Cheryl Crane: Sensational Murder or Something Else?

Our case last week looked at psycho former showgirl Clara Phillips who murdered a supposed love rival with a hammer. This week we delve into a Hollywood death that might or might not be murder. This is the story of Cheryl Crane, Lana Turner, and Johnny Stompanato.

Lana Turner, Cheryl Crane, and Johnny Stompanato

Lana Turner, born Julia Jean Turner in Wallace, Idaho in 1921, was a prominent film actress. Her career began in the 1930s. By the late 1950s, she was an established star. Despite professional success, Turner’s personal life was chaotic. Already married and divorced three times, she remarried her third husband, Stephen Crane in late 1942 when she discovered she was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Cheryl Crane, on July 25, 1943.

Lana Turner in an undated M-G-M publicity photo
Lana Turner in an undated M-G-M publicity photo

As the child of a famous movie star, Cheryl had little chance of a normal childhood. She later described herself as “famous at birth and pampered silly.” Cheryl’s parents divorced in 1944, a year after her birth. She and her mother lived in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles during most of her early years. Years later, in her autobiography, Cheryl alleged that Turner’s fourth husband, actor Lex Barker, had sexually abused her many times.

Cheryl Crane at eight weeks old in 1943 with her father, Stephen Crane, and mother, Lana Turner
CherylCrane at eight weeks old in 1943 with her father, Stephen Crane, and mother, Lana Turner

Now we come to Johnny Stompanato. Stompanato was an ex-marine who served in the Pacific during World War II. By 1957, he was a bodyguard and enforcer for Los Angeles mobster Meyer “Mickey” Cohen. Stompanato became infatuated with Lana Turner in 1957, calling her and sending her flowers as “John Steele.” She was filming The Lady Takes a Flyer at the time.

Johnny Stompanato
Johnny Stompanato

Cheryl Crane Knifes Stompanato

Despite trying to break away when she discovered his ties to organized crime, Turner continued her relationship with Stompanato. It was one characterized by violent arguments and physical abuse followed by reconciliations.

Johnny Stompanato with Lana Turner at a Hollywood nightclub ( Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)
Johnny Stompanato with Lana Turner at a Hollywood nightclub ( Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Cheryl described Stompanato this way:

B-picture good looks…thick set…powerfully built and soft spoken…and talked in short sentences to cover a poor grasp of grammar and spoke in a deep baritone voice. With friends, he seldom smiled or laughed out loud, but seemed always coiled, holding himself in…had watchful hooded eyes that took in more than he wanted anyone to notice…His wardrobe on a daily basis consisted of roomy, draped slacks, a silver buckled skinny leather belt and lizard shoes.

(L to R) Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane about a month before Cheryl stabbed him
(L to R) Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane about a month before Cheryl stabbed him

On April 4, 1958, Stompanato showed up at Turner’s rented home in Beverly Hills. She had just leased the place just a week earlier. Cheryl, then 14 years old, heard the couple in a heated argument. Stompanato threatened to kill Turner, Cheryl, and Turner’s mother. He made other threats as well, including breaking Turner’s bones and cutting her face with a straight razor.

The house Lana Turner rented and where Stompanato died at 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, California. The window at top left is the pink-carpeted bedroom where the stabbing took place. (JGKlein)
The house Lana Turner rented and where Stompanato died at 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, California. The window at top left is the pink-carpeted bedroom where the stabbing took place. (JGKlein)

Cheryl had been watching television in an adjacent room. Believing her mother’s life was in danger, she grabbed a knife and ran to her mother’s aid. Meanwhile, Turner had ordered Stompanato out of the house. The door to the bedroom burst open and out stormed Stompanato, right into the knife Cheryl held in her hand.

Coroner's attendants remove Johnny Stompanato's body from Lana Turner's home (Gary Smith / Los Angeles Times)
Coroner’s attendants remove Johnny Stompanato’s body from Lana Turner’s home (Gary Smith / Los Angeles Times)

Cheryl Crane and the Coroner’s Inquest

Because of Turner’s fame as an actress and the involvement of her teenage daughter, the case quickly became a sensation.  More than a hundred people attended the coroner’s inquest on April 11, 1958.

Cheryl Crane shortly after her arrest
Cheryl Crane shortly after her arrest

Testimony at the inquest lasted for four hours. Witnesses who testified included Mickey Cohen (who refused to say anything), Lana Turner, and Cheryl’s father, Stephen Crane. When testimony wrapped up, the coroner’s jury deliberated about 25 minutes before returning a verdict of justifiable homicide. The court released her to the custody of her grandmother. The judge also ordered her to regularly visit a psychiatrist accompanied by her parents.

Epilogue

Johnny Stompanato’s ex-wife, Sarah Ibrahaim filed a $750,000 wrongful death suit against Turner, Cheryl, and Stephen Crane. It implied that Lana Turner was responsible for stabbing Stompanato. The suit was eventually settled out of court in 1962.

A conspiracy theory endures that Lana Turner stabbed Stompanato, and that Cheryl Crane took the blame for her mother. The theory persists despite Cheryl’s repeated denials. She maintains that her mother never would have forced her teenaged daughter to falsely take the blame.

You can read more about the case in Movie Star & The Mobster: Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato and Homicide in the Pink Bedroom by John William Law.

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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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