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On a Los Feliz hill, murder -- then mystery

The criminal part of the 1959 case was solved quickly: Dr. Harold Perelson bludgeoned his wife with a ball-peen hammer, then killed himself. The question ever since: Why has the mansion sat empty?

February 06, 2009|Bob Pool

It's a murder mystery that has puzzled a Los Feliz neighborhood since 1959.

The criminal-case part was solved quickly enough. Homicide investigators found that Dr. Harold Perelson bludgeoned his wife to death with a ball-peen hammer, savagely beat their 18-year-old daughter and then fatally poisoned himself by gulping a glass of acid.

Authorities removed two other children from the sprawling hillside estate that overlooks downtown Los Angeles, locked the front door to the 5,050-square-foot mansion, and left.

Fifty years later, the Glendower Place home remains empty.

The estate's terraced grounds are pockmarked by gopher holes and overgrown with grass that sprouted after recent rains -- growth that neighbors know will turn brown when summer returns. A pond is partly filled with rainwater. Weeds poke through cracks in a curving asphalt driveway.

On the outside, the mansion itself appears to be slowly decaying.

Through grimy, cracked windows, one can see dust-covered furniture, including a 1950s-style television set, seemingly frozen in time. What appear to be gaily wrapped Christmas gifts sit on a table.

And in the hills near the Greek Theatre, the questions linger:

Why has the current owner kept the home as it was on Dec. 6, 1959? Will another family ever again bring life to the estate once described in a sales ad as "beautiful" and "delightful"?

Built in 1925, the three-story Spanish revival-style home has a basement that boasts a maid's quarters. The first floor features an entrance hall flanked by a glassed-in conservatory and large living room. Toward the back is a den, a dining room and the kitchen.

Four master-bedroom-size sleeping chambers are on the second floor. A bar-equipped ballroom measuring 20 feet by 36 feet is on the third level.

Real estate experts have suggested that the mansion, with its spectacular view of the Los Angeles Basin and the Palos Verdes Peninsula, could fetch as much as $2.9 million if sold.

"No one has lived there since the murders," said Dr. Cheri Lewis, who grew up across the street from the mansion and still lives in the neighborhood.

Lewis vividly remembers the predawn morning when Perelson, 50, killed his 42-year-old wife, Lillian, and severely beat his teenage daughter.

When two younger children were awakened by the victims' screams, Perelson told them they were simply having a bad dream, his youngest daughter told police. "Go back to bed. This is a nightmare," he told 11-year-old Debbie. She and her 13-year-old brother, Joel, escaped injury.

Eighteen-year-old Judye Perelson ran from the mansion and staggered to a neighbor's house. She was treated at Central Receiving Hospital and then taken to General Hospital with a possible skull fracture, The Times would report the next day.

"Judye came to our door. I remember having my hand in her blood," recalls Lewis, now a Beverly Hills dentist.

"I used to baby-sit the children there. I was supposed to spend the next night there, in fact."

Police found Perelson lying dead on the floor next to his wife's blood-soaked bed. He was still clutching the hammer. On a nightstand next to his bed, investigators found an open copy of Dante's "Divine Comedy," which was opened to Canto 1.

"Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost . . . ," read the passage.

Detectives speculated that Perelson, a physician affiliated with an Inglewood medical clinic, was distressed by financial difficulties.

In Judye Perelson's sports car, police found a note written to an aunt that told of the family being "on the merry-go-round again, same problems, same worries, only tenfold. My parents, so to speak, are in a bind financially." The teenager spoke of getting a job to help the family out.

After the rampage, relatives took the younger Perelson children to the East Coast, Lewis said. The current whereabouts of the three are unknown.

The story of the murder-suicide and the locked-up mansion has been told and retold ever since, each time a newcomer moves into the neighborhood or when visitors come upon it.

House painter Steve Kalupski was puzzled one summer day eight years ago when he glanced over at the mansion from a neighboring dwelling where he was working. Through a grimy window, he said he could see gifts piled next to what in the dimness appeared to be a Christmas tree.

"I asked the owner of the home where we were working why it was there, and she told me the story," said Kalupski, a Hollywood resident who now is an ad agency producer.

His friends didn't believe him when he told them what he'd seen. So he began a ritual of driving them to the Los Feliz hillside to show them the abandoned mansion. He took Hollywood Internet entrepreneur Babette Papaj there two months ago. "It was dark and scary. I was afraid to get out of the car," she said.

Neighboring Glendower Place resident Sheree Waterson said a friend of hers tried one night to check out the mansion in what she describes as "a Nancy Drew moment."

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