thing I knew, bullets started pouring out of the windows.”

They freed Barbara on $3000 bail ($34,00.00 in 2023 USD), to await trial. Rather than face a jury, she opted to appear before a judge. A jury would have seen the coverage where reporters described her as the “pistol-packing blonde from Van Nuys,” and “the Butch Hair Cut Woman.” Unflattering and prejudicial depictions to be sure.

Judge Allen T. Lynch treated her fairly. On December 28, 1956, he fined Barbara $300 ($3400 in 2023 USD), and placed her on five years’ probation.

Did Barbara embrace the pixie cut, or did she grow her hair to Rapunzel length? Did the Mihich marriage survive the hair cut incident? I honestly don’t know. The couple stayed out of the news after 1956.

The Curious Death of Peter Pivaroff

Los Angeles has long given refuge to those seeking religious freedom. Among the groups who settled in Boyle Heights, east of downtown, were Russian Molokans. Molokans are a dissenting sect of the Russian Orthodox Church. Similar in some ways to Quakers and Mennonites, Molokans are pacifists and shun alcohol. Think Quaker or Mennonite, and you’ve got the idea.

Thirty-five-year-old Peter Pivaroff, born in 1918, in Arizona, to Molokan parents, may have strayed from the core beliefs of his faith. In 1943, he enlisted in the military. By early November 1954, he was on a serious bender.

On Monday, November 8, Peter experienced chest pains. The pain got so bad his wife, June, took him to Lincoln Heights Receiving Hospital. They admitted him at 11 p.m. for treatment of a heart ailment and alcoholism. Hours later, his condition continued to deteriorate. They transferred Peter to Lincoln Hospital at 443 S. Soto Street for muscular spasms of his heart. Doctors took x-rays of his chest. When the x-rays disclosed a 3-inch-long needle in his heart, they were stunned. Peter died at 3:00 a.m. The attending physician at the hospital refused to sign a death certificate. The presence of the needle was alarming.

Autopsy surgeon, Dr. Frederick Newbarr, said they found a second puncture mark between the seventh and eight ribs and it was, “undoubtedly by the same instrument.” The puncture was about two inches deep. Dr. Newbarr called Peter’s case, “one of the most unusual cases I have seen in thousands of autopsies.”

Police Lt. Fred Laughlin said the lab would conduct microscopic tests to see “if something like a thimble or a pair of pliers were used to push the needle into the heart.” Homicide detectives R. L. Clodio and William Ojers took June to the Hollenbeck Station for questioning. She had little to offer. She said Peter gave her no explanation for his pains. “It was almost like he had amnesia.”

How did the needle get into Peter’s chest?

One explanation came from his ten-year-old daughter, Diana. She said she borrowed a long needle from a neighbor in October to work on a Halloween costume; then it went missing. Diana said the needle from Peter’s chest resembled the one she misplaced. Is it possible Peter landed on it and was so inebriated he never noticed?

The murder theory took a backseat when they discovered a doctor at Lincoln Hospital made the second puncture. Police speculated Peter’s history of alcohol abuse may have caused him to kill himself.

At the coroner’s inquest, Dr. Qualia testified he treated Peter for coronary thrombosis. When the treatment failed to produce results, the doctor called in experts for a consultation. They ordered x-rays, and that is when they saw the needle. It was not driven into his chest, entered from the armpit and pierced the center of his left breast and penetrated skin tougher than most other parts of the body.

Dr. Qualia said, “The tiny spot where the needle went in looked like a mole or a freckle. There was no bump or other surface indication that it had penetrated the skin.

The coroner’s jury determined Peter’s death was a homicide committed by a person or persons unknown. The police had no viable suspect. June testified about Peter’s out-of-control drinking and said he sometimes beat her. June had a motive.

To clear herself, June voluntarily submitted to a lie detector test. Lt. Fred R. Loflund, in charge of detectives at Hollenbeck Division, said June answered all questions honestly. She had no idea how the needle got into Peter’s chest.

Despite passing the lie detector test, the coroner’s jury urged police to find Peter’s killer. Investigators insisted Peter either committed suicide or unintentionally jabbed the darning needle into his heart while drunk.

With the police and the coroner’s jury at odds over Peter’s death, the district attorney’s office weighed in. Deputy District Attorney Aaron H. Stovitz said the facts did not warrant “under any circumstances the issuance of any criminal complaint.” He said the investigation did not reveal a suspect. He left the door open for the future by stating if evidence turned up later, they would “reconsider the matter.”

What do you think happened to Peter?

The Night Stalker: Epilogue

On Tuesday, November 7, 1989, Judge Michael Tynan sentenced Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker, to death. Judge Tynan recited the final judgment before a group of courtroom spectators: “It is the judgment and sentence of this court that Richard Ramirez shall suffer the death penalty. This penalty is to be inflicted within the walls of the state prison at San Quentin, California, in the manner prescribed by law at a time to be fixed by this court in the warrant(s) for execution.”  

During the sixteen months that he was on trial, Richard wore mirrored sunglasses in a macabre imitation of a rock star, and smirked his way through the proceedings. They gave him the opportunity to speak following pronouncement of the sentence. He addressed the spectators, saying, “I am beyond good and evil. I will be avenged.” 

Although he believed he was a mystery too intricate for ordinary people to fathom, he was not as complex as he thought. A narcissist, he thrived on the agony of others.  

Deputy Bud Phillips worked statewide transportation, and they had assigned him to deliver Richard to California’s Death Row at San Quentin in Marin County. On November 16, 1989, Bud woke Richard up in his cell and told him it was time to leave. Bud fastened the waist chains and handcuffs. Richard wondered aloud where the crowds were. The absence of press and groupies must have disappointed him. He had undoubtedly planned a farewell performance.  

Bud and Richard got into the rear two seats of a waiting helicopter which had landed behind the jail. Occupying the front seats were the pilot, and Sergeant Cecil Sabatine. They flew out to the Sheriff’s Aero Bureau in Long Beach, where they climbed aboard a Cessna 210.

As they flew north over Hollister, Bud, and Richard talked about the 6.9 earthquake which had occurred the previous month. Bud looked down and said to Richard: “You should go skydiving.” Richard replied he didn’t have a parachute. Bud smiled. “You don’t need one.”

The trip to the small airport north of Novato was uneventful. A Marin County deputy, standing next to an empty van, was the only person waiting for them. Disappointed, Richard asked, “Where is everyone?” It was quiet, just as it had been behind the jail in Los Angeles In order to keep security tight, they had not informed the media of the plan to move Richard. Even though the media got wind of it the week after the sentencing hearing, they buried the story in the back pages. Richard Ramirez was irrelevant.

Richard said nothing as they approached San Quentin. The prison sits on a pristine piece of land, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, on the San Francisco Bay. The view is incredible. But if you look closer, near the death row cells, a smokestack left over from the gas chamber era is a visible reminder that the picture perfect location belies its purpose, which is to confine, and occasionally execute, California’s worst criminals.

Bud handed his prisoner over to Sergeant Sabatine so that he could wrap up the paperwork necessary for Richard’s transfer. After filling out the forms, Bud walked Richard to R&R (Reception & Receiving), where Richard checked in. Bud removed the handcuffs and escorted Richard to a holding cell.

As he was leaving, Bud turned to Richard and said, “Ricky, ‘til death do us part.” Bud later said that it must have finally dawned on Richard where he was because he whimpered.

In 1996, Richard Ramirez married Doreen Lioy, a free-lance magazine editor. The union deservedly sparked outrage. The only good news—no conjugal visits for Richard and his delusional bride. About her big day, she gushed, “I just want to say I’m ecstatically happy today and very, very proud to have married Richard and be his wife.”

In 2009, when her husband’s DNA conclusively linked him to the 1984 murder of nine-year-old Mei Leung in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, Doreen had second thoughts about her spouse. They do not appear to have formally divorced. It seems to me divorce would be unnecessary—the marriage was never consummated.

On June 7, 2013, Richard Ramirez died of complications of B-cell lymphoma at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, California. He deserved worse.

The people we remember are his victims. Below is a partial list. The list does not include the women he raped before his murder spree, nor does it include a list of the children he molested. We will probably never know the actual number of murders he committed or the lives he ruined.

His first murder was Mei Leung, a nine-year-old who he beat and raped before stabbing her to death. He hung her body from a pipe in April 1984.

In June of that year, his Night Stalker killing spree began.

June 28, 1984: 79-year-old Jennie Vincow was stabbed repeatedly while asleep in bed. Her throat was cut so deeply she was nearly decapitated.

March 17, 1985: Dayle Yoshie Okazaki, 34, was shot in the forehead. 22-year-old Maria Hernandez was shot at but survived.

On the same day, Tsai-Lian “Veronica” Yu was pulled out of her car and fatally shot twice.

March 27, 1985: Vincent Charles Zazzara and Maxine Levenia Zazzara were both shot. After Maxine died, Richard mutilated her body with a knife and gouged out her eyes.

May 14, 1985: Bill Doi was fatally shot and Lillian Doi was raped.

May 29, 1985: Mabel “Ma” Bell, 83, and her disabled sister, Florence “Nettie” Lang, 81, were both bound and bludgeoned. Florence was choked with a cord and raped. Mabel died.

May 30, 1985: Carol Kyle, 42, and her son were bound. Carol was raped.

July 2, 1985: Mary Louise Cannon was stabbed repeatedly and died.

July 5, 1985: Whitney Bennett, 16 was attacked while sleeping. She survived but had severe injuries.

July 7, 1985: Joyce Lucille Nelson, 61, was beaten in her home. Sophie Dickman was held at gunpoint, and Richard attempted to rape her.

July 20, 1985: Maxon and Lela Kneiding were attacked then shot. He mutilated their bodies.

On the same day, he shot Chainarong Khovananth and raped Somkid Khovananth.

August 6, 1985: Christopher and Virginia Peterson were shot but survived.

August 8, 1985: Sakina and Elyas Abowath were both attacked, with Elyas fatally shot and Sakina raped.

August 18, 1985: Peter and Barbara Pan were both killed, and Barbara was raped.

On August 24, 1985, Bill Carns was shot but survived, and his fiancée, Inez Erickson, was raped.

The Night Stalker, Part 2

On March 17, 1985, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide detectives Gil Carillo and Jim Mercer were called to the scene of a murder and an attempted murder in Rosemead. The dead woman was Dayle Okazaki. Her injured roommate, Maria Hernandez, reported the crime. Maria was lucky to be alive. The same guy who killed Dayle shot her. She gave detectives a heart-stopping account of the evening’s events and provided them with a description of the killer. 

Deputy Gil Carrillo and his family.

Detective Carrillo had a feeling about the Okazaki murder. The killer took nothing from the condo. What was the motive for the attacks? Maria’s statement bothered him. She said when she and her attacker were in the garage; he had deliberately smacked the hood of Dayle’s car. Carrillo knew such behavior was odd. Criminals usually rely on stealth. The killer obviously got a thrill from terrifying Maria before he shot her and left her for dead.

About forty-five minutes after Okazaki’s slaying, Carrillo, and Mercer heard a call about another random assault. Someone shot a young Asian woman named Tsai-Lin Veronica Yu and left her to die in the middle of a street in Monterey Park. A .22 caliber gun killed her. The same caliber weapon used to murder Dayle.

Sheriff’s crime lab

Criminalists at the Sheriff’s crime lab analyzed the shell casings from the two scenes. Although their findings were inconclusive, the scientists surmised the casings were a likely match.

About ten days after the murders of Okazaki and Yu, detectives picked up a double homicide in Whittier. Vincent Zazzara and his wife Maxine were murdered in their ranch style home. An intruder entered the house by upending a plastic pail and using it as a stepping stool to climb through an open window. He shot Vincent and bound and raped Maxine.

The stranger briefly left the room, and Maxine loosened her bindings. She reached under the bed for the shotgun she knew her husband kept there. She aimed it at the intruder and fired. The gun was not loaded. In a rage, the intruder shot and stabbed her. Then used his knife to gouge out Maxine’s eyes, which he took with him. They were never found. He also carved an unintelligible L-shaped word or symbol into her stomach. The gun used was a .22 caliber. The crime lab could not match the casings to those used in the previous crimes because of the distortion, not uncommon, with a .22. Still, the shell casings were determined to be consistent with those from the other slayings. It was possible that the same perpetrator had committed the murders.

Carrillo was the youngest homicide investigator in the bureau. He believed the same person who killed Okazaki and Yu also committed the Whittier murders. The other detectives shrugged off his theory. Carrillo took his hunch to Salerno. For years, Salerno worked in homicide and gained experience with serial killers. He cracked the Hillside Strangler case in 1979.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

Carrillo explained his reasons for believing the same man had committed all the crimes while Salerno listened intently. Salerno considered the young detective’s theory to be credible. He took the information, his experience as an investigator, and his intuition to the head of homicide, Captain Bob Grimm. Convinced that Salerno and Carrillo were on to something, Grimm suggested Salerno form a small informal task force to investigate.

On May 14th, the Valley Intruder’s killing spree resumed. The intruder broke into the Monterey Park home of William and Lillian Doi. He shot William and sexually assaulted and beat his invalid wife, who had suffered a stroke. After William heard the man leave, he crawled to a telephone, dialed 911–then he died. Monterey Park police arrived at the scene. A quiet town, homicides in Monterey Park were rare. Someone called the Sheriff’s office and requested Detective Gil Carrillo come to the scene.

The Monterey Park investigator gave Carrillo a cool reception, and declined his offer of assistance. With no reason to stay, Carrillo gave the cop some friendly advice. He told him to be careful in collecting and preserving the evidence. It would be important later.

Just as the case against the Valley Intruder heated up, so did Los Angeles. Residents can take comfort knowing that no matter how hot it gets during the day, the nights are cool and pleasant. But the summer of 1985 was different. Angelenos were sweltering in triple digit heat, shattering records established one hundred years earlier. Temperatures climbed to over 100 degrees during the day, and at night back yard thermometers rarely dipped below the upper 70s. People did everything they could think of to beat the heat. They slept with their bedroom windows open wide to entice a breeze. A sadistic killer saw the open windows as an invitation.  

By the middle of August 1985, the local media was obsessed with the heinous crimes committed by the Valley Intruder. The media coverage increased exponentially with each attack. They finally gave the mysterious killer in black a nickname; the Night Stalker.

Citizens were so terrified by the random and vicious murders that they altered their behavior. The sale of guns and locks skyrocketed. The animal shelters emptied of small dogs who could bark a warning, and big dogs who could bring a man down. 

A San Fernando Valley nurse told newspaper reporters she kept two guns in her house, and she was prepared to use them. An Alhambra woman said when her husband left for the night shift, she would take their three-year-old daughter into the master bedroom and lock the door. A Monrovia man patrolled the perimeter of his property all night with a hockey stick. Six hundred Monterey Park residents packed a neighborhood watch meeting. In some neighborhoods, people held huge slumber parties, praying for safety in numbers

On August 14th, newspapers broke the story that Frank Salerno was heading up a multi-agency task force to investigate the Night Stalker case.

Los Angeles Times, August 14, 1985

The detectives found important evidence, including a print from an Avila size 11 ½ shoe found at multiple crime scenes. At the time, the press and public were unaware of this. They also did not know the detectives had been working the case for months. They had a composite drawing of the perpetrator that they circulated to deputies, just in case they ran across someone who matched the art work.

During their investigation, detectives discovered the same Avila shoe print found at the Zazzara crime scene was also present in a child abduction and molestation case being investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Northeast Division. The suspect took an eight-year-old girl from her home and assaulted her at a construction site before abandoning her. Passersby discovered her in the middle of the night. The suspect left a perfect shoe print in cement at the scene.

That they found the shoe print at the scene of a child rape and at homicides of adult victims was stunning. No one ever investigated a serial killer who was also a pedophile. The detectives knew the person who committed the murders, mutilations, and sexual assaults of children was a deviant whose penchant for evil was impossible to comprehend.

To gain a better understanding of the killer they pursued, the detectives invited the FBI to review the cases and produce a profile. Although not precise, criminal profiling is a useful tool. His rage against women and his fear of men were evident at every scene. He had not hesitated to murder any adult male who was present in the homes he entered, and the overkill of most of the female victims was blood-curdling. While the killer may have had multiple motives for his crimes: burglary, rape, child molestation, murder, and kidnapping–the most salient feature of his attacks was his rage.

With the FBI profile and evidence from more murder scenes, the detectives persisted.

Detectives hold back information in a murder case whenever they can. It is invariably something that only the killer would know. In the Night Stalker case, the detectives kept mum about the Avila shoe prints. Regrettably, the shoes became headline news.

The Night Stalker read the press on his murder spree. He caught the story about Frank Salerno’s assignment to the case. It fed his ego. Salerno was a heavy hitter, a consummate investigator, and a worthy adversary. The task force made it tougher for him to commit crimes in Los Angeles. He needed to take a break. He stole a car and headed north to San Francisco.

Barbara and Peter Pan slept soundly in the bedroom of their two-story home on a residential street near Lake Merced. The Night Stalker removed the screen from an open window and slipped inside. He murdered Peter with a gunshot to the head and then he sexually assaulted Barbara. Before he left, he drew a pentagram on the wall and signed it “Jack the Knife.”

Carrillo and Salerno recognized their suspect from the modus operandi at the Pan house. He had taken his horror show on the road. They spoke with San Francisco police, who agreed to a reciprocal trade of information.

Carrillo and Salerno’s information reached Mayor Dianne Feinstein. She held a press conference.

With their mouths hanging open in disbelief, and their hands clenched in anger, Salerno and Carrillo watched as Feinstein made public every piece of evidence they had discovered. The mayor spoke about the Avila shoe prints, the weapons, and the thumb cuffs the killer used to restrain his female victims. Investigators feared the mayor’s irresponsible statements could destroy their case.

The Night Stalker watched Mayor Feinstein’s press conference, too. He could not believe it. He owed the mayor a debt of gratitude. For months, he was unaware that he left distinctive shoe prints at the crime scenes. He ditched the shoes and anything that tied him to the crimes. Feeling cocky, he returned to Los Angeles.

Thirteen-year-old Mission Viejo resident James Romero, saw a man in an orange Toyota driving down his street. He noticed the car’s headlights were off, and he grew suspicious. He memorized a portion of the license plate number.

James Romero

The Night Stalker broke into a house in Romero’s neighborhood. He shot Bill Carns twice in the head, then raped his fiancée, Inez Erikson. Though he left them for dead, they survived. He returned to the stolen Toyota and drove back to L.A.

It was another steamy night, so the killer removed his gloves. He abandoned the car, and wiped it down, but neglected to clean the rearview mirror he had adjusted with his bare hand.

The Night Stalker task force worked hundreds of hours of overtime. The Feinstein press conference in San Francisco gave them a few bad moments, but they trusted Sheriff Sherman Block to have their backs. He held a press conference of his own, during which he lambasted Feinstein for compromising the case.  

Salerno and Carillo finally caught a couple of breaks. One of them was a phone call from a woman who worked in the courts in Los Angeles. She said her father, Jose Perez, was a street person who hung out at the Greyhound Bus Depot downtown. He had befriended a guy named Ricky. Ricky shared details with Jose about a murder he had committed. Jose told his daughter he and Ricky took a gun to Tijuana and sold it.  

The detectives felt certain that they were only steps behind the Night Stalker. Other detectives traveled to Tijuana and to their shock, recovered the weapon. Ricky did not sell the gun. Jose gave it to one of his girlfriends.

Perez said LAPD arrested his friend Ricky recently for car theft after Ricky crashed the car into the bus depot. He served a couple of days in county jail. Salerno and Carrillo contacted LAPD’s Central Division, but officers there could not locate the case.

While they waited for information from LAPD, the detectives got a call from San Francisco investigators. It was what they needed. A person who knew Ricky, and knew he fit the description of the Night Stalker, provided the investigators with their suspect’s full name. Richard Ramirez.  

Police found the stolen Toyota. Criminalists recovered a single fingerprint from the rearview mirror. An Orange County detective took the print up to Sacramento and, visually, as they had done for decades, compared it to all the prints of anyone with the Ramirez surname. They found a match. After months of painstaking police work, they identified the killer.

On Friday, August 20, 1985, in a joint news conference, Sheriff Sherman Block, Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates and Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates publicly identified Richard Leyva Muñoz Ramirez as the Night Stalker.

The next day, his photo was on the front page of every newspaper in town.

Salerno and Carrillo knew Ramirez hung out at the Greyhound Bus Depot. They set up surveillance on the chance that he would try to leave town. No one expected him to be returning to Los Angeles, but that was what happened.

Greyhound bus depot c. 1970s

Ramirez was out-of-town visiting a brother in Arizona. When he arrived at the Greyhound Bus Depot, he spotted the surveillance. He was oblivious to the fact they were searching for him, but he knew law enforcement meant trouble, and that was the last thing he needed. He walked out of the building where the bus had entered instead of staying with the group of passengers who exited through the front door.

At a nearby liquor store, he bought a carton of orange juice. Then he saw his picture on page one of a local newspaper. In a panic, he got on a bus headed to East Los Angeles, where one of his brothers lived. The other passengers began to whisper and stare at him.

He got off the bus and, in desperation, he ran across several lanes of Interstate 5. Miraculously, on the Saturday morning of the Labor Day holiday, he made it across unharmed. He attempted to carjack vehicles in LAPD’s territory, but failed.

Richard Ramirez sweated profusely. Exhausted and near collapse, he ran onto the 3700 block of Hubbard Street in Boyle Heights. He was one block into Sheriff’s territory.

Faustino Pinon and Jaime Burgoin in front of the Ford Mustang

He tried to carjack a classic Mustang, which was being lovingly restored by its proud owners. The car wasn’t drivable, so the fugitive attempted to hijack a car from a pregnant woman who was about to run errands. The woman screamed. Her husband heard her and came running. He was wielding a length of pipe. He took one look at the shaggy-haired stranger who had the audacity to molest his wife and bashed him over the head. The ruckus brought more people into the street. Many of them picked up baseball bats and hammers and gave chase.

The battle of Hubbard Street was on.

Someone placed a call to the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s station about a fight on Hubbard Street.

Cries went up. “It’s him!” “It’s the Night Stalker!”

NEXT TIME: The Night Stalker in custody.

The Night Stalker, Part 1

About 11:30 p.m., on the night of March 17, 1985, a twenty-five-year-old unemployed drifter from Texas drove aimlessly through the streets of Los Angeles. He cruised around for hours in a stolen car. Dressed in black with a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, the cocktail of drugs in his system fueled his hateful fantasies of blood, death, and Satanic power. He cranked up the volume on his Walkman and listened to his favorite album, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.

He was hunting human prey.

The drifter lived in downtown Los Angeles, and during the day he walked to one of the nearby dives and joined the shabby strangers who sat side-by-side on bar stools nursing glasses of cheap booze, lost in their own realities. Sometimes he would visit a local liquor store and buy a bottle, a “short dog,” he could sip from a brown paper sack. At night, he came alive. The darkness energized him. The cars he stole gave him the freedom to go wherever he wanted, and on that March night, as he drove the freeways, he spotted a lone woman in gold Camaro. On a whim, he followed her.

Maria Hernandez’s car caught the attention of the drifter. She spent the evening with her boyfriend and was on her way home. She exited the highway for Rosemead, a quiet bedroom community in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s territory, and the stranger followed her. Maria turned right onto Village Lane, where she lived in a new condominium owned by her roommate Dayle Okazaki. She pressed the button on the automatic door opener, and stepped into the garage. Maria pressed a button on the wall to shut the garage door behind her. Her black clad stalker entered the garage. His soft-soled sneakers, and the carpet runner near Dayle’s green Toyota muffled his steps.

The man could have snuck up behind Maria, but he wanted to see her fear. He slammed his hand down hard on the hood of Dayle’s car. Maria jumped and turned toward the noise. As the garage door closed, the garage got darker, with just enough light to see into the shadows. Maria saw a tall, thin man in dark clothes and a baseball cap with a logo for the heavy metal band AD/DC on it. As he lifted the .22 he carried, his baseball cap fell to the floor. The garage door took eight seconds to shut before plunging them into darkness. Maria clutched her keys and reflexively threw her hands up in front of her face, as if they could repel the bullet she knew was coming.

Maria’s hands did not stop the bullet, but her keys deflected the round and saved her life. She dropped to the floor of the garage and played dead. The stranger entered the condo. Maria crept up, opened the garage door, and went around to the front of her building—she wanted to get inside and warn Dayle.

Dayle Okasaki had heard the shot, and saw a man enter her kitchen. She ducked down behind the counter, hoping he did not see her. The stranger smiled. He caught the movement as Dayle dropped behind the counter. He knew that if he was patient, her curiosity would get the better of her and that eventually she would pop up to see if he had gone. Just as he knew she would, Dayle cautiously rose from behind the tiled counter. She stared down the barrel of the .22 the man had pointed at her head. He fired, and a bullet entered her forehead, knocking her to the floor.

Dayle Okazaki

As Maria approached the front door, she heard a gunshot. Then, to her horror, the gaunt man in black who had tried to kill her walked out onto the stoop. She couldn’t believe it. She was certain he would exit the back way. The two stood facing each other for a second that stretched into eternity.

A black-topped orange Volkswagen sat at the curb in front of the condo. Maria bolted to it, pursued by the man. The two chased each other around the car in a macabre version of a child’s game of tag. Finally, the man caught up with Maria and raised his gun. Maria spoke to him. “You’ve already shot me. Don’t shoot me again.”

Maria held the stranger’s eyes and waited for a gunshot. The man lowered his weapon and walked away. She ran back into the condo and found Dayle on the kitchen floor, a pool of blood formed around her head. Maria phoned the Sheriff’s station and waited for deputies to arrive.

The killer drove away from the scene; but he was in no rush for the evening to end.

Forty-five minutes later, he was back on the freeway when he noticed a young Asian woman taking an exit for Monterey Park. He followed her, just as he had done with Maria Hernandez. But the woman, thirty-year-old law student Tsai-Lin Veronica Yu, noticed the man behind her, and started looking for a police car. A block or two later, she pulled over to the curb and waited for the man to drive past—then she followed him. They caught a red light on North Alhambra Avenue. The man switched off his headlights, got out of the stolen Toyota, and approached the driver’s side of Veronica’s vehicle.  

Veronica confronted him and demanded to know why he had followed her. At first, he denied her accusation. Then he said he thought he knew her. She called him a liar. He grabbed at her through the open window and tried to drag her out of the car. Failing to yank Veronica from the driver’s seat, he ran around to the passenger side. Before Veronica could push the lock down, he slipped into the seat and pointed a gun at her side. He fired and wounded Veronica. She opened the door to escape. He shot her again, this time the bullet struck her in the lower back. She got out of the car and took a couple of shaky steps before she collapsed on the pavement and died.

Satisfied, the drifter returned to his room in the Hotel Cecil on skid row.

NEXT TIME: Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Bureau detectives begin an investigation into the murder.

Tell My Wife I Love Her

Driving east on Ventura Boulevard in North Hollywood (now Studio City), architect Julian L. Zeller saw a well-dressed man staggering out of the weeds on the south side of the street. Zeller stopped to render aid. The man said, “I was shot by bandits in the hills. The bandit stole my car and my sweetheart.” Then he said, “If I die, tell my wife I loved her.” The man bled profusely and grew weaker as Zeller rushed him to the Hollywood Receiving Hospital. Zeller assisted his injured passenger into the hospital’s emergency room. Doctors tried, but they could not save the man.

From the contents of his pockets, police tentatively identified the deceased as fifty-one-year-old Merton L. Jenks. Merton, a wealthy real estate broker and oil speculator, lived in Beverly Hills with his wife Ruby. A prominent member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Merton had friends in high places, like the Police Commissioner.

As detectives contemplated their first steps in investigating Merton’s death, motorcycle officer J. E. Clementine sped to answer a call at 11414 Berry Street in the hills above Ventura Boulevard. The resident, Mrs. J. B. Mield, phoned because a woman arrived at her doorstep pleading for help.

Clementine guided his bike to the curb of the Berry Street home and found a hysterical woman in the yard. The woman choked out her name, Helen Moffitt. She calmed down enough to tell Clementine that she and a companion, Merton Jenks, were the victims of a hold-up at the top of the hill.

Helen said she did not know what happened to Merton. As soon as he grappled with the armed robber, she took off in the car to get help.

Chief Detective Joe Taylor and Inspector David Davidson took Helen downtown to LAPD’s Central Station for questioning. They contacted her husband, Norval, a Glendale car salesman, and he joined them.

Detectives asked Helen how well she knew Merton, and why they parked on a lonely road in the hills. She said, “I met Mr. Jenks at my sister’s home about a year ago. He knew that myself and my husband were anxious to dispose of our house in Venice and he was interested in showing me some new places. Tuesday, he called for me at home and we went to the North Hollywood district. We drove up to the head of Berry Drive (where the shooting took place) and stopped to admire the view.”

“Mr. Jenks got out of the car and was standing talking to me when suddenly a man walked out of the bushes by the roadside. He was dressed in blue-bib overalls, a blue shirt, and a cap. He had a white handkerchief drawn over his face through which holes were cut.”

The bandit held a gun on the couple and told them to “Stick ‘em up.”

Helen thought the bandit hit Merton over the head with a gun. She said, “I saw Mr. Jenks stagger over the embankment. My first thought was to get help and, as the motor of the car was still running, I moved to the driver’s seat and drove as fast as I could to the first house, where I could get a telephone.”

The detectives listened attentively to Helen’s account of the crime; but they did not entirely buy her story.

When police and deputy coroners searched Merton’s belongings, they found photographs of Helen. One in the back of a gold watch and another in his wallet. In one photo, Helen wore a bathing suit. They also found a telegram postmarked in Santa Monica. It read: “You have been my Valentine for several years.” It was signed “H. S.” Was it from Helen?

The couple clearly had a relationship, and likely parked on the lonely hillside for more than the view. Judging from the newspaper coverage, police weren’t the only ones to doubt Helen’s story. They began reporting the story as a “petting party,” and a “love tryst.”

If you are not familiar with the term, a petting party was a gathering at which couples would hug, kiss, and perhaps fondle each other. Petting did not always stop with a kiss, but it stopped short of intercourse. Popular during the 1920s, and into the 1930s, petting parties outraged the older generation. Which, of course, was the point.

The post-WWI era saw a fundamental shift in the behavior of young adults. The previous generation had to follow strict courtship rules. Modern couples no longer had anyone looking over their shoulders. Three things contributed to the shift. World War I. Cars. Prohibition. The war made cynics and hedonists of many of its young survivors. Cars offered mobility and privacy—a bedroom on wheels. Prohibition normalized law-breaking.

By 1932, when Helen and Merton parked in the hills above Ventura Boulevard, petting parties were passe. But couples of any age who wanted privacy often drove to a remote spot.

Helen’s ever-changing version of events did not help the investigation. In fact, the only part of her story that did not change with each telling was her description of their assailant.

Before he died, Merton told Zeller two people attacked him. But Helen insisted only one man held them up.

Within days of the crime, police brought three suspects, Robert Gilreath, Robert Campbell, and William Saxton, into the station for questioning. They soon released them.

Inspector David Davidson, in charge of the investigation, told reporters they believed the bandit might be one who specifically targeted couples parked in the hills. Following Merton’s refusal to comply with the robber’s demands, the bandit slugged him. When he ran, the bandit shot him in the back. Merton may have been a faithless husband, but he did not deserve to die.

Among his belongings police found Merton had a carry permit, issued by the Sheriff’s Department on September 16, 1931. At the time of issuance, Merton said he needed a gun for “travel protection.” However, having an affair with Helen, may have made him cautious. Perhaps he feared her husband coming after him. However, Norval seemed genuinely surprised that Merton kept photos of Helen, or had a relationship with her.

Was Norval feigning surprise? Detectives could not afford to take him at his word. They investigated and found he spent the afternoon of the shooting in a movie theater.

On Thursday, July 16, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict in Merton’s death, “shot by persons unknown with homicidal intent.”

Helen testified at the inquest. The attractive 30-year-old insisted there was “no lovemaking,” and she and Merton sat in his car “looking at the scenery.” Deputy Coroner Monfort challenged her.

“Now, Mrs. Moffitt, you were never in the rear seat of that car at any time, were you?”

“I never was,” she replied.

“How do you account for the forty-five minutes you spent with Mr. Jenks at this point?”

“Well, we were admiring the scenery, and there was a general discussion about real estate and other topics. I don’t remember all that was said.”

The reason for Monfort’s line of questioning is not clear, although he may have suspected Helen hired someone to kill Merton. It was troubling that Merton said two persons attacked him, and Helen said there was one.

Two weeks after the murder, police searched Helen’s home looking for a weapon. Two hundred yards from where the bandit stood, police found a .32 caliber shell fired from an automatic. Police chemist, Ray Pinker, said he could match the shell to a gun if they found one.

The case stalled. In September, twenty-three-year-old Chester Bartlett surrendered himself to police and confessed he had “done something wrong” in the hills near Mulholland. Bartlett’s confession did not survive scrutiny. He admitted he attempted suicide by swallowing gasoline. The obviously unstable man may have done wrong, but he did not commit murder.

The scant leads dried up, and nobody offered new information, so police had to shelve the Jenks case. It remains unsolved.

What happened on June 14, 1932? Hungry, homeless and without hope, many desperate people roamed the streets of Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Did one of them pick up a gun and attempt to rob Merton and Helen? Did Merton perish at the hands of a would-be robber, or was he the victim of something more sinister?

We can only speculate.

Ode to Joy

Incorporated in 1913, San Marino is a quiet, residential-only enclave catering to people with money; lots of money. It is unthinkable, not to mention in poor taste, for a resident to die of unnatural causes. But on December 31, 1949, the body of a 39-year-old socialite, and well-known party girl, Joy McLaughlin, was found in the lush bedroom of her San Marino rental home. A gunshot wound to her chest. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department sent detectives Herman Leaf and Garner Brown to investigate.

When Brown and Leaf arrived at McLaughlin’s Spanish-style bungalow at 2002 Oakdale Street they found the attractive blonde artfully sprawled on a blood-spattered Oriental rug in her bedroom next to her lace canopied bed. If they hadn’t known better, the detectives may have thought that they were looking at a scene from a film noir. The deceased was wearing a maroon off-the-shoulder blouse, blue skirt, and black peep-toed pumps. Her jewelry comprised a simple gold bracelet and gold earrings. A .38 revolver lay near her right hand.

As the detectives scanned the frilly bedroom for clues, they noticed a framed pastel portrait of McLaughlin. The portrait appeared to be from the 1930s. In it, McLaughlin had long blonde hair, kohl-rimmed eyes, and vaguely resembled actress Mary Astor, if she was a blonde. A bullet broke the glass in the portrait. The shattered glass was another film noir touch in the real-life death scene.

What had Joy’s life been like in the years since the completion of the portrait? And why had she died? In order to better understand Joy’s death, detectives would have to examine her past.

According to some records, Joy was born in Denver as Joy McLaughlin on September 22, 1910, or 1911 in Memphis, Texas. By the 1930 census, Joy lived with her widowed mother, Daisy, and her sisters, May, Dorothy, Novella, Ysleta, and Thelma, in a home on Larrabee Street in Hollywood. Joy was 19 at the time of the census, and was in a relationship with automobile (Cadillac and LaSalle) and radio (KHJ) magnate Don Lee. The older man, twice divorced, had been seeing Joy since she was sixteen.

Joy believed she and Don would eventually marry, but he met another age-inappropriate woman, twenty-four-year-old Geraldine May Jeffers Timmons, and dropped Joy like a burning coal. Don and Geraldine dated for only a few months before being married in Agua Caliente, Mexico.

Disappointed and angry, Joy filed a breach of promise lawsuit, aka a “heart balm” suit in 1933 against her former lover in the amount of $500,000. To put it in perspective, $500,000 then is equivalent to $11 million dollars today. Certainly enough cash to soothe a broken heart. Following a brief court battle, Joy walked away with $11,500. Not what she hoped for, but not chump change—it had the same buying power as $266k has today. You could stretch that sum a long way during the Great Depression.

For the next several years, Joy traveled. She sailed through the Panama Canal, she visited Hawaii, and she spent time at the resort in Agua Caliente, Baja California, Mexico. She even found time to marry a man named Robert Stark; but the marriage ended in divorce.

During years before her death, Joy met an oil millionaire, John A. Smith. John was married but when asked about it he said: “I’m not working at it.” During their investigation of Joy’s death, Sheriff’s Department detectives discovered John had been with Joy in the hours prior to her death.

Had John killed her? Not according to his testimony at the coroner’s inquest. John described an evening of drinking (Joy’s blood alcohol registered.021 at her autopsy) and dancing. The couple, accompanied by Fern Graves, a friend of Joy’s, partied at the Jonathan Club and the Zebra Room of the Town House.

John said: “Joy wanted to dance. She called the orchestra leader over and arranged for some music. I bought the orchestra a drink. We danced and drank until the bar closed.” At 2 a.m. Joy, Fern, and John accepted the invitation of bar acquaintance named George to have a nightcap in his room at the Biltmore Hotel. The party continued until 8 a.m. It incensed Joy when John john sobssuggested they call it a night. She bolted from George’s hotel room, and John had to retrieve her.

Photograph of the Zebra Room in The Town House hotel, Los Angeles. “Photograph by Julius Shulman / P.O. Box 8656, Cole Stn. Los Angeles 46, Claif.” — stamped on verso. Verso dated, “February 14, 1955”.; Streetscape.

Joy and John finally made it back to her home. Between sobs, John testified Joy became melancholy, and occasionally belligerent, when she drank. He followed her into her bedroom, where she undressed. He said that she turned to him and said, “You can get out.” John said he knew better than to cross her when she was in a mood, so he left the house. As he got to his car, he thought he heard a gunshot. “I ran back into the house. Joy was sitting on the floor…”

John fell apart on the stand, and it took him several moments to regain control and continue his testimony. “She (Joy) was sitting at the foot of the bed, sort of half sprawled and leaning against the bed. I saw the whole scene in an instant. Her hand was out, and a gun was lying not over three feet from her body. I grabbed it.”

“I said, ‘My God, what have you done?’” Joy was beyond answering. John picked up the weapon and it went off. It scared him half to death. Joy remained quiet. When John tried to lift her, he felt blood ooze through his left hand. “I listened for life. In my judgment, she was dead.”

He panicked. He left without calling a doctor because he believed Joy was dead. He then drove through a thick fog to the Wilmington home of two of Joy’s sisters, Thelma, and Ysleta. When they opened the door, they found John wringing his hands and crying.

When Joy’s sister Ysleta was called to testify at the inquest, she revealed it was she who gave Joy the weapon that killed her. Friends described Joy as a person who felt things keenly; sensitive and sympathetic to other people’s problems.

Upon hearing from all the witnesses, the coroner’s jury concluded Joy had discharged the .38 firearm into her chest, just one inch from her breast.

There appeared to be no single event which caused Joy to take her own life. Perhaps her suicide was the culmination of a life of unfulfilled dreams.

NOTES: This is another great story I owe to Mike Fratantoni–historian par excellence. It is also an encore post from 2017.

Death on the Driver’s Side

About 2:30 a.m., on February 1, 1931, after a night of nightclubbing, twenty-four-year-old Julia Tapia and several of her girlfriends stopped at Alfonso’s Café at Temple and Figueroa for a bite to eat. Julia wanted to sober up before leaving on a quick turn-around trip north.

A friend of hers, Harvey Hicks, missed his train to Tehachapi, about one hundred miles north of Los Angeles. She had nothing better to do, so she said she would drive him there. She had no desire to make the return trip by herself. She would have asked her girlfriends to accompany her, but they were “family girls,” not the type to take a trip on the spur-of-the-moment.

Julia didn’t scoff at family girls, but she knew she wasn’t one herself. She was married, but her husband left for Mexico five months earlier, and had not returned. She was recently “vagged,” which is a vagrancy charge, usually prostitution. She spent ten days in the county jail rather than pay a $50 fine.

Woman driver c. 1930s

She scanned the café for another girl, not the family type, who might take the Tehachapi jaunt with her. She spotted Adeline Ortega. Julia and Adeline weren’t close, but they’d seen each other around, and had chatted before at Alfonso’s. Adeline had recently been “vagged,” too. Julia persuaded her to come along for the ride. They would have lots to talk about on the way home.

Adeline made only one request. She wanted her friend Manuel to join them. Julia didn’t object; what the hell, the more the merrier. Four young people in a car, a pint and a half of illegal booze, and a few hours on a dark highway–it would be a miracle if trouble didn’t find them. Miracles never happened to Julia.

The trip to Tehachapi was uneventful. They took Harvey to the home of a friend of his, and spent about thirty minutes passing a bottle of whiskey around. When it came time to leave, Manuel said he was exhausted. He stretched out on the back seat of Julia’s car and nodded off. Julia drove while Adeline kept her company. A little later, Adeline got sleepy and switched places with Manuel.

Manuel was the perfect passenger until he started pestering Julia to let him drive. She refused. The two had words, and Manuel tried to throw the car out of gear and grab the steering wheel. Julia, accustomed to dealing with men who would not take no for an answer, told Manuel to cut the crap or she would put him out on the highway. Manuel got belligerent and declared he’d leave the car willingly.

After Manuel got out, Julia drove her car, a 1930 Chevrolet, in low gear down the road. She was a softer touch than she seemed. She would give Manuel another chance to behave. But minutes after he got out of her car, she saw a light-colored car, with three guys in it, pick him up. The car caught up with Julia; Adeline still slept in the backseat. When the car pulled up alongside her, Manuel shouted he left his overcoat and hat behind and wanted to retrieve them. Julia reached over to the passenger’s side and grabbed his belongings. She threw them out of the car at him.  

Manuel got angry. He jumped onto the running board of her car. He was on the driver’s side, screaming abuse at her. Then, he reached over and pulled her hair and smacked her hard on the jaw. She noticed Harvey had left his .38 revolver stuck in the seat cushion. She grabbed the gun and shot Manuel right above his heart. He fell from the running board and tumbled to the pavement.

Julia braked the car to a stop and ran over to him. He was lying in a pool of blood, wheezing. He was about two heartbeats away from death. She dragged him to the side of the road. The car that Manuel had hitched a ride on sped off into the night. Seconds later, another car with three men in it pulled up to see what was going on. In the car were Dean Markham and his buddies, Joe Frigon, and Bob Tittle. The trio were rabbit hunting in Mojave, and headed back to L.A.

Markham got out of the car, and walked over to speak with Julia. On his way over to talk to the distraught woman, he noticed a pool of dark-colored liquid, and Manuel on the pavement. He stepped wide.

Markham’s car had overheated. They left Julia and Adeline behind, and took Julia’s car to fetch help in nearby Lancaster. They arrived at a hotel and asked the clerk where to find a cop. The clerk pointed at a pool hall down the street. He suggested they would find an officer there. Sure enough, just as the clerk said, Markham and his buddies found an officer shooting pool.

Markham, et al., piled into Julia’s car, and returned to the scene. They could hear the siren wailing on the police car ahead of them as they sped down the highway.

Markham, his friends, and the officer, pulled up to the scene. Julia and Adeline stood in the road, shell-shocked. No wonder. The local undertaker beat the cop to the scene. He loaded Manuel’s body into his hearse and drove it away.

In the days following Manuel’s death, his business partner asked about $500 (equivalent to $10,500.00 in 2023 U.S. dollars) Manuel carried with him. He was supposed to have deposited it. The morgue property slip listed the dead man’s belongings. No mention of money.

They indicted Julia for Manuel’s murder on April 27, 1931. The case was called for trial in Department 27 of Superior Court; Judge Walton J. Wood presiding, Deputy District Attorney Barnes representing the People, and S .S. Hahn representing the defendant. The Deputy D.A. who prepared the case against Julia, was unavailable. Barnes requested a continuance. Judge Wood denied the motion and ordered Barnes to proceed with the trial.

At the conclusion of the state’s case, prior to being submitted to the jury, S. S. Hahn moved for an instructed verdict. The judge agreed with Hahn that all the evidence showed Julia shot Manuel in self-defense.

Julia left the court a free woman. Was she $500 richer? We’ll never know.

NOTE: This is an encore post from December 2012. This is one of the first posts I wrote for the blog. As I did then, I want to thank my crime buddy, Mike Fratantoni, curator of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Museum. He told me this story because he knows I have a weakness for tales about bad girls, and cars with running boards.