At 9:45 p.m. on July 2, 1927, 15-year-old Mabel Mayer exited an Oakland trolley car on Plymouth Street about three blocks from her home on 86th Street. She never made it, and to this day, her savage murder remains unsolved.
Investigators were able to retrace Mabel’s whereabouts for almost the entire day, but it is the events of the last 10 minutes of her life that still elude them.
Mabel died around 9:55 p.m. — police know this because the pretty young woman was wearing a watch that stopped at the time of her death. The watch was damaged when she raised her arms to fend off the blows from a 2×4 wielded by her killer or killers.
Although Mabel was not sexually assaulted, police at the time reasoned that her death was at the hands of a “sex pervert.” Her face and breasts were the main targets of the attacker, who used both the board and a smaller wall stud to not only beat her, but to gouge her face and body.
Police quickly established the events of the last hours of Mabel’s life, beginning with a music lesson at the school operated by Doris Wilson (or Olson, depending on the edition of newspapers one read), and from there the young lady stopped and talked to two friends. Around 6 p.m., she visited her uncle, Christian Mayer, where she had dinner. At 9 p.m., Mabel’s brother, William, telephoned Christian Mayer’s house and spoke with his younger sister. He asked her when she was planning on leaving, because he intended to meet her trolley at the Auseon Avenue stop to walk her home.
She said she would be leaving in “a few minutes.” Christian walked Mabel to a street car station at Dwight Way and San Pablo Avenue, in time to make a connection with a 9:32 p.m. train heading toward an East Oakland stop near her home on 86th Street.
Oakland Streetcar conductor Arnold Potter recalled seeing the young girl wearing a pink straw hat, “greenish” coat and carrying a green purse on his car. In fact, he helped her alight from the train at the 85th Street station (there was no stop on 86th). Later, although adamant the young woman he saw was “probably” Mabel, he hedged a bit and wasn’t sure if she left at 85th or at the next station at Auseon.
Her brother met the 10 p.m. train, but Mabel was not on it. His father went to the 11 p.m. and midnight trains, but again his daughter did not arrive. He went home, simply thinking that Mabel decided to spend the night at her uncle’s home.
In fact, it is almost a certainty that Mabel was dead before the 10 p.m. train arrived at the Auseon stop because her body was found at a spot between the 85th Street stop and her home, suggesting that she got off at the wrong stop. This led police to speculate that she may have met the killer on the trolley and that they were acquainted. It is also possible she was directed by Potter to get off at 85th Street because her home was closer that way, something the conductor may have conveniently forgotten.
Her death was particularly brutal and bloody and occurred behind an abandoned house in the 1700 block of 86th Street. Based on the crime scene and the weapons used in the attack, police deduced it was a random blitz attack.
Blood was spattered over a back picket fence behind the home, and was also found on the locked back door of the empty house, leading police to believe that Mabel made a desperate attempt to flee the assault.
Her clothing was in tatters from the beating with the rough wood and the stab wounds. Her face was beaten and stabbed to such an extent that she was nearly unrecognizable. Her lungs filled with blood and the cause of death was either blood loss or asphyxiation, the coroner ruled.
“Never in my years of experience have I ever witnessed the victim of a more brutal murder,” said Dr. O.D. Hamlin.
The only clues to the killer or killers identities were fingerprints on the green purse the girl had carried and a broken string of beads that positively were ruled out as belonging to Mabel.
Unfortunately for police, there was a loud party nearby that probably concealed any sounds coming from the attack, and no one from the party was ever linked to the slaying. Several persons, including a man and woman engaged in a dispute, were suspected, but cleared by police. A scream heard by a neighbor around the time of Mabel’s death was eventually traced to the man and woman who were arguing.
As a 15-year-old girl, Mabel was just coming to terms with her budding sexuality, but everyone who knew her adamantly denied that she was anything other than a “girl of beautiful character.”
“Though possessed of all the attributes of popularity,” one neighbor told The Oakland Tribune, “she was demure and home-loving, rather than the type who would associate with men of questionable character.”
The only person who even came close to sullying Mabel’s character was her music teacher, who seemed disappointed that the teen would have expressed more interest in boys than her music studies.
“Lately her interest in music seemed to wane and her interest in boys increased,” said Olson/Wilson. “When she called Saturday, I was struck with the very obvious fact that she was conscious of her own prettiness.”
Mabel liked jazz but was not considered a flapper, and never dated any boy without a family member present. The Mayer family was active in the local Mormon church, which broke ground for a new facility shortly after her funeral and dedicated it to her memory.
“She had a perfect picture of family life, was carefully nurtured and brought up well and guarded by her family,” said Inspector B.A. Wallman, who headed the investigation. Ironically, her above-reproach lifestyle made it more difficult for police to run down leads, Wallman said.
She was known to be a bit mischievous at school, but all of her teachers considered her a joy to have in class.
Her brutalized body was discovered at 7 a.m. the next morning by two workers who were building a garage next to the abandoned house, and it was from that work site that the killer or killers likely found the murder weapons.
Early in the investigation, police began looking for a “mystery woman” who had argued with the Mayer family. The presence of the string of beads at the murder scene, and the fact that some of the fingerprints in blood at the scene were “thin and tapering” led authorities to surmise that a woman may have been involved. They speculated that the attacks on Mabel’s face and breasts may have come from someone jealous of her prettiness.
No mystery woman was ever located.
Two days after the murder, an anonymous letter was sent to the county jail, claiming responsibility for the murder.
I loved the girl for a long time and that night I asked her to marry me. She said she loved someone else better than myself. So that me me mad. I got another fellow and we took her there and we killed her. So now I am on my way to my country where I belong. So now try and get me. When you receive this letter I will be a long ways.
Nothing in the letter indicated that the writer knew any details about Mabel or her death, and not only was Mabel too young to marry, she was not involved with anyone that she might have loved better than anyone else.
Oakland was a relatively dangerous place for woman around the time Mabel was murdered. Police were investigating three other similar attacks were women were mutilated and murdered but no sexual assaults took place. No concrete links between those crimes and Mabel’s death were established.
One promising lead that never completely panned out was the “Santa Claus” who liked to talk to the young girls outside Mabel’s school, the Frick School (Mabel is buried in Evergreen Cemetery which abuts the school grounds).
Schoolmates of Mabel’s told police that she was often seen in the company of a “mystery man” who frequently loitered around the schoolyard. Because none could shed any light on his description, police withheld this clue from the public while actively searching for any indication of the man, who was finally run off by the officer working the beat as a crossing guard.
That officer, Powell Pierce, eventually became a detective and never stopped looking for the man he had shooed-away from his young charges. In March 1929, Pierce was in the Alameda County Courthouse when he noticed a man sitting in a courtroom there. He asked an assistant district attorney the man’s name, saying that he was the mystery man for whom he had been searching for two years.
The man’s name was David Barnett and he was awaiting trial on a charge of child kidnapping for abducting a young girl. Fortunately for her, his license plate was observed and he was caught before he could harm the girl. It was not the first time Barnett had been arrested for a crime like this. He had previously served time in Ohio for an unknown crime involving a child.
Pierce immediately alerted Alameda County District Attorney and future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Earl Warren, who directed investigators to look into Barnett’s background.
Within days, they unearthed several pieces of circumstantial evidence that linked Barnett to Mabel Mayer. Barnett was employed at a lumber company that had sold the windows the workmen who found Mabel’s body were putting into the garage. It was surmised that lumber for the garage came from Barnett’s lumberyard.
In addition, Barnett worked with Walter Olmstead, who lived down the street from the Mayer home, and who knew Mabel. But neither Barnett’s nor Olmstead’s fingerprints matched any found at the scene of the crime, and Barnett adamantly denied ever seeing or knowing Mabel. He further denied being the mystery man who visited the Frick school. Olmstead was an upstanding young man who had never been in trouble with the law and was eliminated as a suspect.
Barnett was sentenced to 20 years in prison after he was convicted of kidnapping and was never charged in connection with Mabel’s death.
It was not until 1955 that the cold case was actively revisited when Burton Abbott, a UC-Berkeley student, was charged with the kidnapping and murder of Stephanie Bryan, a 12-year-old Berkeley girl. The circumstances of that crime were significantly different from Mabel’s murder and attempts to link the two went nowhere.
The violent murder of Mabel Mayer remains an open, but very, very cold case for the Oakland Police Department.