In the summer of 1937, a California triple murder stunned the nation. Three young girls went missing from Centinela Park in Inglewood—a park where they played together often—and were found two days later, strangled to death in a ravine.
Lawyer and former journalist, Pamela Everett, was a teenager when she learned her father’s two sisters, Melba Marie, 9, and Madeline, 7, were among the murder victims. After becoming captivated by the case—which included one of the first-ever criminal profiles in the U.S.— and learning how the hunt for the person responsible for the crime went down, Everett started to question whether the right man was convicted and hung for the crime. She chronicles her search for the truth and her family’s struggle to cope with the unbelievable tragedy, in her new book, Little Shoes: The Sensational Depression-Era Murders That Became My Family’s Secret, out May 29. (Read an interview with Everett.)
In this exclusive excerpt, reprinted with permission by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., Melba Marie and Madeline’s sister Olive gives the police information about a suspicious man the girls had seen at the park before.
The Gathering Storm
Centinela Park Inglewood, California
Sunday, June 27, 1937
Olive and her little sisters were at the park on Friday morning, the day before the girls disappeared, when a man who said he was Eddie the Sailor asked Olive to go to a local store and buy a piece of rope so he could do rope tricks for the girls. She’d also seen him throw his wrists out of joint to entertain her and other children at the park. He could fold his hands back flat on his arms and everyone would stare, so amazed. They’d never seen anything like it.
[Watch episodes of City Confidential in the A&E App.]
After the rope and wrist tricks that Friday, he asked the girls to go rabbit hunting with him in the Baldwin Hills. He said he had a car. He said he was married and had a daughter. He promised that each girl could bring home her own bunny. Little Marie looked at Olive and begged, Can we please go, please please can we go? Olive affectionately punched Marie’s arm, gave her a stern look, and then told the man that their mother would never want them to go anywhere with a strange man. He asked again, even telling the girls to meet him early the next morning, but Olive said it was time to leave and the girls hurried home.
They told their mother about Eddie the Sailor and she quickly warned them again about such dangers. She reminded them, as so many parents did, that if they were ever afraid or needed help, they should find a policeman or a fireman, someone who could be trusted. But otherwise, they shouldn’t go anywhere with a strange man.
Nine-year-old Marie agreed and piped up: “Gee, Mom, I don’t think Olive should talk to him or go anywhere with him. Just think, she might never come back!”
At the Everett home on Sunday, while the frenzied search continued, Chief Campbell took his time with Olive. He questioned her slowly, gently. She’d been through so much.
She said Eddie the Sailor had a small black moustache, and on Friday he had been wearing a khaki work shirt and blue bibless overalls. He was younger than Daddy, but she wasn’t sure how old. He’d said he lived nearby on Manchester Boulevard, and Olive even remembered the address. She picked out a man from a photo lineup of several mugshots. His name was Othel Leroy Strong.
Three adults, including the park superintendent George Frantz, and several children corroborated her identification. They too said Strong was Eddie the Sailor and they’d seen him in the park on Saturday morning and in the days before the girls had disappeared. One man said he thought Strong was a truck driver and that he drove a 1929 or 1930 Ford roadster with an open box on the back. Edward Knott, an ice deliveryman, had seen an old Ford roadster with no fenders and a rumble seat in front of the park on Saturday morning. He said there were two little girls in the front with a man and one in the box on the rear. He thought the man resembled a photo of Othel Strong.
As Chief Campbell talked with Olive, my grandmother sat nearby, overcome with grief, under a doctor’s care, her mind and heart racing. She went over and over it. She just could not believe the girls would go off in a car with a man they didn’t know. She had just talked to them about it the day before. “For that reason, I know Marie would come home to me if it were possible,” she told Campbell and reporters.
She also remembered how a man tried to lure the two younger sisters and a friend away from the park months earlier in December, but Marie was able to pull the younger girls away from him and they ran home. The Everetts called police but officers told them to not tell anyone about the incident in hopes that the man would try it again and the police could catch him.
She tried to concentrate on the radio, listening for news—any news—that would explain where her little girls had gone. But she kept coming back to the fact that Eddie the Sailor made no sense. They could not have gone with that strange man. Not after what had happened in December and especially not after what had happened on Friday. No, it could not have happened that way. It could not have happened at all.
She politely fended off reporters’ continued questions about whether the girls would have gone with Eddie the Sailor. She held a hand to her mouth, choking back tears, and told them, “I’m afraid to let myself think what might have happened to them.”
Reporters were down at the Stephenses’ home too. Mrs. Stephens pleaded for the girls’ return in a prepared statement:
Whoever may have our little girl, please see that she isn’t cold or hungry, as she is just dressed in summer dress and underclothing and perhaps hasn’t eaten since Saturday at breakfast. Please let the girls free somewhere close enough so that they can get home; don’t hurt them as they are really just little girls. Jeanette, if you are free, or if Marie or Madeline can get free, please go to a telephone or ask someone to phone Mrs. Church at Inglewood 1042 and tell her just where you are and how you are. She will come down and tell us about you, then daddy and mother will come after all of you.
Meanwhile, police quickly learned that just six months earlier, Othel Leroy Strong had been convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after he accosted a fourteen-year-old girl on an Inglewood street. The district attorney’s office originally charged Strong with rape, but he ultimately pled guilty to the lesser charge and was sentenced to probation. He had no other criminal record aside from being arrested twice in Inglewood for public drunkenness.
But with an apparent child predator at large, law enforcement was already under immense pressure to find a suspect, so James Davis, chief of the LAPD, seized the political moment to paint Strong as a typical sex offender who’d received a light sentence and, apparently, the freedom to attack again. He recounted several similar, unsolved child murders, suggesting that Strong, or whoever was in the park that morning, was surely to blame for these horrors.
Virginia Brooks, ravished and murdered in San Diego in March 1931. When they found her body, she was clutching dark black hairs in one hand. She was last seen talking to a man in a 1929 Ford coupe.
Louise Teuber, found nude and hanging from a tree between LA and San Diego in April 1931. She’d been strangled and hung up with a rope that featured complicated nautical knots. Her clothes were arranged in a neat pile nearby.
Nine-year-old Delbert Aposhian, whose mutilated body was found in the San Diego Bay, last seen talking with a dark man at the docks.
And sixteen-year-old Celia Cota, her ravished and strangled body found a half block from her home in 1934. She had white rabbit hairs on her hands.
“This is a good time for public sentiment to strengthen against degenerates,” the chief urged at a press conference that day. “Stronger sentences must be imposed upon this type of person. They should be put away so that little children unable to protect themselves can safely play without fear of attack. We have had too many sex crimes in this state in recent years.”
The hunt for Othel Strong was on.
The Inglewood town barber, Claude Coop, was finishing the last of his Sunday morning coffee when he saw his neighbor Albert Dyer coming up the walk bright and early at 6:30. Dyer had stopped by the evening before and told Coop he needed money. The barber said he’d pay Dyer $2 if he helped hoe some weeds, and the pair worked in Coop’s yard for several hours. Coop didn’t think anything of it because Dyer was always asking for money and favors. He was such an odd bird. Thirty-two years old and always out of work. He’d been working as a crossing guard for the WPA for the last six months or so, but he still never had any money. All the men in the barbershop thought Dyer was a little crazy because he’d usually sit in the chair and ramble incoherently. They always said it would be terrible if Dyer were locked up in a sanitarium with nothing but his own thoughts. Crazy but harmless, that’s how he was.
The next day, Monday, the Los Angeles Times hit newsstands early with the chilling front page headline “Three Children Feared Kidnapped; Hundreds of Police Join Hunt: Girls Believed Lured Away By Stranger.” Just below the headlines, above the fold, photos of the three girls. Marie and Madeline standing together in one, and Jeanette Stephens standing and holding a stuffed animal in the other. The sunny settings, three happy smiles, and the cheery little dresses, all in stark contrast to the grim caption suggesting the unimaginable.
Dyer showed up at Coop’s shop for a haircut. He was in a hurry.
“The WPA’s ordered us up to the Baldwin Hills to help hunt for the bodies of those poor kids,” Dyer said urgently.
“Bodies? Do they know what happened to those girls?” Coop wondered.
“I don’t think so. It’s just that they’ve been gone for a couple days now, up in the hills.”
“Well, we better get you taken care of so you can get up there.”
Coop shook his head. Three little girls. What was the world coming to?