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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