“We call him Leonardo da Toenail,” declared Sgt. George Farina, an officer with the University of Southern California’s campus police.
Farina was talking about a suspect who had the peculiar inclination for crawling under library tables and applying nail polish to the exposed toenails of unsuspecting female students.
What would become known as “The Case of the Phantom Pedicurist” first came to light on Friday, February 29, 1980, when one of the victims noticed a freshly applied coat of nail polish on her big toenails upon departing Doheny Library.
The student’s toenails were pink when she entered the library, yet were green when she left. Farina reflected, “Maybe she thought it was a fraternity prank at first. But she found another woman in her apartment who had the same experience and they decided to contact authorities.”
Campus police promptly located a man in his mid-20s, who was neither a student nor an employee of the library, carrying a bag containing approximately 15 bottles of nail polish. The Los Angeles police questioned him, with Officer John Lockhart noting, “He had about every color you could think of.”
Nonetheless, the act of adorning someone’s toenails without consent amounted only to a misdemeanor. As the law dictated that officers must personally witness the wrongdoing to effect an arrest, the man was subsequently released. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles police pledged to file an official report with the city attorney’s office, which would be tasked with deciding whether to issue an arrest warrant. The identity of the suspect was never revealed.
The case went no further because the two women were unwilling to testify in court. Los Angeles Police Sgt. Bob Steele told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t think they want to see the guy again, even in court. Besides, maybe they decided he’d done a good job.”
There were no further reports of the Phantom Pedicurist wielding his paintbrush at USC, but police did receive a tip from an anonymous woman who said that he may have done the same thing at California State University, Dominguez Hills the previous year.
So, they checked the school’s newspaper and found a story that was remarkedly similar:
“He seeks out a lone female and sits across from her (in the library). He carries a large folder similar to a portfolio case and sets up as though working on a project.
“He causes minor disturbances, such as dropping pens and paint brushes. As he drops something, he reaches under and quickly (one brush stroke will do it) paints the big toenail. He drops something else and paints the other…”
(This story was originally written and recorded for Retrocast #20, released on September 20, 2023.)