Under a Bad Sign

Arthur Covell

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

The supernatural figures into more than a few crimes that are chronicled in The Malefactor’s Register, although most, if not all, can be laid at the feet of killers who are very much of this world.
Few murderers, however, are like Arthur Covell, who in 1923 used a horoscope to plan the murder of his sister-in-law Ebba Covell. What makes Covell’s crime even more unusual was that he had a hypnotic effect over his nephew Alton, whom he used as his murder weapon. Without Alton, Arthur never could have committed the crime for he was a bedridden paralytic (or as the press at the time referred to him, “a hopeless cripple”) who could not walk and who was barely able to sit up in bed.
Ebba was the second wife of Dr. Fred Covell, a chiropractor who lived in Bandon, Oregon, a beautiful small town along the Pacific Coast. Along with Ebba and Fred, the Covell household included two of Fred’s children by a previous marriage, Lucille, 14, and Alton, 16, as well as three children from Fred and Ebba’s marriage.
Apparently Lucille and Alton were developmentally disabled — Alton to the point that he had been institutionalized. When Fred remarried after the death of Alton and Lucille’s mother, Alton was returned to the home.
The situation in the Covell household — two teens with mental handicaps, a profoundly disabled adult, and the normal chaos that accompanies young children — was tense and according to contemporary accounts, there was particular hostility between Arthur and Ebba.
“Mother never went upstairs to see him and always fussed about how much he ate,” Lucille told authorities.
Arthur had been injured when a truck he was repairing fell on him and crushed his spine. As he recovered he began studying the pseudo-science of astrology and casting horoscopes for friends and family. Within a short period of time he gained a reputation as an accomplished seer and was running a lucrative mail-order horoscope business. His clientele included several Hollywood big-wigs including movie director William Desmond Taylor, who would one day be murdered himself in one of Hollywood’s great unsolved crimes.
Arthur’s work in astrology was more than vaguely simple solar horoscopes of the type we see in many newspapers. Instead, he said he used the stars and planets to provide advice on when to make decisions and to predict what the future held.
Sometime in the spring or summer of 1923 the heavens revealed to Arthur a complex plot of mass murder and theft. Evidence uncovered after the murder of Ebba showed that Arthur had planned to use Alton to commit at least 27 murders in and around Bandon. Some of the victims were to be slain after being swindled while others would be killed after their wills were revised to make Arthur a beneficiary. Strangely, one of the families Arthur slated for death was to be sacrificed for the improvements they had made to their home.
“The plans of Arthur Covell were so minutely detailed that they even called for the removal of windows and doors before the home of the victim was burned,” said Detective Luke S. May after Arthur’s arrest. “The stolen articles were to be used in a home the Covells planned to build.”
Although Covell told Alton and Lucille that Ebba’s murder was fated by the stars, her arguments with Arthur and her apparent discovery of his plot also helped, police said.
On September 3, 1923 the time had come to get Ebba out of the way, Arthur told Alton. They had already talked over the plan in great detail, and even included Lucille in some of the discussions. Lucille later said that she was afraid to go to her father or stepmother for fear of what they would do to Uncle Arthur.
The stars told Arthur that the crime must occur at 11 a.m. on September 3, after Fred Covell went to work.
As Arthur lay in his bed on the second floor, Alton took the murder weapon — a rag soaked with ammonia — and sneaked up behind his stepmother. He clamped the rag over her mouth and nose, and after a painful struggle a few minutes long Ebba died. The only sign of injury was an red rash on her cheek caused by the chemical.
Alton carried Ebba’s lifeless body to her bedroom and gently placed her on the bed and told his uncle that it was done. Arthur called Fred at his office and told him to return home as “something terrible has happened.”
It didn’t take long for authorities to toss out the idea that Ebba, a healthy, middle-aged woman, would just keel over and die a natural death. However, they were stumped when an external examination did not reveal any evidence (except that strange red blotch on her cheek) of foul play. She had not been strangled and her neck was not broken.
Once the coroner ruled her death to be homicide, police began pressuring the most obvious suspect, Fred Covell. After all, there was no way that Arthur could have carried out such a crime, and the only other people in the house were Alton and Lucille, neither of whom had any reason to want Ebba dead.
Within 48 hours, however, Fred was out from under suspicion while Alton and Arthur were in jail awaiting arraignment on murder charges. The case broke open after police questioned Lucille who told them everything she knew about Arthur’s plans. Confronted with her information, Alton confessed to killing Ebba at Arthur’s direction.
I put the ammonia on the rag,” he said, “and Ebba was standing by the stove. I walked up to her from behind and on the right side. I put the rag over her nose with my right hand and held her arms with my left. I held it on her nose, pressing hard, for about three minutes before I let her down on the floor.”
In Arthur’s bedroom police found a journal filled with encoded entries and astrological symbols. It didn’t take them long to decipher the code which amounted to a written confession of the entire plan by Arthur. The notebook contained messages such as “Today is the day. I wonder if Alton will go through with it.”
Interestingly, it also contained a note from Arthur to himself detailing how he had miscalculated the appropriate time for Ebba’s death: “Sept. 3. 11 A. M. Made mistake about con. Should have been 11:14:14.”
To police, however, Arthur admitted nothing except knowing that “September would be a bad month for Ebba.”
The trial of Arthur and Alton was pretty much a perfunctory affair. Both were convicted of murder; Alton received a life sentence while Arthur, who observed his trial from a cot in the courtroom, was sentenced to hang.
Arthur was carried to the gallows by a group of prison guards on May 28, 1925 and hanged. Alton was paroled after serving about eight years.

Armed and Dangerous


If you’re looking for fun and excitement in San Diego, visiting the Gaslamp Quarter is a must. Home to dozens of hotels, restaurants, shops, and nightspots, the 16-block stretch is the center of San Diego’s night life and perhaps one of the safest places to wander after dark.
But no place is totally safe as 29-year-old Michael Champion found out one Monday night in October 1992.
Champion and a friend had just finished watching Monday Night Football and were heading back to the San Diego suburb of Hillcrest when unbeknownst to them, a 6-foot-tall, 240-pound former linebacker had broken out of a San Diego Sheriff’s Department transport van, overpowered the deputy/driver, stolen her service revolver and was headed their way.
Johnaton (yes, Johnaton) Sampson George was a 34-year-old career criminal who had been adjudicated a “mentally disordered sex offender” thanks to a 15-year history of rapes. He was a drug addict who considered himself a “supercrook” when he was under the influence of methamphetamine.
George was also an extreme escape risk. Court records show that in 1978 George escaped from a state mental hospital in San Bernardino County, where he had been placed after he was judged incompetent to stand trial for a string of rapes. While there, he fell in love with a transsexual and the pair became engaged.
A month after his escape from Atascadaro State Hospital, George was recaptured and in 1980 he was sentenced to five years to life in prison.
The sentencing judge told the California prison system that “Mr. George is a con man. He knows how to shine people on.” He recommended that George was a menace to others and should serve the maximum term in close confinement. George was released on parole after serving five years.
Shortly after his release, he robbed and assaulted a man and was arrested. However, he was not returned to prison for a parole violation. Several months later he was arrested for failing to register as a sexually oriented offender. Again, he was not returned to prison. In early 1992 he was arrested for shoplifting and assault when he stole baby food from a local market and then resisted attempts of security guards to detain him.
During a hearing for that theft in Chula Vista in July of that year, George was being kept in a holding cell and managed to escape from the courthouse and stole a car.
Federal marshals arrested George four days later — it took five officers to subdue him, the Marshal Service spokesman told the media.
Because police found him in possession of a firearm, a federal offense, the U.S. Attorney decided to charge him under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which carried a maximum life term.
He was awaiting trial on those charges in connection with that breakout when he escaped October 5, 1992 and crossed paths with Champion.
When George overpowered the lone 59-year-old, 125-pound deputy who was transporting him and another inmate, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department was seriously understaffed, and according to Sheriff Jim Roache, was taking shortcuts to meet the demands of the job.
“In reality, what occurred is that men and women — far too few, far too under-equipped — are required to do too much work on rigid time demands,” Roache said of those in his department. “To get the job done, they cut corners.”
Sheriff’s deputies had transported George 42 times since April — just a small part of the 100,000 prisoner transports the agency did each year, Roache said. In late June, Assistant U.S. Attorney. Sherri L. Walker, who was waiting to prosecute George on federal charges of being a career criminal, warned the district attorney’s office in about George’s violent nature and his previous escapes.
“I would recommend extreme caution in transferring George from federal to state custody and urge you to return (George) to federal custody promptly,” she wrote.
He was housed at the local federal jail, but continued to be prosecuted on state charges, which required that he be transported by county officers. A warning was noted in writing on the sheriff’s transportation log the next 12 times he was moved.
But on October 5, as George was being moved from the El Cajon courthouse to the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center, no warning was passed on to Deputy Lydia Werner who was filling in on the transport unit because it was 16 deputies below minimum staffing. The supervising deputy who assigned Werner to transport George also was not at his regular job and did not pass along information that George was a flight risk. As a result, Werner, who did not normally transport inmates and who was already into a 14-hour workday, transported George without knowing how dangerous he was.
If she had known George was a flight risk, he would have been wearing handcuffs and leg irons. However, because there was nothing to indicate his propensity to escape, George was only wearing MCC-issued handcuffs attached to a leather belt around his waist.
George told his cellmates that he had a handcuff key that opened the federal cuffs. Another inmate alerted authorities that George had had the key for at least a month, but repeated searches of his person and cell turned up nothing, leaving authorities to surmise that he was bluffing.
With Werner driving and George sharing the back seat with an inmate in a wheelchair, he opened the handcuffs — either with a key that was never found or some other means — and began kicking the doors open. Werner stopped the van and tried to keep George inside the van but he jumped out into the heart of the downtown Gaslamp Quarter. Trying to get a car, he dragged a woman from her vehicle, but she refused to relinquish her keys. George then continued running toward Fifth Avenue and G Street. Before he reached the corner, Werner — who was prohibited by law from shooting a fleeing felon — caught up with him but the diminutive deputy was no match for George and he knocked her out. He took Werner’s service revolver.
He then stopped a taxicab, pointing the gun at the driver. The driver grabbed the gun and they struggled as the car continued down the street. George bit the driver in the face, before the cabbie managed to get away.
Meanwhile, Champion and his buddy were stopped a light at Fifth and G. The intersection was crowded with people out enjoying a beautiful San Diego autumn night, and in full view of patrons at a trendy sidewalk cafe, George, dressed in his orange jail jumpsuit, accosted Champion by jumping into the backseat.
George demanded the keys but Champion, who apparently did not see the gun, refused.
“Mick told the guy to get out of the car,” the friend told detectives. “Then the guy shot him.”
As the unharmed friend bailed out of the car, George pulled Champion out of the car and drove away.
After a week-long nationwide manhunt, George was arrested by police officers in Compton.
He was eventually convicted of the federal charges and sentenced to life without possibility of parole. George was also convicted of Champion’s murder but managed to escape the death penalty when the jury deadlocked on that question.
After his sentencing in state court, George reportedly celebrated by enjoying a snort of meth that had been smuggled into the jail. He was subsequently arrested and charged with drug possession. It was the 20th time he had been arrested.
George is currently on death row in California