Throw Momma from the Cliff

John Briggs

The odd case of John Robert Briggs clearly has earned a prominent place in the Malefactor’s Register for any number of reasons.
First of all, because Briggs was accused and convicted of attempting to kill his wife and mother-in-law by pushing them over a Southern California cliff is unusual enough, but when coupled with the fact that his weapon of choice was actually a 1958 Mercury with the strange push-button Merc-O-Matic automatic transmission makes the case even more bizarre.
Furthermore, the fact that his wife, one of his alleged victims was actually a key defense witness puts the “crime” among a small group of cases where the victim and the prosecutors are actually on different sides. And finally, that the good people of California would actually believe the outrageous tale told by his crazy mother-in-law is the icing on the cake.
From Briggs’ perspective, the good news is that the criminal justice system actually functioned according to the plans of the Founding Fathers and after a unanimous appeals court later overturned the conviction, the State of California dropped the matter.
Even after Briggs had been married to her daughter for 10 happy years and presented her with three lovely grandchildren, Mary D. Nilson still hated John Briggs with every fiber of her being and was convinced that he was nothing but a fortune hunter who was after her daughter’s considerable wealth.
Mrs. Nilson, a widow, had demanded and received a number of concessions from her daughter, Norma, regarding their family’s fortune before and after Norma married Briggs, but she repeatedly warned Norma that one day, John would cause her daughter’s “fiery death.”
Mrs. Nilson was clearly mentally ill, and according to the appeals court lived her own life vicariously through that of her daughter.
“In her diary, she reviled him and referred to him in the lowest of terms,” the court wrote. “The diary is full of expressions of hatred for her son-in-law.”
What caused this burning disgust?
“The diary makes the unintended revelation that the mother lived no life of her own except through her daughter,” the court continued. “It discloses no specific basis for such hatred other than the fact that Briggs had taken her daughter from her. It reveals the writer as a woman who believed that she had lost her daughter’s love and would go to any extent to regain that lost relationship.”
Other witnesses at Briggs’s trial revealed incidents where Mrs. Nilson’s passionate contempt for her son-in-law was expressed.
It was explained that on the day of her daughter’s wedding, at the reception at the Nilson mansion, Mrs. Nilson took the melodramatic act of stopping the hands of an impressive grandfather clock at the time of the wedding, announcing to the guests that “since her life had stopped at that moment, the clock would run no more.”
At trial, Mrs. Nilson denied making such a statement, and said that she simply stopped the clock because it was “too noisy.”
“She was unable to deny that it has always been allowed to operate previously, had not been started again in the 10 years which followed, or that any attempt had been made to repair it.”
In defense of the prosecution’s case there was some basis for looking at the unfortunate events on the Pacific Palisades above Los Angeles as perhaps something more than an accident, but when examined in the aftermath, even the “evidence” that suggests the incident that sent the Merc flying down a cliff was more than happenstance falls apart.
The day started out fairly normally, with John and Norma Briggs agreeing to drive Mrs. Nilson, who had apparently spent the previous evening in their home back to her estate. Up to a certain point there is no disagreement among the witnesses as to what happened. However, after the car went off the road, Briggs, his wife, and her mother tell vastly different accounts.
On July 20, 1959, the three set out from the Briggs’s home toward Mrs. Nilson’s house in Wilshire. John Briggs was driving the Merc, with his wife sitting in the middle and Mrs. Nilson on the extreme right. Although the car belonged to Mrs. Nilson, it was normally driven by the Briggs. After they left the house in Pacific Palisades, the trio stopped to get gas where John filled the car and a spare 5-gallon container that was in the car. The prosecution would later surmise that the extra gas was put into the trunk to make the car more likely to explode.
The night before, John had mentioned that a real estate agent had found some property for the Briggs family to look at in the foothills above LA, and he suggested that rather drive directly from Pacific Palisades to Wilshire, the next day the three of them take a look at the property.
However, at his trial, Mrs. Nilson testified that after the family set out on the morning of the 20th, neither John nor Norma Briggs would tell her why they decided to take the circuitous route through the Santa Monica mountains to Wilshire. She added that as they drove through the hills, she “protested the side trip during all of the journey.”
On the stand, Briggs was unable to recall the name of the real estate broker who touted him on the property.
As he drove through the hills of Santa Monica, John noticed that the car was beginning to overheat and he pulled over to the side of the road. John stopped the car by “simply removing his right foot from the accelerator pedal and depressing the ‘emergency’ or parking brake, with his left foot.”
He popped the hood and tinkered for a moment, then returned to the car. The three discussed whether or not to leave the motor running with the hood open to allow the engine to cool.
Without warning, the car lurched ahead, the wheels turned to the right and it went over a cliff, coming to a stop for a couple of moments on a small ledge about 60 feet below the road.
The car was still in an upright position, and the mother and daughter remained inside. John Briggs had toppled down the cliff beside the car and briefly appeared beside the wreck before it spilled down the canyon.
There were two wildly different views of what transpired.
Mrs. Nilson testified that after that car overheated, John exited the vehicle, lifted the hood, and “did something with his hands” near the engine. Then, she swore, he returned to the door, reached in and pushed some of the buttons, prompting the car to start forward. She told the jury that Norma Briggs had struggled with her husband for control of the wheel and the brake pedal, but could not prevent the car from flying over the cliff.
When the car came to rest on the ledge 60 feet below the road, neither woman — according to Mrs. Nilson — had received any injury. According to the mother-in-law, when the car came to rest for the first time, John ran up to it, shouting at his wife, “Why did you put your foot on the brake?” John Briggs looked “insane, with glazed eyes, and he was shaking all over,” she said.
According to Mrs. Nilson, after he found that his wife and mother-in-law had survived the fall, he went to the trunk of the car, obtained a “blue rock” and started beating the two women with it. At this point in its recital of the facts, the appeals court stated, “How any person could get into the rear trunk and obtain a loose object (which must have slid to the front) while the car was on a grade, established by the prosecution to been almost a cliff, remains unexplained.”
Mrs. Nilson then said John ran off and her daughter, taking advantage of the pause in his assault, escaped the car and either ran or tumbled to the bottom of the canyon. John then returned to the scene of his crime and once again started beating her with the rock. Mrs. Nilson managed to throw away his glasses and then grabbed the rock. After that, John and Mrs. Nilson got out of the car and it tumbled the rest of the way down the mountain. John abandoned Mrs. Nilson at that point to look for his wife. Mrs. Nilson told jurors that she then “hung onto the cliff for three and a half hours by grasping the brush which grew there.”
Ultimately she was rescued by police and fire.
For her part, Norma Briggs told a completely different version of what happened.
After John exited the car to check on the overheated engine, she could see his hands because of the way the hood was lifted (it hinged at the front) and he never touched the engine. Being a tall woman, she was thrown off balance because of the transmission hump and as John returned to the vehicle, her foot hit the accelerator, causing the car to move forward. Panicking, she reached for the wheel and it turned to the right, launching the car over the edge of the precipice. The ride down the side of the cliff knocked her out momentarily and when she awoke, her mother was screaming that John was trying to kill them.
John appeared at the window and told the women to remain calm, and Norma agreed with her mother only on the point that John looked particularly frazzled at this point. Despite her mother’s warnings that John was trying to kill them, he never made any threatening moves toward either woman.
Unfortunately, John, trying to calm the women, told them that he was going to back the car up the hill, which Norma knew was impossible. Her husband’s appearance, coupled with his insane idea about driving the car back off the ledge, her mother’s harangues, her wounds, and the stress of the moment caused her to panic and she leapt from the car and ran away.
She then fell to the bottom of the canyon and hid beneath some brush until she was located several hours later.
John Briggs admitted trying to push the buttons on the Merc-O-Matic tranny, but said he tried to put the car in reverse and was unsuccessful. Because he had reached through the window, when the car went over the cliff, he was dragged along with it.
After his wife disappeared, Mrs. Nilson told him to go for help, so he climbed up the cliff and tried to walk along the road. He was delirious from his wounds and when he was discovered by rescuers he was “unable to talk coherently, and drooling or foaming at the mouth.”
In the aftermath, the State of California accepted much of Mrs. Nilson’s account of events and charged John Briggs with attempted murder, based on her allegations that he was trying to kill her and her daughter to get his hands on their money. However, a more-than-cursory investigation would have revealed that John Briggs was financially set without his wife’s money, he stood to gain nothing from her death because her money was held in trust and his mother-in-law clearly hated him.
After John Briggs was arrested, Norma posted his bail and refused to believe her mother’s accounts. Despite the obvious indication that Mrs. Nilson was mentally unbalanced and there was no motive for the crime, Briggs was convicted at trial.
The trial court granted his motion for bail pending appeal — a solid indicator that court disagreed with the verdict and two years later, the California appeals court tossed out the verdict and ordered a new trial, but the state never bothered to refile the charges.
Although the case ended happily for the Briggs family, Mrs. Nilson was not so fortunate. Her diary reveals that after John was arrested, her allegations caused her daughter to break off their relationship. She apparently went on to live a very lonely life.
“There is not a single mention (in the diary) of a visit to (or even the name of) a friend,” the court wrote. On Christmas Day after the trial, Mrs. Nilson reported that she prepared a Christmas dinner for herself and ate it alone. No one telephoned or came to the house.