Thelma Todd’s death – maybe murder after all?

 

 

 

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.

 Café Trocadero – Rockin' at the Troc | Hollywood's Garden of Allah ...

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 Todd and husband Pat DiCicco | Weddings | Pinterest

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.

Summer Stars Festival 2013: MARGARET LINDSAY | A Season of Stars

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 Todd ' s Sidewalk Cafe on Pinterest | Sidewalks, Pacific ...

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.

Spine Tingling Tuesdays : Thelma Todd | Ruby's Musings

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.

Buron Rogers Fitts (1895 - 1973) - Find A Grave Memorial

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.

14 Comments on Thelma Todd’s death – maybe murder after all?

  1. Her injuries are consistent with a beating. There is no overkill, but a definite working over. That would suggest a thuggish man, rather than a lover going in for overkill due to the relationship with the victim.

    The carbon monoxide poisoning caused her to clench her fists, so she was beaten unconscious, taken alive but out of it, left in the car with the engine running and shut into the garage. She was moved from passenger side to driver side before her colored maid found her.

    There is evidence all the men around her including her crooked bookkeeper and her some time lover the failed director Roland West were involved with the hollywood gangsters aka The Mickey Mouse Mafia. Killing women like Todd could easily be an enforcement issue arising from her continually challenging the skimming from her cafe books which had reached the level where she was going broke despite earning 2000 a week plus the cafe proceeds. This excessive skimming was a trademark of the Mickey Mouse Mafia who were short sighted and greedy. They still are.

    None of the people who lived with her and around her other than he mother and maid had any real love for her, they were parasites. As such they may well have been in on it to the extent that knowing the mafia thugs were going to take her out, and simply let it happen or did minor clean up for it as ordered.

    As for the DA and the police, then and now they are notoriously corrupt but never more so than 1930s to 1950s. Rampart Division probably sets the gold standard for evil cops but the Todd case drips with incompetence, corruption and evil as well.

    • Fascinating. Many thanks for that extra information. Clearly, you have researched her death extensively. I greatly appreciate you taking the time to comment and to cast even more suspicion on the circumstances of her death. Most illuminating.

  2. Marisa Shute // January 12, 2017 at 9:12 am // Reply

    Great great post!
    Junie, it’s a complicated living arrangement that Thelma and Roland had. They lived in apartment above the cafe, separated by a sliding door. That’s the hat trick of how they were able to live together without “living together”, a mortal sin in Hollywood. The garage where Thelma was found belonged to Roland West’s estranged wife. As strange as it sounds, that’s where she parked her car. Her maid would walk all the way over there and bring the car down to the cafe for Thelma to use.
    Regarding the shoes, there’s a photo of the soles of her shoes and they’re pretty scuffed up. I think I have it saved on my phone.
    I took a bunch of pics up there about a year ago and it’s not until you’re actually physically there that the absurdity of it all sets in. The garage is around 1000ft from the stairs she would’ve taken from her apartment. That’s a lot of walking around just to retrieve a car to warm up.
    I’m really glad you posted this! Thelma has almost become an unknown. Posts like this fuel interest in a great comedienne and also brings the case to fresh eyes!
    Bravo!!

    • Thank you, Marisa. And thank you for that extra information you imparted. I envy you being able to visit the location. Fremantle, Western Australia (where I live) is a long way from everywhere.

  3. I think that Bugsy Siegel killed her.I have a copy,of a letter sent to the L.A.Chief of Police.They sent a copy to the Minneapolis Police, because the murder that happened in Minneapolis,the week before,was tied to a local gangster.The person,who sent it,said the hit,was paid for by Jack Devenport,who worked for Kid Cann.The man who wrote this,was in the Twin Cities,the week before Thelma died.His name was Busgy Siegel.

    • I sent you mt idea of who killed Thelma.I have the police records of the three murdered journalists,because one of the murderers,murdered my uncle in 1946.His name was Kid Cann.My uncle was hung.I went to the police records,to check on the 3 hits.That’s why I copies these records.All were unsolved.Two were from 1935.The police never knew why they received the letter,from the L.A. Police.I’m a researcher.I still have all these records.The one thing about the Todd murder,was how she managed to get up to the garage.If she took the stairs,her shoes should of had some wear.They looked like new.I have studied the case for many years.With my 1935 police records,that letter from the L.A. Police has always bothered me. Thanks,Bob Patrin

    • One thing that is undisputed is that there was a lot of corruption in high places during the movie industry’s so-called ‘Golden Days’, involving law enforcement and the D.A.’s office over a few decades, so anything could (and often was) covered up or swept under the carpet as big money changed hands. Hollywood still has many secrets.

  4. The death cert says she died in a garage at 17531 Posetano Rd which was the home of Roland West. Thelma passed out and was prolly locked in the garage by West. This address is a ways from the apt above the Cafe at 17575 PCH or Roosevely Hwy as it was known then. perhaps she went up the steps got in her car and drove to West’s home south of the Cafe.

    • My personal opinion is that she probably died accidentally, Junie. The only cause for doubting that scenario revolves around the level of corruption in the police force and district attorney’s office in those days. There was so much covering up, altering of evidence, adjustments of crime scenes and bribing of witnesses and officials, perpetrated by the studio heads every time a ‘situation’ arose, one wonders if tampering may have taken place. We will never know now.

  5. farris jaber // August 14, 2016 at 8:58 pm // Reply

    I think lucky had her killed. because if she had testified, it would have hurt him

    • I really don’t know what to believe about Todd’s death. If we believe the police who attended, it was an accident. Trouble is, the police there were known to be thoroughly corrupt (as was the DA Buron Fitts), so who knows if they interfered at the scene, especially since several writers claim they closed the garage to the press for around an hour while they rummaged about in there.

  6. Wallace Beery killed her.

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