Reno, Nevada — Summer, 1978
I was fifteen years old when I did what countless teenage girls had done before me. I lied and said I was spending the night with a friend and instead, I went to my boyfriend’s house.
My dad found out and showed up at the boyfriend’s front door. When I saw him standing there, it was like time stopped. He had to be furious.
But he wasn’t angry. It was strange, almost like he was sad and a little shaken. I was fine and my boyfriend and I were just watching TV, but it was as if my dad was seeing something else, some scene visible only to him. He said he was there to take me home. We drove the entire way in silence. I wanted to die.
Back home, he sat me down at the kitchen table. I noticed he was trembling a little. I’d never seen him like that. He turned to ritual to steady himself, lighting a cigarette and dangling it from the corner of his mouth as he flipped shut the metal top on his old lighter and methodically put it back in his pants pocket. He positioned the ashtray just so, took a quick drag, and set the cigarette in its slot, tip up so it would burn evenly. I’d seen it a million times.
Then he started in a low, quiet voice. His sentences were short and measured.
“You can’t lie to me. You can’t tell me you’re one place and go somewhere else. You can’t ever make me search for you like I did tonight.”
He’d barely finished when I erupted with teen outrage that he was making a federal case—one of his favorite phrases—out of nothing. I cried, “You never let me do anything! My friends get to do so many things I can never do. I have to be home so early and I can’t go anywhere. I just wanted to get out of the house for once! Why won’t you ever let me do anything?!”
He didn’t look at me. He picked up his cigarette and tapped it lightly against the ashtray. He was taking careful breaths, looking down, watching the smoke curl up from the table. The silence seemed to go on forever. I was so angry.
And then I realized that he was trying not to cry.
When parents divorce and a teenage girl stays with her dad, father and daughter will experience countless awkward moments. But this was unimaginable, watching my big bear of a dad choking back tears. He was insanely strict and we didn’t always get along, but I loved him, and since the divorce, we’d grown very close. In the first months after my mom moved out, I felt like he was all I had. He felt that way, too. I’ll never forget seeing him like that, and I’ll never forget what he said next.
“I lost two sisters and I can’t lose my daughter.”
He was really fighting the tears now. Oh God, I felt so ashamed for causing all this. I dropped my defenses and tried to think of something, anything to say.
“They found them—they found their pairs of little shoes lined up in a row.”
And then he broke down.
Before I could go to him or ask another question, he shook his head, gathered himself, and went to his bedroom. He closed the door behind him and I knew he couldn’t talk about it, whatever it was, anymore or probably ever. And I would never be courageous enough to ask him. Instead, I asked my mom about it a few weeks later by phone. She hesitated, but finally said yes, he lost—there was that word again—two sisters but he’s never been able to talk about it. She knew very little, just the basics. She told me to leave it alone. I did.
My dad died ten years later having never mentioned his sisters or those little shoes again. But I never forgot that night at the kitchen table and many years later I finally started digging. I had to go back in time nearly eighty years, into another world and a crime that changed my family forever. I’m an attorney and a criminal justice professor, and before my legal career, I was a broadcast journalist who covered the crime and criminal court beat. I drew on those experiences to slip back into police headquarters, the courtrooms, and the press conferences of the day and piece together the events of the summer of 1937.
I also had to get back inside a little house in Inglewood, California, and into the hearts and minds of the people who lived through those terrible events, to maybe understand how they endured.
And most difficult, I had to get to know the accused killer—his life, his alleged crime, his ride through the criminal justice system, and his execution.
What I found amazed me. A notorious triple murder case that made news from coast to coast; a case that challenged law enforcement while bringing them together in an unprecedented cooperation of effort; a case that led to one of the earliest recorded criminal profiles and to the first sex offender registration law that became the model for such laws in most states today; a case that—at least through my eyes as a volunteer for the California Innocence Project—raises serious questions about whether the State of California convicted and executed the wrong man.
And finally, I found a hidden and defining chapter in my family’s history with details about a grandfather I never met, secrets in the heart of a grandmother I thought I knew, the lost childhoods of aunts and uncles, and the impact on a father whose life was forever changed and who then changed mine.
This is my story.
This is my family’s story.
Centinela Park—Inglewood, California
Saturday, June 26, 1937
All the newspaper stories begin the same, in the same place, with a scene that’s unthinkable today. Three little girls playing alone in a park in Los Angeles. The two sisters—my aunts Melba Marie and Madeline Everett—were just nine and seven years old. Their playmate Jeanette Stephens was eight. They were all wearing summer dresses. I still cringe every time I think about them there.
But it was 1937, a seemingly simpler and safer time, and the park was filled with people. The school year had ended only a few weeks earlier and the summer was fresh and new, stretching out forever in everyone’s minds. Kids were everywhere, at the baseball diamond, the popcorn stand, the picnic areas, and the community pool that sparkled aqua blue in the California sunshine. Centinela Park was a beautiful centerpiece of people and scenery in the quiet little bedroom community of Inglewood.
The park was also an oasis of inexpensive entertainment and escape during those hungry Depression-era years. Los Angeles County was especially hard hit—the worst in the state. Some seventy thousand people came pouring into Southern California just that year, most of them from the hopeless dust bowl areas and all of them desperately looking for work. California was the promised land. And a little town like Inglewood with a park like Centinela, its lush lawn and trees, its pool and picnic tables, was almost dreamlike. That Saturday morning in late June was one of those especially magical days.
The three girls walked to the park mid-morning. The Everett and Stephens families lived just a few doors down from each other on a street just across from the park. Melba Marie Everett and her little sister, Madeline, brought the old army blanket from home and spread it out under a pepper tree that fanned like a huge umbrella over their favorite spot. They also brought toys and a thermos of milk. Their older sister, eleven-year-old Olive Everett, said she’d be over later to meet them. Yes, I’ll see you at “our tree.” Under the pepper tree was her favorite spot, too. They were all fixtures there, just about every day since summer vacation started.
Another friend, ten-year-old June Hazley, came a short time later to play, and so did seven-year-old Theresa Zeigler, who joined them running in and out of a big drainage pipe, playing in the little stream that emptied from the pipe into the grassy area near their picnic blanket. Lillian Popp and her cousin Amy Lancey wandered over, too. But the other girls eventually left and the original trio stayed and played on their own. At the time, no one thought twice about any of it.
About eleven o’clock, Jeanette ran to the swimming pool attendant, Miss Wann, and asked for a piece of rope. Jeanette said, “Eddie, you know, Eddie the Sailor, wants to show us some rope tricks. He can do all kinds of tricks. He’s been showing us some card tricks and now he wants a rope!” Miss Wann smiled and nodded to a nearby worker, who gave the little girl some rope. Jeanette squealed “thank you!” and hurried back to the picnic blanket.
About forty-five minutes later, fifteen-year-old Dorothy Reitz was sunning near the pool when she noticed a man sitting off to her side. He was watching the children in the pool. A few moments later, he was walking around the pool holding a little girl’s hand. The girl had such beautiful blond hair, Dorothy noticed. The man leaned down and whispered something to the little girl and she laughed as she scurried away past the popcorn stand.
At noon, the three girls skipped up to the checkstand near the swimming pool. Marie asked Mr. Flynn, the attendant, “Will you take care of these things for us for a little while?” and she handed him the neatly folded blanket and a shopping bag that held a teddy bear and a few other playthings. Flynn checked the items and the girls scampered off. Little Madeline clutched a Mickey Mouse book she just couldn’t part with, and Marie took the thermos of milk.
Mrs. Craycroft, the swimming pool matron, was coming across the big open grass area outside the pool when she saw the girls racing by. She knew them all, had seen them playing in the park so many times before.
“My, my, girls, why all the hurry?” she asked as they ran by.
“We’re going to hunt rabbits! We’re going to hunt rabbits!” the girls answered in an excited chorus. “Going to hunt rabbits!” they sang as they danced away to where the park opened out onto Warren Lane, in the direction of the Baldwin Hills.
Back home, Olive was working. She really wanted to get over to the park to play, but she was trying to do as many chores as possible to help her mom and dad. They assigned chores to all the children, except the littlest ones, and they’d all pitched in that morning. But Olive felt bad that her parents were always working so much, and she didn’t want them to have to work more on the weekend. No, she would stay and do a few more chores.
Late Saturday afternoon, Vernon Aguilla, a Standard Oil employee, saw smoke rising from the Baldwin Hills. Standard Oil operated oil derricks in and around the hills, and he worried that an out-of-control campfire could threaten the nearby oil fields. He went to investigate and as he reached the end of a dirt road, he saw a man come down out of the hills near a ravine. The man said nothing and hopped into a 1929 or 1930 Ford roadster. Vernon remembered that the car didn’t have any fenders but it did have a box on the back.
Joseph Fields was a chauffeur for a Works Progress Administration executive. He was driving that evening about 5:30 when he saw a WPA school crossing guard walking from the direction of the Baldwin Hills. He thought it was funny that a crossing guard would be far from a school and so late on a Saturday.
Mrs. Margaret Rigby was at her home on North Commercial Avenue, on the direct route between Centinela Park and the Baldwin Hills, when she saw a man run by with what looked like blood on his clothes. She thought it was around 5:30.
About the same time, my grandparents, Melba and Merle Everett, were beginning to wonder why Marie and Madeline hadn’t arrived home for dinner and their favorite radio programs. The Stephens parents were similarly keeping an eye out for Jeanette. It wasn’t like any of the girls to be late. Eventually, my grandparents sent Olive, and Mrs. Stephens sent her son, Garth, to look for the girls over at the park.
But Garth didn’t find them, and neither did Olive. She went to their spot under the pepper tree, and then by the pool, the popcorn stand, and even farther down by the baseball diamonds, but she didn’t see them anywhere.
At 6:30, when the parents’ worry must have been morphing into panic, my grandfather called the Inglewood Police Department to report the girls missing.
But it was too late. The nightmare had begun.
June 26–27, 1937
The Inglewood police officer who took my grandfather’s call that night assured the anxious father that everything would be fine. Standard police practice in those days was to wait at least twenty-four hours before filing a missing persons report, officers having gone on too many wild-goose chases for kids who turned up later at a friend’s house or who returned home ashamed and sorry for a hasty attempt at running away.
The Everett and Stephens parents checked in with each other several times during the next hour or so, but there were still no signs of their girls. They tried to believe what the police officer told Mr. Everett, but when they talked about having to wait through the night, even one more hour was too long. At 8:30, after it was completely dark, Mr. Everett and Mrs. Stephens went down to the police station while Mr. Stephens searched the park again.
Merle Everett explained to the front desk officer that it simply wasn’t possible the girls had run away. They’d been at the park that day, where they loved to play. The only place they would go other than the park was home, and all three were missing. They were little girls; Madeline was just seven years old. They weren’t adventurous boys who might go exploring all day and into the night. Please, it’s getting so late.
The officer excused himself and talked with the captain on duty. He told Captain Muir that this one sounded a little different. Maybe they should take a look.
The radio call went out to officers on patrol about 8:45. They kept an eye out for more than an hour, talked to people around town, but found nothing, which was odd because people always noticed kids who were out late, kids who seemed like they might be lost. It would be especially hard to miss three little girls.
About 10:00, Captain Muir called Inglewood Police Chief Oscar Campbell at home. When Campbell heard the story, he shuddered and told Muir to get the report out on radio and teletype so the LA Police Department and County Sheriff’s Department would be on alert. He also told Muir to get Detective Joe Long and his men out there to look for park attendants or anyone who might have seen the girls earlier that day. Within no time, police learned from the swimming pool attendant about the rabbit hunt. A man had asked little Jeanette to get some rope. He was holding her hand later. They all went running by so fast.
Around 11:00, with no sign of the girls, Chief Campbell asked Mr. Everett and Mr. Stephens to come in to file a missing persons report. He also ordered every Inglewood police officer into the station.
Within hours, hundreds of searchers—Inglewood and Los Angeles police officers, sheriff’s deputies, Legionnaires, Boy Scouts, and citizen posses—were on the ground, the city lit by an almost full moon. They scoured vacant houses, sheds, and weed patches and every other conceivable place where the girls might be. They worked tirelessly through the night until dawn.
But they found nothing. No one. Not a trace. And every hour that passed made it less likely they would find anything, ever.
At daybreak, Chief Campbell issued a statewide alert for the missing girls. He also personally called his counterparts in all the nearby beach cities—Santa Monica and Hermosa, Redondo, and Manhattan Beaches.
Barely stopping for rest or food, the teams were back in action early Sunday morning. Chief Campbell told the men the little girls’ parents were of modest means, so kidnapping was out of the question. Dreading what he already knew must be true, he ordered officers to bring in every “known degenerate” in the community, question them, and tell them to stay put indefinitely where police could find them.
Searchers fanned out to the Baldwin Hills, just northwest above Slauson and South La Brea, where the bodies of the little Martin sisters had been found back in 1924. The killer, S. C. Stone—who’d escaped the noose and got life in prison with a last-minute reprieve from the governor—hid their bodies in a ravine under heavy brush and searchers didn’t find them for nearly six months. Chief Campbell remembered that case all too well.
By mid-morning Sunday, more than five hundred people were part of a mass effort, including forty members of the Santa Monica Mounted Police, who were invaluable in the Baldwin Hills’ rugged terrain. Search planes from the Sheriff’s Department droned overhead. Even private pilots from the local Burdette airport and the Inglewood Aero Squadron took to the skies searching for the children.
Also by mid-morning, the news was all over Inglewood. Mothers made up reasons to keep their children indoors. Theresa Zeigler’s mom held her especially close. Theresa had played with those girls in the park that very morning just before they disappeared. Telephone lines burned and adults gathered on front porches to compare notes. Centinela Park was so quiet compared to most summer Sundays, with only occasional curious onlookers wandering near the grassy area by the pool where the girls were last seen under their favorite pepper tree.
These early hours were an impressive display of manpower and cooperation, with three agencies working together. The Inglewood Police Department, the LAPD, and the Sheriff’s Department pooled officers and other resources. Fights over turf and territory could have seriously weakened the investigation, or Inglewood officers might have opted to handle the early stages on their own, until they were more certain about the scope of the case. But Inglewood Chief Campbell knew this case was bigger than his department, indeed possibly bigger than the state of California.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the two fathers, my grandfather and Floyd Stephens, were on the ground, searching desperately for their girls. I could not imagine.
But I could imagine my dad and his best friends Ernie Klapproth and Cal Hazley looking everywhere, courageously breaking trail in the dense brush of the Baldwin Hills, as Ernie recounted it to his family many years later. He said my dad had to stop several times, confessing how he wanted to find his little sisters but at the same time praying with every step that he wouldn’t.
Even before I heard that story, I’d always assumed my dad was part of the search. After he found out his sisters were missing and that he hadn’t been there to prevent it from happening, that someone had so ferociously violated his family, he would have worked double time to right his wrong, to atone for the sin of not saving them when they needed him most. He would have been agonized and the only way he could have endured it in those early days was to search and search and search. He was only thirteen years old, but he would have been there.
But the newspaper reports never mention him. I can’t find him in any of the photographs.