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Murder in the Mail – Podcast #80

Saturday October 11th of 1941 was a typical day in the home of 54-year-old John Kmetz and his family, which was located at 4549 East 3rd Street in Los Angeles, California.  Returning from church around 1 PM that afternoon, his son, 16-year-old Raymond, grabbed the mail and handed it off to his 13-year-old sister Lola, who in turn gave it to dad. 

Contained in that day’s delivery was a small package that had come from the Herb Specialty Co. at 1436 N. Wilcox Ave in Hollywood.  Later in the afternoon, while eating their midday dinner, Mr. Kmetz opened the package and found that it contained a small box with a white box with orange sides.  It contained twelve capsules, although there were compartments for a total of fifteen.

A letter included stated, “Dear Friend,  We are selecting a limited number of men in various localities in and about Los Angeles who have reached the age of forty or more whom we believe, without any hesitancy, need helpful health.  This help is coming to you free of charge through the use of ‘vitalizing vitamin vigor.’  Please read his entire letter and then let these vitalizing vitamins put spring in your step.”  There was much more to the letter, but you get the general idea.  The letter was signed “Dr. W. W. Mackelroy, Mgr.”

There was also a small typewritten note contained within the capsule box that stated, “Follow directions closely: 2 Dark Capsules at bedtime, 1 Light Capsule before breakfast daily.”

He didn’t think much about the unusual delivery and set the contents of the package on a dresser in his bedroom.  John’s second wife of just two months, 33-year-old Esther Dockham, had been away visiting friends Oscar and Eva Albertson for the weekend.  All were devout members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and Esther had boarded with the couple on and off over the years.  While not blood relatives, Esther often referred to the couple as her Aunt and Uncle.

John Kmetz
John Kmetz, Image appeared on page 5 of the November 30, 1941 issue of the American Weekly.

The Albertsons drove Esther home around 7 PM the next day to find that John had stepped out for a few minutes.  Lola showed her new mom and Mrs. Albertson the unusual package that her dad had received.  Mrs. Kmetz then set the package back on the dresser.  Mr. Kmetz returned home a few minutes later, chatted with the Albertsons for a short period of time, and then they left for the evening.

As Esther and John retired to their bedroom for the evening, the conversation turned to the vigor pills and the letter that accompanied it.  The couple joked a bit about it and figured that there would be no harm done in trying them.  John went into the kitchen to take the two pills with water.  He immediately returned to the bedroom claiming that the pills were making him dizzy.  Finding it hard to breathe, he fell back on the bed and started frothing at the mouth.  Doctor Vernon Ingle was immediately called and John’s stomach pumped.  Through it all, Esther remained incredibly calm.  While artificial respiration was being administered, Mrs. Kmetz made the puzzling comment “Do you think he is dead yet?”  At 10:35 PM, he was officially confirmed to be so.

An investigation started immediately.  The patrolman on the scene, Edward M. Crum, took the letter that accompanied the pills from Mrs. Kmetz and placed it under his hat that was sitting atop the piano.  Yet, a short time later he found it back in her possession.

Analysis of John Kmetz’s vital organs determined that he had swallowed a lethal dose of cyanide.  According to court documents, “About half the amount contained in one of the capsules would be sufficient to kill an average 150-pound man in about 30-minutes.”

So, can you give a guess as to who the leading suspect in the murder was?  Esther Kmetz would be my guess also, but that is not who the police arrested.  Instead, they arrested her close friend Oscar Albertson.  As a devout Seventh Day Adventist and an elder in his church, the 43-year-old Albertson did not seem to fit the mold of being a murderer.

Without getting too detailed, let me present you with the evidence that the prosecutors had against him so you can act as a juror and decide his guilt or innocence.

It was the printed materials that accompanied the vigor pills that initially led investigators to suspect Albertson of the crime.  Today we think nothing of printing out brochures and letters directly from our computers, but back then you had to go to a professional.

On September 22, 1941, an unknown man asked a printer in Santa Monica to run off 1000 copies of letterhead with the name “The Herb Specialty Co.” imprinted at the top.  In court, the printer identified the letterhead included with those cyanide pills to have been his work.  But, when asked to positively ID Albertson as the man who had placed the order, he could not do so with certainty.  “He resembles a person that I have seen somewhere, but I would not say where.”

Okay, so that’s not a very convincing start.  The printer did say that he had referred the man to another establishment called “The Letter Shop” to have the text of the letter typed up.

The stenographer said that she had typed the letter on September 24th and in court testified that the man who made the request was Oscar Albertson.  She also said that he had returned one-week later to 500 copies of the letter copied.  Yet, on cross-examination, she admitted that when she was first asked by investigators to attend Kmetz’s funeral to ID the suspect, she did choose Albertson, but “The impression I had was one rather of having seen the man before, but not necessarily in the Letter Shop.”

The owner of the Letter shop – a Mrs. Harris – also positively identified Albertson in court, but once again admitted that she hadn’t been so certain when first asked to do so at the Kmetz funeral.

A public stenographer named Mrs. Souther was also called as a witness.  She identified Oscar Albertson as the man who given her a penciled list of names and addresses on October 9th to be typed on envelopes.  Due to its peculiarity, she clearly remembered the name Kmetz being one of the 21 names she was asked to type.

Another customer at Mrs. Souther’s office testified that Albertson had a strong resemblance to the man, but once again said, “I can’t tell you I am absolutely sure, because truly I am not absolutely sure.”

Clearly not a good day in court for eyewitnesses.  Only one of four could positively identify Albertson with certainty.  Experts were, however, able to identify Mrs. Souther’s typewriter as the one that had produced the envelope that John Kmetz had received in the mail.

A handwriting suspect was able to conclude that the signature Dr. W W MacKelroy on the letter, when compared to handwriting samples obtained from Albertson, were probably made by the same person.

Another piece of incriminating evidence was the box Kmetz received that contained the poisonous capsules.  Investigators established that just prior to her marriage to Mr. Kmetz, Esther had stayed with the Albertsons and had requested that Oscar purchase a box of Vitamin A capsules for her at a local drug store.  He had purchased Pro-Vite brand, which she left this box behind at the Albertsons after leaving.

Investigators were able to show that the box used in the mailing to Kmetz was also made from a modified box of Pro-Vite.  A handwriting expert testified that the holes in the tray of both boxes were of the same size with the same unequal spacing between them.

Even more damaging was that the glue used to modify the box was mucilage.  Not very common today, but just about everyone had a bottle of it back then.  Investigators found a bottle of it at the Albertson’s home, which by itself doesn’t prove much, but on its rubber tip were traces of orange color – the same orange color found on the Vitamin A box.

Detectives also found a letter in a drawer at the Albertsons that Esther had written to her future husband ending their relationship.  This one sentence, “I don’t feel the least bit affectionate toward you” summarizes the tone of the letter.  Ultimately, she felt the letter was too harsh and was never mailed.  Yet, Esther still went on and married John Kmetz.  Certainly not more evidence against Oscar Albertson, but certainly suggests that Esther married a man she may not have loved.

And now for the whopper piece of evidence, which I purposely left for last.  There had been an incident that occurred on August 30th of 1941, just twelve days after the Kmetzes were married.  Imagine this.  It was around 10:20 PM and they had just arrived home from a visit with Esther’s mom.  They noticed an older model car parked around the corner from their home that Mrs. Kmetz later commented “looked like the car that my uncle drove,” referring to her pseudo-uncle Oscar Albertson.

After helping his wife and daughter inside with the groceries, John went back outside to park the car in the garage.  That’s when a muffled cry was heard.  Esther and Lola rushed out onto the front porch to find that Mr. Kmetz had been physically attacked with a pickax handle in the vacant lot next door.  Nothing super-serious, but he was bruised and cut.  They then witnessed the car that had been parked around the corner drive off.

Right around the same time, a patrolman saw a car driving at 45 mph (72 km/h) speed right through a stop sign.  He gave chase but found the car abandoned, which was registered to Mrs. Albertson, about a mile (1.6 km) away.  Inside the car, the officer found Mr. Albertson’s clothing neatly folded on the back seat, his wallet, glasses, and a postcard.

A few hours later, police found Oscar Albertson about three miles (4.8 km) from the abandoned car.  He was on the ground wearing only his underwear.

He said that he had received a postcard in the mail from a guy named George Crocker who told of a blacksmith job opening.  Unemployed and desperate for a job, Albertson agreed to meet him at a nearby Owl drug store, but Crocker never showed up.   Later in the evening, another man asked if he was Oscar Albertson and said that Crocker was at work at the local Sears store.  The two men drove to meet Crocker, but instead a third man got in the car with them.

One of the men pulled out a bottle of alcohol and asked Albertson to take a drink, which he refused.  Being a religious man, he never drank.  He then felt something against his back, which he assumed was a gun, and reluctantly swallowed the booze.  The next thing you know Oscar Albertson was knocked out by whatever they laced the drink with and he awoke in just his undies right where the police found him.

Does that story sound a bit odd to you?  It certainly did to the police and they didn’t believe it for a second.  It wasn’t until a couple of days later when then Kmetzes and the Albertsons got together that they exchanged stories and realized that they were both victims of the same assailants.  That’s when they all went to the police, but they still did not buy Albertson’s story.

So, now that you have heard all of the evidence, do you think that Oscar Albertson was John Kmetz’s murderer?

Oscar Albertson’s trial for the murder of John Kmetz began on April 13th of 1942.  In addition to all of the evidence you just heard, the prosecution attempted to show that Albertson had planned the crime for months because he was in love with Mrs. Kmetz.  But this was pure speculation and no evidence was ever discovered showing that there had been an improper relationship between the two.

No other motive for the murder was established.  The Albertsons and the Kmetzes appeared to get along very well.  There was no evidence that Oscar Albertson had purchased cyanide anywhere or that he had mailed the package to John Kmetz.  Both couples were about equal financially, so money would not have been a motive.

On May 30, 1942, Albertson’s trial ended in a hung jury.  They had voted 10-2 for conviction.  Those two dissenting jurors felt that the evidence was too circumstantial.

A second trial was immediately scheduled and Oscar Albertson was found guilty on August 6th.  California law at that time mandated the death penalty for his crime and he sentenced to death in the gas chamber using – get this – cyanide gas.

The case was automatically appealed.  On January 19, 1944, the State Supreme Court handed down a 4-to-3 decision overturning the conviction.  The decision was reversed on insufficient evidence – basically because it was all circumstantial evidence.

The district attorney opted not to retry the case and Albertson was released on June 14th of 1944, 965 days after his arrest.

So who did it?  Was it Oscar Albertson after all?  Did Mrs. Kmetz have such distaste for her husband that she wanted him bumped off, possibly with Mr. Albertson’s help?  Did John Kmetz commit suicide?  Or did someone else do it?  Most likely, we will never know.

Oscar Albertson was 84-years-old when he died on April 18th of 1983.  His wife had died only a few years after he was released on October 29, 1949.  Mrs. Kmetz had vanished prior to the second trial and I was unable to find out what happened to her after that.

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

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1941 “murder by mail” case with a San Pedro connection remains unsolved – South Bay History
1 year ago

[…] “Murder in the Mail – Podcast #80,” by Steve Silverman, Useless Information: Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History blog, March 6, 2015. […]


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