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Living a Lie : Couple Appeared Happy, but Wife's Violent Death, Husband's Suicide Create Troubling Mystery

September 14, 1986|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

To outsiders, Everett and Betty Stumbaugh seemed happy with each other--somewhat secretive, to be sure, a bit odd perhaps--but nothing to make one suspect that he would strangle her, break her neck and then fake an auto accident to cover up the murder.

But that apparently is what he did in the early morning hours of Aug. 12, investigators say.

Two weeks later, as authorities were closing in, Everett Stumbaugh shot himself.

In the aftermath of those deaths, the untroubled relationship seen by neighbors and associates has proved to be a lie.

Family members on Betty Stumbaugh's side say, according to investigators, that she was extraordinarily difficult to live with--fearful of showing her age (she was nearly 12 years older than Everett), demanding, selfish and critical of her husband's abilities as a breadwinner.

'A Spoiled Child'

"She was a bitch," investigators say her daughter told them.

"A spoiled child . . . a spoiled woman" was how her mother described her, investigators said.

Stumbaugh, an insurance agent, was in trouble financially, according to investigators, business associates and a source familiar with his finances.

He reneged on thousands of dollars in debts in the last two years, the financial source said. His $180,000 house in Redondo Beach had been in and out of foreclosure proceedings. An insurance company he had represented for five years had just told him to get lost.

His prospects were bleak. He owed an additional $200,000 to creditors, investigators said.

And his wife, he told a policeman investigating the accident, was likely to live into her 90s. Women in her family did.

Killing his wife would go a long way to curing both of Stumbaugh's problems, investigators theorize.

She would be off his back. And the mortgage insurance policy on his house would pay off the outstanding balance--about $140,000--if either he or his wife died.

Wrote Letters

Shortly after Stumbaugh pushed his silver 1982 Datsun station wagon--his wife's corpse strapped inside--off a 150-foot cliff in Palos Verdes Estates, he wrote letters to two insurance companies. Sheriff's Homicide Detectives Charles Riordan and Charles Araujo discovered them after the suicide. One notified the mortgage insurance company that his wife had died. The other told his automobile insurance company that there had been an accident.

Despite the motives and physical evidence that Stumbaugh apparently used some sort of cloth to strangle his wife, leaving no clear marks from fingers, investigators still are not sure that he planned to kill his wife. They may never know.

"We cannot say it was premeditated," said Palos Verdes Estates Detective George Hanes.

There are no witnesses to the struggle that took place several hours before the staged accident--a struggle in which Betty Stumbaugh was strangled and her neck broken, according to the coroner's report, .

Heat of a Fight

Hanes said Betty Stumbaugh's injuries could have been inflicted in the heat of a fight, rather than in a premeditated attack. "A person could be strangled by their own nightclothes," he said.

Araujo said he hoped that telling the Stumbaugh's story would discourage others from looking upon murder as a solution to domestic difficulties.

Betty Stumbaugh was born Feb. 27, 1920, in Los Angeles. Everett Leon Stumbaugh was born Dec. 15, 1931.

He was raised in Idaho as an orphan and little is known about his early life or education. She grew up in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, married Bennie Montoya as a teen-ager, had two children and divorced in the mid-1950s.

Everett Stumbaugh mentioned serving in Army during the Korean War, according to neighbor Luis Klancar.

Investigators said Stumbaugh and his wife met in the 1950s at the Los Angeles Times, where Everett worked as a bundler, tying stacks of newspapers, and she worked in the classified advertising department.

In the mid-1960s, the two moved to the 8700 block of Yorktown Avenue, a neighborhood just north of Los Angeles International Airport.

Ethel Siegel, who lived next door to them for more than 20 years, remembers them as aloof but nice people.

"They got along beautifully," she said, adding that she found it hard to credit accounts that Everett Stumbaugh had killed his wife. "Dear Betty. I can't believe anybody could be so mean," she said.

Two Convictions

In the late 1960s, Everett Stumbaugh was arrested and convicted twice on morals charges, Araujo said. In 1967, he was convicted of soliciting for prostitution. In 1968, he was convicted on lewd behavior. Araujo did not have details of the cases.

Siegel noted a few oddities.

Betty Stumbaugh never drove anywhere. On her walks home from stores, she frequently told Siegel that men were following her and she asked Siegel to watch after she went into her house. Siegel said she never saw anyone.

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