Los Angeles 1920-1947: The Birth of Forensic Science

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Join us in the Cal State Los Angeles teaching crime lab for an afternoon’s inquiry into the development of the science of forensic investigation in the L.A. area.

Presentation One:

Mike Fratantoni, an LASD Deputy who sits on the board of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Museum, makes a return engagement to the crime lab to present the fascinating and complex 1920 James “Bluebeard” Watson serial murder case, which had a profound impact on the development of the LASD’s homicide department. This new department allowed future investigators to maximize efficiency by pooling resources for evidence gathering and analysis, often using the forensic skills of contract chemist Arthur Mass.

James Watson married at least 18 women throughout the United States, several simultaneously. He placed “lonely hearts” personal ads in newspapers which read:

“A gentleman, neat appearing, of courteous disposition, well connected in a business way; has quite a little property, and is connected with several corporations. Has a nice bank account as well as a considerable roll of government bonds. Would be pleased to correspond with refined young lady or widow. Object, matrimony. This advertisement is in good faith. All answers will be treated with respect.”

There was no shortage of lonely women who took the bait and accepted the lie that he had to travel frequently for his work in the U.S. Secret Service. He targeted wealthy women, took control of their finances, and killed at least seven—perhaps as many as fifteen.

If it were not for the suspicions of his final wife, Kathryn, and the insight and tenacity of the LASD investigators Bell and Couts, District Attorney Thomas L. Woolwine simply would have had nothing more on James Watson than a case of polygamy to take to a judge. Instead, Watson made a deal on the multiple murders, led investigators to a shallow grave, and was sentenced to life in prison.

Presentation Two:

Meiling Cabral, Chair of the California Association of Criminalists’ Historical Committee, and a forensic investigator for the LAPD, will present on three defining LAPD and LASD cases that influenced the development of modern forensic investigation. Meiling combines a practicing forensic scientist’s experience and an historian’s passion for reconstructing the past, to bring to life the legendary Los Angeles investigators who invented the field. Looming above them all is the LAPD’s Ray Pinker, who would go on to found the CSULA Criminalistics Department, the site of today’s seminar. Vintage forensic collection kits will be available for viewing between presentations.

Featured cases are the Marion Parker kidnap slaying (1927), the Wineville chicken coop murders (1928) and the Black Dahlia murder (1947). Fingerprints played an important role in both the Marion Parker and Black Dahlia cases. LAPD Captain H.L. Barlow, the forensic investigator on the Parker case, was so famous that he later sold his namesake fingerprint kit through ads in the back of detective magazines. The story of how LAPD homicide detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown accessed cutting edge telephony to rush the fingerprints of the unidentified Black Dahlia victim to the FBI for identification is as riveting today as it was when it made headlines. The death penalty case against Gordon Stewart Northcott, the Wineville boy killer, was based entirely on trace evidence: hair and fiber gathered at his murder ranch.