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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Category Archives: Crime

Podcast 128: The Prick of Death

The Howrah railway station sits just across the Hoogly river from Calcutta and is considered to be the busiest station in India. It was here, on November 26, 1933, that Amarendra Chandra Pande arrived as he began his journey from Calcutta to his family home in Pakur. He was accompanied by several female relatives, most important of which was his aunt, a rich widow named Rani Surjabati. Also, there to see Amar off was his half-brother Benoyendra, which was an unusual act of kindness for him. Benoy was eleven years older than Amar and the two had little in common. While the older Benoy was a free-spending playboy and kind of the black sheep of the family, Amar was the one who was loved and respected by all.

Just as Amar’s party moved through the booking area of the station, a man walking in the opposite direction suddenly brushed up against him. Detecting a sharp sting in his right arm, Amar blurted, “Someone has pricked me.” His aunt would later testify that “A short, black man with an oval face brushed up against him.”

Amar rolled up his sleeve to examine the wound. While the puncture was small, a colorless liquid was oozing out. Nearly all of those in his entourage expressed concern. It was suggested that he should cancel his planned trip and immediately seek medical attention. His brother Benoy was the only one who didn’t seem concerned at all. He made light of the injury as he grabbed Amar’s arm and began to massage the puncture site.

Over the course of the entire train ride to Pakur, his relatives continued to push Amar to change his mind and see a doctor. A few days later he finally agreed and took a train back to Calcutta to do just that. Upon examination, the doctor noted that the pricked spot appeared to be “something like the mark of a hypodermic needle.” A blood sample was taken and sent off to a laboratory for testing.

Howrah Railway Station circa 1945
The scene of the crime. Howrah Railway Station circa 1945. Image from Wikimedia.

Amar quickly took a turn for the worse. He developed a high fever and his tongue blackened as his face, groin, and armpits began to swell. Amarandra would not recover and passed away on December 4, 1933. The task of cremating Amar’s body fell upon his irresponsible brother Benoy and, having had little respect for his younger brother, he opted to bribe an official to have the body disposed of quickly. As a result, an autopsy was never performed.

Several days later the results of that blood sample were finally reported. Amar had died from bubonic plague and it was thought that he had been infected when that unidentified man pricked him in the arm at Howrah station. His death was now believed to be a murder.

The Black Death had all been thought eradicated in 1933. The last person thought infected in the region had passed away several years prior. And, if Amar was, in fact, injected with the plague, one had to question where one could obtain such a deadly bacterium.

It turns out that there was only one place: Since 1896, all research related to the plague in India was strictly controlled by the Haffkine Institute in Bombay (Mumbai today). Under absolutely no circumstance would the Institute supply plague cultures to private companies or individuals.

As investigators scoured through the Institute’s records, one name stood out among the rest. His name was Dr. Taranath Bhattacharjee and he had tried on multiple occasions to obtain a viable culture of the plague to test a theory that he had. Further digging uncovered the fact that Taranath’s closest friend was none other than Benoyendra Pande, Amar’s half-brother.

Suddenly, all of the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together…

Benoy was twenty-seven and Amar sixteen years of age when their wealthy father died in 1929. The estate was split somewhat equally between the two brothers and included a significant annual income from the rental of real estate. Benoy was a known partier who generously shared his lifestyle with his close friends, of which Taranath, the doctor, was a recipient. Of course, to call any of them close friends was a bit of an exaggeration. They were more like parasites who always lived in fear that their source of easy money was about to be cut off.

When Amar turned eighteen in 1931, he began to take steps to regain control of his portion of his estate, which had been handled by the irresponsible Benoy until then. Benoy fought him at every step along the way. At some point, Benoy had become so determined to gain possession of his brother’s money that his close friends began to suggest ways to bump off Amar. It was suggested that Amar be pushed in front of a moving train or that Benoy hire some thug to strangle Amar, but it would be Taranath who offered up what he felt would be the perfect crime. To avoid arousing suspicion, Taranath stated that Amar needed to die of natural causes. The plague was the perfect choice.

The doctor knew of about a dozen laboratories in India where the bacilli were being cultured. He wrote to each one stating his qualifications, sometimes greatly exaggerated them, and explaining the testing that he wished to do. While a few were willing to allow him to do his tests at their facilities, none were willing to allow the cultures or the infected rats out of the laboratory.

Having been unable to obtain a plague culture, it was alleged that Taranath set his sights on the next best thing: tetanus. Since it was unlikely to cause an epidemic, he concluded that it would be less closely guarded and far easier to obtain.

Their plan was simple: Benoy obtained a pair of glasses and proceeded to smear the tetanus germs across its nosepiece. While on a family vacation in the fall of 1932, he asked Amar to go for a short walk. The conversation turned to that of eyeglasses and Amar agreed to try them on. Just at the eyeglasses were settling into place, Benoy jammed them down on Amar’s nose and pierced the skin.

The next day, Amar was taken to a local doctor and diagnosed with tetanus. His aunt wired Benoy and requested that he bring the family physician. Yet, when Benoy arrived, he had brought Taranath instead. Taranath insisted that the administration of the tetanus antitoxin be stopped and injections of morphine be used instead. The local doctor held his ground and refused to give in.

Frustrated, Benoy soon showed up with another doctor, Dr. Dhar, who injected Amar with a serum that he had obtained in Calcutta. He would soon develop an abscess at this site of this injection. Later, Benoy arrived with both Dr. Dhar and Taranath in tow to administer additional selected medicines. By this time, Amar’s aunt and sisters had grown suspicious of Benoy’s actions and would not allow his personal doctors to treat Amar. Amar would slowly regain his health over the next few months, but in the end, it is said that he was left with a permanently damaged heart.

With the tetanus infection having failed, Benoy and Taranath returned to their original plan. They would once again attempt to obtain a plague culture.

On April 30, 1933, Benoy traveled to Bombay to meet with a doctor at the Haffkine Institute. He said that he had been sent in advance to find out whether the institute would allow a fellow doctor, as if he were one, to use their facilities to test a curative drug for the plague. He was informed that approval of the Institute’s director would be required.

In May, Taranth finally found a doctor who was willing to work with him, but under no circumstance was Taranth allowed to handle the plague culture. When his experiment failed, the doctor that he had been working under refused to secure a second culture for testing.

On July 1st, Benoy was once again in Bombay waving wads of cash in an effort to convince two veterinarians to obtain a plague culture from the Haffkine Institute. They also refused.

Shortly after this rejection, Benoy found a doctor at the Arthur Road (now Kasturba) Hospital who took interest in Taranath’s research. He assigned an assistant to work with Taranath and a live plague culture was obtained from the Haffkine Institute. Benoy and Taranath purchased some white rats from a bird dealer and the supposed testing began, although the assistant later testified that he never observed any type of medicine ever being applied. On July 12th, Taranath told the assistant that he had urgent work that he needed to attend to back in Calcutta and needed to leave right away. He would not return. That night, both Taranath and Benoy skipped town.

It was around this time that Benoy attempted to obtain a life insurance policy worth 51,000 rupees on his brother with the stipulation that the policy not be contested after Amar’s death. He was denied coverage.

With the plague culture now in their possession, Benoy needed to lure Amar back to Calcutta. He tried to persuade his aunt to send a telegram, but she outright refused. So, he sent a bogus message using her name instead. Amar arrived in Calcutta on November 19, 1933.

While he was there, Amar went to the theater with five female relatives. Benoy was spotted hovering around the premises with a man whose description was nearly identical to that of the man who fatally pricked Amar. It was thought that the man had been hired by Benoy to administer that shot-in-the-arm that evening but it was not done because Amar was too closely surrounded by his relatives when they emerged from the theater. Instead, Benoy and that unknown assailant would complete their dastardly deed a few days later at the railroad station.

It took investigators about ten weeks to piece this entire sequence of events together. Benoy was arrested on February 16, 1934, followed by Taranath two days later. Also charged with the murder were Dr. Dhar, who had administered that fake dose of tetanus antiserum and Dr. Sivapada Bhattacharjee, who wrote out the death certificate claiming that Amar had died from sepsis pneumonia.

During the trial, eighty-five witnesses were called to testify and more than three-hundred exhibits were introduced. The prosecutor stated that the case was “unparalleled in the annals of crime of India in its enormity and well-planned scientific design.”

It took the jury just four hours to unanimously find Benoy and Taranath guilty of murder and recommended mercy, while the other two doctors were acquitted of the charges. The judge stated, “This is the coldest-blooded crime I have ever come across” and, on February 16, 1935 – one year to the day after Benoy’s arrest – the two men were sentenced to death.

An appeal was immediately filed. On January 9, 1936, the lower court’s decision was affirmed, but the decision was made to set aside the death sentences. Instead, Benoy and Taranath were sentenced to transportation for life to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

Podcast 127: The Case of the Doctor-Doctor Kidnapping

During the early morning hours of July 12, 1933, a Northern Pacific passenger train that was headed for Duluth, Minnesota sideswiped a car that had been on the track approximately 4-miles (6.4 km) north of St. Paul. The train was brought to an immediate halt and the train crew ran over to offer assistance.

The sedan itself suffered minimal damage: As the train pushed the car into a ditch, its front fender and headlight were smashed in.

Image of the car in which Dr. Engberg was found.
Image of the car in which Dr. Engberg was found. From the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune (page 6).

The driver, on the other hand, was in far worse condition. Later identified as 45-year-old Dr. (Edward John) E. J. Engberg, the Secretary of the State Board of Medical Examiners, he was unconscious and bleeding from his mouth. A rusty .32 caliber revolver with its handle taped was found lying on the floor of the car between his feet. Two shots had been fired through the window and side of the sedan. In the back seat, police found a pair of surgeon’s rubber gloves, an ether mask, and a bloody towel. Extra bullets and a black mask were found in the pockets of his coat.

Dr.  E. J. Engberg
Image of Dr. E. J. Engberg that appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune.

The car that Dr. Engberg was found was owned by 34-year-old Dr. (Walter Henry) W. H. Hedberg, a local chiropractor. Police found the chiropractor lying unconscious in a ditch about 0.25 miles (0.4 km) away with a bullet wound in his ear.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is that the two men had never met each other before. Yet, their lives would cross paths in such an unusual way that the story would be told on the front pages of newspapers across the country.

After regaining consciousness, Engberg – the doctor – told police that he had received a call at his home the previous Friday night to come to the aid of a patient. This was not unusual at a time when doctors still made housecalls, but the doctor later came home and told his wife that he had been unable to locate the patient. A call received the next day said that another doctor had treated the patient, but that Engberg’s services would still be needed in the future.

Map of the crime.
This map showing the location of the crime is from the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune (page 6).

The doctor received another call at 8:30 P. M. on Tuesday, July 11th, the evening before he was knocked unconscious by the train. He drove in his automobile to the specified location where “The man leaped into my car. He stuck a gun against my side and warned me that I would not be harmed if I did as he directed. We drove a while and then met a car with other men.” Dr. Engberg told the police, “I asked what they wanted me to do and was told I was expected to perform a surgical operation on a man being held captive. Of course, I refused. I did not even see the man they wanted to be the victim of that mutilation.”

After his refusal, what was believed to have been an ether-soaked towel was wrapped around Dr. Engberg’s head and he lost consciousness. Physicians who later treated Dr. Engberg at the hospital stated that he had been forcibly injected by a hypodermic needle.

Of course, the intended target of the surgical mutilation chiropractor Dr. Hedberg. He told a similar story of being lured from his home by a telephone call seeking medical help. After arriving at the specified location, he was seized by three men. One wrapped a towel around his head as two others pressed their guns against him. Just as with Dr. Engberg, chiropractor Hedberg was injected with anesthesia and fell unconscious.

Dr. (Walter Henry) W. H. Hedberg
Image of Dr. (Walter Henry) W. H. Hedberg that appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune.

When the effects of the anesthesia began to wear off, the chiropractor reached up, turned off the car’s ignition, and tossed the keys outside of the automobile. This did not go over well with his captors and he ended up in a fight with one of them. As the tussle continued, chiropractor Hedberg reached for the door latch and the two fell out on to the road where he was briefly knocked unconscious. As he came to, he again struggled with his captors, at which point they fired two shots, one striking him in the earlobe. Believing that Hedberg’s wound had been fatal, they left his body lying in a ditch and drove off. Their next stop was to place Dr. Engberg in the car, set him up so that it looked like he had committed the attack on the chiropractor, and they then left him in the car awaiting the collision with the train.

As police continued their investigation, they learned that chiropractor Hedberg had been visited in his office on July 5th by a woman who identified herself as Miss Irene Plazo. She requested that he perform an illegal operation and offered Hedberg $15 (nearly $300 today). She commented, “and there’s a lot more where this came from.” Hedberg soon learned that Miss Plazo had given him both a fictitious name and address and he refused to take part in whatever she had planned.

Mrs. Hedberg told police that, in addition to Miss Plazo showing up at her husband’s office, he had been receiving threatening phone calls and began to fear for his life. Just in case something should happen, he opted to take out a $30,000 (approximately $590,000 today) life insurance policy. Mrs. Hedberg commented, “I knew Dr. Hedberg was worried about something. There’s something crooked. I knew it would happen.”

Dr. Hedberg's home at 1714 Princeton Avenue in St. Paul
Image of Dr. Hedberg’s home at 1714 Princeton Avenue in St. Paul that appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune

The St. Paul police thought that this whole series of events could be the work of one of the chiropractor’s disgruntled patients. They began to scour his patient records to see if they could find any clues as to who may have engineered this bizarre plot.

Fast forward a little more than five weeks to Saturday, August 19, 1933. Chiropractor Hedberg called to his wife stating that he would be home in a half-hour but never arrived. A brakeman in the yards of the Chicago Great Western Railway spotted him early Sunday morning wandering between boxcars and warned Hedberg to stay off the tracks.

Early Monday morning, the police received an anonymous call that there was an injured man lying on the ground in the railroad yards. When they arrived, they discovered Hedberg in a semi-conscious state with five needle marks in his right arm. He had been injected with the barbiturate sodium amytal, the same drug believed to have been used on Dr. Engberg in that earlier attack.

While chiropractor Hedberg was in the hospital recovering, police announced that they had identified him as the sole assailant who had drugged Dr. Engberg. Officials initially considered a sanity hearing, but ultimately decided to file charges of kidnapping and intent to kill against the chiropractor.

The big question is why would chiropractor Hedberg want to kill Dr. Engberg? The two had clearly never met before. It turns out that Hedberg had been ordered by an attorney representing the State Board of Medical Examiners to remove a sign that read “physician” from a window in his chiropractic office. Hedberg became enraged and refused to remove the sign. Instead, he painted the word “chiropractor” above it in small letters above the word physician. Since Dr. Engberg was the secretary for the medical examiners’ board, Hedberg held him personally responsible.

Location of the original crime.
Location of the original crime. The dashed arrow points to the location where Dr. Engberg was found after the train hit the car. Image appeared on page 6 of the July 13, 1933 publication of the Minneapolis Tribune.

Hedberg pleaded not guilty to the charges and the trial was scheduled for October 24, 1933. When Dr. Engberg was asked if Hedberg was the man who had attacked him, he replied, “Not a shadow of a doubt.” The chiropractor took the stand and stuck to his story of being attacked by several men. His wife told the court of the mysterious phone calls and that her husband had told her at one point that “lots of funny things have happened lately.”

As testimony neared its conclusion, one of the jurors was declared insane and dismissed. The decision was made to continue with just eleven jurors. On November 8th, two weeks after the trial had begun, the jury needed just three hours to issue their verdict: Hedberg was acquitted and sent home a free man.

Did he do it? I guess we will never know. The evidence seemed highly stacked against Hedberg, yet a jury of his peers concluded that he was innocent of the charges. In addition to having served as president of the Minnesota Chiropractic Association, he served twenty years on the board of directors for the Logan College of Chiropractic. He passed away on August 29, 1968 at 79 years of age.

As for Dr. Engberg, he would spend 31 years as the superintendent of the Faribault State School and Hospital before retiring in 1968. He was 83-years-old when he died on July 18, 1971.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

A Punishment That Went Horribly Wrong

The subject of today’s story is a young woman named Linda Marie Ault. Shortly after her graduation from Flowing Wells High School in Tucson, Arizona, 17-year-old Linda married Ronald Wayne Loomis on August 8, 1964. The marriage wouldn’t last.

Wedding photograph of Linda Marie Ault Loomis that appeared in the August 8, 1964 publication of the Arizona Daily Star on page 10.

In 1966, Linda moved back in with her parents, Dorothy and Joseph Ault, who had by this time had relocated to 4720 E. Beverly in Phoenix. It’s always difficult to know what really goes on behind closed doors, but various newspaper accounts piece together an image in which the Ault household became a generational battle between traditional, conservative parents and a liberal daughter who reached adulthood during the 1960’s sexual revolution.

Mrs. Ault blamed the failure of her daughter’s marriage mainly on the fact that Linda had been intimate with at least a half dozen men during that time period. Her promiscuity continued after moving back home and what Mrs. Ault referred to as “traditional” methods were used to avoid any chance of pregnancy. This included having Linda constantly walk upright for about a week. Another time she had to ride horseback for approximately one month.

Linda enrolled as a student at Arizona State University, but the Aults were having a very difficult time getting her to study. Instead, Linda increasingly worked on making herself more enticing to the opposite sex. At one point she was awarded a scholarship, but instead requested that she be allowed to use the money to purchase contact lenses so that she could ditch her cat’s eye style glasses.

During the spring of 1967, Linda called the police to report a domestic disturbance at the Ault house. Sheriff Deputy Jack Barnaby responded and witnessed “one of the most violent family fights I have ever seen.” He added that Mrs. Ault was “extremely belligerent and that she had threatened to commit suicide.”  After this incident Mrs. Ault underwent psychiatric treatment and was considered to be just fine.

Some ten months later, on the evening of Friday February 2, 1968, Linda left the house to go to a dance. When she didn’t return home that night, her parents became concerned and made a telephone call to one her friends who informed them that Linda had left the dance with a man. The Aults became frantic and spent the remainder of the night driving through the Tempe-Phoenix area searching for her car but were unsuccessful.

Linda walked back into the house at 9:30 the next morning with a big smile on her face. When asked to explain where she had been, Linda stated that she had spent an intimate night at the apartment of a Williams Air Force Base Lieutenant named Joseph Cunningham.

Linda argued that she was 21-years-old and that she could do as she pleased. This made her parents even more furious and they forced Linda to telephone Lieutenant Cunningham and tell him that he had to marry her. The plan was very simple: The two would head off to Las Vegas for a quickie marriage and should Linda eventually be found not to be expecting a child, the marriage could be annulled.

Lieutenant Cunningham agreed to come to the house to talk things over, but if he had any thought about talking himself out of the impending nuptials, he was mistaken. Mr. Ault decided that he needed some sort of forceful persuasion to make sure that the two really married. Shortly after the telephone conversation ended, he drove to a pawn shop and purchased a 22-caliber revolver. He stated, “The main reason I got the gun was to get the man to marry Linda.” He added, “If we could show him the gun he’ll take her to Las Vegas and marry her.”

That was never to happen. While Mr. Ault was out shopping for the weapon, Lieutenant Cunningham called back and told Mrs. Ault that he wouldn’t be coming to their house to discuss what happened because he was already married.

So much for the shotgun wedding idea…

For the next day-or-so the Aults continued to press their daughter to express remorse for what she had done, but Linda was not giving in. One of the first things that her parents did was to take her over to her college and force Linda to withdraw from her classes. This was followed by walking around the neighborhood and forcing her to remain standing on her feet all day Saturday in an effort to abort a possible pregnancy.

At one point Linda started “to run and wouldn’t listen to me,” so Mrs. Ault picked up a branch from a Mesquite tree and whacked her on the back of her head twice. Linda then ran to a nearby gas station at 4300 East Baseline and called the police for help. Responding officer K.A. Roberts later testified that he had observed a blood trail that started at the back of Linda’s head, ran down her neck, and then separated into a V-shaped pattern between her shoulders. Linda refused to sign a complaint against her mother and returned back home.

1960 photograph of the 8th Grade Class at Flowing Wells High School. Linda Marie Ault is in the back row, fourth in from the far right.

Later that evening, Mr. Ault discovered Linda with a dull butcher knife pointed toward her stomach claiming that she didn’t have the strength to kill herself. Dad commented, “Oh, you’re grandstanding again.” He grabbed the knife and hid it away to prevent any further harm. He also hid his newly purchased gun under his mattress, just in case she decided to try to use it to grab their attention with it once again.

By Sunday morning, Linda still had not expressed any remorse for her actions, so the parents decided that they had to teach her a valuable lesson. One that would be memorable. One that she would forever regret. One that would cause her to truly reflect on what she had done.

Their solution: Linda would have to kill her beloved dog Beauty, a black and white mongrel that she had owned for about two years. Mrs. Ault stated, “I told Linda that after all she put so many people through, and her not suffer, that maybe she would suffer over an animal.”

Shortly before 11 A.M., Linda walked with Beauty one last time to a spot about 500 feet (150 meters) on the desert floor behind their home. As Linda and Mrs. Ault took turns digging a grave to bury Beauty in, Mr. Ault fired the gun into a cactus to be certain that it operated properly.  He then loaded the revolver with 7 rounds and left the hammer on an empty chamber. “I told her to just pull the hammer back and trigger.”

At this point Mr. Ault walked about 50-feet (15 meters) to tie the couple’s other dog to a bush. Mrs. Ault then knelt down next to the grave that they had dug and held Beauty by her leash. She was looking down toward the dog but through the corner of her eye could see the barrel of the gun coming toward the dog. She said, “You have to put it right against her head.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Mrs. Ault could see Linda withdrawing the gun away from Beauty’s head and sensed that her daughter was hesitating on pulling the trigger.

And the… BOOM!

Mrs. Ault suddenly screamed, “My God, my God! She shot herself!”

Instead of shooting her dog, Linda had turned the gun toward her right temple and pulled the trigger.

“She’s shot herself! Baby, baby, help me!”

Mister Ault ran toward his daughter and carried her back to the house. Mrs. Ault dialed the operator in a frantic attempt to get an ambulance or the police, but time was ticking away fast.

Sheriff’s deputy Jack Barnaby arrived on the scene a short time later and cautiously entered the house with his gun ready. He had been the officer who had responded to that violent fight at the Ault home some ten months earlier, so he didn’t know what to expect. He found that no one was home.

That was because the Aults had made the decision to drive Linda directly to the Tempe Community Hospital themselves. Her condition was so grave that she was transferred her to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix.

Sadly, she did not survive. Linda died the next morning on February 5, 1968. She was 21-years-old.

Mrs. Ault was quoted as saying, “I thought she was just stalling.” She continued, “I killed her, I killed her. It’s just like I killed her myself.”

This photograph of Linda Marie Ault appeared in newspapers across the country shortly after the news of her tragic death broke. From page 1 of the February 8, 1968 issue of the Fort Lauderdale News.

While the couple lived just outside the Phoenix city limits, the shooting took place within its boundaries. As a result, the couple was questioned by Phoenix police and were fully cooperative. Mr. Ault stated, “I handed her the gun. I didn’t think she would do anything like that.”

The press quickly picked up on the story about about the college sophomore who opted to take her life over that of her innocent dog. Suddenly, Mr. and Mrs. Ault were thrust into the national spotlight. When questioned by reporters, Mr. Ault replied, “We told the police and the Sheriff’s office everything. You can get it all from them.”

Two days later the Aults were testifying at a coroner’s inquest. The couple was questioned by Chief Deputy County Attorney Moise Berger, who asked Mrs. Ault, “Did you or did you not know that she was four days past her menstrual period and there was no possibility she was pregnant?”  Mrs. Ault replied that she was aware of that fact.

When asked why Linda agreed to calling and asking Lieutenant Cunningham to marry her, Mrs. Ault stated, “She finally understood there was more involved than just him and her in an act like that. You have responsibilities.”

Just before he left the witness stand, Mr. Ault asked to make a statement: “I don’t believe my daughter meant to kill herself. I don’t think she thought her father would load the gun, that he would let her shoot the dog.”

The hearing lasted approximately two hours and the jury of five men and one woman ruled that Linda had chosen to take her own life. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Joseph and Dorothy Ault waiting for the coroner’s inquest to begin. Page 1 image from the Arizona Republic on February 8, 1968.

One would think that would have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. Attorney Berger said that there were still some unanswered questions and that the investigation would continue.

And that’s exactly what they did. At 5 P.M. on February 9th – 4 days after their daughter’s death – three sheriff’s deputies arrested the Aults at their home. They were charged with involuntary manslaughter and were held on $20,000 bond. Adjusted for inflation, that is approximately $143,000 each today. The couple both plead innocent to the charges, but should they ultimately be convicted, they were facing a sentence of 1 to 10 years in prison.

The rationale for the charges were that the couple were well aware that their daughter had attempted to take her own life with the kitchen knife the night before the shooting. By handing Linda a loaded gun the next day, the couple had broken Arizona law by knowingly assisting another person to commit suicide. Attorney Berger stated, “basically the facts show they were aware of their daughter’s emotional state and did give her a loaded gun. This does show a failure to exercise due caution under the circumstances.”

The Aults’ lawyer argued that their bond was excessively high. Mr. Ault had been a 20-year employee of the El Paso Natural Gas Company and both husband and wife had strong roots in the community. Neither could be considered flight risks, so bond was reduced to $2,500 each and they were released pending trial.

As if things weren’t bad enough for the Aults, on February 27th their 21-year-old son Howard Eugene, a Vietnam veteran, was sentenced to a term of one year to one year and a day in prison for forging a check on October 7, 1967. Surprisingly, the judge admitted that Howard’s chances for probation were weakened by the legal mess that his parents were in.

Just as the Aults’ trial was to begin on May 21st, Superior Court Judge William A. Holohan ruled that all of the testimony that the couple had given during that initial coroner’s inquest could not be introduced as evidence at their manslaughter trial. The rationale for this ruling was that the Aults had been advised by Justice of the Peace Stanley Kimball over the telephone that it wasn’t necessary for the couple to have an attorney at the inquest. Yet, they clearly should have had one.

After one-and-a-half days of testimony before a jury of five women and seven men, the prosecution rested its case. The defense then argued that the county had failed to prove that the couple was guilty of involuntary manslaughter and the judge agreed. He dismissed the jury and directed a verdict of acquittal.

While the Aults may have been cleared of any charges in a court of law, I can’t imagine how awful it must have been for them to live with the guilt for the rest of their lives. It’s an incredible burden to carry and not one that I would wish upon anyone.

I’ll conclude with a message of appreciation that appeared on page 44 of the February 15, 1968 publication of the Arizona Republic: “We wish to express our heartfelt thanks and appreciation for the acts of kindness, messages of sympathy and the beautiful floral offerings received from our many friends in our time of sorrow in the loss of our beloved daughter and sister, Linda Marie Ault.  The Ault family”

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

The Adventure of a Lifetime

In 1957, three awning salesmen sat in a bar on the north side of Chicago and the subject of diamonds entered the conversation. Joseph Murano, 39 years of age, and Leslie Cohen, aged 42, listened attentively as the newly hired 39-year-old Joseph Schmitz described his 20-plus years of adventure on the high seas. He captivated his audience of two with endless stories of jungle exploration, covert meetings, and harrowing escapes.

Schmitz said that he was planning to purchase a small schooner and sail for Africa to join in on the illegal trade of diamonds. He felt that a smaller boat would allow him to slip into port under the cover of darkness, obtain the diamonds from Arab and Portuguese dealers, then ferry them north – possibly to Cairo or Casablanca – and sell them at a significant profit. He said, “If a man has the guts, he can make a fortune.” Even better would be if he could hook up with geologists that he was acquainted with, then he could knock out the middleman and become rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Image of Joseph Schmitz
Image of Joseph Schmitz that appeared on page 98 of the March 2, 1959 issue of Life magazine.

If this all sounds like a bunch of bull poop, it’s not. A couple of minor white lies were told, but most of what he said was true. Schmitz really had traveled the seas for a couple of decades, had a master mariner’s license, and had escaped from bad situations multiple times.

Needless to say, Murano and Cohen were hooked. Neither had ever sailed in anything more than a rowboat, but the thought of an overseas adventure and being part of the lucrative, even if illegal, diamond trade was far more appealing than their dead-end aluminum awning sales jobs. They wanted in.

Months later, after their adventure had ended, Cohen said, “We suddenly realized that we had been restless for some time and were ready for a little travel and change of scene.”

When the two questioned Schmitz as to when he planned to depart, he replied, “Not until next year. It will take me that long to save the money to buy my schooner.”

To which Cohen replied, “Next year! Let’s go now! We’ll put on with you as partners.”

Schmitz agreed. “It’s a deal. We’ll sail for Africa in August.”

None of these guys had much in the way of savings, so Cohen and Murano sold their most valuable assets to finance the trip: their cars. They then made a visit to their local sporting goods store to purchase everything that they thought would be needed for a trip like this, including the obligatory yachting caps and elephant guns.

Elephant guns?

“It seemed logical to me, Cohen stated. Every movie I’ve seen of Africa, there’s lions and tigers running around loose.”

In early August they packed up everything and headed for the Long Island Sound that lies between New York and Connecticut. Upon arrival, Schmitz telephoned a New York advertising executive named Clayton Jaeger and set up a time to meet and discuss the sale of his 52-foot (15.8 meter) long boat named the Serene. The next day the three men went to meet up with Jaeger. Both Cohen and Murano were surprised by how small the boat appeared to be.

What it was lacking in size was made up for in niceties. In addition to having a full set of sails, each man could take comfort in the so-called “Saloon” below deck. There was also a captain’s cabin, a galley kitchen, the obligatory bathroom, and, should one find themselves adrift, a gas-powered engine.

Image of Joseph Murano
Image of Joseph Murano which appeared on page 98 of the March 2, 1959 issue of Life magazine.

As Murano and Cohen began to fully take in the pros and cons of what they were in for, Schmitz went below deck with Jaeger to discuss the terms of the sale. Once back on shore, Schmitz told the other two that a purchase price had been agreed upon and that they would be departing shortly. They spent the next few days gathering up the nautical equipment and food required for the long voyage. While they did purchase some perishables like eggs, potatoes, and tomatoes, Schmitz advised that they stock up on foods that wouldn’t spoil easily. That included cans of beans, sauerkraut, sardines, cheese, peanut butter, dried prunes, and soda crackers. He assured them that once they reached the African coast, they would be dining upon fresh meats and fruits.

Early on the morning of August 14, 1957, the three finally set out from City Island in the Bronx on what was certain to be the adventure of a lifetime.

While Schmitz had earlier implied that sailing a ship of this size was a fairly easy thing to do, Cohen and Murano quickly realized that it was anything but. They were totally unprepared for what was about to come. While still in calm waters, Schmitz attempted to give his two assistants a lesson in handling the lines. It was mass confusion. As Schmitz was blurting out commands that they could barely understand, the two novices were getting tangled up in the unfolding sails and ropes, smashing into the masts, and just plain getting beaten and bruised up by the whole experience.

“To turn one of these schooners around,” Murano later stated, “is a big operation – everybody jerking on the ropes and the captain making with the yacht lingo and all the time a big boom flying around that is liable to whack your head right off.”

Once the drill was over, the two went below deck to grab a beer. They didn’t have long to relax. Seemingly out of nowhere the floor of the saloon rose up and then crashed back down, sending Murano and Cohen flat down on to the carpeted floor.

The storm that they had sailed into seemed to increase in intensity with each passing hour. At one point Schmitz tied himself to the captain’s wheel and ordered his two inexperienced partners below deck until the storm had passed.

In the meantime, each would take turns crawling out on deck to spoon-feed Schmitz from a can of beans. At one point the schooner rolled so sharply that its mast nearly touched the water. Even worse, the cabin started to fill with water. Schmitz told the two men that they needed to start the engine up and pump the water out. But it wouldn’t turn over. It was later determined that the fuel lines had broken and much of the gasoline had leaked into the ship’s bilge. They proceeded to pump by hand, not realizing that they had pumped hundreds of gallons of fuel out of the boat.

When the storm finally passed three days later, the yacht was spotted by a Navy transport ship. It headed over to see if the three were in need of any help, but Schmitz assured them that everything was just fine. Cohen and Murano stood there stunned as they watched him turn down an offer of much needed assistance. Schmitz assured the two that he had been through far worse and that everything would be fine.

This image of Joseph Schmitz/Emanuel K. Bredel appeared on page 6 of the July 3, 1958 issue of the New York Daily News.

But he was wrong. The sails of the ship were in tatters and were getting worse with each passing day. Patches only go so far. Even worse, Schmitz calculated that the storm had blown the Serene way off course and they were near Bermuda. Murano and Cohen felt that anchoring there was the most logical thing to do, yet Schmitz vehemently argued against that idea. Not only did he lack the maps needed to navigate their waters safely, he felt that they could make better use of their time heading straight for the African coast. He also had the big advantage in the fact that he was the only one who knew how to sail the boat.

As they continued on their journey, another life-threatening situation appeared. They had sailed into dead, calm water. Sails need the wind to move and they were going nowhere. Under normal circumstances they would have started up the gas engine, but all of its fuel had been pumped overboard. As a result, day after day the Serene just sat there.

Cohen stated, “You’d go up on deck and see the same bean can bobbing right along with you in the same spot it had been when you tossed it overboard two days ago. I for one found this very dmoralizing.”

Image of Leslie Cohen
Image of Leslie Cohen that appeared in the March 2, 1959 issue of Life magazine on page 98.

While they didn’t challenge Schmitz on his navigational skills, the two began to suspect that they were simply sailing round and round in a circle. Murano stated “All we knew was we were supposed to be sailing due east and the sun was coming up in a different place every morning. That was fishy.”

Even worse, they were running out of food and drinking water. Murano had shed 50 pounds and Cohen dropped 30 (approximately 23 and 14 kg, respectively), making them far too weak to continually operate the hand pumps to empty the water out of the bilge.

Everything changed one morning. Schmitz pointed to his mariner’s license that he had tacked up on the wall. Everything looked legitimate on the document except for one small detail: it wasn’t Schmitz’s name on the license. Instead, it was for someone named Emanuel K. Bredel. Captain Schmitz was no more. The two underlings were to refer to him as Captain Bredel from that moment on. Not only did Schmitz have a new name, but so did the boat. The Serene was rechristened the V. Marcel.

The newly coined Captain Bredel estimated that they would reach the island of Madeira off the western coast of Africa within a day. This was great news for the starving crew, but they still had one more big problem to deal with.

They had sailed right into the path of Hurricane Carrie, which was the strongest tropical cyclone of the 1957 hurricane season. On September 21st of that year, Carrie was powerful enough to destroy the German barque Pamir. It went down in the Azores, just a few hundred miles away from the Serene’s location, killing 80 of its 86 men aboard. A small boat like the V. Marcel barely stood a chance.

Cohen knew that death was near and began to pen “The Last Days on Earth of Leslie Cohen.” Here are some excerpts from that document:

  • “Another day, another hurricane. This is the worst mistake two men ever made.”
  • “Bad storm again! God has never heard three bums pray as loud as we did last night!”
  • “Constantly wet. Working 18 hours a day. If I ever come out of this alive, I’ll never set foot on a boat again.”
  • “Rolling from side to side. Winds 70-90 miles per hour. Going nowhere. Murano says let the damn ship sink and get it over with. Bredel says no, he will make it or go down with the ship.”
  • “Bredel says we may skip Casablanca and go directly the Egypt. Not me, I’m dead.”

Yet, the V. Marcel somehow weathered the storm. On October 2nd, Murano was down in his bunk in one of those still half-asleep dazes when his brain latched on to an argument up on deck between Cohen and Bredel. “I tell you they’re right here,” Bredel shouted. “My calculations show we ought to see them any minute.”

This time Bredel was correct. The Canary Islands were spotted out in the distance. The storm had blown the V. Marcel approximately 300 miles (480 km) south of Madeira. Cohen and Murano’s 50-day nightmare seemed to be finally over.

But it wasn’t.

Bredel was in a fantastic mood and began planning for the completion of their voyage. Murano later commented, “Five minutes after we dropped anchor, he was over on somebody else’s boat yapping about yachts as if he’d just come back from a Sunday afternoon spin around the bay.”

Map showing the general path of the Serene as it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Map showing the general path of the Serene as it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean.  Image appeared on page 3 of the November 3, 1957 publication of the New York Daily News.

Cohen and Murano had no desire to travel any farther with Bredel, but they lacked the resources needed to go their own way. They really had no choice but to get the ship back in working order. That included repairing the shredded sails, fixing the broken engine, and waterproofing the rigging using fat obtained from a local slaughterhouse.

Growing ever frustrated with Bredel, the two finally decided that they had had enough and quit. Being stranded in the Canaries in 1957 wasn’t the ideal situation, but it turns out that they weren’t alone. Two American men were sailing from Copenhagen to California, but thieves in Casablanca had robbed them blind. They agreed to provide Murano and Cohen with passage to the West Indies in exchange for stocking the boat with the necessary provisions. The two sold just about every possession that they had and soon set sail.

Their awful experience of sailing across the ocean with Bredel was now just a memory. At least that is what they thought. Their forty-four day trip to the West Indies was anything but pleasant, but when they finally arrived in Barbados, Cohen and Murano were greeted with the shock of a lifetime. While still in the Canaries, Murano had written to relatives back in Chicago requesting that they send money. The replies that he received were not what he had wanted to hear. Instead of sending money, he learned that all three of them were wanted by the FBI for the theft of the Serene.

It turns out that the Serene had never been for sale in the first place. When Bredel – his name truly was Emanuel K. Bredel – met with the boat’s owner, 35-year-old Clayton T.M. Jaeger, it was only to lease the boat. In exchange for a $571 fee, the two agreed upon a 10-day excursion, which was later extended to 17 days, that was to be strictly confined within the Long Island Sound.  Jaeger made it perfectly clear to Bredel that under no circumstances was he to sail the boat out into the open ocean. Its sails were simply not up to the task.

When the boat didn’t arrive back after its charter expired, Jaeger became concerned and contacted the Coast Guard. It wasn’t long before airplanes and cutters were searching every inlet along the Atlantic coast looking for the Serene. When they failed to spot her, thoughts of more sinister plans came to light. Could they have stolen the boat to smuggle drugs? Were they using it for gun running? How about Russian espionage? That’s when the FBI was called in to investigate.

When the boat was initially rented, Schmitz/Bredel gave his address as 3435 N. Bell Avenue in Chicago, but upon investigation it was learned that this was a former address of Bredel’s cousin Robert Schmitz and his family.

Emanuel K. Bredel posing for the cameras after his arrest.
Emanuel K. Bredel posing for the cameras after his arrest. Image appeared on page 6 of the New York Daily News on July 3, 1958.

Cohen and Murano used the last of their money to fly back to the States. Originally informed that they faced a maximum penalty of $10,000 ($88,000 adjusted for inflation) and 10 years in prison, the two must have been greatly relieved to find out that no charges were to be pressed against them. The FBI was only interested in locating Bredel, who just happened to be on probation from a twenty-year suspended sentence for forging checks.

Locating Bredel proved difficult because he had already left port. This time he took on an English teacher as his mate and was sighted in various locations throughout the Canary Islands. Authorities finally caught up with him on November 27th and, pending clarification of the true ownership of the Serene, the boat was confined to the naval yards in Las Palmas and placed under constant guard. Two Spanish crewmen and two Swedish women who were aboard at the time were released after it was determined that they had no involvement whatsoever in the theft of the boat.

Bredel was ordered to stay aboard the boat, but on Tuesday January 28, 1958 he gave them the slip by swimming underwater past the Spanish guards. He left everything behind including his personal belongings and the Serene itself.  A Spanish electrician named Severiano Goday Rodriguez, who in exchange for a promise of obtaining a job in New York, helped Bredel to stow away aboard a fishing boat which was headed about 300-miles (480 km) northward to the island of Madeira.

Upon arrival in Madeira, Spanish authorities turned Bredel away and he was forced to sail back to the Gran Canary island. He was arrested on February 23rd while socializing in a Las Palmas waterfront cafe. Spanish police were taking no chances this time: they locked him up in a real jail cell.

Once extradition proceedings were completed, U.S. Marshal Thomas J. Lunney and Assistant U.S. Attorney Herbert F. Roth traveled to the Canary Islands to bring the suspect back. After taking Bredel into their custody, the three boarded the SS Independence on June 26th and arrived back in the United States on July 2nd.

Emanuel K. Bredel (left) with U.S. Marshal Thomas J. Lunney.
Emanuel K. Bredel (left) with U.S. Marshal Thomas J. Lunney shortly after their arrival back in the United States aboard the Independence. Image appeared on page 3 of the July 3, 1958 issue of the Marion Star.

As the press dug into this bizarre story, it was learned that Bredel was a married man who had a wife named Mavis and two daughters in Johannesburg, South Africa. He told reporters that he had not heard from Mrs. Bredel since this whole diamond-hunting escapade began to unfold. He said, “She has no sense of humor, I suppose.”

His former boss at Trans-Lite, Milton Rifkin, stated: “It sounded like a television comedy to me. We discharged Cohen and Murano early last summer, and Schmidt left later. He sure had a winning personality.” He continued, “Next thing we knew, federal agents were here asking about the men, and we heard about the stolen yacht. Newspapers called us from all over the world. I don’t know what got into those fellows.”

Four charges were filed against Bredel: theft of the Serene, theft of Clayton Jaeger’s personal property, transporting stolen goods, and altering a Coast Guard certificate. He was held on $20,000 (about $172,000 today) bond and was facing a prison term of 30 years and/or a $30,000 fine. Being totally broke at this point, a Legal Aid Society attorney was assigned to defend him.

At all times, Bredel was the model prisoner. He made no attempts to escape, was polite, cooperative, and impressed just about everyone, particularly the judge assigned to his case.

Passenger list from July 2, 1958 for the U.S. Steamship Independence.  Emanuel K. Bredel is third down from the top.
Passenger list from July 2, 1958 for the U.S. Steamship Independence.  Emanuel K. Bredel is third down from the top.

He pleaded not guilty to all charges. On October 1st, a jury of two women and ten men deliberated for two hours before returning a guilty verdict.

When sentencing took place on November 5, 1958, Federal Judge Archie O. Dawson stated, “I told the jury that this case was similar to the one involving Capt. Kidd, who was tried here 150 years ago and, I think, was hanged on Governors Island for his crime.” He added, “I think he is a very brave man. If he had fought in the Navy, he might have got a medal.” Dawson sentenced Bredel to one year and one-day at the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA. “However, a fine is out of the question as this man is broke.”

As for the Serene itself, the boat never returned to the United States. The insurance company concluded that it would be too costly to do so and opted to sell it to a Texan visiting the Canary Islands. They paid its former owner Jaeger $12,000 (about $103,000 today) for his loss.

It probably shouldn’t come as much of surprise that Captain Bredel would make the national news one more time. This time it was not for stealing boats, but for stealing cars instead. On December 15, 1960, he was arrested for the theft of a Cadillac from a dealer in Westminster, Maryland and transporting the vehicle to New York.

Two months later, Bredel and two other men were indicted for operating a lucrative car theft ring. Their modus operandi was to steal late model Cadillacs, transport them to New York, and then sell the automobiles to unsuspecting used car dealers. All three were found guilty. One of his co-conspirators was given a four year sentence, the other two and one-half years. The judge recommended that both serve no more than six months in prison with the remainder of their sentences being suspended.

Bredel, on the other hand, wasn’t as lucky. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

He never did find those diamonds…

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

Dick the Dog

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The Case of the Phantom Vegetable Oil

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Murder in the Mail

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On an October day back in 1941, John Kmetz received a trial supply of herbal pills that would supposedly restore vitality to his 54-year-old body. Shortly after taking the pills, Kmetz was dead. Learn about the man suspected of the crime, another bizarre event that occurred prior to the murder, and his ultimate fate.

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The Great Venus Swindle

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In 1953 Harold Jesse Berney, head of a Washington, DC television antenna manufacturing operation, was chosen by the US government to be its main contact with Uccelles, a prince visiting our planet from Venus.  If that sounds a bit bizarre, check out this story to learn about one of the most fantastic swindles ever conceived.

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William Cimillo – Busman’s Holiday

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