There are not many murder cases stranger than the bizarre tale of John Kmetz who was poisoned by someone who sent him cyanide-laced vitamins through the mail.
Oscar L. Albertson was convicted of the crime, but the California Court of Appeals reversed his conviction and in a sharply worded opinion, questioned why he was ever charged in the first place.
But if Albertson didn’t kill him, who did and why? Chances are, we’ll never know.
Shortly before the entry of the United States into World War II, John Kmetz was a 52-year-old widower with two teenage children who lived in East Los Angeles. Kmetz and his children were active in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and it was through the church that he met Esther Dockham, a 32-year-old Seventh Day Adventist schoolteacher who taught at the East Los Angeles church school.
Esther and John, who worked as a landscape gardener, met in September 1940 and soon began keeping company. John apparently suffered from severe depression which laid him low for days at a time, but his relationship with Esther flourished and they frequently took trips with the children to visit her mother in Hollywood.
In early 1941 Esther told her friends, Eva and Oscar Albertson, that John had proposed marriage. The Albertsons were also devout Seventh Day Adventists although they did not know John Kmetz. Before Esther moved to Los Angeles, she lived for a time with the Albertsons in San Pedro where they kept a small “tent-house” and trailer.
In April 1941, Esther apparently decided to test John’s devotion and she drafted a rather harsh “Dear John” letter in which she broke off the relationship. The letter contained such cruelties as:
Personally I care nothing for you. I never have, and I never can. … I’ve tried to act as if I enjoyed what you did for me and I’ve felt like a hypocrite for accepting things from you. I appreciate what you have done, but please, I don’t want to continue our friendship as we have…I don’t care anything about you and I do not find pleasure anymore in being with you, in fact I don’t enjoy being with you. It’s been almost like a punishment for me the last few times I’ve been with you and the family…
Esther realized that perhaps she was being a little too cruel and that her plan to see where she stood with John might backfire, she started over again in a more gentle tone.
She mailed off her second draft using much softer language to John Kmetz, breaking off their relationship completely.
In early June, Oscar Albertson picked up Esther at her home in Los Angeles and drove her to San Pedro to spend the summer with him and his wife. The next time Esther saw John Kmetz was in August when everyone was attending a church camp at Lynwood.
According to court testimony, Esther and John saw each other a few days later and she explained that she had brushed him off because she was afraid that all he wanted was a housekeeper and mother for his children. When John assured her this was not the case, they reunited and rekindled their romance. The rift was quickly healed.
Esther sent a postcard to her friends on August 14, 1941: “Dear Maw and Paw — Prepare for a shock — Mr. Kmetz and I are to be married Monday night!”
The Sunday before the wedding was the first time that the Albertson and John Kmetz were formally introduced, although they had the nodding familiarity with each other that one has with people who attend the same church or ride the same bus.
During dinner that Sunday evening, Oscar Albertson agreed to give the bride away. The wedding was a small affair. Esther’s mother was ill and unable to attend (her father was deceased), and the only other witnesses to the ceremony were Esther’s brother, the Albertsons, the minister and his wife, two relatives of Kmetz’s and a caterer.
By all accounts, the marriage of Esther and John was a happy one and the Albertsons and Kmetzes were social friends. They visited each other almost weekly and at Albertson’s trial, Esther testified that she was in love with her husband when she married him and was never in love with any other man.
Two weeks after the wedding, a strange incident occurred that investigators would later try to link to Kmetz’s murder. It happened on a Saturday night when the Kmetz family — all except the son — were returning from a visit to Esther’s mother.
Approaching their home, they noticed an older model car similar to the one driven by Albertson parked around the corner. The family got out of their car and unloaded some groceries.
All of the parties were able to agree on when the incident happened because the son had left a note on the front door stating that he would be home at 11 p.m. and Esther remarked that it was almost half-past 10 when they read it.
Esther and the daughter went into the house while Kmetz returned to his car to pull it into the detached garage behind the home.
From inside the house, the women heard a cry and a scuffle and when they rushed outside, they found John had been attacked. His hat was slashed and he suffered a minor head wound. He told his wife that he had grappled with his assailant, but didn’t recognize him.
Shortly after the assault, the car that the Kmetzes had noticed upon their arrival — the one that resembled Albertson’s vehicle — started up and drove away.
That attack was only one of several odd occurrences that night involving the Kmetzes and Albertsons — but not the most bizarre by far.
At approximately the same time as the attack, an LAPD prowl car observed a vehicle run a stop sign at a high rate of speed about four blocks from the Kmetz home. Officer Kellogg gave chase for more than a mile before he found the car abandoned.
The car, registered to Eva Albertson, contained the personal effects, clothing, wallet, and eyeglasses of Oscar Albertson.
Sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. the following morning, three miles away from where the Albertsons’ vehicle was recovered, two other officers found Albertson lying on the road, dressed only in his underwear and socks, holding his head.
The story of how he ended up that was was too fanciful for police to believe, but they took his statement anyway.
It seems that the night before he received a card in the mail, with original spelling and punctuation:
Dear Al — How would you like to be a villiage smithy. a friend of mine about 200 miles north of Los Angeles needs a smith and asked me to try and finde one this week end. He will be here Sat. night or Sun. morn. If interested meet me Sat. night 8 p. m. at cor. Vermont Jefferson Owl drug cigar counter. I have spare room come stay all night to be sure and see him. Friendly yours, George Crocker.
n.b., Some may recognize that corner as being near the heart of USC near Shrine Auditorium.
Because Albertson was an unemployed blacksmith, he figured this was a decent lead on a job. He kept the appointment, but no one showed up at the cigar counter. He decided to wait for a while in his car and within a few minutes a man identifying himself as “Mr. O’Connor” approached the car and said that Crocker could not keep the appointment because he was working at the local Sears-Roebuck store until 9 p.m.
The two strangers chatted idly for a bit until O’Connor suggested that they head over to the Sears store because Crocker was about to go off-duty. Curiously, O’Connor told Albertson that he was an unemployed gardener and was looking for work. Albertson told the police he referred him to Kmetz, writing out his name and address on a card.
They were joined shortly by Crocker who extended his hand and said, “Hello, Al.”
Crocker got into the front seat of the car and pulled out a bottle of liquor and suggested that Albertson have a drink, which he refused.
“This is one time you are going to take a drink,” Crocker said. At the same time, O’Connor stuck something into Albertson’s back which he thought was a gun.
Albertson drank from the bottle as Crocker held it to his lips. He subsequently passed out and awoke shortly before the police arrived.
Although the police discounted Albertson’s story, the next day, the Kmetzes and Albertsons got together and shared their misfortunes. Esther would later tell authorities that she believed Albertson’s account of the events and that the unknown assailants took his car and then went on to attack her husband for some reason.
Despite repeated interviews with police and the insistence of the Kmetzes and Albertsons, the police refused to believe Albertson’s version of events and considered the matters to be unrelated.
“I told him that it appeared very much to me that this robbery was the result of some act of perversion,” one of the investigating officers would testify at Albertson’s trial. “I wanted to know if that was the truth, and he said that it was not.”
Because sitting in the middle of the road in his underwear wasn’t a crime, and there was at the time no indication that Albertson was the one who assaulted Kmetz, the police returned all of Albertson’s belongings to him and ended their investigations.
Things went along quietly for a couple of weeks, but the worst was yet to come.
On September 22, 1941 a man entered a Santa Monica print shop and placed an order for letterhead paper for “The Herb Specialty Company.” The printer who made the 1,000 sheets of letterhead — one of which would later turn up at the home of John Kmetz — would later decline to identify Albertson as the man who placed the order.
The man paid cash for the job and was referred to a stenographer at The Letter Shop in Santa Monica for assistance with multigraphing a pre-photocopying method of cheaply mass producing copies.
After the man picked up the job at the printer on September 24, 1941, he went over to the Letter Shop and dictated a two-page letter that read in part:
Dear Friend: We are selecting a limited number of men in various localities in and about Los Angeles who have reached the age of forty or more whom we believe, without any hesitancy, need healthful help. This help is coming to you absolutely free of charge through the use of ‘vitalizing vitamin vigor.’ Please read this entire letter and then let these vitalizing vitamins put spring in your step. …Here is our plan. We are sending you, under separate cover, a ten days supply of our ‘vitalizing vitamin vigor’ at no cost to you. Follow the simple directions carefully and when this supply is exhausted, if you are satisfied with the amazing results, send us ten names of men that you believe would be benefited by the use of ‘vitalizing vitamin vigor’ and for your trouble and benefit we will send you free of charge a 30 days supply. We believe this way is the best and cheapest advertising and a splendid method of helping each other including the other fellow.
A week later, the same man returned to the Letter Shop and ordered 500 copies of a one-page letter, offering a 10-day supply of a “vitalizing vitamin vigor.”
This stenographer would later testify that Albertson “very closely” resembled the man who placed the two orders.
Her supervisor, who owned the shop and who had talked with the customer about mimeographing the letters, was more sure of herself. She positively identified the man who placed the order as Albertson.
On the morning of October 9, 1941, another “public stenographer” in Hollywood was given a list of 21 names and was asked to address an envelope for each. The 15-minute task cost the man 45 cents, and the stenographer would later testify that she remembered the name Kmetz being on the list because of the unusual spelling. This stenographer testified that the man who ordered the envelopes was Albertson.
The next day was Friday, and Kmetz was “blue and depressed” during the morning. He had apparently snapped out of it by afternoon when Albertson came by and picked up Esther, who was going to spend the weekend with the Albertsons.
When Kmetz and his children returned from church on Saturday, the mailman had left a package and some letters on their front porch. The package came from the “Herb Specialty Company, 1436 N. Wilcox Ave., Hollywood, California.” It had been mailed from the Hollywood post office the day before at 3:30 p.m.
Kmetz took the package inside, put it on a dresser in his bedroom and promptly forgot about it.
Esther returned on Sunday evening about 7 p.m., and the Kmetzes and Albertsons spent a few pleasant moments together before the Albertsons headed back home.
As Kmetz and his wife were preparing for bed, he told her about the package from the Herb Specialty Company and they opened it. Inside they found twelve capsules, although there were compartments for fifteen. Two of the capsules were dark and the other ten light. The box was about three inches long and two inches wide, with a white top and bottom and orange sides. The capsules were held in place by holes or compartments punched in two cardboard trays, and a layer of cotton on top.
In addition, the box contained the letter that had been multigraphed at the Lettershop. It was signed by “Dr. W.W. Mackelroy, Mgr.”
The California Appeals Court reported that the signature “was written in ink but looked as though it might have been traced, and the penmanship was no better than that of a child.”
Esther later testified that Kmetz asked her if she thought he should take the vitamins.
“I told him from what we had read in the letter that it assured us that it could not do any possible harm,” she told the court. “I guessed if he took them it certainly could not harm him in any way.”
Kmetz took the pills to the kitchen, and following the directions that stated he should take the darker pills at bedtime, washed them down with water.
He “immediately said that ‘it made him dizzy,’ the trial testimony revealed. “He came into the bedroom, put the window up, fell back on the bed, let out a ‘horrible groan’ and started breathing very heavily and noisily and frothing at the mouth, with his eyes seeming to bulge.”
Esther called the family physician who arrived and administered an emetic. When that failed to improve Kmetz’s condition, they called an ambulance. By 10:35 p.m., a little over 90 minutes after taking the pills, Kmetz was dead.
Both the physician who treated Kmetz at his house and the first police officer at the scene noted that Esther was acting unusually during the crisis.
“Mrs. Kmetz was very calm and very collected. She was even more or less joking with Mr. and Mrs. McGill,” Officer Edward M. Crum testified, referring to some neighbors who should up. “She treated the whole matter very lightly. She showed no emotion at all. I paid particular attention to it, because I thought that it was rather strange.”
At one point she asked the doctor, “Do you think he is dead yet?”
Officer Crum began investigating and Esther gave him the letter from “Dr. Mackelroy.” He folded the letter and placed under his uniform cap which was resting on top of some furniture. Shortly afterward, he noticed that Esther had taken the letter from where he put it. He retrieved from her and put in his breast pocket. He had to get the envelope back from the McGills, who had taken it home for some reason.
Kmetz was poisoned by cyanide, the autopsy revealed. The police chemists testified that the particular type of cyanide used in the pills — they were all laced with the poison — was Cyanogas,” which is used in agricultural work and was was at the time readily available in any drug or hardware store.
The surviving Kmetz family moved in with the Albertsons until Albertson was arrested for the murder of John Kmetz.
The State of California could not establish any motive for the murder, especially why Albertson would have killed him. There was never any evidence of any improper relationship between him and Esther, a fact which heavily influenced the majority on the appellate court.
Pure speculation that there may have been a romantic attachment between Albertson and Mrs. Kmetz is met by the fact that the evidence without contradiction contains every indication to the contrary. The long marriage of the Albertsons, the fact that they both welcomed Mrs. Kmetz to their home, and the close and intimate friendship existing between the two women, show a relationship which in reasonable probability would not have endured over a period of years before, and continued after the Kmetz marriage and murder, had there been a meretricious attachment between Albertson and Mrs. Kmetz.
The court also noted that Esther did not appear to be unhappy in her marriage, and that it was absurd to think that “out of loyal friendship” Albertson would have “put the husband out of the way.”
Albertson would not have benefited financially, since Kmetz was not significantly more better-off than he was, and the police could never link Albertson with any purchase of Cyanogas.
For the prosecution, however, there were indications that Albertson’s relationship with Esther was more intimate than the majority on the appellate panel believed.
On one occasion in February 1941, Albertson showed up at Esther’s home while she was meeting with a school official. She introduced him as “her uncle.” As the official left, he noted that Albertson’s unoccupied car was parked in front of the house.
Another witness was a student at the school where Esther was teaching in the fall of 1941. He testified that when she called at his home to deliver his grade card he saw Albertson alone in his car in front of the house. On another occasion, the witness said, he saw Albertson and Esther together at church. Mrs. Albertson was not present and they drove away together. On several other occasions, the boy told the jury, he noticed Albertson sitting alone in his car near the school.
Albertson’s first trial ended in a hung jury, and six weeks later, the state opted to retry him.
Oddly, one of the state’s chief witnesses was nowhere to be found when the case came up for retrial.
Esther Kmetz had disappeared and was never located, despite “a diligent search,” according to the court. There is some indication that she disappeared not because she was complicit in the crime, but because she did not want to help put Albertson in prison.
Nevertheless, with several witnesses who swore that Albertson was the man who ordered the stationery linked to the crime, as well as two handwriting experts who grudgingly agreed that Albertson could have signed the letter, the second jury returned a guilty verdict.
What the graphologists didn’t know was that Albertson had been told when giving an exemplar of his handwriting, to make the signature of Mackelroy as similar as he could to the one on the letter.
The appeals court was not unanimous in overturning Albertson’s conviction.
“My associates have also usurped the functions of the jury in asserting that ‘no motive whatsoever is shown’ for appellant’s commission of the homicide, wrote the dissenting judge. “Preliminarily, it should be stated that while proof of motive is always material, and the absence of motive may be considered by the jury on the side of innocence, it is not an essential factor in the proof of a crime.”
He pointed out that Albertson was a blacksmith by trade and cyanide is used in tempering steel. He also noted that a police chemist stated that the glue used to make the box in which the poison vitamins came in was identical in chemical composition to glue found in Albertson’s trailer.