Unsolved:Killing of Johnny Stompanato

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Killing of Johnny Stompanato
Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane, March 1958.jpg
Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane, 16 days before Stompanato's death
DateApril 4, 1958 (1958-04-04)
Timec. 8:30 p.m. (UTC−08:00)
Location730 North Bedford Drive,
Beverly Hills, California , U.S.
CauseStabbing
MotiveSelf-defense
DeathsJohnny Stompanato
InquestApril 11, 1958 (1958-04-11)
CoronerCharles Langhauser
ArrestsCheryl Crane
VerdictJustifiable homicide
ConvictionsNone

On the evening of April 4, 1958, 14-year-old Cheryl Crane stabbed 32-year-old Johnny Stompanato, the boyfriend of her mother, actress Lana Turner, at Turner's rented home in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles , California . Stompanato, an ex-Marine and affiliate of the Cohen crime family, had been in a year-long relationship with Turner which had been rocky and marked with physical abuse.

Crane and Turner alleged that the former had stabbed Stompanato in the stomach when Turner was ushering him out of her bedroom during a violent argument. Crane had heard the fighting and took a knife from the kitchen, planning to defend her mother. After Crane turned herself in to police in the early morning hours of April 5, she was interred in a juvenile hall. A coroner's inquest was held on April 11, during which the homicide was deemed justifiable, and Crane was exonerated of any wrongdoing. She was released in late April, and placed under the guardianship of her grandmother.

Public response to the case was divisive, and numerous press outlets published articles criticizing Turner and likened her testimony during the inquest to that of a performance. Though Crane was cleared of wrongdoing, Stompanato's ex-wife filed a wrongful death lawsuit in June 1958 on behalf of herself and her son with Stompanato, against Crane, her father Stephen, and Turner, seeking $750,000 in damages. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court in 1962 for a sum of $20,000.

In the intervening years, Stompanato's homicide has been subject of conspiracy theories that Turner had in fact stabbed him, and that Crane had taken the blame to protect her mother, though Crane has denied this. Stompanato's killing has also been depicted in various media, and was the inspiration for the novel Where Love Has Gone (1962), as well as its subsequent film adaptation. In 2007, Time (magazine) magazine deemed the case one of the most notorious crimes of the 20th century.

Background

Turner and Stompanato in Mexico in early 1958

While filming the romantic comedy The Lady Takes a Flyer in the spring of 1957,[1] American film actress Lana Turner began receiving phone calls and flowers on the set from mobster and ex-Marine Johnny Stompanato, using the name "John Steele."[2] Turner claimed she was unsure of how he obtained her phone number, but that she learned in later press that allegedly he collected the phone numbers of various Hollywood actresses, including June Allyson, Anita Ekberg and Zsa Zsa Gabor.[3] Stompanato pursued Turner aggressively, sending her various lavish gifts.[4] "Thoroughly intrigued" by his forthrightness, Turner began casually dating Stompanato.[5] Unbeknownst to her at the time, Stompanato had close ties to the Los Angeles underworld and was an affiliate of gangster Mickey Cohen.[6]

Over the following months, Turner and Stompanato carried on a tempestuous relationship filled with violent arguments, physical abuse inflicted upon her by him, and repeated reconciliations.[7][8] Turner claimed that on one occasion Stompanato drugged her and took nude photographs of her while unconscious, potentially to use as blackmail.[9]

In September 1957, while Turner was filming Another Time, Another Place in London, Stompanato disrupted the set and violently choked Turner before being forced off the set by her co-star, Sean Connery.[10][11] Turner phoned Scotland Yard after the incident, and ultimately had Stompanato deported from the United Kingdom .[12][13] They subsequently reconciled, and spent January and February 1958 vacationing in Acapulco, Mexico, before returning to the United States .[14] In March 1958, Turner attended the Academy Awards to observe her nomination for Peyton Place and present the award for Best Supporting Actor.[15] Stompanato, angry that she had attended the ceremony without him, assaulted Turner when she arrived home.[16]

Homicide

A large, white colonial home
Turner's Beverly Hills residence, where Stompanato was killed

At approximately 8:00 p.m. on April 4, eight days after the Academy Awards ceremony, Stompanato arrived at Turner's rented home at 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, California , which she had just begun leasing a week prior.[17][18] The two began arguing heatedly in the bedroom, during which Stompanato threatened to kill Turner, her daughter, and her mother,[7] as well as making "gangster threats"[19] that involved breaking Turner's bones and slashing her face with a straight razor.[20] Her daughter, Cheryl Crane, had briefly entered the room during the argument, but was urged by Turner to leave.[21] In the midst of the ensuing argument, Turner broke off her relationship with Stompanato, and asked him to leave the house.[22][21]

Crane shortly after her arrest

Fearing that Turner's life was in danger, Crane, who had been watching television in an adjacent room, grabbed a kitchen knife and ran to her mother's defense.[23][24] Crane recalled the incident in 2012:

There's a knife on the counter. I picked it up ran back up the stairs. Her door suddenly flies open. I see John coming toward me. He's got his hand up... I raised the knife and he walks right into it. And he looked at me. And he said, 'My God, Cheryl, what have you done?'"[19]

Turner corroborated this, stating that Crane, who had been listening to the couple's fight behind the closed door, stabbed Stompanato in the stomach when Turner attempted to usher him out of the bedroom.[25] Turner initially believed Crane had punched him, but realized he had been stabbed when he collapsed and she saw blood on his shirt.[25] Per official police accounts, Crane left the room, placing the knife on a "small marble-topped table"[26] and rushed to phone her father, Joseph Stephen "Steve" Crane.[27] Turner meanwhile called for a doctor, who arrived at the house shortly after; the doctor attempted to revive Stompanato with an adrenaline injection and an artificial respirator.[28] Unable to obtain a pulse, the doctor called for emergency services, thereby notifying the police,[26] and Stompanato was subsequently pronounced dead at the scene.[28]

An autopsy conducted by Charles Langhauser shortly after revealed Stompanato's death was caused by a single knife wound that penetrated his liver, portal vein, and aorta, resulting in massive internal hemorrhaging.[21][29]

Confession

Police chief Clinton Anderson, who arrived at Turner's home shortly after emergency medical services, stated that Turner had pleaded to him, "Please, let me say I did it," after Cheryl had confessed to the stabbing to her father, Stephen, who had also arrived at the home after receiving the frantic phone call from his daughter.[30] Within one hour of the homicide, Turner and her ex-husband had retained attorney Jerry Giesler to represent Cheryl.[31]

In the early morning hours of April 5, Cheryl was surrendered at the Beverly Hills Police Department, where she was booked on a holding charge.[32] There, she gave a formal statement to Chief Anderson, detailing her hearing Stompanato's threats against her mother, and her subsequent stabbing of him in the bedroom doorway.[33] After Crane had provided her statement, Turner, Stephen, and Giesler left the station house at the insistence of the police department, as the press had already "gathered like vultures outside."[33] In the interim pending further legal proceedings, Crane was interned in a juvenile hall.[34][35]

Legal proceedings

Pre-detention hearing

Stephen Crane, Lana Turner, and Mildred Turner attend pre-detention hearing, April 8, 1958

On April 7, 1958, a juvenile pre-detention hearing was held under Judge Donald O'Dell, closed to the public,[36] which was attended by Turner, her mother Mildred, and ex-husband Stephen.[37] The same day, Turner attempted to file an application for Crane's release into the custody of Mildred, Crane's grandmother.[38] Turner's application was denied, however, as the judge felt that Crane would "be better protected by remaining in custody pending the hearing [for Stompanato's murder]."[38]

A follow-up juvenile detention hearing was scheduled for April 24 in Santa Monica[39] to determine whether Crane permanently remain a ward of the juvenile court.[37][34] During the ruling, it was noted by press that Crane took the decision "without any show of emotion."[40] Upon her dismissal, she was again relocated to a juvenile detention center pending further proceedings.[40] Simultaneous to this pre-detention ruling, numerous love letters between Stompanato and Turner were published in the press.[34]

Coroner's inquest

Due to Turner's high profile and the fact that the killing involved her teenage daughter, the case quickly became a cause célèbre.[41] Over one hundred reporters and journalists attended the April 11, 1958, coroner's inquest, described by attendees as "near-riotous".[42]

Cohen, Stompanato's friend and associate, was called as the first witness, but refused to provide testimony as he feared he might be implicated in the crime,[43] and also refused to identify Stompanato's body in photographs.[44] While Cohen was questioned, Stephen Trusso, a friend of Stompanato and spectator, interrupted the proceedings by screaming, "I want to testify!"[45] He went on to claim that Crane killed Stompanato in a lover's quarrel because she was infatuated with him, and that she was jealous of her mother.[44] Trusso's request to testify on the stand was denied by the judge.[45] The second witness, Beverly Hills police chief Clinton Anderson, testified that he was "satisfied" with Crane's confession to the killing.[43] Joseph B. Payne, a Beverly Hills police officer who was dispatched to the residence on the night of the killing, also testified; on the stand, Payne recounted his arrival at Turner's Bedford Drive home that night, where he was met by Crane's father Stephen, who had placed a call to the police himself.[46]

Crane's father, Stephen, testifying at the inquest

Additional testimony was provided by Stephen and Mildred.[47] Stephen testified that he had received a frantic phone call from Crane the night of the stabbing, and quickly drove to Turner's home.[47] Mildred, whose own husband (Turner's father) was murdered in 1930, also briefly took the stand, but was so visibly upset that she was excused from further testimony.[47] Beverly Hills police captain Ray Borders provided further testimony regarding Cheryl's official statement given at the Beverly Hills Police Department.[48] Several law enforcement officials, as well as Turner, Stephen Crane, and their attorney, Giesler, were present, and Borders attested that the version of events as told by Cheryl was consistent upon repeated questioning.[48] Cheryl herself did not attend the inquest.[49] In her absence, a written statement by Crane was read aloud, which recounted her overhearing of the argument, her acquiring the knife from the kitchen, and the eventual stabbing of Stompanato in her mother's bedroom.[27] "He kept threatening her and I thought he was going to hurt her, so I went into the room and I stuck him with the knife," she said. "He screamed and asked what I was doing. I ran out of the room."[27]

Turner on the stand

Despite the voluminous testimony from others, a report of the inquest in The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Turner's was "the highlight of a circus-like hearing."[50] When Turner took the stand, a "hush fell over the crowd as the famous actress sat down, removed one white glove, and filled her lungs with a deep, steady intake of air."[51] She began her testimony by recounting a shopping trip she had taken with Stompanato around 2:00 p.m. on the day of his death, culminating in the argument between them that began around 8:00 p.m. in her home.[21] Recalling the moment Cheryl stabbed him, Turner stated: "I was walking toward the bedroom door, and he was right behind me, and I opened it, and my daughter came in. I swear, it was so fast, I—I truthfully thought she had hit him in the stomach. The best I can remember, they came together and they parted. I still never saw a blade."[21] Throughout her 62 minutes[51] of testimony, Turner was noted by reporters as nearly collapsing from anxiety.[43] She described Stompanato's final moments, which consisted of "the most horrible noises in his throat and gasping."[51] Upon finishing her testimony, Turner returned to her attorney, collapsing in tears.[51]

Exoneration

After four hours of testimony and approximately 25 minutes of deliberation, the jury deemed Stompanato's killing a justifiable homicide,[52][53] and exonerated Cheryl Crane of any wrongdoing.[54] Crane remained a temporary ward of the court until April 24, when a juvenile court hearing was held, during which presiding Judge Allen T. Lynch[33] expressed concerns over her receiving "proper parental supervision."[53] This hearing, unlike the coroner's inquest, was closed to the public.[33] She was ultimately released to the care of Mildred Turner, and was ordered to regularly visit a psychiatrist alongside her parents.[53]

Aftermath

Public response

Immediately following Crane's exoneration, her father Stephen told reporters of the Los Angeles Times that he planned to fight Turner for full custody of his daughter.[55] Reporter Jack Jones wrote: "Although Jerry Giesler, Lana's attorney, reported that the actress herself will battle for custody of the couple's daughter...  there seemed to be no ill feeling between Crane and his glamorous ex-wife."[55] Though Turner and her daughter were cleared of any wrongdoing, public opinion on the trial was varied, and the day after Crane's exoneration, the Los Angeles Times published a scathing article stating that Turner possessed a "lack of almost any reference to moral sensitivity in the presence of a child," concluding that "Cheryl isn't the juvenile delinquent. Lana is."[56] Other publications intimated that Turner's testimony at the inquest was a performance; Life magazine published a photo of Turner testifying in court with stills of her in courtroom scenes from three films she had starred in.[57] Columnist Florabel Muir wrote in the New York Daily News that Turner "played the most dramatic and effective role of her long screen career here today at the coroner's inquest."[58] The scandal coincided with the release of Turner's film Another Time, Another Place, which was met with poor box-office receipts and a lackluster critical response.[59]

Wrongful death lawsuit

Stompanato's brother Carmine, who attended the inquest, alleged afterward that he felt Turner "failed to tell the whole truth," and that law enforcement had "made up their mind right from the start that Johnny deserved to die."[60] Stompanato's ex-wife, Sarah Ibrahaim, filed a wrongful death suit of $750,000 (equivalent to $6,600,000 in 2019) in damages against both Turner, Cheryl, and Stephen Crane, on behalf of herself and then-7-year-old John Jr., her son with Stompanato.[55] In the suit, it was implied that Turner was responsible for stabbing Stompanato, and that her daughter had taken the blame.[56] The suit alleged that Stephen arrived at Turner's residence prior to Stompanato's death, and failed to summon proper medical assistance.[55]

Depositions in the wrongful death suit began in June 1958.[55] William Jerome Pollack, the attorney overseeing the case, presented evidence suggesting that Stompanato had been stabbed while lying down, which conflicted with the accepted version of events.[55] An amended complaint alleged that the plaintiff was uncertain "whether it was Defendant Cheryl Crane or Defendant Lana Turner who did the actual stabbing, or whether the one assisted the other therein. Because of said doubt, plaintiff allege[d] that both of said defendants did inflict the said stab wound in the body of John Stompanato."[55] Representing Turner, Cheryl, and Stephen in the wrongful death lawsuit was attorney Lowell Dryden.[55] On June 23, 1958, the three, accompanied by Dryden, visited Pollack's law offices in Los Angeles for a meeting.[61] Pollack subsequently reported: "Cheryl told [me] yesterday that she cannot recall actually stabbing Stompanato in the pink-carpeted bedroom of Lana's rented Beverly Hills mansion."[61] Pollack further stated that Cheryl could not recall providing the written statement read on her behalf during the April 11 inquest.[61]

The suit was submitted to the court of Walter Allen,[61] and was eventually settled out of court for a reported $20,000 in May 1962.[62]

Legacy and conspiracy theories

Stompanato's homicide has had an enduring presence in true crime popular culture and mythology,[63] and was named one of the "crimes of the century" by Time (magazine) magazine in 2007.[64] Film historian Sam Staggs noted that it "belongs in the same pantheon of foul deeds as the Fatty Arbuckle rape trial in 1921, the ambiguous death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962, and the O. J. Simpson case of 1994–95."[54]

In the intervening years, Stompanato's homicide has been subject to an oft-repeated conspiracy theory that Turner in fact killed him, and that Crane had taken culpability for her mother, claiming self-defense.[65][66] This theory was exacerbated when Eric Root, a hairdresser of Turner's, claimed in a 1996 memoir that Turner confessed to him that she had stabbed Stompanato during their domestic struggle.[67] According to Root, Turner made the confession to him years later at the Plaza Hotel, after the two saw a television program referencing the case;[67] Root claims that Turner allegedly blurted out: "I killed the son of a bitch, and I would do it again."[67] He also stated that Turner urged to him to reveal this to the public should she die before him, in order to clear her daughter's name.[68] Crane, however, denied this claim, responding in 1999: "This idea that Root had in his book is so far-fetched...  You know, everybody has something they want to sell. I guess it was the only way he could get his book published."[69]

Additionally, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stylist Sydney Guilaroff noted in his 1996 memoir that, on the morning of Stompanato's murder, he had run into Turner leaving the Pioneer Hardware store in Beverly Hills; during a brief exchange, Guilaroff alleged that when he asked Turner what she was doing at the hardware store, she responded: "We needed a new knife."[70] Guilaroff further claimed that he visited Turner the following day, and that she collapsed in his arms, sobbing, and said, "Did you ever dream this could happen? And with the very knife I bought yesterday."[70] In her own autobiography, Turner conceded that she and Stompanato had gone shopping for kitchen utensils for Turner's new home the week he died, and that he had in fact been stabbed with one of the carving knives he had purchased.[70][71]

In 2012, 48 Hours presented a special profiling the case, which featured conversation between several historians, Crane, and John Ibrahim, Stompanato's son.[19] Ibrahim contested that Turner's testimony was "all lies" and that she "could have got an Academy Award," to which Crane responded:

She was not acting. She was terrified. I know my mother...  she was fighting for her child...  The jury came back with a verdict of justifiable homicide. I have come up against this question hundreds of times. "Didn't your mother do it? Isn't she really the one that did it?" I killed John Stompanato... And I didn't do it to cover it up for my mother. What mother would do this to her child? To make her child live through her life knowing that she's killed somebody and have to live with it. Who would do that? Not my mother. Not the woman I know.[19]

Cultural depictions

A 1962 novel by Harold Robbins entitled Where Love Has Gone was inspired by Stompanato's death, followed by a 1964 film adaptation starring Susan Hayward and Bette Davis. In 1987, Woody Allen's movie, September, features a thinly-veiled reference to the death, in the relationship between daughter Mia Farrow and mother Elaine Stritch, with Allen assigning guilt to Stritch (Turner).[72] In the movie This Boy's Life, the case is being shown on the TV news while Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio watch, intending to show that Leonardo DiCaprio's character pretends to do the same to defend his mother from her abusive husband. In November 2009, Sara Davies premiered a radio drama for BBC 4 titled A Night with Johnny Stompanato by playwright Jonathan Holloway, which is based on the case.[73]

References

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  11. Turner 1982, pp. 168–169.
  12. Fischer 1991, p. 217.
  13. Turner 1982, pp. 169–172.
  14. "Chief Calls Stompanato a Gigolo". The Tampa Times (Tampa, Florida): p. 3. April 5, 1958. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/27421319/the_tampa_times/. 
  15. Turner 1982, p. 180.
  16. Turner 1982, pp. 183–187.
  17. Turner 1982, p. 190.
  18. Morella & Epstein 1971, p. 186.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 "The goddess and the gangster". 48 Hours. CBS News. September 15, 2012. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-goddess-and-the-gangster. 
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  39. "Stress of Slaying Affects Lana Turner, Says Agent". The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts): p. 12. April 8, 1958. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/35878530/the_boston_globe/. 
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  42. Feldstein 2000, pp. 120–121.
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  44. 44.0 44.1 Jones, Jack (April 12, 1958). "Coroner's Jury Clears Lana Turner's Daughter". Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California): p. 2. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/27420765/the_los_angeles_times/. 
  45. 45.0 45.1 "Testimony of Lana Turner at Inquest of Stompanato Killing". The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): p. 9. April 12, 1958. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/27420352/the_philadelphia_inquirer/. 
  46. Jones, Jack (April 12, 1958). "Transcript of Testimony at Stompanato Inquest". Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California): p. 2. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/27420850/the_los_angeles_times/. 
  47. 47.0 47.1 47.2 "Lana Charges Threats by Stompanato". The Star Press (Muncie, Indiana): p. 1. April 12, 1958. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/27421485/the_star_press/. 
  48. 48.0 48.1 Bakken & Farrington 2009, p. 171.
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  50. "Girl Justified in Killing Stompanato, Jury Rules". The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): p. 9. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/27420438/the_philadelphia_inquirer/. 
  51. 51.0 51.1 51.2 51.3 Staggs 2009, p. 66.
  52. Crane, Cheryl (August 8, 2001). "Lana Turner's Daughter Tells Her Story". CNN (Interview). Interviewed by Larry King. Archived from the original on July 16, 2012. Retrieved January 20, 2019.
  53. 53.0 53.1 53.2 Turner 1982, p. 203.
  54. 54.0 54.1 Staggs 2009, p. 64.
  55. 55.0 55.1 55.2 55.3 55.4 55.5 55.6 55.7 Bakken & Farrington 2009, p. 175.
  56. 56.0 56.1 Smith, Doug (August 15, 2015). "In a 1958 inquest, killing of Lana Turner's boyfriend was detailed". Los Angeles Times. http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-stompanato-turner-20150810-story.html. 
  57. Feldstein 2000, p. 122.
  58. Muir, Florabel (April 12, 1958). "Lana's Hit Show: Clear Cheryl". New York Daily News (New York City, New York): p. 3. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/27421464/daily_news/. 
  59. Valentino 1976, p. 221.
  60. Jones, Jack (April 12, 1958). "Lana Unfair, Stompanato Kin Charges". Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California): p. 2. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/27420675/the_los_angeles_times/. 
  61. 61.0 61.1 61.2 61.3 Bakken & Farrington 2009, p. 176.
  62. Morella & Epstein 1971, p. 233.
  63. Staggs 2009, pp. 64–65.
  64. Chua-Eoan, Howard (March 1, 2007). "The Lana Turner Affair, 1958". Time (magazine). http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1937349_1937350_1937386,00.html. 
  65. "8 Truly Insane Old-Hollywood Conspiracy Theories". Yahoo!. November 8, 2017. https://www.yahoo.com/news/8-truly-insane-old-hollywood-080105630/photo-p-1957-stompanato-began-relationship-photo-082615414.html. 
  66. Cahn, Lauren. "15 Mysterious Celebrity Deaths That Are Still Unexplained". Reader's Digest. https://www.rd.com/culture/celebrity-deaths-unexplained/. 
  67. 67.0 67.1 67.2 Root 1996, p. 184.
  68. Root 1996, pp. 184–185.
  69. Staggs 2009, p. 67.
  70. 70.0 70.1 70.2 Staggs 2009, p. 65.
  71. Turner 1982, p. 241.
  72. Erickson 2017, p. 119.
  73. "Friday Drama, A Night with Johnny Stompanato". BBC Radio 4. November 13, 2009. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nxc15. 

Sources

External links