Who Killed Captain Wanderwell?

Take a suspected German spy and the young woman he lured from her Paris convent school, a soldier-of-fortune with a grudge, the jaded son of a British peer and a mysterious “man in grey,” and you have an interesting story. Put them all at the heart of a Depression-era murder aboard a leaky yacht and you have the makings for a classic Hollywood melodrama.
But the killing of 43-year-old Captain Walter Wanderwell in 1932 wasn’t dreamed up by scriptwriters, although it happened in Long Beach not far from Hollywood when Wanderwell was preparing his two-masted schooner Carma for a South Sea adventure cruise.
Wanderwell, born Valerian Johannes Tieczynski of German and Polish parents, lived a life that most people only dream about. He was a world traveler who had been there, done that. His resume included trips to the wastelands of Siberia, journeys through the darkest parts of the Amazon, treks across the scorching sands of the Arabian and Saharan deserts — where he witnessed the opening of King Tut’s tomb — and numerous sea voyages.
He was a globetrotting man of mystery who achieved in death the notoriety he courted in life. During World War I, Wanderwell was suspected of being a spy for Germany and was interned in the federal prison in Atlanta. He was also once charged with unlawfully wearing a military uniform to which he was not entitled. After his release from detention following the war (his ties to Germany were never proved), he met a Broadway chorus girl named Nell, and they were married in Alabama. The marriage failed after seven years thanks to the Captain’s wandering eye.
In Paris, he had met Galcia Hall, a Canadian girl who had run away from a French convent school in search of adventure, and the husband and wife took the young girl on one of the first motor car tours of the European and Asian continents. He dubbed the stately, 23-year-old blonde “Aloha,” and it was by that name that she appeared in the press. Somewhere along the way the first Mrs. Wanderwell became superfluous.
“Too many women caused our marriage to go on the rocks in 1926,” Nell Wanderwell told the United Press when her ex-husband was killed. “I came back to the United States alone. I guess it was love at first sight for them.”
Shortly after Nell divorced Wanderwell, the adventurer and Aloha were married.
Wanderwell had no money of his own, but he was skilled at getting others to subsidize his adventures, usually by taking the bored children of wealthy families on tours to exotic locales. Together with Aloha, the tours visited the Pyramids and Sphinx, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower, Mayan and Aztec ruins in Mexico and Central America, and Angkor Wat in Indochina. In the last trip before the Wanderwells arrived in Southern California, they traveled more than 35,000 miles (roughly the equivalent of once around the globe at the Equator then up to the North Pole for good measure).
The Carma was a 20-year-old craft that had been seized by federal Prohibition agents with a cargo of 300 cases of whiskey when Wanderwell bought it for $2,500 and began recruiting a crew for a South Sea cruise of adventure and riches. The ship was described in the press as “about as seaworthy as a cardboard raft,” but Wanderwell managed to skirt Coast Guard regulations by listing the dozen adventurers who had paid about $200 for the trip as crew members. Most of the seven-man, five-woman group had never set foot on an ocean-going craft, and just two of the men were qualified as able-bodied seamen.
Despite the tenderfoot crew, they were nearing readiness for the trip. The only incident that had disturbed the preparations for the long sea voyage was the strange disappearance of Wanderwell’s revolver that had vanished several days before his murder. A diligent search by the entire crew failed to recover the weapon.
Had the trip occurred a few decades later, the crew of the Carma would have been considered Beatniks or hippies. The group intended to be self-sustaining during the trek by selling paintings and poetry created along the way.The Wanderwells were also negotiating the film rights to the trip.
Wanderwell planned to use the trip to publicize his bizarre idea for an international police force that would make war obsolete. He had been trying to sell the League of Nations on the idea without success. The trip, he thought, might help create international interest in the idea.
Mistakenly believing the League of Nations was an international government, Walter wanted to be the head of the League’s police force. To do so, he organized the Work Around the World Educational Club, or WAWEC. Wanderwell assumed the title of the Captain Commanding, with multiple unit leaders around the globe under his direct command.
To join, members had to swear off alcohol and tobacco and adhere to a military-like dress code. The initial sign-up fee was $5, which quickly rose to $200 when WAWEC proved to be a popular idea.
Wanderwell’s money-making schemes earned him a reputation of scam artist; the ultra-paranoid J. Edgar Hoover had his G-men keep a very close watch on WAWEC because he believed that Wanderwell was a con man and because he feared the suspected spy was building a private army, but the FBI never had sufficient evidence to catch him doing anything more than wearing a uniform with a rank he didn’t earn.
On December 5, 1932, Wanderwell was alone in the cabin he shared with Aloha and their two young children. It was a moonless, foggy night and the tired schooner’s creaking wooden decks and hull almost drowned out the bells and horns that sounded throughout the Long Beach Harbor.
Aloha brought the kids along to a Hollywood meeting about the movie rights to the adventure. Many of the crew were ashore enjoying a last shore leave, and the remainder of the crew — three men and two women — was in the galley talking with eager anticipation of the trip that was to begin shortly.
The mess hall conversation was interrupted by a face appearing in the open porthole.
“Is Captain Wanderwell aboard?” asked the man, dressed in a gray coat with the collar pulled up and a cap covering his eyes.
“Yes,” one of the crew replied. “Are you the electrician?”
The stranger answered that he was not the electrical expert the crew was expecting. The man was directed to the captain’s cabin and the crew all said they heard his footsteps on the deck.
“Hello!” they heard Wanderwell say, more in a surprised manner than one of fear or alarm.
They all testified that they did not hear any conversation, but just a few moments after Wanderwell’s greeting, they heard a single gunshot.
Racing to the cabin, the crew found no sign of the man in gray, but found Wanderwell already dead on the deck. He had been shot through the back. The single bullet passed through his heart.
Robbery was not the motive for the murder, for Wanderwell’s wallet containing $600 in cash was still in his pocket.
At first police speculated that a member or members of the crew killed the captain and detained the group overnight for questioning. Aloha Wanderwell, who had the most solid alibi of the crew and was never thought to have been involved in the murder, did not make things easy for police when she dramatically told them that Wanderwell had accumulated many enemies during his lifetime.
“I can think of a thousand men would might want to kill the captain,” she said. There was serious speculation that the womanizing Wanderwell had been killed by the husband or lover of a woman he had seduced, while others guessed that Wanderwell was murdered by agents of a foreign power who feared the WAWEC’s growing strength.
However, police quickly centered their investigation around a former WAWEC crew member who had led an attempted mutiny against Wanderwell during his last voyage from Buenos Aires to San Francisco. That crewman, a Welsh “soldier-of-fortune” named William “Curly” Guy had been placed in irons aboard the ship and deposited, along with his wife, ashore in Panama.
Guy recently caught up with the Wanderwells (it wasn’t hard to track their movements because of the publicity that they generated) and threatened Wanderwell with violence when the captain refused to return money that Guy had paid for passage to the United States.
“I went to his hotel and found two men who were about to sign up for another of Wanderwell’s cruises,” he told police. “I told them what happened to me and warned them not to have any dealings with him. But I did not kill him.”
After four of the five crew members aboard the Carma identified Guy as the mysterious man in gray, he was charged with killing Wanderwell. Guy, however, had an alibi — he was having dinner with friends miles away when Wanderwell was shot. Six people corroborated his alibi. He made no bones about his feelings for Wanderwell, however.
“I hated Wanderwell. I had reason to hate him,” he told police. “I would not have minded killing him, but I would not have shot him in the back.”
Guy went to trial in February 1933, and after a two-week trial, he was acquitted of the crime. The jurors said the eyewitnesses, who hedged while on the stand, could not overcome Guy’s alibi. Guy, however, didn’t enjoy freedom for long. He was immediately arrested by federal authorities on immigration violations and deported.
Wanderwell’s dream of an international police force died with him; however many of the principals in the strange case went on to illustrious (if somewhat tragic) careers.
Guy was deported to Great Britain after the trial and continued his soldier-of-fortune ways by fighting with the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, and with the Chinese partisans after the invasion of China by Japan. During World War II he served as a flight instructor and then as a pilot transporting warplanes across the Atlantic. He was also pilot-in-command when Canadian Prime Minister William MacKenzie King flew to England to consult with Winston Churchill. Guy reportedly made more transatlantic trips than anyone else before he was killed in a crash in 1944.
The only other person arrested during the Wanderwell investigation, Lord Eugene Montague, younger son of the Earl of Manchester, went on to serve in the French Foreign Legion. Montague was only arrested on a visa violation and was not a suspect in Wanderwell’s death.
Aloha Wanderwell continued her globetrotting ways, marrying again in 1934. She and her second husband, also named Walter, after heading an expedition to Indochina, settled for a time in Cincinnati, Ohio and later in California. She died in California in 1996 at the age of 88.