I wrote a month or two ago about the death of actress Thelma Todd in 1935. Based on police and coroner’s reports, I chose to believe she died by accident. Since then, however, I have delved into the case more closely and I am now ready to accept that a monumental cover-up may have taken place. My change of opinion centres on two vital issues: a) the official time of death, and b) the witnesses who claimed they saw (and spoke to) her throughout the Sunday, many hours after she was supposed to have been already deceased. That does not mean I believe she was definitely murdered. Far from it. But the possibility exists.
The Trocadero 1935
On Saturday, 14 December 1935, a party for Stanley Lupino at the Trocadero Restaurant on Sunset Strip had been organized by his 16 year-old daughter Ida. Thelma was invited, being a good friend of Stanley’s. Ida rang her to say she had also ran into Thelma’s ex-husband, Pat DiCicco, and invited him as well. At 8pm, Thelma and her mother, Alice, were driven to the Trocadero by their chauffeur Ernest Peters in a rented limousine. There he dropped off Thelma, then drove Alice home. He arrived back at the Trocadero at 9pm, and waited to drive Thelma home again after the party.
Thelma & husband Pat DiCicco
During the evening Pat DiCicco danced with his date, actress Margaret Lindsay, Her career highlights consisted mostly of supporting roles as the star’s best friend, a kind of female Ronald Reagan, in pictures such as the Bette Davis hits Jezebel and Dangerous. She was very pretty, but never married, living with her sister for much of her life, and dating ‘safe’ escorts such as Cesar Romero, Richard Deacon and Liberace, all of whom were gay. She was, in fact, a lesbian whose great love was minor actress Mary McCarty, so she was an odd date choice for a hoodlum like DiCicco. She was also a close friend of Thelma’s, which also makes her choice of date a strange one.
Lovely Margaret Lindsay
During the evening Thelma and her ex got into a heated argument, witnessed by a lot of people. He was a violent man, one of the reasons why she had divorced him. One beating too many. It should be noted in passing that he was the same Pat DiCicco who allegedly joined with his cousin ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Wallace Beery a few years later to beat comedian Ted Healey into unconsciousness (the man died next day) – in the car park of The Trocadero, no less. He was also a known associate of gangster Lucky Luciano who was currently squiring Thelma about town.
Thelma’s partner in the café (and occasional bed-mate) was Roland West. She knew he closed up the café at 2am, but she dallied at the party and it was much later when she finally had Peters drive her home. He said he dropped her at the foot of the 63 steps around 3.45am, then headed off. Everything after that becomes surmise. Did she walk up the steps, knock on West’s door, get no response, and then walk a further 1,000 feet to the garage that contained her car? Or did she take the alternate route (over 200 steps), for there were two ways to get to the garage and apartment? Friends later told of her being previously diagnosed with a heart ailment. Would she have made either of these two climbs knowing this? They say no.
According to the police and coroner’s reports, she appeared to have reached the garage in a drunken condition, shut the doors, climbed into her Phaeton, turned on the ignition and the heater, and then succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Accidental death. But there are questions about this. Quite a few, in fact.
Thelma’s garage today
Thelma was no dummy. She was a former top student and schoolteacher prior to winning the Bathing Beauty Contest that took her to Hollywood. Was she really silly enough to not know the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning inside a closed garage? Did she really risk the long walk up the hill, knowing her heart issues? Was she so drunk that she ignored these things altogether? Her autopsy report gave her alcohol level as .13, barely over the legal driving limit. If that is true, then she was not drunk enough to fall asleep in the car, certainly not as drunk as both the police chief and the coroner declared.
It was a cold, windy night, so why would a sober Thelma not simply drive her car down the road and stay at her friend’s home, in preference to sleeping in her car with the engine running? When she was found the vehicle still contained two gallons of gas in the tank. Everybody said the engine of her Phaeton was particularly loud, yet Roland West’s brother-in-law, a man named Schafer, who lived in the apartment directly above the garage, said he did not hear a car start up that morning.
Thelma’s maid, Mae Whithead, found her body at 9.30am on Monday morning (the 16th) and immediately drove to the café to tell Roland West. He went straight to the garage, then told Schafer to drive to the police and report her death. It was about 10am. When Chief Detective Bert Wallis and Chief Medical Examiner A. F. Wagner arrived at Thelma’s garage, they immediately ordered all other police, photographers and reporters out of the garage, closed the doors, and remained inside and alone for an hour. They then opened the doors, let everyone back inside, and made their statement to the press. Meanwhile, the scene was trampled underfoot while Thelma’s lifeless body was photographed.
District Attorney Buron Fitts
According to historian Randy Young, who interviewed several Castellammare residents from the time, the local service station operator appeared on the scene ahead of them. He said he saw Thelma dead in the passenger seat, ‘kind of leaning over’. He also said there was a lot of blood on her and she had been hit on the head. She was not, he claimed, jammed under the steering wheel. The question is, did the two chiefs ‘arrange’ things; clear up the blood and move her corpse to the steering wheel side, during the hour they had alone with her in the garage? Was there a Luciano connection (see below) after all, and were they afraid of crossing him by conducting a thorough investigation? The man had already sent DA Buron Fitts a very clear warning, so why not these two lesser lights?
The first thing Wallis and Wagner announced was their estimate regarding time of death. They stated it was around 2 am on Sunday morning, over 30 hours ago, yet it was clear to all present that rigor mortis had only just begun to set in, which would indicate death occurred about 2 or 3 am Monday morning, 5-6 hours ago, perhaps even later. Wagner was an experienced coroner. Did he simply get it wrong? Was he fitting a time of death to a Sunday am time of death scenario? Were the others mistaken, those who claimed rigor mortis was just setting in?
Thelma’s body was wedged under the steering wheel, as surviving photographs clearly indicate. Those same pictures show no sign of blood or other injuries, yet reporters on the scene claimed they saw bloodstains on the seat earlier, and that she had sustained what appeared to be a broken nose. She had broken ribs and bruises to her face and throat, they said. The autopsy report mentions only a spot of blood on her lip, conducive with her head striking the steering wheel as she lost consciousness. Was the report faked or were the reporters (and others) in the garage that morning mistaken or sensationalizing?
One of her front teeth had been chipped, or so it was said. Try as they could, not one person in the garage could find the broken piece, not in the car, her clothing, nor in the garage itself. Death, the two chiefs said, was the result of carbon monoxide poisoning – an accident. It was their opinion that she arrived home very drunk, fell asleep at the wheel, and succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning whilst asleep.
When asked about the bruises to her face and throat, Wagner stated they were caused by post mortem lividity! Such an explanation is simply ludicrous. According to other people present earlier, Thelma had been badly beaten, and that death had not taken place 30 hours previously. The ‘passing out drunk’ story is doubtful, given her blood alcohol level, although she might still have fallen asleep as she ran the heater to warm up in preparation for a drive down to her friend’s house.
The autopsy also found ‘peas and carrots in her stomach’, eaten around 5-6 hours prior to her body being found. Had she indeed died at 2 am Sunday morning, directly after being dropped off at her home after the party, then how could the peas and carrots be accounted for? There were no peas or carrots on the menu that night. How could she have eaten them on Sunday when she was already supposed to be dead?
Thelma was once married to Pat DiCicco, a mobster friend of both Eddie Mannix and Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Lately, she had been dating Luciano who had been moving in on the drug scene in LA. In the previous few months he had been responsible for the murder of several rival dealers. Perhaps, Thelma knew details she should not have known. Maybe, she needed to be silenced. That Luciano was involved in those killings is a matter of fact. He even sent District Attorney Buron Fitts a warning note: ‘Stay out of the way’. Fitts did just that. He also made little or no effort to look into Thelma’s death. If by some chance Luciano was involved, the DA wanted no part of it.
It has been suggested that Luciano was keen to use Thelma’s café for his gambling operations, and that her refusal cost her life, but that is just not logical. He was making millions out of the Mob-controlled movie unions and drugs sales in LA. Any gambling at Thelma’s would be chicken feed by comparison, and certainly not worth risking a murder rap. But, if Thelma was ever to be called as a federal witness during any investigation into the unions, then she might become a real danger to him. Even so, he could have easily had her killed if and when she was ever called. Why would he eliminate her on the off chance she might one day be called? Not his style.
As many as seven people swore they saw or spoke to Thelma on the Sunday. Not only was she recognised sitting in her brown roadster at the lights (by two people), or driving past (two more), but they all said she was in the company of a swarthy, Italian-looking man! Two other witnesses saw her (and the man as well) at various times during the day. Could the man have been Luciano? Martha Ford, a close friend of Thelma’s, swore she received a phone call from her at 4pm Sunday, cancelling a dinner date.
There is one serious problem with the ‘Thelma was alive on Sunday’ scenario, however. Her body was found clad in the same clothes she wore to the Trocadero party on Saturday night. Those who knew her, in particular her mother, believed there was no way she would not have changed her apparel before venturing out on Sunday morning or afternoon. It is a compelling argument. Conspiracy theorists might argue that she was killed on Sunday evening or Monday morning, and then dressed in her party clothes in order to fit the Sunday am death time, but that surely is clutching at one straw too many.
Luciano flew out of LA at 7.45 am Monday morning, even before Thelma’s body had been found. He never returned. Writer Raymond Chandler spent a year working in Los Angeles. ‘He wrote: ‘Law is where you buy it in this town’. Buron Fitts was one of the most corrupt District Attorneys in US history, in the pay of every Hollywood studio for two decades. He was also a survivor who knew when to look the other way, especially when it involved the Mob. It seems he may have been afraid that Thelma’s death might not have been an accident, but did he send out Wallis and Wagner with instructions to sell the ‘accidental death’ story to the press? He was capable of virtually any skulduggery, but does that mean Wagner and Wallis were as well? We will probably never know, but surely these two gentlemen are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Fitts, incidentally, would lose his DA’s job in the mid-forties. In 1973, he would pull up a chair in his garage and fire a .38 slug into his temple.
As for poor Thelma, well, if you lie down with dogs you’ll wake up with fleas. She married a mobster (DiCicco), she had mobster friends (Eddie Mannix and Johnny Roselli), and (it seems) she slept with at least one other mobster (Luciano). She also did drugs, drank too much booze and slept around. In short, she was a bit of a tramp, a likeable one, but a tramp nonetheless. And she enjoyed the company of dangerous men. All in all, her life was a recipe for disaster, as she ultimately discovered.
Perhaps, she was just unlucky. Maybe, she really did turn on the heater to warm up, and then drifted off – forever. At least, in her will she managed to have one final crack at sleazy Mr. DiCicco, the man who enjoyed beating up his women. She bequeathed him the princely sum of one solitary dollar, a ploy often used by spouses to thwart any later challenging of the document. Not that it affected him overly much. In 1941, he would charm and wed 19 year-old Gloria Vanderbilt, aware that she was due to inherit four million dollars when she turned 21. He beat her as well. By the time she realized what she had married, he had gone through the whole four million and left her. Nice guy.