Many of the elements of my first novel The Drowning Ground are based around killers I have researched in the past. I used to be a regular contributor to Bizarre magazine in the UK. While working for Bizarre, I interviewed some of the most eminent psychologists, criminologist, and CSI investigators operating in their field today and wrote extensively about some of the world’s most notorious killers. It was after these experiences that I wrote The World’s Most Bizarre Murders. Perhaps the strangest of all the cases I have ever covered is the Wasp Woman Murder, elements of which also served as inspiration for the first Inspector Guillermo Downes thriller, specifically the death of a recluse who is found dead on the top of a remote hill in the Cotswolds.
Among the many murderers and psychotics portrayed in the movies there is one type of deranged lunatic particularly close to Hollywood’s heart: the actress-turned-recluse. Both Billy Wilder’s film noir Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Robert Aldrich’s gothic horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) were set in decaying Hollywood mansions and both tell the story of actresses driven mad by their sudden loss of fame. Both movies end in tragedy. So, when in 1986 a real Hollywood recluse was found bludgeoned to death in her dilapidated home, it made headlines all over America. Throw in a Latin American ninja and a dwarf on a strange experimental drug and the “Wasp Woman murder,” as it was known, became a Hollywood legend almost overnight.
The murder victim was Susan Cabot, who had been a household name in the 1950s. Cabot had acted alongside Hollywood legends such as Humphrey Bogart, Charles Bronson, and Lee Marvin. But Cabot abruptly terminated her contract with Universal after a brief stint on Broadway where she started working with Roger Corman and starred in The Wasp Woman, where she excelled in what was to be her final role – as Janice Starlin, a character who unwisely tests out a rejuvenating beauty product derived from wasp enzymes. Extracted from royal jelly, these enzymes make her young again but ultimately, turn Cabot’s character into a lustful, murderous queen wasp.
Cabot soon afterwards disappeared into obscurity. Cabot and her son lived in a large property in an exclusive neighbourhood in Encino in Los Angeles but were very rarely seen by neighbours. For all intents and purposes, Cabot had vanished.
On the night of December 10, 1986, emergency services received a call from Susan Cabot’s home on 4601 Charmion Lane. The caller breathlessly identified himself as Timothy Cabot and he reported the entry of a burglar at the house that he shared with his mother. A fire department paramedic unit responded to the call and arrived just four minutes later, by which time Timothy was waiting for them, now quite calmly, outside the front door. He told the two paramedics that he had been attacked, that his mother was in the bedroom and that he believed she was also injured.
Their house was a prime piece of real estate perched on top of a hill with a view of the lights of Los Angeles below, though it seemed a bit dilapidated from the outside and shabbier than the other impeccably maintained properties on the street. Nothing, however, could have prepared paramedics for the chaos that met them when they pushed open the door.
Inside, rubbish bags lay strewn in every room, newspapers and magazines were stacked in toppling piles along the corridors and trash and rotting food was everywhere. The house also appeared to have been ransacked: furniture was overturned, drawers were open and their contents strewn about the house. The sudden eeriness was made worse by the sound of Timothy’s four pet Attika dogs. Usually a docile breed, these four were in an absolute frenzy, and Timothy, in order to protect the paramedics, had locked them up in his room.
The paramedics found Susan Cabot lying dead on her bed dressed only in a purple V-neck nightgown. There was blood everywhere: a large arc of it was sprayed on the bedroom mirror near her bed, there were large splatter stains on the ceiling above her prone body and further bloodstains on the floor and the bed. For some reason, the killer had covered Cabot’s face and head with a piece of bed linen before bludgeoning her to death. Under the blood soaked material, Cabot’s face was all but unrecognisable. There were human hairs and brain matter smeared on the linen, and shards and splinters of bone protruding from the back of her shattered skull.
By now police had arrived on the scene and were busy checking all of the other rooms to check for signs of forced entry and to make sure that the intruder was no longer on the premises. But the dogs were deemed too vicious and dangerous to remove without the help of animal control and so there was one room they could not enter. Investigators were, however, able to glimpse weight-training equipment and barbells on the floor. On the walls were pictures of Timothy’s idol, Bruce Lee.
There was something rather unnerving about Susan Cabot’s son. With soft brown eyes and straight chestnut hair, Timothy looked just like a teenage boy upon first glance. But on closer inspection, his face seemed older, as if a wizened adult were somehow peering from out of a young boy’s face. He didn’t act and talk like a teenager either. In fact, Timothy was 22 years old.
Born with a form of dwarfism caused by a defective pituitary gland, he should have stood at only just four foot. But due to an experimental growth hormone, which he had been taking for 15 years, he had grown by almost a foot and a half and what he said next stunned investigators.
He told police that he had woken up at around 9:30, when he had heard his mother being attacked in her room. He had gone into the kitchen, where he confronted a burglar. The burglar, he told police, was a tall Latino man with curly hair, and he had been dressed like a Japanese ninja warrior. Timothy was a practising martial-arts enthusiast, but despite this he proved no match for the masked intruder, who had knocked him out cold.
Over the next few hours Timothy’s statements became “increasingly inconsistent.” The doubts increased when the paramedics examined his injuries. Timothy was immediately taken in for questioning at LAPD West Valley station, where he held his own during a three hour grilling. When asked about his relationship with his mother, he described it as “very close.” His mother and he talked about everything, he told investigators, including “intimate sexual matters.” When the questioning was over, Timothy was formally charged with his mother’s murder. He demanded that he be taken home to collect some medication that he said he needed, and there, without any prompting at all, Timothy led detectives to the murder weapon.
By this time, it was the early hours of the morning. It had taken animal-control officers six hours to finally remove the dogs and Timothy now led police to a hamper in the room where they had been. Inside the hamper was a box of soap powder and in the box was a bloody barbell and a scalpel. His fingerprints were on one end of the barbell and his mother’s blood was on the other. Timothy said that he had hidden the barbell because he was sure that no one would have believed his story.
And, of course, nobody did. Apart from the forensic evidence stacked against him, his story just didn’t make any sense. Yet it wasn’t going to be a straightforward matter for the prosecution team, even when later he confessed to lawyers that he had made up the whole ninja story and killed his own mother. When he stood trial in May 1989, his legal defence initially put in a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. In arguably one of the strangest defence strategies of all time, Timothy’s lawyers argued that he could not be held responsible for his actions because their client was “a human experiment gone wrong.”
The experiment in question had first begun in 1958, and Timothy had been one of many test subjects. As a possible cure for dwarfism, the National Institute of Health had started to offer a supply of cadaver-derived pituitary free of charge to children diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency (GHD); the batch of hormones had been extracted from the pituitary glands of around 80,000 dead human bodies. The experiment lasted eight years and around 700 children with GHD received the treatment.
Timothy, who had been diagnosed with pituitary dwarfism as a child, was one of them and had been taking the injections since he was six years old. But, for some, the wonder cure was to have tragic results. Due to a contaminated batch of growth hormones, the supply had been infected with a fatal neurological illness. Over the years, an unusually high percentage of the test subjects had developed Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (more commonly known today as mad cow disease). The incubation period for CJD is long, in some cases 20 years, and as there was no way to diagnose for CJD there was no way of knowing if Timothy had CJD or would one day contract it. All the same, his lawyers used it as a cornerstone of his defence. His mother, they argued, had warped his mind by bombing it for decades with potent chemicals, harvested from the genetic material of hundreds of thousands of dead bodies.
This all fitted in perfectly with Timothy’s insanity plea, because the psychological symptoms of CJD include extreme changes in personality, dementia, the loss of the ability to think clearly and memory loss. Then, it was sensationally revealed that Cabot, wrongly believing that it would help her look younger, had been helping herself to her son’s drugs for years too. So had the frequent injections affected Susan Cabot’s mental stability as well? Had she become deranged and attacked Timothy and if so had he simply been acting in self-defense?
It was just another bizarre twist to the death of Susan Cabot and inevitably recalled one of her most famous roles as The Wasp Woman, a character who had taken an experimental anti-aging drug only to become a crazed and violent killer. Timothy’s lawyers were busy painting a disturbing profile of Susan Cabot as a woman unable to cope with her loss of fame, a faded Hollywood has-been who had shut herself up and away from the lights of Hollywood and slowly driven both herself and her son insane.
Actually, very little is known about what really happened behind the walls of 4601 Charmion Lane, or indeed the kind of life Timothy had to endure under his mother’s roof. One person who had been allowed to set foot inside the house was Timothy’s tutor, who was called as a witness at his trial. She stated that his mother frequently screamed at her son, apparently for no reason. According to a paediatric report presented as evidence for the defence, Susan Cabot’s degenerating mental illness had already taken its toll on Timothy by the time he was just 11 years old. The report described Cabot as overly dramatic and overly protective and Timothy as emotionally immature and disturbed. But the state of disrepair of the house was perhaps the most shocking indicator as to just how mentally unbalanced Susan Cabot was and filmed footage of the house was shown in court.
In September, Timothy changed his plea from not guilty for reasons of insanity to not guilty. He finally took the stand on October 6, 1989. There, he quickly broke into tears and recalled that his mother, moments before her death, had started screaming at him and had seemed to have had no idea of who he was. Fearful of her worsening state, he had tried to call paramedics, at which point she had attacked him with the barbell. Timothy had taken the barbell off her but she had come at him again – this time with a scalpel. Timothy, in self defence, had beaten her to death.
On October 10, 1989, he was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter – a sentence that carried a sentence of six years in jail; he had already spent two-and-a-half years in jail while awaiting trial. He was given three years’ probation. The judge concluded her summation by saying that that there was no doubt in her mind that he had “loved his mother very much.”
Meanwhile, the house he once shared with his mother on Charmion Lane has since been demolished and in its place stands a newer, more luxurious property more in keeping with the other elegant houses on the street. What really happened that night over 20 years ago remains a mystery.
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James Marrison is a journalist with a Master's degree in history, specializing in American Secret Intelligence, from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Marrison was a regular contributor to Bizarre magazine in the UK, where he wrote about true crime, and he also wrote for an English language newspaper in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he now lives. The Drowning Ground is his first novel.