Archive for Saturday, March 31, 2001

A courtroom chronicle, California style

History of Los Angeles DA’s office puts spotlight on crime

March 31, 2001


— When the crime gets glamorous involving sex, celebrities and money the chances are good it will be happening somewhere in Los Angeles County.

From the mansions of Beverly Hills to some of the toughest streets of Los Angeles, from horse stealing in the 1850s to the street-gang terrorism of today, hoodlums have been plotting mayhem under the sunny skies of Southern California for more than 150 years. Countless movies, TV shows and books have been born of their efforts.

Now there is another book, but this one is radically different from its predecessors. The coffee-table volume has been produced by none other than the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. It chronicles the 150-year history of the nation's largest prosecutorial office and the crimes, riots and mayhem that have made some of its attorneys celebrities themselves.

"Part of the fascination the rest of the world has with Southern California arises because of the frequently theatrical nature of its crimes," California State Librarian Kevin Starr says in a foreword to "For the People: Inside the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, 1850-2000."

The book's cover contains just a hint of what's inside. Charles Manson's hypnotic eyes gaze out beside the scene of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination as insets show us the videotaped Rodney King beating, the attack on truck driver Reginald Denny at the beginning of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the freeway chase that transfixed a nation when TV cameras recorded former football star O.J. Simpson fleeing police in his white Ford Bronco.

But that's just the cover. Inside the 200-page book are stories on many of the sprawling county's most notorious crimes.

"Los Angeles has been seen by so many people as a place to start over," says author Michael Parrish. "As a result, a lot of colorful characters ended up here."

Touching on ethnic tensions

Just as the Gold Rush brought violence with it in the 1800s, the arrival of the movie industry in the next century did the same.

Hollywood's first big murder case was the 1922 slaying of director William Desmond Taylor, found shot through the back in his luxurious apartment. Two actresses, Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter, were suspects in the well-known lothario's killing, but the case was never solved.

In subsequent decades, crimes included: the slaying of Lana Turner's mobster lover, Johnny Stompanato; the gruesome killings of actress Sharon Tate and six others by the Manson Family; and the rape trial of director Roman Polanski. All came to symbolize ties between celebrities and violence.

Then came the ultimate celebrity case, the O.J. Simpson trial, which brought the district attorney's office its most high profile defeat in 1995 when Simpson was acquitted of killing his ex-wife and her friend.

The book was published by Angel City Press in cooperation with the District Attorney's Crime Prevention Fund, a private entity that paid author fees and will share in the proceeds.

Parrish assembled it from stacks of archival material, some gathered by Tom McDonald, a former journalist and special assistant to District Attorney Steve Cooley.

"It was Tom's love of the office that got this started," says Cooley, who adds that he loves the book.

Former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who lost his re-election bid to Cooley last year, approved the project and wrote an introduction praising prosecutors.

Parrish, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and magazine editor, noted that the book also focuses on a pattern of ethnic and racial tensions that have wrenched the city since its earliest days when the breakup of historic Mexican ranchos led to violent disputes over land and water in the 1850s.

Fatal femme fatales

Many readers have told Parrish they were most fascinated, however, by the number of murderous women Los Angeles has produced. Prominent among them was Winnie Ruth Judd, the "trunk murderess," who arrived at Union Station in the 1930s with the bodies of two former friends packed inside trunks.

But Parrish said his favorite among the women's stories was that of Madelynne Obenchain, a legendary beauty of the Jazz Age whose charms drove men to obsession. After she and a suitor were arrested in the killing of her longtime lover, her ex-husband rushed to her defense and smitten men sent hundreds of flower arrangements to her jail cell.

She and her co-defendant had five trials, each ending in a hung jury. Newspaper reports of the time said the problem was that by the time deliberations began all the male jurors had fallen in love with her.

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