Ruth Judd: Trunk Murder Makes Big Headlines

The public seems to have a morbid fascination with so-called “trunk murders.” I’ve blogged about earlier this year, Melanie McGuire’s 2004 murder of her husband. In this week’s blog, I’ll take you back to 1931, the year Ruth Judd murdered two former friends.

Ruth Judd

Winnie Ruth McKinnell was born on January 9, 1905, to a Methodist minister and his wife in Oxford, Indiana. In 1924, she married Dr. William C. Judd, a World War I veteran more than twenty years her senior, and moved to Mexico with him. According to some, Dr. Judd had an addiction to morphine as a result of unspecified war injuries. Consequently, he had difficulty keeping a job, which forced the couple to move frequently. Ruth, as Dr. Judd called her, had health problems and wasn’t able to have children, which further strained the marriage.

Winnie Ruth Judd. Note bandaged left hand. (Arizona Historical Foundation)
Winnie Ruth Judd. Note bandaged left hand. (Arizona Historical Foundation)

By 1930, Ruth and William lived separately, although they maintained almost constant contact. Ruth moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where she worked as a governess. She also met John J. “Happy Jack” Halloran. Halloran was a 44-year-old businessman and playboy. He and Ruth eventually had an affair, even though both of them were married at the time.

Dr. William Craig Judd in a photo taken a few years after his wife's murder conviction (murderpedia.org)
Dr. William Craig Judd in a photo taken a few years after his wife’s murder conviction (murderpedia.org)

Shortly after meeting Halloran, Ruth secured a job as a medical secretary at the Grunow Medical Clinic in Phoenix. There, she met X-ray technician Agnes Anne LeRoi and her roommate, Hedvig Samuelson. The women moved to Phoenix from Alaska after Samuelson contracted tuberculosis, and both, it turned out, knew Happy Jack Halloran.

John J. "Happy Jack" Halloran (murderpedia.org)
John J. “Happy Jack” Halloran (murderpedia.org)

The three women became friends, with Ruth moving in with them in 1931. However, differences between the three soon caused Judd to move into her own apartment.

Ruth Judd Kills Her Friends

On the night of October 16, 1931, Ruth shot and killed LeRoi and Samuelson with a .25 caliber pistol. At her subsequent trial, the prosecution would claim the women fought over Halloran’s affections and that jealousy was the motive for murder.

Agnes Ann "Annie" LeRoi and Hedvig "Sammy" Samuelson (Los Angeles Herald Examiner photo collection)
Agnes Ann “Annie” LeRoi and Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson (Los Angeles Herald Examiner photo collection)

Regardless, Ruth and (probably) an accomplice next dismembered Samuelson’s body, stuffing the head, torso, and lower legs into a black shipping trunk. The upper legs went into a beige valise and a hatbox. She (or they) placed LeRoi’s body intact into a second black shipping trunk.

Two days later, on October 18, Ruth boarded the Golden State Limited to Los Angeles at Phoenix’s Union Station. Sporting a bandaged left hand, she checked the trunks, valise, and hatbox as baggage. En route to the Southern Pacific’s Central Station in Los Angeles, baggage handler H. J. Mapes observed the foul odor emanating from Judd’s luggage and the fluids leaking from it. Mapes notified Arthur V. Anderson, the district baggage agent in Los Angeles. He suspected the baggage contained contraband deer meat. (Apparently, shipping deer meat to the West Coast by rail was not uncommon in the 1930s.)

Ruth Judd’s Crimes Discovered

Anderson tagged the trunks to be held until they could be opened and inspected. He asked Ruth for the key, but she claimed she didn’t have it.

Ruth’s brother, Burton McKinnell, picked her up at the station. Leaving her baggage with its incriminating evidence behind, she had Burton drop her off in Los Angeles, where she promptly disappeared.

The trunks and luggage used to transport the bodies (Arizona Historical Foundation)
The trunks and luggage used to transport the bodies (Arizona Historical Foundation)

Meanwhile, at about 4:30 in the afternoon, Anderson called the police to report the suspicious luggage. After picking the locks, officers opened the trunks and discovered the bodies. By that time, Ruth was “in the wind.” She surrendered at a funeral home the following Friday, October 23.

A case that included dismemberment and interstate flight soon became front-page news. The press, prone to making up sensational names for murderers and murder cases, called Judd the “Tiger Woman” and the “Blonde Butcher.” Eventually, the case became known in the media as the “Trunk Murders” and Judd as the “Trunk Murderess.”

Ruth Judd on Trial

Ruth’s trial began on January 19, 1932. The dismemberment of Samuelson’s body notably didn’t appear in the case. The state of Arizona only charged Ruth with killing LeRoi, whose body was intact. (She was never charged in Samuelson’s death.)

The state contended that the slaying was premeditated and that Ruth shot herself in the left hand to bolster her claim of self-defense. The defense argued she was innocent because she was insane. The jury found her guilty of the first-degree murder of LeRoi on February 8. After an unsuccessful appeal, Judge Howard C. Speakman sentenced her to hang on February 17, 1933. She was sent to the Arizona State Prison in Florence, Arizona.

Ruth Judd, during her trial (Wikipedia)
Ruth Judd, during her trial (Wikipedia)

Four jurors presented Judge Speakman with affidavits claiming they only voted to recommend death after one of the jurors, former Mesa mayor Dan Kleinman, persuaded them that it was the best way to get Judd to give up any accomplices in the murder. They urged Speakman to commute the sentence to life imprisonment.

Judd’s attorneys also uncovered evidence that Kleinman had already made up his mind that he would vote to convict Judd and send her to the gallows if he got on the jury. They lodged two appeals on this basis, arguing that Kleinman’s behavior amounted to juror misconduct. However, neither appeal was successful.

In April 1933, the court overturned Ruth’s death sentence after a ten-day hearing found her mentally incompetent. She was then sent to Arizona State Asylum for the Insane on April 24, 1933.

Ruth Judd Later in Life

Ruth was committed to the Arizona State Asylum for the Insane (later renamed the Arizona State Hospital) in Phoenix, Arizona’s only mental institution. Judd escaped from the institution six times between 1933 and 1963. In one instance, she walked to Yuma, almost 200 miles, along the old Southern Pacific railroad tracks. She escaped for the last time on October 8, 1963, using a key to the hospital’s front door she somehow obtained from a friend. After six years, authorities discovered her California identity and sent her back to Arizona on August 18, 1969.

A nurse at the Arizona State Hospital holds the improvised rope Ruth Judd used in a 1952 escape (The Arizona Republic)
A nurse at the Arizona State Hospital holds the improvised rope Ruth Judd used in a 1952 escape (The Arizona Republic)

Ruth was paroled and released on December 22, 1971, after two years of legal wrangling. In 1983, the state of Arizona issued her an “absolute discharge,” meaning she was no longer a parolee. She returned to California to work for the family that had previously employed her. She later lived in Stockton, California, before moving back to Phoenix.

Epilogue

In the early 1990s, investigative journalist Jana Bommersbach re-examined Judd’s case for a series of articles in the Phoenix New Times. Her research included interviews with Ruth Judd herself. Bommersbach later published a book, The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd.

In her book, Bommersbach contends the dismemberment of Samuelson’s body showed surgical skills that Ruth didn’t possess. Furthermore, she believes Ruth couldn’t have physically lifted the bodies. The legal case also presented some difficulties, not the least of which was Kleinman’s interference.

Ruth Judd with reporter and author Jana Bommersbach (The Arizona Republic)
Ruth Judd with reporter and author Jana Bommersbach (The Arizona Republic)

However, others who have studied the case question Bommersbach’s conclusions and her objectivity, given the personal relationship she formed with Ruth,

Winnie Ruth Judd died on October 23, 1998, at the age of 93, sixty-seven years to the day after her surrender to police in Los Angeles in 1931.

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Paul Reid: Daring Serial Killer Made Terror in Nashville

Nashville, Tennessee, for years known as “Music City, U.S.A.,” holds a certain mystique in the public psyche. Today, it’s an entertainment Mecca boasting professional sports teams, college athletics, music venues, and countless bars. Lower Broadway is the nexus of this phenomenon, boasting dozens, if not hundreds, of establishments. Nashville has also become a favorite destination for bachelorette parties, drawing brides- and bridesmaids-to-be from all over America. Beneath the glitter and glitz, though, evil sometimes lurks. That was the case in 1997 when Paul Reid, the “Fast Food Killer,” arrived in town.

Paul Reid

Paul Dennis Reid was a native of Texas, hailing from the Fort Worth suburb of Richland Hills. When he drifted into Nashville, he was on parole for the aggravated robbery of a Houston, Texas, steakhouse. Texas cut him loose after he’d served seven years of a twenty-year sentence.

Despite having neither talent nor musical ability, Reid thought he’d try his luck as a country music singer in Nashville. Before long, however, he came up with a new plan.

Paul Reid tied to promote music career despite having no talent or experience (Bizarrapedia via onlyinyourstate.com)
Paul Reid tied to promote music career despite having no talent or experience (Bizarrapedia via onlyinyourstate.com)

Paul Reid and the Captain D’s Murders

February 16, 1997, was a Sunday. At about 8:30 a.m., Steve Hampton, 25, arrived at the Captain D’s seafood restaurant in the Nashville suburb of Donelson. Hampton, a father of three, was the recently promoted store manager. Assisting him was sixteen-year-old Sara Jackson, a part-time employee and a full-time student at nearby McGavock High School.

Steve Hampton and Sarah Jackson (findagrave.com)
Steve Hampton and Sarah Jackson (findagrave.com)

Hampton phoned his regional manager when he arrived at the restaurant. However, a subsequent follow-up call to Hampton went unanswered. Concerned, the regional manager drove to the Donelson location to see what was up. He arrived at the same time as the assistant store manager. Both observed Hampton’s car in the parking lot, but the front door was locked, and there was no sign of activity inside.

Two Metro Nashville prowl cars responded to the regional manager’s 911 call. Inside the restaurant, they found the main cash drawer open and empty. In the restaurant’s walk-in cooler, they found the bodies of Hampton and Jackson. Both were dead, shot in the back of the head with a .32-caliber revolver. Investigators later determined that Reid had convinced Hampton to let him in the store by pretending to apply for a job.

Paul Reid and the McDonald’s Murders

Reid struck again on March 23, also a Sunday, at a McDonald’s in nearby Hermitage. He accosted four employees as they left the store after closing and forced them back inside. There, he herded all four employees into a storeroom. He shot three of them twice in the back of the head: Andrea Brown, 17, Ronald Santiago, 27, and Robert A. Sewell, 23.

Andrea Brown and Robert A. Sewell (findagrave.com)
Andrea Brown and Robert A. Sewell (findagrave.com)

When it came time to shoot José Antonio Ramirez Gonzalez, Reid either had trouble with his gun or was out of ammunition. Instead, he stabbed Gonzalez seventeen times and left him for dead, taking $3,000 from the cash registers on his way out. But Gonzalez was not dead, and after a long recovery, lived to testify against Reid at his trial.

Paul Reid and the Baskin-Robbins Murders

One month later, on April 23, Reid approached a Baskin-Robbins store in Clarksville, Tennessee, shortly after it closed. He convinced the two employees, Angela Holmes, 21, and Michelle Mace, 16, to open the door. Once inside, he kidnapped the two and took them to Dunbar Cave State Park, less than three miles away.

Nashville detective Pat Postiglione immediately connected the Baskin-Robbins case to the Captain D’s and McDonald’s murders in Metro Nashville. But the Clarksville police and Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department disagreed and released the crime scene back to Baskin-Robbins.

Michelle Mace (findagrave.com)
Michelle Mace (findagrave.com)

The next day, searchers found the two missing women. Both still wore their Baskin-Robbins uniforms, and both had their throats slashed. Angela was face-down in artificial Swan Lake, about two hundred yards from Michelle. Police theorized Angela had tried to run away, causing Reid to kill Michelle and then chase her.

Paul Reid Captured and Convicted

Law enforcement caught up with Reid when he threatened a former manager at the latter’s home on June 1, 1997. The would-be victim scared Reid away and called the Cheatham County Sheriff’s Office. When Reid called the house to claim his threats were a “big misunderstanding,” a quick-thinking deputy lured him back to the house. He was promptly arrested.

Paul Dennis Reid (murderpedia.org)
Paul Dennis Reid (murderpedia.org)

The State of Tennessee tried Reid three times, once for each crime. Convicted at each trial, he received seven death sentences. However, due to legal wrangling, he never faced the needle. Instead, he died at Nashville General Hospital at Meharry on November 1, 2013. The cause of death was complications due to pneumonia, heart failure, and upper respiratory issues. Reid had been in the hospital for about two weeks.

Epilogue

For a time, police considered Reid a suspect in the 1993 Brown’s Chicken Massacre in Palatine, Illinois. The M.O. in the Brown’s Chicken case was similar to the Captain D’s and McDonald’s murders in Metro Nashville. However, the investigation revealed that Reid could not have committed the Palatine crime. Juan Luna and Degorski were later convicted in the Brown’s Chicken case.

Reid was also considered a suspect in the Houston-area killings of three people in a bowling alley, which echoed a similar crime in Las Cruces, New Mexico. In the Houston case, Max Soffar was twice convicted before dying while still on death row in Texas.

Michael Arntfield’s book Monster City includes a section devoted to Paul Reid as the “Fast Food Killer.”

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Sabella Nitti: Unusual Lawyer Saves “Killer” From Death

This week’s blog post deals with the 1923 murder trial of Sabella Nitti. It’s slightly related to last week’s post about Beulah Annan but in the opposite way. Annan, you may recall, was an attractive woman who charmed a Chicago jury into acquitting her of murdering her lover. Nitti had no similar ability.

Sabella Nitti

Isabella “Sabella” Nitti was almost the complete opposite of the young early-twentieth-century flapper. She was an Italian immigrant from Bari, a region near the “heel” of Italy’s boot. She did not understand English but spoke Barese, a dialect of Italian that even most Italians didn’t understand. Furthermore, the hard life of working on farms left her looking worn.

Sabella Nitti with one of her children (Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi/Ugly Prey)
Sabella Nitti with one of her children (Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi/Ugly Prey)

In 1923, authorities charged Sabella and her new husband, Peter Crudele, with murdering her first husband, Francesco Nitti. The prosecution argued that the pair had done away with Nitti so they could be together. They had no significant evidence, only a theory. But stinging from a series of cases where guilty but attractive women charmed their way to acquittals, they were eager for a win.

Sabella Nitti on Trial

Unlike with Beulah Annan the following year, the press was not kind to Sabella Nitti. Writing for the Chicago Daily Tribune, Genevieve Forbs described her as “grotesque” and called her “a monkey.”

Sabella Nitti in court sitting next to her son, Charles Nitti. Her second husband, Peter Crudele, is to Charles’ left (Chicago Tribune)

Judge Joseph David presided over the trial. According to prosecutor Milton Smith, Sabella Nitti was ugly. He built much of his case around her looks, leaning on sexism, racism, and stereotypes to convince the jury she was an “ugly animal” capable of killing her husband with Crudele. It didn’t help that Sabella’s defense attorney, Eugene A. Moran, suffered from mental problems and offered a less-than-competent defense.

The prosecution evidence was flimsy, but it didn’t matter in the end. The jury returned a guilty verdict and fixed her punishment at death. She was the first woman sentenced to hang in Chicago. Sabella, ignorant of English, didn’t understand what had happened until later.

Sabella Nitti Gets a New Champion

Enter Helen Cirese. Cirese was young, intelligent, pretty—and an attorney. The male attorneys of Chicago in the 1920s were not interested in having a woman join them. Instead, she shared an office with other Italian-American attorneys, all female. Where the rest of Chicago saw a monster, Cirese and her colleagues saw a frightened immigrant, worn down by years of child-bearing and farm work.

Attorney Helen Cirese (Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi/Ugly Prey)
Attorney Helen Cirese (Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi/Ugly Prey)

Cirese agreed to represent Sabella during her appeal. She immediately saw the problem. Sabella’s appearance didn’t inspire empathy with either juries or the public. Consequently, Helen set out to reinvent her client. She had Sabella cut the long hair that she usually wore in a messy bun and touched up the gray. In addition, Helen had her client start using makeup and helped her choose more stylish clothes. She also taught Sabella English. It was a makeover in the truest sense of the word.

Newspaper photograph of Sabella Nitti after her makeover (Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi/Ugly Prey)
Newspaper photograph of Sabella Nitti after her makeover (Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi/Ugly Prey)

Prosecutors realized they had a problem when Sabella was granted a new trial. At her first trial, they were able to use prejudice and character assassination to hand-wave over flimsy evidence. This time, they realized they had a completely new defendant.

Epilogue

Sabella Nitti was released on bail. With no new evidence and with public support for the defendant building, prosecutors eventually dropped the charges Don’tely.

Sabella’s story inspired the doomed Hungarian ballerina character in the musical version of Chicago.

You can read about the Sabella Nitti case in Ugly Prey by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi.

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