Thelma Todd: Strange Death of a Famous Hollywood Actress

Old Hollywood is a treasure trove of old crimes and scandals, some famous, some unknown. In this blog post, I present the case of Thelma Todd. She was a renowned actress and owned a popular café situated along the Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades. Her mysterious death in 1935 remains troubling today.

Thelma Todd Goes to Hollywood

Massachusetts-born Thelma Alice Todd planned to be a schoolteacher. But she also liked to enter beauty pageants and won the title of Miss Massachusetts in 1925. A Hollywood talent scout noticed her while she represented her state in that capacity. He signed her to a contract with Paramount Pictures, preempting her career as an educator.

Actress and comedienne Thelma Todd ca. 1933 (RKO)
Actress and comedienne Thelma Todd ca. 1933 (RKO)

Todd’s film career started slowly. Movies were still silent in the 1920s, and in her first screen appearances, she served as little more than an on-screen ornament. As sound came to the pictures, however, producer Hal Roach offered her the opportunity to appear with some of the noted comedy stars of the day. Before long, Todd was a respected screen comedienne.

With experience came better and more prominent roles. She appeared with Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Zasu Pitts, and others. You can see her with the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. She even appeared as Miles Archer’s wife, Iva, in an early screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. However, few people remember this 1931 film since Humphrey Bogart’s 1941 version completely eclipsed it.

In all, Todd appeared in some 199 films, including short subjects. The studio’s publicity machine occasionally promoted her as “The Ice Cream Blonde.”

Thelma Todd: Party Girl and Businesswoman

Off-screen, Todd could be a wild partyer, earning herself the nickname “Hot Toddy” among her friends. She also gravitated toward destructive and abusive relationships with men. A brief marriage to agent and producer (and reputed pal of mobster Lucky Luciano) Pat DiCicco resulted in numerous brawls.

Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe in the 1930s. The square windows near the roofline are Joya's. Thelma Todd's apartment was the pyramid-like section in the center.
Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe in the 1930s. The square windows near the roofline are Joya’s. Thelma Todd’s apartment was the pyramid-like section in the center.

Thelma’s marriage ended in divorce, after which, according to rumors, she began a relationship with Roland West. West was still married to actress Jewel Carmen at the time.

Whether or not her relationship with West was romantic, they were business partners. In August 1934, Todd and West opened a restaurant along the Roosevelt Highway (now the Pacific Coast Highway) in Pacific Palisades, California. They named their establishment Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café to capitalize on the actress’s screen fame. The café occupied the first floor of a Spanish-style building at the intersection of the highway and Porto Marina Way. The second floor housed a private nightclub—and rumored gambling joint—called Joya’s.

Thelma Todd at the Entrance to the Sidewalk Café (pacificpalisadeshistory.org)
Thelma Todd at the Entrance to the Sidewalk Café (pacificpalisadeshistory.org)

Thelma Todd Found Dead in a Garage

Thelma Todd met her death in a garage on the hillside above her café. On the morning of Monday, December 16, 1935, Mae Whitehead, Todd’s maid, found her body slumped in the front seat of her chocolate-colored Lincoln Phaeton convertible. She still wore the silver evening gown, mink wrap, and jewelry she had worn to a fashionable party at the Trocadero Saturday night. An autopsy revealed that the cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning. She was only 29 years old.

Captain Bert Wallis of the police homicide squad checks the position of Thelma Todd's body where it was found in her car on December 16, 1935. (Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
Captain Bert Wallis of the LAPD homicide squad checks the position of Thelma Todd’s body where it was found in her car on December 16, 1935. (Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

The real mystery, though, was the manner of death. Was it an accident, suicide, or murder? The official investigation by the LAPD concluded that the death was “accidental with possible suicide tendencies.” Friends thought suicide was unlikely since Todd had left the Trocadero in good spirits, and police found no suicide note. Others claim that Todd was a victim of foul play.

Author Andy Edmonds postulates that Lucky Luciano killed her because he wanted to take over Joya’s and turn it into a gambling establishment (if it wasn’t already one). Donald Wolfe proposes a similar scenario with Bugsy Siegel as the gambler/gangster killer. Neither scenario is likely since a mob-sponsored gambling operation didn’t sprout in the private club space after Todd’s death. Other theorists finger ex-husband Pat DiCicco, business partner and rumored lover Roland West, or West’s wife Jewel Carmen (she owned the garage).

What Happened to Thelma Todd?

Although the press and the public love a good scandal, especially if it involves a conspiracy, the official explanation of accidental death is the most likely. Dropped off in the wee hours of Sunday morning by a chauffeur and perhaps a bit woozy after an evening of nightclubbing, Todd started her car to warm it or herself. She then succumbed to the carbon monoxide fumes before she realized what was happening.

The former home of the Sidewalk Cafe in 2015 (Author's photo)
The former home of the Sidewalk Cafe in 2015 (Author’s photo)

Nevertheless, the definitive story of her death has been a mystery for nearly ninety years and is likely to remain so.

Epilogue

Interest in Thelma Todd’s life and death continues, and several books detail her life and story. One of the earliest is Andy Edmonds’ Hot Toddy. Recent works include Testimony of a Death by Patrick Jenning and Marshall Croddy, The Ice Cream Blonde by Michelle Morgan, and William Donati’s The Life and Death of Thelma Todd.

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Room 1046: Unusual Murder of Man in Hotel Room

My blog this week presents you with an unsolved murder mystery. It involves Room 1046 of a Kansas City, Missouri, hotel and dates to January 1935.

Roland Owen Checks Into Room 1046

Early in the afternoon of January 2, 1935, a man checked into the Hotel President in Kansas City. He asked for an interior room several floors up, and the desk clerk assigned him Room 1046. He said his name was Roland T. Owen, gave a Los Angeles address and paid for one night. Bellhop Randolph Propst accompanied Owen to the tenth floor and unlocked the door to Room 1046 for him. Owen had no luggage but removed a hairbrush, comb, and toothpaste from his overcoat pocket while Propst was in the room. The two then left, with Propst locking the door and giving Owen the key. After reaching the lobby, Propst observed Owen leave the hotel.

The Hotel President in 2012 (Nightryder84/Wikipedia)iid
The Hotel President in 2012 (Nightryder84/Wikipedia)

A short time later, a hotel maid, Mary Soptic, came into the room to clean and found Owen there. The shades were down, and only one dim lamp lit the room. She would find this to be the case in her subsequent encounters with Owen. She had been cleaning for only a few minutes when Owen put on his overcoat, brushed his hair, and left. On his way out, he asked Soptic to leave the room unlocked as he said he expected friends in a few minutes.

Soptic returned to Room 1046 with fresh towels and discovered the room dark and Owen lying on the bed, fully clothed. A note she saw on a bedside table read, “Don: I will be back in fifteen minutes. Wait.”

More Strange Goings-On in Room 1046

Mary Soptic paid another visit to Room 1046 at about 10:30 on the morning of January 3. She found Owen alone in the dark as he had been the previous afternoon. The phone rang. Owen answered it and said, “No, Don, I don’t want to eat. I am not hungry. I just had breakfast…No, I am not hungry.”

Sketch of Roland T. Owen distributed to help identify him (AllThatIsInteresting.com)
Sketch of Roland T. Owen distributed to help identify him (AllThatIsInteresting.com)

Around 4:00 p.m., Soptic returned with fresh towels. A male voice, not Owen’s, told her they didn’t need any towels, even though Soptic had removed all of them from the room earlier.

Two hours later, Jean Owen (no relation to the man in Room 1046) from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, checked in and received Room 1048. She later told police that she heard men and women talking loudly and profanely all over the tenth floor.

Violence in Room 1046

At 7:00 a.m. on January 4, switchboard operator Della Ferguson attempted to place a wakeup call to Room 1046. Seeing the light that indicated the phone was off the hook, she sent a bellhop—coincidentally, Propst—up to the room. He found the door locked and a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging from the knob. A voice told him to “come in” in response to his knocks, but he couldn’t. He left after telling the guest, presumably Owen, to hang up the phone.

By 8:30, the phone in Room 1046 was still off the hook. Another bellhop, Harold Pike, went up to the tenth floor. The “Do Not Disturb” sign was still out, but Pike had a key and let himself in. He found Owen in the dark, lying on the bed naked. The telephone had been knocked off its stand. Assuming the room’s occupant was drunk, Pike put the phone back on its stand and replaced the handset.

Photograph of "Roland T. Owen" that Ruby Ogletree identified as her son, Artemus (Kansas City Public Library)
Photograph of “Roland T. Owen” that Ruby Ogletree identified as her son, Artemus. The patch of missing hair is from a childhood injury. (Kansas City Public Library)

Two hours later, another operator reported that 1046’s phone was off the hook again. Propst drew the assignment to check on it. The “Do Not Disturb” sign was still in evidence, and the door was locked. This time, Propst had a key and let himself in when he didn’t get a response to his knocks. Owen was on his knees and elbows about two feet from the door, and his head was bloody. Propst replaced the phone’s handset and noticed blood on the walls of the room and bathroom and on the bed itself.

It’s Murder

Propst went downstairs for help and returned with the assistant manager. They could only open the door a few inches, as Owen had fallen on the floor after Propst left for help. He eventually got up and sat on the edge of the bathtub, allowing the two hotel employees to enter the room. The assistant manager called Kansas City Police.

Someone had bound Owen with cords around his neck, wrists, and ankles. Additional bruising on his neck suggested that someone had tried to choke him. He had been stabbed several times in the upper chest, and a blow to the head left him with a skull fracture. When asked who did this, he answered, “Nobody,” and claimed to have fallen and hit his head on the bathtub. He then lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital. He was comatose when he arrived and died shortly after midnight on January 5.

Who was the Man in Room 1046?

Police quickly learned that “Roland T. Owen” was an alias. Los Angeles police could not locate anyone by that name at the address he gave. A corpse with no name left detectives little to go on, but it made a great newspaper story. Papers worldwide circulated a sketch and postmortem photo of “Owen.”

Artemus Ogletree in a photograph provided by his family (Public Domain)
Artemus W. Ogletree in a photograph provided by his family (Public Domain)

In 1936, Eleanor Ogletree saw an issue of the Sunday newspaper insert, The American Weekly, containing an article about the murder. She felt the image of “Owen” strongly resembled her missing brother, Artemus Ogletree. Her mother, Ruby Ogletree, agreed and contacted the police in Kansas City.

Epilogue

On March 3, 1935, the funeral home that had been holding Ogletree’s remains announced it would bury him in Kansas City’s potter’s field the next day. That prompted a call from an unidentified man asking them to delay the service so that the caller could send money for a proper burial. The funeral home received an envelope on March 25 containing $25 (about $563 in 2024), sufficient to cover the funeral’s cost. A florist received $10 in two separate envelopes for an arrangement of 13 American Beauty roses to go to the grave. A hand-lettered card accompanying the payment read, “Love Forever—Louise.” The sender was never identified, and neither was “Louise.”

Identifying Ogletree did not help in determining who killed him. The case remains unsolved.

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Thunderstruck: Technology Catches a Man Wanted for Murder

It’s been quite some time since I reviewed a true crime book for this blog, but I recently read one I wanted to share. The book is Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, who also authored The Devil in the White City. Thunderstruck explores the parallel paths of Guglielmo Marconi and Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen to the point where their paths converge with the latter’s arrest in Canada in 1910.

The Stories in Thunderstruck

I profiled the Crippen case in September 2020. Briefly, Dr. Crippen was an American homeopathic physician who managed the London office of a patent medicine company. He found refuge from his overbearing wife, Cora, in the arms of his secretary, Ethel Le Neve. Cora, who had ambitions to be a music hall performer, disappeared in February 1910. Not satisfied with the doctor’s explanations, her theater friends persuaded Scotland Yard to investigate. Chief Inspector Walter Dew accepted Crippen’s explanation that she had absconded to America with another man. He was on the verge of closing the case when Crippen and Ethel vanished.

Cover of Thunderstruck (Crown Publishing Group)
Cover of Thunderstruck (Crown Publishing Group)

Marconi was an Italian self-trained early pioneer in wireless telegraphy. His lack of formal scientific training earned him criticism from the academics researching the properties of radio waves. Marconi’s secrecy and combative nature only made the conflicts worse.

Guglielmo Marconi (Library of Congress)
Guglielmo Marconi (Library of Congress)

Nevertheless, with considerable trial and error, Marconi made significant strides in sending and receiving radio waves over long distances. In January 1903, he sent a wireless message from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII of England. Sending a radio signal from a transmitter at Wellfleet, Massachusetts, to a receiver in Wales was an achievement, but the telegram was primarily a publicity stunt. Reliable messaging across long distances remained not easy to achieve. The spark-gap technology of the time required powerful transmitters and was prone to generating radio frequency interference.

Technology and Crime Converge in Thunderstruck

By 1910, the reliability of wireless telegraphy had improved. Although spark-gap transmitters could only send signals in Morse code, radio became essential equipment on ships traversing the Atlantic. And that’s where Marconi’s path intersects with Dr. Crippen’s.

Hawley Harvey Crippen (Public Domain)
Hawley Harvey Crippen (Public Domain)

It was July 1910 when Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve fled London. First, they went to Brussels. From there, they boarded SS Montrose, a steamship bound for Canada, with Ethel thinly disguised as a boy. Despite the ruse, the Montrose’s captain, Henry Kendall, recognized the couple and used the ship’s wireless to contact the steamship company. The company, in turn, notified Scotland Yard.

Inspector Dew gambled that Kendall was correct in his identification and boarded a faster ship. Newspaper headlines all over the globe chronicled the trans-Atlantic Chase. Dew won the race and arrested Dr. Crippen and Miss Le Neve as Montrose entered the St. Lawrence River.

My Take on Thunderstruck

Overall, I found Thunderstruck to be fascinating. Larson captures Marconi’s long struggle to send signals across the ocean. The unfolding love story of Crippen and Le Neve and the development of the murder case are riveting as well. My only complaint is that the narrative switches between tracks at what often seems like awkward points in the story. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found it difficult to put down. It’s too long to read in one sitting, though.

Epilogue

Wireless telegraphy was crucial in rescuing survivors when RMS Titanic sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. It also helped save lives after a German submarine torpedoed RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in 1915.

Following World War I, continuous wave transmitters allowed radio waves to carry speech and music, making Marconi’s spark transmitters obsolete.

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Lane Bryant: Old Murder Case Needs a Breakthrough

My blog post this week concerns an unsolved crime from sixteen years ago. In 2008, a man shot six women inside a Lane Bryant clothing store in a Chicago suburb, killing five of them. The crime remains unsolved today.

Intruder at Lane Bryant

It was a little after 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, February 2, 2008. A tall man, six-foot to six-foot-two, entered the Lane Bryant store in the Brookside Marketplace shopping center in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park. He claimed to be a deliveryman. Soon, however, he dropped the pretense. Pulling a .40-caliber Glock handgun, he herded the two employees and two women customers to a back room. He then bound them with duct tape and ordered them to lie face down on the floor.

The scene at the Brookside Marketplace Lane Bryant on February 2, 2006 (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)
The scene at the Brookside Marketplace Lane Bryant on February 2, 2006 (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)

Two other women, potential customers, came into the store and were also herded to the back and bound.

The Lane Bryant Murders

According to police, the intruder was in the store for 40 minutes. During that time, he sexually assaulted at least one woman before shooting all six, killing five. One victim, a part-time Lane Bryant employee, survived but declined to be identified.

The Tinley Park police department released a new 3-D image of the Lane Bryant suspect on February 1, 2018 (Tinley Park Police)
The Tinley Park police department released a new 3-D image of the suspect on February 1, 2018 (Tinley Park Police)

During the attack, Lane Bryant store manager Rhonda McFarland managed to call 911 from her cellphone, pleading with the operator to “hurry.” A Tinley Park police officer was on a call in Brookside Marketplace a few hundred yards away. He was on the scene within a minute, but the gunman had already escaped.

  • Store manager Rhoda McFarland (Family photo)
    Store manager Rhoda McFarland (Family photo)

The dead women were store manager Rhoda McFarland, 42, of Joliet; Jennifer Bishop, 34, of South Bend, Indiana; Sarah Szafranski, 22, of Oak Forest; Connie Woolfolk, 37, of Flossmoor; and Carrie Hudek Chiuso, 33, of Frankfort.

Epilogue

The Lane Bryant murders remain unsolved today (2024), sixteen years later. Tinley Park police still have a detective assigned full-time to the case.

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