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?