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The Phantom Sniper – Podcast #31

You probably recall the terrorizing fear that gripped the United States back in 2002 as the Beltway sniper randomly shot at people for about a three-week period. And if you do not recall, this happened in the Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia area. In the end, 10 people were killed and three critically injured, and there was a massive manhunt for these people. In the end, John Allen Mohammed and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested for the crimes. Mohammed was executed for his crimes.

Now most of us, including myself, are too young to remember a similar series of crimes that terrorized the people in the Southeastern section of Los Angeles County for nearly a year back in the 1950s.

The story of the Phantom Sniper, as the press came to dub the shootings, started on August 27, 1951, while a 21-year-old woman named Lois Kreutzer was standing in an outdoor phone booth around noon. While she was on the phone with her doctor, a bullet pierced through the glass of the booth and lodged in her lung, and nearly killed her. She later testified that it felt like a “big spring” had hit her in the back.

The second in the series of shootings occurred the very next night when a bullet crashed into the living room of Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Walter. The bullet just smashed through the window, just barely missing Mrs. Walter, and embedded itself in the wall. Luckily, no one was hurt in the shooting.

The next night, Wednesday, August 29, a 25-year-old divorcee named Nina Marie Bice was sitting on a stool at Scrivner’s Chili Dogs and Hamburgers, a roadside stand, with her fiancé and a friend. Ms. Bice was holding a cup of coffee with both hands and just as she lifted it to her lips, there was a loud pop. She fell over onto the counter and blood started running out of her ear. Her fiancé, William Hanna, quickly realized she had been shot and ran behind the stand, but the gunman was gone.

Miss Bass was killed instantly, leaving her three children without a mother. The police were convinced that they had a serial shooter on their hands. After all, this was three shootings in three days, and they found .22 caliber shells at all three crime scenes. The first suspect that they picked up was Nina’s former husband Leon Bice because he owned a .22 caliber rifle, but tests confirmed that the rifle had not been fired in quite some time.

The police were swamped with telephone tips. People were calling in left and right, but none of them lead to a suspect. On September 1st, they did receive word that a 90-year-old man had offered to leave his .22 caliber gun as security for payment on a car repair bill. He was picked up by police but detectives could not find the gun that he had been reported to have been seen with. Guilty or not, they had no choice but to release him.

The police were mystified. With few clues and no valuable leads, fear set in around the community.

Then things seemed to quiet down for a bit. After three shootings on three consecutive days at the end of August, there was not a single shooting in September and halfway into October.

That all changed on October 17, 1951, with what may have been the cruelest shooting of them all. A ten-year-old girl named Patricia Ellen Bryant was shot while waiting for the school bus in front of her home. She did survive, but the bullet shattered the bone in the right forearm and grazed her abdomen.

Just one month later, the Phantom Sniper struck again. This time, 40-year-old Irma Alice Megradle was working in her garden when a .22 caliber bullet struck her in the thigh. This time there were witnesses: two small boys chased after the gunman, but he escaped by going into an orange grove. They were not of much help in cracking the case open because they could only describe this person as a “dark man.”

So, what do we have so far? We have random shootings with a .22-caliber gun and he was a dark man. Clearly not a whole heck of a lot for the police to go on.

The next shooting occurred just after Christmas on December 27th, 1951. That’s when 42-year-old housewife Audrey Murdock was standing in her kitchen ironing her clothes. At first, she thought her iron had exploded, but she soon collapsed down to the floor. The bullet had become lodged in her liver and could not be removed.

A 15-year-old girl named Faye Salcido said that she saw an old two-door sedan stop briefly in front of the Murdoch home. She heard the shot fired and then the sedan sped away.

But this still was not enough to locate the Phantom Sniper. And, to make matters worse, police examination of the mangled bullets from the previous five shootings concluded that they were all fired from different guns. Of course, the bullets were mangled, so they couldn’t be certain. X-rays of the bullet that remained in Audrey Murdock’s liver suggested that it was a .38 caliber bullet, not a .22.

It seemed as if they were moving farther away from solving the case instead of getting closer. Was this all being done by just one sniper with multiple guns or was it being done by a bunch of different copycat snipers? The police were unsure.

The next shooting occurred about four months later, on April 16, 1952. A woman named Joan Frances Hiles had been sitting in her living room watching TV with her neighbor Evan Charles Thomas. When the show ended, Mr. Thomas said goodnight and he went home to get ready for his job, which was as a nighttime railroad switchman.

About ten minutes after he left, a shot was fired through the drawn curtains of a window near where Mrs. Hiles was seated. Luckily, she just had leaned over to change the channel and the bullet whizzed by her and embedded itself in the couch. Mr. Thomas, who had just left, heard the shot and called her to make sure that everything was okay.

The police arrived fairly quickly at the scene and they initially thought this was a random shooting. This is a bad neighborhood and they thought that some kids may have fired at a stray dog or a cat and the bullet just accidentally went through Mrs. Hiles window. But investigators noticed a smoldering cigarette butt on the front lawn that lined up perfectly with the bullet’s path. It was very clear that this was a deliberate shot.

Joan Frances Hiles sitting on her couch. The dashed line shows the path of the bullet.
Joan Frances Hiles sitting on her couch. The dashed line shows the path of the bullet. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the April 17, 1952 publication of the Binghamton Press.

The police interviewed Mr. Thomas to see if he noticed anything or anyone while he was walking home. He said he couldn’t provide any information and proceeded to leave for work.

The next day, investigators asked Mr. Thomas if he would be nice enough to come down to the police station for additional questioning. He agreed to do so and they arrested him shortly after he got there.  They now had proof that Evan Charles Thomas was the Phantom Sniper. The police finally had their man.

Did you catch the blunder that gave him away? In my explanation, I kind of glossed over it. You may have missed it and I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t the lit cigarette.

It took a very well-trained group of detectives to figure this one out. The shooter attempted to kill Mrs. Hiles in the spot she was sitting in, but the curtains were closed.  Only a person that was familiar with the layout of the living room and knew exactly where she was sitting could have know where to aim the gun to kill her. And the only person that fit that bill was Evan Charles Thomas.

He was arrested and admitted to six of the shootings. That same day, police took him back to the locations of several of the shootings and he was able to provide details that only the shooter would have known.

So, the question is, why did he do it? It turns out that his marriage was in shambles and he felt a perverse attraction to these women.

For example, he never ever intended to kill Nina Bice while she was sitting outside that hamburger stand. He said, “I thought she looked real nice. I thought I’d like to have a date with her.” In an effort to impress her, he intended to shoot the coffee cup out of her hand. Unfortunately, he missed and, sadly, killed her.

Evan Charles Thomas was found guilty of the murder of Ms. Bice. The jury of ten women and two men unanimously recommended the death sentence.

After his appeal was denied, Thomas was sent to his death in the gas chamber at San Quentin on Friday, January 29, 1954. His reign of terror over the women of Los Angeles County was now over.

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

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