Spencer-Crawford Murder — Epilogue


Clark’s bid for municipal judge was interrupted by his arrest for double homicide.

On the stand at his first trial, David Clark said that he’d shot Herbert Spencer and Charles Crawford in self-defense because the men had tried to get him to help them frame his friend Police Chief Steckel. He referred to the two dead men as skunks.

On August 23, 1931 the jury deadlocked and a second trial began on September 22nd.The second trial ended in an acquittal, perhaps in part because there were eight women on “Debonair Dave’s” jury – and he had always appealed to the ladies.  In fact, one of the jurors, Mrs. Florence H.R. Gorham, was very impressed with Clark’s wife Nancy and approached her following the verdict. Gorham told her: “I loved you from the first time I saw you”.


A few of the female jurors from Clark’s trial look adoringly at “Debonair Dave”.

Following the acquittal, Clark left the legal firm he’d been working for and set up his own practice. His primary client was Guy McAffee, a former LAPD vice cop turned racketeer.  Clark was paid well for his association with members of the Combination.  He went on this way for a few years and then, suddenly, in January 1937 he was reported missing – he’d completely vanished. After two months he was located in Nice, France.  He was described by the U.S. Consul as “…insane and without the courage to commit suicide”.  McAfee paid $800 for Clark’s ticket home.

Dave’s wife Nancy divorced him in 1939, and his life spiraled downward for several years. His law practice foundered and for a while he lived in obscurity running a small store near Costa Mesa.

Only a few friends had remained loyal to Clark.  George Blair (a friend from his USC days) and his wife Rose, nicknamed “Toots”, took him in through the summer and fall of 1953.

On Armistice Day, November 11, there was a family party. George was passed out drunk on the sofa.  He was awakened by “a kind of an explosion, like a backfire.”  When he sat up and looked around the room he saw Dave sitting in a chair. George asked “Where’s Toots?”  Dave looked at him and said “I killed her”.

Toots was toast.

Toots was found in the kitchen, dead of a shotgun blast. She and Clark had been arguing about him “mooching” off the family.

Dave ultimately pled guilty to murder in the second degree and was sentenced to from five years to life. He only served three weeks.   In Chino Prison he suffered a brain hemorrhage and died on February 20, 1954.

NOTE:  For an in-depth look at David Clark and the Spencer-Crawford murder case you should read: A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age by Richard Rayner.

For more on the odious Combination, you may also want to check out John Buntin’s book: L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City. TNT has picked up the book for a new series.

Aggie and the Double Murder — Part Two

Aggie’s epiphany to interview David Clark’s parents, following his arrest for the murders of Herbert Spencer and Charles Crawford, was a brilliant blend of feminine intuition and a reporter’s gut instinct. None of her male counterparts had thought of the family angle, and so while Aggie was scoring a front page exclusive the other reporters were busy rushing down blind alleys.

David Clark's gun. Weapon allegedly used to murder Herbert Spencer and Charles Crawford

David Clark’s gun. Weapon allegedly used to murder Herbert Spencer and Charles Crawford [Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive.]

The front page exclusive with Clark’s parents led Aggie to yet another great interview — this one with Herbert Spencer’s widow. A friend of Aggie’s who knew the Spencers arranged the interview.  Aggie was nervous; she was still an inexperienced cub reporter.  She may have lacked experience, but she was also smart and determined. She made a point of reviewing everything that had been reported about the case and poked around to find holes in the coverage. Once she’d mastered the facts, she compiled a list of questions which she took with her to the interview.

Aggie admitted to Mrs. Spencer that she was a cub reporter, and her honesty paid off. Herbert Spencer had been a reporter and a city editor for many years and his widow wouldn’t have been deceived if Aggie had tried to masquerade as a seasoned newshound.

Mrs. Spencer answered Aggie’s questions about Herbert’s background; all the while Aggie was leading up to the hardball questions she knew she’d have to ask to get an interview worth the printer’s ink.

The murders of Spencer and Crawford had revealed to Angelenos some of the corruption in the city’s government. Aggie had no choice but to grill the widow Spencer about Herbert’s possible involvement in bribery, extortion, and shakedowns. Mrs. Spencer defended her husband’s reputation in no uncertain terms. She had loved him and believed in him. She was convinced that he’d had no part in the Combination’s illegal activities.

When Aggie returned to the newsroom she was nervous about writing up the story, but Rod Brink, the city editor, told her to “just write the facts as you’ve told them to me”.

Aggie’s interview with Mrs. Spencer resulted in quotes that made the story resonate with readers who were eager to get the inside scoop.

The widow told Aggie: “I was a newspaperman’s wife for fourteen years, and I loved it.  He’d call and say: ‘I’ll be home late, dear, just had a peach of a murder’.  I never, never thought that his death would turn out to be a peach of a murder”.

Despite her grief Mrs. Spencer expressed sympathy for the shooter’s mother!  The resulting headline was: “Sorry for Dave’s Mother,’ Says Herb Spencer’s Widow”.

Aggie had scored another two-line, eight-column banner at the top of page one!  There was a photo of Mrs. Spencer over the story, with Aggie’s by-line.

Gertrude Price, Aggie’s mentor, was thrilled with the two exclusive interviews that Aggie had scored in what was then the biggest story in L.A.  Price told Aggie: “The best reporters in town, with all their contacts, weren’t able to get that story. It’s an important story, and you got it. You got it exclusively.”

It wouldn’t be the last time that Aggie scooped the competition. It was an auspicious beginning to a stellar career.


Aggie and the Double Murder

On May 20, 1931 Los Angeles’ citizens were shaken by the murders of Charles H. Crawford and Herbert F. Spencer.

Crawford was a former saloonkeeper and a powerful player in the city’s shadow government, the sinister “Combination” which was made up of members of the underworld and members of Los Angeles’ political elite.  Nicknamed “The Gray Wolf” and “Good Time Charlie”, Crawford was ostensibly an insurance man, but actually made his money in gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging. To further his image as a legitimate businessman he had even bankrolled the CRITIC OF CRITICS, the political crusading weekly operated by the other victim in the case, Herbert Spencer.

Spencer had taken a bullet to the heart and was stone dead when cops rolled to the scene, but Crawford was still alive with a bullet in his abdomen that had ruptured his liver and one of his kidneys. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital where he received blood transfusions. He regained consciousness for a few moments and the law asked him for the name of his assassin(s). In true underworld style, Crawford said his secret would accompany him to his grave. And it did.

Herbert Spencer was a former police reporter who had become associated with a political crusading weekly, the CRITIC OF CRITICS. Before he was gunned down Spencer and his wife, nicknamed Frankie, had left their home at 2446 Kenilworth Avenue in the Los Feliz hills early enough so that Herb could drop Frankie off at a Hollywood hairdresser, and still have enough time to make it to a meeting with Crawford on Sunset Boulevard.

A home in the hills? A Hollywood hairdresser? How could a journalist make enough in 1931 to afford such a lifestyle? Simple, he milked the rackets for what he could get. He probably never expected to meet an end similar to that of Chicago Tribune newsman, turned crook, Jake Lingle. Lingle had been murdered gangland style on June 9, 1930, shot down in the streets of Chicago. Apparently Spencer believed that mob style hits only happened in Chicago and New York.

Guy McAfee and his wife, June in 1939.

Guy McAfee and his wife, June in 1939. [LAPL Photo]

Whispers in the corridors of City Hall pegged Crawford as the target of a hit ordered by his former employee Guy McAfee. McAfee and Crawford had been feuding for months before the slayings. McAfee appeared to be winning a power struggled for vice in the city and had been referred to in one newspaper as the Capone of L.A.  People assumed that Crawford was the target, and Spencer was collateral damage – too bad for everyone that McAfee had an iron-clad alibi.

McAfee was a former police captain who had been in charge of LAPD’s vice squad – which was undoubtedly how he met his wife, a former madam in one of the local brothels.  (McAfee is thought to have been the model for Raymond Chandler’s suave mobster Eddie Mars in THE BIG SLEEP).

Following the murders there was panic among members of the Combination; one man even turned up at the city jail and, fearing for his life, asked to be locked up for his own safety. Other Combination members fled the city in terror, some of them stayed away for years.

When the perpetrator surrendered one day after the slayings, the city was stunned to discover that the shooter was David H. Clark a former deputy district attorney who was then running for a municipal judgeship!   Clark, known around town as “Debonair Dave”, had been a star in the D.A.’s office and he seemed likely to achieve even more as a judge.

David Clark and his wife, Nancy.

David Clark and his wife, Nancy.  [LAPL Photo]

Aggie read all of the stories about Clark and noticed a significant gap in the coverage; no one had interviewed Clark’s parents!  Aggie received permission from the city desk to pursue her angle on the story.  After calling every Clark in the Los Angeles phone book  Aggie finally located the parents in Highland Park. For her efforts she was rewarded with an exclusive interview and photographs. The interview earned Aggie an important by-line and ran under the headline, “Mrs. Clark Says Son is Innocent”.

Aggie’s crime reporting career had begun with one of the most important stories of the day.