Ray Lisenba’s wives had the worst luck.
It’s unusual enough to be injured in a car wreck; it’s even more bizarre to die just a few days later in the bathtub. That was how the first Mrs. Lisenba met her death. Imagine how shocked Ray’s friends were when just a few years later, the second Mrs. Lisenba would be bit by a rattlesnake in her garden and fall into her goldfish pond and drown.
Fortunately, the Southern California barber had life insurance policies on his wives. That must have made the sting of fate seem a little less cruel.
His scams might have worked, but Ray tried to get too cute and that brought the attention of the investigators. In the end, all Ray got was an exclusive seat in the gas chamber.
In 1932, Ray Lisenba met Winona Wallace in Colorado and the two became engaged. After a brief courtship, Ray and Winona wed and subsequently met with C.A. Pries, an insurance salesman from Prudential Life who set the young couple up with a pair of $5,000 insurance policies. The Lisenbas kept Winona’s policy current (it carried a double indemnity clause for accidental death), but after three months, let Ray’s lapse.
On September 21, 1932, the happy couple was driving over Pikes Peak Highway near Glen Cove, Colorado. Ray was looking out the window with binoculars and Winona was driving when the car suddenly left the road, Ray told the investigators who came across the accident scene.
Ray told police that as the car tumbled down the mountainside he managed to jump free about 50 feet from the road way. Unfortunately, Winona, trapped in the vehicle, rode it all the way down until it stopped against a large boulder, about 150 feet below the road.
When rescuers got to the scene, they found Winona still alive on the right hand side of the car with her feet on the running board and her head pointing down the hill. For someone who had been in a tremendous wreck, she was in relatively good shape. Her clothes were free of dirt, but there was a lot of blood in the car, especially on the passenger’s side and floorboard. She also smelled of liquor and had a massive wound behind her ear.
Winona was released from the hospital on October 8, and was recovering at a cottage in Manitou Springs when about a week later, Ray asked the local grocer to deliver some groceries to their cabin. He also begged a ride home with the delivery man. When they entered the cabin, they found Winona lying on her back in a half-filled tub of lukewarm water.
At the coroner’s inquest, medical examiner George B. Gilmore testified that Ray told him that his wife had apparently ignored physician’s orders to avoid washing her hair because of the head wound and had drowned as a result.
Prudential eventually paid off on Winona’s policy. It wasn’t until the second Mrs. Lisenba had an accident that anyone bothered to perform an autopsy on the unlucky first wife. At that time, the medical examiner testified that she suffered fractures of the skull from two blows, one on the side and the other on the front of the head; that the fractures had been caused by a hard, moving object being projected against the head and not by the head being projected against a hard, stationary object; and that the blow on the side of the head had been received first.
Why the first Mrs. Lisenba never raised an alarm after the car accident is unknown.
Regardless, three years later in March 1935, Ray was operating a barbershop when he met Mary Emma James, who would become his second wife. Ray had been hanging around with Charles Hope when one day in June 1935, Ray asked Charles if he knew anything about rattlesnakes. Ray went on to say that he “had a friend” who had a wife he wanted to kill and wanted to use rattlers as the weapon.
Apparently, Charles knew someone who handled rattlesnakes, because Ray offered him $100 plus expenses for three rattlesnakes.
A few days later, Charles dropped off three rattlesnakes and purchased wood-and-glass containers for them. However, in early July, Ray indicated that the man was not happy with the snakes because they were too mellow. The man needed snakes that were “fighters.”
Charles and Ray headed over to the Ocean Park Snake Pit, and on August 3, 1935, two days before Mary Emma would be murdered, a snake handler named Joe Houtenbrink, aka “Snake Joe,” delivered a pair of nasty rattlers that he thought were going to be used to settle a bet (Could a rattlesnake kill a dog or would the dog take out the snake was the ruse, apparently).
As if the strange case of Ray Lisenba could not get any weirder, it did.
Charles brought the snakes to Ray on August 4, only to find Mary Emma, who was pregnant at the time, dressed in her nightgown, strapped to the kitchen table. Her eyes and mouth had been taped shut by Lisenba.
Ray told Charles that he managed to get his wife on the table by telling her a doctor was coming to “perform some kind of operation on her for pregnancy.”
Charles watched as Ray put Mary Emma’s foot in the box with the two snakes and the serpents bit the woman. He then left the house, returned the snakes to “Snake Joe” and picked up his wife.
Returning to the house at at 1:30 a.m., August 4, Charles found Ray in quite a state. The snakes were no good, Ray told him. Mary Emma wasn’t even sick.
Ray had been drinking, and he decided that he was going to drown his wife.
Ray emerged from house about 4 a.m., telling Charles, “That’s that.”
Charles left, telling Ray that he still expected to paid the $100 for getting the snakes.
That evening, Ray invited Viola and James Pemberton over to have dinner. They entered the house, but didn’t see Mary Emma. Ray suggested looking for her in the garden.
Grabbing flashlights, they headed out back. James Pemberton found Mary Emma face down in the fish pond. Her left leg looked black and swollen.
Police were summoned and the grieving husband was advised that his poor wife had apparently been bitten by a rattlesnake and in her shock, she had fallen into the pond and drowned.
A $5,000 insurance policy with double indemnity would help assuage his pain.
Things would have gone unnoticed if Lisenba, who somewhere along the line had acquired the nickname Rattlesnake James, had not been suspected of sleeping with his niece, which under California law at the time was a felony offense. He was arrested and charged with incest on April 19, 1936.
Apparently, the cops gave Ray a bit of the third-degree.
After some preliminary questioning in the office of the district attorney, he was taken by the officers to a private home, adjoining that where the defendant had been living with his niece, and where admittedly he was held incommunicado for a period of about forty-eight hours, during all of which time he was admittedly subjected to incessant questioning by the officers who worked in shifts. The defendant was apparently deprived of rest and sleep during practically all of such period.
During this questioning, authorities “uncovered and developed the criminal character” of Mary Emma’s death a few months before.
However, Ray held out and it wasn’t until May 3, 1936 that he confessed to the plot to kill his second wife.
According to Ray, he and Charles had planned to kill Mary Emma for the insurance money, but when the snakes failed to work, Ray left the scene and told Charles to fix it by burning downing the house. Unfortunately, Charles opted to drown the victim, which Ray said was the worst thing he could have done (since the first Mrs. Lisenba died that way) and that now they had to figure something else out.
Fortunately, by this time the snakebite had taken hold and was beginning to discolor the corpse’s foot. That’s how the two of them figured out to put her in the fish pond, where her husband and the dinner guests found her.
For their troubles, Ray Lisenba received the death penalty and Charles Hope was sentenced to life in prison.
The United States Supreme Court expressed some curiosity about the Third Degree Ray received, but in the end decided it wasn’t enough to spare his life. He was one of the last prisoners hanged at San Quentin before the state began using gas to execute convicts.