Saturday, May 27, 2023

May 27, 1952: Hollywood Socialite's Body Dumped in Alley

In the early morning hours of Tuesday, May 27, 1952, mechanic Bert Darnell made a grisly find as he walked to work. Between two wooden garages in a Los Angeles alley, in disarray, lay the body of a beautiful young woman. She was clad in stylish, expensive clothing: a red coat, a red cashmere sweater, a silver gray skirt, and black leather shoes. The only garments missing were her stockings and one of her white gloves. 

There were no bruises or other injuries to indicate that she'd been assaulted, engaged in a struggle, or been thrown from a passing car.

Mr. Darnell promptly called the police. About 60 feet away, near a telephone pole, they found a transparent plastic purse containing makeup, accessories, and car keys with a device with an address and a name: Patricia Layne Steele.

Patricia Layne Steele
Victor Cefalu, who performed the autopsy, said that she'd died from either hemorrhage or infection at about 2:00 that morning, caused by an abortion that had taken place 24 to 48 hours before her death. Because it had been performed with such skill, investigators believed that a nurse must have assisted whatever doctor had perpetrated the surgery. Patricia's body had several needle marks including one to the chest that indicated an injection of adrenaline into her heart. 

The time of the abortion was estimated after police spoke to one of Patricia's friends, who said that Patricia had confided to her that she had arranged an abortion for Monday afternoon. 

Patricia's parents, financier Victor Steele and Jane Arnett, were divorced. Her father provided her with an $800/month stipend (over $8,700 in 2022 dollars). Police searched her home, an upscale apartment, looking for clues. It was immaculate. The kitchen cupboards were full of high-quality and expensive foods, including caviar. She had a bar plentifully stocked with wines and liquors. The expensive convertible that she used even for short trips was still in her garage.

Victor refused to view his daughter's body in the morgue, but did identify her belongings. He said that he believed that Patricia had eloped to Tijuana with an unidentified serviceman in a blue uniform the previous November. She had made trip to Hawaii shortly thereafter Victor believed that the trip had been a belated honeymoon. 

Police were unable to find any record of a marriage in Tijuana with Patricia's name.

Victor told investigators that Patricia had been fretting about gaining weight in spite of dieting. She reported morning sickness but, Victor said, had laughed off a comment he'd made about pregnancy. Not convinced, Victor went to a library to check out a book about pregnancy.

Patricia's mother traveled from her home in Reno to Los Angeles, where she collapsed sobbing in the morgue after identifying her daughter's body. "Is that my baby?" she cried out. "It can't be! What have they done to her? She was a wonderful, good girl!"

Jane told investigators that Patricia had phoned her the previous Sunday to tell her that she had married "the nicest serviceman" while vacationing in Hawaii. (The name of the serviceman in question was never revealed in news coverage.)

Jane said that Patricia had been told by doctors that "her health was poor and she would experience considerable difficulty in bearing a child and might die as a result." Victor also said that Patricia had seen a doctor about eight years before her death and had been told that she should never have children because childbirth might kill her. Had this been true, Patricia need not have sought out a criminal abortionist, since even before California law was loosened in 1967 doctors would perform abortions for "life of the mother" indications, as had been the case with the fatal abortion performed on Erica Peterson in 1961.

When he went through Patricia's possessions, Victor noticed that a ring -- a 12-carat emerald surrounded by 33 baguette diamonds in a platinum setting -- was missing. It was later traced to a Beverly Hills loan business where Patricia had used the the $10,000 ring (worth over $1 million in 2022 dollars) as collateral for a $250 loan (around $2,700 in 2020 dollars). Victor theorized that Patricia had pawned the ring to pay for the abortion because he kept a close eye on her money and would have noticed if she had withdrawn the money from her bank account.

Police went through Patricia's phone records in their search for anybody who would know about Patricia's last days. Patricia's physician, Dr. Louis J. Klingbell, reportedly told the police that Patricia had been to consult with him the Wednesday before her death. She was four months into her pregnancy and had told him, "I'm going to do something about it." Victor later said, "Dr. Klingbell told me he argued with my daughter for an hour when she said she was going to get rid of the child because she was afraid to go through with it."

On Saturday Patricia had attended an engagement party accompanied by a man called either "Ed" or Ned." 

On Sunday she had gone to church, then visited with friends. She had seemed in good spirits and spoke about the party. That night she and her father enjoyed dinner and a show. She had dropped Victor off at his home at around 11:00 pm. When she got home, she called her telephone exchange to get her messages and to ask for a 7:00 am wake-up call.

She placed a phone call to a woman at around 8:30 on Monday morning. At 10:00 that morning, she called the phone exchange to say she'd be calling in for her messages at around 2:00. At around 1:00, one of Patricia's friends saw her at a beauty parlor.

Patricia never made the 2:00 call for her messages.

Patricia had taken time away from her friends and enlisted in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve in May of 1944 after the death of her fiancĂ©e, Lt. Benjamin Preston, in the Marshalls invasion. 

Patricia's parents, no doubt wearied of all the publicity their daughter's death was attracting, insisted on keeping her funeral services not merely private but secret as well. 

Police said that they believed they had identified the doctor who had perpetrated the abortion, but pending sufficient evidence to prosecute they declined to release his name. "He's no stranger to us," Detective Sargent William Cummings told the Citizen News. "He's been operating in this area for some time." Police had been directed to the doctor in question by a friend Patricia had known since high school.

After a promise that an arrest was pending, all mention by the police about the fatal abortionist disappeared from news coverage until November of 1944. Then, police announced that a Los Angeles osteopath, Dr. Frank S. Bunker, was being investigated for four abortion deaths and a kidnapping charge. Only two of the four women, Patricia and Jessie Neidt, were named in news coverage.

I can find evidence that Bunker was convicted on an abortion charge relating to a teenage girl who survived, but nothing indicating that he was ever prosecuted for any of the deaths.


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