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.
The 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.