Cheryl Crane: Sensational Murder or Something Else?

Our case last week looked at psycho former showgirl Clara Phillips who murdered a supposed love rival with a hammer. This week we delve into a Hollywood death that might or might not be murder. This is the story of Cheryl Crane, Lana Turner, and Johnny Stompanato.

Lana Turner, Cheryl Crane, and Johnny Stompanato

Lana Turner, born Julia Jean Turner in Wallace, Idaho in 1921, was a prominent film actress. Her career began in the 1930s. By the late 1950s, she was an established star. Despite professional success, Turner’s personal life was chaotic. Already married and divorced three times, she remarried her third husband, Stephen Crane in late 1942 when she discovered she was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Cheryl Crane, on July 25, 1943.

Lana Turner in an undated M-G-M publicity photo
Lana Turner in an undated M-G-M publicity photo

As the child of a famous movie star, Cheryl had little chance of a normal childhood. She later described herself as “famous at birth and pampered silly.” Cheryl’s parents divorced in 1944, a year after her birth. She and her mother lived in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles during most of her early years. Years later, in her autobiography, Cheryl alleged that Turner’s fourth husband, actor Lex Barker, had sexually abused her many times.

Cheryl Crane at eight weeks old in 1943 with her father, Stephen Crane, and mother, Lana Turner
CherylCrane at eight weeks old in 1943 with her father, Stephen Crane, and mother, Lana Turner

Now we come to Johnny Stompanato. Stompanato was an ex-marine who served in the Pacific during World War II. By 1957, he was a bodyguard and enforcer for Los Angeles mobster Meyer “Mickey” Cohen. Stompanato became infatuated with Lana Turner in 1957, calling her and sending her flowers as “John Steele.” She was filming The Lady Takes a Flyer at the time.

Johnny Stompanato
Johnny Stompanato

Cheryl Crane Knifes Stompanato

Despite trying to break away when she discovered his ties to organized crime, Turner continued her relationship with Stompanato. It was one characterized by violent arguments and physical abuse followed by reconciliations.

Johnny Stompanato with Lana Turner at a Hollywood nightclub ( Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)
Johnny Stompanato with Lana Turner at a Hollywood nightclub ( Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Cheryl described Stompanato this way:

B-picture good looks…thick set…powerfully built and soft spoken…and talked in short sentences to cover a poor grasp of grammar and spoke in a deep baritone voice. With friends, he seldom smiled or laughed out loud, but seemed always coiled, holding himself in…had watchful hooded eyes that took in more than he wanted anyone to notice…His wardrobe on a daily basis consisted of roomy, draped slacks, a silver buckled skinny leather belt and lizard shoes.

(L to R) Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane about a month before Cheryl stabbed him
(L to R) Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane about a month before Cheryl stabbed him

On April 4, 1958, Stompanato showed up at Turner’s rented home in Beverly Hills. She had just leased the place just a week earlier. Cheryl, then 14 years old, heard the couple in a heated argument. Stompanato threatened to kill Turner, Cheryl, and Turner’s mother. He made other threats as well, including breaking Turner’s bones and cutting her face with a straight razor.

The house Lana Turner rented and where Stompanato died at 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, California. The window at top left is the pink-carpeted bedroom where the stabbing took place. (JGKlein)
The house Lana Turner rented and where Stompanato died at 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, California. The window at top left is the pink-carpeted bedroom where the stabbing took place. (JGKlein)

Cheryl had been watching television in an adjacent room. Believing her mother’s life was in danger, she grabbed a knife and ran to her mother’s aid. Meanwhile, Turner had ordered Stompanato out of the house. The door to the bedroom burst open and out stormed Stompanato, right into the knife Cheryl held in her hand.

Coroner's attendants remove Johnny Stompanato's body from Lana Turner's home (Gary Smith / Los Angeles Times)
Coroner’s attendants remove Johnny Stompanato’s body from Lana Turner’s home (Gary Smith / Los Angeles Times)

Cheryl Crane and the Coroner’s Inquest

Because of Turner’s fame as an actress and the involvement of her teenage daughter, the case quickly became a sensation.  More than a hundred people attended the coroner’s inquest on April 11, 1958.

Cheryl Crane shortly after her arrest
Cheryl Crane shortly after her arrest

Testimony at the inquest lasted for four hours. Witnesses who testified included Mickey Cohen (who refused to say anything), Lana Turner, and Cheryl’s father, Stephen Crane. When testimony wrapped up, the coroner’s jury deliberated about 25 minutes before returning a verdict of justifiable homicide. The court released her to the custody of her grandmother. The judge also ordered her to regularly visit a psychiatrist accompanied by her parents.

Epilogue

Johnny Stompanato’s ex-wife, Sarah Ibrahaim filed a $750,000 wrongful death suit against Turner, Cheryl, and Stephen Crane. It implied that Lana Turner was responsible for stabbing Stompanato. The suit was eventually settled out of court in 1962.

A conspiracy theory endures that Lana Turner stabbed Stompanato, and that Cheryl Crane took the blame for her mother. The theory persists despite Cheryl’s repeated denials. She maintains that her mother never would have forced her teenaged daughter to falsely take the blame.

You can read more about the case in Movie Star & The Mobster: Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato and Homicide in the Pink Bedroom by John William Law.

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Jenny Maxwell: Murder of a Popular “Elvis Girl”

Last week’s case was the murder of Sylvester Roberts, the true-life crime that helped inspire the novel Peyton Place. This week, we leave New England and return to California, specifically Los Angeles. There we’ll meet Jenny Maxwell. Jenny was an acting sensation in the 1960s, quit acting in 1971, and was murdered a decade later. Her murder has never been officially solved.

Jenny Maxwell Goes to Hollywood

Jennifer Helene Maxwell was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York on September 3, 1941. Known as Jenny, she was her parents’ only child. As a girl, she showed a passion for acting and the theater. Her parents sent her to the Violet Hill School of Drama in Brooklyn for lessons.

Jenny with her cousin Vera in New York in the late 1940s
Jenny with her cousin Vera in New York in the late 1940s

One day in 1958, when Jenny was 16, a man came to the studio during one of her acting lessons. The man was Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli. He was a friend of Gubie Mann, Jenny’s acting instructor. Minnelli insisted that Jenny come to Hollywood to audition for a part in Some Came Running. This film version of a 1958 novel was to star Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine. Her parents were reluctant, but soon Jenny and her mother were on their way to California.

The audition went well, yet Jenny didn’t get the part. After viewing the takes, Minnelli decided a brunette would work better with Sinatra. With her Scandinavian heritage, Jenny was blonde. However, right after telling her she didn’t get the part in Some Came Running, her agent had good news. The agent told Jenny she had an audition for the television series Batchelor Father the very next day. She got the part.

Jenny Maxwell

Jenny Maxwell, Starlet

That guest role on Bachelor Father was the beginning of several years when Jenny was in high demand for films and television. She guest-starred on an impressive number of television shows that were popular in the late 1950s and 1960s. These included Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, Route 66, Bonanza, 77 Sunset Strip, The Wild Wild West, The Twilight Zone, Death Valley Days, and many more.

Jenny (R) in the 1960 Bonanaa episode "The Gunmen"
Jenny (R) as Clara Lou Kinsey in the 1960 Bonanaa episode “The Gunmen”

Jenny also worked in films. In Take Her, She’s Mine, she worked with noted actor Jimmy Stewart. But her most famous role was as Ellie Corbett in Blue Hawaii, where she costarred with Elvis Presley. Even after she retired from acting in 1971, people still remembered her in that movie.

Jenny on the set with Joe E. Brown (L) and Buster Keaton (R) for filming the Route 66 episode "Journey to Nineveh"
Jenny on the set with Joe E. Brown (L) and Buster Keaton (R) for filming the Route 66 episode “Journey to Nineveh”

The Hollywood publicity machine said Jenny was from Norway and that she was Marilyn Monroe’s second cousin. Neither was true, but the film industry never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Jenny in her most famous role as Ellie Corbett starring with Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii
Jenny in her most famous role as Ellie Corbett starring with Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii

Jenny Maxwell’s Chaotic Personal Life

When Jenny went to Hollywood, she was only 16. Her parents, confirmed New Yorkers, refused to relocate to the left coast. Therefore, she found herself alone and mostly unsupervised in Tinseltown. Almost a year after arriving in California, she married 24-year-old Paul Rapp, a minor assistant director on April 17, 1959. Jenny was just 17.

Jenny was too young and immature to be a good wife. After the euphoria of young love wore off, she and Paul fought frequently. The arrival of a son, Brian in 1960 did little to improve things. She and Paul divorced in 1961.

Jenny was too young and immature to be a good mother, also. She had developed a taste for the Hollywood party lifestyle and often left young Brian home alone while she trolled the booze-and-drug scene. This led to her losing custody of Brian.

Early on, Jenny was in demand for high-profile films and television shows. She was one of the hottest young stars at the beginning of the 1960s. But by the end of the decade, her fast living gave her a reputation for being unreliable on the set. Her career suffered as a result. Although she still landed some guest roles on television, her last film was the 1963 turkey Shotgun Wedding. This film is forgettable except for the distinction of having the notorious Edward D. Wood, Jr. as one of its writers.

Murder of a Starlet

After divorcing Paul Rapp in 1961, Jenny married again in 1970, this time to Evan “Tip” Roeder (pronounced “raider”). Roeder was a former cop turned sleazy lawyer. He handled high-profile divorces, defended policemen and former policemen accused of wrongdoing, and palled around with mob types. And he was two decades older than Jenny.

With second husband Evan M. "Tip" Roeder
With second husband Evan M. “Tip” Roeder

Jenny’s second marriage was no more successful than her first. She and Roeder fought literally from day one. But Roeder had money, lots of money. Jenny determined to stay with him for 10 years, so she’d get half his assets when she divorced him.

By 1981, she’d put in her 10 years but, sadly, she never got the divorce or half Roeder’s money. On June 10, 1981, Roader picked her up at a hospital where she’d had a minor procedure. They had lunch, then he took her to her apartment on South Holt Avenue. There, a gunman shot them both. Jenny had one gunshot wounds to the temple and one to the right eye and was dead at the scene. Roeder was shot in the stomach and died 2½ hours later at nearby Cedars Sinai Medical Center. Detectives Mike Thies and John Dial told the lone reporter it looked like a robbery gone wrong. That’s the story the Los Angeles Times printed and that’s where the case remained. Police never arrested anyone for the murders.

Newspaper story reporting the Roeder murders, June 10, 1981
Newspaper story reporting the Roeder murders, June 10, 1981

Epilogue

In 2019, veteran journalist (and Jenny’s cousin) Buddy Moorehouse decided to investigate the case. He discovered that Detectives Thies and Dial had quickly learned there was much more to this case than a simple botched robbery. The gathered enough evidence to form a theory that Roeder, in a bid to prevent Jenny from taking half his assets, arranged the shooting. Jenny was to die, of course, but he would only get a nonfatal would in the abdomen. Unfortunately for Roeder, either he flinched or the gunman’s aim wavered. His wound ended up being serious enough for him to bleed out.

With Roeder dead and no way to identify the hitman, the case remained (and still remains) officially unsolved.

Jenny died without a will. What few assets she had, mostly personal property, went to Roeder, When Roeder died, everything went to his daughters. Jenny’s son Brian got nothing.

Jenny’s cousin Buddy Moorehouse wrote a book about his investigation, Murder of an Elvis Girl: Solving the Jenny Maxwell Case. It is a true crime novel in the manner of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

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Successful Suicide Leap from the Famous Hollywood Sign

Some landmarks are so iconic that the association with their city or place is instant and automatic. The Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge, for instance, are immediately recognized as symbolizing New York. Similarly, the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower evokes the City of Chicago. One of the most recognizable such structures is the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee in Los Angeles, California. This week’s blog is about the famous sign and the part it played in the death of a young actress.

The Hollywood sign in 2015 (Thomas Wolf)
The Hollywood sign in 2015 (Thomas Wolf)

Origin of the Hollywood Sign

You might not know it, but the sign that’s become synonymous with Hollywood and movie-making didn’t start out saying “Hollywood.” Instead, real estate developers Woodruff and Shoults erected it in 1923 to advertise a new housing development: Hollywoodland. The original Hollywoodland sign included about 4,000 light bulbs. The lit sign spelled out “HOLLY,” “WOOD,” and “LAND” in individual segments, then the three segments together as “HOLLYWOODLAND.” A searchlight near the base attracted even more attention.

Surveyors standing east of the sign on top of Bronson Canyon measure the Hollywoodland sign with Mulholland Highway visible beneath it.
Surveyors standing east of the sign on top of Bronson Canyon measure the Hollywoodland sign with Mulholland Highway visible beneath it.

When first constructed, the individual letters in the Hollywoodland sign were 50 feet high and 30 feet wide. Woodruff and Shoults planned for their glorified billboard to stand for only a year and a half. But in that time, the sign became an internationally recognized symbol of the American film industry, so it stayed.

The Suicide of Peg Entwistle

Millicent Lillian Entwistle (she went by “Peg”) was born in Wales. She came from a theatrical family: her father was an actor and her uncle managed actor Walter Hampden. Peg and her father ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio and then New York City around 1913.

Peg Entwistle
Peg Entwistle

In 1925, Walter Hampden gave Peg an uncredited part in a Broadway production of Hamlet (she carried the king’s train and brought in the poison cup). For the next seven years, she acted in numerous Broadway plays, the last in 1932.

Peg was in Los Angeles in May 1932 with a role in the play The Mad Hopes. When the play closed, she won her first and only credited film role. She played Hazel Cousins in the Radio Pictures (precursor to RKO) film Thirteen Women.

Peg Entwistle (Image scanned from a Broadway playbill for "Just to Remind You" by James Zenuk, Jr.)
Peg Entwistle (Image scanned from a Broadway playbill for "Just to Remind You” by James Zeruk, Jr.)

On September 16, 1932, Peg made her way from her Uncle’s house where she was staying to Mount Lee. From there she made her way to the top and to the Hollywoodland sign. She leaned a workman’s ladder against the giant “H,” climbed to the top, and jumped. Two days later, a woman hiker found Peg’s purse and a shoe near the Hollywoodland sign. She then saw Peg’s body about 100 feet below. In her purse was a suicide note: “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.

The Hollywood Sign in Later Years

As the years passed, the sign designed to last 18 months deteriorated a lot. The “H” was destroyed in the 1940s when, according to the Hollywood Sign Trust, heavy winds knocked it down. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce contracted to have the sign repaired. However, they had the “LAND” removed so the sign reflected the district and not the real estate development. The Chamber also decided not to replace the 4,000 light bulbs because of the expend of illuminating the sign.

The Hollywood sign in its most dilapidated condition shortly before the 1978 restoration (Bob Beecher)
The Hollywood sign in its most dilapidated condition shortly before the 1978 restoration (Bob Beecher)

By the 1970s, the sign had deteriorated again. The Chamber solicited donations and in 1978 replaced the sign with a more permanent structure. The new sign had letters slightly smaller than the original but was made of metal instead of wood. In 2008, workers stripped the letters down to the metal and repainted them white.

More About Peg Entwistle

James Zeruk, Jr. wrote a biography of Peg, Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide: A Biography. Another take on the Peg Entwistle story is H.P. Oliver’s The Truth Be Told. In this book Oliver claims that Peg didn’t commit suicide but was murdered by a Hollywood drug dealer.

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Carl Switzer: The Truth About Alfalfa’s Death

Last week’s blog featured George Trepal, a man with a genius-level IQ who poisoned his neighbors. This week, I’m going to tell you about the death of Carl Switzer. You probably known him better as “Alfalfa” in the Our Gang comedies, later released on television as The Little Rascals.

Carl Switzer, Child Star

Carl Dean Switzer was born on August 7, 1927 in Paris, Illinois. On a vacation to California in 1934, his family toured the Hal Roach Studios. In the studio café, six-year-old Carl and his eight-year-old brother, Harold, performed an impromptu song-and-dance number. Producer Hal Roach saw the duo’s performance. It impressed him enough that he signed them both to appear in the Our Gang series of short films. Harold had two nicknames, “Slim” and “Deadpan,” while Carl became “Alfalfa.”

Carl Switzer as "Alfalfa"
Carl Switzer as “Alfalfa”

Both Switzer brothers appeared together for the first time in the 1935 short, Beginner’s Luck. With his freckled face and sporting a prominent cowlick, Carl was a natural attraction. By the end of the year, “Alfalfa” was one of the main characters while Harold’s “Slim” and “Deadpan” faded into the background. However, Carl developed a reputation for being abrasive and difficult on the set. He played cruel jokes on the other actors and often held up filming.

George "Spakny" McFarland, Darla Hood, and Carl Switzer as "Alfalfa" in Our Gang Follies of 1938
George “Spanky” McFarland, Darla Hood, and Carl Switzer as “Alfalfa” in Our Gang Follies of 1938

George “Spanky” McFarland was the nominal star of the Our Gang series. But by 1937, Carl’s “Alfalfa” had become the more popular of the two. Although Carl and George got along fine, their fathers argued constantly over salaries and screen time.

Life After Hollywood

Hollywood is notoriously unkind to former child actors after they have grown up. When Switzer’s stint with Our Gang ended in 1940, he continued to act but not frequently and often in uncredited bit parts. He married Dian Collingwood in 1954. They had a son together but divorced in 1957.

Carl Switzer with cowboy star Roy Rogers
Carl Switzer with cowboy star Roy Rogers

By the late fifties, Carl Switzer had few acting jobs. He supported himself by bartending, guiding hunters, and breeding and training hunting dogs. He also had a run-in with the law. In December 1958, he cut 15 pine trees in the Sequoia National Forest to sell as Christmas trees. He was sentenced to a year probation and paid a $225 fine (about $2,040 in 2021).

Carl Switzer guesting with George Burns on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show

Also in 1958, Carl agreed to train a Treeing Walker Coonhound for friend and sometimes business partner Moses “Bud” Stiltz. The dog ran away while chasing a bear and Stiltz insisted Switzer either return the dog or pay him its value. Switzer didn’t have the money to pay for the dog. So, he took out ads offering a reward for the dog’s safe return. Someone found the dog and brought it to the bar where Switzer was working as a bartender. He rewarded the rescuer with $35 in cash and $15 in drinks.

Carl Switzer Shot to Death

Carl Switzer was unhappy with being out $50 since the dog was not his but belonged to Stiltz. Switzer and a friend, photographer Jack Piott, went to the Stiltz home in Mission Hills to demand payment. It was January 21, 1959.

Stiltz described the ensuing events as follows. He said Switzer pounded on the door and demanded Stiltz let him in. Otherwise, he threatened to kick the door in. One of the men, either Switzer or Piott, hit Stiltz over the head with a glass-domed clock. Stiltz then retreated to his bedroom and returned with a .38 caliber revolver. Switzer and Stiltz struggled for the gun and it went off. Switzer then pulled a hunting knife and threatened to kill Stiltz. Stiltz then fired a shot that hit Switzer in the groin and damaged an artery. The former child actor bled out and was dead when he reached the hospital. Piott backed Stiltz’s story and the shooting was determined to be in self-defense.

Although the self-defense verdict tied up Switzer’s death with a nice, neat bow, there were problems with it. For one thing, the “hunting knife” turned out to be a penknife. Investigators found it under Switzer’s body at the crime scene. For another, Tom Corrigan, Stiltz’s stepson, told a different version of what happened on that Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

Carl Switzer's grave on August 7, 2012, the 85th anniversary of his birth
Carl Switzer’s grave on August 7, 2012, the 85th anniversary of his birth

Another Version and Controversy

On January 24, 2001, Bud Stiltz’s stepson, Tom Corrigan, came forward with another version of Switzer’s death. Corrigan said that an intoxicated Switzer knocked at the door and said, “Western Union for Bud Stiltz.” When Stiltz’s wife opened the door, the two men entered, and Switzer threatened to beat up Stiltz. Stiltz confronted them with the revolver, which Switzer grabbed while Piott crowned Stiltz with the clock. During the struggle, the gun accidentally went off. The bullet went through the ceiling and a fragment hit Corrigan in the leg.

At this point, Switzer seemed to realize things were out of control. He and Piott started to leave. It was then that Stiltz fired a second shot. Switzer slid down a wall with a surprised look on his face. Stiltz then shoved Piott against the kitchen counter and threatened to kill him, too. Corrigan said his stepfather (and Piott) lied to the coroner’s jury.

Corrigan further said that an LAPD detective interviewed him and asked if he would testify at the inquest. He agreed but was never called. “It was more like murder,” Corrigan told reporters in 2001. “He didn’t have to kill him.”

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