Film Noir Friday: The Prowler [1951]


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

Tonight’s feature is THE PROWLER [1951], directed by Joseph Losey and starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes.  The print may not be stellar, but the film is a cult classic

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

One evening policemen Bud Crocker and Webb Garwood arrive at 1918 Orchid, Los Angeles, to follow up on the report of a prowler. The older, friendly Bud advises house owner and beautiful blonde Susan Gilvray to be careful but later that evening his partner, the younger flirtatious Webb, returns for a check-up call. While Susan and Webb listen to the radio and visit over coffee, Susan explains that she is alone because her wealthy, middle-aged husband John is the late night-disc jockey on the radio. Susan recognizes Webb as a once-famous high school basketball player from Indiana, where she grew up. Webb bitterly recounts his bad breaks since high school, but shares his dream of owning a motel court. Webb returns another evening to visit, and when he asks for a cigarette, Susan explains that her husband keeps both the cigarettes and her locked up. When Webb jimmies the desk drawer lock to retrieve a pack of cigarettes, he spies John’s will and surreptitiously reads it. Webb grills Susan about the marriage, and she reluctantly answers that though John provides for her, he has not provided what she really wanted, a baby.


A Visit From the Sheriff – 2014

Ching-ching-a-ling! Ching-ching-a-ling!
Are those sleighbells I hear?
It’s gunfire…


T’was the week before Christmas, December ’54
David Cox’s house was filled with violence, mayhem and smashed crockery galore.

David’s Downey neighbors awoke to ruckus and clatter,
and wondered just what in the hell was the matter.

It must be that S.O.B. Cox, they concluded —
a few beers in his belly and he’s completely deluded.

They turned away from their windows and went back to their beds,
where they pulled the covers up over their heads.

David had arrived home three hours late,
with booze on his breath and his eyes filled with hate.

His wife, Billie, had made a modest request
for $25 to buy each of their girls a new dress.

“Mary and Katherine don’t need presents, you frivolous bitch!”
David picked up a lamp and smashed it to bits.


He ripped out the windows, wood frames and plaster,
then sped off in his truck leaving behind a disaster.


Later that evening when David came home
he drove his truck into a fence, then lurched around drunk and alone.


Hello! Anyone home? He shouted to the empty house.
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

His children were frightened and his pregnant wife was alarmed,
she tooks the kids to her mother’s so they wouldn’t be harmed.

The Norwalk Sheriff’s station was called, and deputies rushed to the scene.
David was wielding a shotgun and he looked pretty damned mean.

“Drop your weapon!” the deputies shouted calling David by name.
But Cox opened fire and the cops did the same.


Sgts. Lovretovich and Piper stood over David who was collapsed on the lawn.
He’d taken multiple rounds — he was deceased, he was gone.

Why didn’t he do as we said, they pondered aloud; to behave as he had —
he must have been crazy, he must have been mad!

david coxDavid’s drinking and anger had cost him his life,
he’d never again see his friends, children, or wife.

Christmas was dismal for the Cox family that year.
Instead of baby dolls, buggies and bears named Ted,
there was a casket, flowers and tears to be shed.

No doubt about it, David Cox had acted a fool.
A moron, an idiot, a jackass, a tool.

Neighbors were heard to exclaim, ere Deputies drove out of sight.

Don’t screw with the Sheriffs, they’ll put up a fight.


NOTE:  I wrote this poem last year and I thought it would be nice to make it a holiday tradition. I’m really just an old-fashioned dame at heart.

I couldn’t do justice to A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS by Clement Clarke Moore which provided the inspiration for this post, but it was fun just the same.

I took very few liberties with this take. I put words in the mouths of the victim and the cops, but otherwise the details are as they appeared in the  Los Angeles Times report of the incident.  It pleases me no end that one of my favorite Deputy Sheriffs of the era, Ned Lovretovich, played a role in this story. His career continues to fascinate me.

Many thanks to Mike Fratantoni for turning me on to a great story–he knows them all.


Film Noir Friday: Moonrise [1948]


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

Tonight’s feature is MOONRISE [1948], directed by Frank Borzage and starring Dane Clark, Gail Russell and Ethel Barrymore.

Enjoy the movie!

IMDB says:

In the tiny community of Woodsville, young Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) is constantly tormented by his fellow townspeople because his father was put to death for killing another man. When he hopes to put his dark family history behind him and begin a relationship with warmhearted teacher Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), local bullies try to put a stop to the romance by jumping Danny. After accidentally killing one of his attackers, Danny must struggle to escape the same fate as his father.

Film Noir Friday: Saboteur [1942]


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

Tonight’s feature is SABOTEUR [1942], directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Priscilla Lane, Robert Cummings, Norman Lloyd and Otto Kruger. This is a fantastic WWII era thriller by the master of suspense.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Munitions worker Barry Kane is falsely accused of setting fire to the Stuarts Aircraft Factory in Los Angeles, a fire that caused the death of his best friend, Ken Mason. Barry realizes that the real saboteur is Frank Fry, the man who handed him a fire extinguisher, which turned out to be full of gasoline. Remembering that Fry had an envelope addressed to him from the Deep Springs Ranch in Springfield, California, Barry goes there to find the killer, but the ranch’s owner, Charles Tobin, tells him that he does not know Fry. Tobin’s granddaughter, however, hands Barry a telegram addressed to Tobin from Fry stating that Fry is going to Soda City. Although Tobin has Barry arrested, Barry manages to escape from the police by jumping off a bridge.

The L.A. River Torso Slaying, Conclusion

westlake accused2Captain William Bright and the homicide squad understood the importance of circumstantial evidence in winning a conviction in a murder case. They met with Assistant District Attorney Jordan and for hours they reviewed everything that they had assembled in the case against Dr. Frank Westlake.

The foundation of the case against the doctor was greed. He had in his possession deeds of trust for several lots, bank books and cash belonging to Laura Sutton. He was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy she had taken out and he had even given some of Laura’s personal belongings away–hardly the actions of a man who thought she’d be home soon.

The evidence implicating  Dr. Westlake in Laura’s murder was circumstantial, but when taken together it offered a compelling argument for murder committed for personal gain–particularly when her clothing, silverware, and other personal effects were discovered by deputies concealed under the floor and in the attic of his home. They found a typewriter hidden under a pile of clothing too. It was the possibly the same typewriter that had been used to write the so-called “birdie letters”. The letters were purportedly sent by Laura to Westlake inquiring about her pet canaries and some of her other belongings.

One of the letters read:

My dear:
What did you do with the furniture and the birdies?  If stored, where?  Is Mr. King still in town, and what shift is he working? Please answer these questions in any of the personal columns.  Will see you soon.


jury id torsoAn inquest conducted by Coroner Nance was held on June 13, 1929. The primary reason for the proceeding was to get on the record the identification of the torso as Mrs. Sutton’s so that the murder trial could go forward. There was no doubt in any of the investigators or scientists minds that the torso and head belonged to Laura.

The sensational murder trial of Dr. Westlake was scheduled to begin on August 19, 1929; however, Westlake’s legal team was wrapping up another case so the trial was continued until August 26th. The case against the doctor was simple. The State alleged that he had murdered Sutton so he could gain control of her assets, and then he mutilated her corpse to cover up the crime.

Nine women and three men were selected to pass judgement on the 57-year-old retired physician. The 8-year-old boy who had found the torso was a witness, as was the 14-year-old boy who had discovered the head. Due to the condition of the body (still armless and legless) the testimony was necessarily scientific. The jury was schooled in the rudiments of forensic odontology so they could understand the dentist’s testimony.  Further, bones from the torso were entered into evidence so Dr. Wagner, the autopsy surgeon, could explain how it was possible to determine the age of the victim by the ossification of her bones.death locale

The defense advanced a theory that Ben King had committed the murder because he had once worked as a butcher and knew how to dismember a body. But they seemed to feel that their strongest defense was simply to deny that the torso and head were Laura’s and that she was still alive but in hiding. When his attorney, William T. Kendrick, Jr. asked him if he had killed Laura B. Sutton, Westlake replied: “No, I certainly did not.”

Thirty-six hours after beginning their deliberation the jury returned a verdict of guilty and fixed Dr. Westlake’s sentence at life in prison. One of the jurors said that they’d have brought in a guilty verdict on the first ballot if not for one of the women members who declared that she was a psychologist and from her observations deduced that Westlake was probably not the killer. Apparently she regained her senses.

Sheriff Traeger received a letter from District Attorney Buron Fitts praising the skills of the everyone involved in the torso murder investigation:

The conviction of Dr. Frank P. Westlake for the murder of Laura Sutton, in the so-called torso murder case deserves the highest commendation of this office.

It is with deepest satisfaction that I desire to commend Captain Willikam J. Bright of the homicide department and his able deputies, Allen, Gray, Croushorn and Gompert for their diligent and skillful efforts in marshalling the evidence upon which a conviction was obtained.  Their unceasing efforts solving what began to look like a baffling murder, have ultimately been rewarded by a just and conclusive verdict of first-degree murder after a fair and impartial trial.

We are turning over to the family of Mrs. Sutton at the request of Mr. Sutton, the husband, and the brothers and sisters, the body for burial by them, which signifies the satisfaction of the family at the identification of the torso.

Hoping the excellent co-operation between our office and yours will forever continue, I remain sincerely yours,

Buron Fitts

Sheriff Traeger commended his deputies as well:

“…the solution of the torso murder case was a triumph of scientific investigation over old-fashioned methods.”

westlake paroledIn this era of DNA evidence we have a tendency to take for granted the skills required to investigate crime outside of the laboratory. Even with the quantum leaps in scientific techniques an investigation is only as good as the men and women who conduct it.

What happened to Dr. Westlake? He was paroled on July 12, 1944 after serving only fourteen years in San Quentin for the murder of Laura B. Sutton.

NOTE: Many thanks to my friend Mike Fratatoni for bringing this deranged case to my attention.

The L.A. River Torso Slaying, Part 5

Captain Bright and the homicide squad had no shortage of suspects in Laura Sutton’s murder. Her ex-husband, Eugene, may have wanted her dead so that he could  stop paying alimony. Laura and her sister Ida had been estranged because of Ida’s relationship and pending marriage to Eugene. Letters written by Laura to Eugene had been discovered, and in them she expressed her desire to start over with him. Together, or separately, Ida and Eugene may have murdered Laura. Then there was Ben King who rented a room in Laura’s house. Apparently Ben had been courting Laura–but so had Dr. Westlake. What if  Ben became so jealous of the doctor that he murdered Laura rather than lose her to another man? Even Laura’s brother Emerson De Groff may have had a motive–he was supposed to inherit some land, maybe there was more than just an unrecorded deed at stake.

westlake picLastly there was Dr. Frank Westlake. He was the only one of the suspects with a knowledge of human anatomy, and probably the only one  who owned a scalpel.

One of the basic tenets of a homicide investigation is cui bono.  Who benefits? Which of the suspects stood to gain the most from Laura’s death?

Homicide investigators collected a lot of circumstantial evidence, all of which pointed to Dr. Frank Westlake. Westlake had deeds to many of Laura’s properties, large sums of her cash and her bank books. He had been named as a beneficiary in her will and in a life insurance policy. Oh, and remember the missing Liberty bonds? Westlake had those too.

Apparently Dr. Westlake had been acting as Laura’s financial adviser for six years, long before her divorce from Euguene. Following the divorce Westlake had taken complete charge of Laura’s finances and had convinced her to open a joint bank account with him. She deposited $750 –the doctor hadn’t contributed a dime.

Detectives quizzed Ben King.. He said he had proposed marriage to Laura–a union to which Westlake was vehemently opposed. An argument broke out among the three of them and, according to King, Laura grabbed a pistol and held it to her head. That’s one way to end an argument.

King relieved Laura of the weapon and later gave it to Westlake. He said the argument had occurred on March 26th and that he had never seen Sutton again.

Dr. Westlake’s initial statement to detectives was that Laura had summoned him to her house several days following the argument. She wanted a lift to the train depot where she could catch a train for Ventura. She planned to confront Eugene and  Ida.

According to the doctor his car broke down at Pico and Union and Laura got out and caught a street car. He never saw her again. Westlake’s story fell apart in some crucial ways. The letters supposedly written to him by Sutton were determined to be forgeries. Then there was the note for $200 which he claimed had been endorsed by Laura on the 3rd of April and mailed from a small Arizona town. Again the experts said the signature was a forgery.

Dr. Westlake enlisted the aid of Ben King, asking him to keep a vigil at the cemetery where Laura’s mother was buried. Both men knew that Laura visited the grave several times a week and decided that she might turn up there. For an entire week Ben pulled all night graveside stakeouts. Westake didn’t participate, but he regularly drove out to the cemetery to visit with King and to encourage him to stay.

Detectives were further troubled by the murkiness of Dr. Westlake’s past. The doctor claimed to have graduated from the Eclectic Medical School in Cincinnati in 1900. Eclectic medicine relied on botanical remedies and was the antithesis of modern Western medicine as practiced in the 18th and early 19th centuries. California didn’t recognize medical degrees from the Eclectic Medical School so Dr. Westlake was not permitted to practice here.rented house

Circumstantial evidence against Dr. Westlake continued to accumulate, but what Captain Bright wanted most was a crime scene.  Every member of the homicide squad was dispatched to locate the scene of the murder and dismemberment. While seeking the crime scene Sheriffs discovered that a home had been rented during the last week of March by a couple who resembled Westlake and Sutton. The couple had paid two months’ rent in advance. When he was questioned about it Westlake admitted that he and Laura had been “house hunting” for several days before she disappeared and had visited at least eight vacant homes in the Edendale district, all of which would need to be searched.

Deputy Sheriffs Allen, Gray and Gompert found bloodstains splashed all over the walls and floor in the bathroom of Dr. Westlake’s home. They had the bathtub removed and the “gooseneck” in the pluming was tested. Gompert’s portable crime lab came in handy.

The blood in the bathroom “forged the final link in a chain of circumstances” which the D.A. felt were compelling enough to formally charge Dr. Westlake with Laura Sutton’s murder.

westlake accusedThe evidence against him didn’t seem to bother Westlake. He denied harming Laura and, in fact, insisted that she was still alive.

NEXT TIME: The conclusion of the L.A. River Torso Slaying.

The L.A. River Torso Slaying, Part 4

teeth drawingCaptain Bright’s faith in his detectives and the crime lab wasn’t misplaced. Six weeks following the discovery of a woman’s torso in the Los Angeles River partial identification of the victim was made through her teeth. The dead woman was tentatively identified as Mrs. Laura B. Sutton. She was 40 years of age and had mysteriously disappeared at the end of March–six days before the torso was found.

teeth chartMrs. Sutton’s brother, E.J. Groff, had seen the drawings of the teeth in the newspaper and immediately contacted his sister’s dentist. While the doctor wouldn’t go so far as to state positively that the teeth were Mrs. Sutton’s, he was willing to say that they closely resembled them–he would need to make a trip to the Coroner’s Office to make a positive match. Unfortunately, his trip to the see the skull would have to be delayed until he could find Sutton’s x-rays, which he had misplaced.

Groff told detectives that prior to her disappearance his sister had been behaving strangely. She seemed agitated and made a number of odd statements. She told him that she had left an unrecorded lot in his custody and then she said: “If anything ever should happen to me, that lot I deeded you is not recorded.”

She made no effort to explain herself further. Then she told him that two Liberty bonds had been stolen from a safety deposit box. Apparently whoever took them had slipped a sharp instrument into the envelope in which they were kept, removed the bonds, then resealed the envelope so carefully that nobody would have noticed if they’d merely glanced inside the box.

Groff provided the name of a man he felt could be responsible for the missing bonds, and for his missing sister. The detectives wouldn’t give out the man’s name until they’d had an opportunity to investigate further.

There were the usual false leads in the investigation; a hair sample taken from the skull and compared with hair found in Mrs. Sutton’s house seemed to indicate that the torso wasn’t hers. But then detectives interviewed Sutton’s hairdresser who told them that the missing woman had been attacked in mid-March, just a week or two before she went missing.  The hairdresser said Sutton had told her she didn’t recognize her attacker, but she could have been concealing his identity for reasons of her own. Perhaps the attack was the result of a failed love affair.hairdresser story

Until they could get confirmation from Sutton’s dentist, Sheriff’s investigators continued to run down clues. They wanted to speak to Eugene Sutton, whom Laura had divorced in 1928. As an ex-spouse, behind in his alimony  payments, Eugene was a person of interest.

While the detectives followed various leads the Coroner’s office reported that a minute examination of the knife marks on the toro where the head and limbs had been severed had produced results.  The body had been dismembered by someone familiar with human anatomy and a surgical knife had probably been the tool used. An examination of the flesh suggested to the coroner than the murderer had a practical knowledge of surgery. The autopsy surgeon, Dr. Wagner, estimated that the killer would have needed about three hours in which to complete the gruesome task.

Dr. Frank William Westlake, retired physician and a former suitor of Mrs. Sutton’s, came forward to make a detailed statement to Captain Bright.  Westlake said that he saw Laura on March 28th when she came to him saying that she planned to travel to Ventura for a few days to see her ex-husband about the unpaid alimony. According to Westlake, Laura had left two pet birds in his care.

Laura’s sister, Mrs. Ida Kleppe, was questioned by Sheriff’s detectives but she couldn’t offer much help. She said that she and her sister had been estranged for several years.

Round-the-clock efforts to either find Laura Sutton, or conclusively identify the torso as hers, consumed both detectives and scientists. Captain Bright got another visit from Dr. Westlake who brought with him several notes signed with the initials L.B.S., which he said were from Sutton.  The notes were a mixed bag. Some of them were in envelopes and others had been stuffed into Westlake’s mailbox. Some had been typed, others handwritten, and each of them made reference to the pet canaries in Westlake’s care.

Frank Gompert with the portable lab. [Photo: Corbis]

Frank Gompert with the portable lab. [Photo: Corbis]

The notes could provide useful information, but first they would have to be examined by handwriting experts to determine their authenticity.

If Laura Sutton had written the notes then why hadn’t she come forward? The woman had been missing for nearly three months. Neither her friends, nor her family, could offer any explanation for such peculiar behavior.

While detectives were following leads and the scientists were examining physical evidence, deputies where searching the river bottom from Vernon to Compton for the still missing limbs. They were  also preparing to rip out the plumbing in Laura’s house to see if there was any physical evidence of a murder and dismemberment lodged in the pipes.

ear solves murderThe scientists had found another interesting avenue of inquiry–the ears of the deceased. According to those who knew her Laura’s ears had been pierced for earrings, but the ears on the head were intact.

The case became further complicated when Laura’s attorney, Willard Andrews, perhaps the last person to see her alive, came forward with a statement that was mind-boggling.  Laura told him she intended to find her ex-husband and her sister, Mrs. Kleppe, and “have it out with them.” Why?  Because her sister and her ex were having an affair–in fact it was the reason for the divorce. No wonder Laura and her sister were estranged. Even worse, her sister and her ex-husband planned to marry. Talk about awkward family gatherings.

From virtually nothing to go on Sheriff’s investigators suddenly had suspects and physical evidence galore, all they had to do was to make sense out of it.

On May 28th an x-ray of the victim’s ears showed that they had been pierced but that they’d healed over so that the holes weren’t visible to the naked eye. The x-ray evidence was a step in the right direction–then the dentist, E.C. Hyde, positively identified the teeth in the skull as Laura Sutton’s.

With the victim ID’d Captain Bright still had to deal with a growing list of potential suspects. Just like in the movies Captain Bright summoned everyone connected to the case to the homicide squad’s office for questioning. The L.A. Times listed the people who had been rounded up:

“Eugene Sutton, divorced husband of Mrs. Sutton; Ben King, sweetheart of and roomer at the home of Mrs. Sutton when she disappeared; Dr. Frank Westlake, asserted sweetheart of Mrs. Sutton, said to have freqauently aided the woman in financial transactions involving real estate; Mrs. Ida Kleppe, sister of Mrs. Sutton who assert to Captain Bright that she and her sister had not been friendly for years, and Emerson De Groff, brother of the missing woman.”

By May 30th Captain Bright and his detectives had finally narrowed their list down to a single suspect. Who?  Wait and see.

NEXT TIME: A suspect is named.

The L.A. River Torso Slaying, Part 3

A muddy river bank is the perfect place for a group of little boys to poke around searching for hidden treasures, and that’s exactly what William Pettibone, Ray Seegar, Floyd Waterstreet and Glen Druer were doing on May 18, 1929.

The boys were about 150 feet from the Florence Avenue Bridge in the city of Bell when they spotted what looked to them like a turtle’s shell, or maybe some peculiar prehistoric fish. One of the boys took a stick and poked it into an end of the bony structure and held it aloft for the others to gape at. It took a few minutes but the boys finally recognized their treasure for what it really was, a human skull.head key to crime

The boy with the head impaled on a stick ran up the roadway with his prize and showed it to a female motorist who was utterly horrified when she realized what the kid had. She managed to keep it together long enough to drive the boy to a public telephone where she called Bell’s Chief of Police.

Chief Smith and Motor Officer Steele met the woman and the group of boys near the river where the skull had been found. The woman who had driven the boy to the telephone booth wanted no part of the notoriety attached to the grim find and she declined to give her name to Chief Smith and then quickly and quietly fled.

One of Smith’s officers notified Captain Bright who, accompanied by Deputies Allen, Brewster and Gompert, drove out to the scene hoping that since the head had been found the limbs might be in the vicinity. While deputies searched the area a crowd of several thousand curious on-lookers turned up, just as they’d done when the torso had washed up on the river bank.hammer death

High profile murder cases draw not only spectators but a fair number of crackpots and people with private agendas, like Morris Singer.  Singer, a grocer at 424 North Fremont Street, was found guilty of criminal libel and outraging public decency. Singer had written a letter to authorities stating that the torso murder had been committed at 2057 Oxford Street, the home of Dr. Gustav Meiss. Singer had recently lost a lawsuit to Dr. Meiss and was seeking revenge by accusing him of the atrocious murder.

The initial autopsy of the torso had not yielded anything which could be used to identify the deceased. But the head, even though it was not very well preserved, still had a number of extant teeth which made identification possible if not assured. Photographs and drawings of the teeth were published in local newspapers and widely distributed to dentists in the hope that one of them would recognize his own work.

dental quest torsoForensic odontology had been used successfully a few times in criminal cases as far back as the Salem Witch Trials. In 1692 Reverend George Burroughs was accused of witchcraft and conspiring with the Devil. Bite marks on the alleged victims were compared to the Reverend’s teeth and as a result he was convicted and hanged.

Ansil Robinson was accused of murdering his mistress in 1870. Investigators found five bite marks on her arm and apparently matched them to the defendant, but the evidence failed to convince a jury and Robinson was acquitted.

Solid detective work is one aspect of successfully resolving a criminal case, and science is another.

Just three days prior to the discovery of a woman’s torso in the L.A. River, the Los Angeles Times had reported on a new innovation in scientific crime detection–a portable laboratory.  Sheriff Traeger announced that a portable laboratory had been constructed and would be used by the homicide squad. All deputies were instructed in crime scene preservation, which was virtually a non-existent practice at that time. Instead of tramping through a scene and contaminating it, deputies were told to guard the scene until the homicide detail could arrive. Among the equipment in the portable lab were a set of plates for the chemical analysis of hair.lasd portable lab

The portable lab was a game changer locally for LASD, but the construction of a complete lab in the basement of the Hall of Justice would set a national precedent. The proposed facility would be “the first of its kind to be installed in a sheriff’s office in the United States.” It would be used exclusively by the Sheriff’s homicide detail and outfitted with equipment for “blood analyses, fingerprint comparisons, hair and skin tests and other scientific work in criminal investigations.”

Captain Bright requested that Frank Gompert, who had formerly been attached to the county chemist’s department, be given the title of “criminal technician” and put in charge of running the new high-tech lab.

It appears that Gompert’s first assignment was the torso murder.

00036680_gompert lab

Photo shows Federal prohibition agents of Southern California, attending school to learn the latest methods of enforcement. View shows the class in session with F.B. Gompert, criminological technician at left, giving blackboard lesson. The pupils learn the sciene of shadowing, the art of raiding, the technique of preparing evidence, courtroom psychology, the mathematics of figuring the amount of liquor in seized containers and the chemistry of liquor analysis. Photo dated: October 7, 1930. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Given that they only had the torso and the partially decomposed skull to examine, the experts needed to accomplish the scientific equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Amazingly, they did just that. They were able to glean a remarkable amount of information from a minimum amount of physical evidence.

The head was first matched to the torso, and was a perfect fit.  Then the cause of death had to be determined.  It was concluded that the woman had died instantly of blunt force trauma, likely a hammer blow. There was a crushed spot on the skull that, when measured, fit best with a carpenter’s hammer. .

Sheriff’s homicide investigators postulated that due to the nature of the fatal injury the woman, whose age had been revised upward to from 40 to 60 years, had been killed in a family squabble. Murder committed in a family could explain why no report had been made for a missing woman fitting the description of the victim.

Captain Bright pulled his detectives off the search for missing girls under the age of 20 and instead he assigned half of the available men to follow-up on missing women over 40. The other half were assigned to assist in locating the dentist responsible for, or familiar with, the dentition in the found skull.

Bright had faith in his detectives and in his crime lab.  He was convinced that an identification of the victim was imminent.

He was right.

NEXT TIME:  The victim of the torso slaying is identified and so are a few possible perpetrators.

The L.A. River Torso Slaying, Part 2

Captain William Bright and the LASD Homicide Squad were being dragged from pillar to post across Southern California in their effort to identify the woman whose dismembered torso was found by father and son scavengers, Jose and Raymond Manriquez.

00019312_LA river flood 1930

Los Angeles River c. 1930 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

On April 9, 1929, Bright dispatched deputies to San Juan Capistrano where beach goers had reported seeing two men dumping mysterious packages into the sea. Deputies were also still conducting surveillance on a physician who seemed suspicious and searching for another medical man who had run off with an eighteen year old girl; the pair had so far eluded detection.sea may solve murder

The tally of missing girls grew by one when it was reported that a fourteen year old Redlands girl, described as being as large as a grown woman, was missing.

The Sheriff’s Department had been flooded with tips and reports of suspicious men and missing girls but Captain Bright admitted that the investigation had yielded very little useful evidence. If only they could find the missing limbs or, better yet, as horrendous as it would be, the head of the dead woman.

suspect namedOn May 4th the newspapers reported that there was suspect in the torso murder–Leland Wesley Abbott, an ex-con whose estranged wife was missing and had been living in Lynwood near where the torso was discovered. Deputy Sheriffs and LAPD were tipped off by a couple of his co-workers when he failed to turn up at the warehouse where he was employed. One of the co-workers, Ray L. Martin, said that Abbott had told him that his wife was “…in love with another man in Lynwood and had gone there to live.”


Martin told investigators:

“He (Abbott) asked me if I would drive him to Lynwood.  When I asked him what for, he said he wanted to go down and get even with his wife.  I told him I had a date and he said that he had a job to finish and that he had to do it in a day or two, or it would be too late, as he was going back east.

The next day, on April 3, it was stormy and raining and Abbott came to me and said that this was an ideal night for him to get even with his wife.  I told him that he was crazy to think of such a thing and that he would be caught.  He replied that there was plenty of quicksand in the Los Angeles River that was close by where she lived.  I feared he might be in some bootlegging scheme and I told him I was afraid to drive him to Lynwood.  He said that it was not connected with bootlegging, but that it was concerned with his wife being in love with another man. He left work and we’ve never seen him again.”

An APB was issued for Abbott who was described as  “thirty-three years of age, five feet six inches tall, weighs 145 pounds, with dark hair and dark brown eyes.  He had a scar on each wrist and one on his right fore-arm.”leland abbott

Ray Martin wasn’t the only co-worker Abbott had confided in. He’d told William Spence he planned on “fixing her (his wife) plenty when he got ready.”  Abbott had also said that he was aware of the quicksand along the Los Angeles River, and that it would be the perfect place to dump a body that you wanted to have vanish without a trace.

Threats against his missing wife coupled with his habit of carrying a surgical knife in a sheath on his belt, along with an automatic revolver in his pocket, made Abbott a damned good suspect, and his wife the likely victim.

Deputy Sheriff Modie and Detective Allen traced Abbot to a mountain road camp in Chilao, thirty-three miles north of Mt. Wilson. It was suspicious that he’d arrived at the camp looking for work on April 5th, just one day after the discovery of the torso in the L.A. River.

Abbott denied killing his wife–in fact he denied ever being married at all. He admitted that he had told his warehouse buddies that he was married, but it was a lie. When asked his former co-workers said that, come to think of it, they’d never actually seen Abbott’s alleged spouse.  But that didn’t mean there wasn’t one.

What about the surgical knife?  Abbott said that his stepfather was a surgeon and that he’d considered becoming a doctor himself and the knife was a gift. Somewhere along the way Abbot had deviated from the path to a medical career and had instead became a gun runner smuggling weapons into Mexico. He had been busted and served a term in Leavenworth Prison.

Abbott had more explaining to do when cops found a trunk belonging to him that was strained on the underside of the lid–stains that could be human blood. The contents of the trunk were no less ominous: two shot guns, half a dozen pocket knives and four pistol holsters–but the surgical knife wasn’t there. Abbott said he’d misplaced it. The trunk was delivered to county chemists for examination.

Attorneys for Leland applied for a writ of habeas corpus, but he said that he’d prefer to stay behind bars until his story checked out. The fact that he was being held as a suspect in such a brutal crime might make him a target if he was freed before he was cleared of any wrongdoing. He didn’t get his wish though and he was released from custody, but it was clear from subsequent newspaper reports that the Sheriff’s investigation had taken a slight turn away from Abbott based upon some new leads.

A few days following his release Abbott walked into Captain Bright’s office with the missing surgical knife. He said he’d found it in the pocket of an old coat in one of his trunks. Even though Abbott was cooperating with the investigation he remained a person of interest.  There were several loose ends that the homicide squad had to tie up–in particular they were troubled by the conflicting stories Abbott had told his co-workers about having a spouse.  Captain Bright received newspaper clippings from Indiana, where Abbott was from, which stated that he had been charged by a Miss Marion Stevens with abduction and robbery.  However, until he got official confirmation from Indiana authorities Bright was willing to let Abbott return to the road camp–at least for the time being.

Whether Abbott had a wife or not wasn’t the issue, the fact that he obviously had violent fantasies about women was.  And what if he’d abducted a woman in Indiana?

NEXT TIME:  The investigation into the torso slaying heats up with the discovery of crucial new evidence.