Tag Archive for Detroit

An Unsolved Murder

There are many theories about the death of Lydia Shevchenko Thompson in 1945, none of which satisfactorily explains her unsolved murder:

  • Lydia was slain by (or at the order of) her estranged husband, Louis Thompson
  • Her plan to have Louis and his paramour killed backfired
  • Lydia arranged her own death to punish her husband who was seeking a divorce
  • Lydia was the target of foreign secret police
  • The Russian immigrant was murdered by a random psychopath

 
Louis Victor Thompson was a British military officer who met Lydia Shevchenko in Turkey after World War I. She had fled the Bolshevik revolution, leaving her family behind in Rostov-on-Don, and was working as a nurse. Lydia and Louis married in Constantinople in 1922. For the next few years they lived in Europe before emigrating to the United States in 1928. They settled in Highland Park, Michigan, a city now completely encircled by Detroit.
 
In Highland Park the Thompsons opened a small laundry and over time the business thrived. It was the accumulation of wealth that caused the first rifts in the Thompson marriage.
 
Louis bought a $40,000 home in Orchard Lake (about a half-million dollars in 2007), a community between Detroit and Ann Arbor, complete with swimming pool, tennis court, and billiard room. Louis also hired a chauffeur to ferry him and his wife to their laundry in Highland Park.
 
While Louis enjoyed the luxuries that wealth brought, Lydia’s Old World work ethic and refugee experience prevented her from doing the same. While Louis golfed and enjoyed Detroit’s bustling nightlife, Lydia continued to work in the damp heat of her laundry. She berated Louis for wasting money and complained about the time he spent away from the Orchard Park home.
 
Lydia’s anger at her husband’s liberal spending habits turned to jealousy when he began spending time with younger women who were more than willing to enjoy his largesse. She hired private detectives to shadow her husband, who had developed a close relationship with his secretary, Helen Budnik.
 
After 22 years of marriage, shortly before Christmas 1944, Louis asked Lydia for a divorce. She adamantly refused and told her husband she would never agree to end their marriage.
 
On March 31, 1945, Lydia followed her husband to a club in Detroit where he was having dinner with friends. Although it appeared as if Louis was on a double date, the dinner was quite innocent and Helen Budnik was not present. Entering the Capitol Cafe, Lydia stormed over to her husband and accosted the group. She reached into her purse and pulled out a vial of acid that she threw on the women. One was burned on her face and the other received splashes of acid on her legs.
 
The attack ended any chance of the Thompsons reconciling. Louis called Helen, who was vacationing in Florida, and arranged to meet her in Miami. Lydia’s private detectives tailed him there and reported that Louis and Helen were occupying adjoining rooms in their Miami hotel. Lydia flew down to confront them.
 
“You can’t have my husband,” she reportedly told Helen. “If you take him, I’ll haunt you all my life. I’ll kill myself.”
 
Lydia wasn’t bluffing. She swallowed a handful of sleeping pills while in Miami, which only succeeded in making her ill. After she recovered she climbed out on a ledge outside her hotel room and threatened to jump.
 
“Please, Lydia,” Helen called to her. “I promise I’ll never see Vic again!”
 
Louis convinced Lydia to return to Michigan with him, but he resumed his relationship with Helen. Again, Lydia confronted her rival.
 
“If you try to marry my husband, I will never give you any peace,” Helen reported Lydia as telling her.
 
This time, however, Helen told Lydia that she intended to continue to see Louis.
 
Louis remained away from the Orchard Park house but he and Lydia saw each other about once each week until late autumn 1945.
 
It was October 11, 1945 that Lydia Thompson was last seen alive. She had breakfast with two friends, the sisters Nina Gentile and Josephine Latona in Highland Park. She expressed fear for her life, but according to a contemporary report, “in such a vague way that they smiled.”
 
That afternoon Lydia sent a mysterious cable to Rostov-on-Don that read “Send your address. Am mailing package soon. Wire immediately.” Just who the telegram was meant for or why it was sent was never explained. Police theorized that she sent it to family members behind the Iron Curtain. After that she apparently returned to her home in Orchard Park because the clothes she was seen wearing earlier in the day were hanging in a closet.
 
Police believe that by 7 p.m. that night she was dead.
 
On October 12, Lydia’s car was found in a parking lot in downtown Pontiac. The parking lot attendant later told police that the vehicle was not there when he left work at 10 p.m. Two waitresses, however, told investigators that the car was in the lot when they parked there at 11:30 p.m.
 
No one realized that Lydia had met with foul play until her body was found on October 13 by mushroom hunters about 12 miles west of Pontiac.
 
It was a particularly violent death. She had first been knocked unconscious and then stabbed four times in the breast and abdomen with a knife. Her killer then took an ice pick and drove it into her body 13 times. Finally, the assailant nearly decapitated her with a hatchet. Any footprints or tire tracks at the place where she was found had been obliterated by rain on the night of October 12.
 
Lydia was not murdered where her body was discovered, authorities decided based on the blood found at the scene. However, there was no blood or signs of a struggle at the Orchard Lake house or the Highland Park laundry. A search of the home indicated that no robbery had taken place — about $3,000 in diamonds and other jewels were found in the home. Police were unable to locate a handgun Lydia owned, her ration book, her driver’s license or any of her keys.
 
There was a letter to an Andrew Shevchenko found on her desk.

If after this day you don’t see me and you don’t hear anything of me, then go on Jefferson and find a man by the name of Perrone and ask him where I am. This is the doings of my husband. He is tired of me and wants to marry her. Everything that belongs to me I leave to you, father. Lydia

Shevchenko turned out to be Lydia’s 70-year-old senile father who lived in Detroit. No one who knew Lydia had any idea that her father had left Russia. Shevchenko could shed no light on his daughter’s activities.
 
Police tracked down three men on Jefferson Avenue named Perrone, all of who denied knowing Lydia.
 
Of course the primary suspect was Louis Thompson; he denied knowing anything of the crime and offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to her killer(s).
 
“Isn’t this terrible,” he told the press. “Some maniac did it and I wish I knew who.”
 
In addition to the letter, police found Lydia’s diary that hinted at a convoluted plot to make her husband pay for leaving her.
 
“I shall drag two people into my death with me,” she wrote.
 
A carpenter who worked on Lydia’s house came forward and helped point the finger of blame at Louis. While repairing some shelving, he said Lydia told him that Louis had attacked her several times with an ice pick.
 
“If I dared, I would show you the places,” Lydia reportedly told the man.
 
Louis and Helen Budnik each had an alibi for the time of Lydia’s murder and both took and passed lie detector tests. For a little while, however, Louis became a suspect again when dirt and hair were discovered on a pair of golf shoes in his car. A chemical analysis revealed that the hair was animal hair and the dirt was dissimilar to that at the scene of the crime.
 
Two weeks after his daughter’s death, Andrew Shevchenko left Detroit for New York, claiming that he feared for his life. This prompted speculation that he and his daughter might have been foreign agents of some kind. Those rumors were never borne out.
 
The investigation revealed that in the last months of her life Lydia was spending money like crazy. She spent a total of $6,400 and less than a month before her death she borrowed $1,500 from a friend. Some theorized that she was being blackmailed by Soviet agents who threatened the lives of relatives still living in Russia. Lydia told her friend that she needed the $1,500 to set her father up in business. Her father denied that she had ever made such a suggestion to him.
 
While police were tracking down a number of false leads, Louis Thompson married Helen Budnik in February 1946. She readily agreed to move into the Orchard Lake house. In preparation for the couple’s return to the house, relatives were cleaning up after the numerous police searches and found a package beneath the refrigerator: wrapped in one of Louis’s handkerchiefs were Lydia’s keys, her driver’s license, and her ration book. Police denied that the package was in the house when it had been searched earlier.
 
In the summer of 1946, Thompson himself found a property envelope belonging to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department behind some pipes in a closet. Inside the envelope was Lydia’s gun.
 
“I’m beginning to think that Lydia paid that $1,500 to have herself killed and arranged to have the blame put on me,” Louis told police when he handed over the weapon.
 
Helen had a different theory.
 
“Personally, I think that Lydia was arranging to have us killed,” she told the press. “In an argument with the person she hired she got killed herself.”
 
In 1947, acting as a one-man grand jury investigating the Detroit racket scene, Wayne County Judge George B. Murphy issued a subpoena for Santo Perrone, one of the Peronnes on Jefferson Avenue who had denied knowing Lydia Thompson. Shortly after speaking with Perrone, Murphy handed up indictments against Louis and Helen Thompson.
 
The story that came out, however, had nothing to do with Perrone, but did involve an Italian ex-con from a Detroit suburb who told a girlfriend that he had been hired by Louis to “get rid” of his wife. The ex-con claimed that the story was made up to scare the girlfriend so he could return to his wife and children.
 
After 12 days of testimony at the Thompsons’ preliminary hearing, the judge threw out the case against them on a technicality: there was no evidence to show that the murder occurred in Wayne County.
 
The last time police had any public comment on the case was in 1949 when a “weak-minded, borderline psychopath” arrested in Atlanta, Georgia on a bad-check charge said he was paid $500 to drive the car for the man who killed Lydia.
 
The man claimed that Lydia was killed by a man whom she hired to spy on her husband.
 
Police discounted his claim and after a cursory probe, returned the investigation to the cold case files, where it remains.

The Murder of Vivian Welsh

The Purple Gang

In the 1920s, Detroit was really the city where the action was.
 
Vivian Welsh was a Detroit beat cop back when police still walked a beat and it was OK for men to be named Vivian. He was also a dirty cop who didn’t understand until it was too late just how tough the gangsters he was shaking down were and paid for his ignorance with his life.
 
Married less than a year, and on the force for just two years, Welsh worked a beat on Detroit’s west side where he came in contact with many of the city’s countless blind pig operators, bootleggers and racketeers.
 
A beat cop wasn’t making much jack back then, and it must have been frustrating for a guy like Welsh to be pounding the pavement all day long for $10 a week only to see those mugs sitting back all day long raking in the dough by breaking the law.
 
Finally, Officer Welsh decided to do something about that and he ended up as front page news in a city where murder was an every day occurrence.
 
It was February 1927 and Detroit was a war zone between state and federal lawmen and gangsters of all types and sizes. Chicago has the reputation of being the action capital of the Roaring 20s, but that’s only because the Windy City had Al Capone, a gangster who liked publicity and wasn’t shy about getting his mug in the paper.
 
Detroit was really the place where things were happening. The city was the gatekeeper for the importation of illegal booze from Canada and there were so many speakeasies and private stills in the city that finding a drink in the Motor City was easier than finding a cab. In the pre-Syndicate days, everyone wanted to control Detroit — at the time a 20th century boomtown — but no single outsider was tough enough to establish much of a beachhead. Egan’s Rats out of St. Louis tried, Capone did too, but the local Italian and Jewish mobsters were too tough to back down. As a result, Capone forged an alliance with the Purple Gang who had managed to scramble their way to the top of Detroit’s underworld.
 
U.S. 131, which cuts the gut of Michigan from Traverse City to the state line with Indiana was the divider. Anything east of the highway was Purple Gang territory, while the west side belonged to Capone’s gang.
 
Vivian Welsh must have thought the bars he was shaking down wouldn’t have any place to turn. After all, he must have reasoned, they can’t go to the cops. What he didn’t realize was that he was muscling in on one of the Purples’ best rackets — extorting protection money from independent bootleggers and speakeasies.
 
Like Jake Lingle, the Chicago newshawk who was bumped off by the mob and whose story started out as a heroic reporter taking on the mob only to be revealed to be on the take, Welsh’s assassination on February 1, 1927 began as a tragic story of a good cop gunned down by evil mobsters. As the story unfolded, however, Welsh’s true colors began to show through.
 
Each of the three newspapers reported the story in their own fashion, with the staid Detroit Free Press noting in a one-column story that a police officer had been killed in a gang war-related shooting. The Detroit Times gave the story a bit more play, but the Hearst-owned Detroit Evening News screamed about the “thugs fleeing Welsh net” in an eight-column headline above the flag.
 
Welsh was shot nine times either in a car or shortly after he jumped out of a Chevrolet coupe. The papers differed in their descriptions (not to mention the spelling of Welsh’s last name). The initial reports expressed wonder at the senseless killing.
 
“Mrs. Welch (sic) said she knew no reason why her husband was murdered,” the Times reported the day of the slaying. “He had no enemies, she said…Inspector Thomas Creedon of the Bethune Station said Welch was one of the most conscientious officers in the precinct.”
 
But as the police extended a city-wide dragnet for the officer’s killers, the papers began hinting that something wasn’t quite right. “There are two angles to the investigation. In once instance, police are making a direct, determined search for those who killed Welsh,” the Times wrote the next day, finally getting the dead man’s name right. “The second angle has to do with the ‘shake down’ activities in which Welsh may have become entangled directly or indirectly.”
 
The first indication that the Purple Gang was involved in the killing came three days after the slaying when nine suspects picked up in the dragnet were released for lack of evidence and Abe Bernstein, leader of the Purple Gang was arrested. It turned out that Bernstein’s brother, Raymond, happened to own the car which Welsh was riding in when he died.
 
The police weren’t making it easy on the gangsters they were arresting. They were bringing them in on penny-ante charges like vagrancy, booking them under false names and shuttling them from precinct to precinct so their buddies couldn’t bail them out. As soon as they were forced to let the Purples go on writs of habeas corpus, the police would pop the gangsters and drag them back downtown.
 
The lawmen freely admitted to the press that they were harassing the racketeers. “Gangsters will be arrested and re-arrested as long as they stay in Detroit,” said Inspector Henry J. Garvin of the police homicide squad. “They will not run this town. We’ll have no gang rule here and we have are giving them a taste of their own medicine.”
 
Garvin was ultimately frustrated in his quest to find out who killed Vivian Welsh. He knew that Welsh and a partner, Max Wisman, a former cop fired for attempted extortion, had come up against the Purple Gang when they tried to get more money from a bootlegger they were blackmailing. Unfortunately for Welsh, the bootlegger turned to Abe and Ray Bernstein and the Purple Gang for help.
 
“(Welsh and Wisman) complained to the payoff man in this brewery they weren’t receiving enough and threatened arrest,” said Garvin’s partner, Inspector Fred Frahm. “It was then that the killers were called.
 
“He went to Wisman and Welsh and said: ‘I’m the head of the machine gun gang that’s protecting this joint. Who are you?’ An argument followed,” Frahm continued. “Wisman could tell us enough to clear up the matter but he has refused.”
 
The eponymous Wisman wisely kept his mouth shut when he saw what happened to Welsh and Garvin was ultimately forced to drop the charges and let Bernstein go.
 
Garvin would eventually see Ray Bernstein jailed on a first degree murder charge and would be shot by bootleggers himself (he survived), but the Welsh case formally remains unsolved almost 80 years later.