Let’s park here and sit in the car for a minute. It’s late, sometime between 11
p.m. on Jan. 3 and dawn on Jan. 4, 1957. The lights are on as if
someone’s home. Hear the music? That’s the record player. Let me warn you before
we go in that none of this will make any sense at all. Just a dumb little
Many streets in Alhambra are named for trees, like Poplar, Birch
and this one: South Elm. There’s a pair of these little, boxy duplexes, both 3
years old, that look like they were built at the same time by the same
developer. In the picture above, 513 S. Elm St. is the front unit of the first duplex, and 517 S. Elm St. is the front unit of the second duplex. The matching
duplex on the end, 521 S. Elm St., was built in 1958. The Times says she was murdered around the back in
OK, come on in. Keep your hands in your pockets and don’t move anything. Someone
has already rummaged around.
That’s her sitting in the hallway, leaning against the wall next to the telephone. Notice that it’s off the hook. Her name is Susan Miller Mason. She’s
28 and worked in Alhambra as a receptionist in the office of Dr. H.
Lee Berry, a physician and surgeon. Her husband is named Raymond and he’s a
lineman. He’s 30. I don’t think they have any kids.
She’s got a couple old injection marks on her butt and one that’s fresh, which
is from the shot that killed her. The medical examiner will call it acute morphine
poisoning and says that based on the location, it’s almost impossible that she gave
herself the injection. She had asthma and the combination of morphine and asthma might have been what killed her.
About 6 p.m. on Jan. 3, she went to a doctor’s office out in the Valley for a shot
of cold vaccine in her left arm. When she got home, she and her husband had an
argument and she threw a flowerpot and her beaded key case. He left about 9:30 p.m., hit a few bars, spent the night in his car and went
to work the next morning.
Berry, who lives at 1208 S. Garfield Ave., will testify that she called him about 1 a.m. and said she felt itchy all over. According to Berry, she said “Just a minute,” then her
voice trailed off and all he could hear was the music from the record player. He
figured she was drunk again.
According to The Times, he says that because her phone was off the hook, he
couldn’t break the connection, so he had to go across the street to a hospital
and call one of her neighbors to check on her. The Mirror says that Berry got a busy signal because her phone was off the hook so he went across the street to use a phone.
Either way, Mrs. Lena Talercio, 519 S. Elm, will say that Berry called at 1:15 a.m. and asked her go over to Mason’s home. Talercio will say the lights were
on and music was playing but Mason wouldn’t come to the door.
In a few hours, according to The Times, Berry is going to call the Alhambra Police Department to check on Mason because she hasn’t shown up for work, and Detectives
Edmund Chappell and Carl Hoffman will come out to investigate. The Mirror, meanwhile, says Mason hadn’t shown up at work for two weeks.
I warned you it was complicated.
The medical examiner will say Mason died about 11 p.m.–flat on her back. That
means someone came along and propped her against the wall. Notice there’s no
sign of the flowerpot or the key case. They’re missing. And there’s no
hypodermic needle anywhere. If she gave herself the shot, there should be a syringe someplace.
About 1:50 a.m. this morning, Jack Case, 517 S. Elm, will hear a man say: “Susie! Susie! Let me in!” And a woman is going to say: “Be quiet or you’ll wake the neighbors.” The record player is going to keep going until about 4:30 a.m., when someone will turn it down, according to Case.
At the inquest, Berry will say he had been treating her for about six or eight
weeks and had given her several shots in the buttocks, but hadn’t kept any
records. He will say that he bought 10 syringes of morphine from two
Arizona men two years ago and turned over six of them to his attorney. He says he used two on an injured
horse. He will claim that he asked Mason to clean out his medical bag a couple
weeks ago and that when she was done, the two remaining morphine syringes were
According to the April 28, 1957, edition of The Times, Mason was a hypochondriac and often hired a cabdriver to take her
to doctors’ offices all over Los Angeles, including the Valley, Pasadena, West
Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.
Berry’s housekeeper, Elsie Otto, an immigrant from Brazil, is also going to
testify. Otto will say that at the time of the murder, Berry’s wife was out of
town with one of their four children. She’ll say that Berry went to his office
for 10 minutes between 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., got a phone call from Mrs. Berry
about 10:30 p.m. and went to bed about 11 p.m.
Mason’s husband is going to testify that after police left, he found the missing
flowerpot behind the garage and his wife’s key case in a kitchen drawer,
although the detectives are certain neither of those items was there when they
searched the house. The police will give him a polygraph test and he’ll come back
Notice that Berry’s housekeeper hasn’t said anything about a 1 a.m. phone call
from Mason. Notice that we don’t find out why Berry had Talercio’s phone number. Maybe none of it came up at the inquest. Maybe The Times
didn’t think any of it was important. Notice that Berry had a neighbor check on Mason and that he called the police, who found the body. He could have gone over to the house either time. It’s only three miles away. Notice that Berry’s housekeeper is a Brazilian immigrant. Just speculating, mind you, but if she weren’t here legally she might be reluctant to rat out her boss.
Berry will also refuse to sign the death certificate, although we don’t know why.
All we we know for sure is that somebody moved her after she died. And we know none of the stories add up.
According to the Medical Board of California, Herbert Lee Berry graduated from the University of Maryland Medical School in 1943. He died in 1997.
We better get going. The police will be here soon.
The doctor did it! Probably to shut her up about the affair they were having. Just like in Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Dr. Berry’s actions are curious to be sure. But I’d want to know much more about the case before making any determination. It’s critical for investigators to keep an open mind. I find these old cases absolutely haunting.
Fascinating little mystery.
A sordid little tale that James Ellroy could have shoehorned into one of his L.A. Noir novels somehow.
Mrs. Susan Miller Mason, not, Mrs. Raymond Mason as married women would have been referred to during the era.
A certain waywardness is being suggested here.
Too good to be stuck married to telephone lineman. Just a personal opinion.
Somebody is obviously lying.
A clever and talented investigator and interrogator probably could have ferreted out the truth.
My impression is that the truth was not something certain people wanted known.
Susan Mason was my aunt. Our family has wanted to find out the truth for a long time and want to thank you for republishing her story.