THE DREAM KILLER IN HOLLYWOOD
Reading time 18 Minutes
One summer evening in 1939
On a summer evening in 1939, acting students walk warily to a class on the Los Angeles City College campus, in the flats of Hollywood. They cluster together in little groups, keeping to the paths. None of them mentions Anya Sosoyeva, but their pretty blonde classmate is all around them, in the shadows and overgrown hedges, between the ivied arches of the Administration Building, in the scent of jasmine on the wind.
The students are grateful for the government program providing a chance to perform short theatrical pieces, develop their skills and learn from experienced professionals like their elocution instructor, Broadway and film actress Margaret Campbell.
And Mrs. Campbell is grateful for the small paycheck. It takes the edge off and ensures she and her son can cover their boarding house rent and meals. She hasn’t had an acting gig in years, and devotes her days and most nights to intense spiritual study and administration assistance at the local Bahá’í faith center.
But Mrs. Campbell isn’t in the classroom tonight. After twenty minutes, it’s clear she won’t be coming. The students don’t know their teacher well enough to go looking for her, and the night class program is loosely knit, without an on-site administrator to inform. So the young people shrug and slip back into the darkness, carefully crossing the quiet campus and streaming into the illuminated bustling city, hailing streetcars and busses, off to the movies, hamburger stands, bowling alleys, neon-lit bars, sidewalk promenades. There will be another class next week.
But not for Margaret Campbell.
A few miles to the west, on Hawthorn Avenue, landlady Mary DuPre is worried. It isn’t like Mrs. Campbell not to be seen for four days. Then there’s the key, left hanging outside her room. That was odd. Probably nothing, but let’s just take the key down and have a quick peep inside to be sure.
It was a small room, with two single beds and a folding privacy screen by the corner sink. Margaret Campbell, 56, sprawled across her bed in a blaze of white skin, white bone, dried brown blood, nightgown pushed up, a gory handprint blazed on each thigh. Her head was split open, the claw hammer dropped on the pillow. Set beside her body was a collection of small objects: a candle, a metal whistle, a religious tract and a key.
The ghastly scene imprinted itself forever in Mary DuPre’s mind. Then she shut the door and called the police.
Capt. D. R. Patton, Homicide Squad
Capt. D.R. Patton, Homicide Squad, and Detective Lt. Pat Murphy responded, made a cursory search, and sealed the scene pending forensic examination by Ray Pinker, pioneering police chemist. He’d dust for prints, compare a hair found on Margaret’s palm to a lock of a mystic’s hair taped to a sheet of Bahá’í stationary, determine that the red stain at the base of the candle was lipstick, set the time of death as 48 hours earlier.
Mrs. DuPre told them that Campbell McDonald, 26, the victim’s son, was missing. He shared the room with his mother, with whom he was very close. He was tall, dark, well fed, with a little black moustache. His work history was slim, occasional menial labor, sometime WPA crossing guard.
But mainly he could be found in bed reading spiritual literature and making notes for a book on economics. Had he studied business in school? No, his mother had tutored him from childhood, because, she said, he was so physically and mentally fragile. He identified himself as a writer. He didn’t go with girls.
Detectives hoped that when they picked Campbell McDonald up for his mother’s murder, he’d be good for several recent, high profile attacks as well. Crimes tend to come in waves, and Los Angeles was in the grips of an unusual skull-cracking spree.
Just four days ago, concerned neighbors had discovered Robert Byrne, 65, dead in his home above a storefront off Sunset Boulevard. Like Margaret Campbell, Byrne was victim of a brutal hammer attack. A table was set for breakfast for two, and in the sink a carpenter’s hammer had been wiped of fingerprints.
Byrne had seven skull fractures, the same number of blows suffered by Margaret Campbell, and his body was covered in abrasions, apparently from stumbling around for as long as two days before he succumbed to his injuries, just 10 feet from the phone. He had been in no condition to complete a call.
The neighbors reported that Byrne often entertained young men. Police expressed particular interest in speaking to the well-built stranger seen with him on the evening of June 19.
A decade earlier, Robert Byrne had briefly been the talk of the town, when Kentucky Boy III, his brave and clever Airedale pup, snapped his lead and raced two blocks down Hollywood Boulevard towards a smoldering photography studio. After catching up to the dog, Byrne summoned the fire department. An adjacent movie theater, packed with patrons, was saved. What a good boy.
Man and Kentucky Boy dined out on that story for years, receiving civic medals and commendations, the pup’s courage and intelligence growing more elaborate with each retelling. But even hero dogs don’t live forever, and Kentucky Boy died, aged 15, in September 1937, leaving his master unprotected and alone.
Then there was Anya Sosoyeva’s murder. The Russian-born dancer and actress had been walking alone across the City College campus on a Friday night in late February, a fur coat and velvet dress for her roles in a WPA theater show slung over her arm, when an unknown man swung a 2 x 4 with full force against the back of her head. She went down and the assailant ran away.
It was dark on campus. Gravely wounded, Anya dragged herself towards the light of the auditorium. “He hit me,” she moaned, to a friend who discovered her crouched on the path. “Why weren’t you there to protect me?” Who hit you? She didn’t know. Was it a car? No, it was a man, a stranger. He’d asked directions, and when she turned to point the way, he struck her down. She still clutched her pocketbook and costumes. Kind hands lifted her up and helped her inside, where she cried and winced against the light. Taken to General Hospital by ambulance, she died early that morning of a fractured skull with subdural hemorrhage.
Capt. Patton would find the bloody hunk of wood with several blond hairs snagged, and a single gray glove, stained with blood and a lipstick similar to Anya’s, near the Administration Building, and its mate a hundred yards away, in the Shakespearean Gardens. Three witnesses saw a tall, slender, 30-ish man running through the dark campus. His hair was long and blonde.
Seeking clues in her past of anyone who might wish Anya harm, detectives searched the apartment she shared with drama coach Beulah Stanley. They found letters from several financially supportive men she’d left back east. And they found Anya’s notes about her own character, carefully recorded in a blue palmistry pamphlet: “You have a visionary, romantic, idealistic nature, and are more at home in the realm of imagination than in the realities of this earthly life… You are gentle, slow to anger, confiding and trusting, easily influenced and deceived… Persons with this type of hand usually love the wrong people.”
No more man trouble for Anya Sosoyeva.
Police arrest every creep in town
Police arrested every creep in town: burglars, child molesters, drunks, peeping Toms and a pianist friend of the victim who’d passed some rubber checks. In Seattle, they picked up an African-American gentleman who boasted he was a Black Magnet with a mystic quality that compelled women to submit. They followed up on wild rumors of a so-called Purple Cult that met at a City College professor’s house. They tried to connect the attack with the non-fatal sluggings of teenaged actress Delia Bogard (a City College night class habitué) and babysitter Myrtle Wagner, knocked out and molested by an intruder while crocheting in her employer’s kitchen. No dice.
The political pressure to make a good arrest was intense. City Council demanded a report on crime statistics, criticized the Police Commission for permitting two dozen experienced cops to retire, and declared the city unsafe for lone women. Mayor Fletcher Bowron suggested the councilmen might be capitalizing on the crime wave to undercut his reelection campaign.
By the time Margaret Campbell died in her bed, the investigation into Anya Sosoyeva’s murder had gone cold. Campbell McDonald looked as likely a suspect as any of the motley characters hauled in. He appeared capable of homicidal violence against a vulnerable woman. And he’d regularly been on the City College campus, ensuring his mother made it home safely after her classes. The detectives wanted him badly, and alive.
They got him. Two nights later, Campbell McDonald was spotted in Santa Monica, sunburned and grimy, trying to thumb a ride back to L.A. He readily identified himself to officers. He’d seen his picture in the newspaper, and was coming back to turn himself in. Yes, he had killed his mother.
It happened on Sunday night, when Margaret came home very late from a Bahá’í meeting. She was upset to find him still reading in bed. Didn’t he remember the last time he’d overtaxed his mind, and had a breakdown? Why, if he didn’t control himself, she would have no choice but to commit him to a mental institution.
It was nuts, but so was their relationship, 26 years of deeply enmeshed toxic codependence. There was no point in reminding her that his breakdown had been precipitated by 80-hour weeks washing dishes for their mutual support. Mother knows best. No more reading, Campbell. Lights OUT!
It had all come to a head
It all came to a head that night in their little shared room, Margaret sleeping, Campbell stewing. He’d doze off and be right back in the argument. It went on forever, like things do in dreams. “I’ll put you in an institution if you keep this up!” “Mother, you’re being unfair!”
And then, still in the dream, he was standing over her, swinging the hammer. It seemed so real. Then it was real. Moonlight filled the room, illuminating the terribly familiar figure on the bed. He dropped the hammer. His hands were sticky. He washed and dressed, found $10 in her pocketbook, left the key hanging.
On Hollywood Boulevard, just before he caught the interurban car to Long Beach, a naked man ran by and called him a sap. (That checked out. Elmer Johnson, 23, had been picked up on the boulevard in his birthday suit and booked as a mental case.)
Campbell liked streetcars. He liked Long Beach. He spent most of his mother’s money on a hotel and incidentals, then moved on to Venice, where a hotel clerk took his watch and last two bucks to cover the price of a room. Later, broke, he wandered around, slept on a bench. He knew he’d have to come clean, but there wasn’t any urgency. What difference could it make?
He came across as a thoughtful, educated man. He stuck to his story of having been asleep during the murder, but claimed to feel revulsion and remorse now. When they took him back to the crime scene, he asked if he could wash, shave and trim his little moustache, change into clean clothes. Then, agreeably, he took hold of the murder weapon and showed them exactly how he’d dreamed it, swinging down at the bloody bed.
Asked about the attacks on Anya Sosoyeva and Robert Byrne, Campbell expressed absolute ignorance. They had him try on the gray gloves found on campus, and noted how he struggled to make them fit.
He’d been so willing to give up everything about his mother’s murder that the cops believed him when he said she was his only victim. He was nuts, anyway, just like Margaret said.
Did he want to attend the funeral?
Did he want to attend the funeral? Her Bahá’í friends had taken care of everything, including a plot in Inglewood Cemetery near Thornton Chase, the revered first American to follow the eclectic faith of all faiths. “No, for funerals are barbaric. She is dead. Nothing more can be done for her.” He’d wait in jail to learn his fate.
Soon enough they found a convenient patsy to take the rap for the other cases. Chased out of a house he was casing, nutty DeWitt Clinton Cook ran straight into a cop and started talking. Yeah, he was a house robber, the best there was. Sure, he slugged that Russian dancer on campus, those other kids, too. No reason, he just did it. He’d be happy to show them how, acting it out for motion picture cameras, just hand him a 2 x 4 and let him swing.
His mood, too, was swinging wildly. He refused to see his young wife, told the Grand Jury they were looking at a guilty man, changed his plea, refused to respond to direct questions, cracked wise during his trial. The jury watched the flickering screen as Cook mugged his way through the murderous recreation. When they came back with the guilty verdict and the judge said “death,” that’s when it hit him, as much as anything could. The Los Angeles Times called Cook “a psychopathic exhibitionist” and hoped there was evidence to back up his manic confessions. There wasn’t, not beyond a doubt. Still, Cook was gassed in San Quentin, aged 22, for the murder of Anya Sosoyeva.
Just as police took Cook’s word for his guilt, they took Campbell McDonald’s word for his relative innocence. There was no jury trial. He told Superior Judge Arthur Crum that he was willing to die for the murder of his mother, but would prefer to live, so long as he could be of some use to society. He was declared to be insane, and committed to Mendocino State Hospital until such time as his reason returned.
The records that traveled with him said that he was an orphan and alone in the world. But in truth, there were many who joined him in his simple room. For when a man has experienced a sleep so disordered that he destroys the one thing he loves before waking, every night is a passport into a mad and swirling world.
They danced with him through the moonlight, his mother with her hair up and a book in her hands, the Russian dancer looking startled and annoyed, the old man by his telephone, the San Quentin prisoner turning green as he gulped the first taste of gas. He soothed them and killed them and soothed them again, and built little pyramids of significant everyday objects that held his prayers for their restless souls. He carried the weight of them until there was no more weight to them than a feather. He never did get well.
But during his time in the hospital, he recognized the great kindness that his dream murder had been to his mother. Her yearning was for a world that was equitable and peaceful, in which all faiths were recognized, and no soul wanted for anything material or spiritual. This beautiful and unlikely utopia was what she and her Bahá’í friends worked towards in their shabby little meetinghouses around the world. Perhaps she was even visiting that world when in his reverie he brought the hammer down. Two months later, the Nazis would invade Poland, but Margaret never knew it. She never had to see her son drafted into war. He had freed her soul.
Campbell McDonald died, aged 33, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the pauper’s section of Ukiah Cemetery.
After Mendocino State Hospital was shuttered in 1972, its vast acreage became a Buddhist monastery and prayer center, The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The therapeutic prison where Campbell McDonald wrestled with his demons is now a holy place, home to gilded idols and peacocks. Hollywood seems ten thousand miles away.
Kim Cooper is the creator of Esotouric's popular crime bus tours, including the Real Black Dahlia. With husband Richard Schave, she co-hosts the historic preservation and L.A. history podcast You Can’t Eat the Sunshine. When the third generation Angeleno isn't combing old newspapers for forgotten scandals, she is a passionate advocate for historic preservation of signage, vernacular architecture and writer's homes. Kim was for many years the editrix of Scram, a journal of unpopular culture. Her books include Fall in Love For Life: Inspiration from a 73-Year Marriage, Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, Lost in the Grooves, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and How to Find Old Los Angeles. The Kept Girl is her first novel. Get on the bus at http://www.esotouric.com