This installment of Ed Meckle’s recollection of this particular case is longer than most, but worth the read, I promise you. Knowing there are policemen and women like him out there who strive for victim’s justice is consoling. –Thonie
By Ed Meckle, Retired LAPD
Before I begin let me apologize for the lapses in my story. Time has taken the victim’s and suspect’s name together with the street name. I remembered my partner and (irony) name of the bar. Timewise the best I can do is a hot weekend in 1966/67.
I thought about this for a long time before sharing. In the past I have begun many of my stories with, “most officers do this” or “a lot of them do that.” But here I tread carefully and can only speak for myself and hope others feel as I do.
No matter how much time you have on the job, how much experience, or how cynical you think you are I hope that somewhere maybe deep down you did something “special” that stands out in your mind; that you occasionally remember that special thing or things. Maybe you don’t talk of it but there are incidents you can really be proud of, when everything came together, the stars aligned, and luck was in your corner. And you thought “damn, that’s why I became a cop. That’s what it’s all about.” I really hope you have it, because I have one I want to share with you.
I take pride in the fact I never held a staff job. No graphs, no crayons, no colored pencils, no calculators, just street time out where the wild things are.
I am one of approximately forty-five detectives assigned to Wilshire Division and one of six working robbery. About every tenth week I catch weekend duty with three others. If it is a quiet shift you can catch up on your paperwork, watch a game on TV, play cards or just snooze. This was not to be one of those.
It was a hot holiday Sunday and just after noon when a phone call comes in from a radio car at the scene of a homicide. As the senior sergeant I am de facto watch commander. There are no homicide detectives among the four of us.
I take the call along with Sergeant Jim Horkan. I knew him from Metro, never as a partner but he was a good street cop, former Cleveland P.D. and like myself a former marine (this will become a factor).
The scene is a well-kept, unremarkable, three-story brownstone in the 900 block just north of Olympic. As far as we can determine the entire populous of the building were elderly retired singles and couples.
Our victim was third floor rear and discovered when a neighbor saw her open door. At this point in my career, I had handled two homicides, both related to street robberies, one successfully and one not.
I remember as a uniform at a homicide scene I watched the detective carefully place a kitchen chair in the crime scene and sit without moving for about ten minutes. Nobody had to tell me was burning every detail into his memory.
Our victim was female, 80+ and had lived alone. She is in a supine position slightly to the right as you enter. Feet toward the door. Her simple house dress with button front has been ripped open. Her bra pulled above her breasts, panty hose pulled down and inside out still clinging to her right foot.
Her hands were at her sides palms down, head turned to the left, legs 12-14 inches apart. There appears to be blood and skin under her fingernails. A dime-sized crescent shaped wound was between her eyes. She had been strangled and later tests would show raped. (D.N.A. then stood for “does not apply”)
The rooms were what I suppose you would call an “efficiency” apartment—one large room doubles as living/bedroom. Bath to left, small kitchen to the right.
The apartment appears to have been quickly searched, drawers open, items scattered. Notable is an empty watch box, home to a “Lady Hamilton.” Back in the day, watches especially ladies, came in large ornate boxes resembling clam shells. They were so fancy you did not throw it out even though it had no secondary use.
The watch was gone.
The residents tell us she was very proud of the watch, receiving it along with a plaque (hanging on the wall) when she retired from the Department of Water and Power in 1949.
Along with a couple of uniforms we did a canvas and determined a stranger had been in the building not long before she was found. Described as early to mid-20s, husky and appeared intoxicated, he had walked into one apartment and approached a lone woman. Leaving when her husband appeared, he had also knocked on several doors and tried to talk his way inside without being obvious. Here was a promising person of interest.
I got to thinking about the intoxication angle and told Jim I was going to play a hunch. I walked the 100 or so yards to the corner where stood a bar, the Jade Room. As luck would have it, I had on occasion, enjoyed a cool refreshing beverage or two.
The only person present was the female owner/bartender with whom I was acquainted. Like waitresses/manicurists/beauticians everywhere bartenders are good witnesses, observant and good listeners.
“Yes, he was here. Drank Oly beer from the ice tub.” The ice water put any chance of prints from the bottle to rest.
Your impression, I asked?
“A sailor from Oklahoma.”
I shared this with Jim and as former service members we knew where he would be heading on a Sunday afternoon. While I wrapped the scene up Jim took a radio car and went straight to the bus depot downtown.
Standing in line to board a San Diego-bound bus was a tall husky 20-something sailor. He wore a ring with a crescent shape, had scratches on his face and a Lady Hamilton watch in his pocket. Hello.
At the station he admitted everything except for being in the victim’s apartment. He had no answer for the watch in his pocket.
I was in before daylight the next day to talk to the Hamilton people at their Pennsylvania H.Q. when they opened.
- The watch in his pocket had been sent to a local jewelry store in 1949 (good)
- The store was no longer in business (bad)
- By noon we had the owner’s phone number in Sun City, Arizona (good)
- The son answered the phone; dad died some time ago and all sales records, serial numbers, etc. are long gone (bad)
Before hanging up the son actually said, “I thought things like this only happened in the movies.”
The victim’s fingernail scrapings turned out to be consistent with human skin, beard stubble and blood but were not conclusive. There was trace blood in the ring, not enough to type. The lab however made a nice overlay match with the ring and the head wound.
We borrowed five watches from Sears next door and did a “show up” with her friends and neighbors. “It looks like it but I can’t be sure.” “Maybe it could be but…” Not a lot of help.
We had to go to the D.A. soon for filing and still could not nail the watch down.
Think dammit, think. Ok the neighbors said the watch was a retirement gift from D.W.P. in 1949 right? Longshot but nothing to lose.
At the D.W.P. Personnel counter, her file had been retrieved from the archives and does not, repeat does not, contain the receipt for the purchase of the watch.
Last chance. “Was there a luncheon or some sort of formal presentation?”
“Yes, a luncheon.”
“Was there a photographer?”
“Yes, there was.”
“Thank you, Jesus.” There in the file were at least two photos of her holding her watch up for the camera.
L.A.P.D. Photo lab blew up the negatives as much as possible without losing context. Looked good.
Well folks, that was our case and the District Attorney (DA) filed murder one. We were also assigned a “special DA” Marsh Goldstein, whom I knew and respected. Special DA meant he would shepherd the case personally to conclusion.
We were assigned a liberal female judge who hated cops and would toss a case at the drop of a comma. Normally you would put on a “bare bones case” at the preliminary hearing. just enough to hold the defendant.
We gave them everything and hold him we did. Several months later Marsh called and asked if I had any problem with a murder one plea from the public defender’s office if the DA took the death penalty off the table. I thought it was a fine idea.
The public defender’s office very seldom pleads to murder one.
Somewhere I remember reading or hearing an old homicide cop who said something memorable…
“We speak for the dead.”