He’s here!

July 19, 1957
Los Angeles

Minda Lee Birnbaum, 15, and her mother, Blanche Lewie, 46, had spent most of the day with the divorce lawyer, Murray
Chotiner. In the late afternoon, as Blanche made some phone calls from the law offices’ library, Minda pecked at a typewriter and talked to Carol Tannis about becoming a secretary.

Then Blanche’s estranged husband, Leo, walked into the offices at 202 S. Hamilton Drive, Beverly Hills. Minda ran to warn her mother, yelling: “He’s here!”
Blanche stood between them as he shouted at Minda: “Why are you doing
this to me?”

After an initial confrontation, Blanche told Tannis to call the police, but Leo warned Tannis: “Don’t do it.”

As Tannis hid behind her desk, Blanche grabbed a pair of scissors but Leo took them away, pulled a Luger from his belt, held the barrel against Blanche’s stomach and pulled the trigger.

Minda ran from the room but tripped and sprawled in the doorway. As she lay on
the floor, Leo put the Luger against the 15-year-old’s head and pulled the trigger. When it didn’t fire, Tannis fled.

Then, two shots.

Acting on a tip, police found him at a miniature golf course, 1312 S. Arlington Ave.

Forty-year-old liquor store clerk Leo Aaron Lewie was a Polish Jew who fled to Israel, he told The Times while in jail awaiting trial on two counts of murder.

He married in 1941, but his wife died giving birth to his son, Aaron, in 1947. A second marriage ended in divorce, he said. Then there was the 1948 war with the Arab states. “Many persons died in the streets,” Lewie said. “I crawled through the streets searching for food for my son.”

Lewie and Aaron left for France. “I came to Paris destroyed inside–my heart, my mind,” he said.

They arrived in New York in 1953 on a business visa. Later that year in Los Angeles, he married Blanche, whose husband had hanged himself in the basement of their home, leaving her with two children, Minda and Martin, who was two years younger. “It was an unhappy home from the
start,” Lewie said.

Blanche loaned him money to start a drive-in and they had a son, Robin. With the profits from the drive-in, the family moved to a home at 2066 Roscomare Road, Bel-Air. In 1956, Lewie sold the restaurant and opened a liquor store at 3901 S. Vermont.

“I worked long hours, seven days a week,” he said. “My wife became moody. She tells me, ‘Leo, I don’t care for you or the kids.’ That night I took the children to dinner and a movie. When we came home my wife hit me. I slapped her. She called the police. They arrest me. Later my stepdaughter Minda tells police I molested her.”

The domestic violence counts were dropped, but he was charged with molesting Minda. When he was finally released on bail, the family had gone into hiding from him.

Lewie insisted the molestation charges were Blanche’s ploy to get a divorce. “My wife said if I give her everything the charges will be dropped,” he said. So he agreed. But instead of dropping the charges,
Blanche was trying to have him deported, he said.

“She pushed me, pushed me, pushed me!” he shouted!

He bought a Luger, planning to go to Chotiner’s office and say that he would kill himself if the charges weren’t dropped. Instead, he found Minda and Blanche.

“She grabbed a pair of scissors and came at
me,” he said. “I lost my head and pushed on the trigger. I put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger again. But there were no bullets

(Police said that when he was arrested he had a full magazine of ammunition plus some shells in his pocket).

One of the key contentions at the trial was that Lewie had been molesting Minda for two years, but the medical experts disagreed completely. Dr. Charles Demos, a Santa Monica gynecologist who examined
Minda before she was killed, said he found evidence that she had been molested. Dr. Gerald K. Ridge, who performed the autopsy, said he found no evidence that Minda had sexual relations.

In an attempt to determine the truth, investigators exhumed Minda’s body from her crypt at  Beth Olam Cemetery, 900 N. Gower St. Over objections by defense attorney Gladys Root, Dr. Bruce David Stern
testified that his findings “were compatible with the contention that the girl had been repeatedly violated.”

Leo Aaron Lewie was convicted on two counts of second-degree murder March 27, 1958. He died
in San Francisco on April 25, 1983, at the age of 66.

Murray Chotiner, a longtime adviser to Richard Nixon, died in 1974 in Washington, D.C., of injuries from a car accident. He was 64.

More information on the Lewie case is available at the Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault.

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About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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