A Death on Mulholland Drive, Conclusion

slaying deniedBefore they even had a positive ID on the coyote ravaged body of a woman found on Mulholland Drive police were certain that it was Barbara Mauger, a young waitress who had run away from Philadelphia with her married lover, Russell Beitzel.  There was a wedding ring found on the corpse and numbers inside the ring led police to a pawn shop where they confirmed that a woman calling herself Mrs. Burnholme had signed the ticket; and there was a broken string of beads found near the body that matched a necklace known to have been worn by Barbara on the last day she was seen by her neighbors.

Russell’s denials were having little effect on the cops; he was behaving like a guilty man. He told conflicting stories about Barbara’s whereabouts and he’d given away some of their household items, and had mailed a package of her clothing to a fictitious address in Arizona. Why on Earth would an innocent man do something like that? Beitzel appeared to be on the verge of a move—in fact he seemed to have developed an interest in learning the Spanish and Chinese languages because several books on both were found in his bedroom.

A break in the case came when Rex Welch, the police chemist, tested a hair sample found on some of the Mauger girl’s clothing, the clothing that had been sent to Arizona, and it appeared to be a match for the hair on the body of the young woman in the brush on Mulholland Drive. The chemist was willing to testify that based on the hair analysis the body he had examined was that of Barbara Mauger.beitzel science

The coroner also issued an appeal to all local dentists to check their files from September 1927 to June 24, 1928 for a record of dental work for Mrs. Barbara Burnholme, the name under which Mauger had been living with Beitzel. The body had three teeth which contained temporary fillings and others that had cavities which indicated further dental work was needed.

The evidence against Russell was stacking up, and LAPD detectives continued to probe their chief suspect with questions regarding Barbara’s whereabouts.

Beitzel stuck to his story that he and Barbara had gone out for a Sunday drive and that they’d had a squabble. He said Barbara got out of the car in a huff and refused to ride home with him so he left her and never looked back. What sort of person drives off and leaves a pregnant woman on a lonely stretch of road at dusk?  He could have given her a while to cool off and then returned to fetch her, but he never did; and when the cops questioned him he didn’t seem to be particularly concerned about her welfare.

mauger pixInvestigators located B.T. Redell, the driver of a private rental limousine, who identified Beitzel as the passenger he took to Mulholland Drive on July 1, only one week after the murder; but even when he was confronted with the chauffeur’s story Russell remained a cool customer, he vehemently denied ever meeting Redell and he met every accusation with a denial.

For his part, Redell recalled every minute of the ride out to the hills. He said that Beitzel had hired him shortly after noon on July 1st at the intersection of Fifth and Broadway.

According to Redell:

“He (Beitzel) was nervous when he first got the car and told me that he had a cache of liquor in the hills. He said he wanted to check it over.”

On the face of it, it was a plausible story. Prohibition was still in effect in 1928 so the notion that a man might have a few cases of illegal hooch hidden in a remote spot wasn’t enough to make the limo driver bat an eye.

Beitzel directed Redell to a brush covered spot along Mulholland and told him to pull over; then he exited the car then walked away from the road into some underbrush.

Redell said:

“He came hurrying back in about twenty minutes and was more nervous than ever. He told me to drive away as fast as possible and while we were driving he smoked cigarette after cigarette and kept looking back over his shoulder. He said someone had found his liquor and was after him.”

Following the odd drive out to the alleged booze cache, Beitzel directed Redell back to Fifth and Figueroa where he paid the driver $9, and then walked north.

It didn’t seem to matter how many details Redell recalled about his his interaction with Beitzel, the suspect never blinked.

In the long run it wouldn’t matter whether Russell blinked or not because the D.A. was confident that he had enough to successfully prosecute him for Barbara’s murder. In fact the D.A. briefly considered charging him with the death of Barbara’s unborn child, whose tiny bones had been found near its mother, but decided that the additional charge might result in a legal tangle.

The Grand Jury agreed with the D.A. and after hearing only a few witnesses they handed down an indictment for first degree murder—a charge which carried a possible death penalty.

While in jail awaiting trial Russel wrote to Barbara’s father, Henry Mauger, Russell expressed his belief that  she was still alive:

“Dear Harry:  I don’t know how you feel toward me for what has happened but I know you do not believe I killed Barbara.  I loved Barbara too much—too much to hurt her, anyway.  I still love her and I do not believe she is dead.”

Beitzel’s letter arrived in the post at almost the same moment as the Mauger’s received a telegram from the LAPD requesting that they come out to identify their daughter’s remains.

Upon their arrival in L.A. the Mauger’s were taken to the place where the body presumed to be Barbara’s was found—the couple wisely refused to look at photos of the woman’s   body and of the baby bones found nearby.

Mr. Mauger said:

“Our only hope is that justice will be done.  If Beitzel did this awful crime, then he should be punished.   If the evidence proves that he did not do it, I still will believe that he was indirectly responsible for her death. If justice is done, that is all I can ask.”

Local wildlife is brutally efficient in reducing  the flesh and blood of a human body to bones, and there were so few bits of flesh left clinging to the corpse that the Mauger’s made the identification of their daughter through their knowledge of her dental work and from the general shape and structure of her skull.

Beitzel’s trial began with a fight over whether or not a large photo of the victim’s remains would be displayed in the courtroom—the D.A. won the skirmish and everyone in the courtroom was privy to the revolting photo.

Another black mark against Beitzel was his attorney’s badgering of Barbara’s father over his identification of her remains.  Mr. Mauger was visibly shaken during his testimony saying: “This is a terrible ordeal for me.”

After deliberating for less than one hour the jury of five women and seven men returned to the courtroom to deliver their verdict. They found Russell Beitzel guilty of first degree murder and offered no recommendation for leniency, which meant that the convicted man would hang.

Beitzel was sentenced to die on the gallows on November 30, 1928; however, the condemned man appealed his sentence which resulted in a delay while the California Supreme Court decided whether or not to grant a new trial.  On April 17, 1929 the Supreme Court denied Beitzel’s appeal and he was re-sentenced to hang—his new date with the gallows was August 2, 1929.

In a desperate eleventh hour attempt to save himself from the noose, Russell Beitzel stated that he had obtained new evidence which suggested that Barbara Mauger was alive and had returned to the east coast.  He also contended that the body found in the Hollywood Hills was not that of his former lover. Beitzel’s plea was sufficient to motivate L.A.’s District Attorney, Buron Fitts, to re-examine the case on the slight chance that someone else had murdered Barbara after Russell had left her–or that the body wasn’t hers at all.

According to Beitzel the reason that Barbara was in hiding and would not come forward had to do with pending charges against her for embezzlement for money she had stolen from the Philadelphia department store where she and Russell had been co-workers.  Barbara’s father disputed the claim of embezzlement and, in fact, the department store had only filed charges against Beitzel.

Governor Young reviewed the findings in Beitzel’s case and was convinced that the man was guilty of murder and that his execution should go forward.

Convicted murderer, Russell Beitzel getting a shave in prison as other inmates look on, Los Angeles, Calif., 1928. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Convicted murderer, Russell Beitzel getting a shave in prison as other inmates look on, Los Angeles, Calif., 1928. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Described as cheerful, Russell St. Clair Beitzel spent his last hours on death row listening to his phonograph and studying Spanish and ancient history through the University of California extension courses he had been taking.  The L.A. Times slyly noted that the condemned man would be unable to complete the advanced courses for which he had recently registered.

As he ascended to the gallows Russell smiled at the crowd of approximately 30 people who had come to watch him die. He joked with the hangman and asked him if he wanted to make “a couple of practice drops” before going through with the actual execution–the hangman declined.  A black hood was placed over Beitzel’s head and a rope was tightened around his neck.  The trap was sprung at 10:04 a.m. and he was pronounced dead fourteen minutes later.

Among Beitzel’s bequests was a letter to his former death row cell mate, Antone Negra. The letter said.

“Dear Tony–Love and kisses from the next world.  It won’t be long now.  Had telegram from Polly yesterday.  My smile is still with me and can’t be wiped off. My best wishes for your success.  Good-by Old Pal.”

In three postscripts Beitzel added:

“Tell the boys hello for me.

“Has Northcott** moved yet?

“Nice place here.  Plenty big enough for my handsprings, croquet, fox trotting or spin-the-plate”.

Despite his assertion that his smile couldn’t be wiped off, I’ll bet that when the trap opened up and sucked him into hell his grin was replaced by a tortured grimace.

**Gordon Stewart Northcott was tried and convicted for the torture murders of young boys in the infamous Wineville murder case. The case formed the basis for the 2008 film “The Changeling”.  Northcott was hanged at San Quentin on October 2, 1930.

A Death on Mulholland Drive, Part 2

Barbara Mauger

Barbara Mauger

On Thursday, August 2, 1928, a pair of Boy Scouts were hiking in the area of Stone Canyon above Mulholland Drive. They were curious about the buzzards circling in the sky above them. The scouts didn’t need to possess special wildlife badges to know that buzzards are generally the bearers of bad news for some unfortunate creature, so they took their concerns to Howard Rygaard, a Ranger at City Fire Patrol Station #1.  Upon investigation Rygaard found the nude, badly decomposed and partially dismembered body of a woman. The ranger phoned the police.

The condition of the woman’s body made an immediate identification impossible–she had been ripped apart by coyotes. Detectives found a couple of small clues at the scene: a broken strand of beads, a wedding ring, and shell casings from a .38 caliber revolver.

The detectives began their investigation with the wedding ring in which there was a number  that led them to a pawn shop on South Main Street. The ring had been had been pawned by a woman who identified herself as Mrs. Barber of 841 Golden Avenue. Then they located a missing persons report dated July 23, 1928 in which they found an interesting anonymous tip involving a man named Barber. The tipster said that Barber and his pregnant wife had been seen leaving together in a rented car, apparently to go for a Sunday drive, but when Mr. Barber had returned hours later he was alone.

Buried in the police report was the tipster’s name, Mrs. Gertrude Riebling of 1215 North Avenue 54 in Highland Park. Mrs. Riebling didn’t  know the Barbers–she’d heard the story from a friend of hers who was a neighbor of the missing woman and decided to contact the law.

LAPD Detective Lieutenants Condaffer, Sanderson and Stevens traced Mr. Barber to an engineering firm on Mateo Street where they took him into custody for questioning. He had been employed at the firm for only a few months and not under the name Barber–his co-workers knew him as Russell Burnholme.

During questioning Russell revealed that his surname wasn’t Barber and it wasn’t Burnholme either–he was actually Russell St. Clair Beitzel, a YMCA leader and college graduate from Philadelphia. The police followed up their chat with Russell with a few very enlightening telephone calls to the City of Brotherly Love.

principals in love tragedy

Barbara Burnholme was actually Barbara Mauger, a nineteen  year old waitress whom Russell had met while the two were working at Blauner’s Department Store in Philadelphia. Oh, and there was a Mrs. Beitzel but it wasn’t Barabara. Cops spoke with Jean Mellinger Beitzel, Russell’s legal wife and the mother of his four and five year old sons. Jean said that Russell had deserted her about a year earlier for the Mauger girl, and he’d stolen $300 from the department store’s safe to finance his new life. Jean intimated that marriage and fatherhood had weighed heavy on Russell and that was why he’d fled.

When the cops confronted him with a deserted wife, two kids and a $300 theft, Russell ‘fessed up. But he steadfastly maintained his innocence in Barbara Mauger’s death and kept repeating: “I did not kill her.”  His protestations of innocence were becoming harder for the police to believe because they were turning up a compelling amount of circumstantial evidence in Barbara’s murder, and all  of it pointed directly to Russell.slaying denied

The cops undoubtedly hoped to wrench a confession from Russell when they drove him out to the scene of Barbara’s death (at least they believed it was Barbara, the badly decomposed and mutilated body had not yet been positively ID’d), but according to a newspaper account the suspect was “calm, indifferent and even at times laughing, despite the stench and grewsomeness (sic)”.

In another effort to shake-up the suspect, the cops drove him to the undertaker’s parlor in Van Nuys where the mutilated remains were being held. Russell looked down at the corpse and said: “It looks as though it may have been her.”

NEXT TIME: Science leads to an identification of the dead body on Mulholland Drive as the case against Russell Beitzel continues to build.

A Death on Mulholland Drive, Part 1



On September 10, 1927 a young couple, fueled by love and $300 (equivalent to $4200 in today’s money) in stolen cash, left Philadelphia for Los Angeles to start fresh. The money would last long enough to get them to Los Angeles and provide them with a stake sufficient to find a place to live and get settled. The pair moved a couple of times before they located the perfect apartment in a bungalow court slightly northwest of downtown at 841 Golden Avenue. New lives occasionally call for new identities, so the couple became Barbara and Russell Burnholme.

Barbara was at home during the day while Russell was at work so the neighbors and local tradesmen got to know her the best. Barbara was well-liked by the people in her new life.  She had a ready smile and a sweet manner and when it became evident that she and Russell were going to become parents the neighbors were thrilled for her.  Their neighbors never thought twice about the reasons for the Burnholme’s move from Philadelphia to Los Angeles; hell, most people in L.A. were transplants.

During her last trimester Barbara busied herself nesting, doing the sorts of homey things that young mothers-to-be frequently do when the birth of a child is imminent. She sewed baby clothes, fixed up the little apartment and planted flower boxes because she wanted everything to be perfect for the baby’s arrival. During the weeks leading up to her due date Barbara was given a kitten by the local grocer, the small Burnholme family was complete.

At 10:00 a.m. on June 24, 1928, Mrs. Morris Allen, one of the Burnholme’s neighbors saw Barbara and Russell getting into a rented roadster.  It was a nice day for a Sunday drive and the parents-to-be were wise to take advantage of an opportunity to spend time alone,  they might not have another chance for a long time. Russell had borrowed a gun from a friend and it was his intention to go out along a stretch of Mulholland Drive and shoot a few rabbits while Barbara put her feet up and enjoyed the summer air above the city.

No matter how excited an expectant mother is about her future the last few weeks of pregnancy can be incredibly uncomfortable. Discomfort can lead to a short fuse and a flood of hormonal emotions. Often times a new father, especially if it is his first child, can be left scratching his head and treading on egg shells.

Mrs. Allen lived across from Barbara and Russell at the bungalow court and she saw him return from the Sunday drive alone. When asked, Russell told his neighbors that Barbara had gone back east to have the baby; but that wasn’t the only story he told.

Russell also told people that he and Barbara had quarreled during  their Sunday drive and she had jumped from the car and had stubbornly refused to allow him to drive her home. It was quite a hike from Mulholland Drive to Golden Avenue, at least fifteen miles, and much of way home felt remote, even if the city lights could be seen twinkling in the distance. While the sun was still up hawks could be seen circling high in the blue skies waiting for the right moment to swoop down and make a meal of a rabbit or a mouse. After dark the mournful cries of local coyotes would shatter the silence and a person’s nerves; and the rustling of roadside brush would be unnerving as unseen creatures either hunted, or attempted to avoid becoming prey. If Russell had worried about Barbara’s safety it wasn’t enough to make him turn around and try to convince her to get into the car with him.

Over the next few days Mrs. Allen heard Russell moving about the little apartment whistling, and she saw him wrapping up some bundles for mailing. Nothing sinister in that, right?

NEXT TIME: Where’s Barbara?