Spade Cooley Held in Wife’s Death

Spade Cooley, Sept. 6, 1954
Los Angeles Times file photo
April 4, 1961: Western music star Donnell “Spade” Cooley is accused of killing his estranged wife, Ella Mae,  in a jealous rage after listening to tape recordings of her phone conversations about what the defense would call “a free love cult.”

I have not had much exposure to the Cooley case, which occurred in Kern County, except that James Ellroy used to talk about it all the time and it is certainly one of the notorious killings of the early 1960s.

The details of the killing are particularly gruesome and part of it was witnessed by the Cooley’s teenage daughter, Melody, so I’m a little reluctant to dredge up all the gory details. A purported affair with Roy Rogers (yes, that Roy Rogers) — which he and others denied — was also dragged into the courtroom.

It is a nasty, lurid case.

Aprl 4, 1961, Spade Cooley
April 4, 1961, Spade Cooley

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1961, books, Front Pages, Homicide, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Spade Cooley Held in Wife’s Death

  1. Pamela Porter says:

    This *was* a very brutal crime; I’ve read the details on another site and they were nauseating. Poor Melody witnessed the majority of the incident.
    At one point, Dennis Quaid was going to make a film about the incident – it was going to be called “Shame On You”, but it’s no longer listed on his imdb.entry; at the time, I think Katie Holmes was being considered as Ella Cooley.
    I’ve heard that one of the members of the Drive-By Truckers, Mike Cooley, is Spade’s grandson. I’ve often wondered what became of Melody; I hope she’s had a peaceful life since.


  2. fibber mcgee says:

    I was in Bakersfield a couple of days to help cover some of the Spade Cooley trial for a wire service. Yes, it was a very sad story.


  3. Duane says:

    Roy Rogers? That “sly” old fox!


  4. chris morales says:

    A tragic and violent episode. Several years ago, I beleive the Times ran a long article about the life and demise of Spade Cooley. His enormous success on LA television in the late 40’s and early 50’s was contrasted by his slide into years of delusions and paranoia, culminating in the brutal killing of his wife.
    Unfortunately, his mental illness caused him to committ murder, expose his daughter to the crime, and to falsely accuse his long-time friend Roy Rogers, of adultery.
    In prison, he became a model inmate and was likely on the verge of being paroled at his sudden death.
    I too, read of Dennis Quaid’s plan to produce this story for the screen; don’t know what happened…


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