One for the Books

David Clark

Regular readers of the Malefactor’s Register (and we hope there are some of you out there) know that truth is often stranger than fiction. More often than not, it seems, the facts of a true crime would get even the most popular mystery fiction writer laughed out of a publisher’s office. Every once in a while we see a crime that inspires a fiction writer, but only rarely do we see a crime that seems to be ready-made for a book or film.
The story of David H. Clark is one of the latter.
In 1931, Clark, a former deputy district attorney who was a candidate for a Los Angeles municipal judgeship was arrested and tried for the murder of a double-dealing newspaper editor and a “millionaire political boss” who consorted with known underworld figures who opposed Clark’s campaign. Also involved in the case was the girlfriend of a high-stakes gambler serving time in San Quentin thanks to Clark’s prosecution.
When the story first broke on May 21, 1931 — less than 2 weeks before the general election — the newspapers speculated that Clark was the victim of a frame-up by Los Angeles’s underworld (known to the rest of the national Syndicate as the “Mickey Mouse Mob”). But those reports were quickly dashed when Clark surrendered to the Los Angeles police and admitted he had shot both men, claiming self-defense.
Crawford and SpencerThe killings occurred in politico Charles Crawford’s opulent Southern California office where Clark had been summoned by the political boss. Just why Herbert Spencer, editor of the political magazine Critic of Critics was involved in the meeting is anyone’s guess. Spencer, who rose from police beat reporter to be city editor of the Los Angeles Evening Express before buying a stake in the magazine, developed close ties to the underworld thanks to his work as a cop reporter. However, most recently Critic of Critics had been on an anti-gambling kick, running a series of articles critical of the ties between Los Angeles politicians and the underworld.
Some suspected that Spencer wasn’t too serious about his anti-corruption views, which would explain why he was present in Crawford’s office that fateful day. The targets of Spencer’s articles were usually has-beens or mobsters on the outs with the rest of the underworld. A mention in Spencer’s magazine might cause a raid by the cops, but if the targets were the competition of Spencer’s friends, well so be it.
n.b. For those who like to read noir stories, you may be getting a sense that this story is beginning to resemble something like Dashiell Hammett's classic, The Glass Key, which centered around underworld gamblers and political corruption. If you've never read the book or seen the movie, do so immediately after finishing this article. The book is widely considered Hammett's best, and the movie with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake consistently appears on reputable critics' best mystery/mob movies. The scenes where William Bendix kicks the crap out of Alan Ladd were unrivaled for their violence for decades, and Hammett's descriptions of the same in his book are chilling.
It’s not hard to imagine the people involved in the Crawford/Spencer killings sitting around a big office in black ties discussing who would be the next senator from California while bodyguards stand watch inside the ritzy, but highly illegal, casino where a torch singer secretly in love with the honest DA croons. Cut to the honest, corruption-fighting DA bursting into the room where the political fixers are shmoozing with the gambler, intent on a showdown that ends with somebody getting shot.
In reality, there wasn’t any opulent casino and nobody was wearing a tux when Clark gunned down Crawford and Spencer. While Crawford was a connected guy and political bigwig, he worked as a real estate agent in a nondescript downtown LA office building, and was described as quite the chameleon.
“He was quite at home with gamblers, ministers, fancy women, grocery clerks, bankers, chauffeurs, and judges. Charley Crawford could stand at a bar one minute and a church pew the next and never bat an eye,” wrote celebrity reporter Erskine Johnson. “Behind the doors of Crawford’s real estate office no one knows what political manipulations took place,”
There was no torch singer, although there was the moll whose boyfriend, imprisoned gangster Al Marco (was there ever a name for a LA mobster that fit the Hollywood mold?), was still directing the Los Angeles underworld from his cell in San Quentin. Leggy brunette June Taylor (no relation to the dancer and Jackie Gleason show regular) had a long history of morals charges in Los Angeles, and was apparently Marco’s connection to the mob. Shortly after Clark shot Crawford and Spencer, Taylor made a visit to San Quentin where she reportedly informed her boyfriend of the killings.
Questioned by police about any involvement, Marco simply said “it was another June Taylor” who visited him, and he told reporters that he was sorry it wasn’t Rev. Robert “Fighting Bob” Schuler, a radio preacher who was Marco’s personal nemesis.
“I was sorry to hear about the deaths of Charles Crawford and Herbert Spencer in Los Angeles,” he told the press. “I sort of wished it had been Bob Shuler who got bumped off.”
In the end, what, if any role Marco played in the story is unclear, except that he was happy to hear that Clark was unlikely ever to serve as a judge. It had been Clark who put Marco in prison after he was arrested for beating up a patron at one of his vice dens. When Marco was arrested he claimed he would never be charged, and after he was charged he predicted no jury would convict him. He was partially correct: the first jury hung on the assault charge, but Clark vowed not to drop the case. A second jury convicted Marco and he was given a long term for his crime.
After the news of the shootings broke, the press was quick to head to San Quentin to interview Marco, which led to the speculation that Clark was being framed.
The day after the killings, Clark surrendered to his former boss, DA Burton Fitts, for whom he had served 8 years as a deputy. Fitts vowed that no favoritism would be shown to his protege, and after sending Clark to the county hospital for observation lest he try an insanity defense, quickly applied for and received a special prosecutor to try the case.
Once Clark said his defense would not be insanity, but the affirmative defense of self-defense, he was arraigned and sent to the county jail.
He refused to talk to the police or the press.
“I won too many cases where the defendant talked too much when I was a prosecutor,” he said. “I am an accused man now and I’m not saying anything. Just wait until the trial. I’m not guilty, and there will be plenty of sensations in testimony.”
While Clark sat in jail, Crawford was buried with the style befitting a political boss. His coffin was priced at $15,000 and the press estimated that there was at least $5,000 worth of flowers covering it. Reporters made note that one memorial wreath was sent by Guy McAfee, “Los Angeles gambling czar.” McAfee sent a similar arrangement to Spencer’s funeral.
But as usual the Register digresses.
The story of what (allegedly) really happened in Charley Crawford’s office was related by David Clark and other witnesses during his August 1931 trial (isn’t it amazing how quickly the wheels of justice turned back then? The murder happened in the spring and by that fall the case was resolved once and for all).
It was in the afternoon of May 20, 1931, when David Clark, upstanding former assistant district attorney and candidate for a municipal judge’s seat, answered a summons from political boss Charley Crawford.
He was first to arrive for the meeting, and was immediately ushered into Crawford’s private office by one of Crawford’s two personal secretaries. Shortly after Clark arrived, Spencer showed up in the office. He was kept cooling his heels for a few minutes while Crawford talked with Clark. Then Crawford appeared in the lobby and invited the publisher into his office.
Unbeknownst to Spencer and Crawford, Clark had purchased a revolver three days earlier and for some reason had it in his pocket when he came to the meeting. During his testimony, Clark claimed he bought the gun because Spencer had threatened his life.
The subject of the conversation was not directly Clark’s candidacy, he said, although Crawford hinted that if Clark played ball his election was a shoe-in. What Crawford didn’t acknowledge was that Clark was leading in the polls against the machine’s favored candidate. It was likely that Crawford knew that and wanted to hedge his bet by getting Clark on the hook in case the election didn’t turn his way.
Clark said Crawford wanted him to participate in a frame-up of Los Angeles Chief of Police Roy Strekel. Again we’re left to speculate just what that frame-up involved, but based on his history and influence, there was little doubt that Crawford could arrange something. As a publisher allegedly crusading against corruption, the idea probably appealed to newspaperman Spencer. According to Clark, Spencer was at the meeting to explain the surreptitious death threats against him.
When Clark refused to play ball, Crawford jumped up from behind his desk (that we can assume, in the words of Raymond Chandler, was the size of a tennis court), and approached Clark holding what Clark thought was a pistol.
Clark drew his weapon and fired, hitting Crawford in the chest and dropping him to the floor. Writhing in pain, Crawford urged Spencer to “get” Clark. When Spencer went for the candidate, Clark fired again. Spencer lurched for the door, Clark told special prosecutor Joseph Ford.

“Did Spencer fall to the floor, too?” Ford asked Clark.
Clark: No, the minute I fired he turned and walked toward the porch door.
Ford: You followed him?
Clark: I looked around the corner of the door and I didn’t see him. I went out another door opening on the porch.
Ford: How long were you in the room after Spencer left?
Clark: Just a few seconds.
Ford: Isn’t it a fact that you shot both men, they then crumpled to the floor and you thought you had killed them?
Clark: No, not then.
Ford: Isn’t It a fact that after you shot Crawford you saw he had no revolver?
Clark: I didn’t notice.
Ford: When Crawford fell to the floor after you shot him, did he retain the revolver In his grip?
Clark: I don’t know.
Ford: What became of the revolver?
Clark: I don’t know.
Ford: You didn’t attempt to pick it up and then inform the police?
Clark: I went right to the door on the porch after Spencer.

No pistol was found at the scene, indicating that Crawford was unarmed when shot by Clark.
The prosecution claimed it was unlikely that Crawford and Spencer would kill Clark, but not that they might want him dead.
“For them to attempt to kill Clark would have been contrary to all the rules of the underworld,” Assistant Special Prosecutor A.H.Van Cott told the jury in summation. “If they had planned that, someone else would have been employed.”
For most of the jury at Clark’s trial, the defense was able to make a strong case that Crawford was the type of man to threatened an adversary’s life, and that Spencer was a lackey who would jump when Crawford told him to.
When the case went to deliberation, there were 11 votes for acquittal and one holdout who was convinced of Clark’s guilt. The judge had no choice but to rule the case a mistrial.
As expected, Clark’s second trial a month later was a rehash of the first. This time, however, the defense, daring jurors to sentence Clark to death, convinced all 12 jurors that Clark was innocent of murder and that the shootings were a case of self-defense. Primary to the defense case was that Clark had no real motive to kill Crawford and Spencer.
Ironically, although he lost the election while awaiting trial, Clark managed to receive just a third fewer votes than the machine candidate.
Things ended well for the former assistant DA: He was forgiven by society and went on to a successful law practice as a criminal defense attorney.

Confession is Good for the Soul

Alma Petty Gatlin

To everything there is a season … a time to keep silence and a time to speak.
~ Ecclesiastes 3:1,7.

One of the most well-known legal privileges — the sanctity of the confessional — is also one of the most misunderstood.
Not only is the privilege not absolute, it is up to the minister to decide whether or not to share a confession in court. In other words, the penitent/defendant has no power under the law to stop a minister from testifying regarding something the “confessee” thought was sacrosanct. In the eyes of the law, there’s no difference between admitting a crime to your bartender and confessing one to a minister.
We are talking, of course, about what secular law allows, not what the tenets of a particular faith require of its clergy. The Catholic Church considers what is said between a priest and penitent to be an inviolable confidence: “It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason…” (Canon 983.1 of the Code of Canon Law). According to Canon Law, a priest should choose death over revealing the contents of a confession.
Most Protestant and some non-Christian religions have rules that may not be as strict as the Catholics because the ability of a person of the cloth to forgive sins varies by faith, but they do discourage clergy from publicly discussing what is shared in confidence.
Some states have statutes or rules in place that do prohibit evidence from religious confessions to be entered into a case. Most of those statutes pertain only to civil lawsuits. The intent is to relieve clergy from having to testify for one side or another in divorce proceedings.
n.b. See: Fred L. Kuhlmann, Communications to Clergymen: When Are They Privileged?, 2 Val. U. L. Rev. 265 (1968) and Frank Columbo, Forgive Us Our Sins: The Inadequacies of the Clergy-Penitent Privilege, 73 NY. U. L. Rev. 225 (1998).

Ignorance of the minister/penitent privilege is one reason why the people of Reidsville, North Carolina, were shocked in September 1927 when news broke that the Rev. Mr. Thomas F. Pardue had shared with Rockingham County and state law enforcement officials the confession of a young woman who admitted she had killed her father with an axe and buried his corpse beneath the family home.
Even though 20-year-old Alma Petty Gatlin freely admitted that she beat Smith T. Petty to death with the axe and locked his body in a trunk until burying it in the cellar, and no one who knew him had much good to say about Petty, it was the traveling evangelist who was always considered the real bad guy in this strange morality play.
The Danville Bee, however, agreed with the court that ruled his testimony admissible and supported the minister, correctly pointing out that the sanctity of the confessional only applies to Catholic priests by virtue of their job:

Some have attempted to draw an analogy between the inhibition imposed on Catholic priests from revealing secrets entrusted them in the confessional, and the position of Pardue. This, however, is countered by the argument that the doctrine of the Catholic church does not apply to Protestant ministers. Pardue was ethical and obeyed the principle of good citizenship in making a difficult decision between things temporal and things spiritual. Then it is also pointed out that the minister would have found himself in an embarrassing, if not a dangerous, position should the murder of Petty have leaked out in after years and had it come to light that Pardue had kept the confession a secret. He would have been regarded in the eyes of the law an accomplice after the fact.

Thomas PardueThe most curious part of this very curious case might just be the cool reception Pardue was given when he went to the authorities to respond to a possible murder. A Reidsville cop named Carroll was the first person told by Pardue of the crime — just a day or so after Alma confessed. He did not seem to be moved by the news, according to Pardue. When the minister went back to see Carroll and asked him what he was going to do, Carroll told him he consulted with his superiors and that “My hands are tied.”
Pardue then went to Greensboro and employed detectives of the Home Detective Bureau. A private dick named Noell was assigned to the case and accompanied Pardue to a meeting with Reidsville Solicitor Porter Graves. Pardue said Solicitor Porter Graves told them to go back to Reidsville and take it up with City Manager Mayberry, who, Pardue says, “refused to have anything to do with the affair.”
Eventually Pardue was able to convince the governor of the seriousness of the crime and he put state authorities on the case. Pardue also leaked his story to the local newspaper and from there it broke wide open.
Alma, a young dental assistant who by then had become the wife of the local fire chief, confessed her crime to Pardue on Mother’s Day 1927 while he was conducting a revival in Reidsville.
“I preached a message one night on ‘the Confession of our Sins,’ Pardue told the Danville Bee in a story that the Bee made abundantly clear was an exclusive. “She, Miss Alma Petty at that time, now Mrs. Eugene Gatlin, came to the altar for prayer with a number of other people and seemed to be right much concerned.
“And when we had dismissed the congregation, she still lingered undecided, and when I questioned her concerning her trouble, telling her the thing that stood in between her and victory to her soul was the thing she needed to confess and make right.”
Pardue’s counseling was enough for Alma, and she asked to speak with him privately.
“She made the statement that she had committed two of the biggest sins in the world,” Pardue continued. “She asked if there was any forgiveness for her.”
Pardue assumed that she had — in his words — “destroyed a child” — and he was not prepared for what she told him.
Mrs. Smith PettyThe murder was particularly violent, but the circumstances were the kind that might resonate with a sympathetic jury. Petty, a 50-year-old unemployed cotton mill overseer, was a mean drunk. He regularly abused his family, particularly his wife (the Register searched without success to find out the name of the poor woman. In dozens of articles about the case she is only referred to as “Mrs. Smith Petty.” She didn’t even have an obit.)
His murder was a long-time coming, Pardue later testified that Alma told him.
For more than two years, the minister said he was told, Alma had it in her mind to kill her father and had waited for a favorable opportunity. Once, the minister quoted the girl as saying, she obtained a pistol with which to kill him but for some reason the opportunity never presented itself.
On the night of December 9, 1927, Smith Petty was in a particularly foul mood. Cold weather had kept the family cooped-up inside their cramped bungalow all day. Smith spent the day with his jug of moonshine and by dinner time he had passed over from being a mean drunk to being an abusive one.
According to Alma, at one point Smith grabbed his wife at the throat and was strangling her; she said he might have killed her if the children had not intervened.
After they did, Smith threatened to “twist off” his daughter’s head “like a bird.”
It was then that Alma decided the home was no longer safe, but the time was not right for murder. Before she went to bed, however, Alma warned her father that she would “get him” for what he had done. She admitted later that she even told him she planned to spit in his face as he died.
Shortly after midnight the next day Alma retrieved the axe from the garage and stored it behind the kitchen door. Then she went to bed with the plan to kill her father after her mother and sister left the house that morning.
The Rev. Pardue told the following story of how Smith Petty died, swearing that this was how it was related to him by Alma:
Smith PettySmith Petty awoke at 7:30 a.m. on December 10 and Alma served him his breakfast of cold cereal and two fried eggs. Undoubtedly feeling a bit peckish from his bout of drinking the night before, Petty was still in a foul mood. He criticized Alma’s cooking and sealed his fate.
Then she stole to the corner of the room, got the axe, raised it above her head and with all of her might gave him a blow on the head from behind, using the blunt end of the tool.
“His head flopped over,” she said. “Then he rolled to the floor and I hit him again.”
Petty knew what was happening, she said.
“Alma, why are you trying to kill me?” the half-conscious bully asked.
The girl dragged her father to the middle of the kitchen, grabbed a length of lead pipe and laid into him again.
“He tried to cry out so I put my hand over his mouth, but he bit me,” she said.
As he lay dying, Alma spoke to him one last time:
“Now do you believe in hell?” she asked. “I told you once that if I could ever see you die I would spit in your face.”
“Alma, pray for me,” were Petty’s last words according to his daughter.
Once Petty was dead Alma stuffed his body into a large trunk, which she dragged a closet. It was this act that led many to speculate that the diminutive woman had not acted alone.
The she went about clearing up the tell-tale signs of violence.
“She told me she was all bloody,” Pardue later testified in court. “There there was blood everywhere. After keeping the body in a trunk in a closet for two
days, she became frightened as evidence began to seep through the flooring.”
Then she dug four-foot deep grave in the cellar and dumped Petty’s body into it. Rigor mortis had set in and when officials unearthed his body, Petty was still in the position he had been in when he was placed in the trunk.
The only person who could save Alma Petty Gatlin from prison was Alma herself, and when she took the stand in her own defense, some 800 people were present in the courtroom to hear her testify.
She admitted that she confessed the murder to Pardue, but then stunned the observers by claiming it was all a lie. The real murderer, she said, was her mother. Conveniently, the woman had died between the time that Smith Petty was murdered and Alma was arrested.
“The night before the killng was one of terror,” Alma said dramatically. “Father was insanely drunk and constantly threatening to kill the whole
family.”
The next morning was more of the same and when Smith Petty went after Alma with a carving knife, her younger brother grabbed the axe and tried to attack his father. Mrs. Petty took the axe from her son and hit her husband several times in the head, killing him.
The children wanted to go for the police, but Mrs. Petty refused to let them.
“I have always kept things secret and will not start telling them now,” Alma recalled her saying.
The wounds suffered by Smith Petty were not fully explained by Alma’s testimony. They included three fractures: two long cracks across the right side of the head and one in the jaw. Over the left temple there was a round penetrating hole like one would expect if a lead pipe was used as a weapon. On the stand Alma said nothing about her mother using the pipe.
Within days of the murder, Mrs. Petty became ill with pneumonia and also suffered a miscarriage, which Alma blamed on the fatal battle. In fact, she added, it was her mother’s pregnancy that had caused Smith Petty to become enraged in the first place.
“My mother was pregnant. He had told her to get rid of it and he said he wanted no more little rats around the house,” she said from the stand. “He had told my mother he would kill her if she did not get rid of it.”
There was nothing the doctors could do for Mrs. Petty and she died shortly in bed at her home, just a few feet away from where her husband’s body was stored in the closet.
But why, Alma’s defense counsel asked, confess to a murder you did not commit?
“I decided then and there (at the revival) that I would take this thing on me,” she replied. “I could not bear to think of my mother in hell, as she had not been able to confess, though she wanted to.”
Alma’s response made no sense because if her mother was indeed in hell because she died without atoning for her sin, Alma’s confession would make no difference. It’s one thing to take the fall in the here-and-now, but another to try and pull one over on the Almighty.
The state had no answer for the testimony of Alma’s 15-year-old brother, Woodrow, who confirmed her story that it was Mrs. Petty who slew her husband. It took the jury just one hour to acquit Alma Petty Gatlin of murder.
Although Alma had confessed that she committed “two of the biggest sins in the world” — one obviously being the killing of her father — no one ever bothered to determine what the other sin was.
Pardue was in the headlines again in May 1931 when he pleaded guilty to a Prohibition violation. Empty liquor bottles were discovered in his home but the minister professed ignorance of their origin. He was sentenced to serve 8 months on the Forsyth County (N.C.) chain gang.
The sentence was so harsh, the judge said, because Pardue had been preaching and telling people to “go and sin no more.”
“When a preacher falls, it makes a loud noise,” said Judge Thomas Watson.

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