In the sensation-hungry headlines of the Depression, Winnie Ruth Judd was a star, the apex of a triangle of love, adultery and murder, remembered as the "trunk murderess" who killed her best friends, then shipped their bodies to Union Station, where dismembered parts were discovered by railroad officials who had thought Judd was smuggling contraband venison.
Even among the scandalous crimes of 1930s Los Angeles, the saga of Judd--a tiny, sweet-faced young woman with red hair and enigmatic blue eyes, a woman whose crimes, conviction and escapes would command headlines for 40 years--was remarkable, in part because her guilt is still being debated.
She was sentenced to hang, evaded the gallows by pleading insanity, then escaped from an asylum seven times. She was released in 1971 to Northern California, where she evidently lives even now.
Virtually from the moment a porter discovered two trunks leaking blood at Union Station in October 1931, reporters and photographers recorded every twist and turn in the bizarre case, and bestowed upon Judd such nicknames as "Velvet Tigress" and "Wolf Woman."
They recorded her four days in hiding in Los Angeles at the downtown Broadway store where she had once worked, and at an Altadena sanitarium where she had lived. The West's biggest manhunt failed to find her; Judd turned herself in at a funeral parlor after her husband pleaded in newspaper ads for her to surrender.
The Los Angeles press followed her to her Arizona trial, as did looky-loos who paid 10 cents to visit the scene of the crime.
Headlines followed her conviction by an all-male jury for the murder of one roommate, and the sanity hearing that saved her from the gallows and sent her to an asylum for the criminally insane for almost 40 years.
But Judd herself, in an interview for a 1992 book, said she never committed murder--she only killed in self-defense.
A Methodist minister's daughter, Winnie Ruth McKinnell was born in 1905 and married at 18, quitting nursing school to wed Dr. William Judd, a widower more than 20 years her senior. By the time the couple came to Santa Monica in the late 1920s, Winnie found herself among the thousands of tuberculosis patients taking the cure in California. In her case, it was at La Vina Sanatorium in Altadena.
In 1930, seeking a more congenial climate, she moved alone to Phoenix. Instead of a sanatorium, she took up residence with roommates: another tubercular, Helwig "Sammy" Samuelson, 25, and an X-ray technician, Agnes Anne LeRoi, 27.
The three women enjoyed Prohibition hooch and the company of free-spending men of questionable virtue. But when Judd and LeRoi ended up dating the same man--rich, married playboy businessman Jack Halloran--Judd moved out.
On the sultry night of Oct. 16, 1931, when her beau didn't call, Judd went to her friend's apartment, suspecting that he was there. He wasn't.
Then, according to prosecutors, Judd killed LeRoi and Samuelson in cold blood as they slept in their beds.
Judd's version was self-defense: She said she and LeRoi argued loudly. Samuelson, hearing the dispute, appeared carrying a .25-caliber pistol Judd had left behind when she moved out. Defending LeRoi, Samuelson shot Judd in the left hand. As the two struggled, the gun went off twice, killing Samuelson. LeRoi then beat Judd with an ironing board before Judd shot her to stop her. A gunshot wound and 147 bruises lent credence to Judd's story.
But she never told that story in court.
At her trial for LeRoi's murder, she kept silent to protect Halloran, hoping he would come forward and tell how he had reassured her that he "would take care of" things with the help of a doctor friend.
The next day, she said, she was on a train to Los Angeles with two trunks and a hatbox containing LeRoi's intact body and Samuelson's dismembered one, all of which she intended to dump in the ocean.
But Halloran never appeared, and self-defense never came up at her trial. Her attorneys argued that she was not guilty by reason of insanity, but she was convicted of murder.
The most anyone heard her say was when she was sentenced: "Those girls weren't murdered!" she screamed at the judge. "You're trying to hang me, and I won't have it!" Her husband slapped her face to quiet her, and then held her in his arms.
She never got a second chance to testify. She was found insane before her second murder trial.
Still, 60 years after the crime, some say Winnie Ruth Judd was not a murderer but a victim of circumstances, a latter-day Lizzie Borden.
After the trial, the Maricopa County sheriff, believing her innocent, put her version before a grand jury, and a judge considered Halloran's role in the LeRoi case. The grand jury let Halloran go free, concluding after Judd's conviction that she had acted in self-defense, and Halloran could not be an accessory to a murder that had not taken place.