Tag Archive for California

Always Read the Fine Print

Louis Gosden, murderer

WALTER NEFF
Not if there’s an insurance company in the picture, baby. So long as you’re honest they’ll pay you with a smile, but you just try to pull something like that and you’ll find out.
They know more tricks than a carload of monkeys. And if there’s a death mixed up in it, you haven’t got a prayer. They’ll hang you as sure as ten dimes will buy a dollar, baby.
~”Double Indemnity,” Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

When Louis Gosden was on trial for the strychnine poisoning of his third wife for the insurance money, he probably realized his days were numbered when his only supporters turned their backs on him.
 
During his 1935 trial in Oakland, Gosden was warmly greeted by his elderly parents every time he appeared in court until the last day of testimony. It was then that they learned that Louis probably had them on the short list for murder until a better target came along.
 
One of the key prosecution arguments at the trial was that Gosden forged his late wife’s signature on an accidental death insurance policy. Gosden denied this assertion, so Deputy District Attorney Warren Olney sought to hammer home the point by proving Gosden previously forged his parents’ signatures on similar policies.
 
Courtroom observers could clearly see a change come over the older Gosdens when Olney showed them each insurance policies on their lives and asked if the signatures were valid. Both answered that the signatures were forgeries.
 
“Gosden has been accustomed to greet his parents at the end of day’s court session, but last night the greeting was refused by his parents, Mrs. Lucy Gosden and Nick Gosden, who had also testified on behalf of his son,” the Oakland Tribune reported. “Both parents brushed by their son without sign of recognition, even when he raised his manacled hands in his customary salute.”
 
An unemployed plumber, Gosden killed his wife of five years, Laura, on November 20, 1934 at their home in Oakland, California. As one might expect, the motive was money, but there was a sideshow featuring a pregnant “girl-bride” and a “criminal operation” (i.e., an abortion).
 
There was also a great irony: Gosden killed two women for the insurance payout and never received a nickel, even though the deaths were not ruled suspicious at the time. It turned out that Gosden did not read the fine print and confused accidental death policies with ordinary life insurance.
 
This was not the first time Gosden, 31, lost a wife due to sudden illness. In 1928, his second wife, Vivian, died under mysterious circumstances in Sunnyvale six months after their marriage. Gosden’s first marriage was annulled in 1925 after four years.
 
Details of how Vivian, who was 17 when she married Gosden (His first wife was also 17 at the time of their marriage), died are vague, but the similarities between her death and that of Laura are remarkable. By all accounts both women were healthy up to the time they were stricken, which indicates Gosden had not been giving them poison over a long time period. Both were dead within hours of being poisoned. No medical aid was called until 20 minutes before each died and both times Gosden told the first responders that he did not call earlier because his wife did not want him to leave her side. Gosden also told doctors that both wives had gone into convulsions after eating.
 
Gosden ParentsVivian’s death certificate issued by her attending physician listed double pneumonia as the cause of death. This same physician testified at Gosden’s trial and after learning more of the facts and circumstances surrounding her death, admitted he was in error in issuing the certificate, and that he was of the opinion that Vivian Gosden’s death was caused by strychnine poisoning. It is not fair to be too critical of the attending doctor for assuming Vivian died of pneumonia. The poison prevents the proper operation of the chemical that controls nerve signals to the muscles. When this signal does not get through, muscles throughout the body have severe, painful spasms.
 
Strychnine poisoning’s effects also include nausea, vomiting and difficulty breathing in common with pneumonia. Considering that people who are exposed to large amounts of strychnine have trouble breathing within 15 to 30 minutes of ingestion of the poison as their muscles weaken and combined with the other symptoms, a physician who is not expecting foul play could easily call it pneumonia. Vivian’s doctor said he had not been told of her muscle spasms, which would have caused him to investigate further.
 
Approximately a week before Vivian died, Gosden took out accidental death policies on himself and his wife. It is clear that Vivian knew of the policies because her signature was on the various forms and the insurance agent testified that Vivian did not want to take the physical exam because she was pregnant. That decision came back to haunt Gosden; when he went to collect on her life insurance Gosden learned that the policy had never been in force because there was no medical examination.
 
Having wasted money on an invalid insurance policy and now without a potential victim, Gosden began looking at his parents as potential targets and forged their signatures on accidental death policies. It was probably simplicity, rather than familial love, that prompted Gosden to find a more suitable victim in the form of a new wife.
 
Things were going well for the family until Gosden lost his job as a plumber in August 1934. When he lost his position, his bank account had been reduced to slightly over $50. However, Gosden took out two policies of insurance on September 5, and one on September 8, 1934, paying premiums of $19.75. These policies were all on Laura’s life with Gosden as the beneficiary. Two of these policies were payable in case of accidental death, and the other was payable in the event of death due to natural causes.
 
There is some uncertainty as to whether Laura knew, or at least realized, about any of these policies, or that she signed all three, or any, of the applications.
 
“This question is not of any material importance, as we view this case,” wrote the California Supreme Court in upholding the conviction and sentence. “The fact remains that Gosden either with or without the knowledge of his wife procured policies of insurance upon her life payable to himself as beneficiary, and these were secured only a short time before the death of his wife.”
 
Three weeks later, Gosden purchased strychnine from a local drug store under the assumed name of L. N. Larsen and listed a fake address. The druggist’s register showed that the purpose of his purchase of the poison was to “kill a kitty”.
 
At the time of his arrest Gosden first denied the purchase of the strychnine, but later admitted that he bought some to kill rats at his father’s home in Sunnyvale. He testified at the trial that he used the strychnine to exterminate the rats, but that he did not tell either his father or mother what he was doing.
 
“I did not tell my father because I thought he might object to having poison put out,” Gosden testified at his trial. “I told my wife what I was going to do and she told me not to give my right name when I bought the poison. I asked her why I should not and she said ‘it’s better not to.'”
 
He told his defense attorney, a very young Melvin Belli, that he did not tell the police he bought the poison because, “I figured if I did they might try to frame me.”
 
A short time after his arrest a small bottle, corresponding in size and shape with the bottle in which the druggist sold the strychnine to Gosden, and in which there had been strychnine, was found under Gosden’s house. Gosden testified that his wife knew of his purchase of the poison and had access to it.
 
According to his testimony, on the day of Laura’s death she was in usual health but became ill about 7 p.m. At about 10:30 p.m. she said she was getting worse. Gosden said he suggested that he get a doctor but she would not let him. A little later in the evening Gosden went for a doctor but returned without one, stating that the stores were all closed at that hour of the night. The Gosdens had no telephone in their home and evidently Gosden wished to have it appear that he endeavored to find a telephone at some of the near-by stores to be used in telephoning for a doctor.
 
A witness who lived next door to the Gosdens, testified that she went into her bathroom at about about 11 p.m. From her window she saw Gosden and his wife in the kitchen. She could hear indistinctly their conversation.
 
“After Gosden returned from his unsuccessful search for a doctor, which was about 11 o’clock, Mrs. Gonsalves heard Mrs. Gosden tell her husband to go across the street to the Cereghinos and phone for a doctor,” the appellate decision reads. “Again she told him to hurry and get a doctor. Gosden left the house, but instead of going for a doctor stood outside under the kitchen window listening to the groans and cries of his wife. He walked back and forth in the shadow of the house, but in plain view of Mrs. Gonsalves, for about an hour.”
 
About two hours later, Laura herself called her neighbor, who rushed to the Gosden home.
 
Immediately on hearing this Gosden went into his house and said to his wife: “What did you want to bother that woman for?” Laura replied that she had to have somebody. The doctor arrived at the Gosdens’ house in about ten minutes. He remained with her until the time of her death, which occurred about one-half hour after his arrival.
 
On the day of his wife’s death Gosden called an undertaker and ordered a $500 funeral, offering as evidence of his ability to pay the cost of the funeral first one and then the other of the two accident policies.
 
Lydia SanbornOne can imagine Gosden’s shock when the undertaker rejected the policies because they were payable only in case of accidental death, while Laura’s death certificate listed pneumonia. However, a helpful employee of the funeral parlor “helpfully” suggested that they could say she died after eating tainted tuna fish. Unfortunately, that meant an autopsy, so Gosden had now killed two women for the insurance money, gotten away with the murders, and still not collected a dime.
 
It was the last of Gosden’s teenage lovers who brought about his downfall.
 
Lydia Sanborn, a 17-year-old bride of just two months, had come back to Oakland from Calaveras County to get her marriage annulled, when she met Gosden. Again, details are lacking about how the two connected.
 
When I met Mr. Gosden, I was working in the neighborhood where he lived with his wife,” Lydia told The Oakland Tribune. “When his wife died, I went over to see if there wasn’t something I could do. Later he offered me the job as his housekeeper and I accepted. Before long we were living together as man and wife.”
 
At some point in the relationship, Lydia became pregnant and Gosden helped her procure an abortion. When the operation required medical attention, Lydia was arrested for delinquency and spilled the beans telling everything she knew, which was not very much except that Laura had died a painful death.
 
Gosden was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. It was while he was in jail that authorities exhumed the body of Laura Gosden and discovered the unmistakeable signs of strychnine poisoning.
 
From there it was basic gumshoe detective work. Once Vivian’s body was exhumed and strychnine found, it was pretty much over for Gosden.
 
His feeble attempt to blame Laura’s death on her suicidal tendencies was easily shot down and the jury quickly convicted him.
 
He died on the gallows in San Quentin on June 19, 1936.

Armed and Dangerous

If you’re looking for fun and excitement in San Diego, visiting the Gaslamp Quarter is a must. Home to dozens of hotels, restaurants, shops, and nightspots, the 16-block stretch is the center of San Diego’s night life and perhaps one of the safest places to wander after dark.
 
But no place is totally safe as 29-year-old Michael Champion found out one Monday night in October 1992.
 
Champion and a friend had just finished watching Monday Night Football and were heading back to the San Diego suburb of Hillcrest when unbeknownst to them, a 6-foot-tall, 240-pound former linebacker had broken out of a San Diego Sheriff’s Department transport van, overpowered the deputy/driver, stolen her service revolver and was headed their way.
 
Johnaton (yes, Johnaton) Sampson George was a 34-year-old career criminal who had been adjudicated a “mentally disordered sex offender” thanks to a 15-year history of rapes. He was a drug addict who considered himself a “supercrook” when he was under the influence of methamphetamine.
 
George was also an extreme escape risk. Court records show that in 1978 George escaped from a state mental hospital in San Bernardino County, where he had been placed after he was judged incompetent to stand trial for a string of rapes. While there, he fell in love with a transsexual and the pair became engaged.
 
A month after his escape from Atascadaro State Hospital, George was recaptured and in 1980 he was sentenced to five years to life in prison.
 
The sentencing judge told the California prison system that “Mr. George is a con man. He knows how to shine people on.” He recommended that George was a menace to others and should serve the maximum term in close confinement. George was released on parole after serving five years.
 
Shortly after his release, he robbed and assaulted a man and was arrested. However, he was not returned to prison for a parole violation. Several months later he was arrested for failing to register as a sexually oriented offender. Again, he was not returned to prison. In early 1992 he was arrested for shoplifting and assault when he stole baby food from a local market and then resisted attempts of security guards to detain him.
 
During a hearing for that theft in Chula Vista in July of that year, George was being kept in a holding cell and managed to escape from the courthouse and stole a car.
Federal marshals arrested George four days later — it took five officers to subdue him, the Marshal Service spokesman told the media. Because police found him in possession of a firearm, a federal offense, the U.S. Attorney decided to charge him under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which carried a maximum life term.
 
He was awaiting trial on those charges in connection with that breakout when he escaped October 5, 1992 and crossed paths with Champion.
 
When George overpowered the lone 59-year-old, 125-pound deputy who was transporting him and another inmate, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department was seriously understaffed, and according to Sheriff Jim Roache, was taking shortcuts to meet the demands of the job.
 
“In reality, what occurred is that men and women — far too few, far too under-equipped — are required to do too much work on rigid time demands,” Roache said of those in his department. “To get the job done, they cut corners.”
 
Sheriff’s deputies had transported George 42 times since April — just a small part of the 100,000 prisoner transports the agency did each year, Roache said. In late June, Assistant U.S. Attorney. Sherri L. Walker, who was waiting to prosecute George on federal charges of being a career criminal, warned the district attorney’s office in about George’s violent nature and his previous escapes.
 
“I would recommend extreme caution in transferring George from federal to state custody and urge you to return (George) to federal custody promptly,” she wrote.
 
He was housed at the local federal jail, but continued to be prosecuted on state charges, which required that he be transported by county officers. A warning was noted in writing on the sheriff’s transportation log the next 12 times he was moved.
 
But on October 5, as George was being moved from the El Cajon courthouse to the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center, no warning was passed on to Deputy Lydia Werner who was filling in on the transport unit because it was 16 deputies below minimum staffing. The supervising deputy who assigned Werner to transport George also was not at his regular job and did not pass along information that George was a flight risk. As a result, Werner, who did not normally transport inmates and who was already into a 14-hour workday, transported George without knowing how dangerous he was.
 
If she had known George was a flight risk, he would have been wearing handcuffs and leg irons. However, because there was nothing to indicate his propensity to escape, George was only wearing MCC-issued handcuffs attached to a leather belt around his waist.
 
George told his cellmates that he had a handcuff key that opened the federal cuffs. Another inmate alerted authorities that George had had the key for at least a month, but repeated searches of his person and cell turned up nothing, leaving authorities to surmise that he was bluffing.
 
With Werner driving and George sharing the back seat with an inmate in a wheelchair, he opened the handcuffs — either with a key that was never found or some other means — and began kicking the doors open. Werner stopped the van and tried to keep George inside the van but he jumped out into the heart of the downtown Gaslamp Quarter. Trying to get a car, he dragged a woman from her vehicle, but she refused to relinquish her keys. George then continued running toward Fifth Avenue and G Street. Before he reached the corner, Werner — who was prohibited by law from shooting a fleeing felon — caught up with him but the diminutive deputy was no match for George and he knocked her out. He took Werner’s service revolver.
 
He then stopped a taxicab, pointing the gun at the driver. The driver grabbed the gun and they struggled as the car continued down the street. George bit the driver in the face, before the cabbie managed to get away.
 
Meanwhile, Champion and his buddy were stopped a light at Fifth and G. The intersection was crowded with people out enjoying a beautiful San Diego autumn night, and in full view of patrons at a trendy sidewalk cafe, George, dressed in his orange jail jumpsuit, accosted Champion by jumping into the backseat.
 
George demanded the keys but Champion, who apparently did not see the gun, refused.
 
“Mick told the guy to get out of the car,” the friend told detectives. “Then the guy shot him.”
 
As the unharmed friend bailed out of the car, George pulled Champion out of the car and drove away. After a week-long nationwide manhunt, George was arrested by police officers in Compton.
 
He was eventually convicted of the federal charges and sentenced to life without possibility of parole. George was also convicted of Champion’s murder but managed to escape the death penalty when the jury deadlocked on that question.
 
After his sentencing in state court, George reportedly celebrated by enjoying a snort of meth that had been smuggled into the jail. He was subsequently arrested and charged with drug possession. It was the 20th time he had been arrested.
 
George is currently on death row in California