The Murder of William Desmond Taylor
IV) - False Leads and Dead Ends
One of the biggest problems facing police officers investigating a high profile murder is the sheer scale of information and leads with which they are bombarded due to the publicity the killing receives. The enquiry into the murder of William Desmond Taylor was no different in this respect, and Detectives King and Winn were obliged to follow up a number of false leads.
One theory about Taylor’s death was that he had become the target of a drugs ring due to his stand against drugs, and in particular his attempts to wean his former fiancée Mabel Normand off a reported $2,000 a week heroin addiction. Following Taylor’s death, an Assistant United States Attorney named Tom Green who handled drugs prosecutions, stated that the director had approached him for help to wipe out the drugs ring that was fuelling the escalating drug habit of ‘a certain actress’.
A Chinese drug dealer in Chicago named Harry Young (alias Harry Lee) briefly became a suspect following a report that he had committed the murder. Lee was arrested in possession of cocaine, opium and drugs paraphernalia, and also had about his person a .38 caliber pistol – the same type of weapon used to kill Taylor. Lee’s cellmate claimed the Chinaman had confessed to him that he had killed Taylor for $1,000 for a drugs ring but, when questioned by police, Lee denied responsibility and was subsequently found to be innocent of the charge.
In Toledo, Ohio, a man named John Marazino claimed that Jack Kramer, a Los Angeles drugs pusher had confessed to the murder and threatened to frame him (Mazarino) for it if he squealed. Mazarino’s evidence was quickly discredited and he soon found himself living in a psychopathic ward.
In a boarding house on West Washington Street in Los Angeles, a drug addict called Walter ‘Whitey’ Kirby was arrested when other tenants overheard him making remarks about the murder and adding comments that Taylor ‘got what was coming to him.’ Although he proved to be another dead end, Kirby would coincidentally play another small part in the investigation when yet another lead took King and Winn to Mexico.
The editor of the Santa Ana Register contacted police officers to tell them he had received a visit from a rancher called Andrew Cock, who had told him about two men to whom he had given a ride while driving through the adjoining town of Tustin late on the rain-sodden night of the 30th January 1922. The two shabbily dressed men had stepped out directly in front of Cock’s car, forcing him to stop, and demanded a ride. On the drive into Santa Ana, the men asked about stages running between Los Angeles and the Mexican border. One of the men then started talking about a captain he had served under in the First World War who had been a strict disciplinarian. When he told Cock that he and his friend, whom he referred to as Shorty, were going to Los Angeles to kill the captain, his friend told him to keep his mouth shut. Understandably wary of his uninvited passengers, Cock pulled over on Santa Ana Main Street and told them he was going no further. As the two men climbed from the car, Shorty dropped a gun. Picking it up off the street, he wiped the gun with a red bandanna which was when Cock noticed that it was a 38.
The police interviewed Cock and arranged for him to accompany them to the border towns of Tijuana and Mexicali to see if he could identify the men should they manage to locate them. The three men were offered assistance in their search from the Chief of Police of Mexicali who assigned a detective to accompany them on a tour of the local bars and dance halls. Together, they spent hours trawling unsavoury drinking dens and gambling houses until, at around 11 o’clock on Thursday 16th March, Cock pointed out a young man, drinking at a bar with several other men and women, as possibly being one of the men who had ridden in his car that night in Santa Ana.
Kirby was escorted to his digs in Calexico, California where detectives King and Winn found army trousers and leggings which matched those mentioned by Cock in his earlier description of one of the men, and also a .38 caliber revolver cartridge. However, having pointed out Kirby as one of the men, Cock refused to positively identify him because he appeared to be several inches taller then the suspect, and the officers were left with no choice but to let Kirby go. He would die a few months later from an overdose.
Deflated, the detectives returned to Los Angeles only to find themselves immediately despatched on yet another wild goose chase. While they had been in Mexico a letter had been received from the warden of Folsom Prison, who believed the killers of Taylor were residing within the walls of his prison.
King duly went straight to Folsom, where the warden advised him that he had intercepted notes between two convicts, the contents of which pointed to their involvement in the director’s murder. The men in question were Charles ‘Solly’ Wadleigh and J. G. ‘Black Bart’ Barrett. Wadleigh was an habitual petty criminal, Barrett, a hardened villain whose old bullet wounds were the legacy of numerous attempted breakouts.
Wadleigh claimed that he and Barrett were members of the drugs ring that had murdered Taylor because of his meddling in their business. He claimed that two female movie stars were in on the deal. In his statement, he described how he drove Barrett to Taylor’s apartment and waited in the car while Barrett went in and shot the director. He said Barrett emerged from the house and they picked up both movie stars at different locations a short distance from the murder scene. As he drove to 5th and Spring Streets, one of the women handed Barrett a large roll of cash. He also claimed that Barrett was still receiving money, and had bought his way into the prison’s hospital in the hope of escaping. He was keen for Wadleigh to escape with him, but Wadleigh felt this was only because Barrett was afraid he would talk if he was left behind, and that, once they were on the outside, Barrett would waste no time in murdering him. Henry Peavey, Taylor’s house servant, could verify his statements, Wadleigh asserted, and could also confirm that Sands was in on the job and had been murdered by Barrett in order to shut him up.
After days wasted following up their statements, King concluded that both men were lying, fabricating their story in the hope of being transported to Los Angeles for further questioning. Their ultimate motive, King believed, was to use any time away from prison as an opportunity to escape.
Time passed - the investigation dragged on but came no closer to being solved. Detective King was convinced he knew the identity of Taylor’s killer but was unable to gather the evidence required to prove his theory. As he made clear - without expressly mentioning names - in his 1930 article ‘I Know Who Killed Desmond Taylor,’ King was sure Charlotte Shelby, the mother of Mary Miles Minter, was guilty of Taylor’s murder, motivated by concern over the effect her daughter’s infatuation with him might have on her film career - and possibly of the intimate relationship Taylor and her daughter shared. By October 1922 the police were so desperate for leads that, with the help of a private detective, they persuaded a newspaper to print a fake story in which a medium claimed she’d had a vision in which Taylor’s murderer had appeared to her. The fictional medium claimed the killer was a woman with a beautiful daughter with whom Taylor had been too familiar, and that she would give this mother two weeks to come forward and tell the truth or she would reveal her identity.
Within twenty-four hours of the report appearing, a lawyer visited the District Attorney’s office with a clipping from the newspaper and enquired as to the name and address of the medium. He also asked if the medium had mentioned the name of the woman to them. This lawyer, who returned with further questions the following day, was the only person to enquire about the news report. In his article, King intimates that he had been a representative of Charlotte Shelby - in his words, ‘The mother of the beautiful girl whom Taylor had told Mr. Hoyt was madly in love with him‘.
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