The Wife-Saving House

April 13, 1957
Los Angeles

By Larry Harnisch

Step back with me for a moment to that 1950s home the McCauleys built, one of those futuristic places that practically took care of itself and just needed a little soap and water. You know, tall ceilings, lots of glass, a big brick fireplace in the living room and radiant heating in the slate floor.  The walls and ceilings are birch that never has  to be painted. When it was written up in The Times, they called it “The Wife-Saving House.”

Don’t rush over to 1100 Somera Road to look for it. The home is gone now; torn down by 1967 and maybe it’s just as well.

It’s the middle of the night and quiet now. July 5, 1955.  Come on in. They never lock the doors around here. Everybody–well almost everybody–is asleep. The three boys are in their bedroom, where the bedspreads, with pictures of the circus, match the drapes. There’s a maid, too, somewhere around here, and the family dog, Cinders.

Nice, modern home, isn’t it? Just the kind you’d expect for a wealthy Los Angeles contractor to build for his daughter. Let’s push open the door to the bedroom. Look at those big windows. Quite a view. Be careful of all the blood.

There she is. Don’t touch anything. Just look. They’ll find her soon enough. That’s her quilted silk robe across the foot of the bed.  She never made it.

Oh, that’s the dog howling. Here comes the maid to let it out. She’s going to go back to bed as if nothing is wrong.

The woman lying there is named Norma and she was 33. She’s still wearing the red cocktail dress from the Fourth of July barbecue at her parents’ house. That thing knotted around her neck is a white lace stole beaded with pearls. She was stabbed 11 times, but the one in the left chest, just below the collarbone, is the one that killed her. It went all the way into her lung. Most of the rest are from trying to protect herself.

That’s how she landed, face-down on the chaise longue with her knees on the floor.

Norma’s father is J.A. Thompson and he’s a big builder here in Los Angeles. She went to USC and was an Alpha Gamma. Married? Not any more. Her husband was named Frank McCauley, a former Army Air Forces major and a flying ace with the 56th Fighter Group. They got married in 1945; a big society affair. They started having children: Craig, who’s 7; Kirk, who’s 5; and Kevin. He’s 2 years old. She was raising her boys and was in a couple of women’s clubs that did charity work.

I guess she had her hands full with a house and a husband and the kids. Norma got the idea of hiring a UCLA student to help around the home. His name was John Russell Crooker, a very bright law student.  He worked on the school paper at Pepperdine and won a journalism award. He’s not a kid, though. John is 34 and separated from his wife. Has a couple of children. His wife said he practiced his cross-examination technique on her until she was afraid to say anything to him.

There’s a stack of his love letters over there. Leave them alone; the police will find them in a couple of hours. When the detectives go to pick him up at his apartment, they’ll find another stack of letters that she wrote to him.

One of hers says: “Hello, Sweetheart, I love to think of the times we held hands, listened to KFAC dinner music  and looked at candlelight. Love me as I love you, darling and it will work. N”

Down the road at his murder trial, a cocktail waitress is going to testify that Norma and John were quite the romantic couple in the fall of 1953 and early 1954. Another thing that will come out in court is that she got a divorce in March 1955 after a year of bitter legal disputes. I’ll let you do the math.

The detectives are going to question John for 14 hours straight until he writes a confession in longhand on a yellow legal pad.  He’s got some legal training so he won’t tell them anything to start, but eventually John is going to crack.

He’ll say that he drove up to the house yesterday afternoon and saw Norma and her brother, J.A. Thompson Jr., leave for a Fourth of July party at her parents’ house, 773 Stradella Road, in Bel-Air. Since her parents were out of town, Norma was hostess for the party. While everybody was gone, John drove down to UCLA and parked his car, then hired a cab to take him back.

Remember how they never lock the doors around here? He hid in the closet of the boys’ bedroom and waited. About 9 p.m., she came back and put the children to bed, then returned to the party with a family friend who brought her home around midnight and left right away.

A little while ago, John slipped out of the closet and went into Norma’s bedroom. John said they talked.

Things between Norma and John had deteriorated since their romantic days. She told friends she was afraid of him and had been giving him money; a little bit here and there and $300 more recently.

They talked for an hour, then Norma fell asleep.

John will write in his confession: “When I tried to wake her up to continue our talks I could not arouse her and I became incensed. I started to shake her and choke her with both hands. She started to scream. I put my left hand over her mouth to muffle the scream and reached in my right-hand coat pocket for a knife. I had found this earlier in the room. I stabbed her several times with the knife as she tried to fight me off. She bit my left hand and scratched my chin.

“I then knotted the stole and twisted it with both hands until I was sure she was dead.”

John didn’t leave right away after he killed Norma. He sat here for an hour, thinking about the future.

Finally, covered with blood, he walked back to his car at UCLA. He drove home, and he’s probably burning his clothes in the incinerator right now.

At his trial, he’s going to say that the detectives hit him in the stomach. He’s going to say that he was trying to protect Norma from blackmailers because he knew she’d gotten an abortion a month ago and that her ex-husband would use it against her to try to get custody of the children.

Her parents are going to say that John was only blackmailing her. After Norma let him go, they hired him as a houseboy. They say they were merely trying to help him out.

  The judge is going to sentence John to the gas chamber. They were about to execute him on April 12, 1957, then granted him a delay. In fact, he will  never be executed. Gov. Pat Brown is going to commute his sentence to life without the possibility of parole. John will eventually be freed and Brown is going to call him a reformed man.

Well, it’s morning already. Norma’s son Kirk is going to wander in here in a moment to check on his mother. He’s going to tell the maid, “Mommy’s not feeling very well.” The maid will call Norma’s sister-in-law and she’ll call Norma’s brother. And he will call the police.

They’re going to fix her up for her funeral at Church of the Recessional at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park. Open casket. Norma will be in a white dress with a blue net stole and she will be holding a bouquet of orchids. The Rev. Haven N. Davis of Westwood Presbyterian Church will say:  “To know her was to love her. She was always considerate and thoughtful of others.”

Ready? Let’s go, then, and  watch the tragedy unfold. Maybe we should stop by Westwood Presbyterian on the way back.
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About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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