Con Man and Killer

That Larry Lord Motherwell was a liar and con man is indisputable: he admitted as much under oath. That Motherwell was a murderer is also not in doubt: he was convicted of killing a 72-year-old widow and dumping her body in a remote California canyon. That Motherwell was also a serial killer is a little less certain, but the circumstantial evidence sure points that way.
Motherwell was born in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in 1916 and was named Frank Eugene Caventer. There is nothing in his early life that would indicate that Motherwell, who adopted that name in the early 1950s, had anything but a normal childhood. He next surfaced in Youngstown, Ohio, with his first wife and their two children in the late 1930s. Motherwell apparently worked various construction jobs and during World War II was a gandydancer.
Motherwell had no military service, but in 1945 he was arrested in Minneapolis and convicted of “wearing a military discharge button.” He served a six-month jail term.
By that time Motherwell’s wife had divorced him and in 1948 he moved to suburban Washington, D.C., where he passed himself off as a “recuperating war veteran.”
It was in Washington that he became friends with a gregarious 62-year-old neighbor, Pearl Putney, who was the widow of Albert H. Putney, prominent attorney, former U.S. State Department official, and professor at Washington’s American University.
Pearl was an active sportswoman who loved to travel and was described as “a nice, respectable old lady.” She did have one quirk that made her very attractive to the self-described con man: she liked to keep large sums of cash and liquid assets at her disposal, and was not afraid to carry as much as $20,000 (nearly $140,000 today) with her.
Motherwell convinced Pearl that he was a retired Navy officer and doctor who was a frequent guest at the White House and who traveled around the world on “secret military missions.”
There is evidence that Pearl doubted the veracity of some of Motherwell’s claims. In October 1957 she wrote in her diary that she saw him on the streets of D.C. after he broke a dinner date with her because of one of his secret missions. She also wrote about one dinner he claimed he attended at the White House where Queen Elizabeth “kissed him.”
In 1949 Motherwell married and moved away from the apartment building he shared with Pearl. His wife was a frail lady from Alabama named Sarah McLurken, who worked as a librarian at the Carnegie Institution in Washington. There is little record of what type of marriage the Motherwells shared, but Motherwell continued to visit and fraternize with Pearl over the course of this union.
Four years after they were married, Sarah gave birth to a child with Down Syndrome, whom they named Heather Robin. At that time, children with Down Syndrome frequently were institutionalized at a very young age, and the Motherwells placed Heather in a Virginia “home for retarded children,” according to press reports.
Just a few months after Heather was born, Sarah mysteriously drowned while taking a bath. Motherwell reportedly found her floating face up in the bathtub after returning home one day. Police ruled her death accidental.
In the spring of 1954, Motherwell showed up at the institution where Heather was living and took her out of the home. He told officials there that he was planning to move to Florida and wanted to take the child with him.
Heather was never seen alive again.
The day after he removed Heather from the home, Motherwell showed up at the Maryland farm of a fellow church member with a small, homemade coffin. He told the farmer, Dwight McCain, that the coffin contained the remains of his beloved dog that had saved his life during the Korean War. McCain was a dog breeder who maintained a pet cemetery and allowed Motherwell to bury the coffin there. According to McCain, over the years Motherwell often returned to the site for visits.
Later in 1954 Motherwell was convicted in Tennessee of impersonating a naval officer and received two years probation.
He married for a third (and final) time in 1956 to the former Josephine Smiraldo, who often put up with Motherwell’s frequent long-term disappearances — accepting his explanation that he was a government operative engaged in top secret missions.
When Pearl’s 95-year-old mother passed away, Motherwell was on hand to help Pearl manage her $50,000 inheritance ($350,000 in current dollars). With Motherwell’s help, the 72-year-old widow began to dispose of many of her belongings, particularly her furniture. She also sold the cooperative apartment with Motherwell’s help. The buyer later recalled that Pearl introduced her friend as “my step-brother, Dr. Motherwell.”
In June 1958 Pearl placed the last of her belongings in storage, took $20,000 in cash and $30,000 in securities and headed off on a road trip with Motherwell. As with Heather, Pearl’s friends and family never saw her alive again.
The month-long trek began in Washington and headed through North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida before turning westward across the gulf states. In Sarasota, Florida, Pearl withdrew an additional $13,000 in cash she had transferred there before leaving home. At various motels the pair registered under a variety of names including Dr. and Mrs. Motherwell and Dr. and Mrs. Putney.
Tracing their path was not difficult for police because Pearl frequently sent postcards to her younger brother, Castro M. Debrohua, who lived in Illinois. The last postcard from Pearl was dated August 15, 1958 and postmarked Marysville, California, a city 40 miles north of Sacramento and just west of Reno, Nevada. The next day, Debrohua received a telegram allegedly from Pearl sent from San Francisco that prompted him to contact Washington, D.C. authorities.
“By the time you read this, I will be married,” the telegram stated. “We’re flying to Mexico for the ceremony.”
Meanwhile, records would later show, Motherwell had traveled from Marysville to Reno, and from there to San Francisco. He was in that city the day the telegram to Debrouha was sent.
Motherwell returned to Washington, D.C., where he was questioned by police about his trip with Pearl. He reportedly told them very little, but further investigation by police located a woman in Sarasota, Florida, who said Pearl introduced Motherwell as her fiance.
By the time police went back to Motherwell with some follow-up questions, he had disappeared again. His wife told authorities that he was away on a secret mission.
The search for Motherwell eventually led police to the institution where his infant daughter had been living in Maryland. They attempted to trace her location in Florida, but the institution where Motherwell claimed he had taken her did not exist.
Motherwell’s need to impress his friends helped Frederick, Maryland, police quickly locate the pet cemetery where he had buried his faithful dog. Before leaving on his trip with Pearl, Motherwell held a going-away party for himself — he told friends that he was heading to Red China — and spoke at great length about the dog he had had to bury.
Authorities by this time knew he had no military service, so they quickly exhumed the coffin. Inside they found the badly decomposed body of a 12-to-14 month old baby girl.
A nationwide manhunt was quickly launched and in late 1958 Motherwell was arrested by Las Vegas police and returned to Maryland. At the time of his arrest he was driving a new sedan, had $1,600 in cash on him, gave his name as Art Rivers, and was telling people that he was a foreign correspondent who had just returned from an assignment in Cuba.
He avoided prosecution for Heather’s death because the medical examiner was unable to determine a cause of death. Motherwell admitted that Heather had died under his care, but he said she choked on her bottle and that he buried her in a panic.
Heather’s unusual death and Pearl’s unusual disappearance kept Motherwell under the police microscope. He told authorities that he and Pearl had separated in Las Vegas in August 1958 when she decided to marry a South American diplomat he knew only as “Mr. D’Avious.” He claimed that Pearl had hired him as a driver for $1,000 a month and had given him $3,000 when they separated in Las Vegas.
He could not explain the coincidence that he had checked into a hotel in Marysville on August 14, and that Pearl, whom he had left in Las Vegas, sent her brother a card the next day postmarked Marysville.
Without a body, however, police were powerless to arrest Motherwell.
The case broke open exactly a year after Pearl disappeared when a group hunting for pine cones along a logging road in a remote Sierra County canyon stumbled across portions of an adult skeleton. The skeleton had been covered with brush, but animals had carried off all but about a quarter of the bones. Fortunately for investigators, the skull was present and showed indications of a violent attack. A search of the nearby area revealed a woman’s clothing that friends identified as belonging to Pearl Putney.
Pearl’s identity was confirmed through dental records and a murder warrant was issued for Motherwell. Again, when police came looking, he had disappeared. This time October 1959, he was found attempting to board a plane in Atlanta headed toward Cleveland, Ohio. He had been romancing a Cleveland woman he met on a flight from Miami and had given her jewelry traced back to Pearl.
“He told me it belonged to his grandmother,” she later testified.
Motherwell’s trial began in February 1960 in the small town of Downieville, California, near where the bones were found and just about two hours from Reno. Because Sierra County prosecutors had never tried a death penalty case before, the California Attorney General agreed to pay for the services of Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Lynn “Buck” Compton to assist local prosecutors.
The three-week trial revealed Motherwell’s callous personality. Numerous witnesses testified that he had disposed of Pearl’s jewelry and belongings as gifts with occasional promises of marriage. Others talked about his grandiose and outlandish claims of international intrigue.
Taking the stand in his own defense, Motherwell told an unbelievable story. He said that he had agreed to take Pearl on what she called “a last fling trip.” He was unaware that she had developed feelings of affection for him and said she was mistaken when she told a friend in Sarasota that the 43-year-old man was planning to divorce his wife to marry her.
Motherwell said the trip started to go wrong in New Orleans when a drunken Pearl tried to become intimate.
“She flopped herself across the bed and gave me a very demonstrative kiss,” he testified. “She said ‘Here’s my man.’”
Motherwell testified he was “quite taken aback” and gave her “a little lecture on the evils of alcohol and sex.” According to him, the lecture had no effect. Her response, he said, was that “she was really beginning to live.”
They continued on the trip, checking into motels as husband and wife because Motherwell claimed Pearl had told him she was afraid to stay alone.
Finally acknowledging that they were in Marysville together, Motherwell said it was there that they had their final confrontation.
He claimed that once again she propositioned him while she was drunk and said that “I was being paid enough to think of her as a woman.” He insisted that they leave Marysville immediately and at 3 a.m., they drove back to Las Vegas where she composed the telegram to her brother.
“This concerned me because she told me she wanted to make love to me the night before,” he testified.
In what should be considered a classic cross-examination, Buck Compton picked Motherwell apart, piece by piece. He showed that 11 days after Motherwell’s wife Sarah had died, he applied for a new apartment with his wife “Sally.”
Motherwell demanded proof and was confronted with the lease application in his own handwriting. Compton then challenged Motherwell’s statement on a sworn affidavit that he changed his name because he had been raised by an aunt. In testimony prior to cross, Motherwell described growing up in Ohio with his mother and father. Compton introduced papers found in Motherwell’s possession — drivers’ licenses, Social Security cards, library cards and other documents — that identified him him either as Allen Dunbar Foster or Allen Michel Dunbar.
A resume for Dunbar, asserting that his multi-million dollar steel mill in Cuba had been nationalized by Fidel Castro, was also among the papers.
“I’m a con man, but not for profit,” Motherwell admitted to Compton. “Let’s say some times I am a liar and I impress people. That’s conning people, isn’t it? Sometimes I deliberately say and tell things to people to see how much people will believe.”
How could the jury believe what he was saying now, Compton wondered.
“You wouldn’t lie if anything was at stake, would you?” Compton asked.
“I’m under oath,” Motherwell replied, visibly shaken.
“You were under oath when you signed the affidavit to change your name, weren’t you?” Compton charged.
After his disastrous testimony, Motherwell left the stand ashen faced and shaking. He was the last witness to testify and the case went to closing arguments. Again, Compton was masterful.
“We know she believed he was going to divorce his wife, Josephine, and marry her,” Compton continued. “Mrs. Putney belonged to a large sorority of women who were taken in by this psychopath.”
About the murder, Buck Compton summarized the circumstantial case.
“We know that the body was covered by a human being, that it was covered by bark, twigs and rocks and that the body was stripped of its clothing and identity,” he said. “There can be no doubt that Pearl Putney was murdered in Turner Canyon.”
There was simply no one else who had motive or opportunity to kill her.
“Not one friend or acquaintance of Mrs. Putney saw her alive but Motherwell after they left Sarasota,” he said. “Her relationship with Motherwell was probably closer than with anyone else in the world.”
Motherwell was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. However, the California Court of Appeals reduced the conviction to second degree murder because there was no evidence of premeditation.
Motherwell was sentenced again to 5-years-to-life. He died in San Quentin prison of a heart attack in February 1966.
As for allegations that Motherwell was a serial killer, sometime after his trial, the Frederick, Maryland police chief revealed that one of Motherwell’s girlfriends told him that Motherwell had deliberately capsized his boat with her and her two daughters in the Ohio River and had with a paddle tried to kill the children.
The chief also said Motherwell confessed to him about the killing of seven women and told him that his greatest sorrow was the Heather Motherwell case because “he had buried her alive.”