Robert James: Astonishing Murder Shocks People in L.A.

Last week, the blog covered the death of George Reeves, the actor who was television’s Superman. It could have been a crime, but maybe it wasn’t. People still debate whether it was suicide or murder. This week, there’s no doubt: the case is murder. The killer: a slow-witted con man named Robert James. The victim: his wife. The murder weapon: two live rattlesnakes. This last bit earned the hapless wife-killer the sobriquet of “Rattlesnake James.”

Robert James

Robert James wasn’t even his real name. At birth, he was Major Raymond Lisenba (“Major” was a name, not a rank). He was a native of Hale County, Alabama (some sources put his birthplace as Birmingham). As a young man, he went to work in the cotton fields before his sister’s husband sent him to barber school.

Major Raymond Lisenba a.k.a. Robert S. James
Major Raymond Lisenba a.k.a. Robert S. James

Contemporaries described James as having a pasty complexion, a shock of slicked-back red hair, red-rimmed green eyes, and a high nasal voice. Nor was he the sharpest tool in the shed, one former childhood neighbor calling him “less than a half-wit.” But despite this unflattering description, Robert James seemed to have a way with women.

Robert James Marries—Several Times

James appears to have married his first wife, Maud Duncan, in Birmingham, Alabama. Sources provide conflicting dates but agree that she soon divorced him, citing his proclivity for “kinky” and “sadistic” sex.

By 1925, James had changed his name—legally or not—from Major Raymond Lisenba to Raymond S. James. That year, a state census records listed “R.S. James” living with a wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law in Emporia, Kansas.

Robert James, San Quentin mugshot
Robert James, San Quentin mugshot

On September 21, 1932, James and his third wife, Winona Wallace, were driving the Pikes Peak Highway in Colorado. Winona was driving when the car left the road and tumbled down a mountainside. James managed to jump free, but Winona was trapped in the car. Rescuers found her alive with minor injuries. She smelled of liquor and had a large wound behind her ear. A week later, with Winona recovering in a cottage in Manitou Springs, James and a grocer found her dead in the bathtub. He told investigators that she had ignored doctors’ orders not to wash her hair because of the head wound. She supposedly drowned as a result.

Sometime later, James apparently married Ruth Thomas while drunk. He reported having that marriage annulled in New Orleans in 1932.

The Fifth, Final, and Fatal Marriage

In March 1935, James was in La Cañada, California working as a barber. There he met and married Mary Busch. Barely three months later, he approached, Charles Hope, one of his customers who was in financial difficulties. He recruited Hope to help him in a plot to kill his wife. James promised to pay Hope $100 (more than $2,000 in 2022) to procure two rattlesnakes. The plan was to use the snakes to poison Mary.

Newspaper image of Mary Busch James with photo in the background
Newspaper image of Mary Busch James with photo in the background

On August 4, Hope brought two feisty diamondback rattlers to the James house. He found Mary strapped to the kitchen table, her eyes and mouth taped shut. James had coaxed the pregnant Mary onto the table with a ruse about a doctor coming to “perform some kind of operation on her for her pregnancy.” While Hope watched, James put Mary’s foot in the box with the two snakes, which, of course, bit her. Hope then left the house.

Two diamondback rattlesnakes, Lethal and Lightning, appeared as evidence in court (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner)
Detectives study the fish pond where Mary’s body was found (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner)

Hope and James returned to the house at 1:30 a.m. only to find Mary was still alive. Outraged, and none too sober, James took her into the bathroom where he drowned her in the tub. Then he took her body and put it face down in the backyard fish pond to make it look like an accidental drowning.

Epilogue

Authorities ruled Mary’s death an accident, that is, until a drunken Hope began bragging to bar patrons about his role in her death. The bartender called police. Police arrested Hope and, under intense grilling, he spilled the whole plot. A snakebite on Mary’s toe, overlooked during the original autopsy, confirmed Hope’s story.

Two diamondback rattlesnakes, Lethal and Lightning, appeared as evidence in court (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner)
Two diamondback rattlesnakes, Lethal and Lightning, appeared as evidence in court (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner)

Hope got life in prison, but James got the death penalty. Since the crime occurred before the California adopted the cyanide gas chamber in 1937, James got the rope. On May 1, 1942, he mounted the gallows at San Quentin. All did not go smoothly. The rope was too long and, instead of breaking his neck, it took James 13 minutes to slowly strangle to death. A horrible end, you might say, but not as horrible as the one he made Mary suffer.

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George Reeves: The Strange, Lonely Death of TV’s Superman

Last week’s blog concerned the murder of actor Sal Mineo by pizza deliveryman turned mugger Lionel Williams. Keeping with the Hollywood theme, this week’s case is the death of actor George Reeves, known to millions as television’s Superman. On June 16, 1959, Reeves died from a single gunshot wound in the bedroom of his Benedict Canyon home. Authorities ruled it a suicide, but was it?

George Reeves

Born George Keefer Brewer in Woolstock, Iowa in 1914, the boy who would become Superman moved around a lot. By the time he was a young teenager, he and his mother had moved to Pasadena, California so she could be near her sister. The acting bug bit George first in high school then at Pasadena Junior College (now Pasadena City College).

George Reeves when he wasn't Superman
George Reeves when he wasn’t Superman

George Reeves, Actor

Reeves’ first film role was a small part in a very big film. He played Stuart Tarleton, one of the young men competing for Scarlett O’Hara’s attentions at the beginning of Gone With the Wind. Before that classic film’s release, Warner Brothers signed him to a contract. But after several mediocre pictures, he and the studio mutually agreed to part ways. Next, he signed with Twentieth Century-Fox. Fox released him after only a few films. After that, he freelanced, looking for work in the westerns that were popular at the time.

Fred Crane (L) and George Reeves (R) as the Tarleton twins vie for the attentions of Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O''Hara in Gone With the Wind.
Fred Crane (L) and George Reeves (R) as the Tarleton twins vie for the attentions of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O”Hara in Gone With the Wind.

By the early 1940s, though, Reeves had appeared in over thirty films, and it looked like his career was taking off. But in 1943, he joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. After the war, finding work became difficult. Acting jobs that paid less and less were farther and farther apart.

The Adventures of Superman

Reeves was offered the title role in a new television series, The Adventures of Superman, in June 1951. Like many actors in that era, he looked down on television as unimportant, inferior to films. Nevertheless, he took the role. The series had a very tight shooting schedule, filming the thirteen episodes for a season in seven weeks. But Reeves’ and the other actors’ contracts were such that it was impossible to take other acting roles.

George Reeves in costume as Superman
George Reeves in costume as Superman

Reeves supplemented his income by making personal appearances. He genuinely liked his young fans and took his status as a role model seriously. For one thing, he avoided smoking where children could see him (he eventually quit smoking altogether). He was also discrete in his private life. It turns out, there were plenty of reasons to be discrete.

Superman mobbed by his fans
Superman mobbed by his fans

The Secret Life of George Reeves

Shortly before The Adventures of Superman launched in 1951, Reeves began an affair with former showgirl Toni Mannix. Toni had recently married MGM vice president and general fixer Eddie Mannix. Supposedly, Mannix gave his blessing to his new wife’s affair.

Toni and Eddie Mannix
Toni and Eddie Mannix

Reeves and Toni broke up in 1958. Reeves then announced his engagement to society playgirl Leonore Lemmon. Leonore (her real name was Lenore) was younger than Reeves and considerably younger than Toni, who was eight years Reeves’ senior. Tony, as one might imagine, was less than amused.

Leonore Lemmon in 1941 (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Leonore Lemmon in 1941 (Bettmann/CORBIS)

The Death of George Reeves

In the summer of 1959, plans for a new season of The Adventures of Superman were in the works. Reeves was tired of the role, but the public so identified him with it he had trouble finding other work. Some friends said he was depressed while others vigorously disputed that claim.

The house where Superman died, 1579 Benedict Canyon Road, Los Angeles (Author's photo)
The house where Superman died, 1579 Benedict Canyon Road, Los Angeles (Author’s photo)

On the evening of June 16, 1959, Reeves and Leonore were out to dinner with another person. The two had an argument and returned to Reeves’ home on Benedict Canyon Drive (Toni bought the house for him). Reeves went upstairs to bed. Meanwhile two more people dropped in on Leonore and a small party broke out, Reeves came downstairs to complain about the noise, but ended up having a drink with Leonore and the guests. Shortly after he returned to his upstairs bedroom, the people downstairs heard a single gunshot. One of the guests, Bill Bliss, went upstairs and found Reeves lying across the bed on his back with his feet under the floor. A 9mm Luger pistol was on the floor nearby.

Suicide or—?

Police didn’t receive a call until nearly an hour later. When they arrived at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive, they found four intoxicated people downstairs and a dead George Reeves upstairs. The witnesses all told approximately the same story, but was that because they’d taken an hour to get it straight?

A pensive George Reeves sits on the porch of his Benedict Canyon home shortly before his death
A pensive George Reeves sits on the porch of his Benedict Canyon home shortly before his death

Leonore loudly proclaimed that Reeves had killed himself. She said he was depressed over his finances and inability to break out of the Superman mold. But several some things argued against the suicide theory. For one, there were no fingerprints on the gun. Had a heavy coating of gun oil prevented police from obtaining prints or had someone wiped it clean? Then there was the lack of powder burns. However, the autopsy explained that the gun had been in contact with Reeves’ skin, which would have prevented powder stippling around the wound. And there was the rumor that Leonore hadn’t been downstairs as she claimed, but in or near the bedroom when the shot was fired.

Epilogue

Authorities ruled the death a suicide, although some refused to believe it. Reeves’ friend and fellow actor Rory Calhoun famously said, “No one in Hollywood believed the suicide story.” Since there were no witnesses present, there is no way to know for sure whether it was suicide, accident, or murder.

You can read more about George Reeves’ death in Hollywood Kryptonite by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger.

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Sal Mineo: Insidious Murder Takes Out Promising Actor

Our case last week looked at a tragic murder-suicide. Josh Powell killed himself and his two small sons by blowing up his house, which set it on fire. Powell had probably killed his wife, Susan, two years earlier, although he was never convicted of that crime. This week, we consider a classic Hollywood crime, the murder of actor Sal Mineo.

Sal Mineo

Born in New York City in 1939, Salvatore Mineo, Jr. began acting as a youngster. His first stage performance was in Tennessee Williams’ play, The Rose Tattoo in 1951. His first film role was in Six Bridges to Cross in 1955 (he beat out Clint Eastwood for the role).

Sal Mineo (biography.com)
Sal Mineo (biography.com)

But Mineo’s career got a big shot in the arm when he costarred with James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). He teamed up with Dean again a year later in Giant (1956), considered to be the inspiration for the television series Dallas.

Sal Mineo was a famous teen star in the 1950s. But like so many young actors, he found transitioning into more mature roles difficult. However, by the 1970s, his career had prospered, and he had many film and television roles to his credit.

Sal Mineo in 1973
Sal Mineo in 1973

The Murder of Sal Mineo

On February 12, 1976, Mineo returned home after rehearsing the play P.S. Your Cat is Dead in Los Angeles. After parking his car in the carport next to his West Hollywood apartment, a mugger attacked him. In the attack, the assailant stabbed Mineo in the chest. Neighbors heard his cries for help and ran to assist him. By the time they arrived, the actor was almost dead. He died minutes later. He was only 37 years old.

Neighbors described the attacker who fled the scene as a White man with brown hair. Other than that, police had little to go on. At first, they thought Mineo’s work for prison reform had connected him with a dangerous ex-con. They also discovered numerous pictures of nude men in his apartment. But neither the convict nor the gay angle produced any leads, and the case began to go cold.

The casket of actor Sal Mineo being carried out of Most Holy Trinity Church in Mamaroneck, New York(Dave Pickoff/AP)
Pallbearers carry he casket of actor Sal Mineo out of Most Holy Trinity Church in Mamaroneck, New York(Dave Pickoff/AP)

A Suspect in the Mineo Murder

In April 1977, a 19-year-old woman named Teresa Collins contacted police. She told authorities her boyfriend had just been extradited to Michigan for a bad check charge. She claimed she knew about an unsolved murder. The boyfriend was a career criminal whose name was Lionel Ray Williams. Collins said she was afraid of Williams and waited to come forward until he was behind bars in another state. In addition to Collins, Williams had apparently told other people about killing Mineo, a story he later denied. But his ex-wife reported that on the night of the murder, Williams had come home covered in blood. It was looking like the cops had their man.

But there was a problem. Witnesses described a White attacker with long brown hair. Williams was Black with an Afro. Police were able to solve this dilemma with an old photograph. In it, Williams had dyed his hair brown and had it processed so that it was straight and long. Investigators contended that in the dark carport, witnesses could have confused Williams with a White man.

Lionel Williams, 21, arrives in Los Angles  Jan. 13, 1978 (AP Photo/Lennox  McLendon)
Lionel Williams, 21, arrives in Los Angles Jan. 13, 1978 (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

Lionel Williams went on trial for murder on January 9, 1979. By that time, he’d reconciled with Collins and the two had secretly married. Collins invoked her spousal privilege and refused to testify against Williams, crippling the prosecution case. Nevertheless, after deliberating for seven days, a jury found Williams guilty of second-degree murder. Judge Bonnie Lee Martin sentenced him to 51 years, with the ability to apply for parole in 14 years.

Epilogue

Williams served only a portion of his 51-year sentence before being released in the early 1990s. Reportedly, he resumed his criminal ways and was soon behind bars again. He continued to deny that he’d murdered Sal Mineo.

If you want to learn more about Sal Mineo, you might be interested in  Michael Gregg’s 2010 book, Sal Mineo: A Biography.

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Josh Powell: Probable Murder Ends with Enormous Fire

Last week’s case was the death of L.A. mobster Johnny Stompanato. When he threatened his movie-star girlfriend, Lana Turner, Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane fatally stabbed him. This week, we look at the tragic case of the Powell family. In December 2009, Susan Powell, the mother of two small boys disappeared. A little over two years later, in February 2012, her husband, Josh Powell, blew up a rented house. He and his two young sons died in the explosion and the blaze that followed.

Josh Powell

Born in 1976, Josh Powell grew up in a dysfunctional household in Puyallup, Washington. His mother, Terrica, blamed that on his father, Steven’s, disaffection with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church). In her divorce, Terrica alleged that Steven shared pornography with his three sons and refused to enforce limits on their behavior.

Josh Powell listens as Kirk Graves, his brother in law, (not pictured) speaks during a press conference at West View Park Saturday December 12, 2009. (Chris Detrick, The Salt Lake Tribune)
Josh Powell listens as Kirk Graves, his brother in law, (not pictured) speaks during a press conference at West View Park Saturday December 12, 2009. (Chris Detrick, The Salt Lake Tribune)

Later, as a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, Josh began a relationship with Catherine Everett. He met her at the local LDS Church. It was after they moved into an apartment together that Catherine noticed Josh’s controlling behavior. He wouldn’t let her see family or friends without his permission and often insisted on going with her. She did visit a friend back in Utah without Josh, which is when she decided not to return to Seattle. She broke up with Josh over the phone.

Catherine Everett with her husband Dennis in 2018 (Deseret News)
Catherine Everett with her husband Dennis in 2018 (Deseret News)

Josh Powell and Susan Cox

Josh met Susan Cox at a dinner party at his Tacoma apartment in November 2000. They married in the Portland, Oregon LDS temple in April 2001. For a brief period after their marriage, Josh and Susan lived with his father, Steven, in Puyallup. Steven developed a creepy infatuation with Susan. He followed her around with a camcorder, spied on her, and stole underwear from her drawer. He confessed his infatuation to Susan in 2003. Stunned, she rejected him, an interaction caught by Steven’s camcorder microphone. Josh and Susan soon moved out.

Wedding picture, Josh Powell and Susan Cox Powell
Wedding picture, Josh Powell and Susan Cox Powell

By then, Josh had a bachelor’s degree in business. He worked for several companies over the next few years. Susan had trained as a cosmetologist, but she took a job with Wells Fargo Investments after the family moved to West Valley City, Utah. They had two sons, Charles in 2005 and Braden in 2007.

Susan’s journals and emails indicated that the Powell marriage had its problems. For one thing, Josh refused to attend church with his family. Susan also noted his “extremely controlling” behavior and his extravagant spending. His spending was so out of control Josh had to file for bankruptcy in 2007, listing over $200,000 in debts.

Susan Powell Disappears

The passage of time did not improve conditions in the Powell marriage. In July 2008, Susan recorded a video of property damage in their home she attributed to Josh. She also wrote a secret will. It included the statements, “I want it documented that there is extreme turmoil in our marriage” and, “If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one.”

On the morning of December 6, 2009, Susan and the boys attended church services. Later, about 5:00 p.m., a neighbor visited them in their home. That was the last time anyone saw Susan Powell.

The Powell family in happier times
The Powell family in happier times

Initially, Josh’s mother and sister reported the entire Powell family missing. The boys were not at daycare Monday morning and Susan failed to show up for work. Police found her purse and wallet in the house. Later, her cell phone turned up in the family’s only vehicle, a Chrysler minivan.

Josh Powell returned home with his sons around 5:00 p.m. on December 7. He claimed he’d left Susan sleeping in the house shortly after midnight and taken the boys camping. This was odd. Why would Josh go camping in near-blizzard conditions and when he had to work hours later? Investigator searched Simpson Springs in western Utah where Josh said he’d been but were unable to find evidence of a campsite.

Josh Powell, Person of Interest

Josh took Charles and Braden to Puyallup to stay with his father over the Christmas holidays. By Christmas Eve, police considered him a person of interest in their investigation into Susan’s disappearance. On January 6, 2010, Josh and his brother Michael returned to West Valley City to pack up the family’s belongings. He said he was moving permanently to Puyallup.

Josh Powell
Josh Powell

Over the next two years, investigators dug up information that pointed to foul play and to Josh’s involvement. They also looked at Steven, whose infatuation with Susan never waned. Ultimately, Steven went to prison for child pornography and voyeurism.

Following Steven’s arrest in September 2011, Susan’s father, Chuck Cox filed for custody of his grandsons. The court awarded him temporary custody. It also ruled that Josh would have to move out of Steven’s house before he could regain custody himself. Josh rented a house in in South Hill, but authorities contended he never lived there. The rented house was, they said, to provide the appearance of complying with the court’s instructions.

The Final Tragedy

Late in 2011, Josh submitted to a series of court-ordered evaluations. The evaluations, conducted by James Manley, had mixed results. Manly found Josh had positive parenting skills. But he also noted that Josh was overbearing, paranoid, and had underlying narcissistic personality traits. He recommended that Josh have visitation with his sons several times a week but that a social worker supervise the visits.

The rented house in South Hill burns after an explosion on February 5, 2012.
The rented house in South Hill burns after an explosion on February 5, 2012.

On February 5, 2012, social worker Elizabeth Hall took the boys for a visit with Josh at the rented South Hill house. She was supposed to supervise the visit, but Josh grabbed the boys and would not let Hall inside. She called 911. Shortly after that, the house exploded. Josh, Charles, and Braden all died in the subsequent fire.

The aftermath of the South Hills house fire
The aftermath of the South Hills house fire

Epilogue

Police considered the deaths of Josh and his sons to be a double murder-suicide. It is also widely believed, but not proven, that Josh murdered Susan and disposed of her body.

On February 11, 2013, Josh’s brother committed suicide by jumping from a parking garage roof in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Utah authorities said they believe Michael was Josh’s accomplice in Susan’s murder.

On May 21, 2013, West Valley City police announced that they had closed their active investigation into Susan’s disappearance. Susan Powell officially remains a missing person.

Susan Powell, missing person and probable homicide victim
Susan Powell, missing person and probable homicide victim

Steven Powell left prison on July 11, 2017, after serving seven years. He died of natural causes a year later, on July 23, 2018.

You can read more about this case in a book by Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris, If I Can’t Have You: Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance, and the Murder of Her Children.

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