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30 Years Later, a Case of Murder Is Admitted--but Questions Linger

February 23, 1986|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

L. Ewing Scott's reported confession--after 30 years of indignant denials--surprised J. Miller Leavy, the retired prosecutor who in his day sent many notorious killers, such as "red light" bandit Caryl Chessman, to the gas chamber.

Leavy, interviewed the other day, said he was always certain that Scott, a handsome and charming ne'er-do-well paint salesman, had murdered his wealthy, older wife in 1955 to get her $1 million in assets, a case that made Page 1 news for several years.

Just as certain of Scott's guilt was the Los Angeles County Superior Court jury that convicted him on Dec. 21, 1957, even though socialite Evelyn Throsby Scott's body has never been found. The jury, however, rejected the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment.

Graphic Detail

What was unexpected for Leavy--and almost everyone else familiar with the case--was that Scott finally owned up to it in graphic detail on a tape recording made by Diane Wagner, a Burbank writer who spent five years as a part-time reporter in The New York Times bureau here.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 25, 1986 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 3 Column 4 View Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
A story in View on Sunday about the L. Ewing Scott murder case erroneously indicated that "red light" bandit Caryl Chessman was sent to the gas chamber for murder. Chessman was executed for kidnapping and robbery.

Optioned for TV Film

Wagner, 26, who was a White House intern in 1979, interviewed Scott repeatedly for her recently published book about the unusual case, "Corpus Delicti" (St. Martin's/Marek: $16.95). The book, an alternate selection of the Literary Guild next August, has been optioned for a TV movie.

But for Leavy and others familiar with the case, questions linger: Why, after all these years, did Scott acknowledge murdering his wife? In admitting his crime, did he give an authentic account of what happened? And, finally, at the age of 88 and ailing, did Scott know what he was saying?

After all, Scott had claimed innocence from the day of his arrest on April 15, 1957, when he was a fugitive trying to enter Canada from Detroit in a new car bought with his wife's money.

Without her body, Scott always insisted, there was no corpus delicti and thus he could not be properly convicted. (Actually, that Latin phrase refers to the body of the crime --to the facts constituting or proving the offense--not to flesh and blood.)

Twice Scott rejected parole, saying acceptance would be a tacit admission of guilt.

Many Cases

Prosecutor Leavy said there have been many cases of juries convicting murderers without a body. "But in California, except in this case, the murderer always said he was aware the person was dead though, of course, at the hands of others," Leavy said.

Can of Tooth Powder

Scott never acknowledged that his wife was dead until he spoke to Wagner. He always insisted his wife had sent him out for a can of tooth powder and when he came back she was gone.

Wagner, who started work on the book in 1983, said she spoke with Scott repeatedly in the run-down mid-Wilshire apartment he took after the state freed him in 1978, deciding that the frail old man of 81 had served his time. Wagner said each time they met Scott denied he had killed his wife.

Then, on Aug. 5, 1984, Scott telephoned Wagner, asking her to come to see him one more time, promising, as always, that he had something important to disclose.

Wagner said she went the next day, vowing it would be the last time and certain she would hear the same litany of innocence again.

When Wagner arrived, the tape recording shows, Scott began by noting that his full name is Robert Leonard Ewing Scott. And he assured Wagner that he knew her tape recorder was running.

"Well," he said suddenly, "I arrived in Las Vegas about dusk. . . ." And with that he offered his version of Evelyn Scott's death.

"I hit her in the head with a mallet, a hard rubber mallet. Just once. On the head, right on top," Scott said into Wagner's tape recorder.

Scott said that his wife was in her bedroom the evening of May 16, 1955, and saw him approach. "But I haven't done anything," Mrs. Scott, who was 63, said before he struck her without saying a word, Scott related.

Scott told Wagner that he wrapped his wife's naked body in a gardener's tarpaulin, loaded it into the trunk of a 1940 Ford and drove into the desert six miles east of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.

There, Scott said, he dug a grave, dumped her body, drove around in the sand to cover his tire tracks and then "went to sleep in the car for awhile. Then I drove back to Los Angeles."

Leavy said he was mightily impressed when Wagner brought him a copy of the transcript.

"She did what all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't do," Leavy said.

"The best detectives in Los Angeles, men like Herman Zander, did their best--and this was before Miranda when we didn't have to read 'em their rights and then stop the questioning the minute they ask for a lawyer. But they couldn't get him to confess."

Periodic Visits

Neither could the best crime reporters in Los Angeles, like Howard Hertel and Tom Towers, who covered the case for Hearst's Examiner, and Gene Blake, now retired from The Times.

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