Monday, November 23, 2015

John F. Kennedy's Beacon Extinguished Fifty-Two Years Ago

JFK in Ypsilanti. Photo courtesy of Susan Wolter-Brown
On October 20, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy's motorcade was stopped at about 1:10 AM by Eastern Michigan University students who jammed West Cross Street in front of McKinny Student Union. Kennedy was on his way to a political rally in Ann Arbor the following day.
He made a two or three minute speech telling the cheering crowd of students that he stood "for the oldest party in years, but the youngest party in ideas." Because of the late hour, the soon-to-be president asked to be excused explaining he had a difficult schedule planned for the next day.

In his inaugural speech on January 20, 1960, the new president boldly stated that "a torch has been passed to a new generation." Three years later, on Friday, November 22, 1963, at 11:30 AM, an assassin's bullet cut down President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas while he was campaigning for a second term. He was pronounced dead on the operating table thirty minutes later.

At 1:00 PM, the intercom system at Allen Park High School broadcast the sound of Walter Cronkite announcing John F. Kennedy, thirty-fifth president of the United States, had been assassinated--then he paused. The principal came on and asked for a moment of silence.

I was in sophomore biology class. The shocked silence was punctuated first by whimpering and then open sobbing. This was a defining moment for an entire generation. A mourning wind swept over the nation and the world held its breath.

After two years, ten months, two days, and sixty-nine minutes, Kennedy's torch of optimism was extinguished. But his challenge to America had been met--putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. The technical breakthroughs from that achievement still benefit mankind.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The John Norman Collins Reward Money Shell Game

The third of four composite drawings.
On the day of John Norman Collins' sentencing for the murder of Karen Sue Beineman--August 28, 1970--The Ypsilanti Press reported rewards for information leading to the arrest of the killer or killers of seven women in the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area had reached $43,500. The rewards came from a variety of sources--each with its own conditions for pay out.
  • $14,000 - The Detroit News offered $2,000 in each of the unsolved murder cases that plagued Washtenaw County from July of 1967 through July of 1969.
  • $7,500 from the Ann Arbor City Council for Police Chief Walter E. Krasney’s discretionary use. Most of the money went into overtime for detectives. 
  • $5,000 from the Ypsilanti City Council--which was no longer available. 
  •  $5,500 raised by The Eastern Echo--Eastern Michigan University's campus newspaper--still available. 
  • $1,000 offered by The Ypsilanti Press, and $1,000 donated by Ypsilanti Savings Bank, could only be claimed by persons going through The Ypsi Press. 
  • The University of Michigan offered a $7,500 reward for the arrest of Alice Kalom’s killer--but not for the other victims.
  • $2,000 was set aside by The Washtenaw County Board of Supervisors for the capture and conviction of the unknown killer.

Prosecutor William Delhey
When questioned by the press the day before Collins was sentenced, Prosecutor William Delhey said, “If there is one person who triggered the events which led to the arrest of Collins, it was Eastern Michigan University Police Officer Larry Mathewson. I have to give a great deal of credit to Mathewson.” High praise indeed for a rookie cop on a university police force who used an old-fashioned police technique--he followed a hunch and started knocking on doors. Delhey was clearly grateful.

Patricia Spaulding and Diane Joan Goshe
During the cross-examination of Mrs. Diane Joan Goshe, one of the two women who identified Collins driving away with Miss Beineman on the motorcycle, defense attorneys badgered her about the reward money. On the stand, Goshe said she had not given any thought to claiming the reward and "hadn’t really checked into it."

Ann Arbor News reporter William Treml wrote that the “most eligible” persons for the reward were the two wig shop ladies—Diane Joan Goshe and Patricia Spaulding—whose eyewitness accounts linked Collins with Beineman. “Without their testimony, it is doubtful the prosecution would have obtained a conviction.”

Collins defense lawyers--Neil Fink and Joseph Louisell
The defense team of Joseph Louisell and Neil Fink tried to plant the impression in the minds of the jurors that the reward money was their key motive for testifying. At one point, Fink asked Mrs. Spaulding if it was not true she and Mrs. Goshe discussed dividing up the reward. Mrs. Spaulding answered emphatically, “No!”

On December 19, 1970, The Ann Arbor News reported Mrs. Goshe had hired the law firm of Keyes, Creal, and Hurbis, to mail letters of inquiry to several public agencies offering reward money. William Delhey ordered an investigation into the status of the reward money. When it was all added up, the conviction reward was small for the Beineman murder. Most of the original offers were no longer available because of restrictions placed by each organization on the reward. Collins was not charged with the other deaths for which the money was set aside.

On February 16, 1971, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners recommended the denial of Mrs. Goshe’s claim for the $2,000 the county offered. Writing the legal opinion for the committee, Prosecutor Delhey noted “the reward was offered June 3, 1969, for evidence leading to the conviction for any of the slaying victims of young women committed up to then. Mrs. Goshe testified on the murder of Karen Sue Beineman, and that case came about a month and a half after the reward was offered. Thus, her testimony did not result in any convictions for the still unsolved five murders that preceded the reward offer.

John Norman Collins
Delhey added, “Even if the murder of Miss Beineman was included in the reward offer, the evidence that led to the conviction of Collins came to light through the work of Eastern Michigan University Policeman Larry Mathewson.”

Ironically, the women whose testimony helped Delhey win the biggest case of his career were cut out of the reward money by his recommendation. Mathewson was also ineligible for the reward because he was a member of law enforcement and on the public payroll at the time.

Mrs. Goshe was portrayed by the press as trying to profit from the misery of the Beineman family, but she and Patricia Spaulding bravely stood up, cooperated with police, and testified in open court. Both ladies performed laudable public service and came forward when others who knew things did not.

And what was Mrs. Goshe’s reward for sticking her neck out? The defense team publicly dissected her private life revealing a family secret that had nothing to do with the trial and did nothing but hurt a mother and her twelve-year-old son. She was not married to the boy's father. No good deed goes unpunished.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Edmund Fitzgerald Sinking--40th Anniversary

November 10, 2015, marks forty years since all twenty-nine crew members went down with their ship--the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. The largest of the Great Lakes ore freighters at the time of her sinking, she was dubbed "The Queen of the Great Lakes." The ship was 729 feet long, 39 feet high, and 75 feet wide.

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was loaded in Superior, Wisconsin with 26,000 tons of taconite (iron pellets) headed for the ore docks of Zug Island--just south of Detroit. Winds over 45 knots (50 mph) and waves over 30 feet caused the ship to roll heavily. The captain made a call to another ore freighter saying they had taken on some water but were holding their own. That was just before the ship went off U.S. Coast Guard radar. The pride of the Great Lakes broke in two and sank 530 feet into Lake Superior's Canadian waters--only seventeen miles from protected Whitefish Bay.

Since the submerged giant sank on November 10, 1975, there have been three underwater expeditions--in 1989, 1994, and 1995. At the request of the families who lost their loved ones, the Canadian government recovered the 200 pound brass bell from the deck of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald on July 4, 1995, and presented it to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.

Today, the bell is displayed at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, Michigan. Every November 10th at 7:10 PM, the bell is tolled twenty-nine times to honor the Fitzgerald's crew and a thirtieth time to commemorate the estimated 30,000 people and 6,000 ships lost in the Great Lakes.

Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald with documentary footage:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Victorian Theater and The Limelight

In the Victorian period, the expression in the limelight meant the most desirable acting area on the stage, front and center. Today, the expression simply means someone is getting public recognition and acclaim.

The limelight effect was discovered by Goldsmith Gurney in the 1820s based on his work with an oxy-hydrogen blowpipe. Scottish inventor, Thomas Drummond (1797-1840), built a working model of the calcium light in 1826 for use in the surveying profession.

The calcium light was created by super heating a cylinder of quicklime (calcium oxide) with an oxy-hydrogen flame that gives off a bright light with a greenish tint.

Eleven years later, the term limelight was coined to describe a form of stage illumination first used in 1837 for a public performance at the Covent Garden Theatre in London. 

By the 1860s, this new technology of stage lighting was in wide use in theaters and dance halls around the world. It was a great improvement over the previous method of stage lighting, candle powered footlights placed along the stage apron. 

Limelight lanterns could also be placed along the front of the lower balcony for general stage illumination providing more natural light than footlights alone. 

A lighthouse-like lens (Fresnel lens) was developed that could direct and focus concentrated light on the stage to spotlight a solo performance. Actors and performers must have felt they were living in the heyday of the theater.

The term green room has been in use since the Victoria period to describe the waiting area performers used before going on stage. Theater lore has it that actors would sit in a room lit by limelight to allow their eyes to adjust to the harsh stage lighting, preventing squinting during their stage entrances.

Although the electric light replaced limelight in theaters by the end of the nineteenth century, the term limelight still exists in show business, as does the term green room.

Today, the green room celebrities use before appearing on talk shows is not usually painted green. The room still performs a similar function as in the Victoria age--to prepare a performer to go on stage.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Walter P. Reuther Assassination Attempt Foiled

Walter P. Reuther, recently re-elected to a second term as United Automobile Workers (UAW) president, lived with his wife May and their two small daughters in a modest ranch house on Appoline Street in Detroit, just south of Eight Mile Road.

In his 2013 book Built in Detroit: A Story of the UAW, a Company, and a Gangster, Bob Morris recounts the evening of April 20, 1948. After coming home late from a UAW meeting, Reuther prepared to eat his warmed-over dinner. He was opening the refrigerator door to get some peaches when he turned to answer a question from his wife and survived a 12 gauge shotgun blast through the kitchen window.

Four lead pellets lodged in his right arm, one in his chest, and the rest hit the kitchen cabinets. Reuther was taken to New Grace Hospital where doctors told him he might lose his arm. The labor leader was determined to save it. By working tirelessly at painful physical therapy, he was able to regain limited use of his arm. For the rest of his life, neither Reuther nor his family were without UAW bodyguards and traveled everywhere in an armored Packard.

The attempt on Reuther's life was not an isolated incident of industrial violence. Thirteen months later, Walter's brother Victor, met a similar fate. Bob Morris writes, "Late on the evening of May 24, Victor was reading in his living room when a shot gun blast blew threw his front living room window. The shotgun pellets ripped through the right side of his face and upper body tearing out his right eye."

Victor and Walter Reuther shaking hands left-handed with brother Roy between them.

At first the Detroit police dismissed the botched murder attempt of Walter Reuther as a power struggle among union Communists. The Red Scare was a popular and convenient scapegoat for corporate America and made good copy for the post-war press. A Detroit detective said, "Gamblers and crime syndicates have nothing to do with this. It's Communists."

But investigators began hearing underworld connections might be involved. Within five days of Reuther being shot, Detroit police--acting on a telephone tip--brought former vice-president of Ford UAW Local 400, Carl E. Bolton, in for questioning. He was charged with intent to commit murder.

Joseph W. Louisell and Carl. E. Bolton
Joseph W. Louisell, Detroit attorney known for defending suspected mob figures, argued Bolton had an alibi and was not at the scene of the crime. After three days in jail, Bolton was released and prosecutors dropped the charges. Bolton was free but still under suspicion.

During the Senator Kefauver Organized Crime Committee hearings (1951-1952), testimony suggested Walter Reuther ran afoul of the Detroit underworld.

Before the shooting, Reuther was aware a Sicilian gang, led by Santo Perrone, was acting as a strike-breaking agency for Detroit companies--big and small. Author Nelson Lichtenstein writes in The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor, "Reuther's assailants were paid by Santo 'the Shark' Perrone, an illiterate but powerful Sicilian gangster." The mid-century labor movement was the age of "the cash payoff, the sweetheart contract, and the gangland beating. It was part of the industrial relations system."

The Organized Crime Committee felt the Detroit police made no serious attempt to solve the crime or curb the anti-union violence. "The Detroit police saw industrial violence as little more significant than a bar brawl," Lichtenstein wrote.

Six years later, Wayne County Prosecutor O'Brien announced at a Detroit press conference that he had solved the Reuther shooting. Arrest warrants were issued for Santo Perrone, Carl B. Renda, Peter M. Lombardo, and Clarence Jacobs.

Donald Ritchie, an ex-con with connections with the Perrones, made a secret arrangement with UAW officials. Ritchie agreed to rat out the people involved with the Reuther shooting for a $25,000 payoff placed in escrow.

If he cooperated with authorities, he would get $5,000 after making the initial statement to the prosecutor and the arrest warrants were issued, an additional $10,000 payable when those named in the warrants were bound over for trial, and another $10,000 when convicted. If murdered before he could cash-in, Ritchie wanted the reward given to his common-law wife.

Part of Ritchie's statement to Prosecutor O'Brien reads, "The night of the shooting, I was picked up at a gas station. The car was a red Mercury.... I sat in the back seat. Clarence Jacobs drove and Peter Lombardo sat in the front seat with Jacobs. The shotgun was in the front seat between (them)--a Winchester 12 gauge pump. I was there in case there was any trouble. If anything happened, I was to drive the car away.

"Jacobs did the shooting. He was the only one who got out of the car.... I heard the report from the gun. Then Jacob got back in the car and said, 'Well, I knocked the bastard down.' After the job, they dropped me off at Helen's bar.... I had some drinks and went to see Carl Renda. He got a bundle of cash and handed it to me. I took a taxi to Windsor and counted my money after I got to Canada. Exactly five grand."

As prearranged, when Ritchie came back across the international border, he was immediately placed under the protection of the Detroit Police Department. While waiting for the trial so he could give his star-witness testimony, he told the Detroit police detail assigned to protect him that he wanted to take a shower. Ritchie escaped from a bathroom window at the Statler Hilton Hotel on Grand Circus Park.  Ritchie was on the lam. Once again, he took a cab to safety across the United States/Canada border.

At the same time, Ritchie's common law wife was given the first installment of the escrow account. Ritchie delivered on the first part of the bargain. He made an initial statement and the suspects were charged. The UAW had no choice but pay off the first escrow installment. Ritchie dropped a dime from Canada and denied his entire confession to a Detroit Free Press reporter. He said he needed the money and was taking the UAW for a ride.

Without Ritchie's testimony, Prosecutor O'Brien's case collapsed leaving him with an embarrassing fiasco. He dropped all the charges. The UAW made the stupid mistake of paying a witness. The labor organization had been swindled out of $5,000 by an ex-con.


Seconds before the confrontation.
The assassination attempt was not the first time Walter Reuther ran afoul of the car companies. On May 26, 1937, Reuther and several other labor organizers were badly beaten by Ford Motor Company Security men in what history notes as the Battle of the Overpass. This was Ford's security chief Harry Bennett's opening salvo against labor organization inside the Ford empire. 

Bob Morris writes, "This was a public relations disaster for Ford, as a Detroit News photographer captured the beating of the labor leaders. The photos... were published around the world. The attack on Walter Reuther made him one of the most recognized labor leaders in Detroit and the country."

Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen
Arnold Freeman of the Detroit Times reported that Bennett assembled semi-permanent gangs of thugs known as outside squads. A member of one of those squads "Fats Perry" turned state's evidence in 1939. He testified,
"These squads were armed with pistols, whips, blackjacks, lengths of rubber hose called persuaders, and a variety of weapons, some of which made up by a department in the (Rouge) plant itself."

On May11, 1970, The New York Times reported Walter Reuther, his wife May, and four other people died in the crash of a two-engined Lear Jet on May 9th at 9:33 PM. The chartered jet--on its final approach to the Pellston Regional Airport, arriving from Detroit in the fog and rain--broke through the clouds short of the runway and clipped some tree tops sheering off both wings. The plane crashed and burst into a fireball a mile southwest of the airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration listed a faulty altimeter as the official cause. No charges were ever filed, but the persistent belief is the crash was not an accident. Reuther was sixty-two.

Silent clip of police investigating Walter Reuther's home after the assassination attempt. His wife speaks briefly to the press. Fingerprints are taken outside the Reuther home. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Detroit's Femme Fatale Nelle (Lassiter)

Nelle Lassiter faces newsmen-February 24, 1960.
On Tuesday, February 23, 1960, Mrs. Nelle Eaker Lassiter--a striking, thirty-eight year old, silver-blonde and shapely former model--was arrested and charged with being the mastermind behind the April 7, 1959 murder of her husband, Parvin (Bill) Lassiter, co-owner of a successful automobile dealership in Royal Oak, Michigan. 

One newspaper account of the arrest says Nelle was on her way to Detroit's City-County building believing she was to be a prosecution witness at the murder trial of her husband. Another account reports police arresting her at an unnamed hospital where she was visiting her daughter and newborn grandson.

The week before her arrest, The Miami News reported, "Nelle Lassiter sobbed and became hysterical with apparent widow's grief while testifying against the three men on trial for bludgeoning and shooting her husband."

Gordon Watson
Several hours after her arrest, Nelle Lassiter's lover--and her husband's business partner--was arrested in Los Angeles on a fugitive warrant. Gordon Watson moved to California with his wife and children shortly after Parvin Lassiter's fatal beating and shooting.

The arrests of Nelle Lassiter and Gordon Watson were the result of the defense attorneys for the accused men asking the prosecution in open court if they had investigated the possibility this was a murder-for-profit case. That left the door open for a second-degree murder plea for their clients Roy C. Hicks (37), Richard Jones (27), and Charles Nash (43) who were being tried on first-degree murder charges. The three men were former employees of Parvin Lassiter. The charges against Mrs. Lassiter and Watson stemmed from statements made by Jones and Hicks to their attorneys.

Mrs. Lassiter and Watson were named in the warrant as "the principal perpetrators and procurers of this evil crime." Both denied any knowledge of the killing. The Buffalo Courier-Express reported "Mrs. Nelle Lassiter pleaded innocent on charges she had her husband slain in a murder-for-hire plot to grab his fortune and clear the path for her romance with his business partner. She looked tired and drawn after spending the night in county jail instead of her fashionable home (in Beverly Hills, Michigan)."

Parvin "Bill" Lassiter
The body of Parvin Lassiter was found on a private estate near Willow Run Airport. Investigators discovered Parvin had returned from a trip to Arizona when he was lured into a waiting car, beaten behind the head, shot in the eye, and thrown in a ditch.

At Nelle's pretrial hearing in a Dearborn Township courtroom, Richard Jones took the stand. He testified, "Gordon Watson took a one-inch stack of bills from Mrs. Lassiter in the summer of 1958 which Watson called the down payment for the assassination of Parvin Lassiter."

The transaction took place in the office of the Royal Oak dealership where Watson and Parvin Lassiter were co-owners. Jones added, "Mrs. Lassiter told Watson 'It won't be long now, Darling, before we can be together forever'."

The Kentucky New Era reported "Nelle Lassiter wailed loudly 'That's not true, that's not true!' The high-strung blonde broke into sobs and clutched the arm of her defense attorney--Joseph Louisell.

"The judge was unable to restore order and called for a recess. After Mrs. Lassiter regained her composure, the hearing resumed twenty minutes later. Forty-five year-old Watson sat calmly in the courtroom throughout the disturbance."

Roy C. Hicks testified the three men were promised $50,000 worth of automobiles to procure the slaying. When Hicks' girlfriend Barbara McCommon testified, she told the court that Nelle Lassiter said Parvin was mean to her and treated her badly. She did not love him anymore. Under prosecution immunity, Miss McCommon suggested Mrs. Lassiter get rid of her husband and contact her boyfriend--Roy Hicks.

Mrs. Lassiter shouted out, "That's a lie! Why are they saying these things? I didn't kill my husband." She whipped herself into a frenzy and had a nervous breakdown in court. This was the fifth time the pre-trial hearing had been interrupted. Defense attorney Joseph Louisell requested Judge Joseph G. Rashid order Mrs. Lassiter to be examined by qualified mental health professionals to judge her competency to stand trial.

The Detroit Free Press reported Nelle Lassiter's sanity hearing took place at her bedside in Jenning's Memorial Hospital. "Mrs. Lassiter, wearing a standard white hospital gown, lay motionless on a narrow bed. Two of three psychiatrists who examined Lassiter found her to be insane within the scope of the law and were prepared to testify to that in open court.

Judge Rashid ruled, "I have no choice but to declare a mistrial and turn Mrs. Lassiter over to the sheriff for removal to Ionia State Hospital until she is restored."

The murder trial of her co-conspirator and co-defendant Gordon Watson continued without "the trim, blonde grandmother." He got a life sentence. Joseph Louisell was eventually able to get Nelle Lassiter acquitted. Afterwards, she vanished from the scrutiny of the public eye.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Crime to Remember--John Norman Collins Episode--"A New Kind of Monster"

In early 2013, I was asked to participate on a new Investigation Discovery Channel series named A Crime to Remember. One of the producer's staffers had read a number of my Fornology blog posts on John Norman Collins and the Washtenaw County murders of 1967-1969. At Discovery Channel's expense, I was flown to New York for my first television appearance. What a thrill!

Also included in the program to provide commentary were former Washtenaw County Sheriff Douglas Harvey, forensic psychologist and author Dr. Katherine Ramsland, former Eastern Michigan University campus patrolman Larry Mathewson, and reporter Marti Link. The episode is entitled, "A New Kind of Monster."
After almost five years of research and interviewing people connected with these cases, my treatment of this subject matter has the benefit of close to fifty years of hindsight and should be completed early next year. In addition to the seven murders and the restored court proceedings (trial records were purged by Washtenaw County officials) my book will include for the first time ever, John Norman Collins' prison years and his attempts to circumvent his life sentence without parole.

"A New Kind of Monster" was the second most popular episode of the Emmy winning first season of the series. It can be accessed at the link below, or it can be seen On Demand and at YouTube, Amazon Prime, IMDb, and Netflix.