A Shot in the Dark



Note: This is a post I wrote in 2007 for the Daily Mirror when it was on latimes.com. I’m gradually transferring material over to the L.A. Daily Mirror.


April 28, 1957
Los Angeles

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 murder.

1957_0429_smasonMany 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 515.

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.

1957_0429_hlberry 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 missing.

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 clean.

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.

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About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1957, 2007, Cold Cases, Homicide and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Shot in the Dark

  1. Rinky Dink says:

    That’s a really well-written article. Loved it.


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