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Overell and Gollum--The Most Famous Trial in the Old Courthouse

July 23, 1988|MARCIDA DODSON | Times Staff Writer

The voice on the other end of the telephone is down-home, friendly and matter-of-fact as he answers questions about his sensational murder trial, now 41 years behind him.

No, his neighbors today probably do not know about his once all-too-public past. No, he does not still think about that fateful night when his fiancee's wealthy parents were blown apart on their yacht in Newport Harbor.

And no, George Rector Gollum said, he did not do it.

The year was 1947. Americans, rebounding from the war, were happily devoting themselves to their homes and families. It was a time of hope and promise.

And so it was with special horror that people across the nation latched onto news from sleepy Orange County, where Beulah Louise Overell and her fiance, George (Bud) Gollum, were accused of coldbloodedly bludgeoning her parents--who reportedly objected to their marriage plans--and then covering up the crime by dynamiting the victims' yacht.

"We had lust, we had greed, we had frustration. Ladies and gentlemen, these are the raw materials out of which murders are made," the prosecutor told the jury in his opening statement.

It was the most famous trial ever held in the Old County Courthouse in Santa Ana. Hollywood could not have staged a more gripping melodrama.

There were the frankly less-than-attractive 18-year-old heiress and her handsome fiance, a 21-year-old premed student. There were courtroom dramatics--at one point Overell's attorney pulled a handful of screws out of his pocket and showered them over the courtroom to refute the prosecutor's argument about the rarity of the clock parts used in the bomb. There were out-of-courtroom dramatics--searing love letters exchanged between the jail cells of Beulah and Bud and intercepted by authorities, then leaked for all to read in the newspapers.

And there was the verdict.

"The judge cautioned the audience to be quiet (before the verdict was read), but that didn't do much good," recalled Lecil Slaback, the court reporter for the trial. The courtroom was packed and hundreds spilled out into the hallway and down into the street, crowding onto the courthouse lawn.

As soon as the first of the two "not guilty" verdicts was read, "everyone clapped and hollered and carried on," Slaback said. Even outside the courtroom, where the crowd listened to the verdict over the radio, "a huge cheer went up," said attorney Robert Jacobs, whose father, Otto Jacobs, successfully defended Beulah Overell.

But seven months earlier, authorities investigating the fatal blast aboard the 47-foot cabin cruiser Mary E in Newport Beach were certain that all evidence pointed to the guilt of Overell and Gollum.

According to Overell's own statement to her attorney, the day before her parents died, she and Gollum drove to Chatsworth and bought some dynamite at the request of her father, Walter Overell, a Los Angeles businessman.

"I said what did (her father) want it for, and he (Gollum) replied that he didn't know, that (he) had just asked him to get some," Overell wrote in her statement, contained in attorney Otto Jacobs' files on the case--three overflowing boxes of papers, clippings and transcripts kept at the family's El Toro law firm.

The next day, March 15, Overell went with her parents from their La Crescenta home to their boat, which mechanics were working on, and met her boyfriend there. About 11 p.m., her father sent them to pick up some hamburgers, she told her attorney. When they returned, the Mary E had exploded.

Authorities later found 31 sticks of unexploded dynamite on the boat, according to a news account. The exploded dynamite had been set off by a clock attached to the boat's battery. According to newspaper reports, authorities also learned that Overell's parents were bitterly opposed to their daughter's marriage plans. And authorities believed that the parents had been beaten before the boat explosion.

A grand jury indicted the pair, and Overell's relatives hired Otto Jacobs, a veteran attorney who by that time had handled 80 major criminal cases, including eight murder cases, and had won them all. He was aided by Z.B. West. Gollum was represented by S.B. Kaufman.

Before the case was even heard by a jury, though, the public was titillated by reading the private love letters passed between the two defendants separated by bars. The missives--including pet names, an occasional suicide threat and one mention of a planned jailbreak, with map included--had been carried by a jail guard, intercepted by authorities and somehow obtained by the Los Angeles Examiner.

"Would you still marry me if I were broke? Oh Pops darling, please promise you will marry me," Overell wrote in one letter. In another, she told her fiance: "You're an uplifted human being. You're the most intelligent person I ever heard of. Einstein was a moron compared to you. . . . Yes, sir, you're the object of my adoration and the creature of my determination."

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