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 Want Ad Killer, Conclusion

death car

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide investigators Det. Sgts. Hamilton and
Lovretovich were following the scarce leads in the case in the “want ad” murder of Andrew Kmiec. The killer had left his bifocals and a couple of unspent .38 caliber cartridges at the scene, but there was no logical place to begin an investigation in a slaying that appeared to have been random. The detectives ruled out robbery — Andy still had $48.43 in his pockets when his body was found.

found carA few days following the slaying detectives received a call from a bartender named Jack London. He’d parked his car at Soto St. and Olympic Blvd. and headed for the cafe where he worked. He thought he saw bloodstains on the lower part of the left door of a Mercury convertible parked next to his car. When he looked inside the car he saw that the seats were smeared with blood. He phoned the cops.

Within minutes the car was identified by police as Kmiec’s. In the rear seat were Dolly McCormick’s coat, handbag, and the Cosmopolitan magazine she’d had with her. Also inside the car was the mate to the lone shoe that had been lying in the road near Andy’s body — the shoe that had first caught the attention of Menlo Butler’s young son.


Actor Kurt Kreuger undoubtedly received a call from the Want Ad Killer — fortunately he didn’t meet him.

There seemed to be no leads forthcoming in the case until Dolly, the only witness to Andy’s murder, began receiving threatening telephone calls at her cousin’s home in North Hollywood. She was advised to keep her mouth shut, or pay the consequences. The cops hoped the calls would provide clues to the killer — but upon investigation they appeared to have been the work of pathetic cranks. Even so, Sheriff’s deputies placed Dolly under a 24-hour guard while virtually every detective in the LASD continued to investigate.

A few citizens reported odd telephone calls they said they had received from an unidentified man after they’d placed a want ad in the newspaper. One of the persons who had likely been contacted by Kmiec’s slayer was actor Kurt Kreuger. Kreguer was attempting to sell his Cadillac El Dorado. A man contacted him and asked him to take the car to the Biltmore Hotel. Kreuger said he would, but first he planned to pick up a friend on the way downtown. At that news Kreuger said his caller seemed to cool, then hedged a bit and said he would call the following day with different arrangements. The prospective buyer never phoned.

Det. Sgts. Lovretovich and Hamilton just couldn’t catch a break — until, out of the blue, Samuel Jones, a Sheriff’s records clerk, spotted something interesting.

So many things in life are a mixture of hard work, intelligence, intuition, and plain old luck. That’s how it was in the hunt for Andrew Kmiec’s killer.

zilbauer sketchJones was leafing through a file of police bulletins when he came across the name of Anthony J. Zilbauer, 52, who was wanted for questioning by LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division on a grand theft charge. Zilbauer had stolen furniture from one rental when he and his family had moved to another. Deputy Jones thought that there was a strong resemblance between the police bulletin description of Zilbauer and the description of the want ad killer. So he reported his suspicions to detectives.

LASD investigators got Zilbauer’s mug shots from LAPD and showed them to Dolly. Bingo! She immediately ID’d the man as Andy’s killer. Bloody fingerprints found at the scene were matched to those of Zilbauer. The detectives had a suspect and the manhunt was on.

zilbauer printsJust a few weeks following Andy’s murder his suspected killer was located in St. Louis, Missouri. With the cooperation of St. Louis law enforcement L.A. Sheriffs laid a trap for Zilbauer. He was captured and arrested when he walked into a post office to pick up a general delivery letter from his wife.

While Zilbauer was being arrested in St. Louis his thirty-four year old bride of two months, Geraldine, was in Los Angeles giving a sworn statement to the district attorney in which she said that her husband had confessed to killing Kmiec. Screw spousal privilege — she didn’t intend to go to prison.

The Sheriff’s investigation had revealed that Anthony Zilbauer was a man of many aliases. He’d picked up the name Bauer when his wife had noticed that there was a pottery company in Los Angeles that spelled Bauer the same way he did. The real pottery company was undoubtedly the inspiration for the phony story he gave Kmiec and McCormick about being in that business.


Geraldine had also told the D.A. about a strange overnight trip she and Tony had taken to Las Vegas in November (just a few days after Kmiec’s murder). Geraldine said that her husband had a fur coat, she didn’t know where he’d acquired it, and he wanted to take it to Vegas to pawn or sell it. The couple went to a pawn shop and Tony had Geraldine carry out the transaction on her own. They got $300 for the mink, most of which Tony kept for himself — presumably to finance his flight to St. Louis.geraldine zilbauer

The mink coat that Geraldine and Tony had unloaded in Las Vegas was the property of a woman named Mrs. Belle Brooks. Tony had run the want ad scam on her too. Zilbauer had answered an ad she’d placed to sell her fur coat. When he arrived at her apartment he held her at gunpoint and took the coat and a few of her other personal items.

belle brooksHamilton and Lovretovich were sent to St. Louis to collect Zilbauer, who had waived extradition, and return him to Los Angeles where he had a capital murder charge to answer for.

Under questioning by D.A. Ernest S. Roll, Anthony Zilbauer confessed to the murder of Andrew Kmiec.

Not surprisingly during his trial Zilbauer attempted to mitigate his responsibility for Kmiec’s slaying by testifying that Andy, who was larger than he by over six inches and at least 60 lbs., had attacked him. One important fact that Tony neglected to acknowledge — Andy may have been larger, but he had a gun.

“The whole thing was a mistake. He brought it on himself–that seems a foolish thing to say–but that’s the way it was.”

Then Zilbauer went on to tell his side of the story which was a pack of lies from beginning to end.

“The last time I saw him was when he was running around the rear of the car. Then I got in and drove away as fast as I could.”

What? Andy probably wasn’t capable of running anywhere after taking rounds to his chest and face. Also there was evidence that his body had been dragged into the ditch where it was later found.

There wasn’t any clear motive in the killing of Andrew Kmiec — the only plausible explanation is that it was a thrill kill — Zilbauer simply wanted to commit murder. zilbauer goes quietly

Zilbauer’s wife seemed to think that he’d get only 10 to 15 years for the murder, but Tony was an ex-con, hated prison, and he said he’d rather die.

He stated:

“…they might as well give me the gas chamber as a long prison term.”

Then Zilbauer went on an angry rant about his mother-in-law on whom he blamed everything, um, indirectly.

“If it wasn’t for her, this wouldn’t have happened. She’s responsible, indirectly.”

Tony said that he felt that it was the increased financial burden of having his mother-in-law live with the family that resulted in his crime spree.

zilbauer executed 2On March 4, 1954 it took jurors a mere five hours to find Anthony Zilbauer guilty on count one, the murder of Andrew Kmiec. He was also convicted on count two, robbery and kidnapping with bodily injury in connection with the theft of Belle Brooks’ mink coat and other property.

He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for count two, and received death in the gas chamber at San Quentin for count one.

Anthony Zilbauer, a three time loser in Ohio prisons before he came to California, died in California’s gas chamber on May 18, 1955.



NOTE:  I’ve covered a few of Det. Sgt. Ned Lovretovich’s cases  in the Deranged blog over the past few months. I’ve heard from a friend in the Sheriff’s Department, who has conducted interviews with some of Ned’s contemporaries, that Lovretovich was respected as a detective and thought of as a decent guy. Victim’s families bonded with him, but the people he busted hated him. That makes him a stand-up guy in my book and I know he’s someone I would have enjoyed meeting.

Read some of Ned’s other cases:  Thugs With Spoons; Death Doesn’t Sleep; Death of a Free Spirit

The White Flame Murder, Part 3

Paul Wright in court. [Photo courtesy of UCLA digital collection.]

Paul Wright in court. [Photo courtesy of UCLA digital collection.]

In his opening statement in the trial of Paul Wright for double murder, defense attorney Jerry Giesler contended that Wright had no motive for murder until the sight of his wife and best friend in an unmentionable pose turned him into an unreasoning, raging avenger.

Giesler had conceived of a creative defense for his client — he said that Wright’s WWI service, during which he as gassed; a post-war tuberculosis attack, and a voluntary vasectomy combined to make him emotionally unstable, with more violent reactions to shock that normal men.

If the vasectomy defense failed Giesler had a Plan B, and he laid it out for the jury:

“When Wright strolled sleepily into his living room at 4 o’clock that morning, there was absolutely no reason for him to criminally and brutally kill.”

“What he saw there on the piano bench–which he will detail to you from this witness stand…that married man still there at 4 o’clock in the morning beside his beloved wife…that horrible situation was such an emotional shock that it rendered this defendant as unconscious as though he had been hit on top of the head with a tremendous mallet.”

“Under the written law of the State of California–not any so-called unwritten law–it is the plain duty of this jury to acquit Mr. Wright.”

The written law to which Giesler was referring is the crime of passion plea, known as the provocation defense. Historically, according to U.C. Berkeley’s School of Law, California defendants who have used the controversial plea have been able to reduce first and second degree murder charges down to manslaughter. Punishment has often been little or no jail time.

But would the defense strategy work for Wright? The prosecution produced evidence that had Wright sitting on his bed brooding, before arranging a chair in front of a mirror so that he could get a full view of his wife and best friend in a passionate embrace on the piano bench.

Giesler called witnesses to the stand who related a fairy-tale like courtship between Paul and Evelyn, resulting in a blissful marriage — at least for the first couple of years.

In 1936 Paul confided in a close friend that:

“I’m worried to the point of distraction. I’ve earned a fair salary ever since we have been married, but there doesn’t seem to be enough for the household and her demands.”

“I’ve always paid the bills, and it breaks my heart to see my credit go like this.”

I’ve done everything in my power to make her happy–even had myself sterilized, but it seems to be no use.”

The vasectomy had cost Paul one of his most cherished dreams — he’d always wanted a son, and that was never going to be possible for him.

Giesler continued to hammer home the impact of Paul’s “sex sacrfice” which the attorney
contended had destroyed Wright’s self-control when he found Evelyn and John in an intimate pose. Dr. Charles B. Huggins, a Chicago surgeon, described the vasectomy performed on Wright to save Evelyn from the danger of again becoming a mother. She’d nearly lost her life giving birth to Helen and a sterilization operation on her would have been much more dangerous.

From the witness stand, under Giesler’s skilled interrogation, Paul Wright gave his version of the events leading up to the double murder.

it cafePaul said that he and John had attended a club meeting, then gone out for a nightcap. By 2 a.m. they were at Clara Bow’s “It Cafe” preparing to go home. It was Paul who suggested that John accompany him home, ostensibly to provide back-up when Evelyn questioned him about where, and with whom, he’d spent the evening and early morning hours.

Paul went on to describe feeling fatigued and going to the bedroom for a nap. He told the hushed courtroom:

“I was awakened by some sort of sound–like the piano. It started me up out of my sleep. I went to the living room door and saw that the lights were still on.  Johnny was sitting at the piano. I could just see his head. He was looking downward. I couldn’t see Evelyn and I wondered where she was.”

I thought she was on the davenport and I looked, but she was not there. I thought she was in the kitchen. Then I turned–then I turned–I saw Evelyn on the piano bench with Johnny…They embraced and kissed each other.”

“Everything inside me exploded!” he shouted.

“Next thing I knew I was standing there with the gun in my hand. She was on the floor–Johnny was moaning. They were covered with blood.”

It wasn’t possible to know what the jury thought about what they’d heard, but a reporter for the L.A. Times was clear about how Wright had conducted himself: “Seldom in local court annals has a defendant appeared to such good advantage defending himself on the witness stand.”trump card

However the report wasn’t all admiration, Wright was accused of having “robbed his wife’s grave of decency and fidelity” in his attempt to save his own life. And the report went on with: “Johnny Kimmel, by inference was branded a depraved scoundrel by the man who killed him.”

Of course the only people whose opinions mattered were sitting in the jury box.

death gunWright emotionally and physically collapsed under Deputy D.A. Roll’s blistering cross-examination, and his earlier testimony started to come unraveled. He had maintained that he’d shot blindly at the pair from the bedroom doorway, but changed his story by declaring that when he pumped the final rounds into the two bodies he was standing with his gun in his hand beside the piano.

Also, little details began to surface about exactly what Paul had witnessed that had provoked him to commit double murder. Kimmel was immediately visible on the piano bench, but Evelyn was not.

Deputy D.A. Roll asked Wright:

“Was it in your mind that they had committed some unnatural act?”

To which Wright answered:

“Yes, it must have been.”

At last the prosecution was getting to the the truth of what Wright had seen. Evelyn wasn’t on the piano bench next to Johnny, she was in front of him on her knees! That explains Wright’s violent reaction a little better than what had at first been represented as a kiss and an embrace. From the beginning, Wright’s story made him sound like a Victorian husband who had stumbled upon his wife and a companion in a relatively innocent lip lock —  an act which should have merited nothing more than a shout demanding to know what the hell was going on.

Wright also admitted that he didn’t know whether he’d disarranged the clothing of his victims in the manner that they were found later by police!

Sounds to me like Wright had the presence of mind to set the scene of the crime to match his later statements to the cops. How would his conflicting testimony sound to the jury?

NEXT TIME: The verdict and aftermath of Paul Wright’s case.