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The Grisly Case of the Dead Divorcee and the Demented Doctor

The discovery of human remains led authorities to the now infamous twisted case of the dead divorcee and the demented doctor.

On April 5, 1929, a boy walking along the rain-swollen Los Angeles River near Compton, Calif., noticed something odd on the riverbank — a torso.

Deputy sheriffs said it appeared to be from a woman between 18 and 21 and that she appeared to be pregnant. She met her end, they speculated, at the hands of an angry lover or through a botched “illegal operation.”

A preliminary coroner’s exam, however, discovered that she was not expecting. She had died about two days earlier, but he could not tell if she had been subjected to “extreme and fiendish mistreatment” before she took her last breath; he did say, however, that her limbs and head were removed with “a skill that would do credit to a surgeon.”

Newspapers at the time carried notices urging families of girls who had recently gone missing to visit the county morgue and take a look. The torso offered little to go on — no moles or scars, for example.

Within a day, an anonymous phone call offered a tip about a beautiful movie extra who recently vanished. Several people from the movie set told of a violent quarrel, including a death threat, between the girl and a man she was dating.

Yet the tip was a dead end.

Six weeks passed as police hunted for a single clue in the “torso mystery.” Families of more than 300 missing girls across the country contacted the police. Husbands, vagrants, a butcher’s apprentice, medical students, and ex-cons were among dozens of possible suspects pursued or questioned.

A hair expert declared with absolute certainty that blond hairs from the torso matched those of a missing 24-year-old businesswoman, Laura Clarke. However, that theory exploded when Mrs. Clarke turned up alive and well.

In the absence of DNA and the more sophisticated forensics tests we have today, “Science Fails in Torso Case,” declared a headline in the Los Angeles Evening Express as the investigation ground on with few if any new leads.

A Skull in the Mud

Then on May 18, a break came when residents of an LA suburb noticed a couple of boys walking down the street carrying a skull impaled on a stick. They had found it in the mud down by the river.

The skull fit neatly onto the torso’s vertebrae. Almost all the teeth were still there.

Newspapers published charts of the dental records. An LA dentist noticed a similarity to one of his patients— Laura Sutton, 45, described as an “attractive divorcee.” X-rays and other exams confirmed her identity. Further examinations determined that death came from a “blow on the head, delivered with homicidal intent.”

Sutton’s brother told police that she was agitated and living in fear in the weeks before she vanished on March 28. Her hairdresser told police of seeing deep scratches on Sutton’s face during her last visit in mid-March. Sutton explained the marks; a stranger jumped out of the bushes near her home and beat her.

Since she split with her husband, Eugene Sutton, a year earlier, she was involved with several men. There was also bad blood in her family relations. Some years earlier, Sutton’s sister, Ida Kleppe, accused Sutton of having an affair with Mr. Kleppe. When police interviewed Kleppe, all she said was, “She’s probably hiding out with somebody’s husband.”

Two suitors came under intense police scrutiny — taxi driver Ben King and a retired physician, Dr. Frank Westlake.

King lived in a room above the garage in the house that Sutton’s ex left her. King told police that two days after her disappearance, Westlake cleaned out her home.

Westlake, 57, told police that he and Sutton were planning to wed, which explained why he had moved all her personal belongings — furniture, clothes, jewelry — into his home after she disappeared. The last time he saw her, he said, was March 28, when she left a pair of pet birds in his care.

Westlake had obtained much of Sutton’s cash and possessions, and the deed to a lot valued at around $2,500 (about $40,000 today). He had drawn out all the money from a joint bank account and was the beneficiary of her will and life insurance policies.

The doctor refused to tell detectives anything about the finances and insisted that she was alive. “I’m just as interested in locating her as you are,” he kept repeating.

Red carnations left on her mother’s grave regularly proved she was fine, he said. He also produced a letter from her that came from Arizona.

The bouquets on the grave, detectives learned from local florists, were purchased by Westlake. And the letter was a forgery, as were several other documents supposedly signed by Sutton.

Background checks revealed that Westlake had been involved in a similar incident 32 years earlier in Illinois. A rich, elderly friend of the doctor’s ended up dead at the bottom of a well. Westlake was arrested, but the grand jury failed to return an indictment.

On May 31, he was formally charged with the Torso Murder. His motive, according to the district attorney, was to gain control of Sutton’s estate.

Circumstantial evidence was all prosecutors had when Westlake’s trial started on August 26, 1929. Westlake’s attorneys tried to show that the remains found in the river were not Sutton’s and suggested she was probably alive.

However, after only 36 hours of deliberation, the jury delivered a guilty verdict at 11 p.m. on September 7. Prosecutors pushed for the death penalty; he got life in prison.

In 1944, after serving 14 years for the grisly slaying, he was granted parole. When he was released, he told reporters that he still believed Sutton was among the living and that she would one day come forward to vindicate him – although that never happened.