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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