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 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.

The L.A. River Torso Slaying

headless bodyThe Los Angeles River begins in Canoga Park, flows through the San Fernando Valley, through Downtown L.A. and then continues through several cities before reaching Long Beach where it empties into the Pacific Ocean. A series of devastating floods during the first thirty years of the 20th Century caused such public outcry that the River was channelized–encased in concrete–by the Army Corps of Engineers. But in 1929 the river was still free flowing and many Angelenos looked to it for their livelihood.

It had rained hard enough on April 4, 1929 to set a record–1.39 inches; but the wet weather hadn’t kept Raymond Manriquez and his father Juan from trolling the banks of the Los Angeles River for salvageable items. They were walking along the river bank when, about 100 yards north of Clark Street in Lynwood Gardens, they eyeballed a box that had washed ashore. Something pale was lying near the box but they couldn’t tell what it was until they moved in for a closer look. All thoughts of the box and its contents were forgotten when they realized that what they had found was a woman’s torso.  The arms were severed and the legs torn off.  It had been decapitated. They immediately went to notify the authorities.

torso found picConstable Roselle of Compton accompanied the men to the scene of their grisly discovery and he then contacted Captain Bright, head of the Sheriff’s Homicide Squad. Captain Bright and Deputy Sheriffs Hutchinson, Gray and Vejar turned up to begin an investigation. All that was surmised from the scene was that the body was that of a girl between the ages of 16 and 21 and that she had been murdered and mutilated elsewhere before being dumped into the water.

With no evidence aside from the torso, Sheriff’s investigators were preparing themselves for the possibility of a long, and ultimately fruitless, investigation.

Through the press, and in radio broadcasts over ten local radio stations, Captain Bright issued a plea for all citizens of Los Angeles to report any missing woman. Bright said:

“The help of every citizen is needed to solve this crime, which apparently is the work of a fiend. The woman’s torso provides no clew to her identity.  Only by checking the disappearance of every woman reported to the authorities will we probably get a trace of the murderer.”

County Autopsy Surgeon Wagner concluded from his examination that in life the woman was approximately 25 years old, 5 feet 7 inches tall and likely weighed 135 pounds.  Her hair was brown or blond.  The woman’s vital organs were delivered to County Chemist Abernathy for analysis–he was going to test for poison. However due to the extreme measures the killer, or killers, had taken to conceal the identify of the corpse it seemed improbable that the woman had met her death by poison. The consensus of the experts was that she had been shot to death or killed by a blow to the head. A head which they had been unable to locate.bundle into river

Based on the river flow  it was determined that the torso had been dumped into the water no further north than the Ninth Street Bridge. The limbs had probably been thrown in at the same location but they wouldn’t float as the torso had done. The Sheriff’s Department planned to drag the river for the missing body parts.

After further examination of the torso, the medical examiner deduced that the murderer had some surgical skill because the removal of the limbs and the head had been accomplished by someone possessing a knowledge of human anatomy, and a very sharp instrument–perhaps a scalpel.

Following Captain Bright’s plea dozens of reports of missing were received. A few other, more sinister events, were  also reported.  A female informant said that she had seen two men and a young woman in a black touring car drive to the edge of the river bank at the Florence Avenue Bridge. The men got out of the car carrying an unidentifiable object to the river while the girl remained at the wheel–then the trio sped off.

limbs soughtGas station attendants and car rental agencies were put on high alert and asked to report any suspicious characters and in particular any blood stains they found.

The first real clue in the case came about two days after the discovery of the torso when a virtually new, size six, green leather shoe with a yellow ankle strap and a turquoise button was found on the river bank near Compton. In retrieving the shoe Deputy Sheriff Allen sank waist deep into the muck and had to be rescued by a half-dozen men who tugged him to safety.

As with any gruesome crime the scene attracted looky-loos. Several deputy sheriffs were kept busy shooing away crowds of morbidly curious sightseers. It was feared that one of them would get caught in the quicksand, as Deputy Allen had–or that someone would find a significant piece of evidence and walk off with it.

Since it was believed that the the limbs and head of the dead woman had been removed by someone with a modicum of expertise in dismembering a body, Captain Bright began to investigate a couple of local physicians. One unnamed doctor was placed under surveillance and another medical man, a shady character who had run off with an 18 year old girl, was being sought for questioning.

Captain Bright and his homicide squad continued to hope that the torso would finally be identified, but it wasn’t looking good.

NEXT TIME:  Will Captain Bright and the Sheriff’s homicide squad finally identify the victim?