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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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