Clara Phillips: Sensational Murder for Love

In last week’s case, Richard Crafts murdered his wife and used a woodchipper to dispose of her body. The State of Connecticut convicted him of murder anyway. This week, our case is from California in the Roaring Twenties. There, in 1922, Clara Phillips used a hammer and a boulder to kill a supposed rival for her husband’s affections.

Armour and Clara Phillips

Clara Phillips had been a showgirl when she met Armour L. Phillips. Phillips was part of the über-wealthy Mellons of Pittsburgh, but his was a poor branch of the family from Texas. Nor did he have any of the business or financial acumen of his moneyed relatives. Instead, he was a grifter and a con man. Nonetheless, Clara adored him.

Armour L. Phillips
Armour L. Phillips

Clara had a volatile temperament. She invented a story about being kidnapped as a child in Los Angeles and frequently fought with other showgirls. She also fought with her husband but that apparently didn’t diminish her ardor.

Trouble started when Clara overheard a neighbor gossiping that Armour was having an affair with one Alberta Meadows. Meadows was a young widow who worked as a bank teller. She had been married less than a year when her husband died in an accident at work. Hearing that Alberta was dallying with Armour (she wasn’t), Clara hatched a plan.

Murder victim Alberta Meadows (Heald Examiner collection)
Murder victim Alberta Meadows (Heald Examiner Collection)

Clara Phillips’ Murder Plan

On July 10, 1922, Clara visited a local five-and-dime. There, in the hardware department, she selected a claw hammer. She asked the clerk if it was heavy enough to kill a woman. Thinking she was joking, he replied “Yes, it is, if you hit her hard enough with it.” Clara bought the hammer for fifteen cents.

Clara dn Armour Phillips embrace at her arraignment (Los Angeles Times Photo Collection)
Clara dn Armour Phillips embrace at her arraignment (Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection)

After buying the murder weapon, Clara spent most of the afternoon in a Long Beach speakeasy. With her was her friend, another former chorine named Peggy Caffee. After bending Peggy’s ear about Alberta’s “affair” with her husband, the two went to Meadows’ house. There they made up a story about needing a lift across town. For some reason, Alberta agreed. When they reached a lonely stretch of Montecito Drive, Clara asked Alberta to pull off the road. She said she wanted to have a private conversation with Alberta. Clara then proceeded to pummel Alberta about the head with the hammer until it broke. She finished off her supposed rival by rolling a 50-pound boulder onto her chest.

The terrified witness, Peggy Caffee (Herald Examiner Collection)
The terrified witness, Peggy Caffee (Herald Examiner Collection)

With Alberta now dead, the two women fled in the victim’s brand-new Ford. Clara came home to Armour, still covered in Alberta’s blood, and promised to cook him “the best dinner he’d ever eaten.”

Clara Escapes—But Not for Long

Peggy Caffee, who had witnessed the whole scene from the car, was too frightened to intervene. Not wanting to end up like Alberta, she followed Clara’s advice and kept silent.

Clara Phillips during her trail. She relished the attention from the media (Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection)
Clara Phillips during her trial. She relished the attention from the media (Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection)

For his part, Armour Phillips helped dispose of the car and put Clara on a train for Texas. However, he reconsidered his position the next day and went to the cops. She got only as far as Albuquerque before police hauled her off the train and arrested her.

Clara Phillips walking with policeman to court in Los Angeles in 1922. (Los Angeles Times Photograph Collection)
Clara Phillips walking with policeman to court in Los Angeles in 1922. (Los Angeles Times Photograph Collection)

At trial, Clara accused Peggy Caffee of killing Alberta. That strategy didn’t fly, as the jury (and everyone else) saw a timid, terrified Peggy Caffee when she testified. Convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10 years to life, Clara didn’t wait for her transfer to San Quentin (the women’s prison at Tehachapi didn’t open until 1932). Instead, she bribed her way out of the county jail on December 5, 1922 and escaped to Honduras.

Women in Tehachapi, California's prison for women from 1932 to 1954
Women in Tehachapi, California’s prison for women from 1932 to 1954

Epilogue

Clara Phillips stayed on the run for four months before the law caught up with her. Extradited back to Los Angeles, she had no choice but to begin serving her sentence in San Quentin. She was released on parole from Tehachapi on June 21, 1935. By then she had divorced Armour Phillips. She told reporters she was going to San Diego to live with her family and work as a dental assistant, a skill she learned in prison.

Clara continued to insist that Peggy Caffee was the one who killed Alberta Meadows. As before, nobody believed her.

A detective on the case said Meadows looked like “she had been mauled by a tiger.” As a result, the L.A. press promptly dubbed Clara the “Tiger Girl” or “Tiger Woman.”

Crime writer R. Barri Flowers wrote about the case in Murderess on the Loose: The 1922 Hammer Wrath of Clara Phillips.

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Helle Crafts: Beautiful Victim of a Strange Murder

Last week, we saw how Charles Stuart shot and killed his wife and invented a carjacking to cover his tracks. This week’s case, also in the northeast, involves an unusual attempt to hide a murder. In 1986, her airline pilot husband killed flight attendant Helle Crafts. He then took some truly bizarre stops to hide his crime. It was also the first Connecticut case where the state obtained a murder conviction without a body.

Helle Crafts

Helle Crafts was born Helle Lorck Nielsen in Charlottenlund Denmark in 1947. She married Richard Crafts, a pilot for Eastern Airlines in 1979. They lived in Newtown, Connecticut. Richard continued to fly for Eastern and Helle was a flight attendant for Pan Am.

Danish flight attendant Helle Crafts
Danish flight attendant Helle Crafts

By 1986, the couple had three children and a troubled marriage. Learning that Richard had had several affairs, Helle consulted a divorce attorney. She also hired private investigator Keith Mayo to get evidence of Richard’s infidelity.

Helle and Richard Crafts in happier times
Helle and Richard Crafts in happier times

Helle Crafts Disappears

On November 16, 1986, Helle worked a long flight from Frankfurt, West Germany (East and West Germany did not reunify until 1990). Friends dropped her off at the home she shared with Richard in Connecticut. They never saw her again.

Helle Crafts
Helle Crafts

Richard Crafts gave different versions of where his wife was. He told her friends she was in Denmark visiting her mother. At other times he said she was traveling in the Canary Islands with a friend. Then there were the times he said he simply didn’t know where she was. Helle’s friends weren’t buying it. They knew Richard had a volatile temper. And Helle told some of them, “If something happens to me, don’t think it was an accident.”

Richard and Helle Crafts with their three children (Forensic Files)

Where is Helle Crafts?

Private investigator Keith Mayo became convinced that Richard Crafts had something to do with Helle’s disappearance. But Crafts had been a volunteer constable in Newtown and was also a part-time officer in neighboring Sudbury. Therefore, the police were reluctant to investigate him for murder. Local authorities turned the case over to the Connecticut State Police on December 26.

Police escort Richard Crafts to a bond hearing in Danbury, Connecticut on January 20, 1987. The court refused to lower his $750,000 bond (AP Photo)
Police escort Richard Crafts to a bond hearing in Danbury, Connecticut on January 20, 1987. The court refused to lower his $750,000 bond (AP Photo)

While Richard vacationed with his children in Florida, troopers searched his Newtown home. They found blood stains on the side of a mattress and missing sections of carpet. Credit card records showed that about the time Helle went missing, Crafts had purchased bed sheets and a comforter. He had also bought a chainsaw and rented a woodchipper. Police later found the chainsaw in nearby Lake Zoar. On the saw, investigators found hair and blood that matched Helle’s DNA. Though someone had filed off the serial number, investigators were able to recover enough of it to be readable. It was the same saw Crafts purchased.

After police searched the Crafts home, a snowplow driver reported something he had seen on the night of November 18. He said he’d seen a rental truck with a woodchipper attached parked near Lake Zoar. He led detectives to the site. There they found human tissue, two teeth, a tooth crown, a fingernail covered in pink nail polish, and a toenail. They also found 2,660 bleached blonde human hairs.

Prosecuting Richard Crafts

To present a case for homicide, there must be proof of death. Normally, identification of the dead body serves this purpose. But in this case, there was no body. However, a forensic dentist was able to match the tooth crown found near Lake Zoar to Helle Crafts’ dental records. With that evidence, the Connecticut State Medical Examiner’s office issued a death certificate and Richard Crafts went to trial.

Richard Crafts addresses the jury at his murder trial
Richard Crafts addresses the jury at his murder trial

The trial began in May 1988 in New London. The defense won a change of venue because of extensive pretrial publicity. That trial ended in July with a hung jury. A solitary juror held out for acquittal before walking out of deliberations and refusing to return. A second trial in Norwalk ended in a guilty verdict on November 21, 1989. It was almost exactly three years since Helle’s murder.

Richard Crafts received a sentence of 50 years in prison on January 8, 1990. He was released after serving only 32 years. This was because the law—since changed—gave prisoners credit for good behavior and having a prison job. He was released to the custody of a Bridgeport, Connecticut transitional house for homeless veterans.

Richard in later years
Richard in later years

What Happened to Helle Crafts?

The Crafts apparently fought after Helle arrived home from Frankfurt. Evidence suggests Richard killed Helle by striking her with a blunt object at least twice. He then placed her body in the large freezer he bought. Later, he removed the frozen body, then used the chainsaw to cut it in to manageable pieces. Afterwards, he used the woodchipper to destroy the body. However, the snowplow driver directed police to the site where he used the chipper. Forensic science did the rest.

In prison, Richard Crafts’ fellow convicts called him “Mister Chips.”

The Cohen brothers move, Fargo, includes a scene where a woodchipper is used to get rid of a body.

You can read more about this case in The Woodchipper Murder by Arthur Herzog. Also, the inaugural episode of Forensic Files featured the Helle Crafts case.

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Charles Stuart: Monumental Murder Actually a Hoax

Last week’s case was the unsolved murder of Arkansas college professor Ruby Stapleton. The case this week takes us to Boston. There, in 1989, Charles Stuart reported a man shot him and his wife in their car. That story turned out to be a hoax designed to cover a cold-blooded murder.

Charles Stuart and Carol DiMaiti

Charles Stuart came from a blue-collar family of six, four brothers and two sisters from Revere, Massachusetts. In 1985, he married Carol DiMaiti, a lawyer. By the fall of 1989, Charles was manager of Kakas & Sons Furs and Carol was pregnant with their first child.

Charles and Carol DiMaiti Stuart (wbur.org)
Charles and Carol DiMaiti Stuart (wbur.org)

On October 23, 1989, the couple attended a childbirth class at Bingham and Women’s Hospital. After the class, they drover through the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston on their way home. At a stoplight, a Black man with a raspy voice forced his way into their car. He ordered Stuart to drive to Mission Hill, where he robbed them. Then he shot Carol in the head and Charles in the stomach.

Rescue workers treat Carol and Chales Stuart at the supposed scene of the shooting (investigativediscovery.com)
Rescue workers treat Carol and Chales Stuart at the supposed scene of the shooting (investigativediscovery.com)

Stuart then drove away and called 911 from his car phone.

The Boston Herald screams the news
The Boston Herald screams the news

Charles Stuart, Victim

Emergency services arrived quickly and extracted both Carol and Charles from their car and rushed them to a hospital. Despite lifesaving efforts, Carol died at about 3:00 the next morning. Shortly before, doctors delivered her child by caesarean section. The boy, named Christopher, was two months premature and had suffered trauma and oxygen deprivation. Sadly, he too died 17 days later.

Carol DiMaiti Stuart (WCVB-TV)
Carol DiMaiti Stuart (WCVB-TV)

Charles Stuart had lost both his wife and his newborn son. His wounds required two surgeries and a six-week stay in the hospital, but he ultimately recovered.

The Manhunt

Based on Stuart’s description of his attacker, police scoured Boston for suspects. Their use of indiscriminate “stop-and-frisk” tactics heightened racial tensions in the city. Before long, they focused on 29-year-old Willie Bennett. When Stuart picked Bennet out of a lineup on December 28, police felt they had their man.

Willie Bennett in 2017 (WBZ-TV)
Willie Bennett in 2017 (WBZ-TV)

The lineup wasn’t perfect, however. Bennet stuck out like the proverbial store thumb since the rest of the men were clean-cut Boston police officers. But Stuart’s positive identification was good enough for police.

The Undoing of Charles Stuart

The positive identification of Willie Bennett was the last straw for Stuart’s brother, Matthew. On January 3, 1990, he went to police and fingered Charles as Carol’s killer. He confessed to helping his brother in what Charles told him was an insurance fraud. He took the gun and valuables, including the couple’s wedding rings, and tossed them off Pines River Bridge in Revere. Divers later recovered the gun and some of the other items.

Matthew Stuart confessed to aiding his brother in what he thought was an insurance scam
Matthew Stuart confessed to aiding his brother in what he thought was an insurance scam

When Charles learned that Matthew had confessed, he bolted. Driving to the middle of the Tobin Bridge over the Mystic River, he jumped to his death in the river below. Rescuers recovered his body the next day.

 The Tobin Bridge over the Mystic River (Wikipedia user Chensiyuan)
The Tobin Bridge over the Mystic River (Wikipedia user Chensiyuan)

With Stuart’s death, the case against Willie Bennett collapsed. When witnesses told a grand jury that police had pressured them into identifying Bennet, there was no alternative but to release him.

Rescue workers recover Stuart's body from the Mystic River on January 5, 1990 (esquire.com)
Rescue workers recover Stuart’s body from the Mystic River on January 5, 1990 (esquire.com)

Why Did Stuart Do It?

Police later learned that Stuart wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of fatherhood and wanted Carol to get an abortion. She refused. Apparently, he felt she wouldn’t go back to work after the baby arrived, thereby curtailing the family income. Stuart apparently cashed some life insurance checks, although. The number of checks is unclear as is their amounts.

Divers search the Pines River in Revere, MA for the gun reportedly used in the murder of Carol Stuart on January 6, 1990 (Boston Globe)
Divers search the Pines River in Revere, MA for the gun reportedly used in the murder of Carol Stuart on January 6, 1990 (Boston Globe)

It further developed that Stuart had developed a romantic interest in Deborah Allen one of his employees at the furrier. Allen denied there was ever any romantic involvement between them.

Epilogue

The case had an adverse effect on Stuart’s brother, Matthew. He died in a homeless shelter on September 3, 2011, from an overdose of alcohol and cocaine.

Willie Bennett served 12 years in prison for an unrelated armed robbery in Brookline. He maintains his innocence and was released in 2002.

Stuart’s wife, Carol, and son, Christopher, are both buried under Carol’s maiden name, DiMaiti, in Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden.

To read more about the Stuart murder case, check out Ken Englade’s Murder in Boston or Joe Sharkey’s Deadly Greed.

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Ruby Stapleton: Attractive Teacher Found Dead, Her Murder Unsolved

Last week we looked at the mysterious 1910 disappearance of Dorothy Arnold. No one ever saw Miss Arnold after December 12, 1910. This week’s case is another unsolved mystery. In 1963, a hunter found the body of popular college instructor Ruby Stapleton. Her killer was never found.

Ruby Stapleton

Ruby Stapleton née Lowrey was a native of Davenport, Nebraska. She graduated from Harding College (now Harding University) in Morrilton, Arkansas in 1926. After earning a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma, she returned to Harding to teach. There she was popular with students and faculty. In fact, when the school moved from Morrilton to Searcy in 1934, the college put Ruby in charge of coordinating the move.

Ruby Lowrey's 1926 Harding College yearbook photo (aymag.com)
Ruby Lowrey’s 1926 Harding College yearbook photo (aymag.com)

Ruby’s husband, Emmett Raymond “Ray” Stapleton was also a member of the Harding faculty. By 1963, though, Ray had left Arkansas to accept a teaching position in Superior, Wisconsin. Although they remained married, Ruby stayed in Arkansas, living with her daughter, Mary Claire, and a niece, Clarita Bartley. Both the younger women were students at Harding College.

Ray and Ruby Stapleton appear side by side in the Harding College yearbook (aymag.com)
Ray and Ruby Stapleton appear side by side in the Harding College yearbook (aymag.com)

Ruby Stapleton Disappears

On October 8, 1963, a Tuesday, Ruby’s son, Glen, had a broken washing machine. That evening, Ruby picked up Glen’s dirty laundry and took it with hers to a laundromat in Searcy. When her daughter returned home around 10:00 p.m., Ruby was not there. Alarmed, Mary Claire called the police. Her laundry and her station wagon were still at the washateria, but there was no sign of Ruby. Ominously, someone had broken into two tire stores adjacent to the laundromat. Police wondered if the burglaries and Ruby’s abduction were related.

When Ray Stapleton learned of the disappearance, he flew to Searcy the next day. Naturally, police interviewed him, as the spouse is always suspect in a murder or disappearance. And there was another reason to be suspicious of Ray. He hadn’t left the Harding College faculty voluntarily. The college asked him to leave after he had sexual liaisons with other men. In 1963, being gay was taboo, especially in the South. Moreover, Harding had an affiliation with the Church of Christ. However, Ray’s alibi (he was in Wisconsin) checked out. Also, there was no evidence he’d conspired with or hired anybody to kill his wife.

Ruby Lowrey Stapeleton (aymag.com)
Ruby Lowrey Stapeleton (aymag.com)

Police did arrest two men in a Lubbock, Texas drugstore for phoning Ray and demanding money from him. But they were able to prove they were in Lubbock at the time of Ruby’s abduction and were only guilty of trying to extort money from her husband.

The Murder of Ruby Stapleton

Eleven days after she disappeared, 21-year-old Jerry Bass went squirrel hunting along Bull Creek. There he saw Ruby’s nude and badly decomposed body in a dry section of the creek bed just outside of Beebe, Arkansas. It appeared she’d been dead since her abduction. The fact that her killer had undressed her suggested a sexual motive. But decomposition was too far advanced to determine if she’d been sexually assaulted.

Investigators followed multiple leads, including the flimsiest of tips. They looked hard at Ray Stapleton but found no evidence connecting him to the crime. They also investigated Oren Ray Hays, a bootlegger. Hays may have been angry with Ruby for her efforts to keep alcohol out of the hands of Harding students. But in the end, police couldn’t connect him to the murder either.

A few days after Ruby’s funeral, police arrested five boys for burgling the tire stores adjacent to the laundromat. Polygraph examinations cleared to five of involvement in the Stapleton murder.

Later Investigations

There the case sat until 2013, when Heather Bates, Mary Claire’s daughter and Ruby’s granddaughter took up the case. She tried to get Ruby’s case featured on the television program Cold Justice. However, the producers would only accept cases referred by law enforcement, so Heather contacted the Arkansas State Police The ASP refused both to cooperate with Cold Justice and her request to view Ruby’s file.

Roger Burns confessed to a similar crime near Bellville, Illinois in 1965. Police could not connect him to the Arkansas murder (aymag.com)
Roger Burns confessed to a similar crime near Bellville, Illinois in 1965. Police could not connect him to the Arkansas murder (aymag.com)

Heather sued and was eventually able to see the file. It led to another possible suspect. In 1965, an army radar technician named Roger Burns confessed to abducting and killing Roseann Curran from an Illinois laundromat. The details of that crime were eerily similar to the circumstances of Ruby Stapleton’s abduction and murder. The ASP tried to determine if Burns had been stationed at a missile silo in White County, Arkansas in 1963. However, relevant records were either missing or destroyed.

Epilogue

In 2014, the ASP assigned the Ruby Stapleton case to their Special Investigations Unit, where it is today.

An undated photograph of Ruby Stapleton (nwaonline.com)
An undated photograph of Ruby Stapleton (nwaonline.com)

Today, few people outside her family and Arkansas law enforcement remember Ruby Stapleton’s murder. Unlike many other unsolved crimes, no books tell her story. You can read about it in the online About You magazine article, Most Likely to Be Murdered.

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