Not Just Evil: New Excerpt

Not Just Evil: Murder, Hollywood, and California's First Insanity Plea by David Wilson
Not Just Evil: Murder, Hollywood, and California’s First Insanity Plea by David Wilson
For readers of true crime sagas like Tinseltown and Little Demon in the City of Light comes a chilling account of a murder that captivated the United States in the 1920s (Available December 6, 2016).

Twelve-year-old Marion Parker was kidnapped from her Los Angeles school by an unknown assailant on December 15, 1927. Her body appeared days later, delivered to her father by the killer, who fled with the ransom money. When William Hickman was hunted down and charged with the killing, he admitted to all of it, in terrifying detail, but that was only the start….

Hickman’s insanity plea was the first of its kind in the history of California, and the nature of the crime led to a media frenzy unlike any the country had seen. His lawyers argued that their client lived in a fantasy world, inspired by movies and unable to tell right from wrong. The movie industry scrambled to protect its exploding popularity (and profits) from ruinous publicity. Outside the courtroom, the country craved every awful detail, and the media happily fed that hunger. As scandals threatened the proceedings from the start, the death of a young girl grew into a referendum on the state of America at the birth of mass media culture.

David Wilson, a private investigator for over thirty years, captures the maelstrom of Marion Parker's death in vivid detail. From the crime itself to the manhunt that followed, from the unprecedented trial to its aftermath, Wilson draws readers in to the birth of the celebrity criminal.

Chapter 1

“You are talking about the devil incarnate. Not just evil, but the most evil man I have ever dealt with in my life. He was an untalented, mean, vicious, vindictive man.”
Helen Hayes, Actress

William Edward Hickman was arrested for the kidnap and murder of Marion Parker in December of 1927. The victim was twelve years old. Her father paid the ransom and found his daughter with her arms and legs removed from her body. The next day gruesome photos of the deceased appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country. Within a week the crime was the subject of newsreels, shown in movie theaters alongside cartoons and two feature films. The graphic nature of the pictures of the crime scene was unprecedented.

The United States was in the midst of a period of economic prosperity following World War I. The decade was called the “Roaring Twenties,” reflecting an optimistic feeling about the possibilities of positive social change. Prohibition spawned a new style of nightclub called the speakeasy. These clubs featured a new style of music called jazz. Women danced to jazz in a new style of dress called flappers. The country was one continuous party, and no one expected it to stop. The search for the person responsible for the kidnap and murder of Marion Parker shifted the mood of the country.

Before the Great Depression of 1930 devastated America, the state of California was inundated with tens of thousands of migrants hoping to make their fortune in a thriving and diversified economy. Within the geographic boundaries of the Golden State, Los Angeles seemed to offer the most promise, and the city’s rapid growth reflected this perception. People moved to Los Angeles looking for a good life, and once they arrived they made every effort to make their dreams come true.

Manhattan Place was one of the alluring communities drawing people to Southern California. It was a residential street lined with single-family homes, well-manicured lawns, and shade trees that the inhabitants cooled under during the hot summer months. When interviewed by local newspapers most residents of Manhattan Place described their neighborhood as quiet and mundane. It was the lifestyle they expected, because they lived in an affluent area they believed was insulated from crime.

On December 19, 1927, just six days before Christmas, all the families living on Manhattan Place lost their innocence. The driver of a black sedan drove down the street looking for the man who was going to pay him a $1,500 ransom. His late-model vehicle stopped alongside a car already parked next to the curb but facing in the opposite direction. The middle-aged man waiting in the car was the father of kidnap victim Marion Parker.

Before a single word was exchanged, the kidnapper pointed a double barrel shotgun out of his car window, the muzzle coming within inches of Mr. Perry Parker’s face.

“You see this gun?” The question was muffled by a mask covering the kidnapper’s face.

“I see it,” the father said, while turning his head in an effort to get a better look at what he hoped was his daughter sitting in the passenger seat.

“Well, did you bring the money?”

As Mr. Parker held up a fist full of twenty-dollar gold certificates in front of the shotgun muzzle, he responded by saying, “Here it is.”

The man who was terrorizing the Parker family motioned with his hand. “Give it to me.”

“Where’s Marion?” the father asked.

“Right here, she’s asleep.” In the darkness, midway between two streetlights, Mr. Parker could barely make out the face of his daughter seated next to the kidnapper. It was a tricky situation for the distraught father, who had no real choice except to hand over the money. Mr. Parker later stated he thought he saw his daughter look his way, but wasn’t sure. He remembered growing impatient with the silence following the exchange. It was as if the kidnapper had stopped to count each bill before deciding what he would do next.

“Are you going to give her to me?” Parker sounded desperate.

“Yes, just as I said. Wait here just a minute.”

Regaining his composure, Parker pushed for answers. “How far are you going?”

“Not far.”

The kidnapper fulfilled his promise to the father. He drove less than two hundred feet down the street and stopped his car. In the confusion Mr. Parker said he momentarily lost sight of the kidnapper’s head and shoulders. He would later testify he heard the passenger-side door slam shut just before the car drove away. Wasting no time, Mr. Parker opened his car door, jumped from his seat, and rushed forward in the hope that his nightmare was over. He was mistaken.

A few hours later at the city morgue, under the illumination of artificial light, Dr. A. F. Wagner pulled back the sheet on the autopsy table to begin his first examination of the night. What he found would disturb him for the rest of his life. It was the body of his next-door neighbor’s daughter. Against all odds, in a city of over one million people, Dr. Wagner had been assigned the initial autopsy of Marion Parker before being notified of her death. The doctor was shocked and buckled at the knees. He remembered watching Marion grow up. He had seen her and her twin sister play across the street almost every day for as long as he could remember. After the doctor regained his composure, he spent the rest of the night completing his work because he wanted his report to give the police as much information as possible as soon as possible. The exam was a challenge because most of the body was missing. The examination left the doctor with feelings of anger and despair. He had never seen such mistreatment of a human body.

The next day he was called back to the morgue and given six additional packages to examine. The contents of each package were held in place by newspaper tied up neatly with black thread. Inside, Dr. Wagner found most of the missing body parts not present during his initial examination of Marion Parker. It took the rest of the day to confirm that each of the body parts belonged to the victim.

After finishing the extensive paperwork needed for a coroner’s inquest, the doctor was called to testify before the Los Angeles County Grand Jury. Using a variety of technical terms, Dr. Wagner explained to the members of the grand jury the extent of postmortem mutilation.

On the first evening I found part of the body, consisting of the head, the trunk down to an inch and a half below the navel, with arms intact but the forearms disarticulated at the elbows. I examined that part of the body. I found that there was also a cut made by a knife on the left on the top of the left shoulder. This cut was two and a half inches long. There were a few superficial marks around this cut, especially between the cuts and the head, which I could not determine at the time as to their cause. They were merely very superficial marks. There were no other marks upon the body at all. There was no discoloration of the face. There were no contusions about the neck. The tongue and eyes were normal, except the eyelids had been raised by a wire running through the hair and brought back and fastened to a ribbon. I examined the organs of the body that were there, the lungs and the heart, the trachea, and I found everything without evidence of contusions or blow. That included also the stomach, the liver, kidneys, which were all intact, all in perfectly normal, healthy shape.

On the morning of the next day the other parts of the body had been brought in, in separate pieces, each arm, and each leg from the knee down, and also the other part of the body, ranging from an inch and a half below the navel down to the knees. I examined these parts very closely. I could find no evidence of contusion or abrasion or scratches upon the ankles, except very slight, superficial abrasions. The lower part of the body that was brought in contained the genital organs, which were all intact.

Dr. Wagner did not reveal all the details of his examination to the grand jury. Based on instructions from the Los Angeles Police Department and District Attorney Asa Keyes, he left out several important facts from his testimony. The omitted facts would be used to verify any future confessions. High-profile cases frequently motivate false admissions from unstable individuals looking for attention. The omitted information included Dr. Wagner’s description of a shirt with the name Gerber written on it and a towel marked Bellevue Arms Apartment. Both items were found packed inside Marion’s body cavity.

Within hours of Dr. Wagner’s secret testimony, the grisly details were mysteriously released to the press. Many of the nation’s newspapers made it the lead story of the day. The preliminary information describing this heinous crime ignited the interest of the public. Newspaper publishers reported that their readers were captivated by every detail of the crime. The public was demanding the identification of a suspect before he attacked another victim.

Propelled by overwhelming public interest, newspapers pulled reporters from other cases and tasked them with digging deeper into the circumstances surrounding the death of Marion Parker. Two days of front-page coverage put pressure on both local and state government officials to apprehend the person responsible for the murder of an innocent child. The lieutenant governor of California, Buron Pitts, received a briefing by the LAPD on the case. He reportedly left the meeting in a somber mood, and wrote a telegram to Governor Clement Young expressing his belief that the case warranted an exception to the state’s limit of $2,500 on rewards for information about homicide cases.

The governor, a former teacher, agreed with his lieutenant’s assessment. In an act of political theater, he released the lieutenant governor’s telegram, hoping to deflect negative public opinion away from himself and onto law enforcement officials. The telegram read as follows:

Without any doubt the murder of Marion Parker is the most vicious and atrocious crime in California history. California has been stirred as never before, and in view of the nature of the crime most strongly urge, if legally possible that the State immediately offer a thoroughly substantial reward for the apprehension and conviction of the murderer. Suggest that the reward be divided, one-half for information leading to the arrest and conviction and the other half for the actual arrest. Authorities feel that the crime was undoubtedly committed by degenerates and in view of frequency of these crimes recently in Los Angeles on other children and the fact that the criminal is still at large, and the danger from their activities, the State should be the first one to initiate and contribute its share to the apprehension of these degenerates for the future protection of its children. Unquestionably, the offer of a substantial reward by the State of California and the co-operation with local agents will be one of the most effective weapons in the hands of police authorities.

The Los Angeles Times added its support to the governor’s call for increasing the reward in Marion’s murder case in one of several editorials dealing with the senseless murder:

Staggering to the imagination, abhorrent to every human instinct, are the incredibly horrible circumstances surrounding the murder and mutilation of twelve-year-old Marion Parker, lured from her school-room last Thursday, subjected by her kidnapper to unknown and unnamable horrors, slain, dismembered and—as a crowning, frightful touch to the hell-born scheme of a fiend incarnate—the pitiful fragments of her hacked-up body wrought into the ghastly guise of a living child and delivered to her father in return for $1,500 “ransom.”

The police are doing everything possible to apprehend this fiendish slayer, but this is not a job for the police alone. Every citizen of Los Angeles, every resident of the southwest, must assist. If every pair of eyes within the area of the murderer’s possible movement is vigilantly alert for a man of his description, for his car and for the numbers of the bills paid him for the little girl’s shattered corpse, his chances to elude the gallows will be scant indeed.

The combined support of the LAPD and politicians initiated a nationwide search for an unknown killer. The LAPD literally assigned every officer in the department to the task of identifying a suspect. Chief Davis of the LAPD personally contacted other departments in the state asking for their assistance. Flyers were distributed to customs officials working at the California-Mexico border. The flyers appeared in every bus stop, train station, and post office in the state.

From day one the case was marred with controversy. A local newspaper reported Marion Parker had been taken from her school by a young man without any school official having checked his identity. The public was outraged by the inept conduct. How could anyone abduct a twelve-year-old girl under the direct supervision of school personnel in broad daylight? The kidnapper removed Marion from her school using no physical force or threats. He was unarmed and used only persuasive words and a pleasant demeanor to manipulate those who were responsible for the young girl’s safety.

William Edward Hickman walked into Mount Vernon Junior High School shortly after noon and introduced himself to the office secretary using a fictitious name. Naomi Britten got up from her desk, as the man described a terrible automobile accident that had left Mr. Parker, Marion’s father, barely hanging onto life at a local hospital. Mrs. Britten would later recall that the young man was well-dressed and polite in every way. There was nothing about him to suggest she was talking to a street-hardened criminal. She overcame her initial shock at the news about the accident and looked for the school’s principal, Miss Cora Freeman. Her frantic search failed to find the principal or any other administrator who might help her to resolve the disconcerting situation. She did locate a teacher in the hallway willing to listen to her predicament.

The teacher, Mary Holt, went to the office to meet face-to-face with the young man who had brought the news of the accident. She described the encounter with the suspect to the principal: “Mr. Cooper (the assumed name of Marion’s kidnapper) was very calm and courteous.” He told the two women he was employed by the First National Bank, as was Mr. Parker, and he offered to give them the phone number of the bank if they cared to confirm the reason he was there to pick up Marion Parker. His relaxed, almost detached attitude towards the whole situation lasted throughout his visit to the school. When he was introduced to Marion Parker he explained the situation once more, bending at the waist so she could hear him clearly: “Don’t cry, little girl, I will take you to your daddy.”

On December 20, 1927, just a day after Marion Parker’s death, the Los Angeles Times printed a statement made by Susan Dorsey, the superintendent of the Los Angeles School District. It read as follows:

Mrs. Holt had no authority to excuse any child from school. That is done by our vice principal and then only at the request of the child’s parents or guardian. But in this case there appeared to be an emergency when the man rushed in and claimed that there had been an accident and the child’s father was calling for her.

I talked to Mrs. Holt and am satisfied that I would have acted as she did if I were confronted with the same circumstances. At the time, the vice principal, who is the person in authority entitled to excuse a child from class, was busy with the Christmas program and could not be reached in the few minutes that elapsed.

The fact that nothing has ever befallen our school children in the past is evidence in itself that they are as safeguarded as is humanly possible.

The statement aggravated an already agitated public. Few parents agreed with Superintendent Dorsey’s view of what had happened and what steps were still needed to safeguard the children under her care. Over the next few days, school attendance throughout the state of California fell dramatically.

Despite the confusion, there was one man in the city of Los Angeles who instinctively understood what the death of Marion Parker was going to mean for the city, the state, and the nation. Mr. Asa Keyes, the elected district attorney for the city of Los Angeles, meticulously examined every detail of the kidnapping case. His initial motivation was not justice but opportunity. He felt this was the high-profile case he needed to assure his reelection.

Keyes had spent the previous six weeks of his life putting together a case he hoped would generate political support. The case had its political downside, because it involved some of the most powerful men in Southern California. The crime was the largest fraud in the state’s history, described in the press as the C. C. Julian Petroleum Ponzi scheme. The suspects were accused of selling worthless stock to thousands of innocent investors. Some of the suspects unexpectedly praised Mr. Keyes in local newspapers by saying: “I don’t believe ten million dollars in his lap would make him violate his oath of office, he has a reputation for honesty that no man would dare question.”

On the morning of December 20, 1927, District Attorney Keyes’s fate was taking him in a different direction. He cleared his desk of all the documents relating to the stock scandal to make room for the first of several meetings between himself, the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, James E. Davis, and Herman Cline, chief of detectives. The three men spent several hours discussing the progress on the Marion Parker kidnapping case. Chief Davis and Chief Cline both agreed to assign two of their most experienced investigators, Dick Lucas and Harry Raymond, to Mr. Keyes to assist him in gathering evidence.

Both detectives were physically powerful men, but more important to the district attorney was their willingness to work sixteen-hour days until the case was closed. Mr. Keyes knew their strengths and weaknesses and believed they would do whatever it took to arrest a suspect in the case. Their fixation would not only help Mr. Keyes free the city from fear, it would also bring him one step closer to fulfilling his political ambition of reelection. Keyes located an empty room in his office and ordered that the room be fitted with beds if the detectives needed a place to rest during their investigation.

In contrast, Marion Parker’s father was not thinking of the future. Nothing on earth could nullify the suffering and pain associated with losing his child. Two months after the kidnapping he would testify he first came to realize the utter hopelessness associated with the kidnapping on December 15, 1927. It was the day he took a phone call from Naomi Britten, the school’s secretary, who was calling to see if the family wanted Marion’s twin sister sent home as well. After a few moments of conversation, Mrs. Britten realized she was actually speaking to Marion’s father, the man she believed was hospitalized. Mr. Parker quickly responded to her questions with growing concerns of his own. No, he had not been in a car accident, no, he was not injured, and no, he had not sent a man to pick his daughter up from school.

Mr. Parker was under no illusions as he put down the phone and turned to his wife to break the news as gently as possible. His efforts failed miserably. Geraldine Parker fainted after hearing her daughter was missing, possibly kidnapped. For the next couple of weeks Mrs. Parker was watched over by friends and physicians and Mr. Parker was left to deal with the ever-increasing presence of the Los Angeles Police Department in and around his home.

Because the identity of the kidnapper was not immediately known, Detective Lucas and Raymond began their interim report with a timeline of events, starting with the phone call from Marion’s school to the Parker’s home on 1621 South Wilton Place. They logged into their report a telegram containing one demand: “Do positively nothing till you receive special delivery letter.” It was signed: “Marion Parker and George Fox.” 


Copyright © 2016 David Wilson.

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David G. Wilson worked for thirty years in the San Francisco Bay area with his own company providing investigative services. He was hired twice by the US Senate to investigate political corruption involving elected officials. In 1989 he made the first of seven trips to the West African Rain Forrest where he studied the philosophy, theology and rituals of the indigenous shamans. Based on these studies he has written ten books on traditional Yoruba culture and has lectured extensively on the topic. He lived for five years in Mexico where he studied the system of pyramids built throughout South America. He is currently living in New Mexico exploring sacred sites and working as a Jazz musician. He has three children and four grandchildren.

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